Friday, December 30, 2011

My not-most-read posts of 2011

As Kevin Drum notes today, all the cool kids (himself now included) are putting up their most-viewed blog posts of the year. Well, you know how we uncool kids cope: with variations on a theme.  My most-read posts have all been boosted by links from my more-trafficked friends in the blogosphere. What I'd like to do here is pull out of storage a few posts that I could have wished had grazed a few more eyeballs.

First, recent readers may have noted how stimulated I've been by Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.  I've kept up a kind of response journal, in which I've oscillated between enthusiastic assent and various doubts and caveats. Why a running annotated read, instead of a finished review?  Well, I'm impatient, and it's a long book. But also: whatever you think about humanity's prospects, and whatever the weaknesses in Pinker's historiography, this is a book that changes the way you view history and the moment we're living in as you read. I keep viewing other things I read, and age-old musings, in light of it. I hope there's some value in recording this process. So here are the posts, earliest first:

The bettering angels of our nature
Better angels in the news
Religion helped develop our better angels
How our better angels' wings might be clipped
Better angels leave their kitchens in Cairo
Can humanity lead itself out to pasture?
Better dead than red, revisited
Better Angels in Super Hornets

Here are a few more posts, mostly nonpolitical, that I'd like to give a second chance:


The best liar in the field
A president confesses error and defends democracy
Rat race or fluid human dance?
Prophets of the new millennium
Five questions for Obama
Jeffrey Goldberg, excommunicator
Slo-mo grow on the plateau: Tyler Cowen's general theory of American malaise
About those free-range little Krugmans and Manzis
Ruth Marcus's false "false false choice" charge
MIA in the latest Jane Eyre

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned in 2012.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

EU epitaph?

The headline of what the Wall Street Journal bills as an insider narrative of the escalating European debt crisis is "Dithering at The top Turned EU Crisis into Global Threat."  I'm not sure dithering is quite right. The story suggests that European leaders couldn't agree not because they were indecisive per se but because their national interests were at odds and each was answerable to his or her own people. At one moment, French President Nicholas Sarkozy expressed the problem succinctly:
Finnish premier Jyrki Katainen also complained. His parliament wanted collateral in exchange for more Finnish lending to Greece. "No collateral, no agreement from me," he said.

Mr. Sarkozy was peeved. "All our parliaments can cause problems," he said.

Better dead than red, revisited

Please excuse my flipping this post forward; it got buried...

Early this year, in a 'come to it cold' look at John F. Kennedy's inaugural address on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I was struck by its beleaguered tone -- its somber sense that freedom and even human life itself were on a double knife's edge of communist domination or nuclear war.

In Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, I just happened on a smidgeon of context:
In 1961 Americans were asked whether the country should "fight an all-out nuclear war rather than live under communist rule." Eighty-seven percent of men said yes, while "only 75 percent of the women felt that way -- proof that women are pacifist only in comparison to men of the same time and society (location 11629).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Greg Miller, WTF?

In a disturbing and apparently well-sourced article by the Washington Post's Greg Miller on the Obama administration's escalation of drone warfare, one unattributed assertion looks like an ideological plant:
The escalation of the lethal drone campaign under Obama was driven to an extent by early counterterrorism decisions. Shuttering the CIA’s detention program and halting transfers to Guantanamo Bay left few options beyond drone strikes or detention by often unreliable allies.
How does this compute? Are we supposed to believe that if the CIA had secret torture chambers at its disposal, it would opt to capture some targets rather than kill them? Or is the implication that human intelligence was hamstrung by ending torture, so counterterrorism operatives have nothing better to do than kill their targets? But isn't the very idea of a drone strike predicated on reliable intelligence? 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Question for Republicans

Okay, so now we know that not only did Romney consider his Massachusetts health insurance plan a national model, Gingrich* enthusiastically embraced it as a plan "tremendous potential to effect major change in the American health system," asserting that 100% of Americans should have health insurance and implying that the individual mandate was a linchpin to reaching that goal (I don't consider his spokesman's plaint that Newt didn't write the "Newt Notes" in question worth bothering about). As Ezra Klein reminds us, Obamacare is essentially a Republican scheme for delivering near-universal coverage: "insofar as the Republican Party had a plan for health-care reform, the individual mandate was it."

A question, then, for Republicans: When Romney's healthcare plan was news -- from, say, April 2006, when Romney signed his plan into law, until February 2007, when John Edwards came out with a national plan embracing the individual mandate -- was there any prominent Republican or conservative who went on record saying that Romneycare was an interesting and promising experiment, but that a similarly structured national plan would be inappropriate or unworkable?  Did any mainstream Republican or conservative suggest that an individual mandate imposed by the federal government would violate the U.S. Constitution?

*I don't consider the plaint by Newt's spokesman that Newt didn't write the "Newt Notes" in question any more exculpatory than Ron Paul's claim that he didn't know what was in the Ron Paul newsletters. If you're name's on it, and you disavow it, you're a self-confessed fraud.

UPDATE: I have found a libertarian critic of the individual mandate, writing in USA Today Magazine on July 1, 2006: Cato's Michael Tanner, a critic of "big government conservatism." Tanner argued that the individual mandate was unenforceable; that subsidized mandated insurance for individuals would be unpriceable; that minimum coverage standards would become a goody bag for providers of various health services; and that the individual mandate would lead to more government control of the healthcare system.  As prelude to his attack, Tanner noted that "proposals for an individual mandate have drawn a surprising degree of support from conservatives."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Oh, for a worthy enemy to crush

I try to reassure myself that Romney is at least a competent and rational, data-driven guy, I really do. I remain convinced that he is the only Republican candidate who wouldn't necessarily destroy this country if elected. I was even mildly reassured -- grasping at straws though I was -- by the technocratic stance vis-a-vis taxation he struck in a Wall Street Journal interview published this week:  "I'm not running for office trying to find a way to lower the tax burden paid for by the very high, very highest income individuals. What I'm solving for is growth."  I could even, in this relatively (if faux) wonkish context, stomach the thrust of his economic attack on Obama as advocating "a European social Democratic model."  False though the alleged choice between such a model and a "merit-based opportunity society -- an American-style society--where people earn their rewards" may be, it is at least true that Obama is closer to a European social Democrat than Romney.  And that's about as much truth as you're going to get out of a GOP candidate this election season.

But in compensation for his relative economic moderation, Romney felt compelled to double down on a cartoon narrative about Obama and America in respect to the world at large:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Can humanity lead itself out to pasture?

A few more thoughts on how the steady evolution of human norms toward peacefulness, self-control and respect for life tracked by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature could go wrong.

One weakness in Pinker's analysis of our social evolution, as far as I can tell so far, is that while he sometimes identifies an adverse trend, or an adverse offshoot of a positive trend, he doesn't consider the potential dangers that such trends might pose. Stephen J. Gould, as I recall, recounted the story of a moose-like creature for which natural selection favored the growth of ever-larger antlers, which attracted females of the species. Competition led to the antlers growing to absurd height and weight, which ultimately, or so the hypothesis went, led to the species' extinction.  While Pinker is careful to stipulate that the positive behavioral developments he tracks are not products of biological evolution, could not social evolution go off-track in similar ways?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A hit! A palpable hit!

Say what you will about economic fundamentals governing elections, and the ephemera of spin.  Ever since Obama acceded to an all-spending-cuts "deficit reduction bill" on Aug. 1, he has needed above all else to win a fight with the GOP.  He just got what he needed:
House Republicans on Thursday crumpled under the weight of White House and public pressure and have agreed to pass a two-month extension of the 2 percent payroll-tax cut, Republican and Democratic sources told National Journal.
Obama staged this fight and has stuck to his guns for two months.  He has orchestrated and escalated the pressure in a very public manner. He's brought home a bit of bacon for almost everyone. The perception of weakness and ineffectuality should be in large part erased.  His improved persona is working in concert with modestly improved economic data to lift his poll numbers.


Credit the man with learning from experience.

UPDATE 12/23: Just to reinforce the basic narrative line, note the verbs (and verbal nouns)  in the lede to the WaPo coverage of the GOP cave:


Facing withering criticism from across the political spectrum and abandoned by Senate allies, House Republicans bowed to political reality Thursday and agreed to a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans.

The agreement represented a remarkable capitulation on the part of House Republicans, who had two days earlier rejected such a deal with Democrats as the kind of half-measure that their new majority was elected to thwart.

Chronicle of a crisis diffused?

My perception as a semi-informed layman of the latest chapter in the Eurozone crisis has been singular, and maybe worth recording.

For months, the supremely knowledgeable columnists on my favorite opinion page, the FT, along with many other observers, have played Greek chorus to an EU tragedy unfolding in several acts. Most recently, in the runup to the early December EU summit, Wolfgang Munchau, Martin Wolf, Philip Stephens and others have warned that the Eurozone is on the brink of avoidable doom. The most recent lament has been that the European Central Bank could at any given time end at least the immediate existential crisis by buying bonds Italian and Spanish government debt -- on the secondary market, since the EU charter apparently bans the ECB from buying the bonds directly. But the ECB's new president, Mario Draghi, like his predecessor, has demurred. The summit yielded only a pact for stricter enforcement of budget austerity standards, which does nothing to ease the pressure of rising interest rates.

Then, yesterday, I pick up some uncertainly-sourced snippet to the effect that banks are buying Italian and Spanish debt, those countries' interest rates are falling, and some are saying that the crisis may be over.  Yeahrright....

This morning, however, the Times' Floyd Norris brings those glimmers into focus:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Obama's uncertain trigger finger, cont.

It is perhaps a measure of Obama's poor negotiating track record that as I read both Republican and Democratic assertions that Democrats have all the leverage in the fight over the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits extension, I worry that Obama will find a way to cave.

Nate Silver, who asserts that Obama's recent poll bounce is likely due more to economic upticks than to his more confrontational stance over the last two and a half months, provides the rationale for another 'hostage negotiation':

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Obama to cash in his "compromiser" chips?

Back in August, in response to Drew Westen's denunciation of Obama as a spineless rollover to the Republicans, I wrote:
in a fearsomely stressed and politically polarized country, Obama's relentless refusal to demonize an extremist opposition may yet win the day by means of contrast. Perhaps it will prove in the long run to be the political equivalent of the nonviolence of Martin Luther King...

Let's not forget that many African Americans at times regarded King as an appeasing sellout, much as many progressives now see Obama as one.    The Panthers and the Nation of Islam were more satisfying to many. King called out his adversaries, but he never shrank from engaging with them. Neither has Obama -- though the results have not always been what his base could have wished.

Now, after two and a half months of relentlessly calling out the GOP for refusing to stimulate the economy or raise taxes on the wealthiest, the moment may have arrived  when he cashes in his "nonviolent" chips. His poll numbers are spiking -- by a widening margin, Americans trust him more than the GOP to protect the interests of the middle class. Having blessed a Senate compromise over the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefit extension -- the fiscal heart of his September stimulus package -- he is refusing to negotiate further as Boehner once more reneges and lets the House extremists scotch the placeholder deal.  Now, having convinced Americans over the course of a year of bloody partisan conflict that he is the one willing -- too willing -- to compromise, he is poised to in his civil way to KO the House holdouts over their rejection of a deal that Boehner blessed and the Senate approved 89-10. He made his first strike today:

Better Angels leave their kitchens in Cairo

Serendipity: I was just reading this morning Steven Pinker's discussion in The Better Angels of Our Nature of the astonishing drop in the rate of rape in the U.S.over the past generation -- an 80% decline from 1973 to 2008. That decline is far longer in duration and far steeper than the drop in murder rates and other violent crime rates from the mid-nineties to the present.  Pinker credits the feminist movement for recasting rape as a crime against an individual woman's agency and bodily integrity, spotlighting Susan Brownmiller's 1975 bestseller Against Our Will, which "showed how the nonexistence of a female vantage point in society's major institutions had created an atmosphere that made light of rape" (loc. 8820). He documents the swiftness with which the treatment of rape in both law and popular culture were transformed, and casts the change as one more chapter in the delayed triumph of enlightenment ideals:
The history of rape, then, is one in which the interests of women had been zeroed out in the implicit negotiations that shaped customs, moral codes, and laws. And our current sensibilities, in which we recognize rape as a heinous crime against the woman, represent a reweighting of those interests, mandated by a humanist mindset that grounds morality in the suffering and flourishing of sentient individuals rather than in power, tradition, or religious practice. The mindset, moreover, has been sharpened into the principle of autonomy: that people have an absolute right to their bodies, which may not be treated as a common resource to be negotiated among other interest parties. Our current moral understanding does not seek to balance the interests of a woman not to be raped, the interests of the men who may wish to rape her, and the interests of the husband and fathers who want to monopolize her sexuality. In an upending of the traditional valuation, the woman's ownership of her body counts for everything, and the interests of all other claimants count for nothing...The principle of autonomy, recall, was also a linchpin in the abolition of slavery, despotism, debt bondage, and cruel punishments during the Enlightenment (location 8793).
This particular assertion of autonomy is playing out on the streets of Egypt today:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

I contain multitudes, and not in a good way

As I mentioned once before on this blog, Kurt Vonnegut got me early (at about age 14) with his vision of time in Slaughterhouse Five, and it's stayed with me: all moments always have existed and always will exist; to be finite in time is no more remarkable than to be finite in space. This raises the question: when you die, in whose "when" are you dead? Even for a monotheist, there's no clear answer. For millennia, theologians have asserted that all moments are equally present to God. You're only 'dead' in the perception of those who live 'after' you -- and they will soon be dead, and so it goes. But our personal timelines are not the universe's. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How our better angels' wings might be clipped

To support his hypothesis in  The Better Angels of Our Nature that the human race is, in effect, outgrowing war, Steven Pinker amasses considerable cultural evidence that individuals in the developed world, spurred in part by the development of commerce, have grown progressively 1) more interactive -- able to see another's point of view, address her concerns, meet his expectations; 2) more 'mannerly,' i.e. more self-controlled, less gross to others, slower to signal readiness to take violent action or to in fact take that action; 3) more empathetic, able to imagine another's pain, and hence more reluctant to inflict it; and consequently, 4) more moral, in any meaningful sense of the word.

Assuming that this kind of development has in fact taken place, unevenly but unmistakably, it's possible to imagine opposite directions from which this social progress might reverse itself.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Buenos Aires, buenos break

My wife and I are off in Buenos Aires this week, visiting our son, who's wrapping up a semester abroad here -- seems like it's the latest hot spot for that college ritual.  His Spanish is now very impressive!  In any case, blogging will be light this week.

Alas poor me, I missed that grave public policy forum, the ABC GOP debate, $10,000 bet and all.  Of course, a large part of me would pay $10,000 to miss it, or rather not to have to contemplate the possible fallout from our political discourse having sunk low. In fact, I can play the short version any time: less taxes on the wealthy! More taxes on the poor! Less regulation! Drill, baby, drill! Bomb Iran! Let Israel bomb Iran!  Give Israel the whole West Bank! Give Israel the whole State Department! Increase military spending! Defund the State Department! Abolish the Department of Education! Abolish the Department of Energy! Abolish the entire federal government except the Department of Homeland Security! Privatize Medicare! Drown Medicaid in the bathtub!  Deport Obama to Kenya!

There, I just saved you 120 minutes of bellicose farce and fraud.

Friday, December 09, 2011

"Allow me to sell you a couple!"

Free association time, re Gingrich's reflexive/relentless promotion of his books and movies in the midst of his presidential campaign. Who could read this
When asked last week about Russia during a town hall-style meeting in South Carolina, he noted that he made a film about the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher-Pope John Paul II nexus that he posits helped bring down the Soviet Union. Any mention of "American exceptionalism" earns a mention of his movie on the subject of America's special role. And his film and book about Reagan seldom goes unmentioned as he hails the former president as a role model....


For Gingrich, the campaign sometimes takes on the feeling of an extended book tour.

"At 8:30 tomorrow morning, we're going to be at the Westin at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and we're going to be talking about jobs and the economy," Gingrich told a radio interviewer last month. "And then after the town hall meeting, Callista is going to be signing her new book, the New York Times bestseller, `Sweet Land Of Liberty.' ... And I'll be signing my new novel, `The Crater,' about the Civil War, and a book on American exceptionalism called `A Nation Like No Other.'"

Without reverting to this, from Alice in Wonderland?

"You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door--
Pray, what is the reason of that?"
 
"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his gray locks,
"I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment -- one shilling the box --
Allow me to sell you a couple?"

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Romney's lullaby

Mitt Romney is doubtless capable of forming a coherent argument in response to any question that requires knowledge, analysis and judgment.  His problem just now is that his current positions are predetermined by his need to pander to the GOP base -- which in itself would leave him with the relatively simple sophist's task of making the weaker argument seem stronger -- and then further contorted by his need to justify past actions and positions, which were less distorted by a less extremist constituency.

Wooing GOP primary voters, he must wax as paradoxical as the most ardent lover. Reading the transcript of his recent discussion with the editorial board of the Washington Examiner, I was reminded of a folk song that poses a string of riddles:

I gave my love a cherry that had no stone,
I gave my love a chicken that had no bone,
I gave my love a story that had no end,
I gave my love a baby with no cryin'.

How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
How can there be a systemic financial rescue that has no bailouts of individual institutions?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Two speeches at Osawatomie

Very interesting that for his landmark speech yesterday spotlighting middle class stagnation and growing income inequality as "the defining issue of our time," Obama chose to channel Teddy Roosevelt. He delivered the hour-long speech in Osawatomie, Kansas*, where in 1910 T.R. laid down a long manifesto calling for a "new nationalism" that would empower the federal government to effectively regulate powerful business interests and so deliver a "square deal" that would "deliver a more substantial equality of opportunity." Obama cited Roosevelt at length, drawing an extended parallel between T.R.'s fight to break up monopolies and establish fair labor laws and a progressive tax code and his own quest to re-establish effective regulation and more taxes on the wealthy. E. J. Dionne does a nice job today exploring the relevance of T.R.'s agenda to our own time.

Primed by Dionne, I took a look at T.R.'s speech yesterday evening. One thing leapt out at me: Roosevelt, unlike Obama, was a fighter, bred in the bone. His speech in many ways casts the fight against the entrenched privilege of special interests as a moral equivalent of war, as William James famously called for in struggles to better the human condition. T.R. was James' pupil.  But he was less willing than James to abjure war itself as the crucible of character. While James, according to one scholar, "championed the rigor and strenuousness of his rough-riding former pupil Theodore Roosevelt," ... "he also slammed Roosevelt for his ''gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves.'' In the Osawatomie speech, Roosevelt addressed himself throughout to listening Civil War veterans, drawing parallels between their battle and the one he was joining to strengthen democracy and curb special interests.

More comprehensively than he has at any point since he took office (though not more so than in the '08 campaign), Obama yesterday directly confronted Republicans for their belief that "the market will take care of everything," for putting forward further deregulation as a panacea, for advocating trickle-down economics (he used the phrase), for blocking restoration of Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy, for trying to strangle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in its crib.   But for better and/or worse, Obama will never conceive his political task as the sublimated war that Teddy Roosevelt saw himself in:
The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Say I ain't dumb, Drum! I bought Obama's rhetoric...and still do

Kevin Drum, en route to a fair-minded accounting of Obama's accomplishments and failings, blames liberal disappointment on Obama's campaign rhetoric:
Obama's core problem with his supporters from 2008, the ones who listened to his soaring rhetoric and believed he really was going to transform Washington — and have since been bitterly disappointed. This has always been something I could understand only intellectually, since I never for a second paid any attention to his stump speeches. Of course they soared! Of course they promised a new era! That's what politicians always promise. Why on earth would anyone take this seriously, when every single other piece of evidence showed him to be a cautious, pragmatic, mainsteam, center-left Democratic candidate?
This is the Gideon Rachman school of thought about Obama's hopemongering: that it was composed of"some of the most clichéd and least challenging slogans in the American political lexicon: unity not division; the future not the past; change not stagnation."

I beg to differ. Of course there is a lot of cliche in Obama's political speech -- political speech cannot subsist without it.  But there was always a good deal more -- evidence of a truly rare mind at work upon the political process and the historical moment.  Among the star-struck count a New Yorker editorialist, probably David Remnick, who in October 2008 compared Obama to Lincoln:
Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
To those who think that Obama's call to hope and promise of change was just window dressing for a center-left laundry list of policy proposals, let me suggest the following:

What Republicans would like to believe about Obama's current strategy

Michael Gerson, while granting Obama grudging respect for the relative resiliency of his poll numbers in the face of of terrible economy, mis-casts his current political strategy:
Obama’s recent conversion to the old-time Democratic religion of class conflict — preached at Occupy Wall Street tent meetings — has rallied American liberalism. This approach has its limits. A message that shores up support from the left may complicate Obama’s appeal to independents. The construction of a 43 percent floor may also involve the construction of a ceiling not far above it. But Obama’s appeal to the political middle was no longer working. A base strategy was his only credible strategy, and it seems to have prevented a polling collapse.
Obama's current strategy -- highlighting his policy contrasts with Republicans, hammering them for resisting new taxes on the wealthy, pushing popular stimulus measures (by other names), and "balanced" deficit reduction  -- is aimed as much at "independents" -- or rather, at majorities much broader than the Democratic base -- as it is on shoring up that base.  As Greg Sargent says, Gerson is "just wrong about the Dems’ new populism being a “base” strategy."

Monday, December 05, 2011

Religion helped develop our 'better angels'*

To prove his point that past eras were violent almost beyond our current imagining, Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined rather revels in chronicling the brutalities of the late middle ages and early renaissance, particularly those carried out in the name of God by religious authorities -- in crusade, Inquisition, and, once the protestant movements got going, centuries of religious war.  At times, he slips into the 'new atheist' mode of attack, and his contempt gets a bit thick -- and as one dimensional, I'm beginning to think, as idealizations of 'the age of faith' by earlier generations of historians, or by fundamentalists today.

At the same time, Pinker makes much of the study of the "civilizing process" carried out by a certain Norbert Elias, who focused on, of all things, etiquette books, and mapped out the steadily rising standards of self-control -- e.g., of bodily fluids, and of impulses and gestures toward violence in polite company -- that those guidebooks prescribe.  The development of the basics of what we now compartmentalize and trivialize as manners tracks the centuries of dramatic reduction in homicide rates in Europe, from about the 12th century through the 20th.

One part of the civilizing story that Pinker has so far ignored is the rise of a less punitive, more nurturing and accessible concept of God-- a God who could be encountered on an individual basis in a safe private space. This softening and some cases literal maternalizing of God took place, ironically, throughout centuries of Inquisition, dogmatic enforcement, and political strife within the Catholic church; ultimately, the personalization of worship helped trigger the Reformation and hence the centuries of religious warfare which Pinker asserts to be proportionately as lethal at some points as the wars of the twentieth century.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The reader over your shoulder

Whither the U.S.? Whither the human race?  I've read some pretty good books recently that grapple with the big questions, and I've enjoyed engaging with them here, whether in the form of reviews, free association, nitpicks, whatever.  Below, various responses to some good reads.

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature
Religion helped develop our better angels 
Better Angels in the news 
The bettering angels of our nature

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's Race Against the Machine 
We may be half-drowning, but we're not stagnating
see also:  A Kling-free future prosperity?

Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation
Slo-mo grow on the plateau: Tyler Cowen's theory of American Malaise

Friday, December 02, 2011

A blow against faux reportorial balance

Left-side political commentators such as Greg Sargent and Steve Benen, along with the more even-handed James Fallows, keep a constant watch for faux balance in political reporting -- that is, quoting partisans on both sides of a given issue without giving any hint if the claims of one side (or both) are manifestly false or unsupported by evidence. 

Today, the New York Times' senior economics columnist Floyd Norris strikes a blow against faux balance, and does so in good reportorial fashion, by calling in outside authority. In fact in this case, the 'authority' is the news hook for the article. 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Romney hasn't changed -- the audience has

What's all this fuss about Mitt Romney's allegedly "disastrous" interview with Bret Baier?  I just watched it, and I saw the same Romney I've seen in a half dozen debates--evasive with regard to past and current positions, drawing distinctions without differences, happily misrepresenting opponents' positions and deeds -- in a word, full of shit -- but also in full command of his contorted policy positions and campaign messages, never really at a loss for words.  If a little stammering could sink a candidate, Obama would still be a state senator.  As for the "snippiness," I thought he just took a page out of Herman Cain's playbook: when challenged, begin by asserting forcefully that your challenger is wrong.

Let's look at* the exchange over immigration policy:

Crowd-sourced cliff notes--->crowd-sourced editing?

I was just going through my notes and highlights in a book on Kindle -- a frustratingly awkward process, but I won't bore you with an account of this year-old machine's limitations. What struck me was the latent possibilities in an option I never considered: "view popular highlights." Kindles show you what other readers have highlighted, a feature I've always considered an annoyance, like reading a marked-up library book.  But now, on the plus side...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Our historian-in-chief-takes the short view

Presumptive commander-in-chief Newt was all for the Iraq invasion.  No surprise there. Presumably, as a member of the Defense Policy Board, he was advising the administration as a historian, just as he did so selflessly for Freddie Mac. In an op-ed published in USA Today on October 16, 2002, Newt delved deep into his knowledge-hoard and came up with the perfect analogy for the prospective preemptive strike:
The only issue is whether the risks are greater now or whether the risks will be greater later. We learned with Adolf Hitler that moving early would have been less expensive and less dangerous and would have saved millions of lives.
The rest of the piece is unexceptionable party-hack boilerplate. The case for war is made in four simple points, QED:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Better Angels in the news

I have long been receptive to evidence that human life is improving -- growing less violent and more fulfilling for more people. I have rejected C.S. Lewis' warning against chronological chauvinism  -- against the assumption that we have more moral, political, social wisdom than our predecessors -- asserting that in fact contemporary international treaties and codas do embody ethics superior to those articulated in ancient scriptures. I have inveighed against boomer-bashing and idolization of the so-called greatest generation.  I have set my face against all forms of originalism.

Thanks to this confirmation bias, I knew the starting premise of Steven Pinker's  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined -- that "violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence" -- before I cracked the book, having read various interviews, Pinker articles and responses.  And yet, within pages of the beginning, I could feel the book changing my world view - sweeping away the vestiges of ancestor worship, golden age nostalgia, boomer guilt, and who knows whatever other mental gestures of obeisance to outmoded authority.   This effect began to register in Pinker's preface:
How, in particular, are we to make sense of modernity of the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the fores of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science?  So much depends on how we understand the legacy of this transition: whether we see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war, or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence (location 138)...The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue (location 142).

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The bettering angels of our nature

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined sets out to prove and explain a simple factual premise: that violence of all kinds has decreased dramatically over the course of human history. From that one premise, momentous conclusions follow logically. Ridiculous as it may seem to start commenting on Pinker's case after reading no more than the preface, I can't resist: the terms in which he sets his task themselves have important political implications.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Against gratitude

Okay, not really. But I am personally uncomfortable with overt expressions of gratitude, and while I think this is mainly an emotional limitation on my part, there may be at least the ghost of a reasonable caveat in it.

As a teenager, I took a slightly unsavory pleasure in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein.  He not only entertained but also influenced and repelled me. He once wrote (through a character) that there was something sick at the heart of German civilization, and whether that's true or not, I think that the sickness he condemned clings to him, in a kind of gleeful authoritarianism. At the same time, some fragments of his cracker barrel wisdom stayed with me. One of his quirks, voiced by various favored characters, is an aversion to gratitude. As I recall at this distance, he cast it as a power play of the weak, a form of toadying, or guilt masquerading as love.  I think he's wrong to reduce gratitude to those impulses, though gratitude is certainly alloyed with them.  In a similar vein, though, he ridiculed worship, asking why an ominiscient, omnibenevolent  God would require the saccharine praise of human beings. That was the question that really stuck with me. It gets at the heart of gratitude, since worship is mainly an expression of gratitude to God.

Such gratitude is -- should be -- a spontaneous expression of love. That's how those who voice it understand it.  But why does it express itself in "saccharine" praise?  In a Thanksgiving post, Andrew Sullivan's Dish suggested an answer:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ezra Klein, what about that Paradox of Power?

It's not often that I feel impelled to dispute a conclusion with Ezra Klein, but today is one of those occasions.

Noting the irony inherent in the fact-set that a) Republicans continue to make sympathetic noises about the Bowles-Simpson plan, b) Obama has floated plans that are both less substantive and to the right of Bowles-Simpson, and c) Republicans reflexively reject -- nay, demonize -- anything with Obama's stamp on it, Klein makes a case that Obama should press "reset" and throw his weight behind the plan:
Either way, there’s no reason Democrats should be rejecting Simpson-Bowles on behalf of the Republicans. And, to be fair, that’s not all that’s going on here: The Obama administration doesn’t like the defense cuts or Social Security reforms in Simpson-Bowles, and they’re skeptical that the tax reform process could really generate as much revenue as the document promises. So their thinking was that they could work off of the Simpson-Bowles proposal and come out with something better.

That’s pretty much what they tried to do in April. But because that plan had Obama’s name on it, it was dismissed as a liberal nonstarter. Their strategy, in other words, was a huge failure, and over the past year, they’ve watched the deficit debate move far, far, far to the right.
Let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether Obama stands to gain now by embracing Bowles-Simpson.  I think Klein misconstrues the cause of Obama's "huge failure" in the spring and summer of this year. The failure lay not in the composition of his plan nor in his abstention from wholehearted advocacy of Bowles-Simpson.  It stemmed from his agreement to negotiate under the debt ceiling deadline, which he not only accepted but embraced as "a unique opportunity to do something big."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Perry's historiography, Newt's 'compassion'

A couple of notes on tonight's GOP foreign policy debate:

1. Perry, good fundamentalist or imitation thereof,  trusts to God to destroy countries he regards as accursed. Asked to name a major threat to the country, he named China, and said that it is destined for the ash heap of history because it is "not a country of virtue." Exhibit A: the millions of abortions the government countenances or encourages. He thus revealed a historiography akin to that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was infamously reported to have said (citing Ayatollah Khomeini) that Israel should be wiped off the map.  Literally, Ahmadinejad said, "The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time." That was part of a broader recollection that Khomeini predicted the destruction of four regimes, three of which have in fact "vanished": the Shah's, the Soviet Union, and Saddam's.  Countries that are not "of virtue" get wiped off  the record -- i.e., end up in the ash heap.  Of course, that last image belongs to Marx, another theologian certain in his forecasts regarding history's inevitable course.

Obama's 60-yard punt, continued

Yesterday I suggested that if the Budget Control Act passed in early August was Obama's punt, it may be shaping up as a 60-yarder.  To sketch that out a bit further, consider Obama's short-term and long-term goals: a) to scratch out some immediate stimulus/employment improvement and so increase his chances of re-election; and b) to strike a deal for approximately $4 trillion in long-term deficit reduction, "balanced" by his lights.  Some thoughts on his progress:

a) Obama does want to cut $2-3 trillion in spending over ten years, including by controlling growth in Medicare and Medicaid spending. Approximately $2 trillion in cuts are now current law, or about to be.  If and when new revenue is put on the table, the sequestered cuts may be reduced and/or restructured, but they are there as a baseline.

b) He would be content with $1.2 -- $1.5 trillion in additional revenue over ten years, compared to what we'd have if all the Bush tax cuts were extended. That is roughly $2 trillion less than would result from letting all the Bush cuts expire.

c) He is seeking to get a (hopefully improved) version of his busted grand bargain with Boehner passed piecemeal by Dec. 31, 2012 -- to be built on thereafter if the election goes well and the economy recovers.

d) He is now the one holding "hostages"  -- the Bush tax cut expiration and the $600 billion in sequestered defense spending cuts.

Obama pulls a trigger -- and takes two hostages

After the deal that become the Budget Control Act was announced on July 31, I repeatedly voiced the fear that Obama would go wobbly on the $600 billion in defense cuts that would allegedly be triggered if the supercommittee failed:
My fear is that Obama will once again turn the trigger on himself -- in this case, the large (if back-loaded and ultimately unenforceable) defense cuts that go into effect automatically if the supercommittee can't agree on a package. Would any president really suffer the defense budget to be cut by fiat, even notionally?  Not this president, I fear.  Look again at his rationale for not squeezing another trigger last December -- the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts:
And the reason is because this is a very unique circumstance. This is a situation in which tens of millions of people would be directly damaged and immediately damaged, and at a time when the economy is just about to recover.
A mandated $750 billion reduction in projected defense spending over ten years is also "a unique circumstance." I can just hear it: "I cannot allow the security of the United States to be compromised..."
Wrong!  While Panetta forms a contrapuntal-but-harmonious* chorus warning that the "sequestered" cuts would "tear a seam in the nation's defense," Obama has declared that he's perfectly ready to let those cuts go forward if Congress does not replace the automatic cuts with a "balanced" plan for equivalent or greater reduction. That's a two-fer: he is trying to make Republicans feel the brunt of the pressure to avoid a) the sequestered defense cuts and b) the expiration of all the Bush tax cuts. Now his own counterproposal comes into play: $1.5 trillion in new revenue combined with a very different package of cuts, including to Medicare. That, incidentally, should put paid to the "lack of leadership" charges: he has set the parameters, and can afford to wait until the GOP begins to approach them.  He has exposed the Nov. 23 deadline as an illusion; the only deadlines that matter are November 6, 2012, and December 31, 2012.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Was the Budget Control Act a 60-yard punt for Obama?

Like Paul Krugman, Jonathan Chait is pleased with the supercommittee failure:
[The Budget Control Act] forced Congress to agree to $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, or else automatic budget cuts would go into effect. But the key detail was that the budget cuts would not happen until 2013. Meanwhile, the debt ceiling would be lifted through the 2012 election. Between now and then, the two parties can fight over what to do about the automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect. That’s not really the important thing. The important thing is that the debt ceiling is no longer on the table.

The whole plan was to start talking about something other than the debt ceiling, in hopes that the tea party would find some different shiny object to pick up and try to smash with a rock. And it worked!
Progressives have pretty much given up their multidimensional chess fantasies about Obama in this bruising year, and Chait does not explicitly credit Obama for this not-bad outcome.  But basically he's crediting Obama with a 60-yard punt.  If you accept the premise that no budget mandates past 2012 in this year's legislation matter, then in the summer negotiations Obama achieved his chief goal -- raising the debt ceiling to carry him past the 2012 elections -- at a net cost of $21 billion cut out of the 2012 budget, or about 2/3 of 1% of outlays. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I record, therefore we are

Re this astounding photo of an unmolested cop methodically macing a row of peaceful seated demonstrators at UC Davis:  I was struck by a sideshow that in effect gave us the show. It's this: Almost every single sideline spectator captured in the photograph is photographing it. This phenomenon first struck me while watching videos of the post-election uprising in Iran in June 2009: every confrontation between demonstrators and Basij was parenthesized by a half-moon of demonstrators holding up cell phones or digital cameras.  Perhaps a year earlier, I was at a wedding where half the audience rose to photograph the "I do."

Just before the Green Revolution broke, in May 2009, reporter Simona Weinglass published in TNR a fascinating account of rival tallies of the civilian death toll in Israel's assault on Gaza in early 2009. In one corner was Khalil Shaheen of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR); in the other, retired Israeli intelligence officer Jonathan Dahoah Halevi. I was struck at the time by Weinglass's endnote:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nate Silver's death knell for Obama's jobs measures

One nugget in Nate Silver's exhaustive statistical analysis of the degree to which each of  a broad range of economic variables have affected presidential elections since 1948 makes it pretty clear why Republicans are going to block almost every job-producing measure put forward by President Obama. It's this (charts omitted):
Another poorly performing variable is the unemployment rate. It has had essentially no relationship to election results at all.

However, while the unemployment rate had told us very little, the rate of change in the jobs market has been fairly meaningful. Here, for instance, is a comparison of election results to the rate of payroll jobs growth — the variable you often see highlighted when the government releases its jobs report on the first Friday of each month.

A core problem for Democrats?

James Clyburn, third-ranking House Democrat and Supercommittee member, indirectly points up what may be Obama's greatest failing:
Clyburn, in a separate “Political Capital” interview airing on the same program, said a large deal approaching $4 trillion isn’t likely. He said he sees a chance of a smaller package as long as Republicans agree to revenue increases.

“I’ve kind of given up on big and bold, but I’m never going to give up on balance,” said Clyburn, of South Carolina.

If Republicans insist on extending Bush tax cuts for the wealthy “then we probably won’t get a deal,” he said.

Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, said he hopes President Barack Obama won’t relent as he did last year and allow the tax cuts of his predecessor to continue again.

“I have no idea whether he will or not,” Clyburn said. “I hold out hope that the president will hold fast.”
That is a pretty staggering lack of faith in the team leader, and you can't call it unjustified.  Putting lipstick on the Aug. 1 debt deal pig, the White House did voice a rather weak Obama promise -- not even really a promise, more like a statement of capability -- to veto any legislation that extends the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest:

Friday, November 18, 2011

That sixties suburban sweet spot revisited -- again

A disturbing new study based on census data, previewed by the New York Times, shows how the rise in income inequality has literally changed the landscape in America:
In 2007, the last year captured by the data, 44 percent of families lived in neighborhoods the study defined as middle-income, down from 65 percent of families in 1970. At the same time, a third of American families lived in areas of either affluence or poverty, up from just 15 percent of families in 1970...

Much of the shift is the result of changing income structure in the United States. Part of the country’s middle class has slipped to the lower rungs of the income ladder as manufacturing and other middle-class jobs have dwindled, while the wealthy receive a bigger portion of the income pie. Put simply, there are fewer people in the middle.

But the shift is more than just changes in income. The study also found that there is more residential sorting by income, with the rich flocking together in new exurbs and gentrifying pockets where lower- and middle-income families cannot afford to live.
The middle class paradise lost, I noted in a recent post, was lived by my wife (b. 1958) growing up on a leafy cul-de-sac lined with 1950s split levels in West Seneca, NY, an inner ring suburb of Buffalo.  Here's what the family recalled recently about neighbors' professions:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fighting the elite tide

The power of elites is like entropy.  A robust society can keep inherited or socially acquired privilege in check for a season or six, but eventually the elites learn a trick too many. Life is a failing of the wing, said Marcus Aurelius, and that goes for societies too.

Cheering rejoinder: societies have very long life cycles, and democracy is a fountain of youth, or rather of regeneration.  When elites kill the golden goose, democracies self-correct -- cf. FDR from the left, and Thatcher from the right.

Question of the extended hour for the U.S.: can a democracy kill its own capacity for self-correction? E.g., by Citizens United, or by acclimating its citizens to torture as an entrenched instrument of "national security", or by a media establishment that debases public discourse, or by some tidal pull we don't yet fully understand toward ever-increasing income inequality?  There is a battle brewing between remaining democratic antibodies and the instruments of elite entrenchment that have built up since Reagan was elected.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hope, frustrated

This lede brought a long-percolating bit of pattern recognition to the forebrain:

U.S. President Barack Obama sought to ratchet up pressure on China over its currency and trade policies, warning Chinese President Hu Jintao on Saturday that Americans were growing "impatient and frustrated" over economic relations.
This was, shall we say, not the first time Obama invoked or betrayed frustration -- his own, or Americans'.  There's Netanyahu (Nov. 8):
There's no doubt that Obama is frustrated and angry in the extreme with what he perceives to be Netanyahu's recalcitrance when it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking (Nov. 11).
Economic stagnation:
While protesters and police battled on the streets of Oakland, in the pre-recorded interview Leno asked Obama for his views of what was behind the Occupy Wall Street movement:

Look, people are frustrated. And that frustration expresses itself in a lot of different ways. It expressed itself in the tea party, it's expressing itself in Occupy Wall Street... Everybody needs to understand that the American people feel that no-one is looking out for them right now.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Running on hope and fear

As he has for nearly a year, Andrew Sullivan exhorts Obama to make a crusade of deficit reduction/tax reform:
I think a lot of the criticism of this president is piffle. I think he's done an extraordinary job in foreign policy and has kept this country afloat economically in times as perilous as the 1930s. But his refusal to back a specific plan to save our finances, and to do so before the crisis deepens, in order to reverse a potentially devastating confidence collapse in Europe ... this is failure of an historic kind. I understand why, politically, this is difficult. But this is a moment for transcending political constraints. This is a "Yes We Can" moment. This is why we supported him - because he seemed someone who could at times transcend politics, for the greater good.

He still can. The super-committee will almost certainly fail. Once that happens, the US will be telling the world it is less capable of grappling with its debt than Greece or Italy. Then what? If Obama seeks re-election just by not being a scary Republican, he will deserve to lose. We need him to campaign for Bowles-Simpson (or his variation thereof) and radical tax reform, and promise he will work with any Republican prepared to help finalize the deal - but that he will do it with Democrats alone if needs be. If that means ceding Medicare as an electoral advantage, so be it. We did not elect him to be a reactive defender of the Democratic machine. We elected him precisely because he said he wasn't that.

I worry that he is going to run on fear. He must run on hope - and a plan that entails risk but promise. This is the moment that will make his presidency. It is no time to think small.
Andrew is prone to apocalyptic thinking about the deficit.  But at least from April on, I'm not sure what he's expected Obama to do about it that he hasn't done. I could certainly see hitting Obama for negotiating badly --  but that's not Sullivan's point; he wants a crusade. Some questions:

Monday, November 14, 2011

Herman Cain on Libya: "The Spotted or Herbaceous Backson"?

I had deja vu when I listened to this exchange between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Herman Cain:
Asked if he agrees with the president on Libya, Cain looks up and says, "OK, Libya." He then pauses for a moment.

"President Obama supported the uprising, correct?" he asks, speaking carefully. "President Obama called for the removal of Qaddafi - just want to make sure we're talking about the same thing before I say yes I agree, or no I didn't agree. I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reason - nope, that's a different one."

Cain then pauses for about five seconds.

"I gotta go back and see - um, I got all this stuff twirling around in my head," he says. "Specifically, what are you asking me. Did I agree or not disagree with Obama?"
It was the "Specifically, what are you asking me" that triggered the prefiguration. It's in The House at Pooh Corner, Ch. 5, "In Which Rabbit has a Busy Day, and We Learn What Christopher Robin Does in the Mornings."

Münchau to EU: Signal now that Eurobonds are forthcoming

Today, an eponymous Wolf Munch Rock award (so named because the truth is hard to swallow) to Wolfgang Münchau, for an op-ed that's at once a primer on the dynamics of the European sovereign debt crisis  and a powerful brief (judged on its own terms) for issuing Eurobonds sooner and working out the political implications later.

First, for the uninitiated, Münchau spells out why it's so destabilizing for the solvency of member states to come in doubt -- and why the haircut for banks holding Greek debt may have exacerbated rather than relieved the markets' panic:
I am hearing from Berlin that the German government believes that the arrival of Mario Monti as Italian prime minister is all it will take to calm the markets. This unsurprisingly complacent view misjudges the underlying dynamic of the most recent events. The cause of the panic attack was the European Council’s decision on October 26 to renegotiate the private sector participation of Greek sovereign debt holders. With that decision European leaders destroyed what was left of a functioning eurozone government bond market. Investors interpreted it – correctly in my view – as a precedent. They then dumped their Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and even French government bonds. As of now, there is only one significant risk-free asset in the eurozone – German government bonds.
The German government bond market is large and liquid, but not large enough to sustain the world’s second largest economy. The presence of a risk-free asset can hardly be overstated in a modern financial system. Each insurance company, each pension fund needs to invest part of its income in such assets. Through a combination of short-sightedness and financial illiteracy, the European Council has now put itself in a position where it desperately needs Eurobonds, if only to assure the existence of a functioning financial sector.
Next, why the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) is inadequate:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A not-so-plain blog (post) about politics

Hmm. In a fit of absent-mindedness, Jonathan Bernstein may have just amended his theory of what makes democracy work, or what makes an elected democratic official a "good" one in a sense that goes beyond managing to stay in office a long time. Or perhaps he's just clarified a point that I don't believe was clarified before. Or just opened up a can of worms.

Let's start with the theory-qualifying snippet:
Where politicians and parties go wrong is when they adjust the policies they favor in order to be able to use the words that test well, and then mistakenly believe that the underlying policies are actually popular.
Most of us would not have any problem with that statement. But under Bernstein's theory of representation, it's not entirely clear that it matters whether "underlying policies" are popular, if the "words that test well" get the speaker elected or reelected. So, for a second time, let me pick a bone with the joyous cynicism animating Bernstein's celebration of a purely contractual relationship between elected official and voters.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rick Perry's Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I am getting tired of reading that Perry is dealing with his debate melt-down with good humor. What he's doing is doubling down on the shtick that makes him capable of forgetting which federal government agency he'd do away with.  As with all of Perry's humor, it pastes a genial face on bullying, belittling reflex.

Immediately following the debate, Perry approached reporters with some do-it-yourself-damage control:

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Romney vs. Romney on the auto bailouts

In tonight's CNBC debate in Michigan, did Romney not tie himself in knots trying to differentiate the "managed bankruptcy he recommended for GM and Chrysler in November 2009 from the bankruptcies that the Obama administration in fact managed on their behalf? To the tape:
My view with regards to the bailout was that whether it was by President Bush or by President Obama, it was the wrong way to go. I said from the very beginning they should go through a managed bankruptcy process, a private bankruptcy process.

We have capital markets and bankruptcy, it works in the U.S. The idea of billions of dollars being wasted initially then finally they adopted the managed bankruptcy, I was among others that said we ought to do that.

And then after that, they gave the company to the UAW. They gave General Motors to the UAW and they gave Chrysler to Fiat. My plan, we would have had a private sector bailout with the private sector restructuring and bankruptcy with the private sector guiding the direction as opposed to what we had with government playing its heavy hand.

A president displeasing left and right

Well-wishers of Obama who seek consolation in the course of FDR's first term are not likely to find much. The most obvious difference is that GDP growth was in double digits from 1933 through 1936, essentially ensuring Roosevelt a second term as long as there was no formidable third-party challenge.  Then too, FDR kicked off his term with a swift, dramatic success that staunched a catastrophe in progress: the bank rescue bill, which ended a panic and brought deposits flooding back into the banks.  For all its many failures, too, the New Deal by 1936 had quite visibly put millions of people back to work and very visibly built out the country's infrastructure. Finally, because the economy had bottomed out by the time FDR took office and growth had been strong in 1933-34, the Democrats won overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate in 1934, empowering a wave of landmark legislation, including the Social Security Act, signed in August 1935.

Perhaps the whole difference is here (large size here):



Nonetheless...the curve of economic freefall staunched and a raft of social welfare legislation passed while the President tacked back and forth between bold action and pulls back on the reins does lend an outline of faint resemblance to the two first terms.  The history rhymes a bit -- and Michael Hiltzik, who just published his The New Deal: A Modern History this September, has got to be conscious of that. Hence the occasional eye-rubbing passage such as this, surveying FDR's political standing in January 1936:

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Vernacular alert, OWS edition

Here's Erik Erikson, fuming that the GOP's apparent nominee only pretends to be insane but isn't really:
...once he loses, Republican establishment types will blame conservatives for not doing enough for Mitt Romney, never mind that Mitt Romney has never been able to sell himself to more than 25% of the GOP voters. It’s not his fault though, it is the 75%’s fault.
Never mind Erikson's argument that Romney will lose the election because he's not a real conservative. I'm not convinced, but from his mouth to God's ears. What interests me is his turn of numerical phrase, "the 75%'s..."

We have a new way of framing subsections of the national community: "the XX%." The 99%, the 1%...pithy. And heartwarming. We all have multiple percentile siblings. College grads: the 32% (more or less).  The uninsured: the 17%. American children living in poverty: the 22%.  Evangelicals: the 26%. Dog owners: the 37%. Nonvoters: the 45%.  Residents of millionaire households: the 7%.  People with IQs under 100: the 49.99999%. Above-average Lake Wobegon children: The 99.9999%.  

Maybe a social network can take this up. Invite members to tick off percentile groups in which they claim membership. Virtual numeric communities!  Who says that social cohesion is slipping away?

Monday, November 07, 2011

A Kling-free future prosperity?

I sure hope Arnold Kling is wrong about the future of employment and wealth distribution in the U.S. --  and I suspect that he does too, as he seems gloomy about his own prognosis. Overviewing a long-range and recently accelerated squeeze on mid-level jobs,, he envisions an American society rather like that portrayed in Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano (1952), in which a small uber-class of engineers rules a society in which the masses are consigned to "reeks and recs," a kind of permanent WPA for the superannuated.

Kling suggests that increases in productivity may no longer generate new kinds of jobs in sufficient numbers:

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Stux chucks world into flux

Ever since I first encountered Jeffrey Goldberg crowing about Stuxnet, the cyber-weapon that reportedly set back Iran's nuclear program by 1-2 years, I've worried that by launching such weapons (or helping the Israelis launch them) the U.S. is sowing the wind and will reap the whirlwind.  The same might be said for our ever-expanding drone deployments. David Rothkopf fleshes out such fears:

"America still hasn't quite understood that we are opening Pandora's box. Take drones. We feel we can use them anywhere, soon others will be using them against us. There are dozens of countries around the world developing their own drone technology or buying what is out on the market. The same is true for technologies like those associated with Stuxnet," said the former senior diplomat who has worked closely throughout his career with the military and intelligence communities. Or as another journalist friend of mine put it who has been covering the issue closely, "The day after Stuxnet was like the day after Hiroshima. We had the technology and no one else did. But within a matter of a few years that had changed." So had the nature of modern warfare...and by extension of modern diplomacy and that's what is going to happen here.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

In which Google quells a will to quibble

Funny thing happened on the way to a blog post:

I am reading (courtesy of Ezra Klein) William Easterly's wildly enthusiastic review of Nobelist economist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, about the workings of our unconscious and conscious thinking processes. I encounter a quick-summed conclusion that looks a little dicey to me:
Even worse, we don’t know what we don’t know. In one experiment, chief financial officers of corporations were asked to forecast the return on the Standard & Poor’s index over the following year, giving one number they were 90 per cent sure was too high and another they were 90 per cent sure was too low. The true number was outside their intervals 67 per cent of the time.
Wait, I think...what year? 2008, perhaps? To assess the 90% confidence level, wouldn't you want, say, 10 years?  And do I need to buy the book to check this out?

Nah... Google experiment cfos forcast S&P next year 90 percent. And lo:

Friday, November 04, 2011

Move Your Money -- if convenient and profitable

In honor of Bank Transfer Day, a redux of this 1/7/10  post, with updates, seems to be in order:
---
There is some merit in Arianna Huffington's Move Your Money campaign to induce individuals to transfer their funds from the megabanks so many of us use to local community banks. The plan is greatly strengthened by providing an online tool by which we can all check the financial strength of local community banks [UPDATE - neither of the two tools now offered show financial ratings, though one only shows institutions ranked "B" or better by the provider, IRA Bank Ratings.  For ratings on an A-E scale provided by Weiss Ratings, see this at TheStreet.com. Weiss's methodology is here. Disclosure: I have done media outreach work for Weiss.]

Like most Arianna productions, though, this one is an oversimplified morality play: big bank bad/small bank good. It's telling that one of her co-sponsors is a filmmaker and that she's openly inviting all of us to enact a real-life rerun of "It's a Wonderful Life." A few caveats:
  • I thought we'd all got over "It's a Wonderful Life" rapture in the wake of the savings and loan crisis of the late eighties/early nineties, when over 700 S&Ls failed, costing U.S. taxpayers something like $150 billion. Thanks in part to deregulation in the early 80s that expanded S&Ls' lending authority and weakened accounting standards, many were subsequently run more by Potter principles than by George Bailey principles.  For that matter, consider the movie itself. But for the extreme virtue and fortitude of the hero, the angelic Building and Loan would have been absorbed by Potter's bank (which might have remained a community bank to this day, unless Potter proved more able than a handful of SuperPotters).

  • Community banks are not exactly politically unconnected Davids going up against the industry Goliaths. The industry's trade association, the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) was very effective in weakening the  Consumer Financial Protection Agency created by legislation passed in the House.  The ICBA succeeded in exempting community banks from CFPA examination and in preventing the CFPA from mandating that community banks offer "plain vanilla" loan products.

I am tired of this game...

That is, the breathless monthly elephant-groping over the unemployment numbers. Here's Politico, via email alert:
The unemployment rate fell to 9 percent in October from 9.1 percent in September, but the country added a disappointing 80,000 jobs, well below expectations that as many as 100,000 jobs would be created last month, according to data released by the Labor Department on Friday.

"Well below"? Twenty percent is well within the range of the typical revision of prior month's numbers. September's number, for example, was revised up today from 103,000 to to 158,000 -- almost triple the "disappointment" triggered by the margin below consensus for this month, while August was revised up from 0 to 57,000. Those upward revisions exceed the alleged job growth this month.

There's plenty of intelligent deep diving, of course.  Those who follow these numbers closely understand their ambiguities and uncertainties, and the cumulative nature of the light they shed.  But the headline snapshots, the insta-hardening of snap perceptions, are not helpful.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Another eurolesson in brinksmanship

Last week, I noted a rather painful contrast between Angela Merkel's brinksmanship (whatever you think of her policymaking) and Obama's lack thereof, lamenting that we couldn't substitute "Obama" and "Boehner" in this Times headline below:
Merkel Called Bankers’ Bluff to Win Europe a Debt Plan
Today, add to the roster of EuroRussian Roulette-meisters Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who sent the Eurozone into panic mode with his call for a referendum on the EU's latest rescue plan -- apparently to scare his domestic opposition into line.  From the FT's liveblog:

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

We may be half-drowning, but we're not stagnating

Some months ago, in an encounter with Tyler Cowen's ebook The Great Stagnation, I questioned Cowen's premise that technological transformation of human life has slowed down in recent decades, that is
whether we're living in an era in which transformative technological innovation is in short supply. Cowen does allow "the Internet" as the great exception, but points out that the leading-edge tech companies employ relatively few people, and that Internet innovation has been notoriously difficult to monetize. He is strangely silent, though, about the impact of interactive technology and computer technology more generally on production and commerce of all kinds -- just-in-time factory production, product customization, bar coding, all the incredible efficiencies of large-scale retail operations that wring out large profits on tiny margins -- and on interactive technology's role in globalizing production. He also doesn't consider transformative technologies hiding in plain sight: personal computers themselves (never mind the Internet) and cell phones. It's true, as Cowen says, that the basic physical components of middle class life in America don't look that much different than they did in the 1960s. But they are much different. And the differences have generated a lot of wealth, even if  the U.S. middle class hasn't garnered as large a share as it did in he previous generation.
That demurral is advanced at book length by MIT scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that computer and network technology is indeed, like the steam engine and electricity before them, a "general purpose technology" (GPT), that is, one that accelerates economic progress in a world-transforming way.  IT's transformative power is an inevitable effect of Moore's Law: we have lived through a time of sustained exponential growth in processing power, which has brought us to the brink of self-driving cars, chap robots that function more or less as mini-factories, and viable automated translation and communication. While the landscape may not yet have been as visibly transformed as it was by prior GPTs, as Cowen argues, business processes have. Regarding  the Web and enterprise resource planning and CRM software, for example:

Monday, October 31, 2011

Krugman, The Wire beat you to it....

Paul Krugman, desperate for a form of stimulus that Republicans can get behind, starts thinking like a disaffected detective in that epic of police and general government dysfunction, The Wire:
John Maynard Keynes...noted a curious “preference for wholly ‘wasteful’ forms of loan expenditure rather than for partly wasteful forms, which, because they are not wholly wasteful, tend to be judged on strict ‘business’ principles.” Indeed. Spend money on some useful goal, like the promotion of new energy sources, and people start screaming, “Solyndra! Waste!” Spend money on a weapons system we don’t need, and those voices are silent, because nobody expects F-22s to be a good business proposition.

To deal with this preference, Keynes whimsically suggested burying bottles full of cash in disused mines and letting the private sector dig them back up. In the same vein, I recently suggested that a fake threat of alien invasion, requiring vast anti-alien spending, might be just the thing to get the economy moving again.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Voters sniff out Perry's dominant trait

It seems pretty obvious by now that the GOP debates have highlighted Perry's lack of ability to discuss policy with any cogency or nuance or even command of facts.  As a big believer in multiple intelligences, I would not call the deficit "stupidity."  Perry is plainly a clever son of a bitch. Like any party boss or dictator, he knows how to amass power and sell favors.  He also has a good sixth sense for the zeitgeist and knows how to tell the voters he's pursuing what they want to hear.

Aside from a lack of policy competence and verbal facility, however, Perry has made another negative impression that may be hurting him with a still-free people. It was captured in a focus group of 12 Ohio voters -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- recently conducted by pollster Peter Hart (as reported by the Washington Post's Dan Balz).  At one point, participants were asked to imagine themselves in fifth grade and fit the candidates into a menu of class types. The result for Perry:

Friday, October 28, 2011

The weight of (recent) history, cont.

The BBC has nailed down something I've vaguely wondered since reading in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 that the dead outnumbered the living 30-to-1.  Now, the ratio is more like 12-to-1!  Some 83.2 billion have lived since the beginning of the species, and about 7 billion of them (us) are alive now.

Next question: how many people have lived/died in the last 100 years? 10 billion, according to the BBC. 200? 500?  A disproportionate slice of human history, viewed in terms of hours lived by human beings, has happened quite recently. And as I've suggested before, it's quite right that kids read less of the classics and spend more of their educational time soaking up what's been written and discovered in recent times than they would have done 50 or 100 years ago -- since the percentage of literate people and those who have added to the permanent store of human knowledge or preserved human expression in the past 150 or 100 or 50  years must be many times that of the percentage of people who have lived within those time frames.

In painful contrast

Alas that the U.S. prior to Aug. 1 could not have seen such a headline as this from today's Times, with some noun substitutions:
Merkel Called Bankers’ Bluff to Win Europe a Debt Plan
Or a narrative about our president like this:
But Mrs. Merkel called the bankers’ bluff, said officials present at the discussions. Accept the 50 percent write-down, she told the bankers, or bear the consequences of default. In effect, she was willing to risk a credit event, and to place the blame for any fallout on them. 
The key words here are no, risk, and blame. Conspicuously absent from Obama's negotiating vocabulary and repertoire.

Yes, the European debt deal is inadequate and leaves core questions unresolved -- how the banks will recapitalize, how the bailout fund will be funded, how countries crippled by imposed austerity can grow and thus repay their debt. But given the imperative to get this minimum threshold demand across, Merkel didn't blink.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Question for political scientists

Political scientists who descend to the blogosphere are at pains to make the rest of us understand that, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, 95 percent of electoral combat is half structural -- that is, national election results are driven mainly by the state of the economy, at least in peacetime.  Candidates' skills and political strategy matter only at the margins -- though in a close election, the margin can be decisive. 

This structural view escapes determinism only to the extent that a) an incumbent can, in fact, affect economic conditions, including via ultimately destructive short-term jolts such as Nixon's imposition of wage and price controls; or b) economic conditions are mixed enough, or other factors such as war are salient enough, to put an election up for grabs (as in, for example, the recession we didn't know we had entered in late 2000, or Americans' unease with the course of the Iraq War in 2004).

Of course conditions are often mixed and murky. Nonetheless, I'd like to test the determinism of political scientists struggling to educate journalists and the rest of us, such as Brendan Nyhan, Jonathan Bernstein, John Sides & friends -- and of those who taken their data to heart, such as Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, and Matthew Yglesias. Oh, and one who defies category, master of probability Nate Silver.

So here's the challenge: using an economic measure of your choice, such as growth or shrinkage of personal income, or GDP, or unemployment (often dismissed as a lagging indicator), is there a threshold below which you would be prepared to say that Obama cannot be reelected?  Hedge it how you will: exclude military or environmental emergency or disaster, or terrorist attack,  or Republican nomination of a nutcase...hell, make it "Obama can't beat Romney if..." if you like.  And let's not make this too easy, as in Depression-level GDP shrinkage or unemployment.  Hewing as close to our current bad-normal conditions as possible, what's the can't-win economic marker for Obama?

UPDATE 11/3: Nate Silver created for himself a more sophisticated version of this challenge, gaming out various 2012 scenarios while averaging out incumbent's approval rating, GDP growth (or lack thereof), and challenger's ideological rating (moderate to extreme). Given Obama's current approval rating, with a candidate in the historical middle of the ideology scale -- Romney -- Silver rates the challenger's odds at 83% if there's 0% GDP growth over the next year, and at 40% if there's 40% growth.  That indicates almost a tossup given perhaps the likeliest scenario: 2-3% growth.  I must say, I find Silver's 3-factor model for prediction intuitively satisfying, finely calibrated -- check it out. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

George H.W. Bush's good son

It seems clear America has had its fill of Bushes -- hence Jeb's conspicuous absence from a weak field of GOP presidential candidates challenging a vulnerable incumbent.

Bush Pere does have an heir, though -- a good son intent on restoring the 50-year American foreign policy consensus of which GHWB was arguably the apotheosis (as Robert Gates presents him in his memoir, From the Shadows).  His name is Barack Hussein Obama.

As Jay Leno put a bunch of softballs up on a tee for Obama last night, the President, while swatting a few victory drives, made it very clear that he saw himself restoring the old multilateral, America-first-among-equals tradition -- after a period of aberration presided over by Guess Who.

In fending off the "leading from behind" rap, Obama characterized the Libyan operation in terms that could be used to describe Bush Sr.'s conduct of the first Gulf War. My italics below (transcript here):

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Romney will be at pains not to "flatten" the middle class

Jamelle Bouie is confident that Romney will respond to Perry's flat tax proposal with one of his own:
Of course, with prominent Republicans pushing for a flat tax, it’s likely that Romney will relent and release his own proposal for instituting a single income tax rate. As The Times writes, “Lately…his tone has been more positive. ‘I love a flat tax,’ he said in August.”
 Jamelle, I'm going to have to bump Romney-readings with you.

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