Monday, August 29, 2011

Productivity revolutions can hurt

Program update: thanks to Hurricane Irene, I am held over in Ireland -- a very nice place to be stuck, I must admit.  Continuing squibs based on current reading....

In December 2009, Atul Gawande drew an extended analogy between the agricultural revolution of the early 20th century, sparked by an array of creative government programs that promulgated improved farming techniques, and the welter of cost control measures packed in the Affordable Care Act, which collectively may have the potential to radically lower healthcare costs while improving quality. Here's Gawande's overview of what happened in agriculture, circa 1900-1920:
The United States did not seek a grand solution. Private farms remained, along with the considerable advantages of individual initiative. Still, government was enlisted to help millions of farmers change the way they worked. The approach succeeded almost shockingly well. The resulting abundance of goods in our grocery stores and the leaps in our standard of living became the greatest argument for America around the world. And, as the agricultural historian Roy V. Scott recounted, four decades ago, in his remarkable study “The Reluctant Farmer,” it all started with a pilot program....

What seemed like a hodgepodge eventually cohered into a whole. The government never took over agriculture, but the government didn’t leave it alone, either. It shaped a feedback loop of experiment and learning and encouragement for farmers across the country. The results were beyond what anyone could have imagined. Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. Prices fell by half. By 1930, food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty per cent of the workforce. Today, food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force. It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history.
What I'm learning from David M. Kennedy's Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945  is that however good this 'revolution' proved to be for consumers, it was absolutely wrenching for farmers. According to Kennedy, American farmers (who still made up 30% of the U.S. population in 1930) had been suffering a Depression of their own since the end of World War I, when prices collapsed. The problem was essentially massive oversupply, triggered by those wonderful productivity gains. The early New Deal remedy was the set of subsidies -- paying farmers not to grow certain crops -- that plague us to this day. Then as now, too, those subsidies disproportionately benefited large holders -- particularly southern landlords, who responded to incentives not to grow by depriving their sharecroppers of their less-than-bare-subsistence livelihood.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Another disillusioned pundit

N.B. I am trekking the Kerry Way in Ireland this week and just slipping in a squib or two from current reading here and there...
After the president signed a controversial bill that most economists believed would worsen a sharp economic slowdown, a former admirer wrote that he
had surrendered everything for nothing. He gave up the leadership of his party. He let his personal authority be flouted. He accepted a wretched and mischievous product of stupidity and greed...
Why? The pundit probed for the President's tragic flaw:
He has the peculiarly modern, in fact, the contemporary American, faith in the power of the human mind and will, acting through organization, to accomplish results...[but] the unreasonableness of mankind if not accounted for in [his] the realm of reason he is an unusually bold man; in teh realm of unreason he is, for a statesman, an exceptionally thin-sknined and easily beweildered man...He can face with equanamity almost any of the difficulties of statesmanship except the open conflict of wills.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

When the social contract was new

One perhaps obvious point about the United States' formative period is brought home vividly in Pauline Maier's Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788.  It's this: the framers, and many of those debating ratification, were quite consciously trying form a new social contract -- that is, implement some version of the social contract theory developed over the prior century-and-a-half. In fact, worries about the chaos that might ensue if the inert federal government was not replaced with a functioning one made some fear the return of a state of nature, which must have added to the sense of being in at the birth.  The sense of consciously forming something new, yet doing it deliberately and in accordance with the norms of representative government already developed, is really quite astonishing. It was an almost scientific experiment and a lived creation myth rolled into one.  Here is James Wilson making the opening bid for ratification in the Pennsylvania ratification convention (as paraphrase/quoted by Maier):
"Government...taken as a science may yet be considered in its infancy," Wilson said, and it had in the past been the product of "force, fraud, or accident." America, he said, offered the first instance "since the Creation of the world...of a people assembled to weigh deliberately and calmly, and to decide leisurely and peaceably, upon the form of government by which they will bind themselves and their posterity."
That's true, isn't it? Remarkable...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Polarized politics, 1787

In the United States, the bitter charge that a majority that wants to bring an ambitious project to a vote is trying to ram it down our throats has a long pedigree.  In Pennsylvania, the first state to ratify the Constitution, such was the lament of the minority who were either opposed to ratification, undecided, or in favor of making ratification conditional on the opportunity to amend.

Moreover, the minority was right, according to the narrative stitched together by Pauline Maier in  Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788.  Pennsylvania proponents of the Constitution wanted to be the first to ratify. They convened the ratifying convention in November, just two months after the framers completed their work, and before copies of the Constitution had had time to fully penetrate the enormous rural expanse of the state. In fact they scheduled the ratifying convention before Congress had decided the manner in which it would present it to the states.  That led a conditional supporter of the proposed new scheme of government, Robert Whitehill, to complain, "I don't know any reason there can be for driving [the Constitution] down our throats, without an hour's preparation"...unless it was "a plan not fit for discussion" (p. 61). 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Program note

I'm going to be mainly out of blogging range this coming week.  A couple of posts are scheduled to go up, on Sat. and Monday and next-gen family guest bloggers may appear. Have a good!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"You are too shallow, sound the bottom of the after-times"*

There is a certain strain of conservative British fantasist that pits the folly of the common people, Coriolanus-like, against the beleaguered wisdom of leaders. George MacDonald, in The Princess and Curdie,  portrays a benevolent king gradually worn down by the recalcitrant foolishness and greed of his people.  In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, battle-hardened chieftains keep the faith and hold the line against the encroachments of Mordor as their people weaken.  C.S. Lewis has more of a feel for the ways in which the powerful and ruthless deceive and enslave common folk, but he too betrays a weakness, in the Dawn Treader vignette of the Dufflepods ruled by a fallen star, for the vision of the wise ruler bemusedly enduring the follies of his simple subjects  (though Lewis is more consistently smitten by the fantasy of a contented and submissive populace willingly ruled by wise and benevolent monarchs).

Perhaps it is in this spirit that Sir Max Hastings laments that voters in the western democracies will punish at the polls leaders who tell them the hard truth about "the scale of upheaval and the sacrifice necessary to meet it."  Suggesting that "we get the political leaders we deserve" -- which may in some ultimate sense be true -- Hastings seems blithely unaware of the first axiom of political science: economic conditions (absent all-encompassing catastrophe) shape the dominant public perceptions of leaders everywhere. There's not much point in excoriating "pampered European and American voters" for blaming "bad news" on leaders currently in power. All electorates everywhere do that, to the extent that they're free to choose at all. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Some comparisons are obvious...

of course, of course. But still, this echo gave me a bit of a chill.  One passage in my rebuttal of Drew Westen's attack on Obama bounced around the web quite a bit, e.g., in the LA Times online:
Sprung, blogging at Xpostfactoid, compared Obama's challengers on the left to Martin Luther King Jr.'s critics during the civil rights era. "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," Sprung wrote. "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."

Obama, of course, quotes King all the time, and is not shy about identifying with him or Lincoln (and damn the obvious "Mr Obama, you're no..." rejoinders).  As in Iowa yesterday:
"I think that we forget when [Martin Luther King Jr.] was alive there was nobody who was more vilified, nobody who was more controversial, nobody who was more despairing at times. There was a decade that followed the great successes of Birmingham and Selma in which he was just struggling, fighting the good fight, and scorned, and many folks angry.  But what he understood, what kept him going, was that the arc of moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.  But it doesn’t bend on its own.  It bends because all of us are putting our hand on the arc and we are bending it in that direction.  And it takes time.  And it's hard work.  And there are frustrations."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

O hear Emanuel: the deficit war may already be won

If this trend reported by Maggie Mahar holds up -- and if theSupreme Court doesn't sandbag it -- it could be worth more for America's long-term fiscal health than all the deficit reduction plans put together:
While our elected representatives wrangle over slicing entitlements, virtually no one seems to be paying attention to an eye-popping fact: Medicare reimbursements are no longer accelerating at a break neck-pace. The new numbers should be factored into any discussion about healthcare spending:  From 2000 through 2009, Medicare’s outlays climbed by an average of 9.7 percent a year. By contrast, since the beginning of 2010, Medicare spending has been rising by less than 4 percent a year. On this,  both Standard Poor’s Index Committee and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agree. (S&P tracks healthcare spending with the help of Milliman Inc., an independent actuarial and consulting firm.)...

Obama's uncertain trigger finger, cont.

I have suggested before that Obama's endgame in the deficit reduction fight is basically the busted Boehner deal, which in turn looks awfully like the plan the President sketched out in April: an alleged $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10-12 years, with $800b -- $1 trillion coming from new revenue, $2+ trillion in alleged spending cuts, and close to $1 trillion from alleged reduced interest payments.  Two bullet points in the White House's outline of the debt deal struck in early August would seem to bear this out:
  •  ...the President will demand that the Committee pursue a balanced deficit reduction package, where any entitlement reforms are coupled with revenue-raising tax reform that asks for the most fortunate Americans to sacrifice. 
  • The Enforcement Mechanism Complements the Forcing Event Already In Law – the Expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts – To Create Pressure for a Balanced Deal: The Bush tax cuts expire as of 1/1/2013, the same date that the spending sequester would go into effect. These two events together will force balanced deficit reduction. Absent a balanced deal, it would enable the President to use his veto pen to ensure nearly $1 trillion in additional deficit reduction by not extending the high-income tax cuts.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

History of the United States: Counterfactuals in the Prequel

I am about 1/4 through a remarkable book, historian Pauline Maier's Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010).  What's remarkable about it is that, so far at least, Maier has delivered precisely on the narrative premise she posed in the introduction:
A writer can build suspense in telling a story, [Barbara Tuchman] said, even if the reader knows how the story turned out, so long as the writer never mentions the outcome until it happens at the proper place in the story. This book is, among other things, an effort to test that theory.
     For the experiment to succeed, however, requires readers who are willing to play a game. They need to forget for the moment much of what they know about the American past, and return in imagination to another time when there was no Constitution, when the federal Convention had not even met, and watch events occur, step by step, unaware of how they would turn out (p. xvi).

This is precisely what's so fascinating about the book. Maier's narrative sympathies, if not her settled judgment, are with those who objected to the Constitution in the form in which it was presented for ratification.  State by state, she relates the objections and anxieties of those who rejected or had serious reservations about the Constitution or about the ratifying process (people complained, with some justice, that the Constitution was being "rammed down our throats"!). These included the little matter of the absence of a bill of rights, the nonrepresentative nature of the Senate, the new Congress's powers of taxation, the lifetime tenure of judges, and the lack of provision for trial by jury in civil cases.

Friday, August 12, 2011

An implacable conciliator

Drew Westen's full-fronted assault on President Obama's performance, rhetoric and character riveted liberal America.  To my mind, Westen core charges have been definitively refudiated. Westen idealized and mischaracterized FDR, vastly overestimated the power of presidential rhetoric, short-changed Obama's legislative accomplishments, ignored what he actually said in his speeches and impugned his motives without any meaningful discussion or evidence.

Westen did, however, touch a  raw nerve in progressives frustrated by Obama's refusal to acknowledge that Republicans have not dealt with him in good faith, and by his endlessly proffered willingness to engage with them under the assumption that they are willing to compromise to find solutions to the country's problems. Michael Tomasky offers a more substantive critique than Westen's of this conciliatory approach to leadership.  While acknowledging a variety of possible contributory causes, Tomasky focuses on Obama's political philosophy -- which is easily verifiable in his writing, speeches and engagement with Congress:

An Obamite response to Romney's "Corporations are people"

I've never presumed to script my own fantasy speeches for politicians I support -- especially Barack Obama, who, we tend to forget at this low point, has written a few good ones.  But what the hell...I found myself imagining Obama being asked to respond to Mitt Romney's response to a liberal questioner at an Iowa event yesterday --
"Corporations are people, my friend..Of course they are...Everything corporations earn goes to people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? People's pockets. Human beings, my friend."
-- and started vocalizing a doubtless overly nuanced and prolix response  -- sort of like Obama's in press conferences.  So here it is: 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

GOP debate: Santorum misquotes Lincoln

In the GOP debate tonight, Santorum took a shot a Romney after Romney, defending the healthcare reform bill he passed in Massachusetts, asserted that the individual mandate is in accord with the Massachusetts Constitution but not with the U.S. Constitution. Santorum said, roughly, what's wrong is wrong, regardless of written law. Then: "Lincoln said, states have no right to do wrong."

Coincidentally, I just wrote about Lincoln's First Inaugural today, noting that Lincoln not only affirmed the Southern states' right to maintain slavery undisturbed, but said that he would not object to a Constitutional amendment codifying that right.  So I looked up Santorum's cite, which is from the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  Lincoln did suggest that in an ultimate sense, the states have no right do to wrong, insofar as no one has a right to do wrong (the actual quote was with reference to Douglas: "he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong." Full context below.)  But in the very same passage, he first affirmed the Southern states' legal right under the Constitution to maintain slavery, and asserted that Republicans would not interfere with that right.

An implacable conciliator

Drew Westen's full-fronted assault on President Obama's performance, rhetoric and character riveted liberal America.  To my mind, Westen core charges have been definitively refudiated. Westen idealized and mischaracterized FDR, vastly overestimated the power of presidential rhetoric, short-changed Obama's legislative accomplishments, ignored what he actually said in his speeches and impugned his motives without any meaningful discussion or evidence.

Westen did, however, touch a  raw nerve in progressives frustrated by Obama's refusal to acknowledge that Republicans have not dealt with him in good faith, and by his endlessly proffered willingness to engage with them under the assumption that they are willing to compromise to find solutions to the country's problems. Michael Tomasky offers a more substantive critique than Westen's of this conciliatory approach to leadership.  While acknowledging a variety of possible contributory causes, Tomasky focuses on Obama's political philosophy -- which is easily verifiable in his writing, speeches and engagement with Congress:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

GOP will damn the polls and maintain tax intransigence

Andrew Sullivan, who wanted Obama to come out strong for Bowles-Simpson and make a crusade of deficit reduction in his State of the Union address, now suggests that Obama do the same with tax reform, a linchpin of any viable deficit reduction plan. (That is, a revamping of the tax code that shrinks loopholes, lowers rates, and nets substantial new revenue.) In support, Sullivan cites a compendium of polls from Bruce Bartlett:
They all show heavy majorities (most in the mid-60s) in favor of raising taxes on the wealthy as part of a deficit reduction plan. Yet this is the one issue on which Republicans seem determined to take a stand. If the Democrats cannot marshall 2 - 1 support for their policies into actual legislation, they really need to pack it in as a viable party (although one could argue they packed it in years ago).
This would be true if we lived in a sane political environment, especially since Republicans will not be able to prevent the Bush tax cuts from expiring if Obama and the Democrats are willing to let them all expire.  Reversion to Clinton-era rates would raise an estimated $3.6 trillion over current rates in ten years -- as opposed to the $1-2 trillion Democrats would be able to extract through tax reform, would Republicans agree to any increase at all.

We do not, however, inhabit in a sane political political environment.  Consider:

Monday, August 08, 2011

That sick "Obama's sliding" feeling

Bitterly disappointed as I was in Obama for letting himself be hijacked in the debt ceiling deal, I have been willing to reserve judgment through the next round -- the supercommittee negotiations -- and possibly through the endgame of the Bush tax cut expirations.  But this from Obama today triggered that "there he goes again" reflex:
Last week, we reached an agreement that will make historic cuts to defense and domestic spending.  But there’s not much further we can cut in either of those categories.  What we need to do now is combine those spending cuts with two additional steps:  tax reform that will ask those who can afford it to pay their fair share and modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare (my emphasis).

Couple that with this warning from Panetta:

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A lover of fairy tales casts Obama as villain-in-chief

This one is going to hurt.

In what seems like a bid to definitively cement the perceptions of progressives disappointed in Obama, psychologist Drew Westen, a student of the alleged power of stories to shape political perception, has put together his own master narrative about Obama -- a merciless tale of presidential FAIL. It's a quadruple-length op-ed (over 3000 words) on the front page of The New York Times' Sunday Review section -- a rhetorical nuke dropped on ground zero in the liberal heartland.

Westen is a good storyteller. There is real force to many of his charges. But modeling what he says Obama should have done, he  tells a simplified morality tale -- highly selective, with a clear villain, and in some points demonstrably false. He makes copious use of political cliches about messaging that fail to take into account the degree to which economic conditions shape audience reception of a politician's message. Founded on the alleged timidity of the 2009 stimulus, his story fails to engage the question of whether Obama could have got a larger stimulus through Congress. And in the end, it devolves into an ad hominem attack with recourse to cheap psychologizing (notwithstanding Westen's protestations of scientific detachment) and unfounded impugning of motive.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Prophets of the new millennium

A stray link took me back in time and made me think of various chilling prophecies uttered when the millennium was young. Read them and weep.

1. February 2, 2000 
So how can those reasonable men advising George Bush think that he can offer $1.3 trillion in tax cuts? Assuming that they are neither planning to raid Social Security nor counting on favorable revenue surprises to save them (unfavorable surprises are, of course, out of the question), they must have in mind a sharp scaling back of government programs.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Taxes or trigger!

Nancy Pelosi was not entirely clear when she said that Democrats negotiating (if such a thing is possible) with the GOP on the bipartisan supercommittee charged with putting forward a deficit reduction plan should be "as forceful as possible and as unified as possible," but that they should not rule out reforms to entitlement programs. She raised a lot of Democratic eyebrows by declaring "you won't see me drawing lines in the sand."  But if I understand her right, she's right. 

There is confusion about the kind of line in the sand Democrats on the supercommittee must draw. They will have to resist Republican intransigence, not mirror it. That is, they have to hold the line on taxes, not entitlements.

Getting serious with items in series

In my letters to a certain high profile blogger, I've more than once inveighed against "items in series" -- that is, sentences that pack together a host of comma-separated items alleged to illustrate a thesis, often a purported precis of a public figure's alleged accomplishments or sins. It's so easy to smooth over a world of ambiguity, or incongruity, slipping in some highly questionable assertions, like the xeroxed dollars that a pair of drug addicts slips into a wad of cash in The Wire.

From Andrew Sullivan, here's a fresh example: a list of Obama's accomplishments:
On policy: ending the US torture regime; prevention of a second Great Depression; enacting universal healthcare; taking the first serious steps toward reining in healthcare costs; two new female Supreme Court Justices; ending the gay ban in the military; ending the Iraq war; justifying his Afghan Surge by killing bin Laden and now disentangling with face saved; firming up alliances with India, Indonesia and Japan as counter-weights to China; bailing out the banks and auto companies without massive losses (and surging GM profits); advancing (slowly) balanced debt reduction without drastic cuts during the recession; and financial re-regulation.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The debt ceiling stickup as precedent...or not

As the debt ceiling stickup lurched toward its traumatic climax and please-no-one resolution, the laments have been many that a dreadful precedent has been set for government by extortion. Jonathan Chait has been eloquent about this:
The problem is that, even if we get through this crisis with little damage, the debt ceiling is still sitting there, a weapon that will one day explode. Indeed, if there's one good reason to downgrade U.S. debt, it's that House Republicans have discovered a kind of doomsday device that, if not used this time, will probably be used eventually. Any use of the debt ceiling to extort policy concessions will encourage subsequent uses.
And right on cue, once the deal was done, Mitch McConnell heralded the new nuclear norm:
What we have done, Larry, also is set a new template. In the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling, it will not be clean anymore. This is just the first step. This, we anticipate, will take us into 2013. Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again. Then we will go through the process again and see what we can continue to achieve in connection with these debt ceiling requests of presidents to get our financial house in order.
Many see in this precedent evidence of U.S. decline. Here's Ezra Klein, commenting on McConnell's boast above (same link):

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Larry Summers hearts the busted Obama-Boehner deal

Progressives were having conniptions when details of Obama's never-consummated deal with Boehner emerged.  Three trillion in spending cuts, just $800 billion in new revenue -- no more than expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans would yield, and less than half the amount proposed by the right-leaning Bowles-Simpson plan. On the benefit side, social security benefits chained to the "chained CPI" (a less generous inflation calculation than the current CPI) -- and more jarringly, the Medicare eligibility age raised to 67.

A plan, it would seem, that Timothy Geithner could get behind (and probably was behind).  But I was surprised to read from Larry Summers today that he too apparently considers approximately the same level of revenue and presumably the same revenue-to-spending-cuts ratio sufficient:

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Bee balm in the rust belt, cont.

Reposting, with photos from this year's Garden Walk, here.

It's time again to celebrate a city besotted with gardening -- Buffalo, which hosts its annual Garden Walk this weekend.  370+ city households will throw open their front and back yards to thousands of visitors, who tour self-guided through neighborhoods tony and raggedy -- some of them revived in large part by gardening that's spread like a good virus block-by-block.  Lots of intense small urban spaces and often low-budget creativity.  My earlier paean here; albums here; update on the spreading fame and impact on the city in the Buffalo News here; info on the self-guided tours, maps, etc. etc. here.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Grasping at straws

as I hit the road this morning...maybe the cuts are backloaded to allow some space for recovery. Maybe defense cuts in the trigger will constrain Republicans more than commenters think. Maybe programs that benefit the poor are adequately protected. Maybe there's less to the first round cuts than meets the eye Maybe Obama will find his spine and push forcefully for tax hikes in the upcoming gang of 12 negotiations--if only because the downside of enraging progressives may now finally outstrip the consequences of bucking GOP intransigence. The mendacity of hope?

About that buyers' remorse

Last week, Clinton consigliere David Rothkopf wrote a mash note to Hillary:
In this moment of national confusion and public despair with officials in Washington, variations on the following cry have often been heard, "Somewhere in the world there must be an American political leader with a vision of tomorrow, a focus on what is really important and an ability to translate rhetoric into success."

I'm pleased to report that there is. If it has escaped your attention it's because that politician has been on the other side of the world the past couple of weeks advancing American interests and the policies of the president with meaningful results and exceptional skill.  

That politician is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton...
When I first encountered this via a well-placed plug in Mike Allen's Playbook, I wondered instantly whether this wasn't the first note in an orchestrated campaign to draft Hillary for the Democratic nomination in 2012.  I brushed the thought off as far-fetched on many fronts. Now in the wake of Obama's debt ceiling debacle, I'm not so sure.