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.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Times leaves out the 'Waldorf' in Waldorf School portrayal

Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times, has a front-page story about a school in Silicon Valley, popular among tech execs, that keeps computers out of the elementary school classroom.  That's interesting as far as it goes -- if my children were elementary school age, I would be open to putting them in  a computer-free classroom. Yet the article is quite odd, in that Richtel seems to have very little idea of what kind of school he is affording a 1500-word front-page article.  The school is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos, California -- that is, per its name, a Waldorf School, i.e. a school based on the educational theory that the Anthroposophist sect founder Rudolph Steiner derived from his own idiosyncratic fusion theology, which combines elements of eastern mysticism (reincarnation, karma) with Christianity (overlaid by what C.S. Lewis called a "reassuring Germanic dullness") .  That means that students' education is shaped by a set of religious beliefs quite as specific and literal-minded as those at an evangelical Christian school.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Perry lands an off-stage blow on Obamneycare

After each of the last two GOP debates (1, 2), I noted that no Romney rival managed to spell out the structural similarities between Romneycare and the Affordable Care Act.  Now Perry has an ad that kin of does the job -- or rather, delivers a functional equivalent that appeals to Republican primary voters' emotions:

Mind you, the ad does not really spell out -- except for a brief allusion to exchanges -- how the ACA mirrors Romneycare. What it drives home is that Romney regarded them as similar and hoped that his program might be replicated nationally -- and also, of course that he's now lying about that.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Space invaders in politics

About that hand that Romney laid on Perry during their talk-over-each-other battle in the Vegas debate: the Washington Post's Ann Gerhart finds experts who claim that violating the other's space in a debate is always a no-no:

But the debate stage has its own set of rigid rules of engagement, the most important being: Keep your hands to yourself. You can shake hands before and clap a rival on the back after — and even kiss Rep. Michele Bachmann on the cheek — but never, ever make a move on the other guy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New York Times warns Obama of phantom political risk

I'm sure I'm not the only reader who noticed that this article by the Times' Mark Landler about the alleged risks inherent in Obama's post-Labor Day political strategy failed to cite any evidence in support of this thesis:
While Mr. Obama’s partisan jabs appeal to his Democratic base, they may turn off independent voters, who flocked to him in 2008 in part because of his carefully cultivated image as a leader who rises above the partisan fray. With the jobless rate closer to 10 percent than 4 percent, they may start to tune out the president.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Once again, the attacks on Romneycare fall harmless

In this debate, finally, Romney's rivals tried to sustain a collective attack on the health insurance program he designed and implemented in Massachusetts. Someone (Gingrich, I think) charged that it jacked up healthcare costs in Massachusetts, which have indeed risen at faster than the national rate (as they did before the plan was implemented). Someone else (Perry, I think) charged that Romney had held the plan up as a model for the whole country -- rehashing an excision between editions of Romney's campaign book -- and others piled on.

Once again, however, what nobody managed to do was to spell out the extent to which the Affordable Care Act was modeled on Romneycare-- that the national plan borrows the subsidized exchanges composed of private health plans conforming to minimum coverage rules, with the whole structure made economically viable by the individual mandate and the employer mandate.  Romney was again allowed to emphasize that he created a free market solution for the uninsured, though he didn't get around this time to the lie that the ACA is by contrast "government controlled," as if it weren't structured the same way. Gingrich even threw Romney a bone, asserting that Romneycare "wasn't as bad" as Obamacare without detailing how they were different, or similar.

The adminstration's last bullet against economic stagnation?

Back in 2008, as the mortgage crisis metastasized,  FDIC chair Sheila Bair, a Bush appointee, was for it.  John McCain,  under tutelage of his economic advisor, former CBO director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, was for it (twice, in two forms). In early 2009, leading Senate Republicans were for it. Today, former Reagan Council of Economic Advisers Chair Martin Feldstein is for it. And we learn it today's FT that Glenn Hubbard, George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers chair, is also for it.

"It" is large-scale mortgage relief for underwater homeowners. Bair, McCain-Holtz-Eakin, and Feldstein called for principal writedowns. Hubbard wants interest rates reduced to today's low levels:

Monday, October 17, 2011

A not-entirely-false equivalence of blame between the parties

Primed by James FallowsGreg Sargent, and Steve Benen, I'm on high alert for false equivalence -- reporter's language blaming government dysfunction equally on both parties, when it's Republicans who have taken the filibuster and other means of blocking legislative action to unprecedented extremes while opposing and demonizing a host of policies that they've historically supported.  So the radar started blinking when I came across this in a Financial Times editorial:
For the last three years, the country has been paralysed by a political gridlock that has put its future on the line. Both Republicans and Democrats are to blame – 

 But then, I was stopped by the actual "equivalence":
the Grand Old Party for its callous obstruction of all Democratic initiatives and President Barack Obama for his naïve neglect of the need for muscular leadership.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Can Occupy Wall Street make Obama welcome some hatred?

My wife and I went into Times Square for the Occupy Wall Street rally held there Saturday evening.  One of the lead chants was "Wall Street got bailed out; we got sold out." That's a half truth -- and a vague charge, as it leaves the nefarious deeds in the passive voice. Obama thus avoids the direct hit. But not everywhere:

Although that sign is more false than true, I'm glad it's out there. Obama did need to complete the bank bailout and engineer their recapitalization, but he did it with far too few strings attached, and without demanding reciprocal action from the banks in the form of mortgage relief.  I want him pressured from the left -- as FDR was pressured.

Today people love to quote Roosevelt's October 31,1936 campaign speech in which he laid into powerful moneyed interests, who had been excoriating him for instituting a tax on a tax on undistributed corporate profits. Roosevelt responded by campaigning with increasing fervor, according to David M. Kennedy in Freedom from Fear, against "greed" and "autocracy." The Madison Square Garden speech was the climax:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Rick Perry, philosopher king

A Perry spokesman, reacting to questions about the billions in state contracts awarded to clients of Perry's chief factotum, characterizes the governor's decision-making process like this:
Aides to the governor took issue with any suggestion that Mr. Perry did anyone’s bidding other than his own. “The governor bases his policy decisions on what his philosophical beliefs and policies are,” said a spokesman, Mark Miner.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The best liar in the field

It is a fact universally acknowledged that Romney crushed the opposition in the last debate -- in fact in all the debates so far.  That's because he has facts and data at his fingertips, along with a bottomless willingness to twist them in support of current GOP nostrums. The others don't call him on his distortions, because they support the same policies he's advocating -- no new taxes, no bailouts, repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, gut regulations.  And they don't call him out when he creates false contrasts between his own past actions and Obama's, because doing so would imply that there's some virtue in Obama's policies.

The upshot is that Romney is free to propose impossible unions of his past pragmatism -- compromising with Massachusetts Democrats, supporting the TARP bailouts, designing subsidized health insurance exchanges -- with his current extremist positions. Here's how three of those unions played out in the last debate.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Will debased politics hit the databases?

Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel today delves into the coopetition between the GOP fundraising empires of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.  When the account turned to rival databases, I suffered a free association so sharp it was almost comic, as if the keyword word flashed in front of my eyeballs. Here was the trigger:
Earlier this year, operatives from both camps had conversations with the Republican National Committee about accessing its mega database of voter information, which is both a powerful organizing tool and a valuable asset used as collateral to secure bank loans and lines of credit.

“This is about getting a hold of the most valuable asset that the RNC has,” said former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who asserted Rove’s allies have for years wanted to “get their hands on this list so bad they can taste it.”

The word was Stuxnet.  And no, I don't expect the Koch and Rove empires to sabotage each others' databases.  What I can easily imagine is Rove or other GOP operatives corrupting or stealing Democrats' data. It's so in keeping with the m.o. of the aging College Republicans who have directed GOP campaigns for a generation.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Better Angels yield new angles

I am very much looking forward to reading Steven Pinker's  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, after reading a precis by Pinker and a review by Peter Singer. As a collector of evidence that human life and human beings are getting better, I am receptive to the copious evidence that Pinker has gathered to demonstrate that violence has diminished dramatically over the course of human history -- in the family, in the state, between states, and, perhaps now finally, within states.

Pinker's demonstration that human beings have gradually taught themselves to be more in control of their violent instincts, more amenable to reason, and more empathic seems to me to sync up nicely with Robert Wright's theory that God has evolved with human society--that as society grows more humane, so do concepts of God (this too I'm familiar with through the writer's shorter representations of his recent book, The Evolution of God).

Personally, though, I would prefer not to drag the God of Ages along on our pilgrim's progress.  Notwithstanding frequent relapses such as the two world wars of the twentieth century, it looks to me as though Pinker shows moral advances in human history to be as verifiable as technological advance. For that reason, I am impatient with the concept of scripture, the investiture of any inherited text or law with authority that can't be superseded , after due process, by a text or law embodying the best wisdom of those living now. Less legalistically: if a thinker is groping toward new moral or ethical insight, why shackle that insight to an interpretation of God's law as embodied in ancient texts? Can we not acknowledge by now that gods are silent, except perhaps through our own intuition, and that that intuition is continually improving?

Saturday, October 08, 2011

That sixties suburban sweet spot, revisited

My wife grew up on a leafy cul-de-sac in West Seneca, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. Her house, like I think most of the houses on the street, was a comfortable split-level (2500 sq feet, built 1954) with a good-sized yard.

Yesterday, at a family brunch, my wife started asking her fifty-something siblings what the parents of various friends on the block did for a living. Her brother had almost all the answers; her dad filled in a few more this morning. I am changing the names but perserving the ethnicities.

Mr. Grimm was a bricklayer. Mr. Wojick was a foreman at the Ford plant. Mr. Majewski worked in a bronze casting factory, as did one other neighbor. Mr. Cobb worked in product safety at Fisher-Price.  Mr. Frank was a stockbroker. Tombari sold insurance. Panetta was a meat wholesaler.  White was a concrete contractor working mainly on bridges. Carlotti was a dentist (and my father-in-law, an oral surgeon). The Murphys, husband and wife, were teachers, and so were the Stones. Burger was a roofer.

That is a pretty wide range of livelihoods, isn't it? Perhaps it's not so different today. The price of comparable homes in West Seneca today is $179k; metro Buffalo skipped both housing boom and housing bust. There are fewer factory workers, natch.  And I suspect that the dentists and stockbrokers probably live elsewhere. The area has had its share of McMansion building, and you can get a castle in the outer burbs for under $350k. 

Friday, October 07, 2011

Seeing beyond the trough we're in

Kevin Drum today takes on a meme gathering steam: that innovation has stalled, and we're in a period of relative technological stagnation. In particular, addressing the question of whether inventions in the last 50 years have been less transformative than those in the previous 50-odd, he argues:
Most of the best known inventions of the early 20th century were actually offshoots of two really big inventions: electrification and the internal combustion engine. By contrast, the late 20th century had one really big invention: digital computers. Obviously two is more than one, but still, looked at that way, the difference between the two periods becomes a bit more modest. The difference between the offshoots of those big inventions is probably more modest than we think too. Just as we once made better and better use of electrification, we're now making better and better use of digital computing. And to call all these computing-inspired inventions mere "improvements" is like calling TV a mere improvement of radio. These are bigger deals than we often think. We have computers themselves, of course, plus smartphones, the internet, CAT scans, vastly improved supply chain management, fast gene sequencing, GPS, Lasik surgery, e-readers, ATMs and debit cards, video games, and much more.
Drum is responding in large part to Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation. I'd like to second his skepticism.  In fact, some months ago I posed five questions for Cowen, e.g.:

Thursday, October 06, 2011

When MoDo drops the doo-doo...

When Maureen Dowd gathers every cliche that's been circulating about a public figure and assembles them in one spitball, it's a sign that a national caricature has hardened into granite.   This week, that spells bad news for President Obama, set off as a foil to Chris Christie:
But now his asceticism seems more like a reflection of his cherished membership in the technocratic priesthood — and an unnerving mirror of our starving economy. He’s an egghead who surrounds himself with eggheads, even when they have helped wreck the economy he’s trying to save....

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

"Tell the truth, now, Nicolle..."

I wish I could find it. Circa 1998, Saturday Night Live ran a mock-interview between Monica Lewinsky and I think Barbara Walters (a.k.a. WaWa), in which the question is posed: "Tell the truth, now, Monica, did you give the President a hummer?" Answer: "No, Barbara." Almost immediately after, Monica whips out and displays her new book, How to Give the President a Hummer.

That's what came to mind as I glanced at a Time interview (by Claire Suddath) with former Bush communications director and McCain campaign adviser Nicolle Wallace focused on her new novel, It's Classified. Main character: Vice Presidential candidate Tara. Premise, according to Wallace:

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Better late than never? Obama ramps up the attack

Well, the transition is complete. Hope it ain't too late.

A few weeks ago, Democrats waited desperately for Obama to start calling out Republicans in Congress, instead of just "Congress" or "Washington," for blocking action on jobs and deficit -- or, back, then, on deficit and jobs. And the change did come, in the runup to the jobs bill rollout. On September 3, in the weekly address, it was the same old pablum: Congress failed to pass a clean extension of the transportation bill. On Labor Day, he named them that (till then) must not be named (when criticizing):
But we’re not going to wait for them.  (Applause.)  We’re going to see if we’ve got some straight shooters in Congress.  We’re going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party.  (Applause.)  We’ll give them a plan, and then we’ll say, do you want to create jobs?  Then put our construction workers back to work rebuilding America.  (Applause.)  Do you want to help our companies succeed?  Open up new markets for them to sell their products.  You want -- you say you’re the party of tax cuts?  Well then, prove you’ll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans.  (Applause.)  Show us what you got.  (Applause.)
Since that moment, week by week, day by day, the attacks have grown more focused, more direct, more confrontational, more sustained.

September 8, when he rolled out his jobs bill, he tweaked a Republican article of faith without naming names:

Monday, October 03, 2011

Republicans for red tape

Who says Republicans are always hostile to strict regulation? 

The New York Times' front-page review of efforts by Republican-controlled state governments to prevent "voter fraud" -- i.e., voting by people who in the good old days would have failed to meet property qualifications -- concludes with a snapshot of a law apparently designed to make all voting rights groups fear that they will share ACORN's fate:

In Florida, a new law imposing restrictions on voter registration drives has led the state’s League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that had registered voters for 72 years, to call a moratorium on new registration drives in the state, citing the penalties that groups can face under the law.

Independent groups that register voters — like the league — face fines of $50 to $1,000 per applicant if they fail to turn in the applications to elections officials in a timely manner.

“It’s too cumbersome,” said Deirdre Macnab, the league’s president. “There is too much red tape and regulation.”

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Food for thought, and occasional light rations, in Richard Florida's The Great Reset

Credit Richard Florida putting forward a satisfying -- and I think mainly sound -- conceptual framework for understanding our current economic woes in The Great Reset: How the Post-Crash Economy Will Change the Way We Live and Work.  Florida argues that major economic slumps correspond with major economic 'resets', in which new ways of generating wealth demand -- and ultimately shape -- new organizations of community, workspace and living space -- and new means of transportation that tie the new "spatial fix."  From this perspective, to extrapolate a point that Florida leaves implicit, the bubbles that precede major economic contractions are more symptom than cause -- a kind of giddy last fling at priming the legacy infrastructure that's reached a kind of natural limit.

According to Florida, the two main examples of "reset" in U.S. history are 1)  the urbanization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which developed during and followed the "long depression" of 1873-1896; and 2) suburbanization, for which the way was "literally paved" by the New Deal and postwar infrastructure investments. Florida argues that we are in a third reset now -- an accelerating shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, demanding an "infrastructure fix" centered largely on high-speed rail tying together "megaregions" - clusters of large cities that strengthen their economic links and so pool resources.