Wednesday, November 30, 2011

the details matter

A pretty good job by DougJ at Balloon Juice articulating why I've unconsciously purged my RSS of most of its political writers and have stopped reading newspaper editorials:
Establishment media types are innumerate. I doubt that more than a quarter could estimate the US GDP within 35%. The details of pro-Social Security versus anti-Social security arguments, or austerity versus expansionary arguments, are completely lost on them. (It’s possible that I am not as conversant with these arguments as I should be myself, though I think I am reasonably conversant, to be honest with you.)

So they gravitate towards whichever position is more in line with some fuzzier, more qualitative world view; that world view is often that the American middle-class is spoiled and needs tough love. They don’t want to starve the middle-class, they feel they owe it to them. This is about more than making money. I doubt Ruth Marcus or Joe Klein would lose their jobs or suffer a pay cut if they stopped fluffing Paul Ryan. I also think that they genuinely believe that the American middle-class needs to suffer. I am not attributing any malice to anyone here, quite the opposite.

It’s striking that so many economists—even conservative ones like Greg Mankiw and Martin Feldstein—supported the stimulus, albeit with caveats about how it wasn’t perfect and so on, while non-economist pundits were generally critical of it. This happened because economists were more likely to consider the quantitative details while punditubbies (EDIT: h/t) thought gubmint should tighten its belt when Real Murkins do.

I also don’t think establishment media types supported the Iraq War because they wanted to see Iraqis and American soldiers die (with some exceptions, Tom Friedman has explicitly stated that he wanted to tell Iraqi civilians to “suck on this”). They didn’t understand the complexities of a potential war, so they went with what felt good—spreading freedom, keeping America safe, showing the Muslim world some tough love, etc. In some cases, crass careerist or circus dog motivations came into play I am sure, but I bet some of these people honestly thought it was “the right thing to do”.

Most of the people we've put in charge of political discourse don't actually know very much at all about policy. Perhaps that's a trite point. What's more interesting is this link between ignorance of (or maybe lack of desire to discuss) the details of policy, no matter how important to the topic at hand, and the switching of the conversation instead to airy-fairy issues of narrative and morality and horse races. I imagine that mirrors the way most people talk about things they don't know a thing about.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


God bless NPR and the internet, because without them I would never have heard any of this: BettySoo.

Congressional pay

Interesting: Matt Glassman compares Congress' salaries to inflation and finds that, contrary to popular opinion, after all the peaks and valleys Congress is barely paying itself more now than it was in 1913.

To the extent that congressional pay is a problem, it may actually be that it's too low. Paying congressional representatives inadequately opens the door to corruption and locks out the non-wealthy.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

on the other hand

It makes for great comedy. Nancy Pelosi, responding to Rick Perry's debate challenge:
He did ask if I could debate here in Washington on Monday — it is my understanding that such a letter has come in. Monday, I’m going to be in Portland in the morning, visiting some of our labs in California in the afternoon, that’s two … I can’t remember what the third thing is.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

the War on the War on Poverty

Michele Bachmann in last night's debate, echoing a common refrain among Republicans:
The "Great Society" has not worked and it's put us into the modern welfare state. If you look at China, they don't have food stamps. If you look at China, they're in a very different situation. They save for their own retirement security…They don't have the modern welfare state and China's growing. And so what I would do is look at the programs that LBJ gave us with the Great Society and they'd be gone.

This rubs me particularly raw since my favorite president happens to be Lyndon Baines Johnson, so I'd like to answer. Putting aside for a moment Bachmann's insinuation that we should be less socialist and more capitalist, ya know, like the People's Republic of China, let's talk about Bachmann's promise to eliminate the Great Society.

I'll start with the obvious and most politically relevant point: the capstone of the Great Society was the creation of Medicare, a program that is not only hugely popular among Bachmann's own constituents, but that she has personally promised to protect on numerous occasions. In fact, she ran against the Affordable Care Act specifically because it cut Medicare funding.

That the moderators would let her suggest eliminating the Great Society without making her answer to the abolition of Medicare is a major reason why I believe these debates are altogether pointless.

Now let's talk about the Great Society as a whole. Despite Bachmann's typically ignorant and cliche point that it "has not worked," the point of the Great Society was to lower the poverty rate. That's the standard by which we should gauge whether it "has not worked." Luckily, the federal government has been keeping tabs on the poverty rate for decades, including during the '60's. Anyone want to guess how the Great Society performed?
...from 1963 when Lyndon Johnson took office until 1970 as the impact of his Great Society programs were felt, the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century. Since then, the poverty rate has hovered at about the 13 percent level and sits at 13.3 percent today, still a disgraceful level in the context of the greatest economic boom in our history. But if the Great Society had not achieved that dramatic reduction in poverty, and the nation had not maintained it, 24 million more Americans would today be living below the poverty level.

That's right: Lyndon Johnson cut the poverty rate in half within a decade. That's a monumental, jaw-dropping achievement. If there were a contest for greatest presidential achievement of the 20th century, I would nominate this one. It was an expensive achievement as well, yes, but if you're going to propose gutting the Great Society to save money, you should have to contend with this fact.

It's still the social safety net, largely woven from the Great Society, that protects that vulnerable 10+ percent of Americans from destitution, by the way.

The difference between 28.6% of the American population and 17.8% is about 33 million people who would otherwise be under the poverty rate.

Thirty-three million people.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Obama: best in the world?

This is now the second or third person I've seen voice this sentiment. Just throwing it out there. Not sure if I believe it, and not sure we'll be able to say one way or another before the other shoe drops on this Italy/Greece fiasco.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Armistice Day

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

-Wilfred Owen

Today is Armistice Day.

Yes, yes, we changed it to Veterans' Day, but we shouldn't have. This should still be Armistice Day. Veterans' Day has become nothing more than an annual occasion for everyone to prove how patriotic they are. Have you ever actually thanked a veteran? Did you notice the look on their face? I've seen a lot of veterans have people shake their hands and thank them for their service, and the reaction I see in their eyes is almost never gratitude. I'm not a soldier, so I don't know what it is. It usually looks to me like it's a mixture of annoyance and being reminded of something painful (or nostalgia?). But hey, what do I know? I never served.

Let's face it: every day in the United States is Veterans' Day, such is the nationalistic fervor in this country. When was the last time you were at a sporting event, church service, or social function and someone didn't take a moment to thank veterans?

It's not that veterans don't deserve a day to be honored, of course, but there are lessons for us in Armistice Day. It's much than just thanking soldiers for their service (though it is that!). Armistice Day is not a celebration of war; it's a remembrance of it. It's a remembrance of the day the bloodiest war in the history of the world was called to a halt. No one was defeated, no grand cause was furthered and no nations conquered. After the deaths of millions, there was nothing gained and nothing settled, not even the war itself, and within 30 years there followed an even more horrific sequel.

Armistice Day is a day to remember how awful war is, how awful it is to kill soldiers and civilians, and that in itself makes it a more useful holiday for Americans than most. It's also, however, a reminder of how easy it is to go to war, how little cause our leaders really need to start demanding of our sons and daughters "the last full measure of devotion." It's a reminder of how difficult wars are to end, how wars have a way of expanding well beyond their intended goals and confines. And it's a reminder that things can always get worse.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

debates, cont.

Thinking about it again this morning, I'm not finished with the debate last night. I was thinking more about the question of what a "gaffe" is to me. A gaffe to me is watching a guy like Perry, who claims to be a conservative, breezily list off a bunch of executive departments he'd redline, just write off into oblivion. Uh, that's a little cavalier, don'tcha think, especially considering these departments contain things like the constitutionally necessary Census Bureau, and the National Nuclear Safety Administration, and the US Patent and Trademark Office, as Ezra Klein notes this morning? Sounds to me like we're talking about one of two proposals:

  1. you're going to defund major, necessary programs while laying off a bunch of people during a weak recovery in order to save a relatively paltry amount of money (didn't you just say that all of the budget is tied up in "entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and these other unfunded liabilities?").

  2. you're going to reshuffle the organization of agencies within the executive branch, moving everything in Education to another department, because... well, why? Who cares if the Census Bureau is in the Dept. of Commerce or the Dept. of State? What difference does it make whether or not the executive has a "Dept. of Education" if you're going to keep the agencies and bureaus within it? For that matter, the list of major issues facing the next president include the war in Afghanistan, chronic unemployment, slow economic growth, a collapse Eurozone, climate change, cartel violence on the border, illegal immigration, patent abuse, steeply climbing tuition rates, and high health care costs. What the f**k are you doing fiddlefarting around with the organization of the executive branch? How does that solve anything? Do you really not recognize that it would take an enormous amount of time and work to reorganize the bureaucracy of the executive, time that could be spent dealing the country's actual problems?

Or, for that matter, a gaffe to me is the Eurozone being on the brink of collapse, and every candidate dodging any question related to it. It must be nice, in a way, standing up on that podium and pretending to be president, but being able to dodge every difficult issue sent your way, just changing the subject to something you already have a canned answer for.

Of course, the one guy who doesn't get to dodge this question is the President of the United States. He needs to have an answer, or at least some first principles and a method to arrive at the answer. Our current president has had to answer a number of very difficult questions. Thinking back on the issues he's faced, and watching these guys all dodge the questions they're uncomfortable with, Sarah Palin style, and ramble on instead about how "a dollar should be a dollar" makes them all look like light-weights, clownish pretenders.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


We're going to be seeing a lot of this over the next few days at least, and maybe more depending on the Perry campaign's capacity for damage control. I would not be surprised if this proved to be the decisive stroke ending Perry's status as a legitimate contender.

And, in a way, that makes me sad.

I am unsurprisingly no fan of Rick Perry. I can't decide if a Perry presidency or a Cain one is the worst case scenario, but either case would be a child in the driver's seat. It would be a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Nevertheless, this "gaffe" says nothing. Rick Perry is on national TV, being asked a direct, specific question by the moderator while standing next a line of his adversaries. He was the frontrunner only a couple of weeks ago, and has been watching his numbers decline, perhaps beyond hope, only a scant few months before the first primaries. His other debate performances have been widely panned, and this is one of his last shots to turn his fortunes around before it's too late. It's the eleventh hour for all the candidates, but for Perry most of all.

It's hard to imagine the amount of pressure he's under in this clip, and it's no surprise that someone under that much pressure would lose their train of thought, and fail to recover in the ensuing moment of panic he must have experienced, as well as he did at hiding it.

The worst part of this episode for him is that a "brain fart" like this hurts a guy like Perry particularly hard. It fits the narrative that he's dim, that he doesn't really have a command of policy. Mitt Romney? Hilary Clinton? If they'd had such a moment, we might get a laugh out of it, but there'd be no "story" here because nobody disputes their intellect.

For all we know, they may have! We just don't remember because it wouldn't have been meaningful, just more noise.

As it happens, I believe the larger narrative about Perry. He is dim by presidential standards. He doesn't have a command of policy. This moment, however, is not proof of that, and it's sad that this is what people will point to, rather than, say, Perry blithely stating that he'd dismantle a number of federal departments that have functions even conservatives would find important if they were better informed.

It was no problem when he was proud of having executed innocent people. His birther-curious moments haven't hampered him in the slightest. His asinine, baldly plutocratic tax plan seems not to have sent much heat his way. Losing his train of thought, however, well that's a killer in the era of politics as infotainment.

UPDATE: You want a gaffe? Here's one from tonight's debate: Rick Perry ends one of his answers that stating emphatically, "If you are too big to fail, you are too big." Now THAT, my friends, is interesting. I'm pretty sure I've heard that somewhere.

This whole speech from Bernie Sanders, the only actual, self-identified socialist in the United States Senate, in 2008 is a doozy, but the important part starts around 2:50:
If a company is too big to fail, it's too big to exist.

Think I'm just playing gotcha with a random quote from someone on the opposite side? Well, he's even submitted a bill to Congress under the same name.

So if Perry are Sanders are expressing the same sentiment, how are they really different? Perry would say that Sanders wants massive government intervention while he'd rather just watch them fail. The issue of Perry's veiled support of TARP at the time notwithstanding, there was a consensus among economists that allowing the banks to fail would have plunged us into depression. Was his advice really to just bet with a losing hand and hope everything works out for the best?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


The primer. Kevin Drum lays out, in simple and relatively unbiased terms, what's going on with Greece and what the stakes are.