Saturday, June 30, 2012

Introducing Andreas Schou

I've got a lot of fun stuff going on for the first three weeks of July -- a big meetup with old friends in New York, travels around the UK, and a philosophy conference and lecture at Oxford. This will keep me from blogging as much as I'd like to, and you folks need to be entertained. So I've arranged to have Andreas Schou, who knows all kinds of exciting stuff about all kinds of exciting things, fill in for me for the next three weeks. Welcome, Andreas!

Happy Obamacare Thoughts

Due to travel and laptop repair, I wasn't on the blog for the ACA's victory in the Supreme Court. Thanks to Nick for filling the gap here -- I'm liking the Verilli meme.  Some thoughts on the good news.

-I'm loving this picture, from after the decision was announced. If health care reform has a mother, it's Nancy Pelosi, and she deserves to smile every millimeter of that smile.

-There was some talk before the decision about how the defeat of the ACA would lead to single-payer. Maybe, eventually. But maybe not. We've needed universal health care for decades, and we haven't got it. Our political system doesn't always deliver the solutions the country needs. There's also an outcome where Republican filibusters and our veto-point-laden system keep anything useful from passing, health care costs destroy the American economy, and we end up in some kind of weird futuristic dystopia.

-That it was Roberts and not Kennedy who provided the deciding vote bodes well for the future. Kennedy is 75 years old and might leave the bench as early as the next presidential term. We're probably stuck with the 57-year-old Roberts for a while, so it's good to see him being reasonable.

 -Via Scott Lemieux, Paul Campos discusses the evidence that Roberts joined up with the good guys late in the game. That's why the Ginsburg opinion is referred to by the anti-ACA side as "the dissent" rather than a concurrence with the majority. What's weird about this is that Roberts somehow managed to switch to the pro-ACA side and write the majority opinion really fast. If I'm getting this right, he got an opinion out so quickly that the other side didn't have time to correct their opinion and stop calling Ginsburg's opinion the dissent. I guess it's also possible that the conservatives left it in intentionally, to let everybody know what Roberts did.

-The indispensable Scott Lemieux has nice quotes from the Ginsburg concurrence.

-I like how it's being called "Obamacare" by mainstream outlets. I supported the bill and I'm optimistic that it'll turn out well. Then we'll have the name of a Democratic president attached to a good policy. I imagine that it'd be nice for Democrats if we could've gotten Medicare and Social Security to be called LBJcare and FDRdollars or something, so everybody knows who made them.

-Thanks to John Roberts, I can be proud of having volunteered for John Edwards.

-This site still works!

The Incredible Luck of Donald Verrilli

I asked my twitter followers to start posting Donald Verrilli image macros on Thursday, in the spirit of something along the lines of Good Guy Greg. Contributors seem to have hit upon a top line that involves doing something clumsy or stupid, only to have said clumsiness or stupidity result in misfortune good fortune.

I think my favorite three are this one, "scratches up CD", "chokes on a glass of water", and "cuts the wrong wire". And many thanks to my wife, Seth D. Michaels, and Brad Delong for helping prod this meme along.

You can peruse the full list of Donald Verrilli memes on memegenerator and even contribute one yourself!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday Obama Caption Contest and Kitsch Cover

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Solicitor General Donald Verrilli
in the Oval Office, after learning of the Supreme Court's ruling on the
“Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” June 28, 2012.
Leave your alternative caption of this photo in the comments.

Today's kitsch cover comes from Sarah Jarosz, covering the Decembrists' "Shankill Butchers"

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mapping the Obama-Romney Presidential Race: June 2012 Edition

We're another month along in the Presidential Race since the last update, so it's probably about time to take stock of the current situation.

The basic shape of the map is that Barack Obama has so far been unable to replicate his 2008 strength in the Upper Midwest. Obama was +7 against McCain nationally, but +9 in Iowa, +14 in Wisconsin, and +17 in Michigan. Today, with nationwide polls in close to a dead heat, Obama is behind in Iowa, only slightly ahead in Wisconsin, and either slightly ahead or tied in Michigan. This weakness hilights the need to compete heavily in the Southwest—locking up Nevada, pushing Colorado into the "lean" camp, possibly forcing Arizona to become a competitive state—in order to expand the map.

The most recent Horse's Ass poll analysis continues to project Obama as a runaway favorite in the electoral college. Even if you exclude the dubious South Carolina results (the polling there is incredibly stale), the balance of polling continues to favor Obama, due to small but persistent leads in Virgina, Nevada, and Florida.

The Real Filburn

The popular story of Wickard v. Filburn, the Supreme Court case which famously ruled that Congress's power to regulate Commerce included the ability to prohibit the private harvest of wheat for private consumption, has been in the news due to the echoes of the case that many see in the argument over Health Care Reform. But the actual facts of the case are somewhat obscured in the common retelling of the story [emphasis added]:
The appellee for many years past has owned and operated a small farm in Montgomery County, Ohio, maintaining a herd of dairy cattle, selling milk, raising poultry, and selling poultry and eggs. It has been his practice to raise a small acreage of winter wheat, sown in the Fall and harvested in the following July; to sell a portion of the crop; to feed part to poultry and livestock on the farm, some of which is sold; to use some in making flour for home consumption, and to keep the rest for the following seeding. The intended disposition of the crop here involved has not been expressly stated.
Roscoe Filburn wasn't some sort of yeoman farmer milling his own flour from his own wheat. His farm was a businesses, part of which involved selling chickens and eggs, and the wheat he grew had a direct impact on his ability to sell chickens and eggs. Now, you can argue with this wisdom of this sort of scheme, but if it's within the power of Congress to establish wheat quotas, it's undoubtedly within the power of Congress to count wheat that will quite clearly impact the stream of commerce against that quota.

There's no exact parallel to Health Care Reform in Wickard. An individual who refuses to buy health insurance is, at that moment, not an active participant in the market for health insurance or health service. But it's well within Congress power to recognize that while at that moment they are not buying health services, it is inevitable, or close enough to inevitable, that they will at some point be participants in that market.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A 4-Team Football Playoff Is Good!

It's good that that the presidents of major football universities have gotten together and adopted a 4-team playoff. It's the option I wanted!

Some people want more teams in a playoff, but 4 is enough. With a 2-team championship game, it's possible that the #3 team might be almost as good as the #2 over the regular season, and then crush the #4 team in a bowl game while the #2 beats the #1 in a close but poorly played contest.  This leads to the legitimate complaint that the #3 team was denied a championship by factors totally out of their control.  This would get especially bad if the #3 team is unbeaten.

The 4-team playoff solves this problem. Even if the #4 and #5 teams are really close in quality over the regular season, the #4 will have to beat the #1 and then beat either the #2 or the #3. After two season-ending victories against top opponents, the case for the superiority of the #4 team over the #5 team should be clear.

Of course, there will still be complaints about who was ranked #4 versus #5 and got a chance in the playoffs.  But any system is going to have problems with that. In NCAA basketball, there are 64 teams in the playoffs, and people complain about not getting in if their team was on the margins. The point is that after everything is done, you get a much clearer answer as to which team did the best on the field over the course of the entire season.

Meanwhile, all the little bowls continue to exist on the side (as far as I know). They're fun and there's no reason to get rid of them. 

In other college-president-related news, Teresa Sullivan has been reinstated as President of the University of Virginia. Awesome!  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

John Allison Running Cato. Is The Ayn Rand Guy Better Than The Kochs?

Dave Weigel explains how the Koch brothers' settlement with Cato played out.  Ed Crane, who's been Cato's president for the last 35 years, would step down. The Koch brothers wouldn't dominate the think tank by virtue of their controlling the most shares -- that shareholder structure would end.  Cato's new president would be...former BB&T Chief Executive John Allison.

This isn't the first I'd heard of him. He's infamous for offering schools large amounts of money to put Ayn Rand books on the philosophy curriculum. Robert Nozick, Friedrich von Hayek, and Adam Smith would all fit nicely into a course at the intersection of business ethics and political philosophy, and I agree with some of their insights. If I teach such a course sometime, I'm likely to put them on the reading list. But philosophers find Rand to be more a writer of bad novels than a source of well-reasoned arguments, which is why she only appears on the curriculum if Allison is buying the curriculum at an otherwise poorly funded university.

There's plenty of issues on which I agree with a generally libertarian political philosophy. I think the Wars On Terror And Drugs have gone out of control and become self-destructive. Cato has been on the right side of those issues, and wants to reduce defense spending, which I like. Matt Yglesias has brought me around to a libertarian position on lots of local laws including height restrictions on buildings, mandatory parking minimums, and other regulations that impede the development of affordable housing and energy-efficient transportation infrastructure in urban areas. I like a lot of things that the Institute for Justice does. Like any good liberal, I'm a strong supporter of a women's right to choose what purposes her uterus is put to and a gay man's right to choose what he does with various parts of himself in a consensual relationship.  (Unfortunately Cato tends to underestimate the significance of these, especially abortion.) I enjoy talking with my libertarian colleague Kyle Swan at NUS, who has a keen eye for situations where government policy is wasteful or can be manipulated by rich people and corporations to generate socially suboptimal outcomes. I'd welcome stronger libertarian voices on these and other parts of their political philosophy which don't get enough play in political discourse.

But I don't see that, or anything like it, as what we're getting. The Kochs wanted Cato to be a narrowly partisan organization.  I'm worried that Allison doesn't see Cato as more than an institution for the promotion of economic royalism -- justifying the victories of the biggest winners. There's a lot more to libertarianism than that, and lots of libertarian insights aren't congenial to an economic royalist's point of view. Maybe he'll surprise me, but his past inability to move even from crude and unsophisticated defenses of capitalism to sophisticated ones doesn't bode well. And I don't have any indication that he's interested in much else.

It'd be neat to have a genuine libertarian think tank. I don't expect that we will.

Monday, June 25, 2012

I Miss Harriet Miers

I look back wistfully on the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination.  Sure, she was unqualified and knew way too little about constitutional law to be a Supreme Court nominee.  But I'd be happier to have her on the Supreme Court nowadays than Alito, who was nominated after she withdrew.

If you're looking at the Court as a technocratic body all of whose members are trying to discover the right answers to complex and difficult questions, she's not the person you want.  But if you're seeing it as a ideological body whose members are simply voting for their preferred policies, you'd rather have an unpredictable person who votes arbitrarily without sound legal reasoning rather than a committed advocate of terrible views.  On health care reform, we're all assuming that Alito will push for as destructive a result as anybody.  With Miers, who knows?  I'd rather have a Magic 8-ball on the bench than someone committed to getting things wrong.

Failing to rush her to confirmation may have been one of the biggest mistakes Democrats made in Bush's second term.  (That's actually not saying a whole lot; things generally went well in the Pelosi / Reid era.  The Gephardt / Daschle era, with the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War, was when the real horrors of the Bush years made their way through Congress.)  It's not Reid's fault -- he was instrumental in getting her nominated in the first place.  Mostly I'd blame the old senior Democratic Senators around him.  They evaluated her on the basis of her legal competence with an eye to finding flaws in a Republican nominee, rather than seeing her as a chance to put randomness on the court when the only other option was conservative extremism.

Generally I like it when Democrats are partisan, because I think Democrats are right and Republicans are wrong on many issues.  But the interesting thing about this case was the importance of avoiding short-term partisanship (as well as some kind of technocratic fantasy of how the Supreme Court works) to win a long-term ideological war.  Getting caught up in shooting down a GOP Supreme Court nominee was the wrong move.  Recognizing that Bush had poorly served conservative ideology, and supporting his error so that it'd be written in stone, was the right move.

The Valley Has Its (Unmeritocratic) Elites Too

Matt Yglesias is right that the Valley isn't quite as meritocratic as Tim Lee thinks it is, but he missed the obvious point in both his examples. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are both dropouts from UMass-Cambridge. What's more, Gates' father, Bill Gates Jr., was a very prominent lawyer in the Seattle area before Microsoft ever did very much. Both men almost certainly relied on social connections granted to them by their membership in the intellectual/academic elite to get their businesses of the ground. Indeed, the response to Michael Arrington's troll-bait piece on race in startups points out just how serious the problems of faux meritocracy can be in technology.

One could argue that the tech sector is more meritocratic than finance, politics, or journalism, but that's an extremely low bar.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Palin Was A Dumb Gamble, Not A Smart Gamble

Alex Koppelman argues that nominating Sarah Palin kind of made sense, because McCain needed to roll the dice with the economy going down and all:
By the summer of 2008, McCain could see he’d been dealt a bad hand. He couldn’t escape George W. Bush’s unpopularity, and he knew that the rapidly worsening economy would be blamed on Bush, and, by extension, on his fellow Republicans. He was almost certain to lose. At that point, he had a couple options: one was to play it safe, try to keep things close, prevent a landslide. By doing that, he could avoid being the next Walter Mondale—but he couldn’t win. Or he could take a risk, pick someone like Palin who would shake up the campaign. Sure, she might hurt him, but he was going to lose anyway. In exchange, he got a chance at victory—a small chance, maybe, but that’s better than no chance at all.
High-risk, high-reward strategies do make sense when you're behind. I don't think the economic data backs up Koppelman's story, though.  Here's the S&P 500 and NASDAQ throughout 2008.  Things weren't going great, but they weren't going too badly either when McCain gave Palin the nomination on August 27.  It's in September that the market started to slide, and October when it really crashed. Unless McCain was a lot smarter than most investors, he didn't see the bad news coming.

The polling doesn't really help McCain look smart either.  Polls generally had Obama leading by 1-4 points in the days leading up to the Palin nomination.  One or two had McCain ahead, and the GOP convention was just around the corner.  McCain was roughly in the situation Romney is now -- a little behind, but not much.  So it's hard to see Palin as anything but an unnecessary risk.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Did PR Firm VP John Ullyot Write Dragas' June 21 Statement?

This, from cvillenewscom on twitter, is really something.  When you look at the "General Info" box of University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas' June 21 statement explaining the dismissal of popular President Teresa Sullivan, the "author" field doesn't have Dragas' name on it.  Instead, it has "John Ullyot".  You can download the file here, from the Richmond, VA Times-Dispatch and see for yourself.  (On a PC, it'll probably be called "Properties").  Here it is as I saw it:

So who's John Ullyot?  A Senior Vice President for Media Relations and Issues Management at PR firm Hill & Knowlton, which has in the past taken on clients including the tobacco industry and the Church of Scientology.  He's also gone on Fox News and CNN as a "Republican Strategist".  He doesn't appear to have any especially strong connection to the University of Virginia community, having done his undergrad degree at Harvard and then gone to the Marine Corps.  He was a high-level staffer for Virginia Republican Senator John Warner, though.

So what just happened here?  It looks like Helen Dragas' statement justifying Sullivan's firing, and explaining how it fit into a larger vision for the University, was actually put together by an external PR firm that's happy to take on all kinds of sinister clients.  Those who were worried about a takeover by outside forces that don't understand or care about how to build a good University will find their suspicions confirmed.

How Inflation Can Create Jobs

I'm a little surprised to see Matt agree with the dreaded "hard money types" that inflation can't create jobs, because there's a pretty straightforward way in which it can.

Suppose you're a business or bank sitting on a big pile of cash and not doing anything that could create jobs, like hiring people or making loans to someone who wants to hire people. If inflation shows up and you see that the real value of your cash is going to decay if you just sit on it, you'll have an incentive to do something with that cash that will get you a non-negative real rate of return. And if you see that all your cash-rich buddies are in the same situation, you'll want to quickly invest the money in something complementary to what they're doing. If other people are putting their money into restaurants, you want to hire people who make forks, or lend money to someone who does. Inflation gets people to do productive things with cash instead of sitting on it, and that results in jobs.

If you haven't read "Japan Replaces Yen With Beef", I recommend it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Universities Function Well; Wall Street Functions Badly

I liked Matt Yglesias' post a week ago about the success of American higher education, measured in terms of the eagerness of foreign students to get degrees in America and the willingness of their wealthy parents to pay full price.  It's something that I'm aware of, working at a university overseas -- an American university degree is an extremely valuable and highly regarded credential.

Eleven days ago, the University of Virginia Board of Visitors (many with ties to Wall Street, as Siva Vaidhyanathan reports, led by hedge fund billionaire and Goldman Sachs partner Peter Kiernan) decided to fire President Teresa Sullivan.  While they didn't have a good reason for their decision, they had lots of corporate buzzwords.  Lots has been written on this, but Kieran Healy's satire is about as good as it gets.  I read Sullivan's strategy memo, written about a month before she was fired, and thinking, "yeah, this is the sort of sensible person I'd be happy to have as my university president."  And when I read Siva's article, I thought "these people on the Board of Visitors are pretty good at talking in a way that makes a certain segment of rich people think they know what they're doing, but that's about it."  

Many people have decried the corporate mentality of the Board of Visitors as a bad way to run a university.  I don't know that it's a good way to run anything.  Universities are well-functioning pieces of the American economy that produce enormous amounts of carefully collected research and attract students from around the world.  The financial sector is a poorly functioning piece of the economy that absorbs enormous amounts of society's resources and periodically generates financial crises.  Lots of people are in awe of Wall Street because sometimes people there use a combination of luck and skill in exploiting principal / agent problems to become billionaires, but I don't take that as a sign that it's playing a useful role in society.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Klan Signs On Highways Are Not A Good Idea

People are arguing about whether the Ku Klux Klan should be allowed to adopt a highway.  There's a tendency to see issues like this in terms of discrimination -- can the government discriminate against discriminatory (and in this case actively racist) groups?

But I don't know if that's exactly the issue here.  One thing that I think needs to be said against Klan highway adoption is that you don't want black people to be intimidated into avoiding the highway.  Given the history of the Klan, black people who see the sign might be reasonably afraid that something bad might happen to them if they're driving alone there at night.  You don't want your public infrastructure to have signs on it that suggest violent threats against some ethnic groups.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Beck Vs. Glee

Glenn Beck emerges from the wilderness with a new mission: to destroy Glee!  By coming up with a conservative alternative to it!  

This is completely Oniontastic.  Of all the random things he could've picked out to attack, he picked Glee?  I guess I'm happy about this, as I never thought of Glee as a particularly significant left-wing asset.  I saw an episode or two and found it mildly amusing but insubstantial.  And I don't know how a conservative anti-Glee will look like anything but a dystopia.  At any rate, it's better to have Glenn Beck incompetently pursuing absurd goals than trying to do anything significant.

Homeownership* And Everything In Singapore

Matt Yglesias puts up a chart which displays Singapore's nearly 90% homeownership rate.  As he's aware, and as on almost every issue, Singapore is doing something unusual that makes it hard to compare with other places.

A large majority of Singaporeans live in government-owned apartment buildings (they're called HDBs, for "Housing Development Board", the government body that builds and leases the apartments).  Citizens generally have 99-year-leases to the apartments, with title to the land held by the government.  Very little land in Singapore is actually privately owned in the sense we're familar with in the USA.  So there's a very strict definition of ownership on which you'd say Singapore has incredibly low homeownership.  But the government is likely to simply extend the leases to their holders when the 99 years are up, unless something really weird happens.  So calling the 99-year leasing "homeownership" is entirely reasonable.  

The government uses its ability to lease out apartments to accomplish various social goals.  They lease out the apartments at prices below what the market will bear, so there's basically no homelessness.  They make sure that different ethnic groups are integrated into the same housing developments, because they see ghettoized separate populations as generating a danger of poor social cohesion and possibly rioting.  They lease the apartments earlier to you if you have a kid, to encourage people to have kids.  (Otherwise you have to wait until 35.  This was very annoying for my 30-year-old single colleague, who was living with his parents for a while.)

In general, Singapore is caught up in a virtuous cycle of competent government policy.  The government starts out owning a whole lot of land.  They make smart policy decisions, so people want to live there and the value of real estate goes up.  Now, having a valuable resource (land, and the gigantic towers of apartments they build on it), the government can distribute that resource at below-market rates in ways that meet various social goals.  So people want to live there and the value of real estate goes up more, putting the government in an even better position.

[Update] Hello people sent here by Matt on Twitter!  There's a wikipedia page on housing in Singapore if you want to learn more.  

A Public Option Without Health Care Reform?

Health care reform passed without the public option.  If the Supreme Court strikes it down, I wonder if we can get the public option without broader health care reform.

The public option could just be its own thing.  Medicare is a big popular insurance program that serves the elderly and is paid for and operated by the government.  Companies seeking to buy health insurance for their workers could be offered the opportunity to get in on Medicare, for a fee, as an alternative to Aetna or Blue Cross or whatever.  Obviously, this wouldn't have all the benefits of comprehensive health care reform (universal coverage, for example), and the public option does more good stuff within that framework.  But it's at least a good simple thing we might be able to pass at some point, even if for some reason we can't get a comprehensive bill.

It'd at least do some work in terms of cost control.  Getting more people into Medicare would make the program more able to use monopsony power in bargaining down costs.  And making the program larger would set up the sort of situation where it's in someone's interest to do comparative effectiveness research.

A standalone public option was actually suggested in 2009 by Blue Dog Mike Ross, which surprised a lot of people because it was a much more liberal idea than anyone was expecting from him.  I don't want to fall into the trap of "This right-wing guy supported this idea, so we'll get right-wing support if we try to pass it!"  That hasn't worked very well.  But the proposal at least is on the map.

Jonathan Bernstein was wondering why there's so little to-do about the public option now after people cared about it so much -- why people aren't pressing Senate primary candidates about it, for example.  All I can think of is despair about passing things with the structure of Congress as it is, and uncertainty over whether health care reform will survive the Supreme Court decision.  But those aren't good reasons.  Eventually (perhaps after Merkley and Udall do things to restrict filibusters) we'll get the ability to pass things, and we should plan for then.  And as far as I can tell, it can stand on its own without a comprehensive system.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Pelosi Does Things

Nancy Pelosi is confidently predicting that the Supreme Court will uphold health care reform by a 6-3 margin.  I and many other people aren't so confident.  But this is right thing for her to say: “I think we are ironclad on the constitutionality of the bill. We believe in the Constitution. We believe in judicial review."  Here's Pelosi's argument:  Health care reform is constitutional.  The Supreme Court gets things right.  So the Supreme Court will declare it constitutional.

Obviously, everyone and their cats are nervous about whether the Supreme Court gets things right, or whether 4.7 of the 9 justices just do what Rush Limbaugh says.  Dahlia Lithwick and Scott Lemieux would be on shaky ground in making Pelosi's argument, because they're trying to correctly predict what will happen.  Pelosi isn't really trying to do that.  There's really nothing gained by being a correct predictor here.  What she needs to do is use her time in front of the microphone to assert utter confidence in the constitutionality of health care reform.  All the better to respond with fury if the court decides otherwise.  She was betrayed by an American institution that she did her best to believe in.

You score pundits on whether they say the right things.  You score politicians on whether they do the right things.  The responsibilities of talk are different from the responsibilities of action.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

How The Vegans Will Win

Mark Bittman extols the virtues of the fake chicken, actually made from vegetable products, that he found indistinguishable from the real thing.  As technology progresses in this field, I'm sure we'll get more and more excellent meat substitutes, some of which will be better than real meat, or at least the real meat that people usually eat.  If they can make a good veggie ribeye or filet mignon, why bother buying real versions of the worse cuts?  We're not there yet, but there's no reason to think that with a few decades of scientific progress we won't be.  I don't see reason why the same process can't go forward with a large range of animal-based products, including dairy and egg.

When all of this goes large-scale, we can look forward to veggie meat being cheaper than real meat.  Feeding all the veggie products to an animal and then slaughtering the animal is a highly inefficient way to make food.  You have to put in 10 or so pounds of vegetable matter to make 1 pound of edible meat, though the numbers are different for different animals.  This will give veggie meat and similar products a large price advantage.

Once this process runs its course, we'll have veggie meat that's cheaper and better than the real stuff.  So why would you bother eating real meat?  After a few decades of that, the whole idea of eating real meat will seem like a pointless, wasteful, and cruel atavism.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Jeff Merkley: Let The Bush Tax Cuts Expire

Senator Merkley's plan is to maintain a hard line against Republicans during negotiations about extending the Bush tax cuts.  The Democratic position is that the tax cuts for very rich people should end, but tax cuts for the middle class should continue.  Republicans want to continue all the tax cuts.  As you and I and Yglesias know, Republicans are unlikely to offer a good compromise deal.  So if we hold fast as Merkley says, rather than cutting a mediocre deal as some Democrats seem to want to do, nothing will pass and all the tax cuts will automatically expire.  And that is good, because 2013 seems to go better in every possible scenario where the tax cuts expire.

1. If Democrats win big in 2012, they can do things however they like in 2013.

2. If the Republicans totally take over, they're going to do whatever they want anyway, and Democrats might still get a better deal because Republicans will be starting from a higher baseline of revenue if the tax cuts expire.  If they're satisfied with bringing the tax cuts back, we'll be spared further horrors than if they've already got most of those tax cuts and they want more.

3. In the fairly likely scenario that we have divided government, Democrats will be able to get a better deal from Republicans at that point, because what seems like a tax increase on the wealthy (if the status quo is that there are Bush tax cuts) is a tax cut for the middle class (once the Bush tax cuts expire).  Republicans then can vote for the Democratic position without violating the Contract With Grover Norquist, since that contract says (in backwards Latin, I think) that they can't vote for tax increases.

4.  Or maybe divided government will lead to gridlock and dysfunction and no deal, in which case I'll be happy that there's more federal revenue out there to fund useful programs.  Anyway, if you can't get a good deal in 2013, I can't see how you'd get a good deal in 2012.

The alternative, again, is to compromise with Republicans this year.  But there's no reason to do that when things are about to change in a way that gives Democrats an advantage in negotiations.  Merkley puts it in his soft-spoken way:
“I’m encouraging my team to realize we have lots of leverage on this,” he explained. “This is not a situation where you go to the table and you’re desperate to get a deal... The moment that January 1 comes, there’s kind of a hall pass granted to Republican legislators because now more modest changes than the Bush cuts are ones that are still tax breaks to the status quo. So that also gives some room for them to honor their pledge, if you will, and still work towards a reasonable ground on this.”
I like this guy and I'm proud that I give him money.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Job Creation Is The Fed's Job

I don't know who exactly it was who introduced the term "job creator" into our political lexicon, but the idea that CEOs fit that description was always silly.  The CEO's fiduciary responsibility is to maximize shareholder value.  If the way to do that is by firing everybody, selling the assets, and sending the money to shareholders as a big dividend check, that's what the CEO's job description tells him to do.

Whose responsibility is it to create jobs? The Chairman of the Federal Reserve. That's half of the Fed's dual mandate -- the other half is to prevent runaway inflation.  And the Fed has the tools to do so, in its ability to set interest rates, buy trillions of dollars of bonds, and communicate long-term plans about those actions if it so pleases.  So if you're in an economy where there's massive unemployment and very little inflation, as you are, the Federal Reserve is to blame.  (Or if you're in Europe, it's the European Central Bank.)  There's also plenty of room to blame fiscal policymakers like Senators and the President, but no one person has as much power over job creation as the Fed chair.  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Manifesto Of The Racist Scientists, 1938

This amazing document was published in the Giornale d'Italia in 1938, and signed by Italian academics and Fascist sympathizers.  At present, it only exists on the internet on a page with a messy background (but thanks, Dr. Rhyne, for putting it up with the original Italian) and on a pro-Nazi site.  So I thought I'd make it available here.  You can skip to item 7 if you just want the spectacular quote.


1.Human races exist. The existence of the human races is no longer an abstraction of our spirit, but corresponds to a reality that is material and perceptible with our senses. This reality is represented by masses, almost always imposing, of millions of men similar in physical and psychological  characteristics which were inherited and which continue to be inherited. To say that human races exist does not mean a priori that superior or inferior races exist, but only that different human races exist.

2. There exist large races and small races. It is necessary not only to admit that the large classifications which are commonly called races and which are identified only by a few characteristics exist, but it is also necessary to admit that smaller classifications exist (as for example the Nordics, the Mediterraneans, the Dinarics [Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins] ) identified by a larger number of common characteristics. From a biological point of view, these groups constitute the true races, the existence of which is an evident truth.

3. The concept of race is a purely biological concept. It is therefore based on other considerations than the concepts of a people and of a nation, founded essentially on historic, linguistic, and religious considerations. However the differences of peoples and of nations are based on differences of race. If the Italians are different from the French, the Germans, the Turks, the Greeks, etc., it is not only because they have a different language and a different history, but because the racial constitution of these peoples are different. There have been different relationships of different races, which from very ancient times have constituted the diverse peoples. Either one race might have absolute dominance over the others, or all became harmoniously blended, or, finally, one might have persisted unassimilated into the other diverse races.

4. The majority of the population of contemporary Italy is Aryan in origin and its civilization is Aryan. This population with its Aryan civilization has lived for several millennia in our peninsula; very little remains of the civilization of the pre-Aryan civilization. The origin of the present day Italians  stems essentially from elements of these same races which constitute and will constitute the perennially lively fabric of Europe.

5. The influx of huge masses of men in historical times is a legend. After the invasion of the Lombards, there were not in Italy any other notable movements of people capable of influencing the racial physiognomy of the nation. From that derives the fact that, while for other European nations the racial composition has varied notably even in modern times, for Italy, for the most part, the racial composition of today is the same as that of thousands of years ago; the forty-four million Italians of today have arisen, therefore, in the absolute majority from families which have inhabited Italy for almost a millenium.

6. There exists by now a pure "Italian race". This premise is not based on the confusion of the biological concept of race as the historical-linguistic concept of a people and of a nation, but on the purist kinship of blood which unites the Italians of today to the generations which have populated Italy for millennia. This ancient purity of blood is the greatest title of nobility of the Italian Nation.

7. It is time that the Italians proclaim themselves frankly racist. All the work that the regime in Italy has done until now is founded in racism. Reference to racial concepts has always been very frequent in the speeches of the Leader. The question of racism in Italy ought to be treated from a purely biological point of view, without philosophic or religious intentions. The conception of racism in Italy ought to be essentially Italian and its direction Aryan-Nordic. This does not mean, however, to introduce into Italy the theories of German racism as they are or to claim that the Italians and the Scandinavians are the same. But it intends only to point out to the Italians a physical and especially psychological  model of the human race which in its purely European characteristics is completely separated from all of the non-European races, this means to elevate the Italian to an ideal of superior self-consciousness and of greater responsibility.

8. It is necessary to make a clear distinction between the European (Western) Mediterraneans on one side and the Eastern [Mediterraneans] and the Africans on the other. For this reason, those theories are to be considered dangerous that support the African origin of some European peoples and that include even the Semitic and Camitic [North African] populations in a common Mediterranean race, establishing absolutely inadmissible relations and ideological sympathies.

9. Jews do not belong to the Italian race. Of the Semites who in the course of centuries have landed on the sacred soil of our country nothing in general has remained. Even the Arab occupation of Sicily has left nothing outside the memory of some names; and for the rest the process of assimilation was always very rapid in Italy. The Jews represent the only population which has never assimilated in Italy because it is composed of non-European racial elements, absolutely different from the elements from which the Italians have originated.

10. The purely European physical and psychological characteristics ought not to be altered in any way. Union is admissible only with European races, in which case one should not talk of a true and proper hybridism, given that these races belong to a common stock and differ only in some characteristics, while they are the same in very many others.  The purely European character of the Italians would be altered by breeding with any other non-European race bearing a civilization different from the millennial civilization of the Aryans.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original Caption: "Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom, President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, and others watch the overtime shootout of the Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich Champions League final, in the Laurel Cabin conference room during the G8 Summit at Camp David, Md., May 19, 2012. "

Today's Kitsch Cover comes from The Bottle Boys, performing Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The European Project Is Going Exactly As Planned

It should be mentioned in all the discussion of ECB's dithering on monetary policy that, in addition to the fact that the ECB only has a mandate to manage inflation as opposed to the Federal Reserve's hazy "dual mandate", one of the explicit goals of European integration has been to foist "market reforms" on much of the European welfare state. Having the ECB engage in tight monetary policy in order to extort periphery nations until they do what Germany wants is perfectly consistent with the aims of many of the original Europhiles.

EU integration has always been an elite-drive project that encountered populist resistance. It can succeed as long as elites are able to sell the project as a way to deliver peace and prosperity for everyone. To their great credit, the peace part seems to have worked out better than anyone might have expected as of 1951. The prosperity part, on the other hand, is starting to unravel.

Incrementalism And Conservative Frustration

Jamelle is worried that the middle-class prosperity of 20th century America was a fluke, and that our political system is headed in a direction that makes that prosperity (in particular: a welfare state in a multiracial society) unsustainable.  Jonathan takes liberal frustration to largely be a result of the incrementalism of the American political system, and notes that conservatives are similarly frustrated by their inability to make progress on a variety of issues.

Under an incrementalist system, a rapidly changing world will make everybody more frustrated about missed opportunities and looming crises.  For us, there's climate change and income inequality.  For conservatives, there's growth in federal spending, open homosexuality, the arrival of Spanish-speaking immigrants, and the easy availability of birth control.  A society that can't change its laws gets slammed by the bad stuff, and can't take advantage of the good stuff.  I guess if all we're doing is missing opportunities, things aren't so bad.  We can live to fight another day.  If we're actually risking the destruction of society or its ability to capitalize on future opportunities, things are worse.  (Jamelle's concern seems to be that we're doomed to go backward, and that's a pretty bad outcome too, especially if it involves cutting off our access to future opportunities.)

Conservative frustration about social change might seem odd in these lights.  Do they really think that Hispanic immigration, homosexuality, and birth control will lead to the literal destruction of society?  Sometimes they say things like this, but I have a hard time seeing how all these things can be woven into a vision of social collapse.  These trends run highest in our coastal cities, and they're thriving, economically prosperous places.

It's probably better to interpret social conservatives as worried about the end of the sort of society that they can identify with and care about -- a society dominated by white people, where young men marry chaste brides.  Even if the multicultural, tolerant, sexually free coastal cities can prosper, who cares?  An America like that might as well be a foreign country.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Walker Wins, Labor Makes Its Point

Unfortunate news in Wisconsin, with Scott Walker surviving the recall election.

Even with the result as it is, pursuing this wasn't a total loss for labor.  You don't want elected officials to go around thinking that they can attack unions with impunity.  And nobody wants to face a recall election challenge of the sort Walker faced.  This event won't deter a committed union-basher from doing what Walker did.  But any Republican governors out there who are thinking about reducing collective bargaining protections for government employees, but who don't feel that strongly about it, probably don't want to stir up this kind of storm.  Four months ago (or even four hours ago, when the early exit polls were looking 50/50) I wonder if Walker had any second thoughts about the trouble he'd caused himself.

Still, it's sad to see labor throw so much at winning this, and come up short.  

Controlling For "Life Choices" Just Shows A Different Form of Gender Inequity

Suzy Khimm cites a study showing that, if you consider the fact that women are more likely to take lower-paying jobs and more likely to leave the workforce to raise children, women are earning 91 cents for every dollar a man earns, rather than the oft-cited 77 cents. So discrimination is less of an issue than we thought!

Why this line of argument is problematic is left as an exercise to the reader.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Where Is Labor On Monetary Policy?

This weekend, I was at a fundraiser where I had a chance to meet lots of politically active labor union people.  I asked a couple of them whether they had any views on monetary policy and interest rates.  The most they could say is "We don't like bankers."  I understand that!  But I was hoping that these guys would have more developed views on the issue.  

The big tradeoff in monetary policy is full employment versus low inflation.  I'd expect that labor people would care about full employment.  And I'd also expect that they wouldn't share the interests of rich people with lots of cash, so low inflation wouldn't be such a big priority to them.  In fact, central bankers regard higher wages as a form of inflation -- wage inflation.  This makes anti-inflation Fed governors direct opponents of the higher wages that unions would like.  

In the US (and Europe) we've gotten into a situation where central banks are excessively concerned with inflation, and unconcerned with very high unemployment.  It's a terrible situation from the point of view of progressive interests in general, and especially from the view of labor unions, which want more jobs.  I wonder if things would be better if labor was using its political muscle to tell policymakers that it wanted pro-employment central banking.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

John Edwards' Two Cases

John Edwards has been acquitted on one of six charges, with a hung jury on the others.  It appears that he won't be retried.

Despite having been a tremendous Edwards booster from 2004-2008, I wasn't following the trial very closely.  I never had especially strong feelings about John Edwards the human being, or at least, that's not what drove me to support him.  I knew that it was really hard to figure out what skilled politicians are like on the inside -- for the most part, they're actors, and I really had no way of knowing how they and their personal relationships really are.  Never having been all that interested in him personally, I found the whole trial too boring to pay close attention to.  And while I'm not above getting interested in a story about sex, infidelity is the most boring kind of sexual immorality.  If you're going to clog the headlines with your sex scandal, you should have the decency to do something like bestiality or necrophilia so that the rest of us won't be bored to tears.

I was enthusiastic about Edwards as a mechanism for political change.  And I've been very happy about the things his candidacy accomplished, and which I may have had some part in accomplishing by promoting him.  He moved the intra-Democratic debate about several major issues substantially leftward, when it mattered.  His health care plan, copied by Hillary Clinton and approved by Max Baucus after the 2008 victory, became the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act.  If he hadn't gone forward so boldly, it's possible that we would've seen the rest of the party coming out with much weaker proposals.  As Yglesias wrote, the day before the ACA was signed:
Edwards served as a useful progressive foil. He was never really up there with Clinton and Obama, but he was always close enough that they couldn’t simply ignore the possibility that his efforts to appeal to the base would work. So when Edwards unveiled his four point plan for achieving universal coverage—a plan based on exactly the pillars of ObamaCare—it made a huge difference and swiftly became the benchmark by which Clinton and Obama were judged... 
...Obviously, Edwards was calling for a public option and the bill that passed the House last night doesn’t include one. But as you can see it’s simply not the case that the public option was the core of Edwards’ idea, it was one of a laundry list of subsidiary items to a plan based on the principles of mandated, subsidized, regulated health insurance. Three years ago, few thought it was politically realistic. Tomorrow, it will be signed into law. But the whole thing easily could have never been taken up if not for the pressure Edwards put on others to shift in his direction.
That's why the court case that will ultimately have the biggest impact on how I feel about Edwards is one that the Supreme Court is now deliberating on.  If the ACA is upheld, Edwards' life will have served a tremendous historical purpose, and my support for him will have all been for a great end.  If the ACA is overturned, evaluating him and his political legacy becomes an extraordinarily complicated question that we may never be able to answer.