Thursday, May 30, 2013

Will Sinking All The Boats Make The World Better?

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece responding to my, er emm his commentators', critiques about his recent post arguing that social policies designed to "lift all boats", that is improve social conditions of all Americans, are inherently flawed compared to policies designed just to help certain racial groups.  The objection he highlights is quite similar to mine, what I said was:
What actually happened is the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, decided to replace the system where states would have to expand access to Medicaid in order to keep their federal funds for the whole system of Medicaid, with a voluntary system in which states could opt out of expanding Medicaid but lose out on the large amounts of money that would come with expansion.  In short, a carrot and stick approach was turned into an all carrot approach and some GOP politicians decided not to opt for the carrot.

But these unfortunate side affect of a Supreme Court ruling is hardly the fault of "lift all boats" policies.  Indeed, Obamacare was changed from a "lift all boats" policy to an "ask GOP politicians to lift all boats" policy and the fact that some of them decided to say no is hardly the fault of Obamacare, it's their fault.
He argues that, "The courts are part of policy."  Of course they are.  But the point here is that a specifically designed "lift all boats policy" was specifically changed to something else, what I called an "ask GOP politicians to lift all boats" policy.  If Coates doesn't like this change his beef is with John Roberts, not the bill singed into law.  The policy was fine until it was changed, and became something else.

He then moves on to argue that the GI Bill, one of the policies probably most responsible for the creation of the mass American middle class in the 20th Century, was bad by pointing out that American society in the 1940's was rather racist, and so the benefits were not equally shared between blacks and whites.  This is of course correct, but giving one example from 70 years ago focusing on anecdotes about racist bankers and real estate agents is hardly cause for dismissing a whole category of successful public policies.  And keeping all American's poorer, black and white, after World War II would hardly have made a better world. 

My bigger problem with this whole argument is how one sided Coates deliberately makes it.  He categorically criticizes the policies that Liberals have used to make a better world since the 1930's as being fundamentally flawed, and then offers no alternatives of his own.  Quite frankly this is a lazy intellectual cop out.  The classic question of "well, what's your alternative" is a key question to ask in any policy debate, especially one that categorically dismisses a whole type of policy solutions.  Without it we can conclude that any political decision is wrong because any political choice, like any human action, can be labeled imperfect.

Furthermore, Coates ignores the fact that affirmative action, a policy that does focus solely on improving the lot of certain racial groups, has been tried in this country for almost 40 years now and it's failed to close the racial gap in wealth and could be a thing of the past quite shortly.  I'd argue this is because while noble in its intent, its never been very politically viable and has always been dependent on existing in realms where it is highly insulated from the opinions of voters, like universities.  This should be no surprise, as Rick Perlstein pointed out, Hubert H. Humphrey (civil rights hero AND champion of lifting all boats) foresaw this problem decades ago, and correctly predicted the problems it would cause for the Democratic Party in the age of Reagan:
And at a time when other liberals were besotted with affirmative action as a strategy to undo the cruel injustices of American history, Humphrey pointed out that race-based remedies could only prove divisive when good jobs were disappearing for everyone. Liberal policy, he said, must stress “common denominators — mutual needs, mutual wants, common hopes, the same fears.”  

Perhaps it's because he comes out of the world of journalism and scholarly books and I come out of the world of electoral politics that make us see the issue so differently.  He ends by accusing people like me of having a "religion of color blind policy."  If I have a political religion it's that I think the perfect should never be the enemy of the good.  His faith is that the imperfect good is inherently the enemy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lifting All Boats Is Still A Good Idea

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a good post up about the disproportionate effects that some states refusal to expand Medicaid as part of Obamacare are having on certain racial groups:
With that said, if you look at a map of which states are refusing the Medicaid expansion, and then look at this report from the Urban Institute, a troubling (if predictable) trend emerges. Approximately a fifth (about 18 percent) of all people who will remain untouched by the Medicaid expansion are black. When you start drilling down to the states where those black people tend to live, it gets worse. In Virginia and North Carolina, 30 percent of those who are going to miss out are black. In South Carolina and Georgia, the number is around 40 percent. In Louisiana and Mississippi, you are talking about 50 percent of those who would be eligible for the expansion but who will go uncovered.
You look at Latinos and get a similar (and to some extent worse) picture. Nationally, Latinos make up 18 percent of those who stand to get health coverage. But in Arizona -- where the legislature is fighting Jan Brewer's effort to expand Medicaid -- Latinos make up 34 percent of those who stand to gain coverage. In Florida, they make up 27 percent, and in Texas they make up 47 percent. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country. The majority of people there who are going to miss out on care -- over 60 percent -- are black and Latino.
This is a great point and a good reminder that some GOP governors and state legislatures might be motivated by more than just a desire to protect "freedom."

The post unfortunately jumps the tracks when Coates argues that this setback shows that policies working to address the problems of all Americans are worse compared to those targeted at specific racial groups:
This is one reason why color-blind -- "lift all boats" -- policy so often falls short. When you have a country grappling with the deep vestiges of bigoted policy, you do not need "colored only" signs to get "colored mostly" effects. 

I think Coates is confusing cause and effect here.  What actually happened is the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, decided to replace the system where states would have to expand access to Medicaid in order to keep their federal funds for the whole system of Medicaid, with a voluntary system in which states could opt out of expanding Medicaid but lose out on the large amounts of money that would come with expansion.  In short, a carrot and stick approach was turned into an all carrot approach and some GOP politicians decided not to opt for the carrot.

But these unfortunate side affect of a Supreme Court ruling is hardly the fault of "lift all boats" policies.  Indeed, Obamacare was changed from a "lift all boats" policy to an "ask GOP politicians to lift all boats" policy and the fact that some of them decided to say no is hardly the fault of Obamacare, it's their fault.  Giving all Americans access to health care is still a great idea, and doing it through broad based policies is still  a much better way to achieve political success that programs just targeted at certain racial groups.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Some Thoughts on Drummer Lee Rigby

Lee Rigby was the British solider who was killed the other day by two maniacs wielding knives and meat cleavers.  This event has been huge in Britain, with a massive investigation by law enforcement and a lot of questioning about why it all happened.  While I think it was evil, I'm not going to waste time denouncing it (although it obviously was a criminal, horrific and terrible act (and kinda of cowardly, they hit him with their car first before they attacked him with knives, not wanting to risk that he could fight back)) because other people can talk about that much better than me. And I'm not going to talk about about why these sorts of acts of terrorism are against Islam, because people who know more about this that me have already pointed this out.

The point I want to make is that Rigby death, while tragic and horrible, is actually evidence of something much more important than the fact that there are some horrible people in the world.  As President Obama pointed out in his big speech the other day:
Today the core of al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.

They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.
In short, al Qaida has lost their war.  They are now a shattered and shrinking organization without leadership or direction.  And I'd like to think that this world, a world were would be terrorists are forced to stab people rather than do something much worse was the world that Drummer Lee Rigby fought for, and died for, in Her Majesty's service.

This is not to say that "terrorism is over."  Knife wielding maniacs and disturbed weirdos might still break our hearts and scare us to death with crudely built bombs and butchery.  But their fantasy of the revolutionary overthrown of societies through violence and terror is increasingly becoming a fading ghost.  Like a nightmare you have last year.  Indeed, the greatest political changes in the Middle East since World War II are happening while you read this, with these guys as an almost total irrelevancy.  Osama won no votes in Pakistan recent election, the first free and open one since 1999.

Nothing I write on my stupid blog can ever make up for a wife whose lost a husband, or a son whose lost his father.  But I would like to think that Rigby's noble deeds did in fact make the world a better place.  And that truly, is worth fighting for.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wanted: More Progressive Policy Solutions

In Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's controversial plan to close 49 elementary schools and one high school passed the Chicago School Board yesterday in a six to nothing vote.  The plan has been met with both large scale local opposition and protest, as well as condemnation from a variety of national progressive figures.  As I see it, the opposition's complaints broke down into three main categories; the plan would damage communities whose schools would be closed; the plan would endanger children by making them walk to new schools and possibly across different gang turfs; and the plan is unfairly affecting minority students.  These are all valid concerns, and people are certainly correct to raise them.  This is, after all, the biggest school closing in Chicago history.

But while protesters and progressives have been making these valid points, they have unfortunately (as far as I can tell) ignored the bigger reason of why this whole plan is being considered.  The New York Times explains it quite well in it's dry prose:
Chicago now has 145,000 fewer school-age children than it had more than a decade ago, according to district data, and the district had already closed about 100 schools since 2001. In March, the Chicago Public Schools identified 53 more elementary schools that it planned to shutter, expecting to save about $500 million over 10 years in a district facing a $1 billion deficit.
I would add that this is the rosy picture.  Our nations third largest school district is one of the worst performing in the country, can not raise property taxes as they've reached their constitutionally allotted cap and has a pension system that is close to complete collapse.

What I find frustrating is that this fundamental reality of declining enrollment (145,000 less students!) and a massive structural deficit ($1,000,000,000!) seems completely removed from the conversations a lot of progressives are having about this plan.  It's as if Mayor Emanuel could keep all the schools open if he wanted to, but has decided to close them out of spite.  But of course he can't, he is faced with a massive shortfall and a current system that he claims keeps 100,000 desk empty in schools every school day.  Indeed, while this is a big school closure for Chicago, cities all over the country have been forced to do the same thing faced with the same structural reality.  Philadelphia recently closed a higher percentage of their schools in a mass closing. 

I think this fundamental disconnect between the structural realities underpinning the closure and the response that seems to ignore these realities is a symptom of a lack of realistic progressive policy solutions for tough problems like this.  We have a lot of policy white papers about why global warming is bad or for the need for tougher anti-stalking laws, but we don't seem to have enough on how to manage struggling, aging and shrinking districts like Chicago Public Schools.  I don't know much about tackling a $1 billion dollar school district deficit you can't borrow for and won't get bailed out of by the state of Federal government for.  But from what I do know, closing failing schools running at half or lower capacity seems more feasible than going to trash pick up one a month city-wide or cutting teacher pay in half.  I guess what I want to see is less anger and more progressive policy solutions. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vice On Afghanistan

Vice is one of those controversial things on the internet, especially in the liberal circles of the blogosphere that I tend to hang out in.  The main argument is that some of the founders and employees of Vice have said offensive things over the years.  I won't defend what various folks have said, I would just stress that people like Vice founder Shane Smith have engaged in lots of anti-social behaviors (like getting drunk in Chernobyl and firing off Russian automatic weapons) and expecting more mature behavior from him might be a bridge too far.  But in a world dominated by bloggers and reporters who spend their days shackled to computers in offices trying to explain what is going on in our chaotic and bewildering world, the fact that Vice is actually willing to send people to dangerous places to show us what's going on should be at the very least respected.  How many national security bloggers would be willing to walk through swamps with former Liberian war lords to try and figure out how to better help post-conflict countries or try and find out what it's like to be homeless in Bogota and have to live in the sewers out of fear of death squads by doing just that.

In a world of information dominated by arguments for and against things, the President's speech to Morehouse College graduates was wrong, the Republicans should embrace marriage equality, Vice is a welcome relief in that their "immersive" reporting technique simply portrays the reality as their correspondents experience it and let us come to our own conclusions.  Which brings me to Vice's three part series they just uploaded on their youtube channel titled "This Is What Wining Looks Like."

"This Is What Wining Looks Like" is a three part documentary created by journalist and independent film maker Ben Anderson about the final stage in America's longest war.  It is a highly disturbing look at the massive failures of our efforts of "nation building" in Afghanistan that focuses on the particulars of why efforts to create a functioning state simply haven't worked.  And the particulars are what make the piece so compelling.  It's easy to sit in a room in Washington and make an argument about "counter insurgency" or "providing security," but when the forces you are trying to do that with are involved in everything for massive corruption to keeping boys and sex slaves on their American built patrol bases, the irrelevancy of these arguments is revealed.  It's easy to talk about "training" the Afghan military but when those "trained" soldiers do things like smoke opium in the middle of a fire fight, the failures of the West to create a western style professional military is revealed as well.

The worst part about the piece is how it consistently shows that what we've been told about Afghanistan for years is riddled with lies.  The country is not fixed at all, and might very well be unfix-able, but what is being told to use back home is a series of rosy scenarios that seem designed just to further the careers of western generals and politicians.  Ben Anderson offers no easy answers to this massive mess, he does argue the US made a key error back in 2002 when in the rush to prepare to invade Iraq we made a bunch of norther warlords the defacto government and military instead of trying to build social institutions for all of Afghanistan, and that of course is one of the main arguments of the piece: there are no easy answer in Afghanistan.  But he does show the reality of whats going on, and for that he should be commended.

You should watch it, but viewer discretion is advised. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Obama's Morehouse Speech

President Obama gave the commencement speech at historically black Morehouse College the other day, and Ta-Nehisi Coates didn't like it.  The speech was basic Obama affair, he pointed out that the historic realities of racism and discrimination have caused in the development of social problems in black communities, talked about how he experience similar dynamics in his own youth and then in a classic Obama shift he called for more personal responsibility among black men:
We've got no time for excuses -- not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured -- and overcame.
In short is was a speech very similar to what he's been saying for years.

Coates saw this as something much worse:
Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people -- and particularly black youth -- and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that "there's no longer room for any excuses" -- as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of "all America," but he also is singularly the scold of "black America."
Singular scold?  While Al Sharpton certainly doesn't say things like this, this message of improvement through self-reliance is a thread in black political thought that goes back to the Brooker T. Washington and beyond.  It was a driving force behind the founding of elite black colleges like Morehouse and Bouie State University where First Lady Michelle Obama spoke along similar themes last week as well.  Indeed, it was the main message of a series of motivational speeches given by Bill Cosby only a few years ago.  Coates should know this, because he wrote a long article about in 2008.        

In addition, James Fallows pointed out that taking a different tone when addressing "our own" isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact it's quite normal:
We all take a different tone in setting expectations for "our own." I can hold Americans overseas to a different standard than I would Russians or Japanese; I can harangue (and have!) my colleagues in the press about why we should do better; I expect something from myself and my kids I wouldn't expect from you and your kids, and so on. The challenge for Obama, exactly as Ta-Nehisi pointed out, is that he is simultaneously addressing all Americans as his own (apart from those who consider him alien) while also in this speech addressing as his own the most historically distinct subset of our population.
Both Coates and Fallows are right that Obama's role as both the being the President and the first black President is what often puts him in very difficult situations, what Fallows likes to call "walking a tightrope."  But Obama's response to this predicament, to give a speech that calls for both more equality and more personable responsibility as a necessary condition of more equality is hardly "scolding" anyone.  It's the commencement equivalent of Uncle Ben's speech from Spiderman

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Do You Mean 'We' White Man?

I've been beating up on the discipline of economics for a while now, and I think for good reason.  The doctrine of austerity is a classic example of an economic idea that has caused a great deal of human suffering all over the world that seems very hard to get rid of.  Lots of people have looked at this problem in technical terms, hence trying to lay the blame at the feet of a excel coding error.  But I've always thought that while this example is important, it hardly explains everything.

Paul Krugman has been arguing for a while that psychology is a big factor in the continuation of the cult of austerity.  Particularly the idea that recessions and unemployment are a form punishment for a collective "us" that we deserve for our past transgressions.  In fact, the other day in The New Republic Michael Kinslay came out and said just this:
I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be.
When I read that, I was immediately struck by the old Mad Magazine joke, "What do you mean 'we' white man?"

This use of the "Royal We" to describe how "we" need to sacrifice is both incredible arrogant and incredibly misinformed.  It is arrogant because it of course doesn't call for sacrifices for everyone in society, just those unlucky enough not to wield clout on Capitol Hill.   Cuts to unemployment and food stamps caused by the sequester resulted in nary a peep out of austerians, but when the same sequester caused a potential increase in flight delays at airports in New York and Washington everyone was outraged, and we of course acted without delay to keep that foul scourge from the land.  It is also misinformed because it assumes that no one is already paying the price for a sluggish recovery made much worse by austerity over the last few years.  While unemployed people see their job prospects and potential life time earning power diminish every day, we are told we need more sacrifice, as if no one is sacrificing already.

Kinslay's moralizing helps nobody, least of all the people who are already suffering the effects of the ideology he is promoting.  Sure he calls for raising taxes on the rich, but in that same paragraph says, "The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians."  Despite it's shrinking nature, despite it's stagnant or falling incomes (in a time of a record stock market and an all time high of corporate profits) and despite the fact that the middle class is increasingly unable to reproduce itself, it is still to blame.  A coddled child in need of a good beating to teach it a lesson.  The idea that the debate austerity going on right now is about economics or "Economics" is increasingly looking absurd, if it ever wasn't. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Yeah, The Context Of Art Matters

So the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby has been quite a hit and has provoked a variety of responses.  One thread of criticism that I find troubling was recently voiced by Christopher Orr over at The Atlantic and echoed by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
To this end, [director Baz] Luhrmann turns every dial at his disposal up to 11. His colors are as bright as those in a detergent commercial; his musical choices as intrusive as the exit cues on an awards show. The camera ducks and swerves like O.J. Simpson on his way to a car rental, and the cast all share a slightly vibratory, methamphetamine sheen. Topping off such excesses of cinematic technique, this Gatsby is rendered in 3D, an innovation only moderately less absurd than presenting Moby Dick in Sensurround, or Cannery Row in Smell-O-Vision. In short, although Luhrmann's film mostly adheres to the letter of Fitzgerald's novel, it would be difficult to envision a work less in keeping with its wistful spirit.
Now it's clear that choices like 3D and contemporary rather than period music are profound choices for a classic American novel set in the 1920's, but perhaps that is entirely the point.

Some background in case Orr forgot, while not that popular when it was intitally published, after Fitzgerald's death The Great Gatsby became one of the most widely read novels in the American cannon.  The fact that it was read by generations upon generations of high school students, didn't hurt.  Accordingly, it's been adapted four times for the screen already.  In 1926 as a silent film, in 1949, in 1974 as a Robert Redford vehicle and as a television film for A&E in 2000 that in my opinion keeps truest the the letter and spirit of the novel.  This is on top of numerous adaptations for radio and theater.  So while it may be true Luhrmann has gone in a different direction with his version, it's not necessarily because he has, as Orr puts it, "a skill-set tailor-made for comedy that he insists on squandering in ill-fated attempts at tragedy."  Indeed it could be because he's interested in making a movie that is different than the last adaptation that came out 13 years ago.

Let's review the film industry too.  Film makers make movies for all sorts of reasons, but the reason they tend to get huge amounts of money from big companies to make them is to...make money for the big companies, and you make money on a movie by making it popular.  So while making a movie that succeeds in "keeping with its wistful spirit..." may be what Orr wants to see, ticket sales are what others want to see most, and since the "wistful" movie was already made 13 years ago, and this novel's previous adaptations as motion pictures have been less than successful, going a whole new route rather than being some sacrilege might actually be a good idea.  Indeed 3D visuals and a modern hit soundtrack might in fact be a way to get people aren't obsessed with American literature or who don't criticize culture for a living (like Orr) to go see it, and maybe just maybe, get them interested in a great American author.  What's so wrong with that?

I think the problem here is that a lot of "pop-culture commentators" don't know about, or chose to ignore, the very real institutional and structural realities in which the media the criticize (the vast majority of which is negative) is actually created.  It's as if someone wants to write about health care policy but doesn't even know what a hospital is, or how health insurance works.  Such a person could write a lot about doctors they think are friendly or how it feels to have the flu, but it wouldn't be very illuminating about how the system works or what makes a hospital terrible, okay or great.  It wasn't always like this, if you go back and look at some of the great commentary about art from long ago (1980) you find a discussion both about art, and the context in which it originated.

I recently came across a great exchange between cultural commentator Alyssa Rosenberg and Game of Thrones executive story editor Bryan Cogman that illustrates this problem.  I really like Rosenberg but she seemed to have been laboring under false assumptions about how this show is written, or how good drama in general is written, for quite some time:
[Alyssa Rosenberg] I was curious about something I hope you won’t think is too cheeky. Your episode this season had both a lot of equal-opportunity nudity and consensual sex. We haven’t had a lot of the latter on the show for a while. And I was curious as to whether the nudity was a response to complaints from some critics about the presentation of women on the show in previous seasons?

[Bryan Cogman] The equal opportunity nudity just happened to be what was required for the story in that episode! I just got to be the one who wrote it. I mean, look, there could very well have been conversations amongst the producers about that, but I wasn’t privy to it.
So the story drives the writing, rather than some rubric with check boxes to insure "equal-opportunity" in the sex scenes.  Umm yeah, that's how you write a good TV show.  It's great that so many people want to write pop culture commentary, but if this commentary is not going to based on the reality of the media being used it's not very useful.  Instead its a collection of things that annoy you, which far to much of cultural commentary is already.        

Friday, May 10, 2013

The 90's Can Help With That Reihan!

Conservative blogger Reihan Salam wrote a piece where he bemoaned the recent plunging deficit figures as a potential disaster for the Republican Party in 2016.  As he sees it without a big deficit the GOP will lose both its leverage for entitlement reform and its main argument to be made with middle class voters:
James Pethokoukis cites a new report from Potomac Research to suggest that there is at least a slim chance that the U.S. federal government will achieve a budget surplus by fiscal year 2015. Pethokoukis makes the most important political points — a surplus will make it difficult for the Obama administration to make the case for further tax increases, yet it will also undermine the case for entitlement reform. But to be cynical and political for a moment, a surplus would be even worse news for the Republican Party. Since the start of the Obama presidency, the GOP has put all of its eggs in the basket of short- to medium-term fiscal consolidation.

So imagine 2016 in the unlikely but not completely impossible event that a budget surplus does materialize. Republican elevation of the deficit issue will allow the Obama administration and its Democratic allies to declare “mission accomplished,” all without taking the blame for entitlement reform. The House-passed budget that promised a balanced budget within the ten-year budget window by making unrealistically deep cuts in Medicaid and domestic discretionary spending will continue to be hung around the necks of congressional Republicans. One hopes that one or several of the GOP presidential candidates will devise a more compelling economic message and reform agenda.
Salam is right that as the deficit shrinks, fear mongering over it will become more and more difficult as will claims that we will soon turn into Greece.  I also love how he seems to think that Obama wants to raise taxes just to raise taxes (Matt Yglesias pointed out how wrong this idea is back in 2005).  But he is missing the broader point, the GOP hasn't cared about deficits for a while.

As far as I can tell the the battle inside the Republican Party to see if they were actually interested in balancing budgets was lost back in the early 80's.  If you go way back, think Eisenhower or Dewey, you do see a political party interested in balancing budgets, by doing things like cutting military spending or raising taxes, but since Reagan the GOP has always favored cutting taxes over lower deficits.  The last last hurah of the balanced budget Republicans was in 1980 when George H. W. Bush famously called Reagan's so called "supply side" economic plan to massively cut taxes, expand military spending AND balance the budget "voodoo economics."  Bush of course lost to the Gipper in the primaries.  Ever since then the GOP has thrown the laws of mathematics out the window and focused on cutting taxes no matter what this does to deficit figures.

So if we did have a budget surplus in 2016 the GOP strategy is simple.  They claim that the surplus is because of Paul Ryan's "tough fiscal management" or something and demand a big tax cut for the rich because it will create jobs or the American people can spend their money better than the Government can or whatever.  They then fear monger about a made up entitlement "crisis" and roll out a plan to privatize Social Security and Medicare.  In fact even if there isn't a surplus they will still call for tax cuts to create jobs or whatever.  This is precisely what happened in the 90's; as the deficit shrunk Republicans in Congress called for Clinton to "now take on Social Security" and once they got in the White House they passed a big tax cut and deficits ceased to matter.  They will almost certainly follow a similar strategy in the future.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Trouble With Naratives

Narratives are a great way to write about all kinds of stories in journalism and punditry.  They make complex social phenomena easy to understand to a layman; they make distant historical events more "real" to otherwise uninterested people and they make an argument a lot more interesting than a bunch of charts and graphs.  There's one problem: there are so many people in the world with so many so stories that if you look hard enough you can find story that proves any social argument.  But that doesn't mean it's something that is true universally.

I came across this phenomena recently at Slate where a researcher published some primarily findings about so called "Tiger Mothers."  "Tiger Mothers" were a subject of much intellectual debate (dare I say a meme) about how Asian-American mothers have a superior style of parenting that results in better kids than their weak-kneed white counterparts that was started in 2011 after the publishing of Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  The book was a memoir of sorts, about Chua's strict regime of parenting that included things like not letting her kids be in a school play and making them do 2,000 math problems a night after one came in second in the school math competition.  The book sparked much debate that generally fell into one of two camps.  Number one, Chua is awful and her advice is terrible and number two, Chua's advice is what we need to save America.  After some bouncing around public intelectual sphere and the obligatory David Brooks column, the book shuffled off into the dark, as these kind of books do.

But while public intellectuals were moving onto other topics, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas named Su Yeong Kim was actually conducting a long term study of 300 Asian-American families for the past decade.  These long term studies tell us a lot more about the life outcomes of people than tongue in cheek memoirs do.  Paul Tullis published some of Kim's preliminary findings, and they don't look good for the Tiger Mothers:
And although Chua presented her own children as Exhibit A of why her parenting style works, Kim said, “Our data shows Tiger parenting produces the opposite effect. Not just the general public but Asian-American parents have adopted this idea that if I'm a tiger parent, my kids will be whizzes like Chua’s kids. Unfortunately, tiger children’s GPA’s and depressive symptoms are similar to those whose parents who are very harsh.
“Tiger parenting doesn't produce superior outcomes in kids.”
One study of course is not enough to condemn cultural practices, but it is enough to debunk the very strong claims that Chua has made about her own specific parenting style being somehow superior to other styles.  Indeed for every one of Chua's protegees in the world, there's a David Choe, who also grew up in a domineering Asian-American family.  Choe became a petty criminal and graffiti artist in his youth who is now a successful artists who engages in behavior that even lily-livered "permissive"  parents would be horrified to see the children doing.

No worries though, Choe is worth millions of dollars because he did some murals for Facebook's offices and got paid in stock.  So at the very least, it's better to be lucky that well parented.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Something More Important Than "Benghazi"

A few days ago political scientist Jonathan Bernstein made a great point about why the Benghazi hearings are worse than just a waste of time.  They distract Congress from doing the very job of finding actual malfensence in government:
What’s a shame is that while there may not be any real massive conspiracies and cover-ups, there very well may be real instances of administration errors and worse throughout the government. There always are! But uncovering them requires hard work, and might only turn up low-level malfeasance in agencies that most Fox News viewers have never heard of and don’t care about. So House Republicans, who have the position to investigate real wrongdoing, don’t bother. Finding out that some low-level appointee did something real but relatively minor might result in better government, but it’s not guaranteed to get mentioned by all the conservative talk radio hosts. So: Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi, and never mind whether the government is actually functioning properly or not.
I couldn't agree more.  Indeed most of the testimony in today's Benghazi hearing was stuff we already knew.  It was just told in a more dramatic way by someone who was there. 

Ironically, while GOP Congressmen are grandstanding about Susan Rice and Mike Huckabee is predicting that Obama will be impeached (over what Huckabee never really explains) the AP published a report about an grave problem that Congress could have been investigating over the past seven months: namely that some of the people in charge of our nuclear missiles are terrible at their jobs.  As the AP put it:
The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control — and, if necessary, launch — nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit’s launch skills.  The group’s deputy commander said it is suffering “rot” within its ranks.

“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” the commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force.
Got that?  17 officers in charge of controlling, and perhaps firing, weapons capable of destroying nations and killing tens in not hundreds of millions of people are bad at their jobs, so much so they had to have their clearances taken away.

This of course is exactly the kind of issue Bernstein was talking about and it raises all sorts of other questions about the military.  Are the other three branches of the "nuclear triad,"  Air Force bombers and Navy nuclear submarines, suffering similar problems?  How long has the problem been going on?  Is the problem a lack of money?  Poor training?  Are the best officers treating Air Force Global Strike Command as a back water and going into other parts of the Air Force?  I have no idea, it would be nice in Congress could work to find out.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Niall Ferguson And Gay People

So Niall Ferguson got himself into some hot water recently.  The noted Harvard "historian" has been often hailed as of late as some sort of new Gibbon.  While he is styled, and styles himself, as some sort of above-the-fray great thinker, he really isn't.  He's a committed conservative ideologue who worked for John McCain in 2008 and writes things that claim the the policies of the GOP "is our only hope."  A less cultured man than myself might even go so far to say his is a partisan, such a dreaded word to even mutter in the BipartisanThink world of Newsweek.  Oh yeah, Newsweek doesn't exist anymore because of publishing stuff like this.

Ferguson got in trouble because while trying to explain why we need more austerity he also wanted to make some points about why he disagrees with the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes.  He said that Keynes shouldn't be listened too because he was gay and didn't have any children:
Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes' famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of "poetry" rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.
Yeah he said this.  He also graced us with the following wisdom:
Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it's only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an "effete" member of society.
These sorts of bigoted, homophobic remarks produced a bit of an outrage.  To his credit, he issued a major apology. Guess that's how it works, you roll out the hateful remarks and then walk it back with an statement of apology.  Oh yeah Niall worked in American presidential politics so that is exactly how it works.  

Andrew Sullivan wrote a big piece where he vouches for Niall as a good guy, whose been fighting the good fight when it comes to gay rights.  Also he's been fighting the good fight by being buddies with Andrew.  They've been close since reading history together back in Oxford in 1983.  My main take away from this is that elite British universities spend way to much time focusing on debating skills and not nearly enough on everything else.  I'm sure Niall or Andrew could out write or out argue me with one hand tied behind their back, but who cares?  If all this intelligence leads to flogging the Iraq War or saying that if a person is gay they have nothing to contribute to the social sciences, it's not very useful, in fact it's destructive.

So is Ferguson guilty of being a homophobic bigot?  I don't know, make up your own mind.  But I charge Ferguson with an academic crime far worse than being just another bigot or person who dislikes gay people.  I charge him with the crime of wasting his mind.  He could be writing real history, good history, history that can help us navigate the confounding world we live in.  Instead he spends his days cranking out yet more austerian junk science with the occasional gay bashing thrown in.  Also getting photos taken of himself for magazine pieces to make him look like quite the hansom devil.  Wow Niall, we are all real impressed. Indeed, Niall gave away the game in the qualified apology he issued, titled "An Unqualified Apology" where he writes:
I had been asked to comment on Keynes’s famous observation “In the long run we are all dead.” The point I had made in my presentation was that in the long run our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are alive, and will have to deal with the consequences of our economic actions. 
Paul Krugman points out that this quote is itself taken out of context, and Niall, despite being some sort of supposed genius actually misses the entirety of Keynes' argument. 

If Niall really does want to atone for his intellectual sins, good for him.  But the road to his redemption lies not in apologizing for when he called Keynes a sissy, it lies in him doing some hard thinking.

Or not.  Anyway, all I'd say to Niall is "And you, you're just lucky Barbara Tuchman isn't here."

Friday, May 3, 2013

What's The Coach's Big Speech For This One?

Democracy is hard, we have to get a whole lot of people to agree to things to change things if we want to change things.  This often means conflicting ideologies, agendas and interests that can make making a lot of people and groups agreeing to things hard.  This is why Democracy is hard.

Unfortunately this type of wisdom often doesn't get written about, or it get's chosen to be written about in another manner by the Washington Press Corps.  In a great post about bad beltway analysis about Obama's lack of "Leadership!" on the gun control issue, Jonathan Chait pointed out that much of the commentary seems to have nothing to do with a discussion of politics in our system of government at all.  As Ron Fournier recently (and strangley) argued:
Obama needs a coach to look him in the eyes and say, “Mr. President, I’m not excusing the other team. They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That’s your job, because if you can’t stop them, we lose. And there’s no excuse to losing to such a lousy-bleeping team.”

That’s how it works in the sports pages.
This of course is silly. As someone who heard a lot of inspiration speeches in my youth from coaches I can attest they didn't make me any better than the terrible baseball player I was.  And I guess if we want to get specific we already have a great speech that the President doesn't even need a coach for, he could just play it the Democratic cloak room before a gun control vote...and then fail to over come a filibuster because of the new 60 vote Senate.  Oh and there's that pesky GOP controlled House of Representatives as well.

This brings me to the new changes in the international food aid program that the Obama administration has recently unveiled. This isn't sexy for beltway journalists like gun control votes have been of late but it certainly matters, it's a 1.4 billion dollar program that constitutes over half of the world's food aid. The New York Times posted a good run down (titled "Proposal for Changes in Food Aid Sets Off Infighting in Congress" note the lack of sports movie references) of the proposals, and the Congressional reactions which seem like an artistic form of organized bitterness. I can't explain what's going on as well as they can, so take it away Ron Nixon!:
Administration officials say the current program is costly and inefficient, and does not get food quickly enough to the people who need it. By law, the food must be bought from American farmers and shipped on vessels flying American flags, which can sometimes take weeks, with food arriving after a crisis is over, administration officials and development experts say. 

Also, because of rising shipping costs, the amount of food the United States sends abroad has fallen, to 1.8 million cubic tons annually from 5 million cubic tons, according to figures from the development agency. 

Under the new proposal the agency, or charities working in partnership with it, would use money to buy some food locally, closer to the disaster areas. Fifty-five percent of the food would still be purchased from American farmers. 

“This new reform would give us the flexible tools we need to get food to people who need it now, not weeks later,” said Rajiv Shah, the agency’s administrator. “We would still buy from U.S. farmers.”

He added, “But this way we can help feed two to four million more people without additional costs.” 
Our main man Rajiv seems to make a good case on the policy.  So we are going to embrace these new effective ideas right?

Well no, not so much, sorry about the big quote, but Nixon get's the reality across better than I ever could:
But members of the House and Senate agriculture subcommittees are skeptical. 

During hearings last week, Representative Robert B. Aderholt, Republican of Alabama, the chairman of the House agriculture subcommittee, said he was concerned that removing food aid from the agriculture budget would hurt American farmers. 

Representative Sam Farr of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat, also questioned the transfer, raising concerns about the subcommittee losing oversight of the program. 

“I’m not endorsing the transfer — the realignment — until there are assurances that the program will remain intact and not be raided by other foreign ops interest,” Mr. Farr said at the hearing.

Mr. Farr expressed doubts about the proposal’s chances of success. “I don’t think it will happen this year,” he said. “That’s the politics.” 

There has been a similar response from members of the Senate agriculture subcommittee. Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, the chairman of the subcommittee, along with Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the ranking Republican, both said that they were opposed to transferring food aid dollars out of the agriculture budget...
Budget experts say Mr. Obama’s proposal will be a tough sell in Congress, where committee members can be parochial and rarely want to give up control of programs. 

While it is common for committees to allow agencies to move money from one account to another, experts said it was rare for Congressional appropriators to move money and oversight of a program from one agency to another. 

“This is a classic jurisdictional battle among committees,” said Edward A. Brigham, a consultant and former staff member at the White House Office of Management and Budget and at the House Budget Committee. “No one wants to give up their area of control.”
Brigham points out a dynamic that few beltway commentators ever even explore: the way Congress actually works.  How Congress works, from which state gets Federal subsidies to who get's to control a committee, to how bipartisan (yeah! bipartisan!) coalitions can come together around controlling which district get's money.

This is real reporting, about how Congress and our Government actually work.  If people want to criticize Obama's lack of leadership (or more properly "Leadership!") then it would be nice if they also looked at issues like this.  They tend to tell us too much about the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency and not enough about who actually writes laws.  Oh well, if we aren't going to go over that well then Kurt Russell gave a good Coach Speech once too.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

If An Idea Dies In Congress, Does It Make A Sound?

The other day conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a good blog post about the problems facing the GOP when it comes to health care policy.  Douthat argues that while there are conservative ideas about how to make the American health care system work better, the problem is that these ideas exist in think tank land and never actually make it to Congress, the place where health care policy is set:
This, this, is the Republican Party’s health care problem. It isn’t that conservative ideas about health policy don’t exist, and it isn’t that they won’t work. It’s that right now the feasibility question is purely academic, because even after five years of debating these issues, and despite Eric Cantor’s best efforts, there still aren’t enough Republican lawmakers willing to take even the smallest of steps toward putting those ideas to the test. This means that no matter how much of a “bureaucratic nightmare” the implementation of the current health care law turns out to be, liberals at least have this ace in the hole: When it comes to health care reform, there is still no politically realistic alternative to their approach.
I'd agree that the GOP certainly has a "policy problem," but I'd argue if anything the situation is worse than how Douthat characterizes it.

Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein recently pointed out at Salon that GOP legislators just don't seem to care about policy outcomes at all.  In the House of Representatives the GOP has only filled one of the 10 traditional slots reserved for high profile bills:
Which leads to the embarrassing fact that no one seems to have noticed about this year’s House Republicans. Over 100 days into the current Congress, their agenda is … almost completely empty.

In fact, of the 10 reserved slots, there’s only one bill filed. That’s H.R. 3, a bill to force the building of the Keystone XL pipeline. Even that is pretty minimal – it’s far more of a symbolic position than it is an energy policy. And even that took until March 15 to introduce.
This isn't because Republican voters or conservtatives in general don't care about public policy, they do!  It's because the incentives inside the GOP have become so perverse, that doing the hard work of actually writing a bill will get you nowhere:
My guess is that the Republican-aligned partisan press is just so easy for Republican politicians that they’ve all become lazy. If all you have to do to be a favorite guest on Fox News or on syndicated conservative talk radio is to mutter something vague about Benghazi and make a teleprompter joke, what’s the incentive of doing the hard work of actually writing a bill?
Indeed, Ted Cruz has been making hay by introducing nothing and instead claiming responsibility for things he had nothing to do with.

While it's true that some conservative intellectuals and think tankers have been kicking around ideas for how to change America's health care system, I'd argue at best this is only a symbolic victory for folks (like Douthat) who want to see a more functional GOP.  The fact that some people get paid to churn out white papers at Cato or Heritage just doesn't count for much when the reality in the GOP Congress is that no one cares about policy.  Which is why I predict that we will see more and more symbolic votes on things like "repealing Obamacare" and nothing when it comes to the "replace" side of the slogan we've been hearing for four years now.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Was Marx Right After All?

Happy May Day Comrades!  Matt Yglesias took this International Workers Day to write a fascinating look back on Marx's ideas prompted by liberal economist Brad DeLong's re-posting of a talk he gave in 2009 about understanding Marxist thought. 

I suppose I should take some time to point out that neither I, nor Yglesias nor DeLong are communists.  Conservatives have taken to use terms like socialist and communist as slurs to throw at anyone left to Atilla The Hun these days and this just confuses people, but if you still don't know what a communist is, I'd suggest Wikipedia.  I'd also note that it is important to remember that people in the 20th Century used Marxist thought to develop political movements that are responsible for a great deal of human suffering.  Throat clearing aside though, Marx made some predictions about capitalism 150 years ago that seem eerily relative since 2008.

Ygelsias points out that DeLong's talk:
...offers a number of criticisms of Marx that I would have enthusiastically endorsed in 2009 but which look weaker four years later. In particular, DeLong says that Marx the political activist was too pessimistic about the idea that the ruling class would agree to make economic growth pareto optimal within the context of a market economy:

[T]hat even though the ruling class could appease the working class by using the state to redistribute and share the fruits of economic growth it would never do so. They would be trapped by their own ideological legitimations--they really do believe that it is in some sense “unjust” for a factor of production to earn more than its marginal product. Hence social democracy would inevitably collapse before an ideologically-based right-wing assault, income inequality would rise, and the system would collapse or be overthrown. The Wall Street Journal editorial page works day and night 365 days a year to make Marx’s prediction come true. But I think this, too, is wrong.

To me that unquestionably looked wrong as of 2009. But in the interim, those Wall Street Journal editorial page tendencies have grown much stronger. You see a rising tide of Rand-inflected moralism about market outcomes and a reduced emphasis on Friedman-style pragmatism. You also see a sharply reduced emphasis on belief in any kind of macroeconomic stabilization policy, in favor of a "let them eat cake slash move to North Dakota" moralism about unemployment. Last but by no means least, it really has become the conventional wisdom among American elites that the appropriate policy response to fiscal imbalance in a time of high and rising income inequality is restore balance by reducing the scope and generosity of social insurance programs. 
In short high unemployment, stagnant wages, and low growth may be bad for society over all, but to the existing economic elite they aren't bad at all.  High unemployment allows firms to pay less both to new workers and prevent their current workers for getting improvements in compensation or working conditions.  In practical terms this means that major companies can do things like hire a bunch of temps with no benefits, low wages and no job security instead of having to hire people full time.  Since payroll is the single largest overhead cost for most firms, any means of cutting it-be it by hiring temps or by simply paying new people less-will almost certainly result in higher profits and a corresponding increase in stock price.

Secondly, Marx's idea that the ruling elite would always and necessarily be opposed to any form of redistribution of wealth or social action to help the losers in a free market economy once seemed foolish.  But the popularity of Randian thought and political argument's like Mitt Romney's "makers versus takers" seem to show this tread emerging in a very real and political sense over the last few years.  Political observers of all stripes were shocked that a presidential candidate would speak so crudely when Romney initially rolled this out, but it would never have surprised a Marxist.

Ygleisas concludes with this:
In summary, I'm not a Marxist. But I worry that political conservatives are going to turn me into one. My view is that full employment and robust systems of redistribution from the more fortunate to the less fortunate are possible. I see real evidence for this in the world. The Obama administration has actually enacted a lot of redistribution programs, and the government of Australia has maintained consistent full employment policies for a long time now. But the collapse of the Soviet Union, a good thing on its own terms, has had the bad consequence of breeding massive complacency among the upper classes in the West. It used to seem important to people in the rich countries to prove that market economies not only could but in fact would lead to broadly rising living standards.  
Looking back on the rise of Marxist political movements, one thing you are struck by a overarching trend where the powers that be refuse to reform or try and improve their society, like Czar Nicholas II in Russia or the Kuomintang in China, resulted in a communist revolution.  I certainly hope this trend isn't reimerging, but as Vice has pointed out, politics in austerity-torn countries in Europe is already starting to get scary.