Tuesday, January 24, 2012

David Brooks wants Obama to... be Obama?

Brooks has a classic column pining for a centrist hero, a "market socialist." Like most of these columns, what he's actually describing is the Democratic party and President Obama. Here's his wishlist:

If President Obama is really serious about restoring American economic dynamism, he needs an aggressive two-pronged approach: More economic freedom combined with more social structure; more competition combined with more support. 
As a survey of nearly 10,000 Harvard Business School grads by Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin makes clear, to get companies to locate their plants in the U.S., Obama is going to have to simplify the tax code, cut corporate rates, streamline regulations, make immigration policy more flexible and balance the budget over the long term. 
To ensure there’s skilled labor for those plants, Obama would have to champion different policies: successful training programs like Job Corps, better coordination between colleges and employers, better treatment for superstar teachers, more child care options and better early childhood education. 
This agenda is libertarian in the capitalist sector and activist in the human capital sector. Don’t triangulate meekly toward the center; select bold policies from both ends. That’s what would help Maddie Parlier and millions like her.

Let's see if Obama has addressed these issues:
Simplify tax code: Check
Streamline regulation: Check
Immigration policy: (Brooks is very vague, but) Check
Balance budget long term: Check
Job training: Check
College/Employer coordination: I don't actually know what this means. And the second google result is Brooks' column. So... no?
Better superstar teacher treatment: Check
Child care options: Check
Early Childhood education: Check (Scroll down to the section "Focus on early childhood education")

Looks to me like the intrepid Mr Brooks really just needs to face reality and vote for Obama. No need for Americans Elect here. Your favored candidate is waiting for you, Mr Brooks. All you have to do is open your eyes.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Zoning, Uptown, and Meg Tuthill

I'm pretty sure my city council-member, Meg Tuthill, has almost the polar opposite view of zoning that I do:

I have worked in our neighborhood to protect our residential zoning where possible. We worked hard to downzone parts of the neighborhood to protect our limited historic housing stock. I will work to prevent erosion of zoning laws and to make sure that neighbors have a voice in zoning decisions.

I live in Uptown. My apartment has a walk score of 97, indicating a "Walker's Paradise." My neighborhood is 85% renters. The vacancy rate is around 2% right now and rents are rising, indicating high demand for rental housing that isn't being met. And what is Ms Tuthill concerned with? DOWN-zoning. If I could buy a dead-tree version of Ryan Avent's book I think I would send a copy to her office.

Uptown is a thriving neighborhood where many young people want to live. Not only are they young, but they're young professionals, the exact group every neighborhood wants more of. (The buses from Uptown to downtown are full of Target badges.) They have lots of disposable income to spend on neighborhood businesses. Throttling development is a great way to retard growth and keep Uptown from realizing its full potential.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Today you may have noticed that quite a number of websites have special messages up and/or have gone completely dark. (Nerds everywhere are being far more productive since they can't access Reddit or Wikipedia.) They're doing so to protest two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, that are intended to fight online piracy. They go quite a bit farther than what many internet giants such as Google and Wikipedia believe is necessary. They could have a profound effect on the way the internet operates and even on free speech.

In my opinion, they're the work of content providers who refuse to enter the digital age. Instead they just want to use the power of the government to protect their outdated business models. This is all a long-winded way to say that all three people who still check this blog should call their congresspeople and tell them not to vote for SOPA or PIPA.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The (not so) Elusive Center

The Economist falls prey to the classic pining for a centrist Messiah in last week's leader, "America's Missing Middle":

IT IS a year until Americans go to the polls, on November 6th 2012, to decide whether Barack Obama deserves another term. In January the Republicans start voting in their primaries, with the favourite, Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, facing fading competition from Herman Cain, a pizza tycoon, and Rick Perry, the governor of Texas. Already American politics has succumbed to election paralysis, with neither party interested in bipartisan solutions.
In other countries such a huge gap in the middle would see the creation of a third party to represent the alienated majority. Imagine a presidential candidate next year who spelled out the need for deep future cuts in spending on entitlements and defence, as well as the need to raise some revenue (largely by getting rid of deductions); who explained that the pain would be applied only after the recovery was solidly in place; who avoided class or culture wars; who discussed school reform without fear of the Democrats’ paymasters in the teachers’ unions. Better still, imagine a new centrist block in Congress, which might give that candidate (or for that matter a President Obama or Romney) something to work with in 2013.

As usual, these pieces tend to conflate the right with the left, blame both, then pine for a savior who represents  "the alienated majority." That alienated majority, of course, shares all the writer's policy positions. One would think that if there really were a majority that shared those beliefs, the parties would reflect that.

As it happens, one party does largely share the positions laid out in this article: the mainstream Democratic party, led by President Obama. His position on deficit reduction all along and the position of most Democrats has been to accept deep cuts while insisting on revenues. True, we'll need more revenues than just taxing corporate jets, but Democrats are far closer to this centrist ideal than Grover Norquist's Republicans. Many Democrats (though not enough, I admit) are also willing to take on teacher's unions for school reform.

The article does admit that the right is "mostly to blame". So why are they asking for a centrist savior? The article would be closer to reality if it merely called on the right to stop being insanely intransigent and started working for solutions other than permanent, regressive, deficit-financed tax cuts.

Someone writes this article just about every day. And every day they bend over backward to avoid giving Democrats credit for actually being the centrists for which the writer pines. Sure they're not perfect, but they're far more likely to make a positive impact than a hypothetical third party. The Economist's "alienated majority" and $2.99 will get you a McRib. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jumbled thoughts on the contradictions of modern liberalism

My thoughts aren't really well sorted on this right now, but I want to get the basic idea down on paper while it's fresh in my head.

Liberals need to make a choice. Do government services exist solely to cost-effectively provide services to the public that enhance the general welfare? Or is an essential part of public service enhancing the welfare of those employed by the government, even if that can detract from the effectiveness of that service to the general public?

There are examples of both! In some countries (Saudi Arabia, for example, I believe) the government actively employs people for the sake of employing people. In other words, the services rendered aren't the desired end, merely the gainful employment of the citizens. In others, the services rendered are the end and the government employs citizens merely as a means to that end.

Right now, we have a schizophrenic view on the left. Liberals want the government to provide effective efficient services to the public. But at the same time, they are willing to go to bat for higher-than-market total compensation (pensions are important!) and generous work rules for (particularly low-skill) government workers.

I think these two desires are in conflict with each other. I understand where the impulse to push for both comes from. Many conservatives advocate cutting spending on social programs dramatically not because they think the programs are inefficient but because they are ideologically opposed to such programs. In that case, it is understandable that liberals put a premium on defending every dollar, even if some of them are wasteful or inefficient. After all, the alternative isn't more efficient programs but rather woefully deficient programs.

Now here's where I'm going to make my fellow liberals even more angry. I think it would be very silly to deny that the influence of unions, particularly in the public sector, are part of the reason this schizophrenia exists. It is in the best interests of those unions, who are HUGE backers of the Democratic Party, to extract as much compensation and as generous work rules as possible. But that has an effect on the broader liberal project. By putting so much emphasis on protecting the incumbent workers, we are failing to provide the best services possible to the broader public who are badly in need of such services. (I have a half-written essay on how transit unions can and do make it harder to provide cheap and effective public transit. I'll finish it some day, I promise.) Right now, public sector unions are making it more difficult to provide efficient public services.

Liberals need to make a choice. Is it more important to provide generous pensions and work rules (which are far more important, in my opinion, than cash compensation) to those incumbent bus drivers, bureaucrats, teachers, etc or to provide public services at low cost that have dramatic effects on the lives of tens of millions of those who are vulnerable, unemployed, and working poor?

I know, I phrased that in a way that is rather tilted toward my view. But if we really want to help the working poor have a higher standard of living, there are better ways than piecemeal efforts through improving the compensation of public workers. Beef up the Earned Income Tax credit, which is the most important piece of poverty-fighting legislation on the books. Increase cash transfers of other kinds (things like General Assistance in Minnesota pay only $203/month). These are broad-based ways to increase income rather than ones that affect only those working for public agencies.

I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to argue that we should impoverish bus drivers. What I am arguing is that we should spend as much money on CASH compensation as is necessary to get the workers we need. In some places, I'm sure that means spending more. But at the same time, let's reform pensions and work rules. In exchange for higher up front compensation, take away some job security. Make it easier for public agencies to keep talent and fire those who can't cut it. And move to a defined contribution system of pensions that won't leave public budgets on the hook for decades the way defined benefit plans can.

Clearly there will be many public workers who are worse off because of this. Again, this is why it's important to beef up cash transfers such as the EITC. Again, I want to make benefits as broad-based as possible. If a bus driver loses some income and schedule flexibility, I want to make sure there are cash transfers to help them out. But I want that same safety net to apply to a person working at McDonald's for minimum wage.

I know this is a little jumbled at the moment. And it probably sounds pretty hostile to a lot of my liberal friends. I tried to make it as clear as possible that my goal is to further the goals of broad-based prosperity that are the core of the liberal project. In my opinion there are other parts of the current liberal agenda that are problematic when trying to reach that goal. Let me know what you think. What am I missing?

Edit to add: Matt Yglesias uses an NYPD story as a hook for a very similar thesis in a post today.

Edit 2: Ross Douthat's column in the NYT touches on similar ideas:

It’s a story of a public sector that has consistently done less with more, and a liberalism that has often defended the interests of narrow constituencies — public-employee unions, affluent seniors, the education bureaucracy — rather than the broader middle class.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Star Trek and the War on Terror

On the recommendation of a few friends, I've been going through the back episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There have already been several episodes that take on civil liberties, war, and terrorism, but the episode I watched today had an exchange that is as perfect a commentary on the War on Terror as you can find. And it aired in 1996! The video is at the link, but here's a transcript:

Changeling: Let me ask you a question. How many Changelings do you think are here on Earth right at this moment?
Captain Sisko: I'm not going to play any guessing games with you.
Changeling: Ah. What if I were to tell you that there are only four on this entire planet? Huh? Not counting Constable Odo, of course. Think of it - just four of us. And look at the havoc we've wrought.
Captain Sisko: How do I know you're telling me the truth?
Changeling: Oh, four is more than enough. We're smarter than solids, we're better than you. And most importantly, we do not fear you the way you fear us. In the end, it's your fear that will destroy you.

Now just replace "changeling" with "member of Al Qaeda" and "solids" with "Americans." The whole episode is about a group of Star Fleet officers who are willing to turn Earth and the Federation into a police state, complete with a military-led coup d'etat, in order to stave off this threat from just a few terrorists/changelings. Sound familiar? Luckily, plucky Captain Sisko realizes the folly of this and thwarts their plans.

Unfortunately, our plucky Captain Sisko hasn't materialized (no nerdy pun intended). We thought it could be Obama, but he has been an abject disappointment on the civil liberties front. Instead writers like Adam Serwer, Conor Friedersdorf and Glenn Greenwald scream from the sidelines while policymakers continue to erode civil liberties in the name of unattainable absolute security. Star Trek's writers, half a decade before 9/11, had a better grasp on these issues than today's policymakers. Frankly, it almost certainly helped that the episode was written before 9/11. We hadn't experienced the horror of such a major attack. The Star Trek writers had clear minds. If only our policymakers were able to think as clearly.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Freedom is just another word for sociopathy

This is deeply disturbing. I don't know what else to say.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

On guilty pleasures and NASCAR

There's an interesting thread going at the Dish about guilty pleasures, and one reader's contribution seemed rather familiar to me:

A reader sends a classic NSFW video and explains, "Chris Rock beautifully illustrates a guilty pleasure when he says he loves rap but he's tired of defending it."
Yeah, that sounds right. In my case, I like watching NASCAR, but I'm incredibly sick of being told that it's boring as hell every time I mention it. Surprisingly, my group of young cosmopolitan liberal friends aren't huge NASCAR fans! I don't even bother trying to explain or defend it anymore. It's not worth my time or theirs.

On a different note, I actually regret my days of music snobbery. I used to trash anything that I didn't think met my standards of musical talent or whatever. Now that a typical day for me includes a group of artists as eclectic as Fall Out Boy, Kanye West, Pain of Salvation, the 4onthefloor, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, I have no music snobbery leg to stand on. And I like it this way!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Adventures in cognitive dissonance (II)

Via Dave Weigel, Rick Perry is trying to have it both ways on sexual freedom, too!

"The radical homosexual movement seeks societal normalization of their sexual activity," [Perry] wrote. "I respect their right to engage in the individual business of their choosing, but they must respect the right of millions in society to refuse to normalize their behavior."

Got that? He respects the rights of homosexuals to "engage in the individual business of their choosing", which I presume is his way of saying "icky gay sex," but he also wants the heterosexual majority to have the "right" to deprive homosexuals of their rights by a show of hands.

Class act. And again, trying to split the difference between social conservatives and libertarian-leaning (and younger) GOP voters.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Adventures in cognitive dissonance

Via Dan Drezner, an excerpt from Rick Perry's speech at the VFW:

In the dangerous world we live in today, our enemies often don't wear a uniform or swear allegiance to a particular flag, but instead to an ideology of hatred. 
As the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9-11 approaches, we must renew our commitment to taking the fight to the enemy, wherever they are, before they strike at home. 
I do not believe America should fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism. 
We should only risk shedding American blood and spending American treasure when our vital interests are threatened.

The emphasis is mine, but notice that there are no ellipses in that quote. That is how the lines were delivered. So apparently Rick Perry thinks we should strike at nameless, generalized terrorists anywhere in the world, but we shouldn't "fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism". Just what the hell IS adventurism in Rick Perry's world? Because I think he said in the previous sentence that adventurism is his preferred form of foreign policy.

I get it, he's trying to appeal to the neoconservatives AND the libertarian isolationists in the GOP base. Everyone rags on Romney for changing his positions at the wave of a hat. Rick Perry is trying to have two positions at once. What a joke.