Friday, April 30, 2010

Drill Baby Drill

If you needed an example why "Drill Baby Drill" is a terrible policy, we're seeing it unfold in the Gulf of Mexico right now. TPM has a great slideshow of some sobering images. Accordingly, the administration is rethinking its policy of expanding offshore drilling. I'm pretty sure it's not this catastrophic if one of those planned windmills off Cape Cod blows up and sinks.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

This Puritan Life

Foreign Policy has a story on an ongoing sex-sting going on in Russia, targeting the opposition. The most interesting part is the societal reaction to the indescretions as they became public:

Echoing pretty much everyone else I spoke to, Yashin added that Shenderovich may be a public figure, but his private life is inviolate. "What does this have to do with anything? You can also install a camera in the bathroom and catch him pooping, if you want! The only people who can ask him about this are his wife and his daughter. Everyone else -- it's not your fucking business, okay?"  

If only Americans acted this way. Instead we get impeachment trials and tear-filled apologies on Oprah. Move on, people.

Epistemic Openness

The tastefully named conservative blogger Matt Lewis points out the hypocrisy of small government conservatives supporting the Arizona immigration law:

But the truly ironic thing about this debate is that many of the conservatives supporting this law are the very same folks worried about big government’s intrusion into their lives.

Now let's see small government folks take this the rest of the way. I'm contemplating a continuing series on this blog about big government conservatism. Ideally, a principled conservative would do it. But I'm not counting on that.

Organic Revolution

Anna Lappe over at Foreign Policy has a good dismantling of the argument that industrial agriculture is necessary to feed the world:

[D]ata from hundreds of certified-organic, industrial, and low-input farms around the world revealed that introducing agroecological approaches in developing countries led to between two and four times the productivity as the previous practices. Estimating the impact on global food supply if we shifted the planet to organic production, the study authors found a yield increase for every single food category they investigated. 

Very interesting stuff. I'll admit, I was unaware of what all organic farming entailed. The article is a convincing argument for better farming practices rather than farming technology.

Illegal Immigrants

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I was able to watch the third British debate between the three party leaders, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg. It is rather interesting to watch the differences and similarities between UK and US politics.

One specific item struck me during the immigration part of the debate. Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrat party manifesto includes a provision for amnesty. Brown and Cameron, of course, hammered him on this point. Amnesty is just not a popular policy, no matter how you slice it. Clegg waffled on his answer, but I thought one part really resonated. In the absence of a transcript, I'll try to paraphrase. There are 600k illegal immigrants in the UK right now. They're getting involved in criminal gangs and not paying taxes. That has already happened. The mess is here. Talking about securing borders or imposing immigration quotas ignores the problem. There's no way a government is going to be able to just summarily find and deport all 600k illegals. As Clegg said in the previous debate, "You don't know where they are!"Any attempt to do so would trample upon civil liberties, as we've seen in Arizona.

Immigrants are a huge reason why our economy performs so well. Other developed countries have demographic problems. Our constant influx of (legal) immigrants keeps our economy dynamic. Any sort of comprehensive immigration reform needs to have a strategy for dealing with all the illegal immigrants currently in the country. Amnesty must be on the table. Of course, reform must also tackle the problem of our porous borders. But we must be realistic about the feasibility of securing the thousands and thousands of miles of our land border with Mexico. We also need to ensure that we crack down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. We need to have a realistic immigration policy that addresses the underlying reason for illegal immigration into the country. If there is demand for work, then we should ensure that American workers are finding those jobs, and we are allowing legal immigrants to enter the country and fill those positions.

If we ever do have comprehensive immigration reform, let's make sure it's actually comprehensive.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Crossing Party Lines

The Supreme Court ruled on Salazar v. Buono today. This is the case about a big wooden cross erected by the VFW in 1934 on federal land to honor WWI KIAs.

There was no actual clean cut decision. There were something like four decisions. But as SCOTUSblog put it:

Justice Kennedy’s favorable comments about religious displays “in the public realm” were supported by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. (who expressed even more favorable comments in his separate opinion).  To those three probably could be added, in what Justice Antonin Scalia said would have to be “a proper case” in the future, the votes of Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas, because in prior disputes they have supported such displays.

This time, I actually side with the activist conservative bloc of the court. I'm all for the separation of church and state. But this is a little ridiculous. It's a memorial. It's not forcing religion on anyone. Some things can be taken too far. The decision was so fractured and complex that I doubt it can be used as a precedent for anything really obnoxious.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Climate Change or Immigration?

Lindsey Graham is quite angry that the Democrats (or Harry Reid, at least) want to push immigration reform before the midterms and before climate change legislation. He's so angry, in fact, that he wants to ditch the bipartisan effort at a climate change bill that he's been working on with Sens Kerry and Lieberman. He also doesn't want to cooperate on immigration reform. While his response may be a bit childish, I can't blame him for being angry. In fact, I'm not particularly happy with this decision.

Climate change legislation has passed the House. Sens Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham have put a lot of effort into crafting a Senate Bill. This is probably the best chance there is to get a climate change bill done. The closer we get to the midterms, the less likely it is that Senators will be willing to take a tough vote on a climate change bill. After the midterms, when the Dems are virtually certain to lose a number of Senate seats, I don't really see any chance of passing a major climate change bill.

So why do the Democrats want to bump climate change? It's pretty simple, and Graham is right. The Dems think it's an issue they can cudgel the GOP with. The Dems want to rile up their Hispanic base against the GOP by forcing them to take on immigration. Conservative ideas on immigration have more to do with stopping it. Dem ideas are far more palatable to the huge Hispanic population in the country. This could particularly help Harry Reid, in heavily Hispanic Nevada. This is good politics, in other words. But in my opinion, it's bad policy. Climate change legislation is just more important, and much closer to do-or-die than immigration reform. I just hope John Kerry is right, and this effort isn't dead yet.

Programming Note

For the foreseeable future, I'll be posting Minnesota-centric posts over at the Minnesota Progressive Project as well as here. MNPP is sort of a local version of Daily Kos. It's a good place to find interesting opinions on Minnesota politics, so I am glad to contribute my thoughts. You won't miss anything, though, as I'll be sure to post in both places.

Broadway Bank

I may have moved to Minneapolis, but I grew up in Chicago. So I've been trying to follow the goings-on in Illinois politics even as I get brushed up on Minnesota politics. So it was with great interest that I watched the Broadway Bank saga unfold. Thanks to NBC Chicago's Ward Room blog, I watched Alexi Giannoulias' press conference this morning. It looked to me like he made the best of a bad situation. I might have saved the point about the bank doing well until after he left for a paper press release. It seemed a tad defensive. But focusing on going to Washington to make sure that recessions like this one don't happen again was a good move. Like he said, it's not like Broadway Bank is at all unique in being a failing community bank in this economy. I think Mark Kirk will have to work pretty hard if he wants to turn this into a winning issue for him.

EDIT: Looks like Giannoulias is doing just about the best he can do. His first ad takes the bank failure head-on, and turns it into an attack on Mark Kirk. If I'm his speechwriter, I also put a line in his stump speech along the lines of "Mark Kirk wants to keep talking about Broadway Bank, but I'm focused on creating jobs and solving the problems of everyday Americans like you. I've seen firsthand the destructive power of this recession, and I'm trying to fix it, not score political points."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Diversity

In a commentary piece in the Star Tribune, Max Heerman points out that the Supreme Court doesn't look much like America. I think most would agree with that. But he has an odd way of solving that problem.

With his next nominee, Obama could certainly make progress toward his goal of a Supreme Court that looks more like America by choosing another female or another racial minority. But the court would also look more like the country if he chose a Protestant nominee from outside the country's biggest metropolitan areas who has held elective office and who went to a public college.
One prominent individual who fits this description is Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Yet somehow I doubt Pawlenty is on Obama's short list.

So, in order to make the court look more like America, Obama should choose... another white male. And one who thinks Obama's signature achievement as president is unconstitutional. Here's a thought: there's actually another highly qualified person from non-coastal schools. That person is a Protestant. And that person is female! That's Diane Wood. And she's on the short-list, according to everyone who is reporting on the SCOTUS vacancy. I also feel confident in saying that she doesn't believe that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

But that probably wouldn't satisfy Mr Heerman, who likely just wanted an excuse to suggest Governor-in-absentia Pawlenty for the vacancy. Diversity is an odd argument for a white dude, though. Maybe try "bipartisanship" next time.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Consequences

  • Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, signed an immigration bill into law today. Among other things, it allows police to ask anyone for proof of citizenship at any time, with reasonable suspicion. My guess is that reasonable suspicion will usually be along the lines of "he looks Mexican." The law is horrendous on civil liberties. Maybe I'm just a starry-eyed idealist, but the idea of cops walking up to people and demanding to see their papers and throwing them in jail if they can't produce them doesn't sound like America.
  • In Delaware, Nate Silver gives the Dems only a 10% chance of retaining the Senate seat that's up in 2010.
  • In Colorado, he gives the Dems a 43% chance of retaining the Senate seat that's up in 2010.
  • In Illinois, he gives the Dems a 55% chance of retaining the Senate seat that's up in 2010. (And considering that Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias' family bank is going to fail today, apparently, that number is likely a bit high.)

What do these have in common? They're all Obama's fault. No, really.

All of these situations were caused by President Obama. Arizona's governor would currently be Janet Napolitano, who would almost certainly veto that draconian immigration bill. But right now, she's Secretary of Homeland Security. In Delaware, Joe Biden should be cruising to re-election. But he's Vice President at the moment. In Colorado, Ken Salazar would likely be having a fairly easy run to re-election. Too bad he's Secretary of the Interior. That Illinois seat was occupied by a young, charismatic first-term Senator with national ambitions. He's president now.

I'm not saying I disagree with any of the decisions made here. I'm not saying that Obama's appointments are the only reason for these situations. But it's worth keeping in mind that some of these problems were self-inflicted. Certainly, I think we're better off with Barack Obama in the Oval Office. But we should keep in mind the consequences of earlier decisions.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Taqwacores

The Minneapolis - St. Paul International Film Festival is in town. On the recommendation of a more arts-oriented friend of mine, I saw a film called The Taqwacores last night. Taqwacore is the name given to the--stay with me here--Muslim punk scene.



At its heart, the movie is about each character's struggle to define his particular brand of Islam. It's a story you don't need to be a young Muslim to appreciate. If you can find some way to do so, I highly recommend seeing it.

The Conservative War Against Intellect

There's been some buzz over at National Review Online about a righteous smackdown given by Jim Manzi to fellow conservative Mark Levin's book Liberty and Tyranny. Adam Serwer points to a telling response from Redstate.com:

Mark recognizes that when you are at war, while it is important to get facts right (and I think Mark did a darned fine job sourcing his book, giving you the chance to criticize it), it is also important to inspire the troops and to do so by distilling the realities of the fight into useful information. I frankly don’t know if every statistic in Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative was correct or not. Nor do I know if every statistic or number in Reagan’s A Time For Choosing speech in 1964 was correct. I DON’T CARE. I know the facts were in the ballpark, and more importantly, the principles were timeless and correct. I have read Mark’s book, and I know a little about the topics in question - and it’s a good book, with good citations and a lot of good facts.

Get it? Facts aren't really important, as long as the words stir up some righteous populist anger. But this isn't an isolated incident. The right disdains academics and intellectuals. They prefer "common-sense" solutions. Newsflash: public policy is complicated. It's often counter-intuitive. We elect our representatives to do the research, learn about the issues, and make tough choices. We don't want a policy made up entirely of talking points. But if there's a sustained attack on intellectuals and intellectualism, we end up with talking points and not policy.

Tea Party Mania

In response to Politico's long piece complaining about excessive Tea Party coverage in the media, Dave Weigel defends his beat:

If a political movement, however loosely aggregated, is driving the policies of one party, it deserves copious and probing coverage.

We've got the copious coverage for sure. I would say that most of the coverage has failed the "probing" part. News media on the right has tried to show them as a massive populist uprising against the President's socialist agenda. News media on the left has tried to show them as a bunch of ignorant, crackpot, racist Republicans. The truth, predictably, is somewhere in between. Actually, the one place where it's possible to get really good and fair coverage of the Tea Party movement is... Dave Weigel, late of the Washington Independent, now at WaPo.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Don't Look Now

Sullivan asks:

By the way, have you begun to notice the massive amount of legislative change and action since Obama came to office?

Regardless of whether or not you agree with what he's done, with the passage of regulatory reform, which now looks likely, he will be an astoundingly accomplished president. And this after just 15 months.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pay Your Taxes

Anyone who's watched TV with me for any period of time has probably heard me launch into a diatribe when I see one of those commercials to help people get out of paying their taxes. They inevitably paint the IRS as these goons who are after your cash... you know, the 5 years of taxes you haven't paid. 

Thankfully, Ezra Klein is around to defend the IRS. He even came up with this little tidbit:

Every year the IRS collects data on "the tax gap." The tax gap is the difference between the taxes the agency knows it's owed and the taxes the agency has actually been paid. In fiscal year 2008, the tax gap was $345 billion. That's about 14 percent of the total taxes collected that year. And you know who makes up that shortfall: those of us who didn't dodge our taxes.

We could have lower taxes overall if people would actually pay the damn things. And if slimeball accountants and lawyers stopped enabling those tax dodgers. As is pointed out in the article, the GOP has made it harder for the IRS to collect taxes, meaning tax rates are higher than they need to be. Small government gone wrong.

Monday, April 19, 2010

......crap

David Kurtz on the Dem strategy on financial reform.

....right?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

T-Pawnomics

The STrib reports that Gov Pawlenty spoke at a conservative anti-tax group in Iowa Saturday. He touched on all the usual anti-tax, anti-spending points that are standard GOP fare these days. In particular, he hit on a favorite idea of his, an "economic bill of rights" that would require the federal budget to be balanced and a super-majority in congress to raise taxes or the debt level. He also spoke of the need to make permanent the entirety of the Bush tax cuts.

A balanced budget amendment is something that Pawlenty has been talking about for a long time. On the face, it seems like a good idea--everyone likes balanced budgets, right? Unfortunately, this would tie the hands of the federal government when it most needs flexibility. One would think that Gov Pawlenty would be able to grasp the problems that face a government's budget in a recession. Minnesota is grappling (rather badly) with that problem now. I would point out that the US Constitution does not include a provision for unallotment.

I penned a piece for this blog, also published at MinnPost, that touched on these issues. In short, states must balance their budgets, so when revenues plummet due to a recession, they cut spending (and jobs) and raise taxes. This will actually make a recession worse, as consumer demand goes down and private companies need to lay off workers, driving demand down further. If we force the federal government to keep a balanced budget, it would be stripped of the power to stimulate the economy in a recession, whether through tax cuts (the GOP's preferred solution) or through infrastructure spending and aid to the states. Even the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute says that the stimulus worked. Pawlenty's proposal would strip the government of that ability to fight recessions. It could actually force the government to raise taxes and lay people off in the middle of a recession.

His second proposal, the need for a super-majority to raise taxes or the debt level, defies logic. I can actually provide a one-word rebuttal: California. California's insane initiative system led to a referendum requiring that the state legislature get a supermajority to raise taxes. California currently has a credit-rating near junk, and there's no light at the end of the tunnel. You can try to fix it yourself, thanks to the LATimes. There is no way that Congress will stop spending money (on either side of the aisle) and this would rob it of the ability to pay for those new programs. It's a recipe for fiscal disaster. "Starve the beast" has never worked. If it did, Reagan and Bush would have had balanced budgets, not Clinton.

Finally, he wants to make permanent the Bush tax cuts:

"This administration has got it exactly wrong," said Pawlenty. "What we should be doing is we should renew the Bush tax cuts, not let them expire. We should not be adding burdens to our economy, we should be reducing them."

Of course, this is completely at odds with his avowed affection for fiscal responsibility. As this chart shows, the Bush tax cuts will be a major driver of short and medium-term deficits. Tax cuts for the rich are not a very effective form of fiscal stimulus, so any claims based on that are mistaken. The (admittedly left-leaning) Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recommends that the tax cuts for the highest-income earners should expire on schedule, despite the recession.

Pawlenty's "policy chops" are largely talking points, not serious policy proposals. Enacting them would be bad for the economy AND the national debt. At the end of the day, his fiscal responsibility should be belied by the deficits that he is leaving to his successor. The Southwest Journal reports that the primarily Pawlenty-led state government has increased spending 53% since 2001. (The article is not online yet.) Pawlenty's brand of fiscal conservatism is only marginally more responsible that George W Bush's disastrous brand.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Coffee, please (II)

B.G. over at the Economist's DiA blog comes to a similar conclusion as Andrew Sullivan:

Despite what Mr Romney and Mr Goldberg tell themselves, the base never punished Bush for his ideological failures. The Tea Partiers, 57% of them, still love them some unfunded-entitlement-spending, TARP-bail-outing, compassionate Bush. They just don't like Barack Obama. I used to think that the Tea Party consisted of well-meaning budget hawks, peppered, like all movements, with crazies who own markers. But now they feel more and more like Grandpa Simpson

This must just be the lamestream media's liberal elitist bias. I suppose I should point out that I have now quoted a self-described conservative and Tory, and a writer from a self-described conservative newspaper. But Sullivan and the Economist are British. So their opinions can surely be discounted.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Fox News Party

Ross Douthat takes on the debate about the closing of the collective conservative mind, and gets right at the heart of the matter:

Think of American conservatism as divided into three spheres: There’s the elite world of pundits and intellectuals (consisting of think tanks, policy journals, political magazines like National Review and The Weekly Standard, certain blogs, etc.), the broader world of “the movement” (consisting of populist media outlets like talk radio and Fox News, diffuse activist groups like the Tea Parties, websites like RedState and its imitators, and issue-based pressure groups like the N.R.A. and the National Right-to-Life Committee, etc.), and then the institutional world of the Republican Party (consisting of office-holders, staffers, fundraisers, consultants, etc.).
[...]
On domestic policy, I think the intellectual right doesn’t have nearly as much of a close-mindedness problem as many people seem to think.
[...]
The problem, as I’ve argued before, is that with rare exceptions (a Mitch Daniels, a Paul Ryan), there aren’t many Republican politicians who seem interested in taking up the best right-of-center policy ideas and fighting for them.

Douthat has a point here. There are conservatives out there who have ideas. They even have differing ideas. But the Republicans on the Hill seem uninterested in any of it. They're pandering to the movement and playing politics. The movement is playing to the worst (populist) parts of the electorate. "Populism" is a term that has become associated in my mind with one thing: MINE! That doesn't make for good policy. It does, unfortunately, make for good talking points, especially if you're willing to lie. And that's where the modern GOP is, for better or for worse.

Coffee, please

Sullivan has a very sober and measured take on why he is passing on tea for now:

[D]espite my own deep suspicion of big government, I remain unmoved by the tea-partiers. Their partisanship and cultural hostility to Obama are far more intense, it seems to me, than their genuine proposals to reduce spending and taxation. And this is largely because they have no genuine proposals to reduce spending and taxation.
[...]
When they propose cuts in Medicare, means-testing Social Security, a raising of the retirement age and a cut in defense spending, I'll take them seriously and wish them well.

Until then, I'll treat them with the condescending contempt they have thus far deserved.

All Class

CBS news reports that major health insurers have around $2bn invested in fast food companies.

Yeah, those companies care so much about the health of their customers.

The Day in Cognitive Dissonance

As Ezra Klein says, the best thing the Dems can do is NOT listen to Doug Schoen and Patrick Caddell. Among their recommendations to Dems (since Obama ignored their advice to ditch Health Care):

Winning over swing voters will require a bold, new focus from the president and his party. They must adopt an agenda aimed at reducing the debt, with an emphasis on tax cuts, while implementing carefully crafted initiatives to stimulate and encourage job creation.

There's a lot of complete horseshit to unpack there. First they say that Obama should focus on reducing the debt. Fine, good idea. Moving on, let's see how they suggest doing that? Cutting taxes and spending on stimulus. It hurts my brain. Yes, more people being employed will help reduce the deficit slightly, as the tax base will broaden. But tax cuts and stimulus will make the debt WORSE, not better. Now I'm all for additional stimulus, but saying that stimulus is a way to reduce the debt takes a level of willful ignorance or stupidity that boggles the mind. And are these "Democrats" really endorsing supply side economics?

This is the agenda that largely motivated the Clinton administration from 1995 through 2000 and that led to a balanced budget and welfare reform.

Somehow they pivot from tax cuts and stimulus to Clinton's policies in the 90s. One problem: they name the balanced budget and welfare reform. The balanced budget was a result of a booming economy, spending cuts, and tax hikes. Welfare reform was a Republican idea that Clinton co-opted. And again, it was a spending cut. It has nothing in common with Schoen and Caddell's suggestions.

I am continually amazed at the quantity of low-quality drivel that Fred Hiatt manages to cram into the Washington Post 's Op-Ed page. Then again, this is the same guy that hired Marc Thiessen.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Who pays taxes?

The blogosphere is buzzing about the current conservative talking point that 47% of Americans pay no income tax. As many have pointed out, this is a very selective reading of the numbers. Anyone in the middle class who's looked at their pay stub notices that they pay more to that goddamn FICA than they do in actual income tax. FICA is one of a couple payroll taxes that people pay that are not being counted in the number being bandied about on Fox News.

There's also state income taxes, which tend to be more regressive, with fewer and closer spaced brackets. (Illinois, for example, has a flat 3% income tax, which falls more heavily on the poor than the rich, who make more of their income through capital gains.) States, counties and cities also levy sales taxes, which are highly regressive. Someone living paycheck to paycheck spends far more of their income than someone who makes enough to invest in stocks and whatnot. Overall, our taxes mirror the percentage of income that we make quite well:

(Of course, the end point of the debate is the conservative view that taxes should be made more regressive. I already posted a couple charts that should make anyone rethink that idea.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taking Hawkishness Too Far (II)

I think Jonah Goldberg (and everyone else yelling about Obama being weak with nukes) could stand to watch Crimson Tide. Whatever the movie's flaws, it did get at least one thing right:

In a nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.

Obama's Deal

PBS aired an episode of Frontline about Health Care Reform tonight. It's available online, as all Frontline episodes are. As you might guess from the name, it is almost all process. But it is a good overview of everything that went down. The interviews are pretty skewed toward the anti-reform position, though a fairly senior Obama administration official (Dan Pfeiffer) also plays a big part. It's definitely worth watching, though. Frontline still does a better job of reporting than anything else on television.

Taking Hawkishness Too Far

Kevin Drum pointed out a post by Jonah Goldberg over at the National Review Online that included this line (emphasis in original):

But even if we had no missile treaties of any kind, the likelihood that [Barack Obama] would ever use nukes remains close to zero. I think pretty much everyone around the world knows that about him. And whether this treaty is ratified or not, that will remain the case until he leaves office.

Only a sociopath would have a likelihood higher than "close to zero" of actually using nukes. As long as it's not actually zero, deterrent is in place. Beyond that, you have to be nuts if you're looking for an opportunity to push the big red button.

Who needs Jeremiah Wright...

..when you've got Joel Demos?

Republican activists in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District have endorsed Associate Pastor Joel Demos to run against Rep. Keith Ellison in November. In his sermons, Demos conveys his strong belief that humans are living in the “end times,” even speculating that 2009 would bring the return of Jesus Christ. He says the Iraq war was necessary because “the spirit of the anti-Christ is on the rise,” and has said, “I believe God has planted us in what you might call ‘enemy territory’” — in Golden Valley where his church is located.

All the better that he'll get crushed by Ellison, who is a Muslim.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Don't Run From Your Record

Politico has a piece up about how Official Congressman of Bullied Pulpit Tom Perriello is dealing with his controversial votes on the Affordable Care and American Clean Energy and Security acts:

“I’m going to exhaust myself,” he says. “I’m going to drive myself to the limit trying to make a difference in people’s lives here, and I’ll let people make the judgment from there.”

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Work

Taibbi read a blog post by Brooks and took him to task (again). In doing so, he makes a distinction that I think is important to keep in mind. It's one that people may lose sight of.

I would give just about anything to sit David Brooks down in front of some single mother somewhere who’s pulling two shitty minimum-wage jobs just to be able to afford a pair of $19 Mossimo sneakers at Target for her kid, and have him tell her, with a straight face, that her main problem is that she doesn’t work as hard as Jamie Dimon.

Only a person who has never actually held a real job could say something like this. There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company

There's a very good point here. Brooks is right that many rich people work ridiculously long hours. But I'm pretty sure that the guy digging ditches for barely above minimum wage isn't just "harder work" away from getting a job as an investment banker. When I was working for a pool company, I did exhausting and disgusting work for up to 80 hours per week. But oddly, I wasn't making as much money as your average fresh-out-of-college investment banker working similar hours, but in an office all day.

But really, Taibbi said it better (and more profanely) than I can. So read his post.

Guilty as charged

Reading this review of the book "Naked City," I saw this and stopped short:

For one, the ‘hipster’ culture, largely defined by Williamsburg in Brooklyn, has replicated itself in neighborhoods in other cities such as the Mission District in San Francisco and Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Though very different in character, the types of people attracted to these places generally share the same tastes in art, fashion and music, bringing their own form of cultural homogenization and conformity to once unique and authentic neighborhoods.

It's so true that it's actually really funny. "Hipsters" move to an area because it's "authentic" and in the process, rob it of that authenticity by installing their own culture. If nothing else, the number of coffee shops in my neighborhood is a testament to that fact.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Why the lag?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy commented on the passage of the Affordable Care Act:

"Welcome to the club of states who don't turn their back on the sick and the poor," Sarkozy said, referring to the U.S. health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama last week.

From the European perspective, he said, "when we look at the American debate on reforming health care, it's difficult to believe."

"The very fact that there should have been such a violent debate simply on the fact that the poorest of Americans should not be left out in the streets without a cent to look after them ... is something astonishing to us."

Then to hearty applause, he added: "If you come to France and something happens to you, you won't be asked for your credit card before you're rushed to the hospital." 

This got me to thinking. Why is it that we are so far behind most developed countries? Our public education system, our health care system, and our energy policy are all significantly less progressive (and many would argue less effective) than those found in most other OECD countries. Health care is obvious. We pay more for worse results. The EU has a cap-and-trade system in place, and has always been better at conservation and recycling. Americans lag behind other OECD countries in reading and math, rather pathetically. There's no reason the literacy rate in this country shouldn't be 100%.

And yet, when policies that we can see working in other countries are proposed, Americans recoil. We have an instinctual distaste for policies seen as "socialist" or "distributional." (Clearly, this isn't true of the liberal wing of the Democratic party, but it is true of the vast majority of Americans.) I would argue that our political spectrum is skewed to the right. I've mentioned this before. I would like to illustrate my point.

This is the conventional American political spectrum:


For comparison, this is a UK political spectrum, as a general proxy for EU politics:


Now, I would argue that if you put the American parties on the UK ideological spectrum, you would get the following:
 Why is this?

I have a couple ideas.

1) America is young. In comparison to Western Europe, America is still an adolescent. All you need to do is walk around a European city and look at the massive buildings built before Columbus even came to America to see that. Perhaps we're just lagging behind because of a more compressed history?

We're young in another way. While we were certainly hugely involved in World War Two, that war was fought overseas (other than balloon bombs). We did not have the same experience that Europe had. The collective memory of Europe still remembers the rationing and the hard times during and immediately following the war. It is an experience that America just did not go through. I don't mean to minimize that sacrifices of that generation of Americans, but merely to point out how terrible that war was for European nations.

2) The American Dream. The country has always been known as a place where everyone has the chance to come from nowhere to become successful. That idea permeates our consciousness. While I wouldn't argue that it's a bad thing, it does have an unfortunate side effect: people are less empathetic. This becomes evident when you see the most honest attacks on social welfare programs. Americans have a dislike of "handouts." "Welfare" polls very badly in the US. It's usually one of the few things that Americans wouldn't mind cutting spending on.

The idea, I guess, is that if they were able to work hard and make a living for themselves, anyone can. There's no excuse for being unemployed or poor. This is the same sort of thinking, incidentally, that lies behind the conservative reluctance to extend unemployment benefits. Economists point out that unemployment benefits will be very quickly spent, acting as a stimulus and helping the economy. Conservatives say that unemployment benefits take away the incentive to find work.

3) America's unique history.  America was founded by immigrants. People came to the country to start a new life, oftentimes escaping religious persecution in their home countries. In fact, it's possible that the Puritan history of our country has caused us to skew right. We were founded, in part, by religious fundamentalists. That legacy may have left us with a political spectrum that leans farther rightward than the countries in Western Europe that have developed in a more nationalist fashion. I'm not as convinced by this one, but that history of religious immigration has to be embedded in our national psyche in some way.

Obviously there's no one reason for this. But it's a perplexing situation, and I think it deserves exploration. What causes might I have missed?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What do your taxes pay for?

Paul Krugman puts it as succinctly as I've seen:

The basic picture of the federal government you should have in mind is that it’s essentially a huge insurance company with an army; Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — all of which spend the great bulk of their funds on making payments, not on administration — plus defense are the big items.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Force

Last night I got into a brief discussion about foreign policy, nuclear and otherwise, with a friend of mine. He and I agree on almost nothing when it comes to politics and policy. So it was no surprise to me that we disagreed about the way Obama is conducting foreign policy. It was also unsurprising that he was far more hawkish thanI. One aspect of his argument was that regimes like Iran or pre-invasion Iraq only understand force.

I don't claim to have any great expertise in exactly how feasible the use of force is against various nation-states. But I do read a lot, and my impression is that even those who specialize in the use of force recognize its limits. Andrew Exum put this very well:

I'll conclude with this: if you're going to make a case for the use of violence to realize a political end, you're not going to find me in the back of the room wearing a Code Pink t-shirt and waving a banner. But you will find me with my hand politely raised asking how, exactly, the use of force is meant to achieve the political end. What are the interests at stake? What are the resources available? What are the desired end states? What are the risks and possible unintended effects? How are we mitigating those risks and unintended effects, and what contingency plans are we developing for when things go wrong? (And things will go wrong.) And what is your plan, by phase, for how force will be used? By all means, let's have a conversation about the use of force. But it has to be a mature discussion, and you better think through the questions I just asked. Because hope is not a method -- not for the Obama Administration, and neither for those who casually recommend the use of force in the political sphere.

Kyrgyz Violence

Something is happening in Kyrgyzstan. That's about as specific as I'm comfortable getting. We know that there have been riots and violence. There are reports that the government, led by the prime minister, has resigned. The president has reportedly fled the capital. Right now it seems nobody is in charge.

There may be a temptation to cheer the deposition of an autocrat. Resist it. As of right now, the only thing to do is send your thoughts and prayers to all those Kyrgyz people who are caught up in this violence. Many died, many more were injured. It's not clear where this is going, but chances are the violence isn't over. For the sake of the Kyrgyz people, let's all hope for a peaceful resolution.

(Photos from the day's riots here and here.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Job Killing Tax Rates

According to Forbes, Exxon and GE Capital paid a whopping $0 of taxes in the United States last year. We could slash our nominal corporate tax rate (which is, to be fair, pretty high) if we just closed the loopholes that allow massively profitable companies to pay nothing, and, indeed, actually take money from the government in the form of subsidies. Our tax rate may nominally be progressive, but it is so complex and convoluted that the rich are able to dodge taxes that those less fortunate cannot. As a result, the tax system trends towards a flatter, more regressive form.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Quick note on March job numbers

The top-line number is cautiously good news, 162,000 new jobs in March. That means the main unemployment rate remained at 9.7% Basically, the job market has stabilized. Unfortunately, we need much more robust jobs growth in order to bring the top-line unemployment rate down to acceptable levels. I think the number Paul Krugman threw out a while back was something like 600,000 new jobs per month. Clearly, we're nowhere near that yet, but this is the biggest jobs increase in three years, so it's a positive sign.

Unfortunately, buried in the numbers are a couple not-so-good signs. First, U6, the number that includes underemployed people and those who've given up looking for work crept up from 16.8% in February to 16.9% in March. That number had looked like it peaked, so it's disappointing to see it go back up.

The percentage of unemployed workers who've been out of work for 15 weeks or longer rose, as did the percentage unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. This is particularly troubling, as many studies have shown that a long duration of unemployment has effects lasting decades into the future. Workers' skills atrophy, and they tend to earn less over the rest of their working days.

Finally, the unemployment rate among African-Americans continued to rise. The overall rate is now 16.5%, and an even more staggering 19% among black males age 20+. Among black teens aged 16-19, the unemployment rate is a mind-boggling 41%, compared to white teens at 23%.

Clearly, there is still work to be done. Unfortunately, congress seems to be unwilling to pass anymore meaningful stimulus. If nothing else, we need to keep unemployment benefits flowing, so that the unemployed are able to help prop up demand. Consumer demand will bring us out of the recession, but it's also what got us into the recession. I don't envy Sec. Geithner or the folks at the Fed.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

FinReg and Media cowardice

The Health Care fight is (mostly) over. The next item on the agenda: Financial Regulation. I'm not sure if it made any headlines, but a little while back, the financial services sector of our economy kind of collapsed. In doing so, it took down the rest of the economy. And the world's economy.

Anyway, the crisis brought attention to the fact that there are large parts of the financial services industry that are largely unregulated. In an effort to not have all this happen again, Congress is writing a bunch of new laws to keep banks from blowing up the economy. There is still a lot of public anger toward Wall Street for their part in creating the mess out of which we're still slowly climbing our way.

This should be a slam dunk. The public wants to punish Wall Street, and in this age of populism neither party wants to be the party of Wall Street. On the other hand, the Republican party still cannot allow the Democrats to have any significant victories, especially after losing badly on health care. Wall Street is also spending plenty of money lobbying against any stringent new regulations. So how will anyone manage to oppose FinReg? By calling regulations a massive bailout. Nobody likes bailouts.

In reality, these regulations are intended to avoid the need for future bailouts. They limit leverage and empower regulators to force banks to come up with a plan to wind down without causing undue damage to the financial system as a whole. They also create an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency, a huge priority of the White House. Paul Krugman has a column up with a very brief look at this really confusing issue.

Why do the Republicans think they can get away with characterizing an attempt to regulate banks and avoid bailouts as a bailout? Well, I'm going to have to leave it there.

Listen to the people!

Because they are just so knowledgeable about policy:

A majority (51 percent) say that even though the deficit is a big problem, we should not raise taxes to bring it down, while only 43 percent say that we might have to raise taxes to reduce the deficit.
[...]
And by an even wider 2:1 margin, voters reject cuts in Social Security, Medicare or defense spending to bring the deficit down (61 to 30 percent). With nearly three-quarters of the federal budget devoted to these items, exempting them from cuts leaves little room to make realistic progress on deficit reduction.

Yeah! Bring down that deficit! As long as you don't take any meaningful steps to do so. Next time a Republican laments the passing of the Affordable Care Act (a law that will reduce the deficit by a trillion dollars over the next couple decades, incidentally) "against the will of the people," keep in mind just how informed the "will of the people" actually is.

(HT: Yglesias)

Candidate Pawlenty

He's not doing much governing these days:

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty entered the reception room, he greeted about a dozen legislators and other dignitaries who were assembled for the event. State Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, was standing near the podium and the microphone, when she shook hands with the well-traveled governor.

"Welcome back to Minnesota," Ortman said. It's good to have you here."

Bizarro World

Quote of the day:

"In a world that has people like Michele Bachmann and Steve King serving in the U.S. Congress, how [does April Fool's Day] top real life?"