Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mitt Romney probably isn't going to win Iowa in a landslide, which is good for... Mitt Romney

According to the New York Times, the Iowa caucuses are still up in the air. Okay, true enough, even if the paper is sort of stating the obvious. But while he may lose the battle, I think we can now safely say Mitt Romney is well on his way to winning the war.

Why is this? Because for all the money and time Mitt has poured into winning Iowa, the best-case scenario for Romney may well be that no clear frontrunner emerges from the caucuses -- Mitt Romney included.

I know. It sounds crazy. Why wouldn't Romney want to win in Iowa? But I think if you look at the dynamics of the race, it makes sense.

Right now, you have Romney and a field of competitors, who are widely perceived as being more genuinely conservative than Romney. Romney perhaps has the organizational advantage -- he's been at this a long, long time -- and, relative to most of the competition, the financial advantage. But he has one crippling weakness: the simple, unavoidable reality that a huge number of Republican partisans absolutely do not want him to be the nominee. And thus, we have the rhythmic Dance of the Not-Romneys, each taking their turn at the head of the field and then receding dutifully into the background, as the 20-30% of Republican voters who are chiefly voting against Romney shift their allegiances.

Romney can't quite conclusively take the lead, but the Anti-Romney forces don't have the numbers to overwhelm his candidacy, and anyway, their own candidates keep imploding.

Ultimately, though, something is going to have to shift the balance of power, so to speak. There has to be a winner. And I really see only a couple of ways to break the stalemate.

Scenario A: The field stays crowded. Romney fails to score an early KO on any of his opponents. Everyone thinks they have a shot, and most of them stay in the race. Over the long haul, Romney's financial and organizational advantage becomes more important. The Iowan political scene is oversaturated, but advertising can actually move the needle in other states. Without a clear alternative, Republicans eventually throw up their hands and settle for the Mormon from Massachusetts.

Scenario B: Iowa winnows the field. One candidate wins by a large margin, and most of the Not-Romneys drop out. And here's the thing: I just don't believe that anyone who was voting for Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum would jump happily into Romney's camp. More likely, these voters will coalesce around whatever Not-Romney is still remaining. Undivided, the Not-Romneys actually become stronger.

Think about this way: there are enough people in the Republican Party who oppose Mitt Romney to catapult Rick Perry, and then Herman Cain, and then Newt Gingrich to the front of the pack almost overnight. And that's when the field is fractured. Add in most of the 20-30% that the other Not-Romneys were collectively receiving, and suddenly the Anti-Romney forces aren't picking temporary frontrunners... they're picking the nominee.

Romney's best strategy, then, is divide and conquer. And the only way his opposition stays divided is if as many of them stay in the race as possible. And if anyone, including Mitt Romney, wins decisively in Iowa, the field is going narrow very quickly. (The sole exception here is Ron Paul. Everybody knows Paul can't win the nomination, so it's possible nobody will drop out if Paul takes Iowa.) Fortunately for Mitt, right now, Iowa looks like a photo finish. And that brings him one step closer to the White House.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

U-S-A! U-S-A!

"The US is the greatest nation in history." You always hear this sort of statement on the campaign trail, but for obvious reasons, no one ever really bothers to question its truth. Until today, when Yglesias decided he'd take Mitt Romney's claims of American superiority seriously, and tested the premise from a variety of angles. His verdict? It seems to be a flat no: potential winners are Norway, China, the Mongol Empire, or the British Empire. But he just can't come up with a metric under which the US takes the blue ribbon.

I'm no ultra-patriot, but in his own words: "Really?"

Look, I get what Matt's going for here. "There are lots of countries, today and throughout history, which have done lots of things really well!" He's right.. but he's missing the forest for the trees. Because, be that as it may, America still dominates any number of indicators of national "bestness." For instance, most obviously, take virtually any indicator which relies on absolute size. Economic size, military strength, cultural influence: the US overwhelms all other potential claimants.

You might think that's cheating -- it's true, as Matt points out, that there have been, at times, nations with relatively more economic weight, relatively greater military might, or amazing cultural longevity. And you might say "Well, if the Mongol Empire had been around when the world population was 7 billion and electricity had been invented, it would more impressive than the US." But it isn't around, and that's the whole point! These nations couldn't exist in the modern day, not at the scale of the United States. It was possible for the Mongol Empire to conquer enormous swaths of the world because the world was sparsely inhabited. The British Empire built up incredible cultural and economic dominance because most of the world hadn't even developed industrially. And let's face it: most people living under the British or the Mongols were not exactly reaping the benefits of the vast might of their respective empires. By contrast, Americans live pretty high on the horse, historically speaking. While American living standards might pale next to Norwegian living standards, they're vastly higher than the living standards of about 99.8% of the people that have ever lived (that statistic is science, people). So all and all, I'd say we're making out pretty well in the "national greatness" department. Add in America's relatively high degree of political stability -- we made it hundreds of years without schisming or self-destructing, and seem to have at least a few more decades left in us -- and the total ubiquity of American culture around the globe, and I don't think this is even a close call. You don't have to like it, but it's hard to argue there's ever been a nation greater than the good ol' US of A.

Hopefully, I'll never have to say this again, but... Mitt Romney: 1, Matthew Yglesias: 0.

Monday, December 19, 2011

There's a movie coming out called Act of Valor and it's an affront to democracy

Here's the trailer. Thrill as Actual Navy Seals engage vaguely threatening terrorists and destroy them with massive firepower!

I'm not some puritan who wants to ban action movies, of which I am an avid viewer. I play and enjoy lots of video games with, well, dubious takes on the proper role of the military in civil society. By no means do I want all popular entertainment to be weighted down with leaden morals.

But something about this film just gives me the creeps. Maybe it's the way it intermixes solemn dialogue about brotherhood and claims of verisimilitude with pure gun porn. Maybe it's the way that the trailer shows Our Fighting Men annihilating the enemy with overwhelming force, but asks us to cheer for them anyway. Maybe it's because the film actually does seem intent on foisting its leaden morals upon us, but is unwilling to extend those morals beyond rough-spoken paeans to the nobility of following orders. One immediately senses that the film received the financial backing and technical assistance of the U.S. military -- it's hard to rent out an aircraft carrier for a film shoot otherwise -- and one can thus safely assume that all moral grayness will be expunged. (Soldiers feeling the pangs of homesickness while pressed into the defense of their country does not count as "moral grayness." Even Stalin's films had that.) All sacrifices will be noble and necessary, all killings will be justified, and the skill and professionalism of the U.S. Navy Seals will be demonstrated time and again.

It gets worse, though. I looked it up and it turns out that film actually began its life as a recruitment ad for the military -- a purpose it clearly has not abandoned. It's not just a piece of entertainment with questionable morals, but an actual attempt to direct young men and women into the business of violence and slaughter by celebrating violence and slaughter. Remember when the military recruited with promises of a college education and self-betterment? Now it's trying to lure in unsuspecting children with the promise of heroism and the chance to look really awesome while shooting really big guns at really bad dudes. Of course, in reality, a lot of kids who join up will get their limbs torn off by anonymously planted explosives. Their friends will retaliate by accidentally blowing up a Pakistani wedding party. Acts of valor, indeed.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ciao Newt (maybe)

It's fair to say, I think, that Newt Gingrich's latest outburst is absolutely the craziest thing to come out of Republican primary season. Crazier than Perry forgetting which pieces of government he wants to abolish, crazier than Santorum's intense focus on starting a war with Iran, crazier than Herman Cain not remembering whether we supported the Libyan regime or the Libyan rebels. Crazier, even, than Newt's own demented fantasy of building a lunar colony. I'll let Steve Benen sum it up:
Just so we’re clear, this week, a leading presidential candidate articulated his belief that, if elected, he might (1) eliminate courts he doesn’t like; (2) ignore court rulings he doesn’t like; and (3) take judges into custody if he disapproves of their legal analyses.

I hope it’s unnecessary to note that Gingrich’s vision is stark raving mad.
In a lot of ways, the GOP race has been all about exploring the furthest reaches of what the Republican Party will accept from its candidates. And thus far, while candidates have suffered deficiencies of what we shall gently call "competence" and "morals," nobody has really run up against a rightward ideological bound. So it's a bit of relief to discover that a lot of Republican bigwigs and commentators find Gingrich's authoritarian instincts just a bit disturbing. I suppose we can all sleep easier knowing that "threatening to dissolve the court system in order to protect conservative social mores" is a bridge too far for the thought leaders of the American right.

Then again. Was Gingrich ever the candidate of the elite? Not really. His candidacy -- like that of Cain, Perry, and Bachmann before him -- was always driven by the Tea Party grassroots, the mass of GOP voters who hate Obama, hate Washington, hate liberals, but most of all, hate Mitt Romney. These people were never following the "thought leaders" in the first place.

So until they abandon Gingrich, I maybe wouldn't exhale just yet. Oh, they probably will sooner or later -- I mean, Santorum hasn't even gotten his chance at the front of the pack yet -- but do they care that some pointy-headed so-called conservative writer in DC thinks that Newt is flirting with fascism? Not likely.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A minor victory for the GOP's dimmest bulbs

Score one for the Tea Party: it's temporarily staved off the incoming regulations that would have phased out incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient incarnations:
The traditional incandescent light bulb won a nine-month reprieve late Thursday from new federal rules that would have led to its demise.

The deal to avert a government shutdown starting Friday night includes a provision that prevents the Department of Energy from spending any money to implement or enforce the energy efficiency standards for light bulbs that is set to start going into effect for 100-watt bulbs in 2012.
From a certain perspective, this isn't that big of a deal. The delay is temporary, the regulations only speed a process that would probably occur anyway, and the meaningful impact of a later start date on the environment is probably pretty low. There are Democratic concessions worth getting angry about, and this isn't one of them.

Which isn't to say that you shouldn't get angry at Republicans for just being so unbelievably petulant all the time. It's hard to think of a simple issue that better illustrates the great gaping ideological void at the heart of the Republican Party than the Light Bulb Kerfuffle of 2011.

Here what's incredible about the light bulb "debate": unlike virtually any other environmental issue, manufacturers and environmentalists are on the same side. The light bulb industry supports the new standards! Now, obviously, the manufacturers aren't being driven by altruism. The new bulbs are more expensive, and I expect their manufacturers see the potential for higher profits when the new standards are adopted. But consumer don't lose: they save money over the long run, by reducing energy costs. It's win-win, unless you're the power company.

The predictable conservative rejoinder is that market forces would resolve the problem eventually, as consumers opted for new bulbs. But why wait? There are plenty of obstacles to an efficient market solution here, as energy efficient bulbs will be sitting on the shelf next to cheaper incandescents, while the long-term savings are hidden away on electric bills. There's every reason to expect that widespread adoption by the market would take a long time, and no particular pragmatic reason to oppose government action to speed that process. And frankly, it's such a small thing. These regulations are totally bog-standard. They don't disrupt the economy. They don't meaningfully expand the regulatory power of the federal government. They're just a small step towards solving a very serious problem.

Not that I've seen very many attempts to mount a good-faith argument against the regulations. As best as I can tell -- and admittedly, I don't hang out with the kind of imbecile that gets tremendously worked up over common-sense attempts to increase energy efficiency -- opposition to these regulations arises from the same fearful adoration of the status quo that drives all reactionaries. Republican concerns seem to be less about what's being done -- "Oh no, our light bulbs are being replaced with slightly better light bulbs!" -- and more about who is doing it; namely, Obama, and the dreaded environmentalists. Oh, it's possible that their brave stand against energy efficiency is the product of short-sighted adherence to first principles, but if we're being completely honest, it's hard not to think that the only principle illuminated here is the GOP's principled opposition to anything supported by one of the many, many groups it fears and loathes.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Remember the Fourth Amendment? It was nice while it lasted [Updated]

This is exactly why the ostensible privacy advocates clamoring for a "subject-based" approach to Fourth Amendment jurisprudence are making a horrible, horrible mistake:
The Los Angeles Times reports that police in North Dakota this past summer made what are believed to be the first arrests of U.S. citizens with the help of a Predator spy drone.

Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke called in the unmanned, unarmed aircraft after he was chased off of a family farm by three men with rifles, the Times explains. It circled the 3,000-acre plot, tracked down the suspects and showed they were unarmed, allowing police to converge and arrest them.

Local police said they have also used Predators for at least two dozen surveillance flights in recent months.
It seems at least plausible that in the most recent case, a warrant was obtained. But I seriously doubt that warrants were issued for all of the dozens of "surveillance flights." Not that you'd have a prayer of challenging a secret search conducted from 30,000 feet, anyway.

Update: according to the original story, the officers did have a warrant. But speaking as someone with more than a passing familiarity with the development of Fourth Amendment law, it's only a matter of time until cops start ignoring the warrant altogether.

Drones actually set up an interesting theoretical question for courts. It's clearly permissible for the government to conduct a search of a property from a low-flying airplane. But there's also always been an implicit floor -- officers can't sit in a helicopter 50 feet above a house and watch you through your sunroof. But drones, if anything, create the opposite scenario: the risk they pose comes from them being too far away to be noticed.

It raises, in unusually stark terms, the question of which interests the Fourth Amendment protects, and what it's intended to guard against. Obnoxious and disruptive searches (in which case, drones are probably okay)? Secret and invasive searches that are difficult to guard against (in which case, they're probably not)? Or is the Fourth Amendment entirely agnostic to the method of the search being conducted, and only intended to protect specific subjects, areas, and spaces (in which case, officers can go absolutely hog wild with drones, so long as they keep their cameras away from private residences)?

Someone tell Matt Yglesias that Chris Paul is doing just fine, thanks

One Yglesias' better qualities as a blogger is his tendency to get bogged down in obscure corners of the policy arena. Land use, monetary policy, Northern European politics... the list goes on. The latest addition seems to be, roughly put, trust-busting. And unfortunately, while I generally agree with Matt's take on economic policy, I think this latest obsession has led him quite badly astray, most notably in this recent post of his.

In his post, Yglesias attacks Democrats generally, and Obama more specifically, for focusing on wealth redistribution as the solution to income inequality. In his view, Obama, et al, ought to be focusing more on policies that addressing the underlying causes of wealth inequality. These policies should differentiate between ill-gotten fortunes, earned through exploitation of the marketplace (think cartels, monopolies, and the like), and well-deserved fortunes, earned by providing a valuable good to willing market consumers. In a timely example, he calls our attention to Chris Paul: CP3 is certainly well-compensated, but he also provides a skill few other people can, and he himself has been continually victimized by cartels in the form the NBA, and previously, the NCAA. Wealth redistribution equally punishes Chris Paul and the cartels that exploit him; it doesn't differentiate between their very different economic roles.

Okay, first, there are a couple of major -- if ancillary -- problems with this argument. For starters, it is not exactly obvious what constitutes correct behavior in the marketplace. Undoubtedly, in many situations, cartels and monopolies are inefficient. Subsidies are inefficient. But not always! And many modern goods and services lie in one of the economic gray areas where it is possible to advance at least a cognizable argument that unconventional market structures are, in fact, ideal. Yglesias is hiding his subjective determinations of correct economic policy behind broad appeals to supposedly-universal market ethics. In reality, the answer isn't usually so clear.

I also object to the idea that taxes should be mentally processed as some sort of punishment. Hardly. Taxes are a contribution towards mutual self-interest. Most calls to raise rates on the rich don't represent an attempt to punish the rich for misbehavior while earning their wealth, but arise instead from a sense that the rich are shirking their responsibility to chip in after they earned their wealth. I don't see why someone' responsibility to their countrymen would be greatly altered because they made money producing valuable goods.

But the real problem with Yglesias' approach is that it's not outcome-oriented. In his concern over market ethics, he's lost sight of the fact that liberals favor wealth redistribution because it works. His recommended policies, by comparison, aren't really about closing the wealth gap at all. They're just wonky methods for fine-tuning the economy and making it more equitable for a select group of participants.

Let me explain. If you take a step back, Yglesias is talking about policies along two separate axes here:
  1. rules, regulations, and other government intervention to enforce a code of "market ethics" that breaks up inefficient monopolies and cartels, and

  2. straightforward wealth redistribution that takes money from all rich people (yes, even people like Steve Jobs and Chris Paul) and gives it to all poor people, be it in the form of health care, food stamps, or tax breaks.
Imagine a world in which we enact the first bundle of policies and ignore the second. Does this approach really move the needle on wealth inequality? Maybe a little -- certainly, market pressures would ensure some goods would be available to more people for less cost -- but I can't think of any historical evidence of a correlation between "market fairness" and economic equality. It's libertarian fantasy to imagine that a correctly managed marketplace would flatten itself out and begin correcting wealth imbalances. Indeed, his own example works against him: the cartels themselves might get poorer, but the genuine producers (again, think Chris Paul) would just enrich themselves even further. There might be increased opportunity for competition in the marketplace, but opportunities would remain finite: for most, economic pressures would probably remain basically unchanged. In short, while the composition of people holding the lion's share of wealth might change -- and for the better, because high-earners would be theoretically contributing more to society -- it's far less apparent that the divide between the haves and the have-nots would significantly subside.

Now imagine the opposite scenario: we enact robust wealth redistribution policies and leave bad market behavior untouched. Here, the wealth gap narrows dramatically. The standard of living of the poor noticeably improves, although the total productive capacity of society remains somewhat below the optimum. And who suffers as a result of these priorities? While everyone is less well off than they could be in an idealized, maximally productive economy, the only people who are worse off than in the previous scenario are, in fact, the well-off. People like Chris Paul, and other well- but under-compensated economic producers. They still fall victim to bad behavior in the market, and some of their money is skimmed indiscriminately away by the government.

And look, I love Chris Paul. But cartels or no cartels, taxes or no taxes, Chris Paul isn't really suffering. And it's not just him: most of the people who are seriously harmed by bad market behavior aren't suffering either. They're only victimized relative to some theoretical measure of their worth in a economy that isn't our economy. Taxes aren't going to change that: one of the nice things about marginal tax brackets is that they can't actually drive anyone into poverty. In absolute terms, these people have got more than enough money to get by without undue physical or mental distress.

The same, of course, cannot be said for the people at the very bottom of the economic food chain. Market fairness doesn't help them, but wealth redistribution sure does. Reduced income inequality sure does.

In reality, it's never going to be all one or all the other. And there's nothing preventing us from pursuing both. We should! But to the extent that progressives hope to rectify wealth disparities -- whether it's because they think it's important to help the less fortunate, or because they believe a more equal society functions more efficiently (and I happen to believe both) -- they can't get too caught up in the task of distinguishing between earned and unearned wealth. Old-fashioned redistribution is a far better means of creating a more equal society, and deserves its centrality in liberal policy and rhetoric.

Friday, December 9, 2011

This is your government.

Dave Weigel describes the ever-mounting appointments crisis.
I asked Lugar how IPAB would be affected if no one was confirmed to it. “There’s always the possibility of filling these jobs during a recess,” he shrugged. But perhaps Lugar doesn’t even need to worry about that possibility. Since the end of May, the Republican-run House has effectively ended recess appointments. How? By simply refusing to go into recess.

This isn’t a new idea. When Democrats took the House and Senate in 2006, they declined to pass adjournment resolutions during breaks. Keeping Congress in “pro forma sessions” turns out to be easy—you send a member from Virginia or Maryland in to bang the gavel every third day, and voila, no recess. Republicans aren’t saying anything on the record yet about how they’ll handle the end of the year, when there’s typically a short recess to mark the interregnum between sessions. (There’s a chance that the payroll tax fight could drag on longer than they planned.) We do know what they’re allowed to do. The House could refuse to adjourn until the moment before the next session begins. On Jan. 3, at 11:59 a.m., it could end the first session of the 112th Congress; at noon, the second session would begin. No time for a recess. No way for Obama to appoint someone to the CFPB or anything else.

Are there ways for the administration or Senate Democrats to get around this? There are theories, and the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has been collecting the best ones. ThinkProgress judicial blogger Ian Millhiser has called for Obama to use “the Teddy Roosevelt precedent” and copy what the original progressive did in 1903, when a half-day recess turned into an orgy of 160 appointments.
There's something not-so-vaguely revolutionary about the Republican Party's de facto rejection of any outcome that runs counter to its own interests. After all, isn't that what a revolution is? Political disputes that spill outside the usual arena because the opposition refuses to honor the ordinary process for resolving political conflict. Whatever substantive differences divide the combatants, opposition becomes an attack on the legitimacy of the system itself.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Why I like LMFAO

This probably always inevitable. The punditocracy has discovered LMFAO. Even as we speak, a flock of Ivy-educated intellectuals are cautiously circling the group, eying it up like some incomprehensible cultural artifact from a long-forgotten race. Slate's take is positive. TNR's is mostly about Mitt Romney.

So the time has come, I suppose, for me to publicly confess: I'm a LMFAO fan.

Sorry, mom. I know you had high hopes for me.

I don't listen to their music, of course. Does anyone? Even more than most Top 40 artists, LMFAO makes no attempt to disguise the formula behind their craft. Even someone as musically inept as me can listen to any of their songs twice and immediately recognize that there's nothing more to any of them than a dance beat, some slurred "rapping," and a catchy, hooky bit that stays in your head far longer than you'd ever want (the wiggle, if you will).

Still: thank god for LMFAO. Because implicit in all their stupid music, in their stupid personas, and their stupid songs, is the idea that pop music ought to be fun. That pop music is silly, and that it's okay to be silly, and that anyone who takes pop music too seriously is absolutely missing the point.

That might seem obvious, but I don't think it is, to a lot of people. There are people who take their dance clubs very seriously. Go to any club on a Saturday night and you'll scads of them, the girls in little dresses and the guys in too-tight button-ups, all grossly cocky and prettified. The atmosphere is toxic. These people think they're having fun, but it's nasty sort of fun, more about strutting and self-regard and sexual conquest than about simply having a laugh and letting loose with some friends.

Next to this sort of peacockery, LMFAO seems positively wholesome. With absurdly over-the-top lyrics, class-clown antics, and leopard-print, LMFAO repudiates the idea that dancing and clubbing should be an act of sexual predation. Their message to the club-creeps: "We might look stupid, but so do you, and at least we don't care."

It's refreshing, and more: it's eminently relatable. Normal people, after all, don't look good on the dance floor. They look goofy! And LMFAO embraces this. Smart people have always known that dancing and self-deprecation go hand in hand, but LMFAO takes it a step further: the very act of dancing to "Sexy and I Know It" is necessarily self-deprecating. It's a song designed to humiliate anyone who takes it seriously, and good riddance.

In that way, "Sexy and I Know It" and much of the rest of LMFAO's oeuvre forms the very antithesis of the skin-crawling date-rape anthems that sometimes creep onto the Top 40. (Enrique Iglesias, I'm looking at you.) Was this intentional? I don't know, and I don't care. At least for now, LMFAO and their wiggles have helped drive some of the leering machismo out of dance music, and that's no mean feat. It's the first step towards making the club safe for the rest of us.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Romney uncertainty principle

Has anyone else noticed that any observation of Mitt Romney supports two equally plausible, contradictory conclusions?

For instance, this chart:

gives rise to:
  • Wow, even with his mediocre poll numbers, look at all the support Mitt Romney has garnered from party elites! Surely, he's wrapped the nomination up.
  • Wow, even with his huge amounts of support from party elites, look how mediocre Mitt Romney's polls numbers are! Surely, the nomination is still in the air.

(For the record, I'm more in the latter camp. But of course, who can say?)

h/t Jamelle Bouie

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Brief supercommittee note

While I've previously pointed out the silliness inherent in hoping that a supercommittee could somehow escape the divisions that frustrated Congress proper this summer, it turns out that the supercommittee also might have been designed for failure from the get-go. On both sides, its members held more extreme views than the average member of their party.

I don't have much to say about this, other than to note that it's hardly some fluke of chance. The supercommittee was envisioned as a means of escaping the partisan pressures that made compromise impossible this summer, but as we see now, escaping those pressure is basically impossible. Instead, the focal point of that pressure just got moved around. A committee structure might have insulated the negotiators themselves from their respective party bases, but it also created additional pressure to appoint negotiators who were ideologically acceptable. If Mary Landrieu and Lindsay Graham had been on the supercommittee instead of Pat Murray and Jon Kyl, maybe there could have been a compromise. But Reid, McConnell, and the rest knew full well that their parties would melt down if they put too many moderates on the committee.

(h/t: Ezra Klein, who linked to the blog post above, but whose post I can't actually link to myself because the Washington Post blog archive is hilariously broken)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Two Minutes Hate with Douglas Holtz-Eakin

It's easy to get all worked up about the crazies in the GOP (a faction currently, ludicrously, represented by Newt Gingrich), but occasionally you have to take a step back and remember the degree to which "reasonable Republicans" have acquiesced in the crazies' ascendance. There's a whole class of right-leaning DC technocrats acting as professional apologists and enablers, excusing the Tea Party's excesses by arguing that the current administration is somehow even worse. Something I was reminded of today, while reading this interview with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the right-leaning former head of the Congressional Budget Office.

Holtz-Eakin is quick to hammer the administration for putting economic growth last on the agenda:
[E]conomic growth is not a bill. It’s not a speech. Growth is a priority. So when we make policy decisions, we should put growth at the top, particularly right now. We shouldn’t let the health agenda or the labor agenda or the green agenda trump growth. And at every close call, the administration has gone the other way. It’s not that those other policy values are wrong. It’s that growth is coming in last place with this administration and now they’re paying for it.
Now it's true that his exact complaint seems to be pretty vague. He's not naming actual policies where the administration put the environment ahead of jobs, or labor ahead of jobs. (And it's not hard to think of counterexamples -- this is the administration that okayed offshore drilling and ditched EFCA.)

But what tips this from "largely pointless grousing" to "actually sort of insane" is that Holtz-Eakin himself has no real recommendations for how to fix the economy.

Oh, sure, he has a handful of suggestions. Fix Social Security. Lower corporate tax rates. Institute a consumption tax. But none of these things are responses to the current economic doldrums! They're just bog-standard Republican policy suggestions, no more germane today than in 2004.

In other words, Holtz-Eakin is criticizing the administration for pursuing a Democratic policy agenda without directly addressing the flagging economy. His proposed solution? Pursuing a Republican policy agenda without directly addressing the flagging economy!

His repeated insistence on entitlement reform is particularly wacky, because he literally just, two paragraphs earlier, blasted Democrats for prioritizing long-run health policy over short-term growth policy. He then turns around and prattles on about how reforming Social Security is essential -- even though Social Security is on sound footing through 2030! It's a ludicrous complaint: you simply cannot criticize this administration for not addressing the growth of entitlement costs. Whatever else you say about the health care bill, it is also the largest successful entitlement reform in the history of the United States. Obama pursued the bill even as political support for it collapsed, and its the crowning achievement of his policy agenda. Entitlement reform, it seems, only matters when it's the exact kind of entitlement reform that Douglas Holtz-Eakin already agrees with.

Nor is it exactly clear why favoring traditional Democratic policies in marginal cases should trump the administration's direct measures on the economy. In Holtz-Eakin's conception of the world, the economy sucks because Democrats have, in occasional obscure instances, addressed problems other than economic growth with its policymaking. But what about the administration's many, many attempts to pass bills and adopt policies with the express aim of fixing the economy? Well, they don't count, apparently.

So I guess he sort of have a point. If we exclude all the times when the administration attempted to fix the economy, the administration hasn't really done much to fix the economy.

Not that he'd actually do anything about the economy, either. When asked if he'd adopt any policies specially tailored to the current situation, this is the best he can come up with:
We already did them. We have crossed policy lines we never dreamed we’d cross. That sense of throwing anything at the wall and seeing what sticks, that’s what we did during TARP and stimulus. We have been growing for two years now. We’re not in freefall. Now we need to get back to our knitting and have better growth.
That's right: the economy will solve itself -- so get back to your knitting, America!

It's pretty clear what's actually happening here. Holtz-Eakin is concern trolling. He's pretending that he, by and large, shares the ultimate aims of the administration, but has some technocratic objections to its priorities. The content of his objections gives him away, though: his differences are over policy, not over priorities. His actual priorities are, if anything, much less growth-focused than the Democrats'. He's just annoyed that a Democratic administration has chosen to pursue left-center solutions to problems, because he himself is right-leaning and would prefer right-leaning solutions. That's a pretty good case for why Douglas Holtz-Eakin should vote Republican in 2012, but a pretty lousy case for why everyone else should. Of course, he can't say that out loud, so he's ginned up some reasonable-sounding, intellectually dishonest criticisms that probably sound pretty good to political independents.

You know the old saw about "all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing?" Well, I don't know if Holtz-Eakin is a good man, exactly, but he's certainly not a stupid man. And either way, he seems dead-set on doing absolutely nothing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Study lessons from Congress

At this very moment, I'm rushing to complete my law review student note for the deadline on Monday. This is a process that I've made immeasurably more difficult for myself, because I made some very poor choices a month ago when I was designing the topic. I quickly realized that a few of my conclusions were, as I had outlined them, untenable, but at the time I didn't really see a way to work out the kinks. So instead, I just took note of the trickiest issues so that I could work them out before the final deadline. Theoretically, time pressure at this later date would help me focus my mind and solve the problems I wasn't able or willing to solve at the time.

Does this sound like a horrible work strategy to you? Maybe it is. But I can at least take solace in the fact that no less an institution than the United States Congress adopted the exact same strategy. It, too, faced an irresolvable conundrum a few months ago. And it, too, decided that the best way to solve the problem was to wait a few months and raise the stakes. It too expected that, by doing so, it could avoid the obstacles that dogged it the first time around (in this case, in large part, Republican intransigence over taxes). And it too has reached the deadline, and discovered that its problems have not magically evaporated, but are exactly the same and as exactly as difficult as they had been before.

The Supercommittee technically hasn't failed yet, but its failure is starting to seem like a foregone conclusion. Then again, failure might have been a foregone conclusion from the very beginning. Which doesn't actually give me much solace at all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Atlas shrugs, becomes an i-banker

A lot of people have taken Steve Jobs' recent passing as occasion to comment on the man's contribution to the American economy, very often elevating him as an example of the many social benefits that capitalistic ingenuity and hard work can bring for the rest of us. So it was with a little bit of satisfaction that I read this very smart post by Matt Yglesias. To whatever extent the promise of wealth and fame drives Americans to innovate and invent, it's important to remember that there are lesser pursuits that offer greater rewards.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Republicans concerned about effect of actual party luminaries on Republican Party

Via the Prospect and the Times, a hilarious new take on the Republican presidential race:
The Republican presidential candidates have served comedians a full platter of laughs this year — a steady diet of gaffes, misstatements, puzzled looks and long, awkward pauses...

[T]he embarrassing moments are piling up, and some veteran Republicans are beginning to wonder whether the cumulative effect weakens the party brand, especially in foreign policy and national security, where Republicans have typically dominated Democrats.

“It is an ‘Animal House.’ It’s a food fight,” said Kenneth Duberstein, a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. “Honestly, the Republican debates have become a reality show. People have to be perceived as being capable of governing this country, of being the leader of the free world.”
The Times doesn't really say what the real issue is here, which is something I addressed a bit in my last post. The paper mentions Obama's "57 states" misstatement -- more on that in a moment -- but these mistakes are qualitatively different from that one. Recent Republican gaffes have generally called into question just how knowledgeable or intelligent the candidates actually are. They're not always just verbal missteps. On some level, they speak to the basically fraudulent nature of the most visible manifestation of GOP policy thinking, and expose the degree to which any GOP president would be essentially an empty suit implementing the policy initiatives of his political backers. After eight years of Bush handing out sops to special interests while exhibiting no policy vision of his own, the current GOP candidates are doing absolutely nothing to combat the political stereotype of the Patronage Republican.

Anyway, the Prospect's writers resist temptation to pile on the snark, but, well, they're better than me. The GOP is worried that public exposure to its leading politicians will sour the public on the whole party? This is a ludicrous problem for a major political party to be having! Maybe the GOP should stop worrying whether its presidential candidates can survive another fourteen debates without severely damaging the rest "the party brand," and worry a little bit more about whether we can survive four years of one of these clowns without severely damaging the United States. Let's make a rule: if you don't support someone standing in front of a television camera for a few debates, you're not allowed to support that person's presidential bid either.

And about that "57 states" thing: it's striking how quickly Republican message makers have managed to install Obama's years-old misstatement as the default comparison for GOP gaffes. The comparison clearly favors Republicans: Obama's mistake was obviously a verbal slip, and no one would seriously try to argue that the man was unaware how many states make up the Union. Putting his error side-by-side with Rick Perry's and Herman Cain's suggests that they, too, were mistakes primarily born of inattention and fatigue. But come on -- is it really that implausible that Herman Cain doesn't know the first thing about Libya? That Rick Perry isn't particularly familiar with the structure of the federal government?

Everything Rick Perry can do, Herman Cain can do better

I figure everyone's seen this by now, but just in case, here's Herman Cain's big moment from a couple of days ago. The first minute contains a sublime combination of discomfort and comedy that's almost British in its sensibilities.

Cain's blank stare is about as an embarrassing a gaffe as I can imagine. It's not a slip 'o the tongue "Oops, did I say Italy? I meant Libya" type misstep. Nor is it the sort of brainlock that derailed Rick Perry a week ago. Instead, the clip above shows Cain obviously and shamelessly not knowing even the most basic facts about the biggest foreign policy developments of the last year. Frankly, he just looks dim. I would make fun of school friends for not knowing this, nevermind the current Republican presidential frontrunner! And Cain is not some wacky Tea Party fringe candidate (or, well, he is, but not exclusively that). We're talking about a man whose bid to become the country's next commander-in-chief has been endorsed and supported by a large number of otherwise respectable Republicans.

I guess we should stop being surprised at some point -- this is the party that gave us Sarah Palin as a national figure -- but it does boggle the mind how many ignoramuses the GOP has managed to elevate to national prominence. Why does this keep happening?

You might just say "well, that's just politics," but I don't buy it. I'm basically satisfied with most of the leading lights of the Democratic Party, and whatever their limitations and lapses, I trust that they're intelligent and committed enough to learn at least the broad contours of major issues. Can a well-educated Republican really say the same for most of the GOP presidential field?

While I think aspects of right-wing thought do celebrate ignorance -- again, this is the party of Sarah Palin -- a lot of the problem seems more recent than structural. Certainly, no presidential contest in my lifetime has been as much of a clown show as this primary season. You have to assume it's because the right's Obama-oriented politics of the last three years have opened up an opportunity for journeymen GOP message men. From the outside, it certainly appears that the primary criterion of Republican approval of any given public figure is whether or not that person has criticized the president from a staunchly conservative perspective. Unfortunately, "having criticized Obama" doesn't really correlate with "having done anything else of note," so we end up with a field of goofy mismatched primary contestants with no demonstrable interest in policy.

EDIT: One additional thing. I'm trying to think if we saw a similar trend among Democrats during the Bush years -- after all, Bush was hated by the left nearly as much as the right hates Obama. And I'm just not seeing it. While the Democrats celebrated some figures largely for their animosity towards Bush, nobody seriously considered running, say, Michael Moore for president. The most anti-Bush individual to achieve political prominence was Howard Dean, but Dean was also a very qualified politician who has spent the last eight years proving his talent as a policy advocate and political operator. The current GOP field seems flimsy in a way that simply isn't comparable to the Democrats' recent offerings.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What Joe Paterno did and didn't do

Faced with Joe Paterno's apparent complicity in a sexual abuse coverup, the nation's media is currently undergoing a bit of reckoning. Cue a stream of columns and articles that attempt to square the biography of the previously-admirable old man with the horrifying allegations against his former colleague. Most of what I've read seems to fall into one of two camps. First, there's the view adopted by ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, perhaps most aptly described as Paterno-as-Machiavelli.
His spectacular rise and equally spectacular fall prove once more that absolute power absolutely corrupts or, at the very least, blurs the vision. And make no mistake: Paterno's power and influence at Penn State was often vast and overpowering.

"Joe is -- was -- in absolute control of Penn State athletics," says a former BCS conference official who had a long working relationship with Paterno. "There's no question about it."

Says another BCS conference administrator: "Joe's got a dark side. He's not always that witty old man. Joe can be very, very tough. He's very smart."

The more phone calls you make to those who know Paterno, who have worked with Paterno and who have socialized with Paterno, the more you realize he isn't simply the smiling cardboard cutout figure that the riotous crowds in downtown State College used as a symbol of their unrest.

The descriptions from one administrator: "Fabulous and horrendous" … "Surreptitious" … "Self-absorbed" … "Calculating" … "Protective of everything he's done."

JoePa is three-dimensional, capable of extraordinary acts of kindness and charity, as well as extraordinary acts of backroom politics. But he isn't who we thought he was.
Then there's the view of the New York Times' Ross Douthat: that Paterno was a saint, undone by his own saintliness.
It was precisely because Joe Paterno had done so much good for so long that he could do the unthinkable, and let an alleged child rapist continue to walk free in Penn State’s Happy Valley.

Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.

I believe that Joe Paterno is a good man. I believe Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, the brilliant sportswriter who is working on a Paterno biography, when he writes that Paterno has “lived a profoundly decent life” and “improved the lives of countless people” with his efforts and example.
Both these explanations strike me as supremely silly. And both, in their own way, aggrandize Paterno. In both, he remains a towering figure, more than a man, someone capable of inhuman feats of both good and evil.

Let me be the killjoy here and offer a third, more boring, and more plausible theory: Joe Paterno was neither a misguided saint nor a secret Machiavelli -- he was just a old man. And his complicity in the Penn State scandal was the result of him acting no differently than other people act. More specifically, he operated under the influence of some extremely commonplace cognitive biases. As far as I can tell, he made three major errors -- errors that might not have fooled a collegiate demigod, but could befall most old men -- and although in another context they could have been harmless, here they led to his downfall. In no particular order:

Keeping it in the family: Obviously, this is the big one, the one that will dog Penn State in the months and years ahead. Increasingly it seems that the university encouraged a culture of silence, letting the administration and its police force quietly address problems related to the football program, so as to not tarnish the school's national reputation. But let me suggest there's a difference -- in intent, if not result -- between "keeping it in the family" and a more conventional coverup. There's no indication that Paterno acted with the intent of helping Sandusky avoid punishment or justice. Instead, Paterno appears to have misidentified the correct authority for dealing with the situation. Rather than pitching Sandusky in front of the police, the courts, or society at large, Paterno seems to have believed that the correct arbiter was the Penn State administration. Penn State and its related institutions played such a large role in his life that they eventually, for him, began to blot out the legitimate institutions that govern society.

Today, we can all see the horrible outcome of this error, but I think if we're being honest with ourselves, we also have to admit we're all susceptible to it. The importance of an institution is determined as much by proximity as by logic. We all value the judgment of our friends more than the judgment of strangers; society's justice is often less important than family justice. And I believe that most people, in a similar situation, would feel a similar instinct. If you saw someone doing something wrong at work, would you call the police or call the boss? If you saw a friend commit a crime, would the first number you dialed be 911 or a mutual acquaintance? We all want to answer the former, but history and experience counsels that, more often than not, we'll do the latter instead.

Passing the buck: Paterno, just like McQueary (the witness) before him, apparently felt that his responsibility for resolving the problem ended the moment he informed a superior that the problem existed. We all know about Stanley Milgram and the very human tendency to defer to authority; the Paterno affair illustrates the flipside of that problem, and shows why deference can be so appealing. We defer to authority because deference absolves us of the responsibility to figure out tricky questions for ourselves. And thanks to the instinctual tendency to keep it in the family, I'm sure the Sandusky question seemed tricky enough. No doubt Paterno -- like McQueary -- felt that the approach that had been taken was probably the correct approach, by virtue of the fact that the Boss-man had taken it.

Playing telephone: The nature of Sandusky's offenses mutated over time, as they were passed between Penn State officials. As they were reported up the chain of authority at Penn State, the specifics vanished and were replaced with non-descriptive mush. As described by Harrisburg's Patriot-News:
According to the grand jury, then, here is how McQueary’s eyewitness account became watered down at each stage:

McQueary: anal rape.
Paterno: something of a sexual nature.
Schultz: inappropriately grabbing of the young boy’s genitals.
Curley: inappropriate conduct or horsing around.
Spanier: conduct that made someone uncomfortable.
Raykovitz: a ban on bringing kids to the locker room.
Up the entire chain of authority, you see an unwillingness to describe Sandusky's crimes as what they actually were. Instead, the description of the event became bureaucratized; the awful "anal rape" became the ambiguous "inappropriate grabbing" and eventually the barely-merits-concern "conduct that made someone uncomfortable."

The tone in the news story suggests this was somehow intentional -- that ambiguity was being used as a tactic to protect Sandusky -- but personally, I find that idea untenable. It's a clumsy way to orchestrate a conspiracy of silence, requiring participation from too many parties. The basic problem, on the other hand, can happen to anyone -- Telephone is a children's game for a reason.

Although each link in the chain appears to have stripped significant amounts of information out of the story, it's likely that nobody is truly at fault here. More probably, the gradual thinning out of the charges represents the difficulty of describing horrific acts of sexual violence in the sterilized language we've decided is appropriate for professional interaction. I also suspect the problem was inadvertently worsened by the severity of the crimes, which could have caused the parties to choose their words with greater than ordinary caution. Unfortunately, the perception that scandals and crimes should be addressed as neutrally and seriously as possible often leads participants to use more Adminspeak, not less -- even when the simple clarity of day-to-day language would more than suffice.

I don't mean to defend Paterno, of course. Precisely because these biases are so commonplace and their effects can be so corrosive, we expect our leaders to rise above them and do what's right instead of what's normal. And perhaps Paterno, with so many years' experience, should have known more than most about the psychological maladies that plague institutions. But it's not hard to understand how the scandal could have happened, even without grandiose moral theories or dramatic revisions to Paterno's character.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

How much Italian suffering is actually necessary?

Media outlets have almost universally described Berlusconi's resignation as the beginning of new, hard era for Italians, in which they might be subjected to harsh reforms designed to keep the nation's debt under control.
Both there and in Greece, jumbled parliaments came together with urgency to install more technocratic governments that are committed to delivering the difficult reforms and austerity measures demanded by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
That sounds pretty dire! Euro-centric technocrats swooping into government, carrying with them a new, tough agenda that promotes the welfare of international bodies and organizations.

How have the Italian people reacted to their plight? With, uh, raucous street celebrations.

Am I the only one who notices a mismatch here? Those celebrating Italians don't exactly have the look of people about to have their happiness crushed under the jackboot of internationalist technocrats.

On some level, this incongruity seems connected to something I don't understand terribly well about the eurozone crisis: why reform must be so difficult for Italy in the first place.

As far as I'm aware, Italy faces a very specific problem. While it is currently running budget surpluses, it has a massive amount of debt floating around. The key to keeping Italy afloat, then, is to ensure that it can continue to pay the interest on its debt, and, over time, pay down the principal as well. That in turn requires Italian GDP to grow -- either nominally, through inflation, or actually, through, well, economic growth.

The ECB seems presently unwilling to print money and assist Italy by inflating the euro. As a result, Italy has little choice but to seek a growth-oriented path out of the crisis. (This may not be feasible, of course, but bear with me.) That's ostensibly the agenda of the post-Berlusconi Italian national leadership.

But here's the thing: Italian economic growth is good for everyone, including Italians. Pro-growth reforms shouldn't be deeply unpopular -- they should be very popular! And yet, you'd be hard-pressed to find a prescription for saving the eurozone that doesn't yammer on about the need for Italy to impose "discipline" or "accept difficult reform." It's as if fixing the crisis entails whipping profligate Italians, and paying back bondholders with tears.

Look, no set of reforms is going to be all wine and roses for Italians. But, likewise, no plausible set of reforms should actually slow the Italian economy, either. Doing so would just make everybody worse off. So the idea that fixing the eurozone requires horrendous sacrifice from the Italian people just doesn't parse for me.

I don't get it. The interests of Italy and the interests of the rest of Europe seem at least somewhat aligned at the moment -- but nobody's seemed to notice, because they're too busy trying to instill some misguided moral order.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The 4:17 A.M. take on the Obama presidency

...is, as it turns out, almost exactly the same as Ezra Klein's view of the Obama presidency, described here in detail.

His piece comes highly recommended. Speaking as a completely impartial observer, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more rational, even-handed point of view.

The five worst things in Slate's new blog

There's a new blog on Slate! It's called The Reckoning; it's by Michael Moran. And there's no reason to beat around the bush here: everything about this blog appears to be completely awful. So without further ado, here are the five worst things in The Reckoning's inaugural post.

1. It's devoted to American declinism

The whole blog is, apparently. Moran spends almost every paragraph clubbing the reader over the head with the same idea: that American economic power is diminishing.

One problem: without context, declinism is an insipid topic. It's nonetheless popular among publishers, because readers eat it up. "American decline" sounds scary and important, and works as a blank canvas onto which people can project their fears about the economy and foreign wars and the environment and China. Everyone can read blogs like Moran's and have their worst fears confirmed; it feeds into the weird little strain of fatalism that most people have.

In a vicious cycle of misinformation, short-term domestic and international problems creates alarmism over the collapse of American power, and then alarmism over the collapse of American power leads to short-sighted policy that creates domestic and international problems. Rather than making any effort to forestall this cyclone of stupidity, Moran seems more intent on riding it to blogospheric success.

2. It thinks it's breaking new ground
Moran casts himself as some sort of far-sighted oracle, able to look past parochial concerns and see the very arc of history. He makes more than one reference to the slow awakening of the American population to the problem of decline, referring to the "thick skull of the American collective consciousness." He also suggests several times over that D.C. politicians would rather pretend that decline didn't exist.

He could hardly be more wrong if he were trying. Declinism is incredibly widespread. I'm sure everybody's heard somebody give voice to the commonplace notion that "we'll all be speaking Chinese in fifty years." And Michael, probably every single pundit in the Western world has already beaten you to the punch. Columns lamenting American decline are to syndicated editorialists what Scrubs reruns are to basic cable networks: they churn them out when there's nothing else to show or talk about.

And don't even get me started on the politicians. They're not ignoring the perception of waning American influence, they're responsible for it. Aspiring politicos discovered long ago that American fears can be exploited for personal gain. Moran's just late to the party.

3. It doesn't understand the difference between relative decline and absolute decline
Amazingly, the post gets worse when it moves from generalities to specifics. It spends a long time talking worriedly about how the US share of global economic output is shrinking. But like all relative measures of wealth, this statistic standing alone tells nothing about the actual health of the US economy. It only tells us that other economies around the world are growing faster than ours. This could be because American economic progress has stalled out -- or it could be because other countries were dirt-poor for a very long time and are currently going through phase of massive catch-up growth. (As it turns out, the second scenario accounts for most of the trend.) The significant thing for Americans is whether living conditions in the United States are improving or worsening; in short, how the economy is performing in absolute terms. That's an important question, but it's a question that relative measures can't help us answer.

Moran spends a lot of time playing off the widespread impression that America is somehow harmed when living conditions improve in other countries. But he undermines his own point when he acknowledges that US relative influence has been declining since 1946; in other words, since the end of a massive war that devastated all the other industrial countries. Americans have a strange fetish for always being number one, but is it better to be king of a pile of ashes or the first among many prosperous equals? The richer the rest of the world gets, the more of our stuff they can buy.

The blog does acknowledge that "share of global output" isn't a very useful economic indicator. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to know why, reminding us that "the more serious measurements—potential growth rates, GDP per capita, GDP itself," have recently "turned south relative to other global competitors." Sigh.

4. It thinks both American political parties are equally wrong
Apparently not content to adopt merely half of the Washington Post's editorial conventions, Moran throws in a healthy dose of pox-on-both-your-houses-ism. It's as condescending as ever (mocking partisans for placing their hopes in senators and presidents instead of, say, obscure internet commentators), but he actually finds a new twist on the idea. While most latter day political cynics prefer to bleat about the truth being in the middle, Moran actually travels back more than a decade and adopts Ralph Nader's old saw: the parties are both the same. He lumps them together, decrying the "incrementalism" of their solutions (without, of course, proposing his own). Given that the range of opinion between the two parties is probably larger now than its been in fifty years, it's hard not to wonder what idea could possibly be bold enough for Moran. Nationalize the banks? Invade someone? State socialism? Colonize the solar system?

5. In an appalling display of false modesty, the author links to his own Wikipedia page

Honestly, anyone who does this should be shot.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Replace the European elite with European federalism

If you’re not Greek (and most people aren’t), the news that the Greeks are going to resolve the political unpopularity of the new austerity package being imposed by the European Union by forming a grand coalition immune to public opinion and political pressure is probably good news. It’s much less clear to me that this is good news for Greek people. At the end of the day, had Greece played chicken and insisted on a better deal, I think the Germans would ultimately have paid up. It’s cheaper to bail Greece out than to deal with the fallout. But for the non-Greeks of the world, this is definitely the best outcome.

That it’s playing out this way is, I think, an example of a benign consequence of the rise of the global ruling class. The leadership of a small upper-middle-income country is willing to do something unpopular and likely contrary to the interests of its population for the sake of the greater good. Still, as a structural matter I think it’s a fairly disturbing trend. The action is now moving on to Italy where “international community” is basically trying to stage a coup against Silvio Berlusconi. Here, too, that sounds like a good outcome for the world if it can be achieved but again constitutes a fairly disturbing trajectory.
As Matt points out, if you're not Greek, the best possible substantive outcome is that the government knuckles under. But Matt is also correct that it's a galling turn of events: the democratic preferences of Greeks overridden by the technocratic preferences of the European elite.

Which is why it's worth pointing out that there's a way to achieve the same substantive end while giving Greece the procedural voice it's currently being denied. The best way to do this is, of course, is to make Greece a part of a pan-European state, into which each member country elects representatives and would in turn be legally bound to follow the dictates of the European Parliament.

A lot of people seem to think Europe is better off splintering, but that's loony -- even absent the eurozone, the nations in Europe are too closely linked economically and geographically to pursue their own interests without impinging upon the interest of their neighbors. In a sense, the European ruling class is doing the lord's work here: they've recognized that there needs to be a way to subordinate provincial concerns to the greater good, and in the absence of a formal mechanism, have directed their influence towards that end.

But why have a shadow government when you can just have a government? Europe needs to formalize what already exists; surely even euroskeptics can agree that letting this process play out in plain sight is superior to letting roving heads of government beat legislatures into submission.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Consensus and Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street might be old news by now, but the movement itself seems to be hanging in there for the time being. Good for them! Still, it's not hard to be pessimistic. The movement's consensus-based structure seems to contain the seeds of its own destruction; it's really hard to see how any sort of organization rooted in or founded on the same principles as OWS could last for long.

As I understand it, most of the various OWS "General Assemblies" require a very, very high degree of consensus before they take any sort of action or adopt sort of position. It's surely this approach that has, so far, helped hold the whole thing together -- there aren't many opportunities for the movement to schism if everyone in the movement has their voice represented by default.

But that can only last so long as there are no truly irreconcilable differences between the members. If any issue emerges pitting a significant portion of the movement against another large subset of the movement, then it's hard to see how the consensus model provides any stability.

The most fundamental purpose of any political system -- and by "political system," I mean both in the traditional sense and or the internal political mechanisms of an organization -- is to resolve conflict. Political systems, before they do anything else, must find a viable means of choosing between two competing visions of what should happen.

OWS doesn't seem to do that. It fails on this foundational level. Instead, its political system seems to adopt an almost-tautological position: so long as you're part of the movement, it'll do what you want, and if it doesn't do what you want, then you're not part of it. There's plenty of warm fuzzy feelings to go around, but when internal conflicts do emerge, there's no precedent for forcing the losing side to swallow their grievances and stick with the movement.

In a way, the most successful political systems are those that balance the two extremes: they have to effectively resolve conflict, but they also have to exhibit inclusiveness, like OWS is trying to do. There need to be political losers for anything to ever get done, but political losers also need to be included in the process such that they're able accept defeat without throwing into question the legitimacy of the entire system. OWS is protesting a system that has the former quality but not the latter, but in doing so, they've created an organization that has the latter quality but not the former.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Selling out Cain

As you've may have heard by now, Herman Cain has accused Rick Perry's staff of leaking the sexual harassment charges currently hounding Cain's White House bid. From a purely tactical point of view, it makes sense that the leaks would come from Perry, who desperately needs Cain to collapse in order to regain his footing among voters. (Yglesias and Neil Sinhababu, to their credit, fingered Perry as the culprit days ago.) How did Perry's staff even know about the the decade-old accusations in the first place? Well, uh, they used to work for Cain.

TNR has an instructive question about the affair:
The flurry of charges and demands for apologies between the two camps leaves me with one question: why doesn' t this sort of thing happen more often? Political consultants are famously mercenary, jumping from one team to another with the constancy of a left-handeded reliever or utility infielder. Why don't we hear of more instances of consultants picking up damaging information about a candidate they're working for one year and then using it, years later, when they happen to be working in the camp of a candidate in opposition to the former employer? Do they do so often but manage to be discreet about it? Or is there in fact an honor among thieves that generally constrains such behavior?
Wait, seriously? We're talking about people whose livelihoods depend on getting hired into political campaigns every election season. Presidential campaigns only last, at best, two years at a time (unless you're working for Mitt Romney, in which case they last forever). The vast majority of campaigns fail. Almost to a man, everybody working for a Republican primary candidate right now is going to need to hitch their star to new politician -- and soon. Can you imagine a more egregious way to poison the well of future employment than to leak devastating, potentially career-ending rumors to a rival camp? That person would never work in politics again. They'd be an utter pariah. Really, the strongest evidence so far that this wasn't leaked by a Cain defector is that Perry hasn't fired anyone for being the guy responsible. Because unless said guy plans on staying with Perry forever, he's a giant liability.

If these accusations really did originate in the Perry camp, Perry must either command fanatical loyalty or be in truly desperate straits. Or he must be a really, really bad judge of character. Otherwise, it's hard to conceive what might have coaxed some hapless staffer to throw away his career like this.

Wine is (just) fine

As someone who really enjoys drinking wine, but (you may want to sit down for this, East Coasters) isn't sure he could distinguish between a chardonnay and a merlot without a label to cheat off of, this article gave me a little shiver of joy:
If hints of cassis, subtle earthiness, and jammy notes don’t interest you, you are not a lesser person. Wine is not art. There’s no reason to believe that aligning your tastes with those of a self-appointed elite will enrich your life, or make you more insightful or sensitive. If wine critics want to spend lavishly on the wine they like, that’s great. Leave them to their fun. Be grateful that you can gain just as much pleasure, if not more, without bankrupting yourself.
"Wine is not art" is pretty close to outright blasphemy among a good number of my friends and acquaintances, but thank god someone finally said it. Look, I'm glad you all can enjoy nice things. But there are plenty of nice things that aren't wine. I don't believe there's anything that makes wine drinking inherently more artful than beer drinking, or cooking, or any other number of other perfectly-enjoyable-but-decidedly-middlebrow aesthetic pursuits. There is something that sets wine appreciation apart from the rest, though -- its considerable cultural cachet as a Snobby Hobby for the Upper Crust. And I think that reputation goes a lot further towards explaining wine's role in our society and its prominence in so many people's lives than anything about the stuff itself.

Talking to computers

So there's an interesting article on Slate about Google Translate -- which, apparently, adopts a pioneering approach to translation that works by comparing user inputs to preexisting multilingual sources. It seems that this method has proven superior to the previous method, which relied upon programmers to teach computers the "rules" of grammar and syntax, as well as vocabulary.
These classic methods work on the principle that language can be decoded, stripped to its purest component parts of "meaning," and built back up again into another language. Linguists feed computers vocabularies, grammars, and endless rules about sentence structure—but language isn’t so easily formalized this way. There are more exceptions, qualifications, and ambiguities than rules and laws to follow. And, when you really think about it, this approach hardly respects the complexity of the problem.
This is a topic I don't fully understand, so I'm going to keep my thoughts short and sweet. But a couple of things strike me about this piece: first, although the article describes this process in terms of translation, the problem of "translating language" really only seems to add an extra layer to a more fundamental problem, which is understanding language in some capacity (here: understanding language at least well enough to construct a similar sentence in another language with the same meaning).

Second, whatever the flaws of the "classic" approach of building conversant computers, it's worth noting that human beings -- who are, after all, currently the undisputed masters of language -- use that same classic approach. While we're all taught language through repeated exposure and use, we don't carry around an enormous databank in our heads of ever word we've ever heard. We have somehow managed to reduce each word to a particular meaning, and to create a set of grammatical rules about those words how they can all be used in relation to each other. And lest you think that approach is too subjective to be of much use to a machine, consider how we apply those rules with startling consistency. Next time you read a particularly well-written piece of fiction or poetry, or hear a song lyric, or a joke, remember how amazing it is that connotative meaning has somehow been conveyed, without any formal mechanism, across an entire society, such that individuals who have never met each other and have no direct communication can still rely on words and syntactical formations having more-or-less the same set of associations. My meaning might not be exactly the same as your meaning, but it's often very, very close.

The thing is, how old were you when you first started getting a firm grasp on all this language stuff? Less than ten? How many words do you think you had encountered by that age? Many millions, probably -- a lot, but chump change next to the ocean of material Google's computers access every day.

So I suppose my point is that, while Google might have discovered a clever shortcut here, there's almost certainly a better way of building computers that comprehend language. Because it's indisputably true that even the few million basic words and phrases that a child might encounter in early life contain enough of the linguistic rulebook to reverse engineer a working language machine. If our dumb monkey brains can find those rules, learn them, and apply them day after day, there's no reason to think a cleverly built computer couldn't do it too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Stick a fork in Herman Cain/Herman Cain is an unstoppable juggernaut

Herman Cain is finished. There's just no coming back from the last few days. Sexual harassment accusations are bad enough, but his handling of the accusations has been abysmal. Cain doesn't seem to realize that deflecting and dodging questions doesn't make them go away, it just attracts more of them. The Republican primary voters that aren't turned off by (alleged -- though that's irrelevant at this point) sexual improprieties will be turned off by his implosion in the face of adversity. The Republican primary can be described as the result of two competing instincts: the desire to nominate someone who can win and the desire to nominate someone who isn't Mitt Romney shares the values of the base. Many Republicans seemed to think that Cain straddled that line, but now his viability as a candidate has been called into serious question, so he's out of the running. Romney's inexorable march to the White House continues apace.


Herman Cain is still going strong. Fundamentals drive elections, and base appeal drives primaries. Cain is personable, likable, reliably conservative, and gives decent debate performances. There's no accuser out there making noise, just a lot of semi-anonymous rumors being leaked to newspapers. The reaction of the typical Republican primary voter is predictable: "So what if he was accused of sexual harassment? What CEO hasn't been accused of sexual harassment? It was a long time ago, and we'll never really know what happened."

In the newspaper reporter's mind, presidential campaigns rise on the merits of their platforms and fall when scandals break. But that's rarely how it works in the real world. Remember Jeremiah Wright, the guy who was going ensure Obama never became president? Remember how Monica Lewinsky ruined Bill Clinton's political name forever? All Cain has to do is hang in there, and the strength of his connection with the values of primary voters (as well as the weakness of his opponents) will carry him through this rough patch.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The best movie out right now

Sorry, assorted readers, for the unacceptably slow blogging as of late -- I'm currently in the process of solving all the conceptual ambiguities of the Fourth Amendment for my law journal article. This has proven a less agreeable task than I initially expected: I've sunk enormous amounts of time into writing atrociously fragmented sentences and drawing incomprehensible graphs and, so far, I don't have a lot of genuine progress to show for it. The price of hubris, I guess.

Also, I've been watching a lot of movies.

Which brings me to the real point of this post: you should go out, right now, and see Margin Call. Somehow, this film seems to have flown under the radar so far, receiving blandly positive reviews and very little attention from the general public. That's criminal: it's easily the best new movie I've watched in ages and ages.

Margin Call is another entry into the suddenly-burgeoning genre of "financial crisis retrospectives." It's set in spring of 2008, and it features a bunch of investment bankers dealing with the oncoming crisis. As such, it's likely to get lumped in with polemics like Inside Job and blow-by-blow accounts like Too Big to Fail. As a work of fiction, it's also probably going to be compared to the horrifically bad Wall Street 2. None of these comparisons is quite accurate, or fair. It's almost certainly the best of the bunch -- I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being the best film about the financial crisis, ever, period. More importantly, though, it's not all that concerned with short-term political furors around and about Wall Street. While it doesn't shy away from the moral questions arising from the crisis, it's also more comfortable dealing with the personal than the political. It's less about the breakdown of the great financial machinery driving the modern economy, and more about what happens to the men and women caught up in the machinery when the world they've built begins to crumble.

My roommate made an uncannily astute comparison: he noted that the movie's closest cinematic relation is probably Spike Lee's fantastic 25th Hour, which managed to weave an intensely personal story focusing on a handful of friends with a thematic narrative about, among other things, racial tension, September 11th, the failure of the criminal justice system, and America's (possibly illusory) promise of new beginnings. Margin Call shares with that film a graceful ability to comment on the larger social context without talking about it directly. In both cases, the subtle approach pays off, leaving us with cultural documents disguised as engrossing works of fiction -- or maybe the other way around.

To be fair, Margin Call isn't quite as ambitious in scope as Lee's film, choosing instead to focus on the interplay of morals and money at the highest levels of professional success. It's still a joy to watch. The film never quite goes where you'd expect it to go -- quite an achievement considering everybody knows how the story ends -- weaving through the experiences of seven or eight main characters over the course of one very bad day, showing us the interesting bits and then moving on before anything predictable happens.

It's got verisimilitude in spades. While the film's basic conceit is straightforward enough -- an investment bank has gotten stuck with a lot of bad financial instruments, and needs to sell them all before it goes bust -- it doesn't shy away from Wall Street jargon. Rather than restricting all the nitty-gritty of the actual financial transactions to vague montages, a la Wall Street 2, it includes details where they belong, and trusts the audience to keep up. It doesn't oversell the situation, either: the characters are all justifiably freaked by what's happening around them, but the film dutifully avoids the apocalyptic overtones of, again, Wall Street 2.

(I almost forgot to mention the cast: the entire reason I watched the film in the first place is because it stars Stanley Tucci, but as it turns out, it also contains the best Kevin Spacey performance, uh, possibly ever. Also: Paul Bettany.)

The real genius is in the details. The way the characters are introduced in a parade of bosses, each cockier than the last, and each eventually humbled into calling the next guy up the chain. The little bits of dialogue serving double duty as character development and political reflection. (One banker obsessively compares paychecks. Another is an aerospace engineer tempted into finance by the money.) Two world-class monologues, which, in a just world, would replace Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech as the rallying cry for unapologetic capitalism. The brilliant final scene, which reveals nothing about the plot but everything you need to know about one key character.

Really, I want to go on, but I don't want to spoil the whole thing. So just go watch it. Really. Go now. Hurry up.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Right and wrong still matters in policy

So this Felix Salmon post isn't the sort of thing you don't read on economically-oriented policy blogs very often:
The latest CBO report on income trends says nothing particularly surprising, although it does underline quite emphatically what we already knew about the 99% and the 1%. In particular, the key message, both in charts and text, is all about the 1% and how they’ve torn away from the rest of the population in the past 30 years.

And in the wake of the 99% getting tear-gassed in Oakland by their own municipal government, I’m going to get personal for a minute here: I am the 99%. I have an absolutely wonderful life in my favorite city in the world, protected by a large and prosperous centuries-old democracy. I have enough money to eat and to travel just about anywhere I want. My home is filled with fabulous art and features a small collection of equally fabulous wine; I suspect it might even be worth more than I paid for it. I love my job, which pays extremely well, and affords me a huge degree of professional freedom. I have the kind of transferable skills which are in demand by multiple potential employers. I get to wonk out with some of the most interesting people in the world, and I also get to ignore the bores. I have a gorgeous wife, we’re both in good health, and we’re blessed with wonderful friends. In short, I have the kind of life which would be the envy of well over 99% of anybody who’s ever lived, and well over 99% of anybody alive today.

And yet — I’m still in the (upper quintile of the) 99%, and if you boil things down to just their income and wealth numbers, the 1% is as far away from me as I am from a struggling working family with an onerous mortgage and a highly uncertain employment outlook. And there’s no need for them to shower themselves with that kind of money. From me on out, it’s pure avarice. Which is human, and natural, and probably even helps in terms of economic growth. But given the amount of misery and poverty in America, it’s simply unconscionable that I and the people earning vastly more than me — including all of the 1% — are getting such an enormous share of the income and wealth so desperately needed elsewhere.

All of which is to say that my taxes are too low. If my taxes went up and the money was used to reduce poverty and unemployment in America, my standard of living would still be glorious — and millions of lives would be improved. And as for the 1%, their taxes could double and they would still be fabulously well off. I’m not proposing that as a policy solution. But I am trying to put things in perspective here. I’m not in the 1%, and I can and should be giving back much more to the society which is supporting me and making my lifestyle possible. The people who are in the 1% are the most fortunate of the fortunate. The least they can do is pay as much in taxes as, say, I do.
Okay, so it's probably poor form to just copy and paste Felix's entire post. I did it anyway because I think it really hits at a key element of the income inequality problem. You can make all sorts of economic arguments for and against taxing high-earners, but at the end of the day, it's very difficult to look at the wealth gap, and the many miseries inflicted by poverty, and think that lives couldn't be improved by moving some of that money around. We can debate the particulars, of course -- there are a lot of mechanisms for wealth redistribution, and certainly those who believe that government intervention only exacerbates preexisting divides. But there are also people who look at the status quo and think this is the way things should be -- that there's something intrinsically fair about income inequality. People who believe that individuals with money simply deserve that money more than anyone else. It's hard to argue policy with those people -- they're starting from a different point than me and it's natural that they'd end up at a different point as well. There's really no choice but to do what the post above is doing: attack the dismal morality of their position instead. Policy types are generally pretty averse to talking about issues in moral terms -- it's too black-and-white and too subjective -- so I think it's fairly courageous of Felix to write what he did. Everything doesn't always come down to efficiency and functionality: sometimes, simple notions of justice matter too.

Everyone's seen this already, right?

Because wow.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How to make Jersey Shore worth watching again

Over at the AV Club, Marah Eakin and Genevieve Koski turn out a postmortem of Jersey Shore's most recent season. They do not like what they see:
The easiest way to make something fun not fun is to make it an obligation. That being said, there are plenty of shows that have been on for far longer than this one that are still just as fun as they were at the beginning. I think this season, what's soured the whole thing for me is just how little the whole gang seem to care. In the beginning, their dramas seemed real, as did their personalities. They were just doin' them, out on the boardwalk. Now, paid not just by MTV but by Xenadrine, a pistachio company, clubs around the country, whatever, to be these characters, these over-the-top party animals, it just feels a little bit icky.
I've only seen scattered bits and pieces of this season, but it doesn't take much to confirm that the AV Club diagnosis is basically correct. The people on the show have become fictional characters, and not only are their antics undermined by the sneaking suspicion that all the drama is essentially scripted, any astute viewer can feel the show's forward motion quickly petering out. Look, I know it's just the Jersey Shore. I know that for a lot of people, it functions as little more than a weekly collection of seedy vignettes -- or maybe more accurately, a tour through a zoo. But character development and plot momentum are the key elements in any narrative medium. And even a cursory overview of Jersey Shore storylines from the last season is enough to demonstrate that nothing unexpected will ever happen on the show again. Here are my predictions for next season: Ronnie and Sammi will fight, Mike will be creepy, everyone else will hook up, and they'll all come back again in six months. Here are my predictions for the season after that (god help us): Ronnie and Sammi will fight, Mike will be creepy, everyone else will hook up, and they'll all come back again in six months.

But here's the thing: like the AV Club review points out, this process is starting to take a toll on the participants:
I've brought this up many times over the years—months, whatever—but the cancer of Jersey Shore is self-awareness, and that self-awareness has grown especially malignant this season. We see it in the way Pauly and Vinny hang back until it's time to make a quip or put on a production of guido theater for the cameras' sake; we see it in Sam and Ronnie's endless pas de deux of terribleness, as they continue circling each other like sharks because they realize they're stuck with each other through the duration of this show, unless they choose to leave and give up their fat paychecks; we see it in the way the cast members are referred to by their actual, given names rather than nicknames in my cable guide (Who is this “Paul Del Vecchio”?). And we see it in tonight's episode, with Mike styling himself as the "villain" because at this point he knows the whole illusion of "deep down it's all love between roommates" isn't holding up.

Doesn't that last paragraph sound more interesting than anything you've ever actually seen on the show?

A group of variously damaged people, forced to reconcile their increasingly fake personas with their own beliefs and characteristics, not to mention their limited abilities and talents? Duking it out with each other for a few extra minutes in the spotlight, but also inextricably tied together for years and years to come? There's your character development: the cast members' moral decline and fall, even as their fame and fortune grows endlessly.

Wouldn't you watch a show about that?

I certainly would. I honestly think, hidden in Jersey Shore, there's a Godfather-style epic, about the collapse of an American family-of-sorts, destroyed by excess, and success, and their own desperate pursuit of fame. It might seem a cruel at first -- tuning in every week to watch the further degradation of a bunch of fun-loving kids at the hands of American media culture -- until you realize it's already happening, and will continue to happen as long as MTV makes the show, regardless of what gets portrayed on the screen.

In the interstices between the fake drama between fake people there's real drama between real people, drama with weight, drama that matters because it's about money, and reputation, and the wellbeing and the futures of everyone involved.

So show us the real people! It'll be more honest, it'll be more entertaining. It might even be thought-provoking.

And if all else fails, come on, it's not like they're going to stop coining stupid catchphrases.