Friday, April 29, 2011

Way to go, House Republicans!

I very little to add to this, except to point how utterly brain-meltingly stupid you must be to propose a system for paying off our large debt that in the process dramatically increases the probability of the same financial meltdown that makes having a large debt dangerous in the first place.

It's like if the fire department decreed that, in order to reduce the risk of fire, all fire hazards should be destroyed with flame.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

US health care is even more screwed up than you realized

I really thought I'd heard it all when it came to the many failings of the US health care system. You know the drill: we spend way more on health care than anyone else, health care spending is increasing at an unsustainable rate, and American health outcomes are generally worse than most other Western nations.

But the third chart in this Ezra Klein post is truly astounding:



Look closely at the chart. The US is currently spending proportionally more public money on health care than, among others, Norway, the UK, and Canada.

All three countries provide universal, free health care. Someone's getting ripped off here, and I don't think it's the Canadians.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The American Hive Mind

Tonight is apparently the night where I blog about Stupid Things That Pundits Do. Here is another one.

To hear pundits talk, the American voting public is one massive throbbing brain, inconceivably complex. Politicos, particularly the successful ones, talk about The American Public like it was a real person, processing thoughts, hopes, and fears, just like you and me. "The American people want X!" they'll say. "That means they've rejected Y, the opposite course!"

Then invariably some poll comes out showing that many voters want both X and Y, and commentators are overcome with befuddlement and turn mental somersaults trying to resolve the unresolvable contradiction. "What is America thinking?" they'll ask.

I call it the Hive Mind Theory.

Everbody ignores the obvious answer: giant groups of people don't think. Individual people think. But they have thoughts that contradict the thoughts that other people are having. When you poll the whole group, the topline numbers disguise as much as they reveal. People who agree might have started with different assumptions, and people who disagree might be starting from the same place. As a result, you can't ascribe normal chains of thought to a mass of people. A nation, full of individuals coming at a problem from different directions, is literally incapable of saying to itself "I believe A, which leads to B, which leads to C."

If that seems obvious to you, then congratulations, you're more sophisticated a thinker than two-thirds of our political class.

The Hive Mind approach to political commentary also naturally leads to the conclusion that there is, in fact, a moderate consensus that is being distorted by the ideologues in each party. Pundits look at polls saying a majority of voters reject both Democratic ideas and Republican ideas, and, as usual, treat these somewhat contradictory results as if they were two ideas coming out of a single inscrutable mind. They then expend enormous energy trying to understand the train of thought that the American hive-mind has adopted. Invariably, they decide that "Real America is in the middle!" Au contraire, Davids Brooks and Broder. This is not insight. This amounts to nothing more than an observation that the United States has two parties and both of them will get votes from a decent number of people.

Virtually all mainstream political commentary engages in the Hive Mind charade to some degree, and is therefore worthless and unenlightening to exactly the same degree.

Not that I expect anyone to drop it anytime soon. The swollen class of pundits relies on its ability to plumb the depths of the American psyche. It gives them an endless topic for discussion. Because it isn't real, their ideas about it can never be wrong. Because they made the subject up, they're automatically experts in the field. Because every data point in American Collective Psychology can be immediately be countered with another data point, there's no risk of ever conclusively resolving any question. It's a puzzle without an answer, perfect for occupying the minds of pundits and the televisions of viewers until the end of time.

High-impact, low-information, no rhyme or reason

Michael Kazin surveys independent voters and wonders if they're
a confused and clueless horde, whose interest in politics veers between the episodic and the non-existent?
Sure, but wasn't this common knowledge already? One would expect that the people who know and care least about a subject are also the people least likely to make up their minds on that subject. As far as I know, political science has repeatedly and consistently confirmed this conclusion.

What's incredible to me is the way the political media, and politicians themselves, consistently delude each other and us into thinking otherwise.

Kazin talks about two conceptions of the American electorate: Walter Lippman's technocratic democracy, in which experts and elites choose optimal policy, and John Dewey's more populist vision, in which voters educate themselves to make an informed choice between competing ideas. To hear pundits and politicians speak today, you'd think Dewey's vision has been utterly vindicated. If Obama wins the presidency, pundits tell us it's because voters prefer cap-and-trade to the Republican alternative (which was -- oh wait -- also cap-and-trade). If Democrats get pounded in the midterms, it's because voters have considered Obama's policies and rejected them as liberal overreach, instead endorsing Republican plans for austerity. And if polls now find that Republicans are immensely unpopular again, it must be because the fickle American electorate has tested GOP ideas and found them wanting.

Nonetheless, looking past the commentariat, it's hard to see how Lippman wasn't basically correct. Independents often decide close elections, and independents don't seem to know anything about anything. To the extent that independents are making important decisions, how could we possibly expect them to make the right ones? To use one recent example, voters who can barely tell you what a deficit is simply aren't capable of making intelligent decisions about the deficit.

This is all the more frustrating because independents and other low-informations could play an essential role in our democracy. Independent voters are very knowledgeable about one important subject: their own lives. And with regards to that subject, they're more qualified than anybody to make important policy decisions. They don't have to think hard or educate themselves: instead, if the guys in charge aren't making you happy, just throw the bums out! And if nothing gets better under the new guys, throw them out too! Wash, rinse, repeat. Even uninformed voters can still find the best ideas by churning through all the bad ones first.

Unfortunately, electoral trial-by-error only works if voters see change when they elect someone new. To return to what is already well-trodden ground on this blog, elections that don't trigger policy innovation don't provide any cues for voters, either. The true failing of the American political system is not that its voters are too dumb to make good choices, but that it ignores voters' choices all too often.

----

Joe Schmoe sees that he's got less money in his bank account. He notices energy prices going up. He's stressed that his family can't afford health insurance. Is it the President's fault? The Senate's? Maybe it was something that the last Congress did, that the current Congress can't find the votes to repeal. Or maybe it was something his state legislature did. Or his city council. Regardless, here's how Joe will respond: he's going to go to the polls and cast a vote against some incumbent, somewhere. If he's lucky, he'll vote against a person who actually had a hand in creating his problem, but probably not.

Either way, some pundit, somewhere, will end up in front of a TV screen, talking about how the Joe Schmoes of America have demonstrated a clear preference for less government spending, or maybe for more government spending. We tell ourselves that America wants a divided Congress because it doesn't like one party having all the power, or that voters have been swayed by the President's arguments in favor of middle-class tax cuts. Charitably, you might call these misconceptions; less charitably, excuses. We justify the failures of our political system -- ignore the obvious truth that complexity make decisionmaking hard and breeds chaos -- by pretending that everybody knows about things that hardly anybody knows about. It's absurd.

Modern democracy has a place for independent, low-information voters. After all, the majority of people are never going to invest themselves heavily in politics, and any democracy that gave the majority of people little credence would deserve little credence itself. But in order to build a system that actually works for most voters, we have to stop kidding ourselves about who these people are and what they're doing when they're in the ballot booth.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Our checks are all out of balance

File this Harold Pollack post under "things I never thought I'd see in The American Prospect":

[W]e face a massive collective action problem. Every Democratic and Republican policy expert knows that we must reduce congressional micromanagement of Medicare policy. Unfortunately, every Democratic and Republican legislator knows that mechanisms such as IPAB that might do so would thereby constrain their own individual prerogatives.

Politicians respond to the incentives created by our political marketplace. The result does not produce a well-functioning democracy. Despite many reasons for caution—the words George W Bush foremost among them—I'm becoming more of a believer in an imperial presidency in domestic policy. Congress seems too screwed up and fragmented to address our most pressing problems.

Now, I feel obliged to note that, as Pollack himself points out elsewhere, there is no inherent evil in parochialism. One of the benefits of a democratic society -- maybe the chief benefit -- is that it gives small groups the tools to fight for their own interests, rather than relying on some benevolent overseer to provide for them.

But Pollack is also right that our current system is ill-suited to address a certain sort of slow-moving national problem. Medicare cost growth and other deficit issues are one clear example. Global warming is another. On a smaller scale, there is the continuing existence of Guantanamo Bay.

What do all these things have in common? You can call it a collective action problem, or a prisoner's dilemma, but the gist is the same: a congressperson whose party fights cost growth, or global warming, or closes Guantanamo, doesn't stand to benefit nearly as much as a congressperson who personally acts to protect local industries, or takes a firm stand on terrorism. So the nominal consensus on these issues shatters almost instantly (I mean, remember when John McCain had a climate plan and was going to close Guantanamo?) as individual congresspeople, one by one, jump ship to save their own hides.

Maybe the solution is, as Pollack says, an imperial presidency. Maybe. But A) functional executive control over the most pressing national issues is unattainable without essentially scuttling the Constitution, and B) elected autocrats are still autocrats, and autocrats are, well, scary.

I think there's a better solution. Consider the United Kingdom: the Tories are forging ahead with their austerity plan, in the face of an increasingly dire economic outlook, widespread economic discontent, and an electorate that cast barely more than a third of their votes for the party. Does anyone believe that such a thing would be possible in the United States? I'd say not -- someone always gets cold feet. So why there and not here?

The difference is the UK's truly majoritarian system. Tory MPs only have influence because they're in the majority. If they lose their majority, they also lose their voice in government, and even the most parochially-minded MPs lose the ability to protect local interests.

That means that individual MPs have every incentive to pursue a course of action that will preserve not only their local seats, but their national majority. And since every Tory is united by a belief that spending cuts will be better for the UK in the end, they have every incentive to stick to their guns on spending cuts.

In short, each MP is guided by two equally important political objectives: ensuring that he or she doesn't lose the next election, and ensuring that his or her party doesn't lose the next election.

Here in the US, however, a congressperson whose party suffers some political defeat is rarely rendered powerless. If last year's elections didn't go well, maybe the presidential election two years ago turned out better. And if that didn't go well, maybe the senatorial elections four years ago turned out better. And if that didn't go well, maybe your party still has over forty votes in the Senate. And if they don't, maybe you have four or five Supreme Court justices in your corner, appointed five, or ten, or twenty years ago. Each of these things gives congresspeople leverage in government, even if his party lost the most recent election.

The other side of the coin is that even if one party wins an election, it won't be able to pursue its agenda, frustrated by the same smorgasbord of counter-majoritarian checks and balances.

In other words, at any given time, there's a limited connection between a party's near-term political fortunes and the influence of its constituent members. The incentive, then, is for congresspeople to look out for Number One: first to protect their seat, and only then to pursue their party's national agenda.

How do they go about this? By prioritizing local interests over the welfare of the nation as a whole.

If you're still confused, well, I made a graph!

As I said, there's a role for parochialism in government. But Congress is the only body with near-complete power over the United States writ large, while local policy is dictated by layers of federal, state, and municipal agencies. With that in mind, wouldn't it make more sense to have Congress focus primarily on the United States writ large? If not Congress, who is steering the ship of state?

The way to make the national government care about national policy is to reduce the American system's insanely counter-majoritarian elements. You can certainly accomplish this by ceding ever more power to the executive, and I agree that some functions of government are in fact better managed by the executive. But there's another avenue, too: reducing the number of checks and veto points in Congress. Create a stronger relationship between electoral outcomes and policy outcomes. That way, if a legislator wants to preserve his role in the process, he's forced to find a policy that works for everybody, including his constituents, not a policy that works just for his constituents, even if it helps nobody else.

Also worth noting is that this solution -- let's call it the parliamentarian solution -- is actually superior to installing some sort of Imperial President. That's because imperial presidencies embody all the failings of paternalistic majoritarianism. While a legislature in a parliament is equally responsive to local and national problems, a president is responsive only to national problems. Even with all my technocratic tendencies, I still balk a bit at any system that assumes an enlightened despot knows best, even if you call him a president and elect him every four years.

Practically speaking, the United States' most significant institutional malfunctions are baked into the cake. I don't think, for instance, that we'll be abolishing the Senate anytime soon (though not for lack of wishing on my part). But there are certain things that we can do. For instance -- and you knew this was coming from the very start -- please please please let's just get rid of the #@&% filibuster already. That would be excellent first step.

Objectivist provides free advertising for movie he didn't make, fails Objectivism 101

You Minneapolis folk may or may not be familiar with this sign, situated on the corner of Uptown and Hennepin.


Who indeed?

I had assumed this was some sort not-quite-viral marketing campaign for the new Atlas Shrugged movie that's taking America by storm. GreMar, I figured, was the film's production studio.

Nope! Turns out GreMar (Greg Martin? Gretchen Marcus? A nation wonders: Who is Gre Mar?!) is an Uptown-based landlord. Gaze upon society's productive achievers, Minneapolis. Now I know what you're thinking: advertising objectivism? Three blocks from the Wedge co-op? This hardly seems like a rational, profit-maximizing choice!

But that's only because Gre Mar is taking the long view. This captain of industry, mysteriously secluding himself from the "multitude of idiots" who elected President Obama, now turns his considerable resources towards remaking America as a nation where innovators like Gre Mar can thrive, free of parasites.

Consider this billboard a warning shot. Looters and rent-seekers beware! Everything we have, we have because of people like Gre Mar. People who buy things other people built, and then sell those same things for a slightly higher price.

Erm, wait, that doesn't seem quite right...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Movie (trailer) reviews

In which I evaluate movies at length based on two minutes of carefully-selected footage. Who needs to see the movie when they just put all the best parts in the trailer anyway?

Submarine

It takes about twenty seconds of the trailer for Submarine to extrapolate the entire movie. A precocious high schooler searches for himself while engaging in a range of quirkily offbeat activities, like monitoring his parents' sex lives and wearing funny hats? He falls in love with the plainest girl in school? She for some reason reciprocates, despite him being a social reject (for good reason, it appears), and her dial being stuck on "unyielding contempt?" They go on offbeat adventures together, and although no honest emotions are ever expressed, everyone grows up a little bit?

First: we've seen this movie like a hundred times. (They even found a Paul Dano lookalike!) Second: with the exception of Rushmore, it's never any good. Third: who is writing this garbage, and why? Is it pure exploitation of the hipster market? Or is there a cohort of screenwriters out there that really believes life's highest aspiration is to engage in pointlessly quirky hijinks, preferably in the company of an unsmiling, brown-haired girl? God forbid, but I'm starting to fear that some of these writers actually identify with the headcases they're writing about. Why else would you make a child so self-consciously "adult?" You can practically hear the writers screaming "I'm just a child inside, too!"

Dear Screenwriters of Submarine: if you identify with the people in your movie, you should talk to a professional. Part of the reason Rushmore succeeded where Submarine will almost certainly fail is because Rushmore recognized that Max Fischer was interesting, but also really weird. So we see Max bounce off the people in his life, and a lot of the drama is rooted in whether or not they'll ever accept him. By contrast, Rushmore's unbearably quirky cinematic offspring never bother to interrogate their characters in the same way, instead opting to accept at face value the skewed worldviews of their protagonists. And of course, their protagonists, being really weird, never have any friends. So the whole enterprise becomes an exercise in solipsism.

What's worse, and actually super creepy, is the way that these characters invariably seek out women to validate their insane lives. Again, Rushmore had the good sense to show this behavior for what it was: strange and inappropriate. Submarine, on the other hand, seems firmly in its protagonist's camp: anyone who can find someone to love them can't be that bad, right?


Another Earth

Humanity discovers -- and by "discovers," I mean "wakes up to find floating in the sky" -- a duplicate Earth. Apparently, it's a duplicate in the literal meaning of the word, right down to a duplicate of every person on the planet. This raises, of course, all sorts of questions: How did Earth-1's astronomers let an entire planet sneak up on them? Will tidal havoc wipe out millions of lives? Which Earth will be the first to band together and attempt to colonize the other? How does any of this even make sense?

Fortunately, the movie dodges these dreary subjects, and keeps the focus on something fresh and new: the inner turmoil of attractive, listless American twenty-somethings. Another Earth, the trailer sighs. Another chance. It's about a girl. She did something. She goes to apologize but she loses her nerve. Attractive, listless American twenty-somethings gaze up at Earth-2, and see not the greatest scientific wonder in all of history, but the opportunity to finally, finally escape from their own ennui-fueled existences while sacrificing literally nothing at all. A more cynical man might suggest that the entire premise of the film is designed to give voice to the sad fantasy of starting a life that's new but also exactly the same. Which of course only makes sense if your life is pretty darn good to begin with. "Another Earth?" They should have just called it "I'm Moving to Seattle."


The Troll Hunter


Norwegians looking for... trolls? At first I don't think they're actually going to show us any trolls. People driving in the woods, talking to the camera. We know this mockumentary game. Cloverfield blah blah Blair Witch blah blah.

Then they do. Three-headed trolls. Trolls smashing cars. Trolls smashing sheep. Trolls smashing people. Norwegians fighting trolls with crazy science equipment. Norwegians driving away very very fast. Oh wow that is a really big troll at the end. Wooow.

This movie is the anti-Another Earth. It's about a girl. She did something. But she doesn't really have time to worry about all that because there are huge monsters and she's shooting them with machine guns and running around trying not to get mashed. Will I see the rest of The Troll Hunter? Yes I will.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

This is not a printing error


I don't know anything about LaSalle University, but its school paper found a fantastic way to stick it to the man.

Explanation here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Department of unusual policy critiques



Amazing. The surprisingly wonky lyrics are here. Can we get a US version for the Ryan plan, please?

(Thanks to Aaron for this.)

Department of questions

Ever wonder what "lorem ipsum," etc., means? Well, here you go.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sixty-two percent of Republicans should be having an existential crisis about right now (but probably aren't)

No matter what anyone tells you, for the time being Donald Trump appears to be the Republican presidential frontrunner, according to a Public Policy Polling survey now just twelve points short of capturing an outright majority of Republican voters.

With that in mind, you might also be interested to know that last night Trump unambiguously threw his support behind the, um, implausible theory that Bill Ayers wrote Dreams From My Father.

Trump is, of course, already a vocal proponent of the idea that Barack Obama is 1. a secret Muslim who 2. was born outside of the US.

It would be funny if Trump were some sort of Charlie Sheen-esque unintentional clown. But Trump is winning nearly forty percent of the Republican vote. His views, rather than hindering his electoral chances, have propelled him to the front of the GOP presidential pack. And even now, the main roadblock to further success is not that he's, you know, actually quite insane, but that he's too friendly to Democrats.

Notwithstanding the chance of Trump actually winning the nomination -- very slim, but maybe not as slim as the Republican intelligentsia would have you believe -- shouldn't this be a moment of self-reflection for much of the GOP?

I know a lot of Republican voters who wouldn't be caught dead attending a Tea Party rally, or reading Going Rogue, or watching Glenn Beck's nightly journey into Bizarro World. It's fashionable among these "reasonable" Republicans to pretend that the wingnut faction of their party is just a tiny fringe. Reasonable Republicans argue that the unflagging popularity of right-wing provocateurs isn't attributable to the right wing at all, but to the left's fascination with said provocateurs. They argue that the media mischaracterizes the GOP by focusing on its worst members. They contend that the great mass of Republican voters is moderate, and modern, and motivated primarily by a somber concern about the size and cost of government, and that it would never dream of voting for a wacko like Bachmann or Palin, very much akin to how Dennis Kucinich could never capture more than a tiny fragment of the Democratic vote.

So here's a message for you reasonable Republicans: a plurality of your party appears willing to nominate for President a half-lucid egomaniacal real estate tycoon, a man whose entire platform seems to be centered around a deeply-held conviction that Barack Obama is a Kenyan. Something about this man excites these voters in a way that nobody else in your party yet has.

Who gets the blame for that, if not the party itself, and the people of which it is composed? It's becoming harder and harder for you to credibly claim that your views are being distorted. If any distortion is occurring, it's occurring in your own head, as you continually recast the increasingly off-the-rails GOP as an institution nonetheless worthy of your support. Take a step back: this Donald Trump fiasco is a clue, a clue suggesting that a significant portion of your fellow travelers believe things that are, to use a technical term, utterly nutso. Maybe the time has come to reassess who and what you're supporting.

But we both know you won't.

So by all means, vote for Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney in the primary, as you're no doubt inclined. Do what you can to moderate the lunacy loose in the party ranks -- America appreciates your efforts. But history is clear about one thing: when a Sharon Angle or Christine O'Donnell or Sarah Palin or Donald Trump ends up on the ballot, the vast majority of you are going to look the other way and X the R. At the end of the day, no matter what you believe as an individual, you have two choices as a civic actor: the group that made common cause with crazies and the group that hasn't. Congratulations on always choosing the former.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A decade ago Republicans were worried about the debt being too small

I'm a cynical guy when it comes to politicians meaning what they say, but even for me, this is a pretty remarkable thing.

A parable

One day, two women were brought before David Brooks with a baby. Each woman claimed that she was the child's mother. They asked David Brooks, renowned for his wisdom and his insight, to resolve their quarrel, and to deliver the child to the correct party. David Brooks pondered long and hard. He adjusted his bowtie. And then he rendered his judgment.

"Make everybody hurt," said David Brooks. "It's time to make tough choices. Nobody can be spared the shared sacrifice. " And with that, he drew his sword, and he cleaved the baby neatly in two.

And lo, each woman returned home with her half, and for many generations, poets and and Washington Post editorialists sung of David Brooks the Wise, and he became an icon for kings and senators of many nations.

DEFICIT MADNESS

It's been almost a week since the last deficit plan landed (okay like four days, whatever) so, clearly, it's time for another one!

Can't you see it in your mind's eye? The brows being furrowed pensively, and then unfurrowed, and then furrowed again. Those distant harumphs. The deep and abiding concern for Our Nation's Fiscal Future and the Country We Are Leaving Our Children. Is it, can it be, just maybe, yes, yes, it is, just like we always dreamed, yes -- a group of Very Serious Men! Come to save us from our profligate ways! Maybe they will succeed where so many other VSMs have failed! Maybe -- just maybe -- our fiscal salvation is at hand!

And you know they're Very Serious because they say things like "Borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar we spend for missiles or food stamps is unsustainable," and they avoid acrimonious, partisan subjects such as, for instance, pointing out how much of that money is spent on missiles relative to how much money is spent on food stamps, and instead talk about the need for Bipartisanship and Compromise and how all of Washington should come together and lead us, their flock, to the promised land of balanced budgets and reduced entitlements.

If only we had more men who, like these, were willing to say what everyone knows is true, or at least what the New York Times editorial staff knows is true: that the only right course is the one where everyone loses and nobody's happy.

Our unborn grandchildren don't deserve to live in a nation that spends a trillion dollars a year on fighter jets that will never leave the ground. They don't deserve to live in a nation that spends a trillion dollars a year on pensions and medicine for the elderly. I think we can all hope that one day our grandchildren will look into our faces, look into our faces as they careen down the rotting highway to the hospital, with us, their aging grandparents, slowly expiring in the backseat, as they swerve to avoid a decade-old pothole, as they thank the heavens that Granddad has been living in the guest bedroom since retirement, they can look into the rear-view mirror and see the generation that had the boundless courage it took to cap domestic spending at 19 percent of GDP, to slaughter the sacred cows of the welfare state, to get down to brass tacks, to put the United States on competitive fiscal footing so it could remain the world's greatest nation, first among equals, now, then and forever.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sometimes I'm wrong

I'm clearly frustrated with Obama's deficit plan. And last week, I was frustrated with Obama's budget compromise. But as Kevin Drum points out here, the rhetoric of the budget compromise was actually much worse than the actual deal, with over 20 billion of the cuts coming from areas that were going to be cut anyway, or cuts that the Democrats supported, or funds that were never going to be spent. It seems that the Tea Partiers got rolled by a combination of their own leadership and the White House, and only picked up a surprisingly-low $11 billion in discretionary cuts. Given the GOP's huge House majority and willingness to play government-shutdown chicken, this is a pretty good result for liberals.

And here's Kevin Drum again, pointing to some interesting language in the text of Obama's speech -- in particular, what appears to be a vow to veto the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy when they come back to the table. (In my defense, I never read or listen to speeches.) Drum's final conclusion is right: if Obama is determined to veto the tax cuts for the rich next time around, there's a very good chance he'll have to veto the "middle class" cuts with it, which would put the entire federal government on much firmer fiscal footing than anyone has been predicting. Including myself, in my very last post.

I'd prefer the administration adopt progressive positions in both rhetoric and practice, but if I have to choose between the two, I can tolerate some rhetorical budget hawkery that disguises progressive policy outcomes. This is definitely something I'd be happy to be wrong about.

The second problem with Obama's deficit plan

Obama's plan's second failing is worse: the annual deficit, to the extent that it is an issue in the short-term, is created by the Bush tax cuts, and could be essentially eliminated for a decade by rolling back those cuts. Yes, all of them, even the ones on the "middle class" (meaning people making up to a paltry 250k a year (it's true that this might plunge us into the dark days of economic despair that were the late 90s)).

Despite this being the single most obvious, simplest, most coherent solution, absolutely no one is willing to propose it, because our political class is absolutely terrified of the word "tax." Obama himself pledged to not raise taxes people making less than 250k a year. We're left trying to solve a problem while being unwilling to even mention its cause. The result: a maddening array of deficit plans, all of which carefully dance around the core issue by forcing American to limbo under lower government revenues.

After all, we wouldn't want most Americans to think that the President was raising their taxes!

Okay, if you didn't already, click on that last link. Really, do it. Because it really highlights the stupidity of the White House's (and, in fairness, everyone else's) view of the situation. Fact is, most people have no idea whether their taxes are going up or down.

Maybe Americans are just that thick. More likely, though, the economic pressures on any given voter are going to be complex and therefore hard for that voter to fully parse. People of course know if their overall economic circumstances are improving or worsening, at least superficially. They just ask themselves, "Am I more or less worried about making ends meet than I was last year?" But unless they're keeping thorough personal records and a close eye on macroeconomic indicators, it's much, much harder for these same people to determine the source of their relative comfort or discomfort. If inflation is rising, wages are stagnating, and taxes are falling, the effect of each trend becomes almost impossibly difficult to disentangle from each other.

As a proxy, people use broad social and political cues to decide what's happening. If a Democrat is president, taxes are probably going up. If a Republican is president, taxes must be going down.

The important thing to remember is that these cues are insulated from actual policy, actual economic outcomes, actual voter happiness, and therefore actual political outcomes.

The lesson to be learned: if you're a Democrat, everyone already thinks you're raising taxes, or at the least, not cutting them. So it stands to reason that if you think raising taxes will lead to better economic results, you may as well just go ahead and do it. The marginal political benefit of an awesome economy far outweighs the marginal political detriment of having a small percentage of high-information voters (most of whom have already made their minds up anyway) realize you raised their taxes.

And, hey, whaddya know, the Bush cuts are set to expire automatically! All Obama would have to do is threaten to veto any extension, and he'd have somehow happened upon a more credible and enforceable deficit solution than anything he or Ryan have dreamed up so far.

The first problem with Obama's deficit plan

Here's the president's deficit proposal, at least in rough form. It's no Ryan plan (i.e., it doesn't rely on completely fictional numbers) but it still looks pretty bad to me.

As every reasonably honest budget wonk in the nation knows, long-term deficit growth is an expression of health care cost growth. As such, the permanent solution to the deficit is to solve the cost problem, not to engage in creative accounting. Obama's deficit does more to address health care than Ryan's plan -- for starters, it doesn't repeal the ACA, which cuts costs -- but it hardly solves cost growth, because nobody knows how to solve cost growth.

So Obama's plan is still kind of fundamentally dumb for the same reason all these deficit plans are dumb: it requires us to feed large chunks of civil society to the health-care-cost monster in order to keep it off our backs, while doing too little to actually tame the health-care-cost monster. Eventually it'll just eat us anyway, and in the meantime, America will suck more for everyone.

So in that sense, we'd be better off without any plan at all. Everything comes down to a health-care solution; regardless of whether we find one, we're better off leaving the lights on at the EPA.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I'm kind of a big deal now

I've been slightly concerned that some middle American shortwave station would pick up the 417am.com domain name and use it to webcast black-helicopter conspiracy theories and Pentecostal revivals. So earlier, I bought it myself.

The blog is switching over to the new domain -- the old address will still work -- but in the meantime, some of the links will probably be broken. Sorry!

ATTN Obama, progressives: stop trying to win them all

Jamelle Bouie has this exactly right: Obama deserves criticism for failing to articulate a progressive vision on spending and taxes. But liberals need to accept that any leader -- even a President -- who takes a stand behind a progressive position is, more often than not, going to find Congress distorting or ignoring his vision.

The budget battle puts a fine point on it. Obama's apparent newfound enthusiasm for cuts-cuts-cuts is a pretty striking display of political cowardice. Obama may have found the middle ground rhetorically -- he wants some cuts, but not as many as the other guys -- but it's certainly not the middle ground ideologically. Applauding any short-term cuts at all still represents some degree of acquiescence to fringe Austrian economics with no real pull among progressives or moderates. Progressives have every right to be frustrated with Obama for not giving voice to what is, among informed parties, far and away the majority view.

The majority view, however, isn't very well-represented in the House, and so any compromise was always going to be ugly for Democrats. Democrats simply have more at stake -- they're the ones that suffer politically if the wheels come off the economy, they're the ones that would most prefer that the government not shut down -- and the Democrats are hobbled by their big-tent caucus, which might lead to larger majorities, but encourages defections among the rank-and-file whenever the heat is on.

So if you're going to cheer for the President to take a stand, you also have to be willing to stand by him yourself when he takes a bruising. Given some of the delusions suffered by progressives over the past two years (for example, the eternal left-wing conviction that, Senate votes notwithstanding, the health care bill could have included a public option if only Obama had really wanted it), you might see how the administration wouldn't want to risk an occasional defeat. For whatever reason, the American left seems quite keen to place the blame for political failures on thought traitors within the ranks, and quite reluctant to blame the guys who voted for right-wing policies in Congress.

None of this justifies the President's recent statements, of course. I'd rather progressive causes have a consistent advocate than the President be a perpetual winner. But nobody should delude themselves into thinking that you don't have to choose between the two.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Welcome to 1937

I've always wanted to live in the UK, but after the budget deal, it looks like a little piece of England is coming to me instead.

Anyway. I don't have much to say about this austerity nonsense, except that it is nonsense, that the people with the highest and broadest stakes in economic performance know as much and have said as much, and that it's astounding that our country's economic policy is being directed in accordance with an archaic, half-debunked economic worldview that few -- including few Republicans, circa five years ago -- actually believe. But as ever, Republican policy is dictated primarily by the political necessity of providing a dramatic alternative to Democratic priorities, so when the Democrats take a stand on the sky being blue, Republicans are forced to seek out and embrace whichever crank is contending otherwise. See also: climate change.

And as ever, Obama refuses to give a speech in which he acknowledges that he might end up on the losing side of policy fight. We're left with the appalling and bizarre spectacle of the President lauding Congress for enacting eighty billion dollars of cuts to his own proposed budget.

So here we are, watching our political class unanimously embrace a means that most of it knows will never reach the desired end. Guess what, though? When the car is being steered into a wall, you can't make the passengers like you better by cheering on the driver.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Paul Ryan proposes dramatic entitlement cuts; also, reversion to 19th century

As long as I'm posting links to the New York Times*, check out this awesome catch by Paul Krugman.

Somehow, Paul Ryan expects to cut non-entitlement federal spending in half in a decade. His squeeze-the-poor approach to entitlement reform aside, this is easily the most mystifying part of his budget. What's he planning on doing, dissolving the military? If his budget relies on the outright abolishment of enormous chunks of the government, shouldn't that be mentioned somewhere?

I don't know, doesn't this seem, like, a little bit important?

But instead, Ryan's apparent desire to shutter half the federal agencies is hidden in a spreadsheet. Burying the lede, they call this. Somehow, I feel as if the headlines focused less on how Ryan wants to dramatically slash ambiguous health care spending, and more on how he apparently wants to deep-six the Department of State/Education/Interior/Agriculture/Labor/Veteran's Affairs/Defense, the plaudits wouldn't be arriving quite as quickly.


*I had planned on linking there less because of the paywall, but it turns out I lack principles.

Senseless boundaries create senseless competition

A fascinating article in the Times today about interstate competition along borders. Long story short, states with major cities near their borders are offering economic incentives to entice companies to move from one side of the border to the other. The predictable result: a race to the bottom, with more and more public effort being expended to encourage "defectors," while less and less public revenue is collected from the companies in question (due to tax incentives being offered by both sides). Ultimately, one state wins and is slightly better off than before, but there's a net loss to the region as a whole.

Naturally, some blame the market:
John Vratil, a state senator who represents the Kansas side of the metro area, agreed that the efforts were a distraction but had a more fatalist attitude. 'It’s just an inherent aspect of the free market,' he said.
Vratil's point of view is sort of crazy. Yes, this anomaly is an aspect of the free market, in the sense that it relies on competition in the marketplace. But it pretty clearly demonstrates how markets work best in optimal arrangements and break down in suboptimal arrangements. It shows how markets can be structured and directed by underlying political divisions, and as a result, it shows the economic importance of creating political divisions that make some kind of sense.

The Times never comes out and says it, but this sort of thing happens precisely because the political divisions in the United States don't make sense. The country is chopped into arbitrary political units known as "states," which often represent a random and incoherent bundle of regional interests. These interests may or may not reflect actual sets of common interests held by people living in a particular place.

So while a policy that benefits a person living in Kansas City, Missouri will largely benefit a person in Kansas City, Kansas, there's no political system designed to find the optimal policies for these two people together. Instead, there are two political systems, one trying to help everyone several hundred miles west of the city and one trying to help everyone several hundred miles east of the city.

The solution is as clear as it is difficult to achieve: a political system in which cities and regions are the primary unit of local representation. A commonality of economic and social interests, not a common history, is the best criterion for political divisions. In practice, this means that metropolitan areas should be governed as a whole, not sliced and diced into several states and several dozen municipalities.

Of course, some level of interregional competition is inevitable, and to an extent, desirable. I'm not opposed to that at all. But competition should be between areas with appreciable differences -- areas with noticeable strengths and weaknesses relative to other areas. When segments of a single city push and pull against each other, when interchangeable regions sabotage each other, everybody loses.

In Libya, a tie goes to the rebels

Kevin Drum worries about a potential draw in Libya:

How likely is it, after all, that either the United States or its allies will be willing to accept a long, dull stalemate like this? In a sense, it would be even worse than the kind of grinding, inconclusive war we're fighting in Afghanistan, where we can at least concoct stories about progress and eventual victory. But if Libya settles down into a partition with essentially no fighting at all, no such stories will be possible. We either accept the partition or we don't.

There's not a lot of precedent to go on here, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing the American (or French or British) public would accept for long. Sure, nobody would be dying, so there probably wouldn't be huge public protests, but we'd still be committing ourselves to an expensive, indefinite military operation with no goal except to protect the partition of a country nobody really cares much about it in the first place.

Um, au contraire, I'd say there's quite a lot of precedent to go on. We're currently bogged down in a vastly bigger, lengthier, and more indefinite military operation, and public pressure to end that operation is minor at best. And musing about the American public's willingness to accept a stalemate both presupposes that the American public knows and cares about the current state of Libya, and posits some sort of bizarrely exceptionalist American desire to "finish the fight." Speaking of which, by the way, a reminder: the three biggest American wars of past ninety years all ended in a partition, conclusions which, somehow, the public was able to accept.

Still, more broadly, I think Drum's right that a stalemate is likely. But as regional observers pointed out at the outset of Libyan mission, a stalemate is not a bad outcome. In a partitioned Libya -- de facto or otherwise -- a lot of Benghazians are alive that wouldn't be otherwise. It puts much of Libya's oil resources out of Qaddafi's reach, and puts pressure on his regime to reach some sort of agreement with the rebels/protesters/opposition. In this case, a stalemate isn't really a stalemate. It's just a qualified loss for Qaddafi.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Want to help law students? Close down law schools.

As I've written before, the powers that be are increasingly waking up to the fact that legal education is a mess. But the solutions being proposed leave something to be desired.

At this point, I think it's safe to say that the consensus solution is the "market information" approach. Its supporters want to increase the accuracy of employment information available to prospective law students, enabling them to make smarter choices about where and when to attend school.

The most obvious manifestation of this trend is Law School Transparency, an organization devoted entirely to seeking more detailed employment information from law schools, and which has gotten a lot of press lately. The ABA is revising its accreditation standards to include a greater emphasis on accurate job statistics. The US News rankings are getting into the game, too, revising their employment reporting standards.

Don't get me wrong: better statistics surely can't hurt. But I'm extremely skeptical that they'll do much to help, either. That's because this approach is based on a flawed premise: that the oversupply of paying law students is the result of deception by law schools.

Look, I've been pretty harsh on law schools in the past. I don't plan on stopping anytime soon, because the supposedly-respected heads of these institutions know full well how badly their students are going to fare in the real world. But we shouldn't let anger at law schools obscure the real problem.

The breakdown in legal education is a broad-based market failure that goes much deeper than deceptive practices by the schools themselves. It's not that the sellers of legal education have themselves churned up too much demand for legal education relative to the number of available jobs. Instead, too much demand existed in the market prior to the current crisis. Schools eventually discovered this, and have taken advantage of it like any rational economic actor might, both by jacking up tuition dramatically (because there's always someone willing to pay it) and opening dozens of new schools (because there's always someone willing to attend).

I know a lot of people who read this blog are law students -- how many of you carefully delved into economic statistics prior to law school? How many of you examined legal employment outcomes while deciding whether to attend law school at all (and remember, that's a different question than which law school to attend)? Maybe some, but I'd wager not many. I certainly didn't. I based my decision on fuzzy notions of self-fulfillment ("Lawyering is intellectually engaging work"), hopeful thoughts about degree portability ("A JD opens a lot of doors for me"), and, of course, optimism about salaries ("All lawyers do pretty well for themselves, right?").

The evidence isn't just anecdotal, either -- poll after poll shows that incoming law students are absurdly overoptimistic about their job prospects and generally far less concerned with finding careers than with accumulating prestige.

More realistic information about law careers might dampen the seemingly inexhaustible American enthusiasm for legal education. But this approach seems unlikely to solve the problem completely, because the demand for law schools is driven by external factors; namely, the widespread cultural perception of lawyers as rich and influential. At this point, it's a perception with little resemblance to reality, but it might take a long, long time for ingrained attitudes to shift.

On the other hand, maybe the market information approach would be successful. But what then? At the very least, some law students would decide to not attend law school. Fewer students means financial pressure on law schools. One would have to assume that even a five- or ten-percent drop in matriculating students would significantly strain a school's budget. And after that?

Some schools, rather than accept a reduced existence, would probably scrape even further along the bottom of the barrel for applicants. (For its part, the ABA is threatening to make this easier by making the LSAT optional.) If anything, it's these least-qualified students that are most vulnerable to rosy promises of legal careers, and subsquently most likely to suffer under enormous debt loads. While improved employment reporting may individually benefit some students, the basic social problem would remain unaltered: too many useless degrees bought with nondischargeable debt. So long as we're talking about the general social good, one broke law student is pretty much the same as the next.

Alternatively, some schools, unable to make ends meet, might simply shut their doors. In certain ways this is the superior outcome: fewer JDs! Less job competition! Less debt! But it's also a chaotic outcome. It seems that, so long as we're shuttering law schools, it's better to shutter the lousy ones first, right? And market-based school closings would probably occur irrespective of school quality.

After all, if there's an overall drop in the number of law students, it's likely to occur across the board, rather than be confined to a few institutions. Schools that close as a result aren't going to be the schools with the worst academic programs, but the schools with the worst particularized financial circumstances. That might mean schools that cater to low-income students. Or it might mean schools with a very small endowment. Or it might just mean schools with an anomalously small incoming class the previous year. I don't see any way to predict in advance which schools would be hit the hardest, or ensure that they're "bad" schools. Moreover, while a widespread decline in admissions would leave many schools standing, virtually every school would suffer in the meantime, causing a lot of unnecessary pain. Meanwhile, before the market finished rebalancing itself, thousands of students would continue taking out millions in loans to pay for legal educations at institutions of dubious longevity. If you think a JD is worthless today, imagine having a JD from a school that financially imploded.

So, in summation, the market information approach probably won't drive students away from law school. And if it does, law schools will probably just fill those seats with worse students. And if they don't, the resultant market shift will cause pain and uncertainty for wide swaths of the legal field.

With all that in mind, it seems clear that the optimal solution is also the simplest: simply shut down law schools. Pick a handful of institutions and show them the door in an orderly fashion, probably spaced out over a number of years. After they're gone, don't accredit new law schools until the legal industry actually needs more lawyers.

Yes, this approach leaves a number of open questions: who gets shut down, and how, and by whom? All thorny issues, but none of them insurmountable. (I might post about these problems later.)

Yes, this approach raises worries about "picking winners." But this isn't really about picking the right schools -- there are hundreds to choose from -- but solving the problem without creating a free-for-all and all its attendant risks.

Of course, the odds of anyone pursuing such a dramatic and simple solution are slim to none. Instead of solving anything, the ABA would rather wash its hands of the matter. "Well, told law students it was a trap," it says. "Who can blame us if they walked into it anyway?"

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What can't forty million dollars buy you?

A functioning paywall for your national newspaper, apparently.

Protip: If you use up your article allotment at the New York Times, all you have to do is delete everything after the question mark in the URL.

In other words, the Times spent two years and millions of dollars developing a system that can be defeated by changing this:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/06/opinion/06wed1.html?hp&gwh=ACAEEB77684B487F7F3F48D40303C498

to this:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/06/opinion/06wed1.html.

I know that sounds taxing, but don't worry! If hitting the delete key a single time is too onerous, you have alternatives: change to a different browser to reset the 20-article limit. Or just clear your browser's cache, that works too.

Keep in mind that the Times wants you to pay a $200 subscription fee to view its articles. Anyone the least bit internet-savvy is going to opt for the workarounds -- even if we ignore the laughably high fee, actually subscribing probably requires several times the hassle of "hacking" around the paywall.

Meanwhile, a huge proportion of other viewers will either read fewer Times articles because they fear the paywall, or will actually hit the paywall and move on to different news sources.

So what we have here, basically, is the Times trying salvage its financial future by trapping its most computer-illiterate readers into paying for an overpriced subscription because those readers don't understand that there are better ways to get the same news for free. (And I'm being generous: the other possibility is that the Times is hoping the paywall will guilt us into donating to its operation several hundred dollars of outright charity.*) This is, incidentally, the exact same business model AOL now uses -- relying on old people's technological ignorance to trick them into paying for services they don't need. In order to perpetuate the swindle, all the paper needs to do is drive away millions of the readers who were using it as their primary news source.

Eventually we have to draw the unavoidable conclusion, right? Which is that everyone involved in this fiasco must be some kind of idiot.



*Although, thinking about it, begging for donations is probably a better solution. The Times might still only make a pittance, but least it wouldn't be sacrificing readership in the process.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Paul Ryan plan in simplest terms

Paul Ryan's new budget plan seems complicated, but it isn't. For all the obfuscating talk of vouchers and block grants, he only has one very simple solution to the deficit -- the same solution he's been touting for years now. It's a solution that anyone can understand.

The United States is facing two distinct, but related, long-term problems:

1. Health care costs are rising rapidly.

2. Medicare and Medicaid obligates the government to pay for the health care of the poor and elderly. This means that the rising cost of health care shows up on federal budget projections.

Paul Ryan's new budget proposal solves the second problem but not the first. It does this by dissolving Medicare and Medicaid as we currently understand them. In Ryan's plan, the federal government protects its own coffers by simply refusing to pay for health care anymore.

This obviously fixes the problem with the federal budget. But it does so by taking money the federal government is currently obligated to pay and forcing poor people, and elderly people, and employers, and, well, you, to pay for it instead. Most poor people and most elderly people can't afford to do so, and for a lot of them, consistent access to health care will dry up.

The plan does nothing to address the root problem, the rising cost of health care, so the range of people who can afford to get treated is going to continue shrinking. Employer benefits will continue to get less and less generous. Access to health care will become more and more a privilege of wealth.

It's pretty clear that reducing access to health care will lead to a lot of suffering for a lot of people.

For what gain? That's less clear.

The plan fundamentally misconstrues the relationship between people and government. All things equal, most people would agree that a balanced federal budget is preferable to an unbalanced federal budget. But by making a balanced budget an end unto itself, conservatives have created a sort of myopia over the purpose of government in the first place. Ryan's plan envisions the government as a private actor, working to balance its own accounts at the expense of everyone else. That's ridiculous.

Right now, health care costs are massive and thorny problem facing Americans and their government. No one with a serious grasp of health policy could deny as much.

Ryan's plan sees that problem and cheerfully splits the baby down the middle. If Ryan gets his way, the government makes out like a bandit while the Americans it supposedly represents are forced to cope with tremendous suffering alone. Ryan's plan attempts to decouple the long-term fate of the federal government -- an entity governing the American people and controlled by its elected representatives -- from the long-term fate of Americans themselves.

This is ridiculous. If the finances of the government are unsustainable, it's only because the finances of the body politic are also unsustainable.

At its core, Ryan's plan is an abdication of responsibility. It represents conservatives standing up and saying to America, "We don't know how to solve your problems, and we'd rather not try. So instead, we're going to shuffle you out the door so we can put the federal house in order. Everything's still going to seed, but this way, no one can blame us for anything."

It is simply not acceptable for a government to solve its own problems while -- or rather, by -- ignoring the problems of the governed.

And for all the smoke and mirrors, that's exactly what Paul Ryan wants to do with his plan: create a healthy government for a sickly nation.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Friday: the end of history

As of this writing, 82,084,389 people have watched Rebecca Black's Friday. Approximately 82,084,388 of them thought that the joke was on Rebecca Black.

But the joke's on us, it seems. Because while we laugh and carouse, Rebecca Black's awful, awful song is slowly eroding everything we hold dear.




The thing about Rebecca Black that truly terrifies me -- besides her dead eyes and vaguely predatory smile -- is the rapidity with which her song has made the leap from something that was only supposed to be watched once, laughed at, and forgotten, to some sort of ironic cultural touchstone. That means -- and if you pay attention, it's already happening -- that soon, Friday will pass the irony threshold and become something that can be enjoyed straightforwardly.

It's coming. Our Pavlovian natures ensure it will come. Inexorably, the desire to seem hip and with-it and ironic and clever, which currently bridges the thought "this song is awful" to the thought "better sing along," will crumble away. In its place: pure conditioning. Friday plays; everyone dances. Endorphins flood the brain.

If you don't believe me, go ahead and check out the already-famous Stephen Colbert/Jimmy Fallon version of the song, which you've probably already seen and enjoyed. Sure, there are dancers and Stephen Colbert and general looniness. It's okay to like this, you think. But it isn't. Because all the pageantry only disguises the simple, terrible truth: it's still the same song. And like that, you're one step closer to the abyss.

Take a step back for a moment, and imagine a world where people can enjoy Friday unironically. Doesn't that raise so many questions? Like, for instance, if you can enjoy Friday, what can't you enjoy? Doesn't it make you wonder if you never truly enjoyed any music at all, and instead, only enjoy the package of mental associations you have with that music? It calls everything into question. It's total aesthetic relativism, if not outright aesthetic depravity.

Look, it's not like the Fallon performance it isn't fun or entertaining, because it is. That's not the point. The point is that there are some things we can't joke about. The Holocaust, for instance. Rwandan genocide. The earthquake in Haiti. Maybe you can devise a funny joke about one of these subjects; I'm sure it's possible. But when you tell it, the moral underpinnings of society begin to come undone. The tentpoles of decency over which civilization is draped are ripped out, and we're all left alone in the woods, unable to find our bearings. You can't tell the right way from the wrong way; every direction looks the same.

The only way to stop this creeping relativism is to refuse to take the first step towards it. Erect a simple, solid rule as a bulwark. Acknowledge that some subjects should only be spoken about with the gravitas they deserve.

Is what I'm proposing really so difficult? Keep things in perspective. Don't trivialize the Holocaust. Likewise, don't trivialize Rebecca Black's Friday.

I have a challenge for Friday's defenders. I know you're out there. If you enjoy this song -- oh, I don't care why you say you enjoy it; the important thing is that you do -- find me one truly awful song. A song nobody can enjoy. A song that is unquestionably bad beyond all belief. A song so risible that even ironic enjoyment is impossible, a song that casts off good associations through the sheer putrid power of its aural transgressions. A song that can sink into the depths as our moral anchor.

You see? There isn't one. There's nothin...

Oh, wait.





And that's the story of how, for the first and last time, Fred Durst saved Western civilization.

Friday, April 1, 2011

This one's for Rob

I'm bored in Federal Courts. So I fixed the Wild logo.





See? Isn't that better?