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.