Friday, September 14, 2012

CNN headline #FAIL

On CNN's homepage today: 

"Rage against anti-Islam film spreads to Africa".  

What continent, pray tell, do CNN's editors think that Libya and Egypt are located in?

(Clicking through may reveal a different headline on the actual article; CNN has long had the bad habit of using provocative or incorrect headlines on their home page, but more sensible stuff on the actual content).

A taxonomy of economic classes.

Rod Dreher, writing at The American Conservative, points out the absurdity of both President Obama and Mitt Romney describing the upper end of the middle class at an income level of $250k/year.  The point is taken--though as commenters point out, this income doesn't factor in the greater expense of urban lifestyles.  This salary will not make you rich in Manhattan or San Francisco, on the other hand, one can live quite comfortably on half of that if one lives in Montana.  Other factors, such as number of children, also affect the standard of living one can purchase on a given salary.

But a more fundamental problem is that the trichotomy of poor/middle class/wealthy doesn't do justice to the varying economic circumstances of people around the globe.  Many US commentators try and subdivide this with phrases like "upper middle class", "working poor", "working class", "homeless", and the like; but these are not rigorously defined.

To that end, here's an entirely non-academic attempt at a more useful taxonomy of economic strata.  No references to specific income levels are made.

  • Level 0:  Basic needs for biological subsistence are regularly not met.  Meals may be irregular, or the individual may in fact starve, be homeless, or lack any protection from elements.  Utterly dependent on charity, thievery, or begging for sustenance; death may result if these are withdrawn or unavailable.  In the US context, this mainly consists of the long-term homeless.
  • Level 1:  Basic needs for biological subsistence are occasionally not met; individual may exist in unsanitary, unhealthy, or socially pathological conditions.  In modern welfare states, persons at this level typically are on long-term government support (which keeps them out of level 0--a major reason level 0 is rare in wealthy developed countries).  Many US ghettoes, Indian reservations, and poor rural enclaves (parts of Appalachia) qualify.
  • Level 2:  Able to provide (or is provided) basic biological needs, though may need occasional public assistance, charity, or support from friends and extended family.  No disposable income (all goes to basic necessities), insufficient financial security for long-term planning, and unable to accumulate savings or afford long-term investments such as owning a home, education, or other big ticket items.  Significant cash-flow difficulties, lives paycheck to paycheck, may have difficulty coping with even minor unexpected events such as unexpected doctor visits.    Little or no access to credit on reasonable terms, may have dependency on predatory lenders.   "Judgement-proof" in legal parlance.   Many working poor.
  • Level 3: Able to provide basic needs and accumulate modest amounts of capital, and afford (or finance) medium-to-large ticket items like a car.  May also be able to purchase things like health insurance or preventative medical care; and has enough capital to protect that these purchases become rational.  Rate of capital accumulation is small, however, and a significant crisis (such as unemployment) poses a threat.  Lower-middle class.
  • Level 4:  Individual is able to provide basic needs, accumulate capital, and spend some money on large-ticket or non-essential items.  Ready access to credit, including the ability to finance the purchase of homes in some markets.  Able to meaningfully save for rainy days and or retirements, and also to spend non-trivial though not large sums on recreational items.  Able to financially withstand events like broken-down cars or appliances, minor medical emergencies, or short-term bouts of unemployment, though may be ruined by major crises.  Working class.
  • Level 5:  Financially secure in the medium term, with significant capital appreciation.  Some ability to invest in financial markets, little problem with owning own home, except in markets where real estate is extremely expensive.  Reasonable levels of disposable income, and able to spend some money on luxuries, and may be able to save up big-ticket recreational items (such as boats), and things like private school.  Generally has good access to credit.  Middle class.
  • Level 6:  Financially secure in the medium-to-long term.  Much of income is disposable.  Can afford quite a few luxuries, including big-ticket items like extensive travel, luxury cars, works of art, private schools, and tuition at elite universities.  Older members of this level could choose retire early and live off accumulated capital.  Upper middle class.  Top 10%
  • Level 7:  Completely financially independent.  Able to, if one chooses, quit working and finance a comfortable lifestyle on accumulated capital, or plan to do so within a short time-frame if young.  Able to easily afford things like full-time servants, luxury homes, vacation homes, or private aircraft.  Moderately wealthy; top 1%-2%.
  • Level 8:  Wealthy; have income or capital accumulation an order of magnitude above middle-class levels.  Able to afford any and all middle-class purchases without a second thought, and able to purchase luxury items which are simply beyond the ability of the middle class to even consider.  Depending on location, may be able to purchase some political influence.  Significant investments in marketplace; capital gains often exceeds earned income.  Top 0.1%.
  • Level 9:  Very wealthy.  Have capital accumulation several orders of magnitude above middle-class levels, and an order of magnitude above even wealthy levels.  Able to afford items like professional sports franchises, and medium-sized corporations; able to purchase virtually any consumer good on the market without a second thought.  Significant political influence is available; able to self-finance a run to high office (many US politicians are here, including Mitt Romney).  Top 0.01%. 
  • Level 10:  The wealthiest of the wealthy. .  Have capital accumulation which rivals that of many large corporations or small government entities; an order of magnitude richer than Level 9.  Able to live like royalty (and many in this class are royalty), and purchase absurdly expensive things like mega-yachts or other vanities.  Extensive access to politicians is available.  Top 0.001%--Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Paul Allen.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Robin's Law

Robin's law is named for Broolyn College political science professor Corey Robin. Not because he proposed it (I'm proposing it here, and haven't seen it formulated elsewhere, though I suspect it's not original), but because he is a fine example.

The law is thus:

Ideologues frequently view their political opponents as little more than inversions of themselves.
Robin's entertaining anti-conservative polemic The Reactionary Mind, which has made many liberals stand up and cheer (and contains many good points within its pages), is a textbook example.  The thesis of Dr. Robin's work is that the main motivation of conservatism, as manifested throughout the ages, is maintaining an aristocracy (of some sort or another) against the interests of the broader populace.

Many other liberals (including myself, in my less reflective moments) make the same category error.  Liberals are often motivated by issues such as economic equality and social justice, and thus frequently conclude that conservatives are motivated by inequality and injustice--that these things are the raison d'etre of conservatism.   While there are doubtless many powerful rich folk in the conservative movement who's goal is to undermine the working class--and will marshal any number of other arguments to support this cause--that alone cannot explain the bulk of conservative politics.  (Some liberals act as though the broader conservative movement has been brainwashed in some fashion by the plutocracy--an allegation which is insulting nonsense).

Conservatives, of course, commit the same error in their views of liberals, in spades.  Conservative discourse is full of portrayals of liberals as lazy, nihilistic, hedonists.  On bad days, liberals are often described as agents of either foreign states or of the Devil.  Many conservative pundits argue with a straight face that the Democratic Party--an institution which 31% of Americans identity with--is an organization of traitors.  It is assumed by many on the right that the purpose and fundamental goals of Democratic policy is such things as "undermining family values" or weakening US security.  Which is, of course, news to any card-carrying Democrat.

Libertarians, though, may be the champions of this.  Libertarians have seemingly fabricated an entire ideology--"statism"--which they ascribe to their opponents, left and right.  In this reckoning, the goal of the statist is--as the name suggests--is to expand the scope of the state.  Rather than the state being an instrument towards some other policy end (such as restricting access to narcotics or mitigating the effects of poverty), the cart is placed before the horse, and these policy initiatives are merely fig-leafs to justify the true end goal--growth of the Leviathan.

In all three cases, these ridiculous (but popular) caricatures have the same root cause:  Rather than attempting to honestly understand the motivations of one's opponents, ideologues will assume that the opponents are simply their opposites--opposed to what they consider to be good, and supportive of what they consider to be evil.  Liberals, interested in economic justice, accuse conservatives of championing plutocracy.  Conservatives, interested in a strong moral order and a strong national defense, treat liberals as though they wish to destroy morality and surrender to foreign enemies, real or imagined.  And libertarians, desiring to shrink the state out of first principles, assume their adversaries are motivated by a desire to enlarge it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Romney's "Sister Souljah" moment?

In 1992, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton famously launched an attack against the rapper Sister Souljah.  The remarks were surprising at the time--as they offended several key Democratic constituencies--but they served their purpose:  Clinton was able to win significant support from moderates and conservative Democrats, who had abandoned the Democratic Party in the prior three election cycles, and defeat George H. W. Bush that November. 

Given that the current election cycle bears some resemblance to 1992--a poorly-performing economy, an incumbent considered to be vulnerable, and an opposition party nominee who is presently having trouble with moderate voters, particularly in swing states, some commentators have called for Mitt Romney to produce a "Sister Souljah moment" of his own; a rebuke to his party's base that makes him attractive to swing voters.

Recently, the Romney campaign did do indeed something which has infuriated his base:  a seeming endorsement of RomneyCare, in response to an Obama ad aimed directly at Romney's groin.  In the ad, a worker laid off from a Bain Capital-owned firm, discusses his wife's subsequent death and the likely role that loss of health insurance may have played.  While the ad's factual case may not be very strong (the wife died many years after the husband lost his job), Romney's response was to suggest that if they had lived in Massachusetts and had access to the healthcare system there (which Romney is credited as the architect of), she might still be alive.

This thoroughly infuriated conservatives.  While not quite a Souljah-esque rebuke of a GOP sacred cow--for one thing, the comments came from a Romney spokesperson and not from the candidate himself--the GOP's right wing is outraged.  Erick Erickson (a grudging, holding-his-nose Romney supporter only supports the former governor because he's not Obama) tweeted that this might cost Romney the election, and suggested that the nominee needs to be "housebroken".  Were Romney, though, to himself endorse his signature gubernatorial initiative, it would be the first significant time since winning the GOP nomination, that he has challenged party orthodoxy on a significant issue.

If he decided to go with this, would it work?  Several issues suggest not.
  • The GOP hasn't spent enough time in the wilderness to accept such a rebuke.  When Clinton made his remarks, the Democrats had only occupied the White House for one term out of the past six, and were desperate for an electoral victory.  The party was simply tired of losing, and ready to abandon its ideological rigidity.  (Were Jimmy Carter to have said something similar in 1980, he would likely not have survived the primaries).  There's little evidence that the GOP has reached "peak wingnut"; the Republican party and the conservative intellectual machinery is still in the business of purging moderates and electing extremists.  
  • While Clinton himself had a reputation as a flip-flopper during the election (he was often derisively referred to as "pander bear" during the campaign); he did not have anywhere near the political baggage that Romney did.  It may well be the case that moderate voters simply conclude that this is yet another strategic tack from the presumptive GOP nominee, and not a serious statement of principle on an issue of key importance.
  • The specific issue of healthcare reform doesn't give Romney much electoral benefit--as a more robust version of the program is already law, and championed by his oopponent.
In prior instances where Romney has said things that have offended conservatives and produced outrage among the right-wing punditocracy, these have been swiftly walked back.  It's possible that Romney will do the same with this remark--disavowing it as an unwise remark from a campaign staffer.  For this to have any Sister Souljah potential, Romney will have to defend the position himself, and openly defy conservatives who remain skeptical about his political bona fides.

And the next time Romney stands up to Rush Limbaugh et al, will be the first.

But if he doesn't do it during the campaign, he'll probably never get the chance to do it from the Oval Office.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


It's always amusing to hear scolds and cranks on the political right-wing (and I include libertarians here, as this article focuses on economic issues) warning about the possibility of US hyperinflation.  If I had a dollar for every time someone compared the United States to Weimar Germany or post-WWII Hungary or various African kleptocracies--I'd have enough cash to inflate the currency myself.  While the US uses fiat money, it ought to be obvious to anyone that the Fed is strictly under the thumb of banking interests, and that despite persistent 8% unemployment, isn't likely to do a damn thing about it--least of all, go off and print tens of trillions of dollars (and it would take an expansion that large in the money supply to devalue the currency sufficiently to trigger hyperinflation--generally defined as a halving of the value of a currency each month, or worse).  The size of the national debt is of some concern, but at present it is at a level manageable by current GDP.

Hyperinflation generally occurs when there's a very large change in the value of the money supply (money stock, bank deposits, etc) compared to the productive value of a country.  The biggest cause of hyperinflation is warfare and its aftermath, where massive amounts of capital are diverted to fund the war machine.  This is especially true for civil war and/or invasion--where productive assets are destroyed, civil society is disrupted, taxation becomes difficult, and/or punitive reparations are imposed on the loser of a conflict.  The other main cause of hyperinflation is ineffective government running unproductive economies (often also coupled with warfare).  Neither condition presently applies here--while the US is presently engaged in far too many foreign misadventures for my taste, all of the conflict is occurring abroad; US factories are not being bombed and the government remains able to finance its activities through taxation or debt.  And the country still has adequate infrastructure, productive farms and factories, and other ways of generating wealth.

So--could hyperinflation happen here?  The two times the US has come closest were during the Revolutionary and Civil wars.  The US was not yet a country at the time the colonists revolting against Great Britain were issuing "continentals" to finance the war, which quickly became worthless.  No other episode--including the infamous "stagflation" of the 1970s, come close--inflation then was on the order of 10% per year, not 50% per month.  As noted in the opening paragraph, the Fed seems to be in no mood to further expand the money supply, and US debt still is regarded as a highly safe investment.

If it does happen, it won't be in the way the tinfoil hats on the right predict.  My bigger concern would be a significant drop in the productive capacity of the country--caused by a continuing failure to invest in the infrastructure and human resources needed to maintain a first-world economy.   A first world economy requires quality roads and ports for movement of people and goods, an educated populace, a strong financial system, infrastructure for things like electricity, water, sewerage, and telecommunications, and a transparent and honest political and judicial system.  And recently, we have been neglecting all of these, often on the grounds that they are too expensive to maintain.  However, there remains ample money to fund a vast war machine for engaging in dubious adventures abroad.

If hyperinflation occurs here, it won't because the Fed fires up the printing press.  It will occur here because our infrastructure will become so neglected that it fails to function.  Our bridges will fall into rivers; our utility systems will become unreliable.  Our factories, many of which are shuttered due to cheaper labor (and better supply chains) available elsewhere, will become obsolete and no longer capable of high-level production.  Our children, deprived of a quality education, will not be qualified for any tasks other than physical labor.  Our politicians will become more bought, and our culture politics more poisonous.  And eventually, the GDP will plummet as the productive capacity of the land goes down, and all those dollars people have will correspondingly decline in value.

If hyperinflation occurs here, it won't be because of the numerator in the money/wealth ratio gets too high, it will be because the denominator gets too low. And that's actually the common denominator in cases of hyperinflation--a country that, for whatever reason, is poor.  Usually this occurs in a country that has never been otherwise, or which sees its wealth utterly destroyed due to catastrophe or sabotage.  It would be a rare thing indeed for it to happen due to simple neglect.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

More Gilbert and Sullivan--this time for the President

When the GOP's not causing unemployment (unemployment)
And trying to drown the baby in the tub (in the tub)
On the golf course Speaker Boehner gives enjoyment (gives enjoyment)
Though he thinks that I should carry 'round his clubs (round his clubs)

Our feelings we with difficulty smother (-culty smother)
When polliticary duty's to be done (to be done)
Ah take one consideration with another (with another)
A president's lot is not a happy one.

Ahhh, when politicary duty's to be done, to be done,
A president's lot is not a happy one.

When the press corps is not rummaging through my laundry (through my laundry)
And seeking soiled linens I may got (I may got)
At parties they're quite charming, what a quandry (what a quandry)
Holding forth on Edmund Burke and Oakeshott (Oakeshott)

When the banker's finished robbing your grandmother (your grandmother) He loves to see the Yankees score a run (score a run)
Ah, take one consideration with another (with another)
A president's lot is not a happy one.

Ahhh, when politicary duty's to be done, to be done,
A president's lot is not a happy one.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Honest politician refuses to kiss ugly baby

Sabine Parish, LA (AP)

A candidate for the Louisiana House of Representatives caused a minor stir today when he refused to kiss a baby offered by a supporter at a political rally, saying that the child was too ugly.

Edwin G. Beauregard III, a Republican running for the legislature's seventh district who has developed a widespread representation among constituents for honesty, was gladhanding supporters in the town of Many when Blanche Johnson, a local housewife, handed him her 4 month-old son Bo Jr, for the traditional political ritual of receiving a kiss from the candidate.  Beauregard astonished the crowd when he took one look at the child, audibly shouted "My Lord", and handed the infant back to his shocked mother.  Visibly shaken, the rally was ended soon after, and the candidate canceled the remaining events on his schedule that day.

Asked about the event at a press conference the next day, Mr. Beauregard told an assembled group of reporters that "I'm sorry, folks, but I jes' cannot tell a lie.  Dat dar baby was uglier'n an alligator.  Now I done grew up in da bayou, and I seen lots of gators in my time--done killed a bunch of'm, too.  While de chil' wasn't uglier dan de ugliest gator I ever saw, he was definitely uglier dan de prettiest one.  I'm sorry if I offended da lady--she seems like a nice woman an' all, but I nearly fainted right dere on de spot when I saw what was inside dat cute lil' outfit.  Dis may cos' me de election dis November, but Lord al-mighty, dat kid was ug-LY!"

When reached for comment, Mrs. Johnson surprisingly defended the candidate, indicating that she still plans to vote for Mr. Beauregard.  "I know that little Bo. Jr ain't 'xactly the cutest thing in the world.  He kinda looks like his father, if y'all wanna know the truth.  But he's a gift from th' Lord, and pretty or not, he's our son and we love him with all our hearts.  I feel bless'd to have him, jes' like I feel bless'd to have an honest politician like Ed Beauregard runnin' for th' Legislature."

Mr. Beauregard's opponent, the Democratic incumbent Jefferson Babineaux, blasted the Republican, calling it an outrage that he would treat a child so cruelly.  "It's one thing t' lie 'bout your background, or what you plan to do when you get 'lected to office.  But to tell a poor woman that her child is ugly?  That has t'be the mos' despicable thing I ever heard of--and tell yew what, I heard a lot down in Baton Rouge, and I heard a lot more durin' my time at Angola."  Mr. Babineaux, who's current term in office has been marked by scandal, previously served time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for corruption after a bribery conviction related to a prior stint in the state Senate.  He has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence in the scandal to this day, and despite the conviction and jail sentence, won election to the Legislature in 2008.

A spokesman for Mr. Beauregard's campaign indicated that the candidate would not change how he conducts political events in the future.  "Mr. Beauregard has been in politics for over twenty years.  This is the first time, that I can recall, that he has encountered a baby that was too ugly to kiss.  State has a better chance of losin' a football game to Vanderbilt than this does of ever happenin' again."