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  Utterly dependent on charity, thievery, or begging for sustenance; death may result if these are withdrawn or unavailable.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."

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The health-care play by play I'd love to hear

If politics is football, here's the play-by-play I'd love to here.

"What a ballgame, folks!  We've had several lead changes in the fourth quarter, and now the Elephants have just called time.  They have the ball, fourth-and-goal on the Donkeys' three yard line.  Down by five.  Only seconds left on the clock.  They need a touchdown here, or it's all over."

"That's right, Bob.  The Elephants  were leading through most of the first half, when the Donkey's star runningback Kennedy got knocked out of the game.  Just before halftime, it was third-and-long, deep in Donkey territory, and it looked like the lead would hold.  But then coach Obama called a reconciliation play, which caught the Elephant defense COMPLETELY off guard, and the Donkeys were able to score on the final play of the half to take a small lead into the locker room".

"But whatever coach Boehner said to the Elephants in the locker room, it must have worked.  In the second half, the Donkeys haven't been able to move the ball at all against this stout Elephant defense.   While the elephants haven't scored either, they have slowly been moving the chains downfield, and are knocking on the door with seconds to go."

"The Donkey defense looks demoralized.  The elephants have their unstoppable fullback, Roberts on the field.  I was listening into the Elephant huddle, and Coach Boehner was telling his players that there would be no spiking of the ball if they score."

"I tell you what.  If the Elephants win this, it may finally justify all the money they spent on their new quarterback Romney.  Many fans of the team don't like him, mainly because he used to play for New England.  He's had to spend lots of time winning these fans over.  But if he can pull this off, he and the Elephants may just go all the way this year."

"If the Elephants pull this off, we may be looking at a dynasty."

"Back to the action.  The teams are at the line of scrimmage, Romney under center.  Donkey's loaded up to stop the run.  Here's the handoff from Scalia, he gives it to Roberts up the middle...."

"FUMBLE! He fumbled the ball!  There's bedlam on the turf!  OH MY GOD, Ginsburg scooped up it up and is running the other way!  They're not going to catch her!  Fifty!  Forty!  Thirty!  Twenty! Ten...  TOUCHDOWN!  The horn sounds!  And the game is OVER!   It's all over!"

"Incredible.  Can you believe THAT?  On the most important drive of the game, Elephant fullback John Roberts--the man known to football fans 'round the country as the Chief Justice, and the centerpiece of the team's offense--DROPS THE BALL!  And then Ginsburg--the oldest player on the field, she turns EIGHTY next year--outran everybody for a touchdown at the other end!"

"She's pretty spry for someone of her age, you gotta admit!

"Incredible.  Just amazing.  The Donkey's on the sideline just dumped a bucket of Gatorade on Coach Obama's head!  Many of the Elephant's fans are throwing garbage on the turf, and some of them are shouting obscenities at an obviously dejected Roberts.  Scalia and Ginsburg are shoving each other at mid-field.  And look at that--one of the Donkey players, Gaspard, I think it is, is taunting the Elephants on the field.  That would be worth fifteen yards, but the horn's already sounded!"

"Amazing.  We'll be back for the post-game reactions, right after this."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Occupy Tea Party?

In his New York Times column this morning, Ross Douthat noted the apparent demise of Americans Elect, the group that was trying to nominate a third-party centrist candidate to run in the middle, between President Obama and Mitt Romey.  While Ross neglects to mention that much of the motivation behind Americans Elect was personal dislike of the President (quite a few of its sponsors are disaffected Hillary supporters who haven't gotten over 2008), he's correct to note that there really isn't much room in the center for a viable third party.  The Democrats, in particular, are still accommodating to centrists.  Perhaps if the GOP were to continue down their extremist path, and the Democrats were to revert to their 1970s selves, a centrist third party would be viable, but that's not the conditions today.

Ross wondered aloud what a viable third party would look like.  To be viable, a third party would need to appeal to a large number of disaffected Americans--ideologically-defined parties like the Libertarians are unlikely to grow unless they can convince people that they offer solutions to problem.  Ross considered a fusion of Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street populism, which eerily reflected this Robert Reich article. (written prior to the rise of Occupy Wall Street).

What would a modern-day populist party look like, were it to come to exist?  The Tea Party and OWS have quite a few things in common:
  • Born of economic upheaval
  • Distrustful of economic elites, although there is some disagreement as to who they are.  Neither group is terribly fond of Wall Street.  OTOH, the Tea Party strongly dislikes organized labor (particularly public employee unions, whom it regards a yet another rent-seeking special interest) whereas OWS holds a less favorable view of industrialists and entrepreneurs.
  • Likewise distrustful of the political establishment, believing that it is carrying water for the above-mentioned economic elites, and ignoring the concerns of the common man; both groups tend to believe that government writ large has been influenced by systemic corruption, and that the elites in both political parties are no good.
  • Both movements are skeptical of current foreign policy.  OWS is generally staunchly anti-war.  Some Tea Partiers promote neoconservative foreign policy and/or seek to use the US military to advance religious goals (in particular, waging war against the Muslim world); but this is one of the biggest areas of disagreement between parts of the Tea Party and the GOP establishment; many Tea Partiers are as sick of warfare as liberals are.  Ron Paul is every bit as pacifist as anyone on the political left.

On the other hand, there are obvious cultural and political differences.
  • The Tea Party is fundamentally a rural movement--and highly skeptical of urban living--whereas OWS is fundamentally an urban one.  I consider this to be one of the biggest differences, one that trumps many of the other cultural differences between the two movements.    
  • The Tea Party also is more fundamentally, at this point, a cultural movement than an economic one; much of its focus is on cultural battles.  When the Tea Party talks about economics, many speakers advocate doctrinaire GOP policies, or a purified version thereof purged of (perceived) policy concessions to liberals.  (The disaster that was the Bush Administration is widely blamed on W being insufficiently conservative).  There are some staunch social conservatives (Mike Huckabee, Patrick J. Buchanan, and Rick Santorum are notable examples) who have been known to make populist economic arguments, but none of these have seriously challenged Republican orthodoxy on economics.  And a few on the right advocate reactionary economic policies such as the abandonment of central banking or fiat money.  OWS, on the other hand, is primarily an economic protest movement.
  • The Tea Party is strongly anti-immigrant, and is also strongly influenced by fundamentalist Christianity in most places (this influence is present among its more Libertarian members--the Pauls, for example-- even if the latter don't consider such matters to be legislative priorities).  A significant fraction of the Tea Party movement is racist--excluding a few outliers like Herman Cain, it's a mostly white movement.  Many important goals of the Tea Party are non-economic goals promoted by religious conservatives--opposing abortion and gay rights, for instance.  OWS is far more culturally and racially diverse, and is in many ways a counterculture movement.   It frequently advocates socially libertarian goals, such as drug legalization and continuing deregulation of sex. 
  • Frequent broadsides about urban elites and Wall Street notwithstanding, the Tea Party spends much of its time railing about the underclass and about the welfare state; whereas OWS directs the bulk of its scorn upwards.  Many Tea Party supporters are working-class whites who are finding themselves descending the economic ladder, and who have long defined themselves as being better than those at the bottom.  Many OWS supporters are already at the bottom.
Given all of that, could a fusion of the OWS and the Tea Party arise?

It's not likely to happen this election cycle.  Much as liberals in 2004 rallied around John Kerry as the party's nominee, eager to vote against an incumbent they despised, conservatives of all stripes have coalesced around another Massachusetts politician.  Even though many don't like Mitt Romney, the loathe Barack Obama, and that's good enough.  But what if Romney loses?

There will then be quite a bit more finger-pointing within the GOP; and those who argue that Republicans lost in 2008 because they weren't conservative enough will be in a strong position.  (On the other hands, if the GOP loses Richard Lugar's seat in Indiana, and fails to pick up the Nebraska seat being vacated by Ben Nelson, the establishment may have a good response).  At that point, a formal schism might be more of a reality.

But here's where it gets interesting.  The Tea Party, in many ways, controls the GOP.  They aren't the primary money-men, but many of the party's funding sources are perfectly happy backing Tea Party candidates.  In short, they already have a political party, which is being remade in its image.  It's possible, of course, that as relations fray between the Tea Party and the establishment, the Tea Party will move to the left on economics and foreign policy, ejecting much of the conservative establishment, and be in a position to pick up some outliers on the left, with the result that a populist party similar to what Reich describes, or to populist parties in the US's past, or to nationalist parties in Europe, will result--but in this scenario, it's the GOP, looking more and more like the Democrats of a century ago.

Given that scenario, a Friedmanesque third party, consisting of the GOP establishment, might arise, taking some centrist Democrats with it.

Driving the Tea Party out of the GOP will probably require electoral repudiation of Tea Party candidates and the Tea Party agenda.  It's not likely to happen in 2012, as Romney is not a Tea Partier, and many Tea Party congresspersons elected in 2010 have been protected somewhat with gerrymandering.

The interesting compare to the Tea Party is the rise of the antiwar Democrats after 1968--when Southern Democrats started to leave the party, and the Dems started their generation in the political wilderness.  A few notable third party candidacies did form in the post-Civil-Rights era--the Dixiecrats, and later John Anderson in 1980.  But none of these managed to stick around.

Given all of that, the chances of a third party--whether centrist or extremist--becoming a long-term viable political entity strikes me as remote.  Our political system promotes a stable two-party model.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

More on the politics of high gas prices.

In the last post, we noted that the political response of the US public to high gasoline prices is, how shall we say it, more severe than the political response to high healthcare costs.  And therein poses a dilemma for progressives.
For many reasons, high prices for gasoline (and other fossil fuels) are generally a good thing.  Burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment, and many of the ways of extracting petroleum are likewise damaging.  Many petrochemical companies are notoriously bad actors.  Maintaining access to cheap foreign oil also requires us to deal with some rather unsavory states, and get involved in military adventures that would otherwise be considered unwise.  It's not exaggerating to say that cheap gas is paid for in blood, not just dollars.
However, high prices for gasoline is also a bad thing for several reason:  First, it is a major retardant on the economy--its an ever-present tax, sucking the lifeblood out of our markets and sending it overseas, where it often pays for who-knows-what.  Second, it has a particularly harsh impact on the poor, for whom transportation is a bigger percentage of the budget--and who are also impacted by higher prices for food and other necessities.  And lastly, if you care about Barack Obama beating the GOP candidate, likely Mitt Romney in the election, it's not good news.
One of the interesting paradoxes of US politics is that presidents get blamed for high gas prices, even though (in the short term) there is precious little they can do about it directly.  President Obama's poll numbers have dropped recently, though whether that is due to energy prices or some other reason is currently unknown.  (In fairness, it must be noted that he attacked the GOP for high gas prices during the 2008 campaign).  Price controls and other aggressive measures of that sort are pretty much off the table.  Increasing domestic production takes years to have an effect.  That hasn't stopped Newt Gingrich from promising $2.50/gal gas if elected, an idea which the White House has dismissed, though The Atlantic notes that it could be done by subsidizing the stuff to the tune of $190 billion. 
While The Atlantic's proposal as given is bad--subsidizing gasoline strikes me as intelligent as subsidizing cigarettes--it wasn't meant to be taken seriously.  (Or at least that's what I'm assuming, graciously giving the editors there the benefit of the doubt).  But on the other hand...
Energy tax credit?
The main problem with The Atlantic's snarky suggestion is not that it involves a subsidy--but that the subsidy only goes to the purchase of gasoline.  But what if $190B, or some other figure, were made available to instead subsidize energy or transportation?  What if every taxpayer got a lump-sum tax credit to offset rising energy costs, one that wasn't tied to any particular form of energy?
With a gas subsidy, those who drive a Ford Expedition to work would get more money back than those who drive a Honda Civic, and the Civic driver would get more back than those who drive a Chevy Volt, ride a bike, or take the bus to work.  It would directly reward the deleterious behavior.  Such a subsidy would also fail on the equity front, as the poor are more likely to be those not driving.  (Transit riders might benefit indirectly if a subsidy would assist the transit agency with its diesel purchases).  And, Big Oil would be the primary beneficiaries of such a windfall.
With a broad energy credit, on the other hand, the negative impacts of high oil prices on the economy would be mostly offset, but the marginal cost of buying gas would not be offset.  This would maintain the advantage of high oil prices--encouraging alternate forms of energy--but not drag down the economy.  And it would be particularly beneficial to the poor, who would appreciate the credit more than most.
I must emphasize that this is a neutral credit--it isn't tied to alternate energy.  Those who wish to keep a gas-guzzling lifestyle not be prevented from doing so.  But nothing will be done in this proposal to decrease the marginal price of gas. I should als mention that this is envisioned as a short-term credit--essentially a form of stimulus--not a long-term entitlement.  It could be structured as a separate line item, or simply as an increase in the standard deduction or personal exemption. 
In addition to a household credit, I'm also assuming in this scenario some sort of energy credit for businesses.  I'll leave the details to others, as I'm insufficiently wonky in this area to put together a concrete proposal.

Is it doable?
Don't be ridiculous.  The GOP isn't going to do anything that might be beneficial to Obama's re-election, at least not without exacting a policy price for it.  (And they might even reject an offer of increased production, one sure to annoy liberals).  But that doesn't mean the proposal isn't politically valuable.  Obama has got tons of mileage out of the Jobs Act proposals last fall; even though little if any of his proposals have been implemented.  And a general energy credit would allow the debate to be framed in a way consistent with progressive values:  Long term, we have to kick the oil habit, we all know it.  But rising oil prices are damaging our recovery, as our economy suffers withdrawal pains.  A short-term energy credit, designed to offset the impact of high oil prices, will allow us to continue with an orderly transition to the economy of the future.  The only ones who really benefit from oil subsidies are oil companies.
If the debate is whether Obama is doing enough to drive down gas prices, that's a debate the Democrats don't want to have.  And while progressives might cheer were the President to tell the American public to eat their vegetables, that's probably not wise politics.  But if the debate could be shifted from concerns over the price of gas to a broader conversation over energy, it would be to progressive's advantage--even if the actual policy proposals go nowhere.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A tale of two graphs

I was going to write a longer article on this subject, but I decided to be brief this time.  (And #$!#$ Blogger swallowed my post).  Here are two graphs showing the historical costs, over the past forty years, for two things which Americans buy a lot of:

Here's gasoline (per gallon, in 2012 dollars--image courtesy zFacts).

And here's per capita healthcare costs, also in today's dollars (image courtesy Media Matters):
The fluctuating costs of one of these things are treated as a Grave Political Crisis by the vast majority of the US polity, including political actors who normally prefer to leave such matters to the Hidden Hand™--even though, in real dollars, prices are only about double what they were before supply shocks started to hit.  The other is frequently regarded as something that we dare not do something else, lest we start down the Slippery Slope to Socialism--even though the price that Americans pay for it has increased by a couple orders of magnitude.

Which is which, and why, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

On the passing of Andrew Brietbart

This morning I woke up to discover that conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart had died suddenly at the age of 43.  The media commentary on him and his untimely demise consisted of much praise and eulogy, some circumspection from political opponents--and a fair amount of pissing on his grave.  Most of the glee at his death came from sources that aren't worth commenting on, but one interesting remark came from Matt Yglesias:
Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBrietbart dead
The discussion of this subject is interesting where Breitbart is concerned, as he himself famously and publicly danced on the tomb of Sen. Teddy Kennedy when the latter passed away from cancer in 2009.  Breitbart justified this on the grounds that Kennedy was a particularly noxious bad actor in US politics, deserving of special scorn. 

But given the observations of both Yglesias and Brietbart, what are--and should be--the social conventions for dealing with the death of a political opponent?

My personal opinion on Breitbart is as follows:  I disliked much of his work.  I thought his temperament was foul and obnoxious (I'm not speaking of his conservative ideology, but of how he disparaged and held in contempt those who disagreed with him), and some of his journalistic practices sleazy and unethical.  I do not know him personally, though many who do have praised him as a nice guy in person (a remark commonly uttered about our political provocateurs).  I'm certainly not happy to hear he's dead--he's only two years older than I am, and it's rather clear from the circumstances that neither he nor his family were prepared and ready for him to die.  Nor am I about to join in the sort of not-glad-hes-dead-but-glad-he's-gone bile that is frequently offered up when a controversial figure dies.  I was somewhat pleased to hear of the demise last year of Osama Bin Laden--not joyous, certainly, but at least relieved; and I did not mourn the passing earlier this year of Kim Jong-Il.  But both of these men were monsters; Breitbart (and other players in US politics and media), whatever his faults, is not in their company.

But what sort of conduct is, or should be acceptable when someone controversial passes--both in the hours immediately after the death, while the family mourns, and long after the dirt hardens over the proverbial coffin?  Is it ever acceptable to express joy at someone's passing, or to damn them to Hell (or the equivalent in other religious or cultural traditions)?  Is "good riddance" and appropriate response?  What of no comment at all, or invokation of the wise words of Thumper the rabbit?  ("If you can't say sumthin' nice...")  Does it make the pain of the surviving family worse to hear public exultations of their loved ones' passing, or does this matter?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Of Jeremy and John

The two big sports stories of the past week have both come out of New York City.  One is the Giants' victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, which is not relevant to this article.  The other has been the come-from-out-of-nowhere rise of Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.  Last Sunday, as the garbage was being cleaned out of the stands of Lucas Oil Stadum, nobody outside of New York but the most diehard basketball junkies had heard of Lin--and even among Knick fans, he was generally regarded with the apathy that team benchwarmers typically receive.  According to reports out of New York, he was this close to being cut by the Knicks when he was asked to start in a pinch.  The rest, as Paul Harvey used to say, is history.

Or may become history, if Lin keeps up the pace.  A week into his new career as a starter, it's entirely possible that this is all a flash in the pan--a statistical fluke which will be followed by a regression to the mean.  It's possible that this is a case of fresh legs outplaying tired ones, in the compressed lockout-season schedule.  It's possible that this is a case of a largely-unscouted player beating defenses not yet coached on how to stop him.  Or, Lin may be the real deal--either way, we'll know more in a few weeks, when we have a larger body of work to examine.  Either way, Lin has garnered himself a lot of attention in the NBA the past week.

On the assumption that Lin is the real deal, many NBA observers are asking the obvious question:   How did this happen?  How did a supremely skilled player slip below the radar of the league's talent evaluation process, and get cut by several NBA teams before exploding onto the scene?  Lin was a star in high school (in Palo Alto, CA), but wasn't offered a scholarship by any Division I schools, and went to play at Harvard (which doesn't offer scholarships to athletes).  He had a successful career at Harvard, but went undrafted in the NBA.  He played in Summer League for the Mavericks, spent his rookie season on the bench for his hometown Warriors (where he was a crowd favorite, in a metropolis with a large Asian population, but did not get significant playing time).  Before the start of this season, he was cut by the Warriors, played in training camp for the Houston Rockets (but didn't make that team), and was picked up by the Knicks, doing a stint in the NBDL before getting his big break.

Many are focusing on Lin's Chinese ancestry as a reason for his talents being overlooked.  He's the first Chinese-American to make an NBA roster.  Several overseas Chinese players have made NBA teams, but all of the Chinese imports who have done so (Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi, Mengke Bateer, and Yi Jianlian) have been big men, and only Yao has ever been any good.  It doesn't stretch the bounds of credibility to suggest that NBA scouts, executives, and coaches are skeptical of Asian players; at a minimum, they tend to be a conservative lot who are loathe to color outside the lines.  On the other hand, the Mavericks and Rockets (in particular) have among the most data-driven front offices in the league; both teams have had great success with foreign-born superstars (Yao, Dirk Nowitzki, and Hakeem Olajuwon), and both are generally regarded as top-notch operations--and yet both dropped the ball on Lin.  (The Knicks, ironically, are often regarded as one of the worst front offices in the league). 

How did this happen?

Of course, to ask that question with such incredulity is to pretend that this has never happened before in the NBA.  It has, of course, and I would to focus on a similar story, of a player who rose from obscurity to stardom.  It happened twenty years ago, in the same Madison Square Garden where Lin is now playing.

The player's name is well known to NBA fans:  John Levell Starks.

John Starks was a basketball player from Oklahoma.  Like Lin, he had a long road to NBA stardom, and was generally overlooked both in college and by NBA teams.  He played for several different collegiate teams, due in part to some legal difficulties, graduating from Oklahoma State.  He famously worked as a bagboy at Safeway during that time.  He went unselected in the 1988 NBA Draft, a slightly greater humiliation than that suffered by Lin in 2010 as the draft that year had three rounds instead of two.  He bounced around the league for a couple years until being picked up the Knicks--and only avoided being cut because he had been injured in practice (while trying to dunk on Patrick Ewing).  But like Lin, Starks soon rose from the end of the bench to the starting lineup--and was a fixture and a fan favorite on the Knicks for most of the 1990s.  His career highlight was posterizing Michael Jordan in the 1993 playoffs (the Knicks would lose the series to the Bulls, the eventual champion); his career lowlight occurred the following season when he went 2/18 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, which the Knicks lost to Houston.

The analogy between Starks and Lin isn't exact, of course.  Starks' college career was dogged by legal trouble, and during his NBA career he was widely regarded as a hothead, with good reason.  (In some ways, he was his generation's Rasheed Wallace).  Lin has never had any issues with the law.  On the other hand, Starks' ethnicity (primarily African-American, with some Native American ancestry as well) didn't work against him, whereas Lin is blazing a new trail for Asian ballplayers.  

John Starks, however, is just but one example.

There have been many other players who also have similar career paths--lightly regarded in lower levels of basketball, undrafted (or drafted late) in the NBA, followed by stardom.  Sports Illustrated has a photo montage full of examples of undrafted players who became starters or stars, and to that list you can a good number of late draft picks such as Manu Ginobili.  Conversely, the first round of the NBA draft is chock full of busts.  While NBA scouting and talent analysis has gotten more professional than the days of the cigar-chomping GM making draft decisions based on the sports page, it's still a major crapshoot, which many things that can go wrong (or right):  Players who are a bad fit for teams.  Players who excel against lousy competition.  Players whose skills are suppressed (or featured) within a given coach's system.  Injuries.  Players who blossom late.  NBA coaches and executives who don't trust rookies.  And of course, players who come from backgrounds or situations that seldom, if ever, produce NBA-level talent.

The surprising thing about the Jeremy Lin story is not that it's happening.

The surprising thing is that it doesn't happen more often.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Did the 9th Circuit just legalize same-sex marriage--in Oregon?

Today, the 9th Circuit issued its decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (also known as Perry v. Brown, as Ahnold is no longer the governator), overturning California's Proposition 8, clearing the way for same-sex marriage to once again be legal in the state.  The ruling was "on the merits", as opposed to based on side issues such as the Prop 8 proponents standing to appear in court (this was granted).  However, the ruling was narrowly tailored to the facts in California--where a prior state court ruling legalized SSM, and was subsequently overturned by Prop 8, a voter-approved initiative amending the state Constitution.  The ruling, citing the SCOTUS case Romer v. Evans as precedent, essentially holding that the revoking of privileges of a subset of the citizenry for reasons derived only from animus, rather than compelling state interest, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  In Romer, the voters of Colorado passed an initiative invalidating gay-friendly civil rights legislation passed by several Colorado cities; and the Court said that this could not be done.  The court in Romer did not rule that gays and lesbians had an inherent right, under either Colorado or US law, to not be subject to private discrimination in employment; merely that this right, once granted, could not be taken away.  Likewise with SSM--the Court did not grant the right to same sex marriage generally; it only stated that once it had been granted under California law, it could not be subsequently revoked. 

So what does this have to do with Oregon?  Two things:
  • Oregon is within the 9th Circuit and subject to its precedents and authority
  • Oregon residents--specifically those in Multnomah County--briefly enjoyed the rights to same sex marriage (or they did at least under one interpretation of the law).
Several years back, when same sex marriage started becoming a major political issue, and Massachusetts became the first state to permit it, officials in Multnomah and Benton County decided to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses, as Oregon law, at that point, was somewhat ambiguous on the subject.  (It described marriage as involving "men" and "women", but did not specifically say that individual marriages had to be between one man and one woman).  Several such licenses were issued, and an anti-SSM group, the Defense of Marriage Coalition, sued claiming that the county officials in question had exceeded their authority.  The state attorney general's office issued an opinion that Oregon law at the time did prevent same-sex marriage, but that this interpretation of the law might be in violation of the state Consitution.

The suit was stayed pending the outcome of Ballot Measure 36, a 2004 initiative to ban same-sex marriage by explicit language in the Oregon Constitution.  Measure 36 passed 57%-43%, and the marriage licenses granted by the counties during the brief period they were available, were voided.  (This is a difference from California, where there are approximately 18,000 couples with valid same-sex marriages, granted between the legalization of SSM and the passage of Prop 8; Prop 8 was held to not be retroactive).

So, the obvious thing to ask:  Did Measure 36 take away a right previously enjoyed by Oregonians based on an essentially suspect classification, with no compelling interest?  Or is it essentially a codification of existing practice that had insufficient effect to be caught within the ambit of Rover v. Evans or today's decision in Perry?  Were the handful of couples who were granted marriage licenses, only to see them voided by Measure 36, similarly injured--or did officials in the two counties exceed their lawful authority, hence no valid marriages ever existing in the first place?  There was an Oregon court case, Li & Kennedy v. Oregon, in which a couple who were granted a license in Multnomah County sued to keep it, stating (in particular) that Measure 36 was not designed to be retroactive.  The Oregon Supreme court ruled that Multnomah County authorities had indeed exceeded their authority (despite arguments on the constitutionality of the SSM ban prior to Measure 36), and that the marriage licenses granted were null and void; as such, it did not matter whether 36 or not was retroactive.  The decision didn't go any further than that; as the passage Measure 36 had foreclosed any arguments under the Oregon Constitution that a SSM ban was invalid.

But the question remains:  Even though no lawful same-sex marriages were effectively performed--those which had been performed were held to be unlawful under pre-36 law--did Measure 36 remove rights based on suspect classification?  Or not?  There are quite a few other states in the US (though none in the 9th Circuit) that have explicitly banned same-sex marriage only in response to the recent controversy; prior to that the "ban" against such was only a remnant of custom and/or common law.  (A few other states have had explicit laws on the books banning the practice for a long time).  Do such bans fall under the Romer standard, or does something concrete have to be granted first, and then taken away, before Romer applies?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Presdiential Candidate's Song

Scholars at Oxford have recently discovered, within the archives, the libretto to a previously-unknown Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Pirates of Finance.  One aria is of particular note, as by utterly strange coincidence, it resembles recent events in United States presidential politics.  Given this relevance to current events, the lyrics to this tune are reproduced in full below.

Near the end of the first act, a group of journalists, in search of cocktail parties at which to booze and schmooze, is accosted by the former Governor-General of one of the lost American colonies.  The aria begins thusly:

I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate
I've customized positions tailor-made for each and every state
From Boston to Los Angeles, and Miami to Anchorage
There's no stopping my pandering, although it sometimes nukes the fridge
In Texas I'm a teabagger, in Cleveland I'm a center-ist
All around the country there's no baby that I have not kissed
In lib'rul Massachussets, I'm the father of Obamacare
But please don't tell the GOP, for that they do not really care.

But please don't tell the GOP, for that they do not really care
But please don't tell the GOP, for that they do not really care.
But please don't tell the GOP, for that they do not really care!

Although my policy positions seem to be expedient
I promise, Mr. Limbaugh, to the right I'll be obedient!
At least until the nomination, then I will "self-moderate"
I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate!

At least until the nomination, then he will "self-moderate"
He is the very model of a Presidential Candidate!

I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate
I'm a friend of Wall Street, proud to pay the carried interest rate
I'm schooled in foreign policy, to many lands I'm proud to go
Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, and Monaco
My father was the boss man at an auto manufacturer
Instead I think Detroit it ought to be put out to pasture-ure.
I worked as a consultant, to improve corporate efficiencies....
(ponders briefly) Hmm, I know!
By firing all the workers and then closing all the factories!

By firing all the workers and then closing all the factories!
By firing all the workers and then closing all the factories!
By firing all the workers and then closing all the factories!

Though being a corporate raider is the lowlight of my long career
Don't call me a "pirate", I would rather be called "privateer"
'Sides, envy at my wealth is rather rude and inconsiderate
I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate

(Envy at his wealth is rather rude and inconsiderate
He is the very model of a Presidential Candidate)

I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate
I've studied all the scandals big, from Teapot Dome to Watergate
I've read the memoirs of great men, from Coolidge up to Double-U
I've got a team of focus groups, who guide me in just what to do!
I'm manicured and groomed and styled, in all ways quite presentable
But pollsters give me news that my election's quite preventable
Can someone please inform me what's the beef with the electorate?
Maybe more commercials cause the voters just don't know me yet?

Maybe more commercials 'cause the voter just don't know him yet
Maybe more commercials 'cause the voter just don't know him yet
Maybe more commercials 'cause the voter just don't know him yet

Although I seem quite plastic and my speeches are a sedative
I still don't understand why my approval rating's negative
My super-PACs are loaded, and I'm ready to recalibrate
I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate
His super-PACs are loaded, and he's ready to recalibrate
He is the very model of a Presidential Candidate

OK, so this isn't the first G&S parody on this subject (see this, for instance).  But Mittens is such a perfect target.