We Need to Reverse the Neoliberal Coupon Welfare State

Mike KonczalI finally got around to reading Mike Konczal’s excellent paper (from two years ago), No Discount: Comparing the Public Option to the Coupon Welfare State. It looks at neoliberal policy where rather than providing services directly, the government gives people coupons (generally called “vouchers”) to buy whatever it is on the open market. The most notable recent example of this is Obamacare.

Note that I said these are neoliberal policies. In general, conservatives are for such policies too. But I don’t think it is any secret that conservatives generally want to use such policies as a way to destroy the programs the same way they do with block grants. A good example of this is discussed in Konczal’s paper: unemployment.

The idea would be to create “personal accounts” where part of anyone’s salary would go into an account to be used (until it was exhausted) to cover for unemployed periods. Konczal noted that unemployment insurance has all the common advantages of government provided programs like efficiency[1], as well as none of the disadvantages of vouchers. In particular, the whole “personal accounts” system would create a whole extra layer of private bureaucracy to go along with the government bureaucracy.

But to get an idea of the general idiocy of the neoliberal approach to welfare, you can’t do better than Konczal’s blog post introducing the article, New Paper: Against the Coupon State. Since I have such a great love of libraries, this example really appeals to me:

Imagine if current neoliberal policymakers had to sit down today and invent the idea of a library. What would it look like? They’d likely create a tax credit to subsidize the purchasing and reselling of books, like much of our submerged welfare state. They might require a mandate for people to rent books from approved private libraries run by Amazon or Barnes and Noble, with penalties for those who don’t and vouchers for those who can’t afford it, like the recent health care expansion.

Or maybe they’d create means-tested libraries only accessible to the poor, with a requirement that the patrons document how impoverished they are month after month to keep their library card. Maybe they’d also exempt the cost of private library cards from payroll taxes. Or let any private firm calling itself a library pay nothing in taxes while exempting their bonds from taxation and insuring their losses by, say, paying for books that go missing. You can imagine them going through every possible option rather than the old-fashioned, straightforward, public library, open to all, provided and run by the government, that our country enjoys everyday.

Given this, why do we even consider such neoliberal approaches to problems? I think it has almost nothing to do with solving the direct problems. I think the business community spent many decades salivating at all the money in various welfare programs from Social Security onward. And they started asking themselves, “How can I get a slice of that?” So they began spinning this lie that if the private sector were involved: poof! Suddenly everything would be more efficient. But that not only wasn’t true, it had nothing to do with the impetus of the neoliberal policy.

We all know what the New Democrats brought to us: acceptance of social liberalism and an embrace of economic conservatism. It was libertarianism lite.[2] And that’s why I push against the Clintons and Obamas of the Democratic Party. These policies aren’t effective. What’s more, they aren’t popular. Your average American is just the opposite: socially conservative and economically liberal. But these policies are popular among the big spending donors.

And they are destroying our country—not just by eliminating economic liberalism but also by causing the Republican Party to go off the deep end. The modern Democratic Party is more conservative on economic issues than the 1972 Republican Party. What did the New Democrats think was going to happen when they took this hard right turn on economics? It was predictable that the Republicans would get lost down the rabbit hole of conservative-land.

So we are left with ever decreasing support for coupons like food stamps. But the rich are doing better than ever. This trend needs to reverse.

[1] I often think that conservatives claim so shrilly that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector because they know what a crock it is. Regardless, in these cases, the government has many advantages over the private sector.

[2] The fact that actual libertarians didn’t rush to the Democratic Party after Bill Clinton was elected should tell you all you need to know about the real motivations of that movement.

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The Rebirth of Debtors’ Prison

Debtors' Prison

Thomas Edsall wrote a great article at The New York Times yesterday, The Expanding World of Poverty Capitalism. The base story is not exactly breaking news, but the situation only gets worse. Basically, we have a system where state and local governments don’t feel like they can raise taxes so they raise funds in ways that don’t require it. And these ways are highly regressive taxes by another name.

We have been seeing a perfect example of this in Ferguson. Last year, just over 20% of the city’s revenues came from court fines. This is almost double what it was just two years before. That’s money that comes almost exclusively from the poor. But the government can claim it isn’t a tax increase. And in a technical sense, it isn’t. But what it is is a system that is far worse. Another fun fact from our friendly Ferguson police department is that these fines are applied far more to blacks than whites.

But the issue is much bigger than this. The problem seems particularly bad in Georgia, but that is doubtless just because the innovations of this laboratory of democracy haven’t fully made it out. Rest assured: they are coming to a red state near you, and parts have already arrived. Of particular concern are private probation companies. Instead of the government paying for probation officers and all that, the poor souls caught up in the system are just sent to these private companies, which they must pay. According to Human Rights Watch, there is “virtually no transparency about the revenues” of these companies. The poor just pay and the government doesn’t care.

But the great thing about them is that if someone on probation isn’t able to pay the private company, the company can have them sent to jail. If this sounds like debtors’ prisons, that’s pretty much true. Think of Georgia as a pilot program. Of course, there have long been debtors’ prison type laws in the United States. In the simplest of cases, if people on supervised probation are not able to pay their fees they will go to prison. This is clearly wrong, as it would never happen to a rich person. But what’s new here is that private companies are using the criminal justice system to imprison people who don’t pay what the companies think they are owed.

I think it is fair to say that this only gets worse over time. And as more and more government functions get privatized, we will see more of this. And at some point, it will only seem natural that people go to jail when they can’t pay their debts to Citibank. And what’s this business about bankruptcy? After all, throughout my life it has gotten harder and harder to get bankruptcy. Even though that’s bad for the economy as a whole. It’s great for credit card companies and that’s all that matters!

The bigger issue here is that the political elite just get better and better at shifting the cost of government from the rich to the poor. I’ve argued for a long time that the rich may talk about a flat tax, but they would never be satisfied with it. As it is, total tax burden in this country is only slightly progressive. But what they want is a regressive tax system. It isn’t about fairness. It’s about power. And the rich have power and the poor don’t.

But let me leave you with Thomas Edsall’s hopeful words:

What should be done to interrupt the dangerous feedback loop between low-level crime and extortionate punishment? First, local governments should bring private sector collection charges, court-imposed administrative fees, and the dollar amount of traffic fines (which often double and triple when they go unpaid) into line with the economic resources of poor offenders. But larger reforms are needed and those will not come about unless the poor begin to exercise their latent political power. In many ways, everything is working against them. But the public outpouring spurred by the shooting of Michael Brown provides an indication of a possible path to the future. It was, after all, just 50 years ago—not too distant in historical terms—that collective action and social solidarity produced tangible results.

Perhaps. But the truth is that our political system is designed to make it as hard as possible for the poor to participate in our democracy. But I still have a little hope that we can overcome this.

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Michael Brown Was No Pelican

Michael BrownOn Monday, The New York Times published an article by John Eligon, Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise. And as usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates was there to call foul, Michael Brown’s Unremarkable Humanity. He was particularly upset with the sentence, “Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life.” It is a problematic framing.

Coates noted that that he was much the same at that age. Humans are humans—none of us are angels at any age. What’s shocking is that, in my experience, all teenage boys are horrible at least some of the time. And what’s happened to Michael Brown is that he’s had a narrative developed for him that denies his humanity. (In Eligon’s defense, he’s trying to do exactly the opposite of this.) Various parts of his life have been crammed into a stereotype. And whether we want to admit it or not, that stereotype is “frightening young black man who deserves to be killed.”

Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart did a great segment, “Race/Off.” It’s about the coverage of the Michael Brown killing by Fox News and it shows how disconnected it is from reality—or rather, just how determined it is to find, “Cop good! Unarmed black man baaad!” Of course, at the Bundy Ranch, it was, “White bigot good! Cops baaad!” But whatever. There is also a nice response to the “Why don’t black leaders care about black-on-black crime in Chicago?!” conservative meme. (Note: on social media you constantly hear conservatives talk about crime in Chicago, even though it doesn’t have the highest crime rate. Why is it mentioned? Because Chicago is the favored example of Fox News and other conservative media outlets. They are just parroting what they’ve heard.)

It’s very interesting that Fox News got Mark Fuhrman to come on and say, “The only racial divide that is created here is created by the race baiters.” I know if I were covering a white cop killing an unarmed black teen, my go-to man would be the racist cop from the OJ trial. But what most struck me in this segment was the one commentator who said, “You know who talks about race? Racists!” That’s textbook racial demagoguery. It is meant to shut down discussion. And it is the conservative take on racism, “If we pretend racism doesn’t exist, it doesn’t!”

Ta-Nehisi CoatesNote that this is the network that talks excessively about race. Since the shooting, Bill O’Reilly has done little but talk about cultural dysfunction in African American communities. They can’t seem to talk about young black people without complaining about sagging pants. (In my community, most white boys have sagging pants too, so I hardly think it says anything other than that black kids are not long for that fashion trend.) So Fox News wants to talk about race. Their issue is talking about it in any way that would indicate that it isn’t just a problem with blacks.

In this context (which is far bigger than Fox News and the rest of the conservative media), of course Michael Brown is reduced to a stereotype. Note how it was reported from the beginning. His behavior at the convenience store was what would have been reported as shoplifting under normal circumstances. But it was reported as a robbery. “Robbery” implies a weapon as well as the taking of cash. So why wasn’t it reported as shoplifting? I think we know the answer: shoplifting is something a lot of kids do; shoplifting is a minor crime; shoplifting is not dehumanizing.

As a society we tend to see our own children as the complex creatures they are. If our children are caught shoplifting or vandalizing or almost anything else, we don’t label them as bad and forget them. But as a society we do it to their children, especially when they are black. And in this case, we have a police department with a very big motivation to paint Michael Brown in that way, and the media have just followed along. So in this way, noting that he was “no angel” is problematic. It’s technically true, but it is also technically true that Michael Brown was “no pelican.” But no one feels the need to point out that the dead teen, like all other humans, was not a member of the “genus of large water birds comprising the family Pelecanidae.”

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Myth of the Rugged Individual

Brian KahnThe myth gained power during the late nineteenth century as vast individual fortunes were accumulated by men at the apex of the economic pyramid. A classic example was The big Four, key investors in the development of America’s transcontinental railroad network: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis Huntington. The endeavor, essential to the development of our nation, received huge goverment subsidies through the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which gifted to the railroads ten square miles of public land for every rail mile built and guaranteed the investors needed funds through government-issued bonds. The engineering that was required to achieve this phenomenal feat was carried out by hundreds of design and construction engineers. And the years of backbreaking, pick-and-shovel labor was done largely by tens of thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers working under the harshest conditions.

But in terms of national mythology, The Big Four emerged as “self-made” men who on their own became titans in railroads, banking, shipping, and politics—instead of talented and fortunate individuals who amassed stunning fortunes through government subsidies and decades of work by tens of thousands.

That romantic and potent myth of the rugged individual—in today’s terms, the “individual entrepreneur”—has a profound impact on American public policy. It influences who among us is considered to be “production,” worthy of government subsidy, to what extent wealthy individuals and businesses are taxed, and what wages workers earn.

—Brian Kahn
Real Common Sense

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Rebecca Clarke

Rebecca ClarkeOn this day in 1886, the great violist and composer Rebecca Clarke was born. Sadly, she didn’t write all the much—her longest piece is the twenty odd minute Rhapsody. But because of this, it is all the more notable just how complex her tonal pallet is. The Rhapsody is especially intriguing given the way it supplements her traditionally impressionist style with atonal elements. But unlike Schoenberg, these elements come and go—adding to the dramatic structure of the piece. It’s quite an amazing work:

Clarke faced what can only be described as comical sexism. In 1918, she performed a recital with a number of new pieces by her. One of the pieces, Morpheus was credited not to her, but to “Anthony Trent.” The critics all praised it and ignored the ones she had put her own name to. Now, it is true that Morpheus is a heartbreakingly beautiful piece, but undoubtedly it would have been criticized for that very fact had it been presented under Clarke’s own name. Here it is; it is a wonderful piece:

The following year, she entered her Viola Sonata into a composition competition. She ended up tying with the great composer Ernest Bloch. There was much speculation at the time that “Rebecca Clarke” might be a pseudonym used by Bloch. According to Wikipedia “or at least that it could not have been Clarke who wrote these pieces, as the idea that a woman could write such a work was socially inconceivable.” Of course, even at that time there were great female composers, most notably (for me), Germaine Tailleferre. But facts never stand in the way of prejudice.

Here is a performance of the Viola Sonata with Molly Carr on the viola and Yi-Fang Huang on piano:

Happy birthday Rebecca Clarke!

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Kimberly Guilfoyle Wants a Boot Stamping Her Face—Forever

Kimberly GuilfoyleThe video below is amazing. If you have two minutes and 39 seconds, you should watch this clip from the Fox News show The Five. And it will tell you everything you need to know about both why people are so addicted to Fox News and why it is so effective at short circuiting the rational thought functions in their brains.

If you are like me, you are bothered by ISIS. They really are a vile group. But you aren’t terrified that they pose an existential threat to Iraq itself, much less to the United States or the United Kingdom. Zack Beauchamp discussed this over the weekend at Vox, The Nine Biggest Myths About ISIS. As he pointed out, when ISIS had the opportunity to attack Baghdad, it didn’t. And it didn’t, because it isn’t nearly strong enough and it doesn’t have civilian support there. So yeah: ISIS has some power and the group is terrible. But that’s the extent of it.

But if you listen Greg Gutfeld at the beginning of this segment, you would conclude that ISIS exists for the purpose of sending people from Iraq back to the UK to commit terrorist attacks. The UK government has said that as many as 3,000 UK citizens might be a part of ISIS. And that could only mean one thing: they went to Iraq to fight in a war so they could come back to attack in the homeland. Or something. If you think about it, it makes no sense. But Fox News viewers would be forgiven for thinking that London is in flames at this very minute.

The segment is just constant fear mongering. “There is an immediate threat and we must do something now now now. Also: Obama golfs too much.” It gets worse when Kimberly Guilfoyle (A lawyer?!) is asked if we can get rid of all this fear that Gutfeld has created in his audience “without so called violating their civil liberties.” You gotta love that syntax! Anyway, here is Guilfoyle “legal” opinion:

Guess what? I don’t care and, in fact, I hope we violate a lot of their civil liberties.

[This is amazing. Where did she go to law school? "Chanel's Beauty Supply and Diploma Mill"? Civil liberties exist because we don't know who is guilty a priori.]

This is war; this is terror.

[Yeah, but it isn't terror against us. And it isn't our war.]

There should be no mercy involved because they have shown none. That’s the only language that they understand.

[The "no mercy" language? Well, that's a language they speak at Fox News! Of course, that is usually reserved for unarmed teenagers gunned down by the police.]

And in terms of making, like, decisive action… Look: I hope the president has enough people around him to push him in the right direction. I really think there’s just really one right answer here. We can talk about the ways to get it done.

["It" is the operative word here. The "it" is the fear. When talking to Fox News viewers, there is a constant desire for something to be done. Done about what? About "it," of course! These people are very afraid. The fear is only vaguely associated with what's going on in the world. It's primary cause is Fox News itself. So yes, Guilfoyle really wants Obama to get rid of the fear that she helps to create. And since nothing Obama does will ever satisfy, the fact that he didn't get "it" done will be used later to create more fear and frustration. "Why oh why won't Obama get 'it' done?!"]

Air strikes, certainly.

[Which we've been doing for a while now, but Fox News viewers would be forgiven if they thought the only thing Obama has done is set in that golf cart for the last month.]

It’s going to take more than that. We’ve already got troops on the ground.

[So we've got to do air strikes. And we are doing them. So we've got to have troops on the ground. And we have them. Quick! What aren't we doing that she can complain about?! How about air drops of otters with lasers mounted on their heads? I'll be Obama's not doing that!]

We already need help from our UK and European allies and counterparts.

[Yes, our UK and European allies! And troops on the ground. And then more troops. How about a full scale ground invasion? And then a surge. And then a bigger surge. It is almost unimaginable how much it is going to take to fight against the fear creation machine that is Fox News.]

Can I just make a special request in the magic lamp? Can we get like Netanyahu, or like Putin in for 48 hours—head of the United States. I don’t know, I just want somebody to get in here and get it done right. So that Americans don’t have to worry and wake up in the morning fearful of a group that’s murderous and horrific like ISIS.

[Oh, ISIS! I got distracted and thought she was talking about Fox News. I don't think Americans wake up in the morning fearful of ISIS. At least, they aren't unless they've been watching Fox News and its unhinged coverage.]

The line about wanting Putin to be president for 48 hours is what got the headline. It doesn’t mean that much to me. It’s been clear for a long time that the modern conservative movement has been proto-fascist. And there are many in its ranks who are absolutely desperate for an authoritarian leader to come in tell us all what to do. As I’ve talked about a lot: conservatives don’t like democracy—it is too messy and conservative policies are too unpopular.

But you may remember last week that I wrote, Conservative Obsession With Purity. In it, I quoted (indirectly) Robert Altemeyer, who said that fascism was based upon three things. The third was, “Obsession with unambiguously knowing one’s place in any hierarchy.” And that is what Kimberly Guilfoyle is begging for: some strong man (or strongman) to come in and protect us. Except, of course, Obama is actually stronger than Putin or Netanyahu. But he has this thing about laws and rights.

Kimberly Guilfoyle has seen a picture of her perfect future: a boot stamping on a human face—forever.


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Ideological Micro-Foundations of Economics

Robert BarroSince I wrote about Josh Barro earlier, I thought I would discuss his father Robert Barro now. Later tonight, I plan to write about his mother. (Note: I will not be writing about his mother.) Yesterday, Paul Krugman posted an article on his blog, Real Americans and Real Economics. This is a reference to a public fight that Krugman had with the elder Barro back in 2011, when he wrote an OpEd at The Wall Street Journal, Keynesian Economics vs Regular Economics. It’s a remarkable article. Let me go further: it is a remarkable title.

I’m not an economist, but those who are seem to think that Robert Barro is a very smart guy and a great economist. Krugman dealt with Barro’s claims at the time, Shocking Barro. But what I find amazing is that he’s completely disconnected from the real world. What he is arguing is that Keynesian economics has no theoretical foundation. I understand this, being an old environmental modeler myself. But I found out rather quickly that macro-scale models based on micro-scale phenomena are not necessarily better than a macro-scale model based simply on macro-scale observations. You would think that all economists would understand that having micro-foundations in a model does not necessary make it better, much less correct.

Of course, Barro throws out a lot of data and claims there is no support for demand side solutions to problems. In fact, the subtitle of his article is, “Food stamps and other transfers aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but there’s no evidence they spur growth.” But he is the Ricardian Equivalence guy. His idea is that government spending won’t stimulate the economy. The way this works in his theory is: (1) government spends by borrowing; (2) people see this and assume it means the government will have to increase their taxes later; (3) people spend less to save up for this future tax bill.

There are two problems with this as far as I can see. The first is: really?! You really think that people are that informed and rational? Well, I know Barro does. It’s ridiculous, but I’ll move on. The second problem is that the deficit spending would not be paid back all at once. So if the government spent $10 and planned to pay it back with increased taxes over the following ten years, then the completely knowledgeable and rational taxpayer would cut his spending by $1 that year, not $10. So there would be a $9 stimulative effect. This means that stimulus could be used exactly as we want it to be used: to smooth out the business cycle.

Within hours of Barro’s article appearing, David Glasner wrote a response, Barro on Keynesian Economics vs Regular Economics. He makes the point that Barro had argued that monetary policy can stimulate the economy, so why not government spending:

Now I am not saying that the two approaches, monetary expansion via printing money and government spending by borrowing, are exactly equivalent. But I am saying that they are close enough so that if restoring full employment by printing money does not contradict regular economics, I have trouble seeing why restoring full employment by borrowing and government spending does contradict regular economics. But I am sure that Professor Barro, very, very clever fellow that he is, will clear all this up for us in due course, perhaps in a future op-ed in my go-to paper.

I think the problem is precisely that Barro is a clever fellow. He can come up with a justification for anything at all. The problem is that he is so ideologically rigid at this point that economics isn’t a tool of discovery; it is a slave of what he wants to believe. So the real micro-foundations of his work are his rigidly held political opinions. Given this, it is no wonder that conservatives think that climate scientists force their data analyses and models to predict global warming—that’s what their economists do.


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Catiline, Dowd, and the Felonious Frog

Maureen DowdMartin Longman, or as I think of him “the felonious frog,” wrote an inspired rant about Maureen Dowd. Many people have covered Dowd’s most recent column, most notably Digby: yet another column about her disappointment that (this time) President Obama does not rush back to Washington because of something Dowd things is oh so important. (Crabgrass on the White House lawn, perhaps?) But Longman took a very clever approach in, With Apologies to Cicero. It is a parody of The First Oration Against Catiline, so I wish he had given it the title, The First Oration Against Maureen. But I fully understand why he didn’t.

But this puts Longman in the place of Cicero and Dowd in the place of Catiline. I like Longman so I don’t mind associating him with Cicero, although there is much to dislike about Cicero. It’s hard to put Dowd in the Catiline role. Her career has exemplified the kind of middle-of-the-road, cultural liberal commentator who though often amusing is politically uninteresting. Above all, she is no threat to the powerful—this is what makes her long relationship with The New York Times so understandable. And Catiline, regardless of what else you can say about him, was not the kind to make nice.

Martin LongmanI think that Catiline has gotten kind of a bad rap. It’s not that he was wonderful or anything; I don’t think any of those guys were great as human beings. Did Catiline kill his first wife and son so he could get a better wife? Did he act like a despot while governing Africa? Did he cut off the head of his brother-in-law and parade it through the streets of Rome? Who knows?! History has been written by people inclined to make him look bad. Although, I kind of think he did do these things.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that he was a strong advocate for the plebs, which did not put him in well with the likes of Cicero who considered them, well, plebs. And yes, Catiline was power hungry and he was probably using the plebs as a base of support because he didn’t have a lot of other options. And I have little doubt that he would have been a terrible ruler if he had taken over Rome. But he did stand for something—and something radical at that.

To call Maureen Dowd vanilla is to gravely insult my favorite ice cream flavor. In the political realm, Dowd is more like plain yogurt. And even that overstates her importance. But it is possible that Cicero’s speech is more appropriate for her than for Catiline. Because Catiline definitely had committed treason against the Roman Republic. And so Cicero’s understated Oration with its “We are so tired of your trying to overthrow the Republic all the time!” tone probably addresses Dowd’s crimes against journalism better than Catiline’s crimes against the Republic.

Regardless, Longman’s piece is brilliant. He’s the first paragraph:

When, O Maureen, do you intend to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Does not the biweekly mockery of the populace—does not the laughter throughout the city—does not the scorn of the people, and the union of all good men and women—does not the precaution of writing behind a firewall—do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you? Do you not feel that your plans are detected? Do you not see that your conspiracy is already arrested and rendered powerless by the knowledge which every one here possesses of it? What is there that you wrote last night, what the four nights before— where is it that you were—what demented muse that you summoned to meet you—what design was there which was adopted by you, with which you think that any one of us is unacquainted?

I believe that Ms Dowd will be abusing our patience for at least another decade. Catiline died heroically, shortly after Cicero wrote those words. No one wants that for Dowd. But couldn’t she go off somewhere alone and write novels like Anna Quindlen?

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Christie Was Determined to Kill Tunnel

Josh BarroAbout a year ago, I wrote, Josh Barro Phenomenon. It was a response to his article, How Republicans Made Both Parties Stupid On Fixing Infrastructure. In it he provided an apologia for Chris Christie’s decision to kill the new Hudson River tunnel. His argument was that Christie was only against it because it was larded with pork. I countered saying that this is always what people claim. No one ever admits that they are doing this kind of thing because they want to use the money on their own crony capitalism.

Chris ChristieBarro hit back, tweeting to me that what I had written was the stupidest thing he had read all day, and he had read some really stupid things. I was honored that he read me. I was not at that time used to such people reading the site. But as I noted in an update, “I don’t see his problem. He is providing cover for the same conservative politicians that he claims to want to reform.” Even at the time, I thought it was clear that Barro wasn’t fully processing my argument because of his rage at me. (Admittedly, I was not very nice. I wrote, “Josh Barro is a middling writer who uses most of his intellect to make conservative ideas sound palatable.”

Let me quote from the article, where I don’t think I could have been more clear:

Barro tries to sound very Serious by arguing that the project is “overly expensive.” But that is always always always the reasoning for a politician to kill a project. No one ever says, “I’m killing this very popular tunnel because I hate public transit.” (Christie has no problem spending money on expanding the New Jersey Turnpike.) Instead, politicians say, “I’d love to support this very popular tunnel, but I just can’t because it is too expensive.” Or whatever. So all Barro’s “reasonable” arguments about wasteful spending just allow people like Christie political cover when they make entirely ideological decisions.

So who was right? Did Barro nail it when it when he claimed that Christie was the Good Conservative just looking after the money of the people? As it turns out, no. Charlie Pierce brought my attention to the fact that the Department of Transportation was working behind the scenes to get Christie to go along—offering him “concession after concession.” And none of it mattered, because Christie never intended to allow the tunnel to be built. Martin Robins, the original director of the project even said that Christie had no intention to do it. He would always come up with a reason to justify not doing it—just like I said.

But what did Christie want to spend the New Jersey people’s money on? Pierce explained:

Instead, in 2012, Christie shoveled $260 million in tax breaks into the construction of the Revel Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City…

Revel filed for bankruptcy 10 months later. Not only that, but the casino economy, which Big Chicken prefers to things like building rail tunnels and so on, is pretty much imploding…

So, to sum up, Big Chicken’s tenure as governor is marked most conspicuously by his involvement with casinos. He finagled pension money into the Wall Street casino, and lost a bundle. He plowed tax breaks into the actual casinos, and lost a bundle. Quite frankly, it’s hard to believe that he isn’t walking down the Boardwalk wearing a barrel at this point.

But I’m sure that Barro has not lost faith. I’ve noted before that he seems to have man-crush on Christie. And if he was naive enough last year to claim that Christie had good reasons for being against the tunnel, I’m sure he’ll have good reasons this year to apologize for Christie. It is probably like John Roberts’ idea of corruption. We need a three camera set up recording Christie saying, “I hate public transit so I’m going to kill this tunnel no matter what. Plus, I want to use the money to give my friends tax cuts and building contracts.” With that, plus Christie publicly admitting that the video is real, maybe Josh Barro would admit that Christie isn’t the Good Conservative that Barro so desperately believes must exist. Somewhere.

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Fun With Zero Mostel and the HUAC

Zero MostelI was talking to Will last night and the subject of Zero Mostel came up. It was actually a conversation about Mel Brooks and what a total jerk he is. As an example, I talked about his treatment of Mostel during the production of The Producers where the cast and crew divided into two camps: the Zero camp and the petulant manboy camp. Anyway, I had said that Mostel was a legend in New York, and he would have been a huge star had he not been blacklisted.

He was effectively blacklisted long before the official blacklist. He was briefly in the Army, where he was refused a position as entertainment director of Special Services because he was “definitely a Communist.” He went on to entertain the troops for the rest of the war via the USO. But after the war, Hollywood wouldn’t hire him until Elia Kazan hired him for Panic in the Streets. After that, he did a number of movies. It is amazing: then as now, Hollywood is run by a bunch of followers. Regardless, this only lasted for a year before Mostel was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). After that, he didn’t work in Hollywood for another 15 years.

I assume that there is video of his testimony before the HUAC, but I haven’t been able to find it. I did, however, find this amazing clip of Jim Brochu in his one-man play, Zero Hour. He does Mostel really well. Here is the part of it from his testimony before the committee. Take a look; it really is great:

It’s very funny, but it also highlights the absurdity of the committee. These really were show trials without any point but to show how powerful and important the Representatives (and the Senators in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) were that they could get people to grovel before them. It was public shaming for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.

Of course, there was another side to it. You can hold a whole nation in line by claiming that any liberal activity—unions, civil rights, anti-war—is really the work of the Great Existential Threat (communism then; simply “liberalism” now, because the word has been so effectively vilified). This is why it was widely claimed that Martin Luther King Jr was a communist. Martin Luther King Jr was not a communist.

And Zero Mostel wasn’t a communist. The HUAC knew this too. He probably was nominally a communist in his youth. But what did it matter in 1952? Nothing. And it is clear today. And future generations will look back on us as the fools we are. Broad swaths of the middle class have been convinced that the real America is some mythic thing that will be found if we just funnel enough money to the super rich. Above all, let us not deal with our real problems. We need more of the same! But that is America in a nutshell: in the 1950s, we pretended to save freedom by destroying it. Now we pretend to save the middle class while destroying it.

And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!

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