Is Nick Rowe a Cannibal?

Nick RoweNick Rowe is a real economist, and to say that I am not would be putting on airs. But I think he chose an article title that is more true than he realized when he wrote, A Silly Question for Anti-Austerians. In it, he argued that everyone is an austerian, it is just a matter of degree. He put forward an example, “Suppose the national debt was, let’s say, 1,000% (ten times) annual GDP. And suppose the budget deficit was, let’s say, 50% of GDP.” If you would favor austerity under those circumstances, then, in analogy with the old joke about prostitution (“Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?”), it is just a matter of degree.

It is a silly question, indeed. I don’t think Rowe intended it as such, but it is the kind of question meant to shutdown debate rather than encourage it. It is the economics version of the ticking time bomb torture hypothetical, which I have discussed before. It is a form of apologetics, not real argumentation. It is a way of making difficult words meaningless. And the weird thing is that I don’t think that Rowe is an austerian. Not that it matters.

When Paul Krugman talks about someone being an austerian, he isn’t saying that under certain incredible circumstances she would be for austerity. Rather, he’s saying that she is for austerity under, for example, current European conditions. Rowe seems to be arguing that Krugman oughtn’t be able to do that because he too would be for austerity under some conditions.

Let me give you an analogy. Cannibalism is a continuum. Despite the fact that generally, humans will not eat other humans, there are times when they will. Specifically, people will engage in cannibalism when they are starving. And I really don’t believe people who claim that they would never do such a thing. The will to survive is incredibly strong. And let’s face it, as disgusting as the very idea is to me, it is just a social construct. So should we go around calling each other cannibals just because, under the right conditions, we would eat human flesh? Should we not be mean to Jeffrey Dahmer by calling him a cannibal just because we too might be cannibals under some circumstances? I certainly don’t think so. Words are not, nor should they be, linguistic straitjackets.

Now I image that Rowe might counter me by claiming that one only becomes a cannibal once one actually eats human flesh. But that is not what he is proposing. He isn’t suggesting that the word “austerian” be applied as a practical description: “He is an austerian when it comes to Greece but not when it comes to Finland.” And even that would be to trivialize the language. It’s very much like saying, “She’s a lesbian when it comes to attractive women but not when it comes to ugly women.” What’s with that? That just isn’t helpful in discussing anything.

Even though such hypotheticals really are silly and ultimately stop discussion by leading people down an intellectual cul-de-sac, that doesn’t stop people from being very interested in them. Indeed, there are gobs of comments on the article. But most of it is really about massaging the hypothetical. I didn’t see anyone who questioned the basic validity of the hypothetical. In addition, Rowe even pushed back against people trying to “dodging the question.” And that is the pernicious aspect of such hypotheticals. They even confuse those who are proposing them.

But I’m reasonable. Nick Rowe can call me an austerian if I can call him a cannibal.

2 Comments

Filed under Politics, Reading & Writing

Morning Music: Enzo Enzo

Le Jour D'à Côté - Enzo EnzoI may be in love again. I just discovered Enzo Enzo. It is hard to classify her. Most of her career, she was a chanteuse in the nightclub sense of that word. But in 2001, with the release of her fourth studio album Le Jour D’à Côté (“the next day”) she turned in a more traditional pop direction. And she’s done at least one album of children’s music. But I can’t find that much information about her. She’s certainly well known in France. But she isn’t necessarily a big star or anything (although according to All Music, she seems to have become a “household name” over the years).

The following is the music video for the first song on Le Jour D’à Côté, “Ils S’Adorent” (“they love”). I could do without the snake, but it is nice enough. And the song is very sweet with the bare minimum of sexy for a French pop song.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Morning Music

Birthday Post: Ray Mancini

Ray ManciniToday, the boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini is 54 years old. I’m not a boxing fan. And watching the lighter weight classes box is particularly brutal to watch — I assume because the ratio of punching energy to body size is greater for the lighter fighters. Mancini was a lightweight, which actually puts him in the middle of the boxing classes: between 130 and 135 pounds — still pretty small. So I have never seen Mancini box, so far as I know; and I don’t want to.

The only reason that I’m highlighting him today is because of the Warren Zevon song, “Boom Boom Mancini.” It’s one of my favorite Zevon songs. It tells the story of Mancini’s match against Duk Koo Kim in 1982. Mancini won the fight with a knockout in the 14th round. But Kim died four days later from injuries he sustained in the fight. Kim’s mother killed herself four months later. The referee killed himself a bit short of a year later (I can’t say for certain it was related to the fight.)

Zevon’s song takes aim at the hypocrisy of the boxing establishment and the nation as a whole. But it also seems to present a defense of men jumping into the ring and beating each other to death. The truth of the situation is that Kim’s death resulted in positive changes in professional boxing. Even worse, the song presents Mancini as cold blooded in response to Kim’s death, when it was just the opposite. How could it not?

Happy birthday Ray Mancini!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Birthdays

The Independence Delusion

Matt YglesiasMatt Yglesias brought my attention to some important but unsurprising recent data, Americans Are Making a Big Mistake About Healthcare. That mistake is that, overwhelmingly, they don’t think that the government subsidizes their healthcare. Overall, roughly 15% of Americans admit to getting their healthcare subsidized. I’ll get to why that is wrong in a moment, but first I want to point out the one thing in the poll that did shock me: only 7% of Americans over the age of 65 thought that they had their healthcare subsidized. How do you spell “Medicare”? D-E-L-U-S-I-O-N.

I suspect that this is due to the fact that people think they have “earned” their Social Security and Medicare. This is not true. You could just as easily say that everything that ever comes from the government has been earned because the people pay taxes and the government provides benefits to those who qualify. Of course, this is not what seniors mean they claim to have earned their Medicare. Almost to a person, the amount of money paid in isn’t even close to the amount paid out.

But these seniors who are convinced that the government ain’t given them free medical care are the ones most likely to vote for conservative candidates who want to cut welfare. So this Medicare delusion is serious business. But of course, it isn’t limited to this. There are all kinds of ways that the government gives out welfare. And the government does it in such a way that the richer you are, the less likely you are to see it as welfare. I discussed this a couple of years ago in an article, Hidden Welfare for the Rich. My favorite example is the mortgage interest deduction, which almost no one thinks of as welfare, but which clearly is. (Read the article!)

Healthcare Subsidy Poll - 2015

Yglesias explained in his article why it is that almost everyone has their healthcare subsidized. It is for pretty much the same reason that the mortgage interest deduction is welfare. Before Obamacare, you generally got your insurance from one of two places: government (Medicare, Medicare, VA) or employer. Clearly, getting it from the government is getting subsidized healthcare. But getting it from an employer is also getting subsidized healthcare. Your insurance is part of your compensation. But you don’t have to pay taxes on it. Thus: a subsidy! What Obamacare does in the healthcare exchanges is to provide people who don’t get their insurance through an employer the same benefit the government has long been giving to people who do get their insurance through an employer.

Ouch! Suddenly all those people complaining about freeloaders just sound like a bunch of privileged jackasses who have no idea that they too are freeloaders. That reminds me of something…

In the late 1970s, someone thought it was a good idea to turn The Paper Chase into a television series. (Actually, it isn’t a bad idea; but I don’t think it was well executed — at least during the first season.) In one episode, Hart was tutoring an African American woman. And he had a real attitude about it because, you know, Affirmative Action. So Kingsfield had him do a paper or something that caused Hart to have to read the Affirmative Action clause of Harvard, and Hart learned that he too might have been helped by the program because of growing up on a farm. And Hart improved his attitude in the way that only an hour long television drama can.

Unfortunately, all those Fox News watching freeloaders are never going to have their “road to Damascus” moment. They will remain convinced that welfare is just something that those people get. The good conservatives deserve everything that they get. This continues to be a huge problem in this country. The modern world is unbelievably complicated. We are all interconnected. But we have set up systems that allow the rich to pretend that they have done it all themselves and forces the poor to think that they are dependent — and that they are alone in their dependence. This is a delusion that we can ill afford.

4 Comments

Filed under Politics

The Senator With the Snowball

Sheldon WhitehouseYou can believe NASA and you can believe what their satellites measure on the planet, or you can believe the Senator with the snowball. The United States Navy takes this very seriously, to the point where Admiral Locklear, who is the head of the Pacific Command, has said that climate change is the biggest threat that we face in the Pacific… you can either believe the United States Navy or you can believe the Senator with the snowball… every major American scientific society has put itself on record, many of them a decade ago, that climate change is deadly real. They measure it, they see it, they know why it happens. The predictions correlate with what we see as they increasingly come true. And the fundamental principles, that it is derived from carbon pollution, which comes from burning fossil fuels, are beyond legitimate dispute… so you can believe every single major American scientific society, or you can believe the Senator with the snowball.

—Sheldon Whitehouse
Climate Skeptic Senator Burned after Snowball Stunt

Leave a Comment

Filed under Politics, Quotations

Republicans Signal Support for King v Burwell

Orrin HatchRemember the good ol’ days when Orrin Hatch was considered a right wing loon? That was fun. Now, of course, he’s one of the more reasonable Republicans in Congress. Well, he and Lamar Alexander and John Barrasso took to The Washington Post on Sunday to trumpet the news, We Have a Plan for Fixing Healthcare. And contrary to the repeated claims of Jonathan Chait, these three establishment Republicans are cheering on the Supreme Court in King v Burwell. If the Supreme Court finds that “the administration acted illegally” and “[m]illions of Americans may lose these subsidies,” well never fear: “Republicans have a plan to protect Americans harmed by the administration’s actions”!

I hit back on the idea that Republicans were coming around to see that this case was toxic, It Is Still Best That King v Burwell Fail. This recent OpEd by the three amigos shows that the Republican Party thinks that in this case, as in all others, they can finesse their way through any problems that arise. Basically, they are just pushing Ben Sasse’s idea that Congress would pass a temporary funding bill until they replaced Obamacare with something that doesn’t turn the nation into North Korea. And they have a plan!

Just kidding! As Ezra Klein reported, Republicans Say They Have a Plan if the Supreme Court Rules Against Obamacare. They Don’t. But before I talk about that, let’s suppose that they did. This Congress is going to pass a temporary funding bill?! They can’t even manage to pass a bill to embarrass the president. Are we really supposed to believe that they could manage to get half of the Republican majority in the House to sign onto extending Obamacare? You’d have better luck getting them to pass a resolution that Satan is their lord and master. And I don’t use that comparison lightly, given that most of those Republicans think that Obama and “his” law are Satanic.

So what is this cunning plan? First, as mentioned, they will extend the existing subsidies for some length of time — Sasse mentioned 18 months, so let’s figure that, because the three elephants of the apocalypse didn’t tell us. Then, they will replace it with a new plan. Are you ready for it? Because this is it in its entirety:

[W]e will give states the freedom and flexibility to create better, more competitive health insurance markets offering more options and different choices.

The rest of the article is just the usual boilerplate about “Obamacare’s costly mandates and rules.” And there is this exciting news, “We have had many discussions with our Senate and House Republican colleagues on this issue, and there is a great deal of consensus on how to proceed.” There is apparently so much consensus that this is why they only mention one thing that Obamacare already allows! And that shows what the real point of the article is. It is meant to signal to the Supreme Court that it is okay to gut Obamacare with this silly lawsuit.

Remember, this isn’t Ted Cruz and Louie Gohmert writing this OpEd. This is a trio of establishment figures. This is the Republican Party giving its okay to the conservative hacks on Supreme Court to screw over 11.5 million people (it’s only 6 million if you only look at those directly effected). I still think that the lawsuit will be defeated. In which case, The Washington Post has given the Republicans an opportunity to claim that they too want to help working Americans, even though they clearly could not care less.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Politics

The “Moderate” Voter and the Selfish Pundit

William SaletanDigby wrote an interesting article over at Slate yesterday, Attack of Radical “Moderates”: How Tea Party and Liberals Are Both Being Swindled. It focuses on an Ezra Klein article from last year that somehow I missed, No One’s Less Moderate Than Moderates. And this, in turn, involves some recent research by a couple of political scientists who demonstrated something that really should have been obvious: statistical techniques were grouping together as “moderate” people who actually had extreme views on both the left and the right.

I’ve been saying this for years. Digby calls the views incoherent, but I don’t think that’s generally true. In my experience, people are fairly conservative in their social beliefs and fairly liberal in their economic beliefs. There is nothing inconsistent about being virulently anti-immigrant and being in favor of taxing the rich more. And if you think about it, criticizing this viewpoint is kind of offensive. Rich business owners are pro-immigrant and anti-tax. In both cases, the people with those views think that these beliefs are in their best interests. (Working class people are probably wrong to be anti-immigrant, but the economics of the matter is certainly not obvious.)

DigbyBut what neither Digby nor Klein talk about is what I see as the major disconnect: why is it that most people are of the social conservative and economic liberal type, while the standard “moderate” in the media is a social liberal and economic conservative? If you’ve been reading me these past many years, you know my answer: it is that the media we get is not a function of what consumers want; it is a function of the interests of upper class journalists.

Way back in 2012, I wrote, Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness. (I like alliteration too much sometimes.) My point was that William Saletan’s “centrism” (he actually self identifies as a “liberal Republican”) is just a function of what is best for the greater good… of William Saletan:

The reason that Saletan and his peers share this kind of political outlook is clear enough: it speaks to their personal interests. They are socially liberal because the corresponding views improve their lives. They have friends who are gay. They’ve had girlfriends who have had abortions. Their careers depend upon a strong first amendment. So their lives would be poorer and their bank accounts too, if the social conservatives got power in the United States. As a result, they are socially liberal—even extremely so.

On the other side of things, they are rich. Whether on the TV, in newspaper, or increasingly even on the internet, pundits are rich. They are all well inside the top 20% of earners. As a result, Saletan finds it easy to be a booster for so called free trade. No Chinese worker is going to take his job. (Not that there aren’t about a million who could do it as well.) But unionized IT professionals might reduce his income. And increased taxes on the upper class could certainly reduce his income. So it just makes sense to argue that Social Security must be cut while ignoring the obvious fix of increasing the payroll tax cap, which it just so happens would increase his tax burden.

Of course, as Klein quoted one of the researchers as saying, “When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want.” It’s more or less the same thing. For example, no one I know thinks that Thomas Friedman is anything but a joke. However, in the upper-middle and upper classes he has a reputation as a sage. And this is why his next book — “The World Is Shaped Like a Taxi Driver In Dubai”? — will have a media campaign with only slightly fewer resources than the invasion of Normandy.

Think about it this way: people don’t demand this or that person become a columnist. In the pre-web days, newspapers couldn’t even know who was popular with readers. (Although they could tell who was popular with other columnists and the elite!) Now it’s different. But not that much different. When Forbes listed the Top Liberal Pundits, many of the people on the list were not liberals: Andrew Sullivan, Maureen Dowd, Christopher Hitchens, Chris Matthews, Fareed Zakaria, Jon Stewart, Thomas Friedman, Fred Hiatt, Arianna Huffington. Some of these people are conservative — the rest of “moderates” — usually of Saletan mold. This is what Sullivan had to say about being on the list:

For the record, I support a flat tax and, as my liberal readers know, find progressive taxation unjust and counter-productive; I’m skeptical of universal healthcare on European lines and have long defended a free market in healthcare and pharmaceuticals… [And on and one and on. -FM]

The “top” liberal was Paul Krugman and I rather wonder if Krugman would have developed his following and influence in a pre-web world. As I recall, he was brought to The New York Times to write about international economics. It was only because George W Bush was such a terrible president that Krugman turned to domestic matters. But even with all that, I really wonder how long he would have lasted under Fred Hiatt.

The main takeaway here is simple: “moderate” in the media environment is nothing more than code for “what is believed by the elites.” That’s not to say that there aren’t actual moderates. Jon Stewart is certainly one of those. The fact that he is generally seen as “liberal” is an indictment of our political system. But it is clear that we should be very careful in using the “moderate” label — especially as it applies to the American voter. Because very few of them are actually moderate. What they are is populist. And given that what they want is exactly the opposite of what the elites want, it is no wonder that reporting on them glosses over this important distinction.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Politics

Morning Music: Diamonds and Rust

Diamonds and Rust - Joan BaezI asked Will to recommend a song for today and he said he was fond of Joan Baez’s cover of Jackson Browne’s “Fountain of Sorrow.” I would like to say that I told him there was a Jackson Browne ban in the morning music — that we don’t want to ruin anyone’s day. But snark aside, I don’t have anything against Browne — except for “Running on Empty” and “The Load-Out” and actually a whole lot of songs where he produces nothing but well crafted pretense. I know it’s only rock and roll but I don’t like it. I’ll have to revisit this issue. Where was I?

The truth is, I’m not a big fan of Joan Baez. I find her voice kind of annoying. But I do rather like “Diamonds and Rust.” And the interesting thing is that the song has been in the my head the last several days. (That’s probably not a coincidence, since I have been around Will this last week.) I was doing to it what I do to most songs that I know only some of the lyrics to: I was making up my own really foul-mouthed lyrics.

But I knew that I could find a fine performance of it. What’s more, how can you not love a songwriter who tries to get away with this slant rhyme:

I remember your eyes were bluer than robin’s eggs
My poetry was lousy you said.

That’s actually really great. Bob must have been proud.

Afterword

For the record, you all can recommend songs. This whole thing could get very boring. I get stuck in ruts. I was seriously thinking of going back to France today.

2 Comments

Filed under Morning Music

Birthday Post: William Green

William GreenOn this day in 1873, the labor leader William Green was born. At the age of 16, he went to work in a coal mine. By 18, he had become a union representative. And he went on to head the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for almost three decades — including the whole of the Great Depression. He is known for pursuing a “cooperative” strategy where labor tries to work with management. I think that’s really interesting, because he took the reins of AFL in 1924. Listening to people talk about labor now, you would think that the idea of labor working with management was only something they did recently and very reluctantly.

I’m not sure that it was the correct way to go. As far as I can tell, businesses are run by people who are not really able to cooperate. They are kind of like the Republican Party during the early years of Obama’s presidency: when offered cooperation, all they see is weakness. It doesn’t seem to matter how reasonable and helpful labor is, the capital class always wants to take power away from labor. And this is why we need a major rethink of our economic system.

Still, Green managed the AFL through an incredibly difficult economic period. He was probably the best man for the job at that time.

Happy birthday William Green!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Birthdays, Politics

Lagunitas NightTime

Lagunitas NightTimeOn Thursday, Will paid me for some work I had done for “our” company. (Let’s face it: it’s his company and I just work for it.) I won’t tell you how much I was paid, because it would be embarrassing. But on our way back home, he was going the wrong direction. I asked him and he said, “I thought we were going to get you some beer?” That’s Will-speak for, “I want a beer and you are paying.” So we found ourselves at the grocery store. Will has little taste, but I decided to get a six-pack of Lagunitas NightTime. I’m very fond of Laguitas and I had never tried this particular brew — probably because it sells for about ten bucks a six-pack.

I explained to Will that I had reached a point in life (about twenty years ago) that I would rather spend twice as much to get a beer that I really like than get a beer I don’t especially enjoy. Will then proceeded to explain to me how he is just fine with this lemon beer he buys for $1.99 per six-pack. I told him I was not. But when we got back to my place, even Will had to admit that NightTime is a hell of a beer. (He knows quality when it is forced on him!)

Indeed, it is an amazing beer. Is it as good as the standard against which all beers are measured, Arrogant Bastard? I can’t say. Let’s just say that it is right around there. It’s impossible to say, regardless. They aren’t the same kind of beers. Like the philistine I am, I don’t know much about beer, but I know what I like. Let’s see if I can give you some idea of what it is like.

It is officially an “ale” — although darker than pretty much any ale I’ve seen before. It is notably darker than Arrogant Bastard. But its head is surprisingly light. It reminds me of Guinness, except that Guinness looks brown to me, and this looks black. (Note: it doesn’t taste at all like Guinness.) It doesn’t have that much in the way of a smell — some hops is all. And the flavor is “hoppy.” It also seems to have just a hint of — oh, I hate to say it — lemon. But there is a big difference between a hint and an overwhelming taste of lemon. NightTime has other flavors as well. That’s what I like about it: it has a complex taste. But I am not in a position to tell you what those flavors are.

This is a situation that I run into all the time. I’m just not very good at breaking down things into component parts. I’m intuitive. That’s even true with writing. Certainly I know a lot more now than I did twenty years ago. But there are cases when I just know one construction is better than another. The difference with beer is that I really don’t know more more than I did twenty years ago.

But NightTime is a really good beer. On the other hand, most of the people I know would hate it. It is the kind of beer that my grandmother would have noted, “It’ll put hair on your chest!” Of course, that isn’t literally true. I’ve made it all the way to saggy middle age without any notable hair on my chest. But that isn’t actually why I drink these kinds of beers.

4 Comments

Filed under Social