“Serious” Economics Is Just a Stalling Tactic

Paul KrugmanIt’s always fun to read Paul Krugman when he’s angry. And he was angry on Friday, I See Very Serious Dead People. He discussed a number of things, but I want to focus on one thing that he almost wrote about. One of his main complaints with the world of economic policy debate is the way that the very people who claim to be pushing “serious” policy ideas are the ones pushing useless and, very often, counterproductive policies. “I know that people who airily dismiss the austerity debate and all that and demand that we focus on the long run think they’re taking a brave stand; but you know, they aren’t.” That’s about right.

It often seems to me that talking about the “big picture” and the “long run” and “structural issues” are just a way to appear to be doing something, without actually doing anything. This problem is global, but it is especially typical of the United States. I noted this after 9/11. An obvious change would have been to put pilots in a separate compartment from the passengers. But that would have cost a lot of money. So instead, we got entry x-rays and bans on shampoo. But overall, it was just very clear that the government felt it more important to look like it was protecting us than it was to actually protect us.

With economic policy, the solutions to our problems are pretty simple. We went through this in the 1930s, and we know what works. But instead, we get the exact same policy prescriptions that failed back them. The most annoying of these is the idea that businesses aren’t hiring because American workers just don’t have the skills that employers want. This same thing was said in the late 1930s, but somehow, when the government started spending in expectation of World War II, those same workers were plenty skilled. And after the war, they continued to be. Funny that. Even funnier is the fact that so many establishment figures today recycle this same point without a hint of irony.

But I don’t think that they are ignorant. The purpose of claiming that the problem is a “skills gap” is that it doesn’t have a clear solution. The only thing that can really be done is to have the government pay for workers to go back to school and get those skills that businesses are supposedly so desperate for. And that means it is always at least a couple of years away. And when the last crop of students finds that they aren’t any more employable than they were before, no one cares. It isn’t like there are labor reporters everywhere disseminating the information.

Our economic problems are just a matter of doing what worked before: stimulus, which used to be the standard response to a recession, regardless of political party. This was true right up to the last Republican president. Our economy would be booming right now if Obama had grown the government the way that Reagan and the two Bushes grew it. But we couldn’t do that! So instead, much of the Washington punditry — including many so called liberals — call for mysterious, complicated, and slow policy. Needless to say, such pundits don’t have to worry about losing their jobs. So the pain they push on the rest of us and the years of bad times their policy preferences guarantee are no big deal.

Economic policy is not rocket science. When people claim that it is, all they are doing is arguing that we do nothing. It is kind of like global warming denial: we just don’t know enough; we need more study; there are no simple answers. It’s all nonsense. It’s all stalling. It’s just a way for the power elite to hang onto power.

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Terry Jones

Terry JonesThe great comedian Terry Jones is 73 today. He is, of course, one of the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I tend to think that he doesn’t get enough credit in the group. I suspect that this is more because he has the least distinctive face of the group. But that is a big part of what he adds to the group. He is the only one other than Michael Palin who gets lost in roles. Everyone else is pretty much John Cleese doing whatever part, and so on. Jones is especially great playing an older woman, as he does especially brilliantly in Life of Brian.

The critical dynamic in Monty Python was between Jones and Cleese. The consensus seems to be that Cleese was the brains of the outfit and Jones was the heart. Without those two, the show would have been at best just mediocre sketch comedy. Cleese is a comedic genius. But it was Jones that pushed the comedy outside the confines of the studio. It’s funny that many people think of the parrot sketch as a classic Python bit. But it is entirely typical of other sketch comedy of that time. What actually makes the show Pythonesque is stuff like the Michael Palin openings of the old man running toward the camera and saying, “It’s…” Of course, without Cleese, I believe the show would have been just too bizarre to have ever taken off.

One thing that wasn’t highlighted nearly enough was Jones’ physical comedy. He was the best of the bunch. Here is a good example of it. It also shows another aspect of him, which is that he has absolutely no shame:

Another aspect of Jones is that he is a rather good director. To begin with, I assume that the other members are just about impossible to direct. But more than that, all three of the main films — Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Meaning of Life — look great given their budgets. But directors never get much credit for doing comedies, even though they are clearly the hardest kinds of films to make work. And after about two decades, Jones is coming out with a new comedy, Absolutely Anything — co-written with Gavin Scott and starring Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale.

And finally, he’s done some rather good and thought provoking documentary series like Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives and Terry Jones’ Barbarians. You can usually find them online.

Happy birthday Terry Jones!

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Media Racism on King Abdullah’s Funeral

Michelle Obama at King Abdullah's FuneralBy far, the best thing that Vox has done is to bring Max Fisher to my attention. He covers the Middle East for the website and he often takes on the tone of a patient parent, “Stop doing that; it’s racist.” I’ve written about his work a number of times, most notably in, The Bigoted “Muslims Condemn” Ritual. Well, Fisher was back a couple days ago with another article where you can almost hear him sigh before the first word, US Media Coverage of Michelle Obama’s Saudi Arabia Trip Isn’t Just Wrong — It’s Racist.

There is a very real and casual racism in this country — not just against Arabs but against Persians, Indians, and pretty much any other group you could name. If it hadn’t been for the Nazis and the Holocaust, Israelis would be included in that group. I still commonly hear people refer to “towel heads” and “those people” who attacked us on 9/11. It is the most naked form of racism. Race itself is a racist construct and you can see it clearly here. Muslims are commonly equated with Hindus and Sikhs, even though there is far more relationship between Muslims and Christians and Jews. But they are all the same to most Americans, not because they are, but simply because Americans are some of the most ignorant and parochial people on the planet.

King Abdullah's FuneralFisher made nine points in his article, but it all comes down to one thing: the American media coverage shows a shocking lack of understanding of Saudi Arabia. The supposed kerfuffle is that Michelle Obama didn’t wear a headscarf to the funeral of King Abdullah. This has been portrayed as some kind of major statement about the terrible treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. I’ve also heard it claimed that her dressing in blue instead of black was some big deal, but even I know that white is a traditional funeral color in many regions.

The main issue is that the elites of Saudi Arabia would be freaked out by seeing a woman who wasn’t enclosed in a portable tent. Fisher wrote, “Saudi royals are comfortable with the West and with Western customs; many spend long parts of the year in Europe and a number were educated in American boarding schools or colleges.” Of course they are. It reminds me of Mike Huckabee running around the nation claiming that those backwoods morals are so superior to the terrible morals of those New York and Los Angeles elites. As if he isn’t perfectly comfortable with elites, as he’s shown time and again. Just because elites here and in Saudi Arabia demagogue with religious fundamentalism doesn’t mean they fall for it.

It is one thing for the masses to have no idea that a Jain, unwilling to swat a fly, is quite different from a radical political Muslim suicide bomber or a Christian sniper who was proud of his 160 confirmed kills. But when the media can’t tell the difference, we are doomed. And I really do think that is the case and that they aren’t just pretending to generate clicks. Similarly, what are we to make of Ted Cruz’s tweet, “Kudos to @FLOTUS for standing up for women & refusing to wear Sharia-mandated head-scarf in Saudi Arabia”? I suspect he actually thinks that — and he is a smart and educated guy. But once you build a worldview based upon the idea that America is better than all other countries, this is the kind of blind stupidity that results. And that’s not just Ted Cruz — that’s America writ large.

Afterword

For the record, Saudi Arabia really is an awful place.

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New Political Satire at The Onion

The OnionA little bit of The Onion goes a long way. So I don’t read it every day. But once a week, it is good for a half hour of hoots. When I stopped by the other day, two things really stuck out to me. One of them was a video, which I’ll discuss below. But the first was one of the funniest — and insightful — things I’ve seen in a long time, Bobby Jindal Not Sure He’s Willing to Put Family Through 2-Month Presidential Campaign. The joke is just an acknowledgement that we all know that Jindal will run for the Republican Party presidential nomination, and we all know that he will not last long.

If there is one criticism of The Onion, it is that its articles don’t usually have payoffs. The typical structure of an article is the same joke repeated again and again. And this often works brilliantly, as in, New Terminator Movie Brings JD Salinger Out Of Hiding. But in the Jindal article, there is a difference:

Citing the intense pressures and scrutiny placed on political candidates and the people in their lives, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal announced Tuesday that he’s not sure he wants to put his family through the rigors of a two-month presidential campaign…

Though Jindal stressed that while he personally had no qualms about enduring the extreme media attention, he admitted that he hated the thought of subjecting his wife and kids to the harsh glare of the public spotlight for a couple of news cycles. According to Jindal, they would have to steel themselves in preparation for a demanding campaign that would take their husband and father all the way through Iowa, a fair amount of South Carolina, and maybe a couple counties in New Hampshire…

“Imagine what it’s like being 10 or 13 years old and having your dad spend dozens of days running for president — what would that do to your life?” said Jindal, who admitted that during the roughly five-day-long peak of his campaign he might be too busy to stay in touch with his loved ones. “And we could be in the thick of it right up until a few days after the 2015 Iowa Straw Poll. If I hold, say, six fundraising dinners, that’s six meals I’m skipping with the kids. Not to mention I’ll miss my daughter’s big dance recital, which is really important to her.”

“Oh, wait, no I won’t,” he added. “That’s in September.”

The second notable thing was a video, DNA Evidence Frees Black Man Convicted of Bear Attack. The satire in it is so sharp that it isn’t all that funny. Watching it, I felt myself getting angry. Maybe I just know too much, but the truth of the matter is that people all over the nation — most especially black men — are convicted of crimes with only slightly less ridiculous evidence. But I loved this line, “The Pinola Police Department apologized for the inconvenience they caused him and say they plan to reopen the case and ‘find the black man who did this.’” To create a variation off Mozart, “Only satire can do this!”

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The Real Victims of Political Correctness

Alex PareeneIn reality, the single most notable example in the last 15 years of an academic being punished for his speech is probably former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who was fired not for offending feminists but for claiming that some victims of the September 11 attacks were complicit in the crimes of the American state that provoked the attacks. Just a few years ago, liberal Democratic members of Congress and other officials publicly demanded that Brooklyn College cancel a forum featuring academics who support a financial boycott of Israel. Lawmakers threatened to withhold funding from the school if the event took place. Just this month, Duke University announced that it would not allow a weekly Muslim call to prayer to happen at the campus chapel, following criticism and threats from Christians and evangelical leaders. This is what speech policing in America actually looks like: like regular policing, it’s wielded primarily by people in power against marginalized groups and anti-mainstream opinions.

—Alex Pareene
Punch-Drunk Jonathan Chait Takes On the Entire Internet

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What Everyone “Knows” About Iran

Iran Magnifying GlassConventional wisdom is a pox on our society. The problem isn’t that it is wrong — often times it is not. The problem is that it is invisible. I noted a great example of this a couple days ago in an otherwise good article by Jonathan Chait, Why Benjamin Netanyahu Lost His Mind. It is about how the Israeli leader is really screwing up by alienating Obama and thus the entire Democratic Party. It is quite possible that Democrats will control the White House for the next decade. Is he really looking out for the best interests of his country? I doubt it. But craven politicians are not something unique to the United States.

But in discussing the issue, Chait wrote, “One obvious cause of the Zionist right’s deepening millennialism is Iran’s quest to obtain a nuclear weapon.” So it isn’t the belief of the Zionist right, it is the fact that Iran is in a quest for a nuclear weapon. How it is that Chait “knows” this is not a mystery: it is what everyone “knows”! But it is not based upon evidence. It just seems right. Of course Iran would want a nuclear weapon! What fundamentalist theocracy wouldn’t want a nuclear weapon?!

I know that people may scoff and my having a problem with this, but I have a good reason. In the lead up to the Iraq war, it was just taken as a fact that of course Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And the fact that Hussein repeatedly said that he didn’t have these weapons only made people think that he must. This culminated in unintentional high comedy when Scott Pelley (but there were many others saying the same thing), “So why keep the secret [that he had no WMDS]?” There was, of course, no secret keeping. In fact, the very news outlets that claimed Hussein kept this secret had previously reported his denials. For example, before the invasion, Bob Schieffer reported, “Saddam Hussein says he has no weapons of mass destruction, but should we believe him?” The answer was: of course not! Iraq was our enemy, so it wasn’t necessary to find evidence.

With regard to Iran, all the actual evidence indicates that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. After the Iranian revolution, the government shut down the Shah’s nuclear weapons program. Much later, the Iranian government seemed to do some fairly trivial research toward nuclear weapons. But for at least 12 years, there does not seem to have been any Iranian nuclear weapons program. But there could be. Just as with the teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, we can’t prove the negative.

The casual assumption that of course Iran has a nuclear weapons program is very dangerous. There are many powerful people in the United States who want to go to war with Iran for the very purpose of stopping its nuclear weapons program. Because they “know” that Iran has one and that it would be the end of the world if Iran got such a weapon. And these people are part of a larger delusion that we know that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.

But we don’t. And if we invaded Iran, I’m pretty sure that we would find that Iran did not, in fact, have a nuclear weapons program. And we would doubtless hear from many mainstream commentators the burning question, “So why keep the secret that Iran had no nuclear weapons program?” We have the perfect media system — for a fascist state.

Afterword

While looking for images to go with this article, I came upon a lot of political cartoons. They were almost without exception mocking the idea that Iran didn’t have nuclear weapons. What good is a free press when even the political cartoonists all repeat the government line?

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Franz Schubert

Franz SchubertOn this day in 1797, the great composer Franz Schubert was born. He is probably the only Romantic period composer who I unreservedly like. But if I were perfectly honest, the music coming into and going out of the Romantic period is generally much better than the straight Romantic stuff. That gives me some wiggle room with Beethoven, who is usually overdone for my tastes, but still ridiculously great.

Schubert was a full generation later than Beethoven, and very much influenced by him. Of course, Schubert was arguably even more influenced by Mozart. And he seems to have been somewhat like Mozart in the rapidity of his composing. Schubert died at the age of 31 of typhoid fever — or syphilis. Yet he left an enormous amount of music. And this may be one of the reasons that he has historically been discounted. There is no question but that he had the ability to quickly grind out facile works. But look at his later compositions, which show such control of emotional tempo and complex harmony.

If you look at what he wrote, Schubert would be considered a vocal composer. In addition to writing hundreds of songs, he wrote a couple dozen operas and singspiels. Yet his operas aren’t much performed, except for Fierrabras — and even it not that much. I don’t understand it. It is beautiful work — and far better than much of the opera that came after it. Whatever. A lot of what gets performed is just a matter of fashion. Here is Jonas Kaufmann performing “Was Quälst du Mich, o Mißgeschick!” (“Why do you torture me, misfortune!”?) from Fierrabras:

But I can’t think of Schubert without immediately hearing the String Quartet in G major. And here is a great performance of it by the Pražák Quartet. It is a very fast way to pass 45 minutes:

Happy birthday Franz Schubert!

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Socialist vs Liberal Websites

Socialism according to an idiot conservativeI’ve noticed something recently. I’m not very happy with liberal websites. It’s not that I especially disagree with them, although I often do. It is more that it is mostly really boring. I find myself more and more gravitating to straight up socialist websites. Primarily, they understand the fundamental problems with capitalism — especially the way it is practiced in the United States and Europe. What I never find on socialist websites, as I discussed earlier, are things like Jonathan Chait’s rejoicing about Obama pushing for state and local governments to access the usefulness of barber licensing. Read the article for my take on it. The main point here is just: who cares?

But this is what we get from liberals. It reminds me of something I heard a long time ago. When I was in college, I saw a talk by Jeff Cohen. He noted that the PBS NewsHour would bring in two conservatives to talk about a subject. They would be presented as center-left and center-right. But if it was a discussion of the military, it would doubtless be Sam Nunn — generally a conservative southern Democrat — very conservative when it came to the military. He would be joined by some Republican who was on the far right. And they would have a “Yes, but…” conversation. For example, “Yes, I agree that we must build the Mx Missile, but I think we should build 40 rather than 100.” Because what we really needed in 1985 was more ICBMs and the only possible debate was the number that we needed.

Things really came to a head during the discussion of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Like most people, my first reaction was disgust at the attack. But then it became a cause. But a cause for what? The cause of freedom of speech? Was that really a discussion we needed to have? After all, this wasn’t a question of the government stifling speech. This was a couple of thugs with guns who killed a bunch of people for their own reasons. But it did cause the French government to stifle speech as a result of it. It wasn’t the liberal blogs that were all over this hypocrisy. It wasn’t even much of the libertarian blogs. They were mostly interested in self-congratulation for just how committed to freedom they all were.

I also noticed just how widespread a certain strain of casual Islamophobia is around in the liberal world. It kind of goes along with the whole Jonathan Chait PC article brouhaha. I have this feeling that simmering below the surface of American liberalism is a kind of hatred and intolerance for anything that is socially acceptable to hate. Muslims are fine to hate, as long as you speak carefully like Sam Harris. Uppity transgender people are fine to hate, as long as it is their “intolerance” and not gender that you claim to hate. The primary difference between liberals and conservatives seems to be how much time it takes to move them kicking and screaming into the future.

The funny thing about all of this is that I don’t really consider myself a socialist. I believe in robust market economies. But because I am relatively conservative in the traditional sense of the work, I think a strong state is essential. And anyone who doesn’t see that is just not paying attention. Not only is a strong state necessary to take care of those thing that the market economy does not (social order, healthcare, guaranteed minimum income), we need it in order to make the market economy function correctly. But in the United States, politics is so screwed up that a conservative believer in robust market economies is well to the left of the traditional left.

But my increasing interest in socialist thought really doesn’t have to do with agreeing with it. I don’t agree with it any more than I agree with liberal thought. But I wonder what good liberal thought is when it doesn’t really counter the status quo. It is very much arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We will fight endless wars in foreign lands regardless who is president, and the liberals will grumble. We will see the working class fall further and further behind regardless who is president, and the liberals will murmur. The poor will die much younger than the rich regardless who is president, and the liberals will whimper. But they won’t say that something is fundamentally wrong with the system, because they are as committed to the status quote as the conservatives.

Afterword

None of this means that my thinking on politics has changed. I’ve always been on the “radical” side of liberal politics anyway. But I am still a Democrat — because there is no better choice. And ultimately, I’m a pragmatist. But there are only so many hours in the day. And what am I going to spend them doing? I could read stuff with the same old boring points of view that don’t much enrich my thinking. Or I would challenge myself. Prepare for some changes to the links on the right.

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Mainstream Media’s WikiLeak Contempt

Trevor TimmIn the past four years, WikiLeaks has had their Twitter accounts secretly spied on, been forced to forfeit most of their funding after credit card companies unilaterally cut them off, had the FBI place an informant inside their news organization, watched their supporters hauled before a grand jury, and been the victim of the UK spy agency GCHQ hacking of their website and spying on their readers.

Now we’ve learned that, as The Guardian reported on Sunday, the Justice Department got a warrant in 2012 to seize the contents — plus the metadata on emails received, sent, drafted and deleted — of three WikiLeaks’ staffers’ personal Gmail accounts, which was inexplicably kept secret from them for almost two and a half years…

Most journalists and press freedom groups have been inexplicably quiet about the Justice Department’s treatment of WikiLeaks and its staffers ever since, despite the fact that there has been a (justified) backlash against the rest of the Justice Department’s attempt to subpoena reporters’ phone call records and spy on their emails. But almost all of the tactics used against WikiLeaks by the Justice Department in their war on leaks were also used against mainstream news organizations.

For example, after The Washington Post revealed in 2013 the Justice Department had gotten a warrant for the personal Gmail account of Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2010 without his knowledge by explicitly accusing him of being an espionage “co-conspirator” (for having the audacity to arrange to confidentially speak with a source), journalists and privacy advocates understandably reacted in shock and outrage.

WikiLeaks staffers faced virtually the same tactics: they had their Gmail seized by the government in secret, they didn’t find out for years after the fact (so they had no way to challenge it) and, according to WikiLeaks’ lawyers, the warrant specifically indicates the Justice Department is investigating WikiLeaks for “conspiracy to commit espionage.” …

Unfortunately the news world has never rallied around WikiLeaks’ First Amendment rights the way they should — sometimes even refusing to acknowledge they are a journalism organization, perhaps because they dare to do things a little differently than the mainstream media, or because WikiLeaks tweets provocative political opinions, or because they think its founder, Julian Assange, is an unsympathetic figure.

Those are all disgraceful excuses to ignore the government’s overreach: the rights of news organizations everywhere are under just as much threat whether the government reads the private emails of staffers at WikiLeaks, Fox News or the Associated Press.

—Trevor Timm
The War on Leaks Has Gone Way Too Far When Journalists’ Emails Are Under Surveillance

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Heterodox Economics Helps Create Bad Policy

Mike KonczalDespite the fact that I often hate the results of them, I greatly admire heterodox economists. It is really important to have people who push against the grain of what everyone else “knows.” Usually, everyone else thinks they know things because they are more or less right. But not always. And sometimes heterodox economists have important results that everyone just chooses to ignore. Alan Greenspan showed that unemployment could go way down without causing inflation, yet most economists continue to believe that an unemployment rate much below 5.5% will bring back the 1970s. This tends to be the way of it. When a new idea comes around that helps working people, the economics profession is very skeptical.

The problem with hererodox economists is that when they come up with an idea that is completely wrong, but which justifies what the power elite want to do, it is accepted as Hoyle in much of the policy establishment. There were two big examples of this recently. First there was Alberto Alesina’s work that purported to show that cutting government spending in a recession was consistent with economic growth: expansionary austerity. And then there was Reinhart and Rogoff’s idea economic that growth stalled out after government debt reached 90% of GDP. Neither of these theories was ever compelling, but it told conservatives what they wanted to hear, “The budget must be balanced!”

The great Mike Konczal at Next New Deal brought my attention to another heterodox paper from a group at National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that already has conservatives all tittering. He discussed it in, Did Ending Unemployment Insurance Extensions Really Create 1.8 Million Jobs? The idea is that cutting off unemployment insurance to 1.3 million people suddenly made 1.8 million people employed. It isn’t impossible in theoretical terms; it could be that there is a kind of multiplier effect: when one person gets a job, he’s able to spend more and that works its way through the economy.

One of the problems with the paper is that it uses a model that is “an empirical disaster.” This is very typical of Chicago school type models. Decades ago, they decided that it wasn’t necessary for their economic models to actually mimic or predict the real economy. And there is something to be said for this. One can learn things from models that aren’t predictive. Just the same, because of this, pretty much all the policy models are New Keynesian. And one has to wonder why economists would make claims about the real economy when using models they know don’t model reality.

There are many other problems with the NBER paper — read Konczal’s article for all the details. I’m more interested in (and worried about) the fact that this will be used by conservatives to claim that the only reason we ever have unemployment is because we are so nice to the unemployed. (Insert Paul Ryan hammock remark here!) Somehow, the 25% unemployment rate in 1930 — before these was UI — doesn’t seem to matter to these people. We end up with these horrible false equivalence arguments: “Some economists (99%) say that unemployment insurance raises the unemployment by a couple of tenths of a percentage point, and other economists (1%) say that unemployment insurance raises the unemployment by over a percentage point. Who can say?!”

This is a fundamental problem with economics and public policy. And this was the only valid criticism of Seven Bad Ideas. Many people, most notably Brad DeLong, noted that the bad ideas listed in the book weren’t really what economists believe. But the bad ideas are everywhere in economic policy debate. And heterodox papers like this new one from NBER only intensify this problem.

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