JC Penney and the Death of the Middle Class

James Cash PenneyOn this day in 1875, the businessman James Cash Penney was born. He is known for his hugely successful chain JC Penney. He had a kind of Horatio Alger beginning in his life. He worked for a small chain of stores. The owners were so impressed with his work that when they opened a new store, they gave him one-third ownership. After a couple of years when his partners wanted to break up, Penney bought out their interests and the chain was formed. Within ten years, it went from three stores up to 34. By 1929, the chain was nationwide with 1,400 stores. Although he was hit hard by the Great Depression, he weathered it and remained with the chain up to his death at 95 in 1971.

The company has managed to do pretty well in good times and bad. But the last decade has been very tough, as it has been for most businesses that cater to the middle class. This is because the middle class is dying. There is a thought experiment that is worth doing. Consider an economy in which one person owned everything. It couldn’t work because no one would be in a position to buy anything. A successful economy depends upon transactions. The more lopsided the distribution of goods, the less transactions can occur. So in general, an economy that is fairly equal will be one that works the best.

This is a fact that seems to have been forgotten by the rich of the world. Or rather, they believe in the thoroughly repudiated Say’s Law, “Supply creates its own demand.” By this theory, as long as the rich have factories to build things, there will be people to buy them because… Actually, I have no idea why. The idea is ridiculous. As I discussed last month, Wall St Says Economic Inequality Is Bad. And it is bad for the rich as well as the poor.

What James Cash Penney built was great. But he was only able to do it because it was done during a time of a growing middle class. When the Great Depression decimated the middle class, it almost destroyed his chain. And as the middle class has been systematically attacked over the last several decades, it has gotten harder and harder for Penney and other middle class oriented retailers to survive. Because the economy is like an ecosystem. We all depend upon each other. Without customers who are able to buy stuff, the greatest entrepreneur in the world will be helpless.

It really is the case that to save the middle class is to save JC Penney and Walmart. But sadly, after decades of the Job Creator myth and “Greed Is Good” apologetics, I fear the rich have lost their way. They think they can have it all. But they will find that having it all is the same as having nothing. James Cash Penney understood this balance, because he lived through it. He couldn’t depend upon the government to bail him out regardless of how badly he behaved. But he’s dead like all the great businessmen of the past. And now what we have are a bunch of entitled rich people who are indistinguishable from 18th century English Dukes.

Happy birthday James Cash Penney!

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In Defense of Thomas Frank

Thomas FrankYesterday, Thomas Frank wrote his weekly column, All These Effing Geniuses: Ezra Klein, Expert-Driven Journalism, and the Phony Washington Consensus. This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote another “Thomas Frank is an idiot” article, Have Nerds Betrayed the Left? And then Jonathan Bernstein went after him, Democratic Party Wasn’t Always Liberal. And finally, Ed Kilgore spent some time punching the hippie, No, Tom Frank, NAFTA Did Not Create the Christian Right.[1] After writing my generally positive take on Frank’s article, The Dangers of Experts in Politics, I feel the need to defend him.

What really struck me about each criticism was that the writers focused on details while just assuming that his conclusion was silly. Kilgore goes so far as to assume things that Frank did not write. He didn’t even mention NAFTA. Having read Frank for many years, it seems he is talking about the entirety of the New Democratic economic platform. Regardless, Frank’s overall argument is that after the economic conservatism of the 1980s and early 1990s, the people were ready for economic liberalism. And they didn’t get it.

A commenter on my article, Colin Keesee, noted:

I would add that if both parties act the same on economic issues, it is rational for white men in rural America to vote Republican.

Exactly! On social issues, the two parties really do provide a choice. And social conservatism is more popular. Balance that with the extreme conservative economic policies of the Republicans and the slightly less extreme conservative economic policies of the Democrats and there really is no choice. The economy is going to suck for the poor regardless of the party, so they might as well go along with the party that flatters their cultural prejudices.

I don’t think Frank is arguing that all a Democratic politician has to do is embrace economic populism and he will be elected. The entire Democratic brand has been soiled for a large part of the electorate. This is a nationwide problem. But if the cultural conservatives noticed that the Democratic Party was actually pushing policy that helped them economically, the brand would change. I’m with Frank that the current choice for such voters is social and economic conservatism (Republicans) and social liberalism and economic conservatism (Democrats). By voting Republican, they at least get half of what they want; voting Democratic, they get nothing.

Now I probably disagree with Frank in that I think the social liberalism gets in the way of reaching out to these voters. Any single Democrat running in a red district would need to repudiate his social liberalism. Rhetorically, he would need to start sounding like Rick Santorum, who has always had very good economic rhetoric (although there is no doubt if he were ever elected, he’d be economically conservative). But Frank is looking at the broader issue — the long view. The problem with the Democrats is that they spend too much time making compromises for the sake of the next election, while the Republicans succeed in pushing the whole field of debate to the right. And what that means is that the Republicans win even when they lose.

It bothers me that Chait, Bernstein, and Kilgore are so closed to the broader argument. Frank is concerned that the Democratic Party is so conservative on economic policy. The question is why Chait, Bernstein, and Kilgore are not.

[1] I hate that people call Thomas Frank “Tom.” I’ve always taken it as a kind of boast, “I know him so I call him by his nickname.” But in the article, Kilgore notes that he has only met Frank once. So it isn’t even that. Regardless, I find it confusing. I know who “Thomas Frank” is immediately. When people use “Tom Frank,” it confuses me and takes a moment for me to figure out who they are talking about. I wish they would stop doing that.

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Why Republicans and Democrats Act Differently

Ezra KleinI have a good example of why you should read me rather than Ezra Klein: I don’t waste your time. And I’m a hell of a lot more colorful. Today, over at Vox, Klein wrote a very interesting article, Why Democrats and Republicans Don’t Understand Each Other. We will leave aside the fact that his article is not about that; it is about what makes Democrats and Republicans different. It’s only been many years that I’ve known why Democrats and Republicans don’t understand each other: they are different. But the question is: why do Republicans and Democrats act so differently.

Klein spends 2,000 words on this question, throwing lots and lots of data at the reader. And much of it is very old. For example, there are a lot more self-identified conservatives than liberals. Yet these same people consistently associate themselves with the Democratic Party by six or more percentage points. What could be the reason?! Well, part of it is just that for the last four decades the Republican Party has systematically vilified the word “liberal.” If you have any questions, see Geoffrey Nunberg’s excellent book, Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.

But more important is just the fact that the Democratic Party and the liberal movement itself is not ideological. Or at least, not nearly as ideological as the Republican Party. It is, at its core, a practical movement that is interested in improving the living conditions of the people of this country and the world. As a result, most liberals don’t even think of themselves that way. They think of themselves as practical problem solvers. It never occurs to them that Social Security is a collectivist attack on “freedom.” It’s just a program that improves the lives of the elderly without otherwise causing a great deal of disruption.

Conservatives, on the other hand, live in theoretical world where any law is just the leading edge of the End of Freedom™ as we know it. They have been making the same arguments since the income tax was created. The End of Freedom™ never comes, but they continue to see it right around the corner. They would be seen as loony if they continued to attack Social Security (although many still do), and that’s why whatever is new is the thing that brings the End of Freedom™. Hence: Obamacare!

The best example of this is something I’ve talked about many times here: government size. At least in theory, conservatives are for a small government. They have no reason for being for small government except for some irrational fear that a large government will destroy “freedom.” At the same time, these very same conservatives believe in big government when it comes to the things that governments traditionally use to oppress their people: the military and police services. But it is the big government that feeds the poor and subsidizes public libraries that they think will cause the End of Freedom™. Whatever.

Liberals, in contrast, have absolutely no interest in the size of government. They are interested in results. Does it take big government to feed the poor? Fine! Can it be done with a small government? Fine! Can it be done without any government at all? Fine! It doesn’t matter to us because we aren’t interested in theory about the size of the government. We want to feed the poor. We are a practical people.

I think that modern American conservatives are crazy and delusional. But I don’t think ideology is necessarily a bad thing. I too believe in maximizing freedom. But I live in the real world. I know what freedom actually is. I know that I’m much more likely to have my freedom harmed by a cop who mistakes me someone else than I am by a small increase in tax rates. And that gets to the very heart of worrying about theoretical “freedom.” It allows demagogues to manipulate you.

As a liberal, I don’t have to worry about that. When Obamacare was being debated, the terms were very clear: greatly increasing the number of people who have health insurance in exchange for tiny tax increases. That’s a fine deal. But that wasn’t the way that Obamacare was presented by conservatives. It was presented as: the government taking over healthcare (not true) in exchange for destroying good care (not true) and increasing prices (not true) and eliminating your choice (not true) and killing old people (not true). Notice that the conservative argument against Obamacare was never honest: it raised taxes on the rich to provide healthcare for the poor. That was the real argument, but the demagogues knew that argument would never fly!

So I feel that the liberal pragmatic approach to politics is the more sane one. All conservatives offers to people is an ideology that hides what’s really going on. And what’s really going on is a very practical ideology of taking from the poor and giving it to the rich. There are lots of ideologies one could follow. The ideology followed by conservatives is just one designed to hide the practical results, which most conservatives would hate.

So there you go: with half the words, I’ve described the difference between the parties. And I’ve done it with far more flair.

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The Italian Job Worse Than I Remembered

The Italian JobI remember watching The Italian Job many times in my distant past. It was always a fairly enjoyable film even as I found it almost completely wanting. One thing especially bothered me: the job absolutely had to have Professor Peach to deal with the computer aspects of the job. But the extent of his technical work was simply taking one tape off the computer and putting another tape on. And this is just the prime example of the fundamental problem: there is very little heist in this heist movie.

What the film does have is a whole lot of “ain’t Michael Caine dreamy?” nonsense. The females in the film are limited to a group of bikini clad models who welcome Caine’s release from jail with a party that would embarrass Larry Flynt, Caine’s strangely inconsistently jealous American girl friend, and the widow of his recently deceased friend who is more bothered by the idea of not spending six hours in bed when Caine than the death of her husband. There are also, of course, the various “big” women who Professor Peach can’t stop from molesting.

I suppose all of this is forgivable in that the film was made in 1969 and this kind of thing was considered charming along with the “flamboyant” gay man and the comedically terrified black man. The Italian Job manages to include the former, but for the latter, it substitutes the Jamaican cannabis smoker with a large penis. Maybe it is asking too much of a film that never intended to be serious to do anything but go along with the mores of its time. It’s still annoying to watch today.

The biggest problem with the film is the script. It was written by Troy Kennedy Martin, whose other major success was the similarly thin Kelly’s Heroes — a film so boring, I’ve never managed to make it to the end despite many attempts. The Italian Job is structured in three parts. The first part involves us learning what a cool chick-magnet Michael Caine is. This part might work better if Caine were charismatic. I’m not saying he’s bad, just something of a non-entity up there on the screen. You can see this very clearly in his breakout role in Zulu. Stanley Baker is the one with charisma.

The second part of the film is the heist. The problem is that all the planning for the heist was done by Caine’s dead friend before the movie starts. So this section of the film mostly involves us looking at his gang standing around waiting for the third act to start, which really has nothing to do with people. This part of the film is so poorly rendered that at the start of it, everyone involved meets around a conference table where Caine introduces each. If he hadn’t done so, we wouldn’t know who any of them were. Of course, we wouldn’t have cared. The heist is ultimately: guys rob an armored car and then escape.

The third part of the film is what it is all about: Mini Coopers racing around Turin doing cool things. But even here, there is no concern for continuity. The police are chasing the Mini Coopers and get left behind in a number of ways. But somehow there is always another police car to be on their tails. There is no sense of drama; it is just episodic and thus of no real relevance to the film. But there is this wonderful waltz section that was cut from the film because even these filmmakers understood how inappropriate it was in the larger context of the film:

Having watched the film recently and been so disappointed, I decided to watch the remake. This kind of film is actually very easy to make. And I suspect that people would do a better job with it now. It’s the kind of thing that F Gary Gray could do a good job with. I don’t expect much from a heist film. But the original just didn’t deliver, regardless of how adorable the Minis are. I’ll let you know what I think of the remake after it arrives.

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Academic Research Problems Dwarfed By Outside Vested Interests

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote a curious column today, How to Get It Wrong. He looked at the financial crisis and asked how it is the economics profession got the response so wrong. Of course, he noted that it isn’t “economics” itself that got it wrong. Anyone with a basic understand of economics could predict what happened. But there were certain notable economists who got things fatally wrong. And how exactly does that work?

I think I can explain a big part of it. It’s the money, stupid! Glenn Hubbard was paid $1,200 per hour by Countrywide Financial to sign off on their toxic mortgages. There is gobs of money to be had by working as an apologist for the wealthy. And in the economics and financial fields, people are well aware of the kind of money that is available. Some Latin scholar has no such temptations. There aren’t man walking around college campuses with buckets of money for the scholars who have the right marginal theory about Cicero’s oeuvre.

Glenn HubbardThis isn’t to say that Hubbard is a charlatan. I don’t think it works that way. What happens instead is that bankers and other promoters of “free” markets notice that the young Hubbard naturally has opinions that go along with what they are selling. So they give him money for his research. And they give him money to speak to groups of like minded plutocrats. And before long, without any intent to deceive, Glenn Hubbard dives into a collection of toxic assets and just doesn’t see anything wrong.

The problem, of course, is not Glenn Hubbard or Alberto Alesina or Reinhart and Rogoff. The problem is the politicians. Krugman discussed this. Let’s suppose these self-serving academics had not been around to provide intellectual cover for bad economic policy:

But would it have mattered if economists had behaved better? Or would people in power have done the same thing regardless?

The answer, of course, is that the politicians would have done exactly the same thing. Politicians don’t need economists to back them up. Remember Obama at the very beginning of his presidency, “All across America, families are tightening their belts and making hard choices. Now, Washington must show that same sense of responsibility.” That wasn’t based on any economic theory. When Alesina made that argument, it was circuitous. Obama was making it because it is the kind of “common sense” that just happens to be totally wrong. What he was saying was, “All across America, families are tightening their belts and making hard choices. Now, Washington must do the same thing so that American families have even less money and must tighten their belts even more and make even harder choices.”

So Krugman is right that the problem is not with the economics profession. It has a lot of good advice to offer to policy makers. But all that good advice was ignored. It didn’t tell politicians what they wanted to hear. It didn’t justify Obama’s slick rhetoric that we knew was wrong in the 1930s. And if there hadn’t been very smart cranks like Alberto Alesina around to justify what the politicians were going to do regardless, they would have gone it alone.

Think about evolutionary theory. There are no reputable scientists who question it. But there are tons of people who pretend it is bunk just because they want to believe something else. The same is true of global warming. It really doesn’t matter. If an issue becomes political, people will find a way to ignore it. And any problems within an academic discipline are dwarfed by the vested interests outside it who want to make a buck today and don’t care about the people, planet, or even the long-term health of the economy.

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Edward Bouchet

Edward BouchetOn this day in 1852, the great physicist and educator Edward Bouchet was born. Although he lived a good and useful life, he also lived a tragic life. As most African-Americans of that time and to a lesser extent today, there were not many professional options for him. In 1874, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Yale University. He was ranked sixth out of class of 124 students. He later went on to get his PhD in physics from Yale, writing his dissertation on geometrical optics. He was the first African American to get any kind of PhD from an American university, but he was only the sixth person of any kind to get a PhD is physics.

Given his qualifications, he should have been hired as a college professor somewhere. But he was not. And notice: he was born in Connecticut. He wasn’t trying to get by in the south. Racism was and is a thing all over the nation. As a result, Bouchet spent his entire career working at high schools. Most of his career was spent at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) — a Quaker founded school because most schools in Philadelphia would not accept African-American students.

After 26 years at ICY, he left because the school changed (following the philosophy of Booker T Washington) toward industrial education rather than the traditional classical education. I understand the thinking behind this, but it is wrong. We are going through it now across the nation. The idea is that children should be trained for jobs, but we’ve seen where this leads: poorly paying jobs and more inequality. Regardless, this led Bouchet to a series of teaching jobs in various locations before retiring due to poor health.

Edward Bouchet was clearly a brilliant man who we should have cherished. Instead, we provided him with a kind of torture. We allowed him to show his greatness in education and then denied him the opportunity to utilize it throughout his life. Even still, he doubtless had a huge positive effect on his students. He stands as a proud example of human self-actualization. And he is yet another example of a great man that our nation spurned.

Happy birthday Edward Bouchet!

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Tim Draper Fails to Lower His Taxes With Six Californias

Six CaliforniasFriday brought some good news, “Six Californias” Plan Falls Short of Making November 2016 Ballot. It seems that Tim Draper’s plan to get it on the ballot failed because too many of his paid-for signatures were bunk.

I’m not against breaking up California. For one thing, I don’t like the anti-democratic Senate and the fact that California has the same representation in that chamber as Wyoming does. Also, the state really represents two groups of people: northerners and southerners. Just the same, the northerners share a common culture with Oregon and Washington, but no one is talking about combining them into a single state. And as former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez said, “Six Californias was a solution in search of a problem that didn’t address any of our state’s challenges.”

The question one has to ask is why Draper was so keen on breaking up the state. The answer can be seen in the map above. See the yellow section there in the middle? That’s “Silicon Valley.” Draper wanted to set up his own little state where he would face no regulations (other than the ones the federal government forced on him) and no state taxes. Draper is, in other words, a typical billionaire who, now that he has a whole bunch of toys wants to take them and go home.

So I’m glad that he wasted millions of dollars getting a bunch of bogus signatures. For one thing, it put a lot of money into the hands of poor people who desperately need it. But I also like that it shows that Draper can’t even manage a simple political operation. He is a good example of how being rich doesn’t show that you are smart. Of course, even though everyone talks about Draper as a “venture capitalist,” that’s not really true. He made his money the old fashioned way: he inherited it!

But never fear: Six Californias isn’t dead. It just won’t be on the 2016 ballot. He reportedly spent $5 million on this failed campaign. That’s only a half percent of his estimated one billion dollar net worth. And it is a small price to pay for his ultimate goal of lowering his taxes. And that’s all this is about. For the rich, that seem to always be what everything is about.

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Pity for Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse Statue

This is a statue of the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse with her father. The life-sized statue was erected for what would have been her 31st birthday. She apparently had struggled with opioid and cocaine addition for much of her young life. Later in her life she gave up these drugs but began doing the socially acceptable but generally more dangerous alcohol. She eventually died two months shy of her 28th birthday because of alcohol poisoning.

I’m so out of it that I didn’t know who she was. So I listened to some of her music. I am very impressed. It is not only great work, it is the kind of stuff that I enjoy. Here is a brilliant song, “Stronger Than Me”:

But the only reason that I took note was the comment that went along with it, written by an otherwise smart and humane person:

No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Junkies are not to be honored. People who make records about defiantly be junkies should not be honored. Period. End of story. Done.

This is an issue that I’ve been fighting against for coming up on two decades. What is it about being a heroin addict that causes everything else in their lives to vanish as far as others are concerned? People don’t seem to have trouble compartmentalizing people in other contexts. Thomas Jefferson has statues built for him all over the nation despite the fact that he was not only a slaveholder but kind of a jerk who left many of them in bondage following his death. But we can’t honor a very talented young woman just because she was troubled?

What’s more, I think her violence is more troubling than her use of illegal drugs. But it is interesting that her violent outbursts did not occur when she was doing illegal drugs. It was only after she gave up illegal drugs (following arrests for cannabis and cocaine) that these became an issue in her life. But I’ve talked a lot about how in our society, the use of illegal drugs have a stigma that is worse than violent acts even including murder.

But what about other highly admired and unrepentant drug users? There is Lou Reed and William S Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. And all of them strike me as having been more in control of their lives. I don’t get that impression from Amy Winehouse. If she had lived longer, she might have gained wisdom and gone on to be the grande dame of jazz singers. But as it is, she seems to have been more like a fragile child. The crime is that our society did not know how to help her.

In the end, she gave far more to our culture than she took. She should be admired for that. And if we can’t do that, we should at least pity her. And we should pity her family.

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Free Market Whack-A-Mole

Whack-A-MoleMatt Bruenig wrote a funny article over at his blog, Capitalism Whack-A-Mole. It is about the shifting justifications for laissez-faire capitalism. When you whack one conservative apologia for capitalism down, up pops another: it is an endless game of whack-a-mole. This is nothing knew, of course. As Bruenig noted in his conclusion, “Most people come to their feverish support of capitalism through unreflective cultural mechanisms first, and their arguments are then filled in later.” In other words, they support the “free” market because they perceive it to be in their own personal interests. This is why libertarianism is almost exclusively the ideology of young guys with good prospects and old guys with piles of cash.

In the article, Bruenig noted that the different justifications are incompatible with each other. Supporters start with the “desert” argument, which says that people should have a right to rewards of their work. When they are countered with the fact that one-third of the economy is based upon rents (people charging for things they own), the supporters shift to the “voluntarism” argument. This holds that this ownership came about through voluntary transactions. When they are countered with the fact that private property itself is coercive because it requires laws to stop people from, for example, just farming fallow lands that someone else owns, the supporters shift to the “utility” argument. This is the old Milton Friedman argument that capitalism makes everyone richer. And when this is shown to be completely false (see, for example: the last four decades), they go back to the first argument: people have a right to rewards of their work.

I suspect I hang out with less sophisticated group of libertarians than Bruenig does. Just the same, the ones I talk to seem to be much more common. They normally start their arguments with the utility claim: in the libertarian utopia, everyone will be rich! Well, it is usually more along the lines of, “The minimum wage kills jobs.” Or, “Raising taxes hurts economic growth.” Such claims are easy to dispatch. So our libertarian warrior runs for cover in some form of first principle argument that the government has no right to interfere with private contracts. (Note: I am making the best case for the libertarians here; most don’t even get this sophisticated.)

The critical problem that they never manage to deal with is the arbitrary nature of capitalism. It simply isn’t the case that everyone starts life with an equal chance of success. And this is true even if you don’t consider that some people are born with innate characteristics that will help or harm them in our society. So even if hundreds of years ago, some white guys bough Manhattan for $26 in a voluntary deal, what does that mean to a poor child born today? Or a rich child? We know that a smart and hard working poor child will generally do worse economically than a stupid and lazy rich child. So this isn’t a question of people getting to keep what they worked for. At best it is people getting to keep what other people who are now dead worked for.

So the political question is always about utility: does the system work for everyone? And we know that it doesn’t. This isn’t an argument for socialism or even an argument against capitalism. Any society is a combination of the two. But what we’ve seen over the last four decades is that productivity growth has become uncoupled from worker wages:

This is why conservative economic rhetoric always comes back to vague notions like “freedom.” Over the last forty years, starting in a small way with conservative southern Democrat Jimmy Carter and really taking off with “freedom” loving Ronald Reagan, our government has pushed more and more conservative economic policy. This has not increased economic growth — just look at the graph. But it has increased profits of those at the very top of the economic system. Clearly, this is not a debate we should even be having. Our government has moved far too much toward capitalism and we need a correction back toward socialism.

The problem we face is that the Democratic Party — the “liberal” party — is largely dominated by New Democrats who think that the best thing is to continue to enrich the rich at the expense of the rest. But I’m hopeful that Democratic voters are finally waking up and that our long national dark age is ending. Because the truth is that it has gotten bad enough that everyone can see the problem. And the happy conservative rhetoric of “freedom” sounds mighty thin today. It doesn’t matter how they massage their rhetoric. The moles are all dying.

H/T: Noah Smith

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The Dangers of Experts in Politics

Ezra KleinThomas Frank is annoyed with Ezra Klein, All These Effing Geniuses: Ezra Klein, Expert-Driven Journalism, and the Phony Washington Consensus. In particular, he has a problem with a recent Klein article, How Political Science Conquered Washington. And I have to admit: Klein’s article is weak. There is much to say about structural factors that affect politics. But there are also major limits.

Frank’s problem is the way that number crunchers often use “hard data” to argue that this or that can’t be done. Frank brought up Nate Cohn’s recent article about how the Democrats can’t take the House back because of natural factors rather than gerrymandering. Cohn’s advice is extremely limited: move to the right or wait for demographic shifts. Frank rightly pointed out that this misses what has really gone on with the Democrats losing rural areas: their shift away from economic populism has allowed the Republicans to gin up cultural resentments to get people to vote for them.

Thomas FrankThe big problem here is that the banner of “science” has a tendency to shut down creative discussion. Cohn looked at the maps and like Estragon announced, “Nothing to be done.” But this is just status quo apologetics. It tends to push out any thoughts that might be bubbling up from real thinkers rather than number crunchers.

Let me give you an example of this that only I seem to have noticed. Political science has shown that at least since World War II, the party that wins the White House is primarily determined by the nation’s economic trend. But as a result of this, people who pay attention (at least on the left) are focused on nominating “safe” candidates who are not going to swamp the economic fundamentals. To me, this means that when elections like 1992 and 2008 come along, Democrats should nominate actual liberals instead of moderate and even conservative candidates like Clinton and Obama. But we don’t get this.

The reasons we don’t get this more radical thinking is that Ezra Klein’s supposed improvement of doing journalism based upon “experts” rather than politicians is no improvement at all. Basically, he’s traded in the politicians for the people the politicians were talking to. And this has the distinct downside of implying a kind of scientific rigor that just isn’t there. There are experts worth listening too. I read Paul Krugman every day. But in a normal world, I would often disagree with him. It is just because the right in this country is so crazy that we still have to fight for intellectual ground that everyone thought was settled forty years ago. But Krugman really is a major creative thinker. And as a result, he too is largely marginalized, even though widely read.

I think the problem is not so much that Washington loves experts. It is rather that there is a kind of affinity fraud going on. Why does Washington continue to listen to Dick Cheney? Because everyone “knows” that he’s a good guy. And he must be smart and knowledgeable. He was the Vice President! Or why do we still hold Bill Clinton in high esteem? He’s the guy that set the policy to allow the mortgage excesses that made the housing bubble so much worse than it normally would have been. But he must be worth talking to because, well, he’s the kind of guy who is worth talking to.

Of course, these aren’t academics. But there are always academics providing the intellectual support for the more public figures. Look at Greg Mankiw. This widely respected economist was for economic stimulus during the Bush administration. But once Obama was in office, he was against stimulus. And then, during Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, when it looked like Romney might be the next president, Mankiw softened his position, getting ready to be completely for it once a Republican was again in the White House.

If political science has revolutionized political journalism, it has been done by the likes of Nate Silver and Sam Wang. But the thing is: neither of them are political scientists. When the actual political scientists at The Monkey Cage put together an election model, it jumped around excessively. If the election turns out to give the Democrats the Senate, it is going to mean that forecasting models that did the best are the ones that paid the least attention to the political science.

Of course, Thomas Frank’s larger criticism is that the experts that Ezra Klein so loves are the ones who for decades have told the Democratic Party to move to the right on economic issues. And they’ve been wrong. The Republicans have done quite well doing exactly the opposite. It is hard not to conclude that the political scientists don’t know much more than anyone. They just have a patina of credibility that actually makes them more dangerous.

Having said all this, I think we can learn a lot from political scientists. But as Sam Wang has noted in election models, a lot of what political scientists think they know is really just noise. It’s important to know what is useful and what is not. But most of all, we shouldn’t forget that political science is fundamentally just history. And we should not use it to limit what we can do politically. That will just keep us moving on the same track that is destroying the middle class, impoverishing the poor, and enriching the rich.


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