We’ve Been Sacrificing for Decades

Frank BruniSteve M at No More Mister Nice Blog writes Is Frank Bruni Now the Worst Op-Ed Columnist at the New York Times? He starts by noting that the competition is fierce: David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Tom Friedman. Frank Bruni has mostly been off my radar, but I do remember he’s annoyed me a few times recently.

Steve M’s problem is that Frank Bruni claims that what we really need to see in Wednesday’s debate is the two candidates talking about the need for sacrifice:

In a few days, as you may have heard, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will go head-to-head in their first presidential debate. What I most want from it isn’t fireworks, though I’m as big a fan of political theater as the next hack. It’s a word, one that has gone sadly out of vogue over recent decades and been mostly absent from this campaign.


And I’m not holding my breath.

Steve M goes on the highlight the hypocrisy of this. As I’ve noted in the past, pundits like Bruni usually believe just what is best for themselves, so this comes as no surprise. Steve M also talks about Bruni’s false equivalence. Again: no surprise. Why would the New York Times make a columnist out of a restaurant critic unless he was also going to spout the nonsense of the elite? I recommend reading Steve M’s whole article.

I would just like to add a bit to the conversation. The poorer 90% of the country have not just sacrificed over the last 4 years. They’ve sacrificed over the last 35 years. These are the years during which productivity has gone way up while workers’ salaries have stagnated. Winner-Take-All Politics presents work by Richistan and Broadland that show that if productivity gains had been shared equally from 1979 through 2006, the bottom 90% would be making roughly $10,000 more per year while those in the top 1% would be making almost $700,000 less.

Note that this doesn’t assume that every person would get the same amount in extra money. It assumes that the people at the top would get their normal (for the post-WWII period) higher share of the rewards of productivity increases. So these numbers go to show just how distorted the economic system has been made through various governmental policies.

I bring this up, because I want people to understand that the suffering and sacrifice of the middle and lower classes have been going on for a long time. They aren’t the result of our current economic troubles, but rather our policies. And we need to do something about that.

We Really Are Number One!

Save the Postal ServiceMatt Yglesias reports on a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research on the quality of mail service in 159 countries. They sent international letters to nonexistent addresses and measured how quickly the letters came back. Many countries have systems that are so dysfunctional that none of them were returned within a year. However, four countries returned all the letters within three months: El Salvador, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, and—wait for it—the United States.

Those three countries are all quite small: the Czech Republic has about 10 million people, El Salvador has 6 million, and Luxembourg—more a city than a country—has half a million. So of all the major countries (I’m talking to you, Germany!) the United States appears to have the most efficient system.

This comes as no surprise to me. The United States Postal Service is fantastic. I often think this is why conservatives want to destroy it. Sure, part of it is wanting to inflate the profits of Federal Express and UPS. But mostly, the USPS is a shining example that their contention that the private sector is always better is just bullshit.

In fact, Yglesias even discusses this point in his article.

What’s interesting here is that good performance is strongly correlated with general indicators of economy-wide management skill. Countries with higher-ranked business schools, better-educated managers as revealed by census data, and high scores on surveys about managerial willingness to delegate and capacity to innovate all do well at delivering the mail. In other words, politics may matter less than you think, and “the government” isn’t that different from the private sector. Well-managed, high-productivity postal services exist in the same place as well-managed, high-productivity private enterprises. Given this, it is also not surprising that they found no difference in efficiency between countries that have government postal monopolies and those that have competitive mail delivery.

Liberals need to stop apologizing for the government. In my experience, most of the government works extremely well. Even the DMV has gotten rather good over the last couple of decades. Conservatives have nothing they can point to and no arguments they can make. Instead, they just spout slogans like, “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Well, two can play at that game.

Conservatives are the problem, not the solution.

And I can back up that claim with argument and data!

“Know Your States” Brought to You by Twitter

TwitterI’ve long thought that Twitter was one of the stupidest ideas in the world. But I had never tried it. I am, after all, not a 160 character kind of guy. But I finally got an account, and it is great.

What I didn’t understand is that twitter is not just a bunch of inane narcissists sending out tweets about what they had for lunch. It is also a bunch of smart narcissists sending out tweets about what they just read. Thus, it makes it much easier for people like me to keep up on what’s happening in the commentariat. It also provides links to some very cool stuff.

Take, for example, this great Know Your States game at Jim’s Pages. In it, you are asked to drag a state onto its correct place on a blank map of America. It’s actually a lot easier than you would think, as you can see from my first score:

Know Your States

The reason it is relatively easy is that you get the outlines of the states. So Maryland is really easy. But Colorado is not. Even still, I think this is an excellent game for learning American geography. It forced me to think through some things. For example, I knew that Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida form a line along the Gulf Coast. But I didn’t know that I knew it until having to think about it for the test. Similarly, this kind of thinking works for the Canadian boarder, the southern east coast, and many other less clearly named regions.

I highly recommend taking the test. In fact, it bears repeated games. After several attempts, I am starting to get a handle on American geography that American elementary school never did.

Update (1 October 2012 12:37 pm)

Brad Plumer claims the game is harder than it looks. He’s wrong.

Incoming: Romney Zingers

ZingersAccording to the New York Times, Romney has been memorizing “zingers” since August. They will be his secret weapon at the debates.

Is this absurd? I don’t know. Ezra Klein tweeted last night, “Who would bet a campaign on Mitt Romney’s sense of comic timing?” The obvious response is: Mitt Romney! This is not a guy who has shown himself to be shrewd in a political sense. His campaign up to now boils down to, “The economy is bad and it is Obama’s fault; look at my strong jaw—it tells you I am the one to fix the economy!” At this point, his campaign (along with most of the conservative establishment) seems to think the problem is that he is not likable enough. Therefore, like a mother might tell her unpopular son, “Tell some jokes. People like jokes.”

There’s a history of this. Remember the 1988 debate between George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis?

Dukakis: He wants to give the wealthiest taxpayers in this country a five-year, $40-billion tax break and he also wants to spend a lot of money on additional programs. If he keeps this up he’s going to be the Joe Isuzu of American politics.

Bush: Is this the time to unleash our one-liners? That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor.

These guys kill me! Who would have thought two politicians could hire such good comedy writers? It’s just hilarious. Wait! I’ve got to wipe the tears from my eyes. Oh, baby!

There is something interesting in that transcript: Bush Sr. wanted to cut taxes on the rich. And then Bush Jr. did the same thing. And now Romney wants to do it. Now that’s funny! I’m sure that Romney will have similar zingers; things like: “I’m going to lower taxes across the board and it will be revenue neutral.” Brilliant! “I’m going to increase military spending and it will be revenue neutral.” Outstanding! “I’m going to raise taxes on those 47% moochers and pay off the debt.” Stop! Stop! You’re killing me!

Unfortunately, I think what the Romney campaign means things like this:

Obama: We need to preserve the mortgage interest deduction.

Romney: Your mama is so fat, when she sits around the house, she sits around the house!

Obama: I support reproductive rights.

Romney: Take Michelle Obama… Please!

Obama: I wouldn’t be a very good president if I didn’t care about 100% of the people, now would I?

Romney: Hair lip![1]

I fear the debate will not be so good.

[1] Some people don’t get this. But it’s brilliant. Really! It is based upon an old joke:

A boy lost his eye. He didn’t have enough money to get a glass eye, so he bought a cheap wooden eye. He was very insecure about this and so almost never went out in public.

Eventually, his best friend got him to come out to a dance. But the man just stood quietly against the wall the whole night. His friend went up to him and pointed to a girl. “Why don’t you ask her to dance?” his friend asked.

“No,” then boy said. “She’ll make fun of my wooden eye.”

“No she won’t,” his friend countered. “She has a hairlip herself.”

So reluctantly, the boy went up to to girl and asked her, “Would you like to dance?”

The girl was thrilled. “Would I?” she exclaimed.

“Hairlip!” the boy said angrily and walked away.