Talking Puppets

George the PuppetLast night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, Wyatt Cenac, and John Oliver became Muppets for a segment. They were discussing Mitt Romney’s surprise announcement that he would talk about one way in which he would cut the federal budget: defund PBS. (It’s funny how concerned conservatives get about the smallest budget items when they just happen to be things they want to kill anyway.)

It was very funny. However, there was a problem.

Go ahead; I want to know if you see it:

Pretty obvious, right?

Okay, it’s not! I’m a pedant and a puppeteer. And the one thing that drives me crazy is getting my puppets to speak like regular people. And the critical element to this is moving the puppet’s jaw down rather than its head up. Give it a try with your own head: try to talk by moving your head back rather than moving your jaw down. It doesn’t work, does it?

Once you notice this, watching bad puppetry will drive you crazy! Well, maybe not. But go back and look at the video. Two of those puppets are not like the other. Can you spot it? It’s John Oliver.

Why is this? It probably isn’t that Stewart and Cenac are gifted puppeteers. More likely, it is that the John Oliver puppet isn’t well made. This is one of the most annoying aspects of being an amateur puppeteer: I can’t afford good puppets and I can’t make any puppets. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love George, who is pictured above.

Woodward Hates Obama—For Now

The Price of PoliticsNoam Scheiber at The New Republic has a really good review of Bob Woodward’s new book, The Backscratcher—Bob Woodward’s Anti-Obama Bias. More than just a review of The Price of Politics, it is a good refresher on the debt ceiling debacle, which has made me rethink my harsh criticism of Obama. But mostly, the article is about Bob Woodward’s bias against President Obama.

Scheiber puts forward two aspects of Woodward that make the bias contradictory. First, Woodward is a typical elite boot-licker who “reflexively flatters the powerful.” There is no doubt about that! But Scheiber claims that Woodward is against the current most powerful man in the world because of a particular attitude of Woodward’s class:

But, in another sense, the book is perfectly in sync with Woodward’s oeuvre. There is a body of respectable Washington opinion that considers Obama unworthy of the presidency: he hadn’t put in his time before running, didn’t grasp the majesty of the office, evinced no respect for the way things were done. He not only won without courting the city’s elders, he had the bad manners to keep his distance even after winning. This is the view Woodward distills.

There is little doubt of this, but I have a different take that compliments it: Wordward follows public opinion.

This is base upon the “Bush at War” triology. The first, Bush at War made Bush out to be a great leader—Dwight Eisenhower or even George Washington. The next, Plan of Attack was slightly critical, but still mostly adulatory. And the third, State of Denial was quite critical. This just happens to have been the way that America felt about Bush.

I haven’t read much of Woodward’s books since All the President’s Men. What I have read—even his non-political writing such as the insipid Wired—has been standard, middlebrow fair. So of course what we get on the second half of Obama’s term is the typical upper middle class complaints that Obama is just sorta missing something; we don’t know quite what it is; but we’re sure it isn’t that he’s black. (Not that Woodward would ever go anywhere near the race question.)

I’ve long wondered about the comparisons that people naturally make between Woodward and Carl Bernstein. These arguments usually go something like, “Isn’t it amazing that Bernstein hasn’t had much of a career but Woodward has become a titan of political reporting.” I don’t accept this. It’s true that Woodward has this position. But it is because he panders to a particular class of Washington insider. He is the towering figure he is because he does not threatened the elite. Bernstein has had a respectable career with some minor successes that did ruffle feathers. Woodward is only willing to ruffle the feathers of dead birds like William Casey.

And so, it is not surprising that Woodward would go after Obama. And what will happen if Obama wins reelection and the economy recovers? Woodward will write a hagiography of Obama.

IMF Vs. Austerions

Everybody—in the sense of “economic geeks”—is buzzing about the IMF World Economic Outlook report (PDF). In it, they explain that they’ve been underestimating the economic multiplier effect.

Don’t click away! Really: this is interesting, and simple, and important. I promise you! Just give me one paragraph to explain.

Let’s suppose that the government decides to spend $100 million on starting a new program. This money will be paid out in salaries (it doesn’t matter and this makes it simpler). Let’s assume that 80% of this money earned is spent. Thus, just at this second level, $100 million spent results in $180 million dollars in economic activity. Of course, this continues on for an endless number of levels because that $80 million will be earned by others who will spend it and so on. This is the economic multiplier effect.

There are two aspects of underestimating the economic multiplier. First, it means that the positive effects of government spending are underestimated. Second, it means that the negative effects of government cuts are also underestimated.

So by noting that they’ve been underestimating the economic multiplier, the IMF is doing a Rick Perry, “Oops!” Traditionally the IMF has pushed countries to take on governmental austerity. This is what Paul Krugman refers to as belief in the Confidence Fairy. But over the last decade, the IMF has started to push the idea that maybe the Confidence Fairy doesn’t exist and that austerity is not the panacea that had been claimed.

This is an important reason why all of the austerity in Europe has been such a bust and why the United States (with much less austerity) is doing better. Unfortunately, the European Central Bank (and the whole of the Republican Party and much of the Democratic Party as well) hang on to the idea that it is only through austerity that we will flourish. This is the idea that is behind Romney’s statements that governments don’t create jobs and Ryan’s assertion that the stimulus is just a temporary “sugar high.”

It is good that the IMF is now on the right side of the facts and pushing for more expensive fiscal and monetary policy. Of course, it won’t really help. If facts mattered to the austerians, they would not—after 4 years of failed policy—continue to be austerians.