Neuroses of Winnie the Pooh

Pooh and PigletI saw a charming tweet today concerning A. A. Milne’s excellent Winnie the Pooh books. I have a special fondness for those books. When I got my first group of networked computers, I named them after Pooh characters. Also, I think a whole theory of psychological types could be created based upon the characters. In fact, I used them to lampoon a few groups of people.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Untold Secrets tweeted the following over the weekend:

Although I like this very much, there are a number of problems. Most obviously, Kanga and Roo are nowhere to be seen. Of course, I always felt that those two were out of place in a boy’s fantasy world. They are the mother and child archetype and don’t add a great deal. I suppose they are helpful in adding a little stability to the rest of the crazy cast.

My favorite character has always been Piglet because he is a Very Small Animal. I had never particularly though about his anxiety, but undoubtedly that is another reason that I feel close to him. Many people think I’m manic-depressive and maybe I am. But the one thing that really bothers me is anxiety. It’s the one thing that I find debilitating at times.

The writer of the tweet is confused about Rabbit and Owl. Rabbit is the one with OCD. Owl is just a self-absorbed blowhard.

I have no problem with the diagnoses for Eeyore and Tigger. But I do mind the spelling! I suppose I can forgive the Eeyore error, but Tigger spells his own name: T-I-Double Ga-Er. Jeez!

As for Pooh being an addict, that’s right out! There is nothing wrong with Pooh; he is perfectly himself. He’s a bear; bears like Honey. (Tiggers don’t like honey!) The only reason anyone ever has a problem with Pooh is that they aren’t straightforward with him. If you want him to leave before he gets too fat to fit through your rabbit hole, just say so! Although, I admit, I’m more like Rabbit than Pooh in that regard.

What this all makes me think is that we have a tendency to medicalize behavior. All the Pooh characters are just great. If they were “normal” the books would be boring. And if people were normal, life would be boring.

The Utility of John Stuart Mill

John Stuart MillWhat is it about French novelists making a career out of one novel that never ends? I don’t know. But on this day back in 1799, the great Honore de Balzac was born. Collectively called The Human Comedy, in consists of 91 essays, novels, and short stories. But he wasn’t done. It also included 46 unfinished works. People had a lot more time on their hands in those days. I am talking about the readers, of course. Balzac’s output was impressive for his 51 years, but not unheard of. He also wrote plays. At the age of 32, he started an 18 year courtship of Ewelina Hanska. It is one of the most romantic stories of all time. They finally married shortly before his 51st birthday. And then he got sick and died. Just like in one of his novels!

Inventor of the Gramophone record, Emile Berliner was born in 1851. Chess grandmaster Max Euwe was born in 1901. One of my least favorite actors, James Stewart was born in 1908. And co-founded of Hewlett-Packard, William Reddington Hewlett was born in 1913.

My last regular job was at a high tech start-up. Things were going well, but we ran out of money. The founder of the company was desperate. So he made a deal with a group of real estate investors. Soon, the founder was squeezed out and we all watched in awe as these glorified real estate agents took over and began dismantling the product we had spent years creating. This, understandably, led to low morale. I remember the top real estate agent once complained that everyone had gone home for the day. He commented to the beta agent, “No one went home before Hewlett and Packard when that company was starting out!” He was missing a few key points. First, they were both engineers. Second, in the beginning it was only them. Third, they didn’t go around destroying their employees’ work out of ignorance. The arrogance of those guys lives in my mind. From the moment they took over, they showed interest in nothing but asserting authority. And in the end, they got a company that was nothing more than a repackager for other products that doesn’t make money to this day. So much for their dreams of Hewlett-Packard.

Singer Joe Cocker is 69 today. Cher is 67. And comedian Dave Thomas is 64. Here he is as one of his standard characters, Bob Hope:

The day, however, belongs to John Stuart Mill who was born on this day in 1806. What I especially like about Mill is that he combined a passion for liberty and individualism with a practical nature. My problems with libertarianism is not so much the notion but how those who follow it take it to extreme without realizing their hidden assumptions. The truth is that any discussion of individual rights is very messy. There is no such thing as a pure political system, and that is perhaps more true of libertarianism than most other systems. I wish more libertarians would read him and give up the superman-worshiping sub-Nietzschean Ayn Rand.

Happy birthday John Stuart Mill!

What IRS Scandal?

Tea PartyI hate to find myself in the position of being an apologist for the government. But there is an important issue: by focusing on minor and even meaningless stories, we distract from very real issues. We have yet more news about our government’s attempts to keep the public ignorant and intimidate government whistleblowers. But what do we get? More coverage on the Inspector General’s report on the IRS: what did the president know and when did he know it?! Truly, the way the media are dealing with these scandals makes me think that the only training they’re received was a screening of All the President’s Men.

Think about this IRS scandal. Imagine that you were in charge of deciding which 501(c)(4) applications were approved. In order to be approved, the group must be primarily concerned with social welfare. And one year, you get deluged with applications with “Republican” in the names of the groups. “Republicans for Tax Fairness.” And “Republicans Against the Estate Tax.” And “Republicans for Barefoot and Pregnant Women.” You might think, maybe I should pay a little extra attention to these “Republican” groups.

As I wrote in Tea Party Myth, there is no Tea Party. There is just the Republican base that has managed to get the entire media system to accept its branding as though it were something distinct from the Republican Party. Everyone knows that the Democratic Party has a left wing. But no one goes around calling it the “Progressive Party.” Because that would be wrong: it isn’t the Progressive Party; it is the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Just the same, there is no Tea Party, there is just the Republican Party. (It isn’t the conservative wing; the Republican Party is the Tea Party.)

So until I get far more information on the IRS scandal, I’m assuming there is nothing there. As Norm Scheiber brilliantly noted, “The only real sin the IRS committed in its ostensible targeting of conservatives is the sin of political incorrectness—that is, of not pretending it needed to vet all the new groups that wanted tax-exempt status, even though it mostly just needed to vet right-wing groups.” It is certainly possible that these IRS agents were thinking, “Let’s get those conservatives!” But it seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, there is no surveillance scandal. That’s because the Democrats and Republicans are on the same side. There are no Republican operatives to funnel Jonathan Karl misinformation against the president. Since both parties want to ship the Constitution down the river, the Fourth Estate will just allow it. After all, pushing back would require real investigation. And all these bozos know about that is what they learned watching Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

Afterword

There is a bit of a paradox. Supposedly, a group with “tea party” in its name isn’t necessarily just a conservative political group. If that’s the case—if Tea Party groups really do have Democrats and Republicans—then they aren’t conservative groups. Thus, the IRS wasn’t targeting “conservative” groups. On the other hand, if groups with “tea party” in their names are in general conservative political groups, then they shouldn’t be applying for 501(c)(4) status. I’m sure the IRS agents must have confronted this paradox.

Morality, Economics, and Car Repair

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman recently wrote an excellent article over at the New York Review of Books, How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled. It is ostensibly a review of three books: The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire by Neil Irwin; Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth; and The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America by David A. Stockman. Mostly, however, it is a discussion of how economic austerity has been embraced by leaders the world over because it fits into the human desire for a morality narrative.

I don’t completely accept this, however. And to be fair, neither does Krugman, although he does more than I do. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, there were lots of people we could point fingers at. But the initial governmental response to the crisis was to save exactly those people who were most guilty. Then, once the crisis was over but we were in a recession, the moral judgments came. But they came in a bizarre way. Now the crisis and recession were a morality play. The bad guys (bankers, for lack of a better term) crashed the economy and someone had to pay. And who was that? People on the edges of the economy who lost their jobs. That’s not any episode I ever saw of Family Ties.

Krugman is right: we see this narrative (lacking the details that make it laughable) all the time. As “liberal” Michael Kinsley recently wrote:

I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be.

What I think is so vile about such pronouncements is how they are proffered with a sagacious air. They always claim that we must share the pain, but if you look closely, you will see that it is never them or their friends who will be feeling the pain.

But even if the right people were being punished, would that make it right? Keynes famously said that a depression was like a car with a bad starter. I think that’s a good analogy. Imagine if you had an old car and the fuel pump was screwed up, causing the carburetor to get too much fuel. As a result, the car ran like hell. You would fix the car, right? You wouldn’t tell your mechanic to set the fuel system to get too little fuel to the carburetor because it had to pay a price for its past sins of getting too much fuel. That’s because you want your car to run well; your car’s fuel system is not a morality play.

The same thing is true of the economy. It is a system. When it is in a recession, it works badly. People who could be working to make everyone richer, sit idle. Lives are destroyed while people are not allowed to work. This isn’t like a farmer who ate too much of last year’s crop and so this year is working extra land to make up for it. Applying a moralistic narrative to our economy is as bad as applying it to the fuel system of your car. And it is about as effective.

Afterword

This is not to say that bad actors in the economy shouldn’t be punished. However, most of the bad acts are not against the law because the people who make the laws and the people who take advantage of them are the same. It’s interesting that economists (especially conservative ones) are always talking about moral hazard: “A situation where a party will have a tendency to take risks because the costs that could incur will not be felt by the party taking the risk.” But this is always applied to the little guy. For example, the moral hazard of allowing someone to not get health insurance until they are sick. But there is an enormous moral hazard in not punishing people for crashing the economy. As is often noted, we socialize risk and privatize profits. There can be no greater moral hazard, but apparently, we don’t have to worry about it, because bankers are “good” people who we can “trust.”

Of Course Republicans Don’t Care About Budget

Jamelle BouieOver at The Plum Line, Jamelle Bouie argued that we’ve already gotten a Grand Bargain. He noted that the combination of the 2011 Budget Control Act, the Fiscal Cliff deal, and the Sequester accomplished what the Grand Bargain was supposed to do. He went further and argued that since the Republicans are still planning to extract spending cuts for raising the Debt Ceiling, it means that they never cared about the budget deficit. Instead, they just want to to “gut” the safety net. (That’s his mixed metaphor; don’t blame me.)

Well, kind of. It’s true that Republicans don’t care about the deficit. And they haven’t since Reagan. And they do want to destroy the safety net. But that is just part of their overall revolutionary politics where they obstruct all progress unless they get everything they want. According to Lori Montgomery at the Washington Post, one House Republican wants to use the Debt Ceiling to make late term abortions illegal. If the Republican Party weren’t so dangerous, it would be laughable.

But let’s not lose sight of what’s been going on with the Grand Bargain the last several years. It is Obama’s obsession. He’s the one who wants to be applauded for making the “tough” decisions like cutting Social Security and Medicare. The Republicans are too smart for that. The oh so Serious Paul Ryan has never been willing to cut Medicare for current beneficiaries or Social Security ever. Republicans certainly want to screw the poor, but they know who is voting for them: old and rich people. Democrats like Obama and Bill Clinton seem to care more about some vague idea of history than they do their base of voters. Remember in 2001 that in the name of being the Adult in the Room, Obama gave Boehner 98% of what he wanted.

I’m not sure what the Republicans are thinking about the Debt Ceiling. I tend to think that the Republicans really will blink when it comes down to it. They understand politics and will not destroy themselves on purpose. What most concerns me about this is how Obama will react. If we get down to one day before breaching the Debt Ceiling, I can easily see Obama placing panicked calls to Boehner and McConnell. At that point, he would offer anything. Block grant Medicaid? Fine! Tax cuts for the rich? Great! Ban all abortions? Fantastic! Just don’t crash our whole economy!

I’ve long argued that the modern revolutionary Republican Party is the fault of the Democrats—especially the New Democrats. Instead of standing firm for liberal values, they’ve moved ever closer to the Republicans on economic issues. It’s as though they think that if they just get a bit more conservative then we can all just get along. Of course, for each step the Democrats take to the right, the Republicans take two steps to the right. And that leads to Democratic politicians like Obama who call out to the media, “See?! I’m being reasonable and they’re not!” And the media just shrug, “Yeah, but you still aren’t reaching a compromise.”

I’m sure that history will be nicer to Obama than to the Republican opposition. But he won’t be held up as an FDR or a transcendent figure. I suspect he will be seen as naive. No reasonable person could believe that the Republicans really care the debt or the size of government. Of course, very few of the elites in the media and politics are reasonable people.