On this day in 1726, the father of modern geology, James Hutton was born. He proposed the idea that the surface of the earth was slowed formed by processes such as erosion and sedimentation. I never think of geology as an especially theoretical subject. This undoubtedly is based not on any great understanding of the subject but the fact that when I was in school, the geology students were all so fit and tanned and always going on geology camping trips. I extrapolated based upon that. But Hutton figure out how the earth works primarily based upon theory. In addition to his many accomplishments, he is the first person to propose what came to be known as the Gaia Hypothosis.
Opera composer Antonio Sacchini was born in 1730. Here is a bit from his opera L’isola d’amore. Have you noticed how opera singers (female and male) have gotten, well, very attractive? Or more simply: sexy. This woman could use a couple of pounds, but she has really great legs. And she can sing. I’m not too fond of the choreography, but the rest is impressive:
Uncle Tom creator Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in 1811. Publisher and original author of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, John Bartlett was born in 1820. I have a 1944 edition of the book always close by. It is extremely well organized. But I have to say: it doesn’t usually have the quotations that I’m looking for. It really is necessary to have a more up to date copy since sayings go in and out of vogue.
Two real fucktards are having birthdays today: Donald Trump is 67 and Pamela Geller is 55. And Boy George is 52. I don’t have many thoughts either way about Boy George, but for some reason, I read his autobiography.
The day however, belongs to the great musician Junior Walker who was born on this day back in 1931. I’ve really loved his music over the years. I’m sure you’ve heard this classic:
Happy birthday Junior Walker! You are sorely missed.
Speaking of enfant terrible, Josh Barro’s counterpart on the left is Matt Yglesias. (It says much about our screwed up political system that these guys largely agree on policy matters.) Today, Yglesias wrote an apologia of sorts for the contention of the European Union elite that Ireland is some kind of economic success story. It isn’t that Yglesias himself thinks that Ireland is a success but he is putting forward a defense of how these people can possibly think that Ireland, with a 13.5% unemployment rate, is a “success.”
Basically, the argument comes down to this: “Ireland is doing a lot better than Spain!” I have a word for that argument: pathetic. But Yglesias pushed it. He rightly noted that since 2011, Irish unemployment has gone down a tad whereas Spain has seen its unemployment rate go up by 5 percentage points. But this is where he went wrong, I think. He blamed the rise in unemployment on the Spaniards’ “many iterations of protest marches, strikes, and even riots.” In contrast, the Irish, although they too hate austerity, have been “good soldiers.” This is absurd! First, he presented no argument at all to indicate that the strikes are the reason for the increased unemployment. Nor is it at all clear that the Irish would not also riot if their unemployment rate were to double.
Yglesias even implicitly makes this argument. He showed that Iceland’s economy is doing even better than Ireland. Whereas Ireland only saw its unemployment rate go down starting in 2012, Iceland’s has been steadily decreasing since mid-2010. There are a number of reasons for this, in particular the fact that Iceland has its own currency and that they let banks fail rather than propping them up like they were “supposed” to do. And yes, he’s right that Spain and Ireland are both in a bad situation because they don’t have their own currencies. But he’s dead wrong to suggest that the difference between austerity being marginally successful and being a total catastrophe is how well behaved the populace is.
It’s this kind of very theoretical, too smart by half writing that is most annoying about Yglesias and Barro. They both seem far too caught up in their own clever notions about policy to care about the actual human lives that are harmed. In Yglesias’ article, he blames the Spanish workers whose lives have been destroyed for the fact that austerity continues not to work. This strikes me as typical of war apologia (although far more understandable). It is shocking, but there are many who claim that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was well worth the at least 100,000 Iraqi deaths. Regardless of how much one may have wanted to get rid of Hussein, that is too high a price to pay. The best I can say is that such people have become disconnected from their fellow humans. And I’m afraid that is especially easy when looking at something as theoretical as economics.
I admire both Yglesias and Barro. I wish I didn’t have to say that. Most of the time I write about them, it is to present an interesting idea or perspective. But that doesn’t stop me from being annoyed with them. What makes them great is also what makes them annoying. The late 20s and easy 30s are a hard time for intellectuals. I understand. That was when I was a bleeding heart libertarian. And I have long admitted that part of my dislike of Barro is that he reminds me of myself at that age, even if he is smarter. (And that is a question; until anyone beats me at a differential equation solving competition, I concede nothing!)
I can see why Republicans increasingly don’t see enfant terrible Josh Barro as a conservative. He will go on! Yesterday at Business Insider, he wrote, There Is Still No Conservative, Pro-Middle Class Agenda. It is primarily an attack on Utah Senator Mike Lee, but Barro is quite clear that he means it to be a more broad attack on the Republican party and even the conservative movement itself. He wrote, “But as is typical for Republicans, the key focus of legislation Lee supports isn’t reform—it’s cutting spending on entitlements in order to make space in the budget for tax cuts.” Although I completely agree, I know the counter argument, “But those tax cuts will spur the economy and all the poor will have good paying jobs!” There seems to be no amount of evidence and argument that can convince conservatives that this isn’t so.
This all raises a question in my mind. It is a personal question ever since Barro called me dumb for writing that he is a conservative apologist. The question is this: why is Barro a conservative? Liberals and Democrats want efficient infrastructure spending. It was the Democratic Party that changed “welfare as we know it.” And it was Democrats who enacted a “free market” reform of healthcare. Why is it that Barro wants to reform the Republican Party when it looks to me like what he really thinks it ought to become is the modern Democratic Party? (I’m all for that, by the way; the problem with the Republican Party is that the Democratic Party has moved much too far to the right.)
For the record, I don’t believe that Barro understood my article because he completely mischaracterized it. I wasn’t saying that he was wrong for wanting infrastructure projects to be efficient. I said he was being a Republican apologist for using reasonable arguments to justify others’ ideological decisions. I did and still do expect more from Barro, who I may disagree with but still think is brilliant.
Last week, Dean Baker wrote an article for the Huffington Post in which he discussed Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for making student loans more affordable. He said at first he didn’t like the plan because it wasn’t transparent and would certainly lead to the money being used in unintended ways like rich kids taking out loans to invest in the stock market. But then he realized something important, “Somehow sound economics are only important in discussions of policies that are intended to help the poor or middle class.”
Think about this with regards to infrastructure projects. Any actual project is going to have waste or at least things that some people will call waste. As a commentator, one can either argue for the project or against the project. But the argument cannot be simply that there is a lot of waste. Is the waste a reasonable trade off for the good? What’s more, when someone like Josh Barro argues that a transit project is too expensive or isn’t needed quite yet, he isn’t making the case for a more efficient or later project. As a practical matter, his arguments will be used to kill such projects.
Since Barro’s thinking is far more in line with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, I don’t see why he doesn’t come on over. And I’m not sure that even he knows. One thing he doesn’t seem to appreciate is the great favor that much of his writing does for those pushing policies he disagrees with.
Many will be surprised, but those who read me closely will know that I have a certain fondness for Rick Santorum. Yes, his conservative Catholicism is ridiculous. And generally his policy positions are terrible. But his economic rhetoric is quite compelling. He has a strong populist streak in him—and it is real, not like the pretend populism of so much of the conservative movement. As I recall, his grandfather was a coal miner, and regardless, he comes from the working class and values it.
Yesterday, Santorum spoke at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference. And he attacked the Romney campaign’s use of the “you didn’t build that” meme. He said that it was wrong to put only business owner up on the stage at the Republican National Convention to counter it. “One after another, they talked about the business they had built. But not a single—not a single—factory worker went out there. Not a single janitor, waitress or person who worked in that company! We didn’t care about them. You know what? They built that company too! And we should have had them on that stage.” Damn right!
There are a couple of problems, however. First, of course, is that the “you didn’t build that” meme was always trumped up nonsense. Obama was talking about the public infrastructure that makes business possible. It was a mistake to try to make the comment into something that it was not. The public never accepted the narrative that Obama was against business for one very simple reason: Obama is not against business. In fact, he is arguably the most pro-business president we’ve ever had.
The other problem is that Santorum is being charmingly naive if he really believes that the conservative movement has any room in it for labor. As I’ve written about with regard to libertarians, conservatives simply idolize the Businessman. They see the worker at best as a kind of necessarily evil. Sometimes their rhetoric tries to appeal to labor. But after Reagan, I think that labor has learned its lesson.
Santorum, unlike Reagan, I think actually does value labor. I think he is fundamentally a decent guy who is looking for ways to contextualize his conservative ideology so that he isn’t a horrible person. And he is quite correct to try to introduce the importance of labor into the conservative narrative—hopeless though I think that effort is. Because regardless of the conservative love for the Romantic notion of the Job Creator—symbolized by the half-dimensional John Galt—labor is far more important to business success than capital. Labor can exist without capital; and without a large group of buyers there would be no point to capital investment. So Santorum should be applauded for his rhetorical efforts on the part of labor. There are a lot of Democrats I know who could learn a thing or two from him.