Vive la Resistance!

Jean Moulin

The Egyptian Caliph Ali az-Zahir was born on this day in 1005. And he died just shy of 31 years later. What I think is interesting about him is how one can take a ruler that young seriously. That’s not to say you can’t be an idiot at an older age. Just look at the United States Congress. Or Rick Perry. But can someone that young be wise? I just don’t think so. And don’t bring up Jesus, because even if you belief in that man who is now at best 90% myth, you must know that we don’t really have any idea how old he was. And regardless, according to those who study this stuff, Jesus only started his ministry in his late 20s. Ali az-Zahir ended his rule before his 31st birthday. Anyway, kids are even worse with power than adults. See, for example, Cambodia.

The French sculptor Jacques Saly was born in 1717. The Swedish Classical composer Joseph Martin Kraus was born in 1756. Here is the St-Petersburg Capella Chamber Orchestra doing the third movement of his Symphony in E-Flat Major:

And another composer, Jacques Offenbach was born in 1819. Here is the Berliner Philharmoniker performing the Barcarole from Les Contes d’Hoffmann, which I’m sure you’ve heard before:

French post-Impressionist Georges Dufrenoy was born in 1870. I really don’t think much of his work, but I guess he was talented enough. The great playwright and the only one who ever really loved Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman was born in 1905. Swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn was born in 1909. And Chet Atkins was born in 1924.

Martin Landau is 85 today, and he looks great. Olympia Dukakis is 82. Director Stephen Frears is 72. The greatest Beach Boy, Brian Wilson is 71. Singer Anne Murray is 68. Lionel Richie is 64. John Goodman is 61. Nicole Kidman is 46. I think she’s beautiful, but I have this feeling Andrea could set me straight and explain how she is, in fact, odd looking. And director Robert Rodriguez is 45.

The day, however, belongs to Jean Moulin, an extremely important figure in the French Resistance. But he is perhaps best known for being ratted out to the Gestapo. He was effectively tortured to death and yet he never betrayed the cause or anyone in it. Before the war, he was an important socialist activist and politician. He was also helpful in providing supplies to the Republicans fighting against the fascists in Spain.

Happy birthday Jean Moulin!

Liberals Do NOT like Spurs

Matt YglesiasSo I’m minding my own business, waiting for the final Spurs-Heat game, trying to get a little work done to make up for the fact that I got so little done earlier today. And then a tweet pops up from the brilliant but slappable Matt Yglesias. I’m always amazed by these young political nerds who claim to care about professional sports. Chris Hayes is a basketball fan? Josh Barro’s into hockey? Ezra Klein cares about football? (Note: I made up all those; I don’t pay attention to their stupid sports tweets!) But Yglesias’ tweet showed what really matters to these guys:

That’s right. Let’s just call it wonkball and move on.

I’m not a big basketball fan. But I do at least understand the game and, as far as I can tell, appreciate it more than most fans. I really don’t care who wins. But that stat was interesting, and regardless, I always find math more interesting than sports. It turns out, however, that Yglesias is being slightly deceptive. Or anyway, he is trying to be smart so that no one else needs to be. The problem is that although Yglesias is a very smart young man, his math is a little wanting. Here are the raw (Rawish?) data:

Spurs-Heat Preferences

So you can see that moderates only prefer the Heat in the sense that they prefer them them more than people do overall. But note: that’s also true of the liberals. They prefer the Heat just slightly more than the base does. This is almost certainly not statistically significant. But it shows that Yglesias is wrong about liberals and conservatives preferring the Spurs. And this is a shame because I had a theory as to why that was: conservatives like the Spurs because they are from Texas, liberals like the Spurs because they are the underdog, and moderates like the Heat because they’ve heard of LeBron James. But it turns out that it’s just that no one but conservatives like Texas.

Farm Bill: Perfect Republican Policy

SNAPThe first thing you need to know about the farm bill is that the only reason that it failed in the House was that some of the Republicans didn’t think it was horrible enough. So don’t get the idea that its failure was some kind of indication that the House conservatives were evolving hearts. Taking more than $2 billion per year in food away from poor people just wasn’t enough. If some Republicans are to do their jobs, there much be much more suffering!

For the last many decades, the Farm Bill has been a kind of coalition thing. As the number and extent of farmers diminished, there just wasn’t enough political power to keep those farm subsidies going. But poor people are an everyday and everywhere kind of thing here in the United States. And they need to eat. And farmers need to sell their food. So it was a great deal. Provide farmers with help and provide programs like food stamps (SNAP) and lunch programs. (Note: the farm bill is much more than this, but that’s all I’m going to talk about now.)

The fact that the modern Republican party doesn’t understand these ideas should not be at all surprising. They have a two pronged attack to any question. First, help the rich. Second, screw the poor. And the farm bill was a great opportunity to do both. Matt Yglesias provided the following graph this morning before the House voted down their bill:

Farm Household Income

Note that farmers are doing better than the country as a whole. What’s more, the fact that this graph lists mean and not median values probably reduces the relative differences. Needless to say, the poor who are getting their food stamps cut are doing much worse than the average. So once again, the conservatives are going after chump change that is spent on the poor while ignoring large amounts of money going to the affluent (or at least more affluent). In other words: the perfect Republican bill!

I still hope that somehow Congress will work this all out. The level of villainy and just plain ignorance that is demonstrated by the House Republican caucus is overwhelming. When will they pay for all the harm they are doing?

Bernanke’s Stupid and Dangerous Move

Ben BernankePaul Krugman wrote a good article on his blog this morning. It is about all of this talk of tapering the Fed’s quantitative easing (QE) program. All this week I’ve been wondering what the hell is up with Bernanke. Whatever happened to keeping interest rates low until at least the end of 2014? Whatever happened to the concerns about dangerously love inflation? Is Bernanke seeing something in the economy that the rest of us have missed?

Of course the answer is no. The number one problem with the Federal Reserve is that it is run by a bunch of people who are completely divorced from the real economy. Yes, it is true that corporate profits are great. Wall Street is doing great. Bankers are rolling in money. There never was a better time to be rich. But the rest of us are hardly doing well. Here is the employment to population ration from late last year. It hasn’t gotten any better over the last year:

Employment to Population - Krugman Weighted - Plus Normal added by FC

The biggest tool that the Fed has is useless: it can’t lower interest rates because they are already effectively at zero. As Krugman noted, that basically leaves one tool: expectations. The Fed could indicate that it will maintain a loose money policy until the economy is well into recovery. But this recent discussion destroys this tool as well. The Fed has effectively proclaimed to the world that the slightest indication of a recovery will cause them to clamp down. God forbid that we have even a tiny amount of inflation which might harm the power elite.

Not only is this a very bad policy for now, but what will the Fed do if our feeble recovery slows or even reverses? Krugman explained the problem:

So what if recovery stalls, and inflation expectations fall even further? Can the Fed turn on a dime, and send a credible message that it really isn’t so conventional-minded, after all? It’s hard to believe; having already shown itself inclined to start snatching away the punch bowl before the party even starts, it has arguably already given away the game.

In general, the Federal Reserve is a good thing for everyone. It provides stability in the economy. But its laser focus on keeping inflation absurdly low is only done to help the rich. In my opinion, it should not target an inflation rate of 2%. That’s ridiculous! That’s a rate designed only to please the rentier class. It should be targeting 3% or perhaps 4%. Instead, it targets this absurdly low inflation rate and doesn’t seem to care at all what the unemployment rate is. As Matt Yglesias brilliantly asked last year, “If the unemployment and inflation rates were reversed, would the Fed do something about it?” But as long as Bernanke and all his power elite friends are doing well, then everything is a-okay.

Update (21 June 2013 8:26 am)

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis put out a press release this morning. President James Bullard dissented from the FOMC’s Wednesday decision. It stated, “President Bullard believes that to maintain credibility, the Committee must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.” The funny thing is that Bullard is no liberal. He believes in that 2% inflation target. It is just that this stuff is simple: lower inflation is only good up to the point. If you are going to target an inflation rate that is this low, then low inflation is as bad as high. The Fed is acting irresponsibly and not in the public interest.

Dodd-Frank and the AR-15 Movie Ban

Jobs CrisisI was just imagining what would happen if the government decided that violence in film had a really pernicious effect on society. Congress would get to work on a bill and outlawed on-screen shooting deaths. But while they were working on the bill, the lobbyists from Hollywood came in and argued for limitations on the bill. And that’s only right. All people should be able to petition Congress for redress of grievances. And after two months, Congress had a new anti-violence in film law—with the help of the Hollywood lobbyists. It states that no one can be killed with a gun on screen if the bullet used is a 223 Rem. The sponsors of the bill would do a media tour. A few people on the left would complain that the bill is useless because it has a huge loophole (every gun that does not use 223 Rem bullets). Everyone on the right would complain that that freedom is over; dirges would be played. But the mainstream press would hail the bill as perhaps less than perfect but at least something good. Democracy!

A couple of years later, a few mainstream commentators would notice that the bill didn’t seem to do much good. All the filmmakers did was substitute SKSs for AR-15 because the SKS uses 7.62 rounds. It did have the effect of popularizing the SKS and hurt sales of the AR-15, but if anything there were more on screen shooting deaths in the movies. Few would go all the way and admit the obvious: that we don’t live in a democracy—that we live in a dictatorship of the corporation. But most people would know that was the case. It would be obvious. We all see films. We understand what it means for someone to die on screen by being shot.

That imagining may seem fanciful, but that is pretty much what we got with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. After the banks helped to inflate a dangerous housing bubble and then almost destroyed themselves in the resulting fallout, we got a bill that was mostly cosmetic. What was most important was that we got a bill with so many loopholes and carve-outs that the finance industry has had little trouble doing exactly what they want to. Sure, there are some minor inconveniences on the order of having to use an SKS in a film when you really wanted an AR-15. But otherwise, it’s no big deal.

What’s interesting is that we got this law that was far less than the least one would have thought possible when the banking crisis was going on when the Democrats were in control. And that goes right along with my theory of modern American politics. The Democrats will in general not make things a lot worse, but they won’t do anything that makes things substantially better. In general, they will create bills that are hyper-complicated to both please their various constituencies (mollify the masses but don’t harm the elites) and to try to get the Republicans to support them—which they never do.

It is very likely that Congress would never enact such a stupid law regarding violence in film. It would be too clear to the people that it was nonsense. But when it comes to arcane matters like finance, they are free to do so. It’s not just that the people generally don’t understand this stuff—the people in Congress themselves don’t understand it. And so we get what we’ve come to expect of our elected officials: laws that look like they are doing something without, you know, really doing something. At least that’s the case when it comes to constraining the excesses of the power elite. Who knew when the song said “the land of the free” it wasn’t referring to us all?

Afterword

There is one thing that Dodd-Frank has done for me: it has given my bank an excuse for getting rid of free checking.