Hip Reporter Tells Powerful What They Want to Hear

Matt YglesiasAh, the education of young people: there is nothing quite so edifying! I love watching as the light of understand burst into their brains destroying the dark ignorance that they had previously mistook for wisdom. And that is especially true when the young person is brilliant, because their dark ignorance was especially elaborate. It is nice to watch it burn. That stuff is notoriously flammable.

Last Friday, Matt Yglesias wrote, Ooops! Foreign Trade Has Immiserated US Workers After All. As he explains, the standard economic argument for “creative destruction” is while some workers will lose their jobs, workers overall will get better jobs with increased access to cheap goods. So the world is flat and we should get out on the streets with Thomas Friedman to tell the world that it is a Good Thing.

Now look: I understand. Yglesias is being a bit ironic because (I assume) he always thought this idea was largely bullshit. But he is very much the kind of “free market” liberal who does believe this kind of nonsense. The problem is that Yglesias’ opinions are based on idealized policy. But we don’t get idealized policy in the real world. In fact, we generally get something like the opposite of idealized policy in the real world.

Yglesias’ insight is based upon a paper by Michael Elsby, Bart Hobijn, and Aysegul Sahin, The Decline of the US Labor Share (pdf). It is beyond my pay grade, but there are a number of reasons that make the economic system behave in ways that are suboptimal. Just on the simplest level, the world is not flat. All the good paying manufacturing jobs get shipped overseas because workers in America are put in direct competition with workers in Asia. But these workers don’t see reduced medical costs because doctors are protected from competition. So it isn’t even a question of workers versus business; it is question of rich versus poor. If a policy is good for the rich, the government enacts it; if it is bad for the rich, they don’t.

Of course, there are plenty of ways in which government policy puts business interests ahead of that of workers. The point is that intellectuals like Matt Yglesias gravitate by default toward idealized systems. It reminds me of a recent article where Dean Baker caught himself being against Elizabeth Warren’s idea of giving students the same loan rates that the Federal Reserve gives to banks. At first, Baker was against the idea because it has many problems. But then he realized, “Somehow sound economics are only important in discussions of policies that are intended to help the poor or middle class.”

That’s the problem. It is easy to assume the best when we are talking about policies that help the rich. The obviousness of the current situation is clear to Yglesias, “Now go to a rust belt town with this finding, and people are going to say: “That’s news?! What the heck is wrong with you economists?!?!” But when it came to seeing things this obvious way that wouldn’t help the interest of the rich, we had to have a major study. If there had been such an obvious explanation that helped business interests, it would have been accepted until a major study disproved it.

I don’t mean to make Matt Yglesias out to be a bad guy here. He isn’t a bad guy. But he is part of a press system that has defined the hip and cool position to be the one that tells unpleasant truth to the weak. There’s nothing hip or cool about that. Telling the powerful what they want to hear already has a job title, “Political hack.”

How GOP Loses Shutdown Fight

Jonathan BernsteinJonathan Bernstein wrote a really great article over at The American Prospect, The Day After Shutdown. Although he doesn’t think there will be a shutdown, he has put together an overview of how a shutdown would get resolved. Based upon it, I can see why he doesn’t think a shutdown will happen. The whole thing seems pretty straight forward. So you have to wonder why the Republicans would allow it. There is one very good reason, however: there is too much power in the House Republican caucus vested in inexperienced legislators who don’t know what they are doing. In that case, this will be a learning opportunity.

The beginning of it is obvious. Parts of the government will shutdown and this will anger people who will complain to our representatives in Washington. This will cause Congress to at least try to put together some limited fixes—you know, things like the air traffic controller fix to the Sequester (can’t allow the rich to suffer). And the partisan press will blame the other side.

The whole thing gets interesting when the mainstream press gets involved. Bernstein argues that they will come down on the side of the Democrats. This isn’t because the mainstream press is liberal. (In part, that’s because they aren’t.) As he correctly notes, the main way that the press is biased is toward the status quo. Thus, they will not see a government shutdown as a good thing—especially when it is done for an unprecedented reason: to defund one bit of legislation that they don’t have the votes to repeal in the normal democratic way.

He adds a very important footnote:

Moreover: There’s a chance that one or more House or Senate Republicans will say something to reinforce that sense. Indeed, there’s simply an excellent chance that one or more Republican politicians will say something really foolish in the middle of the fight; that’s been the record of Republican politicians over the last few years, but during a shutdown more people will be paying attention.

As the media goes, so goes the public and this will lead the parties to the bargaining table. What the final deals is, is uncertain. It will depend upon which side is the more desperate, but that will most likely be the Republicans. As Bernstein says, “[The deal] probably won’t even be as good for Republicans as whatever their best deal would have been before a shutdown, and it might even be better than the status quo for Democrats.”

Assuming that Obamacare is not defunded, the Democrats will win this fight. The Republicans set it up that way. If they had said they wanted a trillion dollars cut from the budget and ended up with a hundred billion, they could claim victory. But defunding Obamacare is all or nothing. They’ve argued that Obamacare is such a big threat to freedom in America that it must be stopped. That doesn’t allow for any compromise. In the end, I think they will look both weak and incompetent. That’s very bad for them.

Bernstein explains where that leaves the Republican Party: nowhere.

Meanwhile, don’t expect a “break the fever” reaction from Republicans in which the party suddenly wises up and stops listening to the Crazy Caucus. Instead, expect a “knife in the back” story: “If only John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and the other RINOs in leadership had held on a little longer, they would have won a famous victory that would not only have ended the dreaded Obamacare but would have led to certain 2014 and 2016 victories and a fulfillment of all of Ronald Reagan’s greatest wishes!”

That’s correct. Just like Christians whose leaders promise the Second Coming of Jesus that never comes, the Republicans will always have an explanation for why they were always right. The only way they go away is through electoral defeat. The crazies cannot be reformed; they must be defeated. And it seems the crazies are determined to defeat themselves.

Typhoid Mary Didn’t Kill John Coltrane

John ColtraneOn this day in 1800, William Holmes McGuffey was born. He is known for writing the McGuffey Readers. For their time, they were undoubtedly quite good. What I find most interesting about them is how conservatives since then—Even today!—love these books. It doesn’t make sense. There has been a lot of great children’s literature written since that time. What’s more, there is a much better understanding of reading levels. But the conservative love of the McGuffey Readers is not about pedagogy; it is about culture. They like the “old ways,” and whether they know it or not, that includes racism. The books are filled with antisemitism and other racist attitudes. Recent efforts to take the racism out of the books to make them more palatable for the home schooling market just proves the point. Why hang onto a set of racist books that is nearly 200 years old, if not to reinforce some very old cultural prejudices? McGuffey himself totally misunderstood the character of the recently created nation, “The Christian religion, is the religion of our country. From it are derived our prevalent notions of the character of God, the great moral governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions.” That’s wrong in just about every way possible and that is why many people love it today.

Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon) was born in 1869. She was a cook in and around New York City who was a healthy carrier of typhoid fever. She was apparently responsible for transmitting the disease to a number of people who she worked for. As a result of this, the health department put her in “quarantine”—a nice name for jail. After three years, she was released on the condition that she not work in food service. But she found it hard to make a living doing laundry, so she soon went back to being a cook. Eventually she was caught and imprisoned for the remaining 23 years of her life. What I find interesting is that the state cared enough to imprison her and cared enough to deprive her a decent livelihood, but it didn’t care enough to provide her with a decent means of living that would have protected the public health. This is the great approach to public health that the Republican Party would like to return us to.

Flutist Julius Baker was born in 1915:

The great Ray Charles was born in 1930:

The great Bruce Springsteen is 64:

Other notable birthdays: Mickey Rooney (93); singer Julio Iglesias (70); and actor Jason Alexander (54).

The day, however, belongs to the great jazz musician John Coltrane who was born on this day in 1926. There aren’t many people who do great work with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and manage to go on to do even greater work by themselves. Sadly, Coltrane died at just 40 years old of liver cancer. Still, he left us an amazing amount of material. This includes some of the very best free jazz. But here is some of his more traditional work, his great version of “My Favorite Things”:

Happy birthday John Coltrane!

We Can’t Report on GOP’s Hatred of SNAP

Mainstream MediaMy head is filled with all the House Republican madness about defunding SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The whole thing is such a clear demonstration of what the Republican Party has become. In his column this morning, Paul Krugman wrote, “Even some conservative pundits worry that the war on food stamps, especially combined with the vote to increase farm subsidies, is bad for the GOP, because it makes Republicans look like meanspirited class warriors. Indeed it does. And that’s because they are.” Of course, it is even worse than this. It’s even worse than Jonathan Chait says when he claims that Republicans are narcissists. The modern Republican Party is a nihilistic movement. They really don’t believe in anything. They simply have a vestigial memory that the rich are good and the poor are bad.

For some time now, Dean Baker has been on a crusade against big numbers without context. He pointed out that all of this talk of $40 billion in cuts gives the Republicans political cover. In my defense, I’ve been presenting the number in terms of how it affects the poor. In fact, I put it in context of how many people could be affected (6 million). But when talking about what the Republicans are doing, it is more correct to look at how much money the Republicans are saving the country. And it isn’t much. Over the next decade, the Republicans would be saving us 0.086% off what we will spend.

Of course, in this particular case, the Republicans are not arguing that we must cut SNAP because we don’t have money. But that doesn’t much matter. Republicans throw out justifications for their policies in a random way. It is all about providing political cover. They know that their arguments don’t have to convince people; they just have to be good enough so that the mainstream press will report them as one side of their “both sides now” coverage. And as we see, the bar for that is low enough that a mouse could climb over it.

In order for a society to function properly, it is necessary that everyone agree on norms. What we are struggling with here is a press that can’t admit that one side of the political process has abandoned norms. We continue to get the most naive reporting where journalists pretend that Republicans really believe what they claim. In a normal system, it really would be okay for the press to go to both sides and see what they have to say. That would provide actual coverage. But in our system, reporting without analysis just plays into the hands of the Republican Party.

In the case of the SNAP defunding, we see very clearly how disingenuous the Republicans are. But even in this very clear case, the mainstream reporting does not go beyond he and she said. “The Democrats say that SNAP is a program with low costs, great effectiveness, and little waste. The Republicans say it is a program with high costs, poor effectiveness, and rampant waste. No one can say who’s right; it’s just a matter of opinion!” But of course there is an objective reality. The Republican position is actually just that they don’t like the government to spend money on the poor. And that’s fine! But they should be forced to make that argument and not hide behind falsehoods about fraud that our journalists could easily check if they weren’t afraid of not appearing “objective.”