Oliver Wendell Holmes and Free Speech

Oliver Wendell Holmes JrOne hundred and twenty-two years ago, Mississippi John Hurt was born. But I gave the day to him last year. And just a couple weeks ago, I wrote, A Little Mississippi John Hurt. It isn’t just his music that I love, although that would be more than enough. He also has a great life story. But I can’t write yet another article about him. So instead, let’s talk about a man who I don’t have such nice things to say about. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr was born on this day in 1841.

Most people have an overall good impression of Holmes. He was known for his wit, and he wasn’t on the Supreme Court until after Plessy v Ferguson, so there was no opportunity for him to completely embarrass himself over that issue. But he did write the opinion in Schenck v United States. This is where he wrote his most famous sentence that the First Amendment was not absolute allowing for one “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” I think that logic appeals to a lot of people. But it is pernicious.

I remember some time ago, a friend of mine told me about being in a crowed theater when the fire alarms went off. Everyone looked around and saw that there were no flames and no smoke. So they ignored it until the management got the alarm turned off. Even Holmes’ analogy is wrong. People don’t get panicked just because of an alarm. But I understand that this was not what Holmes meant. So let’s talk about that.

What exactly was Charles Schenck doing that Holmes thought was akin to shouting fire in a theater? He was sending out leaflets to men facing conscription for World War I. In fact, it argued that the daft was “involuntary servitude,” which had been outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment. I think that is entirely a correct reading the amendment and I’ve never understood how it is that conscription is constitutional other than the fact that powerful people want it to be so. Regardless, if Schenck was doing anything, he was shouting fire in a theater that was on fire.

The overall decision, which was unanimous, found that the First Amendment did not extend to encouraging insubordination. This sounds so much like the Animal Farm ending, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The Supreme Court decided that people could say anything they wanted, as long as the power elite didn’t mind. And what that means is that we only have freedom of speech as long as our leaders decide we do. And that means we have no freedom of speech.

In his later years, Holmes tried to finesse his opinion. He took every opportunity to say that the opinion in Schenck was razor thin. I think this indicates that he knew he had blown it. But by and large, the other justices did not see the ruling as problematic. What this shows is that even honest and good men like Holmes crumble to the desires of their class under the smallest of pressures. The United States was only in World War I for a year and a half. The biggest thing that came out of the war was that the United States repudiated one of its most cherished founding principles.

Happy birthday Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr?

Darrell Issa’s Continued Abuse of Power

Darrell IssaYou’ve probably heard about the kerfuffle between the House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa and the ranking minority member Elijah Cummings. It was quite a show with Issa breaching protocol by ending the session without Cummings getting to speak and then killing Cummings’ mic and walking out. It was such a blatant act of disrespect that it was hard not to be shocked. What’s more, given Issa is a Republican, it is hard not to assume that there isn’t some racial animus thrown in for good measure. If you haven’t seen it, I’ve embedding the incident below.

At first, Issa was unrepentant and acted as though he was the one harmed. This kind of conservative thin-skin cry baby behavior is getting tiring. Right after the incident, Issa said, “He was actually slandering me at the moment that the mics did go off by claiming that this had not been a real investigation.” But this didn’t fly and it looked like everyone was against him. The best he could get was Fox News just ignoring it. There were no segments with Hannity celebrating how Issa had struck a blow for the straight white conservative non-IRS employed man.

Elijah CummingsOn Thursday, Mediaite reported that Issa had personally appologized to Cummings for the incident. Issa said, “As chairman, I should have been much more sensitive to the mood of what was going on, and I take responsibility.” So the whole thing is over. Right? Well, not really. What happened is typical of how Republicans manage to avoid a lot of bad press. By acting so horribly, most of the press managed to miss the deeper meaning of that House hearing.

Joan Walsh explained the situation last week. IRS supervisor Lois Lerner was slated to testify for the committee. At this point, it is well established that there is no IRS scandal. But early on, Lerner took the Fifth to avoid becoming a scapegoat in all of this. That’s not at all a bad idea. After all, Steven T Miller was fired as head of the IRS, even though he wasn’t in the position during the supposed scandal. But Issa was in search of some more coverage on Fox News, so he brought back Lerner to provide some more video of her not answering questions.

But what Cummings was going to say was that Lerner’s attorney was willing to tell them what she would say if they granted her immunity. This is a standard legal practice, which Issa surely knows. But he didn’t want to find out what Lerner knows and what she did. Most likely this is because she will say the same thing that everyone else has said: there is no scandal. So that is what Issa wanted to stop from happening. He didn’t want to get all the way through his media circus and then have Cummings point out that it wasn’t necessary and that Issa wasn’t interested in actually getting the information.

Darrell Issa is a great embarrassment in the House. And that says a lot for a House led by John Boehner and filled with people like Louie Gohmert. Issa has used the Oversight Committee in as reckless and self-serving a manner as Joseph McCarthy. Unfortunately, Issa is in a very safe Congressional district. He won the 2012 general election by 16 percentage points. But hopefully he won’t be in power for much more time because I know of no one on the national level who so abuses his power.

Conservative Economics’ Reality Deficit

Kartik AthreyaJohn Quiggin at Crooked Timber wrote a very interesting article last month, Macroeconomics Made Easy? In it, he discusses a new book by Kartik Athreya, Big ideas in Macroeconomics: A Nontechnical View. Athreya is a “freshwater” economist, which basically means that he’s a conservative who doesn’t believe that recessions are caused by a lack of demand. I’m being mean, but Quiggin is actually rather nice to Athreya and his book. That doesn’t mean that I’m wrong, however.

Back in 2010, Athreya wrote an article called “Economics Is Hard.” He attacked people like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong as being the “patron saints of the ‘Macroeconomic Policy is Easy: Only Idiots Don’t Think So’ movement.” His point was then that “real” economics is about teasing out aggregate behavior based upon individual actions. Now this is what statistics does and no one feels the need to run around complaining that lay people use concepts like means and standard deviations.

In order to back up his argument, Athreya seems to have written his book where he discusses what sounds like a lot of interesting economic concepts. And according to Quiggin, it is really well written. But it is not what we normally talk about in terms of economics, because it is highly theoretical. What we talk about is what might be called “practical economics.” And it is in this distinction that Quiggin thinks he might have found how all those very intelligent and learned freshwater economists could spout such rubbish:

The result is that there is almost zero intersection between Big Ideas in Macroeconomics and what I would think of as macroeconomics. It’s not so much that I think Athreya is wrong as that we are talking past each other.

I’ve seen this in a lot of academic fields—most notably climate change science, although the problem is nothing like it is in economics. The freshwater folk are so focused on the intricacies of their models that they don’t really care that they have little relationship to what is going on in the real world with its real markets. As Quiggin says, “[I]t’s OK to assume full employment, and ignore inflation, but not to omit rigorous microfoundations for your model.” That is: it is fine to make assumptions that render your models useless, as long as they are built on first principles.

That would all be fine and noble academic work. There is no doubt that such work does increase our understanding of economic systems. The problem is that people who think in this very limited way also want to be taken seriously in the policy debate. But when it comes to actual people who depend upon having useful results—people at the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office and Goldman Sachs—they use Keynesian models. They do not use these freshwater models because they can’t assume full employment; they can’t ignore inflation.

But the total practical uselessness of the freshwater economists’ models does not make them irrelevant to politics. Politicians who want to push policies for totally different reasons (for example, enriching the rich at the expense of the poor) are more than happy to use these economic theories. And all too many freshwater economists like Greg Mankiw and Ken Rogoff are more than willing to help out. This seems to be because they are political ideologues first and foremost. So at least Kartik Athreya is being honest: his economics is hard and mostly useless on the macro-scale. His work for the Richmond Fed is, after all, microeconomics, not macroeconomics. But why he thinks he should be talking about macroeconomics is unclear to me. The point seems to be to define actual macroeconomics out of existence so that we are all forced to bow down to the freshwater folks and believe in the faith-based ideology of expansionary austerity and other freshwater fantasies.

Face the (Republican) Nation

Face the NationYesterday, Media Matters for America reported, CBS’ Face the Nation Turns Exclusively to GOP for Ukraine Discussion. The announced lineup for tomorrow is Dick Cheney, James Baker, and Paul Ryan. It still amazes me that anyone talks to Cheney. He should be a national embarrassment, yet people still treat him like a wise elder statesman. It is shocking. Baker is okay, I guess; but I’m not clear why the almost 84-year-old former Secretary of State is important to the discussion. And Paul Ryan doesn’t even claim to know much about international affairs. If we base our expectations on his incredible ignorance about economics—the one area he claims to know something about—we can reasonably predict that he won’t have anything to add to the discussion other than Republican talking points.

Every couple of years, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) puts out an analysis of guests on the Sunday politics shows. And every times it shows the same thing: Republicans, and conservatives more generally, dominate the guest lists. When the Republicans are in the White House, the skew is very large and the shows claim that this is understandable because the Republicans are in power. That in itself is ridiculous—as though the purpose of the news media is to reflect the existing power structure. But when the Democrats are in control, Republicans still dominate the Sunday talk shows.

Of course, the shows always have an excuse for their conservative skewing. For example, in 2011 they claimed it was skewed because of the Republican presidential primary. But when Media Matters for America looked at an equivalent period in 2003 when the Democrats had a primary and the Republicans did not—What a surprise!—the Sunday political shows still had more Republicans than Democrats.

But it is much more than simply the guests. This last week on Meet the Press, David Gregory asked Marco Rubio an incredibly leading question, “Do you agree with some of your colleagues who say it’s the weakness of President Obama and the United States right now that has emboldened President Putin of Russia?” This false narrative was repeated a number of time. Eventually, Chuck Todd said, “This is not the first time with Putin. Putin acts, Obama warns. Putin acts, Obama warns. This is a pattern that he can’t afford to stay in there and just continue to warn. You heard John Kerry: more warnings.” That’s just a Republican talking point. The reporters really should know about what’s going on and not just repeat what the opposition party is saying—something they would never do if the parties were reversed.

I could accept all this if the standard narrative was that the media were biased towards the Republican Party. That indeed does seem to be the case on all but a handful of socially liberal issues like same sex marriage. These shows kiss up to power. I guess that’s not surprising. But their ideas of power are always the same as an adolescent boy’s ideas. They mistake bellicosity for power. If we went to war in Ukraine just because Putin invaded regardless of our own national interest, that would indicate that Putin had the power, not Obama.

Our media is obsessed with the idea of objectivity. Yet they don’t seem to have a problem with being overly dependent upon the Republican Party, even when said party is in crisis with very little power. At least we all know that Fox News is the propaganda wing of the Republican Party. So it isn’t surprising that Fox News Sunday is highly skewed toward the Republican Party. But the truth is that Meet the Press and Face the Nation are no less conservative. When George Will left This Week for Fox News, he fit right in. He didn’t stand out any less on Fox News than he did on ABC.

All of this is an indictment of the American news media. And they are very much to blame for our terrible political environment. In as much as you can depend upon a news host to be in favor of same sex marriage, you can depend upon them to be against unionization and for globalization. And they’ve been far more successful in pushing the economic policies than they have been pushing the social policies. At least people still realize that there are two sides on the same sex marriage issue. When it comes to the economic issues, there is no other side. Unions baaaad! Globalization gooood! You know: objective news reporting.

Morning Music Classics From Joe Tex

Joe TexGood morning my friends! The other night my sister sent me a text asking if I knew the song “I Gotcha” by Joe Tex. Of course I knew the song! I doubt a week goes by when I don’t sing it. It dates back to those days of my childhood when we used to walk around with a little transistor radio listening to KFRC, San Francisco.

Joe Tex was a really interesting soul musician who you may not have heard of because he prematurely retired and then died of a heart attack just five days after his 47th birthday. He was arguably as great as James Brown. In fact, you can hear and see much of each man in the other. I’m not in a position to say what came from whom, but Tex claimed that Brown stole a number of moves from him.

The two had quite a rivalry. This reached a peak in 1963, when Tex opened for a Macon, Georgia homecoming concert for Brown. “Tex, who opened the show, arrived in a tattered cape and began rolling around on the floor as if in agony, and screamed, ‘Please—somebody help get me out of this cape!'” Brown was understandably not pleased, but as much as I admire Brown, that’s funny as hell. Allegedly, James Brown found Tex later and shot at him.

This all was due to the fact that Tex did largely live in Brown’s shadow. Still, he had a great career. He was a consistent hit producer for over a decade up until his retirement in 1978. I assume, had he lived longer, that he would have gone back to performing at some point. Regardless, he left a lot of great music.

Rather than provide just a single song, I’ve put together a playlist of three of his biggest hits: “Skinny Legs and All” (1967); “I Gotcha” (1972); and “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More” (1977). There are a lot more great ones, but I couldn’t find any live performances of things like “A Sweet Woman Like You.” These songs give you a good idea of Joe Tex’s range and brilliance. They are all great: