Tim Draper Fails to Lower His Taxes With Six Californias

Six CaliforniasFriday brought some good news, “Six Californias” Plan Falls Short of Making November 2016 Ballot. It seems that Tim Draper’s plan to get it on the ballot failed because too many of his paid-for signatures were bunk.

I’m not against breaking up California. For one thing, I don’t like the anti-democratic Senate and the fact that California has the same representation in that chamber as Wyoming does. Also, the state really represents two groups of people: northerners and southerners. Just the same, the northerners share a common culture with Oregon and Washington, but no one is talking about combining them into a single state. And as former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez said, “Six Californias was a solution in search of a problem that didn’t address any of our state’s challenges.”

The question one has to ask is why Draper was so keen on breaking up the state. The answer can be seen in the map above. See the yellow section there in the middle? That’s “Silicon Valley.” Draper wanted to set up his own little state where he would face no regulations (other than the ones the federal government forced on him) and no state taxes. Draper is, in other words, a typical billionaire who, now that he has a whole bunch of toys wants to take them and go home.

So I’m glad that he wasted millions of dollars getting a bunch of bogus signatures. For one thing, it put a lot of money into the hands of poor people who desperately need it. But I also like that it shows that Draper can’t even manage a simple political operation. He is a good example of how being rich doesn’t show that you are smart. Of course, even though everyone talks about Draper as a “venture capitalist,” that’s not really true. He made his money the old fashioned way: he inherited it!

But never fear: Six Californias isn’t dead. It just won’t be on the 2016 ballot. He reportedly spent $5 million on this failed campaign. That’s only a half percent of his estimated one billion dollar net worth. And it is a small price to pay for his ultimate goal of lowering his taxes. And that’s all this is about. For the rich, that seem to always be what everything is about.

Pity for Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse Statue

This is a statue of the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse with her father. The life-sized statue was erected for what would have been her 31st birthday. She apparently had struggled with opioid and cocaine addition for much of her young life. Later in her life she gave up these drugs but began doing the socially acceptable but generally more dangerous alcohol. She eventually died two months shy of her 28th birthday because of alcohol poisoning.

I’m so out of it that I didn’t know who she was. So I listened to some of her music. I am very impressed. It is not only great work, it is the kind of stuff that I enjoy. Here is a brilliant song, “Stronger Than Me”:

But the only reason that I took note was the comment that went along with it, written by an otherwise smart and humane person:

No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Junkies are not to be honored. People who make records about defiantly be junkies should not be honored. Period. End of story. Done.

This is an issue that I’ve been fighting against for coming up on two decades. What is it about being a heroin addict that causes everything else in their lives to vanish as far as others are concerned? People don’t seem to have trouble compartmentalizing people in other contexts. Thomas Jefferson has statues built for him all over the nation despite the fact that he was not only a slaveholder but kind of a jerk who left many of them in bondage following his death. But we can’t honor a very talented young woman just because she was troubled?

What’s more, I think her violence is more troubling than her use of illegal drugs. But it is interesting that her violent outbursts did not occur when she was doing illegal drugs. It was only after she gave up illegal drugs (following arrests for cannabis and cocaine) that these became an issue in her life. But I’ve talked a lot about how in our society, the use of illegal drugs have a stigma that is worse than violent acts even including murder.

But what about other highly admired and unrepentant drug users? There is Lou Reed and William S Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. And all of them strike me as having been more in control of their lives. I don’t get that impression from Amy Winehouse. If she had lived longer, she might have gained wisdom and gone on to be the grande dame of jazz singers. But as it is, she seems to have been more like a fragile child. The crime is that our society did not know how to help her.

In the end, she gave far more to our culture than she took. She should be admired for that. And if we can’t do that, we should at least pity her. And we should pity her family.

Free Market Whack-A-Mole

Whack-A-MoleMatt Bruenig wrote a funny article over at his blog, Capitalism Whack-A-Mole. It is about the shifting justifications for laissez-faire capitalism. When you whack one conservative apologia for capitalism down, up pops another: it is an endless game of whack-a-mole. This is nothing knew, of course. As Bruenig noted in his conclusion, “Most people come to their feverish support of capitalism through unreflective cultural mechanisms first, and their arguments are then filled in later.” In other words, they support the “free” market because they perceive it to be in their own personal interests. This is why libertarianism is almost exclusively the ideology of young guys with good prospects and old guys with piles of cash.

In the article, Bruenig noted that the different justifications are incompatible with each other. Supporters start with the “desert” argument, which says that people should have a right to rewards of their work. When they are countered with the fact that one-third of the economy is based upon rents (people charging for things they own), the supporters shift to the “voluntarism” argument. This holds that this ownership came about through voluntary transactions. When they are countered with the fact that private property itself is coercive because it requires laws to stop people from, for example, just farming fallow lands that someone else owns, the supporters shift to the “utility” argument. This is the old Milton Friedman argument that capitalism makes everyone richer. And when this is shown to be completely false (see, for example: the last four decades), they go back to the first argument: people have a right to rewards of their work.

I suspect I hang out with less sophisticated group of libertarians than Bruenig does. Just the same, the ones I talk to seem to be much more common. They normally start their arguments with the utility claim: in the libertarian utopia, everyone will be rich! Well, it is usually more along the lines of, “The minimum wage kills jobs.” Or, “Raising taxes hurts economic growth.” Such claims are easy to dispatch. So our libertarian warrior runs for cover in some form of first principle argument that the government has no right to interfere with private contracts. (Note: I am making the best case for the libertarians here; most don’t even get this sophisticated.)

The critical problem that they never manage to deal with is the arbitrary nature of capitalism. It simply isn’t the case that everyone starts life with an equal chance of success. And this is true even if you don’t consider that some people are born with innate characteristics that will help or harm them in our society. So even if hundreds of years ago, some white guys bough Manhattan for $26 in a voluntary deal, what does that mean to a poor child born today? Or a rich child? We know that a smart and hard working poor child will generally do worse economically than a stupid and lazy rich child. So this isn’t a question of people getting to keep what they worked for. At best it is people getting to keep what other people who are now dead worked for.

So the political question is always about utility: does the system work for everyone? And we know that it doesn’t. This isn’t an argument for socialism or even an argument against capitalism. Any society is a combination of the two. But what we’ve seen over the last four decades is that productivity growth has become uncoupled from worker wages:

This is why conservative economic rhetoric always comes back to vague notions like “freedom.” Over the last forty years, starting in a small way with conservative southern Democrat Jimmy Carter and really taking off with “freedom” loving Ronald Reagan, our government has pushed more and more conservative economic policy. This has not increased economic growth — just look at the graph. But it has increased profits of those at the very top of the economic system. Clearly, this is not a debate we should even be having. Our government has moved far too much toward capitalism and we need a correction back toward socialism.

The problem we face is that the Democratic Party — the “liberal” party — is largely dominated by New Democrats who think that the best thing is to continue to enrich the rich at the expense of the rest. But I’m hopeful that Democratic voters are finally waking up and that our long national dark age is ending. Because the truth is that it has gotten bad enough that everyone can see the problem. And the happy conservative rhetoric of “freedom” sounds mighty thin today. It doesn’t matter how they massage their rhetoric. The moles are all dying.

H/T: Noah Smith

The Dangers of Experts in Politics

Ezra KleinThomas Frank is annoyed with Ezra Klein, All These Effing Geniuses: Ezra Klein, Expert-Driven Journalism, and the Phony Washington Consensus. In particular, he has a problem with a recent Klein article, How Political Science Conquered Washington. And I have to admit: Klein’s article is weak. There is much to say about structural factors that affect politics. But there are also major limits.

Frank’s problem is the way that number crunchers often use “hard data” to argue that this or that can’t be done. Frank brought up Nate Cohn’s recent article about how the Democrats can’t take the House back because of natural factors rather than gerrymandering. Cohn’s advice is extremely limited: move to the right or wait for demographic shifts. Frank rightly pointed out that this misses what has really gone on with the Democrats losing rural areas: their shift away from economic populism has allowed the Republicans to gin up cultural resentments to get people to vote for them.

Thomas FrankThe big problem here is that the banner of “science” has a tendency to shut down creative discussion. Cohn looked at the maps and like Estragon announced, “Nothing to be done.” But this is just status quo apologetics. It tends to push out any thoughts that might be bubbling up from real thinkers rather than number crunchers.

Let me give you an example of this that only I seem to have noticed. Political science has shown that at least since World War II, the party that wins the White House is primarily determined by the nation’s economic trend. But as a result of this, people who pay attention (at least on the left) are focused on nominating “safe” candidates who are not going to swamp the economic fundamentals. To me, this means that when elections like 1992 and 2008 come along, Democrats should nominate actual liberals instead of moderate and even conservative candidates like Clinton and Obama. But we don’t get this.

The reasons we don’t get this more radical thinking is that Ezra Klein’s supposed improvement of doing journalism based upon “experts” rather than politicians is no improvement at all. Basically, he’s traded in the politicians for the people the politicians were talking to. And this has the distinct downside of implying a kind of scientific rigor that just isn’t there. There are experts worth listening too. I read Paul Krugman every day. But in a normal world, I would often disagree with him. It is just because the right in this country is so crazy that we still have to fight for intellectual ground that everyone thought was settled forty years ago. But Krugman really is a major creative thinker. And as a result, he too is largely marginalized, even though widely read.

I think the problem is not so much that Washington loves experts. It is rather that there is a kind of affinity fraud going on. Why does Washington continue to listen to Dick Cheney? Because everyone “knows” that he’s a good guy. And he must be smart and knowledgeable. He was the Vice President! Or why do we still hold Bill Clinton in high esteem? He’s the guy that set the policy to allow the mortgage excesses that made the housing bubble so much worse than it normally would have been. But he must be worth talking to because, well, he’s the kind of guy who is worth talking to.

Of course, these aren’t academics. But there are always academics providing the intellectual support for the more public figures. Look at Greg Mankiw. This widely respected economist was for economic stimulus during the Bush administration. But once Obama was in office, he was against stimulus. And then, during Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, when it looked like Romney might be the next president, Mankiw softened his position, getting ready to be completely for it once a Republican was again in the White House.

If political science has revolutionized political journalism, it has been done by the likes of Nate Silver and Sam Wang. But the thing is: neither of them are political scientists. When the actual political scientists at The Monkey Cage put together an election model, it jumped around excessively. If the election turns out to give the Democrats the Senate, it is going to mean that forecasting models that did the best are the ones that paid the least attention to the political science.

Of course, Thomas Frank’s larger criticism is that the experts that Ezra Klein so loves are the ones who for decades have told the Democratic Party to move to the right on economic issues. And they’ve been wrong. The Republicans have done quite well doing exactly the opposite. It is hard not to conclude that the political scientists don’t know much more than anyone. They just have a patina of credibility that actually makes them more dangerous.

Having said all this, I think we can learn a lot from political scientists. But as Sam Wang has noted in election models, a lot of what political scientists think they know is really just noise. It’s important to know what is useful and what is not. But most of all, we shouldn’t forget that political science is fundamentally just history. And we should not use it to limit what we can do politically. That will just keep us moving on the same track that is destroying the middle class, impoverishing the poor, and enriching the rich.

Allan Bloom’s Important Discussion

Allan BloomOn this day in 1930, the academic Allan Bloom was born. Now, I’m not really a fan of his. But I did read his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. And it is worth discussing.

If you are very smart and well education and inclined to write an old man’s rant about how everything is going to hell, then you would write The Closing of the American Mind. At its worst, it is a parody of what happens to people when they forget what life was like when they were young. It is also a parody of an old college professor who just can’t understand why his students think he is boring.

Although the book is extremely biased, it deals with an issue that is very important to me: social cohesion through shared cultural touchstones. This is why I think everyone should know Shakespeare and the Bible. It isn’t because I think that as literature goes these are especially great collections. But they are so important to our culture that not knowing them tends to marginalize an individual.

The problem with Bloom is that he hangs on too tightly to an absolutist philosophy. I will admit that the adoration of Shakespeare has something to do with the quality of his work. But it has far more to do with history and the development of the British empire. I take a more moderate view: there is no absolute values but it is a convenient social illusion. The books we know are largely a reflection of who we have been.

As a result of this, I agree with Bloom about the needs for standards. But this must be combined with a commitment to inclusiveness. One of the purposes of education (and higher education most of all) should be shaping what our cultural touchstones are. As a result, I would like to see things like “Chicano studies” courses taken out of the academic ghetto and placed more centrally into the curriculum. At very least, students should get a good introduction in foreign language literature in translation. The focus of literature on British and American writers does us great harm.

There is a bigger problem, however. The very idea of a liberal education is dying. Now the focus of education is on specialization and how it will make the student a more attractive employee. This is a sure way of destroying a civilization. And it is interesting that The Closing of the American Mind got its start as an article in National Review. Because the whole conservative movement is about destroying the idea of liberal education. Providing education as something intended only to enrich the learner is something that is supposed to be limited to the rich. Knowing multiplication and how to read technical manuals is enough for the prols.

So like everything, the closed American mind is yet another result of inequality. And it is a problem that starts before we learn to walk. There are those who are taken to museums and given other intellectually stimulating experiences as young people. And there are those who are not. And that affects everyone for their entire lives. What’s more, it cuts the “have nots” off from the cultural touchstones of our society. Those touchstones become yet another thing that cuts off poor from rich.

So Allan Bloom may think that everyone should read Plato. And I agree! But the reason they don’t has very little to do with relativism and a lack of interest on the part of students. Rather, it is a direct result of the centuries old efforts to keep the poor excluded from all parts of the lives of the rich. And that problem starts long before young people make it to college.

Allan Bloom was right to bring up the issue. It is important and worth discussing. But as usual with conservative thought, his book works the margins without ever coming close to the central issue. But in this age in which Education Reform has come to focus mostly on destroying the liberal nature of education, we dearly need to think about this stuff.

Happy birthday Allan Bloom!