In Defense of Thomas Frank

Thomas FrankYesterday, Thomas Frank wrote his weekly column, All These Effing Geniuses: Ezra Klein, Expert-Driven Journalism, and the Phony Washington Consensus. This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote another “Thomas Frank is an idiot” article, Have Nerds Betrayed the Left? And then Jonathan Bernstein went after him, Democratic Party Wasn’t Always Liberal. And finally, Ed Kilgore spent some time punching the hippie, No, Tom Frank, NAFTA Did Not Create the Christian Right.[1] After writing my generally positive take on Frank’s article, The Dangers of Experts in Politics, I feel the need to defend him.

What really struck me about each criticism was that the writers focused on details while just assuming that his conclusion was silly. Kilgore goes so far as to assume things that Frank did not write. He didn’t even mention NAFTA. Having read Frank for many years, it seems he is talking about the entirety of the New Democratic economic platform. Regardless, Frank’s overall argument is that after the economic conservatism of the 1980s and early 1990s, the people were ready for economic liberalism. And they didn’t get it.

A commenter on my article, Colin Keesee, noted:

I would add that if both parties act the same on economic issues, it is rational for white men in rural America to vote Republican.

Exactly! On social issues, the two parties really do provide a choice. And social conservatism is more popular. Balance that with the extreme conservative economic policies of the Republicans and the slightly less extreme conservative economic policies of the Democrats and there really is no choice. The economy is going to suck for the poor regardless of the party, so they might as well go along with the party that flatters their cultural prejudices.

I don’t think Frank is arguing that all a Democratic politician has to do is embrace economic populism and he will be elected. The entire Democratic brand has been soiled for a large part of the electorate. This is a nationwide problem. But if the cultural conservatives noticed that the Democratic Party was actually pushing policy that helped them economically, the brand would change. I’m with Frank that the current choice for such voters is social and economic conservatism (Republicans) and social liberalism and economic conservatism (Democrats). By voting Republican, they at least get half of what they want; voting Democratic, they get nothing.

Now I probably disagree with Frank in that I think the social liberalism gets in the way of reaching out to these voters. Any single Democrat running in a red district would need to repudiate his social liberalism. Rhetorically, he would need to start sounding like Rick Santorum, who has always had very good economic rhetoric (although there is no doubt if he were ever elected, he’d be economically conservative). But Frank is looking at the broader issue — the long view. The problem with the Democrats is that they spend too much time making compromises for the sake of the next election, while the Republicans succeed in pushing the whole field of debate to the right. And what that means is that the Republicans win even when they lose.

It bothers me that Chait, Bernstein, and Kilgore are so closed to the broader argument. Frank is concerned that the Democratic Party is so conservative on economic policy. The question is why Chait, Bernstein, and Kilgore are not.


[1] I hate that people call Thomas Frank “Tom.” I’ve always taken it as a kind of boast, “I know him so I call him by his nickname.” But in the article, Kilgore notes that he has only met Frank once. So it isn’t even that. Regardless, I find it confusing. I know who “Thomas Frank” is immediately. When people use “Tom Frank,” it confuses me and takes a moment for me to figure out who they are talking about. I wish they would stop doing that.

The Italian Job Worse Than I Remembered

The Italian JobI remember watching The Italian Job many times in my distant past. It was always a fairly enjoyable film even as I found it almost completely wanting. One thing especially bothered me: the job absolutely had to have Professor Peach to deal with the computer aspects of the job. But the extent of his technical work was simply taking one tape off the computer and putting another tape on. And this is just the prime example of the fundamental problem: there is very little heist in this heist movie.

What the film does have is a whole lot of “ain’t Michael Caine dreamy?” nonsense. The females in the film are limited to a group of bikini clad models who welcome Caine’s release from jail with a party that would embarrass Larry Flynt, Caine’s strangely inconsistently jealous American girl friend, and the widow of his recently deceased friend who is more bothered by the idea of not spending six hours in bed when Caine than the death of her husband. There are also, of course, the various “big” women who Professor Peach can’t stop from molesting.

I suppose all of this is forgivable in that the film was made in 1969 and this kind of thing was considered charming along with the “flamboyant” gay man and the comedically terrified black man. The Italian Job manages to include the former, but for the latter, it substitutes the Jamaican cannabis smoker with a large penis. Maybe it is asking too much of a film that never intended to be serious to do anything but go along with the mores of its time. It’s still annoying to watch today.

The biggest problem with the film is the script. It was written by Troy Kennedy Martin, whose other major success was the similarly thin Kelly’s Heroes — a film so boring, I’ve never managed to make it to the end despite many attempts. The Italian Job is structured in three parts. The first part involves us learning what a cool chick-magnet Michael Caine is. This part might work better if Caine were charismatic. I’m not saying he’s bad, just something of a non-entity up there on the screen. You can see this very clearly in his breakout role in Zulu. Stanley Baker is the one with charisma.

The second part of the film is the heist. The problem is that all the planning for the heist was done by Caine’s dead friend before the movie starts. So this section of the film mostly involves us looking at his gang standing around waiting for the third act to start, which really has nothing to do with people. This part of the film is so poorly rendered that at the start of it, everyone involved meets around a conference table where Caine introduces each. If he hadn’t done so, we wouldn’t know who any of them were. Of course, we wouldn’t have cared. The heist is ultimately: guys rob an armored car and then escape.

The third part of the film is what it is all about: Mini Coopers racing around Turin doing cool things. But even here, there is no concern for continuity. The police are chasing the Mini Coopers and get left behind in a number of ways. But somehow there is always another police car to be on their tails. There is no sense of drama; it is just episodic and thus of no real relevance to the film. But there is this wonderful waltz section that was cut from the film because even these filmmakers understood how inappropriate it was in the larger context of the film:

Having watched the film recently and been so disappointed, I decided to watch the remake. This kind of film is actually very easy to make. And I suspect that people would do a better job with it now. It’s the kind of thing that F Gary Gray could do a good job with. I don’t expect much from a heist film. But the original just didn’t deliver, regardless of how adorable the Minis are. I’ll let you know what I think of the remake after it arrives.

Academic Research Problems Dwarfed By Outside Vested Interests

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote a curious column today, How to Get It Wrong. He looked at the financial crisis and asked how it is the economics profession got the response so wrong. Of course, he noted that it isn’t “economics” itself that got it wrong. Anyone with a basic understand of economics could predict what happened. But there were certain notable economists who got things fatally wrong. And how exactly does that work?

I think I can explain a big part of it. It’s the money, stupid! Glenn Hubbard was paid $1,200 per hour by Countrywide Financial to sign off on their toxic mortgages. There is gobs of money to be had by working as an apologist for the wealthy. And in the economics and financial fields, people are well aware of the kind of money that is available. Some Latin scholar has no such temptations. There aren’t man walking around college campuses with buckets of money for the scholars who have the right marginal theory about Cicero’s oeuvre.

Glenn HubbardThis isn’t to say that Hubbard is a charlatan. I don’t think it works that way. What happens instead is that bankers and other promoters of “free” markets notice that the young Hubbard naturally has opinions that go along with what they are selling. So they give him money for his research. And they give him money to speak to groups of like minded plutocrats. And before long, without any intent to deceive, Glenn Hubbard dives into a collection of toxic assets and just doesn’t see anything wrong.

The problem, of course, is not Glenn Hubbard or Alberto Alesina or Reinhart and Rogoff. The problem is the politicians. Krugman discussed this. Let’s suppose these self-serving academics had not been around to provide intellectual cover for bad economic policy:

But would it have mattered if economists had behaved better? Or would people in power have done the same thing regardless?

The answer, of course, is that the politicians would have done exactly the same thing. Politicians don’t need economists to back them up. Remember Obama at the very beginning of his presidency, “All across America, families are tightening their belts and making hard choices. Now, Washington must show that same sense of responsibility.” That wasn’t based on any economic theory. When Alesina made that argument, it was circuitous. Obama was making it because it is the kind of “common sense” that just happens to be totally wrong. What he was saying was, “All across America, families are tightening their belts and making hard choices. Now, Washington must do the same thing so that American families have even less money and must tighten their belts even more and make even harder choices.”

So Krugman is right that the problem is not with the economics profession. It has a lot of good advice to offer to policy makers. But all that good advice was ignored. It didn’t tell politicians what they wanted to hear. It didn’t justify Obama’s slick rhetoric that we knew was wrong in the 1930s. And if there hadn’t been very smart cranks like Alberto Alesina around to justify what the politicians were going to do regardless, they would have gone it alone.

Think about evolutionary theory. There are no reputable scientists who question it. But there are tons of people who pretend it is bunk just because they want to believe something else. The same is true of global warming. It really doesn’t matter. If an issue becomes political, people will find a way to ignore it. And any problems within an academic discipline are dwarfed by the vested interests outside it who want to make a buck today and don’t care about the people, planet, or even the long-term health of the economy.

Edward Bouchet

Edward BouchetOn this day in 1852, the great physicist and educator Edward Bouchet was born. Although he lived a good and useful life, he also lived a tragic life. As most African-Americans of that time and to a lesser extent today, there were not many professional options for him. In 1874, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Yale University. He was ranked sixth out of class of 124 students. He later went on to get his PhD in physics from Yale, writing his dissertation on geometrical optics. He was the first African American to get any kind of PhD from an American university, but he was only the sixth person of any kind to get a PhD is physics.

Given his qualifications, he should have been hired as a college professor somewhere. But he was not. And notice: he was born in Connecticut. He wasn’t trying to get by in the south. Racism was and is a thing all over the nation. As a result, Bouchet spent his entire career working at high schools. Most of his career was spent at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) — a Quaker founded school because most schools in Philadelphia would not accept African-American students.

After 26 years at ICY, he left because the school changed (following the philosophy of Booker T Washington) toward industrial education rather than the traditional classical education. I understand the thinking behind this, but it is wrong. We are going through it now across the nation. The idea is that children should be trained for jobs, but we’ve seen where this leads: poorly paying jobs and more inequality. Regardless, this led Bouchet to a series of teaching jobs in various locations before retiring due to poor health.

Edward Bouchet was clearly a brilliant man who we should have cherished. Instead, we provided him with a kind of torture. We allowed him to show his greatness in education and then denied him the opportunity to utilize it throughout his life. Even still, he doubtless had a huge positive effect on his students. He stands as a proud example of human self-actualization. And he is yet another example of a great man that our nation spurned.

Happy birthday Edward Bouchet!