Democrats Are Sad Not Delusional

PollsI don’t know if you’ve been keeping up on the Senate election models but they’ve all turned sharply against the Democrats. Interestingly, FiveThirtyEight currently gives the Democrats the highest percentage chance of holding onto the Senate: 40%. Sam Wang’s Princeton model gives the Democrats a 30% chance. And, of course, The Monkey Cage gives them 7% — the highest percent chance for the last two weeks! None of this means that the Democrats will lose the Senate. But it doesn’t look good.

This bothers me. As much as I try to approach politics in a reasonably objective way, I do care. Even apart of partisanship, I have long felt that we have a bad system of government. It usually ends up in a divided government and that means that neither side ever gets to show what its policies really mean. Of course, the Republicans have had better luck with this than the Democrats. This is because Democrats aren’t crazy and actually allow Republicans to govern when they are in power. So I am bummed out to know that the Democrats will likely lose the Senate because that will provide the president with even less power to implement his policies than he has now.

What is most definitely not going on is the Democrats doing what the Republicans did in 2012: refusing to except facts and “unskewing” polls. I’ve heard a few people make such claims, but they are typical of moderates desperately trying to argue that the Democrats are just the mirror image of the Republicans. You know the logic: the Republican Party has turned into a revolutionary group, but there were some radical Democrats in the late 1960s. Balance!

To me, there is a fundamental difference in the psychology of Republicans and Democrats. Republicans have an admirable certainty, which often falls into delusion when they are simply wrong about something. (Very often!) Democrats have an annoying defeatism, which often crumbles at the first sign that things are not going well. That makes the Democrats sound bad, but given the state of the American political system, such defeatism is highly rational. And it means we don’t look at the polls and say, “They must be wrong! Everyone I know who works at Apple is a Democrat!”

None of this means that we don’t hope. For one thing, there is the Bannock Street Project, where the Democrats have put $60 million into get-out-the-vote efforts. So the hope is that there will be many more “unlikely to vote” people who eventually end up voting than is usual. Then there is this very interesting effect that Ed Kilgore wrote about, Polling Minority Voters Is Hard. I didn’t know this, but for some reason that pollsters have not been able to figure out, black and Latino voters always poll a whole lot more conservative than they are.

Despite this, I still think (as I have for over a month), that the Democrats are likely to end up with 48 seats in the Senate. One thing about all the different polls and their very different probabilities for the Democrats holding the Senate: they all predict that the most likely outcome is 48 seats for the Democrats. But even if this is the case — or if it is even worse, which it could well be — this should have been a huge year for Republicans in the Senate. The Democrats should have basically no chance of hanging onto the Senate. The fact that they do shows some progress in American politics. Maybe we are headed into a time when being crazy actually hurts the Republican Party.

Oh, I’m just kidding! I’m not a delusional Republican, after all!

The Lazy Rich and Their Easy Rents

Bob's BurgersSince I no longer have Netflix, I went searching for the fourth season of Bob’s Burgers. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. Netflix doesn’t currently have the fourth season of the show. But since I had to look, I figured I might as well look for something that I hadn’t seen. I didn’t realize that I could actually get it through Hulu, although the truth is that their interface is hard to use. So I went to YouTube, and I was surprised to see that it had lots of full episodes of Bob’s Burgers — probably all of them.

Normally, you wouldn’t see that because Bob’s Burgers is a Fox show and they are shockingly aggressive about their copyright claims. When I created a short (32 second) video about the Three Houses of Parliament that used a small bit of Arrested Development, Fox immediately flagged it as theirs. I made a fair use claim and Fox eventually accepted it. But it gives you some idea of how strict they are about this kind of thing. So having full episodes up on YouTube was shocking. How could it be?!

Well, it turns out that YouTube entrepreneurs are very clever. I put on the following video and I noticed that they had made three changes, that I could tell — maybe more. They enlarged the image; they tilted the image slightly; and they raised the pitch of the sound slightly. This is apparently enough to fool the automatic filters. That goes along with how I’ve always assumed YouTube does its copyright checks. It takes many tiny video and audio snippets and does cross (time) correlations with the uploaded videos. It wouldn’t take much to push the correlation way down.

This video has been on YouTube for almost three months. And I think this is pathetic. I’m not talking about the poster of the video. I’m talking about Fox and all the other government mandated monopolists. They care about their intellectual property, but not enough to actually police it themselves. They only care enough to provide a little data to YouTube and have their dirty work done for them by a computer program.

I think this speaks to the modern world generally. The rich can better exploit their rents without doing any work. The rich are now richer than they used to be (in a relative sense), not because they are better than they used to. They are richer because technology and government protections allow them to be. In the past, it was pretty hard for a distribution company to police its “rights.” Now, YouTube does it for them automatically.

Of course, as computing power goes up, YouTube will catch up and check for standard alterations of video like we see above. But notice what’s going on here. YouTube will be “innovating.” But it is only for the purpose to maintaining the riches of the already rich. A big part of what YouTube does with its resources is protect big name content providers — because YouTube is afraid of them. This is like doctors practicing “defensive medicine.” This is the end all healthcare idea for conservatives (tort “reform”) because according to them, medicine costs so much because of this. (It’s not true; we pay so much because doctors are paid twice what they are in other advanced countries.) But they aren’t at all concerned about the great costs associated with “defensive legalism.” And why is that? Because going after “defensive medicine” takes rights away from the poor. On the other hand, going after “defensive legalism” would take money away from the rich. Can’t have that.

Disingenuousness From Deficit Hawks

Committee for a Responsible Federal BudgetLast week I discussed, Deficit’s Down and So Are Debt Scolds. It was about how the CBO looked at the 2014 budget deficit and found that it will be $200 billion less than predicted. And this is after the predicted value was down from previous years. So all those groups who exist to foment hysteria about the budget deficit are happy. Just kidding! In as much as it gets their attention at all, it has been only to claim that they were only concerned about long-term budgets and of course they were for short-term stimulus.

Friday, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) put out an apologia, The Concern Has Always Been Long-Term Deficits. The nicest thing you can say about it is that it is disingenuous. It contains six quotes from previous CRFB documents. The first, from January of 2008, reads:

After passing a stimulus package, the President and the Congress should focus on developing a long-term budget plan that addresses entitlements, tax reform, and spending restraint.

That’s a highly selective quote. It is from a document, CBO Baseline: the Deficit Is Growing Again. The quotation above is not in the main document, it is in what is effectively a footnote. It is also a misquote. It is not a full sentence. The full sentence is this:

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget believes that no stimulus is better than a bad package and that after passing a stimulus package, the President and the Congress should focus on developing a long-term budget plan that addresses entitlements, tax reform, and spending restraint.

So really what they are saying is, “Okay, maybe stimulus is okay. But generally it is not. If you don’t do it our way, you shouldn’t do anything.” And the bottom line is that what is most important is, “Budget deficit!” The comment does link to a document (doc) that is pretty clear headed — at least it admits that you can’t have stimulus if the government pays for it. But this is a pretty low bar.

The next quotation comes from, CBO’s Analysis of the President’s FY2010 Budget Blueprint (pdf):

Although large short-term deficits may be necessary to put the economy on a path to recovery, debt cannot sustainably continue to grow as a percent of GDP over the long-term.

As Jonathan Chait has pointed out, whether short-term stimulus is necessary is open to debate (“may”), but there is absolutely no doubt (“cannot”) that there must be something done about the long-term deficit. This is the case with all the quotes. They provide lip service to the need for short-term stimulus, but they are metaphorically shouting about the deficit.

Jonathan ChaitFor example, the last quote is from a five page document and it shows up in the second to last paragraph. And even in that paragraph, it is sandwiched between “budget paints a dismal fiscal picture” and “threaten long-term economic growth and impair the normal functions and flexibility of government.” Even more important, they don’t believe that short-term stimulus is okay to get the economy moving again, it is all about stabilizing the economy. The last paragraph starts, “The latest projections underline the need for the Administration to put forward a plan for reducing the deficit as soon as the economy has stabilized.” So as soon as the economy is not in free-fall, there should be austerity. By this logic, we should have cut back in June of 2009. As it was, we waited a bit past that time.

All the rest of the quotes are of the same kind. And they are all small caveats at the end of longer documents. Even in January of 2012, after the federal government approved the sequester and increased taxes on the wealthy, they were ranting about the budget deficit. The caveats were put into the documents for exactly the reason they are being used now: to allow them to claim that they were never against short-term stimulus even though they were.

Notice also that the sequence of quotes itself is telling. It starts in January of 2008 and goes through February of 2014. That’s seven years of projections. Are we still in the “short-term” and “stabilization” phases of this recession? Each one of these CBO analyses say the same thing, “Be afraid; be very afraid! Oh, and short-term stimulus might be okay.” But as Chait pointed out:

In theory, the two goals [short-term stimulus and long-term austerity] were not in tension. In reality, the debt scolds helped pit them against each other by insisting that additional stimulus be contingent on the enactment of a major deficit reduction plan. This was a crucial qualifier, because a bipartisan plan to reduce the long-term debt was a political impossibility, as many people pointed out at the time. The only condition under which Republicans would accept a debt deal was excluding new revenue in any form. And since Obama’s only option for a debt deal was near-total capitulation, the debt scolds helped make short-term economic rescue a hostage to Republican intransigence. They supported additional stimulus only under political conditions that were impossible.

Another thing to note is that their focus was not on long-term deficits. It was on deficits generally. In their 2009 document, they mention the word “deficit” 26 times but only modify it three times. The best word to describe this is disingenuous. It’s true that the CRFB has always said that their concern was the long-term deficit, but their overall message was just that deficits were bad — now and always. I remember seeing representatives of the group interviewed in which they admitted that short-term deficits might be necessary to stabilize the economy and that their real concern was the long-term deficit. But these were the quiet moments. These were 30 seconds at the end of a half-hour during which they ranted about the coming catastrophe of budget deficits. What I never heard and is not contained in any of the documents they quote is the idea that the best way to deal with our long-term deficit is to have a strong economy. And their attitude about short-term stimulus was always as a frustrated mother teller her young son that he can play video games for five more minutes but then he must clean his room because that is very important. Their support for short-term economic measures was a concession — an unfortunate one that got in the way of their real agenda, which is entitlement cuts and fiscally neutral (Ha!) income tax rate cuts.

Republicans Pulling Up the Ladder

Charles PierceThe Davis ad is an important one because it strikes at the heart of what movement conservatism has made of the Republican party, which once was the party of the Pure Food and Drug Act, trust-busting, the Interstate Highway System, the Clean Water Act, and the EPA. Over the past three decades, however, beginning with that epochal moment when Ronald Reagan said, in his first inaugural, that government was the problem — not if you were a defense contractor, one thinks, or a mullah who wanted missiles — the Republican party has profited uniquely from a massive internal contradiction that would have given a less well-funded institution the blind staggers. And the party has doubled down on that contradiction year after year, decade after decade. Simply put, the Republican party deliberately has transformed itself from the Party of Lincoln to the Party of I’ve Got Mine, Jack. And it rarely, if ever, gets called to account for that. As a result, and without substantial notice or paying a substantial price, and on many issues, individual Republicans have been able to justify the benefits they’ve received from government activity that they now oppose in theory and in practice. This is not “hypocrisy.” That is too mild a word. This is the regulatory capture of the government for personal benefit. That it makes a lie, again and again, of the basic principles of modern conservatism — indeed, that it shows those principles to be a sham — is certainly worthy of notice and debate. It is certainly worthy of notice and debate that the conservative idea of the benefits of a political commonwealth means those benefits run only one way. Modern conservatism is not about making the government smaller. It’s about making the government exclusive. It’s not about streamlining the benefits of the political commonwealth. It’s about making sure those benefits flow only to those people who have proven through their ability to work all the other levers of power that they deserve those benefits.

One of the clearest demonstrations of the contradiction came during the Republican National Convention in 2012, when the party gave one night of speeches over to the theme, “We did build that,” a deliberate misinterpretation of something the president had said. Speaker after speaker spoke of how they pulled themselves up and built their success without interference from “government.” By the end of the night, the bootstraps has been pulled up so hard and so long that they must’ve extended from Tampa halfway through Alabama. But there was a curious thing about these speeches. A great many of them began with, “When my Dad got out of the Army…” There was the guy who built his business who never mentioned the small-business loans he’d obtained. There was Chris Christie, railing against the dead hand of big government while nearly sobbing over how important the GI Bill had been to his Dad. There was Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma who, against all history and logic, explained how her state had been built only through the sweat of Oklahomans. It was a night of organized bullshit so epic that it stands alone in my memory. It should have been all anybody talked about for a month. It should have defined the Republican party for a generation. Hell, if it weren’t for the New Deal, Ronald Reagan’s father would have been the town drunk. Government wasn’t The Problem then. Instead, it passed without conspicuous notice. If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, then a liberal is a conservative who was stupid enough to buy a Pinto. My son’s industrial accident must be avenged. Oh, and we should do away with OSHA as soon as that happens. Greg Abbott deserved that $10 million, but all the people taking advantage of the Americans With Disabilities Act don’t deserve wheelchair ramps or curb cuts. It’s monstrous.

—Charlie Pierce
Pulling Up the Ladder

John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth GalbraithOn this day in 1908, the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith was born. He was an important thinker in institutional economics — a field that seems largely to have been abandoned at least among “educated opinion.” Rather than look at economies as a bunch of markets, it looks at markets as the result of interacting institutions such as business, government, individuals, and so on. Galbraith rejected the neoclassical approach to economics that economies could be modeled based upon assuming such things as completely rational individuals.

Galbraith is better know, of course, as a popularizer of economics. He was the Paul Krugman of his day. Unfortunately, in his day, there was also the anti-Galbraith: Milton Friedman. Friedman contended that Galbraith was paternal. Of course, Friedman’s idea of liberty was that the government make no decisions regarding people’s lives. He completely ignored the effects of private forces on people’s lives. To me, this is all very simple. In your day to day life, what is it that most gets in your way: the government or businesses? For me and everyone I know, it isn’t even close. I have almost no direct interactions with the government. But any day now, the AT&T bill will arrive and I will have to waste yet another couple of hours fighting over the stuff I thought we agreed to last month. For most people, it is their employer that is most invasive. Regardless, people who claim the government is what is most interfering with their liberty are either independently wealthy or lying.

But if you want to get an idea of just how important and farsighted Galbraith was, check out the following section from Wikipedia on what he wrote about the American economy. Notice how much we’ve reverted:

In American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power, published in 1952, Galbraith concluded that the American economy was managed by a triumvirate of big business, big labor, and an activist government. Galbraith defined the actions of the industry lobby groups and unions as countervailing power. He contrasted this arrangement with the period prior to the previous Depression, when big business had relatively free rein over the economy. [Which is what we have today. -FM]

His 1954 bestseller The Great Crash, 1929 describes the famous Wall Street meltdown of stock prices and how markets progressively become decoupled from reality in a speculative boom. [Sound familiar? -FM] The book is also a platform for Galbraith’s humor and keen insights into human behavior when wealth is threatened. It has never been out of print.

In his most famous work, The Affluent Society (1958), which also became a bestseller, Galbraith outlined his view that to become successful, post-World War II America should make large investments in items such as highways and education, using funds from general taxation. [Which we did to great success; we could never do it today. -FM]

Galbraith also critiqued the assumption that continually increasing material production is a sign of economic and societal health. Because of this Galbraith is sometimes considered one of the first post-materialists. In this book, he coined and popularized the phrase “conventional wisdom.” Galbraith worked on the book while in Switzerland and had originally titled it “Why the Poor Are Poor,” but changed it to “The Affluent Society” at his wife’s suggestion. The Affluent Society contributed (likely to a significant degree, given that Galbraith had the ear of President Kennedy) to the “war on poverty,” the government spending policy introduced by the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson.

It’s not that a lot of people haven’t learned what Galbraith had to teach. It is just that our political elites have no interest in hearing it. On this point, Galbraith was clear too. He noted early on that when people got too rich, they stopped voting for the common good. Of course, at that time, they didn’t have Fox News and other propaganda machines to convince a bunch of poor people to follow them.

Happy birthday John Kenneth Galbraith!