Daily Archives: 14 Nov 2014

How Fox News Fails Cultural Conservatives

Conor FriedersdorfIf you’d never watched Fox News, the 24-hour cable network that caters to Americans who self-identify as conservatives, you might expect its entertainment coverage to focus on culturally conservative, family-friendly matters — fare some conservatives feel is ignored in a media run by social liberals. Where else to turn for such news if you’re a Republican grandparent who wistfully remembers the days when network TV put married couples in separate beds, or a red-state dad who wrote a letter to the FCC when Janet Jackson’s nipple emerged from her Superbowl costume, or a megachurch or Christian college attendee who shares the lament that our culture is hyper-sexualized?

But tune into the network’s actual entertainment coverage and one quickly realizes how far it is from being the change cultural conservatives want to see in the world…

But when it comes to mass broadcast outlets, consider the fact that a staunch cultural conservative like Rod Dreher, who homeschools his family with his wife, would be far more comfortable exposing his children to the entertainment coverage of NPR than Fox News. The former dips a toe in low culture, as do we all, and doesn’t entirely protect its listeners from the drift toward a hyper-sexualized America. But Fox News entertainment coverage focuses obsessively on sex, and has a weirdly symbiotic relationship with it: scantily clad women become an excuse to show breasts and butts in the guise of expressing disapproval…

Fox is, of course, not so different from other gigantic broadcast media corporations in shamelessly exploiting the fact that sex sells. Its behavior is noteworthy only insofar as it underscores the fact that the ideological mission it purports to have and the cultural critiques it purports to believe in are at odds with its actual programming. More than other broadcasters, it pretends to flatter cultural conservatives, and to disdain the decadence of liberals in their coastal enclaves. But that’s just a pose helping it sell ads against its own libertine cultural offerings.

—Conor Friedersdorf
How Fox News Fails Cultural Conservatives

The Myth of the NAIRU and Its Purpose

Matt YglesiasMatt Yglesias wrote a great article at Vox today, The NAIRU, Explained: Why Economists Don’t Want Unemployment to Drop Too Low. I know it sounds very technical and boring, but it isn’t. It is about the Federal Reserve and how economists have spent the last 40 years doing everything they can to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor.

NAIRU is an acronym for “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment.” It is supposedly the unemployment rate at which inflation will be flat. If unemployment gets below that level: inflation will take off. The problem with it is that, like much in economics, it doesn’t have much in the way of empirical evidence to support it. So why does everyone believe it? Simple: it provides a justification for keeping unemployment at a high enough level where workers have little leverage. It is a big part of the reason why workers have seen almost no share of productivity gains over the last 35 years.

What we’ve seen since the early 1980s onward is that inflation has remained low — most of the time, too low. And this is because the Federal Reserve has always prioritizes attacking even the threat of inflation above stopping actual job losses. You see, there is no doubt that there is a relationship between inflation and employment. In the late 1950s, William Phillips showed that inflation and employment were inversely related. High levels of employment tended to cause inflation, and vice versa.

Phillips Curve

This graph is for the 1960s, but the graph for the century before that looks pretty much the same. What I find most interesting about this is that to me, the sweet spot on the graph would be an unemployment rate of less than 4% with an inflation rate of 3%. But the Fed — and most other central banks — are obsessed with a 2% inflation target, which they generally think is compatible with a 5-6% unemployment rate. That’s an extra 2-3 million unemployed people, just so the rich don’t have to worry about even a hint of inflation. And it just so happens to keep wages low. It’s good to be rich.

With just the Phillips Curve alone, there might be some pressure on policymakers. But instead, there is this whole “rational expectations” theory behind it that basically says that even allowing inflation won’t help employment. So the Fed may have a dual mandate to minimize inflation and unemployment, but in practice it has a single mandate to minimize inflation and let the American worker starve as he may.

Yglesias pointed out that even if you accept the NAIRU, the Fed has consistently kept unemployment above it. Other than at the end of the 1990s, periods of time where the unemployment rate was below the NAIRU were brief and shallow. And even during that 1990s period, there was no increase in inflation. I would have thought this would mean that economists would throw away the NAIRU or at least recalibrate it to allow for a lower target unemployment. But no. Instead, they seem to have just convinced themselves that the late 1990s was a special case. And this is why the Fed currently is on the verge of raising interest rates. Because employment is doing so great. (Note: sarcasm!)

What’s so frustrating about this is that it would never work the other way. If there was sketchy evidence for allowing inflation of 5%, it would not be economic dogma. It is only economic dogma when it just so happens to benefit the power elite. I have begun to see economics as a kind of theology. What economists primarily do is apologetics: justifying established dogma. It’s not that they aren’t smart guys. Theologian are smart too. But that doesn’t make them right.

In the past, there have been whole classes of people whose job it was to justify the power of church. We have the same situation now — just with a different power center. The economists use math to show that the power elite really do deserve what they have — and more. And so we’ve had anti-union and anti-inflation policies for the last several decades. We are told this is necessary so we can all have nice things. But it is all about justifying taking what should be the nice things from the poor and giving them to the rich. And it is done in the name of “Science!” Economics isn’t a science. It is a conspiracy of the rich.

Reclassify ISPs Today; Don’t Wait for Perfection

Timothy B. LeeOne of the reasons that I stopped being a libertarian was that I was tired of being a spoiler. The truth was that I always preferred liberal policy. So even though I was a hardcore libertarian in 1992 and voted for Andre Marrou, I was thrilled that Bill Clinton was elected. But it was more than that. With all the high minded theory of libertarianism, I often found myself at odds with practical alternatives. In this country, the question is usually whether there will be modest improvements for regular people from Democratic policy, or distinctly negative consequences from Republican policy. Being a libertarian on the sidelines is just pathetic, “I have the best idea! Listen to me!” It doesn’t help that libertarians basically never have the best ideas.

This came to mind this morning as I read Timothy B Lee over at Vox, Everyone Is Focused on the Wrong Issue in the Net Neutrality Debate. In general, I like Lee. He is a smart libertarian wonk who usually has good things to say on issues of intellectual property. And what he says regarding net neutrality is smart and largely true. But it takes a position that allows things to stay exactly the way they are: broken.

During the Bush administration, the FCC classified internet service providers (ISPs) as content providers rather than infrastructure providers. This means there are very few regulations on them. Of course, this decision turned reality on its head. I’m using AT&T for my ISP right now. It is providing infrastructure, not content. The content between me at home and the Frankly Curious server sits on top of that. Or think of it this way: would you pay for internet service if the only thing that was on it was AT&T and Comcast? But I think we all know why the FCC decided that ISPs were content services: it gave more power to the ISPs.

Millions of us have been pushing to have ISPs reclassified as infrastructure providers — so it would be thought of as a utility. This has the advantage that you almost certainly do think of your ISP as a utility. You certainly don’t think of it the way you think of Twitter. But conservatives hate this idea. They claim that this will interfere with innovation. I’ll tell you: when someone starts talking about “innovation,” you really need to hide your wallet. This is the same reason we are told we must have pharmaceutical patents: to maintain all the innovation in the field of erectile dysfunction drugs.

Of course, innovation works both ways. My current start-up depends upon having lots of internet bandwidth. And I’m not alone. If start-ups have to go making bandwidth deals with the ISPs, that’s going to cripple innovation. And there’s more, as Lee noted:

There is an even greater — potentially debilitating — concern for some advocates: incumbent broadband providers could deliberately hobble new services that represent a competitive threat to incumbent services. For example, telephone companies might be tempted to interfere with internet telephony products such as Skype that compete with traditional phone service. Or cable companies might want to slow down services such as Netflix that compete with their paid television service.

What’s more, net neutrality seems to be working great in the Netherlands. But remember: the “innovation” claim is just an excuse to allow powerful people to maintain that power. The only reason we might win this fight is because there are powerful people like Netflix on our side.

Lee understands all this, but he poo poos the idea that reclassifying is a good idea. He claims it is a “huge distraction.” And why is that? Because what we really need is a new classification that is tailored for the internet: sort of a hybrid between the two existing categories. But the fact is that this is absolutely, positively not going to happen. So do nothing? Well, that seems to be where he comes down. And that is the entirely typical result of libertarian thought: since we can’t have our preferred “perfect” solution, let’s do nothing.

But changing the classification of ISPs back to what it was would be an improvement. I’m all for Lee trying to get Congress to come up with something new. But it doesn’t “distract” from that to go ahead with the reclassification today.

Ideological Purity Stops Reps From Governing

Jonathan ChaitThis morning, Jonathan Chait noted that the era of the “reasonable Republican” did not last long, Conservatives: Let’s Prove We Can Govern by Shutting Down the Government and Impeaching Obama. Basically, the party tried to hide its kooks in the basement, but that isn’t working out too well. It is one thing to get Joni Ernst to not talk about the coming black helicopters while trying to get power. It is quite another to shut up the loonies once they have power. As Chait put it, “[I]t is already clear, just days after the election, that contrary to the fondest hopes of Boehner and McConnell, the kooks will not be going quietly.”

The biggest problem is that Obama insists on doing things and generally acting like he’s still president. And this is what I find so interesting. In 2008 and 2012, the Republicans were quite right to dismiss calls for them to change and work with the Democrats because of the “mandate” from the people. But in 2010, right after the election, Republicans everywhere were calling for no work to get done with the lame duck Congress. And even though they did not control the Senate or the White House, they thought that the Democrats should just kneel before them because they had won the most recent election.

Similarly, this election we’ve heard two things. First is the fairy tale that the Republicans are going to “govern” — as though people in the minority can’t govern. The same thing that stopped them from governing then will stop them now: they don’t have complete power to do exactly what they want. As it was, in 2011, Obama showed himself to be such a feckless negotiator that the Republicans got almost everything they wanted and still the crazies would not go along. Now they think they really have all the power. So in 2011, 98% wasn’t good enough. What is it today? Is 99.999999% of what they want not good enough?

What we see from Republicans is this hypocritical oscillation. When they win an election, they think they should be in charge, even though the United States government is not set up that way. When they lose, they yield not an inch. And this is a problem. Politics is not an art form. Perfection is never a possibility. So it is always a matter of making the best of a situation. That would normally mean accepting minor gains when you don’t have power and major gains when you do. But with the Republicans we get only a grand scheme that looks toward a day when they will have all the power and be able to realize the perfection of their vision. This is the danger of ideology and most often it leads to authoritarianism.

The Republicans can deal with their current situation well or poorly. The problem is that a great many of them have been sold a bunch of nonsense. One of the most common things that conservatives think is that politics is about the will. If only they stick to their principles, all obstacles will crumble. And it doesn’t matter how much power they actually have. Will Obama’s executive actions cause them to harm themselves? Very possibility. But it is important to remember that it is their addiction to ideological purity that stops them from being effective at their jobs. Sadly, it is also what makes them extremely dangerous when they do get complete control of Washington.

Claude Monet

Claude Monet - DetailOn this day in 1840, the great painter Claude Monet was born. I have to admit: I tend to discount him. This is always a problem when you are too successful. He has been so copied, he was hugely influential among his peers, and he was incredibly prolific. Add this to the fact that he makes painting look easy, and he is an easy artist to ignore. But he is profoundly awesome.

I always find people like him amazing. He really did have a vision. He was able to paint in the Academic style; he just refused to. I can’t see myself doing that. I want to be liked too much. So that kind of dedication to your vision impresses me greatly. He was apparently very self-assured from a young age. In his early teens he was good enough to sell charcoal caricatures. He bounced around a lot from there, learning much from a large number of people. Perhaps most important, he met Édouard Manet when he was about 20.

From there, he traveled quite a lot for the next decade — including two years with the military in Algeria. By his early 30s, he was one of the main figures of what would eventually become known as the impressionists — so named because of this painting he displayed at their first exhibit, Impression, Sunrise. The main thing about it is its distinctive rendering of light that would remain with Monet his entire career:

Impression, Sunrise - Claude Monet

I’ve always been very impressed with Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare from four years later:

Arrival of the Normandy Train - Claude Monet

But there is so much more. He painted well over a thousand paintings in his life. And he painted for almost another 50 years — much of it quite marvelous.

Happy birthday Claude Monet!