Daily Archives: 13 Jan 2015

PolSci Prof Has No Insights into Religion in Politics

Tony GillOver at The Oregonian, Melissa Binder interviewed University of Washington political science professor (specializing in religion) Tony Gill on an issue that I’m quite interested in, Why Is Congress Overwhelmingly Christian With Only One Religious “None”? Interestingly, Gill doesn’t answer the question. In fact, we mostly get a lot of apologetics from him.

His answer is that since Congress is a small sample size, we wouldn’t expect it to correlate very well with the whole 316 million people in the United States. That’s shockingly ignorant. With a sample size of 535, we should have reasonably large errors — but not an almost total lack of correlation. For example, 1.6% of Americans state explicitly that they are atheist or agnostic. When we include people who just aren’t religious, the number can go up as high as 10%. Yet there is only one member of Congress who claims no religious affiliation. That’s less than 0.2%. That isn’t “small sample size” error; that’s “heavily skewed sample” error.

Similarly, when discussing why Americans are so negative toward atheists, Gill had really no insight other than to claim that people don’t trust the political system so they want to make sure that there is a God their politicians are afraid of, “An atheist doesn’t have those checks and balances on them — a supernatural individual checking them when we can’t see them.” It’s amazing that this guy is a professor at Washington — a university I hold in high esteem. This, after all, is no kind of analysis. If you strip away all nice words, his argument is, “People are bigots, and I agree with them.”

I think there is an obvious answer to the main question — one that ought to be the first thing that a political scientist would mention: incentives. Most people are religious. I’m not. I’m an atheist. As a result, I really don’t care the religion of people I vote for. I just care about their policies. Now, I understand that there are anti-theists who do care, but this is a tiny minority. So if a woman who isn’t really religious decides to go into politics, she will grab onto a religion — for purely political reasons if for nothing else. Gill does eventually touch on this, but only in passing — and while answering an entirely different question.

The problem with the general attitude of religious people toward atheists is that they simply don’t know atheists. So their attitudes toward atheists really are a form of bigotry. It’s the same reason that we didn’t elect an African American president before 2008. People we don’t know scare us. I suspect that The Cosby Show was as important to the election of Barack Obama as his Harvard education. I suspect that atheists need to do what the LGBT community did and be more public about who they are. Maybe in fifty years, atheists will have a 50% approval rating.

There was one part of the interview that was of interest. There is a strong tendency in the atheist community to think that atheism is really taking off. Gill rightly poured cold water on that. As the numbers I quoted above indicate, this just isn’t true. The number of explicit atheists is about the same today as it was when I was born. The trend that I’ve seen in my life is that a lot more people take their religions ridiculously seriously. The one bit of good news for the country is that there is a growing number of people who just don’t care about religion. But Gill tosses this idea aside as just part of the “life cycle” — claiming that people come to church later. But again, he shows his mathematical ignorance: that would always have been true. His “life cycle” argument doesn’t explain the trend.

So I really don’t appreciate Professor Gill’s apologetics. And it is amazing that a political scientist at a major American research university could be so ignorant of mathematics and statistics. I have no idea why The Oregonian chose to run the interview.

Full Employment Won’t Reverse Income Inequality

Mark ThomaThe standard take on employment and wages is that if employment goes up, so will wages. I countered a commenter just yesterday on that exact point. This is very simple supply and demand stuff. If employment goes up, workers will become more scarce. When a resource is more scarce, its cost goes up. And this is why I generally have a problem with the way the Federal Reserve operates: any time that the unemployment rate gets low enough to really cause some increase in wages, the institution puts the breaks on the economy. But in general, I believe that a low unemployment rate will lead to increasing wages.

And why do I believe that? There is a notable exception regarding the Fed always tightening the money supply just when employment really starts to take off: Alan Greenspan in the 1990s. But that was because he was a heterodox economist. He got unemployment low, and he kept it low. The results: wages did increase — if only modestly. The interesting thing is that he manage to bring unemployment all the way down to 4% for a whole year without causing inflation, yet today the conventional wisdom is that we must worry about inflation because unemployment is about to get as low as 5.5%. It’s unbelievable. But the fact remains that if only we could get unemployment low enough, wages ought to start rising.

Unfortunately, this may not be the case — or at least the effect may be so small that it doesn’t matter (wages for most people rose little in the 1990s). Full employment may be a necessary condition, but it is not at all a sufficient one. Mark Thoma discussed this today at The Fiscal Times, Full Employment Alone Won’t Solve Problem of Stagnating Wages. He noted, “The idea that market forces alone will increase wages sufficiently to offset increasing inequality is not supported by the evidence from these years [1979 – 2015].” Put simply, there is a whole lot more going on here than “market forces.”

In fact, there is really only one market force (Singular!) that is in effect. If markets were completely rational and completely flexible, wages would go down during a recession. In fact, this is a big part of what passes for conservative economic policy, “If only workers would take a 25% wage cut, the economy would be back to full employment right away!” It isn’t that simple, regardless; but you really have to wonder how many recessions it would take to return to the antebellum south. But because it is very hard to reduce wages, the theory goes, wages stagnate for a while until the the real free market value of labor is back up to where wages currently are.

I’ve always wonder about this theory. My main question is why such widespread reductions in wages wouldn’t throw the economy into deflation. Since the cost of labor would be cheaper, stuff would be cheaper. But then there would be less demand for the stuff because people wouldn’t have as much disposable income. So you end up with less demand but at cheaper prices. This in turn would cause another round of wage lowering. It sounds like a deflationary trap to me. Regardless, it is ridiculous to suggest that you can disassociate economics from sociology — wages simply don’t go down in a recession.

A bigger issue, I think, is the lack of union power. And along with that is the decline of the minimum wage so far that it is effectively useless. This is why I’ve become an advocate of a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) where everyone is paid a living wage whether they work or not. That would do the same thing as the minimum wage did in 1968 when it was, adjusted for inflation and productivity, almost $22 per hour. That kind of minimum wage (or even BIG) today would not destroy our economy (as conservatives always claim); rather, it would building a strong middle class. After all, the economy was doing great in 1968.

But the power elite don’t even want such issues discussed, much less acted upon. Because this has nothing to do with the economy as a whole, and everything to do with who shares in the spoils of the economy. As Thoma noted “owners and managers of large firms are paid much more than their counterparts in other countries, an indication that something beyond market forces is at play.” The same thing can be said for doctors — a major reason why our medical care costs so much. But Thoma’s conclusion is extremely important:

So long as we continue to believe that market forces and the attainment of full employment will solve the problem of stagnating wages and rising inequality, so long as we fail to recognize that workers need a level playing field when bargaining over wages, inequality will continue to be a problem.

But I don’t think this is an accident. The society that we live in is the one that the power elites want. They’ve spent at least the last fifty years making a society in which issues like this are considered outside the Overton Window. But we liberals need to remember this stuff — and talk about it loudly. The market will not save us. The conservatives are crazy, evil, or both. The neoliberals are just wrong. The “free” market economy does not distribute resources justly and efficiently.

Republican Disingenuous Changes at CBO

Paul KrugmanI got the news this morning from Paul Krugman, Selective Voodoo. As expected, the Republican Congress has changed the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) rules so that they use “dynamic scoring” to take into account the stimulative effects of tax cuts. That in itself is not that bad — in fact, I think it is marginally good. The truth is that tax cuts are stimulative. The stimulus is made at least a little bad by the fact that the taxes that the Republicans want to cut are generally rich people’s taxes. And those are the least stimulative — given that their taxes are already quite low. And in our current situation where the rich don’t have many good places to invest their money, it’s a joke.

The much bigger problem is that the stimulative effects of government spending will not be scored dynamically. This doesn’t make any sense. Government spending — from food stamps to road repair to weapons manufacture — has stimulative effects. There is no question of this. But that’s the thing with this move: it is not meant to make the CBO more accurate in its estimate (and it could use it). It is meant to make the policies that the Republicans prefer sound less expensive than they otherwise would. Meanwhile, a bridge repair will have no stimulative effect — regardless of the fact that people must be paid to build the bridge and those people will spend that money and so on.

But I wonder that the Republicans did it. This must be a move to make the freaks happy. It strikes me as a lot like the filibuster. I’m sure that the Republicans will get rid of the filibuster the moment they have control of the Congress with a Republican in the White House. I would have thought that they would have waited about the dynamic scoring as well. The way it is now, the Democrats will simply change the rules to apply to government spending when they get back in control. And that would be far better than either the current situation or the old situation.

The main concern that liberals have about this (although Krugman didn’t mention it), is that the CBO will become just another partisan organisation. I discussed this last week, Maybe It Is Best the CBO Is Now Partisan. The truth is that the CBO was always partisan — in the conservatives’ favor. Now it is more so. But I think that in the long run, this will make the CBO more accurate and less partisan. Also, I don’t like the idea of supposedly non-partisan groups anyway. The Republicans just define them as “liberal” and ignore them.

What bugs me is that the Republicans are being so disingenuous about this. But that is hardly surprising. Conservatives in general are fact resistant. But when it comes to conservative politician (or influential non-politicians) are just impossible.

The Bloody Shirt Myth

Jonathan ChaitI recently read Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt, a history of Reconstruction-era violence. Now, if you remember your high-school history, you know what the “bloody shirt” means. It describes how post–Civil War Republican politicians whipped up their supporters by associating the Democratic Party with bygone misdeeds. The phrase itself lives on in the political lexicon as an epithet for any demagogue who whips up old hatreds.

I had always believed the bloody shirt was the garment of a slain Union soldier, held aloft years later. In fact, Budiansky points out, the phrase was used to describe contemporaneous post–Civil War violence. In 1871, Klansmen in Mississippi accosted Allen Huggins, a northerner who had helped educate freed slaves, thrashed him within an inch of his life, and threatened to kill him unless he left the state. The bloody shirt was Huggins’s, allegedly waved by Republican Benjamin Butler on the House floor just a few weeks later. It was not the relic of an ancient feud but evidence of an ongoing epidemic of rampant violence. That the bloody shirt came to stand for unfair denunciations of violence rather than the violence itself was a triumph of southern propaganda.

What’s more, Budiansky reports, there is no evidence that Butler ever waved the bloody shirt at all. That vivid detail was a figment of white supremacists’ imagined victimization.

—Jonathan Chait
Obama and the Unfairness of History

Horatio Alger

Horatio AlgerAs noted, I’m out and birthday posts are the hardest thing to do under these circumstances. So I’m presenting an edited and expanded version of part of last year’s birthday post. It is not, as you will see, a guy I like very much.

On this day in 1832, Horatio Alger was born. He was a very popular writer in the 19th century. He wrote what is charitably called “crap.” Typical kind of story: poor boy goes to rich man’s house in search of employment; rich man has a dog that immediately takes to the poor boy; rich man hires poor boy because of the dog likes him. It is up, up, and away for the poor boy after that! He will probably end up marrying the rich man’s daughter who is beautiful, intelligent, and sweet. It’s exactly the kind of stories that the people wanted to believe during the Gilded Age and exactly the kind of stories the rich wanted the poor to be reading. Today, “Horatio Alger” is a synonym for any kind of unbelievable rags to riches story. In general, we don’t see such stories in their pure form because we are a much more cynical people. (For good reason!) There have been times when there were jobs for the asking. There were times when what most of the Republican Party now believes was true: if you aren’t working, you aren’t trying hard enough. Sorry folks, that’s now no more true than the statement, “Horatio Alger was a great writer!”

There is also the minor issue that Alger was a pedophile. While a young man, he was a pastor for the First Unitarian Church in Massachusetts. He was forced to resign and left town. His crime was “unnatural familiarity with boys.” Apparently, in those days (or in liberal churches), people actually did something about that kind of thing. But he didn’t seem to have any of that trouble in the future. He probably found an acceptable outlet for his homosexuality, but we don’t know that much about it.

Happy birthday Horatio Alger!