Daily Archives: 30 Jan 2015

Socialist vs Liberal Websites

Socialism according to an idiot conservativeI’ve noticed something recently. I’m not very happy with liberal websites. It’s not that I especially disagree with them, although I often do. It is more that it is mostly really boring. I find myself more and more gravitating to straight up socialist websites. Primarily, they understand the fundamental problems with capitalism — especially the way it is practiced in the United States and Europe. What I never find on socialist websites, as I discussed earlier, are things like Jonathan Chait’s rejoicing about Obama pushing for state and local governments to access the usefulness of barber licensing. Read the article for my take on it. The main point here is just: who cares?

But this is what we get from liberals. It reminds me of something I heard a long time ago. When I was in college, I saw a talk by Jeff Cohen. He noted that the PBS NewsHour would bring in two conservatives to talk about a subject. They would be presented as center-left and center-right. But if it was a discussion of the military, it would doubtless be Sam Nunn — generally a conservative southern Democrat — very conservative when it came to the military. He would be joined by some Republican who was on the far right. And they would have a “Yes, but…” conversation. For example, “Yes, I agree that we must build the Mx Missile, but I think we should build 40 rather than 100.” Because what we really needed in 1985 was more ICBMs and the only possible debate was the number that we needed.

Things really came to a head during the discussion of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Like most people, my first reaction was disgust at the attack. But then it became a cause. But a cause for what? The cause of freedom of speech? Was that really a discussion we needed to have? After all, this wasn’t a question of the government stifling speech. This was a couple of thugs with guns who killed a bunch of people for their own reasons. But it did cause the French government to stifle speech as a result of it. It wasn’t the liberal blogs that were all over this hypocrisy. It wasn’t even much of the libertarian blogs. They were mostly interested in self-congratulation for just how committed to freedom they all were.

I also noticed just how widespread a certain strain of casual Islamophobia is around in the liberal world. It kind of goes along with the whole Jonathan Chait PC article brouhaha. I have this feeling that simmering below the surface of American liberalism is a kind of hatred and intolerance for anything that is socially acceptable to hate. Muslims are fine to hate, as long as you speak carefully like Sam Harris. Uppity transgender people are fine to hate, as long as it is their “intolerance” and not gender that you claim to hate. The primary difference between liberals and conservatives seems to be how much time it takes to move them kicking and screaming into the future.

The funny thing about all of this is that I don’t really consider myself a socialist. I believe in robust market economies. But because I am relatively conservative in the traditional sense of the work, I think a strong state is essential. And anyone who doesn’t see that is just not paying attention. Not only is a strong state necessary to take care of those thing that the market economy does not (social order, healthcare, guaranteed minimum income), we need it in order to make the market economy function correctly. But in the United States, politics is so screwed up that a conservative believer in robust market economies is well to the left of the traditional left.

But my increasing interest in socialist thought really doesn’t have to do with agreeing with it. I don’t agree with it any more than I agree with liberal thought. But I wonder what good liberal thought is when it doesn’t really counter the status quo. It is very much arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We will fight endless wars in foreign lands regardless who is president, and the liberals will grumble. We will see the working class fall further and further behind regardless who is president, and the liberals will murmur. The poor will die much younger than the rich regardless who is president, and the liberals will whimper. But they won’t say that something is fundamentally wrong with the system, because they are as committed to the status quote as the conservatives.

Afterword

None of this means that my thinking on politics has changed. I’ve always been on the “radical” side of liberal politics anyway. But I am still a Democrat — because there is no better choice. And ultimately, I’m a pragmatist. But there are only so many hours in the day. And what am I going to spend them doing? I could read stuff with the same old boring points of view that don’t much enrich my thinking. Or I would challenge myself. Prepare for some changes to the links on the right.

Mainstream Media’s WikiLeak Contempt

Trevor TimmIn the past four years, WikiLeaks has had their Twitter accounts secretly spied on, been forced to forfeit most of their funding after credit card companies unilaterally cut them off, had the FBI place an informant inside their news organization, watched their supporters hauled before a grand jury, and been the victim of the UK spy agency GCHQ hacking of their website and spying on their readers.

Now we’ve learned that, as The Guardian reported on Sunday, the Justice Department got a warrant in 2012 to seize the contents — plus the metadata on emails received, sent, drafted and deleted — of three WikiLeaks’ staffers’ personal Gmail accounts, which was inexplicably kept secret from them for almost two and a half years…

Most journalists and press freedom groups have been inexplicably quiet about the Justice Department’s treatment of WikiLeaks and its staffers ever since, despite the fact that there has been a (justified) backlash against the rest of the Justice Department’s attempt to subpoena reporters’ phone call records and spy on their emails. But almost all of the tactics used against WikiLeaks by the Justice Department in their war on leaks were also used against mainstream news organizations.

For example, after The Washington Post revealed in 2013 the Justice Department had gotten a warrant for the personal Gmail account of Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2010 without his knowledge by explicitly accusing him of being an espionage “co-conspirator” (for having the audacity to arrange to confidentially speak with a source), journalists and privacy advocates understandably reacted in shock and outrage.

WikiLeaks staffers faced virtually the same tactics: they had their Gmail seized by the government in secret, they didn’t find out for years after the fact (so they had no way to challenge it) and, according to WikiLeaks’ lawyers, the warrant specifically indicates the Justice Department is investigating WikiLeaks for “conspiracy to commit espionage.” …

Unfortunately the news world has never rallied around WikiLeaks’ First Amendment rights the way they should — sometimes even refusing to acknowledge they are a journalism organization, perhaps because they dare to do things a little differently than the mainstream media, or because WikiLeaks tweets provocative political opinions, or because they think its founder, Julian Assange, is an unsympathetic figure.

Those are all disgraceful excuses to ignore the government’s overreach: the rights of news organizations everywhere are under just as much threat whether the government reads the private emails of staffers at WikiLeaks, Fox News or the Associated Press.

—Trevor Timm
The War on Leaks Has Gone Way Too Far When Journalists’ Emails Are Under Surveillance

Heterodox Economics Helps Create Bad Policy

Mike KonczalDespite the fact that I often hate the results of them, I greatly admire heterodox economists. It is really important to have people who push against the grain of what everyone else “knows.” Usually, everyone else thinks they know things because they are more or less right. But not always. And sometimes heterodox economists have important results that everyone just chooses to ignore. Alan Greenspan showed that unemployment could go way down without causing inflation, yet most economists continue to believe that an unemployment rate much below 5.5% will bring back the 1970s. This tends to be the way of it. When a new idea comes around that helps working people, the economics profession is very skeptical.

The problem with hererodox economists is that when they come up with an idea that is completely wrong, but which justifies what the power elite want to do, it is accepted as Hoyle in much of the policy establishment. There were two big examples of this recently. First there was Alberto Alesina’s work that purported to show that cutting government spending in a recession was consistent with economic growth: expansionary austerity. And then there was Reinhart and Rogoff’s idea economic that growth stalled out after government debt reached 90% of GDP. Neither of these theories was ever compelling, but it told conservatives what they wanted to hear, “The budget must be balanced!”

The great Mike Konczal at Next New Deal brought my attention to another heterodox paper from a group at National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that already has conservatives all tittering. He discussed it in, Did Ending Unemployment Insurance Extensions Really Create 1.8 Million Jobs? The idea is that cutting off unemployment insurance to 1.3 million people suddenly made 1.8 million people employed. It isn’t impossible in theoretical terms; it could be that there is a kind of multiplier effect: when one person gets a job, he’s able to spend more and that works its way through the economy.

One of the problems with the paper is that it uses a model that is “an empirical disaster.” This is very typical of Chicago school type models. Decades ago, they decided that it wasn’t necessary for their economic models to actually mimic or predict the real economy. And there is something to be said for this. One can learn things from models that aren’t predictive. Just the same, because of this, pretty much all the policy models are New Keynesian. And one has to wonder why economists would make claims about the real economy when using models they know don’t model reality.

There are many other problems with the NBER paper — read Konczal’s article for all the details. I’m more interested in (and worried about) the fact that this will be used by conservatives to claim that the only reason we ever have unemployment is because we are so nice to the unemployed. (Insert Paul Ryan hammock remark here!) Somehow, the 25% unemployment rate in 1930 — before these was UI — doesn’t seem to matter to these people. We end up with these horrible false equivalence arguments: “Some economists (99%) say that unemployment insurance raises the unemployment by a couple of tenths of a percentage point, and other economists (1%) say that unemployment insurance raises the unemployment by over a percentage point. Who can say?!”

This is a fundamental problem with economics and public policy. And this was the only valid criticism of Seven Bad Ideas. Many people, most notably Brad DeLong, noted that the bad ideas listed in the book weren’t really what economists believe. But the bad ideas are everywhere in economic policy debate. And heterodox papers like this new one from NBER only intensify this problem.

Professional Licencing Reform Will Just Enrich the Wealthy

Professional LicenseWatching economic policy debate feels very much like watching a doctor set a broken arm while the patient dies with blood gushing out of an artery. We look at minor issues and ignore major ones. And then when someone like me points this out, people complain, “Well at least they’re doing something!” That might be a sensible retort if the minor things that were being done were unquestionably good. But that’s never the case.

Take the case of Obama’s new budget line item that gives $15 million to states so that they can evaluate the costs and benefits of professional licensing. Jonathan Chait wrote a very excited article about it, Obama Budget Attacks Big Small Government. In many ways, I agree. The truth of the matter is that if you are going to be oppressed by the government in the United States, it is almost certainly going to be by state and local government — not the federal government. And a lot of professional licensing really is stupid. I’ll go further: there are tremendous state and local regulations that are extremely onerous to people like me who operate what I’ve come to think of as micro-businesses — businesses that consist of one or two people that often don’t even have store fronts.

Where I part company with Chait is in thinking that licensing requirements are really what are getting in the way of people climbing the economic ladder. To begin with, property tax laws that require businesses to pay taxes on all their inventory that they might some day sell are far more inhibiting than licensing. Or consider one of Chait’s favorite examples: barbers. Having to go to school and be licensed is certainly a barrier to entry. But it isn’t as big a barrier to entry as having to rent a shop rather than working out of your house.

But the macro-scale problem is worse. Becoming a barber is currently a path to the middle class precisely because it is a licensed profession. Get rid of that barrier to entry, and more people come into the field, and the quality of the job goes done. And pretty much, the quality of the job goes down to the same extent that it becomes an easier job to have. Allow people to have barber shops in their kitchens and it becomes as much a pathway to the middle class as itinerant farm work.

But hey, that’s the free market, right? Sort of. The truth is that writ large and long, the economy would grow as a result of cheaper haircuts. But there are two reasons why we shouldn’t care. The first is just a matter of fairness. Why is it that it is always the middle and lower-middle classes that have to suffer so that the poor might get a small advantage? We saw this during many of the lame attempts at integration in the early 1970s. The ultimate effect was that the lower and middle classes were disrupted and minority groups ended up just as segregated as when they started. This is what happens when the power elite decide that the only way to help the disadvantaged is by disadvantaging a different, almost as powerless, group.

The other issue is that I just don’t care about economic growth. Over the last four decades, we have seen the effect of economic growth. The rich (top 1%) have gotten way richer. The upper half of the upper class (top 10%) has gotten marginally richer. And the rest have either gotten nothing or have actually lost. So when cheaper haircuts stimulate economic growth, there is no reason to think that the very people who see their wages cut will get any offsetting benefit from it.

Last week, Dean Baker discussed, Ubernomics. It turns out that despite the fact that Uber drivers have enormous upfront costs and are basically just their own businesses, they seem to make less per hour than traditional cab drivers. This doesn’t even take into account that Uber and similar services are flouting the law. As Baker noted, “Find a way to get around the rules and then claim it as a great innovation.” Regardless, this is also the typical story of our economy: lower wages for poor and middle class workers while the rich pocket the savings.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t look at professional licensing. But it is a minor issue. We are looking at it because it is an issue that doesn’t threaten the power elite. I understand: that’s politics. But there is a problem with supposedly liberal commentators claiming that this is something great. It isn’t. The long-term effects of this will be to lower the wages of middle class workers. But on the up side, Jonathan Chait will get cheaper haircuts.

Mark Eitzel

Mark EitzelThe great singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel is 56 today. He is best known for his work with American Music Club. The interesting thing is that Eitzel started in punk rock in 1980. Most people think of AMC as a pretty mellow affair. But that’s the great thing about it. It is fundamentally a punk band. I’ve never seen punk as a style of music. Rather, it is an attitude — FUBU for white people. And AMC definitely has that. I’ve heard a definition of depression as “anger turned inward.” I think that’s a terrible definition of depression, but it is a rather good definition of AMC. But what really makes Eitzel great is that he takes his anger and depression and combines it with a wry sense of humor.

Although American Music Club has managed to get back together and put out a couple of albums over the last decade (Good albums!) Eitzel seems to perform more as a solo act. I think he is at his best when he’s working with Vudi in AMC. But it doesn’t much matter from our perspective, there is really not much good online. But here is “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” from their major label debut Mercury:

Happy birthday Mark Eitzel!