Republicans Do Not Care About the Deficit!

Ronald ReaganEd Kilgore discussed The 35-Year GOP Budget Dilemma. He claimed that the Republicans have been struggling with four ideological goals: “lowering top-end tax rates; boosting defense spending; going after New Deal/Great Society spending; and reducing budget deficits.” But I think this is giving Republican rhetoric rather too much credit. Just because Republicans claim that they care about budget deficits doesn’t mean that they do. And I just haven’t seen any evidence that Republicans have ever cared about the deficit — except as a rhetorical stick that they can use to call for the policies that they really want.

Let us return briefly to Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president in 1980. A big part of his pitch was that the national debt was out of control and he was going to get rid of it! Also: he was going to cut taxes, increase military spending, and get those welfare queens. So there are Kilgore’s four Republican ideological goals. Now, Reagan was lying about government debt. The truth is that we had been reducing debt (as a percentage of GDP) pretty much from the end of World War II onward. The debt went down under the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. And it has gone up during every Republican presidency since then — most of all under Reagan:

US National Debt - Zfacts

So Reagan did not balance the budget as he said he would. He did, however, manage to make the poorer classes pay a lot more for their New Deal programs. He did manage to greatly increase military spending (and wrongly get credit for destroying the Soviet Union). And most of all, he did manage to lower the top tax rate from 70% all the way down to 28%. Since him, Bush the Elder did raise the top tax rate to a whopping 31%. But he was widely criticized for it and is now used by Republicans as an example of why no one can ever raise taxes on the rich (even though that wasn’t why Bush lost his re-election bid). Bush the Younger also lowered taxes. None of these men cared much about the deficit.

Mitt Romney - NopeFor more recent history, we need to return to the heady days of the 2012 presidential election. Romney — like all Republicans when a Democrat is in the White House — claimed to care a great deal about the deficit and debt. That’s why he put out a budget. And that budget: gave massive tax cuts to the rich; increased military spending; cut benefits to the poorer classes; and made the budget deficit much, much worse. So clearly, Romney wasn’t interested in the deficit. And remember: he was supposedly a “reasonable Republican” — not a firebrand who would destroy the country.

For the last year, Jonathan Chait has been making arguments like, I Have Seen the Future of the Republican Party, and It Is George W Bush. He claims that the only way forward for the Republicans is for them to forget about all this nonsense about balanced budgets and just do what Bush did: lower taxes, make war, and most of all, stop worrying and love the debt. It isn’t exactly a shockingly insightful point. But it is one that most political writers don’t want to accept. It seems to be rude to accuse the Republicans of not really believing what they claim. But we have 35 years of history that shows that Republicans only care about the deficit when they aren’t in power. And that means they don’t ever care about deficits.

So I see Ed Kilgore and lower him an ideology. The Republicans have three ideological goals: lowering top-end tax rates; boosting defense spending; going after New Deal/Great Society spending; and…” nothing.

Survivorship Bias or Why the Rich Feel Poor

Fooled by RandomnessMarc lives on Park Avenue in New York City, with this wife Janet and their three children. He makes $500,000 a year, give or take a boom or a recession — he does not believe that the recent spurt in prosperity is here to last and has not mentally adjusted yet to his recent abrupt rise in income. A rotund man in his late forties, with spongy features that make him look ten years older than his age, he leads the seemingly comfortable (but heckled) life of a New York city lawyer. But he is on the quiet side of Manhattan residents. Marc is clearly not the man one would expect to go bar-hopping or attend late night Tribecca and Soho parties. He and his wife have a country house and a rose garden and tend to be concerned, like many people of their age, mentality, and condition, with (in the following order) material comfort, health, and status. Weekdays, he does not come home until at least 9:30 pm and, at times, he can be found in the office at close to midnight. By the end of the week, Marc is so fatigued that he falls asleep during their three hour drive to “the house”; and Marc spends most of Saturday lying in bed recovering and healing…

Marc’s strategy of staying in Manhattan may be rational, as his demanding work hours would make it impossible for him to commute. But the costs on his wife Janet are monstrous. Why? Because of their relative nonsuccess — as geographically defined by their Park Avenue neighborhood. Every month or so, Janet has a crisis, giving in to the strains and humiliations of being snubbed by some other mother at the school where she picks up the children, or another woman with larger diamonds by the elevator of the co-op where they live in the smallest type of apartments (the G line). Why isn’t her husband so successful? Isn’t he smart and hard working? Didn’t he get close to 1600 at the SAT? Why is this Ronald Something whose wife never even nods to Janet, worth hundreds of millions when her husband went to Harvard and Yale and has such a high IQ, and has hardly any substantial savings?

We will not get too involved in the Chekovian dilemmas in the private lives of Marc and Janet, but their case provides a very common illustration of the ecomtional effect of survivorship bias. Janet feels that her husband is a failure, by comparison, but she is mis-computing the probabilities in a gross manner — she is using the wrong distribution to derive a rank. As compared to the general US population, Marc has done very well, better than 99.5% of his compatriots. As compared to his high-school friends, he did extremely well, a fact that he could have verified had he had time to attend the periodic reunions, and he would come at the top. As compared to the other people at Harvard, he did better than 90% of them (financially, of course). As compared to his law school comrades at Yale, he did better than 60% of them. But as compared to his co-op neighbors, he is at the bottom! Why? Because he chose to live among the people who have been succesful, in an area that excludes failure. In other words, those who have failed do not show up in the sample at all, thus making him look as if he were not doing well at all. By living on Park Avenue, one does not have exposure to the losers, one only sees the winners. As we are cut to live in very small communities, it is difficult to assess our situation outside of the narrowly defined geographic confines of our habitat. In the case of Marc and Janet, this leads to considerable emotional distress; here we have a woman who married an extremely successful man but all she can see is comparative failure, for she cannot emotionally compare him to a sample that would do him justice.

—Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Fooled by Randomness

Finally Justice for Debra Milke

Debra MilkeI’m getting to this a bit late, since it was resolved back in December. But I’m pleased to report that all charges against Debra Milke have been dropped. I’ll list all the articles I’ve written about her below. But the basic story is that 26 years ago, two guys murdered her son. Those two guys are on death row in Arizona right now. But the officer running the investigation was convinced that she was in on it. And based only on the fact that he said she confessed, she was put on death row and spent 23 years in prison. This is, all you death penalty advocates, the way it works; perhaps it is time to stop assuming the justice system works the way you think it ought to and deal with the system the way it actually is. But I digress.

Even after the Court of Appeals demanded a retrial, the state refused to give up. The officer who claimed that she had confessed had a long history of lying on the stand and pressuring people into false confessions. You can well imagine how a mother who’s child was just murdered might feel guilty about it. And any kind of statement of that guilt would easily be used to claim that she had “confessed.” There was no recording and not even written notes. The whole thing is an outrage.

For the two years since she was released from prison on bail, the main question has been whether the state could force the officer to testify. Although he claims that he absolutely did nothing wrong and that he knows Milke is guilty, he’s been pleading the Fifth. Finally, the court decided that he had a right not to get up on the stand and commit perjury. (Eventually, the Court of Appeals decided he didn’t have such a right.) But still the county continued in its efforts to get Milke. But on 11 December 2014, the Court of Appeals decided that the county couldn’t even try Milke again — that it would effectively be double jeopardy.

The county, of course, is determined to take the case to a higher level. County Attorney Bill Montgomery said, “This office today bears the burden for trying to get justice for Christopher Milke.” So let’s see. They have two men on death row, who have been there for decades. And Debra Milke herself spent 23 years in prison. I’m kind of thinking that in the context of justice as people like Montgomery see it, the boy has received justice. And let’s just assume for a moment that Debra Milke was not responsible: does it increase Christopher’s justice to wrongly jail and even kill his mother? And what about justice for Debra Milke?

Sad to say, Debra Milke is lucky. I know, it seems ridiculous: she spent 23 years in prison. But there are so many people who simply think she should have been killed long ago. And lest you think she will now be able to sue to the state of Arizona, think again. She hasn’t been proven not guilty. The Court of Appeals only decided that the behavior of the prosecutors was so bad that the state does not have a right to retrial. It’s a usual thing: the state totally abuses its power and the remedy is to stop the state from abusing its power any more in that one particular case. The original prosecutor will not be held accountable. The lying police officer will not be held accountable. And perhaps most telling of all, the media who pretty much found her guilty before she ever went to trial, will not be held accountable. But one active injustice has been reversed. That’s not nearly good enough, but it is something.

See Also

Debra Milke and the Injustice System
Attorney General to Appeal Milke Case
More Background on Debra Milke
Media Bias and 22 Years on Death Row
Debra Milke Released on Bond
Second Guessing the Falsely Accused

The Real Reason Obama Wants the TPP

Ezra KleinIf the TPP gets approved, it will not really change the way that I think about the state of my country. After five decades, I have far too much data indicating that we live in a faux democracy where the rich get whatever policies they want. But it will still be a blow. And I find it curious that we are starting to get liberal-ish commentators coming to defend the trade deal. The first person I saw was Larry Summers, A Trade Deal Must Work for America’s Middle Class. Don’t let the title fool you, he argued that the TPP will work for the middle class. Dean Baker gave him too much credit, even while destroying him, Larry Summers Gets It Largely Right on Trade.

And wherever Larry Summers goes, Brad DeLong is sure to follow, The Debate Over the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Focus. It started, “It is foolish to debate whether a trade agreement that has not yet been negotiated is a good idea and should be ratified.” That’s an interesting bit of apologetics. If we are really supposed to look closely at this deal, why is it so critical that it get fast-track authority? I understand that the Congressional Republicans are crazy, but they will mostly be for this deal. I don’t think fast-track is about slipping this one past the conservatives.

Dean BakerRegardless, Dean Baker shot back at him, Fun With Brad DeLong on TPP. (Have I mentioned recently that Dean Baker Is Must Reading?) DeLong asked to see evidence from detractors that the trade deal would hurt American workers more than it would benefit them. Baker accepted the challenge and, I think, showed very clearly that it would. But notice how ridiculous DeLong’s challenge is. Why is it up to detractors to show that the deal isn’t good? Isn’t the onus on proponents to show that it is good?

Now Ezra Klein has entered the fray in his usual “just asking questions” manner, Why the Obama Administration Is Fighting for a Trade Deal Its Liberal Allies Hate. In all, he presents eight reasons that the administration wants to do this based upon talking to “officials intimately involved in crafting the deal.” And guess what? Seven of them are just nonsense. Let’s see: (1) it’s a good deal because we say so; (2) people only think its bad because we’ve been doing this in the dark; (3) it’s not a perfect deal, just better than some other possible deal; (4) this deal is better than past deals; (5) if we don’t agree to this deal we will somehow be forced into a terrible deal of China’s; (6) It’s a trade deal and a dessert topping foreign policy; (7) we have to prove that we can push around the rest of the world with this deal that is so great for America that it has to be negotiated in private and passed before it can be seriously analyzed.

Note that most of these are duplicates. Numbers one through five are pretty much the same things, even though they also contradict each other: trust us! Six and seven are the same things: America must lead! So basically, the administration is saying that it wants the TPP because it is really good and people like me just don’t realize it, and because it gives the administration more tools to manipulate other countries. What’s shocking here is that none of these reasons has anything to do with the deal itself. Nowhere does anyone say something like, “This is a good deal because it will stop China from suppressing the value of its currency and make American exports more competitive.” For anything like that, we have to turn to the eighth reason, which I believe is 90% of the reason the administration wants to do this deal.

One really important dimension of the debate around TPP is intellectual property protections. This is an area where American businesses feel hugely disadvantaged overseas, and the administration thinks it’s giving them a big win.

Dean Baker wrote about this canard over the weekend, Getting It Wrong on Trade: TPP Is Not Good for Workers. This isn’t going to improve trade. It will just allow film and pharmaceutical companies to charge more money overseas for their products. Thus, the people overseas will not have as much money to buy other things we export. In other words, this is a way to take even more money away from workers and give it to owners. I discussed this problem last week, No Trade Deals Until Our Economy Is Fixed. To me, it is simple: I don’t care how much “trade” will be increased by a deal when I know all the gains will go to the top of the income chain.

But another thing that Baker noted is that it is ridiculous to think of corporations are “American”:

US corporations like Apple, GE, and Merck have been telling us for decades in every way they can they are not in any meaningful sense “US” corporations. They are corporations. They are interested in making profits. If this means shifting jobs overseas to take advantage of low cost labor, they will do that in a second. The same applies to environmental regulations. And, when it comes to paying taxes, if they can find a legal or semi-legal way to have their profits appear in an Irish or Cayman Islands subsidiary, they will do it, end of story.

Ezra Klein claims, “I’m currently in the undecided camp — until there’s a final text I can run by experts, it’s hard to say anything definitive…” But he must know that the whole idea with this agreement is to ram it through Congress before anyone can consider it rationally. The debate really hasn’t been about the agreement itself. It has all been about fast-track authority. He’s right that at this point, we don’t know. But the burden of proof should be on those who claim it is a great deal. And proponents don’t seem keen to make that argument. It’s very much like NAFTA before it, “Trust us!” That hasn’t worked out too well.

Morning Music: Not Teddy Doing “Wonder”

Teddy FranciscoLast week, I watched an episode of Bob’s Burgers, “The Millie-churian Candidate.” In it, Teddy Francisco has an argument with Bob about which of them has the best tool: Teddy’s hammer or Bob’s new chef’s knife. At one point, Teddy says, “I made a video of my hammer bounding nails. I put a Natalie Merchant song under it… Wanna read some of comments, Bobby? Look at this guy: he says, ‘Nailed it!’ Ha ha ha! Ah, the internet!”

So the end of the episode featured Larry Murphy as Teddy singing “Wonder.” As a result, I haven’t been able to get the song out of my head. Even though I think Murphy better gets to the emotional core of song, here is Natalie Merchant doing it:

Richard Stallman Day!

Richard StallmanI’m calling it. Today is Richard Stallman Day. The last two years, the birthday post was about him and I see no reason to ever do anyone else. Stallman is the kind of guy who would be a billionaire if capitalism actually worked. But it doesn’t, and so he isn’t. Not that he seems to care. He has something far greater than money: a worthwhile life.

For those who don’t know him, he’s the guy who started the GNU project. He’s the guy who wrote the original GNU c and c++ compilers. He wrote the GNU Emacs editor. (I’m a vi guy, but pretty much every programmer I knew in the 1990s was an Emacs fanatic.) Without him, there would have been no Linux. And even still, people are confused as to what Linux is. Without all the GNU tools, Linux would have been this kernel with which you could do nothing.

But more than any of his technical accomplishment, Stallman is a political leader. And it is in this regard that he is truly revolutionary. Compilers and operating systems were no new concepts. But “free software” was. In the early 1990s, I knew people who loved the GNU project and what he was doing, but they didn’t like his clearly leftist politics. But they didn’t understand how it all went together. We’ve tried going with the strong property rights system for a long time. And what it creates is an incredibly unequal and unjust society. It’s time to try something new and the Free Software Foundation shows the way forward. Not that the power elite are going to allow that without a huge fight.

Happy Richard Stallman Day!