My Generation’s Johnny Carson

The Daily ShowLast week was the end of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. I don’t think that I’ve missed an episode in the last six years. It was a good show — very funny and reasonably well informed. And we will see if The Daily Show With Trevor Noah manages to maintain the level of quality. But I don’t suspect that it much matters. I feel the same way about Jon Stewart that my father’s generation felt about Johnny Carson. It isn’t that I thought he was that great, but I liked hanging out with him and seeing his perspective.

On the last show, Stewart spent one segment actually talking about politics. But it was actually what I most dislike about him, Three Different Kinds of Bulls**t. He starts out, “Bullshit is everywhere.” But that’s not really true. Or if it is, then it is a totally pointless observation. If you really think that everyone lies, then it isn’t worth mentioning. It’s like saying, “Food is everywhere.” But I take his point: people pile it on to make unappetizing things seem appetizing. And when we don’t call it out, we allow ourselves to be manipulated. People were indeed more likely to support the “Patriot Act” than the “Security State Liberty Killing Act.”

But somehow, he gets from that to claiming that Dodd-Frank is nonsense because it could have just been, “Banks shouldn’t be able to bet on red.” This is the easiest kind of commentary, which is found all over Fox News. How many times have we heard that Obamacare is bad because it is 33,000 pages? As though complexity is necessarily a bad thing. Why are laws complex? Certainly part of the reason is corruption. But the main reason is simply that laws need to be clear so that they can be applied equally.

Dodd-Frank is not the law that I wanted. But noting that it is 2,300 pages long is not only a specious argument against it, it is also completely without content. No one becomes more informed by being told that bills in Congress are long. What’s more, it seems to give ignorant viewers a pass, “You don’t need to know what is in this bill, because they made it too long.” And The Daily Show was at its worst when it used this kind of contentless carping and easy “centrism” with its implication that if we all just chose to get along all would be well.

Just the same, I would never complain that Dennis Miller’s political comedy lacked substance. All he has to offer are jokes based upon pointed ignorance of what’s really going on in the world — the intent to see everything in the most simple minded way possible. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, was usually far better. When he encountered “bullshit,” he usually dug into it and presented at least a fair amount of the truth that it obscured. And that’s why the media ecosystem will be a lot worse off with him gone. I expect that Trevor Noah is going to be a lot like Larry Wilmore: funny but not terribly interested in digging down into the “bullshit,” except to find a joke or two.

Luckily, we still have John Oliver.

Republicans Defend (Pretty) Damsel in Distress

Martin LongmanThe right didn’t care when Trump attacked Rosie O’Donnell or others savaged Candy Crowley, but Megyn Kelly is the sexual fantasy of every male conservative in the country and they all secretly believe that they can have sex with her if they can just impress her enough with their chivalric defenses of her honor.

The most extreme case of this is Erick Erickson, who has lost more than one job for saying intemperate things and is known for brutal criticisms of men and women alike. He disinvited Donald Trump to his Red State shindig (leading reporters to head back to the airport for home) and invited Megyn Kelly to come to his place in Trump’s stead. I am sure that he believes his chances with Kelly have now risen above zero, but that is not the case.

It’s always high school with these people.

If Megyn Kelly were old, fat, or ugly these same folks would laugh their heads off about Trump’s joke. But they all want to impress her, so they’re falling over each other to show the most outrage.

This is actually insulting. Megyn Kelly is a smart, ambitious, and accomplished woman, and she doesn’t need these penny ante knights in shining armor to pretend that they respect professional woman or female journalists.

—Martin Longman
There’s a Damsel in Distress!

The Federal Reserve Wants to Cut Your Wages

Robert ReichRobert Reich made a really good video about the Federal Reserve. I don’t pay that much attention to Reich anymore, because I fully understand everything he has to say. But he really is a great communicator. And unlike a lot of people, he doesn’t lose site of what most people — even politically engaged people — know. I know that I often take stuff for granted when writing about politics and economics. It’s easy enough to do when you spend so much time reading other writers who know as much or more than you do. But a lot of these issues are really important and not widely understood.

The Federal Reserve is an especially important and obscure topic. It’s important because it really does determine if you are going to get a raise — or even have a job. And it is obscure because very few people know what it does. There was the time during the 2004 Democratic debate when Al Sharpton totally blew a question about what the Fed does. So let me clear that up: the Fed controls the flow of money in the economy. Yeah, it does other things. But that’s the most important. And it is in this regard, that it has the power to decide if you have a job or not.

The two things that the Fed looks at are employment and inflation. But given whose interests the Fed actually looks after, it is far more focused on the latter issue. Everyone in the power elite seems constantly concerned that we are going to go back to the mid and late 1970s when inflation got almost as high as 15%. But the Fed was able to fix this by increasing unemployment. So it isn’t necessary now to “head off” inflation by killing jobs ahead of time.

The other thing about the economy of the 1970s is that the inflation problems were mostly the result of oil price shocks. So how is that an issue right now? It isn’t. What’s really going on is that the power elite think that it is much safer to allow American workers to continue to see their wages stagnate and to lose jobs rather than for the rich to see the slightest threat to their wealth. And that is what this is really all about. Like so much else in the United States, workers have accepted the world view of the power elite, even though it is not in the interests of workers.

What Reich talks about in this video is that the Federal Reserve should not raise interest rates until we clearly see inflation. It does seem to be the case that the Fed desperately wants to raise rates. They are just looking for an excuse to do it. But they haven’t raised rates because there is literally no indication of inflation. Worker wages are not going up. But to me, it is as simple as this: our unemployment rate is 5.3%. This is almost certainly artificially low because of involuntary part-time workers and others who have just given up looking for a job because they can’t find one. But even if that wasn’t the case, in 2000, the unemployment rate got down to below 4%, yet we didn’t have inflation. It makes no sense that the Fed can remember back 40 years, but can’t remember back 15 years.

Check out the video, it is very informative — and entertaining.

Why Do We Continue to Believe Economic Hokum?

Noah SmithAlmost a month ago, Noah Smith wrote an article that really struck me, Free-Market Ideology and the Burden of Proof. I’m kind of shocked that it took me this long to write about it, but I think I had to let it sit in my mind for a while. It’s one of those things where what he is saying is obvious in retrospect. Basically, he posits that the Reagan revolution was super keen. All that lowering of taxes and cutting of regulation worked great and it created a great economy. (This is not true, of course.) But even if that’s true, why should we think it is still true? If cutting taxes in half caused an economic boom, why would cutting them in half again do the same thing?

The thing is that we have had a history since Reagan. Both Democrats and Republicans have done the same things. Clinton deregulated the financial industry and it didn’t help, except in allowing a huge housing bubble to form that brought down the entire economy. And Bush’s big tax cuts created incredibly disappointing economic growth. As Smith put it, “Reagan probably picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit.” But as Paul Krugman put it last Friday in regard to a different Noah Smith article, “In terms of the economy, his record is trumped by Bill Clinton’s on every front: GDP growth, job creation, family incomes.”

What’s shocking is that the Republican Party is stuck at Ronald Reagan. I commonly hear Republican politicians claim that Democrats are stuck in the past and have no new ideas. Clearly, it is the Republicans who just refuse to listen and are still hearing what George McGovern ran on in 1972. As for what ideas the Republicans have, they are exactly what Reagan and Kemp were pushing. It’s still supply-side economics: if only we make it easier for the rich, it will help everyone.

In the meantime, the Democrats went through a revolution of thought. I’m not keen on it, and I’m glad to see it receding to some extent. But it is still true that Democrats are very open to neoliberal ideas. If they can solve a social problem through the private sector, they will. Just look at Obamacare. The only way that Republicans have changed is in that they are now simply against solving any social problem. They are more focused on trying to turn back time and destroy everything that was done in the New Deal and the Great Society.

So the question is why we continue to accept this rhetoric from conservatives. The economy was pretty good under Reagan. This was mostly due to the Federal Reserve, but I understand that most people give credit to Reagan and his policies. But Clinton raised taxes and had an even bigger boom. And then Bush ran the whole Reagan playbook and had mediocre results — even before the economic crisis. So why is it that Bush’s brother is considered a reasonable candidate, when he is pushing the same stuff? It seems like as voters, we are willing to let our political leaders do anything at all. It’s like we are playing a game of craps rather than electing people based upon policies.

Anniversary Post: Mayan Calendar

Creation DateOn this day in 3114 BCE, the universe began. Or something. That was the start of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar — also known as the Mayan calendar. Of course, this is not really when the universe began. It’s actually just when the calendar began. We know that now, because the universe did not end on 21 December 2012. But there is a difference. On 21 December 2012, the calendar just went in another cycle, but 11 August 3114 BCE is really when the calendar started. So maybe there is something to it.

Or maybe it is just an arbitrary date in the distant past when they decided to start their calendar. Let me see, now: is there another calendar that has an arbitrary start date? Well, there is that obscure one that is based on the supposed day when Jesus Christ was born. But even if you go by that, scholars usually date his actual birth date to 4 BCE. And that, I think, is an interesting thing. It meant that Christians long had it all wrong. (Shocking, I know.)

I’ve thought about the Bible a lot and all its various copying errors and translation mistakes. The only way you can think it is the literal word of God is to assume that God has been watching over the whole process, making sure that no mistakes get through. But clearly, he didn’t do that with the date that the big J was born. So even if you believe all the Christian folderol, how do you get past the obvious problem that the religion has been totally corrupted by now? Kind of hard to say that you know what God wants you to believe.

But I think it would be cool to say that it is the first day of the year 5228. Happy new Mayan year!