GOP Demagogues Fake Problems While Dems Tackle Real Ones

Republican Diversity

I hate to write about the Republican presidential candidates because they are really all the same. That is probably the biggest element to the “clown car” aspect of the nomination process. If they actually had different policies — regardless of how extreme — there would be something worth paying attention to. But instead, it is all just a game of one upmanship. We saw that most hilariously recently when Jeb Bush said that his policies would increase economic growth to 4%. It was a totally unrealistic promise based upon no economic theory. Predictably, Mike Huckabee proposed 6% growth via his “fair tax,” because what the hell?! Neither claims mean anything, so why not throw out random numbers. Maybe Herman Cain can come back with a new 9-9-9 plan: 27% growth! (Or 729% if you want to multiply the numbers.)

And now, Jonathan Chait has reported, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio Propose “Plans” to Replace Obamacare. He describes them as “not so much plans as skeletal descriptions of planlike concepts.” As I’ve noted many times before, Obamacare is the conservative healthcare reform plan. If the goal is to make our healthcare system work better, Obamacare is about as conservative as we are going to get. This is why for the last six years, all the Republican plans to replace Obamacare have been nothing but a collection of policies that Republicans want for other reasons. The best any of them would do would be to marginally improve the system. The worst of them — like buying insurance across state lines — would make the system worse.

Or consider Planned Parenthood. Donald Trump is the only Republican presidential candidate who doesn’t want to simply defund the group. The candidates walk in lockstep like a group of Nazi Youth on parade. That’s the Big Tent, my friends: everyone thinks the same thing except for the idiosyncratic billionaire who the Republican establishment claims isn’t a real Republican.

This all comes down to the fact that the Republican Party really is post-policy. It has nothing to offer that appeals to the people. But that isn’t to say that it has nothing to offer. To its true consistency — the haves and the have mores — they have lots of policy ideas. But those are too vile for public consumption. And this is where we get into the more vexing issue of how the Democrats have allowed this by moving to the right themselves — providing no real policy ground for the Republicans.

The big problem that we face today in US politics is that the Democratic Party has long been determined to be Republican Lite. But given that the Republicans don’t stand for much of anything other than enriching themselves and their rich friends, what does it mean to be “not as bad as” them? Still, I’ve become somewhat optimistic during the campaign thus far. Even while the Republicans are showing themselves to have nothing to offer, the Democratic primary is turning out to be fairly substantial. I like what I’m hearing from Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley. There are real issues and they are talking about how to address them. It’s an amazing contrast to the Republicans who make up problems (slow economic growth, Obamacare, Planned Parenthood) and demagogue the issues to see who can sound most badass.

How Money Skews the Sociology of Economics

Robert LucusSince I’m very interesting in economics, without being trained in it, I find the sociology of the field fascinating. There are, roughly speaking, two camps in economics: the “salt water” or roughly Keynesian side and the “fresh water” or roughly rational expectations side. Now I talk a lot around here about the conservative and liberal economists. Paul Krugman, for example, is a liberal economist, and Greg Mankiw is a conservative economist. But this is not the divide we are talking about today. Because as far as I can tell, both Krugman and Mankiw are more or less Keynesians.

Here we are talking about Robert Lucas and his followers. I always feel a bit worried when discussion people like Lucas, because he is by all accounts a brilliant thinker. And I’m just a blogger and a physicist. But I try. One of Lucas’ greatest contribution had to do with the Phillips curve. This is a relationship between inflation and unemployment. If unemployment went down, inflation tended to go up. If unemployment when up, inflation tended to go down. But in the 1970s, this broke down during the so called stagflation: high unemployment and high inflation. “Aha!” said the fresh water folks, “Keynes is dead! Long live Friedman!”

As for the details of what was really happening, it seems to be that stagflation was due to sharp oil price shocks. So it wasn’t that the Phillips curve was wrong. It was just a special case of a new model. You can think of it as the Hook’s Law of the Ideal Gas Law. But the fact of stagflation really shouldn’t have been seen as a revolution regardless. To begin with, the Phillips curve isn’t part of Keynesian economics. And it was only ever an empirical relationship. But like a lot of such things, it became something of a law among Keynesian economists.

As a result, this caused a great social rift that Paul Romer has been writing about (ad nauseam if you ask me). He is trying to understand why it is that the fresh water economists closed in on themselves and basically stopped listening to any economists outside their circle. And as a result, fresh water economics has turned into something more like a Euclidean cult than a modern scientific enterprise. And I mean that in a specific way, because the fresh water economists continue to innovate and come up with new insights. But they are always rather far removed from reality.

The whole thing reminds me of the skeptic movement (of which I’m part). At some point, they simply decided that based upon a single success and the perceived (but wrong) failure of Keynesian theory, that Keynes was in fact dead and that they never had to deal with it again. But there is a difference. I don’t pay attention to the constant background noise of Bigfoot spotting. But if tens of thousands of new people started making reports, I would have to reconsider. And I know that the skeptic community would head out into the forest and look into it. So why haven’t the fresh water folks done the same? Well a lot of economists are trying to figure this out.

Fundamentally, I think the problem is that economics doesn’t work very much like a science. I think it is that there is too much money in it that poisons the system. Based upon what I’ve seen, I think Keynes was about 80% right. And the likes of Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas have added some wrinkles onto that. But that seems to be what the New Keynesians have done. The fresh water economists seem to be lost in their own fantasy land. But they can live there quite happily, as long as they continue to get funding. And given that their policy ideas tend to be exactly what the power elite want to hear, I don’t see them changing any time soon.

Religions Reflect Not Define

ReligionSome time ago, I wrote a glowing review of the videographer Logicked, Idiosyncratic Art From Logicked. He recently discovered the article and was well pleased with it. But he was less pleased with some of my comments, and we got into a discussion about what appears to be a big divide in the atheist community: the status of Islam as a particularly vile religion. I don’t want to put myself in the position of speaking for Logicked. You can see his comments at the link above. Here, I simply want to lay out some of my thoughts on the broader issue.

Let me start by noting that I have always felt like an outsider in the atheist movement. This is ironic since I have always been an atheist. But maybe it makes sense. I used to be a libertarian, so I’m ruthless with those poeple. I know religion only from the outside where it just seems silly — and mostly harmless. But I realize that them’s fightin’ words in the atheist community.

The most dangerous aspect of modern Christianity is its position on abortion. Yet there is not a word in the Bible about abortion. Thomas Aquinas didn’t think that fertilized eggs had souls. Protestants didn’t care at all about abortion until church leaders began to worry that they would have to integrate their schools. In other words, Christians use their religion to justify that they want to do anyway.

Are Muslims any different? I have yet to see any proof that they are. And everything I know about human nature indicates that they aren’t. People do all kinds of vile things and they have all kinds of reasons for doing them. In fact, they often have various justifications over time. Look at Ted Bundy, who found God and determined that it was pornography that caused him to murder three dozen women.

I’m more than willing to take people at their word. If they say they are Christians, they are Christians for all that means. One thing it doesn’t mean that they follow every word in their holy books or that they follow the teachings of the leaders of their churches. As I write about all the time, for the vast majority of people, religion is a cultural signifier. This is why we see the teachings of religions change over time and why we see them sliced and diced. Rare is the fundamentalist Christian who has a problem with eating shell fish, even though it is every bit as much against the “literal word of God” as having sex with people of the same gender.

Let’s turn our attention to Muslims. The fact that we have to use modifiers like “radical” to describe Muslim terrorists highlights this point. Most Muslims in the west are culturally Muslim in the same way that most Jews are culturally Jewish. In pre-1948 Israel, were the Jews committing acts of terrorism doing so because of their religion beliefs? That seems unlikely. But the same arguments made today about terrorism from the Muslim community could have been applied then to the Jewish community.

We also have the situation where the vast majority of Muslim violence is perpetrated against other Muslims. Who is the Islamic State killing? Almost exclusively other Muslims. So it isn’t “the book” that is the basis of the violence. There are Muslims who use their religion to justify violence, and others who use it to justify peace. It’s like in the antebellum era where there were Christians who used “the book” to justify slavery, and others who used it to justify abolition.

I’m interested in the old religious texts for what they say about the people they were written for. The Iliad and the Odyssey were stories that told the accident Greeks who they were. The same is true of the holy books of the Abrahamic religions, although hilariously, they are still believed. But again, it isn’t a question of the books defining the behavior.

Morning Music: Man of Constant Sorrow

Emry ArthurA year and a half ago, I wrote, A Slightly Pissy History of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” It was not the first time I had done an article where I looked at a song or something similar to demonstrate how it evolved over time. But just like always, no one really noted the article, even though I loved it. I am convinced the problem is not the idea itself, but just that people aren’t interested in listening to the same song over and over at one sitting. So I’m going to expand a bit on that article over the next week with one song per day.

You probably know the song “Man of Constant Sorrow” from the excellent version of it (which I will get to) in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? But it is a very old song, dating back to 1913 when Dick Burnett published it. And even that version may just be his version of an earlier version.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any version of the song until 1928 when Emry Arthur recorded it. This version could hardly be more simple and earnest. Arthur sings it with a plaintive tone but there is little of the lyrics in his voice. The accompaniment seems to be a guitar and banjo. The banjo is kind of playful and it pushes a kind of meta-narrative that this is just a song and no one involved has had any worse a life than everyone else in Kentucky. But the version has a sweetness that I love. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was not kind of Arthur’s music career, which was completely over as of 1935. It would have been interesting to hear how he did the song at that point.

Anniversary Post: Osama bin Laden’s Fatwa

Islam StateOn this day in 1996, Osama bin Laden released a fatwa titled, Declaration of Jihad Against Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. Now I don’t much care about his complaints. Everyone has their complaints — few start wars over it. But I do think it is interesting that his fatwa didn’t have anything to do with theology. It’s very concrete: he’s pissed off at the US for occupying some land.

My perspective on all of this dates back to my childhood living through the Cold War. Then, we couldn’t trust the communists because they were atheists and whatever else you wanted to throw in there. But the bottom line was always that they weren’t rational. Now the Soviet Union is long gone and now we are oh so scared of the terrorists. Now we say that they are irrational because they are too religious — or too the wrong religious. It doesn’t matter who our enemies are, they are irrational and thus we can’t do anything but destroy them.

The case is always the opposite. I don’t think that the Islamic State is run by irrational people. If they had been irrational, they wouldn’t have succeeded as much as they have. And to think that they are running around killing people because of religious concerns is just silly. This is a resource war and the people heading it want what all people who wage war want: power.

It wouldn’t matter, except that understanding your enemy is important. You could convert every one of those vile murderers into Christians and not a damned thing would change — except that the US might be selling arms to them. People have reasons for doing things. And blaming what they do on ancient books they use as justification doesn’t tell us a thing.