Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Islamic Terrorism, It's Not Really About Us

Robert Wright's post in the NY Times today was an interesting read. I think he is right about Pipes's view, it's characterized by cognitive dissonance. We can't win the war on terrorism in a military sense without a coherent entity to be eliminated by force. Military action is properly conceived of as conflict between states, transferring the same logic onto other forms of conflict doesn't make any sense and simply leads to lots of tough sounding nonsensical metaphors.

However, I don't think Wright's view is correct either. While the rhetoric of conflict is being used and it no doubt helps recruiting we were getting attacked sporadically before major US military intervention. Trying to link all of this back to the overthough of Mossadeq or intervention in Afghanistan is quite a stretch and mistaking justifications for root causes.

Of course people look for a cause because there was a time we weren't under threat from this direction. The mistake being made is thinking that the change has to do with our own actions rather than what happened abroad. There was a brief period when the developed world was mostly isolated from anyone with a different culture, except through colonial exploitation. As technology improved and travel became easier increased contact occurred at all levels which, in addition to the benefits, led to violence. This is a historical constant. Lots of good things come with contact but there is also always a little bit of violence along the fringes, fringes which now reach every part of our country due to air travel. This isn't mean to endorse the clash of civilizations view point, I'm talking about low level conflict that marked most cross-cultural borders, not broad civilization wide conflict which is more of an exception.

In this specific case, you have a culture still steeped in a religious minded world view (exploring this would be a separate post, it's simply a way of understanding the world I lack a better term for, I'd apply it to strict Marxists as well) that is coming into contact with our rather less religious society. For someone that believes that success and everything else good in life comes from God and proper religious observance there will be some severe cognitive dissonance. One way of resolving this is to think of the other society as a test. You saw the same thing in the West at various points in our history, the more successful society is there to test your faith so the answer to the challenge is to become more faithful and to fight back against the unfaithful society. The Crusades had some of this aspect, as did some other conflicts with a religious dimension, such as conflict between Latins and Byzantines.

What this means of course is that we have to learn to live with a low level of violence, it is not a problem with a solution. We already do this with domestic crimes, past societies have always done this with cross border violence as well. There is no way to restore the security that came with complete western dominance, that era is gone forever. Neither military effort or isolation and non-intervention will restore this past. The only way to end the violence would be to work to become less wealthy and successful than those discomfitted by our success, which would only spur our own religiously minded to get angry and fight back against this, or those other societies to attack. We need to learn to try to mitigate violence rather than try to solve it in a complete fashion.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On the Mythology of Gun Rights

The recent Supreme Court decision on the personal right to bear arms is currently spurring discussion across the internet. I've got little to say on the actual decision, plenty of others are busy giving every possible interpretation. [NY Times has an article with a series of contributions and I always like to recommend The Economist]

What frustrates me on this issue is that both sides seem to be mostly in the thrall of mythologies. On one side, is some sort of weird view of an inextricable link between freedom and guns, which there is basically no historical support for. On the other, the idea that any legislation is good legislation.

While I haven't read over the entire range of the literature, from some overview reading on the subject I've done in the past (if it was more recently I'd give titles and links) makes me think there is actually a great deal of consensus about the role of guns in society. First, there are no ties between gun rights and freedom. Look at Europe, despite the mythology most remained armed for a good deal of their history, the 30 Years War being an example, and it didn't exactly make them a bastion of democracy. Of course, there was a brief window where armies were almost entirely composed of conscripts where a militia could stand effectively against them but this was very short lived. Also, gun ownership is never a barrier to those trying to protect their rights. Just look around today. About the easiest part of fighting for your freedom is getting a gun. No need for any special constitutional protections for this, where there is demand there will be supply.

Another myth is that European societies are so restrictive on ownership. They're all more restrictive on gun sales but Switzerland is very open on ownership and possession is no where near as onerous in most countries as it is made out to be.

As to the effects of guns on crime, we know a few things. Local legislation does basically nothing, only federal laws have a large effect. Concealed or open carry makes very little difference in gun crime. Restricting long guns (the Australian term which I happen to like, rifles, shotguns, etc.) has no effect, and may actually make crime worse, barring domestic situations and suicides which correlate with numbers of guns of any type, distinct from other types of gun crime. Gun laws need to focus on the guns being used in crimes, in particular hand guns, no need to look at assault weapons specifically.

However, we also know that laws that restrict the sale and enforces registration and tracking do have large effects. You can look at murder rates across countries to see how much the US is an outlier. This of course also requires that the government has significant capacity, countries like Mexico with weak and corrupt enforcement do not see the benefit from additional laws of most types, gun laws included.

Not that I think rationality will prevail here, political myth is persistant. I can still complain about how frustrating all this nonsense is however.

Liquidate Labor, Liquidate Stocks, Liquidate Farmers, Liquidate Ireland

The NY Times today has a great article on what austerity actually looks like, and the awards to be reaped from this particular virtue. This is another case of how catastrophic virtue can be. Let's hope our government has the cojones to ignore the deficit hawks for a little longer until recovery is in full swing. We're like a business under financial pressure that needs to invest to get out of the hole we're in, cuts can only prolong the inevitable. Our only chance is to throw the dice and spend our way out of trouble.

Hey, worst case is that we gamble and fail and the government goes bankrupt. Then we can't borrow and balanced budgets will be forced on us by markets. Heck, this is probably the only way we'll get the balanced budgets and shrunken government small government types want anyhow so there's something for everyone in this particular gamble.

[For more on financial austerity Krugman has been writing on it quite a bit (be sure to check his blog as well). I agree with him on this topic, even if I think he's a bit crazy about China.]

Friday, June 25, 2010

On What You'll Never Know

The NY Times Opinionator blog just finished a fascinating series on Anosognia, which is a condition where you are unaware of what should be an obvious fact. It contains fascinating anecdotes, such as a bank robber that believed lemon juice would conceal him from video cameras, and is an interesting commentary on the human condition. Definitely worth reading, or at least skimming for the good bits, for those with the patience to read through a five part series. It has some obvious tie-ins with politics, though I'll leave specific instances to others.

An Idea That May Help Get Rid of Too Much Parking

I've long been an advocate of trying to reduce the necessity of driving in American cities. I'm always a little surprised when I hear of others thinking along the same lines so was happy to come across this article, originally from a link on the Economix blog, on the costs that come along with free parking. I wholeheartedly agree with this and would like to see things move even further, to push parking out of city centers and replace it with parking further out and transit services to go further in. That's a pipedream but the ideas in the Slate article sound more realistic and near term.

[Incidentally, links 3 and 6 on Economix, on how useless the homebuyer tax credit was and on how every inefficiency is someone's income (in this case, in kind food aid and farmers), are very good too. I just have nothing to add to these two very good posts.]

I Agree With All This But...

I know I shouldn't pick on Fox News but I can't help myself today. I actually agree with everything in the post, except one big thing, causality. I do think the US should follow all the policies Canada is following that are mentioned in this article but I'm not sure they have more than a very marginal impact on Canada's relative success.

Important to consider in the Canadian case is that they have a very highly regulated, concentrated banking industry that is forced to be highly conservative. Also, Canada has single payer health care so they are not facing the same pressures we are in that area. Add to this that natural resource extraction is a much larger part of the economy, and a sector that held up unusually well in this recession, and you have further reasons to question the causality implied in the original post.

Also, it shouldn't be ignored that Canada already has higher taxes for individuals and a more diversified revenue stream in the form of the General Sales Tax (GST), so is less constrained than we are when engaging with revenue issues linked to corporate taxes due to their more diverse revenue streams. Not that I personally don't want corporate taxes eliminated, I just think the reality that this means raising taxes on individuals, consumption, capital gains, and capital exports needs to mentioned as part of this discussion to give the full picture.

In short, I agree with everything said in it but too much emphasis is being given to factors that seem likely to be having a relatively small marginal impact on the Canadian economy while the primary drivers are being ignored. Not that I'm surprised, this is Fox News after all, but now and then I like to point on the necessity of basic reading comprehension skills when analyzing news from these sources. [These being Fox News and the Heritage Foundation, both of which occaisionally publish something worthwhile but require very careful reading to sort out the valuable bits from the trash.]

Another Crazy Idea on Health Insurance

At first I liked this post from Reinhardt at Economix. It was a nice historical reminder for anyone still not convinced that it's the Republicans that have moved right, not the Democrats that have moved left on health insurance.

However, the idea that a mandate should be dropped in favor of opt-out insurance just seems silly to me.

In his “Patients’ Choice Act” (S.1099), introduced in May 2009, Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, advocated strictures on health insurers that appear quite similar to those in the health overhaul law. He coupled them not with an outright mandate to be insured but with what he called “auto-enrollment” of individuals in an insurance plan.

Under that arrangement, individuals without health insurance presumably would be automatically assigned to a health plan, but they could either change to another plan or opt out of insurance altogether by explicitly requesting to do so. It is an application of what has come to be called libertarian paternalism or simply “nudging.”

In this case, the nudging preserves the individual’s freedom not be insured and merely changes the default option from “remaining uninsured” to “purchasing health insurance.” The idea is to preserve people’s freedom to choose but also to influence their choices by the way they are structured – that is, to nudge them in the direction of being insured.

My big problem with this is that it preserves the illusion of choice while largely taking away its reality. It is solely focused on optics, which, while it may make it easier to accept in the short term, sidesteps the main issues causing problems in reforming health care. At some point we're going to have to engage with the fact that the libertarian philosophy doesn't seem to explain health care at all. Virtually all of the comparative data points in the direction that some form of enforced standardization is necessary in health care. The government is the only entity that can enforce this nationwide.

Trying to preserve an illusion of individual choice in this system simply delays us having to confront the real issues driving health care costs to appease the people most opposed to accepting the need to change. If this had been a necessary concession to passing health care reform at all, I would have accepted it as a necessary evil. At this point though, there is no reason to try to move in this direction simply to appease a reactionary mob. They'll get over it.

Freaking Out Over China

Krugman's column today makes a little too much of the slowness of China's currency adjustment. I agree that the rise is slower than desirable but the Chinese are also constrained and probably a little worried that too quick of a revaluation will expose problems in their industries. Chinese nationalism also seems to have become tangled up with supporting a weak renminbi which will be hard to back off of. The unrest among workers mentioned in the column also warrants caution by the Chinese, they're already upset over low wages things would get much worse if the currency adjustment leads to layoffs.

On the whole, I agree that China should adjust quicker. However, the Chinese have already shown a pattern of very slow and careful reforms, well, since Mao died anyway. I don't expect them to alter this pattern because of outside pressure. We just don't have any incentives that would be powerful enough to outweigh their perception of risk. Be happy they're moving in the right direction at all, they could be completely intransigent.

[Edit: A link on the reform China really needs, more domestic consumption, less reliance on exports.]

Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Teaching History

I got into a tangent on the last post on why I think history needs to be taught better. Specifically, I get annoyed by theorists in both political science and economics that seem to accept too readily that the 18th and 19th centuries are good models for long run theories of change that apply to modern times. I disagree with this and see the 18th and 19th centuries, with the addition of most of the 20th, to be an exception to larger historical trends and instead see them as a deviant case that can only be generalized from if one is very careful to assess whether or not the question being studied is part of the deviance of this era. We are moving back to a normal period from a transitional period and should not expect the rules of the transitional period to apply closely once we are outside it.

Back to the central topic, to avoid this historic myopia I think history teaching needs to be reframed so that it is not so much a simple listing of important facts, which is what my memories of history teaching in high school were of (it really is a wonder I love history so much after suffering through this), and is instead reframed around teaching around a broad topic. I'd like to see history taught around a theme of the development of the modern world and to use it to teach people about the differences of perspective and how different perspectives each give valuable insights, even if none can be singled out as correct.

Thus you'd teach multiple interpretations and approaches, not leaving out politically inconvenient ones like Marxism (though I'd hope its flaws are pointed out as well), to get students used to this style of thinking rather than continuing to suffer under the delusion that there are right interpretations. Instead get students used to the idea that different interpretations are of differing value depending on the questions being asked. Of course, it should also be taught that interpretations can be proven to be wrong, they simply cannot be proven to be right, and that all individual theories of development contain irreconcialable flaws, requiring the continued development of multiple perspectives. Specific topics I'd like to see carried on throughout high school history teaching are the development of the state, capitalism, and democracy with a gradual trend towards progressively more nuanced versions of the theories of each of these explored.

Probably too much to ask, and even more politically inconvenient than teaching economics, but this is what I'd love to see incorporated into high school teaching.

Interesting Post on Economics Teaching in High School

Economics has been one field that I've long thought should be a required course in high school. Mostly because elections seem to hinge on how the economy is performing but most people are completely clueless about even the basics of the ideas being talked about in government to actually effect the economy at large. While a basic economics eduation wouldn't be a miracle cure, I do believe it would at least give people some very fundamental tools to follow the discussion.

This little book sounds like not a bad way to start. I don't have any real knowledge about what actually works for teaching economics but it certainly is an area that will require creative thinking to address, which this is an example of. The big barrier (aside from the basically impossible political ones of fundamentally changing curriculum, especially since you'd have the Austrians claiming that the macroeconomics being taught by any mainstream text is worse than nothign) is that people who haven't been introduced to economics relatively early tend to struggle a great deal with it, which is a category that would like include much of the teaching profession. One way around this is to have the 10th graders develop the text themselves. Of course, this may not be the best way, I have no idea what is, but breaking a new curriculum area into traditional education will definitely require a creative approach.

[Edit: The following has been incorporated into a separate post. Of course, in addition to economics there are plenty of other areas I'd like to see reformed in education. History being a big one of these. I'm constantly annoyed by the impression I get that people in most fields seem to think that aside from the Greeks, nothing worth knowing about happened before the 18th and 19th centuries. The world looks very different if you don't assume the 19th century was a good model for modern times, I'm going off on a tangent here so I'll leave it at that.]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Bit More on Personal Responsibility

This is a somewhat older Economix post but seemed relevant as an addition to yesterday's post. It's a bit about attitudes towards unemployment and our attempted political responses. It pretty much speaks for itself, here are the key passages.

The moral and emotional tenor of the debate over extending unemployment benefits is consistent with psychological research showing that we all like to believe that people generally get what they deserve. We tend to have a high opinion of individuals who receive fortuitous rewards, and a low opinion of individuals who are victims of bad luck.

Melvin Lerner, the psychologist best known for his book, “The Belief in a Just World,” considered this belief a delusional means of avoiding moral discomfort.

The economists Roland Bénebou and Jean Tirole argue that however delusional the belief in a just world may be, it can be economically advantageous. Individuals who believe they will inevitably be rewarded for their effort and initiative are likely to exercise more discipline and self-control than those who don’t.

The problem comes down to why do people continue to hold on to delusional beliefs, especially in the face of more than ample contrary evidence. These delusional beliefs make it impossible to form rational policies to respond to our problems. The posting does go on to at least partially explain the continuance of this mass delusion as being a useful adaptation:

They also argue that our policies reward merit more effectively – even if they are harder on the poor (and, presumably, the unemployed). But Professors Bénebou and Tirole don’t offer much support for this lofty claim. Nor do they consider the possibility that meritocracy might be undermined by trends toward increased income inequality and long-term unemployment.

Belief in a just world is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. While it may bolster individual effort, it can also undermine collaborative efforts to make reality conform a little more closely to our ideals of justice.

So there is ultimately a policy challenge here. The voting public has a useful adaptive belief that at the same time prevents a proper institutional response. More worrying however, is that long term trends such as inequality may be undermining the benefits reaped from these delusional beliefs. This is a problem I keep coming back to, some of the very same traits that made America so successful in the past century were particularly well suited to the industrial age, not the modern one. I remain hopeful because I believe the strongest trait Americans have is our willingness to change and adaptability. What worries me is that there is so much evidence that so many favor other traits over our adaptability and are willing to sacrifice adaptability and change as national traits to preserve other elements of Americaness.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Liberal Faustus

Brooks' column "Faustus Makes a Deal," provides a nice counterpoint to Herbert's. In it, he details several recent developments as being perfect for turning America towards classic liberal ideas. Then he states that these developments not only did not have the desired result, they had the opposite effect.

There are a few elements that stand out, first "Instead of building faith in government, the events of 2009 and 2010 further undermined it. An absurdly low 6 percent of Americans acknowledge that the stimulus package created jobs, according to a New York Times/CBS survey." While stimulus has been a less than roaring success I had thought I hadn't realized that the idea that net government spending hadn't increased when state and local government were taken into account had sunk in better than this. I guess not.

Aside from that little fact the most interesting part of the post, which I think is pretty much spot on is this:
Moderate suburban voters do not see the world as liberals do, even in the most propitious circumstances, and never will.

Bitterly and too late, Dr. Faustus saw that liberals can’t have their way and still win elections in places like North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri. Bitterly and too late, Dr. Faustus recognized that economic policies are about values. If your policies undermine personal responsibility by separating the link between effort and reward, voters will punish you for it.

This quote reveals to me a bedrock assumption of the political beliefs of many voters. It is the assumption that institutions are what make men bad, if not for them society would work just fine. Government's intervention is seen as allowing for people to not be hard workers and contributing members of society. Voters want their elected officials to act on this view and find ways of promoting personal responsibility to solve our problems.

My problem with this view is that it's false. Liars, cheats, and scoundrels have always been part of society, a key role of government is dealing with these people so the average Joe doesn't have to. Government can't promote personal responsibility, only remove those that aren't personally responsible from common view. Something I've remarked on before is how incredible it is that modern government has largely eliminated the ever present vagrants and other problematic groups from being part of the social consciousness, removing government from the picture will do nothing but bring back problems that have been solved by its intervention.

This is a problem for the next election. Americans very much want personal responsibility to be the solution to our problems. At the completely absurd level it is to many of them (though others, like health care or terrorism are simply too diffuse to be meaningfully addressed at the individual level), if people could magically be made responsible, upstanding citizens many of our problems would simply cease to exist and the state could whither away. But people were irresponsible long before the state had a supporting role, dashing hopes for this as an idea for a working plan of government. It's already been tried, it doesn't work. Still, this is not a winning political platform and politicians running have the choice between saying the nonsense people want to hear about how society should work and actually trying to fulfill the calling (I'm giving the benefit of the doubt in their good intentions here) that led to their involvement in politics and actually trying to make our country a better place to live in. I don't envy them their job this year.

Do American's Still Desire to Be Great?

This is a response to two NY Times columns that I think are rather closely linked. Bob Herbert speculates today on "When Greatness Slips Away" and David Brooks on "Faustus Makes a Deal." I think Brooks' column largely explains why we let the greatness seen by Herbert slip away; I'll deal with my impressions of Brooks in a later post and probably add a third giving a synthesis of the two views tomorrow.

For now, however, my response to Herbert. He details several instances where he felt that the US missed opportunities, I largely agree with him on these. Later he regrets that we are destroying so much, such as the homes being destroyed in Detroit since few feel the city will come back. This is where I part ways with him. Something that continuously frustrates me is that those on the left advocating for more government intervention and for investment in a changing economy never talk about the downsides to this. Herbert focuses on all the great things we could be doing but aren't and then bemoans some of the destruction going on in places like Detroit that are an inevitable part of any restructuring, you can't have the good without the bad too.

What's different today is that the destruction that will go along with reconstruction falls more heavily on those that do have a voice than it ever has before. In the early days of our republic, we built our society on the ruins of the civilization of the natives, our success could not have happened if we sought to preserve what they had. Movement towards a more industrial society involved the destruction of much of the rural life that preceded it, the same can be said for the destruction of urban life that went along with suburbanization.

The same thing will happen if the paths favored by liberals such as Herbert occur. To put it simply, and somewhat facetiously, the liberal program involves shifting power and wealth to the urban hipsters at the expense of small town real Americans. Changes such as new infrastructure including high speed rail, green jobs and other high tech sectors requiring long educations, energy taxes, etc. all further favor the highly mobile and urban areas over traditional small town America. Liberals seem condescending when they play up only the positives without realizing this, no one is stupid enough not to realize that they won't be able to drive the car they want to on an hour long commute if you double gas taxes. Of course, I view all these changes as being inevitable, it is simply the way the world is developing with the constraints we have in a globalized resource hungry, world. But of course there is resistance to accelerating this, even if it will benefit us all in the long run.

The question that needs to be answered though is not how we can transform all Americans into urban hipsters but how to make things easier for the person who hopes their children will someday inherit the family home and enjoy the same kind of life they did. Until this question can be well answered we'll keep missing opportunities to reform by choice and wait for these changes to be imposed on us by an uncaring world. Stop preaching the benefits of reform and start focusing on the destructive aspects of it, and how to mitigate these, if you want there to be a chance of American's taking the opportunities presented to us.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Some Half Baked Thoughts on the Tea Party

Well, to continue the metaphor these thoughts are more like unbaked dough and the oven's on pre-heat. Still, I've been doing some reading on it, mostly from The Stone blog mentioned earlier, my local Tea Party blog, and of course The Contract From America (Sorry I couldn't find a link that didn't ask you to sign the damn thing, I'm certainly not trying to encourage you to do so).

From this reading I feel inspired to sum up what I currently think on the Tea Party. My point here isn't to say anything definitive about what they are, the effect the movement will have on politics, or to predict where they are going. All I'm going for is to get some thoughts down in writing as to what I think I know about them.

First of all, if all we wanted to do is label them, I think reactionary populists does well enough. They express a lot of anxiety about the changes in balance among industries, a preoccupation with manufacturing comes out a lot, and they really don't like the idea that there could be changes in the rural-suburban-urban balance as shown by their focus on energy and in particular in preserving automobile use. They also obsess over what they see as a changing role of government and an obsessive veneration of what they seem to believe are traditional ideas. Of course, while I think this label is pretty accurate it's also not really helpful for understanding the movement except to note they are part of a long tradition of political reaction and there is nothing unique about them. As a side note, in comparing them to early groups it is important to keep in mind that attitudes towards commercial activity have changed remarkably in the last few centuries, and even more recently in some areas. Anti-commercial sentiments of earlier reactionaries represents a cultural shift, not a proof that the Tea Party aren't essentially reactionaries. I'm debating dissecting what I see as the populist nature of the Tea Party in a separate post, see here for my attempt to explain what I'm trying to get at by the term populist.

A second take on the Tea Party is to relate them to the international trend towards fundamentalism (or literalism if you prefer) that seems to have become so prevalent over the past century. I'm not really sure exactly how to fit them into this more general trend but with their very literal, and revisionist, interpretation that they want to force onto the US Constitution I can't help but think that there isn't a link between this trend in the movement and the international trend towards interpreting the Bible or Qur'an in the same way. To my knowledge the trend towards literalism across cultures isn't really well explained so I'll leave this hanging. There's something there but I'm perfectly willing to confess that it's easier to point out there's something going on than to explain it.

My third take on the Tea Party is to look at it as mirror image Marxism. What I mean by this is that it's an image of America that was created during the Cold War that was meant to present the Soviet Union as the complete antithesis of what we are as a people and country. This has persisted well past its dubious usefulness. The elements behind the Tea Party's thought seems to line up pretty well with a mirror image of international Communism, obviously the elements within each are all different.

While the elements differ, there seems to be an overall logical framework that I see as being very similar to the dialectical materialist thought that runs through Marxism (more precisely, the image of the thought that was visible as part of the Cold War struggle, I'm not trying to claim that this is a perfect pattern with the far more nuanced academic version of Communist thought). This framework relies on ideas such as an essential conflict between two forces, in Marxism class structures, in the Tea Party, government and the individual. The efforts the Tea Party has exerted to present a conflict between their views and "socialists" are something I see as being a key part of this movement and evidence of this style of thought. Obviously, a lot more needs to be said on this but this post would get unduly lengthy to explore it. I'll take this up again in more detail next time I feel inspired to write about the Tea Party.

Some Half-Baked Thoughts on Populism

This is meant to provide some background for my next post on the Tea Party since I know that some people don't terribly like the term populism. Personally, I think it is a useful term but does tend to fall into the trap of either being an "I know it when I see it" undefined term or to be shorthand for "I think that's a stupid idea."

However, I think there is a common theme running through political ideas referred to as populist, whether talking about modern times, the 18th century, or Athens and Rome, so will be trying to give my explanation of what this common theme is. A brief warning, this is a topic that interests me but I have done no dedicated research on so this is necessarily incomplete and only half thought out. Read it with that in mind.

Basically, I think the distinctive feature of populism separating it from other forms of political thought is that it concerns itself primarily with advocating for a change in social relations as opposed to advocating for policies that deal with technical aspects of living together in society or with the specific distribution of power or wealth (though these things are likely also impacted by populist policies, they are simply not these policies' distinctive feature). This is why populist policies often seem so absurd to those who don't share these goals, the specific policies are ultimately more symbolic than they are concrete paths to a narrowly defined policy objective.

This trend displays itself in many of the major political movements that have been called populist. For instance, in the Roman Republic the populist label often refers to policies aimed towards restoring the balance of the citizen-soldier-farmer that those advocating for these policies felt was threatened. They wanted to solidify a social relationship that was seen as under threat (of course some distinction has to be drawn between the populism of the Marius and the party of Caesar, though the distinction is clear enough if you're thinking of what later writers continued to call populist without specific reference to party labels of the day). Other populisms follow this pattern. 19th century American populism wanted to preserve rural agriculture against corporate (mostly manufacturing) interests and populist movements in Europe often imagined a new social order through communism.

What's distinctive is that populism imagines that basic social relationships can be heavily influenced through government policy. This differs from other forms of political thought that tend to see government's power in a more narrow sense. Of course, populism can imagine government's role in social relations as either a force for good or ill, but either way populism sees government as playing a key role in basic social relations. I will admit to having very little personal sympathy for populism of any type, I see government as having to react to existing social relationships and change being exerted on them by forces largely outside government's control. While government is not entirely helpless in this aspect, its powers are very limited.

My apologies for using some vague terminology in this post, as I stated at the beginning these ideas are still under researched and half-backed. I felt it was a necessary intro to give at least a loose definition for my next post on the Tea Party so went ahead with it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fascinating Bit of Trivia on the Value of the Humanities

Very interesting short op-ed in the NY Times today on a brief experiment by Bell Telephone in the 1950s in giving up and coming executives a brief liberal arts education to balance their technical training. From Bell's perspective the experiment seems to have failed but from a more general perspective it seems to have been successful (assuming this is an accurate portrayal of what happened, I am naturally sceptical of op-ed reporting on poorly known instances from decades ago, it still presents interesting ideas though).

I tend to think this article is a great illustration of what's wrong with modern education. We focus too much on trying to get people ready to have jobs. We forget we're also trying to educate future citizens who are invested with our nation's sovereignty. We need education more to be productive citizens and members of our community than we need it to be productive employees of our future employers. It is surprising that a private company would try to give this education to its employees, I wish it were more surprising that we seem to have forgotten why we are educating our citizens. We need more liberal arts in our high schools, not more technical job focused training. No wonder our country seems like such a mess even as we continue to have such high per capita GDP.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Thought Provoking Post on the Tea Party from The Stone

The Stone blog at the NY Times has an interesting post up on the Tea Party today focused on the anger displayed in that movement. There are a few things that I'll probably take up later today but first it gives me an excuse to give my 2 cents on one aspect of the movement.

Bernstein's post reminded me of something I've thought often about the Tea Party that I think is loosely related to Bernstein's thoughts on the subject. The Tea Party is an example of what happens when the social contract is violated and also shows to some extent that such a social contract does implicitly exist. Specifically, they seem angry that what could loosely be called the American social contract, roughly a thin safety net in return for higher economic growth, doesn't seem to be working so well recently.*

Of course, the Tea Party's anger isn't just about this but is also about a response that has tried to make our social contract more like that of other nations. The social contract isn't something that can be swapped at will, they want ours. They reject violently any reforms that seem to be inspired by the experiences of other societies. Since they too see a need for reform however they also have ideas on how to get back to our social contract. Their response is not to look abroad but to advocate for a more extreme (or pure perhaps?) expression of our existing social contract.

*I tend to see the basic part of the social contract that the Tea Partiers are angry about is the link between the safety net and economic growth. I think there is some truth to this, I do believe that our lower job security translates into additional growth, but I think much of the rest of it, such as low taxes and relatively lax regulation (though I'm sceptical as to how true less regulation is in practice), has had ambiguous effects on growth. The Tea Party is angry that the promises of how are social contract works are not being fulfilled and expect something to be done to restore this proper balance, not to replace this social contract with a new one. A problem with this attitude would be if the links we've been told are there, such as low taxes leading to high growth, are far weaker than those advocating them would like to believe. In any case, there are certainly some high costs to how we do things that are being exposed in this recession and this is leading to anger across the political spectrum. Other parts of our social contract, such as representative government etc., also seem to be of concern to the Tea Party, but not to this particular post.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Couple Brief Thoughts On Stimulus

Just read this Economix blog post from David Leonhardt. A couple of brief points. First, from the beginning I remember everyone in favor of stimulus saying that it was aid to states and unemployment benefits that mattered. Everyone seemed to know that with the complexity of modern infrastructure that direct employment programs such as infrastructure spending were likely to have little effect. The small amounts given to that reinforces this. This is important to keep in mind when reading Glaeser's post which showed that stimulus had little significant effect. There were bigger factors in play, especially since government spending should be considered as a net of state, federal, and municipal, and with only the feds pursuing an expansionary policy it's unsurprising that analysis would be inconclusive since the federal spending was probably little more than background noise against bigger signals.

As a tangent, from following the link at the bottom of Leonhardt's post I came across this post from Kevin Drum. I think there is a very good reason that no one is seriously proposing tax cuts aside from what Drum suggests. While the common narrative is how sticky spending is, in practice I believe that with the exception of entitlements all spending is actually relatively easily changed and adjusted. Even entitlements aren't that hard to adjust marginally, though changing demographics swamp any effect policy is having.

What seems to be really sticky are tax cuts. Look at the problems over estate taxes and repealing the Bush tax cuts. It's possible but far more difficult to adjust taxes than it is spending with politics where they are now. This was probably less true in the past, someone had to raise the top bracket to 90% decades ago, but currently tax cuts are the stickier part of policy.

Yet somehow the idea that spending is stickier has stuck around despite the fact that this hasn't really been true since the 70s. Sure, we've been spending like drunken sailors but it has been on new programs (like wars) while we've been quite willing to take the hatchet to other programs as priorities have changed, like the moon program. The only discretionary spending that seems sticky right now is the military but that's a separate rant not tied to stimulus.

While we could surely pass tax cuts easily the problem will come with repealing them later, and a key component of calling something stimulus is that it is temporary. I believe the politics of winding down spending after the recession will be far easier than winding down tax cuts which, for me anyway, is a good enough reason to favor spending over tax cuts at the moment. Whether and how much we should be spending on stimulus is of course an entirely separate discussion.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Good Day for the Rich

Seems to be a good day to be rich. Today, the NY Times has an article on the Supreme Court overturning a campaign finance law in Arizona that provided matching funds to candidates accepting public funds that were outspent by wealthy opponents that could spend whatever they wanted. Apparently having someone else spend as much as a wealthy person "chills" that wealthy person's speach. I guess I'd feel my freedom of speech was curtailed too if I was used to getting what I wanted by outbidding everyone else and then someone came along and gave the poor peons the same bidding power.

In other good news today, the first billionaire level inheritance to avoid any inheritance taxes was also reported in the NY Times. Apparently Congress somehow managed not to get its act together and close a loophole in the inheritance tax laws that left 2010 with no taxes. This in an environment where public sentiment is strongly turned againt the rich. Unbelievable, imagine if it was a banker. The taxes on this would have paid off a not inconsiderable portion of this year's deficit too, so that should piss of the deficit hawks as well.

And our third piece of good news for the wealthy today is the primary wins in California. Who says money can't win an election?

Of course, with the exception of the California races none of these things actually were first announced today, just reported. Still, this feels like a little too many trends favoring the wealthy, especially with the economy and public sentiment where it is, to let all this pass unmentioned.

[Edit: I missed this yesterday and it fits well here. Here's a post from Free Exchange on a billionaire managing to make most of his income taxable through capital gains and not income tax. While I've personally got nothing against wealth, I do generally feel that income should be treated as income regardless of source. While there are some good reasons for making capital gains distinct, there are cases such as this that show there are also problems with doing this. If capital gains represent the majority of your income, it should be taxed as income. At this level it simply priviliges professions that can do this over professions that can't. Why does our society create incentives to be investment bankers over doctors or other high paying professions? It resembles a medieval sense of privilige more than anything else I can think of in modern society.]

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Am I just not getting this joke? (about medieval history)

I think this is meant to be a joke but it can be hard to tell with anything on history. I saw this originally as a Free Exchange link and I'm trying to decide if the journalist is misreporting, the think tank person is just trying to score a rhetorical point, it's a joke, or the think tank person is completely daft. Apparently:

A small farmer in the 1100s would be able to make enough money to live off while taking up to 170 days off a year, but since then work has gradually become more dominant in our lives, he said.

He estimated that a similar person in 1495 would need to work for 15 weeks of the year to earn a sufficient amount to live, while in 1564 the figure was 40 weeks and today most British households need two people on full-time incomes to maintain a home and family.

If I wasn't feeling lazy I'd check references from Braudel but generally speaking up until about the 1800s or so most people lived in the non-market economy. Perhaps there's a kernal of truth in there somewhere but while this hypothetical medieval peasant may have officially had that many holidays most of that peasants time would have been spent making all that stuff we buy today. Would you really consider yourself better off if you could work half as much but had to spend your free time building your home, making your furniture, making your own clothes (out of fibers, not fabrics), etc.

About the only thing I get out of this nonsense is that modern lifestyle is a good thing. If that's the alternative to debt, bring on the credit cards.

Monday, June 7, 2010

More Bad News on the Long Run Prospects for Oil

I'm still catching up on some of last week's news so just came across this post from Free Exchange [edited to correct attribution, thanks Doug]. What struck me was the continuing revisions down in the graph (I'll confess to not caring all that much about the actual implications to offshore drilling. There's some interesting regulatory stuff there but I'm convinced that every drop of oil on earth will ultimately be burned so don't see a lot of point worrying about that aspect). We're finally beginning to run up against the reality of limited oil reserves and the evidence is turning towards the situation being worse than we thought not better.

The problem is that our policy response to this has been disappointing, at best. Having been fascinated by the alternate technologies for a long time, such as hydrogen, electric, biofuels, etc., the continuing lack of more than marginal use (such as hybrids) of large scale applications of these technologies makes me increasingly sceptical that they represent real alternatives to oil. While technically we can use other technologies for the same functions, they can't match the primary quality of oil that has led to its critical importance, low cost.

What we're going to have to accept is that transportation is going to get far more expensive and that the solution will be different infrastructure not technology. We're going to need oil for many, many decades yet, especially in rural areas. I believe the only way we can continue to keep oil cheap enough for it to fulfill its necessary function is if we can build infrastructure with existing technologies that will allow those that don't need cars to not own them. Specifically, I think we need a policy response based on a shift away from auto transport in urban areas. If we wait for the supply shortfall to hit us before making large scale changes, the cost increase will hit a lot of people pretty hard with no real alternate choices. If we act in advance, we can get a lot of the people using cars now that don't have to out of them, allowing those that do need them to have them for a few decades longer.

Good News People Won't Like

We'll see if this is just more wishful thinking from those hoping that the Chinese will do the heavy lifting in addressing our trade balance but the NY Times has an article today about the possibility of the cost of Chinese manufacturing rising as the Chinese focus on addressing some social issues and raising domestic consumption. I've been hearing this for about two years now, at least since the last major land reform in 2008, and haven't heard much on there being a real shift in the trade balance. We'll see.

This should be good news for everyone but, even assuming this is true, I doubt most people will see far past more expensive DVD players. Also, while rising wages in China will definitely help with global rebalancing, I am very sceptical that it will be perceptible for anyone not actively paying attention to our trade balances. We like to blame problems in our domestic economy on others but on the whole I doubt that the trade balance is doing much to impact employment or wage levels here. China moving in this direction will be great news (from an American perspective, this is also great news for the Chinese for different reasons) for domestic exporters and is a much needed global economic shift but I think the average American will be right in not noticing much other than that DVD players are more expensive. Of course, once the Chinese do this we won't have a scapegoat anymore and will have to start dealing with the larger structural problems in our domestic economy, such as oil dependence, if we want to reap some real benefits from slashing our trade deficit.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

One More Reason We Need Legal Reform

There's an article in the NY Times today about Slapp, strategic lawsuits against public participation. This is where you get sued for saying something critical against a company. The article of course goes into specific instances and mentions laws being passed to prevent this sort of thing.

I see it as more of a specific area pointing towards the general dysfunction of our legal system. This is symptom of a problem that also includes the profusion of frivolous lawsuits, medical malpractice, incarceration rates, fines that don't scale with income, etc. We stand out against every other developed nation on legal issues with more lawyers, prisoners, lawsuits, complexity of the tax code, and perhaps regulatory burden (I'm far less sure on that last one). We're past the point of isolated fixes and need to do a serious look at why our legal system stands out so much, mostly in a negative light, and what we can do to revamp the whole thing.