Sunday, January 30, 2011

Let's Be Honest, the Army Decides These Things

Just a brief note about Egypt.  I'm hopeful for change, if the Egyptian government collapses and is replaced with a democratic regime (a big if, there's a long path between Mubarak stepping down and eventual elections, even if someone supposedly democratic steps in we won't know they've really democratized until there's been a transfer of power between democratically elected coalitions, the white knight not infrequently morphs into another tyrant) there's reasons to be optimistic about political reform both in Egypt and in other countries, these things frequently happen in waves.  Also, an article in the NY Times mentions that the Muslim Brotherhood says it will support El Baradei which lessens the chance of an Iranian revolution style transition.  These are positive developments but it's too early to make predictions.  In the end, the first deciding factor is whether or not the army shoots when ordered to do so.  As far as we know, it hasn't been ordered to do so yet, and until a new government is in place we don't know if it will receive these orders or how it will react.  Until then, this is all up in the air.

And after that, it's still up in the air till power changes hand between democratically elected regimes.

Some Thoughts on Growth

While responding to some blog posts on Cowen's "The Great Stagnation" I mentioned my thoughts on growth in a few comments.  While these ideas are still preliminary I'd like to expand a bit on these ideas and in particular the essential role of government in promoting growth.  (for the names of various types of growth I'm borrowing from Mokyr's Lever of Riches)

My basic thoughts on growth is that every society has a certain per capita GDP ceiling that can only be increased by changes in technology and institutions.  Both technical innovation and government reforms, policies, and infrastructure investments can increase this ceiling.  Private sector investment is necessary to actually reach this ceiling as well as a potential source of technical innovation.  It is also possible to have non-government institutions that are capable of raising this ceiling through broad based policies, which, while common in the pre-modern world, have since become rare beasts so I won't directly address them beyond this note.

The basic determinants of a society's growth potential is its land area and quality (including soil fertility and other natural resource endowments) and population demographics (not just raw population but also age structure and other demographic characteristics) which is directly modified by domestic market size and internal cultural and political integration (closely related to marketization, which I am hesitantly separating out into government), all modified by the current level of technical development.

Who Ate All the Fruit?

I wasted an inordinate amount of time over the week commenting on Tyler Cowen's new essay, "The Great Stagnation."  This post is to compile the comments I left at Free Exchange and Democracy in America that are linked to this topic.  They are slightly cleaned up and corrected where I noticed mistakes, but not essentially changed even to make them flow better.  The next post will be the promised expansion.

Paul Ryan's Response to the State of the Union

I had promised to take a look at this earlier this week and have finally found the time to take a look at it (after being distracted by Tyler Cowen's new book, more on this later). Recently, I've been avoiding commenting too much on the immediate political statements of people I disagree with for fear of appearing too biased or angry. While I hope I manage to avoid those things I will be taking the gloves off here to say what I really feel about the statements made by Ryan, I really couldn't disagree with his vision of government more. I think his policies would do little but exacerbate current problems in the medium to long term and achieve the opposite of their intended effects, though likely with a short term boost and a short term reduction in political tensions. On to the meat of the speech however.

We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy, and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.

On this current path, when my three children — who are now 6, 7, and 8 years old — are raising their own children, the federal government will double in size, and so will the taxes they pay.

No economy can sustain such high levels of debt and taxation. The next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country.

I had wanted to compile this in a chart, and there's probably a very small possibility that if I finish some other tasks earlier than expected I'll revisit this. For now you'll have to eyeball the figures for proof. Most of these are from Wikipedia, unfortunately not all are the same year but the numbers haven't been so inconsistent over the time period to prevent comparisons, output from the IMF I checked would take too long to format. So, public debt by state (UN not US state), per capita GDP, GDP growth rate, and overall tax burden.  I don't have time to tease everything out here, but it's pretty clear that debt ratios aren't the most critical thing for the success or troubles of a state.  It's certainly an issue but not one that has a direct relationship of particular strength to a "stagnant economy and a diminished country."  There are clearly issues of much greater importance and we can make this particular bad bogeyman go away if we only raised taxes, which, given the international comparisons, are unlikely to lead to sharply lower growth (there may likely be a strong correlation with lower growth, but given international comparisons there isn't a strong reason to believe growth will be much lower).  I'd like to pay down the debt, but it's hard to look at the international seen or the history of the past decades and conclude the problem is anything other than taxes.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Great Column on Prisoner Re-entry Program

For those that haven't seen it, the NY Times has a great post on prisoner re-entry on its Fixes blog. This has always been an area I find fascinating, societies keep pursuing failed policies for a variety of reasons even though there is no evidence of them working yet are so resistant to changing them, despite knowing that existing policies can't get much worse and some evidence other ways are better. For the US our attitudes towards criminals is the most visible example of this, we incarcerate vastly more people than any other comparable society yet don't have significantly different levels of crime. Yet people keep coming back to bizarre sociological explanations which don't stand up to comparative scrutiny rather than accept that attitudes towards justice and social welfare programs are the best conserved factor.

I'm getting off the point of the article though. The article covers various prisoner re-entry programs that seek to prevent recidivism through a variety of means. Also, it mentions that simply getting a former prisoner out of the environment they came from and letting them live somewhere else can greatly reduce recidivism.

This cuts to something that I think is at the root of a lot of our failed policies in this area. Part of American culture is to emphasize individual responsibility, which on its own is greatly beneficial, however it often comes along with downplaying, or even completely ignoring, social responsibility and the importance of social structures and groups in forming behavior. While it should be obvious that no one acts quite the same as an individual as they do when they are part of a group, we often pretend this isn't the case. However, there is so much data that people do change their behavior quite significantly depending on the people around them and their connections with it that we are simply being dishonest with ourselves when we ignore these factors, leading us to make the same bad decisions and policies over and over again when the problems are staring us in the face. Not sure what to do about it other than to point people in the direction of articles like this that make it undeniable that there are effects of the culture that someone ends up in and in their relationship to the broader group that they live in. Move someone back to the old neighborhood and they begin to act like they did there. Move them elsewhere and they have a chance to move on. Make a law forcing them to return to the old neighborhood achieves nothing but confirming our prejudices.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Civics and the Constitution

Linda Greenhouse has an excellent article today on the difficulties of interpreting the Constitution. It's well worth a read.

What really interested me though was her bit on older civics classes in high school, including a Problems of Democracy course. Something I agree on with many conservatives is that a lack of civics classes is a significant problem (though I probably think the curriculum should be far different than what they'd like, which is probably why we don't have them anymore, though it does say something about our common culture as Americans that we could have them then but can't agree on enough now. Who is it that changed?). People just don't know our history or how our government functions and haven't been asked to think about it in a challenging fashion. These questions just aren't easy and I don't think that can be recognized unless people are being asked to think about it, and more particularly, being asked to think about it in an environment like high school where you're with people not really of your own choosing who will have fairly widely varying viewpoints. Admittedly, Greenhouse admits that her Problems of Democracy course didn't get into these questions, but that doesn't mean a civics class that does ask these questions is impossible. It could be part of that loner school day I've advocated for.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

It Needs to Be Said, Political Violence is Evil. Things Such as This Should Not Be.

Just saw this and can't help commenting despite not knowing exactly what to say.  I've been afraid over the past couple of years that the angry rhetoric being used to motivate people was at a level where political violence seemed like a very real possibility.  Those fears may have just been fulfilled.

[Edited with new information]   According to the NY Times and CNN, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was one of twelve people shot at a meeting with constituents and conflicting reports have emerged as to her current condition. I hope that the more hopeful reports turn out to be correct and that she survives this tragedy.  I don't feel quite right making a political statement about this while also feeling that something must be said and that the moment cannot and should not pass in silence.

I hope this tragedy wakes some people up to the very real violence their rhetoric can lead to.  We don't know the motivation behind this attack yet, there is the possibility that it is unrelated, but words meant to be just rhetoric or entertainment have had very real effects on the physical world and people's lives before and I fear this is another instance of this.

We need to dial it down from 11 before we risk more people being hurt.  This is bad, very, very bad.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

More Historical Revisionism, This Time Involving Huck Finn

This is a topic I feel very, very strongly about, even when it is very small instances of it.  I don't believe in whitewashing our history in any circumstances, there's simply no excuse for it.  Even small instances such as removing the word nigger from Huck Finn upset me.  If you are teaching people that are still uncomfortable with its use confronting that directly is of far more importance than anything else you could get out of the work.  First of all, because Twain wanted a level of discomfort and tension between Huck's perspective and the use of the word and that entire layer is removed by the word change (I remember studying this in my American literature class in college, use of language was important).  Secondly, because you have to deal with the history you have, not the history you want, and it's critically important that people learn to deal with the reality of the world they live in and come to terms with that.  Also, they need to learn to deal with historical time periods in that period's terms, not in ours.  I can think of few more corrosive things to teach than that you can simply change the facts to suit your prejudices when the facts are inconvenient.

Of course, if this was a book aimed at grade school kids my opinion would be less strong, these ideas wouldn't be age appropriate.  But if people can't deal with original texts from 130 years ago on their own terms by high school how the hell are they supposed to deal with any aspect of the world that doesn't conform precisely with their own worldview?  Dealing with the past or other cultures without reading your own values into them is one of the most important things anyone needs to learn to deal with our world.  This sort of action just lends legitimacy to historical revisionism and shameless anachronisms and there is simply no valid defense for.  If a person can't deal with this and finds it too offensive they're simply unable to deal with reality on any level capable of meaningfully contributing to our social discourse.  If it offends you great, that's a wonderful reaction to have and what the author intended, use this as a bridge to learning about the culture of the time and its differences from our own.  There's really nothing that can be added to our social and cultural discourse by a point of view so easily offended that it demands historical revisionism to obscure the culture of another era and our own historical legacy.

Jumping off of this, I think a real contribution could be made to our school system by requiring that high schools assign several books a year from cultural and historical perspectives that will be offensive to modern readers.  Getting offended is an essential part of the learning process in coming to terms with just how much attitudes change across time and space.  It's healthy, and should be encouraged.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

“The dirty little secret is that the largest special interests are us — the vast majority of U.S. taxpayers,”

Wonderful, wonderful quote from a NY Times article on the IRS calling for tax simplification.  This is something that everything I know about government points to being the problem.  The reason it is so difficult to trim programs and get rid of wasteful, destructive programs is that most of the worst programs are the ones that benefit the widest number of people, or a very large concentrated minority such as agricultural subsidies, at the expense of the minority that doesn't benefit from them, often the poor.  The home mortgage interest deduction being the primary offender but hardly the only one.

We Won't Imprison People Just to Give Jobs to a Few

Andrew Cuomo's speech today had several bits that I quite liked, we'll see how much of it comes to past.  Overall, what impressed me the most was that Cuomo is representative of the essentials of Progressivism, an emphasis on professionalizing and reforming government and rationalizing state policy.

What excited me the most was when he talked about the juvenile detention system.  Once I find the full text I'll update this with an exact quote, the gist of it was that we have to stop imprisoning people just so that some people have jobs.  Political constituencies in favor of a tough on crime approach are very powerful however, I'm worried that we're going to see the closure of a handful of the most egregious facilities without the broad overhaul that we need, I'm hopeful but recognize the political reality of the strength of the rural areas dependent on these facilities.  His plans to streamline government also make me hopeful, many of our institutions are antiquated and need serious rebuilding, the civil service system not least of all.

What worries me is the anti-tax rhetoric.  The reality is that reorganization takes a great deal of money and investment up front to work, although it saves huge amounts down the road.  Investing today for the long term can save a great deal of money but this requires more money today, which I don't see how we can get without temporary tax raises or a budget windfall from divesting unnecessary assets, all of which I believe New York has already divested itself of simply to meet operating expenses in previous years.  Reorganization is going to mean buying people off with earlier settlements, temporary contracting, investment in new infrastructure, particularly computers, etc.  We'll see what happens but I'm worried Cuomo's plans will be defeated because of his promise to cap taxes, I simply can't figure out where the money for restructuring is going to come from if not taxation.

Also, I thought it was really funny that all the bragging about the biggest use of technology ever in a state of the state speech amounted to a bunch of Power Point slides.  Though the one about ships passing in the night, with the Governor's, House Speaker's, and Senate Speaker's heads visible on them, pretty funny.