Monday, January 30, 2012

Do We Live in a Meritocracy? Do We Want to?

Yes, we live in a meritocracy of sorts. Do we want to live there, or is there somewhere better? Because I read the economics blogs -- including the inevitable libertarian economics blogs one confronts nowadays -- I'm now finally realizing that the intersection of politics and economics is also the intersection where many of life's questions get posed. Add the morality portion, and it's game on!

The question of the value and nature of a meritocratic system is as good as any frame for understanding the basis of political stances. Whether you're a socialist, liberal, mongrel, conservative, or libertarian can be expressed or signaled, if you will, by how you view our society in terms of what one "deserves."

Libertarian: Stop asking for anything to be done for you. Good luck, dog!

Conservative: Don't expect me to use any of my resources for your opportunities. Tax is theft! Regulation is a disincentive! Pay for your own opportunities. If you don't have any, why are you looking at me? Blame God.

Mongrel: Life is life. I'm a moderate, so what are you talking about? Why should I care? I'm going to Burger King for a chicken sandwich. Meritocracy? Who you kidding? I have no hard-and-fast views, maybe that's it. Sure, we live in a meritocracy, I suppose. Have you asked Joe Lieberman?

Liberal: I look at outcomes. I believe in better outcomes, regardless of morality. That means I will help those that are "undeserving" because even improvements on the margins are better than having our shining city on the hill split between gated communities in the suburbs and gated front doors in the inner cities. Create opportunities in education, open access to healthcare, and use policy to create more opportunity.

Socialist: Societies get to choose how they want to advance the culture in their milieux. and I choose to advance as diverse a population as I can. A strong safety net, even at the expense of the well-off, is a public good and, as such, should be supported for the benefit of the entire public. Oh, and while I was raised Christian, I actually noticed Christ's policy positions, which clearly state that man helps fellow man.

Anarchist (I almost forgot): The system, meritocracy or not, doesn't work, so I choose to blow stuff up.

As with any simplification, there are inconsistencies. A conservative would say they look at outcomes, too, it's just they prefer to spend money only on their own. Libertarians aren't much different, but they like to stress that freedom is the basis of choice and that government by its nature restricts choice. The difference might be that conservatives like government restricting choice, as long as it follows conservative principles.

The difference between liberals and socialists may also be a matter of degree. Liberals would want a college education to be affordable. A socialist would want it to be free.

Moderates (I prefer the term mongrel, if only because it actually feels more accurate, if provocative) have always struck me as people who have trouble making up their minds. They're the soft middle of our political decision-making apparatus and probably most responsible for the lack of true direction or consistency in our policy decisions and thus manage to cripple the effectiveness of government at a number of levels. Conservatives and libertarians don't truly exist in numbers that could dominate without the support of the undecided middle. That may be true of liberals, as well. When we're satisfied with the state of our lives, we can get sucked into the conservative point of view: I'm keeping mine, stay away. When we're dissatisfied, we're ready for the liberal viewpoint: Let's share resources to improve the lot of our whole society (maybe I'll get some).

What does this have to do with the question of whether or not we live in a meritocracy or whether we should or, if we should, what it would look like? Here:

Libertarian: We get what we deserve out of life, period.

Conservative: We get what we deserve out of life, and those of us who succeed do so because we're more worthy.

Mongrel: Yeah, I suppose. What?

Liberal: We live in a meritocracy, which is the basis for a fair-minded model of society. A meritocracy provides us with a framework to avoid moral hazard, but we shouldn't be so hardhearted as to throw the unlucky to the dogs.

Socialist: A meritocracy is fine, as far as it goes. But allowing the "undeserving" to drag us down makes no sense whatsoever. We can devise a system where all realize an advantage from public spending that amounts to a safety net that even the most successful benefit from and that even the most nefarious will have their deleterious effect on society negated. That's why it must be a societal enterprise, and not simply piecemeal.

Anarchist: I prefer chaos, so these questions are meaningless. I'd be a libertarian if I didn't like to blow stuff up.

It may look like I'm having fun with this dissection, but these are, for many, life-and-death matters. Political seasons bring out the best and the worst and everything in between in political rhetoric. You'd only have to watch the Republican debates to see which way madness lies when you embark down the libertarian road (I feel most ideas in the Republican base right now are more libertarian than conservative, except perhaps Mitt Romney's milquetoast pontifications on the beauties of capitalism amid his distortions about almost any essential policy question: what does he believe, huh?). The crowd screams approval at how many executions Rick Perry perpetuated. It roared "Yeah!" when asked if a person who didn't have health insurance should die because of it. It screamed "More guns!" whenever the 2nd Amendment was mentioned. Taxes are anathema. And so forth.

What we never heard were policy prescriptions for improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Conservatives and libertarians alike find their solutions in the absence of policy, not in the implementation of one. More of the same, and more of Ronald Reagan's laissez-faire: Government is the problem, not the solution. So why are they running for office? Anarchists would like to know.

By now, it's obvious that I'm a liberal with socialist leanings, and I prefer public policy that is highly prescriptive. I actually have come to despise laissez-faire economists of the freshwater school who use their reasoning to hamper any progressive policies that foster widespread opportunities. When these mostly academy-based individuals cloak their arguments in nearly opaque "Humean" language, I feel my brain start to explode. But then, that's what they're aiming at to begin with. Keep the proletariat and the hoi polloi on their heals, which is where they belong.

I'm going to start quoting Marx, so I'd better stop. Still, wouldn't society be better off if the leaders we elected actually liked society, even one little bit?

Update. Here's a video of someone who does like society enough to do something about it:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Remembering Public Policy

Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul are playing out the Republican primary drama to its logical conclusion, which now appears to be Florida on Tuesday. Conventional wisdom -- thrown on its head almost every other week -- now has it that Gingrich had his final run, and Romney survived it and is poised to win handily in Florida. As Florida goes, so goes the nation, most especially because the Republican Establishment has gotten the long knives out because Gingrich is wicked crazy and will stuff Republican chances in 2012 deep into the dark place. Romney Forever.

But among these dramas, we still see that actual public policy is at the heart of the campaign for the presidency, and in a presidential election year, the Congress, as well. And to get a more focused glimpse of this public-policy debate, let's simplify: Romney will get the nomination because Gingrich is an abomination. I actually believe what I just typed, but that's not important. What's important is that it's what the Republican Establishment believes. Newt Gingrich is still alive and kicking and may well give his fellow Republicans heartburn for a few more weeks. But he himself is toast-in-waiting.

Barack Obama laid down his public-policy markers in his State-of-the-Union address, which has caused palpitations for the usual prognosticators like David Brooks, who yesterday criticized the president for going small ball a la Bill Clinton. Why didn't the president call for BIG IDEAS like reforming the whole tax code or solving, once and for all, the budget deficit, or ending entitlements forever. After all, the Republicans have BIG IDEAS like this. Why doesn't Obama float his BIG IDEAS?

It's simple, David. Obama already has. He got some of them through before the 2010 elections, like his fiscal stimulus and his ACA healthcare laws. For better or worse, he runs on those already. As for big ideas (okay, I'm done with the caps for now), Brooks likes to cite Simpson-Bowles. Hey, guess what? Obama has already said he'd be willing to work on budget deficits and entitlements using the Simpson-Bowles framework. David, you know the answer: the Republicans rejected it. Paul Ryan voted it down. It's the actual story. Obama was willing to go beyond Simpson-Bowles in his budget talks with John Boehner. Rejected! So let's move on.

Where did Obama go when he moved on? Fine, call it small ball if you want. But don't act so surprised. For Republicans to dismiss Obama's "small ball" is more than disingenuous. It's so predictable as to be meaningless. The Republican House wouldn't pass an Obama bill if it offered million-dollar bonuses to Republican grandmothers.

What Barack Obama did in his State of the Union, as I said, was to lay down public-policy markers on which to run this year. Okay, they were somewhat small ball (though not all) and a laundry list and a smorgasbord like most State of the Unions. But they do represent policy choices. What are they?
  1. Buffett Rule (in your face, Mitt Romney). This is actually large-ball tax policy. Obama says the tax code shouldn't favor the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. This hurts consumers and in the end drives down demand that sustains the business interests of the nation. In other words, the tax code favoring the rich not only creates economic inequality on a large scale but is actually bad economic policy even for the wealthy it seeks to protect.
  2. Rebuild manufacturing. Brooks criticizes Obama for wanting to increase manufacturing in the U.S. by rewarding those who help to do this. Why? Brooks reminds us that 90 percent of Americans work in the service sector, so why would Barack even mention it? Maybe because it's in manufacturing that we've shrunk the most and policies that increase manufacturing at home is a smart place to begin to reclaim jobs lost overseas. What does Brooks want, more Walmarts? What any decent conservative would want is to make the goods on the shelves.
  3. Barack Obama doesn't want to overhaul the tax code the way Mitt Romney wants to because Romney wants to give even more tax breaks to the wealthy, but we already knew that. Obama likes the current progressive tax system. He just wants to bring back higher rates on the rich, which is where even rational conservatives should want them. After all, what happened during the Bush years as a result of the tax cuts should be the opposite of what conservative want, which is fiscal responsibility. Sounds to me that's what Obama wants. And that's not small ball.
  4. Barack Obama mentioned a number of small ideas that added up to something resembling an actual energy policy. Again, that's not small ball. The Republicans have their energy policy: drill, baby, drill! Obama embraces drilling, too. And he's open to better-regulated fracking. If truth be told, I think he's not adverse to the Keystone XL pipeline; he just wants the environmental studies to actually happen. (I think tar sands oil blows, but that's beside the point in this discussion.) Obama also wants to grow the green economy in order to supplant the need for (foreign) oil over time. Conservatives should want this, too. That they don't is pure hypocrisy, or simple politics.
  5. In general terms, Barack Obama launched a populist agenda that seeks to bring the 99 percent into the Democratic fold. This harnesses the energy from the Occupy movement (possibly in advance of a resurgence of the movement in the spring) as well as unleashing the hounds on the hapless capitalist that is Mitt Romney. Romney is so tone-deaf in this regard that Obama should be able to make Romney dance like a trained seal on the issue of fair distribution of wealth. This may be politics, but it's also actually good public policy. When wealth coalesces at the top, crashes happen (see 1929) and depressions result. Here we go, again, right, people? What do we do with the tax receipts from increasing taxes on the wealthy? See 6.
  6. Diverting money from the investment accounts of the wealthy to government-driven R&D and to education on all levels, as well as driving innovation in technology, green or otherwise, is a worthy pubic-policy set of goals. (See Noah Smith on this.) Conservatives should want this, unless their agenda is to protect wealth now at the expense of wealth later. Guess what I think? Don't bother.
  7. Why didn't Obama present his plans for entitlements? Mostly because he has already, but I believe he already has an agenda in place, which amounts to, first, preserving the economy through Keynesian-light measures, such as the original stimulus package along with his continuing -- but temporary -- payroll tax cuts; second, growing the economy over time until it better supports social programs; third, waiting for his healthcare plan to help solve the Medicaid/Medicare insolvency difficulties. Will it succeed? Probably not completely, because it's not enough. But it leans in the right direction and if amplified in the future (see Robert Reich on Social Security, and here and here for Medicare), there's some promise of weathering the storm.
This is my take-away from the State of the Union. Is it a plan to stand on? Meh. Is it a plan to run on? Certainly. If it all came to pass, would the U.S. be in a better position moving forward? Yes. Is it enough? Of course not. Nothing is ever enough, unless you're Denmark, with a population that is well-educated and generally agrees that the public good is, well, good for the public. For us, here in the U.S., we've got Rush Limbaugh to explain why anything good for the rich is good for the poor. Note to Rush fans: the rich don't listen to Limbaugh. Limbaugh's job is to convince the poor slobs that letting the rich get richer is exactly how the poor slobs will have more money. That Rush seems to succeed at this is one of the great mysteries of life. In fact, the greatest political mystery of all is that the common man can be made to vote against his own self-interests so often. But there it is.

In 2012, we have real policy choices. You can call Obama's game plan small ball, and you can call the Republicans the party of Bold Ideas ("Entitlements are for wussies!" and "Bomb Iran!" and "Tax increases for the wealthy will hurt the rest of America because, ah...gee, look at that pony!"), but this is what the choice, The Choice, is all about.

Update. This op-ed by James P. Wilson is a classic piece of data-misapplication fiction whose basic premise is, wait for it, that the poor are responsible for their own predicament, and it's up to them to solve their own problems. The op-ed should have been entitled "Angry about inequality? Blame the Negroes." Sheesh. The good news here is that the comments on the article show that the vast majority of the article's readers don't buy the baloney. Good going, Washington Post.

Update 2. This time props to the Washington Post for this article by Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture on Obama's proposed mortgage fraud panel. It seems -- from Barry's posting in the comments section (must read) that from the subpoenas announced Friday that the panel will have real investigative teeth. Let's hope heads roll and soon. It's the only way I'll believe that the rule of law hasn't been suspended for everyone except the poor slobs that keep getting suckered -- and ignored by the government.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fewer Republican Candidates Narrows the Field but Doesn't Broaden the Appeal

Here it is out front: I don't like these guys. And for a simple reason: whether they're likable, like Ron Paul, dignified, like Mitt Romney, earnest, like Rick Santorum, or flamboyant, like Newt Gingrich, there's one consistent characteristic they all share. They're duplicitous scoundrels. (See, I can offer a negative characterization of them without calling them assholes. That was easy.)

Mitt Romney lies, probably because the truth doesn't serve him or, worse, he's a truthseeker who keeps trying on different ones to see if any fit (none have so far). He's out of touch with reality, which really flummoxes him because it all seems so real to him. Another bubble boy, fer chrissake.

Ron Paul is charming and off his rocker. He's likable partly because he's sincere. You get the feeling that no matter how crazy his beliefs are they're believable because he's so consistent in their explication. I'm not crazy because my world view is consistent. Oh, and I'm not a racist because I consistently don't say anything racist anymore. I'm not a racist, I'm just a whacky old man! So you can totally vote for me.

Rick Santorum, what a concept. If you've got a preexisting condition, you should pay more because that's the way insurance works! You should die if you shoot yourself in the head because that's the way guns work! Don't use contraception because it's immoral, don't get an abortion if you get preggers, even if you're broke and raped by dad, because that's immoral, and, by the way, that's how sex works! Being a woman is a preexisting condition, so live with it! That's why God invented men, to rule the world while women get preggers.

Newt Gingrich. Jeesh. What can you say about him he hasn't already said himself? He's a bold idea man! He wants to radically, fundamentally, literally change the way we do business in Washington! I'm not a lobbyist, I'm an historian! I'm not a serial philanderer, I'm a romantic -- who's been redeemed by God, just ask Rick Perry! We should destroy Fannie and Freddie because I've already milked them enough. And Calista's going to make me president. Don't try to resist!

There's one fundamental truth about all of these men: they want to become president because THEY WANT POWER. Period.

Are there any implications to that? And what are they?
  • They may brag that they want to lower taxes, and they might. But they won't stop spending because that's not how POWER works.
  • They may say they can create jobs, but they can't. Why? Because they'll be too busy diverting money to their friends. That's how POWER works.
  • They will dismantle the social safety net, but that won't save Americans money because Americans will be spending every penny they have on healthcare until they're broke. Except their rich friends will be okay because they won't run out of money. Nothing fuzzy about that math.
  • They will start wars because that's where the glory is. Oh, and also where the money is.
It's the weirdest deal I've ever seen, watching South Carolinians weighing the pros and cons, trying to figure out who to support. Rick's a really moral person, but Newt's a real leader, but Romney's got business experience, but Ron Paul wants to give me more freedom.

Here are the questions they aren't asking themselves:
  • Santorum's morality will give them what?
  • Newt's going to lead them where?
  • Romney's business experience is going to help them how?
  • Ron Paul's going to give them what freedom they they don't already have?
I didn't listen to every speech by every candidate, but I do know one thing: Newt Gingrich beat Mitt Romney the old-fashioned way, with racist buzz words and violent rhetoric. Mitt Romney beat himself by being an unmitigated weasel, period. Oh, and he didn't use enough racist buzz words.

Am I calling South Carolina a racist state? Uh, yeah. Are they? Maybe. I vacationed there a few years back and found the residents uncommonly hospitable. Then again, I'm white, too, so what does that mean?

The rump Republican Party is itself a white, male-dominated group, currently dedicated to dispatching the Black Man in the White House, and South Carolinian Republicans epitomize the core of the national party. Gingrich won South Carolina because he seemed the most anti-black of them all. Calling Barack Obama the food-stamp president was key. His earlier statements about hiring "poor" kids from "poor" neighborhoods to be the janitors in schools was the setup. "Food-stamp president" was the slam down. If you think this isn't racist talk, you haven't been paying attention.

We may be post-racial as a nation, but not in South Carolina, and Newt just proved it. Yet, what has he proved? Since South Carolina doesn't register voters by party affiliation, data is unclear; I found one set that put Republicans with 44% of the voters in the state. So if Gingrich garnered 40% of Republicans, that means 17.6% of the state's voters endorse his rhetoric.

I may have undermined my own point, but I don't think so. I always keep in mind the sword fight scene in Romeo and Juliet, which began with an almost friendly duel between Romeo's sidekick Mercutio and the doomed Tybalt. Romeo the peacemaker steps in to stop the duel and in doing so causes Tilbolt's blade to strike home.

     Benvolio: What, art thou hurt?

     Mercutio: Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry, 'tis enough.

Of course, Mercutio died, and Romeo revenged his death by killing Tybalt, setting the stage for the tragedies to follow. My point is a bullet or a blade is a small thing. But, as Mercutio said, 'tis enough. And so the seeds of racism embraced by a few voters is enough to change the course of history. Every Republican president since Ronald Reagan, who began his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. George H. W. Bush? Willie Horton. George W. Bush? Speaking at Bob Jones University.

The irony here is that those most opposed to the Gingrich surge are the Republican establishment. They'd make strange bedfellows with the Democratic Party, if it weren't for the fact that the Democrats are praying that Newt remains on top.

I'm left to reflect, as a Democratic partisan, how painful it is to pray that Newt Gingrich's poisonous rhetoric -- that sustains the least palatable beliefs of his party -- might sustain him to the nomination. Instead, we should fight the rot wherever we see it. And, boy, was it visible in South Carolina last week.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Stop the Politics, I Wanna Get Off

It's hard for a political junkie like myself, with a penchant for economics debate, to admit that, in fact, there may be more to life than expressing outrage at misbegotten policy or countering misinformation so dominant in public life. But there you are. For this moment, I'm done.

My doneness likely will last a day or two. Yet a couple of minutes away from examining countervailing opinions on vital issues that leads to nothing ever happening to make the lives of Americans better can't be a bad thing. It might be healthy.

Instead, let's look for a minute at what makes life worthwhile. I consider myself an optimistic person in spite of how much I enjoy chronicling the ridiculous things politicians do, and I think the reason for that -- being optimistic, I mean -- is that I get a lot of satisfaction out of life.

I'm currently pretty happy. That's because I'm essentially healthy in spite of having too many bad habits over the years, and while I've made mistakes in both my personal and professional life, I've never had to pay the ultimate penalty: lose a job or a mate that was absolutely necessary for my success or well-being. I guess that's probably the definition of being lucky.

Generally speaking, friends and family are the key to happiness. I like who I get to hang with, I like them very much, and I appreciate that they were even there for me to run into. Again, dumb luck. I haven't been as lucky with my own siblings -- neither of my brothers talk to me, for reasons too unfortunate to relate here -- but I have male friends that more than fill the void. I have several, in fact, that are, undeniably, my brothers.

I've generally lived in small towns most of my life, except for two and a half years in Tokyo, which took care of my big-city fix for life. What a place! Now I live in the quaint wine-country town of Sonoma, a town that is small-town America and still whip-smart enough to know that we're just one Walmart away from turning into the Mall of the Americas. Sonoma bans large chain stores or big signs. Instead we have little shops and great restaurants and a nice town square. Okay, we do have a McDonald's, but what's one lousy hamburger among friends?

My days are filled with writing, reading, playing music, walking the town, heading to the gym, shooting a round of golf, spending time with my girlfriend and her family, and taking pleasure in the small things in life, such as walking to the market to buy that tomato I forgot or finally figuring out what's wrong with the dishwasher.

I've got a world-class city, San Francisco, just an hour away and one of the best coasts in the world -- including the headlands of Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties -- close enough for a day trip. Northern California is, by and large, a liberal bastion, so I find like-minded individuals in great supply. Even the conservatives around here make sense, if you can believe that. And what's more, the Giants won the World Series two years back and the Forty-Niners -- I might just call them "my Niners" again -- are a game away from the Super Bowl after so many years in the wilderness.

What may be the most important aspect of my happiness is that, while having lived a modest life with modest goals, I'm filled with memories of some pretty fine adventures, and I'm also skilled in filtering out any of the dumb things I've done. (Let's say I'm blessed with non-total recall.) And though never wildly successful at anything, I lived a frugal life and have a small pension. If my luck continues, I won't run out of money before I die.

Life is good. For me, for now.

In a way, that's the problem. I know what a good life looks like. I know what a decent set of human values feels like. I understand love, loyalty, devotion, generosity, friendship, and civility. When I see the opposite expressed, I'm astonished, angry, and horrified anew. (Full disclosure: I have been caught being petty, venal, pigheaded.)

I believe that we humans understand what value there is in a life well-lived, with or without religion, with or without riches, with or without dumb luck. We can, and many do, live an honest life of which we can be proud.

So recognizing how well one can manage in what is, to a great extent, hostile territory (it is a dangerous world), I'm easily disturbed by the outlandish missteps I witness our leaders taking on our behalf.

If I begin to list the public-policy outrages we witness day in and day out, I'm back to politics, so I'll stop now. Except to remind all of us that we don't need religion for the Golden Rule to come into play: It should be at work, everywhere, everyday. That it isn't is a tragedy, played over and over.

So, my non-political reflection today is that if I feel fortunate -- and I do -- then I must want that for every living soul, as well. And I do.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Mitt Romney's Baldfaced Lie Emporium

If Mitt Romney decided to start a new business called the Truth Store, he'd go broke in a week. Even Bain Capital couldn't save it. But the Baldfaced Lie Emporium? The shelves would be stocked! And customers? Heck, even the New York Times is buying.

I thought, then, since it means so much to me to not be like, say, the New York Times's Judith Miller and repeat stuff George W. Bush's handlers told her about the reasons for invading Iraq (How'd that work out, Judy?), that maybe I'd just keep my eyes out for the whoopers.

It really gets my goat because the NYT knows better, especially in a post-Judy world. It's high time they acted like it. So, I'll be your Truth Vigilante and peruse Mitt's Bullshit Bodega from time to time. Here is a sampling of the fare, Jared Bernstein:

Everyone’s Got a Right to Their Own Opinions…

…but not to their own facts.
When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney asserted that federal low-income programs are administered so inefficiently that “very little of the money that’s actually needed by those that really need help, those that can’t care for themselves, actually reaches them,” my colleagues at the CBPP got to work on this graph.

C'mon, Mittens, that was too easy. Open mouth, spout nonsense. The Internets make it impossible these days to lie, even if the media are stenographers to the masses. We'll try to counter your every move. Admittedly, you might wear us out. We might have to be Truth Joggers to keep up with your Blistering Pace of Deception.

Talking Points Memo has got a report on what Romney doesn't want to talk about, income inequality. One of Mitt's frequent gaffes -- a word that describes events when candidates actually let voters peek behind the screen and glimpse the real person -- had him saying, out loud, that income inequality shouldn't be discussed by politicians except in "quiet rooms." Here's TPM's take on it:
Thirty years ago, the U.S. underwent a shift — from an economy that grew in a way that lifted all segments of society, to an economy that gives heavy preference to the wealthy. That’s the broad story of the last three decades, but as Krueger pointed out, policy has a role to play. The trend abated temporarily in the 1990s, when the country returned to an era of fairly uniform income growth distribution. That all changed for most people, and their lost income has instead trickled up the ladder.
 As Krueger said, “We were growing together for the first three decades after World War II, but for the last three decades we have been growing apart…. I should point out that the pattern in the post-1970s period is not monolithic…. [T]he period from 1992 to 2000 was an exception, when strong economic growth and the policies of the Clinton Administration led all quintiles to grow together again. Indeed, all income groups experienced their fastest income growth in years…. If in the first decade of the 2000s the income of the median household had grown at the same rate as it did in the 1990s, middle class households would have an extra $8,900 a year to spend on their mortgages, rent, cars, food, and clothing, or to add to their savings.”
 Romney doesn't want to talk especially about the last 30 years, beginning with Ronald Reagan and excepting the beneficent Clinton years, because only in a quiet room is there a chance that no one would hear.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly pins the tail on Romney's donkey about job creation, noticing that Romney went from
  1. "Over a 100,000 jobs," to...
  2. "Tens of thousands of jobs," to...
  3. "Thousands of jobs," in...
...about three weeks. To drive the "point" home, TPM puts it together in a video (click the link to watch).

Okay, I thought I'd seen it all. In a mad gesture perhaps to distract the country from Mitt's truth aversion, Sarah Palin decided to offer Mittens some advice! Check out this supernova of a political flame out (I wonder if this will be visible 15 billions light years from here, you know, shortly before the Final Collapse?):
Republican star and Fox News political analyst Sarah Palin said criticism of Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital by some Republican rivals is fair game and that voters should get "proof" of the 100,000 jobs Mr. Romney said he helped create while he headed the private equity firm.
In an interview with Fox host Sean Hannity Wednesday, Ms. Palin was asked about Texas Gov. Rick Perry's comments that Mr. Romney had practiced "vulture capitalism" rather than venture capitalism at Bain. Fox and The Wall Street Journal are owned by News Corp.
"I don't agree with attacks on free-market capitalism at all but I don't believe this is really what is at the heart of Gov. Perry's criticism of Romney and his time at Bain," the former Alaska governor replied.  "This isn't about a politician making huge profits in the private sector. I think what Gov. Perry is getting at is that Gov. Romney has claimed to have created 100,000 jobs at Bain and you know, now people are wanting to know is there proof of that claim."
 Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin suggested Wednesday that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney should release his tax returns, as well as records from his time at Bain Capital.
"What I heard was a little bit what's going on today is some inoculation of the candidate himself, the frontrunner, and what it is that he's going to face when he comes up against Barack Obama. Nobody should be surprised that things about Bain Capital, and maybe tax returns not being released yet, and maybe some records not being as transparently provided to the public as voters deserve to see right now, don't be surprised that's all coming out today," she told Sean Hannity Wednesday on Fox News. "Let's get it out there, let's hear the defense of the candidates who are being charged with some of this. It's kind of like some come-to-Jesus moments for these candidates, and that's good, that's healthy."
 Almost feel sorry, well, sorry for Palin, actually. She's reduced to weighing in on Mitt Romney.

Christ. I thought Sarah Palin adding her 2 muck-lucks' worth was bad enough. Now we've got Jonah Goldberg -- the LA Times lets him write in their paper? -- openly criticizing Romney where it hurts. Best one-liner? "Authentic inauthenticity problem." a bit more:
For instance, in Sunday's "Meet the Press" debate, Romney suggested that he didn't run for reelection as governor of Massachusetts because to have done so would have been vain or selfish somehow. "That would be about me."
Newt Gingrich ridiculed that as "pious baloney."
And he was right. Romney's claim that he's just a businessman called to serve — Cincinnatus laying down his PowerPoint — is nonsense. Romney, the son of a politician, has been running for office, holding office or thinking about running for office for more than two decades. "Just level with the American people," Gingrich growled. "You've been running … at least since the 1990s."
For some reason, Romney can't do that. Or at least it seems like he can't. His authentic inauthenticity problem isn't going away. And it's sapping enthusiasm from the rank and file. The turnout in Iowa was disastrously low, barely higher than the turnout in 2008 — and if Ron Paul hadn't brought thousands of non-Republicans to the caucus sites, it would have been decidedly lower than in 2008. That's an ominous sign given how much enthusiasm there should be for making Obama a one-term president. It's almost as if Romney's banality is infectious.
I guess being inauthentic isn't actually telling a baldfaced lie, so it's probably not on the shelves at the Emporium yet. Give it time, because sooner or later Romney's going to blame his inauthenticity problem on people misunderstanding his Mormonism, or something.

Here's something that is on the shelves at the Baldfaced Lie Emporium. It's just a trifle, so it's by the checkout lines. That's if lying about your name is a trifle:

Friday, January 13, 2012

New York Times: Fox in Chicken Skin?

You too? Yeah, after the Times quoted me, it was like I was home free!

This article by the "Public Editor" of the Paper of Record, the New York Times, is close to the most absurd thing I've witnessed in all my days, at least journalism/media-wise. First, it's entitled "Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" What?!?

Here's a taste (warning: might be laced with cyanide):
I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.
This opening sentence -- in the freaking New York Times! -- was written by Arthur S. Brisbane, who, I guess, is paid to represent us, the readers of this vaunted rag. I assume he'll still have his job tomorrow. So will Stephen Colbert, so I suppose the rift in the fabric of the universe can heal.

Think on this: If I, as a high-school history teacher, asserted today, Friday the 13th of January, 2012, that the purpose of history and the role of historians are no longer to represent the truth of past human existence. Instead, I tell my students, I'm free as a historian to tell any story I want, as long as it's reasonably plausible. Then, to test my assumptions that this is the true role of the history profession, I ask my students if historians across the globe should be History Vigilantes.

Hitler misunderstood? "I said ewes, not Jews!"

How long would I hold on to my job? (Full disclosure: I have a degree in history and am a retired teacher, though I never actually taught a history class. Subtext full disclosure: I could be making this stuff up. Is that okay, Mr. Brisbane? Or should I be a Full-Disclosure Vigilante? Huh, huh??)

Of course, kudos and hat tips to Atrios of Eschaton for pointing me to this nonsense, and the same to Media Matters for taking its usual look at the deterioration of media in fourth-stage terminal America in the 21st century.

For fun, go to Arthur S. Brisbane's article -- an article that will live in infamy... -- and read some of the 278 WTF!! comments posted.

Holy Santorum, Batman, I just had a genius idea that I should run by the publisher of the New York Times. How about having a Super Public Editor to keep an eye on what the Public Editor is writing. Yeah, he could write an article called, I don't know, how about "Should the Times Have a Public Editor Vigilante?"

My gut reaction was clearly yes. Then, after thinking for a moment, I thought no. What I actually need to do is move to the Big Island and go off the grid.

Last time I saw him he was walking down this road mumbling something about public editors...

A final, serious observation: We who have been watching cable television -- okay, the so-called networks are barely better -- or reading mainstream media have been noticing for a while that "objective reporting" has morphed into he said/she said, both-sides-do-it, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand drool. When the Public Editor of the New York Times thinks he needs to weigh in by asking readers if they think reporters should embed facts into their reporting on "newsmakers," we've entered a world in which we realize the need for another special circle of Hell. It can be a narrow band, one just wide enough for a Public Editor of the Paper of Record.

We thought we had totally cornered the market on bullshit, and now with the Times' latest move, we don't know.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Romney Comes Clean: I Am the One Percent!

I will defend your right to gut companies!
Has Mitt Romney found the cause that could finally unite the Republican Party? He thinks he has. "We’ve understood for a long time that the Obama people would come after free enterprise,” Romney declared on the plane headed to South Carolina. “Little surprised to see Newt Gingrich as the first witness for the prosecution.”

 Of course, we'd be remiss if we failed to point out that "the Obama people" haven't "come after free enterprise," and we have to remember -- just like brushing our teeth daily or taking out the trash -- it's actually good for our health to clean out our brains after listening to the nonsense that is Mitt Romney's stock in trade.

But I digress. Mittens might be on to something as he gears up to deliver his message to the fine people of South Carolina. Here's a report from Businessweek:
Romney seized his moment before a national television audience on the night of his New Hampshire primary victory to define his differences with the Democratic president in terms of fundamental economic principles, portraying Obama as a practitioner of “the bitter politics of envy” who would “turn America into a European-style entitlement society.”
“This president takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe,” Romney told his supporters.
Romney promised instead to “lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.”
For now, it is Romney’s Republican rivals who are stoking resentment and providing recorded comments that Democrats could turn against Romney should he become the party’s nominee.
Companies such as Romney’s Bain Capital “come in and loot people’s jobs, loot their pensions, loot their ability to take care of their families,” Perry said at a town hall meeting in Fort Mill, South Carolina, on Jan. 10. “They’re just vultures sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick. And then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that, and they leave the skeleton.”
We make money the old-fashioned way: we acquire it.

Romney's experience at Bain Capital is central to the myth that his record in the private sector makes him the perfect man to run the "enterprise" that is America. Does it? Short answer: no. But who cares? Tom De Lay made his money killing insects. Darrell Issa, who gave us seven years of Governor Arnold Scharzenegger, gave us a really good car alarm called the Viper. What did Mitt Romney give us?

He gave money and services to companies that needed them. Sometimes, with Staples, Domino's Pizza, and Sports Authority, the result were companies that went on to prosper. But who exactly, besides Mitt Romney, prospered? The Washington Post:
Both the successes and the failures reveal the candidate’s faith in “creative destruction,” the notion that the new must relentlessly replace the old so that companies and the economy can become more efficient.
You workers here at Staples reject the politics of envy, right?
The concept is gospel to many businesspeople. But its intersection with politics has created what may be a recurring line of attack against Romney’s record.
Romney’s approach is visible in the three big Bain investments he trumpets in his official biography as evidence that he knows how to create jobs. The companies — Staples, Sports Authority and Domino’s Pizza — are well-known consumer brands, and the campaign has gone so far as to say that Romney helped create 100,000 jobs through his work related to those businesses.
But like Romney’s work on all the businesses Bain invested in, the primary goal with these companies wasn’t job creation but making them more profitable and valuable. This meant embracing aspects of capitalism that have unsettled some Americans: laying off workers when necessary, expanding overseas to chase profits and paying top executives significantly more than employees on lower rungs.
The rise of Staples is in fact a textbook example of “creative destruction.”
Staples became a runaway business success in the 1980s and 1990s because it offered companies a smarter way of purchasing supplies, saving them money. As Staples grew, smaller stationery stores were shuttered. These losses are not counted in Romney’s jobs figure.
The rise of the company, which entered the Fortune 500 in 1996, has mirrored broader trends in corporate America, in which many multinational firms now see more potential growth abroad than in this country.
Staples, too, is steadily expanding overseas. In 2006, revenue outside North America accounted for 13 percent of revenue. In 2010, the share was 21 percent.
And as Staples has grown, so has the pay earned by its chief executive, from $4.7 million in 2006 to $10.8 million in 2010. The company explains in its annual report how it sets pay, saying that it uses comparable firms, such as Amazon, Best Buy and Starbucks, as benchmarks.
Staples does not disclose the wages of its 89,000 employees, nor does it break out how many work as retail associates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage of a retail salesperson in the United States is $25,000 a year.
 Now, back to the article in Businessweek:
White working-class voters have become increasingly important in the Republican electoral coalition, said Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
A Republican nominee “literally can’t win without a very large supermajority from the white working class,” Teixeira said. “It’s the key to their victory. The stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Republicans succeeded in the 2010 midterm congressional elections by gaining a 30-percentage-point lead among white working-class voters, Teixeira said. Obama won election in 2008 even with an 18-point gap among those voters because of support from minority groups and college-educated whites.
That last line shows the clear brilliance of Mitt Romney's new embrace of the "politics of envy." Obama won in 2008 because of support from minority groups and college-educated whites. Romney hopes to win by garnering the support of a very large supermajority from the white working class. Simply brilliant!

I don't know, Mitt just seems to get me, is all.
Mitt Romney made his fortune by helping the white working class gain an annual wage of $25,000 while helping CEOs raise their pay to astronomical levels, at the same time amassing a fortune of $200 million.

I can see it now: Mitt Romney in South Carolina, leading his white working-class minions at a rally in a cheer of "We're the one percent! We're the one percent! We're the one percent!"

It would be funny, if it weren't so tragic, that Mitt's minions have about as much chance of cashing in Mitt-style as they do of getting a good pizza from Domino's, or a living wage from Staples, or a rosy future in the shoe department at Sports Authority. In fact, Mitt's minions are the very epitome of the 99 percenters, if they took long enough to examine it.

Instead, they are likely to support Mitt Romney. And that's the really tragedy.

Unless, Barack's minions -- Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry -- do his dirty work for him by letting the white working class know that Romney's not a venture capitalist but a vulture capitalist. You know, not really one of them.

But then, what are the chances South Carolina's social conservatives will buy that line? We'll know in a week.

Update: Here's the 28-minute video that Newt Gingrich's superPAC made with money from a billionaire friend. It's pretty devastating. It's being played all over South Carolina.

Mitt Romney is ready for the presidency? Newt doesn't think he's ready for the debates:

Oh, Mittens! You could be screwed. Again, we'll see.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Could the Republicans be Out of Touch, and Still Win?

A consistent majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana:

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Both a Pew study and a recent Gallup poll back this up. In fact, if you remove people 65 and older from the polling, we find a young-to-middle-aged America firmly in support of legalization. Who, besides the elderly, are opposed? Republicans, 67%-30% against legalization.

In the same Pew poll, we find that Americans are about evenly split in their views toward gay marriage, an upswing of about 19% since 1996. Democrats and independents favor gay marriage, as do people in the Northeast and the West. Who opposes gay marriage? Republicans (77% opposed) and the Midwest (60% opposed) and South (70% opposed).

Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans support abortion rights, with 65% of Democrats and 58% of independents favoring its legality. Once again, we find only 34% of Republicans in favor of abortion rights. Even Catholics favored it (52%) while white, evangelical Christians tracked Republican support at 34%. There was no breakdown by region in the report.

To complete this examination, let's include the statistics on gun ownership versus gun control. Here the nation is about equally divided, with 48% advocating gun ownership as more important, compared to 47% who believe gun control is more important. Again, party affiliation shows stark differences. Republicans favor gun ownership by 66% as do independents by 54%. Democrats favor gun control by 65%.

So, while America is evenly split on the gun ownership debate, this is the only issue where independents side with the Republicans on what are considered the major social issues of the day. The biggest takeaway from this? On social issues, America is a left-of-center nation.

Let's take a look at another supposedly contentious issue, taxation. Recently, Gallup tells us:

The same polls shows Americans favoring Obama's jobs bill by substantial margins:

A Dec. 20 Pew survey on American views on taxation show a major shift toward feelings of taxation inequality, with a good majority feeling the wealthy don't pay their fair share:

Here again, a majority of Americans support the Democrats' views on taxation, especially on the issue of taxing the rich. Americans, Democrats, and independents want them to pay more, while Republican don't agree.

Interesting aside: How does income and wealth affect voting patterns?

Under $15,000 (7%)
$15-30,000 (12%)
$30-50,000 (21%)
$50-75,000 (22%)
$75-100,000 (16%)
$100-150,000 (13%)
$150-200,000 (5%)
$200,000 or More (5%)

(h/t CNN)

It's no surprise, then, why Republicans don't favor tax increases on the wealthy: They are the wealthy, but they are also the middle class. I chalk this up to expectations. If middle-class Republicans tend to believe in the American Dream, say, more than middle-class Democrats, then they would see themselves as likely in the future to be in that income class that would get hurt by tax increases. This is what we call counterfactual, but it is what it is and decides a lot of voting questions.

So, back to the main question: If the Republicans are out of touch with the general beliefs and core values of most Americans, how can they seriously like their chances of prevailing, either in Congress or the presidency, in 2012?

It's because of what I call the Josh Lyman Conundrum, after the fictional political operative in the vaunted political series The West Wing. I was a huge fan of both the show and the Josh Lyman character, and in one episode Josh lamented that most elections were decided by the least qualified voter group: the undecided!

Here, then, I posit that:
  • Independents decide elections because most undecideds fall into their group. Those who can't pick a political party would have the least capability of choosing a candidate to vote for.
  • These undecided independents don't vote their core beliefs as much as they vote their dissatisfaction. It's why there can be these swings like 2010, for instance. For reasons that worked against their own self-interests, independents -- even the elderly, who were suckered by the Republican Medicare Mediscare tactic -- swung wildly against Obama. Why would they swing back in 2012? Because the independent undecided might likely vote against their representative or senator because they're dissatisfied, not because they know who stands for their actual values.
  • The undecided, whether independent or not, are more prone to swallowing media narratives, like Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee because, ah -- awwwhh, cute cat! These voters are the ones that are likely to swallow the death panels meme or actually listen to Rush Limbaugh and actually believe him when he says that Obama wants to bring America to its knees because Obama is still pissed at slavery or something (even though Obama isn't a descendent of slaves).
There, I've said it: Elections are decided by the most undecided, least informed, and most impressionable among our voters. This is a democracy, and a democracy has flaws. But this flaw is actually fed more by the information machine that surrounds it than any actual weakness in the democratic system. Fight this (mis)information machine, not the voters held captive by it.

Update: I'd forgotten this article by Chris Hayes (of The Nation and MSNBC) I'd read some time ago and which influenced my thinking. Read it. Here's a key takeaway from it:
Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. (This cuts both ways: I met a large number of Bush/Feingold voters whose politics were more in line with the Republican president, but who admired the backbone and gutsiness of their Democratic senator.) But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues--a familiarity that may not exist.
As far as I can tell, this leaves Democrats with two options: either abandon "issues" as the lynchpin of political campaigns and adopt the language of values, morals, and character as many have suggested; or begin the long-term and arduous task of rebuilding a popular, accessible political vocabulary--of convincing undecided voters to believe once again in the importance of issues. The former strategy could help the Democrats stop the bleeding in time for 2008. But the latter strategy might be necessary for the Democrats to become a majority party again.
Hayes' point is short-term depressing and long-term hopeful. I wish I was more patient. I just might have to learn to be.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Our Politics Are So Toxic

Whenever we even think of telling the truth, we have to prepare for the argument that we're wrong. Recently, I've been reading economics blogs that are obsessed with protecting the anti-Keynesians who don't believe in fiscal stimulus to help lower unemployment and thus repair our economy. Further, these economists believe the problem is supply-side (so, let's help the producers), not demand-side (so, let's help the consumers). While examining their rationales, I discovered that not only are they disingenuous in their reasoning, this disingenuousness stems from an essential mean-spiritedness.

I don't want to go into a discussion of "freshwater" versus "saltwater" economic theory, though I recommend you study it for yourselves. However, our dividing lines politically, socially, economically, and philosophically in this country boil down to us versus them as opposed to us taking them into account. It's a central dichotomy for America.

The "us versus them" faction favor rugged individualism. The "us taking them into account" faction favor socialism. Rugged individualism stresses individual responsibility while socialism stresses shared responsibility.

These notions are not hard to grasp, and yet, because of toxic dialogue concocted by purposeful obfuscation, people can't have a reasoned discussion about the choices implied by this dichotomy. Why does this become toxic?

It's simply because there is a religious underpinning to the values involved. Where religion is involved, the passions of true believers get inflamed and because this underpinning is faith-based as opposed to reason-based, rational argument becomes difficult if not impossible.

Why were Americans able to coexist for the public good for so long without the toxicity of this debate? I'd say that though we've never gotten along perfectly and greed and self-interest have always held a certain sway, we've always, until the last few decades, had enough land and resources to "Go West, young man." Those days are over, and with shrinking resources and growing population, the worst traits of rugged individualism will come out and seek to fight against the public good.

Why would American society have as an essential part of its character an inclination to work against the public good? It's for the simple reason that for one individual to help a fellow individual there is at least the appearance that he has to give up something. That doesn't feel so individualistic, does it? Even if you examined this conflict from a theoretical sense and grant that an individual might actually believe that individualism is the best expression of personal responsibility, it would be hard to resist seeing this as simple, baldfaced, narcissistic self-interest.

I'm not that well-read, and sometimes I make assumptions. I've always assumed that Randian libertarianism comes down to rugged individualism writ large. That is, in the freest society I would be free to pursue my interests unfettered by outside forces. That this would lead to unmitigated violence and chaos seems not only obvious but historically demonstrated.

So, in a society that would somehow not descend into this violence and chaos, we'd need an ethical and moral system. In America, that system originated from Christianity. That's well and good, as far as it goes. The fault, as I see it, is in the Puritan nature of our religious heritage. It goes like this:
  1. I am good and moral and lead the Godly life.
  2. Because I am thus, I have been successful.
  3. So all can see I am a Chosen One of God.
  4. Since others are not Chosen, it is God's will.
  5. I am Chosen while others are not.
  6. That I am Chosen is demonstrated by the existence of the Unchosen.
  7. Therefore, the Unchosen need to exist to prove that I have been Chosen by God.
  8. As this is true, I'm not only allowed to think of the Unchosen as inferior, it is required by God that I do so.
  9. As they are my inferiors, I am allowed to discipline them as I see fit.
In TodaySpeak, there are winners and losers. That's the way it's supposed to be. I'm a winner, they're losers. Fuck 'em.

Of course you've noticed that the concept of Europe has become a bogeyman for the right. Why? It's because Europe epitomizes not simply socialism but the success of socialism. In fact, arguably the most socialistic of the European countries, Denmark, is also known to have the highest happiness rating in the world. So why demonize them?

It's classic Karl Rovian tactics. John Kerry is a decorated Vietnam veteran? Just swift-boat him and turn his war medals into scarlet letters instead. Socialist Europe leads us in multiple measures? Attack them for being "Old Europe," the epitome of decay. We're America! We're the superior new way! Who cares if this new way is based on superstition from Palestine two thousand years ago? We're the new fuckin' way!

(Parenthetically, Europe is currently under siege, as it has been in the past, by rightist forces who would undo the gains underwritten by socialism, now in the name of Austerity, for its own sake.)

Why is America so prone to such fear and loathing? It has been, as I've said, because of our Puritan heritage that requires winners and losers. And, as I've said, we're resistant because of this heritage to anything that would ameliorate the disadvantages of the disadvantaged class, would level the social and economic inequality. We need a "them" to be low to elevate "us."

Never in my life have I experienced a political shift so dramatic as the shift to the right that, though it's been going on for some thirty years, has so rapidly accelerated since Barack Obama was elected. What funny -- or sickening -- about this is that Obama is at his very core a moderate figure. It's hard to argue otherwise. So, there's got to be something else.

Oh, he's black. Did I mention that?

I almost don't have to. The Tea Party, along with the conventional Republican right, is dedicated to stopping a black man in his tracks. If they'd had their own self-interests at heart, they'd be supportive of his policies. Instead, their self-interests have been hijacked by the self-interests of the 1% because it fits the narrative, "They've earned it, so let them keep it. When I get mine, I'll keep it, too. And I certainly don't need any black man to help me."

That's why the top 20% have 85% of the wealth, and the bottom 80% have to share the 15% that's left.

What's it add up to? Our rapid swing to the extreme right has been fueled by our religious heritage that defines us as a nation of individuals who succeed if it's God will (which should never be trifled with), and an upswing in racism and personal greed.

In support of this shift -- and greatly responsible for it -- is a media-driven echo-chamber narrative that demonizes opponents, that makes clear no compromise is reasonable enough because we've already demonized the opposition, how could we even talk to them? They're the unclean. The other.

Of course, there are secular thinkers who nonetheless support this laissez-faire approach to a deregulated society, that seeks to suppress social welfare systems and replace them with private incentives, that wants market-based solutions to everything including healthcare (in spite of the fact that consumer choice in healthcare decisions is nonsensical), and these secular thinkers are today called freshwater, or neoclassical, economists.

And if you like a dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all, I've-got-mine-you-get-your-own world, then you'll love these freshwater guys, especially if you like models that haven't worked for years, you know, like supply-side, trickle-down, and so on.

C'mon, folks. There is a better way, and it doesn't have to be called socialism. It's called enlightened self-interest, where you realize that the healthier all of society is the better your own opportunities are. To me, it's a no-brainer. You don't even need to have a PhD in economics to figure it out.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Two Notions of Demographic Changes That Might Mean a Lot

 Two big questions on love and money. Money first.

Okay, the first one is an open question that I am longing to have answered: What is the effect of baby boomers retiring and accessing their IRAs in terms of enhancing government revenue?

Ordinarily, when something obvious is going to happen -- or has started to happen -- even the media picks up on it. But I haven't heard anything on this. It just popped into my head. So that makes me think that I'm not on to something. But here's the deal: one of the main purposes of IRA contributions all these years was to defer tax payments. Now, not that much of my own retirement is dependent on IRAs, mostly because I started late and didn't have as much time as others did to stock their IRAs with 5-6000 bucks a year. But I do have tax-deferred money in both IRAs and annuities. As I get further into my retirement, I'm going to be finally paying taxes on this money.

If we're such a huge population bubble that will destroy Social Security, aren't we also a population bubble that will pay down the debt with our bubblicious deferred taxes?

Sure, I hope I'll be paying at a lower marginal rate, but I'll be paying taxes long-deferred. Again, the question: Won't that mean a windfall in deferred tax payments over the next 10-20 years as boomers finally pay the piper? Won't that help with the national debt?

If anybody knows, please tell me. I'll be looking around for answers. (Hope the answer isn't that I'm an idiot...)

Demographic question no. 2: Birth rates are falling in Latin America, and even in some areas of North Africa and southern Africa (they're staying high in most of sub-Saharan Africa). Birth rates have drifted down in the U.S. and Canada, where they are close to the "replacement" level; the same can be said for Asia and Europe. So here's the question: Where are they getting all that birth control? Where is that mythical sway that the Roman Catholic Church has/had on the Latinos? In fact, if Rick Santorum is right -- and if the anti-birth-control/anti-abortion social conservatives are right -- then our Christian moral nation is either not having sex or not avoiding birth control.

The answer writ large is the Christian world is using birth control like crazy, in spite of the declaration by the pope that it's a mortal sin (you lose your trip to the Big House).

Another way of putting it is we love God except when He's making us have too many babies. Then, not so much.

Is this a true shift that portends hope for the future of mankind? Are we over our uncontrollable urge to kill the planet with too many humans? Are we becoming, like, secular?

Boy I hope so.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (or At Least the Election Cycle)

Happy 2012, everyone. Between now and November, we're bound to see something really special! It's only January 1st, but so far wow--

Brad DeLong gets on my bandwagon with his take on the latest Iowa poll:
  • Says Anything 24%
  • Newsletter 22%
  • Man on Dog 15%
  • Three Wives 12%
Fun figuring out who's who. Steve Benen helps with the analysis:
The results, however, come with a very important caveat: the Iowa Poll was conducted Tuesday through Friday, and the results from the first two days were quite different from the last two days.
[T]he four-day results don’t reflect just how quickly momentum is shifting in a race that has remained highly fluid for months. If the final two days of polling are considered separately, Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remains the same, at 24 percent.
“Momentum’s name is Rick Santorum,” said the Register’s pollster, J. Ann Selzer.
(h/t Paul Krugman)

Matthew Yglesias, now over at Slate, predicts a vibrant economy for 2012. I'm a natural-born optimist, so I want to believe his take:
This increase in economic activity will boost state and local tax revenue and end the already slowing cycle of public sector layoffs. Re-employment in the construction, durable goods, and related transportation and warehousing functions will bolster income and push up spending on nondurables, restaurants, leisure and hospitality, and all the rest. Happy days, in other words, will be here again.
None of that means we’ll remember 2012 as the best of times. What we’re talking about is a spurt of rapid employment growth from a low base, not a tight labor market and rapidly rising wages like we had in the late ’90s. But compared with the past four years, it’ll look like a magnificent boom.
Unless, that is, policymakers screw it up. If you imagine a world in which several million people go from unemployed to daily commuting, and large numbers of people abandon their roommates and get a place of their own, then there are likely going to be spikes in the prices of gasoline, rent, and other commodities. This will temporarily push inflation above normal levels and increase pressure on the Fed to tighten money and nip the boom in the bud. The central bank’s recent statements indicate that they won’t do this, but they haven’t been as clear as they should be. Betting against policymaker screw-ups is a risky proposition—the Eurozone elite managed to spend the entire fall acting in bizarre and counterproductive ways—but barring a trade-destroying natural disaster, we’re looking at a recovery, if we want one.
 Would be nice, wouldn't it? Then again, who would want to screw up our economic policy at this point?

A commenter at David Andolfatto's blog -- where he once again appears to distort models to prove that Paul Krugman's attack on Robert Lucas was unjustified -- named Jefferson Smith explains what is really going on in the econ blogosphere wars (it's in a comment that I don't know how to link to, so here it is in its entirety because it's spot on and absolutely hilarious; kudos!):
Jefferson Smith said...
Like other commenters, I'm a little puzzled as to why we're spending all this effort to read between the lines of speakers who are still with us and have every opportunity to clarify their remarks themselves if they choose to. However, since that's what's afoot, let me return the favor you're doing Lucas and explain what I believe Krugman is really saying. I will attempt as best I can to express this mathematically.

As I understand it, economists propose models (M) designed to explain data (D) in such a way as to produce a generally accurate picture of what's actually happening in the world. The goal is:

M + D = F

where F is, approximately, the facts -- what we see actually happening, like interest rates rising or falling and such. (Sorry, your site here isn't allowing me to do the wavy equal sign for approximation. My own model will be accordingly limited. But, onward.)

Once we have a proven model, we can use it to decide upon policies (P):

M -> P

The problem is that rightist economists have a PREFERRED set of policies. Call this P(r). Of course, so do liberal/left economists; let's call this one P(k), with "k" standing for Keyenesian or Krugmanite, as you wish. What's been happening in recent years is that M(r), the models preferred on the right, when added to D, do not equal or approximate F. But M(k), the liberal / Keyesian models, do. Therefore, M -> P(r) doesn't hold; a correct M appears to imply P(k).

Krugman has devoted tens of thousands of words over these last few years to chronicling the right's various responses to this. One popular one has been to deny or redefine D, replacing actual D with a right-preferred D(r): claims, for instance, that inflation is up even though it isn't. Similarly with F, which has given way on the right to a mythical F(r) -- a world in which, for instance, Spain was profligate before the crash, Ireland is doing well now, and, more to the immediate point, stimulus spending didn't help the U.S. economy. All of these are attempts to shore up the implausible view that, because P(r) MUST be the correct policies, the model we should be using is M(r):

M = M(r)

even though it's increasingly clear that

M = M(k).

What Krugman is saying about Lucas is that he has found yet another strategy for aligning M and M(r): simply redefine M(r) -- where "r" means both rightist and, for this purpose, Ricardian -- to be something other than it is. In other words, there is now a "Lucasian" M(r), which we'll call L(r). Your analysis above is an attempt to explicate and defend this special kind of Ricardian modeling.

So here's where I think you're talking past Krugman. He doesn't mean that Lucas "doesn't understand" Ricardian equivalence in the sense that he fails to grasp the way M(r) would be explained in textbooks. He means that Lucas willfully insists that M(r) is really L(r), because his ultimate goal is to save P(r) against an F that refuses to point to that outcome. He is also unhappy that

M(k) + D = F -> P(o)

where P(o) is the set of policies advocated in the Obama administration by people like Christine Romer. So as a further rhetorical flourish, he insults Romer in the way you've mathematically tried to justify.

Hope this helps. Happy new year.
The debate continues here and here. Fun stuff! Happy New Year indeed.