Saturday, March 22, 2014

How to Make Conservative Sausage, George-Will-Style

Hey, I'm a rhetorician and bending facts is
part of the game. Why are you on my case?

George Will, Bile-Duct Emeritus of the Washington Post, goes with the classic gambit: "I can build my case using the predictable drivel from the intellectuals" at the "think tank" American Enterprise Institute.

More often than not, the American Enterprise Institute rates the moniker "think tank" because they "think maybe we should use this bullshit," as if legitimate thinking were involved. And they're not alone. The Heritage Foundation were the ones who gave cover to Paul Ryan's famous budget that would drive the unemployment rate to 2.8 percent within ten years. When someone -- on the left -- pointed out how preposterous that figure was, Heritage scrubbed their website of the figure and said, "Never mind!"

George Will, bless his heart, must needs go back to the AEI well nonetheless, for when you need distorted statistics, no one does it better.

Today, Will undertakes to cast as nasty a set of aspersions on liberals as he can, using his usual erect, spanked, and tortured syntax. Right out of the gate Georgie goes:
Critics of Rep. Paul Ryan’s remarks about cultural factors in the persistence of poverty are simultaneously shrill and boring. Their predictable minuet of synthetic indignation demonstrates how little liberals have learned about poverty or changed their rhetorical repertoire in the last 49 years.
So much is wrong with that paragraph, but I can at least point out that historically, it's simply inaccurate. I assume the bracketing dates of those 49 years are Johnson's declaring war on poverty and today. Let's look at events along this continum:
  1. Social Security Act 1965 (Created Medicare and Medicaid) – July 19, 1965
  2. Food Stamp Act of 1964- August 31, 1964
  3. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 which created the Community Action Program, Job Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), centerpiece of the "war on poverty" – August 20, 1964
  4. Elementary and Secondary Education Act - April 11, 1965
  5. The Office of Economic Opportunity midwifed a number of programs, including VISTA, Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Services and the Community Action Program.
The above information is from Wikipedia and demonstrates that a lot of work was started in the immediate aftermath of Johnson's war declaration. Here's a look at what the near-term results were from the programs, also from Wikipedia:
In the decade following the 1964 introduction of the war on poverty, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to their lowest level since comprehensive records began in 1958: from 17.3% in the year the Economic Opportunity Act was implemented to 11.1% in 1973. They have remained between 11 and 15.2% ever since.
Progress was made on poverty. Reducing poverty by 36% within a decade and keeping it from rising to old levels is not nothing. it's something. Also, liberals who "learned little in 49 years" have in fact added many programs:
  1.  Earned Income Tax Credit, 1975 (bipartisan)
  2. Welfare Reform under Clinton, 1996. (bipartisan)
  3. PPACA, 2013 (Obamacare)
  4. A slew of current poverty initiatives from Obama, read this article spelling them out. These included expanded preschool, new job training programs, and more.
Don't be surprised by the inclusion of Obamacare. A healthy society is a productive one, and healthy workers work better. And millions of Americans who didn't have healthcare have indeed signed up for coverage.

In the article above about Obama's new initiatives, Paul Ryan's plan is mentioned in contrast:
Meanwhile, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) is at work on a GOP budget plan that aims to overhaul the nation’s welfare system, in part by cutting spending on programs that Ryan argues have locked people into poverty.
The GOP's approach is simple: Aid to the poor locks them into dependency, so let's cut programs so the poor are not locked into dependency. The GOP plan after that? We're waiting.

George Will's article railing against the failure of the War on Poverty is actually wrapped around the criticism Paul Ryan rightfully earned (Will doesn't think so) from his ill-disguised comments that black men have no culture of work, that this is generational, and because of the breakup of the inner city families, young black boys are not learning the benefits of work because they've no role models -- absent black fathers. To drive the point home, Ryan cited Charles Murray, who has well-known views on the inferiority of African-Americans.

Will supports these views by saying, hey stupid liberals, it's the breakdown of the family that's caused this state of affairs -- you know, that black people don't grok the value of work, not like us whiteys -- and brings in American Enterprise Institute "thinker" Nicholas Eberstadt to secure some bonafides to Will's shaky-ground hypotheses. Here's a sample:
All other things being equal, the family dependency rate was on a relentless rise between 1979 and 2009: after controlling for the reported unemployment and family poverty rates, dependency was nevertheless increasing by over four percentage points every decade. On this track, it will only be a matter of time before a majority of Americans are seeking and obtaining "antipoverty" benefits from the government — regardless of their wealth or their employment prospects. Entitlement recipience even means-tested entitlement recipience — is now a Main Street phenomenon in modern America: a truly amazing turn of events for the nation of legatees to the Declaration of Independence. Entitlement dependence comes at great cost — and as Moynihan warned nearly forty years ago, "It cannot too often be stated that the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it, but what it costs those who receive it."
What is this "relentless rise?" Eberstat puts it as follows, as reported and commented on by reliable Berkeley economist Brad DeLong:
The breathtaking growth of [personal] entitlement payments over the past half-century is shown in Figure 1. In 1960, U.S. government transfers to individuals from all programs totaled about $24 billion. By 2010, the outlay for entitlements was almost 100 times more. Over that interim, the nominal growth in entitlement payments to Americans by their government was rising by an explosive average of 9.5 percent per annum for fifty straight years.
That will alarm his readers. It certainly would alarm me. But I know that that 9.5 percent number is not the right headline number.
Inflation averaged 4 percent per year from 1960 to 2010. That means that real spending growth was some 5.5 percent a year. Real GDP grew at 3.1 percent a year from 1960 to 2010. We would expect government spending to grow about as fast as GDP. Subtract that number from 5.5 percent, and you get 2.4 percent per year. That 2.4 percent per year, not 9.5 percent, is what should be the actual headline number.
There’s more: One-seventh of our current transfers are the result of the downturn, as Barack Obama and company followed the advice Joseph gave to Pharaoh to spend more during lean years and run budget surpluses during fat years. That spending is temporary, appropriate, and not at all worrisome. More than a third of today’s federal transfer payments are the Medicare and Medicaid health programs. If you worry about a culture of dependence destroying our national work ethic—as Eberstadt does—you should put those to the side, for very few quit their jobs saying, “I don’t need to work, because government programs will pay my doctor and hospital bills.” Even if you are sure that cash transfers induce people to give up looking for work, you have to recognize that you can’t charge food or entertainment to your Medicaid card. The right headline number for thinking about whether we really are “a nation of takers” is cyclically adjusted spending on non-health government transfer programs as a share of potential GDP. And that number has a growth rate of 1.2 percent per year.
Busted! AEI thinkers at work jacking up numbers, playing to their audiences, while DeLong shows a solitary fact:
Now, I can correct in five minutes the 9.5 percent per year number that Eberstadt headlines down to the 1.2 percent per year number that gives a more accurate, more empirical, and less ideological picture of what is going on.
But I know the numbers.
Many people, Mitt Romney and his peers at the head of the Republican apparat included, do not. So when they see alarming numbers and charts like those that A Nation of Takers throws at them—increases from $24 billion to $2.3 trillion in annual entitlement spending; 100-fold growth; 9.5 percent a year, a doubling every eight years—is it any wonder that they deeply believe in their hearts of hearts that America has become a nation of moochers?
George Will hears what he wants to hear and adds and subtracts along the same lines, but it doesn't make it so.

One more tidbit to place Nicholas Eberstadt in the proper class of AEI bullshitters. Here he is in another paper I found where Eberstadt answers the question,“Which country has a higher fraction of men age 35-39 participating in the labor force – the U.S. or Greece?” Perfectly fine question. How does he answer it?
And Greece, given its ongoing public debt and finance travails, is at the moment a sort of poster child for the over-bloated, unsustainable European welfare state. Be all that as it may: the fact is that a decidedly smaller share of men in their late thirties has apparently opted out of the workforce in Greece than in the United States. By 2003 — well before the Great Recession — 7.2 percent of American men in this age group were outside the workforce, as against just 3 percent in Greece.
Classic slight of hand: We Americans are so lazy that basket-case Greece beats us in labor force participation. The trick here, though, is that Eberstadt picks a four-year age cohort 35-39 (where's the rest of the data?), and he picks Greece because Greece is the poster child for welfare state collapse but chooses a year, 2003, well before the collapse so the stats would show "even Greece works harder than we do." American inner city losers! What are the real stats, at the peak of the Greek collapse?

Greek unemployment hit a new record of 25.4% in August as five years of recession and government spending cuts continued to take their toll, with young people hit hardest.

The Greek statistics office ELSTAT said the seasonally-adjusted jobless number rose to 1.27 million in August, up 352,000 from the same month a year earlier when the unemployment rate stood at 18.4%. In July 2012, the figure was 24.8%

Nearly 6 in 10 workers under the age of 24 are now without a job. A third of workers aged 25-34 are unemployed, ELSTAT said.

The figures underscore the social cost of a recession that has cut the size of the Greek economy by about 20% since 2008, and efforts by the government to rein in its soaring budget deficit -- projected to hit 190% of gross domestic product next year. 

There's a little apples-and-oranges going on here in that comparing the unemployment figures from 2012 with the workforce participation dropout rate in 2003 is comparing people who want to work now but can't with those who could work back then but didn't want to. But Eberstadt was only interested in finding a stat that proved Americans are lazier than Greeks.

And Paul Ryan circuitously says those Americans who don't want to work are inner city blacks.

And George Will defends Paul Ryan by citing a study that says Americans are lazier than Greeks.

And so the snake eats its tail, proving liberals suck, and the poor suck, and liberals are shrill and boring (the requisite slap at Paul Krugman! Epic win!)

What does Krgthulu have to say about Ryan and the rest of the clowns? (Surely he doesn't mean you, George):

The countries that rode out the crisis best had relatively large welfare states by European standards, while those that did worst had somewhat smaller than average social expenditures.
I don’t think this is causal; what happened instead was that during the years of europhoria, money flowed from Europe’s wealthy core, with its well-established welfare states, to less developed economies on the periphery, which then went bust. The size of the welfare state probably had nothing to do with it either way. But then that’s the point: the right-wing theory of the crisis gets no support from the facts.
There you have it: the circle is squared, so to speak. The stronger the European welfare state, the better they survived. Starting with Ryan, passing to Will, relying on Eberstadt, then critiqued by Krugman, and you have a shrill liberal, in my view, with an assist from also-ran shrill liberal Brad DeLong, firmly in command of the facts and using them in a truthful way.

What a concept. The American Enterprise Institute and their attack dogs come up pretty limp. Better luck next time, George.

A quite relevant addendum. Te-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic explains why progressives might not have the proper frame of "the black condition":
"I'm not the president of black America," Barack Obama has said. "I'm the president of the United States of America."

And the president of the United States is not just an enactor of policy for today, he is the titular representative of his country's heritage and legacy. In regards to black people, America's heritage is kleptocracy—the stealing and selling of other people's children, the robbery of the fruits of black labor, the pillaging of black property, the taxing of black citizens for schools they can not attend, for pools in which they can not swim, for libraries that bar them, for universities that exclude them, for police who do not protect them, for the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators.

The bearer of this unfortunate heritage feebly urging "positive habits and behavior" while his country imprisons some ungodly number of black men may well be greeted with applause in some quarters. It must never be so among those of us whose love of James Baldwin is true, whose love of Ida B. Wells is true, whose love of Harriet Tubman and our ancestors who fought for the right of family is true. In that fight America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis.

Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies—though not race-specific policies—that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
 It's a classic mistake reformers make, whether liberals or conservatives -- especially when they set about reforming "others." Coates has it, in my view, almost pitch-perfect in summing up both the history and the continuity of "white supremacy." If there's a culture of failure somewhere that weighs on African-Americans, it's much whiter that it is black. And all the oppressors are not conservatives. Do-gooder progressives can be smart and on the side of the blacks and still have their thumbs on the wrong side of the scale. Coates is right to point that out. In the end -- to repeat -- what's it all about?
It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
So, sorry, Ryan, Will, Murray, Eberstadt, et al. This is what a social welfare state dedicated to both income and opportunity equality is all about: the right to live like the normal human beings they are.

Normal human beings, not hyper-moral, super-human beings.

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