Friday, May 25, 2012

Public Equity

Marc Thiessen coins the term "public equity" to aptly describe President Obama's business model as president, then whips through a string of spectacular failures that Mitt Romney's Bain Capital would have a hard time matching.

His last blow is vicious:

Amazingly, Obama has declared that all the projects received funding “based solely on their merits.” But as Hoover Institution scholar Peter Schweizer reported in his book, “Throw Them All Out,” fully 71 percent of the Obama Energy Department’s grants and loans went to “individuals who were bundlers, members of Obama’s National Finance Committee, or large donors to the Democratic Party.” Collectively, these Obama cronies raised $457,834 for his campaign, and they were in turn approved for grants or loans of nearly $11.35 billion. Obama said this week it’s not the president’s job “to make a lot of money for investors.” Well, he sure seems to have made a lot of (taxpayer) money for investors in his political machine.

How come those who want to "keep the money out of politics" never propose banning no-bid government contracts for businesses that have contributed to a campaign or PAC? I can't imagine.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vouchers for Rich Kids, Too

Since Mitt Romney snuck into the president's turf and took the president to task for repeatedly trying to shut down the money-saving DC Opportunity Scholarship voucher program, everybody has been talking about what a strong issue vouchers are for Republicans.

It's practically a gift: Obama worked futilely as a "community organizer" in urban Chicago, but insists on keeping DC city schoolkids firmly within the purview of the AFT and NEA (I won't use the incendiary word "plantation", as some have). Romney can make the easy case that markets and vouchers provide better opportunities for those too poor to leave failing school districts.

While focusing on the poor is good politics, voucher programs shouldn't be means-tested. Why did white flight occur? Why is the gentrification of America's beautiful urban neighborhoods limited to young professionals, gays, dinks, and a handful of over-50 types? Poor schools, of course. In Jamaica Plain, one of the most vibrant and diverse neighborhoods in America, one rarely sees a white person between the ages of 5 and 18, despite a 50% white population.

Those well-off enough to flee the city may not need vouchers as badly as poor students do, but the city needs them. With school choice, neighborhoods can become diverse, as highly-educated urbanites stay in their homes when their eldest kid hits age 4 instead of fleeing to the suburbs or exurbs. Cities rife with boarded-up homes could experience much-needed private investment along with rising tax revenues and greater diversity of achievement. More affluent kids would grow up in poor neighborhoods and be attuned to the breadth of human need. And the taxes paid by well-off parents would allow cities to keep tax rates reasonable, instead of chasing businesses out to the suburbs with a vicious cycle of rising taxes and shrinking tax base.

Does that mean government should take voucher money away from poor kids? Nope - cities and states can expand their voucher programs almost limitlessly, since vouchers are cheaper than keeping kids in the old monopolistic public schools.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Public Goods

I was sipping my coffee down at Brooks Landing today in the halcyon sunshine, watching the other users of the public space: a guy covered in tattoos fed the ducks, several out-of-shape joggers huffled past, a college student and her mom nibbled at their breakfasts.

Parks, libraries, the Jazz Fest, National Forests: all of these are public goods. Governments (usually local) tax and spend to provide citizens with goods which would be underprovided by private supply and demand. However, individual enjoyment of public goods remains (usually) a private choice. Brooks Landing is just there: if you want to use it, you must take your time, walk down there, and find your own way of enjoying it.

From casual observation in many settings, it appears to me that public goods are enjoyed more by the affluent than by the poor. There isn't anything wrong with that, as long as the public goods are easily accessed by all. In the case of Brooks Landing, it's located in a poor neighborhood - yet relatively few of the neighbors habituate the spot.

Why do the well-off love public amenities, when they could afford private alternatives, but the poor - who cannot - seem indifferent to them?

Clearly, a straightforward notion of public goods as perfect substitutes for private ones is insufficient to explain what I've observed. That approach - the simplest - would suggest that the poor would consume a lot more public goods than the rich. Another simple approach, treating private and public goods as completely independent, also fails: it would imply equal usage patterns if costs are identical. Since the time of the well-off is typically worth more, and since the poor in America have more leisure time, even in the case of additive separability of utility the poor should consume a bit more of public leisure goods.

That leaves us with the idea that public goods may be complements to private goods, and are not primarily complements of leisure time. In some cases, this makes sense: you can't use a DVD borrowed from the library unless you have a DVD player. You can't hike in a National Forest if you can't afford to transport yourself there. But a local park? Or a public festival?

Another theory, one that has some merit in a society like mine where race, class, and income tend to run together, is that the activities I am thinking about are those where one goes "to see and be seen". It might be the case that the poor have a distaste for seeing (or being seen by) the well-off, so they steer clear of public functions. With enough distaste for others, any group will self-segregate. As a white, I might simply fail to observe the enjoyment of public goods by blacks if they don't want me to see them doing so.

As always, the last resort of an economist in explaining a phenomenon is 'preferences'. Perhaps there are cultural preferences for public goods that are correlated with ability to earn income. The best evidence for this is college students. They are likely to be affluent in the future, but have little income in the present. And they LOVE public goods: college students crowd parks, love libraries, join fun activities, go hiking, crowd beaches, and generally consume far more than an average share of leisure-oriented public goods. This fits well with the simple theories of utility, and suggests a life-cycle in which a young adult will shift consumption away from public and toward private goods as his income rises.

Could the preferences of the poor be deterministic? Does someone's indifference to riverside walks, libraries, and music festivals express itself as well in an indifference toward schoolwork or saving money? That's a much trickier question.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Election 2012: Not Very Important

You have heard it before: this year's election is "THE MOST IMPORTANT OF {OUR LIFETIME, THE CENTURY, AMERICAN HISTORY, OUR ERA}!!!".

Not only is this overblown and immodest, as the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf points out, but the opposite is most likely true.

Does the 2012 election offer voters the opportunity to elect a major historical figure, someone who will introduce a new element or ideology to the presidency? No - Obama is already president, and Romney's ideas and identity conform well to the last 140 years of G.O.P. politics.

Is a great deal of policy change likely in the next four years? No. Congress will be Republican, the Senate will be split near 50-50. If re-elected, Obama will have to play small ball for two years, and then all eyes will turn to 2016, which would utterly overshadow 2012 in importance with a new generation of leadership from both parties (Biden, Clinton, Romney, and Paul would all be out of the game - think Chris Christie versus Andrew Cuomo, or Susana Martinez versus Mark Warner). If instead voters choose Romney, the new president will most likely make changes at the margin.

The two potentially enduring policies from Obama's first term are Obamacare and the amazing increase in U.S. debt. In the 2013-2017 presidential term, whoever is elected will fight trench warfare with the opposite party in the Senate over implementation of Obamacare. And whoever is elected will beg for mercy from the budget. Without a massive electoral mandate, it's hard to imagine either one enacting long-term entitlement reform.

Does the 2012 election present a historical breakpoint, with a possible realignment of politics in the U.S.? That occurred in 1852-1860, 1912, 1932, 1980 and could have in 1992 (if Perot had won some states). Does anybody expect the 2012 victor to carry more than 55% of the vote? Or either major party to seriously rethink its positions in defeat? Most likely, 2016 will feature the same arguments over the same issues as the 2012 election... which are largely the same as the arguments in every election since 1980, when the GOP took its modern form.

Since there are only twenty-five presidential elections in a century, and several of them each century do offer stark, historical choices, the in-between elections are by necessity less important than average. When an incumbent runs, importance dips still further, since only one new set of ideas and identities is considered. Think about 2004, 1996, 1992, 1984, 1972, 1956, 1944, 1940, 1936, and 1916. Along with 1924 and 1976, wouldn't those be among the 12 least interesting elections of the past 100 years?

So keep your shirt on, gentle reader: this election will determine who makes some important decisions from 2013 through January, 2017, and it probably won't decide much more than that.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee?

The kerfuffle over Professor Elizabeth Warren's heritage is best understood through the prism of governmental demands for diversity. While the biggest issue for her campaign (and for voters) is whether or not she lied about past claims, outsiders to academia are, I think, mistaking the margin at which Warren claiming minority status would have distorted the system in her favor.

Why do I know something about this? I'm an academic, for one. But also: I'm married to a woman with ancestry very similar to Warren's. Mrs. Global Review is 1/32nd Algonquin, according to family history. Warren claims to have two separate great-great-great-grand-Indians, which would make her 1/16th Native American.

Top schools care very little about race. They are brutally meritorious, and count publications the way baseball GM's count home runs. Nobody in baseball says, "hmm, we could really use a Japanese pitcher to connect with Asian fans". But having signed an Asian due to his pitching skills, they'll freely use his background as an advertising tool. Why not?

It's similar with academic departments. In my wife's case, she could help her own school out by listing herself as Native American. How? Well, certain National Science Foundation training grants are available only to programs that have a certain percentage of minority students (and no, Jews and Asians don't count, despite historical and current discrimination against them in academia). My wife's school missed the cutoff - she could have curried favor with her bosses and possibly made more money available for herself and her colleagues by listing herself as Native American.

An important distinction to make between my wife's case and Warren's is their place in the system. As a nearly blank slate, just beginning grad school, schools would have definitely taken my wife's declared race into account. This is in accordance with Federal policy; why else would the government make NSF training grants contingent on minority inclusion? But at Warren's level, accomplishments matter much more.

For Warren, if Harvard Law favored her at all, it would more likely be for her sex (she was hired as one of 11 women on a faculty of 71) than her race. My wife, however, did not enjoy this benefit: her field is already 50/50, so she does not have to suffer the stigma of affirmative action, and can take her place as an equal of the men and women in her program.

The real question is: did Warren lie about using her Cherokee background to help her employers look good? If she did, she's guilty of rank hypocrisy. As a leftist who wants government to help those less favored by circumstance, lying about her past claims would essentially show that she feels guilty about abusing the very system she wants to enshrine.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Monetary Expansion and the 1%

One-percenter Mark Spitznagel, a California hedge-fund founder, shines an Austrian spotlight on a major source of inequality:

A major issue in this year's presidential campaign is the growing disparity between rich and poor, the 1% versus the 99%.

The source is not runaway entrepreneurial capitalism, which rewards those who best serve the consumer in product and price. (Would we really want it any other way?) There is another force that has turned a natural divide into a chasm: the Federal Reserve. The relentless expansion of credit by the Fed creates artificial disparities based on political privilege and economic power.

Spitz (I'm sure his friends call him that) reviews the Austrian-school economics criticism of the Fed that its methods of providing liquidity are not neutral, as most simple economics models construe them. Instead, lower interest rates or quantitative easing are directly beneficial to a few big-dollar players who have access to the Fed's open market operations. Those with a financial stake in Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and a few others disproportionately benefit from expanding monetary supply.

Some important qualifications that Spitz leaves out: when the Fed expands the money supply, inflating the currency slightly, those who own a lot of dollars or dollar-denominated assets lose wealth, and those who have a lot of dollar debt see the real value of their debt shrink. So loose money is not just a giveaway to the wealthy, it's also a form of debt forgiveness. In fact, with inflation of about 2% per year, we approximate the Bible's Year of Jubilee: after 50 years, one's entire debt is forgiven.

Secondly, when the Fed has a contractionary policy - high interest rates - won't that have an equal-and-opposite effect, hurting most those who rely directly on short-run Fed loans to play high-finance games?

To me, a bigger issue is overall government indebtedness, which leads to a long-run transfer of wealth to the wealthiest. It's a triviality that in a model economy with patient & impatient individuals, the patient ones will eventually hold all the wealth (this is also Biblical, incidentally). If the government approximates a representation of the entire country, and it consistently borrows from and pays interest to the 1%, why should we be surprised to see wealth inequality growing? If we, as society, want to shift consumption from the future to the present, should we be surprised when we arrive in the future and find ourselves poor?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Major Choices

One of the biggest advances in economics in the last decade came courtesy of newly available data on college majors. A spate of papers has examined this data using sophisticated econometrics. In brief: college major matters more than we thought it did.

The WSJ has a handy table summarizing the data. And you won't be surprised to see which major is on top.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Who Said This?

Name the politician who said this:
"The second big problem we have you can see if you look at the front page of USA Today today, which shows a traditional analysis, yesterday's analysis—of the business section—of the economic program. It basically says, "Oh, it will bring unemployment down a little and it will increase economic growth a little if we do this, but not all that much." Now, why is that? That's because traditional economic analysis says that the only way the Government can ever help the economy grow is by spending more money and taxing less. In other words, traditional Keynesian economies: Run a bigger deficit. But we can't do that. The deficit's already so big, I can't run the risk to the long-term stability of this country by going in and doing that."
No Googling!

Secondary question: who was the first president to mention John Maynard Keynes, or use the word 'Keynesian' in a recorded speech or document?

A hint: neither of these is President Obama.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why I Opt Out

For the second time this week, I have chosen not to have my picture taken by backscatter x-ray. Why? I'm sure some other passengers wonder - although this time I was the first in a queue of three who opted out in quick succession.

I opt out because I want oppression to look like oppression. I don't want to allow the powerful to mask their control over the weak by hiding behind technology. Like drones in warfare, machine imagining in security dehumanizes and diminishes the subject.

I can't fight every battle, and I need to fly (although longer security lines might lead me to do something dangerous). But given the choice, I would rather be the victim of obvious indignity than of whitewashed indignity.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fixing Health Insurance: Cochrane

Professor John Cochrane joins a theme Global Review has been singing for a while, the Obamacare isn't a solution to the problems of today's healthcare system - it's an enshrinement. The high cost of insurance, Cochrane argues, is due to heavy government regulation, cronyism, and (of course) the moral hazard problem.
The number of new doctors is still restricted, thanks to Congress and the American Medical Association. Congress caps the number of residencies, the AMA has fought the expansion of medical schools, state tests make it difficult for foreign doctors to work here, and on and on... New hospitals? In my home state of Illinois, every new hospital, expansion of an existing facility or major equipment purchase must obtain a "certificate of need" from the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board. The board does a great job of insulating existing hospitals from competition if they are well connected politically. Imagine the joy United Airlines would feel if Southwest had to get a "certificate of need" before moving in to a new city—or the pleasure Sears would have if Wal-Mart had to do so - and all it took was a small contribution to a well-connected official.
Some might argue that moral hazard is a necessary downside of providing healthcare to a large proportion of the population. But that's not true: a major flaw in our system is that it covers regular, predictable expenses with insurance. People should pay for regular health care out of their pocket - the same way they pay for food.
The [government's] main argument for a mandate before the Supreme Court was that people of modest means can fail to buy insurance, and then rely on charity care in emergency rooms, shifting the cost to the rest of us. But the expenses of emergency room treatment for indigent uninsured people are not health-care's central cost problem. Costs are rising because people who do have insurance, and their doctors, overuse health services and don't shop on price, and because regulations have salted insurance with ever more coverage for them to overuse.

If we had a deregulated, competitive market in individual catastrophic insurance, that market would be so much cheaper than what's offered today that we would likely not even need the mandate.
Why are so many Americans uninsured? Proponents of Obamacare like to point out the pre-existing condition problem and adverse selection. Cochrane proposes a market mechanism to deal with pre-existing conditions, but also points out why even healthy people don't often buy insurance in the private market: it's too expensive. They often can't buy catastrophic-cost insurance, which is their main need, without also buying a host of expensive services they don't want and won't use - but must pay for.

It bears repeating: Obamacare does not solve the current problems; it enshrines them. It doesn't represent a popular victory over the insurance companies, it represents perpetual empowerment of the insurance company over the citizen. In what world is that liberal?

Monday, April 2, 2012


I will be scarce this week - I'll be taking cars, trains, and planes to or through three countries and five states, and I won't spend three consecutive nights in the same bed. The modern hunter is on the trail of the elusive Big Game: a job.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


A consequence of the Trayvon Martin tragedy is that Americans of all stripes are rallying behind the hooded sweatshirt - it is, after all, worn by virtually everybody under 30 in America, whether to work out, stay warm, or to hide behind to avoid identification.

To be true to their principles, conservatives ought to strongly defend the hoodie. The NRA owes it a statement of support; after all, they support concealed carry of weapons, and liberal policies with regards to handgun sales.

A little bit of Googling shows that... yep... they already got there.

Love 'em or hate 'em, constitutionalists understand that citizens have a right to walk around looking and acting suspicious. Walking while black, walking while hooded, and walking while Muslim are all fully protected in the U.S. Constitution.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Governing Philosophies, in Brief

Politicians frequently vilify the other side of a debate as "anti-American" or "anti-liberty" or as an intolerant "Mullah". Occasionally, this is justified. Usually, the other side has a different philosophical view - either due to different premises or different emphases. In teaching about public & common goods, I thought of this useful taxonomy of the major political movements in America today, as they relate to the role of government. Each view is more nuanced than I'm allowing here, for the sake of clarity.

I am particularly interested in explaining the Conservative position here, which is less ideologically or philosophically clear than the others. As has been suggested, Conservatism isn't primarily or originally a philosophical idea. Hayek calls it a defense of the "extended order", which evolved via some social form of natural selection, and is more complex than its critics appreciate.

In America, I think conservatism is more than that: it's the Yankee ideal of taking responsibility for the commons, involvement in the many community organizations that de Tocqueville wrote so much about, and the idea that one has a moral duty to account for externalities. More on this in a future post.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Judicial Prejudice

MSM liberals are breathlessly talking about how ideological the Roberts Court is. Politico's top article today is headlined: "John Roberts Court on Trial". It teases, "critics will accuse the Roberts Court of rigging the game and covering their power play with constitutional doublespeak." Who exactly are these 'critics'? Might one be named 'Glenn Thrush'?

There is still some question as to which way the conservatives on the court - Roberts, Scalia, and especially Kennedy - will rule on the Obamacare case. But there's no doubt about the four liberal justices. They are simply taken as a given: of course they support the government's right to expand the tortured "Commerce Clause" to allow any action the government sees fit. In oral arguments yesterday, Justice Breyer said that the main "limiting principle" on the Commerce Clause is that "95% of United States law is State law" and that the "members of Congress are elected from States." That is, the only check needed on Congress is its own sensibility.

Of course, when Congress' sensibilities are conservative, Breyer and friends find that the Constitution gives them wide latitude to strike down Congressional laws.

There is no denying that the Supremes have political leanings and prejudices. Their principles certainly appear to be malleable and their politics rigid. But it's absurd to state that a conservative justice (e.g. Scalia) whose vote cannot be guessed ahead of all arguments is more ideological than a liberal justice whose vote is in absolutely no doubt at all.

As (ultra-liberal) Rachel Maddow blogged last night, "The liberal justices were far more effective than Verrilli in making compelling arguments in defense of the law."

Call the Court ideological, sure. But with four committed conservatives and four committed social-liberals, don't single out one side as doctrinaire.

Monday, March 26, 2012

George Zimmerman and Whiteness

The painful case of Trayvon Martin has elicited a great deal of thought and discussion about what it means to be black in America, including among non-blacks.

The case of George Zimmerman also bears consideration. With a British first name and a German last name, one would be forgiven for assuming Zimmerman is white - but his family assures us he's Hispanic, and his photo suggests ancestry other than Kraut-Mick. So who is he? Does he count as 'white' anyway - after all, he was a neighborhood watch captain in a gated community, with a prejudicial attitude against young black men in hoodies. The circumstances make him sound 'white'.

But what is meant by 'whiteness' in this context? The perspective from which much African-American scholarship is written, and from which the older generation speaks, is somewhat Marxian: a bourgeois white class maintains its privilege and alliance with the elite, and excludes a black proletariat. An Hispanic who has joined the bourgeois is as good as white. By contrast, poor Hispanic farmworkers get lumped into the 'minority' category of the binary taxonomy.

This binary view of race has been, in my experience, the primary approach to 'race in America' by those whose intellectual ancestry is from the Civil Rights movement. In a recent workshop on race & inequality in my neighborhood, this approach was on display - despite the fact that Hispanics outnumber blacks here, no Hispanics were represented, and their community was lumped together with blacks under "people of color". Likewise in college classrooms (including my own at times), high schools, and sometimes churches, I've seen this approach used. Some use the word "brown" instead of "black" now, as a more inclusive catch-all.

The binary approach was absolutely the right one for the Civil Rights movement itself. White America was using the convenient fiction of "separate but equal" to justify oppression, and blacks were uniquely singled out for mistreatment. And whites responded well to that set of ideas in the generation following Civil Rights; you would be hard-pressed to find a white today who would publicly defend Jim Crow as "equal".

However, the binary view has not aged well, and does not serve America, blacks, or minorities particularly well in the 21st century. In this post, I'll focus on just one aspect of the binary view of race relations: whiteness. Regardless of whether Hispanic or Hmong or Quechua agree with being lumped together as 'minorities' or 'brown', most whites don't think that they belong to the privileged bourgeois. This matters. If whites don't think of themselves as privileged, they won't be open to the idea that they need to make accommodation for those who are not privileged.

Approaching whites with a binary, Marxian view of race will fail to achieve minority objectives if the whites reject that narrative. Whether right or wrong, the view that was effective in breaking down legal racism will be ineffective in achieving 21st-century objectives.

The average American is a recent immigrant. Not many of us came over on the Mayflower. My white friends are proudly Polish, Irish, Italian, and Russian. Many of those with aristocratic-sounding names are actually 'ethnic', and had their names changed at Ellis Island or while running from the law. Few whites can trace their lineage back to the Civil War. They are willing to accept that there is a privileged Anglo-Saxon (or Norman?) upper class, but they know they aren't part of it. After all, their grandparents came to the U.S. with nothing; they migrated to California during the dust bowl; they faced "Irish Need Not Apply" in the 1800's or Sacco & Venzetti during the 1920's.

The places where white racism is the strongest - the neighborhoods famous for 'white flight' in the 60's, or race riots in the 70's - are 'ethnic' white neighborhoods. High-status whites feel a certain noblesse oblige and embarrassment about their ancestors' Princeton & Yale pedigrees. They may be racist, but they are at least ashamed of it. But an urban white whose name ends in a vowel is less likely to have sympathy when another group asks for special accommodation, or claims that its situation is unique and can't be understood by outsiders.

'White guilt' only works with whites who are a few generations deep in privilege. I'm keenly aware that I was born several rungs up the ladder - but my Jewish grandfather had to flee through five countries just to get to America. And my Lebanese great-grandfather came here in 1905 to work in mills. The Yankee last name they were given doesn't preclude a strong ethnic identity in the family today. Jewish & Lebanese are only "white" today because those groups have achieved parity with Anglo-Saxon-Norman Americans. Of my two truly white grandmothers, one was a bona fide elite and the other was from an impoverished fishing village in Maine, where her ancestors had come after being forcibly resettled from Scotland to Ireland by the English crown. Guess which of them took a vow of poverty and marched with Dr. King?

George Zimmerman probably doesn't think of himself as a white-privileged individual. He has probably been racially profiled before. He would dispute the notion that he's any more privileged than Trayvon Martin's family - after all, Martin's new stepmom lived in Zimmerman's own community.

Because people like Zimmerman with diverse and not-very-privileged backgrounds make up the majority of Americans - and even a large share of elites - today, appeals for change based on notions of white privilege are less and less effective. Arguments against inequalities in 21st-century America will have to be much more nuanced and reflect the diversity of the elite and of the aspirational middle class.

Friday, March 23, 2012

France Uber Alles?

Writing in Slate, Rachel Levy recounts the difficulties of living as a Jewish-American in France - and the greater difficulties facing those who think of themselves as Jewish-French:
In the end, the trouble stems from the idea that "French" means you follow the values of the state—in this case, secularism. What Americans often believe to be the mere French version of "separation of church and state" is actually diametrically opposed to Americanized freedom of religion. In short, while Americans value freedom of religion, the French value freedom from religion. In practice, French secularism, or laïcité, means that you don't express your religious beliefs in public: That means in public schools, Muslim girls can’t wear their veils, Jewish boys can't wear their kippot, and Christians can't draw attention to their crosses. It also means that when a state exam falls on your religious holiday, well, tant pis, because laïcité means you’re supposed to be French before anything else.
She stretches her experience further to lay some blame for the killing of Israeli-French Jews last week by an Algerian-French Muslim at the feet of the French state.
And after those four years living among the French, I concluded that the country's nearly religious devotion to secularism is a least a partial explanation for the country's latent racism and anti-Semitism. It also fosters an ignorance that likely contributed to the perverted mindset of the suspected Toulouse gunman. Mohammed Merah might have been a radical Islamist of Algerian background, but he's also a French national who grew up in Toulouse.
This seems like a bit of a reach to me, but it is certainly true that two centuries of radical secularism have done less to eradicate racism and religious bigotry in France than two centuries of growing religious tolerance have done in England, or expanding religious inclusion have done in the U.S.

Hat tip to Carol.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When do Democrats oppose progressivity?

When it's proposed by Paul Ryan (R-WI)!

Just like Republicans opposing President Obama's (ill-advised) tax holiday, Democrats in Washington are playing against type on Paul Ryan's revised Medicare plan. The cuts he's proposing come from means-testing the program, so that wealthier families get less from the government. The poor would be unaffected. But hey, it's a Republican idea, so it must be wrong.

Update: But Dana Milbank makes Ryan's plan sound so evil! A key to reading opinion pieces: most writers won't outright lie, but they will use the fine print. So when Milbank wants to make Ryan's plan look Scroogelike, he compares it not to current law, but to President Obama's budget-election document, which even the President never intends to make into law. Milbank's trope about tax cuts for the very rich refers to the fact that Ryan's budget would make the Bush tax cuts permanent instead of allowing them to expire. One may certainly disagree with this idea, but Milbank wants it to sound like Ryan is proposing tax cuts relative to current conditions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Scholarship Factory

Coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim has one objective: get college scholarships for his football players. His charter school doesn't have a locker room, or a practice field. But he made a splash with 19 (!!!!) college signings this year. Check out Grantland's excellent piece on the Anacostia coach and his program.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy St. Patrick's Day

"I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

"And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

"Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.

"For there is no other God, nor ever was before, nor shall be hereafter, but God the Father, unbegotten and without beginning, in whom all things began, whose are all things, as we have been taught; and his son Jesus Christ, who manifestly always existed with the Father, before the beginning of time in the spirit with the Father, indescribably begotten before all things, and all things visible and invisible were made by him. He was made man, conquered death and was received into Heaven, to the Father who gave him all power over every name in Heaven and on Earth and in Hell, so that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, in whom we believe. And we look to his imminent coming again, the judge of the living and the dead, who will render to each according to his deeds. And he poured out his Holy Spirit on us in abundance, the gift and pledge of immortality, which makes the believers and the obedient into sons of God and co-heirs of Christ who is revealed, and we worship one God in the Trinity of holy name."

From the Confessio of Patrick.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Required Reading

College juniors & seniors, today's NYT opinion piece, "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs" should be required reading. It directly impacts those who are considering careers as investment bankers... but it indirectly speaks to everyone: corporate culture matters. Corporate culture changes you more often than you (as a young employee) can change it. Clients matter. Trading off the long run for short-run gains is malpractice*.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Gentrification: Trading Towns.

Following up on the previous posts on Rochester, NY, and Chicago, I expound on a new hypothesis about gentrification. To restate it: young, affluent professionals are moving into inner cities, eschewing the suburbs where they grew up. The centrifugal price pressure pushes urban racial minorities further from the city center, out to the near suburbs. Working-class whites leave the near suburbs for further suburbs or warmer climes.

Data & maps are from the 2010 Census, via NYTimes.

In Chicago, we saw that while the Hispanic population grew rapidly, the black population of the whole Chicago area shrank - with many blacks moving out of state to the Sun Belt. Massachusetts is a little different: the state is heavily white (74%), with a strong Hispanic minority (10%) and about equal numbers of blacks (6%) and Asians(5%). With overall state growth of 3.1% in the 00's, only the white population shrank (-4%), and the black (+23%), Hispanic (+46%), and Asian (+47%) all grew rapidly.

As can be seen in Figure 5, Boston is less segregated (and much smaller) than Chicago. It's also broken up by rivers, parks, and hills, tightly defining many city neighborhoods.

In Boston, the last decade continued the strong urbanization and gentrification trends of the 1990's. Boston's Fenway, Lower Roxbury, Seaport, Leather District, and Downtown neighborhoods have all seen population growth of more than 20% in ten years, with whites accounting for most of the growth. In previously non-white neighborhoods stretching from Dudley Town Common to the Southwest Corridor, the white population more than doubled - although whites remain a small minority there. The only group of census blocks in Eastern Massachusetts with falling vacancy rates in the 00's was centered around these dynamic areas, as seen in Figure 6.

More powerfully, whites (including your humble blogger) gentrified neighborhoods like the South End, Mission Hill, and Jamaica Plain - all of which were a bit above or below 50% white in 2010. In these places, the large growth in whites was accompanied by a drop in the Hispanic or black population. At the same time that they were leaving the South End and JP - some 25% of Hispanics left JP between 2000 and 2010 - the Hispanic population of Boston's large black neighborhoods exploded. Figure 7 tells the story. Now, Roxbury, Grove Hall, and northwestern Dorchester are at least 20% Hispanic. Even Mattapan, the remaining "monolithic" black neighborhood in Boston, has about 10% Hispanics in every census tract.

The growing Hispanic population has also moved southwest from Jamaica Plain to Hyde Park and West Roxbury. Both have small, but rapidly growing, Hispanic minorities.

What happened to black Roxbury & Dorchester as Hispanics have moved in? In the middle-class neighborhood along Seaver Street, vacancies have decreased and more housing has been built. South of Dudley Square, by contrast, a modest decline in the black population has made room for the new Hispanic residences. As in Chicago, we want to know where the blacks have gone. Unlike in Illinois, we won't conclude migration out of state - the black population grew 23% in 10 years. In Boston's Suffolk county, the black population dropped by 1%. Counterbalancing the population losses in Roxbury and Mattapan were gains in almost every other area in the city. Blacks (perhaps originating as out-of-state college students, like most migrants to Boston) have increased their share of young, hip areas such as the North End and Allston. More likely destinations for local blacks leaving Roxbury are predominantly white and Vietnamese neighborhoods in eastern Dorchester, and multiracial Hyde Park and West Roxbury neighborhoods.

Blacks are also leaving Boston for the suburbs. The other counties of Eastern Mass have seen their black populations grow between 36% (Essex) and 80% (Norfolk). In particular, Figure 8 highlights the town of Randolph, a middle-class suburb which is rapidly becoming black and Asian. (One third of Randolph's white residents departed between 2000 and 2010.) The city of Brockton, a bit further south, doubled its black population in the decade as well, with large Cape Verdean and Angolan populations.

As in Chicago, the old working-class white city districts are hemorrhaging population. People who moved to Port Norfolk (lost 16% of whites) or Readville (-34%) in the 1970's are retiring to Florida or Arizona; young white singles don't want to live in a boring community miles from the city, and young white families won't replace them until the schools improve.

In conclusion, Boston's southwest quadrant is a poster child for my hypothesis: a yuppy who grew up in Milton moves in to Jamaica Plain; Dominicans move from Jamaica Plain to Grove Hall; an unemployed black moves from Grove Hall to Mattapan; an upwardly mobile black family moves from Mattapan to Milton.

To my many Bostonian readers: I'm interested in your perspectives or experiences.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sandra Fluke

Sandra Fluke has one set of values. The Jesuits who founded, fund, and run Georgetown University have another set of values. The Jesuits are celibate. Sandra might not be. The Jesuits care a lot about religious freedom. Sandra cares a lot about sexual freedom. The Jesuits wear black. Sandra wears... also black.

None of these values, freedoms, or choices are in conflict with each other.* When Sandra chooses her attire, she doesn't consult the Jesuits. When the Jesuits chose theirs, Sandra can't object. So why the big argument over health care?

Because health care is, bizarrely, chosen by the employer on behalf of an employee! Of course there are conflicts over health care. If the Jesuits had to buy Sandra's clothing for her (or if she had to write their prayers), they'd probably do a miserable job at it.

Religious liberty and sexual liberty are only at conflict in a deformed healthcare system which requires employers to choose health insurance on behalf of their employees. In sensible systems such as the ones discussed here, Sandra wouldn't be forced to outsource her health provision to a bunch of old men wearing black. And life-loving people, galled by the Stupak Surrender to Obamacare, would be free to buy healthcare without subsidizing abortion.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gentrification: Polish grandmothers, hipster grandkids

Looking at maps of Chicago, I first noticed the regularities that this series of posts explores. The 2000's saw a big influx of well-to-do young professionals to inner city Chicago: 9,500 moved to a single census block (CT3301; Central Station). It's not a homogeneous area by any stretch - whites make up just 51% of CT3301. But it marks a departure from the 1950-1990 megatrend of white flight to the suburbs.

Whites and Asians are flocking to the neighborhoods directly around the Loop, leading to population growth in excess of 30% in every census tract from Cermak to Ontario, with several tracts more than tripling in population; but the black population is falling in tracts where it was previously large.

Outside of downtown, population growth is mixed, except in the exurbs, which grew rapidly - Kendall County doubled in population. The overall population growth can be seen in Figure 2, with an inset to highlight changes in the inner city.

Chicago's artists & hipsters tend to be the first wave of gentrification. They don't have kids or money, and are comfortable mixing into a majority black or Hispanic neighborhood. Whether upgrading occurs from within (the young college-educated poor quickly get good jobs) or without (whites with a little more money want to live in a cool, artsy neighborhood), hip neighborhoods become trendy and then affluent. Rents rise.

So young whites are moving out along Milwaukee Ave into Hispanic neighborhoods, and displacing pockets of black residence on the north side. Some of these neighborhoods show overall population growth - Wicker Park, for instance - but others are shrinking as they gentrify.

Rogers Park (CT106 & CT10702) has 20% more whites, but 30% fewer blacks & Hispanics than it did 10 years ago. The population has declined overall by some 18%. Is that a displacement story? Normally, displacement will occur as vacancies get filled up & rents rise. A population fall could accompany displacement if the new residents are single adults replacing families, which is conceivable. But vacancy rates have also risen in Rogers Park, as seen in Figure 3, as they have in most of Chicago. So it doesn't seem like people are being forced out.

By contrast, along Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park, East Ukrainian Village, and Pulaski Park, vacancy rates have fallen sharply, bucking the trend. In those tracts, the Hispanic population has dropped by 30 to 60% in the last ten years, and the white population has replaced the departing Hispanics, leaving the total population roughly unchanged. This seems more like classic displacement.

But where are these displaced minorities going? Not to the monolithic minority neighborhoods. Instead, Hispanics are moving out along their "pie slices" (or deep dish pizza slices, in Chicago's case). See Figure 4. Older working-class white neighborhoods in the Northwest are quickly becoming Hispanic. At the same time that young whites are moving into Logan Square, to the tune of an increase of 30%, their parents and grandparents are moving out of Belmont Gardens and Portage Park at a 30% clip. These areas are just a mile apart! The change is happening all along the Northwestern edge of the Hispanic slice: virtually every census tract in the band from North Mayfair to Galewood was between 40% and 80% white in 2000, and lost some 20% of its white population. Hispanics have replaced them, with little change in total population.

What's going on? If young whites don't mind living in Hispanic neighborhoods, why is white flight continuing apace? The shift (or cycle, or dance, as I've called it) is occurring because of a split in the white population. Young whites want to live in the city - really in the city. Older whites are retiring down to the Sun Belt. And middle-aged whites, with kids in school, are heading for the exurbs. The in-between suburb is lost in the mix, with new immigrants getting their crack at the 20th-century version of the American dream.

But what about blacks? Black populations are on the wane on the North Shore - in Rogers Park, as was discussed, but also in Sheridan Park, Cabrini-Green and everywhere in between. They aren't moving out along the North slice: majority-black neighborhoods in Evanston lost some 30% of their black residents, with Hispanics moving in. A few areas in the Southwest, such as Ashburn and Blue Island, are seeing a boost in black residents. And blacks are also moving back into the inner city, for the same reasons that whites are: 2000 blacks moved into the Central Station tract.

But a lot of blacks are simply leaving Cook County: 120,000, or 9% of the 2000 black population. Some are heading for red states in the Sun Belt (Texas gained 600,000 blacks in the last decade). Others are moving to the white suburbs exurbs. A representative census tract might be Glen Ellyn (CT8422). With only 2% of 4,500 residents black, it's not going to account for many of Chicago's displaced blacks. But while the total population was constant, the black population increased by 63% in 10 years; that's something like 50 people - a dozen families, perhaps. In a town, hardly enough to notice.

But check out the counties surrounding Cook County, and how their black populations have changed: excluding Lake County, Indiana (which includes Gary and was already 25% black, and had black growth of some 3,700 people), the suburban counties grew by 57,000 blacks. That's half the number that Cook County lost. Since the changes are so drastic - an eightfold increase in one case - the growth is clearly due to movement, not reproductive growth.

Conclusion. Working with data of this nature, it's impossible to distinguish who's who. I've used heuristics ('hipsters', 'Hispanic families') to give a face to some of the statistics, but I could be wrong, and I'm obviously oversimplifying. Obviously, an unemployed black on Section-8 displaced by rising rents is unlikely to move to Naperville. But what the broad-strokes picture looks like is that whites and blacks are very similar. Some of them want to head out of their traditional neighborhoods into the erstwhile countryside (don't be fooled: those picturesque farms won't last) or the Sun Belt while others move closer to downtown for the dynamism of the city. The stunning growth of Chicago's Hispanic population (+200,000) partially covers the departure of 400,000 blacks and whites from Cook County, and leaves Jane Jacobs' "great blight of dullness" for a new generation of immigrants to discover.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gentrification: A new hypothesis.

One of the least expected major trends of the last twenty years has been gentrification: old industrial zones in major cities have experienced a massive influx of young, educated-class residents, often raising rents and displacing black or Hispanic predecessors. This process is well-understood.

What is not as well known is where the displaced people go. While this isn't evidence, I noticed a trend in Census data from Chicago, and confirmed that similar trends exist in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington. These cities are all dynamic and desirable, but only Washington has seen a large degree of overall population growth. I also found the same pattern in Rochester, New York, which is losing population.

Rochester is a great example of the archetypal American city. There's a "Center City" mostly surrounded by poor black & Hispanic neighborhoods, which are organized like slices of pie, each slice spreading outward toward the suburbs. Rochester, like most American cities, has an important exception: a wealthier, majority-white slice that preserves an old-fashioned urban lifestyle for whites who don't want to go suburban.

Figure 1 shows my hypothesis in the case of Rochester: that urban gentrification has been part of an elaborate cyclical dance which has young whites moving into run-down inner city neighborhoods, blacks moving into the next line of suburbs, and white families moving further out, into the exurbs. Each of these movements makes space for another, and none of them is complete and utter. Instead, most of the neighborhoods which take part in the dance become more integrated in the process.

Census data is shown by census tracts and in colors by race: blue is for Blacks, green is for Whites, orange is for Hispanics. In my analysis, I'll leave aside Hispanics (and Asians, in red), since their population is growing much faster than the U.S. average, making them more of a special case. Figure 1 shows Rochester with its tracts displayed by racial majority.

Tune in next time for city studies in support of this hypothesis.

Matt hearts Mitt

Matt Drudge wants Mitt Romney to beat Rick Santorum. I can't blame him - Santorum makes me cringe a little, too - but I don't use seedy, suggestive headlines to try to swing elections.

Sometimes, when Drudge is working on some breaking story - usually a MSM news article that he's gotten wind of before its release - he'll splash a big headline with a tagline like 'details to follow'. He did that this morning, as Michigander and Arizonan Republicans went to the polls. The splash read:
With no link, no details, and no explanation, it was just innuendo, the suggestion that something new had occurred, and Santorum would have hell to pay. But it wasn't news.

As his later-in-the-day explanation detailed, the "story" was 3-year-old audio from a speech Santorum gave at Ave Maria University in Florida. The talk was spiritual in content (Satan as a real personality, with real malice, and real power), a bit jingoistic, and quite direct, scorching 'mainline Protestants' as having left the fold of orthodox Christianity.

That's not campaign fare, and it has a place in the public eye. Perhaps an election-morn "oppo dump" by the Romney camp is to blame for the timing of the revelation. Still, Drudge was clearly complicit: publishing a headline linking a candidate to Satan without a story to explain.

We'll see tonight whether the hatchet job was enough to put Romney over the top in one of these two states that should have been easy wins for the Front Runner.

Update: There was no primary election today in Michigan and Arizona.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tax & Spend Obama

A lot of Democrats I talk to are convinced that Obama is fiscally responsible, not your grandpa's tax-and-spend Democrat! After all, he wants to raise taxes, and Republicans won't let him, and how can you close a budget gap without raising taxes?

If you want to continue to fall into that category, you should avoid reading Obama's new budget proposal. The Washington Post has the goods:
The president’s outlook for debt reduction has deteriorated markedly since September, when Obama told Congress that his proposals would hold annual deficits well under $600 billion after next year and permit the debt held by outside investors to rise to $17.7 trillion by 2021, or 73 percent of the overall economy. The new 10-year blueprint shows annual deficits exceeding $600 billion every year except 2018. And the portion of the debt held by outside investors would grow to $18.7 trillion by 2021, or 76.5 percent of the economy — a full $1 trillion higher.
So the president is not keeping his promises. But what exactly is he proposing?
President Obama on Monday unveiled a $3.8 trillion spending plan... Obama also seeks taxes by nearly $2 trillion over the next decade, primarily for corporations, hedge fund managers and high-income households.
So he wants $2 trillion more in taxes and $3.8 trillion more in spending. That's not how I would go about shrinking the national debt, but hey, I don't know any fancy accounting tricks.

At best, one can read this as an intellectually unserious campaign gimmick, or a terrible first bid in a long-term negotiation with Republicans, so Obama can talk later about how imaginary spending he has "cut" once he agrees to some middle ground. So that's it: the best you can say is that the president is lying to us now (about how much he wants to spend) so that he can more effectively lie to us later (about how much spending he has cut).

Valentine's Day Tomorrow

It's a prisoners' dilemma, according to XKCD. My suggestion? If you have a sweetheart, make a plan together to show love to somebody else (an aging family member, a single friend who just got dumped, the homeless in your city, etc.).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Road Projects

Rep. John Olver (D-MA) knows this is unseemly. "I am concerned about appearances", he says. After all, he earmarked $5,100,000 for rebuilding a section of West Street, and making a shiny new intersection at Bay Road, in South Amherst. I've driven through construction there several times; they're completely rebuilding the roadway, realigning it as well as repaving.

Rep. Olver is profiled by WaPo along with 32 other legislators who have used their earmarking power to steer money to projects that directly improve the value of their personal property. This is legal and "ethical" according to Congress.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) used $21,500,000 in taxpayer funds to build a bridge from 160 acres of undeveloped land he owns to a popular Nevada resort town. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) was the biggest spender, lavishing $100,000,000 on revitalization of downtown Tuscaloosa, where he owns an office building. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) who promised a new era of transparency in government, got $50,000,000 for a new light rail line that could raise property values in an area where her husband owns a building.

Can some of these projects be defended on their merits? No doubt. If representatives really "represent" their areas, shouldn't they also benefit when public works leads to general betterment? Of course.

But why is money being earmarked in Washington? While Pelosi or Olver might know their districts very well, the rest of their chamber does not, and is not prepared to judge which streets in Amherst need to be rebuilt, or which areas of San Francisco are in need of public transit. Each earmark depends on the competence and honesty of a single individual! This is an abrogation of the spirit of our Constitution, a system under which power is diversified in many hands, decisions must be reached by a majority, and no one individual can determine public spending. In order to best direct fundamentally local projects like infrastructure, local bodies should be set up with the purpose of being locally knowledgeable and accountable, and making the necessary tradeoffs between competing local priorities. The differing interests of those on such local boards will better guarantee that each community is well served.

These bodies or boards, of course, already exist. Local government in the U.S. is vested with great power (such as in education), and makes most of the infrastructure funding decisions. For the Federal government to go over their heads and shower a few chosen projects with enormous funding is a shame, and must be stopped.

If you live in one of the 33 constituencies listed in the Post, I encourage you to write your representative. Tell him that you elected him to represent the district, not to govern it. Ask him to leave government to the properly elected authorities. Request that all future funds directed to the district be given as block grants to the relevant localities (or state). Tell him that you trust the institutions of government more so than you trust his personal judgment on how to direct your tax money on a micro level.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Vince Wilfork, MVP

The Patriots are using one elite player to anchor an entire phase of their game: Vince Wilfork on defense. In a week of terrible, horrible, no-good, idiotic articles ostensibly being "written" about "sports", Chris Brown's analysis of the Patriots' rube-goldbergian defense stands out.
So what has Belichick done with his oddball assortment of defenders, anchored by Vince Wilfork? Did he choose 3-4 or 4-3? One-gap or 2-gap? Traditionally a 3-4 coach, Belichick ran this system even when almost every other NFL team was mimicking the 4-3 defenses popular in Dallas and Tampa. But Belichick now finds himself in a time when, by desire and necessity, he has largely moved to a four-man line approach. And yet, in typical Belichick fashion, he has chosen not to rely solely on the 4-3 or 3-4 or a 1-gap or 2-gap approach. Nor does he just alternate between 3-4 and 4-3 looks from play to play. Instead, Belichick has essentially combined both approaches in the same play. How?
Read the article to learn something (or just to sound smug and knowledgeable at your Super Bowl party). Go Patriots!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Bubbly Class

I haven't read Coming Apart yet, but this chapter makes me want to. Take the quiz, and find out how much of an upper-middle-class bubble you live in. I scored ~22 out of a possible 100; pretty enbubbled.

Hat tip to Cafe Mom.

Santorum Plays Cards

This is a new advertisement for Rick Santorum (hat tip to Jennifer Rubin). Rubin calls it "boffo" - I think the fare is pretty predictable... but the suspense is great. And *** SPOILER ALERT *** the ad really gets its strength because the face you most expect to see doesn't show up. But you're expecting to see it - so you've actually convinced yourself that it belongs in that lineup as well!

Monday, January 30, 2012


I just baked this low-effort, low-skill-needed Whole Wheat Peasant Bread. Aside from playing whack-a-mole with the smoke detectors around my apartment, the results are delicious.

New Format

Having created a new WordPress blog for a class I'm teaching, I realized how long I've had the same format at GlobalReview. It was time for something fresh, which meant updating to the newfangled gadgetry of Google circa 2012. Like it? Anything that should be changed (back)?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Responding to John & Andrew

My friend John asked me what I thought about Andrew Sullivan's paean to Obama's first term. Since I wrote so much, I can't help but post it here.

Andrew Sullivan doesn't understand economics. He calls the missed predictions on the recession "miscalculations". You can't miscalculate a guess at the future - it's a guess. And what's more, recessions aren't purely exogenous, like (say) hurricanes. They are ameliorated or exacerbated by gov't policies. He also gives Obama too much credit on unemployment. Sullivan writes:
The right claims the stimulus failed because it didn’t bring unemployment down to 8 percent in its first year, as predicted by Obama’s transition economic team.
In fact, the projection/promise of Obama's team (Romer & Bernstein) was that unemployment would not even *reach* 8% without the stimulus (1). Since there is no conclusive economic evidence that stimulus spending helps an economy in recession (2), it's not unfair for critics of the administration to hold them accountable for economic policies that saw unemployment rise from 7% to 10% under his watch (3). The Obama team's main defense is "we didn't know how severe it was going to be". But if you want to play doctor with the economy, being capable of making accurate diagnoses is pretty important!

Back to Sullivan. His defense of the Obama economic record is an imaginary counterfactual - without the "floor" put under the recession by the stimulus package, we could have ended up in the second Great Depression. Well, given that economists already refer to this period as the "Great Recession", and unemployment is still at 8.5%, it's pretty much the worst economic period since the Great Depression, and there's no guarantee that it's over. More to the point, Sullivan is relying on his imagination to construct the counterfactual. But there have been many recessions since 1940, and all of them have ended faster than this one. So, if you arbitrarily compare this downturn to a previous one, chances are the previous one will look less painful, mostly because the economy usually has bounced back rapidly, not hung around in the doldrums for 3 years.

Also, the whole tone of Sullivan's piece is a little funny. Republicans are wrong because Obama is a moderate, pragmatist at heart. But liberals are wrong because Obama is really a leftist. They can't both be wrong!

I guess Sullivan is writing press releases for the Obama administration. He glibly quotes the presidents own spin: "To use the terms Obama first employed in his inaugural address: the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem" ... and then goes on to say, "If I sound biased, that’s because I am. Biased toward the actual record, not the spin". Um, ok.

That characterization certainly fails the smell test in, for instance, the battle over the debt ceiling. The president wanted to raise the debt ceiling; freshmen Republicans had been elected by promising not to do so, and senior GOP members wouldn't sign on without real concessions. When it became clear that a simple solution was not going to arise, the GOP offered to sign a short-term bill that would raise the ceiling for about 6 months more spending in exchange for concomitant concessions. The President said absolutely not - and refused to even consider any compromise that would allow the issue to arise again before his reelection. Obama has shown a consistent and uncompromising willingness to push off hard decisions to the other side of the election. He's willing to lower taxes, but only for the election year. He's willing to make a final decision on Keystone XL, but only in 2013 (the GOP forced his hand on that one). From the NYTimes:
The move is the latest in a series of administration decisions pushing back thorny environmental matters beyond next November’s presidential election to try to avoid the heat from opposing interests — business lobbies or environmental and health advocates — and to find a political middle ground. President Obama delayed a review of the nation’s smog standard until 2013, pushed back offshore oil lease sales in the Arctic until at least 2015 and blocked new regulations for coal ash from power plants.
Of course, this doesn't contradict Sullivan - the president is indeed playing a sort of "Long Game", but that long game is mainly about retaining power. To do that, he's willing to mortgage the future (with short-run tax policy, e.g.) in exchange for an electoral boost now. This isn't new behavior. Look at the ends of the last few 8-year administrations. Bush fils' 8 years ended with a 2007 recession. Clinton's 8 years ended with the burst of the dot-com bubble. By contrast Bush pere raised taxes, governed responsibly, and saw a mild recession under his watch - and lost his re-election campaign. The lesson? If you want the country to serve you for 8 years, shift consumption to the present - boom now, bust later.

Every indication is that Obama is following this pattern. That's not a long game, that's a shell game.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Keep the soup in SOPA and the bum in PIPA

Email your representative today to let him or her know that internet users don't yearn for censorship or content control by the Federal government and a few powerful corporations. If we wanted to live in a world like that, we would've moved gone into lobbying.

If you don't know what all this is about, read this very informative interview of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the internet's knight in shining pixels. For a quicker take, see XKCD. In any case, you can't look up SOPA and PIPA on Wikipedia, because it's been taken down today in anticipation of the consequences of those bills.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Fire the Army

It's time for small-government conservatives to rally around the president. Mr Obama has proposed downsizing the Army to a leaner, meaner, more mobile force. Implicit in the cuts to classical combat forces is the promise that we will not again attempt a decade of conquest and pacification of distant, restive countries, as we did in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The president's proposed cuts would offset the perpetual growth of the military and the military-industrial complex, which is as strong and as corrupt as ever. It would shrink the size of government and lower the permanent tax burden on American taxpayers. It would underscore the vital Constitutional principle of civilian control of the military.

The general change in strategy would seem sound coming from a Republican president, right? We need a more mobile, responsive military. We can't waste lives and treasure trying to force democracy on people at the point of a gun. Of course, a Republican (other than Ron Paul) wouldn't dare decrease total military spending. Is that because of a real concern for national security? Or is it because the GOP depends as heavily on military and military-industrial donations and votes as the Democrats do on dependents of the rest of government.

Conservatives, don't let your party loyalty confuse you: President Obama is right on this issue, and it will strengthen - not weaken - the conservative cause to rally behind him and stand up against interests whose real goal is to dip as deeply as they can into the public fisc.

Write your GOP congressman or senator and let him know that you are conservative first and Republican second. And shrinking the size of government - including wasteful military spending - is fundamentally conservative.

Burying the lede?

In a front-page story today, the Washington Post discusses Mitt Romney's role with Bain Capital, specifically as it relates to Staples, Dominos, and the Sports Authority:
In 2006, [Staples] revenue outside North America accounted for 13 percent of revenue. In 2010, the share was 21 percent... from $4.7 million in 2006 to $10.8 million in 2010... During the depths of the recent recession, it laid off about 140 employees... In 2004, Staples bought a small company called Hartford Office Supply...

In March 2008, Domino’s announced that it was cutting roughly 50 employees...

Sports Authority in 2003 merged with Gart Sports...
While some of these numbers seem quite trivial (a 50-employee cut for a megabusiness in the depths of the Great Recession is not bad at all), the story buries the lede: Mitt Romney has secretly remained a Bain Capital director throughout his time as 2002 Olympics CEO (1999-2002) and Massachusetts governor (2003-2007), and even during his two presidential candidacies (2007-present)! This is big news: Mitt Romney is still the puppetmaster behind layoffs at Dominos, sets executive wages and global strategy for Staples, and is trolling for Sports Authority takeovers.

Alternately, it could be that the Jia Lynn Yang just wrote a really lazy article, didn't bother doing the research to learn how these businesses changed during the years when Romney was actually involved.