Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Other Inequality


Suddenly, economic inequality is hot. Before Occupy Wall Street, no one was talking  about it. Now Democrats have decided that it's an issue for the midterm elections. It featured prominently in the recent State of the Union address. Increasing the minimum wage now looks like an issue with legs.

Any politician who really wants to ride a populist wave over the next few years, though, needs to start talking about the Other Inequality. I mean political inequality, the fact that rich people and big businesses have more political power than everyone else.

Electorally, the Other Inequality has the potential to be a big, big issue. According to a 2011 CBS News poll, large and growing majorities feel alienated from the government: 80% believe Congressmen are primarily interested in serving special interests rather than the people they represent, 75% believe large corporations have too much influence, and 66% (including 67% of independents and 44% of Republicans) believe the rich benefit the most from government policies. Other polls have shown similar results.

But political inequality is not just an issue in itself-- it's also a sort of meta-issue. There is a long list of problems that people think cannot be solved because someone is too powerful: oil companies, pharmaceutical companies, Wall Street, AIPAC, and on and on. We won't make much progress on a lot of individual issues, including economic inequality, until we address the meta-issue by reducing the disproportionate influence of the rich on American politics..

To be sure, the rich have advantages in the political process that are not going to disappear: they can own media outlets, fund think tanks, and, for the foreseeable future, fund super-PACs to buy negative advertising.

But the main reason for the power of money in Washington is that members of Congress always desperately need campaign contributions. They spend, in fact, more time raising money than they do legislating. Probably, they therefore spend more time talking to the rich than to their own constituents, getting a distorted picture of what most people are thinking.

The solution, clearly, is public financing of campaigns. What? Oh, sorry, I must have dozed off for a minute there. There's nothing like the mention of campaign financing to do that. We need a policy that:
  1. Reduces the importance of the rich in financing political campaigns,
  2. Increases average citizens' feeling that their voice matters, 
  3. Doesn't put people to sleep.
There are two basic approaches. One is for the government to match small donations, perhaps with the proviso that the candidate turn down large donations. But I think this approach  fails the second test above. A match makes donating more attractive, but my guess is that we would still end up with only a small minority contributing. The goal, instead, should be to have most people contributing, so that they feel they are a part of the process rather than onlookers. And a match also fails the third test above: it's a little too far removed to get excited about.

What passes these tests is some system  in which the government pays the first, say, $50 of everyone's political contribution, so that everyone can contribute up to $50 without incurring any personal cost. Both Ackerman and Ayres and Lessig have proposed versions of such a plan where the government issues vouchers to citizens, and, at considerably less length, I proposed a version using refundable tax credits here.

Essentially, we are giving everyone $50 to spend as they please on influencing elections. It's a lot more personal and participatory than matching funds. You'd expect nearly everyone to contribute the full amount, but you'd still expect people to be somewhat selective about whom they're giving their money to.

When you do the arithmetic, the results are startling. If every adult in the U.S. contributes $50, it totals to about $12 billion per year in political contributions. Say $8 billion to be conservative. Over a two-year election cycle, that's $16 billion. Suddenly, the hundreds of millions spent by the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson look beside the point. (Total spending on Federal elections in 2012 was a mere $7 billion, itself a record high.)

It's a bit difficult to take in how big a change in American politics this would be. Politicians' fate not in the hands of big contributors? Every citizen a contributor? It's astonishing how much we've come to take it for granted that the moneyed few will dominate our politics.

Some 2016 presidential candidate, Republican or Democratic (but almost certainly Democratic), could ride this issue a long way. Does anyone know a future Democratic candidate who needs to shake a reputation for being too much of a Washington insider and too well connected to rich donors?

There is no more important issue.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Mysterious Orient/Occident (a politics-free post)


On Christmas Day, I followed the traditions of my people by eating in a Chinese restaurant. This particular one was a very good, and seemingly authentic, new one called the Sichuan Gourmet House. In between my bites of jellyfish (no tentacles; good but rather bland) and bitter melon (bitter), I pondered the age-old question: Why is the standard American spelling "Szechuan"? Where does the "z" come from?

Short answer: I don't know. I couldn't find a satisfactory answer on the Internet.

Slightly longer answer: I only know of one language where sz is pronounced as we pronounce the letter s (and s is not pronounced as we do): Hungarian. If you want to show an s sound in Hungarian, you have to write it sz. So I speculate that the distinctive cuisine of Sichuan was introduced into the US by some native of famously foodie Hungary.

Much longer answer: Blame the Romans.

When the Roman Catholic countries of Europe (some later Protestant) sat down to invent written languages for themselves, they used the Roman alphabet. This was natural, because the literate class read Latin, which was the language of the Church. (Similarly, the Persians, being Muslims, adopted Arabic script. The Eastern Orthodox Russians, Ukrainians, and Serbs used Cyrillic; not so the Catholic Poles, Czechs and Croats.) But there's a problem with using language A's alphabet to write language B: there are generally some sounds in language B that language A (in this case Latin) lacks, and for which it therefore has no letters.

People tried various ways of representing the missing sounds, usually by modifying existing letters. English relied heavily on adding h.  Thus we have ship and chip, whose initial sh and ch sounds do not exist in Latin. For the same sounds Polish made use of the z, baffling future generations of English-speakers by writing sz and cz where we would use sh and ch.

Hungarian, for some reason, used an approach opposite to Polish. It used the letter s for the sound the Poles write sz. But then it used sz for the sound that most languages use s for. Thus we have the financier George Soros, whose name is pronounced Shorosh in his native Hungarian. And thus, perhaps, we have Szechuan.

A couple more points. First, German doesn't have a sound like the ch of chip. So it used ch for the sound at the end of Bach. When English-speakers needed to romanize the Cyrillic alphabet of  Russian, they faced the problem that Russian has both a Bach sound and a chip sound  So English romanizations use kh for the Bach sound. Hence, Chekhov.

Finally, many people are puzzled by the way Qs and Xs have suddenly started popping up in Chinese words. What's the deal with tai qi for t'ai chi? Pretty simple. Romanization of Chinese has always been technically complex. As a result, there are many competing systems floating around, which is confusing. The Chinese government has tried to solve this problem by decreeing the correct system. That system ended up enlisting some otherwise unnecessary letters to represent some of the familiar problem sounds. Thus, q is (roughly) the ch sound in chip, and x the sh sound in ship.

Next time maybe I'll answer the question, "Tomato: Vegetable or Fruit?" Probably not, though.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

No Way

While Democrats are gleefully watching the fratricide in the Republican Party, they've had a little skirmish of their own. Perhaps you've heard about the brouhaha caused by Third Way, a think tank for centrist Democrats. Its president and vice president for policy published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal attacking "economic populism" (i.e., a focus on economic inequality) as a strategy for Democrats, and singling out for criticism Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York's mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio. This has provoked a strong reaction from the populists, with some of them pointing out that the board of Third Way is predominantly investment bankers and suggesting that the group represents the interests of the Wall Street rich.

Now, I've got nothing against moderates. The World's Smallest Political Quiz shows me just a smidgen, if at all, to the left of the boundary between liberal and moderate, and I would add that the party that purged all its moderates lost the last Presidential election. Also, it turns out that I (to my surprise) know one of the investment bankers on the board of Third Way, and although I haven't spoken to him in many years, I think he is a genuine Democrat rather than an agent of influence for Morgan Stanley.

But I have to say that I score this one for the liberals. This op-ed does read like the work of apologists for Wall Street, and not overly scrupulous ones.

They begin by dismissing the broader significance of the recent election of DiBlasio and Warren: Since they're from heavily Democratic New York City and Massachusetts, they're not very good indicators of the mood of rest of the country. True, but New York had a two-term Republican mayor (Rudy Giuliani), followed by a three-term centrist independent billionaire (Michael Bloomberg) who pretty much incarnates Third Wayism. DiBlasio represented a clear repudiation of Bloomberg, and he won not just in a landslide but in a big landslide (73%). As for Warren, she defeated an incumbent Republican, who ran on his regular-guy, moderate image against liberal "Professor" Warren. I don't know exactly what those elections mean, but it doesn't seem safe to say they mean nothing.

But even worse, the authors go on, are the actual policies of these woolly-headed liberals ("the Warren wing of the Democratic Party"). The authors first sneer at, but do not refute, "the 'we can have it all' fantasy" that we can pay for all sorts of good things if we tax the rich more, "close a few corporate tax loopholes, and break up some big banks." (No one that I'm aware of has suggested that breaking up big banks would raise money, but apparently Third Way is so much against it that they wanted to take an extra opportunity to sneer at it.)

But they quickly go on to their main targets, middle class entitlements. At the present rate, they warn, the Social Security Trust Fund will be used up in 18 years. Then they cross the line into deceit:

Undeterred by this undebatable solvency crisis, Sen. Warren wants to increase benefits to all seniors, including billionaires, and to pay for them by increasing taxes on working people and their employers.

The plan Warren is supporting would remove the cap on payroll taxation, thereby raising the marginal payroll tax rate from zero to 12.4% on earnings above $110,100. (For simplicity, let's assume that the employer share ends up being paid by the employee as lower wages.) The change would have no effect on anyone earning less than $110,100. Of course, anyone paying payroll taxes is by definition a working person, but somehow the phrase "working people" does not normally evoke images of people whose individual earnings are over $110,100, and only those people. That's why I call it "deceit" rather than "falsehood."

Because of the current cap, rich people actually pay a lower average rate on earnings than other people. If you have a salary of $1 million, you will pay payroll taxes of 12.4% x $110,100 = $13,652, for an average tax rate of 1.4%. Having that increase to the same 12.4% that most people pay will hurt, especially because your higher taxes won't increase your own social social security check, which will remain a tiny fraction of your income. But in the funhouse mirror of Third Way, working people are paying to benefit billionaires.

I could go on to discuss their comments about Medicare, or their peculiar interpretation of some election results from Colorado. But you get the point. I don't want to sound immoderate or anything, but this is hackery by Wall Street's performing monkeys.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Which Cause of Avoidable Deaths Is Bigger?



U.S. drunk-driving fatalities, 2010:     13,365


U.S. suicides using firearms, 2010:     19,392 


Yes, but if people who want to commit suicide don't have access to guns, won't they just use something else? No.       

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Religion and Violence

I once mentioned to a colleague that, according to something I had read, if Christianity hadn't happened along, a Roman Emperor might have ended up converting to Judaism. Presumably, the rest of the Roman Empire would have followed. "Wow," he said. "The world would look really different if that had happened."

Only later did I ask myself, "Would it?" Would Judaism have changed the Roman Empire, and the history of the West, and of the world? Or, possibly, would the Roman Empire have changed Judaism? Would Tomas de Torquemada still have been Grand Inquisitor, but as a rabbi--or, perhaps, a Jewish monk--and would Bloody Mary have burned Jewish heretics at the stake?

I am reminded of these questions frequently nowadays when I read all the debate about whether Islam is an inherently violent religion. The claim that it is has become common, mostly in Tea Party circles (here, here and here, for instance), but also among right-of-center Jews and Catholics, and even the occasional left-wing atheist.

To me, this argument seems absurd on its face.  If Christianity is by its nature less violent than Islam, then one would expect this to be true at all different times and places.

Here's the conquest of Jerusalem by the Christians of the First Crusade in 1099:

Writing about the Temple Mount area alone Fulcher of Chartres, who was not an eyewitness... says: "In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared".

And this was not an aberration; it went on for centuries. In 1209 there was the crusade against the Cathars of southern France

Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses, and used for target practice.... Arnaud-Amaury wrote to Pope Innocent III, "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex."

In the sixteenth century there was the aforementioned Mary I of England, who executed 283 Protestants, mostly by burning. Her successor is not known today as "Bloody Elizabeth," but she executed hundreds of Catholics.

Obviously, Christianity is not violent like that today. But equally obviously, that is not because of anything intrinsic to its basic nature that makes it different from Islam.

The best test, though, would be if we could find a faith whose canon included no endorsement of violence whatsoever, and yet whose adherents were now behaving violently. Horrifyingly, there is such a case today:

“There are casualties and damage on both sides,” Mr. Thein Sein said on state television.

But according to accounts from the police officer, Lt. Col Kyaw Tint, and a villager who witnessed some of the fighting, the violence followed a disturbingly familiar pattern: sword-wielding Buddhist mobs rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods.

“All the people who were found dead were from the Muslim community,” Colonel Kyaw Tint said.

After flaring up last year in western Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence has spread to areas around the country this year, leaving dozens of people dead, almost all of them Muslims and some of them children. Buddhist nationalist groups have called for a boycott of Muslim shops, and radical Buddhist monks have stoked anti-Muslim feelings in sermons across the country.

That's right. Burmese Buddhist mobs are carrying out pogroms against Muslims. Violence is a virus, and the virus is no respecter of religious belief.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Debt-Ceiling Problem, and How to Perpetuate It


As you probably noticed, we recently had another political crisis over the debt ceiling. When the government is spending more money than it takes in, it has to borrow the difference to pay the bills. By law, there's a limit to how much it can borrow. Since total government debt has been growing over time (except for a few years in the Clinton Administration) we periodically bump up against the limit and have to raise it to be able to pay the bills. The recent kerfuffle was over a Republican threat to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, thereby leaving us unable to pay the bills, unless various unrelated political demands were met.

The debt ceiling is in fact completely pointless, because it has no effect on what the government spends, only on whether it has enough cash on hand to pay the bills for what it spends. It's become the subject of two major political crises over the last two years. Can't we do something about it?

Now Eric Posner, a University of Chicago law professor, has written a column for Slate in which he suggests a solution to the debt ceiling problem: amend the Constitution.

[I]t would be easy enough to propose a constitutional amendment providing that “the president shall have the power to enforce Section 4 of the 14th Amendment.” If such a constitutional rule had been in place, President Obama could have announced that he would borrow as necessary to pay interest on the debt. 

As a solution to the problem, this is bizarre.  "Easy enough to propose," indeed. But as Posner notes, "Amending the Constitution is extremely difficult." You remember, the whole thing about two-thirds of both houses and three-quarters of state legislatures. The idea of getting two-thirds of both houses to agree on an amendment like this is mind-boggling.

And yet! Tea Party politicians regard the threat of a debt default as a short-term tactic ... not... as a policy goal that is desirable in itself.... Disagreements about the size of government can proceed apace, and conservatives still can prevail if they obtain majorities for cutting spending. Meanwhile, the financial health of the country is not put at risk. Once tempers cool and people move on to other issues, the amendment process—which will probably take many years—can begin.

Oh, you beautiful dreamer. This gives new meaning to the term "ivory tower." People have just lost their tempers! Once they cool down, they'll see their common interests. Then all conservatives need to do is get a majority for cutting spending. No sweat!

There is a much simpler way of dealing with the problem of recurring debt-ceiling crises: repeal the law. Simple majority in both houses. President's signature. Done.

Is that it? A good chunk of the American public seems to believe that the debt ceiling is in the Constitution. Not so. The debt ceiling was established in 1917. It was made obsolete in 1974, when Congress established a regular budget process to deal with spending. But it remained, I don't know why. Everyone knew it would have to be raised from time to time.

Posner is, of course, aware of all this. He even mentions repeal as one of a number of alternatives to a Constitutional amendment. But, he argues, the "problem with these fixes is that they can last only as long as a majority in Congress want [sic] them to last. A better solution is a constitutional amendment."

To see how strange this line of argument is, suppose the Republicans had won both houses of Congress and the Presidency in 2012. They're all set to repeal Obamacare, when.... Wait! Don't repeal Obamacare! If you do that, what happens if the Democrats come back? They could pass it all over again! Instead of repealing it, let's pass a Constitutional amendment against it.

How enthusiastic do you think the Republicans would be about that idea? They would argue that it wasn't at all easy to pass Obamacare in the first place, so Democrats are not just going to wave their hands and restore it. They would point out that such an approach would leave Obamacare in place for years. They would say that first they would repeal the law. Then they would entertain suggestions about a constitutional amendment.

The only sure results from Posner's approach are, first, that people would continue to believe, wrongly, that the debt ceiling is some sort of Constitutional requirement; and second, that nothing would change for a long time. We should do what you're supposed to do with a bad law: Repeal it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Silent Dogs at the Shutdown


"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
  --"Silver Blaze"

The late government shutdown  took a good whack at conventional wisdom in Washington. We've been hearing for some time that no matter how badly the Republican majority in the House behaves, nothing can be done about it. The Republicans, you see, have gerrymandered the congressional map so expertly that there is no chance they can be thrown out until after the next redistricting in 2020. Oops, maybe there is.

The conventional story never really hung together for me; I could never figure out how the arithmetic was supposed to work. When you gerrymander, you want to get as many seats as possible for a given number of voters on your side.  As Sam Wang explains it:

Gerrymandering is not hard. The core technique is to jam voters likely to favor your opponents into a few throwaway districts where the other side will win lopsided victories, a strategy known as “packing.” Arrange other boundaries to win close victories, “cracking” opposition groups into many districts.

That makes sense. It implies, though, that your side doesn't get safe seats--the other side does, while your side gets "close victories." There's a trade-off between maximizing the number of seats and maximizing the safety of each seat. As long as the are some moderate voters who might go either way, "close victories" are going to be nail-biters.

But are there any moderate voters left? Democrats need a swing of 18 seats to take control of the House. A quick check of the Cook Political Report (scroll down after you jump) reveals that 17 Republicans in the House were elected from districts that voted for Obama in 2012. Another dozen come from districts than went for Romney by two points or less. It doesn't take much of a shift away from Republicans to flip the House.

In the survey linked above, Public Policy Polling presumably was using this reasoning by polling in districts of the most vulnerable Republicans. They found that seventeen Republican representatives would lose to a "generic" (i.e., unnamed) Democrat, and another four trail the generic Democrat when voters are reminded that the representative voted for a government shutdown.

If you examine the PPP poll more closely, there are some odd things about it that might prevent one from putting a lot of faith in it. (For example, take a look at California 21, which according to Cook, Obama carried by 11 points.) But there's plenty of other evidence that things are not going well for Republicans. Both Gallup and the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll show that approval of the Republican Party is at its lowest point since they began asking the question. Granted, it's still a long way to the midterm elections. but if I were a Republican in an Obama district, I'd definitely be pretty nervous.

What is strange about the whole shutdown crisis was the dog that didn't bark: "moderate" Republicans. We heard quite a bit from the press about the "suicide caucus" of 80 Republicans who pushed Speaker Boehner into the shutdown. Those people probably are electorally invulnerable; the shameless Randy Neugebauer, for example, comes from from a Texas district where Romney got 74 percent of the votes in 2014.

But what about the representatives from districts where Obama won or nearly won? Clearly a lot of them are in jeopardy from the Republican collapse in popularity. Why didn't they protest publicly? A few have, such as Peter King (district: 52% for Obama). But even King voted for the shutdown, and later refused to sign a discharge petition that would have permitted a new vote. Why? Why didn't the self-preservation caucus speak up? Why didn't they just say no?

All I can imagine is that even representatives in fairly liberal districts face a threat from the Tea Party in the Republican primary. That leaves a lot of Republicans in a pretty tough place (call it the Straits of Mitt), having to survive both a primary challenge from the right and a general-election challenge from the left.

Curiously, one of the few pundits to pick up on the key role of the "moderates" is Paul Krugman. He concludes, however, "The biggest problem we as a nation face right now is not the extremism of Republican radicals, which is a given, but the cowardice of Republican non-extremists..." That's like saying the biggest problem we as a nation face is that pigs lack wings. The problem is not that "moderates" lack fearlessness, which is normally lacking in politicians; it's that they are poised between two fears, of the primary and the general election.

One would think that their professional colleagues in the House would have some sympathy for their plight, perhaps even some understanding of what's necessary to hold on to a majority, but the rookies seem completely clueless.“It’s pretty hard when he has a circle of 20 people that step up every day and say, ‘Can we surrender today, Mr. Speaker? Can we just go away? Can we make it easy?’” said [Kansas Republican Rep. Tim] Huelskamp.... “I would say the surrender caucus is the whiner caucus, and all they do is whine about the battle, as if they thought being elected to Washington was going to be an easy job.” Well, of course, the job's a lot easier when, like Huelskamp, you come from a district that voted for your Presidential candidate by 70%.

Finally, this episode, and the whole phenomenon of being "primaried," point once again to the need to get rid of the institution of party primaries. But that's a tale for another time.

Remarkable Victories in History


A sequel to this, of course.
I

Cruz: It was a ‘remarkable victory’ until Senate Republicans caved on the shutdown

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Wednesday blasted members of his own party after he said that they wasted a “remarkable victory” by making a deal with Democrats to re-open the government and avert a default on U.S. debt by raising the nation’s credit limit....Months ago, when the effort to defund Obamacare began, official Washington scoffed, they scoffed that the American people would rise up, they scoffed that the House of Representatives would do anything and they scoffed that the Senate would do anything.”

“We saw the House of Representatives take a courageous stand, listening to the American people, that everyone in official Washington just weeks earlier said would never happen,” he continued. “And that was a remarkable victory, to see the House engage in a profile in courage.”

“Unfortunately, the Senate chose not to follow the House...
  

II
....

“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby, died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.
...

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he;
“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Epic Battles in History


I

Boehner Urges G.O.P. Unity in ‘Epic Battle

...But on the matter causing all the Congressional stress, the speaker offered no clue as to how he expected Congress to get out of the dead end it has found itself in, with the government shut for a fourth day and no clear path to raise the federal debt limit to avoid the nation’s first default. “We are locked in an epic battle,” the speaker told his rank and file, those who attended the meeting said, urging them to “hang tough.”

The overarching problem for the man at the center of the budget fight, say allies and opponents, is that he and his leadership team have no real idea how to resolve the fiscal showdown....
  
  The New York Times, October 4, 2013

II

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.

  Tennyson

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Frant's Law of Bureaucracy At the Government Shutdown


To understand how government works, you need to know Frant's Law of Bureaucracy, which states:

Problems with bureaucracy are almost never caused by bureaucrats. They're caused by politicians.

Public-sector bureaucracies, as we know, can be inflexible, and sometimes do things that seem irrational and counterproductive. For the most part, this is not because bureaucrats are inflexible or dumb. Nor is it because they lack the bracing effect of a profit motive or competition. No, for the most part bureaucrats do the things they do because that's what legislators have told them to do. They're following the law.

Of course, when following the law has bad results, politicians rarely see much advantage to taking the blame. Much better to be outraged by bureaucratic bungling and leap to the voters' defense. The hypocrisy of this strikes the untutored eye only rarely.

Here,  for example: