Monday, November 22, 2010

Third-World Poverty: That Was Easy

There was a story in The NewYork Times a few months ago that startled me. The story was of an American clothing manufacturer with a factory in the Dominican Republic, who decides that he wants to start having a more positive impact on the world. So he starts paying the workers a "living wage," defined in the article as the amount of money needed to adequately feed and shelter a family

This turns out to be about three times the minimum wage in the Dominican Republic, and the results for the lucky workers have been dramatic. The article leads off with the story of a woman who lived with her husband and three children in a windowless shack, sharing an outhouse two doors away. They are now building a new house with two bedrooms and an indoor bathroom. Another woman is planning to send her daughter to college.

OK, so a heartwarming story about a do-gooder, right? And this company can get away with it, because they do a lot of business with colleges, where there are already big anti-sweatshop campaigns organized that can help them do marketing. Not really earth-shaking.

But that wasn't what startled me. Far down in the article you read this: In a T-shirt that retails for $18, the cost of more than tripling the workers' wages is 80 cents.


I started trying to figure out what other costs in the $18 might be affected. The interest cost of holding inventory might go up by whatever fraction eighty cents is of the wholesale price. What else? Shipping: the same as before. Marketing? The same. Retailing? The same. It doesn't appear that the cost of lifting these workers from miserable Third-World poverty to a hopeful Third-World middle-class life is more than five or six percent of the retail cost.

I was mulling this over when I came across another article in the Times. This one was making the unsurprising point that any change in the value of China's currency would affect different U.S. companies differently: if Chinese currency became more expensive ("stronger") relative to the dollar, it would help companies that export to China and  hurt companies that import from China. (That's why the U.S. wants it to happen, after all.)

Again, nothing startling except... The story includes an interview with a Chinese sock manufacturer who makes socks that retail in the U.S. for 2.99 a pair. He sells them for 25 cents a pair. That includes everything, not just labor but material and machinery. At the factory in the Dominican Republic, labor was about 10% of the cost of a shirt before the wage increase. Figure 20% for the socks. That's five cents. Triple that and you've raised the cost by ten cents, or about three percent.

Here's where it gets interesting. Let's say we survey Americans, with this question: "Suppose you could wave a magic wand and ensure that all the clothing imported into this country was made by workers who work in decent conditions and make enough to support a family, and not by workers working in a sweatshop at the minimum wage. But if you wave the wand, the cost of clothing will go up by five percent. Would you do it?" (Ideally, conduct the survey in such a way that the interviewer won't know an individual subject's response.) My guess is that a large majority would say yes.

So what's the problem? First, of course, people usually don't know which kind of T-shirt they're looking at. So you would need a big campaign (though probably quite cheap compared to the scale of the problem) along the lines of the old "Look for the union label" campaign, without, God forbid, mentioning unions. You would need an estimate of a living wage for each country, which some international organizations have taken a stab at, some kind of certifying organization, and an advertising campaign. Maybe George Soros's foundation can come up with a couple hundred million.

The other problem is that people might not actually do it. This is intellectually a trickier problem: even though everyone might want everyone to pay five percent more, strictly speaking it's irrational for anyone to do it. Whatever other people do, my own contribution is going to be too small to make a difference. This is a very familiar problem in political economy.  The same problem exists with installing pollution control equipment on your car, paying for national defense, or voting.

As the example of voting suggests, there are a couple of saving graces here. First, people may get some satisfaction from the activity itself. Second, most people are not rational; try to tell them that their vote's probability of affecting the outcome is essentially zero, and they'll say, "But what if everyone thought like that?" (Yossarian's reply in Catch 22 was, "Then I'd be crazy to think any differently, wouldn't I?") So voluntary action might work better than one would expect.

The examples of pollution-control equipment and national defense suggest what the alternative is: what Garrett Hardin called "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon." That is, we could pass a law saying that imported goods must be produced by workers who are paid a living wage. In principle, even though without the law we might buy the sweatshop stuff, we could unanimously agree to pass a law like that.

In practice, not so much. In general, manufacturers of competing goods and unions would probably support a law like this; importers of inputs would oppose it. Actually, the politics might get quite interesting. While the libertarians over at the Volokh Conspiracy would go through the roof, it might be possible to get liberals to link arms and sing "Kumbaya" with xenophobic opponents of immigration (under the slogan "Keep Them Where They Belong!").

I should mention that I've always thought "living wage" laws were pretty silly. Why is this not silly? If you try to regulate the supply side, by setting a wage rate that local businesses must pay, the businesses will move to the next town over. But if you regulate the demand side, what are businesses going to do? Not sell to us? If you bring those bleeding-hearts in Europe on board, you've got a huge chunk of total world demand.

All right, I haven't got all the details of this worked out. Most people in the Third World are self-employed farmers. Should we ignore them and hope that a rising tide will lift all boats? Would this change lead to a mass migration to cities? Is it legal under World Trade Organization rules?

Hey, implementation is someone else's problem.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Couple More Notes From the Fringe

1. The prize for most unintentionally depressing subject line in an email goes to, which sent me one titled "It's a Savage Nation." The reference, of course, is to "[b]estselling author, conservative icon, and popular radio host Dr. Michael Savage," who has a new book out.  But that seems to be increasingly true, doesn't it? It is a savage nation.

2.  Recently I commented on the right's bizarre rage against Obama. Yesterday I was visiting The Volokh Conspiracy, a website that I mentioned here last week. (I assume the name is an allusion to Hillary Clinton's claim of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to bring about impeachment. The slogan of is, "Where the VRWC conspires." That's from memory, of course, as I'm banned. Personally, I think "vast" might have been a little over the top.) Anyway...

I was reading, and commenting in, a thread about global warming. As  you might expect, the thread started out being reasonable and was quickly overpowered by passionate denialists skeptics. I came across this remarkably frank account:

...I stopped hiking and travelling because of physical problems that preclude hiking 20+ mile days in the backcountry. And I'm one pissed-off dude because of that.  This kind of "discussion" gives me an outlet that is both socially acceptable AND useful.

Now - I've already said some things about the "denialist" thing. For the moment, I'll just add this - it's kinda like those who use the F-word 3 times in every sentence - it's an indication of their immaturity, mental capacity, lack of imagination, lack of socialization and how thin their veneer of civilization is.  IOW, it's rude, crude and uncalled for and deserves no respect at all. 

For those who understand what science is, how it operates, its history and possible future, the word "Consensus" is utter nonsense. It's not an argument and it's only persuasive to those who are either ignorant or stupid (or both). 

Yes, that's one pissed-off dude, all right. I'm not too clear on why he's so exercised about being called a "denialist," or why that's worse than a term that he uses elsewhere, "the Church of AGW" (anthropogenic global warming). But what's noteworthy is that he is quite open about his rage being completely unrelated to the topic, and about finding an outlet for it in the "discussion" (in quotation marks, I suppose to indicate that discussing things is only his ostensible purpose). No doubt that is more socially acceptable than shooting someone, or beating the crap out of them.

But have the non-political, exogenous causes of rage increased for some reason, or has it just become more common for people to channel their rage into politics? And when they do, does violence go down, or does public expression of rage become more socially acceptable? And does that, possibly, increase the temptation to feel rage in a variety of situations (say, physical limitations)?  Is there a vast Satanic conspiracy against the better angels of our nature? Are we in fact turning into a savage nation?

Just speculating.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Misreading the Constitution

I have continued my optimistic, if quixotic, quest to bring civility and open debate to the Internet by visiting sites I don't agree with. Recently I have been spending time at the Volokh Conspiracy, a collective blog by a group of right-wing libertarian law professors. I am pleased to report that I haven't been banned, and that the tone is generally non-abusive and the opinions non-uniform. (There is one guy who referred to "Sonia Sodomizer" and commented on the "Muslim-in-Chief," but he doesn't really fit in there.)

In fact, I am finding this site a bit addictive, because it's actually possible to have a serious discussion there, though so far neither I nor anyone else appears to have been convinced. I did have a sudden intellectual epiphany, though, that I want to tell you about.

It was during discussion of a rather pointless post about a rather silly statement by Rep. Peter DeFazio that he was investigating articles of impeachment against Chief Justice Roberts. Part of the reason was the Citizens United decision immortalized in the last State of the Union address, in which a 5-4 majority struck down limits on corporations' political advertising as violations of the First Amendment.

There was some huffing and puffing about DeFazio (as if no one had ever proposed impeaching a Supreme Court Chief Justice before), and then talk turned to Citizens United. That led to this exchange, with me in italics:

Let me reframe it this way: Suppose (arguendo, as I believe they say) that CU results in big corporations and billionaires having a dominant influence on democratic elections. What would your response be? 1) I’m happy, because it would help my party, and the ends justify the means. 2) I’m happy, because big corporations and billionaires are smarter than average people and should determine policy. 3) I’m unhappy, and I would support legislation to reduce the effect of money, even though it might hurt my party. 4) I don’t care, because the assumption is wildly implausible.

You omit option #5: It doesn’t matter whether I’m happy or unhappy because free speech is not contingent on my approval of the speech.(Of your four choices, I’d go with #4, however.)

So the fact that big corporations and the rich can (hypothetically) take over the electoral process is not something we should do anything about? We shouldn’t do anything if (hypothetically) democracy is a sham, because that would infringe on people’s rights? I doubt the Constitution would have been ratified if people had known that was the deal. Would you (hypothetically) at least support disclosure legislation, or would that have a chilling effect on the speech of Goldman Sachs?

There was no response, though that may have been because this particular thread was getting a bit old at this point.  In any case, that's when I had my epiphany. I had been incredulous that they could be this cavalier about democracy.  Then I realized: Of course they don't care about democracy! They're libertarians!  It's not that they're anti-democratic. But democracy is a form of government, and government is tyranny. Sometimes, of course, it's a necessary evil, but it's still an evil.

Well, it's a free country. If that's what you want to think, I won't report you to the authorities. The important point is that libertarians have read the Constitution to comport with their ideology. So they see the Founders as people who were primarily concerned with keeping government from getting too powerful, and with protecting individual rights.

I think that is a complete distortion of the Constitution. What was really daring and original was to set up a government where sovereignty rested in the people. Literally, no one had done that before. (To this day, sovereignty in Britain rests in Parliament.) And the Founders got the Constitution approved by having the people (white and male, but not necessarily propertied) vote on it. Democracy is the very essence of what the Constitution is about.

Whether you take the libertarian or the democratic view of the Constitution turns out to make a big difference. Citizens United is one example. If free speech is a right of individuals that overrides everything, then the rich (let's leave aside the trickier issue of corporations) have an unlimited right to buy political advertising. If you're interested in a workable democracy, on the other hand, you want to provide strong protections for unpopular speech, but also ensure that open debate is not drowned out by money.

The difference is also stark with libertarians' favorite amendment, the second. (By the way, what is the deal with gun, uh, enthusiasts? It's a piece of machinery, for crying out loud. Like a lawnmower. Why don't we have outdoor refrigerator shows? "You'll take away my dishwasher when you pry it from my cold, dead hand...") The libertarian view blithely ignores that troublesome phrase, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." Why would the Founders have put such a phrase in an amendment intended to enshrine the right to defend one's home? To me, it seems clear that the text is talking about an individual right necessary to ensure a collective activity. Like free speech, as a matter of fact.

So it's probably a mistake to think of the current majority on the Court as being  merely conservative. Yes, they no doubt have more, uh, empathy for corporations than they minority does. But they seem to have a different view about democracy as well.

Hold Off on the CAT Stampede

NBC opened the Nightly News last night with a story about how screening heavy smokers for lung cancer can reduce lung-cancer deaths. Specifically, when heavy smokers and people who used to be heavy smokers were screened using spiral (helical) CT scans, the death rate from lung cancer was lowered by 20%. (I prefer the old name CAT scan, because it lends itself to so many geeky jokes, such as that when you generalize the principle of the CAT scan, you get the PET scan. And the whole idea of a spiral scan makes one think about there being more than one way to scan a ...) CBS and ABC also gave prominent coverage the the story.

No doubt, this is good news. But every journalist should read (among others) my first substantive post on this blog, in which I mentioned the importance of long division in policy analysis. There were 53,000 people in the study. Over eight years, 442 people in the group getting chest X-rays died of lung cancer, versus 354 in the group getting spiral CT scans.

Let's assume equal numbers in each group. Then if you're a heavy smoker, your chance of dying of lung cancer over eight years is 1.67% with the chest X-ray, and 1.34% with the CT scan. By getting the CT scan you reduce your chance of dying of lung cancer over the next eight years by 0.33%. When you consider that the CT scan has a higher dose of X-rays, and that information about deaths from other causes won't be published for several months, it would seem wise to hold off on the stampede for now. At least the health care debate is over, sort of, so we'll probably be spared Republicans saying that Democrats want to ration CT scans.

By the way, does anyone else find these numbers (remember, heavy smokers and former heavy smokers) surprisingly low? I guess I was so heavily propagandized in elementary school that I thought your odds were about like playing Russian roulette. Of course this still represents hundreds of thousands of people, and doesn't include other cancers, heart disease, emphysema, and so on.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I have received an e-mail from offering me, with purchase of a subscription to Townhall Magazine, a free copy of the new Dinesh D'Souza book The Roots of Obama's Rage.  The e-mail tells us, "In this mind-blowing book D'Souza explains why Obama's economic policies are designed to intentionally make America poorer, why he welcomes a nuclear Iran, why he sees the United States as a rogue nation, and much more."  The e-mail features a blurb describing the book as "profound" from the morally decayed Newt Gingrich, whose personality appears to have been completely taken over by his Mr. Hyde side.

In short, the usual right-wing crackpot stuff. But what is most striking about this book is its title. Rage? True, it's an obvious ripoff from an article by Bernard Lewis in The Atlantic some years ago entitled "The Roots of Muslim Rage." But one can see angry Muslims on TV on a regular basis. Has anyone ever seen a really angry Obama? No-drama Obama? Can you imagine him burning a flag? Or throwing rocks? No, too weird.

So why rage? Here's a quotation from Wikipedia:

In Freudian psychology, Psychological projection or projection bias is a psychological defense mechanism where a person unconsciously denies their own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, such as to the weather, or to other people. Thus, it involves imagining or projecting that others have those feelings.[1]
Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the unwanted unconscious impulses or desires without letting the conscious mind recognize them.

It's not Obama's rage against America that needs explaining; it's the right's rage against Obama. I don't know what the roots of right-wing rage are. But there's no doubt that it's there, and has been since before Inauguration Day. It's not anger, it's apoplectic rage, and it predates anything Obama did in office.

Perhaps D'Souza should have actually read Lewis's article, instead of name-dropping it, for it is relevant not to Obama's fictional rage against America but to the right's real rage against Obama. In Lewis's view, Islamic rage against America has less to do with America's actions than with America as the symbolic leader of a way of life that threatens to change everything, i.e.,  modernity. Just so, the rage against Obama probably has less to do with his actions than with Obama as symbol of a (relative) loss of power by groups that had gotten used to being in power.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fact-Based Politics

     "What we need is a balanced tax program. Right now the ratio between income tax and total income for the state gives an index that--" 
     "Yeah," I said. "I heard the speech. But they don't give a damn about that. Hell, make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em think you're their weak erring pal, or make 'em think you're God-Almighty....Tell 'em anything. But for Sweet Jesus' sake don't try to improve their minds." 

         Robert Penn Warren
            "All the King's Men" 

That's what you might call the Jack Burden theory of politics, and a few pages later it becomes the Willy Stark theory of politics. Warren stacks the deck, of course; any speech that contains the words "ratio" and "index" is bound to be a stinker, let alone both in the same sentence. 

But a version of this theory, a sort of Jack Burden Lite, is commonly applied even to voters who are not uneducated, poor, or living in the 1930s. That theory says that speeches should appeal primarily to emotions and not bore voters with a lot of facts. Basically, you should emulate Reagan and have touching or heart-wrenching stories to drive home your points.

I don't know that this theory is wrong. But I keep noticing how the political debate in this country is shaped by voters' ignorance of simple facts. For example:

1. The U.S. does not have the longest life expectancy in the world, nor the second longest. It has the 41st longest. It does not have the lowest infant mortality rate in the world, nor the second-lowest. It has the 41st lowest. (The exact rankings vary a bit depending on the source, but in any case, we're behind Cuba.)

2. If the U.S. spent as much on health care as the second-most-expensive country in the world, we would spend around $8,000 per household less than we're spending now. That other country has universal health care and better statistics on life expectancy and infant mortality than we do.

3. Less than one-fifth of third-generation Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles are fluent in Spanish, and 96% prefer to speak English at home.

4. If your ancestors immigrated to the U.S. before the twentieth century, they came at a time when there were no restrictions on immigration by country of origin (only racial restrictions on Chinese). Even if they came in the twentieth century, they probably had refugee status if they came from a Communist country. If your ancestors faced the restrictions of immigrants today, you probably wouldn't be here.

5. The ten years from 2000 to 2009 had the slowest economic growth of any decade since the Great Depression.

6. The top marginal tax rate in the 1950s was over 90%.

Obviously, any of these bald facts needs a little elaboration to help the audience see the policy implications. But any competent speechwriter can do that, and even tug at the heartstrings a little once the basic facts are established.

It is a mystery to me why people who have the facts on their side are so reticent about using them. The biggest offender is of course President Obama, and from the outside it's hard to figure out why.

One factor may be the apparent allergy in American politics to talking about other countries, except as adoring supporters. But why not get that old competitive spirit going? If we care about being number one at the Olympics, why not in health? Education? Infrastructure? Or if not number one, how about number five or six? If pride won't work, how about shame?

Another factor may be the strange reluctance of this Administration to talk to the public at all. Who dreamed that a president famous for being articulate would hold so few press conferences or Oval Office addresses? I don't have my finger on the pulse of the American electorate. But it certainly appears that part of the anger we are seeing today ("elites," "taking back our country," etc.) is about feeling cut out of the loop. You can't listen to each of hundreds of millions of people individually, but you can reduce their alienation a lot by talking to them.

For democracy to work, people need to know the facts. Those who don't have the facts on their side may have to resort to peddling myths. Those who do have the facts on their side, however, have a patriotic obligation to put them before the public. The country needs more than comforting or infuriating fantasies.

We're All Doomed

Three youngish Republican congressmen, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan, have published a book with the strikingly self-important title Young Guns, explaining how they're going to fix America's problems. Is this what we've been waiting for, intelligent and thoughtful Republican policy proposals?

Sadly, no. In fact, it's worse than I feared. Ray Suarez interviewed Cantor and McCarthy for PBS. Here are some highlights: 

REP. ERIC CANTOR: First of all, as far as the tax rates are concerned, you know, so many people are talking about tax cuts, when the reality is, one of two things is going to happen January 1, 2011. Either your tax rates are going to go up or they're going to stay the same.

Nobody's talking about any tax cuts. And small businesses out there right now are looking to see, oh, my goodness, are my taxes going to go up? Can I really afford to keep the lights on and employ people right now?So, that's when Kevin says first order of business has got to be to settle the uncertainty, so we can get folks back into a mind-set that they can begin to grow again and create wealth, not just depend on the government to take it from them and redistribute it.

Well, hang on a second, Congressman. One of two things is going to happen on January 1: the Bush-era tax cuts that Republicans passed as temporary are going to expire, or they're not. True, everyone knew Republicans were lying so that they wouldn't have to admit what a hole they were blowing in the budget, but the fact is that's the law you passed. If you're so worried about uncertainty, why did you make the tax cuts temporary?

RAY SUAREZ: Members of your own caucus have said, don't worry. Social Security's not on the table, military spending's not on the table, and Medicare's not on the table.
Well, if you take those three and you say, we're walling them off, it's hard to imagine what you could cut to get us to balance at some point in the future.
REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: Not really. Not really.

Yes, really, Congressman. Take total federal discretionary spending, exclude defense spending, and we're left with about $700 billion. That includes the State Department, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, the Small Business Administration, Veterans' Affairs, and everything else. Cut everything by twenty percent and you reduce the deficit by $140 billion.  So now, how are you going to get us to balance? 

RAY SUAREZ: Well, give me some examples.
REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: I will give you an example. Anybody that rides a first-class ticket on Amtrak, that's only 16 percent. But you know, when you buy that sleeper car, the taxpayer spends $364 subsidizing your ticket, so you could have your bed drawn down.

To start with, Congressman, I don't believe that anything but a really bad cost-accounting system is going to tell you that the taxpayer is spending $364 subsidizing a first-class sleeper ticket. According to a website I found (it's hard to figure this out from Amtrak's website) the accommodation charge for a deluxe bedroom is $332, not including rail fare. Are you saying a first-class sleeper ticket costs Amtrak $700 a night? Sorry, I don't believe it. But apart from that, what do all the first-class subsidies on Amtrak total up to? Chump change. 

Do you realize that we give economic aid -- not humanitarian aid -- to countries that have $50 billion or more in debt they own for us, meaning that we're borrowing 40 cents out of a dollar from China to give them the millions of dollars?

Huh? Sorry, Congressman, now you're just gibbering. "And to the republic for Richard Stans, one nation, invisible..."

What is most depressing about this is not that intellectually the Republicans are once again firing blanks. It is that they seem anxious to return to the golden Reagan years of meaningless but inflammatory anecdotes. In place of welfare queens we have sleeper cars. And no one will call them on this. How far can Ray Suarez go before Republicans start trying to cut the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Who is going to say it's not so if you claim that a first-class ticket is costing taxpayers $364? Or $463? Or $643?

I won't say political debate in America is going to get more dishonest, trivial and irresponsible than it is now. But there's no sign of its getting any better.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Issues for Incumbents in an Angry Year

It looks like it's going to be a bad year for incumbents. We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore, whatever "it" is. Politicians have responded as politicians usually do, like a bunch of frightened bunnies heading for cover. They're shocked, shocked at the goings-on in Washington, and they're going to do their outsider best to change things. What things? Oh, things in general. Do candidates think voters actually buy this?

Instead of assuming, "Voters are idiots and I'm doomed if they find out the truth," why not talk about issues they might care about? For example: 

Political reform. Periodically voters decide it's time to throw the bums out. Then they discover they've elected new bums, and they decide that politicians as a class are no good. This is not good for democracy. Incumbents should suggest that just maybe, the problem is with the system.

This is easiest if you're running for the Senate. A lot of things that many voters assume are in the Constitution, like the filibuster, are actually part of the once-clubby, insider System. If you want to start small, why not go after the hold, which allows a single person to hold up bills and nominations indefinitely? And what about the fact that C-Span reveals that nowadays those speaking to world's greatest deliberative body have no audience most of the time?

If you're running for the House, why not go after the three-day workweek? This custom really goes back, if I'm not mistaken, to Newt Gingrich (who told Republicans not to move their families to Washington), and was something the Democrats had said they would change. Gingrich's idea was that they would show they were not part of evil Washington by going home every weekend, but nothing says "privilege" and "out of touch" like a public servant with a three-day week.

Anonymous money. The Citizens United decision has, as expected, resulted in a huge flood of money from corporations and billionaires into political advertising. Rather than whimper, incumbents should make that the issue. Who are these people? Who's behind Citizens for a [whatever] America? Do they live in-state? Whom do we hold to account if they're lying? Are they motivated by the public interest, or their own interest? Do they think they can buy the election? Get people sensitized, so every anonymous attack ad makes your opponent look like a tool of special interests. Make fun of those voice-of-doom voiceovers.

Unfairness in the tax system. No one, ever, thinks the tax system is fair. This year, it's a real policy issue. Use it. "In 1981, one-tenth of all the income in America went to the richest one percent. Today, it's almost a quarter. Now, I've got nothing against rich people. God bless 'em. I don't want to take away all their money. I'm just saying that when the country is facing kind of the fiscal problems it is, they ought to pay their fair share. They've done really well for themselves recently, when everyone else has been struggling. Now it's time for them to pitch in."

The Future. How about some optimistic, future-oriented (yet values-oriented) ads? "In the 1950s and 1960s we built the interstate highway system, which knit the country together and laid a foundation for strong economic growth. Over that period, the real income of the average family almost doubled. But since that time, we've been consuming our children's future-- letting our roads crumble and our bridges collapse. And family income growth has slowed to a crawl. Our education system used to be the best in the world. Now we're struggling to catch up. It's time to stop coasting, and get serious again about this country's future."

Civility. Polls and focus groups have been showing for a long time that people are unhappy about a lack of civility in public life, from politics to driving. This seems like a winning issue for incumbents, since they are the ones most likely to be targeted by those voice-of-doom attack ads.

If people are mad, they've got plenty of reason to be. Give them a reason to vote for you.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Democrats and Dunkin' Donuts

As you have surely noticed, many businesses are organized as franchises. Fast-food restaurants, some auto-repair shops, and car dealers are examples. The point I want to make here is how these businesses advertise: centrally. GM does not take its advertising budget and hand it out to its dealerships to buy ads, nor does Perdue hand over its advertising dollars to its chicken farmers. Nearly all advertising in national franchises is done nationally. And I doubt the franchisees would wish it otherwise; it's hard to believe that Ernie Boch Toyota could do a better job of advertising the Camry than Toyota could.

Yet no one ever does this in politics. The job of the House and Senate campaign committees, and of the national committees, is to raise money for individual candidates to use on making their own commercials. Why does national advertising make sense for Dunkin' Donuts, but not for Democrats?

"All politics is local!" someone will say, meaning that voters really only care about local issues. Well (sorry, ghost of Tip O'Neill), that's not true. Democrats are having a tough time this year all over the country. This is not some bizarre coincidence; the fortunes of politicians of a particular party tend to rise and fall together. After all, some of the determinants of burger sales are local, too, but that doesn't mean a Hardee's franchise is worth as much as a McDonald's franchise. Even supposing that a Hardee's burger is better suited to local tastes, I'd rather own a McDonald's franchise, because it's a  brand name supported by a lot of advertising.

Clearly, Democrats have a brand-name problem. But before they decide that people don't like their product, they need to make sure people know what it is. And when misinformation is being spread nationally, why rely on locals to deal with it? In New Hampshire, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is running an ad accusing Paul Hodes, the Democratic candidate for Senate, of having voted for a "government takeover" of health care. Why should individual candidates be the ones to deal with this nonsense? (Especially since some of them don't seem to have the spine for it. Instead of hitting back, Hodes is running an ad which doesn't mention that he's a Democrat--the equivalent of running a burger ad and hoping people won't notice that you're a Hardee's. Coincidentally, the ad uses a hot-dog eating contest as a metaphor for those awful people in Congress.)

If we really are moving toward an increasingly polarized politics (which I think is, given the American constitutional system, not a good thing), let's have the parties duke it out one-on-one, with advertising and slogans and idiotic sound bites and the whole thing.  At least then people would know what they're voting for. More or less.

Why Californians Should Vote for Prop 19

In a nutshell, to keep us from destroying Mexico.

California's Proposition 19 would legalize possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. The big argument people have been making in favor is that it would generate maybe $1 billion in tax revenue in a state with a huge budget crisis.

But I would say that the strongest argument is not fiscal but moral. You can't have missed the reports of the huge wave of drug-related violence in Mexico recently. It started after Mexico decided it had to take on the cartels, lest they end up controlling the government. As a result, hundreds of Mexican cops, soldiers, politicians, journalists, and bystanders have been killed.

What is rarely mentioned is that this violence is being funded by U.S. drug consumers. And so is the corruption of a nascent democracy. Americans near the border tend to think that Mexico is the problem. No, we are the problem, and it is Mexicans who are paying the price, a very high price.

It is our obligation to stop funding the cartels; unless you think you can successfully organize a boycott of marijuana, it appears that legalization (particularly of cultivation in small quantities) is the only way to do it. According to the RAND Corporation, legalization would lower the price by up to 80%. And there goes all the fun in smuggling pot. (The lower price would increase consumption by, well, who knows? Their guess is consumption might be equivalent to levels of the late '70s. Think Jimmy Carter, not Woodstock.)

True, the cartels' product line isn't limited to pot; it also includes cocaine, meth, and so on. But according to FBI testimony to Congress:

...marijuana is the top revenue generator for Mexican [cartels]—a cash crop that finances corruption and the carnage of violence year after year. The profits derived from marijuana trafficking—an industry with minimal overhead costs, controlled entirely by the traffickers—are used not only to finance other drug enterprises by Mexico’s poly-drug cartels, but also to pay recurring “business” expenses, purchase weapons, and bribe corrupt officials. 

Not all of this money comes from California, of course. Nor would eliminating all marijuana profits to the cartels make them disappear. But they would take a big hit to their wallets, and therefore their power. We owe it to Mexico.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Redstate Revisited

After my deeply untraumatic experience of being banned by, I was curious about what the reaction had been to my post. So a friend who will remain nameless went to the site and copied the thread for me.

To recap, a Redstate regular contributor (named Vladimir) had posted an article about how those crazy Democrats were proposing to raise the liability cap on oil spills to $20 billion or even remove it, how this would turn the Gulf coast into a ghost town, and how the likely result was $8 a gallon gasoline. There were two sorts of response. The first was from people who offered technical discussion of exploratory versus production wells and the Brent spot price (along with discussion of how crazy, or evil, the Democrats were).

The second was more along the lines of this: "Nothing more enjoyable than causing misery. Plus, if everybody’s income goes down, if people suffer more, won’t they turn to government for help? How can the collectivists lose? They just vote themselves raises and move on," and "I know this is all part of the sob’s in charge grand plan to destroy this country and if he cant get crap and tax [I think this is a reference to cap and trade] through the Senate this will do just fine."

Which brings us to my comment (under the name of one of my heroes from fiction) and the responses I never saw, starting with Neil, one of the ironically titled "moderators" at Redstate:

I don't get it
panzer Tuesday, July 27th at 3:52PM EDT
Sorry, Vladimir, I don’t see why the government is getting involved at all. Why should the government be subsidizing the industry by setting liability limits? Nobody puts limits on my liability when I drive. If drilling is so safe, insurance will be cheap. If it’s not, why should we say don’t worry about the damage you do to everyone else? Let the market decide.

Neil Stevens Tuesday, July 27th at 4:05PM EDT [Thirteen minutes later!]
Nice try, but you can’t bootstrap a small government argument that way, when it’s the government that is enforcing this liability to begin with.
These liability laws are passed on the grounds that making people pay for this kind of spill is for the greater good, but we can also decide a cap is also for the greater good.
Because we need oil, thanks to you leftys who short-sightedly ban shallow water drilling so much.

Actually, I have an answer for that, Mr. panzer.
Vladimir Tuesday, July 27th at 5:55PM EDT
Nobody ever, ever, ever suggested that an oil company’s (or a tanker company’s) liability be limited as to the cost of cleaning up the spill.
Anybody who spills oil into the waters of the United States is absolutely liable for the cleanup costs, even if it puts them out of business.
What is at issue, and what liability limits cap, are economic damages. I imagine that there is a joint in Bozeman, MT that can make a claim of being economically damaged by the BP spill since they don’t have their regular supply of shrimp for All-You-Can-Eat Thursdays.
The concept of liability limits was to put smaller firms on a competitive footing with larger ones, since smaller firms could never hang with the cost of litigating all the potential (and some specious) claims that might arise from a spill of this magnitude.
You may disagree, and that’s fine (we’ll never know, R.I.P.), but at least that’s the rationale for why the limits were there in the first place. If you prefer that the biggest companies always have a competitive advantage, that’s cool.
But whatever it is, it ain’t a “subsidy”.
Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him. It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down. - Ernest Hemingway

Alas, Vlad, I won't have the chance of responding to you there, but in case you ever find your way here, here are replies to Neil's comment and to yours:

Neil: Please don't interrupt when the grownups are talking. I never had any intention of making a small-government argument; I was making an argument about the relative efficacy of markets and government-imposed solutions. Yes, it is true that you can refer to our civil-law system as "government," as long as you're comfortable with the statement, "The entire private sector would quickly grind to a halt without government." Yes, it is true that that we can change the civil-liability system; the question is whether that change will make the market work better or worse. Drop me a line when you've read Posner and we'll talk.

Vlad: If you're saying oil companies drilling in the Gulf should be liable for damage they cause in the Gulf but not in Bozeman, MT, I'm OK with that. But I don't think that's what the current law says. It says that any damage above a very low cap is not their problem.

I don't understand this distinction you're making between "economic" damages and other damages. Apparently you think that oil companies should be responsible for cleaning up the oil they spill, but not for the damage they cause if they fail. If you think about it, you'll see that a rule like that doesn't give companies any reason to invest money in effective cleanup. If, however, we make companies responsible for damages, then they will have the appropriate incentive to invest (but not overinvest) in cleanup, without government needing to tell them what the right amount is.

As for subsidies, in effect we're saying, "Do something risky and if you succeed you can keep all the profits. If you fail, we'll pay the bill." Doesn't that sound a bit like what we told the banks? By putting a cap on liability we're giving oil companies something of value-- that's the point, after all-- by telling them we'll pick up the bill if things go wrong. If a loan guarantee is a subsidy, then that's a subsidy. As for the independents, if we're so worried about them that we're cutting them a break on liability, why are we cutting the same break to the majors who could afford to pay for the damage they cause?

And btw, what's the deal with your friend Neil? Is he afraid that he'll turn out not to be as smart as those "leftys" [sic] he scorns? (If that's his fear, I'm afraid it's justified.) Has he named himself the Inquisitor of the Church of Redstate, whose job it is to keep the simple faithful from being confused by heretics? Don't you find it all kind of embarrassing?

Finally, Vlad, I've got $500 that says we won't see $8/gallon gas during Obama's current term. Interested?

Terrorists and Freedom Fighters: A Quick Murk-Reduction

There are few phrases that irritate me more than "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Last Tuesday on NPR we got the unusual reversed form, when Michele Norris said, "But as you know, one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist."

My point is neither the rhetorical difference nor the logical equivalence between these two versions of the phrase. My point is the idea that animates both: that some people are terrorists (bad) and others are freedom fighters (good), and it's essentially subjective whom you assign to which group. This has given many in the news media the cover to refuse to describe anyone as a terrorist ("militant" is a popular, if almost meaningless, alternative).

The result has been less informative news. In particular, while it may be questionable to describe organizations as terrorist (just as it's questionable to describe individuals as "evil," implying some fixed nature), there are clearly actions that can be called terrorist.

So let's start with a definition of terrorism. Let's say that terrorism is the deliberate targeting for violence of noncombatants in a conflict, in order to induce fear. This practice is generally regarded today as barbaric, and indeed criminal. Note that under this definition, not only were Guernica and the London blitz acts of terrorism, but some of the Allied bombing in World War II was as well. I think the definition is still worth using for the sake of having a clear line: deliberate targeting of civilians is terrorism.

So where does that leave freedom fighters? An analogy is useful. In the Bosnian war, and many others, we saw the systematic and large-scale use of rape as a weapon of war. Did the Serbian soldiers consider themselves freedom fighters? Probably. Yet I have never heard a single person say, "One man's rapist is another man's freedom fighter." The absurdity of such a statement is too obvious: one can be a freedom fighter, at least in one's own mind, and still be a rapist. Being a freedom fighter does not excuse rape; rather, rape demeans the fight for freedom. And similarly for terrorism.

The mistaken idea that terrorism and freedom-fighting are mutually exclusive, then, leads to the mistaken idea that terrorism is a purely subjective matter. And that leads to the current tendency to use "terrorism" to mean "anything I don't like." I recently heard a British academic say that he would accept calling certain actions of Hamas terrorism, if he could call the building of West Bank settlements terrorism. Now, there are many things you could call the building of West Bank settlements. You could make a case, at least, that they are destructive, unjust, even illegal. But you can't call them marzipan, and you can't call them terrorism, because they're not. Baruch Goldstein was a terrorist because he opened fire in a mosque full of civilians, not because he lived in a settlement. And, contrary to an assertion I heard recently on TV, the Somali pirates are not terrorists. They're pirates.

In fairness to Norris, she was the less confused one in the interview. The subject was the woman who organized the shooting attack by Puerto Rican nationalists in the U.S. Capitol in 1954. Norris asked the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy:

NORRIS: Did she consider what she did terrorism?
Mr. FALCON: No, no, she was basically - saw herself as a freedom fighter for the freedom of Puerto Rico.
NORRIS: But as you know, one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist. I'm wondering about the people who were injured that day on Capitol Hill or the others who were probably trying to flee to safety, hearing this hail of bullet fire coming down from the gallery. And I can't imagine that they would use that word to describe her.
Mr. FALCON: Oh, I wasn't referring to them. I mean, freedom fighters against the United States. They walked into the central, one of the central institutions of the United States and fired upon that institution.

I wasn't referring to them? No, apologists for terrorism rarely refer to the victims. Consider them freedom fighters if you want, Mr. Falcon, but they're also terrorists.

This is an important issue. It takes humanity a long time to come to a new moral consensus. We appear to be coming to one about deliberate killing of civilians. Let's not lose our focus.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Join the Crowd: Banned by Redstate

You may recall my recent posting suggesting that people periodically read websites they disagree with, and if unconvinced, politely disagree. Following my own advice, I went to and browsed a little. I came across a posting in which someone was criticizing recent moves by Democrats to raise the liability limit for oil spills to $20 billion, or even remove it altogether. The author was claiming that this was equivalent to making every driver buy incredibly expensive liability coverage for wildly improbable events.

I politely disagreed (after first registering, and then waiting a couple days for my registration to age before I was allowed to post). Why, I asked, should government be involved at all? Why should it be subsidizing oil companies by limiting their liability? If accidents are really wildly improbable, then insurance will be cheap. Why not let the market take care of it?

Not an absolutely invulnerable argument, but nothing there, you will agree, that should offend the sensibilities of any conservative. Against government intervention? For free markets? My reply was posted. A few days later I went back to see if there were any replies, as people are wont to do in a discussion.

Or rather, I tried to. Every time I tried to get to the site, whether via Google or by typing directly into my address bar, I got an error message. Specifically, it said: "601 Database redigestation error."

Redigestation? Redigestation? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

Genuinely puzzled, I typed "redigestation" into Google. It turns out I'm part of quite a trend. All over the Internet, people are getting the message, "601 Database redigestation error." All these people have tried to log into And all have previously posted comments disagreeing with something on the site.

It's not a computer error at all. In fact, it's become a bit of an Internet scandal. Wikipedia says [footnotes deleted]:

The site's moderators have been criticized for banning some users who disagree or dissent permanently from the site. Responses to any viewpoints deemed unwanted by site moderators have included replacing all of a person's diaries with messages designed to be offensive. Banned users may be accused of being "progressive trolls" or "moby," the latter being a person with over-the-top political positions making conservatives look bad. Banned users may be greeted with an error message reading "601 Database redigestation error." The site moderators' behavior is a topic of discussion among moderate conservatives and internet discussion sites. 

Not just moderate conservatives, actually. One moderate-conservative site has a thread of posts from more than fifty people who got the purported error message.  They include liberals, moderate conservatives,and some fairly extreme conservatives, all of whom disagreed with something posted on the site. A few people insist that all these people who think they're blocked just haven't tried hard enough, and one poor sap even says that this is a Microsoft error message (it's not). Please note, by the way, that I am not only blocked from posting, but even from seeing the site, even via links on other sites.

This is pretty disturbing. The site is not an obscure one. Its founder was recently hired by CNN as a political commentator despite, or because of, a history of making bizarrely vitriolic comments, like calling Justice Souter a child-molester and, let's say, a person who engages in bestiality with goats. Oh, and saying that he assumes "Obama's Marxist harpy wife would go Lorena Bobbit on him" if he were cheating on her.

So I'm not exactly crushed to be judged unworthy of participation in the feast of reason at But I am a bit depressed that denizens of the house of mirrors are trying so hard to exclude the outside world. Shouldn't the ideologically fervent want to convince people? Shouldn't patriotic Americans see polarization of the country as a bad thing? (Of course, I also keep expecting Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe to admit they've failed their countries dismally, and so far no luck there.)

Oh, well. On to ("Where you opinion counts"). Let's hope their database redigestates properly.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

BP's Sterling Character

Remember the Anglophobia phobia and all the talk of how BP was a British national icon, so Americans should stop saying such mean things? I do. It looks like that was pretty much a scam. Now everybody's fine with the national icon having an American CEO. An AP reporter comments, "While residents of Paris or Rome might be chagrined to see a foreigner running one of their country's corporate giants, politicians and the public here appear relaxed about it." She goes on to quote the editor of a British business magazine: "British investors care about one thing and one thing alone, and that is the share price."

And that, of course, is what the American bad-mouthing of BP really jeopardized. How crass. One doesn't like to stereotype, but obviously Dickens was right when he made Fagin a Briton.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

News From the Fringe

1. Fringe? Us?  You may have seen the story of the Iowa Tea Party billboard featuring pictures of Hitler, Obama, and Lenin, with the titles, respectively, "National Socialism," "Democrat Socialism," and "Marxist Socialism." If not, it's worth a look just for the photo. (Update: The billboard has been papered over, but you can still see the photo.) A few quick remarks:

  • One surprise for me was the comment of a leader of the national Tea Party Patriots, who not only made the obvious political point that, "It's going to make people think that the tea party is full of a bunch of right-wing fringe people," but added, "When you compare Obama to Hitler, that to me does a disservice to the Jews who both survived and died in the Holocaust and to the Germans who lived under Nazi regime rule." I predict a brief career in the movement for Shelby Blakely.
  • Less surprising is the comment of the Iowa coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, who said that the billboard was offensive and unproductive, but he can understand the North Iowa group's feeling that Obama is "Hitler-esque." What does that even mean? That he has a little mustache? That he plans to annex Manitoba? That he has caused literally millions of people to be loaded into boxcars and sent to death camps?
  • Finally, in the Sad Irony department we have the caption for the billboard: "Radical Leaders Prey on the Fearful & Naive." I would suggest that as a motto for the movement: "The Tea Party Wants You-- Because Radical Leaders Prey on the Fearful and Naive."
2. There's No "We" in "Capitalism." The AP reports that a group in Kentucky, some of them Tea Partiers, has started a sort of summer school to teach the truth about civics.

"If we're going to take our country back, we've got to remember where we came from — not only as adults, but we need to teach our children," said Tim Fairfield, one of the teachers, who wore a three-cornered hat at the opening class of Vacation Liberty School....organizers say the program has drawn interest from people looking to start new chapters in Ohio, Colorado, New York, Florida and other communities in Kentucky.

The curriculum includes "understanding the falsehoods of separation of church and state," but it's not all dry lectures. Students simulated the oppression of colonial-era England by being told they must suppress their laughter, sit apart from their friends and flawlessly recite "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Then after a difficult journey to America, they recreated the practices of John Winthrop and Cotton Mather by playing basketball, tossing beanbags, and riding a teeter-totter, while being showered with confetti.

After history, time for social studies. Students were given water pistols to shoot soap bubbles out of the air. They discovered that they could do it more quickly by refilling from individual buckets of water than from a collective one, thus demonstrating the superiority of the free enterprise system to secular communism. Good thing they weren't playing basketball in this part.

3. The Hall of Mirrors: Further Reflections. I was reading a few of the two thousand comments on a news story about the car bomb in Mexico, when I came across an utterly irrelevant comment. (This was not in itself surprising, as the same writer had posted several comments on the same story which were quotations from Thomas Jefferson about the evils of big government.) In this comment, he was inveighing (oyveighing? McVeighing?) against a recent statement by Sen. Chris Dodd, to the effect that a Republican attempt to require a 5% down payment on all mortgages was bad because it "would restrict home ownership to only those who can afford it." "You can't make up stuff like this!" he crowed.

As it turns out, though, you can. Dodd never made the statement. It comes from a "satirical" posting on a conservative website, and it immediately spread across the Internet. When I talked recently about politics blogs being like two mirrors facing each other and creating the impression of a vast corridor, I was thinking of opinions, not of the endless propagation of Internet urban legends. (Though since the Sherrod affair, that aspect has become more obvious.)

Anyway, this time I decided to look into the sociology a bit, and try to reconstruct some chronological order on this "quotation."

May 15, 2010:; labeled By John Semmens: Semi-News — A Satirical Look at Recent News 

May 15:; labeled A Semi-News/Semi-Satire From AzConservative

June 1:; letter to Rep. David Obey from a constituent

June 4:; reader comment

June 6:

June 6: (breakout into mainstream media)

June 7:; reader comment

June 7:; reader comment


June 7:

June 8: Debunked

June 11:

June 15: (Kewanee, Illinois)

June 18: Debunked

June 20: Debunked

June 25:

July 7: (survivalists)

Sociologically, what is interesting is how much this looks like a classic Internet rumor-spreading, with much of it going on through individuals rather than formal (even by Internet standards) outlets. As for Mr. Semmens, whose other rib-ticklers include "Hispanic Caucus Wants Illegals to Be Covered by Obamacare," "Justice Department Rebuffs Inquiry on Kagan Pay," and "President Calls Sherrod Firing 'Racist,'" two points. First, you're no Jon Stewart. Second, there gets to be a fine line between satire and lying.

4. Ingratitude. The AP recently reported that the California Highway Patrol arrested a man involved in a shootout with them on a freeway, who told them that he had been planning attacks on the ACLU and a liberal-leaning foundation in San Francisco. The most disturbing thing about this story is that it's so funny: as you peel the layers off the onion, there's a punchline under each one.

  • You may recall that former Attorney General Ed Meese once referred to the ACLU as "the criminals' lobby." Apparently not all criminals agree; Mr. Williams had two previous convictions for bank robbery.
  • According to the Oakland police, Williams wanted "to start a revolution." Here's a tip for revolutionaries that I read somewhere, possibly Mao's On Guerrilla Warfare: When you're out on parole and you're driving on the freeway carrying three guns and wearing a bulletproof vest, do not speed and weave in and out of traffic.
  • His mother told the San Francisco Chronicle her son had been angry with "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items." This makes sense. After all, who values liberty  more than an ex-con? And who values capitalism more than a bank robber?
  • Williams was arrested while driving his mother's  Toyota Tundra. So he planned to take back our country while driving a Japanese car. Well, it was probably built in San Antonio. By legals.

    Sunday, July 11, 2010

    Saving the Republic: A Primer

    You've no doubt noticed that the views represented in Congress these days seem more extreme than in the past, with moderates disappearing. As a result, it has become harder and harder for parties to work together, and therefore harder and harder to get anything done. I don't think even libertarians could rationally consider this a good thing.

    A large part of the problem can be attributed to party primaries, as I observed in my post "Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Room." When party nominees are chosen by primary, they represent the mainstream of opinions in their own parties, which may be far from the mainstream of opinion in the country as a whole. Even though candidates start scuttling toward center as soon as they're past the primary, they still have to act in Congress with one eye on the next primary, lest they  find at re-election time that their disloyal moderation is still resented by the party faithful. (See under McCain, John.)

    It is perhaps a sign of how desperate things have become that people have started seriously discussing alternatives to the party primary. It turns out getting rid of party primaries is fairly easy, as the Constitution gives states a lot of freedom to decide how to run their elections-- no amendment required. There are a couple of prominently proposed replacements. 

    The Jungle Primary. The simplest alternative is to hold non-partisan primaries, with the top two candidates going on to the general election. This alternative is sometimes referred to as the "jungle primary" (I have no idea why) or the "Louisiana primary." The idea is that now candidates will be able to appeal across the full spectrum of ideologies, rather than having to cater to a narrow slice of it. This alternative was recently urged in an Op-Ed in The New York Times by Phil Kiesling that does a good job of summarizing the "pro" side of the argument. More remarkably, California just passed a ballot measure establishing a non-partisan primary, referred to as "top two," for all elections other than presidential. This, of course, has generated lots of comment pro and con.

    Some of the pundits warn of unanticipated consequences-- particularly, that the added expense of appealing to a broad electorate (without a party to pick up the tab) will further empower interest groups and the rich, and force out third parties. But the biggest unknown is: will it work? Will more moderates get elected?

    At, Nate Silver has done a simulation of the two different electoral systems, and finds that moderate candidates do much better with the jungle primary. His post not only gives a good summary of the logic, but has very pretty bar graphs showing the difference in outcomes (Bactrian versus dromedary, or to be pedestrian, bimodal versus unimodal). I am not wholly convinced by this approach, however. Silver's simulation generates candidate ideologies randomly, but real candidates are likely to adjust their ideologies depending on which other candidates are running-- for example, running as an extremist when many moderates are running. In technical terms, it's less a statistical problem than a game-theoretic one.

    Did someone say game theory? Eric Maskin, a Nobel laureate in economics, points out in a reply to Kiesling that a top-two system is essentially what made Jean-Marie Le Pen, an extremist's extremist, a candidate in the final election in France in 2002, pushing aside a candidate who would easily have beaten him in a head-to-head matchup. Similarly, the Louisiana ancestry of this voting system is not reassuring; this is the system that led to David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, getting more than 40% of the vote for the U.S. Senate. True, neither Le Pen nor Duke was elected, but when one of the two final candidates is a wacko, voters could not be said to have a real choice.

    There's not much empirical research on the effects of non-partisan primaries. What there is suggests a real but modest moderating effect. We'll have more evidence soon in California.

    Instant Runoff Voting. In Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) voters rank-order some or all of the candidates first, second, third, etc. Then the last-place candidate is eliminated and those voters are reassigned to their second choices. This process continues until someone has more than fifty percent of the votes. So there's no need for a runoff; in effect, the primary and the general election are the same.

    Like the top-two (jungle) primary, IRV keeps a minority from being gatekeepers to a general election. Unlike the top-two primary, it keeps an extremist from profiting from a split vote among moderates. To my knowledge, no one has mentioned another benefit, which is that it would give much more information on what voters actually intended when they voted for a particular candidate, because we can see whom else those voters liked.

    IRV has gotten support from some surprising places recently. Thomas Friedman endorsed it in an op-ed in The New York Times, and even more remarkably, it was used in the last Academy Awards, where it is credited with allowing "The Hurt Locker" to beat "Avatar." It's in use in Australia (in case anyone in America cares about that), and, under the name "alternative voting," it recently became an issue in coalition negotiations in Britain, where the centrist Liberal Democrats have gotten tired of being everyone's second choice. (The Conservatives agreed to hold a referendum on it next year, which should give it more visibility in the US.)

    IRV does seem to me to have significant advantages over the jungle primary. It might be a little tricky to make it easy to use with optical scanning, but the main obstacle is probably getting people used to the idea. A good place for some of that "states as laboratories of democracy" stuff that lovers of federalism are always talking about.

    What's Wrong With Partisanship? There is a counter-argument that, rather than being a problem, partisanship is a good thing, because it gives voters a clear choice and accountability; voters should know what they are getting when they vote for a party. The argument is stated by Matthew Yglesias here. Moreover, some argue, other countries, such as those in Europe, seem to get along fine without bipartisanship. (See, for example, comment 1 here, and my reply at comment 3.) Even in those parliaments where coalitions are the norm, nobody worries about reaching across the aisle to parties outside the coalition.

    The problem with this argument is that we're not a parliamentary system. In our system, extreme partisanship does not produce accountability. It produces paralysis, which is pretty much the opposite of accountability. But we theoretically could, and perhaps should, tinker with the system to make partisanship much more workable. The obvious place to begin would be to eliminate or drastically curtail the filibuster. The Founders listed quite specific situations where supermajorities are required in the Senate, and never intended to make it a body where nothing can happen without three-fifths support. Other Senate rules are even more inimical to accountability, such as the one that allows a single Senator to keep a bill or appointment from coming to the floor.

    The argument that paralysis has more to do with structural rules than with partisanship has even more force in California. The surest way to overcome dysfunction there would be to abolish the two-thirds supermajority requirement for tax increases-- itself, ironically, a product of the referendum process as part of Proposition 13.  It's going to take an awful lot of moderation to overcome that rule.

    But at the Federal level, there are Constitutional limits on how far we can go toward workable partisanship. As long as there's the possibility of a House and Senate, or a Congress and Presidency, controlled by different parties, the parties will have to work together to get anything done. So it looks like we may need to take seriously the idea of reforming the primary system.

    Sunday, June 20, 2010

    Why Most Politics Blogs Are A Waste of Time-- And Why It Matters

    Dina Nisser asked me what I thought of Joe Biden's remarks in Brussels, and I, embarrassingly, had no idea what Biden had said in Brussels. So I typed "Biden Brussels" into Google, and got an astonishingly long list of right-wing websites in response.

    It seems that in his opening remarks to the European Parliament, Biden had said this:

    As you already know, ladies and gentlemen,[...] some American politicians and American journalists refer to Washington, DC as the “capital of the free world.”  But it seems to me that this great city, which boasts 1,000 years of history and which serves as the capital of Belgium, the home of the European Union, and the headquarters for NATO, this city has its own legitimate claim to that title.

    This strikes me harmless political flattery. In particular, note that the phrase "its own legitimate claim" clearly implies that Washington has a legitimate claim to the title, and that the inclusion of NATO suggests that wherever the capital is, American military power has a lot to do with it.

    But this innocuous sentence provoked fury in the right-wing hemiblogosphere. It probably started with a syndicated column by one Jonah Goldberg that appeared in National Review Online,,, and other places, and was then picked up on by Rush Limbaugh. (I've made no attempt to get the exact sequence of events straight; for all I know Limbaugh may have been the first.) Goldberg remarks, "He was telling the unaccountable Lilliputians of the EUrocracy that Gulliver sees them as equals now." (Mr. Goldberg, you do know what "parliament" means, right?)

    And before you can say "Michele Bachmann"  the story is popping up on gatewaypundit,,, David Horowitz's NewsReal Blog, Freedom Eden,,,,,,,,,,, (remember them?),,, and so on and so on.

    So why are most politics blogs a waste of time? Because they're saying the same thing as a hundred other blogs. It's like two mirrors facing each other in a barbershop (back when there were such things as barbershops)-- you get the impression of a vast corridor, but it's an illusion. And why does it matter? Take a look.

    At the more popular of these sites, the story on Biden is followed by a string of comments from readers: "sounds like treason to me;" "you know when they scooped out his brain tumor, half his brain was removed instead;" "This is further evidence of the obsession progressives have with instituting a global government. There are NO elected representatives in world government. Their goal is a world-wide socialist dictatorship run by elites;" "This is a slap in the face of every American who ever served and especially the ones who gave their all and never returned. This is an insult to them of huge proportion an unforgivable insult. To have these two dolts tell us that the capital of the world is Brussels Belgium." And so on and so on.

    OK, so there are a lot of angry wackos out there. What's your point, Howard?

    Here's the point: a democratic society needs not just voting but discussion, argument. And this is getting harder and harder to find. We spend more and more time on the much pleasanter task of talking to people who agree with us. Indeed, as a recent Important Book has pointed out, people are increasingly choosing to live in neighborhoods with people who think like them.  To cite one cited-to-death statistic, in the 1976 presidential election 27% of Americans lived in counties where one candidate won by 20% or more; in 2004, 48% did. And there is evidence that people who are only exposed to the opinion of people like them develop more extreme views; in effect, the extreme looks like a small deviation from the norm.

    The internet has allowed the development of virtual communities of people who may live very far apart. But this makes it even easier to avoid those annoying people who don't agree with you. The role of comments on these websites seems to be mainly to allow people to luxuriate in how virtuous they and their fellow commenters are and how dumb the outsiders are. Few people actually bother to look at the original items that the blogger is discussing; the point is more to affirm membership in the group.

    For all you liberals who are thinking, "Tsk, tsk; aren't those right-wingers terrible!"-- not so fast, buddy. I had no sooner come back from visiting the echo chamber on Biden than I stumbled into The NewYork Times's environment blog. The writer was lambasting the chairman of BP for his infamous "We care about the small people" remark, which struck me as an obvious mistake by a non-native speaker who doesn't grasp fine nuances in English. A lot of the commenters wasted no time in piling on. You can see my comment at #27. (In fairness to Times readers, a number of them came to Mr. Svanberg's defense, some with detailed discussion of similar expressions in Swedish.)

    The political implications of all this are unsettling enough. Even scarier are the psychospiritual implications: Technology has enabled us to isolate ourselves more and more from anything outside our control, and to move ever closer to a solipsistic virtual reality where all we see is reflections of ourselves. I don't think this can be good. But enough on that.

    What can be done about this? Here's a suggestion for personal action: several times a week, read a website by someone you strongly disagree with. Maybe you'll be convinced on that particular issue. If not, break up the stifling consensus by adding a comment. Make it polite and respectful no matter how annoyed you feel; yelling begets yelling, and that doesn't convince anybody. But don't feel bad if you don't convince anyone. Your goal is just to let in a little air.

    Monday, June 14, 2010

    Tempest in a Teapot

    From this side of the pond, it's hard to avoid bewilderment at the British charges of Anglophobia over the reaction to the BP oil spill. For any Briton reading this, let me assure you that the level of anger here would be at least as great if ExxonMobil had done what BP did: create the worst environmental disaster in American history, have by far the worst safety record (by a factor of  a hundred or so) of any major oil company, consistently understate the size of the problem, lag in organizing the cleanup, and so on and on. Anglophobia? In your dreams. Who do you think you are, the French?

    BP, we are told, is a British icon, which only adds to our confusion.  GM, Harley Davidson, Apple, Coca Cola, maybe Hilton, are American icons. Oil companies are not American icons. I can't help suspecting that there's some projection going on: you just know that if Exxon oil were washing up on the beaches of Scotland we'd be hearing about uncouth, money-crazed, market-worshiping American cowboys.

    Intellectually, the most interesting part of  this uproar has been the fury at the suggestion that BP cut its dividend. For many years, a big puzzle in academic finance theory has been why firms pay dividends at all. If companies simply held on to their cash, those retained earnings would be reflected in a higher stock price, which would be a capital gain for stockholders, with big tax advantages. Yet most companies pay dividends, and the market generally regards an increase in the dividend as good news about the company and a decrease as bad news.

    I won't take you through all the ins and outs of this topic, but some of the leading theories don't help us to understand the vehemence of the reaction. One theory is that dividend increases are a way for management to signal optimism about the company's prospects. They can't just say they're optimistic, because talk is cheap and no one would believe them. By paying a larger dividend they can show that they expect to have more cash in the future. Yet surely no one now could take a cut in BP's dividend as a signal of anything, given the political pressure on management to do it.

    Another theory is that paying dividends is a way to keep management from wasting money on unprofitable spending, which they would be more apt to do if they had a lot of cash lying around. But since it's already clear that BP will be spending a lot on cleanup, and that any dividend cut will be temporary, it's hard to believe that investors are worried that management will fritter away the cash not paid out in dividends.

    Anyway, stay tuned. BP's board is supposed to make a decision soon about the next dividend, and we'll see what happens to the stock price. It beats looking at pictures of dead pelicans.

    Thursday, June 10, 2010

    Breaking News

    A recent AP news story on the Blagojevich trial is followed by: "THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below."

    What has been updated since their earlier story? Well, it turns out the two stories are identical, except that they changed "easle" into "easel." Hope they caught that before it showed up in print around the country.

    In case you're wondering, the subject was not Blagojevich's artistic talents. His chief of staff testified that shortly after Blagojevich became governor, he and his inner circle sat around a conference table writing down money-making ideas on an easel. Oh, Rod...

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010

    More Ignorance About the Middle East

    I've been meaning to do a post about Israel, but it's been hard to keep up with all the different information about the "Freedom Flotilla": were the Israelis dumb (a frequently expressed opinion in the Israeli media), unlucky, or what? I have some observations about why Israel does so badly in the world media, but I'll get to those in the near future.

    Today, I want to say a few words about Helen Thomas, the dean (or, if you prefer, doyenne) of the Washington press corps, who has just resigned after saying that the Jews in Israel should get out and go back to Poland or Germany. As usual, I'll try to avoid the obvious outraged or snarky comments (should Helen Thomas go back to England?).

    The first point is that Israelis have no place to go. Seventy percent of Israelis were born there. Almost all of those, presumably, have no native language other than Hebrew. They are as Israeli as Helen Thomas is American.

    The second point is that fewer than half of all Israeli Jews come from families originating in Eastern Europe. More than fifty percent are from families originating in Arab countries. (There are other possibilities, of course, such as the 2% or so from Ethiopia.) There is a Palestinian narrative about how Israel is an alien European transplant that the West foisted on Arabs because of guilt about the Holocaust, for which Arabs were not responsible. But the fact is that most Israeli Jews are refugees or descendants of refugees from Arab countries.

    Furthermore, for complex reasons, those are the Jews who make up the bulk of the right wing in Israel. A Palestinian state would be a lot easier if everyone who lived in Israel were from Poland or Germany.

    My next question was going to be how the Palestinians managed to sell their narrative so successfully that someone who spent almost fifty years covering the White House would buy it. But I just heard (thanks, Natalie) that Thomas is of Lebanese descent (related to Danny and Marlo?), so she may not be typical. Still, I wonder how many reporters, including those who report on the Middle East, know that most Israeli Jews originate in Arab countries.

    It appears, then, that saying, "Helen Thomas, go back to England," is quite analogous to what she said, especially since she was born in Kentucky. Not that I would ever say such a thing.

    Sunday, May 30, 2010

    Coming Soon in "Offshore!"

    Forthcoming titles in the Offshore! mystery series:

    Tony Mudd investigates the death of an engineer in a rig explosion. It looks like an accident... but was it?

    Top Kill
    Mudd is called in when the body of an oil company president is found floating in a barrel of light sweet crude.

    Junk Shot
    When a roustabout is fished from the South China Sea with a bullet in his chest, Mudd finds himself tangling with a ruthless heroin-smuggling gang.

    Saturday, May 29, 2010

    Recommended Reading

    1. I recently said that I had once thought Newt Gingrich had some integrity. I'm not sure why I thought that, but this recent interview with Nate Silver of suggest that if he is not a demagogue, he's a wacko.

    Gingrich says that any reasonable standard, Obama is committed to socialism...  Not only have we taken over GM, Chrysler and AIG, but there’s a czar in the White House who believes he can establish the pay scale for 30 companies he’s never been in, for hundreds of people he’s never met. They just nationalized the student loan program...So there’s a lot of different practices that would lead us to believe this is socialist operation.

    Now, does anyone in his or her right mind believe the administration intends to hold on to GM, Chrysler and AIG in perpetuity? But before we quickly vote "demagogue," consider: would a demagogue really say that even though we've lent banks hundreds of billions of dollars, those banks should retain complete freedom to pay their executives as much as they want? Only a very dumb demagogue would say that. This sounds more like someone who values theoretical purity over all else. So which is worse, a demagogue or a fanatic?

    Of course, with statements like, "Two Democratic legislators in Connecticut introduced a bill that would have destroyed the Catholic Church," or "They just nationalized the student loan program," (actually, they returned it to what it was before Republicans started subsidizing the banks to do it) I start to think maybe I was too hasty in dismissing demagoguery as a possibility. But decide for yourself.

    2. I sort of had Mark Lilla pegged as a standard neo-con, despite not having actually read anything by him. Turns out he writes regularly for the non-con New York Review of Books. Other people seem confused too, particularly right-wing bloggers who are enraged by an article he wrote entitled "The Tea Party Jacobins." For example, a blog called "Minnesota Conservatives" calls him "a respected intellectual," presumably meaning a conservative,  while over at "The Other McCain," Robert Stacy McCain (remember him?) refers to him as "liberal Lilla," though not for any apparent reason except that Lilla doesn't like the Tea Party.

    Anyway, the article strikes me as a pretty penetrating analysis, not only of the Tea Party, but of why American democracy doesn't seem to be functioning very well right now. Read it and weep.

    Thursday, May 27, 2010

    NYT Reports Sky Is Falling

    In a front-page story blending suppressed hysteria and gleeful Schadenfreude, New York Times reporter and Paris bureau chief Steven Erlanger says that the debt crisis in Europe has "undermined the sustainability of the European standard of social welfare, built by left-leaning governments since the end of World War II." 

    Europeans have boasted about their social model, with its generous vacations and early retirements, its national health care systems and extensive welfare benefits, contrasting it with the comparative harshness of American capitalism.

    But who's boasting now, left-leaning cheese-eaters?

    Gross public social expenditures in the European Union increased from 16 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 21 percent in 2005, compared with 15.9 percent in the United States. In France, the figure now is 31 percent, the highest in Europe, with state pensions making up more than 44 percent of the total and health care, 30 percent.  

    What? Thirty percent on health care? Oh, wait-- that's 30% of 31%, or about 9%. In fact, France spends a bit over 10% of GDP on health care in total, far less than the 16% spent by the U.S. So how can France be drowning in social expenditures, when they're spending less on health care than we are?

    Simple. It's an illusion. The paragraph above is not talking about social expenditures. It's talking about public social expenditures. In France, almost all health care spending is public spending. In the U.S., less than half is. One can tell a similar story for pensions and higher education, and perhaps other things. But as the example of health care shows, the fact that certain things are provided by the private sector in the U.S. does not mean that they are provided more cheaply or effectively.

    The Times story fits neatly into the current conservative story about Europe: that they are fat and lazy (well, lazy anyway-- Americans have gotten more cautious about calling other people fat), but that their day of reckoning is coming, and Obama is trying to push the U.S. into following them down the road to perdition. They, and we, need to return to traditional values of hard work and lean government.

    In case you missed the point, someone at the Times made the inexplicable decision to publish an incoherent, ill-informed, and generally ludicrous Op-Ed piece by a hedge fund manager about how we're about to follow Greece if we don't cut the deficit. He doesn't specify how we should do that, but my guess is that increasing taxes on hedge-fund managers is not high on his to-do list.

    By the way, here's something to keep in mind: there is no crisis in Social Security. So when the commentariat tells you in coming months that we can't hope to deal with the deficit unless we have the courage to make deep Social Security cuts, just point them to this.But you would do that without my reminding you, right?

    Wednesday, May 12, 2010

    Don't Know Much Accounting, But...

    In an article in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine, the author of the Times's "Your Money" column writes:

    Net worth is the number you get when you subtract what you owe from what you own. You start with things like cash on hand, retirement savings and home equity and subtract your mortgage, as well as credit-card, student-loan and other debts.

    That, of course, is wrong. You can count the value of your house and subtract your mortgage, or you can just use the result, which is home equity. But don't subtract your mortgage twice, or your net worth will look pretty bad.

    The "what you own minus what you owe" formulation is deceptive, because it invites you to confuse two different sense of "own," as here. Note how widespread (even among specialists, though I'm sure this was a momentary aberration) the confusion is about gross and net. Not to mention levels and changes: how many Americans can tell you the difference between the debt and the deficit? Add these to the list of mathematical ideas that are more important for citizens than trigonometry.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010

    TV Is Bad for Us...Half of It, Anyway

    I was quite taken with the "V" miniseries of 1983 about alien invasion. It had nice little touches, like a reptile disguised as a human swallowing an entire mouse whole. So I was certainly giving the benefit of the doubt to the new series, especially since it has a star I like.

    My disenchantment started when the aliens offered Earth people what was explicitly called universal health care, which only the few in the heroic underground realize is actually a plot to monitor and control humans. Then we had a decision by the deluded majority to grant visas to the visitors (or do they plan to stay?), turning them literally into legal aliens. All part, of course, of the aliens' secret plan for world conquest.

    Finally, in the last episode, we had a revival of the idea that torture is a quick and reliable way to get truthful information, which squeamish moralists choose to leave to the more tough-minded. (Oddly, they use the Spanish Inquisition as an example.) Just when you thought the coming end of "24" would let that idea fade from the Zeitgeist, here it is again. Oh, and don't let your son have an alien girlfriend.

    That's it, ABC. I quit. I hope many others join me.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010

    In Which I Fix the Budget Deficit

    In an earlier post I debunked the idea that the rich didn't collectively represent enough income to make much difference in raising revenue, and that therefore only taxing the middle class could really pay for anything big. As you may recall, I concluded that while this may have been true in 1981, it certainly was not today: today the rich have a lot of income, a lot more than they had in 1981.

    Nonetheless, the idea that the middle class will have to pay for deficit reduction is broadly accepted, even by the middle class (sort of). A recent poll finds 84 percent think the middle class will have to make sacrifices to reduce the deficit, although almost equal numbers oppose cutting Social Security or Medicare.

    "Moreover," notes the assistant director of the polling institute, "although majorities favor increasing taxes on those who earn $250,000 or more, they are opposed to hiking them on the middle class, which would raise much, much more money since there are so many more people who are middle class." A Reuters article on the same poll commented, "In tackling the deficit, most economists agree taxing the rich only won't raise the revenue necessary to make a dent."

    Well, yes, you could raise more money by taxing the middle class, if you define "middle class" pretty broadly. But much, much more? Let's see if we can give Most Economists a hand in making a dent in the deficit by taxing the rich only. 

    To start with, the Congressional Budget Office projections of the Obama budget show an annual deficit of 5.3% of GDP over the period 2010-2019. I think cutting the deficit by 3% of GDP would be a pretty good dent, don't you? That would reduce the deficit to 2.3% of GDP, a level at which the ratio of debt to GDP is falling, and a lower level than was seen at any time during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. 

    As we saw in my earlier post, the top 1% of the population (which starts at about $400,000, by the way) gets about 23% of income. So 3% of GDP would be 3/23 = 13% of their income. They currently pay about 22% of their income in income taxes (source). So they would now be paying about 35%. So much for the deficit problem. 

    What Most Economists will be wondering is what marginal tax rate this represents, since the marginal rate is what determines the economic costs of a tax-- the degree to which people change their behavior just to avoid the tax. The top marginal rate now is scheduled to return to just under 40%, but an increase to 53% wouldn't be quite enough, because not all income is taxed at the top rate. Maybe 55%? 

    Is that too high? For several decades now I've been a believer in the standard microeconomist's story about too-high marginal tax rates: that they create economic costs, and that the higher they are, the more costly additional increases are. Therefore it's better to raise everyone's rates a little than to raise a few people's rates a lot. I still believe the basic story, but I'm starting to think that its theoretical appeal leads many economists to exaggerate its practical importance. 

    Consider: In every decade from the 70s through the 90s the economy grew at an average rate of 3% per year, and in the 00s at only 1.5% per year. But in the 60s, the growth rate averaged 4% per year. During that decade, the top marginal rate never went below 70%. In fact, the economy managed to eke out a 3% growth rate in the 50s, when the top rate never went below 91%. 

    I'm not saying that higher top tax rates increase economic growth (though I'm not ruling it out, either). I just think it's hard to argue that the economic costs are all that large, when the economy kept humming along even at dramatically higher tax rates than we have now.

    And I'm a little puzzled by how this idea that we can't bring down the deficit by taxing the rich got so entrenched. Is it that people who think that way get better funded? Or that people haven't noticed that it's not 1981 any longer? Or is it just some puritanical idea that medicine won't work if it doesn't taste bad? 

    Historical note: The acknowledgments in the CBO report linked above say, in part, "Lenny Skutnik printed the initial copies..." Lenny Skutnik! Remember him? In fairness to Ronald Reagan, he did refer in his speech to "the heroism of one of our young Government employees," but the Zeitgeist in 1982 was such that I don't recall any of the discussion of his heroics mentioning that he was, in fact, a bureaucrat.