Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Obama and the Left

(The last version of this, mostly written for comments in Balloon Juice. I think it is clearer and more concise than the three posts that have gone before.)

Obama raised progressive hopes for real positive change, did not pursue what seem to progressives obvious opportunities to do so, and we will be living with the consequences of his failures for years. Obama's failure to adequately address unemployment and the mortgage crisis have cost the Democratic Party and the Progressive movement, such as it is, hugely. These failures (and others) in turn spring from two central failures:
  1. A failure to respond in any effective way—or even to show an interest in responding—to the huge expansion of the power of wealth and the expansion of the gap between rich & poor. Two of Obama’s much-touted successes—health care reform and the extension of unemployment benefits—came at the cost of huge concessions to very wealthy businesses and individuals.
  2. A failure to use the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency to change public discourse. The President is the only elected public official who the national media consistently pay attention to. Obama could have said: “Social Security is not in major trouble.” He could have said “Austerity budgets don’t improve the economy.” He could have said, “Government is not the problem.” Instead, he allowed the Republicans to set the agenda, and now that they have come to cut Social Security and put the USA on an austerity budget during a depression, he has no way to make his case with the public.
Obama had a great opportunity, has fallen far short of it, and most progressives believe that those who are not rich and powerful are going to pay a huge price. Many progressives who supported Obama during his campaign also feel betrayed. Of course they are critical of him!


(Edited slightly on day of publication. Dropped verb added a year and a half later.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Short Notes

  1. I think Dancing Anarchist Party would be a cool name for a political party...or perhaps a dance club. (Thank you Emma Goldman.)
  2. The Islamic use of the word "jihad" is perhaps more understandable if we consider the US use of the phrase "drug war."
  3. Obama's pattern of first trying to get the left on his side and then have other administration officials badmouth the left very much resembles that of a manipulative suitor sending flowers after jilting his fiancé and then, when she demurs, badmouthing her. Keep it classy, O.

Obama and the Bully Pulpit

The President is the only elected official which commands national media attention. Had Obama wanted to, he could have told the public:
  1. That the main cause of unemployment was the corruption (or business practices, if he preferred less inflammatory language) of the major banks and that this could be addressed by government.
  2. The disaster in residential real estate is also a result of banking practices which could be addressed by government.
  3. That Social Security is not in financial trouble and that minor tweaks could maintain the system's solvency indefinitely.
  4. That medical cost growth is a huge and real budget problem, and could be addressed by policy.
Had he done so, he would be a much better position to fight off the program of austerity and bigotry that the Republicans are going to try to implement in the next two years. He would also have told the truth, but that doesn't seem to rank very high with hominid leaders.

Obama Didn't...

Continuing in the explication of objections to Obama on the left:
  1. Adequately address unemployment. Considering that the Obama administration asked for an inadequate stimulus to begin with, rather than let Congress bargain them down, Obama can hardly say this is a result of Republican obstruction.
  2. Address the corruption and exploitation (dday, passim.) of the residential real estate market.
  3. Failure to adequately address banking reform. The problems which led us into this new depression are still there, and it will be all to do again when the system fails again, which it will.
  4. Failure to adequately address health care costs. (Sorry--no link today. Maybe link tomorrow.)
These are all, at bottom, a single failure: a failure to respond in any effective way—or even to show an interest in responding—to the huge expansion of the power of wealth and the expansion of the gap between rich & poor. The failures to adequately address unemployment and the residential real estate market are probably the two most significant reasons which the Democratic Party did so poorly in the 2010 elections.

Friday, December 24, 2010

"Obama accomplished a lot"

 I've been hearing this a lot and, since I don't want to spend the time writing some real posts, I'll post this bit of cranky fluff.

Did he close Gitmo? Um, no. Get the US out of Iraq? Only if you don't count "contractors." Pass the DREAM act? Um, no. Fix the banking system? Um... Well, he did pass a health care bill. And get unemployment extended again. And pass the beginning of DADT repeal. Which three things sound really impressive until one looks a little closer and realize that the first two of them were done by giving huge amounts of money to very wealthy businesses and individuals, and the third is financially neutral and seems to have mostly come from the Senate, anyway. See, you can get a health care bill through the Senate if you give the health insurance companies a mandate and weak regulation. And giving the very rich a huge tax cut and the ability to set up dynasties also gets the Senators of the very rich to vote with you. The problem with this approach is, sooner or later, and later is sooner, there's nothing left to give to the rich.

I wonder if Obama realizes. His supporters don't seem to.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Policy Deafness and Converse

About a month back, I wrote: "[Obama] does not seem capable of recognizing a policy failure, imagining a policy success, or understanding why policy success might lead to political success." & this is still the case with his horrific huge-tax-cuts-for-small-stimulus deal. It represents, I think, growth for Obama: it has at last dawned on him that policy affects elections. He still hasn't gotten important points: as Krugman points out, this proposal sets his administration up for hard times in the 2012 campaign.

The work of the Presidency, surely, is not educating the President?

If Obama is, perhaps, learning to listen, many of his supporters are still deaf. I've read a lot of this over at Balloon Juice, which is a home for Obama supporters who still love the man regardless of the consequences of his policies. It's as I said previously: if the Democrats keep making large concessions to the rich, while only getting small concessions for the rest of the public, the end result is an impoverished nation. Yet many of Obama's supporters do not see this. I'm struck by the attitude of one strident black woman who sees all policy criticism of Obama as rooted in racism. That is only the most extreme version of the attitude, though: Obama has plenty of other supporters, white and black, who take any criticism of the man's policies as disloyalty to be opposed, regardless of the consequences of those policies in their lives. It is not, really, any different from the "working-class" supporters of Republicans or the Tea Partiers, voting against their own interests. And then it dawned on me: like Obama, these supporters do not see policy as the result of politics. For these people, to a greater or lesser extent, politics is about fighting for the team, and there is little attention to what the team captain is fighting for, or how well the team's goals are being achieved.

This is, of course, nothing new. It is implicit in Converse's results. A substantial faction of participants in a democracy are making their political decisions based on personal loyalties, or dislike of persons. If  candidates for public office were as they presented themselves, this would not be a problem, but of course they are not. Many politicians only pretend to represent their constituencies, represent at most a faction of their constituencies, or lack sufficient policy insight to pursue political goals with any success. How, then, is democracy to be ordered so as to result in, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people?" Because that is not what it is producing now, not in most of the world. How are leaders to be worthy of the loyalty of their supporters to be found?

[2010.12.18: one awkward word removed.]

A brief note on the proposed tax-and-unemployment deal

Lots has already been said about it, for instance Krugman. I'd just like to add that if Obama keeps making large concessions to the rich, and while extracting only small concessions for everyone else, the time is going to come when there will be no more to trade, and all but the rich will be impoverished.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


(Everyone's writing about it, so why not me?)

I have little doubt that this has been turned into a public matter because Assange has embarrassed powerful people--people whose own lives and affairs do not bear close scrutiny.  Whatever Assange and his sexual partners did, they did.  It is for them and the courts to deal with, not a planet-full of busybodies.

The published stories change day by day.  I wonder if even Assange and his partners know what happened any more: memory is malleable, and never moreso when a story is told over and over, in many different versions.  Another account, from Reuters 

Much of the discussion I have seen says more about the participants than about Assange.  To those excusing rape: "no" means "no" and "stop" means "stop." To those who want to pursue assassination: that's illegal, and for good reason.


Monday, November 8, 2010

WtF, Obama? Part 2

Well, I guess we know now. Faced with an election that is the crystallized result of essence of policy failure, Obama decides that he...sent the wrong message. Has this man ever passed a math class? Or done any physical craft? Done anything where failure is not the result of failing to be persuasive? Perhaps not.

Now, Obama is not a narcissist like Sarah Palin. I don't think he is even a "soulless technocrat," as Digby says. He seems a decent enough person with decent impulses. But he  does not seem capable of recognizing a policy failure, imagining a policy success, or understanding why policy success might lead to political success. You hominids are so screwed. And if there's an actual military conflict, I cannot imagine how Obama could be an effective Commander-in-Chief.


[Afterthought of a few minutes: is it possible that the only people who can now be elected to the Presidency are acting the role? That seems depressingly likely.]

[Minor change the day after posting.]

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Split Between Liberals and Conservatives in the Democratic Party

I've written about this before. Now, the recent election has swept most of the liberal Democrats out of the Senate, including their leader, Paul Wellstone, and most of the conservative Democrats out of the House. The Obama administration and the Senate Democratic leadership are making plans to move to the right. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi is making a bid to become House Minority Leader, squeezing out the conservative Steeny Hoyer, who has almost no supporters left in the House. I don't know that she'll succeed. On the one hand, Pelosi is notorious for betting on sure things. On the other, her own party's dominant faction opposes her. I have no idea how the Democrats will govern with a conservative majority in the Senate and a liberal minority in the House. If she does make it, though, it seems likely to me to be another step on the way to the emergence of a new liberal party.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Punching Hippies for Fun and Profit

Jane Hamsher writes at length about the Obama administration's defensiveness, and attacks on the left. Digby with a shorter remark, and a reminder to vote anyway. Reports are that the Obama administration is genuinely disappointed with lack of support from the left, and does not understand it. (Commentator Peter Daou writes on this, also on the impact of the liberal blogosphere. I think he overestimates our influence.) But I wonder. I remember the Obama campaign's "inch to the right of Hilary Clinton" electoral strategy. I wonder if the administration isn’t stirring up conflict in the hope of getting media attention and getting turnout. I think that makes sense, and may even be a workable strategy. It also moves the Democratic Party further to the right.

Perhaps, perhaps. The Obama administration has proven surprisingly politically inept. It appears that they do not understand the motivations of the people who elected them, nor their party's own activists. The administration is skillful at persuading a broad public that they are what the public wants, but they seem to lack of the complementary skill of finding out what the public wants and satisfying those desires. To win an elected office, one has to build a constituency, but to last in politics, one has to satisfy a constituency. This seems so basic that I'm surprised to find a need to state it. So it's hard for me to believe that the hippie-punching is conscious strategy. Still, conscious strategy or not, it might work. Most of the public does not vote on policy, after all.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Revolution: Reagan, Bush, Obama

A very long time ago, in 1987, I wrote an article on social change comparing the Reagan Revolution with the Russian Revolution. At the time, I commented that the real disaster of that revolution was that it paved the way for Stalin. The phrase I remember using was, "Stalin was waiting in the wings," and I wondered then if the Reagan Revolution would have its Stalin. Now, over 20 years later, I believe I can say that the answer was yes: it was Bush II and Cheney.

Lenin was not the brutal mass-murderer that Stalin was. The Soviet Union under Lenin had some liberal tendencies. it was Stalin who turned the Soviet Union into a brutal hell. Stalin's death did not end the hell. Instead, after a period of conflict, Molotov, Stalin's old political ally, came to power. He implemented some liberalizations but generally maintained the Stalinist model. It was left to Khrushchev to finally abandon Stalinism. And, in like manner, it appears to me that Obama, an admirer of Reagan, is maintaining the Reagan/Bush/Cheney political model. He is not going to bring about the great restoration of liberty and justice many on the left had hoped for, and even this cynical bird has been surprised at the Obama administration's defense of some of the worst civil rights policies of Bush II. At the same time, as I've written before, he has undertaken some genuine liberalizations in less-public corners of the government.

What, therefore, are liberals to do in these times? It seems to me that, if anything, we must look towards a future when younger people, who are more liberal by inclination, begin to take power. We must also recognize that we will not "win" in any final sense. Too much of the United States will adopt progressive policies only grudgingly and the USA will continue to have a faction of wealthy reactionaries. But matters can be improved, and I believe our heirs will do so. I like to speculate about the nature of the new radicalism. For it will be radical: the United States has never been moderate in its politics. I think the broad outlines are clear enough: intense regulation of wealth and the wealthy, environmentalism, social libertarianism. In ten years new production technologies based on information technology will be making themselves felt, giving rise to new economic possibilities.

It all promises to be very interesting!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Hope and Change" or "What Brung Them, Part IV."

I was drinking with Darryl of Hominid Views two nights ago when Darryl asked why there was so much complaining about the Obama administration. He pointed out that the administration had made good on all that Obama had promised.

I think it's buyer's remorse. The public had seen their own hopes for change in Obama's "hope and change" campaign rhetoric. Obama does not seem to realize that the public would see Obama as embodying their own hopes for change. This, Obama has not delivered. Hasn't even tried to find out how the public interpreted the message, as far as I can tell. Once Obama was in power, it was same-old same-old, even as the economy tanked, the USA lost in Afghanistan, oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, and torture became a norm of policing practice.

I am reminded of Clark Clifford's account of the Truman administration (Clifford was Truman's solicitor general), when authoritarian policies became the rule for the next decade. The liberals were right, but they were silenced for 10 years, as the USA went through one of its authoritarian periods and--unprecedented in US history--the military did not stand down. 70 years later, the military has not stood down, though a huge standing army tempts our militarists into expensive, pointless wars, and the concentration on military production hollows out our civilian economy, just as it did in the Soviet Union.

The Democrats may or may not do well in the next election. Midterm elections are usually bad for the party in power and right now the Democrats are polling abysmally. Darryl (a demographer) and I suspect that the Dems will pick up quite a few votes before the elections: despite huge infusions of cash from the far right, the Tea Party Republicans aren't very popular. But whether or not they do, remember: whatever hope and change comes from the Democrats will come from their despised and marginalized left.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

WtF, Obama?

As a result of Ian Welsh's discussion of Obama's failings on Virtually Speaking (you can hear it here, and read the article it was based on here) and further discussions with an SL friend, I ended up wondering how it is that Obama can make excellent cabinet and judicial appointments like Stephen Chu and Sonia Sotomayor, and yet make such awful decisions on the economy, civil rights, and war and peace. I came to a couple of tentative conclusions. First, is that Obama is better at picking people than he is at understanding policy. At some level it is as if he thinks that the jaw-jaw of politics is more real than the tangible results in the lives of the public. Second, It seems that he cares more about the Supreme Court and the Department of Energy than he does about the economy, the military, and whether or not people who want jobs can get them, and what those jobs consist of. I have rather the impression that Obama is paying his best attention to things he cares the most about, and letting the Democratic Party's conservative leadership make the rest of the decisions.

I don't think this is a effective way to be President. It is much more typical of successful Senators. Whether or not November is going to be a disaster for the Democrats, as some polling says (for instance, here), it is a deeply unpopular and undemocratic way to govern.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Obama: Reviving Conservatism

I think that Obama is working to revive moderate conservatism. But conservatism was intellectually bankrupt by the time of the Reagan administration. Even its economics, formerly its intellectually strongest area, has been discredited. There is no way to do to revive conservatism--it is dead. Obama has brought something to life, but it is a zombie. As the moderate conservative policies have failed, which they have consistently done, the Democrats prove unable to abandon the failed policies, and align themselves more and more with the radical reactionaries, and cause more and more pain.

Barack H.H. Obama. Who knew?

[Revised for clarity 2010.09.07]

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"The hope that I saw is a prince of Hed?"

One source of hope seems to me likely to be the South. In ten years time, the BP oil disaster, and perhaps other environmental failures, will probably radicalize the South. A green South? How surreal!


[based on my comment on Brad Delong's journal]

I think US national policy has returned to its habitual deadlock. It's not clear to me that this deadlock will be broken in less than a decade. Obama is not likely to be succeeded by someone more liberal, after all, and, while there are some promising new liberal Senators, it will take years before they develop real power.

I am trying to imagine a ten-year depression. It is hard even to think about it. And yet--what will prevent it?

Blogging has been sparse lately. I have started a new job and have far less time to spend on amateur political science. I have several longer pieces I am interested in writing, but I have little heart for it. If we are, as seems to me likely, entering a ten-year period of political deadlock and economic stagnation, then I am writing for the long-term, and it seems to me I can make more difference doing other things.

Croak on the New Aristocrats

It is not enough, seemingly, to be rich and powerful beyond the wildest dreams of any wealthy class in previous history: the new aristocrats must reduce all who are not members of their class to abject poverty.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Fast cars, tequila, and nukes

Over on Charlie Stross's blog I croaked, "I've decided that nuclear power has the same effect on hominid male thinking as fast cars, tequila, and firearms." And someone replied, "I see nothing wrong with fast cars, tequila, and firearms. Sorry, what was that about?" So this is my answer.

These things all seem to be magnets for obsessions in men. Obsessed men pursue them regardless of how much damage they do. I am struck by the way the mostly men who love these things are convinced that their love is an expression of maturity. The W. Bush administration policy-makers, in love with violence, believed they were "the grown ups," and they seem to have been in fact teenage boys who never got over it. Sitting in the wreckage they have made, they still proclaim that they know better.

It is not adult behavior to implement risky technologies to sustain a too-large population. It is not adult behavior to pretend that, no matter what stresses hominids put on their planetary ecology and their planet's chemical and energy systems, they are immune to the consequences.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Progressive Echo Chamber: Paul Krugman

On Republican electoral strategy:
If this sounds familiar, it should: it’s the same formula the right has been using for a generation. Use identity politics to whip up the base; then, when the election is over, give priority to the concerns of your corporate donors. Run as the candidate of “real Americans,” not those soft-on-terror East coast liberals; then, once you’ve won, declare that you have a mandate to privatize Social Security. It comes as no surprise to learn that American Crossroads, a new organization whose goal is to deploy large amounts of corporate cash on behalf of Republican candidates, is the brainchild of none other than Karl Rove. ***

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Croak of the Day: bmaz on the BP Oil Disaster

But you know what hasn’t worked? The big top hat, the little top hat, the giant sippy straw, the blow out preventer, toxic dispersant sold by a BP subsidiary and the top kill and junk shot BP blathers about are laughable on their face. The solution ideas to date have been straight out of the Wile E. Coyote Acme School of BP Profitology.--bmaz, Dr. Sludgelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Junk Shotting And Love Teh Bomb

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Croak of the Day: John Stewart, "A Perfect Storm"

Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, "Why is it that whenever something happens," he asked, "that the people who should have seen it coming, didn't see coming, it's blamed on one of these rare, once in a century perfect storms that for some reason take place every f*cking two weeks? I'm beginning to think these are regular storms and we have a sh*tty boat."

Sail on, ship of state!


Via TPM Livewire.

Monday, May 10, 2010

UK Elections: a Vote Against

Libertarians have been talking about the possibility of leaving offices empty for a long time. I think the UK public has achieved some version of that. It was a vote against. Against the Iraq war. Against the financial disaster. Against market fundamentalism. The UK system is more democratic than the US. May the next election quickly bring forth something to vote for.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Going Green

A few years ago, a friend sent me a copy of Jared Diamond's Collapse. A few days ago, I came across a note about the book to my friend in my files recently, and decided that some of it bears reprinting. Since that time, Diamond has been sued for inaccurate reporting. The suit has yet to be decided, and I don't yet know if Diamond's research is questionable in other matters. In any event, my general reaction to Collapse, a book about social failures through environmental disasters is, "well, yes." Diamond spells it out, dots the 'i's and crosses the 't's, but I've been aware of the basic risks of ecological collapse for many years. I quoted this in 1991 from a 1970 Gregory Bateson lecture. (Regular readers will recognize the repetition—sorry, folks.)
If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that your are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be your and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.

If I am right, the whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. This is not funny, and I do not know how long we have to do it in. …
Bateson nailed it, on purely theoretical considerations of philosophy, back in 1970: humans are part of an ecological system and to survive we must understand that and respect it. Bateson was not, of course, the first philosopher to make such an observation, but it is a more urgent one now than ever. If we are to survive, we must change our thinking. The need for ethics, laws, and customs that protect the planetary ecology and control the human population is crying.

I do have a few thoughts on the matter, but it must be stressed that putting any ideas into effect will involve wrenching economic and political change. We need, I suppose, a spiritual transformation that will make the necessary changes acceptable and how to achieve that I have no idea; globally we are in such a horrible state of paralysis that it is hard to get many of us to accept even minor change. That said, here's a very short list of steps we might take, if we could agree to undertake them:
  1. Take powerful symbolic steps. Reforest Easter Island and Iceland, to start with.
  2. Start a well-funded crash research program to find out what we need. How many people can live on the earth at the standard of living we seem to desire? How much of the wild must we preserve or restore?
  3. Educate women worldwide; distribute contraceptive technology widely. Quite apart from the ethical considerations that demand this, it will reduce the growth in population; it may even be all that is required to reduce human population to more reasonable levels.
  4. Phase out all ecologically destructive subsidies as quickly as possible; where there are no major hardships likely, abandon them immediately.
  5. Financially, treat forested land--and all wild ecosystems--as what it in fact is: valuable. Set up "ecosystem trusts" as keepers of valuable land and if someone wants to turn the land to some other purpose, charge. If the other use of the land is less valuable than its developed use, the fund can repurchase and restore the land.
  6. In a related step, implement emissions trading schemes and keep working on them until all the major chemical cycles of air and water are balanced.
  7. Use as much solar energy for heating and cooling as possible; it is technically feasible to do without most of our active climate control systems and it is time to start.
I have tried in these recommendations to hew to market and vote; they are still going to be terribly difficult to implement, amounting to the sudden imposition of a great many new taxes and regulations and establishing a whole new class of rights. Still, considering that the alternatives are the collapse of human civilization or globe-spanning tyranny, it is time to start.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Notes on Term Limits

I wrote this up for Baseline Scenario comments, and decided it was useful enough to repost here despite its roughness.

   Democracy and accountability: The perverse effects of term limits
   The Effects of Legislative Term Limits (PDF)
   How Have Term Limits Affected the California Legislature? (PDF)
  The Political and Institutional Effects of Term Limits, Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, Lyke Thompson, Charles D. Elder, Richard Elling, John Strate.
  Institutional change in American politics: the case of term limits, Karl T. Kurtz, Bruce E. Cain, Richard G. Niemi.

I have only read fragments of the books on Google.

The effects are not as dramatic as I had thought.  Pols still stay pols, though their career paths now include planned job changes.  Deep information on particular topics is less common.  The executive sometimes becomes more powerful.

Bottom line: term limits are not the transformative reform that term limit advocates hope for.  Term limits don't do what their proponents hope, and do do some of what their opponents fear.  In my view, pursuing term limits distracts from more effective changes. [Minor spelling error corrected on 2010.05.20]

Friday, April 30, 2010

Evolution Croak

John Cole, who this bird mostly thinks well of, writes:
It is a shame that most Americans can’t make the connection that if this is happening to the animals, think about what the effects on humans will be.
So, what are humans, robots? But it put me in mind of a Gregory Bateson quote:
If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that your are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be your and your folks or conspecifics [members of your species] against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.—Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind

I want to start writing more about religion and philosophy. There are issues coming up that I want to address & this is one of them.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Licensing Econometricians?

Further thoughts on economics as a discipline.

Most engineering is based, not on novel applications of science, but on re-application of existing practice. Engineering applies pure science in ways that avoid unpredictability; science itself engages unpredictability, as in meteorology and geology. Part of what engineers do that scientists don’t is know where the areas of unpredictability are, and avoid them. Novel engineering is applied science research in itself, always a bit unpredictable, and the best of us can get caught by it. For instance, this from Arup, a well-respected architectural engineering firm:

The bridge opened to the public on 10 June 2000 when an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people crossed it. As with all bridge structures, the Millennium Bridge is subject to a degree of movement. However, when large groups of people were crossing, greater than expected sideways movements occurred. The maximum sway of the deck was approximately 70mm. In order to fully investigate and resolve this phenomenon the decision was taken to close the bridge on 12 June. The movement and its effect on the crowds can be seen from the video footage.–

Note also the plea for publication of novel research at the end of the short essay–apparently the phenomenon had been noted before and not written up.

This leads to the following thought: perhaps one of the problems of having a weak distinction between pure and applied economics is that there is no disciplinary body of practice on the applied side: untested theories are put into practice on a grand scale, and when they fail, huge areas of the economy fail with them. This is rare in more mature disciplines; professional discipline makes large-scale failures unlikely. I find it interesting that I do not even have a name for the type of disciplines that are based on pure economics; neither “engineering” nor “design” seems to capture them.

Would there perhaps be some value in modeling an econometrics professional license on engineering or architectural licenses? Milton Friedman would be spinning in his grave if he could see this–he regarded professional licensing as a protection racket, pure and simple. But in fact licensing engineers and architects has worked out fairly well from the viewpoint of public safety, even when very large amounts of money are involved. Could that success perhaps be duplicated in econometrics?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Economics as a Science & Paul Krugman as a Scientist

(This is in response to Ian Welsh's evaluation of Paul Krugman's strengths and weaknesses as an expert. It is slightly revised from my remarks in comments.)

K-k-k. There is in science and engineering a distinction between pure science, which is descriptive in character, and applied science and engineering, which use the descriptions of pure science to some goal. In economics, this distinction is often lost. There is a descriptive social science which might be called pure economics and an applied practice of economic policy making which doesn’t have a separate name. I think, as a matter of scientific practice and ethics, it is important to clarify the distinction.

Equally important, and widely overlooked, are the scientific basics of explicitly stating the assumptions of theory and checking theory against experimental data. In the area of stating assumptions, economics fares poorly: economic behavior occurs in a social context, and it is part of the assumptions of any economic theory (= model.) Without stating the social context of an economic result, one can get remarkably boneheaded results: as Galbraith points out, one can end up assuming that people negotiate for jobs in the same way they haggle over fish.

Which brings us back to Krugman. Points in Krugman’s favor which I don’t think you’ve covered: he is aware of the distinction between pure and applied economics, he is willing, after a struggle to be sure, but willing, to check his theories against experimental data, and he accepts that people behave differently in different markets.

On the other hand, he himself has acknowledged a theoretician’s weakness for elegant general theories and he is not a strong applied economist. Since his time with the Reagan administration, he has refused policy-making positions, and I think this may be why.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Croak of the Day: Brad Delong's "After Copenhagen, What?"

Brad Delong's proposals on climate change. I don't know how much he believes these, as opposed to putting them out for discussion, but it's probably the strongest macro-policy summary on climate change I have seen. It is also, by any reasonable construction of the word, a green socialist plan. When this is what the moderates are saying, I think it may be time for moderate capitalists to just surrender and start waving a red flag with a green theta.
  • Pour money like water into research into closed-carbon and non-carbon energy technologies in order to maximize the chance that we will get lucky—on energy technologies at least, if not on climate sensitivity.
  • Beg the rulers of China and India to properly understand their long-term interests
  • Nationalize the energy industry in the United States.
  • Restrict future climate negotiations to a group of seven—the U.S., the E.U., Japan, China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil—and enforce their agreement by substantial and painful trade sanctions on countries that do not accept their place in the resulting negotiated system.

The House in the 2010 elections

In many places now, liberals are noticing that the Republicans are polling very well for 2010. There are a number of reasons for this: there's a huge amount of money being pumped into the system to swing the Republicans to the radical right. The post-health-care-reform media blitz has given the teabaggers wide, if inch-deep, popularity. The lackluster performance of the Democrats on financial services regulation (including health insurance), women's rights, civil rights and torture, and (likely) the environment does not energize either the mass of Democratic voters, or the party's activists, who are largely liberal. The Democrats are reduced to tossing their liberals sops as a strategy: things of real value, like bike lanes and LGBT hospital visitation rights, but much less than was promised and hinted at during the 2010 elections. To survive, I think the Democrats will have to rebuild their activist base from moderate conservatives, and I do not see how that can be done in six months.

Personally, I do not have the heart to work for a conservative party, though I have and will vote Democratic until a plausible liberal opposition comes along.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Political Spectrum

(Offered in the interests of clarity.)

Far Right
  Grover Norquist

Moderate Right
  Eugene Volokh

  Josh Marshall

Moderate Left
  Jane Hamsher

Far Left
  Noam Chomsky

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Obama: Teflon President II?

So now Obama has taken conservative positions on civil rights, women's rights, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, and now offshore drilling and greenhouse gas regulation. I am struck by a consistent pattern in these: there is just enough movement to the left from Republican positions to separate the Democratic position from the Republican. At the same time, wealth and power are left secure. This is similar to Obama's campaign position: just far enough to the left to win votes, no further, and never concessions to the moderate left or the actual US center. Through all this Obama remains popular.

Reagan was the "Teflon President." No matter how horrible his position was, no matter who was hurt, no matter if his administration connived at treason (younger people look up Iran-Contra), he kept popular support, often from the people who his politics harmed. Possibly his most destructive policies were the gutting of the securities regulatory system and the abandonment of the FCC's fairness policy: those have come to haunt us in the last decade. Many of his supporters, aging, have become the Teabaggers. Obama seems to be Teflon President II. As with Reagan, too, his worst policy failures will make themselves felt after he is out of office: the poorly-designed health care system and the apparent sellout to the coal and oil industry on greenhouse gases now beginning. I wonder if, in 25 years, there will not be an aging group of Obama supporters defending his policies against their failings, even as the seas rise.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sore Losers in the Authoritarian Interregnum

(This is a meditation on our metahistorical situation. It started as a response to Jim Macdonald's comparison of the recent violence in response to the passage of health care with Kristallnacht over at Making Light.)

I have a different take on the current situation. I think the violence we are seeing is from sore losers. With the passage of health care "reform," the radical right has suffered a crushing defeat, and all they can do now is flail.

That's the good part. The bad part is: this is the authoritarian interregnum. The violence began in the 1990s, reached a peak with the Oklahoma City bombing, retreated. A questionably-decided election in 2000 put a radical-right administration (Bush II) in power, and the fear generated by an act of terror (9/11), gave the Bush II administration the mandate to do as it wished. There were numerous abuses and acts of violence perpetrated by the Bush II administration. The greatest, undoubtedly, was the Iraq war.

The Republicans were roundly defeated in 2008, and a Democratic Senate, House, and President moved in. And what have the Democrats done with their new power? Continued the Bush II torture agenda, resisted bringing the perpetrators of the crimes of the Bush II administration to justice, let the health insurance companies reform health care to their benefit, dealt women's rights the biggest blow in decades, failed to restrain the abuses of the banking system. The Democrats have become a ruling conservative party, though with a liberal wing, and they have no effective opposition. Meanwhile the Republicans have shuffled off to gamma quadrant.

We desperately need a revived left, and I think one is in the works. But it is going to take time, and another decade of corporatist government is going to be hard indeed.

To a Friend, On Supporting Democrats and Not

(A post that started as a reply on a friend's blog, about third-party votes and progressive activism.)

I decided years ago that I would vote for the less crazy candidates which have a chance to win, and for a long time those have been the Democratic candidates. But I did not have the heart to work for the conservative Obama, and I do not have the heart to work for a conservative party. This is not the Democratic party of our youth: all the great liberal Democratic Senators of that time are gone and the Democrats are dominated by their conservatives. On a personal level, I think you will find supporting a party which compromises with the anti-abortion right very hard. (And the opening of new coasts to offshore drilling, as well, which hadn't occurred when I wrote the original letter.) I don't see the Democrats as moving to the left in this decade. Maybe if there are more major environmental disasters they will improve their environmental policies.

The Greens were grandstanding in 2000. I hope we never see that again. Any third party has to start at the state and local level, and in the House. On the other hand, the Republicans are a rump party. Their policies are enormously unpopular and, without the arcane rules of the Senate, and its undemocratic electoral structure, they would be very weak. Yet on major environmental issues the conservative Democrats are so far only a little better than the Republicans. At least the Democrats are willing to accept and support science. I like Dr. Stephen Chu--besides, he may fund a job for me. But I don't see the Democratic leadership challenging the oil (called that one!), coal, automobile, or road-building industries, any more than they have challenged the financial services industry or its health insurance branch. Matters are going to have to get much worse before the Senate will act, and I think a challenge is more likely to come from outside the Democrats than within.

Meantime: more women in the House, more women in the Senate, more women on the Federal bench. Electoral reform. Separation of church and state. Health care for everyone. Jobs. It's the environment, stupid!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Healthcare: The Defeat of a Common Enemy

(Revised from a reply on Ian Welsh's blog. Ian Welsh is a prominent progressive blogger who objects to progressives rejoicing at the passage of a deeply-flawed health care plan.)

I think the progressive blogosphere and congresspeople are rejoicing in the defeat of an enemy

Yet that defeat is also a defeat of progressives. Fighting among ourselves will only make the defeat worse. One thing that wasn’t clear to any of us last August is just how bad a defeat for the Democrats would have been: it very likely would have put the radical right back in power. So I think standing on principle is both ill-mannered and poor tactics. Sure, we can blast the Congressional progressives for not keeping their promises. We might even be able to get some of them replaced. But would this strengthen our position? It would not. Long term, I think, conditions have rarely been better for major reforms and perhaps the formation of a new major party in the USA, and that is where we need to focus our efforts.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Croak of the Day: We Have An Early Winner

John Holbo, satirizing Jonah Goldberg:
The Liberal Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the superconducting super collider of culture-war melting pot calling the kettle black!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Croak of the Day: Brad Delong

To Brad Delong, on Mitt Romney repudiating a national health care plan very similar to the one he supported in Massachusetts:
I did not know that you could have a circular firing squad made up of only one person.
Honorable mention to Michael Bérubé's satire of the radical-right response to the health care plan, "The Night the Country Died:"
In the deep of a Sunday night
In the land of the health care bill
When the free republic died
And they talk about it still

Saturday, March 20, 2010

On Tea Party anti-taxism

Mark Thoma (Economist's View) quoting a remarkably wrong Bruce Bartlett article:
the Tea Party crowd appears to believe that federal taxes are very considerably higher than they actually are […] it's hard to explain this divergence between perception and reality.
Me, croaking in comments, paraphrased: the Tea Partiers haven't decided taxes are "too high" because they believe erroneous data; they have decided to choose erroneous data because they believe their taxes are too high. Unfortunately, as Converse found nearly 50 years ago, this is not an area where reason rules.

[edited on the day of publication for clarity]

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Croak of the Day: Simon Johnson

"They Saved the Big Banks But Kind Of Lost The Economy Doing It"--Simon Johnson at Baseline Scenario.

(Yesterday, really.)  Read the rest.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Belated Croak of the Day

To "Bond Girl" at Self-Evident, on the Greek financial disaster and Goldman-Sachs's participation:
To structure deals like this, one would have to be a complete sociopath.
Read the whole thing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Think of the Thirty Million, Part II

Except that, it's not 30 million who will get needed health care--it's 30 million who will be required to buy insurance, much of which will probably not be useful. A lot of those will be younger people who will never use the insurance, and some will undoubtedly be bankrupted by the mandates. Sounds like an electoral loser to me.

That's the populist argument. The policy argument goes like this: the cost controls in the Senate plan are hopelessly inadequate. There is little regulation and no public option (itself a form of regulation.) Which means that US health care costs, already high and rising, will continue to rise and, at the end, when the system costs too much to sustain, the main difference between the Senate plan and doing nothing will be that a lot more money has been funneled to the health insurance branch of the financial services industry, some more has been funneled to Big Pharma, and perhaps a few more people have gotten care: the exponential rise in costs will swamp the additional money fed into the system by the mandates.

Perhaps, perhaps. I would like to hope for something better. I don't think the rising costs are quite as terrible as most economists: eventually, people will decide how much care to spend for. I have my doubts that the continued expansion in end-of-life care costs will continue. (This could all be upended by a real life extension technology, but that seems unlikely.) But unless something more effective at cost control than the Senate plan is passed, the US health system will continue to be the least efficient among developed nations by a factor of at least two, and that will be a continuing drag on the economy at a time in history when we can ill-afford it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Real Socialist on the Teabaggers

Noam Chomsky, interviewed last October. He makes the comparison with the end of Weimar. But I think it's not there: we are past the end of Weimar and into the authoritarian interregnum. Now, I suppose, we are fighting over which set of authoritarians are less destructive.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Health Care: The DFHs Are Still Right

The House Progressive Caucus and the Firedoglake editors are both taking heat for advocating that the Senate health care bill be passed and simultaneously modified through reconciliation. The amount of venom directed at Jane Hamsher, in particular, is astonishing. And yet: the DFHs (dirty-effing-hippies) at Firedoglake have been right down the line for years now. The Senate bill is toxic, and if the House passes it without promises from the Senate and hopes for reconciliation later, they'll probably be stiffed.

Support the House Progressive Caucus: pass Senate Health care bill and changes through reconciliation. Sign the Firedoglake petition.

Corporate Free Speech: Unshackling the Trolls

That's what the Roberts Court has done in their decision in Citizens United. Every election, now, the airwaves and wires will be covered with corporate political spam. More of it, though that's hard to imagine.

Tune in 2012 for the new hit song: "Who Let the Trolls Out?"

Friday, January 22, 2010

Croak of the Day: Michael Bérubé

Scott Brown’s election this past Tuesday offers the Democratic Party a new hope. [...] ***
It's satire, folks.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

US Poltical Parties: the Outcome

Pulling out my crystal ball, I will try to make some modest predictions. It seems to me that both current major parties will survive, in dramatically altered forms. Electoral reforms, instant runoff or range voting, are likely to become more and more widespread, and make possible the emergence of at least one new national party. This new party, if it comes into being, is probably going to display characteristics we are already seeing in the emergent coalitions between marginalized US groups: it will probably be vaguely libertarian left. The Republicans, in the new electoral regime, will become the party of the South, and of business-oriented authoritarianism generally. The Democrats may rebuild their coalition, becoming a moderate conservative party, weak on the coasts, but stronger in moderate central states.


Croak! Earlier posts on this subject: The Democratic Party, The Republican Party.

The Republican Party: Analysis

The Republicans face a very different problem. Internally, they are dominated by a strong coalition of business interests, nationalists, militarists, and religious radicals. Their public face is generally congruent with their internal coalition, so they have no problem of voter confidence. Instead, the Republicans have a problem of popularity: they only have strong voter support in the South, and then only among the white-dominated group of registered voters. Outside of the South, they can only win elections in conservative backwaters, by whipping up fear, or when frustrated Democrats hand them a victory out of spite, inaction, or incompetence, as in the recent Massachusetts election.

It is also difficult for me to see how the Republicans can last as a national party. Sooner or later a strong opposition will emerge; either a reformed Democratic Party, or an entirely new national party.

The Democratic Party: Analysis

Why would it be that a relatively minor loss—one Senate seat—would plunge the Democratic Party into chaos?

It appears that the Democratic Party has for a long time, existed as a coalition between liberal and conservative wings (or, if you like, progressive and corporatist wings.) Since Reagan, policy on major issues—war and peace, banking, and so on—has been dominated by the conservatives, while less pressing issues (science, environmental policy, and so on) and public relations have been dominated by the liberals. In the Congress, the Senate Democratic caucus has been dominated by the conservatives while multiple House Democratic caucuses exist, with the House Democrats predominantly but not entirely liberal. The public face of the Democratic Party has been liberal, since the public is to the left of the conservatives. (See, for instance, The Progressive Majority.)

Now, however, a major issue—health care—has come to the fore. The Democrats have split right and left, and the public has become aware that the conservatives (who do not have the support of the majority of Democrats) have been making decisions on major issues which affect their lives. The Senate Democrats, after much agony, managed to agree on a business-friendly plan, while the House passed a plan somewhat to the left of that. Now the Senate leaders are afraid they will be unable to deliver their plan to their corporate sponsors, while the House leaders, looking at their loss in Massachusetts, know that if they pass the Senate plan unmodified they will be voted out.

It is difficult for me to see how the Democrats can rebuild their coalition. Its right wing and its president have betrayed it, and the party leadership will have a difficult time persuading most Democrats (who, remember, are well left of the conservatives) that the party represents them.

[Minor typographic changes made on 2010.03.07 and 2010.03.21]

Croak of the Day

While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.--Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens

Supreme Court Abandons Stare Decisis, Declares That Large Businesses Have Same Rights as People

In its continuing quest to become the worst Supreme Court in history, alongside the Taney Court, the Court has decided that fictitious persons--corporations--have the same first amendment rights as natural persons and may therefore spend huge amounts of money on political advertising. Equally seriously, the Court's majority was willing to abandon a century of precedent to render this decision. If the court majority is willing to abandon long-settled law ("stare decisis") for its politics, what law will stand?

Personally, I blame Obama. No, not really, though I note that Sotomayor concurred in part. But the Senate, and especially the Senate Democrats, they didn't stand up when it might have made a difference, and allowed the formation of a radical-right majority on the Court.

The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare. Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individ­ual Americans that they had in mind.--Justice Stevens, dissenting
Coverage at ScotusBlog.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Hilary Clinton's Primary Voters Went for Brown?

They did! They did!

Weirdness. Was this election swung by racist conservative women?

The Progressive Populist Libertarian Party

Or the PPL party. Now, it has a name. Croak!

Monday, January 18, 2010

An Alternate View of the Senate Health Care Bill

Making people spend money they don't have, on insurance they can't use. No, not everyone. But some people, yes.

Croak of the Day

To Blue Texan at Firedoglake for an analysis of the apparent contradictions between the stated goals of the Obama administration and its actions, and its likely effect on the Mass. Senate election.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Speculation: Health Care and the Economy

I wonder if the health care mandates are going to crush any recovery in 2014, the way that too-early budget-balancing did in 1937. Perhaps 10-30% of the money that people will be mandated to spend on insurance is going to go into the financial system, where it is unlikely to be spent well. People in the $20,000-$50,000 income range, who do a lot of spending out of necessity, are going to be pinched. I can't see how pumping more money into the already corrupt financial industry is going to lead to a positive outcome. A big bubble and a widening of the income gap is what I'm thinking, now, and a further whittling down of the real economy.

Be nice to see some analysis on this point from a real economist, or even the CBO.

The Devil and Health Care

The devil will only offer one bargain on health care. Obviously, we must sell our souls.

[minor changes made on day of publication]

State and Local Tax Policy and the Depression

$80,000. That's the amount a household in Washington has to make before its taxes are lower than they would be in Oregon. Even so, a poor family in Oregon pays 1.3% more in taxes than a rich one. In Washington, the difference is more marked; 10.6%. The poor family is in the poorest 1/5 of the population; the rich family in the richest. If one takes the rich family from the top 1% of incomes, the difference is more marked: in Oregon, 2.5%, and in Washington, 14.7%. Justice would dictate that the poor man's rent be taxed less than the rich man's yacht money, but in most states it is just the reverse.

"[...] only two states require their best-off citizens to pay as much of their incomes in taxes as their very poorest taxpayers must pay, and only one state taxes its wealthiest individuals at a higher effective rate than middle-income families have to pay." (Who Pays, 2009) The report goes on to list the "terrible ten:" the states which have the most regressive tax systems. These are, starting with the most regressive: Washington, Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Illinois, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Alabama.

The US Federal government, we already know, is not going to be supporting the state governments in maintaining their services in this new depression. Yet if the states raise taxes, that also works to deepen the depression. However, if instead taxes are lightened on the poor, and raised on the rich, that is neutral. In addition, there is a multiplier: if the poor have more money to take home, they will spend it, because they need to, and that provides a stimulus.

Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States, Third Edition, 2009.

[minor changes made on day of publication]

Treats and Lumps of Coal

To my astonishment the Gates Foundation pledged $3 million over the next three years to LAW Fund in order to sustain critical legal help for the poor throughout Washington—treat! On the other hand, a whole truckload of coal to the insurance and banking industries, who despite huge gifts have not changed the policies that triggered the recent financial disaster, and an extra-large lump to the Obama administration, which is creating an unlimited sludge fund so that the banks can keep on doing it. Two lumps to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who has seen to it that there will be no auditor.