Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tolerance, Intolerance and Politics

In response to David Hoffman's argument, "a national conversation about guns and violence, facilitated and sped up by the internet, reduces our ability to try out different versions of the good life, and thus diminishes our capacity live together in peace", Jonathan Adler states:
I think he has a point. I also suspect this problem is magnified due to a decline in the understanding and appreciation of tolerance as a virtue. Not tolerance as acceptance or approval, but true tolerance. Tolerance as in there is something unpleasant, objectionable, or distasteful that one nonetheless tolerates. And this is brings us back to the problem of cocooning. If we have little interaction with those of truly different viewpoints — those whose entire worldview and starting premises are different than ours — we have a harder time recognizing the goodwill and fundamental humanity of those with whom we disagree. And that means we have a more difficult time discussing divisive political issues and trying to find common ground. So instead we demonize and attempt to marginalize our opponents — undertakings that may make us feel good, but do nothing to improve the situation.
I am reminded of the various "remember the good old days" essays, speaking of the 1950's and early 1960's as an idyll. Never mind the tensions, the racial discrimination and segregation, behind the scenes. Never mind the mentally handicapped child who is never allowed outside of the house or is institutionalized, lest his parents be embarrassed by the neighbors finding out about him. Never mind the ostracism of homosexuals and the criminalization of homosexuality. "We were all so much more tolerant when we were all the same. Why can't we get back to that sort of embrace of tolerance as a virtue?"

I don't want to be unfair to Adler. I'm just having a difficult time thinking of a period of human history in which the "true tolerance" he describes was lived as a virtue. Not discussed or advocated, but an actual part of the culture. I see instead a history in which differences in politics, religion and lifestyle have frequently been magnified, often with horrendous consequences for a targeted population.

Thanks to the Internet it's actually easier than ever to find and interact "with those of truly different viewpoints" - if you choose to do so. It's also very easy to cocoon. But to the extent that this represents a change, it's that people have a greater opportunity to seek out alternative viewpoints, not so much that people are largely staying within the confines of a like-minded community.

Adler argues that "It seems increasingly rare in political discourse for either side to consider that the other may be arguing in good faith", something he attributes in part to cocooning. I think a big part of the problem, though, is that many people who are leading the political discourse are not arguing in good faith. I've heard many politicians argue that they and their peers often take different positions behind closed doors than the ones that they take in public for their constituents. I've never heard a politician deny doing so. Behind the scenes we have a massive apparatus attempting to influence, manipulate and corrupt the debate.

If we're talking about people in general, it's reasonable to say that they're likely taking their positions in good faith, even if you're certain they're wrong. But when you look to the institutions that are advancing a particular narrative, those involved in the debate who are profiting from the stance they take, and those engaged in demagoguery, it's fair to both question their motives and to suggest that they're part of the problem Adler describes. When John Boehner distributed checks from tobacco lobbyists to his Repubican peers on the floor of the House, he branded himself as somebody whose motives are always in question. Does he believe the positions he takes? It's like the old joke, "Now we're just haggling over the price" - once you establish that you're for sale, your actual beliefs no longer matter.

At another level, if somebody is sincere in his support for a political position, but cannot explain why, cannot support or defend the position with facts, and cannot support or defend his position with logic, he makes himself irrelevant to the debate. We can engage in the type of tolerance encapsulated by the notion of agreeing to disagree, but you're not going to have a productive discussion if "tolerance" requires continuing to include that person in the debate or is contingent upon changing his mind.

It's not merely cocooning that leads academics to at times express puzzlement about how "someone of reasonable intelligence, good will, and good faith could reach diametrically opposing conclusions" - sometimes it's a product of the academic's having thought about the issue, while the person on the other side of the debate has given the issue little to no thought, or lacks sufficient information to properly analyze the issue. If you're actually interested in having a discussion, it doesn't take long to figure out if you're talking to somebody who is locked into a position, never to be moved, or if you can have a genuine discussion. I am approaching this from Adler's perspective of "an academic vs. everybody else", but if you want a meaningful discussion it's best to approach good faith debate without presupposing that you have an intellectual or informational advantage. You don't need to assume that the other person's position is informed, well-considered or offered in good faith, but you can attempt to provide an honest audience. If you're lucky, you might even learn something.

It would be interesting if Adler gave a position of an example of issue for which an identifiable population held an "entire worldview and starting premises [that] are different than" his own. My own international travels suggest that people around the world have a lot more in common than Adler's comment suggests. I suspect that he's speaking less about an individual or culture that disagrees on pretty much everything, across the board, and more about disagreement on some number of core or fundamental issues. Religion provides a context for how two people or cultures can be locked into a set of beliefs that exclude the possibility of the other's being correct. Religion provides an excellent context for the position that we would benefit from "true tolerance". Yet, alas, it also provides a context in which we have seen an exceptional level of intolerance over the whole of human history. (Even when one or both of the religions teaches "true tolerance" as a virtue.)

So, sure, let's aspire for "true tolerance" - but even if the tolerance we generally experience in the 21st century western world is a pale imitation of the ideal, it nonetheless stands as a remarkable achievement.

Public Policy vs. Illusions and Delusions

Dave Hoffman suggests that we are "forced by the Internet to nationalize problems", and as a result it is "harder for local communities to experiment with localized solutions to threats to the moral order". I would be more impressed with the argument if the imposition of national solutions on moral issues were a new phenomenon, or if it weren't the "don't tread on me" types who weren't often attempting to impose their own moral conventions upon the rest of us. But certainly, the national media, the 24 hour news cycle, and the Internet have changed the manner and speed at which local issues can become national news.

In fact, we have not been "forced" to "nationalize problems". We live in a society in which some problems that were once treated more uniformly on a national basis have been transitioned back to local mores. For example, obscenity is judged by community standards, and states are free to impose restrictions on access to abortion that were once considered forbidden under Roe v Wade. The Hatch Act and its creation of "right to work" states started the downhill slide of organized labor. We weren't "forced" to nationalize the problem of alcohol consumption during the prohibition era, nor was prohibition a product of the Internet. The anti-kidnapping laws that followed the Lindbergh kidnapping were not driven by the Internet. Behind the determination of what is "best" handled at the state vs. federal level lies a great deal of political gamesmanship that sometimes gets in the way of the formation of good policy.

Josh Marshall argued that suggesting that school shootings might not occur or might be less lethal if small children were trained to mob a gunman, or if schools were not a "feminized setting … in which helpless passivity is the norm" represents the discussion "quickly veering from the merely stupid [Megan McArdle's "mob the gunman" suggestion] to a pretty ugly kind of victim-blaming [Charlotte Allen's 'feminized settings' argument]". McArdle's suggestion is at best impractical and unrealistic, but to be fair to her she was comparing her own bad idea to ideas that she deemed worse - she admitted that her idea might not work, but had a better chance at preventing school shootings than the ideas she was criticizing. Marshall's criticism of Allen's comment is fair. Let's also throw in Mike Huckabee's blaming the shooting on a lack of prayer in schools.1 That is blaming the victim, and it is ugly.

Hoffman appears to project his own discomfort with firearms onto people like Marshall,
I didn’t grow up with guns in the house, and the idea of allowing a child of mine into a school where the teachers are armed is horrifying. Worse, I think, is the concept that we ought to militarize children – to teach them that they are all on their own, and the state is powerless before the forces of chaos in society.
Marshall did speak of the growing militarization of our society. His comment is a bit cryptic, but he appears to be suggesting that fear of violent crime is resulting in people "seriously or [like McArdle] half in jest - pushing for a use of force race to the bottom".

Marshall's point is valid - even as violent crime has plummeted, fear of violent crime and terrorism has led to an expanded police and military presence in spaces that were far less secure during times when crime rates were significantly higher. I think part of the issue is that the more rare an event becomes, the more attention becomes focused on its increasingly rare occurrence. Marshall is making a public policy argument, that we should take a step back and try to figure out if the militarization is good for society, a good use of manpower and resources, or if it's likely to be effective before we expand it into new areas of society, such as public schools. Hoffman isn't actually addressing militarization - "teach[ing children] that they are all on their own, and the state is powerless before the forces of chaos in society" is not militarization - but more importantly he's not even arguing about how public policy should be formed.
My intervention here is to just to point out that the problem we actually have here is one of discourse – we are forced by the Internet to nationalize problems. This makes it much, much harder for local communities to experiment with localized solutions to threats to the moral order. If a community in, say, Connecticut wanted to ban assault weapon clips (because it made them feel safer – [(]let’s put to one side data on efficacy!), Glenn Reynolds would lead a charge against the liberal fascists. Indeed. Heh. Yes. If a community in Tennessee wants to arm its teachers (because it makes them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!) Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan would call them out as conservative fascists. Or loonies. Or winners of the Moore award. And we’d all get to pat ourselves on the back, but no one would actually get the benefit that law is supposed to provide, which is the helpful illusion that we’re more civilized than we actually are, and that we’re actually doing something to push back against the tide.
The thing is, people like Marshall don't "put to one side data on efficacy" because they are interested in facts. They are interested in what works. Hoffman takes several potshots at Marshall,2 but all the while misses that the McArdle "rush the shooter" comment was neither a serious policy proposal nor reasonably characterized as a proposal "offered by gun proponents". McArdle was in fact pointing out that some of the proposals being advanced in response to the school shooting, such as banning certain types of firearm or magazines of a certain capacity, would not have prevented the shooting. McArdle tends to get ridiculed in some corners because she has a history of making arguments that are not well-thought out, but her essential approach here is the same as Marshall's. She's not interested in making people feel safe. She's pointing out that your feelings have little to do with what actually does or does not make you safer.

At a basic level Hoffman is correct about a culture clash, although it's not s binary as he suggests. He's correct that a measure that to one person or community might serve as a "helpful illusion that we’re more civilized than we actually are" might differ from, or even be the opposite of, what another person or community would deem a "helpful illusion." If Hoffman wants to argue that communities should be able to create their own "helpful illusions", let's assume within reasonable constraints, he's only going to run into issues where those illusions start to impinge upon the rights of others. There already are schools that allow any teacher with a CCW permit to bring a gun to school.

The problem is that Hoffman is trying to impose his standard for "helpful illusions" onto a policy debate - an attempt to determine what may or may not actually work to prevent (in this instance) school shootings, and the extent to which arguments for measures that offer only illusory benefits are worth implementing, particularly when other civil, social and legal issues are implicated. The policy discussion does not "reduce[] our ability to try out different versions of the good life, and thus diminish[] our capacity live together in peace". In fact, if properly conducted, the policy discussion avoids imposing "helpful illusions" on a nationwide basis, instead implementing only those policies that can be reasonably expected to work, while leaving localities to form their own "helpful illusions" within the aforementioned parameters.
1. There is a natural human tendency to try to explain away tragedy - to find a way to believe that a horror that happened to somebody else could not happen to you. Huckabee put himself into the same column as the TV ministers who blame local and national tragedies on homosexuality, feminism and the like - and they know exactly what they are doing when they exploit tragedies in that manner.

2. I found Hoffman's essay through a link provided by Jonathan Adler, a call for tolerance that, in context, is rendered odd by his hollow man arguments about mythic "liberal bloggers" who are having a "fevered reaction" and are in "a frenzy" about Megan McArdle's "what if kids mobbed the gunman" column. Adler's a law professor, so I assume he has enough familiarity with the Socratic method to understand that scorn, derision and ridicule, as unpleasant as they can be, do not constitute a frenzied or fevered reaction.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

When the Business Community Wants Something Done....

Congress jumps.

Gridlock, partisanship... it all melts away.
12/17/2012 - Introduced in House
12/18/2012 - Passed/agreed to in House: On motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill Agreed to by voice vote.
12/20/2012 - Passed/agreed to in Senate: Passed Senate without amendment by Unanimous Consent.
(Be careful with your privacy settings on Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and the like, lest your video viewing habits be shared with the world.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Who Wants to Provide a Full-Throated Defense of Labor Unions?

Harold Meyerson repeats the common belief that Michigan's rushed-through anti-union law was meant to punish unions for daring to attempt to protect collective bargaining through a constitutional amendment:
In Wisconsin, a union-initiated effort to recall Republican governor Scott Walker, who had pushed through the legislature a law stripping public-sector unions of collective-bargaining rights, failed badly at the polls. In Michigan, after voters (in the same election in which they gave Obama a clear victory) decisively rejected a union-initiated ballot measure that would have enshrined collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution, the Republican legislature passed, and Republican governor Rick Snyder signed, a right-to-work law in the cradle of American industrial unionism. What makes these defeats more bitter was that both involved unforced errors—actually, the same unforced error—on labor’s part. On the evidence of polling, many union leaders and political directors believed from the start that the Wisconsin recall and the Michigan ballot measure were fights that could not be won, but their cautions went unheeded by well-intentioned unionists in both states. It’s not clear that Snyder, who had previously disavowed any interest in enacting a right-to-work law, would have changed his mind had the measure not been put on the ballot and defeated, but its defeat certainly set the stage for the Republicans’ sudden and unheralded push for right to work during the legislature’s lame-duck session.
Did it also "set the stage" for their trying to cram through "open carry" legislation? For their attempting to cram through anti-abortion legislation? If you take a step back and look at the reactionary legislation of Michigan's lame duck session, the only reasonable takeaway is that the Republican Party had the bills prepared, ready and waiting, and that the only thing that changed following the election was that they no longer had to lie about their intentions. If Governor Snyder can be assumed to have had a change of heart, rather than it being inferred that he has been telling his party, "Wait until after the election", I expect that the change of heart had a lot more to do with the defeat of his emergency manager legislation than it did with the pro-collective bargaining amendment.

There's something else to consider: even if the Republican party passed its right-to-work law as petty revenge for the proposed collective bargaining amendment, they hid that intention through the election. It's correct to suggest that the amendment never had much of a chance, but it would have had a much greater chance of passing had the Republicans announced, "If this fails, we're going to make Michigan a 'right-to-work' state", or "We plan to cram through anti-union legislation in the lame duck session." I have encountered several people who voted against the proposed amendment on the basis that it was overreaching who have expressed that had they known what the Republicans were planning they would have voted for the amendment despite its flaws.

But it's important to remember something else. Even with the Republicans lying about their intentions due to their fear of a public that supports the right to unionize, they understand that many people who favor protecting the right to organize are not big fans of unions. They recognize that for the most part, whether we're talking about the state or federal level, the Democratic Party is of a similar mindset - to the extent that Democratic administrations may have pursued policies that slowed the demise of organized labor, they supported other policies that contributed to the loss of union jobs. Democrats have overtly rejected a German-style approach to labor organization. Under the best of circumstances, labor unions would not have had an easy time over the past half-century, but nobody's been trying to make it easy for them.

What of the unions themselves? Over the past fifty years, Michigan has had six governors. Four were Republican. Neither of the Democratic candidates emerged from unions. When the unions have managed to advance candidates with strong union ties... things have not gone well at the ballot box. Michigan's Democratic U.S. Senators are similarly pro-union, but not out of the unions. That is to say, the public at large seems to have long wanted to maintain something of an arm's length relationship with the state's unions. If history's lesson can be trusted, about the worst thing that could happen for the Democratic Party, two years from now, would be for the unions to dominate the nomination processs and election campaign.

When you ask people to make the case for unions, some will start with a history of the labor movement and point to the abuses of management, past, present and overseas. Some will talk about the importance of protecting the rights of workers in an imbalanced relationship, or of how weak U.S. labor laws are as compared to other countries while suggesting that the job and workplace protections we have emerged in no small part from the efforts of the labor unions. But you almost never encounter a full-throated defense of unions. It's in fact pretty rare to encounter somebody who, perhaps reluctantly but often quite willingly, admits to the problems associated with organized labor even as they defend the role of unions. Here's something else that's interesting. One faction that is heavily invested in the debate has done a terrible job of defending labor unions and organized labor. I am speaking, of course, of the unions themselves.

Governor Snyder can't make a case for his right-to-work law, so we get stories about jobs supposedly flooding into Indiana, or the suggestion that becoming a right-to-work state is actually good for workers and labor unions. You know what? If the "solution" to Michigan's economic woes is to add a handful of low-wage jobs to the economy, part of the race to the bottom that leads to Michigan's economy being indistinguishable from that of Mississippi, I don't consider that to be a good thing.

Flint has gone a great job adding non-union, low wage jobs - telemarketer phone banks. Is that the future Snyder wants for Michigan? Because if his model is Ann Arbor, this anti-union stuff is at best a distraction. I admit that my perspective is skewed by wanting good governance, healthy communities, the availability of good schools, good jobs, and the like. If you look at the states with the worst economies, the worst per capita incomes... Republican strongholds.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Politcs vs. Economics and the "Fiscal Cliff"

Paul Krugman hopes that the President doesn't believe in "invisible bond vigilantes",
But here’s a passage that bothered me:
On Dec. 13, Mr. Boehner went to the White House at the president’s request, joking he was going to the woodshed.

The president told him he could choose one of two doors. The first represented a big deal. If Mr. Boehner chose it, the president said, the country and financial markets would cheer. Door No. 2 represented a spike in interest rates and a global recession.
Oh, dear — does the president still believe that failure to reach a Grand Bargain will cause an attack by the invisible bond vigilantes, and that this is the reason we should fear the fiscal cliff?
Here's the thing: Thanks to the Republican Party's inability to get its act together - it's a lot easy to be unified when your entire approach to policy is obstructionism than when you actually have to make viable policy proposals - we're going over the cliff.

What the President is doing is hanging the responsibility for any economic fallout around the neck of the Republican Party.

Also, let's not forget that we have real (government) bond vigilantes - rating agencies with a history of blessing any piece of garbage they're paid to rent as "AAA", who could potentially try to re-establish their reputations by downgrading treasuries. Will that affect interest rates or the ability of the country to sell its debt? Probably not. Call them, "The bond vigilantes who can't shoot straight."

If the quote is accurate, the rhetoric seems somewhat telling. If we see a global recession, we're not likely to see a spike in interest rates. And as Krugman has argued for a long time, a spike in interest rates is not something we're likely to see in isolation. So really, it sounds like "These are the worst two things that could happen and, should they happen, I'm going to blame you. And should other bad things happen or should the economy continue to struggle, I'm going to take credit for my policies preventing the global recession and interest rate spike that the people already expect to result from going over the 'fiscal cliff'."

Monday, December 17, 2012

Contempt for the Constitutional System

The Republican Party is apparently urging Democratic-leaning swing states to abandon "winner takes all" in favor of a pro-Republican redistribution of electoral votes.
Republicans alarmed at the apparent challenges they face in winning the White House are preparing an all-out assault on the Electoral College system in critical states, an initiative that would significantly ease the party's path to the Oval Office.

Senior Republicans say they will try to leverage their party's majorities in Democratic-leaning states in an effort to end the winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes. Instead, bills that will be introduced in several Democratic states would award electoral votes on a proportional basis.
The historic norm has been for the electoral vote to be awarded on a state-by-state "winner takes all" basis. The goal here is to leverage Republican gerrymandering and control of state legislatures into a system that subverts both the popular vote and the rationale for maintaining the Electoral College.

Under the current system, whatever its faults, the Electoral College gives smaller states a voice in presidential elections - without it, campaigns would focus almost exclusively on states with high populations, and the urban centers of smaller states, as that's where the votes would be. With it, not only do the smallest states benefit from the provision of a minimum of three electors, but politicians pay attention to states and regions that would be of marginal interest if the goal were simply to win a national, popular vote.

The goal of this initiative is to undermine the strength of Democratic states and regions by, in effect, eliminating their relevance to the national election - or even by providing a significant majority of the electoral vote to a candidate who was trounced in a state-wide popular vote. It's easy to see why Republican partisans would get excited over the idea of taking states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin out of contention, to be followed by Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. But if the governors of those states are stupid enough to go along with the idea, they'll be less relevant to the next presidential election than West Virginia and North Carolina. There is, of course, no Republican move to redistribute the electoral vote in "red states".

If you take yourself out of the picture, you may well get a, "Thanks, you're a great guy" from the partisans who want you to chop your state off at the knees, but once you've made your state irrelevant to the next presidential election... who do you imagine is going to show you love? There's a reason why Iowa works so hard to maintain its prominent role in presidential elections.

Alas, there's little sign that the targeted Republican governors value either the democratic process or the long-term welfare of their states. My guess is that if you offer them enough of a personal reward, they'll happily sell their states down the river.

Bringing Facts Into the Budget Debate

I don't often see push-back against right-wing orthodoxy from the AEI but, in an article entitled Trillion-dollar deficits are sustainable for now, unfortunately, John H. Makin takes on a lot of the Republican Party's debt mythology:
Congress is attempting, unsuccessfully, to reduce “unsustainable” deficits and debt accumulation by engineering “crises” that are meant to force politically challenging action on spending cuts (entitlements) and tax increases (loophole closing, higher tax rates on the “rich”). The mid-2011 debt-ceiling crisis fiasco and the upcoming year-end “fiscal cliff” are striking examples of this dangerous tactic. The debt-ceiling crisis succeeded in getting Standard and Poor’s to downgrade US debt from a AAA to an AA+ rating and in setting up the sequestration portion of the upcoming fiscal cliff that has damaged business and household confidence by raising overall uncertainty.

The tactic of threatening to go over the fiscal cliff will fail to produce prompt, sustainable progress toward reduction of “unsustainable” deficits because deficits have been, and will continue to be for some time, eminently sustainable. The Chicken Little “sky is falling” approach to frightening Congress into significant deficit reduction has failed because the sky has not fallen. Interest rates have not soared as promised and, in fact, interest costs for the federal government have remained steady at a tiny 1.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) since 2002, having fallen to that level from a 3 percent average during the decade prior to 1997....

The hyperbolic claim that the United States is becoming Greece because of the absence of dramatic progress on deficit and debt reduction is unfortunately ridiculous. There is not yet a sign that a US fiscal crisis will emerge to force Congress to enact fundamental measures like entitlement reform to reduce the growth of spending, or tax reform to enhance revenues through faster growth.
Makin presents the case for reassessing the manner in which the U.S. government spends money, but is prepared to do so based upon the facts and long-term outlook as opposed to hoary bromides and fear-based arguments. Alas, that's probably why few have heard of him.

It's not necessary to agree on the causes of, or solutions to, the nation's debt and its projected growth in order to have a grown-up discussion of the issues. It's simply necessary that there be some grown-ups who are willing to discuss the actual facts and issues.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

An Initial Reaction to Windows 8 on a Desktop

I hate it.

Start up, log in, now there are the metro tiles. If you've ever purchased a Windows computer and found desktop links to a dozen or more promotional items you didn't want or need, welcome to Windows 8 - the nuisance is now a feature. Except unlike the old days, after you clear away the crud you still have the metro page between you and the desktop.

I expect that most non-technical users will simply deal with the start page in its default format rather than customizing it. That should make Microsoft happy, because by default it promotes their products and properties.

The missing "start" button. Sure, people used to make fun of it - "click 'start' to shut down?", the way some used to make fun of Macs "put a disk in the garbage to eject it?", but we got used to it. Now instead of clicking the "start" button to choose a shut down option you have a multi-step process that would involve unnecessary swiping and clicking even on a touch screen. (I was actually using a notebook computer with a touch screen, but I was setting it up as a gift so I didn't want to be the first to smear my fingerprints all over the display.) If you're not working on a tablet, it's an annoyance.

Somebody was touting a video a while back, with a three year old child pinning stuff to the Windows 8 start screen. Yes, once you know how to pin stuff it's easy - although it can be really annoying to manipulate tiles with a touchpad as opposed to a mouse or touch screen. But there's little to nothing that's intuitive about any number of the new functions. A lot of things are easy once you know how to do them - but a hallmark of good design is that they're mostly to entirely intuitive.

Adding back the equivalent of a start button... you can create a shortcut to the a line command to shut down, pin it to the start page, then drag it to the menu bar. You can learn (non-intuitive) keyboard shortcuts. Or you can use the cumbersome new graphic interface.

My net reaction: Although I can see its appeal on a tablet or phone, the new interface is an unnecessary impediment to the effective use of a standard computer. Somebody said that this was Windows doing what Apple didn't do - integrating its OS across platforms. To me it felt more like how I would react if Apple made you go through the launchpad after you logged into your desktop computer. Launchpad may be more simple than the new Windows 8 start page, but it's the same basic concept - and it's an optional feature, kept in the background where it belongs.

Windows 8 will be better for desktop users when all of the new stuff is easily switched off, and those who prefer can skip straight to the core operating system (which, unsurprisingly, isn't much different from Windows 7).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Heading for the Fiscal Cliff

Via "90ยบ Degrees to the Left", the apparent Republican "fiscal cliff" strategy:

The Sky Will Always be Falling

Back when I was a kid, a constant refrain was that Social Security was going to go bankrupt and that it would not be around when I eventually retired. "You'll pay into it your whole life, but you won't get any benefit." Then Ronald Reagan signed the Social Security fix, and the narrative changed dramatically. No, wait, it didn't change at all.

So when I hear Kevin Drum argue,
I am, of course, one of those liberals who's in favor of a [Social Security] deal [even though liberals could just wait it out and not give up anything]. Why? Because I think it's worthwhile for young people to have faith that Social Security will be there for them when they retire.
it appears he needs to be reminded: The sky is always falling, we have always been at war with Eastasia, and (even if the actuaries project that it's fiscally sound into the next millennium) young people are going to be told by the powerful voices that hope to undermine the program that Social Security is not going to be around when they retire.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Don't Mess With Mom

'Cuz that's when the knives come out.
Guangdong Propaganda Department: Do not reprint, report, or comment on the incident of a ten-year-old girl in Hunan challenging the head of the Administration for Industry and Commerce to a fight.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Safety in Numbers

Although a growing number of Republicans are willing to refuse to sign Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, or repudiate their signatures, the party may be reaching a tipping point where they "toss[] aside Americans for Tax Reform’s pledge in order to secure a grand bargain". Norquist has played word games in the past to avoid accusing the Republicans of breaking their pledges, but if you push that type of game far enough you undermine the meaning of the pledge. On the other hand, if you accuse large numbers of Republicans of violating the pledge you are likely to find that they have the collective power to push back, "We have to do what's right for the country," and the legislators would likely have little concern about any effort to punish them - any effort at retaliation would become diluted.

You have to wonder, even if they agree with him in principle, whether a good number of the Republicans who have signed the pledge want to get out from under Norquist's thumb. Once the pledge is broken, it's not clear that Norquist or any similar pledge effort can regain the same level of power or control.

Monday, December 10, 2012

As Usual, Michael Gerson Overplays His Hand

It's not that he gets off to a good start - he's eager to jump sharks from the word "go" - but how can the man look himself in the mirror after serving up a whopper like this one:
There is a political problem at the heart of the budget debate. If Democrats get what they want — tax-rate increases on the wealthy — they can crow about it in public. If Republicans get what they want — structural reductions in entitlement spending — they are unable to crow. Their motivation is fiscal and ideological, not political.
Gerson's memory is perhaps too short to recall, but when his former boss, George W. Bush, was elected to office our nation had a budget surplus. A few years later we has massive tax cuts, two unfunded wars, the unfunded Medicare Part D benefit, and a massive budget deficit. And then, for Act 2, we got the collapse of the economy. Their motivation is fiscal? If you believe that the Republican Party cares about balancing the budget, you're a fool.

Remind me again, where was Michael Gerson when the Bush Administration was taking the explicit, public position that deficits don't matter? Oh yeah... he was writing Bush's speeches.

Is Republican opposition to Social Security and Medicare ideological, at least within the party itself? Certainly, but not an ideology born in a vacuum. The ideology that drives the Republican Party to attempt to undermine Social Security and Medicare is very much about politics - it's about pleasing powerful and monied interests that bankroll the party, and is about gaining and holding power over the long term.

If Gerson means to suggest that it's a double-edged sword - that the Republicans accept a certain amount of political risk when they make massive cuts to Medicare and Social Security a central part of their party's ideology, and that they thus misrepresent their motivations and goals so as not to alienate the beneficiaries of those programs - he has a point. But to make that point he has to actually admit that the leaders of his party cannot be trusted to tell the truth. That is to say, opposition may be driven by ideology at the top, but the rank and file Republican voters like Social Security and Medicare. They don't share the ideology of the party's elite, and the Republicans therefore obfuscate lest they find themselves unable to win an election.

The heart of the present conflict is that the Republicans have been lying to the public for years, a lie exemplified by the Romney/Ryan budget proposal. Romney promised that he was going to cut taxes, significantly increase military spending and, although he proposed an idea to transform Medicare into a voucher program starting a decade in the future, that he would maintain Medicare benefits for those 55 and older and would not cut Medicare spending. When he was asked for specifics we got "I'll fire Big Bird".

The truth is, if you want to balance the budget it's going to be painful. If you want to balance the budget without increasing tax revenue, it's going to be extremely painful to the middle class. Gerson had no problem with the Bush-era lie that "deficits don't matter", and he has no problem with the present Republican lie that the budget can be balanced - with trillions freed up for tax cuts and increased military spending - by closing loopholes in a revenue-neutral fashion and eliminating waste. His problem is that the Democrats refuse to take ownership of the Medicare and Social Security cuts his party desires.

In focusing on the specifics of Gerson's mendacity, let's not lose track of the big picture. This Congress cannot bind future sessions of Congress to its spending plan. What Gerson and the Republicans want is not an actual, workable plan to balance the budget over a period of years. They want the President to agree to structural changes to Social Security and Medicare that would be difficult for future sessions of Congress to undo, while offering no assurance that they won't be every bit as profligate and irresponsible as Bush with the "savings" that result.

The President is resisting that "deal", and Gerson's unwilling to articulate the stakes in an honest manner, so instead we get this noisome whinging about how the President is a meany-pants who isn't offering enough concessions to the poor, downtrodden Republicans.

Straight Talk on the Budget....

I generally don't read Jennifer Rubin. I think she's smart enough to write something interesting or informative, but she has no apparent inclination to do so, and she lacks the capacity to spin her talking points into something less overtly partisan in the manner of David Brooks. In fact, she's so ridiculous in her partisanship, much of what she writes could pass for comic relief.

But one of her gazillion headlines (yes, she's prolific) in my news feed caught my eye: "Can anyone offer straight talk about the budget?" That's a fair question. Her opening is actually pretty good,
Republicans are touting a Battleground poll that finds:
Three in four voters want to “cut government spending across the board,” but 59 percent oppose making significant cuts to the defense budget and 46 percent support ending foreign aid. The slightest majority backs reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits for seniors that have higher incomes, but 64 percent oppose raising the retirement age to begin collecting Social Security benefits.
But, wait. The same poll finds “60 percent of respondents support raising taxes on households that earn more than $250,000 a year and 64 percent want to raise taxes on large corporations.” However, “69 percent of respondents oppose raising taxes on small businesses that earn more than $250,000 — a group that the GOP is trying to protect with its push to extend the Bush tax cuts.”

In other words, the American people want cake and ice cream for dinner – and a unicorn. They want contradictory things. They imagine the only taxes that need go up to sustain the entitlement programs as currently constituted are those of mega-millionaires. They don’t perceive the trade-offs between unrestrained entitlement spending and pressure to cut other spending (e.g., education). They apparently don’t understand that many small businesses pay taxes under the personal income tax code, making them “the rich.”
One wonders why Republicans would be touting a poll that, even when they try to spin it in their favor, doesn't do much to advance their agenda. I guess they don't have much else to work with. But where Rubin quite predictably falls on her face is in her failure to understand (or is it to admit) why voters operate under the misconception that we can cut taxes, increase military spending, sustain Medicare and Social Security at present levels, and somehow at the same time balance the budget by "cutting waste" and reducing public assistance directed at the "undeserving poor". Did she somehow miss that the mindset she laments, the one I just described, reflects exactly what Mitt Romney claimed that he could to if elected President?

Or is it that her ideological blinders are up and fully operational?
It is not that politicians are bad communicators, although some are. It is that they do not want, as President Obama keeps instructing, to do the math. If they did, they’d have to concede, for example, that raising taxes on the rich raises a pittance compared to our $16 trillion debt.
This is an echo of a Republican talking point that I have often criticized. The argument is basically, "Taxes on the rich won't raise enough revenue to be worth it, so we shouldn't bother with a tax increase." Letting the Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthy expire would produce roughly $85 billion per year in tax revenue. What sort of "serious" spending cut proposal do we get from the Republican Party? Cutting the @$445 million contributed to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? John Boehner has proposed changing the manner in which Social Security benefits are indexed to inflation in order to save $20 billion per year - if $85 billion is too little to be worthy of consideration, why is Rubin's party of choice intent on pursuing targets that are comparatively small, even trivial?
In particular — and this is critical in assessing the president’s moral obligation — Obama has not prepared the American people for the fiscal changes that are needed. He’d rather score political points than be honest with voters. He’s got the biggest megaphone and if he doesn’t level with voters, they aren’t going to get it. (So he doesn’t. And they don’t.)
Oh, no doubt, politicians of both parties don't want to "prepare the public" for the consequences of balancing the budget. But again, Rubin's complaint represents the Republican agenda - her party does not actually care about balancing the budget. There is nothing that stops Speaker Boehner from gathering the Republicans in Congress and passing a serious, balanced budget, save for the fact that they don't want to.

Presidents who try to level with voters about the state of the economy and the hard choices that lie ahead... That would be Jimmy Carter and... um... perhaps only Jimmy Carter. It's admirable that Rubin rejects the sunny but false optimism of Reagan and the fiscal incompetence of George W. Bush,2 but the problem is twofold. First, the problems the economy faces from debt are exaggerated, and the politicians staging this "high stakes drama" know that. Second, politicians on both sides of the aisle want to be re-elected, so whenever possible they prefer to whisper sweet nothings in our ears over sharing harsh truths.

The net effect? In a few years a Republican will run for the White House, probably on a budget "plan" that sounds very much like Romney's, and Rubin (if she's still around) will be one of his primary cheerleaders. Lather, rinse, repeat.
1. From NPR, "For High Earners, Expiring Tax Cuts Would Hit Hard".
"Virtually everyone in his income category will see their taxes rise an average of about $14,000," says Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. "That's about a 5 percent reduction in their after-tax income, and 5 percent is something that's, even at that income level, noticeable."
Yes, I agree. Having your monthly take-home pay drop from @$23,333 to @$22,166 is something that you're likely to notice. But if we are to compare relative hardships in the modern economy, having somebody in that income range complain "I will have to decide what to do for vacation. I may not be able to put as much away for purchasing a replacement car when my car dies" reflects a pretty significant disconnect from the daily experience of most families.

2. I know, I know, but let's pretend she's thought this through.

The Problem With the Paywall

CJR offers the case in favor of newspaper paywalls. But as the article indicates, " A paywall is not a magic solution". Newspapers have experienced a drastic change in the way news is distributed and consumed, and although a well-designed paywall may help make up some of the lost revenue there's no going back to the way things were.

The problem is, people don't have unlimited time, attention and money. If you put content behind a paywall you reduce your audience, and if you don't get enough people to subscribe you can reduce or lose your relevance. With free online news, many people have become accustomed to obtaining information from sources they would not have consulted prior to the rise of the Internet, and many of the local sources of news coverage have crumbled or collapsed. But the person who might have once purchased a newspaper subscription may think twice about buying subscriptions to multiple online news sources, even if the net cost is lower. It's not just that the nature of the expenditure is different, and irrational though it may be it can feel different to have somebody deliver a tangible newspaper to your doorstep as opposed to browsing a newspaper website. It's that people can only process so much information.

Also, once behind a paywall the experience of reading news online is changed. If you use news aggregator sites, you are apt to favor the sources that are free or to which you already subscribe. If you try to change reader behavior - "Start at our site", or "Get your news through our app" - you're likely to trigger more frustration than satisfaction.

I have a ridiculous number of channels available as part of my cable subscription, most of which I never watch, don't care about, and wouldn't miss. If cable subscribers had to subscribe to them individually, many would go out of business. But the companies that sponsor those channels get a small fee each month, so that I can read their content. That seems like a sensible model for media companies - work through internet service providers, or perhaps through operating system developers, and work out a licensing scheme. Let people pick the media packages they want, paying a single fee to the provider, and thereby get access to "behind the paywall" content for the news companies in their package.

When I look at the few successful paywalls at large media companies, I can't help but think of the handful of cable channels that were once able to profit from individual subscriptions. I suspect that the future lies in packages.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

It's Difficult to Avoid Being Cynical

When I approach the issues as covered by the media and leading media figures, alas, it's difficult to take a positive approach to the debate. Very few "opinion leaders" in our present media and political culture are interested in trying to advance a sincere debate and policy discussion. I can accept that many of these people are much more honest about their goals and intentions when speaking behind closed doors, but if they're not willing to do the same thing in public, and if nobody from those close door meetings is willing to call them out, that does us little good.

I am skeptical of political conversions, of people who claim to have held strong political beliefs, but who claim to have had an epiphany and to suddenly - and just as adamantly - support the opposite end of the political spectrum. Usually when you look more closely you'll see that the impetus for the change of heart is a single issue and not much else has changed, that the person had no appreciable grasp of the issues prior to (and perhaps also subsequent to) their change of heart, or that they aren't sincere. When a fading celebrity suddenly announces a change of political stripe, then starts seeking paid gigs as a cheerleader for the other team, odds are they're following the money.

At the same time, if you spend any appreciable time thinking about the issues your positions are bound to shift over time. Unless you choose to close out the world, you'll inevitably discover new facts and information and be exposed to ideas different from your own. You can be consistent in your principles while acknowledging the flaws of proposed solutions - and in some contexts will discover that there are problems that are insoluble without a compromise of principle. The status quo causes one type of harm, the solution another.

Some amount of compromise can be necessary in order to achieve progress. Alas, there's a material difference between people of integrity compromising various competing principles in order to achieve the best possible outcome under the circumstances, and people without integrity manipulating the system in order to expand their personal wealth and power base. If a political leader believes himself to be a man of integrity, but he puts on a different face in public in order to appeal to his constituents, and never publicly supports the views he privately believes to be the most plausible solution to a significant problem, what good is his integrity? Integrity is not a jacket you get to check at the door - you either have it or you don't.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Hard Reality: The Republicans Don't Want to Balance the Budget

You would think that our national experience would teach us something: The Republicans are very good at cutting taxes and spending money, but have demonstrated next to no actual interest in balancing the budget. Still, the snake oil sells and a huge percentage of Americans believe that we can easily and painlessly balance the budget by cutting "welfare", funding for the arts and "foreign aid".

Diane Rehm interviewed Grover Norquist and a Republican Congressman-elect, and the incoming Congressman, Ted Yoho, insisted upon taking a principled stand: He was not going to sign Norquist's anti-tax pledge.
I made a pledge and a promise to the people that I'd go up to Washington and do the very best I could for our district and our country. And signing a pledge wasn't going to solve the problems our nation faces fiscally. You know, and I made a pledge to, you know, two things: one is to our country, I pledged allegiance. And I made a pledge to my wife to be the best husband I could be.
But as Yoho explained his philosophy toward taxes and the budget, Norquist had to be smiling. Why would he need Yoho to sign the pledge when Yoho has already internalized Norquist's "drown it in the bathtub" philosophy of government?
You know, we don't have a revenue problem in this country. You know, our debt is going to kill us, and the biggest part of our debt is our spending. We have got to get our spending under control. And if you look back where Canada was back in the 1960s when they had a real liberal congress or parliament and they put in all the entitlement programs and, you know, tax and spend more, you know, it killed their economy. And they're at the brink of disaster.
Yoho seems sincere, but "the biggest part of our debt is our spending" is an odd statement. Canada has a pretty good track record for balancing its budget, strong per capita income and growth, and its people have a good standard of living. He thinks Canada is at the brink of disaster because of its Medicare program? What's actually going on in Canada...
The report's outlook for the world is decidedly bleaker than for Canada, pointing out that after five years of crisis the global economy is again weakening and risks proliferate.

"The risk of a new major contraction cannot be ruled out," said Pier Carlo Padoan, the OECD's chief economist, citing the ongoing recession in the euro area, a below-par economy in the U.S. and a slowdown in many emerging markets.
That is, the biggest threats to Canada's economy are external.
In fact, the OECD anticipates the U.S. economy will speed up faster than Canada's next year at two per cent and in 2014, at 2.8 per cent growth.

Because the U.S. is starting from further behind, Canada will still maintain an advantage in the recovery over its southern neighbour, however. For instance, the organization projects Canada's unemployment rate will fall below seven per cent by 2014, while in the U.S., it is expected to remain close to eight per cent.
Yoho's positions on Canada are, to be blunt, divorced from reality. Yoho continues to present the Republican / Tea Party line:
This has been, you know, over the course of the last 15, 20 years, bad policies and people not dealing with it. It's time for us to stop talking about it and putting another Band-Aid on it. These are going to be some tough decisions that are going to be -- have to be made. And this is the year we need to do it because if we don't make these decisions, we're going to be in the same place where Greece or Spain was.
Except here's the thing: The Republican Party is not interested in making those tough decisions. They claim to have a budgetary genius in Paul Ryan who, after years of careful thought and collaboration with presidential nominee Mitt Romney, was able to specify a desire to cut funding for PBS. They have a leader in budget negotiations in the form of John Boehner who, building on last year's negotiations and Ryan's budgetary proposals, tosses out numbers that are neither supported by specific budgetary proposals nor sufficient to balance the budget. That's not leadership - it's a continuing display of cowardice.

And why are these Republican leaders such cowards? Because they know what Yoho will find out if the budget is balanced through cuts - the people who have been buying that snake oil will howl when they find out that the Republican approach to balancing the budget necessarily involves inflicting serious pain upon them. It's not that Boehner couldn't propose specific cuts to government programs, including Social Security and Medicare, it's that he doesn't want to face the political consequences. He hopes to trick the Democrats into proposing the cuts so he can argue, "I only voted for them because I'm fiscally responsible, but the cuts that hurt you came from the Democratic Party. I had no choice."

Paul Krugman has reproduced a graph I have at times shared, illustrating that it's Republican policies that have created the present "deficit crisis". Here's the thing: If you and your party are unable to actually identify budget cuts, if you and your party are the ones primarily responsible both for revenue shortfalls and for the unfunded expenditures that drive up the deficit, you owe the voters a moment of honesty. You need to either admit that you don't care about balancing the budget, and that the entire debate is a pretext for your long-standing goals of cutting Medicare and Social Security to the bone, or you need to admit that although you would like to see the deficit reduced you would prefer to have out-of-control deficits and spending growth if the alternative is to raise taxes or risk losing the next election.

Perhaps I underestimate Yoho, but if I do, what are the implications of this:
Rehm: But let me just ask, Congressman Yoho, would you be more willing to raise taxes on upper-income Americans, more willing to do that than to allow us to go over the cliff?

Yoho: No, ma'am.
If you care about balancing the budget, you balance the budget. Once you figure out how to balance revenues and expenditures, you can take a deeper look at the numbers, figure out where you can or should cut, where various taxes and tax rates might be adjusted or tweaked, etc., all without throwing the budget out of balance.

If you protect low tax rates for the wealthiest Americans despite budgetary consequences that you insist threaten the health and future of the nation, can't we be honest about it? You might not mind it if somebody else did the hard work and took the political risks necessary to balance the budget, but you have other priorities.

The Finely Tuned Messaging of the Political Right

A week or two ago I saw a Republican commentator complaining about how mean President Obama was to Mitt Romney during the election campaign. She accused the President of running an ad that said that Mitt Romney gave somebody cancer. My reaction to that statement was that she knew the actual facts - an independent entity, backing Obama, ran an ad about a man whose wife died of cancer, and suggested that she might have had a better outcome had Bain not taken over his company, laid him off, and cost them his health insurance.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody is claiming that the ad was fair, and the story it told was misleading. But the problem for Republicans is that if you respond to the ad, you will have great difficulty not responding to its story - and that story is of the problems families face when their health insurance is tied to their employment.

So what's the solution? That's easy: you lie. You pretend not to be familiar with the details of the ad, pretend to believe that it was an official Obama campaign ad, and pretend that it says something absurd. That way you get to advance a story line of how negative the Obama campaign was, how it was detached from facts, and get to avoid responding to the difficult issues the actual ad raised.

It is simply not credible that right-wing power players are unfamiliar with the ad. It went viral, it was discussed at length (often with breathless overstatement) in political blogs, on "fact checking" sites, in editorials, on television.... The distortion is deliberate.

The Republicans have become very good at shaping a message, pushing it out through multiple channels, and sticking to the script. So it was no surprise when I heard essentially the same story being pushed again, by none other than Grover Norquist:
Norquist: [Obama] has a very expansive vision and a very different sales pitch. Eighty-six percent of his ads this year were trashing Mitt Romney as a person. He'll give you cancer. He'll do all this other stuff. Eighty-six percent...

Rehm: I don't think he said that.

Norquist: Oh, one of the ads that was paid for on his behalf said that some guy who worked at one point for one of his firms got cancer and that was somehow Romney's fault. I don't know why they put it in the ad if it wasn't Romney's fault. That said, they went after him personally, 86 percent of the ads. He won a smashing mandate, overwhelming mandate not to be Mitt Romney. He did not run ads saying I want to spend $1.6 trillion and higher taxes.
Norquist not only repeats the same essential lie about the ad and its content, he mixes in his home-brewed statistics, as if he wants to personify the phrase, "lies, damn lies, and statistics".

When you see Norquist speak, he sometimes displays an odd affect that can distract you from what he's saying. But when you listen to him it's clear that he's focused like a laser on his agenda (nominally the prevention of tax increases, but more accurately the advancement of policies that shift the tax burden from the wealthy onto the rest of us).

When Norquist gets a fact wrong, rest assured, it's not an accident.