Previous month:
June 2008
Next month:
August 2008

July 2008

Types of Fictions

I am looking forward to a cross-country plane flight on Sunday, and I am not likely to read any of the work books I will take onto the plane--even though I will try, and intend to. Instead, I will take and almost surely read Walter Jon Williams's Implied Spaces, and Iain M Banks's Matter. I know in broad outline what kind of book Matter will be: it will be set in a galaxy-spanning space-traveling future, inhabited by super-intelligent robots with jokey names, show bizarre technological and natural marvels of enormous scale, involve fearful fanatic antagonists who cannot be reasoned with, contain do-gooders who leave a cornucopiac utopia to try to help the less-fortunate using whatever means are necessary, and at the end those protagonists whom a malign fate has put at the end of the spear that might thwart the evil purposes of the antagonists will screw their courage to the sticking place, remember that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, do what needs to be done, and die--or maybe not, if Banks is feeling exceptionally generous.

But I will not read a serious work of fiction on an airplane (or when overtired, or when stressed, or in a bunch of other situations).

I am trying to think why this is so. And I start with Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings on romance novels:

Obsidian Wings: Misogyny Day At The Washington Post (Part 1): UPDATE: Gary [Farber] and others were offended by the part about romance novels.... [L]et me try to explain what I meant. First, a clarification: I meant, and should have said, genre romance novels. I did not mean Jane Austen. Moreover, I meant genre romance novels, not genre fiction generally. In general, I do not think that points made about one type of genre fiction apply to all types of genre fiction; in this specific case, I think that both science fiction and fantasy, for instance, are quite different from romance novels in some of the respects I was thinking of....

[T]he part about romance novels was meant to imply that women's taste in fiction runs to romance novels, which (according to Charlotte Allen) don't stack up well against fiction generally. My point was that that is not the relevant comparison. If you want to make some sort of stupid generalization about women, then it matters what the male analog of a romance novel is.... [T]his does not imply, and I did not mean it to imply, anything about the quality of genre romances. I honestly think not just that most of them stack up pretty well against your average Hustler centerfold, which isn't hard, but that some of them are quite good.

About whether genre romance novels are "books"... that was undoubtedly the wrong way to put [it]... and I regret having put it that way. However, I also think that there is a decent point here, which I expressed in a needlessly dumb way. What I meant was: Genre romance novels are, in my experience, written according to very serious constraints... plot constraints, characterization constraints, all kinds of constraints... certainly more stringent than those that govern fiction generally. When I assess a non-genre novel, I assess it as a work of imagination, in which the author is free to do as he or she wants. I take the author to have a kind of complete freedom: there she sits, confronted by a blank book, and she can do whatever she wants with it. Seeing what she ends up doing with all that freedom, and deciding what I think of it, is what criticism of normal novels is all about.

Assessing genre romances is different, precisely because there are so many rules. I do not think badly of a particular genre romance because the author should not have made the hero so strong, noble, and self-contained, or because its heroine should not be so completely ignorant of her own charms, or because some complication prevents the hero and heroine from recognizing their attraction to one another until they are forced into close proximity by some unexpected turn of events. Those are the rules.... I think it was Tanya Modliewski who wrote that genre romance is, for this reason, best thought of as something closer to a very constrained kind of performance than to non-genre novels.... The basic parameters are laid down in advance, and what matters, if you're writing a genre romance at all, is the grace and style and beauty with which you do it. In this, genre romance is strikingly different from non-genre novels (I'm leaving other genres out, as I noted above). Moreover, for anyone who knows the rules of genre romance, reading a genre romance would have to be different from reading a work that had no such rules, in the way that, for someone who knew the rules, watching the short program in figure skating that includes the compulsory elements would have to be different from watching a freestyle program.

With this as backdrop, when I said that "romance novels are not "books", as that word is normally used", I should, first of all, have said not "books" but [mainstream] "novels."... I did not, and do not, mean this claim to imply anything at all about the merits of genre romance novels.... I do think genre romance novels are a different sort of thing from non-genre novels. But that doesn't imply anything at all about whether the kind of thing they are is a better or worse thing to be.

Again, though, I was deeply unclear, for which I am sorry.

And this is somehow related to science fiction/fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold's description of her latest four-volume supernovel as an attempt to do three things.

  1. To do a "new world" rather than an "old world" fantasy: Lois McMaster Bujold Bonus Q&A: TSK began as a project to give myself pleasure in writing again at a time when I felt very dry.... I was doing several literary experiments at once.... [First,] playing with landscapes and social-scapes that were distinctly New World, not recycled European medievaloid...

  2. To do an anti-Manichean fantasy: To see what would happen if I gave my characters a real grown-up problem to grapple with, one that defied easy, cathartic solutions like cutting off some bad guy’s head or toppling the Dark Tower du Jour...

  3. Most of all to do a fantasy that was also a romance, or perhaps a romance that was also a fantasy: But foremost I wanted to see what would happen when I tried to make a romance the central plot of a fantasy novel... after all, I’d had romantic sub-plots in both my fantasy and my SF books before, and wasn’t it just a matter of shifting the proportions a bit?...

And it did not work:

[W]ow was that ever a learning experience, not only about what makes a romance story work, but, more unexpectedly, uncovering many of the hidden springs and assumptions that make fantasy work. It turns out to be a much harder blending that I’d thought.... The two forms have different focal planes. In a romance in the modern genre sense, which may be described as the story of a courtship from first meeting to final commitment, the focus is personal; nothing in the tale (such as the impending end of the world, ferex) can therefore be presented as more important.... [I]t has been borne in upon me how intensely political most F&SF plots in fact are. Political and only political activity (of which war/military is a huge sub-set) is regarded as “important” enough to make the protagonists interesting to the readers in these genres.... [A]ttempts to make the tale about something, anything else – artistic endeavor, for instance – are regularly tried by writers, and as regularly die the grim death in the marketplace. (Granted The Wind in the Willows or The Last Unicorn will live forever, but marginalized as children’s fiction.) I have come to believe that if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, F&SF are fantasies of political agency. (Of which the stereotypical “male teen power fantasy” is again merely an especially gaudy and visible subset)...

And with Teresa Nielsen Hayden's remarks about how writing under constraint and to expectations is only a bad thing if it is annoying and badly done: In longer works, the greater pleasure is seeing how the book makes its way from here to there, from its interesting beginning to its satisfactory if perhaps unsurprising end. You already know the detective is going to figure out which guest at the cocktail party murdered Edna Furbelow in the linen closet of her sumptuous Park Avenue apartment. The bickering couple forced to keep company with each other while having some mild adventures will infallibly fall in love no later than the second-to-last chapter. And the earnest young person born under mysterious signs and portents will inherit the Charm Bracelet of Doom, defeat the Dark One, and bring peace and plenty to The Land—five or six books from now.

Clichés are only clichés if they bother us. When we’re expecting something new and interesting in the way of a narrative mechanism, but instead get the same old same old, it feels like a cliché. If a novel employs a narrative maneuver that’s just as well-used, but we aren’t expecting novelty—hey looka, it’s yet another Regency Romance that has a scene set at Almack’s—then it’s not a problem. A book that starts from a bog-standard plot but uses it with inventiveness and grace will read fairly well—which means the bog-standard plot doesn’t bother us, and therefore isn’t really a cliché.

What does bother us are worn-out devices for setting things up or moving the story along. Mark Twain nailed James Fenimore Cooper for his habitual use of them.... One twig is a fine device. A twig or two per book is excusable if there’s enough other stuff happening; even a battered old prop can look okay if it goes past you fast enough. Too many twigs become irritating, and are therefore a cliché...

And Jo Walton:

just scenery: what do we mean by "mainstream"?: In the Handicapping the Hugos thread, there's a discussion of what "mainstream" means. In the simplest sense, "Mainstream" is everything that is not... "mystery" or "SF" or "chicklit" or "literary fiction".... That's a fairly useless category, though, because it's too huge.... [C]ategories exist to help people find books they'll like, and "If you loved Middlemarch you'll adore Rainbow Six" isn't going to do much for anyone.... What I find interesting is when there are books that are "obviously" SF but that some people think are mainstream.... The Yiddish Policeman's Union (an alternate history about a Jewish state in Alaska) is "mainstream" is that it has mainstream sensibilities, mainstream expectation, and, most of all, mainstream pacing. They may also mean that it had mainstream publication and that Michael Chabon is a writer who made his name selling mimetic fiction -- which is still true even though his last three books have been genre....

Samuel R. Delany has talked about the importance of reading protocols, and reading SF as SF. I tend to read everything as SF.  When mainstream writers come to write SF, it's normally the case that they don't understand the idioms of SF, the things we do when we (SF readers) read SF. This is very noticeable in things like Marge Piercy's Body of Glass (published as He, She and It in the US) where Piercy had clearly read Gibson but nothing much else, or Doris Lessing's Shikasta and sequels. The mainstream writers know how to do all the basic writing stuff, stories and characters and all of that, sometimes they know how to do that really well. They really want to write SF... but they don't know how SF works. They explain too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things.... They don't get the thing I call "incluing", where you pick up things about how the world works from scattered clues within the text. I don't feel that Chabon has this problem in the slightest, because he is an SF reader and knows how to inclue -- indeed I very much admire the brilliance of his worldbuilding -- but he's very unusual.

I had a great revelation about this some time ago when I was reading A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. This is a mainstream story in which a female academic buys a bottle containing a djinn and gets it to give her wishes. It's a mainstream story because she finds the bottle on something like page 150 of 175. In a genre story she'd have found the bottle on the first page. It has mainstream pacing and expectations.... The story is really about how simple answers are not fulfulling. The djinn is a metaphor in exactly the way Kelly Link's zombies aren't a metaphor. People talk about SF as a literature of ideas... [but] I don't think it's so much the literature of ideas as the literature of worldbuilding. In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character. In a mainstream novel, the world is implicitly our world, and the characters are the world. In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven.  In the old Zork text adventures, if you tried to pick up something that was described but not an object, you'd get the message "that's just scenery". The difference between a mainstream novel and an SF one is that different things are just scenery.

Writing under constraints, literature of world-building, fantasies of magic- or technology-enabled political action, or ways of fitting into the reader's expectations to add resonance to the words that are on the page--I am not sure what to make of these perspectives. I do know that I want to think about them.

I know only two things:

  • Contra Hilzoy, Pride and Prejudice is too a genre romance novel--but one in which Jane Austen is always the mistress and never the servant of the constraints of the form: she makes them sit, roll over, and beg like dogs, and never lets them push her to a place she does not want to go.

  • Perhaps "literary fiction" is simply a grab-bag of genres that never took off--that never developed a critical mass of readers who said "I would really like to read something like that" and writers who said "I really could write something like that--and would really like to."

APPENDIX: Hilzoy's unfortunate take on the romance genre was a side effect of her being allowed to read Charlotte Allen--one of many reasons why in a good and just world the Washington Post would have shut down long ago. Allen wrote:

Obsidian Wings: Misogyny Day At The Washington Post (Part 1): [I] wonder whether women -- I should say, "we women," of course -- aren't the weaker sex after all. Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial.... I am perfectly willing to admit that I myself am a classic case of female mental deficiencies. I can't add 2 and 2 (well, I can, but then what?). I don't even know how many pairs of shoes I own. I have coasted through life and academia on the basis of an excellent memory and superior verbal skills.... [T]he women in history I admire most -- Sappho, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I, George Eliot, Margaret Thatcher -- were brilliant outliers. The same goes for female fighter pilots, architects, tax accountants, chemical engineers, Supreme Court justices and brain surgeons.... I don't understand why more women don't relax... and revel in the things most important to life at which nearly all of us excel: tenderness toward children and men and the weak and the ability to make a house a home.... Then we could shriek and swoon and gossip and read chick lit to our hearts' content and not mind the fact that way down deep, we are... kind of dim...

Hilzoy's justified explosion at Charlotte Allen contained the line:

Obsidian Wings: Misogyny Day At The Washington Post (Part 1): [R]omance novels (update below the fold) are not "books", as that word is normally used. They are either tools for relaxation or the female equivalent of porn. They should therefore be compared not to War and Peace, but to either "Ultimate Sudoku" or the Hustler centerfold. Personally, I think they come out fine in either comparison, but that's probably because I'm just a dumb woman...

If only she had written "Botticelli's Nascita di Venere" rather than "Hustler centerfold"!

Birth_of_Venus.jpg 550�46 pixels

Market Forces at Work in Energy Conservation

And Tom Levenson is writing about what he thinks he ought to be writing about:

Updates on the 100 mpg car front: Way, way back when there was a Republican fight for the nomination, Mike Huckabee made a little splash by calling for a one billion dollar prize to encourage the production of a generally available care capable of 100 mpg. I ridiculed Mike... because (a) the billion bucks was such a wildly disproportionate reward given the X-prize being offered for the same basic goal seemed to think that ten million would do the trick, and... at least one production vehicle on the verge of release, the Tesla roadster, could already lay claim to the milestone.... But what I want to highlight here is the power of 4 buck a gallon gas to concentrate the mass market manufacturer’s mind.

Most immediately, it looks like the GM Volt is real as of 2010 — though at a higher price than originally proposed, 40K instead of around 30K. It will have an MPG equivalent of 150 mpg running on its electric motor, which will drop if the range-extending gasoline engine gets called into use. GM also has a Saturn Vue plug-in SUV project in the works. Toyota is working on its plug in response, with a current, very short range claim of 99.9 mpg.

But what caught my eye today was... the British Motor Show’s latest offerings of cool to cute electric, energy efficient cars. The headliner? The four-seconds-to-60/10 minutes to recharge Lightning GT. 300 large, I’m afraid, so this is another pure fantasy. But taken all in all, and never forgetting the 350 mpg personal transportation available in the form of this electric scooter, it looks like the use of market mechanisms to control green house gas emissions is, pace the McCain campaign’s whispered walk-back on the issue, is working just as the econ 1 textbooks tell you it should.

Atlantic Monthly Death Spiral Watch (Marc Ambinder Edition)

Levenson of the Inverse Square Blog, who reads Marc Ambinder so we don't have to, emails that at 8:40 AM July 31, 2008 Marc Ambinder wrote:

Marc Ambinder: Energy In McCain's Move?: ST. LOUIS, MO -- The Varsity Squad heads to Cedar Rapids, Iowa this morning to hear Barack Obama talk about energy policy.  Exxon-Mobil's $11 billion profit will certainly show up in Obama's remarks. But will Obama mention, refer to, hint it at the the Britney ad and chatter that he's become a presumptuous celebrity?  The vaunted Obama message machine surely wouldn't go off track..not even one teensy spike... . so if Obama mentions it this morning, it means that somewhere, somehow, his advisers worry about the perception gelling. Of course, it is totally true that the press corps (moi) would notice if Obama didn't mention it and would write stories with headlines like "Obama Ignores McCain Jab."  Campaigns can't win...

And by 1:48 PM was writing:

Marc Ambinder: Bluffing 'Bout Bias?: EDAR RAPIDS, IOWA -- Really, the press corps should pay attention to Barack Obama's sustained defense of his energy policies, which includes new language on John McCain's ties to the oil industry.  But we're not: we're writing about the flashpoint of the day, which is the McCain campaign's contention that Obama is illegally playing the "race card," of bluffing about bias...

Let's take a look at the videotape. As of 8:40 AM:

  • The flashpoint of the day was would Barack Obama react to McCain's Britney ad, and so give reporters the excuse to ignore all matters of substance?
  • Or would Barack Obama stay on message and talk about energy?

Obama stayed on message and talked about energy. But by 1:48 PM Ambinder has forgotten all about what he wrote at 8:40 AM. As of 1:48:

  • Ambinder knows that he should inform the American people about energy issues
  • But he won't
  • Not because he has to talk about Britney Spears--Britney is forgotten
  • But because Ambinder wants to talk about "the McCain campaign's contention that Obama is illegally playing the 'race card', of bluffing about bias."

As of 8:30 Ambinder was going to write about either energy or Britney Spears. But as of 1:48 he is writing about something else--because McCain is telling him to. As Tom Levenson writes, this is:

a full scale admission that [Ambinder] writes about what the McCain people are playing him to write about. It wouldn't be any better if Obama were doing the playing; the point is that there is a real set of issues around energy, none of which Ambinder seems minded to cover. And he's kind of proud about it. I'll probably put something on this up on my blog -- but I'm trying to keep something of my promise to write about the history of science and the intersection of science and public life, and this stuff touches on neither. Plus the fact that orders of magnitude more people pay attention to your plaints than mine. So here 'tis, free, gratis and for nothing...

Let me first disagree with Tom. The fact that Marc Ambinder will not write about energy issues--which are, at bottom, scientific issues--under any circumstances--the fact that wild horses could not drag Marc Ambinder to write about energy issues--that has a great deal to do with the intersection of science and public life. (I would say cf. C.P. Snow, "The Two Cultures," but I'm not sure it's relevant.)

Let me, second, propose a way of dealing with Ambinder and his ilk. He says he ought to be writing about energ policy--but won't. I think our appropriate response is to say that we ought to be reading somebody who writes about what he thinks he ought to be writing about--and we will now go do so.

Tyler Cowen Directs Us to John Cochrane

John Cochrane has things to say about many of his colleagues at the University of Chicago. As far as polemic goes, I don't think I will ever see a better one:

Comments on the Milton Friedman Institute Protest letter:

As usual, academics need to waste two paragraphs before getting to the point, which starts in the first bullet. To really enjoy this delicious prose you have to first read it all in one place.   * Many colleagues are distressed by the notoriety of the Chicago School of Economics, especially throughout much of the global south, where they have often to defend the University’s reputation in the face of its negative image. The effects of the neoliberal global order that has been put in place in recent decades, strongly buttressed by the Chicago School of Economics, have by no means been unequivocally positive. Many would argue that they have been negative for much of the world's population, leading to the weakening of a number of struggling local economies in the service of globalized capital, and many would question the substitution of monetization for democratization under the banner of “market democracy.”    Yes, there are people left on the planet who write and think this way, and no, I’m not making this up. Let’s read this more closely and try to figure out what it means.  

Many colleagues are distressed by the notoriety of the Chicago School of Economics, especially throughout much of the global south, where they have often to defend the University’s reputation in the face of its negative image.   If you’re wondering “what’s their objection?”, “how does a MFI hurt them?” you now have the answer.  Translated, “when we go to fashionable lefty cocktail parties in Venezuela, it’s embarrassing to admit who signs our paychecks.” Interestingly, the hundred people who signed this didn’t have the guts even to say “we,” referring to some nebulous “they” as the subject of the sentence.  Let’s read this literally: “We don’t really mind at all if there’s a MFI on campus, but some of our other colleagues, who are too shy to sign this letter, find it all too embarrassing to admit where they work.” If this is the reason for organizing a big protest perhaps someone has too much time on their hands.   Global south   I’ll just pick on this one as a stand-in for all the jargon in this letter.  What does this oxymoron mean, and why do the letter writers use it?  We used to say what we meant, “poor countries. ” That became unfashionable, in part because poverty is sometimes a bit of your own doing and not a state of pure victimhood.  So, it became polite to call dysfunctional backwaters “developing.” That was already a lie (or at best highly wishful thinking) since the whole point is that they aren’t developing.  But now bien-pensant circles don’t want to endorse “development” as a worthwhile goal anymore.   “South” – well, nice places like Australia, New Zealand and Chile are there too (at least from a curiously North-American and European-centric perspective).  So now it’s called “global south,” which though rather poor as directions for actually getting anywhere, identifies the speaker as the caring sort of person who always uses the politically correct word.    The effects of the neoliberal global order that has been put in place in recent decades…   Notice the interesting voice of the verb. Let’s call it the “accusatory passive.” “Has been put in place...” By who, I (or any decent writer) would want to know?  Unnamed dark forces are at work.   Many would argue that they have been negative for much of the world's population... weakening … struggling local economies   I can think of lots of words to describe what’s going on in, say, China and India, as well as what happened previously to countries that adopted the “neoliberal global order” like Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Billions of people are leading dramatically freer, healthier, longer and more prosperous lives than they were a generation ago.   Of course, we all face plenty of problems. I worry about environmental catastrophes, and their political, social and economic aftermath.  Many people are suffering, primarily in pockets of kleptocracy and anarchy.  Life’s pretty bleak about 5 blocks west of the University of Chicago. In my professional life, I worry about inflation, chaotic markets, and their possible death by regulation. There is a lot for thoughtful economists and social scientists to do. But honestly, do we really yearn to send a billion Chinese back to their “local economies,” trying to eke a meager living out of a quarter acre of rice paddy, under the iron grip of some local bureaucrat? I mean, the Mao caps and Che shirts are cool and all, but millions of people starved to death.   This is just the big lie theory at work. Say something often enough and people will start to believe it. It helps especially if what you say is vague and meaningless. Ok, I’ll try to be polite; a lie is deliberate and this is more like a willful disregard for the facts. Still, if you start with the premise that the last 40 or so years, including the fall of communism, and the [economic] opening of China and India are “negative for much of the world’s population,” you just don’t have any business being a social scientist. You don’t stand a chance of contributing something serious to the problems that we actually do face.     the service of globalized capital..   was wondering who the subject of all these passive sentences is. Now I’m beginning to get the idea. This view has a particularly dark history. I’ll give you a hint:  “Globalized capital” has names like Goldman and Sachs.    many would question the substitution of monetization for democratization under the banner of 'market democracy.'   What a doozy! What can this actually mean? Given the counterpoint “market democracy” (what we live in, I presume) I suspect “democratic” here means “democratic” as in “people’s democratic republic”, i.e. the government runs everything.  Monetization is democratization; it means things are accessible to anyone, not just the politically connected. That observation was, among many other things, Milton Friedman’s genius.   Once again, the verb tenses and subjects are telling. “The substitution.” Who did this substitution? Maybe globalized capital, or the international banking conspiracy? Maybe it’s the trilateral commission.    The closing bullet point is fun as a reminder of how petty academic squabbles can be after we strip off all the big words, fancy pretentions and meaningless jargon.   * In the interests of equity and balance, many of us feel that the University ought to reconsider contributing to the proposed Milton Friedman Institute, which will inevitably be a powerful magnet for scholars and donors who share a specific set of interests and values to the exclusion of others, whether this is openly acknowledged or not.   Translation:  we publicly charge the faculty committee who put this thing together, and promise a non-partisan non-directed research institute (me included), with lying through their teeth.  This sentence adds a – well let’s be polite and call it a “factual inaccuracy.” The whole point is not “University contribution.” The whole point is to try to get private donors who see the benefits of Milton Friedman’s legacy to support economics research here.   If the writers understood the first thing about money, that it is fungible, they might understand which side of their bread is buttered.   Still others believe that, given the influx of private contributions to the MFI, the University now has the opportunity to provide roughly equivalent resources for critical scholarly work that seeks out alternatives to recent economic, social, and political developments.     Finally, we get to the point! We can get over our “distress” at admitting where we work, but what we want is to do some of our own “substitution of monetization for democratization.” And with none of the niceties about non-partisan, non-ideological, open-minded research in the Milton Friedman founding documents either – this money is reserved for people who can get the right answers and belong to the right clubs.  And we’re not planning to ask our sympathizers to pony up money either. Basically, we want the Friedman Institute money.     Virtually all of us are distressed by the position the University has taken and by the process through which decisions have been made.   And we end with good old “process.”   When you can’t really complain on the merits, you can always gum up the works by complaining about “process.” Now you know why it takes so long for a university ever to do anything.   If it’s sad to see what 101 professionally distinguished minds at the University of Chicago think about free markets at all, it is to me sadder still how atrociously written this letter is. These people devote their lives to writing on social issues, and teaching freshmen (including mine) how to think and write clearly.  Yet it’s awful.   The letter starts with two paragraphs of meaningless throat-clearing. (“This is a question of the meaning of the University’s investments, in all senses.”  What in the world does that sentence actually mean?)  I learned to delete throat-clearing in the first day of Writing 101.  It’s all written in the passive, or with vague subjects.  “Many” should not be the subject of any sentence. You should never write “has been put in place,” you should say who put something in place. You should take responsibility in your writing. Write “we,” not “many colleagues.”  The final paragraphs wander around without saying much of anything.     The content of course is worse. There isn’t even an idea here, a concrete proposition about the human condition that one can disagree with, buttress or question with facts. It just slings a bunch of jargon, most of which has a real meaning opposite to the literal. “Global South,” “neoliberal global order,” “the service of globalized capital,” “substitution of monetization for democratization.” George Orwell would be proud.   I’m not a good writer. I admire great prose, and I attempt to fill the spaces between equations of my papers with comprehensible words. But even I can recognize atrocious prose when I see it.  Really, guys and gals, if a Freshman handed this in to one of your classes, could you possibly give any grade above C- and cover it with red ink?   I was quoted as saying “drivel,” and I meant it, not as an insult but as a technically correct description of a piece of prose. We can – and should – happily disagree on all sorts of matters of fact and interpretation, clearly stated, and openly discussed. But there’s nothing here to discuss, it’s just mush. The saddest aspect of this whole sorry affair is that 100 faculty at such a distinguished institution can sign their names – and with them their intellectual reputations and their sacred honor -- to such utter drivel.   Milton Friedman stood for freedom, social, political, and economic. He realized that they are inextricably linked. If the government controls your job or your business, dissent is impossible.  He favored, among other things, legalizing drugs, school choice, and volunteer army. To call him or his political legacy “right wing” is simply ignorant, and I mean that also as a technically accurate description rather than an insult.  (Of course, he also has a legacy in the economics community as a first-rate researcher, which is what the MFI will do and honor.)      So here’s my question: If you’re embarrassed by this legacy, if you worry that it will tarnish the University’s reputation, just what is it that you good-thinking guys and gals have against human freedom?

Hoisted from Comments: The Jim Hamilton Model

Hoisted from Comments: kharris makes what I think of as the Jim Hamilton point:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong: On that point about where unemployment goes next, I notice that there is no episode of jobless rate rise in the period covered by the chart that is as large as the one we are now in which did not grow larger. Increases in the jobless rate past 0.5% (that may be generous) tend to become quite tenacious. Unless this episode proves an exception, we are going to see a considerably higher jobless rate over the next few months.

Posted by: kharris | July 31, 2008 at 01:02 PM

We may see tomorrow...

Ummm... No

Megan McArdle writes:

Megan McArdle: I know I saw that recession around here somewhere . . . The economy grew at 1.9% last quarter.  Two thoughts.  First, the American economy is simply amazingly resilient--1.9% is cause for exultant celebration in a lot of European finance ministries.  And second, Barack Obama's campaign team is probably doing some serious rethinking this morning...

Megan, this morning's number was bad news about the state of the economy between April and June--we had been betting that the number would be about 2.5% because of dollar decline-driven net export growth and the stimulus package. It is very nice that we continue to escape a deep recession like 1982--so far. But the odds that we are in or will soon be in an episode that the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee will call a recession are higher today than they were yesterday.

The recent quarter-to-quarter growth numbers are:

2007q1 0.1
2007q2 4.8
2007q3 4.8
2007q4 -0.2
2008q1 0.9
2008q2 1.9
2008q3 1.5*

with the Macroeconomic Associates tracking estimate of the third quarter added on to the end. It looks like we will go into the election with GDP growth averaging 1.0% per year over the past four quarters--and with GDP per capita flat over the year before the election.

That's not good for an incumbent party.

Whether the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee will ultimately count this episode as a recession or not is still way up in the air--and, I think, depends very much on where unemployment goes next:

Less than 40% of Americans Take Summer Vacations

You wouldn't know it from the press, but Bob Reich says that Conference Board says that only two in five Americans plan a summer vacation:

Robert Reich's Blog: The Myth of Summer Vacation: I'm about to take a few weeks off. If you are, too, we're in the minority. A Conference Board poll last April found fewer than 40 percent of Americans planning a summer vacation.... The average American employee gets a total of 14 days off each year. If you want to take a few of them around Thanksgiving, between Christmas and New Years, and maybe when the kids are home on spring break, summer vacation is already practically gone. Those 14 days, by the way, are the fewest vacation days in any advanced economy. The average French worker gets 37 days off annually; In Britain, it's 26....

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us 1 out of 4 workers gets no paid vacation days at all. Every other advanced nation -- and even lots of developing nations -- mandate them.... It's not that we're too busy to vacation. Just the opposite: There's not enough work go around. Which means we don't dare leave work, lest we lose us a customer who might just happen to want us when we're gone. Or we could even lose the job, because employees on vacation might seem expendable to an employer looking for a way to cut costs...

Why Weren't Interest Groups in Favor of Freer Trade Mobilized?

Paul Krugman meditates on the collapse of the Doha Round:

Dead Doha - Paul Krugman: It’s over — which is neither a surprise nor a catastrophe. Trade negotiations aren’t driven by economists’ calculations of welfare gains; they’re driven by enlightened mercantilism, what has come to be known as GATT-think. If trade negotiators want to take on well-entrenched interest groups, they have to find countervailing interest groups with an interest in liberalization. That never happened in this round; instead, we had a rather pathetic attempt to cast trade negotiations as, yes, part of the Global War on Terror ™. No surprise, then, that the thing didn’t work. Meanwhile, existing agreements stand. This isn’t Smoot-Hawley; it isn’t even the 2002 Bush steel tariff. Life, and trade, will go on.

Me, I remember Glenn Hubbard, Larry Lindsey, Greg Mankiw, and company all saying that Bush had to impose his steel tariffs in 2002 as a price for getting fast-track authority so that he could successfully complete... the Doha Round.

Stupidest Celebrity Alive: John McCain

Rodger Payne notes that up until this week, John McCain thought that being a celebrity was a good thing:

Rodger A. Payne's Blog: Who's the celebrity?: John McCain is a constant guest on "The Daily Show" and other celebrity talk shows. We've all seen him...for years and years.... [A]s recently as July 11, 2008, John McCain's own website included this line from an article about one of his 2007 appearances on David Letterman: "A political celebrity, McCain is considered a top contender for the nomination."

But before McCain launched his latest attack ad:

That's from the google cache. The original article has been scrubbed.

Rodger provides background:

John McCain's latest TV ad tags Barack Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world" and includes images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. "Is he ready to lead?" asks the voiceover.... [T]oday, Politico quotes a McCain adviser dropping in a reference to Obama's celebrity-like response to an attack. "This is a typically superfluous response from Barack Obama. Like most celebrities, he reacts to fair criticism with a mix of fussiness and hysteria."...

I wonder, did they think through this meme?...

The more I think about it, I am increasingly convinced that the latest McCain "celebrity" ad and attack is ridiculous -- or at least hypocritical.... One of McCain's 2000 campaign officials says his success that year was caused, in large part, by his a former prominent POW:

Ken Khachigian, Reagan's chief speech writer in 1980 and now McCain's top California strategist, said Reagan and McCain both benefited from their celebrity status, Reagan as an actor and governor, McCain as a POW and senator. ''It's an accident of history'' that the similarities exist, Khachigian said. ''But in my own mind, it's constantly there.''

In any case, do you know just how many times John McCain has appeared on "The Daily Show"?... "This appearance will mark the Senator's 13th time on the show, more than any other guest..." After learning this, I clicked over to the Internet Movie Database to see just how often John McCain has appeared on other TV talk shows since 2000, when he became nationally famous after his failed presidential bid: Jay Leno: 10 times. David Letterman: 8 times. The Daily Show: 12 times (or 13?). Conan O'Brien: 3 episodes. Larry King Live: 9 times. Saturday Night Live: twice. Live with Regis and Kathie Lee (!): once Entertainment Tonight (!!): twice. The View: twice. Tony Danza Show (!!!): once. The man had a cameo in "The Wedding Crashers"! And in 2006, Senator McCain apparently appeared as an actor in an episode of "24"...

Sectoral Rotation Continues

The Federal Reserve's goal of letting the fall in the value of the dollar boost net exports as fast as construction shrinks appears to be working, and to be keeping us from falling even further below full employment.

Dean Baker reads the BEA release:

CEPR - Soaring Net Exports Lead to 1.9 Percent Growth in Second Quarter: Exports grew at a 9.2 percent annual rate. More importantly, imports fell at a 6.6 percent annual rate. Together, the change in net exports added 2.42 percentage points to GDP growth for the quarter, keeping the growth rate in positive territory.

The impact of the foreign sector on the economy in the last three quarters has been extraordinary. Gross domestic purchases, the sum of consumption, investment, and government expenditures, have actually been falling at a 0.5 percent annual rate since the third quarter of 2007. In other words, without the improvement in the trade balance, the economy clearly would be in a recession....

[R]evisions knocked 0.1 percentage points off [estimated] growth [on the output side] in the years from 2004-2007. This makes the productivity slowdown somewhat more striking, with growth averaging just 1.7 percent since the second quarter of 2004. Profits were revised higher for all three years. This has the effect of increasing the statistical discrepancy (the gap between output side GDP and income side GDP), with the -1.2 percent of GDP discrepancy shown for 2006 being one of the largest income side gaps on record.  

While the stimulus package helped to sustain growth in the second quarter and will continue to provide a boost in the third quarter, the economy still faces serious problems ahead. It is unlikely that net exports will continue to provide as strong a boost to demand as they have over the last three quarters.... [N]on-residential construction will soon fall also. Most importantly, the loss of housing wealth will start to slow consumption.

Ken Rogoff Puzzles Paul Krugman

Paul writes:

The Rogoff doctrine - Paul Krugman: Ken Rogoff is one of the world’s best macroeconomists, so I take whatever he says seriously. But — you know that’s the kind of statement that is followed by a “but” — I’m having a hard time understanding his demands for a world slowdown. Ken tells us that

The huge spike in global commodity price inflation is prima facie evidence that the global economy is still growing too fast.

And then he calls for

a couple of years of sub-trend growth to rebalance commodity supply and demand at trend price levels

Um, why? Basically, the world is employing rapidly growing amounts of labor and capital, but faces limited supplies of oil and other resources. Naturally enough, the relative prices of those resources have risen — which is the way markets are supposed to work. Since when does economic analysis say that the way to deal with limited supplies of one resource is to reduce employment of other resources, so that the relative price of the limited resource returns to “trend”?

Presumably there’s some implicit argument in the background about why a sharp rise in the relative price of oil is more damaging than leaving labor and capital underemployed. But that argument isn’t there in Ken’s recent pieces. Model, please? I agree that

Dollar bloc countries have slavishly mimicked expansionary US monetary policy

and that’s a real issue: the Fed is pursuing very loose policy to deal with a US financial crisis, and that’s inflationary in countries that are pegged to the dollar without facing our problems. But that’s an argument for breaking up Bretton Woods II; it’s not an argument for tighter Fed policy.

Since this is coming from Ken Rogoff, I assume that there’s some deeper analysis here. But I can’t infer it from the articles I’ve read. Please, sir, can I have some more?

Washington Post Death Spiral Watch (Yet Another Jonathan Weisman Edition)

I had written:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong: And, of course, nothing would be complete without yet another Jonathan Weisman special. Jonathan writes:

Obama's Symbolic Importance | The Trail | In his closed door meeting with House Democrats Tuesday night, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama delivered a real zinger, according to a witness, suggesting that he was beginning to believe his own hype. Obama was waxing lyrical about last week's trip to Europe, when he concluded, according to the meeting attendee, "this is the moment, as Nancy [Pelosi] noted, that the world is waiting for." The 200,000 souls who thronged to his speech in Berlin came not just for him, he told the enthralled audience of congressional representatives. "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions," he said, according to the source.

It turns out that Weisman was burned by his source.

On Wednesday morning, House leadership aides pushed back against interpretations of this comment as self-aggrandizing, saying that when the presumptive Democratic nominee said, "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America," he was actually trying to deflect attention from himself. No tape of the event exists and no one is denying the quote. But one leadership aide said the full quote put it into a different context. According to that aide, Obama said, "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign -- that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol."

But even though burned, Weisman continues to guard his source's anonymity--thus saying, "Burn me again!" Please! Soon! I don't publish enough lies!"

Robert Waldmann has sharp eyes, and notice that Jonathan Weisman lies yet again when he says "no one is denying the quote." There is an important difference between:

I have become a symbol...


I have just become a symbol...

Here is Robert:

Note that Weisman's version of the quote which no one is "denying" are inconsistent. According to the second person quoted by Weisman, the first elided the word "just" and Weisman typed it up without an ellipses. That is not distorting meaning by removing context, that is falsifying a quote. Amazingly, Weisman still claims that the contested quote is not contested. He thus shows his utter contempt for journalistic standards (which I don't share), and for punctuation...

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State » The nonpuzzle of the close election polls

From Andrew Gelman:

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State » The nonpuzzle of the close election polls: [W]hy is Obama up only slightly in the polls? This is the question that is (currently) puzzling the political world. A quick answer: the economy isn’t going so badly by historical standards, and Bush’s popularity isn’t so relevant given that he’s not running for reelection. Forecasting models based on past elections predict Obama to get something like 53% of the two-party vote–but these forecasts aren’t perfect; they have a margin of error of a few percentage points. (This is not the margin of error of the polls, arising from sampling variation; rather, it’s the uncertainty reflected by the imperfections of the forecasting model as applied retrospectively to past elections.) In short: macro conditions for the Republicans are not so bad as all that: Obama is a legitimate favorite but there’s no reason to expect that there would be a landslide. Things are going about how one might suspect based on historical patterns of the economy, incumbency, and presidential elections.

To think about it another way, consider this graph adapted from Doug Hibbs... the incumbent party sometimes loses but they never have gotten really slaughtered. In periods of low economic growth, the incumbent party can lose, but a 53-47 margin would be typical; you wouldn’t expect the challenger to get much more than that. Such things can happen (see, for example, Eisenhower’s performance against Stevenson in 1952) but it wouldn’t be expected.

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State » The nonpuzzle of the close election polls

Washington Post Death Spiral Watch (Dana Milbank Calls Barack Obama "Uppity" Editin)

Todd Gitlin:

TPMCafe | Talking Points Memo | "Presumptuous": "Barack Obama has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee." That's Dana Milbank in this morning's WP. Imagine! Obama holds meetings with enthusiastic supporters from his own party "pep rallies"! He gets motorcades! He plans a presidential transition! (Everyone knows it's far better to wait ll November.)

The "presumptuous" meme is swooping virally through the media. Nexis picks up 23 mentions in major newspapers in less than three weeks--about one a day. Why do I think what they really mean is "uppity"? Thanks to Matt Yglesias for ringing the bell on the vile, even crazy part of Milbank's stuff, his interpretation of Obama's talk to House Democrats. I can't put this any better than Matt:

So it seems that Barack Obama said something like: "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions." One could dispute that theory, but it's not a particularly remarkable thing to say. You have a candidate who was greeted enthusiastically in Europe saying that the enthusiasm was about something larger than him -- about the United States and about the values Barack Obama and millions of other Americans cherish and hope will once again govern the country.

But Dana Millbank wanted to write an article about how "Barack Obama has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee."... And now for hours the press and the GOP have been in a frenzy about Obama's arrogance. Because he tried to say something humble about why he was greeting by hundreds of thousands of people when he gave a speech.

John McCain is traveling around in $520 loafers--silly me, I didn't know there were any such things--but he's not called "presumptuous" for it. He claims to have foreign policy experience because he was a prisoner of war, but he's not called "presumptuous" for that, either.

Come on, journalists, have the guts to say what you mean. Use the U-word out front.

Update: Not having spent enough time on the Internets the last few days, I missed earlier callouts of the presumptuous/uppity meme. Hat tips to Bob Cesca and the indefatigable Digby...

Bob Cesca:

Bob Cesca: The Barbeque Media Wants Senator Obama To Win? That's Rich.: As we have observed throughout the last several years, the notion of fairness in journalism has been guided by a miscalculated rule that in order to report good news about a liberal or a liberal success, news reporting has to be counterbalanced either with unearned praise for conservatives or trumped up and parroted negative news about the aforementioned liberal or liberal success. Oh, and the reverse doesn't apply. That's the rule.

And so now that Senator Obama's Berlin address is in the can, get ready for the backlash from the very serious corporate media. Get ready for profuse around-the-clock praise of Senator McCain and/or unfair, invented criticism of Senator Obama. Because reporting the news, however accurate, about Senator Obama's successful trip to the Middle East and Europe isn't news. It's obviously biased reporting against the McCain campaign.

That's all we've heard from the McBush Republicans this week: griping about the press coverage of Senator Obama's trip, as if such an epic event isn't newsworthy.... And it appears as if the McCain campaign's Gripe Surge is working:

HANNITY: Scott Rasmussen has a poll, 49 percent of Americans think the media is trying to help Barack Obama win. Only 14 percent think they're trying to help you win.
MCCAIN: The American people are very wise.

When the press aired the Wright videos around the clock for approximately six weeks while continuing to refer to Senator Obama as "Osama bin Laden," they've clearly been employing some kind of magic or trickery -- some kind of scary reverse psychology. You know, to help Senator Obama. Thankfully the American people were "wise" to it....

On Tuesday's edition of Morning Joe, Mika Brzeznski, Andrea Mitchell and Very Serious Mark Halperin (who publicly encouraged Senator McCain to convince people that Senator Obama is a terrorist) agreed that after three days of reporting the actual news that Senator Obama's overseas visit was successful, they should deliberately attempt to "trip him up" -- to "hold him accountable." Oh yeah? For what? We're gonna hold him accountable for not screwing the pooch on this trip -- the rat bastard! We're very serious! Barack's a Muslim terrorist [Halperin only]!

Then CBS News, showing its obvious penchant for wanting Senator Obama to win, edited out Senator McCain's laughable error with regards to the Anbar Awakening -- another in an on-going syllabus of McCain ignorance, which further proves that he's really not the Mighty Old Man of Awesome Foreign Policy Experience and Balls. Suggesting that there's such a thing as an Iraq/Pakistan border in a Today Show interview on Monday didn't help either.

But as the rule goes, the only way the corporate press (Olbermann, Maddow and the like excluded) can make a beef about these things would be to find a similar gaffe or mistake by Senator Obama and report on that first. And since nothing recent exists... Pass! Next!

And today, the word of the day in the corporate press is... "presumptuous." Used in a sentence: Senator Obama is being presumptuous during his trip -- acting all presidential and dignified. How dare he be presidential while running for, you know, president. Presumptuous....

AP: "In a speech that risked being seen as presumptuous..." TIME Magazine: "capable to become the Commander in Chief of a superpower -- without seeming presumptuous..." The National Journal: "He is well aware voters here at home might see that as presumptuous..." Washington Post: "Whether by the end of this week he will be seen as presumptuous or overly cocky..." Chicago Tribune: "That means walking the fine line between looking presidential and appearing arrogant and presumptuous..." Boston Globe: "plus the growing sense in some quarters that the presumptive Democratic nominee is getting a little presumptuous..."

The reality is that positive coverage of any Democrat is limited and temporary for fear of networks and newspapers either being accused of liberal bias or being tossed out of the very serious barbeque loop. Regardless of whether the Democrat, in this case Senator Obama, is having a good day, it's somehow unethical to report on such good news for too long without deliberately concocting an antidote to appease the far-right. So rather than standing up as the only industry explicitly named in the Constitution and defending the very basic idea of journalistic integrity, the corporate media is all too quick to capitulate to these specious Republican attacks -- that is, when they're not tossing their ethics aside and taking bribes in the form of barbeque and McBusch beer from a candidate whom they're supposed to be covering objectively...

And Bob Kilgore:

Democratic Strategist: "Presumptuous" Transition Planning: The latest McCain campaign attack line on Barack Obama, representing one of the few options for mocking the Democrat's highly successful overseas trip, and building on the older idea that Obama's some sort of egomaniacal Messiah figure ("The One," as McCain's staff calls him), has been that he's pretending to have already won the presidency. This meme got a boost today from WaPo's Dana Milbank, who had some irresponsible fun with the idea that Obama's gone from being the "presumptive" nominee to the "presumptuous" nominee who's engaging in a "victory tour" and "acting presidential."

Since a lot of the people mocking Obama's "presumptuousness" are also predicting that Obama could lose because Americans just can't envision him as Commander-in-Chief, this is a pretty disingenuous criticism. But the particular complaint that really makes me crazy is this one, as articulated by Milbank:

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported last week that Obama has directed his staff to begin planning for his transition to the White House, causing Republicans to howl about premature drape measuring.

We should all hope that both candidates are putting into motion some planning for a post-victory transition.... [S]omehow, I doubt that most critics of Obama's "presumptuousness" had issues with George W. Bush's open transition planning during the Florida crisis of 2000, which had the cover, of course, of Bush's claim that he had already won.

The idea that directing staff to begin thinking about the transition represents some sort of "taking the eyes off the ball" mistake by Obama doesn't make any sense, either. Certainly his policy staff has some spare time; with the candidate's agenda and platform already in place, their labors will be largely limited to new developments; nuances related to the candidate's travel (viz. the deployment of his foreign policy advisors during the overseas trip); and later on, debate prep...

And, of course, nothing would be complete without yet another Jonathan Weisman special. Jonathan writes:

Obama's Symbolic Importance | The Trail | In his closed door meeting with House Democrats Tuesday night, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama delivered a real zinger, according to a witness, suggesting that he was beginning to believe his own hype. Obama was waxing lyrical about last week's trip to Europe, when he concluded, according to the meeting attendee, "this is the moment, as Nancy [Pelosi] noted, that the world is waiting for." The 200,000 souls who thronged to his speech in Berlin came not just for him, he told the enthralled audience of congressional representatives. "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions," he said, according to the source.

It turns out that Weisman was burned by his source.

On Wednesday morning, House leadership aides pushed back against interpretations of this comment as self-aggrandizing, saying that when the presumptive Democratic nominee said, "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America," he was actually trying to deflect attention from himself. No tape of the event exists and no one is denying the quote. But one leadership aide said the full quote put it into a different context. According to that aide, Obama said, "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign -- that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol."

But even though burned, Weisman continues to guard his source's anonymity--thus saying, "Burn me again!" Please! Soon! I don't publish enough lies!"

The Struggle to Safeguard Israel

Spencer Ackerman applauds Joe Klein for going on a mission to enhance Israel's security, and joins him:

ATTACKERMAN » Chutzpah Driven, We Battle Then We Feast: Last month I wrote about how the right-wing fake-friends of Israel in American Jewry were coming after Joe Klein... for saying something that all of us DC Jews acknowledge to be true, which is that a bunch of our neocon co-religionists, out of ignorance or mendacity, seek to steer American policy in the direction of a misguided belief of what's good for Israel. That direction is a warlike one, and often a racist one.... [T]hey... so have succeeded in intimidating the rest of us, Jew and Gentile alike, by intimating that even breathing in [the] direction [Joe Klein is taking] is antisemitic. Indeed, they will not stop until they define all of liberalism as antisemitic. The result... has been, among other things, an intellectual climate that enabled a war disastrous to both American and Israeli security. Good going, fellas! So now they've stepped up their attacks on Joe. But Joe, to his great credit, isn't backing down. Instead, he's pushing the bullies back in their flabby chests.

I am not going to make the same mistake twice. I don't think a war with Iran is coming, thank God, but this time I am not going to pull any punches. My voice isn't very important in the grand scheme of things, but I'm going to do my job--and that means letting you know exactly where I stand and what I believe. I believe there are a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who are pushing for war with Iran because they believe it is in America's long-term interests and because they believe Israel's existence is at stake. They are wrong and recent history tells us they are dangerous. They are also bullies and I'm not going to be intimidated by them.

Nor should the rest of us. These people are liars, fools and stooges. They do not actually have any idea how to protect either America or Israel. Everything they believe has been decisively disproven over the last eight years. Not only do we never need to fear them, we never need to listen to them ever again, except for the purpose of merciless ridicule.... I am challenging my fellow liberal American Jews -- the vast majority of us in this country -- to walk point... [push] back [against] the growing canard that liberalism is antisemitism, peace is antisemitism, coexistence between Israel and Palestine is antisemitism, true security for Israel and America is antisemitism. So we have to be the ones who take the initiative in beating back the rightwing Jewish minority-- something good for the Jews, good for America, good for Israel, good for the Arabs, good for peace, good for the world...

Ezra Klein joins the struggle to safeguard Israel:

EzraKlein Archive | The American Prospect: If he keeps this up, we're going to need to make a page of Joe Klein Facts ("there is no need for an Anti-Defamation League. There's only need for Joe Klein, a pair of nunchuks, and some throwing stars."). It is dead obvious to any sentient observer that the security of Israel is an eminent concern to American neoconservatives, and that they're anxious to attack Iran because they are anxious to disrupt a threat to Israel. That's not some, ahem, Straussian deep read, but the explicit argument of most all the hysteria around Iran. Ahmedinejad, after all, is not known for his threats to annihilate the US. He's known for his threats against Israel. And though Ahmedinejad does not actually control his country's foreign policy, those threats have been the explicit reason why Iran cannot be allowed to secure a nuclear weapon....

[I]t's perfectly fair to argue that America should go to war in order to preempt an attack against Israel... it's perfectly fair for them to argue that [Israel's] defense is a moral necessity [for America]. The problem is when you simultaneously argue that and emit shrieks of "anti-semite!" when anyone points out that you're arguing that. It's a dangerous strategy that makes it harder to credibly argue against those who actually do hate Jews for their intrinsic Jewishness.... Joe Klein may be on the receiving end now, but he's not the first. Years ago, when I initially came to DC, The Jewish Journal asked me to write an article about AIPAC. While I was reporting out the story, it came clear that the interesting angle was how many people were warning me not to write the story. And I'm not talking about AIPAC flacks: I mean folks who thought they were looking out for my career....

In recent years, AIPAC -- and many other organizations and actors who use the term "anti-semite" as a tool of intimidation and not a descriptor of hatred -- proved [weak]. They attacked voices who weren't inclined to back down. They assailed Walt and Mearsheimer only to find that the smear campaign had done nothing but act as publicity for the W&M thesis, and spurred other writers to make almost identical arguments. Now they're trying it on Joe Klein, and are finding that the wages of that campaign are a lot of criticism from an incredibly public and well-known writer and pundit. Their problem is that they bought into their own reputation, they believed too fully that they could fire offending writers and thinkers, that... they could shut down all dissent and criticism...

Matthew Yglesias applauds Joe Klein as well:

Matthew Yglesias: Klein versus the J-Pod Gang: [T]here's something revealing about the sense of entitlement among Joe Klein's antagonists at Commentary. As he says "They want Time Magazine to fire or silence me." The people on the hawk side of this issue are used to getting their way through bullying, and to terrifying a large number of people who disagree with them out of ever saying so. One thing I think the blogosphere has been helpful in doing is opening up the conversation a little bit by giving some voice and prominence to people who didn't have much to lose or didn't necessarily know any better. Some of that spirit has trickled back into the MSM and it's a very good thing...

Why Oh Why Can't We Have Better Republican Politicians?

Matthew Yglesias:

Matthew Yglesias: Contrasting Through Falsehood: Marc Ambinder writes about the prospects for an elite backlash against the McCain campaign's new strategy of making stuff up:

"I will defend every single word in every single ad," a senior McCain campaign adviser told me last week. "But you can't really blame Obama for gas prices," I responded. "As they say, if you're not part of the solution," and here the adviser paused and smiled, "you're part of the problem." Concerns about whether McCain is coming off too mean, they say, are irrelevant. The media, they believe, has created double standard that allows them to view Obama's contempt for McCain as in-bounds and McCain's attempts to draw contrasts with Obama as out-of-bounds.

But look, the issue here isn't that there's something out of bounds about drawing a "contrast" with Barack Obama. The issue is that, as Marc's source admits, the charge that Obama is responsible for the high price of gasoline is false. Similarly, attacking Obama for refusing to meet with injured soldiers because he was told he couldn't bring press cameras would be a perfectly fair attack except for the fact that it isn't true. So called "negative advertising" has gotten a bad reputation, but there's really nothing wrong with being mean about your opponent. But campaigns should be expected to stay within some kind of bounds of accuracy.

DeLong Smackdown Watch: Fiscal Policy Edition, Provided by Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer convincingly explains what is going on:

Why Obama Offers A Net Tax Cut - Swampland - TIME: At the top of the story, I quoted John McCain's top policy adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin saying "I stand corrected" about his prior belief that Barack Obama would raise taxes over 10 years. The McCain campaign pushed back against this quote by telling Marc Ambinder that this comment was little more than a tongue-in-cheek response to the contention that Obama's tax plan offers a cut. Since then the economist/media-scold Brad DeLong, who calls me a "stenographer," has uncritically picked up this line, suggesting that I may have misunderstood what Holtz-Eakin was saying.

So I want to make a few things clear.... Holtz-Eakin has repeatedly, and quite seriously, invoked the net-tax-cut calculations of Obama to make the argument that the Democrat has a fiscally irresponsible economic plan.... Nothing is simple about scoring a tax plan, in part because you must first choose a baseline of federal revenue to compare the plan against. There are generally two types of baselines that can be used, "current law" and "current policy." Under a current law baseline, all of President Bush's tax cuts are assumed to expire on schedule and the Alternative Minimum Tax is expected to balloon unobstructed. This means that federal revenues will jump significantly, causing both the Obama and McCain tax plans to look like a massive tax cut.... [Campaigns] prefer the current policy baseline, which assumes that Congress continues to "patch" the AMT and decides to continue the Bush tax cuts indefinitely.... And it is under this scoring system that the Obama campaign, the Tax Policy Center and Doug Holtz-Eakin have all discussed the fact that Obama is offering a tax cut.... The Tax Policy Center... fleshes out the numbers. In its "Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates' Tax Plans," the center scores the positive revenue impact of the Obama plan over a decade at $778.3 billion under the current policy rubric... [which] does not include Obama's health plan, which is made up largely of more targeted tax cuts. Later in the report, the center estimates the cost of the Obama health plan.... But Len Burman, an author of the report, estimates that "on the order of one trillion dollars, and probably a little more" is a tax cut. So if you subtract about $1 trillion from $778.3 billion, you get a result that shows Obama would lower tax revenue over a decade, if all his plans were enacted....

Holtz-Eakin says he was first informed about the Obama campaign's estimates of a revenue loss by Furman during a joint appearance on CNBC. Since then he has repeatedly used this fact--without challenging it--as a talking point to make the case that Obama's plan is irresponsible.... He did this in an interview with me last week.... He also did this in a public forum hosted by the Tax Policy Center on July 23.... Here is my transcript of the exchange:

HOLTZ-EAKIN: I need to establish the fact of whether there is a tax cut here or not. Jason Furman told me on CNBC that you have a net tax cut.
GOOLSBEE: Counting the healthcare tax credit.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: Well you don't have a net spending cut, so the deficit has to be exploding.
GOOLSBEE: Yes we do.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: There is no way. I mean. . . So we'll get back to that. So if you combine what I believe to be an explosion in the deficit, tax cuts, lots of spending, the back-step on trade policy, the added marginal incentives on tax policy, you are going to have an economy that performs worse than doing nothing. At a time when we need to improve, the Barack Obama recipe is to have lower household incomes five years out, lower jobs five years out and lower GDP growth. That's not something that we need. That's not a foundation for success...

To say that any reference to Obama's planned tax cut is "tongue-in-cheek" misses the point of what should be a key part of the economic debate over these two campaigns. Both Democratic and Republican candidates are promising new spending measures, and a net tax cut, a recipe to grow the national debt. Now, both campaigns say that they will deal with this problem with spending cuts elsewhere, but they have yet to produce any clear numbers to back this up. What's more, independent analysts are highly doubtful that Congress would allow major spending cuts.

The McCain campaign is concerned about the Holtz-Eakin quote... [because] McCain regularly says that Obama will raise your taxes, and that claim is complicated by these facts. But your children and grandchildren may not care much about the political point. The nation faces a major fiscal crisis which neither candidate has addressed in a serious way. Obama says he will continue deficit spending. McCain says he will balance the budget, but to do that he must accomplish major cuts in spending that are widely seen as almost impossible to enact. We might be wise as a nation to consider the cautions offered by the Concord Coalition, a reputable nonpartisan group that focuses on the national debt:

One thing is clear: the status quo is not acceptable. The next President will inherit a fiscally lethal combination of changing demographics, rising heath care costs, and falling national savings. The public should take care not to buy the proposals of Presidential candidates that either ignore the magnitude of the long-term fiscal challenge or lock candidates into positions that make the problems insoluble. Improving the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook will require hard choices on spending and tax policy.

As it stands, neither candidate has taken up this challenge. Both are staying vague so they can tell voters what they want to hear. That's what politicians do.

Ben Smith of the Politico Says That the Indictment of Republican Senator Stevens is an Opportunity for McCain

I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes:

Stevens falloutThe indictment of the [Republican] senior senator from Alaska on corruption charges is yet another blow to the GOP brand. But, as Jonathan Martin points out, it could be an opportunity for McCain [to run against Capitol Hill]: He and Stevens are old foes.

Ezra Klein Is Also Upset at Time's Michael Scherer

If Michael Scherer believes what he writes, it's very hard to understand why he doesn't quit his job, go do something he does understand, and let somebody who understands policy take his slot at Time. It is a mystery.

Ezra Klein is shrill like me:

Ezra Klein : For reasons that I try not to speculate on before 9am, the media likes to make policy disputes sound incredibly complicated. Much too complicated for mortals to understand, or base electoral behavior on. Take this Time article on the various tax plans floating around the election. The piece argues that the plans are composed of loosely connected soundbites, lacking numbers or details or real information. To read it, you'd think the two proposals were impossible to estimate, or understand, or in any way summarize. But they're not. And reporters don't even have to do the hard work themselves. The non-partisan Tax Policy Center -- a joint project between the Urban Institute and Brookings -- scored both plans and came up with this nickel summary: Against current policy, Senator Obama’s proposals would raise $800 billion and Senator McCain’s proposals lose $600 billion.

The two candidates’ tax plans would have sharply different distributional effects. Senator McCain’s tax cuts would primarily benefit those with very high incomes, almost all of whom would receive large tax cuts that would, on average, raise their after-tax incomes by more than twice the average for all households. Many fewer households at the bottom of the income distribution would get tax cuts and those tax cuts would be small as a share of after-tax income. In marked contrast, Senator Obama offers much larger tax breaks to low- and middle-income taxpayers and would increase taxes on high-income taxpayers. The largest tax cuts, as a share of income, would go to those at the bottom of the income distribution, while taxpayers with the highest income would see their taxes rise significantly.

Over at their site, they've got the distributional tables and everything. You can examine this in as much, or as little, detail as you want.

And you can, of course, complicate the picture. This is using what's called a "current policy" baseline, which presumes the extension of the Bush tax cuts and permanence of the AMT patch. That's an unlikely scenario, particularly under President Obama. But you don't need to make it complicated. These plans exist to give voters and the media a simple way to understand the candidate's basic priorities on tax policy. And in that, they're plenty concrete: McCain will blow a hole in the deficit in order to cut taxes on the rich. Obama will raise taxes on the rich and give cuts to middle class and poor voters, but he won't end the deficit.

The Time piece ends by saying, "And so we return to where we began, a war of words with few numbers to back them up. The candidates speak in platitudes and broad swipes. They claim the high road, while banishing their opponents to the low road. And the American voters, if they are interested, must sort through the literature seeking numbers that were never really meant to add up." In other words, don't bother your pretty little heads about it. Too complicated. Too hard. Plus: All politicians are bullshit artists who are lying to you. Worry instead about three-pointers in Kuwait, and McCain's time in Vietnam, and straight talkyness. That's the stuff we know how to tell you, and the stuff that we trust you can understand.

EzraKlein Archive | The American Prospect

Time Magazine Brad DeLong Death Spiral Watch (Reporting on Fiscal Policy/Michael Scherer Edition)

I do owe Michael Scherer an apology. I am nerving myself up to make it...

"But math is hard!" says Time magazine stenographer Michael Scherer. He opens with an interesting story:

The Candidates' Tax Plans: Fuzzy Math: "The choice in this election is stark and simple," John McCain said at recent Denver event, repeating a phrase that is a staple of his stump speech. "Senator Obama will raise your taxes. I won't." Seems clear enough, right?... Except it's not true, at least not in the way that it seems. But don't take my word for it. Here is Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's chief economic policy adviser. "I used to say that Barack Obama raises taxes and John McCain cuts them, and I was convinced," he told me in a phone interview this week. "I stand corrected [about Obama's plans]"...

UPDATE: The McCain campaign says that Holtz-Eakin was not serious, and that Scherer failed to get the joke--that Holtz-Eakin was "responding, tongue-in-cheek, to a contention that Obama's fiscal policy would be a net tax cut."

UPDATE 2: Michael Scherer convincingly explains that the McCain campaign was not telling the truth in UPDATE 1: Holtz-Eakin was off-message, and the campaign wishes that he had not said it.

Scherer then misinterprets the story. Scherer says it shows how very complicated and hard-to-understand the Obama tax proposals are, and how even a smart guy and tax expert like Douglas Holtz-Eakin can misinterpret them: This is wrong

That's because unlike sound bites, the policies proposed by Obama are actually complicated. He would raise taxes on those who make more than about $200,000.... But Obama has also proposed a whole range of tax cuts, for poor seniors, working people, homeowners and parents, as well as for health-care expenses and even renewable energy. The net effect, according to experts in both campaigns and independent analysts, would be a reduction in government revenue over 10 years. In other words, a tax cut...

This is completely wrong.

When Doug Holtz-Eakin used to say that Barack Obama was proposing an overall tax increase, he was comparing the Obama proposals to the George W. Bush wish list. Doug Holtz-Eakin says now that Barack Obama is proposing an overall tax cut because the McCain campaign has decided that it has credibility problems--and that enough reporters believe that using the Bush wish list as a baseline does not pass the laugh test. This is wrong too. Holtz-Eakin was freelancing and got off message.

Unfortunately, Michael Scherer is a reporter who does not understand that the dispute was about baselines and not about analysis. And this is wrong.

Michael continues:

[D]on't expect McCain to change his rhetoric on the stump. That's not how this game is played. On Wednesday, the Obama campaign put out a press release claiming that McCain's economic plan was "$2.8 trillion more expensive than his advisers previously admitted." These were ominous words, playing into the old story line about Republicans using budget gimmickry. But the statement was largely based on an interpretation of a tax plan — for an optional alternative income-tax system, with a flat rate — that McCain has never described in detail, let alone with enough specificity to gauge...

However, I still have what I regard as a valid beef with this paragraph.

When McCain proposed getting rid of the Alternative Minimum Tax and replacing it with a different system, an Alternative Maximum Tax, you can bet that somebody on McCain's staff was immediately put in charge of generating a rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate of its cost. Then the McCain campaign decided that it did not want to do a full estimate--did not want to specify how this baroque Alternative Maximum Tax complication to the tax system would work, and did not want to publicize or release any of its own estimates of its costs. When you make proposals and then suppress the numbers associated with them, others are allowed to make the natural inferences. The fact that McCain has "never described in detail" has Alternative Maximum Tax and has never provided "enough specificity to gauge" its costs is not a point for McCain--except in the in-the-tank-for-McCain world in which Michael Scherer lives.

It gets worse: Michael Scherer complains over and over again that math is hard:

The people who run campaigns... translate complex economic projections into aphorisms... turn tax plans that must be read with lawyers' help into sentences a third-grader can understand...

Legislative language in the Internal Revenue Code needs a lawyer's help to understand. These plans do not.

"They are better off speaking in sound bites and generalities," says Bob Williams of the Tax Policy Center, who recently did the unthinkable with some colleagues: he tried to figure out what the two candidates' tax plans would actually mean. It wasn't easy. "One challenge facing anyone who wants to estimate the effects of candidates' tax plans is that no one — not even inside the campaigns — knows exactly what the proposals are," reads an early conclusion of the resulting report. "In a sense, we have done them some harm here by saying we want to pin you down on what you mean," Williams explains.

Yet somehow this Michael Scherer who holds up Bob Williams as honest broker doesn't have the guts to tell his readers that the "$2.8 billion" number he trashed two paragraphs above was the estimate of Bob Williams and his colleagues.

Then--mirabile visu--Michael Scherer admits that the candidates actually have different fiscal policies:

They... offer plans that differ strikingly from each other. McCain's tax plan benefits mostly those in higher income brackets, while Obama's plan benefits mostly those in lower- and middle-income tax brackets. McCain wants a tax cut for corporate profits, while Obama has proposed a whole host of tax cuts that will benefit those in the middle-income brackets. Both candidates have new spending programs, though Obama appears to have more. And both candidates say they will cut spending elsewhere, though they fail to provide many specifics about how.

So what is a concerned voter to do?... According to the Tax Policy Center, neither Obama nor McCain has laid out plans to close the budget deficit over the next 10 years under current spending regimes. Not counting health proposals, the McCain plan would collect about 17.9% of GDP through taxes. The Obama plan would collect about 18.4%. For comparison, congressional accountants predict that, under current law, the Federal Government is projected to spend about 19.7% of GDP in the same time period, meaning both McCain and Obama would run deficits — 1.8% and 1.3% of GDP, respectively — without significant cuts in federal spending or surprising growth in the economy.... Few independent analysts think that McCain has much hope in reaching his goal of a balanced budget by 2013, but then they are just working off sound bites, not actual numbers. The McCain campaign's hypothetical spending cuts would only be achievable, they say, by a President who did not have to negotiate with a historically big-spending Congress. "King McCain might be able to do it," says Len Burman, another author of the Tax Policy Center report. "But President McCain will have a very difficult time"...

One thing a concerned voter might do is look for an honest broker--like the Tax Policy Center. But does Michael Scherer advise voters to do so? It sounds like he does, but then Scherer reverses field:

And so we return to where we began, a war of words with few numbers to back them up. The candidates speak in platitudes and broad swipes.... American voters, if they are interested, must sort through the literature seeking numbers that were never really meant to add up.... The only way to find that out may be to put them in office.

Math is hard!

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps better weblogging economists?

Bush Administration Fiscal Policy

Duncan Black writes:

Eschaton: Oh Well: So much for that. 2003:

(AP) President Bush's goal of cutting in half a projected $500 billion federal deficit within five years is being dismissed as too timid by conservatives, unachievable by analysts and laughable by Democrats. Mr. Bush will include the objective in the $2.3 trillion budget for 2005 he sends Congress in February, nine months away from the presidential and congressional elections. The goal is backed by many Republicans, but conservatives want a bolder move against the record deficits and big spending increases the administration has run up...


(AP) A senior Bush administration official says the budget deficit for this year will set a record in dollar terms, approaching $490 billion. The official said Monday the deficit was being driven to record levels by the sagging economy and the stimulus payments being made to 130 million households in an effort to keep the country from falling into a deep recession. A deficit approaching $490 billion would easily surpass the current record deficit of $413 billion set in 2004...

I remember 2003. The Bush administration highballed the then-current deficit--claiming it was going to be $500 rather than $413 billion--in order to lower the bar for "cutting it in half." And then they lowered the bar further by telling the economists that even though Bush said and the reporters wrote was "cut in half" what they mean was "cut in half as a share of GDP"--which would give us an end-of-administration deficit of $312 billion.

A cut from $413 to $312 billion should not have been that hard to do--if they were serious about restraining spending. They weren't.

I do remember telling economists working for the Bush administration in 2003 that they should not be such great cheerleaders for Bush's policies--that robotic repeating of talking points like the president's policies, through this spending restraint, will reduce the budget deficit in half over the next five years... (A) It wasn't true, and you shouldn't tell lies. (B) It would with high probability come back to bite them in the b--- in five years, so that while it was in George W. Bush's and Karl Rove's interest for them to say it in 2003 and 2004, come 2008 and 2009 they would pay a reputational price.

They were not happy.


You must read the attached, immediately!

Rick Perlstein: For the benefit of the lazy, the 881 pages of Nixonland are more or less compressed into a mere sixty-three page introduction [to]... a brand new book that ships starting this week from Princeton University Press, Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents. For the benefit of scholars and history students (professors! perfect for course adoptions!), it collects or excerpts some thirty... well, Richard Nixon speeches, writings, and documents,

Perlstein's favorite Nixon quotes:

from (my favorite) his 1929 schoolboy elocution contest entry "Our Privileges Under the Constitution"—

How much ground do these privileges cover? There are some who use them as a cloak for covering libelous, indecent, and injurious statements against their fellowmen. Should the morals of this nation be offended and polluted in the name of freedom of speech or freedom of the press? In the words of Lincoln, the individual can have no rights against the best interests of society. Furthermore there are those who, under the pretense of freedom of speech and freedom of the press have incited riots, assailed our patriotism, and denounced the Constitution itself. They have used Constitutional privileges to protect the very act by which they wished to destroy the Constitution. Consequently laws have justly been provided for punishing those who abuse their Constitutional privileges—laws which do not limit these privileges, but which provide that they may not be instrumental in destroying the Constitution which insures them. We must obey these laws, for they have been passed for our own welfare....

—to his obscure but crucial Cincinnati speech of February 24, 1964 ("the irresponsible tactics of some of the extreme civil rights leaders..."), to the 1972 "Shanghai Communiqué," to his celebrated White House farewell address ("My mother was a saint...")...

Rick Perlstein on Richard Nixon, Father of the EPA

Rick Perlstein:

The Father of the EPA on Environmentalists: "a bunch of damned animals": I've just started recognizing a paradox... some of the things that are most important to me I don't blog about much.... For instance, the conservative movement's historical exploitation of racism, and their bad faith in facing this past. Some strange and fetid example of same.... I'll pull out a favorite book from my collection of wingnuttia, Behind the Civil Rights Mask (1965, Lee Edwards and Terry Catchpole, introduction by National Review columnist John Chamberlain; the cover depicts Martin Luther King's face, as, yes, an actual mask, because he, as you know, "according to the files of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, has been associated with the following Communist-front organizations," behind which front, "He is demanding the creation, for the Negro alone, of false 'rights' which are not now, and never have been in all the long centuries of an Ango-American concept based on orderly freedom, the rights of anybody at all").

I'll sit down to write. And then I realize that to do the subject justice will require, actually, not three hundred words but three thousand. Then I sit down to write the three thousand words before realizing it will take not one post but three, and rather than writing starting outlining the three, I'll realize realize that it will actually take thirty, which makes 90,000 words, which is the length of a short which point I put away the laptop with a weary sigh and never get around to writing about this subject that is so important to me at all, because that ocean is so, so vast and my bucket is oh so small.

Another one of those subjects is the canard that Richard Nixon must be a "liberal" because he started the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, finally, after months of dithering, professional due diligence demands I finally put something down on the subject. I've got a brand new book that ships starting this week from Princeton University Press, Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents. For the benefit of scholars and history students (professors! perfect for course adoptions!), it collects or excerpts some thirty...well, Richard Nixon speeches, writings, and documents.... To do justice to the very complex question of whether or not or how or to what extent Nixon was "conservative" would require, I now realize, another book (or thirty blog posts at least). But to debunk the notion that the EPA proves Nixon was "liberal"--well, for your delectation, a selection from pages xliv to xlvi of

What kind of president was Richard M. Nixon? On the domestic front, a startlingly indifferent one. He once famously labeled domestic policy "building outhouses in Peoria"; he believed such matters took care of themselves, without a president to guide them, and nearly set out to prove it. Later, the laws passed during his administration, and the bills he attempted to pass, earned Nixon a reputation as a sort of liberal. It would be more accurate to say that he took the path of least resistance, and that the conventional policy wisdom of the day was, simply, liberal. He paid closest attention to domestic policy-making when it involved a political constituency he wanted to punish or reward.

He was sold, for example, on adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan's idea for a guaranteed minimum income to replace the existing welfare system when Moynihan assured him it would wipe out the social welfare bureaucracy, a Democratic political constituency. (In a strategy meeting for the 1972 election, he proposed either sabotaging its passage or implementation, either way preserving credit for caring about the poor without doing anything at all.) His federal drug control policies could never have survived in our own conservative era: for heroin addicts, they substituted medical treatment for punishment. Nixon's interest in reform was once again political: he hoped fewer heroin addicts would add up to a lower crime rates in time for his 1972 reelection campaign.

His policy preferences also indicated a conflicted eagerness to please opinion-making elites. They praised his establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency, launched with an inspiring speech: "the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debts to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and our living environment. It is literally now or never." But he shared his true opinion of the issue in an Oval Office meeting auto executives: that environmentalists wanted to "go back and live like a bunch of damned animals." Throwing conservationists a bone also suited another political purpose: the issue was popular among the same young people who were enraged at him for continuing the Vietnam War. In the end, the EPA was a sort of confidence game. The new agency represented not a single new penny in federal spending for the environment. It did, however, newly concentrate bureaucracies previously scattered through vast federal bureaucracy under a single administrator loyal to the White House--the better to control them.

I now officially declare that, as master of this particular domain, hereafter any comment that mentions that the EPA proves Nixon was "liberal" will be deleted. :-)

Yog rules OK!

A Rather Draconian Moderation Policy...

Jim Macdonald writes thus:

Making Light: Time Notices Comments: Here’s what moderators need to know:

  1. Sure, there’s freedom of speech. Anyone who wants it can go start their own blog. On Yog’s board, Yog’s whim is law.
  2. Yog is an ancient ghod of chaos and evil. And he doesn’t like people very much.
  3. Moderation is a subjective art, and the moderator is always right.
  4. The moderator may have minions. They need to have a private area where they keep the buckets of Thorazine and the cold-frosty bottles of cow snot.
  5. The minions speak with the voice of Yog. Yog backs his minions up.
  6. There is always someone awake, and in charge, when Yog isn’t around in person. The minions know who the Duty Yog is.
  7. If someone starts off as a spammer, troll, or flamer, he is a spammer, troll, or flamer forever and is liable to instant deletion/banning with no recourse and no appeal.
  8. If the moderator ever needs inspiration, he can re-read Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and recall that the posters are sinners and he is Ghod.
  9. Rules? In a knife fight? Yog and his minions have standards, but they don’t need to tell the posters, lest some of them attempt to game the system. Attempting to game the system is, all on its own, a deletable offense.
  10. ALL CAPS posts are deleted on sight, unread. Mostly ALL CAPS POSTS are ALL CAPS.
  11. Anyone who doesn’t space after punctuation marks is insane, and can be deleted/banned on sight.
  12. Personal attacks against Yog and his minions are ignored. Personal attacks against anyone else are deletable on sight.

More and more of the moderated weblogosphere appears to be devolving to Yog Rules--or to be shutting down comments entirely. It seems to me that there has to be a better way. But it is not clear to me what better way is (a) sustainable, (b) easy for the moderator, and (c) produces high quality discussions.

Strong AI

Run across anybody lately who says that we will never be able to build a human-level intelligence and fit it into a breadbox?

dd-b over at Tor has the answer: / Science fiction and fantasy / Blog posts / The Singularity Problem and Non-Problem: I'm always surprised to find people who "doubt" strong AI.... [H]uman beings are themselves examples of strong AI. I find it amusing to hear people arguing that they cannot, in fact, exist...

Of course, I think it will be much cheaper to make adult human-level AI entities via a twenty-year production process using unskilled labor--at least half of all possible two human teams can do so!--then employing skilled computer scientists. But what do I know?

The Politics of Ressentissement...

From Duncan Black:

Eschaton: Apparently John McCain has started up a weekly "radio" address, aka a bit of recorded audio that he hopes various outlets will excerpt and run as a free campaign commercial every week. CNN obliged this week. I thought this bit was pretty interesting, though I can't tell if someone writing the speech thought that raging narcissism was an attractive quality or if they really believe the appeal of their own dumb campaign spin.

Good morning. I'm John McCain, and this week the presidential contest was a long-distance affair, with my opponent touring various continents and arriving yesterday in Paris. With all the breathless coverage from abroad, and with Senator Obama now addressing his speeches to 'the people of the world,' I'm starting to feel a little left out. Maybe you are too...

A wise correspondent writes in email that this shows low cunning on the part of McCain:

He is putting on the mantle of the candidate of white, nationalist resentment--and he doesn't ever have to mention race because, of course, white, nationalist resentment is, by definition, the default position for the Republican candidate vs. a black, "citizen of the world" Democrat. Envy, spite, insecurity, chauvinism--all there in just two sentences.

This is his shot: to try to get voters to envy and despise the young, gifted, and black. It is a clever frame--evoking xenophobic negativity as well as the populist vibe that you're being left behind while the elites yuck it up...

McCain Follows Obama in Embracing a 16-Month Withdrawal Timetable for Iraq

Wow. Just wow:

Think Progress: [I]n an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer today, McCain seemed to endorse the idea of a timetable. When asked if Maliki would “persist” in requesting a 16-month withdrawal timetable from Iraq, McCain responded, “He won’t. … I know him.” McCain then praised Maliki’s 16-month timetable:

BLITZER: So why do you think he said that 16 months is basically a pretty good timetable?

McCAIN: He said it’s a pretty good timetable based on conditions on the ground. I think it’s a pretty good timetable, as we should — or horizons for withdrawal. But they have to be based on conditions on the ground.

This is a very big switch for McCain: from stay in Iraq for 100 years to this...


Paul McCulley of PIMCO:

PIMCO - Global Central Bank Focus - July 2008 "The Paradox of Deleveraging": [M]acroeconomics is not just the summation of microeconomic outcomes, but rather the interaction of microeconomic outcomes. For me, a simple concept brought this realization: the paradox of thrift... if we all individually cut our spending in an attempt to increase individual savings, then our collective savings will paradoxically fall because one person’s spending is another’s income... what holds for the individual doesn’t necessarily hold for the community of individuals. Understanding this paradox is absolutely vital to understanding macroeconomics and even more so to understanding what is presently unfolding in global financial markets.   Once the double bubbles in housing valuation and housing debt burst a little over a year ago, everybody, and in particular, every levered financial institution – banks and shadow banks alike – decided individually that it was time to delever their balance sheets. At the individual level, that made perfect sense. At the collective level... when we all try to do it at the same time, we actually do less of it, because we collectively create deflation in the assets from which leverage is being removed....

[M]onetary easing is of limited value in breaking the paradox of deleveraging if levered lenders are collectively destroying their collective net worth. What is needed instead is for somebody to lever up and take on the assets being shed by those deleveraging. It really is that simple.... [T]hat somebody is the same somebody that needs to step up spending to break the paradox of thrift: the federal government...

By definition, levering Uncle Sam’s balance sheet to buy or guarantee assets to temper asset deflation will put the taxpayer at risk – but will do so for their own collective good! This was de facto what the Federal Reserve did when it put up $29 billion on nonrecourse terms to buy assets so as to facilitate the merger of Bear Stearns into JPMorgan... this was a fiscal policy operation.... At the end of the day, there are $29 billion more Treasuries on the open market than otherwise would be the case, and the Treasury is, one small step removed, on the hook for any losses the Fed experiences on the $29 billion of non-Treasury assets it now de facto owns....

Which brings us to Mr. Paulson’s request to Congress to give him – and his successor – the power to spend unlimited amounts of taxpayers’ funds to buy the debt or equity of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I confidently predict that he’s not going to get unlimited authority; it will most likely be checked by counting any such deficit-financed injections into Fannie and Freddie against the Treasury’s statutory borrowing limit, which can be lifted only by Congress. But Mr. Paulson is going to get most of what he wants, if only because legislators are too fearful of the consequences if they stiff arm him.... This is the way it should be: bailouts and backstops with taxpayer funds should be legislated by Congress and placed on the Treasury’s, not the Fed’s, balance sheet....

Conventional wisdom holds that when an economy faces a paradox of private thrift, it is appropriate for the sovereign to go the other way, borrowing money to spend directly or to cut taxes, taking up the aggregate demand slack.... [C]onventional wisdom is struggling mightily with the notion that when the financial system is suffering from a paradox of deleveraging, the sovereign should lever up to buy or backstop deflating assets. But analytically, there is no difference: both the paradox of thrift and the paradox of deleveraging can be broken only by the sovereign going the other way.   Fortunately, Congress is finally grappling with this reality, as it moves towards passage of Mr. Paulson’s plan for backstopping Fannie and Freddie with taxpayer funds. It’s not a fun thing to do, particularly following the use of $29 billion of taxpayer funds to facilitate the merger of Bear Stearns into JPMorgan. But it is the right thing to do. And it is further the right thing that Congress is doing it, not the Fed under Section 13(3), except as a possible bridge to Treasury authority.

Obama Praises McCain's Comments on Iraq

From WSJ's Washington Wire:

Obama Praises McCain's Comments on Iraq: Jay Solomon reports on the presidential race from London.

Barack Obama praised comments by his rival, John McCain, suggesting the Republican might support a 16-month timeline for withdrawing American troops from Iraq.

Sen. Obama talks with U.K. Conservative Party Leader David Cameron outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Obama has promoted his Iraq strategy during a 10-day tour across the Middle East and Europe. He’s also called for the redeployment of some U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan to combat the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s growing insurgency there.

“And in terms of his comment about maybe 16 months sounds good, we are pleased to see that there’s been some convergence around a proposal that we have been making for a year and a half,” Obama said Saturday after meeting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. “The fact that John McCain thinks that we now should put more troops in Afghanistan, I think is a good thing,” Obama added at a press conference at 10 Downing Street, the British premier’s official office and residence.

During an interview Friday on CNN, McCain called the 16-month timeframe “a pretty good timetable” for withdrawing troops from Iraq. The Republican candidate, however, has stressed this was dependent upon the conditions on the ground in Iraq. Throughout Obama’s overseas trip, the senator has sought to portray the Republicans as following his lead on key foreign policy issues. In addition to Iraq, Obama has praised the Bush administration’s decision to send a high-ranking State Department official to directly engage Iran over its nuclear program this month. “The fact that the Bush administration assigned Bill Burns, outstanding diplomat, to get involved in the talks surrounding Iran, something I’ve been advocating for over a year and a half, I think that is a good thing” Obama said...

I agree. It is a very good sign that both Bush and McCain are scrambling to follow the Obama-Democratic line on Middle East policy.

Robert Waldmann on Health-Care Reform: Smart Cost Sharing

Robert Waldmann writes:

Robert's Stochastic thoughts: Ezra Klein writes about smart cost sharing... wants a committee to decide reimbursement rates. Oddly, I had another idea about smart cost sharing. Make the doctors pay for the care and pay the doctors based on outcomes... an idea I got from Mark Thoma:

...preventative care ... ought to be encouraged, and one way to help with this is ... to forge an unbreakable lifetime relationship between the insurance company and the consumer so that expected lifetime costs are important to the insurance carrier.

I strongly suspect (with no evidence) that Thoma's thoughts were influenced by an empirical result that very small financial incentives to doctors based on their patients' blood glucose caused big changes in those outcomes which will save huge amounts of money for medicare but small amounts of money for the HMO's that introduced the incentives.

One politically unfeasible approach to this would be to assign people randomly to HMOs and pay the HMOs based on their health but have the HMOs pay for their health care.... Now no way are Americans going to give up all choice (even in Italy I got to choose my GP), so So there would be a huge huge cherry picking problem. One could try to deal with it by charging the managed competitive insurance plans (that's not English it's Magazinerish) based on costs per patient minus predicted costs given region and patient characteristics and rewarding based on outcomes minus predicted outcomes. Obviously it would never work.

I think the best we can do is to charge medical costs not just to the current insurance plan but also, in part, to the one that covered the patients in the past (to give the an incentive to keep their clients healthy)... plus paying insurance plans based on documented improvement in, well, the 3 blood things say. If insurance companies saw obese people with horrible eating habits who watch TV all day as a profit opportunity, the USA would be a healthier place. Just think, sleazy insurance agent tells his boss (hey I just found someone with an LDL level of 300, we got to move fast before our competitors sign him).... [T]hey would be more willing to sign fat lazy smokers as there is lots of room for improvement compared to things as they are....

I know that there are non-compliant patients. My sister treats the homeless. My mother treats HIV positive people without insurance (by now most are intravenous drug addicts the nice polite gay men have learned to use condoms).... There is a huge literature on optimal incentive schemes when outcomes are not completely under the control of the agent. If agents (here doctors) are risk averse it is not optimal to pass all costs on to them.... That is why I proposed incentives at the level of the insurance company... they, as rational profit maximizing agents, will decide what incentives to pass on to the doctors. They can just take the hit for poor patient outcomes (note the fraction of non-compliant patients for a whole company has very low variance. It's like the point of insurance). Or they can pass them on to doctors and raise expected compensation so doctors accept their patients....

[P]art of the issue is that we have a strong sense that we must never punish the innocent... the market system... provides incentives which depend in part on individual choices and in part on luck... [but] somehow it's different if the government is involved. I once heard someone angrily opposing a gas tax (in the 70s) arguing that some people need to drive to get to work -- so it would punish people who weren't doing anything wrong. Look: I'm not talking about throwing people into jail. I'm talking about an MD getting $50 less in a year because he didn't manage to convince a non-compliant patient (note MDs can subcontract the nagging to nurses)...

I think that when Robert Waldmann says "the three blood thingees" he is refering to HDL, LDL, and TGC--high-density lipoproteins, low density lipoproteins, and triglycerides. But he might be refering to cholesterol, blood glucose, and blood pressure.

One prominent health care economist once said that the right way for an employer or a government to compensate health insurance companies is to require that everybody they cover compete in a mandatory decathlon every open enrollment period--sprint, long jump, shot put, high jump, hurdles, medium run (400m), throw the discuss, pole vault, throw the javelin, run the metric mile--and then pay the insurance company according to the change in performance between last year and this year, with a huge honking penalty for patients who die over the course of the year in order to eliminate the incentive to shoot the wounded. But even this doesn't get the incentives right. You want insurance companies to be paid for devising provider compensation schemes that help people get and stay healthy--without at the same time giving the insurance companies incentives to cherry-pick those likely to stay healthy and figure out some way not to cover or not to pay for the truly sick. That is incredibly hard to do.

There are four big problems in health care finance.

The first problem--let me explain it in terms I have borrowed from Uwe Reinhardt. Suppose a business offers employer-sponsored lunch as a benefit. Then when the business hires an extra worker, it has to take into account not just the salary it will pay him or her but also the cost of hiring the extra cooks and servers to serve them lunch. So it is with health care. In America today, for every hundred workers that a firm providing employer-sponsored health insurance hires, it must also come up with the money to pay for 18 more workers in health care--2 doctors, 6 nurses, 2 orderlies, 2 pharmacists, 1 physical therapist, and 5 health-care administrators. Those 5 health-care administrators' jobs are (a) to keep the system running and everybody showing up at the right time at the right place with the right materials, (b) to keep people from going to the doctor by making it expensive in time by hassling them, (c) to keep people from going to the doctor or getting reimbursed for money they have advanced by making them do more paperwork, and (d) to figure out which are the hot-potato expensive patients and persuade them to go take their business to some other facility or provider or insurance company--or take their business to nobody at all. If we could get rid of jobs (b), (c), and (d), we would need not five but two health-care administrators for every hundred workers with employer-sponsored coverage. That's a savings of $100 billion a year: $100 billion a year that could be used to hire people to do socially useful rather than useless and socially-destructive pass-the-hot-potato and ration-by-hassle jobs.

The second problem is, I think, best explained by David Cutler: leaving the excess administrators aside, a lot of what our doctors and nurses and pharmacists are doing isn't helping people:

David Cutler: Use a Scalpel, Not a Meat Cleaver: Medicare spending varies by a factor of two across parts of the country, without comparable health benefits.... [I]f the high spending areas were brought to the level of the lower spending areas... we could save 25 to 30 percent of Medicare spending.  No one doubts that the same is true about non-Medicare spending as well....

The problem in medical care is how to separate the good from the bad.  What can we do to maintain the services that are very effective but get rid of the waste?... Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to eliminating waste in medical care.  The first is the demand-side approach: give patients more information... raise the price that they pay for using care, and rely on informed choices to produce efficient outcomes.  The alternative is the supply-side approach: invest in information technology, monitor what physicians do, and pay providers more for better care than for less good care.... [L]et me state my sense of the literature: ...we have no evidence that consumers facing higher cost sharing will make the right medical care decisions.  Indeed, the evidence suggests the opposite.... [M]edical care consumers respond to prices of medical services... [but] cut back indiscriminately.... When firms raise the price of one medication in a class, some consumers switch to cheaper drugs in that class, but others stop taking the medication entirely... the people who stop taking the medication... [are not] those who benefit from it the least.... [T]he demand-side approach is wrong for many, perhaps most, of the population.... I see no alternative to thinking clearly, systematically, and expansively... targeted evaluations of what is done and how to pay for it better are the fundamental way that we can eliminate the waste in medical care but still retain the valuable core...

The third problem--well, it isn't a problem so much as an opportunity. We will want to spend even more on medical care in the future than we do now--even though a lot of what we spend now is wasted. Medical care in 2010 will be 17 percent of GDP. Medical care in 1975 was less than 8 percent of GDP. Medical care as a share of GDP has more than doubled in a generation primarily because we have developed new and better ways of treating patients. Let's listen to David Cutler again:

In 1950, a person with a heart attack received bed rest and morphine (to dull the pain). That was how Dwight Eisenhower was treated when he had a heart attack in 1955.  This therapy is not very expensive, but it is also not very effective.  Today, such a person receives clot-busting drugs and other medications, and intensive interventions such as bypass surgery or angioplasty. These technologies are certainly costly.  Spending in the few months after a heart attack is about $25,000 per patient.  And yet the care provides enormous benefits.  Mortality in the aftermath of a heart attack has fallen by three-quarters since the 1950s. The average person aged 45 will live 3 years longer than he used to solely because medical care for cardiovascular disease has improved...

There is every reason to think that as time passes and as we grow richer we are going to want to devote a larger and larger share of our economy to health care. I mean, how many large-screen LCD screens does one person need? Biomedical technologies will give us an enormous opportunity, which we might fail to grasp if we cannot fix our system so that it uses our health care dollars effectively and which we might fail to grasp if we stupidly and niggardly put global caps on health-care spending.

The fourth problem is a problem. (1) We as a country seem to believe in a relatively small government. (2) We also seem to believe that health care should be provided on the basis of how dire your need is rather than how thick your wallet is. (3) And we have good reason to suspect that our health care capabilities will become larger and better as time passes. (2) and (3) are inconsistent with (1). (1) and (3) are inconsistent with (2). (1) and (2) can go together only if (3) is false. I think that (3) is true. That leaves us with a societal choice to make: do we abandon (1) or abandon (2)? I favor throwing (1) over the side, but this is an important issue we can talk about.

But one thing is clear. We could be spending half as much on health care as America is today and we still be as healthy. Take 10% savings from eliminating maladministration, 20% from removing unnecessary, inappropriate, and counterproductive care, add on lifetime disease management so that we are not in our current emergency room-driven dealing with problems only when they reach crisis--and you can easily get American health care spending down to the level of, say, France.

Or we could be healthier: to the exercycle!

Two People Who Do Not Speak for John McCain: Phil Gramm. John McCain

John McCain says that his closest economic advisor--Phil Gramm--does not speak for John McCain:

CNN Political Ticker: All politics, all the time Blog Archive - McCain: ‘Phil Gramm does not speak for me’ « - Blogs from John McCain forcefully repudiated comments by his national campaign co-chair Phil Gramm Thursday, telling reporters, "Phil Gramm does not speak for me..."

Douglas Holtz-Eakin says that John McCain does not speak for John McCain either:

Think Progress » Holtz-Eakin: On Wednesday, the Tax Policy Center released a report finding a $2.8 trillion gap between Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) public economic proposals and his advisers’ private assurances.... Douglas Holtz-Eakin... disputes the way the [TPC] study takes suggestions McCain has made on the stump out of context. “This is parsing words out of campaign appearances to an unreasonable degree,” Holtz-Eakin said. “He has certainly I’m sure said things in town halls” that don’t jibe perfectly with his written plan. But that doesn’t mean it’s official...

Think Progress's Wonk Room:

Wonk Room: For months, the McCain campaign had not offered specific numbers on his profligate budget proposals. In June, Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a prominent advocacy group for balanced budgets, told Bloomberg news: “I haven’t received anything, and if some of the other groups have then I’ll be really ticked off.... If he’s got some more complete budget proposal he can send I’d love to get it.”

Detailed figures did finally appear publicly in the first Tax Policy Center report and later in the Washington Post, but are still not available on the campaign’s web site. And no wonder: there are still serious inconsistencies between what his advisers provide to the wonks at the Tax Policy Center (and the editorial board of the Washington Post) and what appears on McCain’s web site and in his stump speeches....

Two examples of McCain’s inconsistencies....

The Alternative Minimum Tax: McCain told the Conservative Political Action Conference that he would “abolish” the Alternative Minimum Tax. His website says he would “phase it out.” But the numbers he offered Tax Policy Center suggest that he would only “extend and index” the patch and “raise the exemption.” The difference between “abolishing” and “raising the exemption”? $390 billion.

Corporate Expensing: Senator McCain has called for a huge change in the tax code allowing businesses to write-off their equipment purchases. In the documents his advisers provide to tax experts, the proposal is restricted to “a narrow class of investments [with] a sunset the proposal after five years.” But on the stump, as the Tax Policy Center points out, McCain’s statements “strongly imply that the provision would apply to all machinery and equipment.” And McCain regularly rails against sunset provisions as covert tax-hikes. The difference between these two corporate expensing proposals? $737 billion, enough money to fight another Iraq war.

Hoisted from Comments: The Sinister Arab-Hispanic Joint Pizza Menace

Hoisted from comments: Leila Abu-Saba writes:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong: Oh wow, I totally missed the earlier Hispanic Pizza Menace post linked above. It's too rich that the pizzeria owner is Lebanese. Yeah right he says he's Italian-Lebanese, all my Lebanese-American relatives claim to be Italian in order to dodge the usual racist/ethnicist/anti-Arab hysteria. Since they're Christians and many of my cousins do in fact own pizzerias, the Italian dodge usually works.

Anyway. That a man named Krikorian would kvetch about a Lebanese man named Swad selling Hispanic-flavored pizza in the USA is just too hilarious for words. Mr. Krikorian's ancestors I assume managed to get out of Armenia alive, and from there might well have made their way to Lebanon (Iraq, Syria, Egypt) in order to emigrate to the States. I wonder if he's concerned about the cuisine at La Mediterranee in Berkeley, which to my Lebanese palate mixes flavors a great deal and is not at all authentic Lebanese. It's sort of a mish-mosh of Middle Eastern flavors and dishes. And they have Greek (Armenian Greek?) album covers on the walls.

PS the Lebanese love pizza in Lebanon, too. They eat it in recognizably American forms; they also make a relative of pizza that's drizzled with thyme/sumac/sesame seed/olive oil paste instead of tomatoes. Manaqeesh. Excellent.

Oh yes, and if you go to The Rock kebab joint across from the main police station in Byblos, you can get a hamburger with the french fries served on the patty, between the buns, with lettuce and tomato. Yes, they serve an American burger and fries (excellent fries BTW) BUT THEY PUT THE FRIES ON THE BURGER! The tour guide told me The Rock is where the guides and cops go - not for tourists. Just a word to the chow hounds bound for Beirut...

Department of "Huh?" (Atlantic Monthly Death Spiral Watch)

I think this is the absolutely worse kind of journamalistic c--- from Nora McAlvanah, but Marc Ambinder thinks it is impressive--impressive enough to give his space and direct his readers to:

GOPers Wait a Lifetime for a Moment Like This: A guest post from Nora McAlvanah :

GOPers may have a field day with at least one oft-used-line from Obama’s speech today, which he amended slightly for his Berlin audience:

“America, this is our moment. This is our time” – Obama, speaking in MN the night he officially won the Dem nomination (6/3).

“People of Berlin -- people of the world -- this is our moment. This is our time” – Obama, in his first formal speech of his foreign tour (7/24).

What ad guru won’t be tempted to play the clips back-to-back, only one to a widely ecstatic cheering crowd of Europeans? Insert announcer with an appropriately unnerving, deep voice, asking: “Which is it, Obama? Who’s moment? Who’s time?”

It’s not John Kerry showing off his proficiency in French. Quiet the opposite, really. But maybe when a candidate is on foreign soil he shouldn’t use such un-foreign rhetoric.

But when his readers complain, Marc Ambinder says that maybe it isn't so impressive at all:

Marc Ambinder: Das Ein In Berlin ; Or, America As Global Citizen: Nora McAlvanah's guest post provoked a flood of angry e-mails into my inbox, and to tell you the truth, I kind of agree with some of their sentiments: who, exactly, set these strictures that Obama has fallen afoul of? What's so bad about Germans cheering an American, especially when the visuals were stunning. Hundreds of American flags, waving. 200,000 Berliners cheering an American presidential candidate.

A short speech, mostly, carrying the message that animates Obama's presidency: The message of the speech was the common values that unite the citizens of the world. Obama's Berlin is a shining beacon of hope to the world, "where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is so challenge too great for a world that stands as one." The "burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change in leadership in Washington will not lift this burden in the new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more, not less."

Is this too presumptuous? Is it what globally conscious Americans have been longing to hear? Will Americans be able to distinguish between the domestic politics of foreign nations and the foreign politics of our nation? This is a show, to be sure. Will it be renewed in the fall? Or dropped from the schedule?

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Best Economics Weblogs?

SixApart emails me:

Hi, Friends.

At the beginning of August, Six Apart will be launching, a site devoted to connecting readers with the top blogs on their favorite topics. features hand-picked blogs, Top Ten Blogs lists, daily summaries of big stories and a weekly review of the blogosphere's best. Along with featuring the favorite blogs from our team of editors and writers, we want to color the site with Top Ten Blogs lists from notable personalities. That's where you come in.

As one of the leading blogs in your genre, we'd love to feature your Top Ten Favorite Blogs for one of our guest edited top ten lists...

It would, of course, be a violation of the Code of the Desert if I did not blog about this, and ask your input into my best-ten-econ-blogs list.

Here's what NetNewsWire throws up as tops in attention in the "economics" category: the ten weblogs that I, personally, pay the most attention to:

How should we use judgment to alter this list as spit out automatically by NetNewsWire? What's missing? What's erroneously included? What's out of place?

Academic Administration for Dummies

"OK. So Gerard is the new Ben. And Paul was the old new Jim. But now Paul has gone to Poughkeepsie. So who is the new Paul?"

"I don't know. I've been on vacation. I do know that Clare is the new Clare..."

" Paul has not been Revealed as of yet."

"Are you the new Paul?"

"I? I could never be the new Paul. I am not fit to tie the thong of his sandle."

"I want to know when the other new Jim is showing up to play with Alan, Raj, Emmanuel, and Gene..."

Four public finance graduate students poke their heads out of their offices. "Yes, tell us!" they say. They look the least bit like characters on the Nature Channel show "Meetkat Manor"...

Diane Rogers on Obama's Tax Policy Talking Points

She writes:

Obama’s “Net Tax Cut”: Is Obama really proposing a “net tax cut”?... [F]or taxpayers as a whole, the answer is “yes” compared with current tax law.... But the answer is “no” compared with current policy extended.... [P]ermanent Bush tax cuts and permanently extended AMT relief [place] revenues as a share of GDP are 18.0% in 2013 and 18.2% over the next ten years. So at 18.2% and 18.3% of GDP for 2013 and ten-year revenue levels respectively, Obama’s tax proposals produce a small net tax increase relative to current policy extended....

[U]nder the Obama tax proposals, most households (all but those in the top 20%) would enjoy a tax cut compared to either baseline, so for most households... the answer is “yes.”... But for the richest of households (those with incomes in the top 1% or above around $600,000), the answer is clearly “no”–President Obama would raise taxes signficantly on these households, whether compared to current law or to current policy.  (For example, a top 1% household would pay $38,419 more in taxes compared with current tax law... but $133,383 more compared with current policy extended...

And here is the Tax Policy Center's chart:

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better President?

George W. Bush's level of understanding of the financial crisis:

Houston Political Blog: What did Bush say at Olson Fundraiser?: The President's folks didn't let the press in, but we got some exclusive video of POTUS talking up a storm at Pete Olson's fundraiser on July 18th....

Wall Street got drunk, it got drunk, (it’s one of the reasons I asked you to turn off your tv cameras.) It got drunk and now it’s got a hangover.  The question is how long will it sober up, and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments...

Atlantic Monthly Death Spiral Watch (Marc Ambinder Edition)

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps? Marc Ambinder doesn't just bury the lead, he omits the story completely:

Marc Ambinder: No Orleans: ALLENTOWN, PA -- Sittin' on the tarmac waitin' for the candidate. But -- surprise -- we're headed to Columbus, Ohio instead of New Orleans. No oil rig photo op in hurricane weather. No meeting wtih Gov. Jindal either.

Michael D. Shear of the Washington Post has the story:

McCain and the Safety of Offshore Drilling: Sen. John McCain says at every campaign stop that offshore oil drilling is safe, playing down the risk of environmental accidents, even when faced with the power of a hurricane. "I'm aware that off the coast of Louisiana and Texas there are oil rigs, as we well know, and those rigs have survived, very successfully, the impacts of hurricanes, Hurricane Katrina, as far as Louisiana's concerned," McCain said at a town hall in Michigan last week. In an energy speech recently, McCain said that: "As for offshore drilling, it's safe enough these days that not even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from the battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston."

In fact, Katrina and Hurricane Rita caused damage to oil rigs and storage facilities in the Gulf, according to press reports and government studies. The hurricanes totally destroyed 113 oil rigs, according to the government's Minerals Management Service, and damaged 457 pipelines. The resulting oil spills were large enough to be seen from space, according to several reports....

McCain had planned to tour oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana tomorrow as he visited with Gov. Bobby Jindal, a rising political star who is rumored to be on McCain's short list to be the vice presidential nominee. The campaign canceled the trip late Wednesday, saying the threat of Hurricane Dolly in the Gulf made a helicopter ride to the rig impossible.

It may not have helped things that a 600-foot tanker loaded with oil and a barge collided Wednesday in the Mississippi River in New Orleans, leaving a 12-mile long oil slick in the river and closing a 29-mile stretch of the river.

Television stations reported the stench of diesel fuel wafting across the French Quarter.

Atlantic Monthly Death Spiral Watch (Ross Douthat Edition)

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Ross Douthat writes:

Obama In Berlin: I'd really like to know which genius on the Obama campaign thought it would be a good idea to have their candidate conduct a major campaign rally in Europe.... Overall, the overseas tour has been good to Obama.... But photo ops are one thing, Beatlemania-style rallies are quite another - and having your candidate appear in front of tens of thousands of adoring European fans when... "too many voters who are put off rather than attracted by his race and exotic background" strikes me as the height of political folly.

The Berlin rally probably won't hurt Obama - voters aren't really paying attention... it'll be forgotten by the time the fall campaign begins in earnest. But it could do some minor damage, and it certainly won't help him.... Is it too late to call the whole thing off?

Let us parse this. Ross Douthat says:

  • Obama and his staff are showing their incompetence by
  • Having a Beatlemania-style rally in Berlin, of course
  • There's nothing wrong with giving a speech in Berlin, and
  • A speech in Berlin will please Europeans, but
  • It shows a lack of political competence, because
  • It will turn off Americans, who
  • Are already put off rather than attracted by his race, thus
  • Even though Obama's speech in Berlin will impress Europeans, and
  • Make it a little bit easier for him to do diplomacy should he become president next year,
  • It is the height of political folly because it will hurt his chances of getting elected, but
  • It won't hurt his chances: voters aren't paying attention, and
  • It won't: it will be forgotten by October, but
  • He should call the thing off anyway...

Three obvious points that really should not need to be said:

  • The object is not to win in November, but to win in November in a position of sufficient strength to thereafter help make a better country and a better world. George H.W. Bush's victory in 1988 was a Pyrrhic one, as Ricard Ben Cramer detailed in What It Takes. If Obama's speech in Berlin gains him credibility and thus power with our allies in Europe, it is worth doing even if it does him no good or only a little bit of harm with respect to his chances in November.
  • Ross Douthat's background belief that America's swing voters would rather have a president whom foreigners fear rather than one whom foreigners like is... wrong, to say the least. America's swing voters actually like Europeans--especially the west Germans who stood in front of us on the Cold War battleline, and the British who kept the anti-Hitler party running for three years until we showed up with the refreshments in our own sweet time, and the French without whom we would not even have a country.
  • The meta-ness of a political commentator who says that a candidate is less qualified to be president because the candidate does something that the commentator thinks might lead some swing voter to be less likely to vote for said candidate--well, that's a level of metaness reached only by people who don't dare make any real arguments.

Atlantic Monthly Death Spiral Watch (Jeffrey Goldberg Edition)

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

No Change in Recent Jewish Support for Obama

But Jeffrey Goldberg says:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Obama at the Western Wall: It appears that Barack Obama has a busy day tomorrow in Israel, including the obligatory visits to Yad Vashem and Sderot, and, as a nightcap, a visit to the Western Wall, where, a friend of mine suggests, Obama will undoubtedly spend his time praying for the Jews to leave him alone...

I genuinely do not know whether Jeffrey Goldberg doesn't know that American Jewish support for Barack Obama is solid, or knows but thinks he has to strike a blow for the Republicans by trying to mislead his readers.