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16 Apr 21:15

The Ludlow Centenary

by Erik Loomis


Next week will mark the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre. While it seems like a long time ago, in the New Gilded Age, it remains disturbingly relevant because the conditions that created such horrors in 1914 are returning to the United States of 2014. The historian Thai Jones gives an overview of the event and closes with this:

Observing from the vantage point of a half-century later, Howard Zinn saw two ways of understanding Ludlow. “If it is read narrowly, as an incident in the history of the trade union movement and the coal industry,” he wrote, “then it is an angry splotch in the past, fading rapidly amidst new events.” A second, more expansive view, he believed, revealed the true significance of the events of 1914: “If it is read as a commentary on a larger question—the relationship of government to corporate power and of both to movements of social protest—then we are dealing with the present.”

The export of manufacturing jobs abroad has produced an undoing of memory. Today, the nation is divided by the kind of severe income disparities last seen during the Gilded Age, and yet the traditions of labor militancy and resistance to corporate ferocity that flowered in the era of heavy industry have been largely forgotten by both workers and employers. But Ludlow is the terminus of capitalism’s regressive path. If our future is shaped by the further degradation of labor rights, there can only be more massacres and new monuments.


14 Apr 13:33

The Politics Of Sprawl

by Andrew Sullivan
Brian Stouffer

800 people per square mile is like the Mendoza line where it suddenly stops being possible to not give a shit about other human beings.

Richard Florida compared “rankings of sprawling and compact development to voting patterns, as well as other significant economic and demographic variables”:

In recent decades, America’s politics have exhibited a new trend, where Red America finds its home base in some of the country’s most sprawling places, while Blue America is centered in denser, more compact metros and cities. … The connection between sprawl and conservatism come through loud and clear in our analysis of more than 200 of America’s metro areas. Our correlations suggest that sprawled America is Red America, while Blue America takes on a much more compact geography. The Sprawl Index was negatively associated with the share of voters in a metro who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 (with a correlation of -.44); and it was positively associated with the percentage who voted for Barack Obama (.43). These were among the strongest correlations in our analysis.

This is in line with other research that connects sprawl or density and political affiliation. Researchers have identified a tipping point of roughly 800 people per square mile where counties shift from Red to Blue, as I noted in the weeks following Barack Obama’s reelection. Princeton historian Kevin Kruse similarly explained this spatial link between a spread-out landscape and Republican political positions to the New Republic. “There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good,” he said. “Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially.”

Recent Dish on sprawl here. More from the archives here and here.

11 Apr 13:13

Your Morning Dooley

by By Charles P. Pierce
By Charles P. Pierce

"An autocrat's a ruler that does what th' people wants an' takes th' blame f'r it. A constitootional ixicutive, Hinnissy, is a ruler that does as he dam pleases an' blames th' people."

-- Finley Peter Dunne, 1899.

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06 Apr 18:50

Oligarchy and Monetary Policy


I’ve been thinking about how we talk about — or don’t talk about — the desirability of low inflation targets. As I noted the other day, the lates IMF World Economic Outlook makes a compelling case for raising the target above 2 percent — but avoids saying so explicitly, resorting to coded euphemisms. Meanwhile, inflation paranoia is very much a partisan thing. In my class notes for tomorrow I list the signatories of the economists’ letter warning about dollar “debasement” from quantitative easing; it’s obvious that everyone on the list is a highly committed Republican, and some people with the right ideological credentials are on board even though they have no relevant professional credentials. (William Kristol and Dan Senor, monetary experts?)

So what’s going on here? Let me suggest that it is, ultimately, a class thing. Monetary policy isn’t really technocratic and politically neutral; moderate inflation may be good for employment, especially when you’re trying to work off a debt overhang, but it’s bad for the 0.1 percent. And that fact ends up exerting a huge influence on the discussion.

Let me start with a bit of a historical puzzle, or rather a puzzle about how history is remembered. Throughout the recent debate over monetary policy there have been apocalyptic warnings about Zimbabwe/Weimar and all that, but also constant invocations of the 1970s. My side of the debate has made a point of explaining why this situation is nothing like the 70s. But ask a different question: how did the 70s get framed as the ultimate bad time? For sure they weren’t good — but the really bad times for ordinary working families were the big recessions, which took place under Reagan, to some extent under Bush I, and above all after the financial crisis:

Economic Policy Institute

Think about how weird it is, given this history, for people in 2010 or 2011, amid the wreckage, to be saying “Watch out — if we’re not careful this could turn into the seventies!” (cue ominous soundtrack).

But there were some people for whom the 70s really were the worst of times — namely, owners of financial assets. Here’s the ratio of financial assets held by households to GDP versus the core inflation rate:

Household financial assets/GDP, core inflationHousehold financial assets/GDP, core inflation

And who cares a lot about financial assets, not so much about labor income? The 0.1 percent, who according to the Piketty-Saez database “only” get about 4 percent of total wages but have more than 20 percent of the wealth and surely a larger share of financial assets:

Carmen Reinhart has argued, persuasively, that highly indebted countries normally work off their debt in large part through “financial repression” — keeping interest rates low while inflating part of the debt away. The thing is, although this sounds bad, it actually isn’t — for the vast majority of people. Britain did far better through financial repression after World War II than it did through orthodoxy after World War I.

But there is one small but influential group that is in fact hurt by financial repression which is just like what Hitler did to the Jews: again, the 0.1 percent.

Now, I don’t think the 0.1 percent and their defenders are secretly twirling their mustaches, snickering over how they’re using delusions of sound policy to enrich themselves at the expense of the 99 percent. The Kochs don’t even have mustaches. But I do think that the very real conflict between what’s good for oligarchs and what’s good for the economy is, indirectly, having a powerful effect in distorting the debate.

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08 Apr 00:21

Capital Mobility and the Death of Steady Work

by Erik Loomis

Once again, capital mobility is the biggest threat to modern labor.* Companies already outsourced much work from the United States, contributing to the decline of unions, the split between labor and environmentalists, the end of steady work, the corporate domination over American politics, Gilded Age levels of income inequality, and the rapid decline of working-class voices in American debates.

Well, it’s no better for Indian workers since companies will dump those workers to in order to fight ever cheaper labor, making the conditions necessary for a permanent middle class nigh well impossible.

NEW DELHI: Struggling to diversify the delivery footprint to take advantage of low-cost centres, India’s BPO industry is currently losing 70 per cent of all incremental voice and call centre business to competitors like Philippines and countries in Eastern Europe, says a report.

“It is estimated that in the ongoing decade India might lose $ 30 billion in terms of foreign exchange earnings to Philippines, which has become the top destination for Indian investors,” Assocham Secretary General D S Rawat said. Thus there is a need to reduce costs and make operations leaner across the BPO industry,” he added.

BPO companies could reduce the total operating costs by 20-30 per cent by moving to a low-cost city within India, with a cost differential of around 10-15 per cent for non-voice processes and upwards of 20 per cent for voice processes, the report pointed out.

Several Indian firms have set up substantial operations in Philippines which has a large pool of well-educated, English-speaking, talented and employable graduates. Almost 30 per cent graduates in Philippines are employable unlike 10 per cent in India where the training consumes considerable amount of time, according to the report.

David Atkins on the importance of this.

The labor arbitrage game continues worldwide as corporations shift from country to country looking for highly trained workers to sell their labor for next to nothing on the global marketplace. These corporations are like parasites, putting jobs in one country for a decade or two, only to destabilize them and move the jobs elsewhere the moment something cheaper and better trained comes along.

Combined with increased capital mobility, labor arbitrage is giving corporations the upper hand in the battle with governments worldwide. The fate of the world’s economy–and, given the realities of climate change perhaps even the human race itself–will depend largely on whether the governments of the world can cooperate to neutralize the parasitic, plutocratic threat of global corporations.

I agree entirely. Fighting capital mobility needs to be at the very highest level of the progressive agenda. It is not today.

*One can make an argument for automation here as well.

08 Apr 01:44

Finally, Someone Gets It

by Scott Lemieux

Credit where credit is due — Glenn Reynolds has repented and finally has a reasonable take on the Brendan Eich resignation:

Meanwhile some people are muttering darkly of “blacklists” because of anger at Brandon Eich’s bigotry. Hey — it’s not a blacklist when you piss off your customers and users. Calling it that just serves to underscore the combination of overentitlement and moral unseriousness that marks conservertarian corporate executives today. As Yvonne Zipp writes:

A boycott is not the same as a blacklist. No one is hauling Brendon Eich in front of committees and threatening him with prison. Nor is he being told he can never work again if they don’t “name names.”

Wealthy reactionaries are free to use their immense wealth to promote their political views, and those people who don’t want to support that company anymore are free to say they won’t use the products produced by their companies.

It’s called the free market.

Heh. Indeed! Oh, wait, sorry, I had a couple transcription errors in there. OK, here’s the post:

STRIKE TWO for the Dixie Chicks — posing for a PETA anti-fur ad? What were they thinking?


Meanwhile some people are muttering darkly of “blacklists” because of anger at antiwar celebrities. Hey — it’s not a blacklist when you piss off your fans. Calling it that just serves to underscore the combination of overentitlement and moral unseriousness that marks entertainers today. As Yvonne Zipp writes:

A boycott is not the same as a blacklist. No one is hauling celebrities in front of committees and threatening them with prison. Nor are they being told they can never work again if they don’t “name names.”

Entertainers are free to use their fame to promote their political views, and those people who don’t find them entertaining anymore are free to change the channel.

It’s called the free market.

Hacktacular! Admittedly, there are some differences between the cases; it may not be entirely fair to compare the pressure than can some from a massive corporate titan like OK Cupid to a minor mom-and-pop operation like Clear Channel.

Bonus witless hackery from another reader email that goes beyond a heh-indeed to get an “I love it”:

“Somehow, I think those ‘rifle-toting, Bambi-shooting types’ will be buying CDs by some other artists from now on.”

In that case, I’ve got the perfect headline for you: “Pro-Blix Dixie Chicks nix pix for stix!”

Yeah, that Hans Blix sure does look foolish now, questioning the Bush administration’s airtight intelligence with such crazy techniques as “inspecting the sites where the Bush administration said there would be weapons.” What a weird and awful time that was.

31 Mar 12:50

The Breckinridge Obituary

by Erik Loomis
Brian Stouffer

I'll think of this next time I go skiing...

In December 1863, rumors abounded that John C. Breckinridge, Southern Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860, traitor, and Confederate general, had died. The New York Times was not sad:

If it be true, as is now positively declared, that a loyal bullet has sent this traitor to eternity, every loyal heart will feel satisfaction and will not scruple to express it. Ordinarily, enmity is disarmed before death; reproach is silenced, and even the sternest justice makes way for pity. The form that is shrouded is a sacred thing, and the grave itself is an altar on which every bitter feeling should be sacrificed forever. Human censorship does not presume to follow the spirit that has gone to its Eternal Judge; and even the most rigid feels constrained to remember his own frailties, and forgive. But where Death strikes such a public enemy as this, it exacts no silent obeisance. Personal feeling has no part in the matter. It is to be regarded purely as a public event; and if it really has the shape of a public deliverance, it is just as right to welcome it as any other public blessing. It is just as proper, too, to speak the truth of such a criminal when dead as when living. Humanity has a just reckoning with guilt of this particular dye that can never be satisfied without posthumous infamy.

If ever there was a public man pledged to a career of fidelity and honor, it was John C. Breckinridge. He belonged to a family that had always been noted for patriotism, as well as for every other exalted quality; as a young man he was personally associated with such great-souled patriots as Clay and Crittenden; the people of his own State, in his early youth, took him into their confidence with a readiness seldom exhibited, and the people of the United States elevated him to the second office in their gift, at an age without precedent in American history. Every inherited sentiment, every implanted principle, every obligation of gratitude, forbade him to be unfaithful to his country; but an unholy ambition ruined him. By nature frank, ardent, manly and eloquent, he fell a prey to the lures of higher preferment held out to him by plotters against the peace of the country. They named him for the Presidency at Charleston, and he accepted the nomination, though it was given in violation of every principle which had ruled Democratic conventions, and was sure to divide and destroy his party. How far he was actually cognizant, at that time, of the secession plot, is not yet known. It may be that he was let into the full confidence of the prime conspirators, and fully understood that he should help them ruin if they could not help him rule. It may be that he was at first merely a pliant dupe in the hands of crafty knaves. In measuring his guilt this matters little. The time came when the treason of his supporters was no longer disguised; and it was then his duty to have renounced them and denounced them. Had he been a true man, his indignation at the use the traitors had made of him, would have filled him with al the intenser hate of the treason itself; and the very fact that he had done something unwittingly to further it, would have stimulated him to redoubled efforts afterward to thwart and foil it. Instead of this, he showed all sympathy with it just as long as he could do so safely within the public councils, and then he betook himself bodily to the camp of the rebels. It might have been in weakness that he was first made a dupe, but his subsequent career marked him one of the basest and wickedest of traitors.

We know that it is not easy to draw distinctions between the shades of this black treason against the Union. Yet we can recognize that some sort of charity may be given to a man as Stonewall Jackson, who bred to the doctrine of paramount State sovereignty, and conscientiously believed that it was his duty to obey the decision of his State expressed through constitutional forms. But no such extenuating plea can be advanced for John C. Breckinridge. In one of his last speeches in the Senate, he declared that he was a son of Kentucky, and would follow her destiny. And yet, in spite of the fact that Kentucky, within a week afterward declared, by a majority of sixty thousand votes at the polls, that she would not go out of the Union, he went home and issued a manifesto, declaring that “there is no longer a Senate of the United States within the meaning and spirit of the Constitution; the United States no longer exist; the Union is dissolved;” and that he was now about to “exchange, with proud satisfaction, a term of six years in the Senate of the United States for the musket of a soldier.” The declared intention he made good by soon afterward rallying his friends at Russellville, where a resolution was passed, in so many words, bidding “defiance both to the Federal and State Governments,” and delegates were appointed to the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy. Breckinridge was soon afterward as thoroughly identified with the rebels as Jeff. Davis himself; though in doing it he had to turn his back, not only upon the Union, but upon his own State, whose destiny he had solemnly protested that he would follow. Of all the accursed traitors of the land there has been none more heinously false than he — none whose memory will live in darker ignominy. God grant the country a speedy deliverance of all such parricides.

Breckinridge in fact survived the war, dying in 1875.


30 Mar 15:32

“Or We Could Try Appealing To More Voters.” [Pause] Hearty Laughter Breaks Out All Around.

by Scott Lemieux

Today in Republican vote suppression:

Pivotal swing states under Republican control are embracing significant new electoral restrictions on registering and voting that go beyond the voter identification requirements that have caused fierce partisan brawls.

The bills, laws and administrative rules — some of them tried before — shake up fundamental components of state election systems, including the days and times polls are open and the locations where people vote.

Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin this winter pushed through measures limiting the time polls are open, in particular cutting into weekend voting favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before election.

Note the Republican focus on reducing voting hours. There’s not even a theoretical relationship between these laws and addressing the zero consequential cases of voter fraud that have ever existed. The laws are openly and explicitly about making it harder to vote, period, because the more people vote the worse it is for Republicans. This, in its entirety, is what the wave of vote suppression in Republican statehouses is about.


29 Mar 04:08

Foxes and Hedgehogs, Angels and Hacks: Oh, the humanity!

by John Holbo
Brian Stouffer

Boom, Plato'ed

Down the MOOC-hole, where I have been, I haven’t kept score in the Silver/Krugman kerfuffle. But, Plato-preoccupied as I was, I did make a false inference. I knew it was some fox-hedgehog thing. Silver was using Archilochus to frame what is wrong with standard opinion journalism. Perfect! I thought. Because I have read Plato’s Republic.

“Since, then, ‘opinion forcibly overcomes truth’ and ‘controls happiness,’ as the wise men say, I must surely turn entirely to it. I should create a facade of illusory virtue around me to deceive those who come near, but keep behind it the greedy and crafty fox of the wise Archilochus” (365b-c).

Socrates [Adeimantus] is being ironic [contrarian, for argument purposes], of course.

If Socrates were around today, he’d say opinion journalism is a false facade of virtue that overcomes truth. (I can hardly think of a better description of how Leon Wieseltier’s ideal goes wrong in practice. Wearing a heavy crown of virtue, so ostentatiously, doesn’t keep you upright. Everyone who wears one tends to bend to one side or the other, under the weight. Oh, the humanity!)

So of course I figured Silver was self-styling as a Socratic hedgehog, exposing greedy, crafty op-ed foxes. Now that I’ve caught up, by reading all this stuff, I realize the opposite is the case. He thinks he’s the fox, they are the hogs.

It’s not so important, of course, how we parse the fox-hedgehog metaphor. But it might clarify the debate. Silver’s charge against the op-ed hedgehogs (a.k.a. the foxes) is that they know one thing, i.e. their priors.

But that is really more a case of them wanting one thing, i.e. to be right. The charge is really more properly this: the superficially foxy op-ed writer can think many things about many things but wants only one thing, i.e. to ‘know’ he is basically right about everything. Thus, the foxiness of the op-ed writer – the flexibility that comes with not being a specialist but a generalist – is peeled back to reveal crypto-hedgehogism. What all op-ed foxes know how to do is deploy many opinions, in all directions, as spiny defenses of one impervious basic attitude: I am basically right about everything! There is a certain plausibility to that charge.

But it becomes hard to reconstruct the foxish alternative. Is Nate Silver saying he is superficially a hedgehog – i.e. a quant, a number guy? He knows only one thing: how to count? But underneath that superficial monotony, he’s a fox, i.e. he is prepared to think anything? But only if there are good reasons. He has transcended mere human limitations of cognitive bias and motivated reasoning?

That would be hubristic, to say the least.

If you tone it down a bit it makes more sense but it comes out a bit weird, as an advertisement: Silver could just be promising that his folks aren’t going to be total hacks. Being a competent numbers guy doesn’t make you a god, free of cognitive bias, but it does preserve you from being an hack, one might hope. But ‘read us, we are trying to be free of utter hackery, whereas other outlets tend to have at least some people on the payroll who are flagrant hacks’ is kind of a funny pitch.

I haven’t given Silver’s site a chance, because I literally haven’t visited it yet. I’ve been too busy. But it seems to me that critics are right that Silver’s sales pitch – ‘this is what we are doing that is distinctive!’ – has to be misleading. Sales pitches usually are.

28 Mar 04:00

March 28, 2014

27 Mar 16:15

The Ad Hoc Legal Challenge to the ACA You Might Have Missed

by Scott Lemieux
Brian Stouffer

"There’s a lesson here should more and better Democrats get a national governing majority. Trying to accommodate neoconfederates and their sympathizers can’t work, because as always conservative interest in the Equal Sovereign Dignitude of the States begins and ends with cases in which “federalism” can advance substantive conservative policy goals. Collaborating with states rather than just federalizing programs doesn’t accomplish anything but give Republicans another lever to sabotage."

The legal attack on the ACA that’s gotten less attention but would blow up the system if the Supreme Court bought the argument. My guess is that after the two wingnuts on the panel that initially heard the case vote to destroy the American health insurance system based on a willful misreading of the statute, the D.C. Circuit en banc will read the statute properly and the Supreme Court won’t take the case. But I’m not as confident, especially of the latter, as I’d like to be. We can also see here why blowing up the filibuster for circuit court appointments was so important.

One thing to add to the initial piece is that the nihilists making this silly argument, realizing that a hyperliteralism that ignores both other specific provisions of the statute as well as its overall structure and purpose might not be be enough, have developed a darkly comic theory asserting that Congress really intended to deny subsidies to people getting insurance from the federal exchanges. According to the theory, Congress wanted it this way because they assumed that no state could possibly want significant numbers of its citizens denied practical access to health insurance, and hence would have no choice to set up their own exchanges if the federal ones didn’t work. In other words, the Democrats who voted for the legislation would have had to be so delusional as to see Republicans at the state level as collaborators interested in working to achieve the goals of the ACA. Now, there are some individual Democrats who are a little slow on the uptake about what the Republican Party has become, and some dupes who erroneously consider themselves tough-minded leftists who at least pretend to think that Republicans secretly support the ACA model. But, as both the Medicaid funding mechanism and the provisions that allowed the federal government to establish exchanges (crucial detail!) “on behalf” of the states makes clear, the architects of the ACA were perfectly well aware of what the Republican Party circa 2010 is, and contrary to this lunatic theory knew very well that Republican statehouses would gleefully shoot the hostages generated by non-subsidized federal exchanges.

I’m also reminded of a point made by Ginsburg in her Sebelius opinion. (Because some of the neoconfederate barbarians were kept from the gates, it gets less attention than her instant classic Shelby County dissent, but it’s equally good.) The Supreme Court was able to arbitrarily deny millions of people Medicaid because Congress left too much autonomy to the states:

Finally, any fair appraisal of Medicaid would require acknowledgment of the considerable autonomy States enjoy under the Act. Far from “conscript[ing] state agencies into the national bureaucratic army,” Medicaid “is designed to advance cooperative federalism.” Subject to its basic requirements, the Medicaid Act empowers States to “select dramatically different levels of funding and coverage,alter and experiment with different financing and delivery modes, and opt to cover (or not to cover) a range of particular procedures and therapies. States have leveraged this policy discretion to generate a myriad of dramatically different Medicaid programs over the past several decades.” The ACA does not jettison this approach. States, as first-line administrators, will continue to guide the distribution of substantial resources among their needy populations.

The alternative to conditional federal spending, it bears emphasis, is not state autonomy but state marginalization. In 1965, Congress elected to nationalize health coverage for seniors through Medicare. It could similarly have established Medicaid as an exclusively federal program. Instead, Congress gave the States the opportunity to partner in the program’s administration and development.

There’s a lesson here should more and better Democrats get a national governing majority. Trying to accommodate neoconfederates and their sympathizers can’t work, because as always conservative interest in the Equal Sovereign Dignitude of the States begins and ends with cases in which “federalism” can advance substantive conservative policy goals. Collaborating with states rather than just federalizing programs doesn’t accomplish anything but give Republicans another lever to sabotage.


26 Mar 21:24

NLRB Rules in Favor of Northwestern Football Players

by Erik Loomis

This is a very big day for college athletes seeking the right to unionize:

The director of the National Labor Relations Board’s Chicago district ruled today that Northwestern football players do qualify as employees, and as such are entitled to form a union. This is as big as it sounds, but there is a ways to go before amateurism as we know it is ended.

Led by QB Kain Colter, the College Athletes Players Association won a surprisingly quick decision from the NLRB regional office—they filed less than two months ago, and were vociferously opposed by Northwestern and the NCAA. The group seeks fully guaranteed scholarships, better medical protections for injured players, and a fund that will allow athletes to continue their educations after they stop playing.

In the money quote from the decision, the regional director wrote, “I find that players receiving scholarships from the Employer are ‘employees.’”

You can read the opinion here (PDF). Now, this is far from the end of the road. Northwestern is going to appeal and the NCAA is going to back them up all the way. After all, the free labor they take from athletes is at stake. So who knows what is going to happen. But a couple of quick key takeaways. First is the speed of the decision. Usually, these cases are a long, drawn-out process (often a problem of the NLRB, making it an increasingly ineffective agency for workers operating in real time with house payments and such). This case began only 2 months ago. This means that for the regional director, it was an obvious and easy decision. He declared these athletes workers because they received compensation, even if did not receive a paycheck Second, this continues to chip away at the NCAA. Every time players sue or argue for rights, the NCAA cartel weakens. Every time they win or even gain a partial victory, NCAA power declines even more.

And while I absolutely do not believe this is going to happen, were such a decision lead to the decline of college athletics and the replacement of it in major sports with actual minor league football and basketball, well, good! And I say this as a fan. There’s almost no good argument to be for the current scenario unless you are a booster and donor who doesn’t actually want to give money to the university.

Of course, support for paying the largely non-white college athletic workforce falls largely along race lines, with white people loving to watch unpaid (although compensated) black labor and black people being significantly less comfortable with that. I’m sure there’s no history behind this or anything.

Dave Jamieson with more.

…..Allen West is very sad.

….This is an excellent Q&A at ESPN that answers many questions about the impact of this case. Looks good for the players.


25 Mar 12:40

What It Would Have Taken

Brian Stouffer

And I say, thou shalt not crucify humanity on a cross of 2% targeted inflation!

Brad DeLong is wrong. He thinks we have a disagreement, but he’s misinterpreting what I said when I argued that the Fed’s 2008 inflation phobia wasn’t responsible for the Great Recession and the Lesser Depression that have followed and continue to this day.

What Brad says — and I agree with — is that there is no economic necessity behind our ongoing employment and output disaster. We could and should have moved the resources employed in the housing boom to other uses, and needn’t have paid this immense cost.

But what would it have taken — what would it take now — to have maintained or restored full employment? My argument is that it would have required more radical, aggressive policies than anyone close to the levers of power has been willing to contemplate, at any point along the way. So the fact that the Fed was wrongly obsessed with inflation for most of 2008, the original subject of my post, was just a contributing factor; things would have been a bit better, but nowhere near OK, if the Fed had stayed focused on underlying inflation and ignored the effects of the commodity-price blip.

Think of it this way: what would a really effective set of policies be right now? First of all, we should aggressively reverse the fiscal austerity of the last few years, getting government at all levels spending several points of GDP more to boost demand.

Monetary policy should accommodate that boost; interest rates should not go up even if inflation goes somewhat above 2 percent. In fact, there’s an overwhelming prudential case for raising the inflation target — even if we’re not sure about seculat stagnation, it might be true, and we definitely know that the risk of hitting the zero lower bound is much higher than Fed officials imagined when they settled on 2 percent as the magic number.

I’m not totally wedded to these particular numbers, but let’s say for the sake of argument that the right policy is two years of fiscal expansion amounting to 3 percent of GDP each year, plus a permanent rise in the inflation target to 4 percent. These wouldn’t be radical moves in terms of Econ 101 — they are in fact pretty much what textbook models would suggest make sense given what we have learned about macroeconomic vulnerabilities. But they are completely outside the bounds of respectable discussion.

That’s the sense in which we are “doomed” to long-term stagnation. We have met the enemy, and it’s not the economic fundamentals, it’s us.

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21 Mar 16:15

The Breadth of Hobby Lobby’s Attack On Its Employees

by Scott Lemieux

The companies advancing the farcically specious religious freedom arguments against the contraception non-mandate want their employees to get even less for the health insurance they pay for with their labor than you think:

Arguments in front of the Supreme Court start next week in the Hobby Lobby case. Hobby Lobby is suing for a religious exemption from the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring that employer-provided health insurance cover contraception. Most of the coverage of the case has focused on Hobby Lobby’s objection to the contraception itself and how, if the business prevails, its employees will have to pay out of pocket for things like birth control pills or IUDs. But, as Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress explained on Wednesday, Hobby Lobby and their co-plaintiff, Conestoga Wood Specialties, are also objecting to insurance plans covering “related education and counseling” for contraception. In other words, these for-profit businesses aren’t just asking their female employees to pay for their own contraception, even though they are already paying for their own contraception by paying for their insurance coverage. These companies want to elbow their way into doctor’s offices and call the shots on what doctors can and cannot say to Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood employees.

In summary, Hobby Lobby et al. are citing a “burden” on religious practice so trivial as to be non-existent in order to impose actual burdens on the rights of their employees. This nicely summarizes how American conservatives think about “freedom.”


21 Mar 14:40

A Felon In Florida? No Vote For You

by Tracy R. Walsh
Brian Stouffer

The technical term for a democracy where not everyone can vote is "not a democracy".

by Tracy R. Walsh

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 4.13.06 PM

Jessica Chiappone laments losing her rights at the ballot box after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess cocaine:

I served seven months in a federal prison in Texas, where I was subjected to strip searches every other day after being sent into a forest to chop trees. I spent one year in a halfway house in Brooklyn, and then three years on supervised release – one year earlier than projected. I graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice. I found a job and paid my taxes. I became a mother, graduated from law school and passed the New York State Bar Exam. … Despite my time served and my accomplishments as a legitimate contributing member of society, my fundamental right to vote in Florida was denied – along with several other rights that are supposed to be inalienable in America.

The United States passively accepts the existence of second-class citizenship. Rather than provide an opportunity for automatic restoration of voting rights, Florida imposes a subjective review process that leaves the formerly incarcerated with no clear standard to meet: intrusive and uninformed questions about financial stability, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS – none of which are barriers to voting for those not convicted of crimes, nor should they ever be.

Last month, Eric Holder urged states to “fundamentally reconsider” the practice. Recent Dish on the subject here.

(Map of state felony disenfranchisement laws via ACLU)

20 Mar 15:19

The Ginsburg Dilemma

by Scott Lemieux

One key takeaway from the debate among liberals about whether Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be urged to retire is that the decision about when to retire shouldn’t be in the hands of the justices.


20 Mar 14:22

Odious Debt

by Jonah Shepp
Brian Stouffer

Similarly, I don't understand why after the bookie breaks my legs, I *still* owe him the money.

by Jonah Shepp

Jamila Trindle and Keith Johnson note an economic silver lining of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine:

It may be cold comfort when enemy tanks are still on its border, but some observers suggest that Kiev should be able to write off at least $5 billion of its debt to Russia because Moscow has effectively stolen Ukrainian territory and energy resources, as well as military hardware and bases. “An obvious focal point for the Ukrainian government now that Russia has intervened across its border, and actually seized land/assets is debts owed to Russia,” said Tim Ash, head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank Group. “No doubt the lawyers are sharpening their pencils as we speak.”

There are already a few ways in which Russian takeover could end up alleviating Ukraine’s debt, the most pressing of which is probably the $1.8 billion (and counting) that Kiev owes Gazprom for natural-gas shipments over the last year.

But Felix Salmon explains that some debt, like the $3 billion Russia lent to Ukraine in December, may prove harder to shake:

[T]he loan was not, technically, a bilateral loan from Russia to Ukraine. Instead, it was structured as a private-sector eurobond. … This is a notorious vulture-fund move: a hedge fund buys bilateral debt from a sovereign, and then sues not as a sovereign but rather as a private-sector creditor. I can think of a few hedge funds which would be interested in Russia’s debt, if they could buy it at a discount to where the rest of Ukraine’s debt is trading. After all, to use a term you might have seen on this blog in the past, this loan is, legally, pari passu with all the rest of Ukraine’s bonded debt.

(In fact, this bond is arguably senior to the rest of Ukraine’s bonds, thanks to a very unusual provision which allows Russia to accelerate the debt if Ukraine’s GDP falls. But since there now seems to be no chance that Ukraine will pay the coupon on this bond, it’s going to be in default very soon anyhow.)

20 Mar 14:06

The Idea of Workers “Choosing” Their Hours, Pay or Conditions is Bogus

by Erik Loomis
Brian Stouffer

Wait, you guys DON'T have a minute-by-minute marginal tax rate calculator app on your phone? And your boss DOESN'T allow you to jump up from your desk, race home, and start smoking pot and watching cartoons the second it dings?

I have a long-running hate of the Times Room for Debate feature. Giving a bunch of people 100 words to make a case just feeds both sides do it syndrome. That’s especially true since the feature consistently combines scholars and experts with crazy people. Take last week’s subject of the 40 hour week. Plenty of good people but they had to have a conservative. And what a doozy. Amity Shales ladies and gents:

People decide to work more (or less) than 40 hours a week because of a variety of factors including family life, education, hobbies and leisure time in general. But the biggest reason may be as simple as one word: taxes.

Americans would willingly work longer hours, earn more and be more productive if their marginal tax rates were lowered.

Across nations and decades, the Nobel-winning economist Edward Prescott found, tax rates largely determined the hours that workers put in. Heavily taxed workers in Europe put in fewer hours than more lightly taxed workers in the United States, he determined.

More precisely, taxes limited the hours that Europeans work on the books. In countries like Germany, he wrote, people work just as much as Americans; they merely record less of that work for the government by working in the black or gray markets, where their earnings are untaxed or less taxed.

What does that mean for the workweek in the United States? A progressive rate structure like ours starts out alluringly low, then raises rates as you earn more, taxing the last dollar earned more heavily than the first. The more progressive a rate structure, the less attractive working that extra hour, or getting that promotion, becomes.

Though most workers aren’t taxed at the top and heaviest rates, they can still feel the load of some rate increases. And most people are aware in a general sense that harder work has limits to its rewards because of the effect of progressivity.

If we flattened the code, so that the last dollar is taxed at the same rate as the first one, people would want to work more.

The hours we work should be a matter of genuine, individual choice, not determined by government policy.

Whatever planet Shales lives on doesn’t have actual workers. Choice? Who chooses to work certain hours? Yglesias used this formulation in his classic “it’s ok for Bangladeshi workers to die on the job because their country is modernizing” response to me after the Rana Plaza collapse. It makes no sense because it is totally disconnected from how people actually act. When the choice is “work or starve” that’s not a choice. People work because they are told they are working this long, whether it is a 20 hour week or a 50 hour week. The only things that have ever gotten in the way of this are unions and governments. Today, the former doesn’t have the power and the latter increasingly lacks the inclination.

The rest of it is just bog standard flat tax idiocy, hiding corporate greed in a rhetoric of worker freedom. But people who say workers “choose” these things are showing me they have no idea what actual working class life is like.


13 Mar 14:03

The Other B-Word

by Andrew Sullivan
Brian Stouffer

I'm ok with phasing out words that are inherently sexist. From now on, I'll only use the gender-neutral term "asshole".

Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Maria Chávez have launched a campaign against “bossy”:

Most dictionary entries for “bossy” provide a sentence showing its proper use, and nearly all focus on women. Examples range from the Oxford Dictionaries’ “bossy, meddling woman” to Urban Dictionary’s “She is bossy, and probably has a pair down there to produce all the testosterone.” Ngram shows that in 2008 (the most recent year available), the word appeared in books four times more often to refer to females than to males.

Behind the negative connotations lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender. Boys are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, while girls should be kind, nurturing and compassionate. … How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?

Deborah Tannen supports the idea:

I once had high-ranking women and men record everything they said for a week, then shadowed them and interviewed them and their co-workers.

I found that women in authority, more often than men in similar positions, used language in ways that sounded a lot like what researchers observed among girls at play. Instead of “Do this,” women managers would say “Let’s …” or “What you could do,” or soften the impact by making their statements sound like questions.

In short, women at work are in a double bind: If they talk in these ways, which are associated with and expected of women, they seem to lack confidence, or even competence. But if they talk in ways expected of someone in authority, they are seen as too aggressive. That’s why “bossy” is not just a word but a frame of mind. Let’s agree to stop sending girls and women the message that they’ll be disliked – or worse – if they exercise authority.

But Danielle Henderson urges women to embrace their bossiness:

We should be telling girls to own the living shit out of bossiness. Instead of casting it as a pejorative, we should be reifying the idea that being bossy directly relates to confidence, and teaching girls how to harness that confidence in productive and powerful ways. This isn’t a problem of language – the problem is our backwards system that rewards women for silence and compliance, and encouraging them to be less fierce is a supremely fucked up way to counter that. What is this wilting flower, let’s-not-say-bad-words approach to empowerment?

Meanwhile, Olga Khazan warns that efforts to make girls more willing to be “bossy” may inadvertently target the introverted:

Of course it’s good to encourage girls to be leaders. But not all leaders have extroverted personalities. In fact, some of the best ones are quiet, shy loners who were likely never called “bossy” in their lives.

The anti-bossy movement aims to encourage girls to speak up “even if you aren’t sure about the answer,” but introverts prefer to process their thoughts and form solid ideas before expressing them. Studies on introverted leaders have shown that they are not any less effective than their more gregarious counterparts, and some studies have even shown that humbler leaders can inspire better-functioning management teams. Charismatic CEOs get paid more, but their firms don’t perform any better on average than those of more reserved principals.

She adds that efforts should be made to push workplaces and schools “to better recognize the talents of introverts – not to pressure girls or boys or anyone to simply act in a more extroverted way.”

13 Mar 17:12

The Way We Live Now

by Andrew Sullivan

Where we seem to have arrived in the debate over homosexuality:


And the beat goes on …

(From Molly Alice’s Art Blag. This post was particularly brilliant.)

09 Mar 21:53


by Erik Loomis

Jon Geeting speaks smartly about the pointlessness of registering as an independent:

You don’t have to be thrilled about it, but this is the only way your vote counts in these places because the real election is the primary. Unless your state has open primaries where registered independents can vote, you don’t get to vote in the only election that counts. Treat yourself to all the democracy. Pick the party that’s closest to your views and vote in every primary for the least bad person.

Indeed. Registering as an independent is another sign of how we have turned politics into a consumer choice that reflects upon you. By doing so, you might be asserting your very real position that neither party satisfies you, but you are also reducing your own political power for no good reason. In states with open primaries this might not apply, but generally, it makes no sense.


11 Mar 15:25

The Place Where Government Goes To Die

by By Charles P. Pierce

There's a lot to be learned about the country in a very odd -- and morbidly wonderful -- story in today's New York Times. It concerns Hampton, a tiny city in Florida that, apparently, decided that it would finance itself through speeding tickets. It was as though somebody designed a political order based on the Smokey and the Bandit movies. Amazing corruption ensued.

Between 2011 and 2012, Hampton's officers issued 12,698 speeding tickets to motorists, many most likely caught outside Hampton's strip of county road. But, as it turns out, surprised motorists are not the only ones getting burned. So many speeding tickets were churned out for so many years and with such brazenness that this city of 477 residents came under scrutiny - and not just for revenue raising with a radar gun. Now, Hampton, an 89-year-old city, is fighting legislative momentum to wipe it off the map, after a state audit last month uncovered reams of financial irregularities, shoddy record-keeping and missing funds.

The city had three full-time employees at the time, and all three of them may wind up in the sneezer. The alibis are as surreal as the actual corruption was...

By Charles P. Pierce

There's a lot to be learned about the country in a very odd -- and morbidly wonderful -- story in today's New York Times. It concerns Hampton, a tiny city in Florida that, apparently, decided that it would finance itself through speeding tickets. It was as though somebody designed a political order based on the Smokey and the Bandit movies. Amazing corruption ensued.

Between 2011 and 2012, Hampton's officers issued 12,698 speeding tickets to motorists, many most likely caught outside Hampton's strip of county road. But, as it turns out, surprised motorists are not the only ones getting burned. So many speeding tickets were churned out for so many years and with such brazenness that this city of 477 residents came under scrutiny - and not just for revenue raising with a radar gun. Now, Hampton, an 89-year-old city, is fighting legislative momentum to wipe it off the map, after a state audit last month uncovered reams of financial irregularities, shoddy record-keeping and missing funds.

The city had three full-time employees at the time, and all three of them may wind up in the sneezer. The alibis are as surreal as the actual corruption was.

In the audit, the city sometimes offered an explanation for its slipshod documentation.

The reason, for example, that no water meter logbooks before April 2012 could be found was that they were "lost in a swamp," the result of a car accident involving the water utility operator. (There was no accident report filed.) Those logbooks might have clarified why the city's elder-care center did not receive a water bill for seven years and why three city commissioners went unbilled for 17 months. As for the city's pre-1999 records, Florida floods were blamed for obliterating them.  

The gators ate their homework.

And, finally fed up with the increasingly baroque shenanigans, the Florida state legislature is poised simply to eliminate Hampton as a political entity, handed it over to Bradford County to manage.

Even picking a mayor among the five Council members proved an ordeal. The post was finally filled last September, but two months into the job, the new mayor, Barry Moore, was charged with possession of Oxycodone with intent to sell. He now sits in jail awaiting trial.


But there is a lot more to the story beyond the fact that the people involved in it seem to be living in a Carl Hiassen novel. There are thousands of Hamptons around the country -- little cities in which the tax base has shrunk to nearly nothing, and full of people who simply have given up on politics -- and therefore self-government -- because they have decided that there is no point to it any more. And, sadly, there is an entire portion of our political class that makes a living telling those people in those places that they're right to have given up, that democracy is for suckers, and that Government is something alien to them. There no longer is a consensus that the primary job of being a citizen is to participate in governing, and that consensus was deliberately shattered over the last 30 years, mainly in the interest of shoving the nation's wealth upwards, and increasing private profits at the expense of the public good. In that climate, in which the voters have declined to participate in a government they consider alien to themselves, it's easy to see how an amoral and criminal class of politician can rise. If government is an Other, a thing to be pillaged, there will be people who involve themselves in government for the purposes of pillaging it. The only difference between the three full-time employees of the city of Hampton and the politician-lobbyist revolving door on K Street is a better class of shoes.

(h/t to blog research director Molly Doris-Pierce for spotting this story.)

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06 Mar 01:46

Bigotry is not all bad things

by djw

Henry Farrell’s reply to Conor Friedersdorf’s mess of a column this morning. But I want to highlight one particularly clueless passage:

I don’t regard homosexuality as sinful. Unlike my friends in the orthodox Catholic community, I don’t regard sex before marriage or masturbation or the use of contraceptives or failing to attend Sunday Mass as sinful either. Knowing those Catholic friends neither fear me nor treat me with intolerance nor bear hatred toward me, it’s easy for me to see how they could view gay sex or marriage as sinful without hating gays or lesbians.

The difference, of course, is his conservative Catholic friends are not petitioning the state to deny him equal legal status via the denial of basic legal rights and protections, such as the right to marry and found a family, or the protection from discrimination in public accommodations provided by being covered by anti-discrimination law, despite the fact that he openly endorses and/or engages in all manner of activity they find sinful. It turns out that straight white males such as Friedersdorf find themselves being treated as full and equal citizens with relative ease, whereas GLBT struggle a bit in that category for some reason.

Among the many problems with Friedersdorf is his emotional response to, and utter lack of precision regarding the word bigotry. It’s a word with real meaning, not an insult, and petitioning the state to deny the basic rights and protections synonymous with full and equal citizenship is an act of bigotry. Bigotry is not synonymous with animosity. Bigotry is not synonymous with hatred. Bigotry is not synonymous with rudeness. Bigotry doesn’t cease to be bigotry simply because it comes from a place of ‘sincere religious conviction’  (which I doubt Friedersdorf would deny in other contexts–I have no doubt there are a few hundred million Hindus who seek to uphold the sigmas and exclusions of untouchibility due to ‘sincere religious conviction’).


04 Mar 14:51

The Historical Roots of the “Civil Rights = Slavery” Argument

by Scott Lemieux
Brian Stouffer

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Above right: still the most influential Republican thinker on civil rights

I’ll have more to say about Samuel Bagenstos’s brilliant essay about legal arguments against civil rights have transformed across American history. To start, though, I’d like to highlight this, about how the argument that requiring public accommodations to treat customers on equal terms is the equivalent of slavery has long been used by white supremacists:

Other times, the arguments against Title II were framed in terms of the Thirteenth Amendment. The argument was not the one we might have expected from the Civil Rights Cases—that discrimination in public accommodations was not a badge and incident of slavery that Congress had Thirteenth Amendment power to target. Instead, it was the rather stunning argument that prohibiting businesses from discriminating on the basis of race conscripted the business owners into involuntary servitude. Strom Thurmond made this argument in his separate views attached to the Senate Report on the proposed Civil Rights Act. Senator Thurmond described the Thirteenth Amendment as “an insurmountable constitutional barrier” to Title II, because, by forcing businesses to serve customers their owners desired not to, the bill would impose “involuntary servitude” on them. As Christopher Schmidt explains, “in the early 1960s, this unusual Thirteenth Amendment argument figured prominently in the debate over the appropriate line between antidiscrimination policy and personal liberties.”

Terrible reactionary arguments never die; they just get recycled to justify different forms of illegitimate privilege.


04 Mar 14:32

Flimflam, The Next Generation


I took Paul Ryan’s measure almost four years ago, back when everyone in Washington was determined to see him as the Serious, Honest Conservative they knew had to exist somewhere. Everything we’ve seen of him since then has confirmed that initial judgment. When you see a big report from Ryan, you shouldn’t ask “Is this a con job?” but instead skip right to “Where’s the con?”

And so it is with the new poverty report.

Give Ryan some points for originality. In his various budgets, he relied mainly on magic asterisks — unspecified savings and revenue sources to be determined later; he was able to convince many pundits that he had a grand fiscal plan when the reality was that he was just assuming his conclusions, and that the assumptions were fundamentally ridiculous. But this time he uses a quite different technique.

What he offers is a report making some strong assertions, and citing an impressive array of research papers. What you aren’t supposed to notice is that the research papers don’t actually support the assertions.

In some cases we’re talking about artful misrepresentation of what the papers say, drawing angry protests from the authors. In other cases the misdirection is more subtle.

Take the treatment of Medicaid and work incentives. I’m going to teach the best available survey on these issues tonight, which looks at the research and finds little evidence of significant disincentive effects from Medicaid (or food stamps). That’s not at all the impression you get from the Ryan report. So I looked at the Medicaid section, and found that it contains a more or less unstructured listing of lots of papers; if you read that list carefully, you find that there really isn’t anything in there making a strong case for large incentive effects.

In other words, the research citations are just there to make the report sound well-informed; they aren’t actually used to derive the conclusions, which more or less come out of thin air.

Oh, and there are the usual Medicaid zombies too.

The thing is, we could be having a serious discussion about welfare and incentives; there are some real issues. But there isn’t anyone to have that discussion with.

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04 Mar 00:50

The Washington Post Uses Biased Experts to Promote Propaganda on Venezuela

by Murtaza Hussain
Brian Stouffer

This is the first really interesting thing I've seen on the Intercept. More of this, please.

Demonstrators display a Venezuelan flag during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)Demonstrators display a Venezuelan flag during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

The Washington Post’s Feb. 19 article about the recent spate of unrest in Venezuela took a breathlessly laudatory stance towards the opposition against President Nicolás Maduro. The opening paragraphs offer a good indication of its tenor:

Leopoldo López, the defiant Venezuelan opposition leader taken into custody Tuesday in front of thousands of anti-government protesters, spent last night in a prison on a military base.

But even there, the government couldn’t shut him up….

It was the kind of passionate, personal appeal and call to action that showed exactly why the Harvard-educated López has been at the center of the most serious challenge yet to the struggling Maduro, successor to the late Hugo Chávez.

The piece continues in a similarly effusive manner throughout; but what’s most interesting about it are the sources which the authors choose to cite as impartial experts. Not only do they appear hostile to the Venezuelan government and supportive of the opposition, they also appear to have serious, unstated conflicts of interest that cast doubt on the integrity of the Washington Post‘s entire reportage on this issue.

At one point, the article quotes Michael Shifter “president of Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington”, as giving the following analysis of the situation: “López is saying, ‘this is intolerable, let’s not be resigned to it.’… He felt this wasd his moment to act, to take to the streets.” Going further, the piece also quotes Moisés Naím – omitting to mention that he too is a member of the Inter-American Dialogue – excoriating the previous opposition leader for not going far enough in challenging Maduro when he had the opportunity.

What the authors failed to explain is that the Inter-American Dialogue is a think-tank whose members happen to include several officials from Venezuela’s previous government – the same one electorally deposed by Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution. Even more distressingly, the Dialogue counts among its funders organizations such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, the U.S. government through USAID, and the embassies of Canada, Mexico and Guatemala among others.

That these groups have distinct political and financial interests in Venezuela casts some doubt on the impartiality of the viewpoints their funded analysts produce. Indeed, a 2006 diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks uncovered the fact that U.S. officials were planning to implement a “5-point strategy” to undermine the Chavez government, specifically using USAID as a means to accomplish this. That USAID also happens to be a prime funder of the Inter-American Dialogue raises some serious questions about its unstated mission in the country.

For his part, Shifter has become a high-profile public critic of the Maduro administration in the mainstream press, where his organization is still depicted as a benign, “nonpartisan policy group”.

Indeed, a 2012 study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) documented both Shifter’s political and corporate connections as well as the breadth of his reach in the media, remarking that, What he says is very likely indistinguishable from the views of the monied interests backing his think tank. His appearance in the Washington Post last week was far from an aberration. He — along with others from the Dialogue — are regularly cited in articles on the region and Shifter himself has penned articles for the New York Times, Foreign Policy and others. In a 2005 op-ed in the Post he wrote:

Chavez is aggressively using rhetoric that bashes the Bush administration and claims the banner of social justice to consolidate his power…The challenge for U.S. policy is to contest the validity of Chavez’s claims and his grandiose but wrongheaded designs.

Not to be outdone, Moisés Naím also took to the pages of Post in 2011 to publish an article entitled “Imagining a World Without Hugo Chavez“, forecasting his death and the continued empowerment of his elected government. At one point, Naím laments American hesitance to involve itself more forcefully in Venezuelan politics due to its entanglements elsewhere saying:

[W]hat role would Chavez’s opponents play in a transition? These include the growing segment of Venezuela’s civil society that opposes him — especially the student movement and a new breed of young leaders — and, of course, the United States. In both cases, their influence would probably be limited: The former lacks guns, thugs or money; the latter is too busy dealing with crises elsewhere.

That the sources of this supposedly expert analysis are funded by corporations and governments openly hostile to the Venezuelan government, and which have even attempted its overthrow in the past, would appear to be a fairly glaring omission.

A Washington Post reader emailed the co-author of the story, Post staff writer Nick Miroff, asking why he didn’t explain the Inter-American Dialogue’s ties to Venezuela’s opposition and to business interests. In an email that made its way to The Intercept, Miroff wrote back that he didn’t think it necessary. (Contacted by The Intercept, Miroff confirmed the email was his, but said we did not have his permission to publish it. We don’t need his permission.)

Miroff wrote that he “quoted Michael Shifter for the simple reason that he’s a terrific Latin America analyst, and often has smart, thoughtful observations to share.” He pointed out that he stated in the story that Shifter had known Lopez for many years, “signaling to readers that he has a personal relationship with him.” He continued:

As for his organization receiving money from oil companies, or USAID, I think it’s relevant, but not necessarily worth spending ink on. A LOT of DC think tanks and universities and NGOs receive money from oil companies and other interests. Do we need to disclose all of those affiliations, every time? Chevron is one of the biggest foreign oil companies working in Venezuela and paying royalty $ to the government.

Miroff praised what he called “a good question,” but concluded that “I think in many cases it’s up to the reader to look up the organization and decide whether or not they think the comments are colored by donor interests. In Shifter’s case, I don’t believe they are.”

So there you have it: Because the infiltration of oil companies and other vested interests in policymaking has become so entrenched, there’s no point even mentioning it anymore. That Michael Shifter runs an organization funded by many of the same corporations and governments which have open conflicts with the Venezuelan government is apparently immaterial to him also providing expert analysis on political developments in Venezuela.

Even more incredibly, his colleague at the Inter-American Dialogue Moisés Naím was formerly Venezuela’s Minister of Trade and Industry during the tenure of President Carlos Andrés Pérez – a leader who was electorally deposed by Chavez and who presided over the massacre of hundreds of unarmed protestors in the country. Nonetheless, his commentary has been included without even the slightest acknowledgment of what appears to be a deeply prejudicial history.

None of this is written necessarily as a defence of the Venezuelan government or a commentary on events in that country, but rather to demonstrate the fundamental incapacity of the mainstream media to cover this story in a way that is not corrupted by corporate and political interests.

The corrosive influence of corporations and government in the news media has long been documented. The establishment press has demonstrated time and again its reflex to serve as a tool of powerful vested interests, and to act essentially as the communications arm of U.S. foreign policy. The Washington Post‘s coverage is just the most glaring and recent example of such behavior.

The post The Washington Post Uses Biased Experts to Promote Propaganda on Venezuela appeared first on The Intercept.

04 Mar 20:15

The Real Poverty Trap


Earlier I noted that the new Ryan poverty report makes some big claims about the poverty trap, and cites a lot of research — but the research doesn’t actually support the claims. It occurs to me, however, that the whole Ryan approach is false in a deeper sense as well.

How so? Well, Ryan et al — conservatives in general — claim to care deeply about opportunity, about giving those not born into affluence the ability to rise. And they claim that their hostility to welfare-state programs reflects their assessment that these programs actually reduce opportunity, creating a poverty trap. As Ryan once put it,

we don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.

OK, do you notice the assumption here? It is that reduced incentives to work mean reduced social mobility. Is there any reason to believe this as a general proposition?

Now, as it happens the best available research suggests that the programs Ryan most wants to slash — Medicaid and food stamps — don’t even have large negative effects on work effort. There is, however, some international evidence that generous welfare states have an incentive effect: America has by far the weakest safety net in the advanced world, and sure enough, the American poor work much more than their counterparts abroad:

Great! So poor Americans aren’t condemned to lives of complacency that drain their wills — or at least not nearly as much as the poor in other countries. So we must have much more upward social mobility than they do, as our poor make the most of their lives, right?

Um, no.:

In fact, the evidence suggests that welfare-state programs enhance social mobility, thanks to little things like children of the poor having adequate nutrition and medical care. And conversely,of course, when such programs are absent or inadequate, the poor find themselves in a trap they often can’t escape, not because they lack the incentive, but because they lack the resources.

I mean, think about it: Do you really believe that making conditions harsh enough that poor women must work while pregnant or while they still have young children actually makes it more likely that those children will succeed in life?

So the whole poverty trap line is a falsehood wrapped in a fallacy; the alleged facts about incentive effects are mostly wrong, and in any case the entire premise that work effort = social mobility is wrong.

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03 Mar 08:01

Comic: What How Why

by (Tycho)
Brian Stouffer

Ohhhhhh, now I get it!

New Comic: What How Why
03 Mar 13:06

Ukraine: who to read, what to believe?

by Chris Bertram
Brian Stouffer

"With my political philosopher hat on, I can say that just states find ways to integrate their citizens across ethnic and linguistic divides, that the boundaries set by history should not be sacrosanct, but that people shouldn’t try to change them by force of arms. Political philosophy will not have much impact on how this all turns out."

As a non-expert, I find myself scouring the various news columns and op-eds trying to work out what’s true and false about the situation in the Ukraine, who to believe, what to trust. It isn’t easy, given that the two “sides” (or is that three or four) fail to sort themselves neatly into the mental maps we all have to organize this kind of thing. One such map, beloved of the “decent left” tries to fit everything into a 1938. That’s tempting, but then who is Hitler, who are the Nazis, who are the Sudeten Germans? Things don’t quite line up. And then there’s the narrative of the plucky little insurrectionists against their post-Soviet overlords: Hungary 56, Prague 68? But once again, people aren’t fitting neatly into the little boxes. Then think of those crises, Hungary in particular, or the East German revolt. How many Western leftists tried to read them (and misread them) through the glass of Soviet opposition to Nazism? During the Balkan wars of the 90s my own imaginary had plucky multi-ethnic Bosnia as the incarnation of liberal republicanism, resisting the ethnic tyranny of the Serbs. But there were plenty of of leftists who saw things in terms of the dastardly German-collaborating (and backed) Croats with their Ustaše past, versus the Serbian partisans. One friend from Northern Ireland said on Facebook that a relative had told him that the key to understanding any conflict was to work out who are the “Protestants” and who are the “Catholics”. I can’t think that’s going to help here (or in Syria for that matter): we all get trapped by these heuristics.

Reading Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers last night, I came across a discussion (I’ve only just started the book) of Serbia’s Foreign Minister Milovanovic and his predicament in the crisis of 1908: a moderate and pragmatist trapped by the rhetoric of the more extreme nationalists, who could and would denounce any compromise with the enemies of the people. Hard not to think or parallels with Vitali Klitschko and the other opposition leaders who cut a deal with Yanukovych but couldn’t make it stick with the Euromaidan for fear of being howled down as traitors themselves. Presumably they saw that running Yanukovych out of town on the day after the deal would be certain to get a nasty reaction from Putin, but what else could they do? And now here we are, with the Russians in the Crimea, the rouble plummeting and the prospect of a new cold war, with everyone apparently fated to play their allotted roles. Meanwhile, the hapless John Kerry tells us – with no self-awareness whatsoever – that, in the 21st century, you can’t invade foreign countries on trumped-up charges.

For what it’s worth I found Mark Ames useful, Paul Mason insightful and Timothy Snyder propagandistic. And here’s Ben Judah on why Russia no longer fears the West. With my political philosopher hat on, I can say that just states find ways to integrate their citizens across ethnic and linguistic divides, that the boundaries set by history should not be sacrosanct, but that people shouldn’t try to change them by force of arms. Political philosophy will not have much impact on how this all turns out.

26 Feb 18:18

How Food Became Syria's Next Battlefield

by David Kenner
Brian Stouffer

Good lord that picture.

BEIRUT — They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The one above -- showing residents of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, located outside Damascus -- may be worth even more than that.

The photograph and corresponding video were taken by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has had intermittent access to the camp in the past two months. According to UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness, it shows Yarmouk residents gathering at the northern part of the camp, waiting for UNRWA workers to distribute food parcels.

"The distribution takes place in a ‘no man's land' defined by opposition sniper positions," Gunness said. "Gaunt, ragged figures of all ages fill the streets of the devastated camp for as far as the eye can see."

As shown by the numbers of people who took to the street, Yarmouk residents desperately need the aid UNRWA distributes. The camp has been besieged by Syrian regime forces since last summer, which has resulted in the starvation of dozens of residents -- and hard-to-watch videos showing the severe malnutrition of many more:

The photograph at the top of this post also shows that the aid reaching Yarmouk is not nearly enough. UNRWA says that over the course of the past month it has distributed to Yarmouk just over 7,000 food parcels, each of which feeds five to eight people for 10 days. But with 18,000 Palestinians and an unknown number of Syrians in the camp, simple math -- and the clear evidence of starvation emerging from Yarmouk -- shows that not enough food is getting into the camp to feed all its residents.

On Feb. 23, the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution that for the first time calls on both the Syrian regime and the country's rebels to allow aid organizations access to suffering civilians across the country. UNRWA is hoping that this will allow them greater access to areas in need. But so far, plenty of hurdles remain.

On Tuesday, Gunness announced that aid workers were once again stopped from distributing assistance in Yarmouk. The halt came just one day after UNRWA released a statement saying Commissioner General Filippo Grandi was "encouraged by assurances given by the [Syrian] authorities that access will be maintained and expanded," following his recent three-day visit to Damascus.

"Following clear advice from concerned parties that distribution would not be possible, no UNRWA team was present," Gunness said, in explaining the reason for the halt in aid delivery. "We remain concerned about the situation facing thousands of civilians in the camp...They have suffered enough."