Monday, November 29, 2010

Premature Capitulation

Obama really needs to get some desensitizing lotion or learn to think about last night's box scores whenever the concept of pleasing Republicans pops into his mind.  The proposal to freeze government workers' pay would save about $2 billion in FY2011, which represents about 0.18% of the projected deficit.  And Obama made the offer out of the blue, not at the negotiating table where the other side might offer something in return.  It was a moronic move.

ETA: As multiple commenters at BJ point out, the worst aspect of this proposal is what it does to the narrative.  Instead of talking about jobs, we're talking about budget deficits.  And instead of talking about defense spending or health care spending, we're talking about the pay of those evil commie government workers.  Which, in the scheme of things, just doesn't matter that much, because total civilian wages and salaries add up to about $250 billion.  Not paying federal workers at all for a year would cover only about 1/4 of the projected FY2011 deficit.

ETAA: DDay makes a good point about the cost of ethanol subsidies vs. the pay freeze.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Flat-out Sucking

While the heyday of making fun of Tom "Suck on this" Friedman has come and gone, the good friend of deeply insightful cabbies around the world still holds forth undaunted from his perch at Speakers Corner on the New York Times Op-Ed page.  In this week's effort, he flogs the dead horse of flatness once again in a column that could really do without it.  He also works in a lament to lost high-wage industrial jobs, and spices it up with a reference to kids texting.  But the main tactic of the column is to stir parental fears using some almost nativist rhetoric.  The yellow menace is coming for your kids' jobs!  The HindoChiComs are going to drink their milkshakes!  Run for your lives PTA board!

Please.  Stoking fears about how Our Children Are Falling Behind dates back at least to the 60s, when we the Soviets were going to bury us, and also had another heyday in the 80s, when the Japanese were going to buy us.  In neither case was it true.  On the other hand, it is true that the students in a lot of countries are catching up to American children.  That shouldn't be a cause for alarm.  The U.S. became a mature industrial society long before most other countries, and as other countries become wealthier, it's entirely natural for their children to become better educated.  This isn't to say that the U.S. education system doesn't have problems, but many other issues are more important right now.

The column is annoying for a number of reasons beyond tired cliches and fear-mongering.  Friedman blithely calls for more resources from the "U.S.G."  Of course, one of the reasons we can't easily allocate more resources is that we wasted hundreds o f billions on a unnecessary war that he backed to the hilt.  He also fails to mention precisely where the expanded resources for eduction should come from.  Should taxes be raised?  Spending cut in other areas?  It's terribly easy to say the government should Do Something Now, but in the current politi-cultural climate Americans aren't even willing to pay for the government services they already receive.   So it's very unlikely that the federal government will provide more.  Friedman also calls for more resources from parents, which is easy for a very wealthy writer that doesn't have fixed hours or a 40 minute commute to say.  Most of the country doesn't live in an upper class suburb, and Friedman doesn't seem to be able to imagine what the lives of the poor are like in America.

Friedman asserts that a "triple whammy" of globalization, job outsourcing, and falling education outcomes "is one of the main reasons that middle-class wages have been stagnating."  Those issues have something to do with it, though they actually affect the blue-collar middle-class much more than the white-collar middle-class.  But another, arguably more important reason median wages have been basically flat for a couple of decades is that most of the economic gains are going to the top 10%, and especially the top 1%.  Friedman makes no mention of this trend, which is odd because reports about it are regularly in the news.  Here's one article on the topic from some organization that calls itself the NY Times.  And another.  The normally execrable Slate produced an excellent series on inequality back in September.  A little searching would certainly locate dozens more.

There's more to dislike about the column, but it's somewhat pointless to carry on because there doesn't seem to be any kind of accountability for pundits once they reach a certain level.  The NY Times isn't going to fire him, and Friedman is either unaware of his colossal lameness or immune to criticism.  The best thing for everyone to do is to make sure your friends and family don't read him.

Update 2010/12/13: It seems the great unwashed masses have a better grasp of the problems with the schools system than an overpaid pundit.  Surprise - not.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Can't Fight the Seether

A few months ago Kevin Drum, currently my number three blog read, turned noticeably more grumpy.  But it turns out he's more than grumpy; he's positively seething.  And we all should be, because 10% unemployment (17% using the broad measure) is a crisis.  High long-term unemployment wastes human capital and contributes to government budget problems at all levels.  Conservatives would have you believe that deficits are the cause of the current economic problems, but it's just not true.  Some conservatives are positively giddy over the prospect of forcing through cuts in Social Security if the Republican-created crisis continues.  The country's situation has some columnists sounding like pesky bloggers.

But what is to be done other than raise the shrillness to ear-piercing levels?  Republicans are in control of the House, conservatives (Republicans plus the likes of Landrieu and Nelson) are in control of the Senate, and Obama's team seems to be in the last stages of wagon-circling.  The media environment remains as hostile to reality as it has ever been.  And single-issue groups are still stuck on their signature issues.

I think there are two ways forward for progressives.  One is to wait until Republicans fuck up, which they will eventually.  The primary problem with that approach is that the Republicans could inflict terrible damage on the country and the globe before American voters get off their asses and vote them out.  I don't think we can afford to suffer through a repeat of the Bush years.

The other approach is to double down on organizing and get-out-the-vote operations.  With no remedies to the Citizens United decision likely in the near future, Democratic politicians will be drowned out on the airwaves during the 2012 cycle.  The lack of disclosure requirements means corporations and other large donors have no reason to hedge their bets by contributing to some Democrats.  All of the money will go to supporting Republicans (specifically, to tearing down Democrats).  Progressives have no option but to switch all of their attention to grassroots organizing.

I'll have more on the specifics in a future post.

Monday, November 15, 2010


In the middle of this vague but slightly encouraging report about ending the filibuster at the beginning of the next Congress, I found this quote from Amy Klobuchar:
The people of this country want more bipartisanship. They want the government to run better. They want us to help the private sector create jobs. That was the message out of the election, and we'd better heed it.
Putting words in the mouth of "the people" is a standard rhetorical trick that bugs me because the words so rarely reflect anything like what "the people" are be saying.  For this election, the polls I've seen indicate the people were sending only the third of the three messages in Klobuchar's list.

But I want to comment on the first of the three, the message of "bipartisanship."  It's something the DC-based chattering classes talk about a lot more than the population at large.  In the context of the SCLM, it basically means Democrats should shut up and accede to whatever Republicans demand.  When "the people" say it, I think they mean something entirely different.  In that case, bipartisanship means, "I want the noise to stop and technocrats to implement policies I like."  People don't want to have to wade through the claims and counterclaims to figure out what is really going on.  It's work.  Hard work, in fact, because so many in the media are either stenographers or charlatans.  And the work is not done once the truth is discovered.  Politicians need to be called, advocacy groups joined, donations made, letters written, etc., etc.  All that takes time - time people either don't have or would rather spend watching re-runs of Hogan's Heros.  Essentially, indicating a desire for bipartisanship is the adult equivalent of a kid sticking his fingers in his ears and saying "La la la la la" really loud.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

It's All Fun and Games Until Somebody's Taxes Get Hiked

Via several blogs, I've come across this interactive graphic entitled "Budget Puzzle" from the NYT.  It's somewhat buggy (sometimes allowing both mutually exclusive items to be selected) but it is also much more comprehensible than the other budget calculators I've played with.  Most others only give results for the next year, but the NYT version shows results at two different points in the future, which is much more useful.  My solution used early withdrawals from our land wars in Asia, efforts to slow the growth rate of medical expenses, an end to the giant tax holiday the rich have enjoyed over the past 7-9 years, and new taxes on carbon and the banksters.

ETA: Klein has links to some other budget calculators.