Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Slice Two: Christian Zionists

Moving from Sarah Palin to people who have actually expressed views on Jews as well as Israel, we have the odd phenomenon of the Christian Zionists. Quite famously, Evangelical Christians combine unwavering support for Israel with a belief that Jews, like anyone who does not take Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior, will go to Hell.

Critics dismiss such supporters as the Armegeddon Lobby, supporting Israel only because it plays an essential role in their End Times Scenario, which ends with Israel and the Jews being wiped out by the Anti-Christ. But given the extraordinary ability of most people to simultaneously hold contradictory ideas, I am willing to give Christian Zionists the benefit of the doubt here. A lot of what is at work may simply be a general Manichean mindset -- meximum support for Israel because they are Good and on Our Team, standing against the Evil Arabs.*
But that still raises an awkward bit of cognitive dissonance. After all, to a strict Fundamentalist Christian, Jews are just as Hell-bound as Muslims? So how can the epic struggle between Good and Evil be played out between two sets of Hell-bound participants?

Returning again to the realm of speculation about other people’s motives, is it possible that the whole End Times scenario is largely an attempt rationalize such an outlook? Granted, millenarianism is a long-standing Christian tradition. Granted, all Christian millenarians used the same scriptures to explain the times they live in. But let’s face it. The prophecies are vague enough to mean just about anything. How they are shaped and formed depends a lot on the preconceptions of the person interpreting them. So if you want to give Israel your unqualified support because you see them as the last outpost of Western Civilization against Evil Arab, but run into trouble because, after all, you think Jews are Hell-bound, it can be really convenient to have a lot of prophecies around that give an important role in the End Times to Israel. That overcomes the obstacle of how it can be our sacred duty to support one Hell-bound faction against another.

But other obstacles remain. The next obstacle is a harder one. According to all traditional rules of Evangelical Christianity, a Christian’s first duty to the Hell-bound is to try to convert them. After all, you never know when someone may be hit by the hypothetical buls and go to Hell because you failed to bring them to Jesus. But trying to convert Jews to Christianity invariably causes friction with Israel and threatens to undo the alliance. How do you deal with this? One solution is the Jews for Jesus approach, defining Jewishness as tribal membership rather than adherence to a particular religion, and arguing that Laws of Moses still apply to Jews even after they convert (anything Peter and Paul may have said to the contrary!). The trouble with this approach is that most Jews (including the Israeli authorities) just don’t buy it. There can be secular Jews and even atheist Jews, but a Christian Jew is a contradiction in terms, and is basically regarded by most Jews as a traitor. So many Christian Zionists make it part of their prophecy that there will be a miraculous mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity in the near future. This relieves Christians of their duty to evangelize to Jews and removes a major source of conflict between Christian and Jewish Zionists. **

But even that does not remove all obstacles. One such obstacle is how to get along with Jews who are not Zionists. Reverent John Hagee attracted a lot of attention and outrage by his statement that Hitler was God’s instrument to force the Jews from Europe to Israel. Most reactions to this statement have been expressions of shock and outrage that he could call Hitler God’s instrument or brush off his crimes so lightly. But let me raises another point. If God was displeased with the Jews for living in Europe because he wants all Jews to go to Israel, then what does that say about American Jews today? Are we also defying God’s will by living in the United States when God really wants us to go to Israel? My guess is that Hagee would manage to fudge this issue, too, and figure out some reason why the United States has God’s special favor and it is therefore acceptable for Jews to live here, too. But at the same time, the Christian Right’s insistence on the U.S. as a Christian country strongly seems to imply that any American who is not an Evangelical Christian is a second class citizen. What does that make Jews? And are any Jews shirking their duty to live in Israel second class Jews as well?

Then there is the whole question of the idealization of Israel. It’s fair to ask, how much of this idealization is neither millenarian prophecy nor Manichean standing firm against Evil, but a sort of romantic idealization of Israel as a land of bearded men in black coats and broad-brimmed hats, pious and militant, untainted by the decadence and secularism of the United States and Europe? This, too, is speculation about other people’s motives, but I note that Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out that Israel is a lot more than bearded men in black coats -- it has many secular residents with the same decadent habits as the rest of the West (including an annual gay pride march).

But in the end, all of these can be overcome with sufficient mental gymnastics. What can’t be overcome is the unstated condition Christian Zionists place on their support for Israel – maximum belligerence and intransigence. Granted, with the current government in power, this hasn’t been much of an issue. But consider that when Ariel Sharon withdrew from the Gaza and was shortly after paralyzed with a stroke, Pat Robertson took it as a sign of God’s displeasure. So what happens if the Israelis decide some time that maximum belligerence is not, in fact, in their interest, and that they want to make some sort of compromise? When Israelis, in other words, stop being Authentic Real Jews.

Christian Zionists’ relationship with Israel reminds me of nothing so much as this book review on "philo-Semitism" (the opposite of anti-Semitism). It cites a Jewish joke, “Q: Which is preferable—the antisemite or the philosemite? A: The antisemite—at least he isn’t lying.” The point behind the joke, the author explains, is that the philo-Semite loves Jews, not as they really are, but as he believes they should be for his own purposes. If Jews refuse to stick to the script, this sort of idealization quickly proves to be a two-edged sword. Let any secular or Jewish Zionist keep this in mind.
*Something similar happened in the Cold War. Before militant Islam arrived on the scene many Arab countries, though not Communist, were Soviet allies and thus (to a Manichean mindset) proxies of the Evil Empire.
**Any Jew hit by the Hypothetical Bus between now and the anticipated mass conversion is presumably unfortunate collateral damage.


Monday, August 29, 2011

A Few Reflections on Hurricane Irene

(1) Isn’t it interesting that with the hurricane threatening all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, what we kept hearing was that it was threatening New York? Kind of tells you where our media capital is. And who is really self-centered.

(2) FEMA has improved a lot since Katrina. And Obama is terrified of having another Katrina take place on his watch. (And his enemies are basically disappointed that it didn’t).

(3) Let’s be glad it wasn’t as bad as we feared.

(4) Even if it had been as bad as we feared, Irene would not have come even close to Katrina on the disaster scale.

(5) Yes, I agree with people who warn against crying wolf and warning that we are facing another Katrina when we aren’t.

(6) That being said, ramping up all these possible responses that ultimately were not needed was not a waste of time. It is better seen as preparation. The thing about Katrina-sized disasters is that (fortunately) they aren’t very common. This is good, but it contains a danger – the danger that when one of these mercifully rare disasters does come along, we will be woefully unprepared for it (see Katrina). Since we don’t want major disasters to happen often, but do want to be prepared when one finally does come along, the best way to do that is to test the machinery on lesser disasters. This time, the machinery worked very well – at least for this much lesser hurricane. How it would have worked on a Katrina-scale disaster is anyone’s guess. But dealing with the Irenes of the world is what will prepare us for the Katrinas.

PS: As for on Paul and his nostalgia for the hurricane that wiped out Galveston, I will make one comment at least partly in his defense. The difference between then and now was not just one of government, but of technology. There were no weather satellites in those days, so there was no way the people of Galveston could have known the hurricane was headed their way until too late. Nowadays, I suppose that even with no government intervention, if the people of Galveston had watched the news and seen the weather report warning of the coming hurricane, they would have known enough to flee the island without any government evacuation order. That being said, I really do think an orderly, government-directed evacuation and assistance in reconstructing is much to be preferred to general, unorganized flight. But let’s all be glad that we now have weather satellites that will give plenty of advance warning, government or no government.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Fall of Qaddafi (or is it Gaddafi?)

I might as well add my own voice to the reaction to the fall of Qaddafi (Gaddafi). I rejoice as much as the next person, but with a caveat.

The Libyan tyrant was a curse to his own people and all his neighbors. He went out of his way to make enemies. The world is better off without him. But remember, getting rid of the tyrant is the easy part. The damage to his society remains. And, as a general rule, the worse the tyrant, the worse the damage to clean up and the more difficult the transition. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gave a quick and easy victory over a tyrant, and then a growing mess taking his place that became more and more our responsibility.

Granted, there is a difference here. We have left this war to the Libyans and limited ourselves to air support. That is certainly for the best. But as the "what next" problems begins to grow and become more complicated, let's be very wary about making it our own.

My Ideal Republican Candidate -- David Stockman

I suppose my ideal choice of candidates for this election would be Robert Reich as the Democratic candidate and David Stockman as the Republican. It's pointless to argue that neither one is electable. If they run against each other, one of them would have to win. The problem, of course, is that neither one is running, much less nominatable.

It's no secret that I would vote for Reich because I would look to him to undertake strong enough fiscal and monetary stimulus to actually revive the economy, and that I think Stockman is dead wrong. So why would I want him for a Republican candidate and be willing to take a chance with him as President?

For one, thing, because I have no doubt that he is sincere. While I may suspect other Republicans of calling for spending cuts and higher interest rates as sabotage, Stockman really means it, and I would count on him to follow through. Furthermore Stockman holds no illusions that we can balance the budget without tax cuts or with spending cuts for the poor only. If elected, he would seek to cut middle class entitlements and raise middle class taxes in a serious attempt to bring actual balance to the budget. He would also appoint members to the Federal Reserve who would actually raise interest rates, rather than intimidate the Fed into postponing any attempt to revive the economy until after the election.

Granted, I think all this would be disasterous, but hey, I could be wrong. And I trust STockman at least not to do anything truly insane like -- well, see here for where my feverish imagination can take me. And if it does turn out to be as disasterous as I expect, one of two things will happen. (1) Stockman will acknowledge he was wrong and change his policies. (2) Stodkman will insist he is right and his policies are a painful but necessary transition. Democrats will win the next election by a landslide and Robert Reich will be our next President.

Of course, Stockman could never be nominated by today's Republican Party. Aside from his willingness to raise taxes, he doesn't meet any of their culture war standards (see his Wikipedia entry here). Although born in Texas, he made his fortune on Wall Street. His wife heads Republican Majority for Choice. And I'm going to guess, he regards the whole culture war business as a foolish distraction from the real issues.

He has another obvious problem as well. I remember well when he was fired as budget director from the Reagan Administration, a political cartoon of the day said, "There goes the only person in Washington who can add and subtract." Stockman retains his ability to add and subtract to this day, which definitely makes him unelectable under any circumstaces.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Is It About Contraception?

Although I have been skeptical of Robert Altmeyer's on-line book on authoritarians, it did raise one interesting point I wished Altmeyer had described in more detail. When authoritarians play the Global Change Game (a complex, multi-player role playing game in which participants play the nations of the world and are supposed to learn of the difficult environmental challenges the world faces), they lacked a capacity for international cooperation, and they refused to curb population growth. Alter describes three authoritarian iterations of the game* in considerable detail and watches three quite different outcomes, but in all cases, they refuse to curb population growth, and in no case does Altmeyer go into detail about how or why this was so. I wish he had, because it might shed some light on conservatives’ determination to defund Planned Parenthood and outrage at insurance companies being required to cover contraceptives for free.

This is baffling in particular because it is directly opposed to another reason often posed for opposing birth control, the demographic arms race. The demographic arms race viewpoint rests on the assumption that (1) people’s social and political viewpoints are immutable encoded on their genes and can never be changed by education and assimilation, and (2) “they” will continue to breed like rats so “we” have to start having more babies just to keep up. This was the viewpoint Margaret Sanger ran into among eugenicists who were all in favor of providing contraceptives to poor immigrant women, but opposed making them available to native-born American women. It is rampant on the hard right in people like Mark Steyn who say, If you cannot outbreed the enemy, cull 'em." It has been rampant, too, on the hard left, among Third World revolutionaries who denounce birth control as soft genocide and regard a woman’s role as breeding babies for their glorious revolution. It might be called an attitude of “contraception for thee, but not for me.”

But that is not what is going on here. What we are seeing here is more an attitude of “contraception for me but not for thee.” In other words, a determination to lose the demographic arms race. I’m talking about people like Fox New's Greg Gutfeld quipping “Eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor.” (This, too, is an old trope, widely used by the hard left to explain why contraception has no role in fighting poverty). Although I cannot find the link, Glenn Beck denounced an African ecoligically sustainable project (funded by Al Gore and George Soros, of course) as genocidal because African women who participated started using contraception and having fewer children. And the Washington Times' Jeffrey Kuhner has openly come out and denounced contraception as unnatural and un-Christian.

It makes me want to sigh and roll my eyes and ask them, how many children do you have? For Beck the answer is apparently three natural and one adopted. Gutfeld, although married, apparently has none. And Kuhner's Wikipedia entry mentions a wife but no children, although it is brief enough to possibly be omitting them. Is it so far-fetched to assume, then, that all three men practice contraception? And that their righteous indignation is therefore more thatn a little hypocritical? This attitude, too, is nothing new. When Margaret Sanger began her practice among poor immigrant women, a number of birth control devices (such as condoms, diaphragms or cervical caps) had, in fact, been invented. Birth rates among middle class, native born women somehow managed to fall. When she tried to obtain birth control for the poor, she ran into fierce resistance and a campaign to outlaw contraception altogether. But somehow these fierce struggles never seemed to do much to raise birth rates among the middle class.**

So why are so many people on the right denouncing contracepting for the poor as immoral, while practicing it themselves? I can think of two possible reasons. Some people oppose widespread availability of contraception because they believe it will encourage sex outside of marriage. If every woman could be required to present a marriage certificate as a precondition to getting contraception, they would probably not object. Others really do have religious objections to all contraception as immoral.

But they run into a problem. Any serious attempt to deny access to contraception to the general public would run into a firestorm of opposition and be quickly defeated, at considerable political cost to the people proposing it. So that rules it out. The best they can hope to do is to deny access to women who are not in a position to resist. Right wing religious groups have been doing that in Republican administrations since Reagan in foreign aid, steering funds to religious organizations that seek to deny birth control to Third World women. And now they are getting bolder and moving on to deny such access to our own poor and powerless women at home.
*By contrast, players with low authoritarian scores coopeated well. Although Altmeyer does not discuss the reason for their opposition to birth control, it seems unlikely to have been about hostility to casual sex in an political and ecological role playing game. Most likely, the demographic arms race viewpoint was at work.

**I also got some fascinating lessons on the subject in Constitutional Right when we got to Griswold vs. Connecticut. As late as the 1960’s, Connecticut had anti-contraceptive statutes on the book. (So did Massachusetts). No one had ever been prosecuted under these statues, our professor explained, but that did not mean they were without effect. Connecticut is a very small state geographically, and little more than a suburb of New York City. Women who could afford a private doctor evaded the law by going to a New York doctor for their birth control. But poor women could not afford a private doctor, and the law did succeed in keeping Planned Parenthood from setting up a clinic. The effect was to deny contraception to the poor and only the poor. (He did not discuss what respective birth rates in Connecticut were at the time. Presumably they retained the last resort of sterilization). The struggle over allowing such a clinic, he said, was one between rival elites over whether the poor should be allowed to practice birth control. The poor remained passive and took no part.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Okay, my resolve to avoid discussing the election until the Iowa caucus has lasted about as long as it took Rick Perry to shoot off his mouth.

Let’s start with the obvious. The implied threat of violence if Bernanke ever visits Texas is just macho posturing. I no more believe the Governor of Texas intends to incite mob violence against the Chairman of the Federal Reserve than that he intends to secede. No point fainting over it.

Second, is he advocating tighter money? The general conservative line is that he is dead wrong to call for violence (even if it is just so much hot air), but right to call for tighter money. The view of some liberals and monetariests is that he is, indeed, calling for tighter money, and that he is dead wrong about that. I consider myself unconvinced.

Put me in the third category, of people who long suspected the Republicans are committing economic sabotage, but never expected them to come right out and admit it. Admittedly, Perry’s statement was somewhat ambiguous. He said:

We’ve already tried this. All it’s going to be doing is devaluing the dollar in your ocket and we cannot afford that. We have to learn the lessons of the past three years that they’ve been devastating. The President of the United States has conducted an experiment on the American economy for almost the last three years, and it has gone tragically wrong and we need to send him a clear message in November of 2012 that new leadership is coming.
This appears to be a statement that he believes we need tighter money, and that any monetary easing would be economically disasterous. No sign of sabotage there.

But he also says, “If this guy prints more money between now and the election -- I don’t know what y’all would do to him in Iowa, but we -- we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous -- or treasonous in my opinion.” And, when asked if he thought the Fed's primary motive was to get Obama reelected, he said, “If they print more money between now and this election, I would suggest that’s exactly what’s going on.” Both these statements sound like an acknowledgment that monetary expansion can improve the economy and is therefore illegitimate because it might help Obama be reelected. In orther words, sabotage.

Granted, if I wanted to be charitable, I could square this circle. He could mean that the Fed mistakenly thinks that monetary expansion will help the economy (and, by extension, Obama), but that really it will be harmful. Or he could mean that monetary expansion will temporarily improve the economy just long enough to sway the election, but will do greater damage in the long run. And that latter view could explain why he regards any attempt to revive the economy before the election as illegitimate. But that seems a lot more sophisticated than the general tenure of his remarks, and I am in no mood to be charitable.

Although I regard the implied threat of violence as so much hot air, I do regard Perry’s speech as a threat. Originally I took it as a threat to Bernanke that if he tried to revive the economy before the election, he (Perry) would take it as an unfriendly act and refuse to reappoint Bernanke to the Fed after he won the election. It seemed like a hollow threat. Presupposing Perry would win the election is a case of counting your chickens before they are hatched and besides, why would Bernanke want to be reappointed to such a hot seat? But this comment convinced me that it was a more immediate and obvious threat. It was a threat that if the Fed does anything to revive the economy before the election, Republicans will regard it as an attempt to sway the outcome and denounce the Fed for being partisan. And there is nothing the Fed dreads more than accusations of partisanship.

Of course, allowing the Republicans to sabotage the economy to sway the election their way is equally partisan. And a lot less public spirited.


Incredible! A conservative who actually gets it: "The idea that Bernanke would be playing politics by printing money between now and the next presidential election suggests that doing so would improve short-term economic growth and improve President Obama’s reelection prospects. However, if a more expansionary monetary policy would help the economy, why would anyone oppose such a policy, let alone call it treason?"

Why Perry would oppose it is obvious enough; it hurts his chances of election. Expecting a presidential candidate to want the economy to be revived just in time to undermine his prospects is asking for more public spirit than can be reasonably expected of anyone. But for him to be unable to imagine any reason for Bernanke to want to revive the economy now, as opposed to in 2013 other than a illegitimate attempt to sway the election really is disturbing. It suggests he has no concept of public spirit at all. And it arguably may be taken to imply he considers a Democratic presidency inherently less than legitimate.

See also this comment that comments like this just might, indeed, make Bernanke want to avoid a Perry presidency.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

What if the Republicans Win?

I'm going to try to stay away from election until the Iowa caucus. Let's see how well I do. I did think, though, that I might as well put down my reflections on what happens if the Republicans win in 2012. By this I mean win the Presidency, hold onto the House, and get a majority, though not filibuster-proof, in the Senate.

(1) Senate Republicans, after using the 60-vote filibuster as a matter of routine, will find a way to get rid of it.

(2) Obamacare and Frank-Dodd will be repealed. I think this will be the end of the line for universal health care, at least for another generation. Up till now, the official Republican position is that health insurance for all, though not all that important, was not per se objectionable, but they didn't like the way the Democrats were going about it. This time they have made clear that they will fight to the death any expansion in the number of people with access to health insurance (and probably favor controlling health care costs by pricing even more people out).

(3) Having made such a big deal about the importance of spending cuts, I don't see how they can possibly change their minds and decide that big spending is only bad if a Democrat is in the White House. On the other hand, I don't believe that even a President Bachman will find the political nerve to cut spending by 40% overnight. So what we will probably get is significant spending cuts, targeting primarily programs for the poor and assistance to states. There will not, however, be any deficit reduction because all spending cuts will be more than offset by even larger tax cuts, aimed primarily at the top. It is Republican dogma that the harmful effects of deficits do not apply if they are caused by tax cuts.

(4) I don't think they will be able to kill Social Security of Medicare, or turn Social Security into a 401(k). Interestingly, even as they plan to turn programs for the poor into block grants and Medicare into something a lot like Obamacare, they have not even raised the possiblity of turning Social Security into a 401(k). My guess is that this is because the idea was toxic enough when Bush proposed it, and given what has happened to 401(k)'s since, it will be even more toxic now. I don't rule out their getting rid of Medicaid altogether, or at least for people under 65. The elderly vote a lot more than the poor.

(5) Right now Republicans are very upset at the Fed for its expansionary policies and calling for higher interest rates. A number of commentators have remarked they were singing a different tune when the economy was in recession and Bush was President. But then again, the Fed has become a lot more unconventional since then. So I really have no sense whether they will appoint members who favor tighter monetary policy, or suddenly change their minds once a Republican is in power.

(6) They will undoubtedly seek to engage in a lot of regulatory rollback, but I have not idea how far it will go. Neither do I have a sense whether they will revive torture as an official policy (probably).

(7) They will undoubtedly send any future terror suspects to Guantanamo to be held forever without a trial. Let's hope there aren't any.

If we get a Republican as President and a Democratic majority in either house, I expect utter gridlock and dysfunction. Republicans will be unable to repeal Obamacare or Frank-Dodd, but the President may seek to block enforcement by refusing to appoint any officials. So far as I know, there is no precedent for what happens then.*

I can't find the link, but I am sure Jonathan Chait ran an aticle speculating that if Mitt Romney won the election, he would convert to understand the need for stimulus (his reelection would depend on reviving the economy, after all) and speculates on whether it would be worth it. His conclusion is probably not because he dislikes too many of Romney's other policies. My conclusion is no, because it would effectively be submitting to blackmail. It would be allowing the Republicans to say, "Give us the presidency, and we'll stay sane. But if you even elect another Democrat, we'll go off our meds and make this country completely ungovernable."
*Congress has passed legislation forbidding the President from refusing to spend money it has appropriated. This has been upheld by the Supreme Court, but today's Supreme Court might change its mind.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Reflections on the Election

As a firm believer in the pathology of the permanent campaign, I try to stay away from the subject of the election until the Iowa Caucus, but this year it appears I will not be able to keep the resolve, so here are my comments.

Personally, I wish Obama would drop out. He’s shot his bolt. It’s fallen short. Clearly ha has no plan for what to do next. This is not someone I want to give another term. I’d love to see him stop aside in favor of Robert Reich, a serious Keynesian, or Bria Schweitzer, the Montana governor who vetoed Tea Party legislation with a branding iron – now there is someone who knows how to fight. My ideal candidate, really, would be Bill Clinton. When you want to persuade people to adopt a controversial program, moral authority is everything. And Clinton, though he may be a draft-dodging womanizing sleaze, has tremendous moral authority on economic and budgetary issues. If anyone can convince people to give stimulus one more try, it should be the man who balanced the budget and presided over prosperity of a kind not seen in 30 years. Unfortunately, he is excluded by the 22nd Amendment. What a shame!

Given, though, that the Spend More Party is looking utterly discredited, I really would like to give the Spend Less Party a chance. If it works, great. If it doesn’t the only way to truly discredit austerity is to try it. (Whether austerity takes longer to discredit than expansion remains to be seen). Unfortunately, the Spend Less Party has responded to losing an election by losing its mind, which makes me very uncomfortable about giving them the reins of power. Certainly if Jon Huntsman won the nomination I would vote for him, but that looks about as likely as Brian Schweitzer or Robert Reich wining the Democratic nomination. If Mitt Romney can convince me that insanity is purely an electoral strategy and he will attempt sanity when elected, I might grudgingly consider him. The others are nuts. (Or at least doing their best to impersonate nuts).

I also want to put in a comment on Rick Perry. Current conventional wisdom is that he is the savior of the Republican Party, that he has the nomination already wrapped up, and that, given, the current state of the economy, Republicans are almost certain to prevail in 2012, so we might as well skip the formality of an election and just inaugurate him now. I think this is a bit of a rush to judgment. One of the statements I have seen is that Rick Perry's speeches to secessionists will play well with the Tea Party, the presumption being that since the Tea Party is the most mobilized faction in American politics right now, winning their vote is all that matters. My own guess is that Perry's flirtation with secessionists will be much used against him by opponents to portray his as a dangerous nut, even in th Republican primary, to say nothing of the general election. It shouldn't be necessary to point out that flirtation with secessionists is a liability in US politics, but apparently it is necessary, so I will point it out. Flirtation with secessionists is a liability in US politics. Presumably Perry's defense will be that he didn't mean it, he was just pandering. (Of course, he will put it more artfully than that). And I'm sure this is true. I do not for one minute believe that the Governor of Texas seriously contemplates secession from the Union. But you can tell a lot about a politician by who he panders to.


Reflections on the Conservative Approach

It's very hard for people on my side of the spectrum to tell to what extent Republicans are sincere in believing that immediate, deep spending cuts will be economically beneficial and to what extent they are engaging in deliberate sabotage (consciously or unconsciously). But I will stick to addressing consevatives who are sincere.

The less sophisticated appear to believe that immediate, deep spending cuts will bring about immediate improvement by freeing up resources for more productive use. The problem, of course, is that a recession by definition means that significant economic resources are going unused. The short-term effects of deep cuts in government spending are that even more resources will be unused. But others, more sophisticated, recognize that cuts will mean short-term pain and argue that short-term pain is worth the cost. That is the argument I want to address -- including why these more sophisticated conservatives are so enthusiastic acout short-term pain.

Megan McArdle, speaking of Ireland, argues that shrinking government spending, despite the painful cuts, depressed economy, and even large deficts that result, is worthwhile to avoid the worse consequences of an outright default, "[F]iscal crises are much, much worse than austerity budgets. Fiscal crisis means that rather than unpleasant cuts, you have sudden, unmanageable collapses in things like public pension plans. The resulting suffering is not unpleasant; it is disastrous."

To this a liberal critic responds that cutting spending to fend off a future default doesn’t work – by shrinking the economy, it depresses tax revenues and thereby increases the deficit. The trouble with this argument is that ultimately cutting ca balance the budget, albeit at geat cost, and some conservatives advocate this approach. Suppose, for instance, that President Bachman actually keeps her promise and refuses to raise the debt ceiling, necessitating an overnight 40% cut in spending. The results would be catastrophic as McArdle herself acknowledges. But the economic contraction is so severe as to cut revenues by two-thirds, the deficit will shrink. It will not disappear because the shinking economy will mean less revenues, necessitating more cuts and continuing the cycle. Eventually, though, an end point will be reached. The budget will balance and the economy will presumably bottom out, albeit at considerable cost, possibly including the collapsing pension plans and disasterous suffering that we are trying to avoid by balancing the budget.

This is not merely theoretical. Something like it happened to Chile in the Great Depression. Faced with collapsing export prices, the Chileans cut and cut and cut, shrinking their economy by half, but eventually its credit was restored, and it bottomed out and began to recover. The top current examples, much touted as positive models by conservatives, are the Baltics, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. All three countries maintained their currency pegs and balanced their budgets. Not coincidentailly, these three also suffered the worst relative economic declines of any country in the recent crisis, but they did ultimately bottom out and start to recover. Conservatives eagerly call on the rest of us to emulate them.

The same dynamic applies to mortgage foreclosures. Liberals warn that without some sort of mortgage relief, the market will be flooded with foreclosed houses, further driving down prices. The drop in prices will cause even more homeowners to be under water, leading to more foreclosures, and perpetuating the cycle. But eventually it has to run out of people to foreclose on. Some people, after all, have paid off their mortgages. Others have mortgages close enough to being paid to be worth almost any sacrifice to own the house free and clear. So ultimately the wave of foreclosures will have to cease. Since banks will not be able to sell their homes for more than market price, they will take their losses either way. The difference will be that without debt relief housing prices will fall much lower and many more people will lose their houses without debt relief than with it.

So it seems fair to ask, given the severity of their downturns, why do conservatives think the Baltics are such wonderful models to follow? And given that it will cause great suffering to home owners, no gains to the banks, and losses to everyone’s property values including their own, why are conservatives so dead set against mortgage relief?

One reasons, I suspect, is that they believe there is an inevitable bottom we have to hit, and any attempt avoid sinking so low merely prolongs the pain. The faster we bottom out, the quicker we can start recovery. But more than that, I think they regard any suggest that proper intervention may make the bottom less low is cheating and attempting to thwart the will of the free market.

And that, I think, leads to the deeper answer. They see these as moral issues. Economic conservatives, so far as I can tell, regard the primary moral issues in economics (aside from shrinking government, of course), as paying debts and making sure no one escapes punishment for bad decisions. Human suffeinrg ranks much lower on their scale of moral priorities. And as for collateral damage to the innocent, well it takes balls to execute an innocent man.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Counter Cyclical is Counnter Intuitive

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the problem with being counter-cyclical is that it is counter-intuitive. It meets with fierce popular resistance even though it doesn’t call for any painful measures because it just feels wrong. How can the remedy for a bubble brought on by easy credit be easier credit? How can the remedy for running up too much debt be running up more debt. And it families are having to cut back and make sacrifices, shouldn’t government be doing the same thing? Arguing that the rules that apply to families don’t apply to government just generates resentment – no fair, why doesn’t government have to play by the same rules we do? And stimulus spending invariably distributes benefits unevenly, which increases the resentment.

There are a lot of fine bumper sticker anti-Keynesian slogan – Government should balance its budget, just like families; if we have to make sacrifices, so should government, you can’t spend your way to prosperity, and, of course, you’re mortgaging our children’s future.

The responses to these slogans are all too vague and abstract to offer any emotional satisfaction. One response is to talk about just what would have to be cut, which is never very popular. But the response is always, too bad, we can’t afford it. We need a snappy comeback. So what intuitively appealing, emotionally satisfying, bumper sticker slogans are there in favor of Keynes.

Here are mine:

I won’t promise services in good times and take them away just when they are needed.

When half the raft is losing air, the other half has to inflate to keep it afloat.

As the private sector stands up, government can stand down.

Unemployment is not cured by layoffs.

Government spending = teachers and Social Security

You can’t shrink your way to prosperity.

(I think the one about not curing unemployment with layoffs works. Not so sure about the others).


Results are What Matters

Here are posts by Jonathan Chait and Paul Krugman sayung much the same thing.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for President in 1932, it was as a Tea Party candidate. Roosevelt denounced Hoover as a big spender and promised to make drastic cuts in federal spending and balance the budget. Whether he actually meant it and later changed his mind, or whether he was lying from the start, FDR obviously thought attacking big government spending was a winning argument. And he was right; he won by a landslide.* He then promptly went back on all his promises and became a bigger spender than Hoover ever thought of. And the funny thing was, the American people forgave him.

Granted, his big spending ways weren't popular. In 1935, fully 70% of those surveyed thought it was time to balance the budget and start reducing the national debt. Yet in 1936 55% of the public thought the Administration's policies were helping recovery, as opposed to 45% who thought they were harming. And at the time of the 1936 election, 65% of the public favored balancing the budget, as opposed to a mere 28% who diaagreed. None of this, however, kept Roosevelt from winning by an even bigger landslide in 1936 than he did in 1932. In 1937, Roosevelt gave the people what they wanted and balanced the budget. The economy promptly slumped, as did his popularity.

The moral here is obvious. Nothing succeeds like success. Voters want results and don't care so much how they are achieved. Big spending and big deficits are something that people oppose in an abstract and theoretical way. A bad economy is something that affects people concretely in their real lives. Given the choice between the two, people will vote the real economy any time.


Andrew Sullivan is Stating to Annoy Me

Andrew Sullivan is starting to annoy me. I suppose I should give him credit for finally coming out and saying that our economy just has to go through this and we shouldn't try to do anything about it. But could he please at least acknowledge that this isn't a winning political message?

Granted, he has occasionally suggested that the economically optimum approach may be short-term stimulus and long-terms cuts, but that just isn’t olitically feasible, so let's forget all about it. Swing voters are too upset over our debt level to tolerate any more big spending, so we should concentrate on cuts, regardless of how they affect the economy. What Sullivan doesn’t understand is that what is economically optimal ultimately IS what is politically optimal.

Sullivan presents evidence that voters when surveyed want deficit reduction, but prefer Obama’s balanced approach of tax increases and spending cuts over the Republican approach of spending cuts only. He presents ample evidence that the voters just don’t buy the theories of Keynes. And I’ll agree with him on both counts. But the evidence is also overwhelming that what voters care most about is not deficit cutting, but the economy and jobs. Voters are angry over the debt ceiling quarrel for the same reason they were angry over the whole spectacle of healthcare reform – why is congress throwing all its energy ad ego into that instead of issues we care about like the economy and jobs? (The fact that both bills seemed to be all about ego and winning rather than the public good didn’t help either). The sight of Obama running around campaigning on how he is going to cut spending and raise taxes is just going to reinforce the notion that Washington is out of touch.

Finally, let mepose two hypotheticals to Sullivan.

Suppose Obama and the Republicans agree on some big spending cuts. I personally don’t think this will be all that popular because, while voters hate government spending in the abstract, actual cuts tend to be much less popular. But never mind, we’ll assume the cuts are popular. Now assume Keynes is right. The cuts withdraw demand from the economy and the economy shrinks as a result. My guess is, these two events will not be linked in the eyes of most voters. But so what? Does Sullivan really think voters will say, “So what if the economy is in the tank, at least they finally cut spending”? I’m guessing no, people will be too upset about the economy being in the tank to care much about the cuts.

Suppose, by contrast, that Obama, having failed as a poker player, decides to imitate McCain and be a high stakes craps shooter. Suppose he draws up Paul Krugman’s dream stimulus and persuades all Democrats in Congress to join him in his crapshoot. Suppose he persuades a handful of Republicans to go along as a amatter or economic sabotage. (“You think I’m wrecking the economy? Then help me really wreck it and it should get you a landslide next year.”)
No doubt such a measure would be very unpopular. Glenn Beck would call it our Archduke Ferdinand moment. Fox News and talk radio would say that Obama so ignoring the will of the people was the moment our democracy died and we became a Communist/fascist/Islamist/atheist dictatorship. They would darkly hint that armed rebellion was in order, although, mindful of Anders Breivki and Timothy McVeigh, I think cooler heads would prevail. But a rash of vandalism and death threats would break out against members of Congress who voted for the measure. Tea Parties would vow primary challenges against every Republican who voted for the monstrosity. Some hotheaded House Republican s might even institute impeachment proceedings. And it would probably not go over well with swing voters either. They would be angry that politicians in Washington were ignoring the will of the people and continuing thei spending spree. Obama’s ratings would plummet, except among the liberal base.

But suppose it worked. Suppose the economy actually did start recovering? I am guessing these two events would be linked in the minds of most voters because Democrats would do their best to pitch the connection. They could compare it to George Bush’s surge – a publicly unpopular action that seemed like just doubling down on a hopeless policy, but in fact finally turned and seemingly intractable situation around. But even if the voters did not connect the two events, the message would be loud and clear – the economy would be improving, and Republicans would not be happy about it.

Does Sullivan really believe that voters response would be that economic improvement was all fine and good, but ignored the really important issue of cutting spending?

And if Sullivan's position is really that there is nothing we can do about the economy so we should start cutting regardless of the pain, he should come out and say so and not pretend his position will be politicall popular.


Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Proposed Approach to the Long-Run Budget

While any immediate attempt to cut deficits would be disasterous, there is no question that we have a serious long-term problem as more and more people start using Social Security and Medicare that has to be addressed. Nor is there any doubt to my mind that entitlements will have to be "reformed," i.e., cut. Nor do I doubt that the cuts necessary to bring our long-term budget into balance will be unacceptable, and that taxes will have to be increased. So here is my proposal.

(1) Explain why immediate plans to balance the budget would be disasterous. (Hint: Explain that putting people back to work will cut the deficit in half, and discuss the pain of very specific cuts in time of recession).

(2) Assure people that onee the economy reaches a certain level of recovery (I will leave to experts to determine what that level is), serious steps to address the deficit will be needed.

(3) Propose yet another bipartisan commission (groan!). Set the rules that until the economy reaches the appropriate degree of recovery, no spending cuts or tax increases will take effect, but that once it does, the commission must balance the budget within 10 years. Use CBO figures. Sit the proposal for fast track -- no amendments and no filibusters.

(4) Here is the twist. Don't have it come up with a single plan. Have it offer four plans. One will balance but budget by spending cuts only. One will have three dollars of spending cuts for every dollar of tax increases. One will adopt a 2:1 ratio. One will go 50-50. (And for Republicans on the commission, you may propose revenue neutral tax reforms that you think will benefit the economy, but no tax cuts until the budget actually balances). Of course, this will mean not requiring a super-majority to pass the proposal. Any proposal should require approval of only half the members.

(5) Make the next election a referendum on which plan to adopt. Republicans, of course, will choose the cuts only plan. Democrats can choose whichever plan seems most palatable. Whichever party wins can pass its plan in the next Congress.


Now What?

OK, I'm a bit late to the game, but my basic take on the debt ceiling deal is that for a complete capitulation, it could be worse. The Republicans got the raising the debt ceiling tied to equivalent cuts in spending, no tax inceases, further opportunities to humiliate Obama, and a new hostage to be used routinely in future debt ceiling negotiations. Democrats got spending cuts back loaded, protected programs for the poor from automatic cuts, put defense spending on the table and (possibly) demonstrated that Republicans will step away from the precipice at the last moment. Backloading to avoid immediate economic damage and protecting the poor are important priorities.

So, given that Republican are unwilling to cooperate with Obama in any policies he may believe will benefit the economy, the obvious question is now what. The economy looks just about poised to tank again and Republicans have cut off any action to revive it. Immediate economic recovery may be the only thing to keep the government out of the hands of complete lunatics in 2012. So what can Obama do? I have three suggestions.

(1) Make recess appointments to the Federal Reserve of officials willing to adopt unconventional measures to revive the economy. Right now Republican Senators are apparently ready to filibuster any appointment that would make a difference the House is apparently threatening to hold regular pro forma sessions to block recess appointments. (See here for an excellent discussion of this mess -- and how it is not exclusively the Republicans' fault). Jonathan Bernstein recommends a non-controversial appointment as a warning shot. I say you might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. Republicans will freak out over any recess appointments, you might as well give them something to freak out ove.r Clearly Congress is not going to pass any fiscal stimulus; that leaves the Fed.

(2) Alas, I cannot find the link. It is probably outrageously optimistic, but but I hear rumors that federal and state attorney generals are contemplating a settlement with Bank of America, to serve as a prototype for other banks, that would drop criminal charges in exchange for real relief for underwater homeowners. Since the household debt burden is the primary factor holding back recovery, this would be very important news indeed. Unfortunately, I have heard way too may such false starts to put too much stock in this one.

(3) If you can't get stimulus, you might as well propose it. Yes, granted, political will fo rthe stimulus has passed, and much of it was unpopular to begin with. My response would be this: What is resented is a benefit or a burden is the sense that it is unequally distributed. A bailout of (say) auto companies or a public works project invokes resentment because people see themselves as being taxed for someone else's benefit. By contrast, a universal refund is widely popular because everyone share in it. The bad news, of course, is that a universal refund does nothing for anyone's cash flow and therefore has limited long term effect.

The stimulus most commonly mentioned is some sort of payroll tax holiday -- preferable one longer and deeper than the little one we have now. It will be politically popular because it means a wage increase for everyone, and a tax cut for employers to encourage hiring. Both those things should be well-received. So the Republicans refuse to pass it. So what? Have Senate Democrats introduce it, talk it up, and at least use it to embarrass Republicans. Perhaps you might get a similar opportunity to embarrass with a proposal for aid to the states -- I think by now it is becoming clear that state budget cuts hurt, and that federal assistance to avoid them would probably be popular.

Why do I suspect, though, that Obama's basic response will be to make a few empty speeches and accomplish nothing?