2011 - %3, February

Anti-Urbanism, Take Two

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 7:38 PM EST

Earlier today I wrote about the anti-urban bias in American public policy. Is it the fault of the Senate, which overrepresents the interests of rural states? Stephen Smith comments:

I think all this talk of federal policy is misguided. Writing about the federal government sells well in journalism since it reaches the widest audience, but even taking into account the feds’ massive power grab over the last century, the real action is still at the local level. Local property tax distortions favoring single family homes are widespread and egregious, but orders of magnitude more ink gets spilled about the relatively ineffectual mortgage interest tax deduction. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s refusal to fund mixed use developments is unfortunate, but it’s nothing compared to the almighty parking minimum. So while obviously the rural-biased Senate isn’t doing urbanism any favors, the nation’s Greatest Deliberative Body is next to meaningless when compared to lowly municipal governments.

Two things. First, it's the world's Greatest Deliberative Body, pal, and don't you forget it. And second, good point!

But what's the breakdown? I think everyone agrees that local land use regulations are a big issue, but are they really the predominant issue? I don't know. But Stephen makes an interesting argument that it all goes back to the early 20th century, before the feds had any involvement at all, and comes down to anti-el sentiment. I guess I'd question that, since Europeans and Asians built up pretty dense urban areas without els (at least, none that I've ever seen), so I don't know how that could really be the key factor. But it's interesting anyway! Go read it.

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Malcolm Gladwell Tackles Egypt, Twitter

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 7:29 PM EST

I don't say this very often, or at all, but Malcolm Gladwell is totally on the money today. Twitter bears about as much responsibility for the Egyptian uprising as George Soros, Mrs. O'Leary's cow, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yet in their determination to find a story line—an overarching narrative—to the Mideast's tumult, too many journalists and pedants are overstating the role of the 140-Character Canon in shaping human events. In doing so, they sound as navel-gazingly and lazily conspiratorial as a horde of Glenn Beck evangelists. Anyone who lived through 1989 or the civil rights era or 1967 or 1956 knows that media technology is not a motive force for civil disobedience. Arguing otherwise is not just silly; it's a distraction from the real human forces at play here.

But no one can say it better than Gladwell:

Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last summer in The New Yorker, "high risk" social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Yes, Our Problem is Low Demand

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 7:07 PM EST

Normally, there's not much correlation between inflation expectations and asset prices. However, David Glasner has published a new paper showing that, beginning in 2008, this changed dramatically. If I understand his explanation correctly — and I'm not at all sure I do — the mechanism is fairly simple: when you enter a period in which real interest rates are low and investors expect very low inflation (or deflation), cash becomes your best investment. So investors pull their money out of assets and asset prices fall. In Glasner's paper, the S&P 500 is a proxy for asset prices, and he finds that, indeed, there's no correlation of the S&P 500 with inflation expectations through 2007. Then, starting in mid-2008, when interest rates go to zero and inflation expectations fall, the correlation suddenly becomes almost perfect: When inflation expectations drop, so do asset prices. Conversely, when inflation expectations go up, asset prices go up. Scott Sumner is excited:

There is no way to overstate the importance of these these findings.  The obvious explanation (and indeed the only explanation I can think of) is that low inflation was not a major problem before mid-2008, but has since become a big problem. Bernanke’s right and the hawks at the Fed are wrong.

....In my view the time-varying correlations between inflation expectations and stock prices are one of the most important pieces of evidence we have that [aggregate demand] became a problem after mid-2008. It will be interesting to see if those economists who are skeptical of demand-side explanations can come up with a plausible alternative explanation for this pattern.

Paul Krugman agrees: "It’s demand, all the way." Sadly, neither Glasner, Sumner, nor Krugman explain in terms someone like me can understand why this correlation implies that aggregate demand is what's behind our economic woes. I feel a bit like a dummy, since they seem to expect this to be obvious, but hopefully someone out there in the econ blogosphere will take pity and explain this in laymen's terms. When they do, I'll write a followup. In the meantime, apparently we have one more piece of evidence that our big problem right now isn't regulatory uncertainty or the federal debt level or structural unemployment. It's low aggregate demand, just like you'd expect.

Yet Another Bill to Block EPA's Climate Regs

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 6:47 PM EST

UPDATE: Looks like Upton and Inhofe have now actually released a discusssion draft of the bill. The draft is newer than the one that Markey and Waxman sent out earlier, with a time-stamp of 5:05 p.m. Feb. 2.

ORIGINAL: Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, was reportedly set to release a bill that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing greenhouse gas regulations on Wednesday. But by 6 p.m., the bill was still nowhere to be seen—so House Democrats pushed out a draft copy of the legislation to reporters themselves.

Politico had some details last week, noting that Upton had been working with Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) on a bill together to introduce in both the House and Senate. This is a draft of a House bill, titled the "Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011." It would amend the Clean Air Act to make it state explicitly that it does not cover greenhouse gases, and would repeal the EPA's scientific finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health.  It would also overrule the Supreme Court's determination that those gases can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The measure would also bar the EPA from setting new emissions standards for automobiles, and from granting states waivers that allow them set their own higher standards for cars and light trucks.

Inhofe is the most vocal skeptic of climate change in the Senate, so of course he doesn't see any reason for the EPA to regulate emissions. Upton, however, has been moderate on this issue in the past, and even endorsed the premise that emissions should be cut.

Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.)—authors of the cap and trade bill that the House passed in 2009 to deal with global warming—sent the draft of the bill to reporters Wednesday evening, stating that they received a copy from "industry lobbyists." The two Democrats panned the draft as an "assault the Clean Air Act" in a release sent to reporters Wednesday night.

"The Republicans have a lot of power, but they can’t amend the laws of nature. Gutting the Clean Air Act is only going to make our problems worse," said Waxman in a statement. "This proposal threatens public health and energy security, and it undermines our economic recovery by creating regulatory uncertainty."

This week certainly is shaping up to be an all-out assault on the EPA. A group of Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would delay EPA regulations for two years. And a group of Senate Republicans introduced a bill this week that would bar the EPA from acting on climate under almost every major existing environmental law.

As Go Egypt and Tunisia, So Goes America?

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 2:56 PM EST

One cause of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt is popular outrage over the monopolization of wealth by a small cadre of elites. The grievances of the Middle East's dispossessed probably seem justified to most Americans, who view the the region as a relic of feudalism and stomping ground for despots. But what about America itself? As has been widely noted over the past few days, income inequality in the United States is actually much worse than in Egypt, Tunisia, or Pakistan. Could the US government feel the push of inequality's domino effect?

The too-simple answer is that the US is immunized to unrest by its comparative prosperity. Over at Economix, Catherine Rampell presents a fascinating graph that illustrates how America's poor are, as a group, about as wealthy as India's richest. Yet those arguments neglect some of the major disadvantages of being modestly middle class in a wealthy country: A much higher cost of living and a perceived need to keep up with the Joneses, which fueled the explosion of subprime home loans that caused the recession.

"Global unemployment remains at record highs, with widening income inequality adding to social strains," Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the chief of the IMF, said this week during a speech in Singapore, citing turmoil in North Africa as a prelude to what may happen elsewhere. "We could see rising social and political instability within nations—even war."

He wasn't just talking about banana republics. While India and China have mostly bounced back from the recession, the recovery in the United States has been more uneven, with corporate profits skyrocketing despite entrenched joblessness. "The recovery that is underway is not the recovery we wanted. It is a recovery beset by tensions and strains—which could even sow the seeds of the next crisis,"Strauss-Kahn said. A recent paper (pdf) by two IMF economists warned of "disastrous consequences" if developed economies continue to neglect their eroding middle classes.

While certainly no solution to inequality, the tea party, with its seething anti-establishment resentments, is clearly a product of it. Time will tell whether its quixotic brand of populism gives way to a fiercer kind of class warfare.

Endgame in Egypt

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 1:46 PM EST

I'm not quite sure who wrote this, but here's a report on the Egyptian protests from someone on Jon Chait's blog:

Today President Mubarak seems to have decided to crack down on the democracy movement, using not police or army troops but rather mobs of hoodlums and thugs. I’ve been spending hours on Tahrir today, and it is absurd to think of this as simply “clashes” between two rival groups. The pro-democracy protesters are unarmed and have been peaceful at every step. But the pro-Mubarak thugs are arriving in buses and are armed — and they’re using their weapons.

In my area of Tahrir, the thugs were armed with machetes, straight razors, clubs and stones. And they all had the same chants, the same slogans and the same hostility to journalists. They clearly had been organized and briefed. So the idea that this is some spontaneous outpouring of pro-Mubarak supporters, both in Cairo and in Alexandria, who happen to end up clashing with other side — that is preposterous. It’s difficult to know what is happening, and I’m only one observer, but to me these seem to be organized thugs sent in to crack heads, chase out journalists, intimidate the pro-democracy forces and perhaps create a pretext for an even harsher crackdown.

At the White House, today's events are causing a rapid change in emphasis: Mubarak needs to turn over power immediately. "Now means now," Robert Gibbs just told reporters. Stay tuned.

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Why Do We Hate Our Cities?

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 1:10 PM EST

Matt Yglesias on American urban policy:

Anyone actually interested in the subject will swiftly see that (a) American public policy is strongly biased against high density living and (b) that this outcome is predictable from the structure of American political institutions. That people don’t realize this is largely a matter of willful ignorance.

Here's a chart showing where the United States ranks in the world in terms of urban population:

We're 42nd out of 199, which makes us fairly urban, and the other advanced economies clustered around us include Germany, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, South Korea, Norway, and France. On this measure, we seem fairly typical. However, the density of our urban areas is quite low compared to other similar countries.

So is our rural/suburban bias due to our political institutions — in particular, the U.S. Senate, which overrepresents the residents of sparsely populated states? Or is it mostly due to geography and the relatively recent founding of our country, which have produced fairly low-density urban areas and therefore a naturally weaker constituency for high-density living? Is there some evidence on this point?

Newt's Unpopular Anti-EPA Crusade

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 1:05 PM EST

Newt Gingrich has made abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency a central theme in what many believe to be the early days of a presidential bid. He first referenced the idea in a speech last week in Iowa, then elaborated on the plan in an email to his supporters. But if Gingrich is serious about the White House, he may went to throttle back on the EPA bashing. Doing away with the EPA is pretty unpopular with Americans—even with Republicans, according to a poll released Wednesday

The poll was conducted by Opinion Research Center International and commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Health Care Without Harm. It found that 67 percent of Americans—including 61 percent of Republicans—opposed the idea of abolishing the agency.

The poll also asked about efforts to strip the EPA's authority to act on greenhouse gases, the more realistic threat to the agency's mission right now, as both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have floated plans that would strip that authority to varying degrees. Yet another bill is expected on Wednesday from Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) that would eliminate that authority.

According to the poll, 77 percent of Americans oppose efforts to restrict the EPA's efforts on air pollution, including 61 percent of Republicans. "Democrats, Republicans, and Independents want politicians to protect the health of children and adults rather than protecting polluters," said Pete Altman, climate campaign director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Only 25 percent of Republicans they polled actually supported Gingrich's call to abolish the agency outright—by far the more extreme example of EPA-bashing we've seen in recent weeks.

Not to be outdone, Gingrich's group American Solutions for Winning the Future released its own polling data in the midst of the NRDC's call with reporters. There was just one problem. Its data was from a 2007 survey that asked vague questions about whether America can have both economic growth and environmental protection, and whether innovation is a good thing. Not a single question dealt with extinguishing the EPA.

What's the Conservative Plan?

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 12:21 PM EST

Somebody help me out here. As near as I can tell, conservatives are now obsessed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the possibility that it will gain power in Egypt. And, in some vague way, they seem to blame the Obama administration for this possibility. But at the same time, they're four square in favor of dumping Hosni Mubarak and turning Egypt into a real democracy, and they vaguely blame the Obama administration for not being forthright enough about this as well.

So.....what's the conservative plan? Does anyone know? How are we supposed to (a) dump Mubarak, (b) support democracy, but (c) ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood is kept on the sidelines? Who's the go-to conservative if I want to know what their plan is?

Realization of the Week: The Same Classroom Is Never the Same

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 12:15 PM EST

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Click here to see more of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina's writing on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

[Previous Mission High dispatch: Will Darrell flunk this test?]

There's a spring in my step as I walk to Mission High School this morning. I can't wait to tell Natalie—the aspiring astronaut who was "kicked out" of two charter schools—that my NASA friend has agreed to meet with her and give her some college advice.

But when I enter Ms. Bowman's World History class, Natalie's not there. Where is she? I wonder. Is she okay? At least Pedro's here, I notice.

When I enter Ms. Bowman's World History class, Natalie's not there. Where is she? I wonder. Is she okay?

Bowman begins class by writing the mnemonic "EMPIRE" on a white dry-erase board for a review of the motivations behind Imperialism. Each letter of EMPIRE stands for a key concept: "E" for economic interests, "M" for military bases, "P" for patriotism and nationalism, "I" for ideology of Social Darwinism, etc.

"I want to answer the ideology question, please!" says Pedro, the sweet skateboarding kid whose T-shirt hides gang-inflicted knife scars. He has already answered the first two questions and seems to have a hard time staying still today. "Just a minute, Pedro," Bowman responds. "I want to allow others to participate in our discussion." "A body of beliefs!" Pedro yells anyway.

Pedro starts chatting with his friends in a loud voice. Bowman first offers him the choice of moving over a few seats. He refuses, promising to stop talking, but doesn't follow through. Bowman then asks Pedro to read out loud the four rules she has written near the classroom door: "Be respectful, no cross-talk, step up, and step back."

Pedro reads them out loud, then continues to joke around with his friends. Nearby, a girl is reading a Bible with a pink cover, ignoring the other students. Last week she participated in collective discussions. This week, she seems annoyed by Pedro and protests with silence. "Pedro, could you come with me for a second?" Bowman asks in a calm voice. The two walk outside the classroom for a minute. Bowman walks back in without Pedro and keeps teaching. Three minutes later, Pedro reenters the class, sits down, and starts working calmly on an exercise with the rest of the class.

As the students write in silence for a moment, it hits me: This class feels completely different from last week. It's not just Pedro's behavior. The students are still learning, but there's more tension, more cross-talk, less engagement as a group.

"Class dynamics change constantly. It's a constant work in progress."

After class I talk to Bowman; she agrees. "A part of it is not having Natalie in the class today," she muses. Since Natalie's always very engaged in class discussions, it's possible that her participation balances out Pedro's desire to be the center of attention, and other students benefit. But Bowman doesn't seem too worried. "Class dynamics change constantly," she says. "It's a constant work in progress."

I now have heard many teachers at Mission High school refer to these small, frequent cultural shifts in a classroom as little bumps. Skilled teachers feel them right away and know exactly how to smooth them out.