2012...orks-tea-party - %2

The Great Construction Employment Mystery

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 6:52 PM EST

Over at the Atlantic, Matthew O'Brien canvasses the blogosphere's chart lovers to compile a list of the 34 best economic charts of the year. It's worth a look at the whole list, but the chart I want to highlight is from Conor Sen. Here it is:

That's damn peculiar, isn't it? How is it that housing starts can increase steeply starting in 2011 but construction employment continues to decline? That's the kind of thing that happens when you build a factory where robots do all the work that people used to do, but nothing like that has happened in the construction industry. Houses today are built pretty much the same way they were a decade ago: with human hands.

So what's going on? A few months ago the Fiscal Times asked some construction industry experts about this, and they got three answers. First, the increase in housing starts hasn't been big enough yet. Second, you have to wait a while for all the "finishers" (painters, paper hangers, tile workers, etc.) to be brought on board. Third, most of the work is in apartment buildings, which require fewer workers per unit than houses.

Answer #1 doesn't hold water. Since the beginning of last year, housing starts have nearly doubled. That's a lot. Answer #2 is similarly unsatisfying. Housing starts began their upward climb more than 18 months ago. That's plenty of time to get to the finishing work. So how about Answer #3? Here's a chart that breaks apart single-unit and multi-unit starts:

Hmmm. Single-unit structures are up by 200,000 and multi-unit starts are also up by about 200,000. The share of multi-unit starts has gone up from about 25 percent to 33 percent, but that's not much, really. Certainly nowhere near enough to account for a decline in construction jobs. Besides, an apartment building appears to count as a single housing start, and a single apartment building requires more workers than a single house. A rising share of multi-unit starts should accelerate construction employment, not hold it back.

So what's the answer? My guess is that it's a statistical artifact of some kind. Something isn't being counted right here. It's possible that the construction industry has gotten more efficient in certain ways, but it hasn't gotten that much more efficient. If housing starts have doubled, then one way or another, construction employment must be up too.

POSTSCRIPT: Anyway, O'Brien missed the real chart of the year. Here it is.

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What Does the "Les Misérables" Movie Have to Do With the Newtown Shooting?

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 5:41 PM EST
Daniel Huttlestone, right, who plays the child Gavroche in the new "Les Miz" movie

In the days following the horrific Newtown massacre—in which 20 schoolchildren were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary—the folks in entertainment media were especially careful not to offend. Violent and death-related content was suddenly (and quite transparently) deemed bad for business or in poor taste: The Pittsburgh premiere of the Tom Cruise action movie Jack Reacher was postponed, for example, and the LA premiere of Quentin Tarantino's brutally violent Django Unchained was canceled (with Django star Jamie Foxx himself cautioning against gratuitous violence in film). In TV land, the debut of the reality TV special Best Funeral Ever was delayed, Ted Nugent's celebration of gun culture was nixed from the Discovery Channel's schedule, a Blake Shelton Christmas special that features a reindeer assassination was pulled, and the recent season finales of Dexter and Homeland opened with disclaimers. On commercial radio, pop songs like Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks" and Ke$ha's "Die Young" received substantially reduced airplay. And let's not forget that Barry Manilow postponed a concert out of respect and concern for the affected families.

This is how the entertainment industry generally reacts when a national trauma occurs. There's no reason to think that altering, delaying, or refusing to air violent television and film scenes will help heal national wounds. But considering the immediate outpouring of PR gestures from across the American entertainment industry, it's curious that the only new movie that prominently features a child being shot to death seems to have gotten a pass. 

The movie is Les Misérables, the big-budget adaptation of the beloved musical set in post-revolutionary France. It's directed by acclaimed filmmaker Tom Hooper, has a star-studded cast, and is slated to be released in the United States on Christmas Day. (Spoiler to follow.)

Anyone familiar with the stage musical or Victor Hugo's book on which it is based knows how this goes: During the June Rebellion in 1832, armed republicans set up barricades in the streets of Paris in an attempt to spark an overthrow of the monarchy. Among the rebels is Gavroche (played by Daniel Huttlestone in the 2012 film version), a prepubescent, singing street child. In a moment of tragic heroism, the boy sneaks out from behind the barricade and is repeatedly shot by royal troops.

Here's the scene, from a stage production of Les Miz that featured Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers as Gavroche:

Out of all the major motion pictures released at the end of this year, Les Miz bears the clearest and most potentially upsetting parallel to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary; Django Unchained and Jack Reacher do not have any direct likeness to the Newtown mass shooting, beyond the mere fact that they contain violent images. And yet the sensitivity and courtesy shown by the PR teams of other violent movies released this month is nowhere to be found with Les Miz.

Quote of the Day: Wall Street and the Decline of Capitalism

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 3:54 PM EST

From Felix Salmon, on the low market valuation of stock exchanges:

Think of it as one of the few areas of the financial-services sector where capitalism works as advertised.

Yep. Read the whole post for more. I've been meaning to write a little essay about exactly this subject, and maybe this is the push I need. Maybe.

Fiscal Cliff Doing Republicans No Favors

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 3:02 PM EST

According to a new CNN poll, the GOP's crazies aren't doing its reputation any good:

According to the survey, 53% say the GOP should compromise more, with 41% saying the Democratic Party should give up more of the proposals it supports to develop bipartisan solutions.

"That's due in part to the fact that the Republican brand is not doing all that well," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland....It probably doesn't help that House Speaker John Boehner, who's leading GOP fiscal cliff negotiations with the president, is held in fairly low regard, particularly in comparison to Obama. According to the poll, 34% of the public approves of how the top Republican in the House handling his job. By contrast, the president's approval rating stands at 52%.

"Small wonder that nearly half say they have more confidence in President Obama than in the congressional Republicans and that nearly half (48%) would blame the GOP if the fiscal cliff occurs," adds Holland.

The absurd shenanigans surrounding the fiscal cliff and Plan B will only make this worse. Modern Republicans just don't know when to quit.

After Newtown, Will NRA Still Demand a Ban on Docs Asking Kids about Guns?

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 2:10 PM EST

For years, the National Rifle Association, the nation's mighty gun lobby, has pushed legislation that would ban doctors from asking their patients about guns in the home. Just as a pediatrician might ask a young patient about how much he or she exercises or what's going on in school or in his or her social life, that doctor might also ask about a patient's home life and if there are guns in the home. The NRA's "Firearms Owners' Privacy Act" would block that, despite the obvious First Amendment problems such a bill raises. Critics of the NRA-authored ban have dubbed the fight "Docs vs. Glocks."

The killing of 26 people, including 20 first graders, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by 20-year-old Adam Lanza has reinvigorated the debate about the presence of guns in American life. Who should be allowed to own guns? How should guns be stored? What types should be available to the average consumer? How many guns should one person be able to own? You've heard these question before: They were raised after the Columbine killings in 1999, the Virginia Tech killings in 2007, the Aurora, Colo., movie theater killings in July, and on and on. 

Here's another question worth asking: In the wake of the Newtown killings, as advocates and lawmakers search for ways to stop future gun violence, will the NRA keep up its fight to block doctors from asking about guns? The NRA broke its silence after the Newtown killings with a statement saying it was "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again." The group did not offer specifics, and NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (We'll update this post if he does.) 

There is a real health issue here: As Mother Jones' Adam Weinstein points out, research shows that even law-abiding citizens and their families who keep guns in the home are at a greater risk for getting killed by gunshot. And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 2009, one in five deaths among people under the age of 20 was caused by a firearm-related injury.  

With the NRA's help, six states—Alabama, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia—have tried to pass the Firearms Owners' Privacy Act. None have succeeded. Florida's GOP Gov. Rick Scott and Republican-controlled legislature have brought the NRA the closest to victory in the Docs vs. Glocks fight.

The NRA launched Docs vs. Glocks in Florida after hearing of an Ocala resident had asked a young patient's mother whether she owned any guns; the mother wouldn't answer, and so the doctor declined to treat her kid. The NRA and its Florida-based super-lobbyist, Marion Hammer, then crafted the Firearms Owners' Privacy Act, allowing doctors to ask about guns in the home only when they deeply believe such questions matter to "the patient's medical care or safety, or the safety of others."

Scott signed the bill in early June 2011, on one of the first days of National Home Safety Month.

The state's pediatricians soon sued to stop the law, which a Miami circuit judge did months later, saying the law violated doctors' First Amendment rights. The state of Florida has appealed the decision.

The NRA also features the Docs vs. Glocks fight in its political candidate questionnaires. A July 2011 NRA questionnaire for Virginia candidates for office includes this question:

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages its members to ask many intrusive questions of their patients under the ruse of preventing "gun violence." In doing so, doctors—particularly pediatricians—have been questioning patients about the presence of firearms in one's home. Do you believe firearm ownership is your personal matter and doctors should stop questioning patients about firearm ownership?"

Thomas Julin, a South Florida attorney who represented several doctors' associations in fighting the Firearms Owners' Privacy Act, wrote in a July op-ed that the law's real intent was to "censor doctors who might advocate gun control legislation the NRA opposes." But the NRA's politically motivated attack on doctors' free speech rights, Julin writes, misses the benefit of a simple question or two. "Doctors who see children bearing bullet holes on a regular basis," he writes, "can be very powerful advocates."

Plan B: Relieve the Rich, Screw the Poor

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 1:59 PM EST

The kabuki theater going on over John Boehner's Plan B is truly a wonder. Unlike some others, I don't think there's any mystery about why Boehner suddenly abandoned negotiations with President Obama and introduced his Plan B legislation. It's because, once again, he got sabotaged by his own party. The same way that Eric Cantor and the tea party caucus just flatly wouldn't vote for a compromise debt ceiling bill last year, they flatly won't vote for a compromise fiscal cliff bill this year. Without the votes of the crazies, Boehner was stuck, so he introduced Plan B as a face-saving way of wriggling out of negotiations with the White House.

But it turns out that the crazies won't even support Plan B. So now Boehner is larding it up with conservative catnip to try and pry loose some votes. And just what is it that conservatives want? Cuts in entitlements, as they've been claiming? Nope. Matt Yglesias takes a look at what's been tacked on:

When John Boehner needs to add spending cuts to a deficit reduction bill to make his most conservative members happy, they don't want to reindex Social Security benefits. They don't want to monkey with the Medicare eligibility age. That's not the stuff that gets them jazzed up. Taking food out of the mouths of hungry children, by contrast, is something they're excited about. They're eager to reduce regulation on banks and cut back on poor people's health care. Cutting spending on the elderly is something they'll maybe consider as part of a deal with Obama. Cutting spending on the poor is their idea of Christmas.

Conservatives don't want to cut entitlements. They don't want to cut defense. They don't really want to cut spending on the FBI or roads or ag subsidies. Actions speak louder than words, and it turns out that what they really want is goodies for corporations and the rich and fewer of their tax dollars going to the indolent, undeserving poor. Ho ho ho.

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How Does Your Brain Process 3-D Movies?

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 1:36 PM EST

A reader asks Tyler Cowen if we should expect stagnation or continued improvement in action movies:

As for the stagnation issue, there are two main developments. The first is a resurrection of sorts, namely 3-D, which is a very real gain, but in my view it is a significant plus for fewer than ten movies, most notably Avatar.

I'm curious about something, and it's on my mind since I saw Life of Pi in 3-D the other day. Whenever I see a 3-D movie, I notice the depth for about the first five minutes, and then it just goes away. With only occasional exceptions for the most outlandish scenes, I pretty much see it as a flat 2-D movie. How about you?

Please avoid free-form rants about 3-D. I know some people like it and some people don't. I'm just curious about whether my response is common or not. When you see a 3-D movie, are you aware of 3-D throughout the entire film? Or does your brain turn it off after the first few minutes and basically turn it into a flat film?

Obama's Attitude Toward Treaties: Probably About Right

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 1:14 PM EST

Dan Drezner isn't happy that the Obama administration hasn't put much effort into winning passage of international treaties:

Politics is art as well as science, and there's something just a little bit chickens**t about the Obama White House's tactics. Politics isn't only about winning — sometimes it's just about making the effort. And the truth of the matter is that when it comes to dealing with Congress, this administration hasn't made the effort. By my recollection, during its entire first term, the only international relations piece of legislation that got the full court Obama White House press was the New START treaty with Russia. Now given what was going on with the economy, one could argue that the administration had the right set of priorities. But one way to help jumpstart the global economy would be a series of potentially significant foreign economic policy moves — including the ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, by the way.

....I hope that in its second term, the White House cares enough about foreign policy to actually engage Congress rather than throw up their hands and say, "crazy Republicans, what can you do?" Actually, President Obama, you could do one whole hell of a lot if you made an effort.

I'd probably take the other side of this argument. Dan's core reason for Obama to prioritize this stuff is that it might "jumpstart the global economy," but he slid by that assertion a bit too quickly for my taste. My guess is exactly the opposite: Obama could be the biggest treaty dynamo in the history of the Republic, and even if he succeeded the impact on the global economy would be barely measurable. In any case, I'd sure like to hear the counterargument.

Unfortunately, I suspect that Obama is right: foreign treaties just aren't all that important, and expending political capital on them doesn't make much sense. Republicans are crazy, and even the impact of the Law of the Sea Convention—which is certainly far greater than the disabilities treaty would have been—isn't enormous. Something like the Doha Round would probably have a significant effect if we could make progress on it, but that goes way beyond needing a bit more schmoozing from Obama.

Bottom line: I sympathize, but I suspect that Obama's priorities are about right. New START was important. Basel III was important. Keeping the NATO coalition together over Afghanistan was important. Dealing sensibly with Asia—which he has—was important. But trying to persuade the Michele Bachmann wing of the Republican Party to pass a few more treaties? It's hard to see a big payoff there.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 20, 2012

Thu Dec. 20, 2012 1:08 PM EST
Marines from Company C, 1st Tank Battalion, prepare their tank for the day’s attack on Range 210 aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec. 11, 2012, during Steel Knight 13. US Marines photo.

Like it or Not, Today We Live in Robert Bork's World

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 12:34 PM EST

Dylan Matthews has a good interview today with Barak Orbach, a professor of law at the University of Arizona, about the influence that Robert Bork had on antitrust law. In a nutshell, he is antitrust law. Pretty much all of modern antitrust doctrine can be traced back to books and articles he wrote in the 60s and 70s.

I was going to write about this yesterday, but I'm glad I waited. Here's Orbach:

In 1960, he was concerned the socialists would take over the country through antitrust. Antitrust then was about protecting small businesses. He built a full framework about how antitrust should be more about economic efficiency than about helping small businesses. He expanded upon this in articles and the book, The Antitrust Paradox , in 1978. He wrote a sentence: Congress enacted the Sherman Act as a "consumer welfare prescription." The Supreme Court adopted that sentence in 1979. That is the stated goal in antitrust today. It is a big deal. A huge deal. In antitrust, it's operational. Robert Bork defined it.

....Bork came around and said that we were protecting inefficient businesses. That was one of his most significant contributions. There's always a trend that big businesses go up, and then people have this sentiment that we should protect small businesses. So that was one thing that he created. He created this framework where antitrust should be efficient. He introduced economics into antitrust in a really systematic matter.

Read the whole thing for more. Bork, of course, was part of the Chicago School, which has been enormously influential in both economics and law over the past four decades. The problem is that there's something tautological about their beliefs. Bork, for example, believed that antitrust law shouldn't be about bigness per se, it should be about efficiency. But the Chicago school believes that successful companies are efficient almost by definition. If they weren't, they wouldn't have gotten big. George Priest, an admirer of Bork, explains:

That portion of Chicago School thought that addresses industrial organization derives from a single basic principle: Markets in the real world are generally highly competitive, constrained only by real costs of operation. It follows from this proposition [...] that actions taken in the market by a single firm generally represent a means for advancing the interests of the firm by providing value to consumers. Put conversely, if a firm's practices did not provide value to consumers, the firm would fail in the competitive battle. Thus, there is a presumption in Chicago School analysis that individual firm practices generally benefit competition and consumers, rather than the reverse.

This is where we are today. In the past, we had a relatively simple rule: companies weren't allowed to get too big, because that was presumptively a bad thing. Today, we've replaced this with a much fuzzier rule: companies are allowed to get as big as they want as long as they're still providing good value to consumers. But this gives corporations far more leeway in antitrust cases. They can present trainloads of evidence suggesting that consumers benefit from everything they do, and judges have to pick their way through it. Since it's very hard to prove that consumers would or wouldn't benefit under a different regime, it's very hard to win an antitrust case.

Is this the right approach? We can argue it all day long. But in the same way that constitutional originalism, whether right or wrong in the abstract, is inherently conservative, the consumer welfare approach to antitrust is inherently friendly to big business. It's all part of the "intellectual capture" of the past several decades, in which virtually all of us, liberal and conservative alike, have adopted views that, in the end, benefit big business and big finance. The intellectual superstructure is a bit different in every case, but the end result is consistent: the market operations of large corporations are assumed to be beneficial unless proven otherwise. And modern law and economics make proving otherwise damn near impossible.

An intellectual revolution has underpinned all this. But make no mistake: the real-world goals were always very clear. Today, we live in that world.