2013 - %3, January

Ending the Evening on a High Note

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 2:20 AM EST

I'm going to end the evening with a trio of nice things. Why? Just because. First off, here's the sunset out of my window today:

A few hours later, here are the moon and Jupiter hugging each other in the night sky:

And finally, here's Kelly Clarkson singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" at the inauguration today. I had to call my sister to ask who this was (I know: pathetic), but I'm now her new biggest fan. This was a great performance, and the Marine band was pretty spectacular too. Enjoy.

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Quote of the Day: Prenatal Financial Markets Are the Next Frontier

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 1:34 AM EST

From Roger E. A. Farmer, on why financial markets might not be as efficient as we think:

The inability of our children to trade in prenatal financial markets is sufficient to invalidate the first welfare theorem of economics.

Hmmm. Prenatal financial markets. There's gotta be a way that Goldman Sachs can get a piece of that action. Just give 'em a little time to think it through.

Barack Obama's Surprisingly Barbed Inaugural Address

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 12:22 AM EST

Over at The Corner, Kathryn Jean Lopez writes that the "untold story" of today's inauguration is the number of conservatives who have "resisted the urge to rain on the president’s parade today." Her colleagues, apparently infuriated by this act of appeasement, immediately proceeded to unleash a virtual deluge on the president's parade.

I was amused by that, but then, I'm easily amused. And anyway, I don't blame them. I've heard a lot of chatter today from liberals about how Obama's inaugural address was "Lincolnesque," but I think that's just a wishful reading of what he actually said. Sure, there were plenty of soaring phrases about "we the people" and America's limitless possibilities, and it was nice to hear the first ever shout-out to "our gay brothers and sisters" on inauguration day, but overall it was pretty familiar stuff for a modern inaugural address.

What wasn't so familiar was the number of very sharp, very specific barbs aimed at Obama's political opponents. Here's a taste:

To Mitt Romney: "The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security....do not make us a nation of takers."

To the climate change denialists: "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."

To the neocons: "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."

To the voter suppression gangs in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere: "Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote."

To the NRA: "Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm."

To the entire tea party wing of the GOP: "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."

Did conservatives take these lines as obvious, personal attacks? You betcha. I would too, if I were them. And while this stuff may have warmed the cockles of my heart, I don't pretend to have the boundless political generosity of Abraham Lincoln. It appears that Obama, if he ever did, doesn't have it anymore either.

Virginia Republicans Give Blacks the Finger on MLK Day

| Mon Jan. 21, 2013 10:02 PM EST

The Virginia state senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, 20-20. Republicans really hate this, but what can they do? Answer: wait for a Democratic state senator to be absent and jam through a mid-decade redistricting plan that switches one seat from D to R by creating a new pack-and-crack majority black district just south of Richmond. The vote was 20-19.

But wait! That's not all. The deed was done on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and at the end of the session Republicans adjourned in memory of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, whose birthday is today.

Oh, and did I mention that the state senator who was absent is a veteran of the civil rights movement? And that he was in Washington to attend the inauguration of our country's first black president?

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has obvious presidential ambitions, said he was surprised by the move, but didn't denounce it and didn't promise to veto it. Quite the contrary: his spokesman said the governor would "review it in great detail" once the bill got to his desk.

It's truly a mystery why so few African-Americans support the Republican Party, isn't it? A real chin-stroker.

Was 1861 Really a Peaceful Transition of Power?

| Mon Jan. 21, 2013 5:20 PM EST

I wasn't going to bother blogging about Lamar Alexander's peculiar boast that today's "peaceful, orderly" transfer of power was uniquely American, figuring that it's just standard patriotic puffery and nothing to complain about. But Dylan Matthews reproduces the chart on the right to show that lots of countries have peaceful transfers of power, and that got my attention. I'm not sure where it came from, but the author appears to think the United States has had 43 peaceful transitions.

It's true that Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States. But I'd say that 1861 was a decidedly non-peaceful transfer of power, leading as it did to a secession by half the country and four years of brutal civil war. Since then we've had 28 peaceful transfers—generously counting Andrew Johnson's takeover as "peaceful"—which puts us just ahead of Canada and a bit behind Australia.

Not bad, really. But as it turns out, even less out of the ordinary than it looks at first glance—though we might look better if we counted years instead of changes of government. After all, I'm not sure Italy should really get a lot of props just because their government changes every six months or so.

WATCH: Beyoncé Sings The National Anthem at President Obama's Second Inauguration

| Mon Jan. 21, 2013 3:54 PM EST

In which Barack Obama opens for Beyoncé Knowles:

Joe Biden enjoyed her performance:

Recently, the White House removed a petition from their "We the People" website that called for Beyoncé to be barred from performing at Monday's inauguration ceremony due to her business relationship with Pepsi:

Along with having raised millions of dollars for the president's reelection campaign and having performed at other Obama-related events, Beyoncé also sang Etta James' "At Last" during Michelle and Barack Obama's first slow dance as First Couple:

On a related note, here's Beyoncé playing Etta James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records:

beyonce jay-z barack obama
Scout Tufankjian/Obama for America

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Fashion is Less Important Than Literature

| Mon Jan. 21, 2013 3:13 PM EST

Over at Jezebel, Katie J. M. Baker is angry that the New York Times profiled the female-founded New Inquiry in the Style section and the male-founded Jacobin in the Books section. I don't blame her. But then we get this rote bit of defensiveness:

This is not to say that fashion is less important than literature.

Fine. I'll say it. Fashion is less important than literature. That's why the Times shouldn't natter on about fashion and flirting when they profile cultural magazines founded by women but focus on ideas and hard work when they profile similar magazines founded by men. There's no need to pretend otherwise, and it's no insult to fashion to place it somewhere behind Shakespeare and H.L. Mencken.

Obama's Second Inaugural Address: Watch Here

Mon Jan. 21, 2013 1:51 PM EST

President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address on Monday. You can watch it here:

Click here for analysis from David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief. The full text of the speech, as delivered, is below.

Obama Gets Political, Kelly Clarkson Wows 'Em

| Mon Jan. 21, 2013 1:21 PM EST

I'd say that this was a more explicitly political inauguration speech than usual, with lots of shoutouts to specific political goals and partisan disagreements. I expect the Fox News set to hate it. Here are a few key excerpts:

Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.

The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.

Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

Also: that was a helluva performance of America from Kelly Clarkson, wasn't it?

UPDATE: Sure enough, the Fox News commenters seem distinctly unhappy with this speech. Brit Hume is complaining that the economy is still terrible. Chris Wallace says Obama didn't reach out to conservatives at all. Bret Baer thinks it was basically a challenge to Republicans not to try and mess with the welfare state. Megyn Kelly says that even the Washington Post thinks Obama is too liberal. And so far, we've only heard from the relatively moderate wing of Fox pundits. I can hardly wait to see what Karl Rove and Sean Hannity have to say about it.

UPDATE 2: Now they're chattering about whether it's OK to say that Beyonce is an attractive woman.

UPDATE 3: Now they're back to arguing that Obama is the real obstructionist, not Republicans. I think I'll tune out now. I imagine they can keep up this schtick pretty much forever.

Income Inequality and Economic Growth

| Mon Jan. 21, 2013 12:14 PM EST

Does rising income inequality place a drag on economic growth? Joe Stiglitz says yes, and the basic argument is pretty simple: the poor and middle class tend to spend nearly 100% of their income while the rich spend much less of theirs. To see what effect this has, suppose you have two people in an economy with total income of $100. Now take a look at two different scenarios:

  1. Rich guy has $60 and poor guy has $40. Rich guy spends half his income and poor guy spends all of it, for total consumption of $70.
  2. Rich guy has $80 and poor guy has $20. Rich guy spends half his income and poor guy spends all of it, for total consumption of $60.

This sounds pretty plausible, doesn't it? Higher inequality should generate less consumption, which in turn produces a weaker economy. Unfortunately, the data says something else. "I wish I could sign on to this thesis," says Paul Krugman, "and I’d be politically very comfortable if I could. But I can’t see how this works."

Me neither. I spent a couple of months trying to write a magazine piece based on this thesis, and I finally gave up. By the time I was done, I just didn't believe it. So I gave up and spiked the idea.

Still, there are other ways that income inequality can hurt the economy. Krugman, for example, buys the idea that high inequality fosters financial crises, and when I was done with my research I found that an intriguing hypothesis too. There's a pretty compelling argument to be made that rising inequality simultaneously puts pressure on the middle class to borrow more (in order to maintain steadily improving lifestyles even with stagnant incomes) and on the rich to lend more (they have to do something with all that extra money they're hauling in, after all). So the rich lend money to the non-rich, but as the debt loads of the non-rich grow they become less and less able to afford more borrowing. That produces (a) government policies that help to sustain the credit bubble and (b) ever more baroque financial instruments to convince the rich that their lending is still safe. Eventually, however, it all collapses.

Matt Yglesias proposes another way in which inequality hurts economic growth:

My conjecture would be that high levels of inequality greatly complicate the political economy of expansionary policy....To the extent that you have a lot of inequality, your politics is naturally going to be more focused on questions of distribution than expansion. I think you saw that in liberal hostility to even temporary expansion of the Bush tax cuts and even more clearly in things like the GOP turn against Making Work Pay and the payroll tax cut.

Maybe! The poor want to stick it to the rich even if that hurts economic recovery, and the rich want to stick it to the poor because....something. The motivation there is less clear, actually. Empirically, though, it sure seems to be the case. There's not much question that in America, anyway, the party of the rich is distinctly non-thrilled with tax cuts that primarily benefit the poor and the middle class.

In the end, I find all of this compelling but still pretty speculative. In the meantime, there are plenty of reasons to oppose growing income inequality even if it doesn't directly hurt economic growth. I might change my mind later, but for now I think those reasons will have to do.