2010 - %3, February

The Market for Economics

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 4:31 PM EST

Ian Crosby offers up some interesting questions:

Paul Krugman maintains that Austrian business cycle theory is "as worthy of serious study as the phlogiston theory of fire." Milton Friedman claimed, less colorfully but no less categorically: "The Hayek-Mises explanation of the business cycle is contradicted by the evidence. It is, I believe, false."

Am I right to interpret this concurrence of opinion by two Nobelists from opposite ends of the political spectrum as a strong evidence that the Austrian critique is misguided?  Are latter-day Austrians the economic equivalent of creation scientists and climate-change deniers?  Or are there mainstream economists who take them seriously?  And if they do, what does it say about macro as science that there should be basic disagreements about a fundamental object of study in the discipline?

After talking to a few working economists, he concludes:

The real lack of consensus in macro, it seems, is not how to respond to a downturn in the business cycle, but what causes the business cycle in the first place.  And if mainstream macroeconomists agree that the Austrian explanation of this phenomenon is demonstrably lacking, it is not because they have a well-supported alternative or viable research program of their own.

Today’s Austrians may be a small and dubious minority.  But they have hardly opposed themselves to the edifice of a successful science.

Does that conclusion seem right to you guys?

And why is Austrianism appealing, anyway? Krugman argues that Austrianism appeals to people because it offers easy, clear-cut rules about cause and effect, and because it appeals to individuals' moral sense.*

But I think part of the reason people are attracted to the Austrian school is that more mainstream economists don't seem as interested in gaining public (i.e., nonacademic) acceptance of their ideas as the Austrians are. Whether or not they're "serious," the Austrians are definitely serious about promoting their theories. The Austrians have the Mises Institute, dedicated to spreading their ideas. They have the legions of Ron Paul supporters, most of whom lean towards Austrianism and are eager to tell you about it. And various Austrians and Austrian-leaning folks are responsible for clever things like the Keynes vs. Hayek rap video and Peter Schiff's series of YouTube videos. Russ Roberts, a professor at George Mason University who is behind the rap video, has written about the peculiarity of GMU's "Austrian-flavored" economics department:

We don’t just speak to the academy. We blog. We write novels. We write letters to the editor. Op-ed columns. We write books for a general audience. This isn’t an aberration. It isn’t just tolerated. It’s honored.

The point is that while it's easy to find someone ready to convert you to Austrianism, you just don't see "mainstream" economists out there trying to explain the basics of their theories to the masses. The closest you get to a public evangelist for Keynesian economics, for example, is Krugman, who generally focuses his New York Times column on the political and policy implications of economics—not the underlying theory. And yet when he has tried to explain the counterintuitive parts of Keynesianism, Krugman's actually been fairly effective. Witness this Slate article from 1998, in which Krugman talks about a microeconomy in order to explain his theories about the larger economy. More of that, please! 

Kevin is traveling today.

*I edited several sentences in the middle of this post for clarity.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Carly Fiorina's Demon Sheep

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 4:19 PM EST

The California gubernatorial contest has taken another early turn toward the weird with the best political attack ad ever: A three-minute stream of consciousness pastiche from former HP CEO Carly Fiorina that features footage of sheep, something about "fiscal conservatives in name only," more sheep, B-roll of random stuff, and OMIGOD DEMON SHEEP! As one YouTube commenter puts it, "It's like a first year film student project gone terribly wrong. LOL—for days." Of course, there's already a Twitter hashtag (#demonsheep). Can a mashup website, à la Keepin' it Real With Michael Steele or the defunct Squirrelizer, be far behind? Until someone with the web skills puts it together, here's Mother Jones' first contribution to the Chilln' With the Demon Sheep meme.

UPDATE: Asked how the ad was made, Fiorina's deputy campaign manager for communications Julie Soderlund says that, contrary to speculation, the sheep scenes were not shot exclusively for the spot but were "really old footage" that ad's creative team had "in the archives." The ad was produced not by a film student but Fred Davis, a veteran GOP adman who made the McCain campaign's "Celebrity" ad, which compared Barack Obama to Paris Hilton. Presumably the satantic sheep analogy didn't feel right for that one. (Watch the sheep ad below the jump.) 

Do Elections Have Consequences?

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 3:19 PM EST

John Cole uses this video of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to highlight some unfortunate behavior on the part of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):

You see, McCain put a hold on Craig Becker, a nominee for the National Labor Relations Board, back in October, but never submitted any questions for Becker in all that time. The point of Franken's questions, which get at the fact that Becker is a former labor lawyer, is to point out that nominees for something like the NLRB are very likely to be from one side or the other—in this case, either management or labor.

Republicans, who generally take management's side, are going to oppose the labor-type nominees. And Democrats are going to oppose the management-type nominees. And because the minority's opposition to someone is often enough to block that person's confirmation (because of holds and the filibuster), you have a real problem. Elections are supposed to determine who runs the country. But the way the system works currently is that winning a presidential election gives you the right to determine foreign policy and assassinate Americans but gives you very little power over domestic governance. Winning a presidential election should at least give you the power to hire people to help you run the country. It should also probably give you a better shot at actually implementing your agenda. Right now, both those things are impossible.

Kevin is traveling today.

Coburn Embraces Gun-Clinging Tea Partiers

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 3:15 PM EST

At "question time" last week, President Obama called for an end to reckless and bitter partisanship. Rejecting this idea, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) will attach a set of gun rights amendments to must-pass appropriations bills to make Democrats who oppose such measures appear out of step with the public, Roll Call reports. But it's unclear whether these amendments will achieve their desired effect.

An October Gallup poll, for example, found that only 12 percent of respondents favor making gun laws less strict, compared with 44 percent who support stricter regulations. And even Republican propaganda guru Frank Luntz says that the gun-rights culture war has been blown out of proportion. Luntz and Democratic Mayor of Milwaukee Tom Barrett wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month that even some of the most fervent gun rights advocates support stricter safety laws. Dennis Henigan, vice president of the Brady Center, explains the political odd couple's argument for the Huffington Post:

For example, 69% of self-described NRA members, and 86% of gun owners who do not belong to the NRA, support closing the "gun show loophole," by extending Brady Law background checks to private sales at gun shows. As Luntz and Barrett say, "the poll also found support among NRA members and other gun owners for numerous other policies to strengthen safety, security and law enforcement," including blocking gun sales to persons on the terrorist watch list, requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen guns, and providing more crime gun data to local police

So more than a ploy to make Democrats take unpopular positions on guns, Coburn's bills are another sign of the growing Tea Party takeover of the GOP. "Patriot" groups like the Three Percenters and the American Resistance Movement are petrified that Obama plans to nix the second amendment and take their guns away. And Coburn intends to cater to these groups to impair Democratic priorities amidst a massive deficit, mounting unemployment rate, and continuing recession.

The Power to Assassinate American Citizens

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 3:01 PM EST

Today, via the Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima, we get more confirmation that the Obama administration believes it has the power to unilaterally order the assassination of Americans who it suspects are terrorists:

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair acknowledged Wednesday that government agencies may kill U.S. citizens abroad who are involved in terrorist activities if they are "taking action that threatens Americans."

There don't seem to be any non-executive branch checks on this power. But Barack Obama is a good and wise man. What could possibly go wrong?

As usual, Glenn Greenwald is the person to go to on this:

Although Blair emphasized that it requires "special permission" before an American citizen can be placed on the assassination list, consider from whom that "permission" is obtained:  the President, or someone else under his authority within the Executive Branch.  There are no outside checks or limits at all on how these "factors" are weighed.  In last week's post, I wrote about all the reasons why it's so dangerous—as well as both legally and Consitutionally dubious—to allow the President to kill American citizens not on an active battlefield during combat, but while they are sleeping, sitting with their families in their home, walking on the street, etc.  That's basically giving the President the power to impose death sentences on his own citizens without any charges or trial.  Who could possibly support that?

[...]

It would be perverse in the extreme, but wouldn't it be preferable to at least require the President to demonstrate to a court that probable cause exists to warrant the assassination of an American citizen before the President should be allowed to order it?  That would basically mean that courts would issue "assassination warrants" or "murder warrants"—a repugnant idea given that they're tantamount to imposing the death sentence without a trial—but isn't that minimal safeguard preferable to allowing the President unchecked authority to do it on his own, the very power he has now claimed for himself?  And if the Fifth Amendment's explicit guarantee—that one shall not be deprived of life without due process—does not prohibit the U.S. Government from assassinating you without any process, what exactly does it prohibit?

That, at least, I have a bit of an answer for: the government can take your life, but it can never take your steel plants.

Kevin is traveling today.

Did Bush Almost Bomb Georgia?

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 2:31 PM EST

Politico reports breathlessly that George W. Bush's administration "considered—and rejected—a military response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia." Andrew Sullivan draws the conclusion that the Bush team "came close" to bombing Georgia to stop Russian troops from pouring into the tiny country through a critical tunnel. But that's not really what the article says.

The key quote, in the sixth paragraph of the story, explains that "No principal advocated the use of force." It's both appropriate and unsurprising that Bush and Cheney's national security aides—or the national security aides to any president—would lay out all the potential responses to a crisis like the invasion of Georgia. And it's only responsible for the pricipals—actual decisionmakers like Bush, Cheney, and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley—to discuss all the options. But if none of the actual decisionmakers ever pushed to use military force, it's hard to argue that it was seriously considered. This really seems like a non-story.

Kevin is traveling today.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Michigan to Push Teachers into Retirement

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 2:24 PM EST

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm wants to push nearly 40,000 veteran teachers into retirement to eliminate their hefty salaries from the state's 2011 budget. The plan, introduced to state lawmakers last Friday and discussed in her final State of the State speech yesterday, would save an estimated $230 million a year, but it would also leave students with a much less experienced cadre of teachers at a time when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says the nation's graduate schools are not adequately preparing our next crop of educators.

In recent years, Gov. Granholm has been lambasted by critics who say she's not doing enough to avert or manage the state's long-running unemployment and budget deficit crisis. Retiring teachers is part of Granholm's plan to silence her critics, some say, but at what cost? In a speech delivered last fall at Columbia University's Teachers College, Duncan quoted from a report that described today's teacher education programs as subjective, obscure, faddish, out-of-touch, and politically correct. He and other education reformers consider high-quality teachers the most important piece of student achievement, so Granholm's plan to usher seasoned veterans out the door without first assessing the quality of their replacements seems risky.

Whether Granholm's proposal gets enacted or not, the country's teachers will have to heed Duncan's call for improvement soon: About half of the 3.2 million teachers in the workforce are Baby Boomers, and Duncan expects school districts will need to replace a million of them over the next four years as they retire... by choice.

Fiore Cartoon: Fighting the Deficit

Thu Feb. 4, 2010 1:54 PM EST

Obama's priority to close the deficit has forced some difficult decisions about what's worth the cost, and what isn't.

Worth the cost: Defense, tax cuts for the rich.

Not worth the cost: Jobs for the working class, education.

Watch satirist Mark Fiore take on the skewed logic below:

The Democrats' Jobs "Plan"

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 1:44 PM EST

Scott Brown is set to be sworn in as the newest member of the United States Senate later today. That means Democrats will need at least one Republican to switch sides if they hope to beat a Republican filibuster of their jobs bill. An initial vote on the package is set for Monday. Brian Beutler has the latest on how the Dems' plan to do that:

"You need two to tango. And you need Republicans for bipartisanship," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (I-IL). "Hope is prospective...we don't have bipartisanship at this moment. I hope we'll have it in a matter of minutes, hours, days."

Hope may be prospective. But it's not a plan.

Maybe the Dems really do have a GOPer on board, and they just don't want to say yet. But more likely, they're expecting the bill to fail and plan on blaming the Republicans for it. That might be good politics, but it doesn't actually help anyone get a job.

Kevin is traveling today.

Paul Ryan's Budget

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 1:06 PM EST

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has received a lot of attention in recent days for his plan to slash the deficit. (If you haven't yet, read Ezra Klein's interview with Ryan.) Mostly that's because he actually has something resembling a plan. The bulk of the "savings" from the plan come from converting Medicare to a voucher program and limiting the value of the vouchers. In other words, Ryan would change Medicare from what is essentially a single-payer plan for the elderly into a coupon program, with coupons that wouldn't cover the full cost of your medical care. (Ryan would also essentially privatize Social Security, but he doesn't get much in the way of savings from that.) And it's true—if you eliminate the whole "social insurance" bit about Medicare, it gets a lot cheaper. 

Now, Kevin says the plan is all "smoke and mirrors" because Ryan doesn't say "how his spending limits will be met." But using vouchers is actually a great way to set spending limits, if that's what you want to do. The real problem with Ryan's plan is that it's the kind of plan you propose when you don't actually have to pass a plan. Ross Douthat writes that "even if there were a politically-feasible path toward the kind of overhaul Ryan has in mind, it’s not clear how many Republican politicians would want to take it." Even Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who appeared with Ryan at a press conference on Tuesday to discuss the plan, hasn't embraced its proposals. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson has it right: "It's a shocking budget, and the kind of thing that no party in power would ever have the cojones to propose." It's the "gradual extermination" of Medicare, Thompson says. 

The biggest problem with Ryan's plan is that it doesn't actually control health care costs. It simply shifts the burden of paying for them from the public sector to individuals. Instead of the government going bankrupt trying to pay for medical care, it'll be individuals. That's all well and good for the rich, who might be able to pay for their own health care. But people who would have relied on Medicare are going to be out of luck. Medical costs wil rise much faster than the value of the voucher will. Ryan's plan seems to pretend that the problem isn't medical costs—it's just that the government is trying to pay for them. James Kwak is good on this:

The implicit premise [of Ryan's plan] is that we have to screw ordinary people–or at least make them bear a high degree of risk–in order to save the government budget. But what is the government budget? It’s a pile of money that we contribute and that our representatives are supposed to spend on things we can’t buy for ourselves individually. I know that those representatives make mistakes, are borderline corrupt, etc. But Medicare is exactly the kind of program that we want government to provide–a program that shifts risk from individuals to the government, and thereby the country as a whole–and that’s why it’s so popular.

Other countries manage to keep their citizens healthy at a much lower cost than we do. They don't have to dismantle their social insurance programs to do it. Why should we?

Kevin is traveling today.