2011 - %3, January

The Great Stagnation

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 3:34 PM EST

So far my only comment about Tyler Cowen's e-booklet "The Great Stagnation" has been a whine about the Kindle format it's offered in. I promised a more substantive review for Monday, but now that Monday is here I'm almost reluctant to weigh in because TGS has gotten so much attention already. At this point, I'm not sure I have anything original to say about it.

But perhaps I do. The primary argument of TGS is that the United States has been growing strongly for the past two centuries by relying on lots of low-hanging fruit, but now the days of easy growth are over. In particular, Tyler identifies three sources of easy growth that are no longer open to us:

  • Land. The United States used to have lots of open land and now we don't anymore. I find this argument unpersuasive. Europe ran out of land a long time ago and its economic growth over the past two centuries has been great. Conversely, Brazil has lots of open land, but until recently its growth was poor. So I'm just not convinced that land is a big issue here.
  • Education. Starting a century ago we dramatically increased the number of kids who went to high school. More importantly — much more importantly, I'd say — after World War II we dramatically increased the number of kids who graduated from college. But you can only do that once. We can still make incremental improvements on this score, but we can't double or triple the number of college grads anymore. That avenue of growth is closed to us.
  • Technology. Tyler argues that technological growth was high between 1900-1950, but it's slowed since then. We spent several decades exploiting all the new inventions of the early 20th century, but a few decades ago we ran out of steam and we haven't invented enough truly fundamental new stuff since then to keep growth going. Longtime readers know that I basically agree with this, so I don't need much convincing on this score.

But there's a tension here that Tyler doesn't address. Technology grew like gangbusters in the first half of the 20th century, but it wasn't until the second half that education took off. So apparently it's not higher education that's really responsible for dramatic technological growth. But if that's the case, who cares about education?

The answer, I think, is that having lots of college grads doesn't really help push technological boundaries forward. What it does is produce a population that can effectively manage and direct large organizations that depend on advanced technology. And that helps produce economic growth nearly as much as fundamental new inventions do.

So here's what I think Tyler missed: it's true that we've already made our big improvements in access to education, and we can't do that again. But even if the number of college grads stays about the same as it is now, and even if the quality of their education stays about the same as it is now, the effectiveness of their management skills is multiplied tremendously by the computerization of the workplace. The human beings who are managing our country might be about the same as the ones who managed it 30 years ago, but they're managing it with steadily improving software and networking. They'll keep doing that for a long time, and that will keep GDP growing in the same way that better and better exploitation of electricity did during most of the 20th century.

In other words, computerization isn't just about the internet, and it's not just about whether Facebook generates a lot of utility without generating a lot of traditional GDP. That's the sexy stuff, but for the next 30 years it's continuous improvements in the computerization of industry and the computerization of management that will be the big GDP driver. Providing well-educated humans with better computers is every bit as important as simply churning out more well-educated humans.

(And after that? I'm a true believer in artificial intelligence, and I figure that 30 or 40 years from now computers are literally going to put humans out of business. They'll dig ditches better than us, they'll blog better than us, and they'll make better CEOs than us. This is going to cause massive dislocations and huge social problems while it's happening, but eventually it will produce a world in which today's GDP looks like a tinker toy.)

Tyler makes a bunch of other arguments in "The Great Stagnation" too, some more persuasive than others. Like some other critics, I'm not sure why he uses median wage growth as a proxy for economic growth. It's important, but it's just not the same thing. Besides, median wage growth in the United States slowed very suddenly in 1973, and it's really not plausible that our supply of low hanging fruit just suddenly dropped by half over the space of a few years. I also had a lot of problems with his arguments about whether GDP generated by government, education, and healthcare is as "real" as other GDP. For example, he suggests that as government grows, its consumption is less efficient, but that's as true of the private sector as it is of the public sector. A dollar of GDP spent on an apple is surely more "real" than a dollar spent on a pet rock, but there's simply no way to judge that. So we just call a dollar a dollar, and figure that people are able to decide for themselves whether they're getting the same utility from one dollar as they do from the next.

The healthcare front is harder to judge. I agree with Tyler that we waste a lot of money on healthcare, but at the same time, I think a lot of people seriously underrate the value of modern improvements in healthcare. It's not just vaccines, antibiotics, sterilization and anesthesia. Hip replacements really, truly improve your life quality, far more than a better car does. Ditto for antidepressants, blood pressure meds, cancer treatments, arthritis medication, and much more. The fact that we waste lots of money on useless end-of-life treatments doesn't make this other stuff any less real.

To summarize, then: I agree that the pace of fundamental technological improvements has slowed, and I agree with Tyler's basic point that this is likely to usher in an era of slower economic growth in advanced countries. At the same time, improvements in managerial and organizational efficiency thanks to computerization shouldn't be underestimated. Neither should the fact that other countries still have quantum leaps in education to make, and that's going to help us, not just the countries trying to catch up to us. After all, an invention is an invention, no matter where it comes from. And finally, try to keep an even keel about healthcare. It's easy to point out its inefficiencies, but it's also easy to miss its advances if they happen to be in areas that don't affect you personally.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Is Hillary Clinton in Cahoots With TransCanada?

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 2:48 PM EST

Three environmental groups are challenging the denial of a Freedom of Information Act request for records of communication between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the lead lobbyist for the international oil services company TransCanada.

Friends of the Earth, Corporate Ethics International, and the Center for International Environmental Law are seeking a record of all communication between Clinton's office and that of Paul Elliott, who served as the national deputy director in her 2008 campaign and now the top lobbyist for TransCanada.

The connection between the two has drawn scrutiny, since the State Department is evaluating whether to approve TransCanada's proposal for the 1,600-mile Keystone XL pipeline. Clinton raised ire among environmental groups and some senators last fall when she indicated that the pipeline was likely be approved despite the fact that the evaluation of the environmental impact of the proposal is still underway.

The proposed pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in Texas, has generated plenty of controversy as the State Department considers whether to approve it. "The disclosure of the requested documents will make a major contribution to the public's understanding of this divisive issue," the groups argue in their latest request.

Meanwhile, a report that TransCanada released last week predicted higher prices in the Midwest for Canadian crude oil—which certainly isn't going to make the pipeline more popular there.

Big Money

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 1:58 PM EST

The latest news in the banking world:

Fraud and mismanagement at Afghanistan’s largest bank have resulted in potential losses of as much as $900 million — three times previous estimates — heightening concerns that the bank could collapse and trigger a broad financial panic in Afghanistan, according to American, European and Afghan officials.

I don't have any insights to offer about this, but I'll offer up some simple math instead. The GDP of Afghanistan is about $15 billion. That means that this single bank is reporting losses equal to about 6% of GDP. That would be the equivalent of, say, Chase or Bank of America reporting a loss of around $1 trillion or so. That's a big loss.

Wikipedia's Gender Problem

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 1:44 PM EST

The New York Times reports today that Wikipedia contributors are overwhelmingly men:

About a year ago, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, collaborated on a study of Wikipedia’s contributor base and discovered that it was barely 13 percent women....With so many subjects represented — most everything has an article on Wikipedia — the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

....Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons”?

....Jane Margolis, co-author of a book on sexism in computer science, “Unlocking the Clubhouse,” argues that Wikipedia is experiencing the same problems of the offline world, where women are less willing to assert their opinions in public. “In almost every space, who are the authorities, the politicians, writers for op-ed pages?” said Ms. Margolis, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles.

This is just guesswork on my part, but I think this is a different phenomenon than gender disparity in op-ed writing. For starters, you need to compare apples to apples, and wondering why Mexican feminist writers are underrepresented on Wikipedia compared to The Simpsons is silly. It's because The Simpsons has an audience in the millions while Mexican feminist literature has an audience in the thousands. You don't really need to dig much deeper. There are several comparisons like that in the Times piece, and they mask the problem more than they illuminate it.

Still, even accounting for that, the gender disparity is real. But I suspect the reason has less to do with women having trouble asserting their opinions and more to do with the prevalence of obsessive, Aspergers-ish behavior among men. After all, why would anyone spend endless hours researching, writing and editing a Wikipedia post for free about either The Simpsons or Mexican feminist writers? I think that "having an opinion on the subject" is far too pale a description of why people do or don't do this. You need to be obsessed. You need to really care about the minutia of the subject and whether it's presented in exactly the right way. And you need to care about this in a forum with no professional prestige. You're really, truly doing it just for the sake of the thing itself.

I've long been convinced that this tendency toward obsession is one of the key differences between men and women. I don't know what causes it. I don't know if it helped primitive men kill more mastodons during the late Pleistocene. But it does seem to be real, and it doesn't seem to be something that's either culturally encouraged or discouraged in children of either gender. I just don't know. But I'll bet that an obsessive outlook on life is something that produces a lot of Wikipedia articles.

Covering Egypt

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 12:30 PM EST

James Joyner — joining a cast of millions — complains that cable news coverage of Egypt has been terrible. If you want to know what's going on, you have to watch al-Jazeera. Then this:

It’s not exactly that private news channels can’t do a fantastic job. ABC, NBC, and CBS did so within my memory. And CNN did so even more recently. But they did so under quasi-monopoly conditions....But, with the proliferation of cable, Americans were increasingly choosing to watch something other than news: game shows, re-runs, SportsCenter, or whathaveyou.

With the incentive gone, news programming began to be viewed as an expense, and the networks largely did away with foreign coverage. Not only is it expensive to produce, but Americans generally don’t care about it unless there’s a crisis. But, since by definition we don’t know where crises will break out ahead of time, it’s cheaper to simply parachute in to cover them. And hard news began to soften, including more human interest stories and politics-as-sports coverage.

I've watched no news coverage of any kind for the past four days and therefore have no idea what network coverage has been like. But I think this deserves a bit of perspective that's independent of what these guys are doing. So here it is: what we're seeing is not the superiority of al-Jazeera in its approach to covering the news. What we're seeing is the fact that we're in the middle of an uprising in the Middle East and that happens to be something that al-Jazeera is very, very well situated to cover. Conversely, if I wanted news about the Super Bowl, I'd turn to ESPN. For news about the repeal of healthcare reform, CNN would probably be pretty good. For news about Jerry Brown's upcoming State of the State address in California, one of my local news stations would be best.

There's no question that American cable nets — along with virtually all of the rest of the American media — suck very badly at covering international news. I'd love to blame them for this state of affairs, but I think that's kind of unfair. The problem is that Americans have voted with their pocketbooks and announced in a loud and sustained voice that they don't really care about international news unless it happens to be either (a) a U.S. war or (b) some kind of disaster story like Haiti or the Chilean miners. Given that, it's hardly reasonable to expect CNN or Fox to run a money-hemorrhaging charity operation for those few of us who care about this stuff.

And I'll add one more thing: maybe, just maybe, up-to-the-nanosecond coverage isn't really all that important? If you're transfixed by this stuff, that's fine. No one begrudges it. But really, is there any compelling reason why a TV network should be broadcasting continuous coverage of something like this? If you don't find out for three or four hours that Hosni Mubarak replaced his cabinet, does it matter? And does following events on Twitter, where the signal-to-noise ratio is about 1%, really improve your understanding of what's happening?

I doubt it. But that still doesn't excuse the atrocious quality of analysis on the cable nets. Since I haven't watched it — except for a few minutes of Fox one morning in which they were obsessed with the Muslim Brotherhood — I can't say anything about it from personal experience. But I trust James when he says it's awful, and there's not much excuse for that. Giving Egypt a couple of hours a day instead of 24/7 treatment seems fine to me, but at the least, those couple of hours ought to be good stuff.

House Dems' Plan: Play Hardball!

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 11:58 AM EST

Now that they're in the minority, House Democrats are trying to devise the best ways to force tough votes on their Republican colleagues. Even before the start of the new Congress, liberal House members promised to be aggressive in the minority, as Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told me directly after the Democrats' shellacking in November. House Democrats tell Roll Call about one strategy they're particularly keen on using—a procedural maneuver called the "motion to recommit," which essentially allows them to tack on an amendment-like provision to each piece of legislation before final passage. While Republicans have frequently used such tactics when they've been in the minority, Democrats haven't always seized upon such opportunities. Now party leaders like Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) say it's time to play tough:

So far, Democrats have offered four such motions this Congress: a proposal to require Members to publicly disclose whether they will accept government health insurance, a measure barring a health care repeal bill from taking effect unless a majority of lawmakers forfeit their government-sponsored health insurance, a proposal to bar companies that outsource jobs from obtaining government contracts and a proposal to require disclosure of foreign campaign contributors….

Israel acknowledged that Democrats are attempting to mimic the strategy that Republicans used when they were in the minority for the past four years…."The Republican playbook when they were in the minority had three chapters: Chapter 1, go on offense; Chapter 2, just say no; and Chapter 3, don’t lift a finger to help,” Israel said. The only chapter in their playbook that I will use is Chapter 1. We will be aggressive, and we will be on offense."

The hope is that the tactics will force Republicans to take politically tough votes, giving the Democrats more ammunition when it comes to 2012. But it's unclear how effective the tactic will be, as even some Republicans say it may have limited long-term political traction—and point out that more conservative Dems, like Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have voted against three of the four Motions to Recommit that the Dems have offered up so far.

What's more, Republicans are also promising to turn the tables on the Democrats by forcing tough, largely symbolic votes. On the health care front, for example, they've countered the Democrats' effort to push for votes on the most popular provisions of reform by vowing to force tough votes for more conservative Dems—like on health reform's taxes on device manufacturers, for example. While the predominantly liberal caucus of House Democrats won't bat an eye at such votes, they may leave the moderates in the Senate—many of whom are up for re-election in 2012—in the hot seat. So while House Democrats may be eager to play hardball in the minority, the game is not without its risks.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Lamar Smith Nixes Gun Safety Hearings

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 11:22 AM EST

For gun rights advocates, plans to push for new gun control laws in the wake of the Tucson shootings smack of political opportunism. A top House Republican, meanwhile, has spiked the idea of even holding hearings on gun safety issues, claiming they could unfairly bias the jury in the trial of alleged shooter Jared Loughner.

Politico reports that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and the 15 other Democrats on the House Judiciary committee sent a letter on Friday to committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) requesting hearings on gun-safety issues related to the tragedy that killed six and wounded 14 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

Democrats like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), who's introduced a gun safety bill, want to see the ban on high-capacity clips restored (supposedly a priority for the Obama administration). If still in place, the ban might have lessened the scale of the tragedy in Tucson. Democrats have also suggested that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which includes records for felons, the mentally ill, and drug users, is missing some 1.6 million names, and needs a serious overhaul.

In the letter, the Democrats write:

We fully recognize and appreciate the sensitivity of the subjects raised by the recent tragedy in Tucson in which our colleague, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and eighteen other were wounded or killed, including members of her staff, a Federal judge, and several other citizens. However, we also believe it is not only possible, but imperative that Congress review the relevant issues in a civil and objective [manner].

Loughner is widely assumed to suffer from mental problems. Smith told Politico that that holding hearings before his trial could have the "unintended effect of prejudicing the ongoing criminal proceedings," and points out that Loughner hasn't yet been found to be mentally ill. Holding hearings on the NICS "that presume otherwise," he says, is inappropriate.

Pawlenty: Yes, Bachmann Can!

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 10:27 AM EST

Did Republican presidential aspirant Tim Pawlenty just nudge Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) one step closer to the 2012 presidential election? During a visit to Iowa on Sunday, Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, sung the praises of Bachmann, the far-right congresswoman who heads the tea party caucus in Congress. Fielding questions as he signed copies of his new book, Courage to Stand, at a Family Christian bookstore, Pawlenty said, "Congresswoman Bachmann is someone I have a cordial and positive relationship with. I don't know if she's going to run for president. If she does run, she’ll be a strong candidate."

Bachmann appears to agree with Pawlenty's assessment. After all, she recently headlined a 300-person reception in Des Moines hosted by Iowans for Tax Relief. And on that same trip Bachmann met with powerful Iowa Republicans, including Governor Terry Branstad and Kraig Paulsen, the Iowa state House Speaker. These kinds of meetings strongly suggest Bachmann is developing a strategy for the 2012 Iowa caucuses, the opening battle in every presidential race.

Pawlenty's praise for Bachmann comes as no surprise. While Pawlenty appeals to a broader, more moderate Republican base, he doesn't have the kind of support in tea party circles that Bachmann or Sarah Palin do, the latter being a potential 2012 candidate Pawlenty has previously lauded. The former Minnesota governor could just be currying favor, trying to lock up Bachmann's support should she decide not to run or drop out of the race. He also could be making a play at landing Bachmann as a potential running mate, which would expand his pool of supporters. Either way, Pawlenty knows that, heading in the 2012 campaign, his odds at winning the White House only improve if he's got Michele Bachmann on his side.

Gang of Four Finds Its Rare Essence

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 7:45 AM EST

Circa 1979, on the recommendation of a nerdy record-store clerk, I bought a rust-colored LP called Entertainment!, the debut full-length from the British group Gang of Four. I was immediately intrigued. Led by the songwriting core of singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, the foursome had created a sound that stood apart, even at a time of great experimentation in rock and roll. It sounded neither like the punk rock that preceded it, nor the synth-driven music emerging with bands like Devo, the B-52s, and dozens more.

Gang of Four's songs were dark, stark, and spare, the lyrics deadpan, the beats martial yet funky, the guitar lines jagged as the obliteration of a beer bottle (as Kurt Vonnegut might put it) with a ball-peen hammer. King's politics-infused-yet-metaphorical lyrics evoked images of a Western culture run amok. The band's lone love song was an anti-love song, the distortion-laden "(Love Like) Anthrax." Even the cynical album title was a perfect companion for youthful alienation. It rarely left my turntable.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 31, 2011

Mon Jan. 31, 2011 6:30 AM EST

An Iraqi Army tanker with the 9th Armored Division drives an M1A1 Abrams tank under the instruction of Soldiers with Company C, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, United States Division-Center Jan. 16 at Camp Taji, Iraq. The IA tankers are preparing for a 45-day New Equipment Operator’s Course this spring at the Besmaya Combat Training Center, Iraq. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Chad Menegay, 196th MPAD, 25th Inf. Div., USD-C