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Cell Phone or Porsche? Cable TV or First Class Travel? Quien Es Mas Macho?

| Fri Jun. 19, 2015 1:35 PM EDT

Via Brad DeLong, I see that Matt Bruenig has finally taken on a question that's bugged me for years. The question, in a nutshell, is this: Adjusted for inflation, would you rather live today with an income of $30,000 or back in the 1980s with an income of $60,000?1 Would the extra income be enticing enough to persuade you to give up 300 channels of high-def TV, cell phones, and universal access to the internet?

Now, the reason for asking this question usually has something to do with how we measure inflation. If you answer no—that is, you'd prefer today's world even with a lower income—it suggests that our inflation measures are inadequate. I mean, you're saying that $30,000 today buys more satisfaction than $60,000 in 1980 even though these are real, inflation-adjusted numbers. In other words, people today are quite a bit better off than official figures suggest. Officially, if your income had dropped in half over the past three decades, you'd be in dire shape. But in fact, this thought experiment suggests you're actually happier. So maybe income hasn't dropped in half in any practical sense.

This becomes meta-meta-economic very fast, so it's best not to get wound up in it right now. Because the thing that's always bugged me about this question is not so much its philosophical implications, but that it asks someone today what they'd think of living in the past. But that's rigged. I grew up in the world of today. I'm accustomed to all the gadgets at hand. The idea of giving them up naturally sounds horrible.

But that's not the only way to think of it. How about if we asked someone in 1980 about their preference. Would you rather have twice your current income, or would you rather have better TVs, portable phones, and instant access to all the information in the world? Well, these folks aren't accustomed to all that stuff. Sure, it sounds cool, but jeez, would I really use it much? Hmmm. I think I'll go with the extra income.

In other words, it's all a matter of what you're accustomed to. If you've been sleeping on the ground all your life, you have no trouble sleeping on the ground. Who needs a bed? If, like me, you've been sleeping on a bed all your life, you'd become a wreck trying to sleep on the ground. You'd pay a considerable sum of money just for an air mattress and a blanket.

Now, if you're still reading this, you may be nodding along a bit but nonetheless thinking that it's all just dorm room BS. We can't go back in time and ask people about the internet and cell phones, so what's the point of bringing it up? There are two reasons. First, I just wish more people realized that asking this question of current consumers stacks the deck and therefore doesn't tell us nearly as much as we think it does. Second, Matt Bruenig has come up with a clever way that kinda sorta does allow us to go back in time and ask people this question.

As he points out, we have a group of people who did indeed lead adult lives in the 80s and are still with us: senior citizens. And they can decide which technologies they want to use. So what do they choose?

Using smartphone adoption as a proxy for these people's technological preferences, it's clear that the people who actually lived as adults through both technological periods overwhelmingly prefer older technologies:

Judging from these people's preferences, you'd have to conclude that, in fact, older technologies are preferable to newer technologies. You don't need a hypothetical to determine whether living in the past was better: these are people who lived in the past and the present and clearly prefer the way they lived in the past, at least when it comes to the technologies that are supposed to have made life dramatically better (as incomes stagnated).

Now, this is obviously not a bulletproof comparison. Maybe old people just get stubborn, and that's all there is to it. Or maybe cell phones are a bad comparison. Even (or especially) senior citizens would probably be unwilling to go back to the medical technology of 1980. Plainly this is not the final answer to the tech vs. money question.

Still, it's an interesting approach, and it would be interesting to try to extend it. Behavioral economics tells us that people respond to losses much more strongly than gains, so asking people to give up something they like really is stacking the deck—especially if they have little conception of what the extra income in 1980 would gain them. People will always react far more intensely to a sure loss than to an offer of something new.

Anyway, more like this, please. For example, how about turning this around. Which would you prefer: (a) a doubling of your income right now, or (b) a world with driverless cars, internet chips implanted in your brain, and vacation flights to the moon? For a lot of people, this would not be an obvious choice at all.

1Note that this question is normally asked with bigger numbers: say, $50,000 vs. $100,000. I lowered it because I think it makes a difference. $30,000 really starts to make you think, doesn't it?

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Allen Ginsberg Wrote a Poem for Bernie Sanders and It's Pretty Great

| Fri Jun. 19, 2015 11:44 AM EDT

The Guardian's Paul Lewis wrote a great profile of Sen. Bernie Sanders' years as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there, including excerpts from Sanders' correspondence with foreign heads of state, but let's cut right to the chase: Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem for Bernie Sanders in 1986.

It goes like this:

Socialist snow on the streets

Socialist talk in the Maverick bookstore

Socialist kids sucking socialist lollipops

Socialist poetry in socialist mouths

—aren't the birds frozen socialists?

Aren't the snowclouds blocking the airfield

Social Democratic Appeasement?

Isn't the socialist sky owned by

the socialist sun?

Earth itself socialist, forests, rivers, lakes

furry mountains, socialist salt

in oceans?

Isn't this poem socialist? It doesn't

belong to me anymore.

I think we know James Franco's next movie.

Texas Rejected the Confederate Battle Flag On Its License Plates. The First Amendment Will Survive.

| Fri Jun. 19, 2015 11:36 AM EDT

Texas offers its driving public a vast array of specialty license plates. Most of them are designs submitted by private organizations, which then go through an approval process by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board. If they approve it, it goes on sale.

Recently, the Sons of Confederate Veterans submitted a design that included the Confederate battle flag. They were turned down. Yesterday the Supreme Court upheld the Board's decision on the grounds that license plates are government speech, not private speech, and therefore the government gets to decide what it does and doesn't want to say. The dissenting minority called this ridiculous: If you see a license plate that says "Drink Pepsi," would anyone seriously think the government of Texas was endorsing Pepsi? Of course not. It's private speech.

It's a sticky wicket. It's also one I don't understand. Here's an excerpt from the majority opinion:

The Board must approve every specialty plate design proposal before the design can appear on a Texas plate. And the Board and its predecessor have actively exercised this authority. Texas asserts, and SCV concedes, that the State has rejected at least a dozen proposed designs.

....This final approval authority allows Texas to choose how to present itself and its constituency. Thus, Texas offers plates celebrating the many educational institutions attended by its citizens. But it need not issue plates deriding schooling. Texas offers plates that pay tribute to the Texas citrus industry. But it need not issue plates praising Florida’s oranges as far better. And Texas offers plates that say “Fight Terrorism.” But it need not issue plates promoting al Qaeda.

Right. Nor do they have to approve a design celebrating the KKK or Lee Harvey Oswald. Doesn't this seem more germane than a fight over First Amendment issues? Unless Texas is literally required to accept anything and everything that's submitted, they obviously have to be allowed to reject designs they find offensive. At that point, it's just a matter of what process is required to decide a design is offensive. That's it.

Now, if the Supreme Court thinks their process is defective, that's fine. Tell them what minimum requirements they have to fulfill. But surely that's the only real issue at hand. The Board plainly has the right to turn down designs. The only question is how they go about it. Why not issue a ruling on these grounds instead?

Lindsey Graham: Confederate Flag Is a "Part of Who We Are"

| Fri Jun. 19, 2015 11:15 AM EDT

Following the mass shooting inside a black church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday, one flag was conspicuously not lowered to half-mast in tribute to the nine lives lost in the deadly attack—the Confederate flag, which regularly flies on the grounds of the state capitol, despite countless calls for its removal because of its racist roots.

The rebel flag's presence in Columbia was especially disturbing this week after images surfaced showing the suspected gunman's embrace of the flag, which was on his license plates. (Dylann Roof also wore patches baring the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, the racist symbolism of which was evident.)

While other GOP politicians, including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, are criticizing the flag's enduring presence, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who hails from South Carolina and is now running for president, has come to the rebel flag's defense. According to Graham, the Confederate flag is an integral "part of who we are."

This isn't exactly surprising, considering Graham appeared on "The View" yesterday to promote his new e-book and brushed aside the obvious racial overtones of the attacks, suggesting that suspected shooter Dylann Roof was seeking to massacre Christians. "This guy's just whacked out," he said. "It's 2015—there are people who are looking for Christians to kill them."

Although Graham acknowledged to CNN the flag has been used to push racist agendas in the past, he said "the problems we have in South Carolina and throughout the world" do not stem from symbols, but because of "what's in people's heart."

"How do you go back and reconstruct America?" he asked hopelessly.

Actually, here's one solution: remove the damn Confederate flag.

 

John Kasich Completely Misunderstands the Teachings of Jesus

| Fri Jun. 19, 2015 10:48 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore points me toward a Politico profile of John Kasich that demonstrates pretty vividly why he's not likely to make a dent in the Republican primaries. Here he is at a conference hosted by the Koch brothers last year:

At one point, according to accounts provided by two sources present, Randy Kendrick, a major contributor and the wife of Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, rose to say she disagreed with Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage, and questioned why he’d expressed the view it was what God wanted.

The governor’s response was fiery. “I don’t know about you, lady,” he said as he pointed at Kendrick, his voice rising. “But when I get to the Pearly Gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”

The rest of the Republican Party, needless to say, believes that St. Peter is going to ask them what they did to keep the poor from suckling on the tits of the rich. Because that's what the Bible say. See, right here: When it comes to paying poor laborers whatever he feels like, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" Jesus once said in a quote taken entirely out of context.

Obviously Kasich doesn't know his Bible. Help the poor indeed. Who can blame Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and 20 audience members for stalking out? Kasich needs to bone up on the real Bible before he spouts off again.

The Recent, Hateful History of Attacks on Black Churches

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 8:22 PM EDT

Update, June 29, 11 a.m. PT: Fires have been reported at six black churches in five southern states since the mass shooting in Charleston. Two of the fires are thought to have been from electrical or other unintentional causes, but at least two other are being investigated as arson. (See timeline below.) According to BuzzFeed, the FBI and ATF are investigating the incidents. For more, including an interview with a pastor at a church that burned in South Carolina, see this NPR story.
 

Churches have long been hubs of organizing and advocacy in the black community, which was one reason they were so often attacked during the civil rights movement. But the violence didn't end there—attacks and threats against black churches and institutions still take place at a greater frequency than you might think. Here is a partial list of church incidents in the past two decades alone:

1996

January 8: Eighteen Molotov cocktails are thrown at Inner City Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The phrases, "Die N----- Die" and "White is Right" are painted on the church's back door.

Rep. Larry Hill looks over the remains of Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church. Chuck Barton/AP Photo

January 11: Mount Zoar Baptist Church and Little Zion Baptist Church, two black churches within six miles of each other, are burned to the ground on the same night in rural Alabama.

February 8: The Department of Justice launches an investigation into a string of arsons at black churches in rural Tennessee and Alabama.

June 7: Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church is set on fire in Charlotte, North Carolina.

1997
 

March 22: Two men burn down Macedonia Baptist Church in Ferris, Texas. Asked why they did it, according to the US Attorney General's Office, one of the men responded, "because it was a n----- church."

June 30: Five white men and women, all between the ages of 18 and 21, burn down St. Joe Baptist Church, a small church of 21 worshippers in Little River, Alabama.

2004

January 12: Two white men in Roanoke, Virginia, cause $77,000 worth of damage to the inside of Mount Moriah Baptist Church after breaking into and vandalizing the premises.

2006
 

July 11: A cross is burned outside a predominantly black church in Richmond, Virginia.

2008
Firefighters work at the scene of a fire at the Macedonia Church of God in Christ. Mark M. Murray/AP Photo

November 5: The morning after President Obama's first election, three white men set alight Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Massachusetts. The church was under construction.

2010

December 28: A white man firebombs Faith in Christ Church in Crane, Texas, in an attempt to "gain status" with the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang.

2011

June 23: The FBI investigates a cross burning on the lawn of St. John's Baptist Church in Sapulpa, Oklahoma.

November 17: Vandals break into Cedar Hill AME Zion Church in Ansonville, North Carolina. They throw chairs through the stained glass windows, burn a cross, defecate on an alter, and dig up the tombstone of a child buried in the church's historic slave cemetery.

2013

February 25: Vandals break into a day care center housed within a church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; spray paint swastikas on the inside; and set the building alight. One church member said that, several weeks earlier, the church had received a call saying, "We need these n----- to get out of here."

2014
Members of the destroyed Flood Christian Church hold service in a tent in Country Club Hill, Missouri. J.B Forbes/AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

November 26: Federal officials open an investigation into the arson of Flood Christian Church, the church attended by Michael Brown Sr., the father of Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The fire was set the same night the prosecutor in the case announced he would not bring charges against officer Darren Wilson for killing Brown.

July 22: A cross is burned in the parking lot of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tennessee.

2015
Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. David Goldman/AP Photo

June 17: Dylann Roof kills nine people at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

June 24: Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., went up in flames in the early morning. A wing of the church used as an education center was nearly completely destroyed, and the sanctuary and gymnasium sustained extensive smoke damage, with damages totaling an estimated $250,000. The fire is being investigated as arson.

June 28: Bales of hay and bags of dirt were set on fire and left against the front doors of College Hill Seventh Day Adventist church in Knoxville, T.N. Separately, a church van was also set on fire and destroyed. The fires are being investigated as arson.

 

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The "Umbrella Revolution" Just Scored a Major Victory in Hong Kong

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 8:00 PM EDT
Thousands of pro-democracy protestors occupy Hong Kong's streets on September 30th, 2014.

Last fall, the streets of Hong Kong filled with protestors demonstrating for greater autonomy after China proposed an election system that would undermine their right to vote for the city's highest official. Students and concerned citizens camped outside of government buildings and blocked major thoroughfares for weeks on end wielding umbrellas to protect against police tear gas (leading to the name "Umbrella Revolution"). Eventually the demonstrations lost steam and protestors acquiesced to government demands to evacuate the streets. Many feared that the end of the protests meant a win for China and a blow to democracy in Hong Kong.

However early Thursday, Hong Kong's legislature voted down the Chinese proposal that instigated the massive demonstrations. Pro-democracy supporters are calling it a major legislative victory. In order to understand why, we have to back up a bit.

Hong Kong becomes part of China...sort of: In 1997, the United Kingdom handed over control of Hong Kong to China. Under an agreement known as "one country, two systems," however, China promised that Hong Kong would maintain political autonomy and many civil liberties that are not afforded to mainland Chinese (Vox does a good job laying out this confusing transition). One right citizens of Hong Kong did not get was the ability to directly vote for the city's executive chancellor. Instead, a mostly pro-Beijing 1,200-member election committee has chosen the leader through simple majority every 5 years. In 2007, though, China told Hong Kong it would be allowed to elect its leader by popular vote in 2017.

Fall 2014, protests begin: But then, in August of 2014, the Chinese Communist Party released a proposed election plan outlining their version of a popular vote. In it, a special committee controlled by the Chinese Communist Party would choose up to three candidates for whom Hong Kong's 5 million eligible voters could cast a ballot. Hong Kong's current chief executive, Leung Chun-Ying, supported the proposal but thousands of Hong Kong citizens viewed this system as a "sham democracy" that would allow China to continue exercising control over Hong Kong. They took to the streets flooding the area surrounding Hong's Kong's government buildings for weeks before finally going home.

Okay, so what just happened: Hong Kong's Legislative Council voted today on whether or not it would enact the the election system proposed by China. It was struck down with only 8 lawmakers out of 70 voting for the proposal, a big hit to the Chinese Communist Party and victory for the pro-democracy camp.

What's next: Pro-democracy activists are praising the legislature's move, but also point out there is a long way to go before real democracy is achieved. Because China's election plan was voted down, the current system will stay in place until at least 2022. Some believe a more productive short-term approach to reforming Hong Kong's election system would be pushing the current election committee to better represent the people of Hong Kong instead of Chinese interests.

Jeb Bush Has Announced the Perfect Republican Economic Plan

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 3:03 PM EDT

Rand Paul says his secret to success is that his tax cut plan will supercharge economic growth. Jeb Bush says his secret to success is that merely by being president he will supercharge economic growth.

I guess I have to give this round to Paul. He at least tried to come up with some math salad to justify his belief that a Rand Paul presidency will bring about economic nirvana. Bush simply declared ex cathedra that he'd make the economy grow at an astonishing 4 percent per year. Why? "It's a nice round number. It's double the growth that we are growing at. It's not just an aspiration. It's doable."

Um, OK. He gets points for copping to a sort of amiable idiocy, I suppose. But in case you're interested, here's economic growth since the Reagan administration:

Reagan managed 4 percent growth four times in eight years. George H. W. Bush managed it zero times. Bill Clinton did it five times in eight years. George W. Bush did it zero times. Barack Obama has (so far) done it zero times. And no president in history has averaged 4 percent growth over the course of his presidency. No one.1

If you want all the gory details, Matt Yglesias has much more here about just how unlikely this kind of growth is. But politically speaking, the details aren't what's interesting. What's interesting is that Bush's comment is an unusually clear peek behind the curtain, one that demonstrates how unseriously Republicans take the economy. It's all just cotton candy for the gullible. Cut taxes on the rich and this will—somehow—supercharge the economy. Slash regulations and this will—somehow—unleash business activity and supercharge the economy. Now Bush has decided to dispense with even the mumbo jumbo explanations. He's distilled the GOP economic message down to its essence: Elect me president and—merely because I'm a Republican and I say so—I'll supercharge the economy.

And there's more. If you assume the economy is going to skyrocket, there's no need to address niggling concerns about spending or budget deficits. There will be money for everything! And when it doesn't happen? Oops. Sorry. Next time we'll get serious for sure. Honest.

1OK, OK, it's true that FDR did it. How? By starting at the bottom of the worst depression in history and ending with the biggest wartime boom in history. This basically makes the case for just how unlikely this is to ever happen again.

Fast Track Is Now Back on a Fast Track to the Senate

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 1:15 PM EDT

Well, the House just passed standalone fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty. Now it's on to the Senate, where 14 Democrats voted for it back when it was paired up with TAA, the assistance program for workers who lose their jobs because of the treaty. Will the Gang of 14 still vote for it as a standalone bill? By my count, if there are more than four or five defections, it will fail. Stay tuned.

If it passes, TAA will then get a second vote too, free of fast-track entanglements: "Republicans have decided to tuck the worker assistance components into a noncontentious trade preference bill related to Africa, and send it back to the House for final passage."

So there you have it. Stay tuned.

POSTSCRIPT: I still don't have a firm opinion on the treaty since I failed to delve into it over the weekend. Sorry. Unfortunately, my proxy guides aren't working for me either. On the anti side, I'm no big fan of the IP clauses in the treaty. On the pro side, I'm influenced by the fact that it's supported by both President Obama and Ron Wyden, my favorite senator. So I'm still on the fence.

WATCH: Obama Just Delivered Remarks About the Mass Shooting in Charleston

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

On Thursday, President Obama spoke about the mass shooting that killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

"Any death of this sort is a tragedy," Obama said in the televised address. "Any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy. There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship. Emmanuel is more than church. It is a place of worship that was founded by African Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshippers worked to end slavery."

He then addressed the problems of gun violence and urged Americans to take action.

"Let's be clear—this kind of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries," he said. "It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. It is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. At some point it is going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it and shift how we deal with gun violence collectively."

This time last year, Obama called the nation's political failure to act on guns the "biggest frustration" of his presidency.

Shortly before the president's press conference on Thursday, the suspected gunman behind the attack, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, was arrested in Shelby, North Carolina.