Kevin Drum - October 2010

Growth and Stagnation

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 1:12 PM EDT

After a review of Amar Bhidé’s A Call for Judgment: Sensible Finance for a Dynamic Economy that frankly makes it sound pretty much like a hundred other recent books and magazine articles, Matt Yglesias says we should all read it anyway:

For one thing, though Bhidé doesn't seem super-interested in pursuing this line of inquiry, I think that if it's correct it fills in the microfoundations missing from the argument of Hacker and Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics by producing a plausible account of how developments in the financial sector could produce both super-inequality and middle class stagnation through the misallocation of resources away from real economy innovators.

I'm confused. Hacker and Pierson were mostly concerned with the political foundations of income inequality, not the economic foundations. And in any case, isn't this pretty easy? If bankers — and rich people in general — hoover up a larger and larger share of national income, then there's less left over for the middle class.1 Economically, that's pretty much all the foundation you need. The only way you wouldn't get a combination of massive inequality growth and middle class stagnation is if the innovations of the financial sector supercharged the economy so powerfully that the overall pie was bigger for everyone. That's always the prospective argument while this stuff is happening, of course, but in retrospect it hasn't recently turned out to be true. Basically, the rich have spent the past couple of decades recklessly running the economy for their own benefit, and now that they've driven it into a ditch they're spending enormous2 amounts of their wealth to make sure they aren't expected to contribute so much as a penny to help rebuild it. That's really pretty much it. I'm not sure there's any need to overthink this.

1Or vice versa. If you keep middle class wages flat, then there's a bigger pool of money for the rich. I actually prefer this mechanism for a variety of reasons, but the actual inequality numbers work out the same either way.

2Enormous to you and me, anyway. Peanuts to them, of course.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Political Rage

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 12:49 PM EDT

Megan McArdle reads an article about — well, it doesn't really matter what it's about. Here's what she says in response:

This resonates with my growing disgust at the level of anger in the blogosphere. I don't mean irritation, pointed jibes, or even spirited discussion; I mean an aggressive revelling in rage. I notice it much more on left wing sites, but that's because I basically refuse to read angry right-wing sites, so I don't know what's going on there.

Two things here. First, I'm pretty sure that right-wing rage continues to outpace left-wing rage fairly substantially — though, like Megan, I don't really spend too much time reading rage-filled sites on either side of the aisle. But the conventional wisdom is that righties are all fired up this election season over Barack Obama's attempts to destroy the America we love, while we lefties are dispirited and depressed. You can probably guess which emotion produces more rage.

Second, I think the blogosphere fools us about this stuff. In the past, I imagine there's been every bit as much rage as there is today. It's just that the mainstream media was all dressed up in suits and ties and most of us ordinary citizens didn't really have a way to channel our rage. But it was still there. The big difference isn't that we're any more filled with rage than we've ever been, it's just that it's all so public now. This might very well be a bad thing on its own (or not — who knows, really?), but it's not because tea partiers are any angrier at Obama than they were at FDR or Bill Clinton. We just have a better view of it these days.

That said, though, I too was pretty disgusted by the blogospheric treatment of Todd Henderson a few weeks ago, which was so wildly blown out of proportion that it reminded me more of a rabid mob than anything else. That kind of freeding frenzy has become all too common. On the other hand, "curb stomping" is just routine trash talk. I wouldn't read too much into it.

Are the Young Disillusioned?

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 12:22 PM EDT

Bloomberg's Catherine Dodge writes today that "the thrill is gone" for young voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008:

Indiana University professor Gerald Wright opened his class on congressional elections by asking students if they saw the previous night’s school-sponsored U.S. House candidate debate a few blocks from campus.

Among almost 60 students, three hands went up.

“Most students don’t care about elections in general,” 20-year-old sophomore Melody Mostow said after the class last week. “In most midterm elections, there’s not that central person for us to rally around.”

Yeah, maybe. But you know what? I wouldn't have watched either. The U.S. Congress is effectively a parliamentary body these days, and it matters only slightly who its actual individual members are. A few extreme cases aside, all that matters is what party the candidates belong to. No one needs to listen to a debate to figure that out.

In any case, I'm willing to bet a million dollars — no, make it a billion — that young voters will turn out this year in roughly the same numbers that they always turn out for midterm elections. The chart on the right from the good folks at CIRCLE shows that youth turnout was up a bit from historical lows in 2006, but the broader trend is that turnout in general has gone steadily down, and a youth turnout rate of 20-22% this year would be entirely average. And that's pretty much what I expect it to be. No thrill needs to be gone to explain this.

Quote of the Day: Please Fool Me

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 11:43 AM EDT

From Adam Ozimek:

Our desire to have costs hidden from us is a very expensive preference.

He is reacting to a study showing that CAFE mileage standards are a less efficient way of reducing gasoline use than simply raising gasoline taxes. In the end, we all pay more for CAFE increases than we would if we just accepted the need for higher taxes.

I'll confess that I'm not sure I'm convinced about this specific argument, though it's pretty conventional economics. Largely this is because CAFE standards are more permanent than taxes and don't suffer from the problem that people just get used to them and revert to their old behavior. If CAFE standards are higher, then they're higher forever and gasoline use is reduced forever. Conversely, people react pretty weakly to higher gasoline prices in the short term, and we don't really know all that much about how they react in the long term. So I'd be careful here. Ditching CAFE for higher gasoline taxes may be orthodox economics, but it might have social and political shortcomings even aside from our unwillingness to consider it in the first place.

Still, there's a pretty good chance the study is right, and certainly this argument is right in general. We do an awful lot of inefficient revenue raising in this country because we're not willing to simply raise taxes in a transparent way. Republicans don't seem to have figured this out yet.

Our Old-New Elite

| Sun Oct. 24, 2010 9:45 PM EDT

Charles Murray has a long moan in the Washington Post today about the New Elite (his term) and its increasing isolation from "mainstream America." What's weird about it is that its core argument is in this passage:

Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows — "Mad Men" now, "The Sopranos" a few years ago. But they haven't any idea who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right." They know who Oprah is, but they've never watched one of her shows from beginning to end.

Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking, but they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them.

They can talk about books endlessly, but they've never read a "Left Behind" novel (65 million copies sold) or a Harlequin romance (part of a genre with a core readership of 29 million Americans).

They take interesting vacations and can tell you all about a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada or an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor, but they wouldn't be caught dead in an RV or on a cruise ship (unless it was a small one going to the Galapagos). They have never heard of Branson, Mo.

Even aside from the threadbare trope that anyone who doesn't follow NASCAR isn't a real American, this is nuts. The Old Elite (my term) of a century ago could talk about Tosca or Mahler, but might not have known what was showing at the Palace Theater or seen an entire Pearl White movie all the way through. They probably knew who had won Wimbledon or what regattas were being held off Long Island, but quite possibly didn't know or care who Jack Johnson was. They chattered about Edith Wharton's latest, but had never soiled their hands with In His Steps or Nick Carter Stories. They toured Europe and summered in Maine, but wouldn't be caught dead at Coney Island.

This is just the nature of elites. Of course they do different things than the teeming masses. If they didn't, they'd hardly be elites, would they?

What's odd about Muray's op-ed, though, is that buried beneath his tired catalog of cultural cliches he touches briefly on something that might actually have been interesting to explore: the changing life patterns of our elites. We've always had hereditary elites, this argument would go, but in the past at least our self-made elites mostly came from common backgrounds. Think Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller. Today, even our self-made elites typically come from upper-middle-class backgrounds. Think Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Our modern elite class contains virtually no one who has ever had much contact with the working class.

Now, I don't know if this is actually true. But it would be interesting to take a look and find out. Unfortunately, Murray doesn't bother. Instead, he just stuffs a whole bunch of tired red-blue/heartland-coastal/urban-rural chestnuts into a tattered burlap sack and heaves it onto the Post op-ed page. Blecch.

Will California Legalize Pot?

| Sun Oct. 24, 2010 1:54 PM EDT

Via Mark Kleiman, here's an interesting poll result for Proposition 19, the initiative to legalize marijuana cultivation and sale in California. It comes from the pro-19 forces, and I don't have any independent way of knowing how reliable it is, but it shows that standard polling has Prop 19 losing 46%-41%, while automated polling shows it winning 56%-41%.

Take this for what it's worth. I'm basically skeptical that Prop 19 will pass, and I have my doubts that there's really such a large number of people who are afraid to express support for Prop 19 to a live interviewer. Supporting pot legalization isn't really a huge stigma in California, after all. Still, it's interesting if it's legit. We'll find out a week from Tuesday.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

California Business

| Sun Oct. 24, 2010 1:30 PM EDT

The chart on the right comes from the LA Times. It shows that, despite the endless complaints about California being such a business unfriendly state, our corporate tax take has gone down dramatically over the past 30 years:

California takes about 4.7% of what a business produces in taxes — which happens to be the national average. The government take is higher in Alaska (13.8%), New York (5.5%) and Florida (5.3%). Even Texas, known for rolling out the red carpet for business, pocketed more than California — 4.9%.

That's according to an annual study of the tax burdens in all 50 states by the Council on State Taxation, a business-friendly group led by senior executives of Chevron Corp., General Electric Co. and other major corporations. "California is pretty middle-of-the-pack when it comes to business taxes," said Joseph R. Crosby, the organization's senior director of policy.

Granted, there's more to business friendliness than just taxes. California has more stringent environmental rules than most states, for example. And the article notes that California's corporate tax structure tilts downward: big companies tend to pay fairly low taxes while small companies pay higher taxes. (Thanks, Chamber of Commerce!) Still, most of the griping you hear comes from big companies, and most of it revolves around taxes. But the fact is that their tax bill just isn't especially high.

The Asymmetry of Incompetence

| Sat Oct. 23, 2010 4:46 PM EDT

From Thoreau, who lives nearby and who I really ought to meet someday:

I’m probably just dwelling on the trivialities of my comfortable suburban professional existence, but my basic grievance against big companies is that when they screw up they take 6-8 weeks to fix it, usually after multiple phone calls and whatnot, but if I screw up a penalty is immediately levied. This happens on every scale, from billing snafus with $7 fees, to cases of people being foreclosed on even though they had never missed a payment and spent money on lawyers to prove this, to “Oops, we broke the global economy, could you send $1 trillion to our Nigerian accounts?”

The latest snafus on my end are (1) I’m getting a bill for water service in an apartment that I moved out of, for a billing period that doesn’t overlap my last month in that apartment and (2) I set up autopay with another utility, or at least tried to, something didn’t go through, and now I’m paying a $7 late fee....It’s not the $7, it’s the asymmetry of the responsibility. If I screw up (and I still maintain I did everything necessary for autopay!), I have to pay a late fee. If they screw up, they give me runaround. As long as it’s $7 at stake, fine, but they do this at every level. I think of the hassle I had to go through to get the title for my car after I paid off the loan (early) and I can’t even imagine the hell it must be to have your house foreclosed because of a snafu that they didn’t even notify you of (because of another snafu).

So, I say that we should be able to put large companies on hold when they want something, send them through phone trees, and ask them to re-submit paperwork that we may or may not lose track of.

All in favor, raise your hands. Motion carried! 

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 October 2010

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 2:33 PM EDT

Today's installment of catblogging features rare video footage of Domino doing — well, let's be honest: doing something not very exciting. But new! For her. And I just happened to have my camera around when she did it. That's sort of rare, so today you get rare Friday Cat Vlogging.

To make up for the lack of actual excitement in the video, however, note that my personal video creation skills have taken a great leap forward. Unlike my past crude efforts, this one includes a sophisticated opening title and an actual edit with a diagonal transition. Thanks, Microsoft Movie Maker!

In other pet-related news, Chad Orzel is writing a sequel to How To Teach Physics To Your Dog, so he's running a contest that will benefit the DonorsChoose fundraiser to support public school students and teachers. Here's the deal: Chad's book is full of animal characters, and he promises to name one of them after the biggest donor to his fundraising drive. But what if we all made donations in Inkblot's name? Simple arithmetic would make this the biggest donation, and he'd be forced to recognize this and feature Inkblot in his book. Right? I mean, the guy's a physicist, after all. So head on over there and give til it hurts. The kids it will help are all well and good, but this is really for Inkblot. He'll be watching.

Quote of the Day: Social Security

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

From Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, talking about Social Security:

It's quite a manageable problem.

Yep. We could solve Social Security for all time in about a day of easy negotiations if both Democrats and Republicans were actually serious about solving it. The required set of benefit cuts and revenue increases would be so minor, and would phase in over such a long period, that virtually no one would even notice.

Too bad we're not serious about it.