Straight Talk on Mahogany Row

One of Tyler Cowen's readers asks:

Why does the corporate world use language so inefficiently? Why turn a simple thing like "talking to a client about their needs" into a five-step process (distinguished, no doubt, by an acronym)? Do companies think that they create net value when they brand a common thing like human conversation as a one-of-a-kind, complex process — even after the costs of being opaque, jargonistic, and long-winded are taken into account?

Tyler's answer:

My speculation: People disagree in corporations, often virulently, or they would disagree if enough real debates were allowed to reach the surface. The use of broad generalities, in rhetoric, masks such potential disagreements and helps maintain corporate order and authority. Since it is hard to oppose fluffy generalities in any very specific way, a common strategy is to stack everyone's opinion or points into an incoherent whole. Disagreement is then less likely to become a focal point within the corporation and warring coalitions are less likely to form.

This is an unanswerable question, but I think I'd offer a different kind of speculation. For starters, all professions develop their own jargon. Some of it sounds ridiculous and some of it doesn't, but it seems to be practically a human universal. So I wouldn't try to draw any special conclusions strictly from the existence of jargon itself.

More generally, though, why does an entire class that thinks of itself as so practical and results-oriented buy into so many of the fads that produce all this jargon? I don't think it's to reduce conflict. I would be very surprised if you found any correlation at all between faddish jargon and the amount of internal backstabbing in corporations. Instead, my guess is this: most businessmen aren't really all that smart. When things go wrong they don't know what to do. And when you don't know what to do, anything is better than nothing. So you go searching for someone with an answer, and like all professions, the business world has plenty of people willing to offer them. Needless to say, though, those answers have to seem as if they offer something new and different, and that means flowcharts and five-point plans and a special lingo. It's a truism that the easiest person to sell to is another salesman, and likewise, the easiest person to sell a new business process fad to is another businessman.

And for what it's worth, I don't think this is entirely bad. I know a lot of this stuff sounds ridiculous, but if you dig beneath the jargon a lot of business advice is actually fairly reasonable. What's more, in a lot of cases it almost doesn't matter what it is. What matters is that you have some corporate managers who are at sea and don't know what to do, and they just need someone to provide them with some structure for changing things and moving forward. Not every structure will work, but I think you might be surprised by how many different ones do. What really matters is simply deciding on something and then getting a move on. A charismatic and self-confident CEO is supposed to provide this kind of leadership, but lacking that a little bit of witch doctory business process consulting can often help the process along.

Three Strikes for White Collar Criminals

The LA Times reports on California's first ever application of its three-strikes law for white-collar crime:

Timothy Barnett spent nearly five years in state prison for a 1990s foreclosure rescue scam in which he conned homeowners out of tens of thousands of dollars. Now, prosecutors say, he has been at it again, targeting residents in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood he fleeced before.

But this time, the state is unleashing one of its more powerful weapons against him. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has charged Barnett under California's much-debated three-strikes law. Usually aimed at offenders with a history of violent crime, it is rarely used for white-collar offenses such as fraud.

....As in his first case, prosecutors said, Barnett targeted older African Americans, mostly in South Los Angeles. They said he used his Christian faith — praying with victims and passing out business cards that described him as a "visionary" — to win their trust. Barnett told victims that he learned about their financial troubles from public records.

Apparently these cases are technically burglary, because Barnett allegedly did his smooth talking inside people's homes. That's why three-strikes applies.

For my money, though, the fact that only a technicality like that allows three-strikes to apply just shows how dumb the law is in the first place. Why shouldn't a serial fraudster who preys on the elderly be locked up for life if he has a pattern of recidivism? I can't really think of any reasons that don't apply to garden variety burglary too. In fact, I'd say the case for applying it to fraud is actually better. Burglars and muggers usually wind down their crime careers as they get older. The case for keeping them in prison through their fifties and sixties is pretty shaky. But white collar fraudsters can keep going forever. So why shouldn't the law apply to them too?

Overall, I'm not a big fan of California's three-strikes law as it's currently implemented. It's expensive, sometimes arbitrary, and has a tenuous claim to reducing crime. Technically it allows the possibility of parole after 20 years, but that virtually never happens. Small-time thugs, even violent ones, don't deserve life in prison. Letting them out in their mid-40s probably wouldn't put the community in any noticeable danger.

But guys who sweet talk the elderly out of their homes? Well, if Barnett is found guilty, I wouldn't feel too badly about putting him behind bars for life. Ditto for plenty of other white collar offenders. Just because they wear nice clothes doesn't mean they aren't every bit as dangerous as a junkie stealing Blu-ray players to finance his next hit.

The Fate of the Tea Parties

Steve Clemons on the tea party movement:

I hope that David Frum is right and that the Tea Party movement, which is growing in numbers and ferocity, will hit its limit, experience an Icarus moment, and plunge back into the fringe of American politics where pugnacious, jingoistic, narrow band nationalism has always lurked.

But there is no guarantee of this. A prominent mega-funder of the political left recently told me that he had miscalculated about a number of things in the last election. One of these was that he thought that electorally smashing the increasingly manic right wing that had hijacked the Republican Party and dislodged the more moderate, straight-talking John McCain in favor of the McCain that empowered and unleashed Sarah Palin would produce a more reasonable GOP.

He told me that "their political loss didn't teach the Republicans anything; they actually got much worse."

For what it's worth, I think Frum is right and the mega-funder just needs to have a bit more patience. Parties rarely move to the center immediately after a big defeat. Usually it takes two or three before they finally get the message, and on that metric Republicans aren't due for a move to the center until sometime after 2012.

As for the tea parties, they're nothing new. We've seen similar conservative movements flower like clockwork during previous Democratic administrations, and they always burn themselves out after a few years. The tea party movement has ascended faster than its ancestors, partly because of lousy economic conditions and partly because of the power of modern media, and my guess is that their fall will be equally swift when it comes. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin simply aren't the kind of people who wear well. Their fifteen minutes aren't up yet, but they will be within a year or two. More on this later.

Illegal Immigration Way Down

A new Pew report says that illegal immigration into the United States is way down. From the LA Times summary:

Fewer illegal immigrants came to the U.S. every year between 2007 and 2009 than in the years in the first half of the decade, the study found. About 300,000 illegal immigrants entered the U.S. each year between 2007 and 2009, a drop from the 850,000 new unauthorized immigrants that entered each year between 2000 and 2005.

Is this because of stricter immigration enforcement or because of tough economic times? Probably both. But if 600,000 immigrants have entered the U.S. illegally in the past two years while the total population of illegal immigrants has fallen by 900,000, that means about 1.5 million of them have returned to their home countries. There's no way that enforcement has ramped up that much. This seems like it's almost certainly primarily a reflection of the bad economy.

Quote of the Day: Mum's the Word

From Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment executive who's now running for the Senate in Connecticut:

I can certainly tell you I’m not adverse to talking in the right time or forum about what we need to do relative to our entitlements. I mean, Social Security is going to go bankrupt. Clearly, we have to strengthen that....I just don’t believe that the campaign trail is the right place to talk about that.

Quite right. After all, people might not vote for you if they knew what you actually thought.

American Taliban Not So Talibanish After All?

Over at the American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie goes to town on Markos Moulitsas's new book, American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right. His review starts off like this:

Given the subject matter and his own influence, Moulitsas is sure to find a large audience for American Taliban. This wouldn't be a problem if the book were a careful comparison of populist nationalist movements, highlighting similarities, underscoring differences, and generally documenting points of congruence between the U.S. conservative movement and populist nationalist groups around the world. But it isn't.

Like [Jonah Goldberg's] Liberal Fascism, American Taliban is another entry in the tired genre of "my political opponents are monsters." Indeed, Moulitsas begins the book with the Goldbergian declaration that "in their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban." And he fills the remaining 200-plus pages with similar accusations.

I haven't read American Taliban and don't plan to. I figure I already dislike the American right wing enough, so there's little need to dump another load of fuel onto my own personal mental bonfire. But here's what's interesting: this review isn't on a fringe blog site. It's not from a reviewer for the DLC. It's not written by some apostate liberal like Mickey Kaus. It's written by a mainstream liberal writing in one of America's premier mainstream liberal publications. Did Liberal Fascism get any similarly incendiary reviews from mainstream conservatives writing in any of America's premier mainstream conservative publications?

Genuine question here. Maybe I missed the bad reviews from fellow conservatives. But the only one I remember on the way to Liberal Fascism becoming both a huge bestseller and a conservative bellwether was a gentle, academic scolding from fascism scholar Michael Ledeen. Does anyone remember any others?

McConnell's Mush

Over at Outside the Beltway, Dodd is unhappy with the mushy brand of campaigning he's seen so far from the Republican leadership:

Assuming (as I do) that the GOP will take at least the House, and possibly the Senate, the party must run on specific proposals in order to garner the leverage necessary to roll back the last few years of Democratic excesses. If they stick to their current (apparent) game plan and just run on not being Democrats, they will have neither a mandate to repeal Obamacare, et al, nor the will.

Unfortunately, despite a series of “Establishment” Republicans being sent packing by the base, all the signs so far indicate that McConnell and Co. just want to get their power back, not to actually do anything with it. Boehner’s been better, but the resistance to campaigning on a theme of, say, Paul Ryan’s Roadmap is unmistakable. The party need not endorse the specifics of Ryan’s plan in every particular to set forth a plan of action along those lines.

Well, yes, except for one thing: if they did that, they'd lose. The public doesn't want to hear about spending cuts except in the most general, stemwinding terms, and a concrete plan of action "along those lines" would be massively unpopular with the electorate. McConnell and Boehner know this perfectly well. So instead they serve up mush.

“You got the Belgians running Europe?”

Tony Blair on George Bush:

One of the most ludicrous caricatures of George is that he was a dumb idiot who stumbled into the presidency. No one stumbles into that job, and the history of American presidential campaigns is littered with the corpses of those who were supposed to be brilliant but who nonetheless failed because brilliance is not enough....

To succeed in US politics, of that of the UK, you have to be more than clever. You have to be able to connect and you have to be able to articulate that connection in plain language. The plainness of the language then leads people to look past the brainpower involved. Reagan was clever. Thatcher was clever. And sometimes the very plainness touches something else: a simplicity that is the product of a decisive nature.

And then there are the other times:

In his new book, A Journey, Mr Blair writes that the former US president was confused by the presence of Guy Verhofstadt at the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa.

“He didn’t know or recognise Guy, whose advice he listened to with considerable astonishment,” Mr Blair writes. “He then turned to me and whispered, ‘Who is this guy?’ ‘He is the prime minister of Belgium,’ I said.

Belgium? George said, clearly aghast at the possible full extent of his stupidity. ‘Belgium is not part of the G8’.”

Mr Blair explained to Mr Bush that Mr Verhofstadt was there as “president of Europe”. Belgium held the presidency of the EU council at the time.

Mr Bush responded: “You got the Belgians running Europe?” before shaking his head, “now aghast at our stupidity”, Mr Blair writes.

OK, fine. This doesn't mean Bush was dumb. Just....what's the right word to describe this? Uninformed? Incurious? Provincial? "A simplicity that is the product of a decisive nature"?1 I mean, I know the guy was good at recognizing people, so it's not that. I guess he just didn't give a damn.

But I admit that this is mostly just an excuse to have fun taking a potshot at Bush. I kinda miss that. Sarah Palin is too easy a target.

1Really, you have to give Blair credit for this phrase. I wonder how many alternatives he had to cross out before he came up with it? What it means, obviously, is that Bush was a shallow idler who was allergic to learning any actual facts that might get in the way of doing whatever he wanted to do in the first place. But Blair's formulation sounds so much better, doesn't it?

Breaking Down Unemployment

Is our current sky-high unemployment structural or cyclical? Roughly speaking, cyclical unemployment just means the economy sucks and everyone is doing badly. Structural unemployment means that certain industries are doing badly, and the economy needs time to adjust as people leave declining industries and get retrained to work in healthier ones. Policywise, the difference is simple: we think we know how to attack cyclical unemployment: looser monetary policy, more federal stimulus spending, and so forth. But structural unemployment is a tougher nut. There are things you can do to address it, but not much. Mostly, you just have to gut it out.

So which do we have now? I think Annie Lowrey has the right take:

The problem seems to me to be both: The unemployment is cyclical and structural. Most sectors have suffered from the turndown, but job losses are concentrated in some industries: In residential construction, they are down 38 percent since 2006. (Between Aug. 2007 and Dec. 2009, unemployment in construction quintupled from about 5 percent to about 25 percent.) In health care and education, however, jobs are up.

Here is a chart I made from Bureau of Labor Statistics data that shows the phenomenon. (The chart shows total jobs in major sectors since 2005.) Most sectors — retail trade, business services, wholesale trade, finance — have had moderate job losses one could reasonably chalk up to an economy-wide lack of demand. Let’s think of those as sectors characterized mostly by cyclical job loss. Then, there is manufacturing and construction. Jobs there have taken a nose dive, and the problem seems to be structural. Moreover, the job gains in education and health might thought to be structural as well.

The "normal" unemployment level is about five points less than it is today. I wouldn't be surprised if perhaps three of those points are cyclical and two are structural. Unfortunately, too many people look at the structural component and throw up their hands. There's nothing we can do about that! But we can do something about the part that's cyclical. And even if we can't get back to normal immediately, isn't it worth it to get from 9.5% unemployment to 7% unemployment while we wait for the construction industry to rebound — or for all its excess workers to eventually find new lines of work? Of course it is. So what are we waiting for?

Obama's Speech Recap: Winding Down in Iraq

First things first: did Obama mention the surge in tonight's speech? Huh huh, did he? No he didn't. Gretchen Carlson is going to go ballistic. (Again.)

OK then. Glad we got that cleared up. What else? Well, I was struck by his mention of his call with George Bush earlier today. The White House obviously played up this call before the fact, and I assume that Obama was hoping to get some kind of bipartisan mileage out of it. But in the end, all he said about it was this: "No one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security." I can't help but think that if this is the most he could say, the phone call must have been a bit of a bust.

I was also struck by what he said about the success of the troop drawdown: "This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Last February, I announced a plan that would bring our combat brigades out of Iraq, while redoubling our efforts to strengthen Iraq’s Security Forces and support its government and people. That is what we have done." This is, technically, true, but it ignores the fact that Obama's plan was a fairly modest variation on the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by Bush in late 2008. But why ignore that? If you're looking for some kind of conciliatory message to conservatives without going as far as congratulating George Bush for the surge, why not mention this? "It is time to turn the page," Obama said, and framing his withdrawal as a continuation of Bush's policy seems like it would have been a good way to help that happen.

Beyond that, the most striking part of the speech was more in Obama's attitude than in his words —though it was in his words too. It was, I thought, crystal clear that Obama still thinks the Iraq war was a dumb war; that he fully intends to keep drawing down forces there; that he fully intends to draw down forces in Afghanistan on schedule; and that going forward he has no intention of projecting further American force abroad if he can possibly help it. That all seemed pretty palpable from the way he talked about both the Iraq war (which he credited with no positive purpose at all) and the Afghanistan war (where he did acknowledge a purpose, but proposed only tightly limited goals with an emphasis on withdrawal starting next year). And then this:

Our nation’s strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home. And the bedrock of that prosperity must be a growing middle class.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation’s long-term competitiveness is put at risk.

And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad.

Those are the words of a man who wants to stop spending blood and treasure on war and start spending it at home. I would have appreciated hearing a little bit of detail to back this up — just a little! — but no dice. I suspect that would have inevitably taken him into partisan territory, and he was obviously avoiding that, as he usually does. His comment that "over the last decade we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity" was about the closest he got to any kind of partisan shot taking.

In the end, then, a perfectly good speech. The final few minutes didn't do much for me, but these kinds of valedictories rarely do. It probably worked better for other viewers. And while conservatives obviously won't like the fact that Obama is so plainly non-thrilled with the exercise of military power, I liked it just fine. And I thought Obama also struck a good overall tone: composed and deliberate, not bombastic or triumphant. We go to war when we have to, but it really is a last resort. I feel more confident about the ultimate withdrawal of troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan now than I did yesterday, and that's a message I really wanted to hear.