Over the next few months we're going to be treated to an endless slew of articles about Rick Perry that treat him as just another normal, garden variety presidential candidate. It's going to be a master class in how fast the bar of crazy can get lowered.

Ditto for Michele Bachmann, who was universally considered a wild-eyed bombthrower just a few short years ago, but is now talked about in the sober tones of poll matchups, caucus votes, and winning coalitions. So just to remind everyone of what was common knowledge back in the halcyon days of — well, 2010, I guess, here are a couple of new profiles of Bachmann. Tim Murphy tells her life story in MoJo this month:

Since her election to Congress in 2006, Bachmann has earned a reputation as one of the lower chamber's biggest bomb throwers. She has accused the president of harboring "anti-American" views, warned that census data could be used to round up dissenters into internment camps, and declared that the Treasury Department is quietly planning on replacing the dollar with a global currency. To her critics, Bachmann is flat-out crazy, a purveyor of, as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) put it, "psycho talk."

....In Washington, Bachmann has shown no signs of letting up; if anything, the stakes have gotten even higher and the nation, under the stewardship of President Obama, has careened that much further along the road to ruin. She's made her mark by framing her opponents' views in the most dire terms—charging that the Obama administration would deny conservatives health care, and that AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps' domestic equivalent, is a forerunner for "reeducation camps for young people." To Bachmann, the Obama administration is a "gangster government," unmoored entirely from the biblically supported constitutionalism she's espoused since her Oral Roberts days. Her rigid conservative dogma, an outlier at the outset of her first congressional campaign, has set the tone for the 112th Congress.

And Michelle Goldberg sounds the alarm on the doctrine of Dominionism that animates both Bachmann and Rick Perry:

Put simply, Dominionism means that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions. Originating among some of America’s most radical theocrats, it’s long had an influence on religious-right education and political organizing. But because it seems so outré, getting ordinary people to take it seriously can be difficult. Most writers, myself included, who explore it have been called paranoid.

....We have not seen this sort of thing at the highest levels of the Republican Party before. Those of us who wrote about the Christian fundamentalist influence on the Bush administration were alarmed that one of his advisers, Marvin Olasky, was associated with Christian Reconstructionism. It seemed unthinkable, at the time, that an American president was taking advice from even a single person whose ideas were so inimical to democracy. Few of us imagined that someone who actually championed such ideas would have a shot at the White House. It turns out we weren’t paranoid enough. If Bush eroded the separation of church and state, the GOP is now poised to nominate someone who will mount an all-out assault on it. We need to take their beliefs seriously, because they certainly do.

Read 'em both. And weep.

When an economy goes into recession, an obvious response should be lower wages for workers. However, there's lots of empirical evidence that employers are reluctant to lower the wages of their workers, and it's easy to understand this on a social basis: it's bad for morale, it makes managers feel like dicks, etc. etc. Even in a very bad recession like the one we just went through, most employers weren't willing to go any further than making some modest cuts in benefits (higher copays for health insurance, lower contributions to retirement funds, and so forth). 

But what about the unemployed? Why is it that they don't eventually lower their wage expectations enough to make themselves more employable? Tyler Cowen runs through a few of the arguments on this score and finds them all unsatisfactory. He concludes that neo-Keynesian models are badly lacking:

Often when this topic comes up I feel I am playing a game of whack-a-mole. Most of all, I am struck by how little attention people pay to their own sticky nominal wage hypotheses. If that were the problem, and if unemployment were today’s biggest issue (a totally plausible claim), you might expect people to blog the microfoundations of nominal wage stickiness very, very often. You might expect ethnography. Micro-level data. Lots of juicy anecdotes and journalistic features, not just on the unemployed but on the stickiness itself. Perhaps some micro-level advice. Dozens, no hundreds of blog posts on the all-important microfoundations of the #1 social problem of our time.

But no, there’s not much of those to be seen. At some level it is understood, if only implicitly, that the sticky nominal wage theory is an embarrassment — when it comes to the unemployed across the longer run (but not the employed). It doesn’t get too close a look.

What else? Few people want to come out and utter the possibility: “They’re just too stupid and too stubborn to lower their wage demands.” Mood affiliation reigns, and the prevailing mood is to express sympathy with the unemployed. In fact that sentence is not my view, but it actually makes somewhat more sense than most of what is listed above. A lot of people don’t like hypotheses which suggest the unemployed are not victims of the system, so it doesn’t get much of a hearing.

I am not an economist (IANAE for short), and I don't understand the importantance of sticky wages to models of long-term unemployment. But I guess I'm unclear about how important this really is outside of the academic modeling universe. Tyler says he doesn't believe the folk wisdom that people are just too stubborn to lower their wage demands, and I don't either. I simply know far too many examples of people who are extremely willing to accept much lower wages than they used to make. Maybe not right away, but within a few months or a year at the outside, virtually everyone is willing to accept a pretty sizeable pay cut.

One problem with this, on a purely social (i.e., non-economic modeling) basis is that employers have always been leery of hiring people at reduced wages. They're afraid you'll be bored with a less challenging job. They're afraid you'll be unhappy over your salary and bring a bad attitude to work. They're afraid you're just taking something out of desperation and will jump ship the minute something better comes along. They're afraid that your willingness to accept less is a sign that you know you're unemployable because you're a lousy worker.

But does any of this matter? Tyler suggests a different explanation for long-term unemployment that has nothing to do with wage demands: "I think, by the way, that excess capacity theories are one of the most plausible attempts to explain continuing unemployment....The firm doesn’t want to produce any more output, so the worker’s wage demands don’t matter so much. This will have real import for the analysis of monetary and fiscal policy, so the microfoundations really matter here."

This is where I get confused. In the real world of op-eds and columns and blog posts, as opposed to academic papers stuffed with Greek letters, isn't this exactly what nearly everyone is saying? It's not that workers aren't willing to accept less, and it's not that workers have suddenly become useless in our brave new high tech society. The problem is that we've gone through a financial collapse, households are overleveraged, and this has cratered demand for goods and services. With demand low, firms have no expectation that their business is likely to expand, so they aren't hiring unemployed workers at any wage. Add to that the social issues I mentioned above, and the long-term unemployed are screwed.

Obviously I'm skipping over the deep microeconomic modeling issues here, which are legitimately important to economists, but how does that really affect real-world monetary and fiscal policy? We live in a world that's got too much debt overhang, and outside of the weirdo fringe, I've mostly heard pretty similar approaches to dealing with that from both left and right. So I guess I'm a little unclear about how and whether sticky wages really matter much.

From James Galbraith, writing about our badly misguided approach to reviving the economy:

Federal budget deficits in this situation are like IV-bags in an emergency room: they stabilize things. IV's are definitely linked to sickness, and no one would use them if they weren't necessary. But very few doctors propose to cut back on saline while the patient is still sick. Today, however, the official economists and their followers in Congress, the White House and the media are divided between those who would remove the IV's slowly, whether the patient recovers or not, and those who'd like to charge through the wards, yanking needles from arms. The debt deal enacted earlier this month put the first group in charge, but that's pretty cold comfort.

We are doomed.

On Saturday I posted my top ten list of reasons that Rick Perry probably can't win the Republican nomination and definitely won't win a general election against Barack Obama. Needless to say, I got a lot of pushback, and the bulk of it had to do with my belief that, even for Republicans, Perry is just a wee bit too crazy radical. The general view of my critics — one that's admittedly persuasive — is that it's pretty much impossible to be too crazy radical for today's Republican voters. Maybe so! And yet, I continue to contend that the rank-and-file of the party still contains a lot of non-crazy non-tea partiers who just aren't going to be willing to pull the lever for someone like Perry (or Michele Bachmann).

But just how weirdly radical is Rick Perry? I tossed off a few examples in my post, but over the weekend Matt Yglesias read Perry's 2010 magnum Opus Fed Up! and today he produces his own top ten list for us. Perry, it turns out, makes Mark Levin look like a squish. Here's a taste:

7. All Bank Regulation Is Unconstitutional: Criticizing the Security and Exchange Commission’s rulemaking process under the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, Perry asserts that “if the Constitution were shown the appropriate respect, Washington regulation writers wouldn’t have to worry about underrepresented views, because they wouldn’t have control over them in the first place” (page 94).

— 6. Consumer Financial Protection Is Unconstitutional: Further reiterates his view that all federal financial regulation is illegitimate, listing the SEC on page 44 as part of a “federal alphabet soup” in which “undemocratic unelected Washington bureaucrats” are “now (dubiously) empowered to dictate their own preferences to the American people.”

— 5. Almost Everything Is Unconstitutional: Regrets the existence of jurisprudence construing the Commerce Clause to permit “federal laws regulating the environment, regulating guns, protecting civil rights, establishing the massive programs and Medicare and Medicaid, creating national minimum wage laws, [and] establishing national labor laws.” Perry makes a partial exception for laws barring racial discrimination which he says fulfill “the intent behind the passage of the Reconstruction Era amendments.” (page 51)

And that's just the middle of the list. I suspect there's soon going to be an enormous bubble of pundits reading Perry's book and excerpting the juiciest parts, but this should get you started. In the end, this may or may not end up being too much for Republican voters this year, but it's sure as hell too much for a general election. Unless the economy falls completely off a cliff, or Barack Obama is caught on videotape sneaking out of the White House to engage in serial killings, I flatly don't see how a guy like Perry can win in November. Once Republicans figure this out, Mitt Romney is going to start looking a whole lot better to them.

I'm not sure what Steven Pearlstein had for breakfast this morning, but to misquote Abraham Lincoln, "Tell me what brand of cereal Pearlstein eats. I would like to send a case of it to my other columnists."

Another great week for Corporate America!

The economy is flatlining. Global financial markets are in turmoil. Your stock price is down about 15 percent in three weeks. Your customers have lost all confidence in the economy. Your employees, at least the American ones, are cynical and demoralized. Your government is paralyzed. Want to know who is to blame, Mr. Big Shot Chief Executive? Just look in the mirror because the culprit is staring you in the face.

....When it started out all you really wanted was to push back against a few meddlesome regulators or shave a point or two off your tax rate....Somewhere along the way, however, this effort took on a life of its own. What started as a reasonable attempt at political rebalancing turned into a jihad against all regulation, all taxes and all government, waged by right-wing zealots who want to privatize the public schools that educate your workers, cut back on the basic research on which your products are based, shut down the regulatory agencies that protect you from unscrupulous competitors and privatize the public infrastructure that transports your supplies and your finished goods. For them, this isn’t just a tactic to brush back government. It’s a holy war to destroy it — and one that is now out of your control.

....Please don’t tell me about your mealy-mouthed letter warning Congress not to play politics with the debt ceiling. By that point, the Frankenpols you created were not interested in your advice. The only thing that might have got their attention was a threat to cut off the flow of political money. You didn’t — and now they know they can ignore you with impunity.

The thing is, they won't really care until all this chaos affects corporate earnings. So far it hasn't, and America's CEOs — who have never suffered noticeably from a lack of self-regard — probably think that if they can guide their companies to higher profits even through the Great Recession, they must be geniuses. And why should a genius have to worry about their minions on Capitol Hill getting a little friskier than they intended?

And if it all comes crashing down? It'll be someone else's fault. Something Obama did, probably. They'll never learn.

A couple of days ago I got an offer in the mail for a Chase Sapphire card. Normally I don't even open these things, but this one came in such an opulent bit of packaging that I wanted to see what was inside. Answer: nothing much. It was just a box designed to look thick and inviting with only a few pieces of paper inside.

But having opened it, I went ahead and read the offer. Here's the deal: Chase is so anxious for me to try their card that if I sign up they'll give me 100,000 bonus points if I spend $500 in the first three months — something that's obviously not much of a problem. Once I've done that, I can cash in those points for $1,000.

In other words, Chase is basically willing to pay me $1,000 just to try their card. As near as I can tell, there are no gotchas, and a quick Google search seems to confirm this. Merely getting me to give Sapphire a try is worth a thousand bucks to them.

So what's going on here? Either (a) we're in the middle of some kind of fantastic credit card bubble and it's going to burst soon, or (b) the high-end credit card business is so insanely lucrative that paying people $1,000 just to sign up is worth it to them. I'm not sure which one I fear the most.

Shortly after his previous company declared bankruptcy in 2008, a guy named David Nance started up a new venture, Convergen LifeSciences Inc. He himself invested only $1,000 in Convergen, but was able to get the company off the ground with a $4.5 million investment from a venture capital fund.

Venture capital folks usually prefer founders to have a wee bit more skin in the game than that, but this was a very special venture fund: the Emerging Technology Fund, a $200 million fund created by Rick Perry to invest taxpayer money in Texas startup companies. And David Nance was a very special founder: he had donated more than $100,000 to Perry's campaigns over the previous decade. So even though a regional panel turned down Nance's original application, when he appealed to a statewide advisory committee his application was approved unanimously.

More details here, based on reporting from the Austin American-Statesman here. Apparently this came up as an issue in Perry's last campaign, but details were sparse at the time and the American-Statesman's reporting only surfaced a couple of months ago. As always, it's good to have friends in high places.

Via Mark Kleiman.

Neal Gabler writes today that we no longer care much about big, exciting ideas, the kind that we used to hear from Albert Einstein, Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. "We are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé."

I was almost on the verge of nodding along to this, but then Gabler unloaded his big idea: it's all the internet's fault.

In the past, we collected information not simply to know things....But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them....The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.

....It is certainly no accident that the post-idea world has sprung up alongside the social networking world. Even though there are sites and blogs dedicated to ideas, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, etc., the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger.

....Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right. But the analogy isn’t perfect. For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated....To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to Yogi Berra, that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.

Well, look, maybe blogging and tweeting have degraded my ability to think so dramatically that I just can't see Gabler's point even though it's staring me in the face. But does he really think that high school sophomores use Twitter and Facebook as replacements for the deep thoughts and sophisticated conversations they used to have? That they used to sit around debating Niebuhr and Friedan but don't anymore because they're too busy with their Tumblr pages? Maybe that's how things were at Gabler's high school, but they sure weren't at mine.

Honestly, I think I liked this genre better back when people blamed TV for the decline and fall of American youth. I always thought the anti-TV crowd at least had a point: television really did crowd out things like books and magazines, which were better suited to big ideas and complex arguments than the tube. But social networking? As near as I can tell, it's mostly crowding out in-person gossip and....television. That seems like a much more benign trade.

In any case, the alleged decline of the big league public intellectual is usually dated to the 70s and 80s, a decade before Mark Zuckerberg was even born. So the rise of TV is at least plausibly a culprit, chronologically anyway, for the decline of big ideas. But Facebook? I don't see it. It's just the whipping boy of the moment, always good for a tut-tutting op-ed aimed at older readers who don't like Facebook to begin with and get a warm glow from seeing their prejudices confirmed.

For what it's worth, I do think that the rise of the media omnivore is changing the way we think, in some ways for the worse. But it's hard for any of us to really understand what's going on because we're still in the middle of a huge transition: television and the internet and social networking are supplanting older, maturer forms that we knew how to exploit thoroughly, but they haven't themselves yet matured to the point that we really know how to exploit them anywhere near as deeply. So we're naturally nervous: big ideas may or may not have been more common half a century ago than they are now, but at least back then we knew where to find them and we had a widely understood set of social conventions about how to discuss them. We haven't yet really figured that out for electronic media, and that makes the discussion of big ideas chaotic enough and inchoate enough that it can often seem as if the ideas themselves don't exist anymore. But I suspect they do. We just have to learn how to talk about them in a new language.

UPDATE: In the field of economics, anyway, Jared Bernstein thinks Gabler is right about the inability of big ideas to gain traction these days. But he implicates a different culprit:

The financial crash of the 2000s revealed a confluence of many powerful and socially disruptive forces: levels of income inequality not seen since the dawn of the Great Depression, stagnant middle-class living standards amidst strong productivity growth, solid evidence that deregulated markets were driving a damaging bubble and bust cycle, deep repudiation of supply-side economics, and most importantly, even deeper repudiation of the dominant, Greenspanian paradigm that markets will self-correct.

We may not, in my lifetime, witness another historical moment where these destructive forces are so clearly revealed. What’s more, there were economic thinkers arguing for a new paradigm....And yet, at least from where I sit today, we let the moment pass....Why did we squander the opportunity? Not because there were so much information on the web. It is, at least in part, because the concentration of wealth and power blocked the new ideas from a fair hearing.

Read the rest!

Pawlenty in Trouble!

Chris Cillizza reports that Michele Bachmann won the Ames straw poll:

Bachmann took 4,823 votes, narrowly escaping a major upset at the hands of Texas Rep. Ron Paul who won 4,671 votes. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty placed third with 2,293, a showing that is likely to raise questions about his ability to continue in the contest.

Wait a second. Everyone expected Bachmann to win, and likewise, everyone knows that Ron Paul has a demonstrated (and meaningless) ability to round up his tiny band of fanatical troops for events like this. So third place isn't too bad for Pawlenty, is it? Or was the "Pawlenty in trouble" media narrative already so set in stone that it didn't matter how well he did?

(For the record, I think Pawlenty is toast. Still, his showing in Ames wasn't too bad.)

UPDATE: My Twitter feed is full of people who think Pawlenty's showing puts him right on the edge of viability. I don't quite get this, but maybe it makes sense given how much time he put into Iowa. Still, I can't help but think that it's basically a reaction to everything else about the Pawlenty campaign, not to the straw poll itself.

UPDATE 2: Well, I guess everyone else was right. Pawlenty is out.

My skepticism about Rick Perry is below. For a very good rebuttal, see Erica Grieder here. Perry's not especially smart, she says, but he's shrewd. (I agree.) Conservative, but not the far-right zealot we think. Not a culture warrior, but a straightforward business conservative. Bottom line: "Perry is not an idiot and not an ideologue. Democrats, you misunderestimate this one at your peril." It's one of the best, most clear-eyed takes on Perry that I've seen, and it comes from someone who's followed him closely.