Books of the Zeitgeist

One of Tyler Cowen's readers asks which books are the Great Gatsby of each decade since the 20s? I take this to mean books that both sold well and have come to represent their era. Sounds like fun. Here are Tyler's picks in bold, with alternates from me:

1930s: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. That would be my choice too, though I might add Gone With the Wind as the biggest escapist novel of a decade that really needed its escapism.

1940s: Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. This is a tough decade. How about The Naked and the Dead instead? — though it's true that it doesn't really represent the 40s as they were lived in America.

1950s: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, with Kerouac’s On the Road as a runner-up. Both good choices. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit too, though it doesn't hold up well. And how about On the Beach?

1960s: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, with The Bell Jar and Herzog as runners-up. Hmmm. Tough decade. Valley of the Dolls? Portnoy's Complaint?

1970s: This is tough. There is Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Stephen King, and even Peter Benchley’s Jaws. I’ll opt for Benchley as a dark horse pick, note that these aren’t my favorites but rather they must be culturally central. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is another option, as this truly is an era of popular literature. I'd choose The Serial, though I don't think it was ever a bestseller.  Or maybe The World According to Garp or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintencance.

1980s: Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Good choice. The Hunt for Red October belongs here too.

1990s: The Firm, by John Grisham, or Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. Maybe Brokeback Mountain. Perhaps I'm being too hard on the 90s, but I'd pick The Bridges of Madison County. Also, Primary Colors, though that might be my political bent talking.

2000s: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point. Oh come on. Let's stick with fiction. Maybe the Harry Potter series? When I think of the aughts I think of terrorism and economic collapse, but I'm not sure there were any big novels that really captured either of those things.

UPDATE: One thing that occurred to me while I was writing this, and also occurred to a few commenters, is that sometimes books written in one decade are good representations of another decade. Among WWII novels, for example, I'd say that The Caine Mutiny is more iconic of the 40s than The Naked and the Dead. But Caine was written in the 50s.

But maybe that doesn't matter. Who cares when a novel was written? Maybe Caine Mutiny is iconic of the 40s and Lord of the Rings is iconic of the 60s, even if they were written in the wrong decades.

Friday Cat Blogging - 1 April 2011

We're having an early summer here in Southern California. Yesterday it was 90 degrees outside, and you know what that means: piles of cats snoozing in the afternoon warmth. As I write this they're in almost exactly the same positions, enjoying their midday siestas. After all, what else is there to do between breakfast and dinner?

DADT Repeal Going Smoothly

Politico reports that the repeal of DADT is going great so far:

The military’s repeal of its longstanding “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is not facing resistance from troops and is on track to take full effect this fall as planned, top commanders told a House committee on Friday.

Clifford Stanley, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel that the military has trained 9 percent of its forces over the past month without any resistance to the new policy....Stanley, and U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William E. Gortney who also testified, said they hadn’t heard of any service members grumbling about the new policy. “I think we’re on the right path and I think midsummer is achievable” Gortney said.

That's good news. But here's my favorite part of the article:

Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), [...] wondered aloud whether DADT repeal is even necessary. He said he suspected that the gay and lesbian military who have been discharged have likely violated other standards of conduct.

Gortney quickly rejected the hypothesis, telling Scott that he had himself dismissed a Navy officer in the early 1990s, shortly after the policy was implemented, simply because the officer had told his chaplain that he was gay. The anecdote shocked Scott.

“He did not violate your standard of conduct?” Scott asked.

“No, sir,” Gortney replied.

“That’s not the answer I thought you would give,” Scott said.

To which Gortney said quickly: “It happens to be the truth.

This kind of stuff really makes you wonder. Was Scott genuinely surprised by this? Is he so stuck in the conservative bubble that he truly didn't know that the vast majority of gays and lesbians who have been discharged under DADT did nothing else wrong? These guys really need to get out more.

Republicans and the Poor

Ezra Klein writes today about Republican Party priorities:

I’m not saying that congressional Republicans don’t care about poor people.

I'm not sure why you wouldn't say that, but whatever. Onward:

But they really care about rich people. So far, the policy agenda they’ve pushed has been a mixture of very expensive tax cuts for the very wealthy and very deep cuts to a lot of programs that focus on the very poor. It’s . . . curious.

....Now they’ve moved onto deficit reduction, or at least spending cuts, and their priorities in the 2011 budget are telling. Their cuts are coming from non-defense discretionary spending. That’s a category of spending, as you can see here, that tends to focus on services to the poor, the jobless and children. Among other cuts, they’ve proposed slicing more than $1 billion off Head Start, $1.1 billion off the Public Housing Capital Fund, $752 million from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, and $5.7 billion from Pell Grants. I could, of course, go on. Democrats have tried to widen the cuts out to other categories so their impact falls less heavily on the disadvantaged, but so far, Republicans have refused. If we’re going to cut spending, we’re going to do it on the backs of the poor.

In other words, congressional Republicans don’t care about poor people. But then, that's hardly anything new. They never have before, so it's hardly surprising that they still don't.

UPDATE: And the GOP assault on Medicaid is about to gear up too. Jon Cohn has details here.

Who's Afraid of the F-Bomb?

A few years ago, after Cher and Bono dropped a couple of F-bombs on live TV, the FCC tightened up its obscenity rules and fined a bunch of broadcasters. The broadcasters fought back, and in 2009 the Supreme Court sent the case back to the 2nd Circuit Court, which overturned the FCC's new rules. So what's next? Stephanie Mencimer reports:

With the Second Circuit decision, broadcasters have been liberated to drop the F-bomb at will, and evangelical groups are seething. But what really ticks off indecency activists these days is that the case has landed squarely in the lap of the Obama administration, whose Justice Department is charged with appealing—or not—the decision to the Supreme Court on behalf of the FCC. To date, the Justice Department has twice asked for an extension for filing the appeal, which is now due April 21. Religious-right groups have accused Justice of dragging its feet to let the case simply die.

On Wednesday, Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, blasted the administration for not doing more to protect America's children from dirty words....Meanwhile, the Parents Television Council, which brought the original complaint regarding the Golden Globes broadcast in 2003, sent out an urgent appeal to supporters asking them to pressure the administration to act.

Ah yes, the Parents Television Council. I remember them. Back in 2004, when this stuff was first in the news, Mediaweek obtained an estimate of where indecency complaints came from. Answer: the Parents Television Council. That's it. In 2003-04, the PTC was responsible for over 99.8% of all indecency complaints to the FCC. I've illustrated this with the handy chart on the right.

As Stephanie points out, one reason the Justice Department might be hesitating is because the 2nd Circuit made it very clear that writing obscenity rules precise enough to be constitutional is really hard. But another reason might be that virtually no one except the PTC actually seems to care much about obscenity on television anymore. Welcome to the cable era, folks.

Unemployment Still the Problem, Not Inflation

We had a decent jobs report today, which suggests the economy might be recovering a bit. So does that mean we need to start worrying about inflation? David Leonhardt says no:

The average hourly wage across the economy — including salaried employees — did not grow at all in March. It was $22.87, just as it had been in February. And from January to February, it rose only a single cent.

Over the last year, hourly wages have grown 1.7 percent. That matches the smallest annual increase since the recession began, in late 2007. In the middle of 2009 — when the economy was still shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month — the annual increase was significantly larger: about 2.5 percent.

It’s all but impossible to have an inflationary spiral if wages are not rising rapidly.

Businesses are starting to hire at moderately promising rates, but unemployment is still high, and it's going to stay high unless job growth picks up a lot. And with unemployment high, it's hard to see how any kind of broad-based inflation can stick. Unemployment is still our big problem, not inflation.

Obama, Libya, and Me

One of the reasons to vote for someone for president — perhaps the key reason, in fact — is good judgment. Hillary Clinton may have taken a lot of flack for her "3 am phone call" ad during the Democratic primaries in 2008, but she was basically right: ideologically, there wasn't that much distance between Obama and Clinton, which meant that a big part of any liberal's decision that year was figuring which candidate had the better judgment. We knew how both of them felt about healthcare reform and climate change and education policy, but what would they do when something came up that no one could predict? How would they handle a Katrina or a 9/11?

I was one of many who ended up voting for Obama on the grounds that his judgment seemed a bit sounder. Maybe not as toughminded as Hillary, but just as smart and, in foreign affairs, seemingly a little more willing to look at the world with fresh eyes and resist the siren call of intervention at every turn.

So how's that working out for me?

It's being pretty sorely tested, that's for sure. Obama has been a disappointment on civil liberties and national security issues, but since I frankly don't think any modern president can buck the national security establishment in any significant way, I haven't held that too deeply against him. The escalation in Afghanistan has been unfortunate too, but he did warn us about that. The scope of both his conventional escalation and his soaring use of drone attacks in the AfPak region have been disheartening, but it's hard to complain when he made it so clear during the campaign that he intended to do exactly that.

But now we have Libya. As usual, Obama's reasons for intervening seem sober, grounded, and judicious. It's a limited operation. It was in response to an imminent massacre in Benghazi. It had the support of the Arab League and the UN Security Council. European allies took the lead in pressing for action, even if the U.S. has subsequently provided most of the actual firepower. It's not Vietnam 2.0. It's not Iraq 2.0. And it doesn't represent the unveiling of a new Obama Doctrine — unless it's a doctrine to publicly claim that you have no doctrine and that military interventions all have to be judged on a pragmatic, case-by-case basis.

Still, this is the first time Obama has been seriously tested on intervention. There was never a chance that any president, liberal or otherwise, was going to intervene in Iran or in Egypt. Nor were interventions in places like the Congo or the Ivory Coast ever genuinely a possibility. Libya has been Obama's first real opportunity to make a decision on a new overseas military operation, and within days of making his choice it's already started to spiral. First he resisted intervention. Then he agreed to a no-fly zone. The no-fly zone turned into a Kosovo-style air campaign in support of the rebels. On Wednesday we learned that the CIA has advisors on the ground. And the administration has made it clear that providing arms to the rebels is under serious consideration too. Given that Muammar Qaddafi appears quite capable of holding out, or even outright winning, against even this, how likely is it that Obama will accept a stalemate or a loss and not escalate even further? Not very, I'd say.

So what should I think about this? If it had been my call, I wouldn't have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I'd literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he's smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust his judgment, and I still do.

For now, anyway. But I wouldn't have intervened in Libya and he did. I sure hope his judgment really does turn out to have been better than mine.

UPDATE: More here. Short version: "any doubt at all" was written in haste. It should have been something like "enough doubt to make me unsure of myself."

Quote of the Day: Balancing the Budget

From Bruce Bartlett, on the latest product of the GOP hive mind:

In short, this is quite possibly the stupidest constitutional amendment I think I have ever seen. It looks like it was drafted by a couple of interns on the back of a napkin.

Come on, Bruce. Don't hold back. Tell us what you really think. 

A Tale of Three Charts

Actually, this is a tale of three versions of the same chart. The first one comes from John Taylor and shows fixed investment plotted against unemployment from 1990 to the present:

This is a very striking correlation, and Taylor jumps to an immediate conclusion, namely that "the most effective way to reduce unemployment is to raise investment as a share of GDP." Because of this, he applauds the recent move to "lighten up on the anti-business sentiment coming out of Washington." But Justin Wolfers isn't so sure. Why start at 1990? What happens if you use the full time series all the way back to 1948? You get this:

Wolfers concludes that Taylor's correlation is spurious, "advocacy, dressed up as science." If you look at a longer timeframe, there's virtually no correlation at all.

But Paul Krugman thinks the 1990-2010 data is worth looking at. However, after decomposing it, he concludes that the recent plunge in fixed investment is mostly due to the collapse of the housing bubble. Business investment isn't doing badly at all — and in any case, surely the causation runs in the other direction, with unemployment affecting investment? So he flips the axes, replots the data to look at business investment only, and then Brad DeLong dresses up the chart a bit. Here's what he gets:

Brad's conclusion: not only is business investment a "bit stronger" right now than you'd expect from the data, it's "substantially stronger. 2% of GDP stronger — that's $300 billion a year more in business investment than we would have expected to see with the unemployment rate this high."

Interesting! But I have an entirely different question. First: why did the correlation change so dramatically right around 1990 or so? Second: why did it apparently change again right around 2009? Brad attributes the 2009 break to changes in policy:

Had there been no fiscal and banking rescue policies and if investment had not been boosted by policy, the unemployment rate might as a result be at the 16% of the Blinder-Zandi Republican policy baseline, and only THE ONE WHO IS knows how low business investment spending would be — but it would surely be a lot lower than it is now.

But what about the break around 1990? What accounts for that? Or, perhaps more pertinently, what was it about 1990-2007 that was different from both the period before and after?

UPDATE: Possible answer here!

Obama and Global Warming, Part 2

Is the Obama administration willing to sell out the EPA in order to get a budget deal, as the AP reported yesterday? Greg Sargent gets a statement from the White House that says it's not:

As the administration has made clear, the funding bill should not be used to further unrelated policy agendas, and we remain opposed to riders that do that, including as it relates to the environment.

That's not exactly the most Shermanesque kind of denial I've ever seen, but still good to hear. Plus, as Greg says:

As a side note, even Republicans I’ve spoken with privately concede that they’re well aware that it’s unlikely that the latter is a concession they could win, since it would be very hard for many Congressional Dems to support any budget deal containing it.

More later as this develops.