Quotes of the Day: Pitchforks and Plutocrats

From Matt Steinglass, commenting on Chrystia Freeland's "global elites":

Back in mid-2009, Barack Obama told the assembled plutocrats of Wall Street that they ought to be more grateful to him; he was "the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks." The plutocrats smiled, and departed by helicopter. To the extent any pitchforks have been seen, they were applied to the Democrats' behinds last November. Perhaps, rather than attempting to stand between Wall Street and any hypothetical pitchforks, Mr Obama should have gotten out of the way.

And Ryan Avent on the same theme:

It's striking how little inchoate public rage has actually boiled to the surface in the rich world....In America, the language of the angriest is very similar to that of the plutocrats themselves. Indeed, the complaint that today's elite lack the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats of old, and are therefore risking public anger, seems to badly misread American public opinion. The middle class doesn't want hand-outs from condescending rich people. They want moralistic language and complaints about deficits.

Amazing, isn't it? After nearly destroying the world, the plutocrats just dipped into their petty cash accounts, funded a tea party movement dedicated to promoting their interests, and won the next election. Problem solved! Now, where should we have dinner tonight? Paris or Rome?

Does Crime Pay?

Mike Konczal writes today about our skyrocketing prison population. He attributes this partly to a 70s-era school of thought known as Incapacitation Theory, which basically says the only way to protect ourselves from bad people is to lock them up so they can't do bad things. It sounds pretty obvious, but where did it come from?

I’ve been reading a lot of 1970s conservative criminology lately, and I believe it actually grows out of a critique of the rational choice mode of crime. In the law and economics approach of the Chicago School of Becker, Posner, Coase, etc. it is hard to balance the idea that crime is committed by an estimate of costs and benefits. Risking 30 years in prison to rob a store for $80 can’t really be rationally possible.

What the Incapacitation School argued is that it can’t, unless you consider that criminals have a cognitive makeup where they are impulsive and “present-orientated.”

I wouldn't be surprised if criminals tend toward an impulsive cognitive makeup, but I don't think you have to abandon rationality to explain a lot of criminal action — and I'm not sure critics like Becker and Posner did so. In real life, you have to look at the likely payoff from, say, a burglary, compared to (a) the probability of getting caught and (b) the likely length of the sentence. Mark Kleiman provides the numbers in When Brute Force Fails:

In 1974, at the low point for punishment-to-offense ratios, there were about 6 million burglaries....On average, [] each burglary resulted in about 1 percent of a year — about four days — behind bars....The combination of rising crime rates and shrinking prison capacity over the decade 1964-74 meant that the "price" of a crime — in the form of punishment — had been falling in the teeth of a crime wave.

....In that context, there seemed to be a reasonable case for building more prisons....Indeed, in the intervening three decades we have built prisons, and built prisons, and then built still more prisons, until some of us who supported expanding prison capacity from its low 1970s level have started to feel like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, vainly looking for the "off" switch on a mechanism gone completely out of control.

....The punitiveness index, which fell by 68 percent from 1962 to 1974, quintupled from 1974 to 2007. The punishment-price of a burglary, which fell from fourteen days in 1963 to four days in 1974, reached sixteen days in 2007. But the political, ideological, legal, and administrative impetus behind the prison-building boom, which developed when crime was frighteningly high and rising, has not noticeably dissipated now that crime has decreased.

I had dinner with Mark a couple of months ago, and his shorthand opinion is that in 1974 it made sense to build more prisons, and by the mid-80s or so we'd built about the right number. But then we kept right on building and now we have way more prisons than we need. We've made the cost of crime far higher — both to us and to the criminals we're trying to deter — than we need to.

This is actually just the starting point of the book, which is largely about ways we can reduce crime, and especially crime committed on probation, without putting ever more people in prison. If you haven't read it, you should. Here's a review from Forbes to get you started.

Depending on the Rich

In Chrystia Freeland's Atlantic piece about the new "global elite," she defined them like this: "Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly." That reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Matt Bai's The Argument. This is from Chapter 5, which tells the story of Rob Stein's attempt, following the 2004 election, to create a group of super-rich liberal donors called the Democracy Alliance:

Although he had now spent the better part of two years bonding with liberal millionaires and acting as their political therapist, Rob was still a peculiarly Washington figure, a mere interloper in the world of hedge funds and Lear jets. And this, in the short term, would be his undoing.

....Steven Gluckstern and his wife, Judy, lived in a 7,500-square-foot open loft on Spring Street in Soho, with a spacious garden on the roof and mgnificent views of the Empire State Building to the North....He made his fortune in the reinsurance industry, working first for the billionaire Warren Buffet and then with a partner, and had recently retired from the $4 billion investment fund he had helped start. I heard grumbling from some of the other, richer partners that Steven wasn't really that good at making money, but if that was true, then it was clearly relative. He was certainly better at it than anyone I knew in Washington.

....Like most of the partners I met, Steven applied the mystical language of business to his work with the Alliance....He talked about doing "due diligence" on these groups, about "capitalizing" them, so they could be "brought to scale." He talked about finding "customers" for the Democratic "product." It was clear, spending time with Gluckstern and other partners, that they felt they had identified with some precision the cause of these recurrent Democratic failures: the problem was that the party was being run by a bunch of political experts, when, in fact, it needed to be run like a business....The way the partners saw it, people who were really smart made tons of money, and if you didn't make tons of money, then you couldn't be very smart.

....From the beginning, Rob Stein had been highly attuned to this worldview....And yet, much as he seemed to speak the language, he could not escape what he represented in the minds of many donors. In Steven's view, Rob had spent too much of his career in Washington. And, as if to confirm his suspicions, Rob's most recent job had been to manage a private investment fund—and still Rob hadn't gotten rich....What did it say about a man when he started a fund and somehow didn't walk away with millions of dollars? As far as Steven was concerned, that in itself probably disqualified Rob from making the big decisions.

Emphasis mine. Now compare this to a passage from An American Melodrama, written 40 years ago by a trio of London Times reporters about the 1968 election:

There is one very good reason why [] the exploitation of mass media should actually be negatively correlated with radicalism. The new political technology is very expensive. It depends on computers, public opinion surveys, film, videotape, and other expensive toys. It also depends on the services of clever, highly educated and trained people to use these techniques....In general, it is naive to suppose that techniques which can be used only by those with access to enormous financial resources will often be available for any really damaging assault on the status quo.

Emphasis mine again. I will leave the obvious conclusion as an exercise for the reader.

Filibuster Mini-Reforms Unveiled

Greg Sargent has posted a summary of the filibuster reforms that Democrats plan to introduce later today, and it's a fairly modest effort. Here are the bullet points:

  1. Eliminates Secret Holds
  2. Right to Amend: Guarantees Consideration of Amendments for both Majority and Minority
  3. Clear Path to Debate: Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed
  4. Expedite Nominations: Reduce Post-Cloture Time
  5. Talking Filibuster: Ensures Real Debate

Eliminating secret holds and giving the minority a right to amend legislation are both good ideas, but neither really does anything to rein in filibusters. Of the other three items, #3 and #4 basically reduce the amount of floor time that filibusters eat up. You still need 60 votes to proceed, but you can only filibuster the main motion, not both the main motion and the motion to proceed, and post-cloture debate on nominations is reduced to two hours instead of the current 30. (Legislation still gets 30 hours of post-cloture debate.)

Finally, there's #5: require honest to goodness Jimmy-Stewart-talk-til-you-drop debate if you want to filibuster a bill. It's not clear just how this would work technically, but in any case it's not really much of an impediment to filibusters. If you have 40 senators willing to join in, each one just reads the phone book for an hour or two and then yields. That's about one hour of phone book reading per week per senator, which is hardly onerous. In fact, it's so obviously non-onerous that I imagine it changes nothing in practice. Once the minority starts up and demonstrates that it's willing to engage in a talkathon, the majority will give up and move to other business. Before long, this will morph into the same convention we have now: simply announce that you're willing to talk and the majority takes you at your word.

Overall, then, this is a pretty weak reform package. Items #3 and #4 are worthwhile, but the others are mostly window dressing. The Senate will remain a 60-vote body, but if you can scrounge up those 60 votes then things will move along a bit faster than before. That's about it.

A Few Words About the Republican Party

Just a quick note for the DC press corps: Republicans don't care about the deficit. They care about cutting taxes on the rich and shifting spending from the poor to more deserving corporate recipients. Understanding this will collectively save you thousands of hours of time writing chin-scratching op-eds and analysis pieces that try to explain why Republicans are doing what they're doing.

If you have any questions about this, please feel free to contact me.

Building a Low-Carbon Infrastructure

Although Ezra Klein likes the idea behind the all-electric Nissan Leaf, it's not for him:

But the Nissan Leaf wouldn't work for me at all, as I don't own a garage, and D.C's streets aren't outfitted with charging stations. Which gets to the difficulty these new technologies will have: We've sunk an enormous amount of money into the infrastructure that makes cars that run on refined oil products convenient to use as our primary modes of transportation.

....This is why pricing carbon always made sense: There's so much money and habit and infrastructure and culture working on behalf of the energy status quo right now, while the alternatives don't even get to see their advantages — low carbon emissions — reflected in their price.

I agree with all of this. Still, there's a disconnect here. On narrow grounds, the Leaf very much has its carbon footprint reflected in its price because it qualifies for a $7,000 federal subsidy. That's far more of a relative pricing advantage than it would get from any plausible carbon tax, which would probably add no more than 50 cents a gallon to the price of gasoline. On broader grounds, keep in mind that no car is designed to appeal to everyone. If Nissan sells a million copies of the Leaf they'll be ecstatic — and there are way more than a million people in America who do have garages and drive less than 100 miles per day. Once they start buying Leafs (Leaves?) and Chevy Volts and other electric cars, charging stations will start to appear the same way that gas stations slowly started to appear in the 1910s. That will increase the market for electric cars, which in turn will increase the demand for charging stations, rinse and repeat. Five years from now, maybe the Washington Post's parking garage will have charging stations available and Ezra will be able to buy a Leaf and charge it every day at work.

There's no question that carbon pricing would help all this along, but it's best to think of it as more of a tailwind than anything else. Electric cars will succeed or fail mostly based on other things, and they can succeed even without a carbon tax. But they — along with lots of other light carbon footprint technologies — would suceed a little bit faster if we had one.

Symbolism on Capitol Hill

Paul Kane of the Washington Post on Republican plans for the 112th Congress:

Almost as soon as they take control of the House at noon Wednesday, Republicans will embark on a 20-day plan aimed at undoing major aspects of President Obama's agenda as they seek to take advantage of the weeks before the Senate's return and the president's State of the Union address.

....Much of what Republicans do will be symbolic, given that Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. But the quick action will allow Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the incoming speaker, and House Republicans to follow through on campaign pledges and to try to establish their party as a bulwark against what they see as an out-of-control government.

That sure brings back memories, doesn't it? It's almost precisely what Newt Gingrich did in 1994: win election based on a bold-sounding Contract With America, ram it all through on quick party-line votes in the House as soon as the 104th Congress convened, and then let the whole thing die. But he followed through on his campaign pledges!

Davos Man Is Different From You and Me

Chrystia Freeland has a piece in this month's Atlantic about the new "global elite" and the growing alienation of America's super-rich. Her article flits from one point to another with enough abandon that it's not always easy to figure out where she's going, but one interesting theme that runs throughout the narrative is that intense globalization goes a long way toward explaining why the super rich don't really seem to care much anymore about all the rest of us:

The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.

....Speaking at the [Aspen Ideas Festival], Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate, also lamented this global reality: “I can get [workers] anywhere in the world. It is a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business ... American businesses will adapt.” Wilson’s distinction helps explain why many of America’s other business elites appear so removed from the continuing travails of the U.S. workforce and economy: the global “nation” in which they increasingly live and work is doing fine — indeed, it’s thriving.

The super rich, she writes, "are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home." Thus the fury of the financial elite at the suggestion that perhaps they were responsible for the crash of 2008 or that they owe it to the rest of the country to do anything about it:

When I asked one of Wall Street’s most successful investment-bank CEOs if he felt guilty for his firm’s role in creating the financial crisis, he told me with evident sincerity that he did not. The real culprit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford.

....A Wall Street investor who is a passionate Democrat recounted to me his bitter exchange with a Democratic leader in Congress who is involved in the tax-reform effort. “Screw you,” he told the lawmaker. “Even if you change the legislation, the government won’t get a single penny more from me in taxes. I’ll put my money into my foundation and spend it on good causes. My money isn’t going to be wasted in your deficit sinkhole.”

I don't know if this attitude is truly new. Maybe not as much as Freeland suggests. Still, it certainly feels as if America is dominated more and more by an elite class that cares less and less about the public good because they don't really feel like they have a stake in the public good anymore: they've never served in the Army or the Peace Corps, their kids never come within yelling distance of public schools, they donate their money exclusively to their own churches and their own global foundations, and they whine constantly about taxes even though their incomes have skyrocketed and tax rates have fallen dramatically over the past several decades. To them, taxes aren't part of a social contract, they're just pure welfare: they don't care about education or infrastructure or unemployment or healthcare because they don't have to. Within their own bubble, they don't need to rely on the public versions of any of that stuff. Felix Salmon adds this:

When it comes to US plutocrats, [] most of them are very similar to the Russian oligarchs who seized their country’s natural resources — they’re bankers and hedge-fund managers who seized their country’s financial resources. They produced no goods, and they created no jobs — quite the opposite. And so it makes sense for Americans who have lost their jobs and their hope to reclaim those financial resources, through mechanisms like a wealth tax or a financial transactions tax. The Silicon Valley elite would happily pay such things. And if the angry bankers went off to destabilize some other financial system, they wouldn’t actually be missed.

He's not optimistic about the prospect of the American public ever rebelling against our ruling elites, and he's probably right. Ever since the demise of organized labor, the working and middle classes simply haven't had the kind of energetic, institutional presence that allows them a serious voice in our political culture. The elites are winning because, at the moment, there's really nobody left to fight them.

Always Full Price

I got a Borders gift card for Christmas, so last night I went online to buy a couple of books. And I discovered that, apparently, Borders doesn't discount books online at all. (Non-bestsellers, anyway.) But I had the gift card, so I went ahead and used it. I ended up paying $45.99 for a couple of books that would have cost $30.67 at Amazon or $32.57 at Barnes & Noble.

Needless to say, I'll never shop at Borders online again. Do you think perhaps this explains some of Borders' financial woes?

Where the Money Is

Over at Free Exchange, A.S. asks, "Are the rich making you poor?" Apparently not:

Talented traders and portfolio managers do make an obscene amount of money while other traders just get rich....The winner-takes-all nature of finance explains the income disparity within the industry. But it does not mean a Wall Street fat cat is getting rich at the expense of a more naïve investor whose stock holdings are limited to the mutual fund his 401(k) is in. The only thing that naïve investor is betting on is that the American economy will continue to grow and that companies will be profitable in the long run. Speculators actually can do this naïve investor a service. They can eliminate mispricing, promote efficiency, and provide market liquidity; this can enhance growth in the long run.

Well then, I have to ask yet again: where is this tsunami of money coming from? If financiers receive a greater fraction of national income than they did in the past, somebody else is getting less. That somebody is almost certainly you and me, whose wages haven't kept up with economic growth, thus creating a huge and growing pool of extra money for the financiers to hoover up.

The only other alternative is that the modern financial sector is actually creating wealth that otherwise wouldn't be created. That is, their magic has caused the economy to grow faster, and they're merely reaping the benefits of growth they themselves are responsible for. I imagine this is a popular explanation among Wall Street bankers themselves, but does anyone else buy it? If it were true, surely it would show up in accelerated growth rates starting around 1980. Right?