A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Paragraph of the Day

by evanmcmurry

I don’t agree with all of Johannes Lichtman’s takedown of William Giraldi’s now-infamous Alix Ohlin review—I’d go into why, but I don’t think we need a review of a review of a review of a book—but agree or not with his overall points, this paragraph is dead on*:

Giraldi’s most puzzling criticism of Ohlin’s language is that she uses the phrase “a dive bar.” He believes that “dive bar” is an example of Ohlin’s “at-hand language,” a category in which I can only assume he includes slothful words like “shoe” or “eye.” Ohlin chooses the phrase “dive bar” to describe a dive bar because that’s what it’s fucking called. Maybe Giraldi would prefer stories in which we discard the tired “dive bar” for “lugubrious libation shack,” where we change “shoe” to “foot vestibule” and “eye” to “face periscope.”

* Edit: I’m going to qualify this statement. Lichtman’s absolutely correct in criticizing Giraldi’s inflamed vocabulary. But he’s not right that Giraldi would include words like “shoe” and “eye” in at-hand language. By at-hand language, Giraldi means easy, accessible phrases that have been rendered meaningless through overuse. Sort of like “dead on.”

Cynicism v Craziness: Choose Your Republican Pattern

by evanmcmurry

One of those everybody’s-sitting-around-drinking-microbrew questions is whether the Republican Party cynically exploits radical ideas, or what used to be radical ideas—think everything from birtherism to global warming denial to tax cuts incite the economy—for electoral gain, or whether they actually believe the stuff they say; and as a corollary to that question, which is worse, a party willing to exploit any extreme position to get elected, or one that actually buys their own insane notions?

I prefer to think that people actually believe the things that they say, if for no other reason than continued mendacity is very difficult to pull off. Alas, a couple of random pieces of news seem to indicate that I’m wrong in this respect.

First, the Ohio Secretary of State out and out said that the changing of voting hours in certain districts was intended to suppress African American and Democratic voters. He said it in those words, to a reporter, and then basically told everybody to kiss his ass. This was on the heels of a Pennsylvania House majority leader declaiming that Voter ID would hand the state to Romney. So on the subject of whether voter fraud exists and is a problem that must be solved by laws that happen to disproportionately effect minority voters, Republicans appear to think no; they really are cynically pushing that idea just to depress Democratic turnout. That’s not totally surprising, but given how up in arms everybody has been about ACORN and related pseudo-scandals, I would have thought the GOP actually believed there was massive voter fraud happening. It doesn’t appear that way.

Second, here’s WaPo columnist Matt Miller, on the difference between candidates like Romney and Steve Forbes running on lowering their own taxes, versus Reagan running on lowering taxes:

Call them the Drawbridge Republicans. As the moniker implies, these are wealthy Republicans who have no qualms about pulling up the drawbridge behind them. Such sentiments used to be reserved for the political fringe. The most prominent example was Steve Forbes, whose twin obsessions during his vanity presidential runs in 1996 and 2000 — marginal tax rates and inflation — were precisely what you’d expect from an heir in a cocoon.

(In case you were wondering, Ronald Reagan wasn’t a Drawbridge because he entered office when marginal rates, at 70 percent, were truly damaging to the economy. But as GOP business leaders now tell me privately, the Clinton-era top rate of 39.6 percent, let alone today’s 35 percent, are hardly a barrier to work or investment).

Nice little parenthetical at the end. In that one aside, the entire GOP justification for tax cuts goes out the window, and they appear to know it. On the subject of whether Republicans actually believe that taxes burden the economy, or whether they’re just cynically pushing the idea for their own financial benefit, the answer seems to be the latter. Again, that’s not wholly surprising, but with the vehemence of support the issue gets, I would have thought it would have more generated more credulity.

Scott Lemieux has been titling his posts on this The Quiet Part Loud, in reference to Krusty’s inability to hide a bribe, and that’s exactly what’s going on: Republicans recently are disregarding the carefully crafted framing of an issue and just blurting out the real political motives. There could be any number of explanations for this—people, especially the right, seem to go a little batty toward the end of a presidential campaign, almost as if they’ve been left out of the fridge for too long. But as I wrote above, mendacity is difficult to sustain; it could just be that individual Republicans were unable to keep up the show for this long. And now we know: on the question of whether the right is cynical or crazy, the answer is cynical. Is that better, or worse?

Anti-Abortion Groups Calling On Akin To Drop Out

by evanmcmurry

The Christian Defense Council is the first pro-life group to call on Todd Akin to drop out of the Missouri Senate Race. As Right Wing Watch notes, the CDC is run by a guy who protests abortion legislation by staging live ultrasounds, and who pals around with members of Operation Rescue. Yes, Todd Akin’s comment was so bad that he even landed to the right of people with their own Bad Religion song.

Anti-abortion groups are doing this as damage control: not only Akin is making the movement look bad, but he’s endangering the GOP’s chances of retaking the Senate, the occurrence of which would be a huge boon to anti-abortion legislation. Nonetheless, for a while it looked like the pro-life movement was completely unrestrained by any sort of limits; Todd Akin just showed us that there are places even the pro-life movement fears to tread. That’s good to know.

Hayek might be too much of a liberal for the Republicans

by pdxblake

The FT Alphaville blog, a great resource on financial subjects, had a great post about the (ahem) disagreement between Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom are influential in libertarian thinking (including the big government libertarian Paul Ryan).  To the quotes.  First from a book on libertarian history:

When Hayek talks of the “very defined limits” in which individualism “allows” people to follow their “own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s,” Rand thunders, “Oh God damn the total, complete, vicious bastard! This means that man does exist for others, but since he doesn’t know how to do it, the master will give him some ‘defined limits’ for himself”.

They also found a recollection by Hayek of an in person interaction with Rand:

Afterward, [Hayek] took questions, which were mostly about Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged.” The leading questions were “What was Rand really like?” and “What is your evaluation of ‘Atlas Shrugged’?”

Hayek’s responses took on the style of a confession. “Although I tried seriously to read the book, I failed, because there was no romance in it,” he said. “I tried even more diligently to read that fellow John Galt’s hundred-page declaration of independence, and I knew I’d be questioned on all that, but I just couldn’t get through it.”

As for Rand, he said he had met her only once, quite recently, at a party given in their honor — “and you should never have two lions at the same party.” The host eagerly brought the two together for the introduction. Here are the results, to the best of my memory: “We had a very brief exchange. She swelled in anger and spun away, remaining only long enough to say, ‘You are a compromiser.’ ”

I have (unfortunately) suffered through the entirety of Atlas Shrugged and I also (suprisingly) enjoyed Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.  I say surprisingly because I view government’s role in the economy as more than nothing, which is the current interpretation of Hayek’s thinking.  The FT Alphaville team describe:

Hayek’s view was that the market process is mysterious and unpredictable; there are too many variables whose interactions are too complex to grasp. And yet the outcomes yielded by a setting of free competition and undistorted price signals are superior to those of central planning. Government encroachment is to be resisted precisely because it would distort the price mechanisms that govern this process.

Let me highlight the key point in this summary: “the outcomes yielded by a setting of free competition and undistorted price signals are superior to those of central planning”.  That is, I think, not as controversial idea as most of the people who push the Austrian (or Austerian as it is called today) think it is when they take Hayek to be a tract opposing any and all government involvement in the economy and it is also one of the big reasons why I enjoyed Hayek’s book.

I don’t think that Hayek’s idea that free competition and undistorted price signals are superior to central planning necessarily supports the anti-government ideas that are often linked with Hayek’s (to wit, Paul Ryan).  Hayek is often condemned by some more doctrinaire libertarians as being much too compromising.  One libertarian critic, Walter Block (who himself is extreme enough to support voluntary slavery) singled out (pdf, but a fork in the eye is about as pleasant) Hayek’s insistence that “The attitude of the liberal toward society is like that of the gardener who tends a plant and, in order to create the  conditions most favorable to its growth, must know as much as possible about its structure and the way it functions”.  Liberal in this context of course is the European sense of liberalism meaning liberalizing economic policies.

Of course that is anathema to the current Republican party’s libertarianism that views only fewer regulations and fewer taxes (especially for the wealthy) as the solution.  It probably also explains Ayn Rand’s disdain for Hayek’s thinking.  Hayek’s writing was much more focused on anti-central plannning (i.e. anti-Soviet economics).  And that is where I think his points were most valuable.  There is a vast difference between discussions in the US about the Affordable Care Act to provide private sector insurance coverage that pays for private sector-provided medical care and discussions about imposing central planning of the majority of the economy (not that you’d know that from listening to Republicans).

The specific quote that so irks the radical Block is indeed a fantastic argument for the Affordable Care Act (even though I would prefer single-payer to get more efficencies by widening the pool of insured people).  The reason?  Healthcare is a market that doesn’t operate well as an unregulated market, which is why the US (with the most free-market of health insurance and care markets) has the highest costs and poor outcomes.  And so greater government involvement in health insurance and healthcare can act as water and fertilizer from the gardner that helps the economy grow by limiting the rise in health care costs that burden businesses and keep money wage growth low (because increasing benefit costs absorb the money spent on employees).

There are many things that Hayek and I disagree on, for sure, but the Randian tack that the Republicans have taken recently should highlight the areas where Hayak is now probably too far left for the current Republican party (kindof like Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan).  And that should be an intuitive conclusion since the Democratic party is pro-capitalist (perhaps too much in some cases, Glass-Steagall repeal, ahem) but believes there is a role for government to act as the gardener of the economy, which for today’s Republican party is SOCIALISM!

Catholics Praise Obama As Pro Life, Hamburgers Will Now Eat People

by evanmcmurry

A writer for the National Catholic Reporter on the abortion politics of the two candidates:

There is no doubt Obama is pro-choice. He has said so many times. There is also no doubt Romney is running on what he calls a pro-life platform. But any honest analysis of the facts shows the situation is much more complicated than that.

For example, Obama’s Affordable Care Act does not pay for abortions. In Massachusetts, Romney’s health care law does. Obama favors, and included in the Affordable Care Act, $250 million of support for vulnerable pregnant women and alternatives to abortion. This support will make abortions much less likely, since most abortions are economic. Romney, on the other hand, has endorsed Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s budget, which will cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of the federal plans that support poor women. The undoubted effect: The number of abortions in the United States will increase. On these facts, Obama is much more pro-life than Romney.

Makes sense to me. Via Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel, it’s about time some on the right started realizing that the frequency of abortions is exacerbated, not eliminated, by prohibition:

Thinking you can reduce the number of abortions by making abortion illegal and then making life extra crappy for women so they’d be more likely to want to have abortions is sort of like a pitcher walking all of the batters in baseball so none of them hit home runs and then acting all confused when the score keeps increasing. Sure, some abortions will always be matters of “convenience” or “lifestyle,” two reasons for terminating a pregnancy often sneered at by the anti-abortion rights set, but many of those “convenience” abortions occur because it’s not very “convenient” when you’re a single woman trying to live on a minimum wage income and you’re not getting any help from anyone.

That it was a Catholic newspaper that brought this up—one that just finished up its defense of some of Catholicism’s less-defensible practices—is something. As Balloon Juice points out, you know you’re pitching something foul when an institution that backs pedophile-employers doesn’t want anything to do with you:

That’s some good reasoning, but it’s preceded by a defense of Cardinal Dolan that includes Canon Law justification of Dolan paying pedophile priests. In a way, that makes it even more remarkable, since even someone who can defend Dolan for that kind of stuff sees through the Romney/Ryan bullshit.

(via The Non Sequitur, with criticisms)

“Audit the Fed” is Just a Nicer Way to Say “Put Congress in Charge of the Fed”

by pdxblake

Ok, so any claim Romney might have to understanding economics based on his “business experience” (which I rated as dubious at best) is now gone (ht Business Insider):

“The answer is yes to that, very plain and simple,” Romney responded, when asked by a supporter at a New Hampshire town hall whether it was time to audit the Fed. “The Federal Reserve should be accountable. We should see what they’re doing.

The Fed is audited already.  The idiotic idea of ‘auditing the Fed’ made prominent by Ron Paul is not a conventional audit, it is a way to incorporate politics into Central Banking by allowing politicians to second-guess Fed decisionmaking.  (I addressed many of the issues that people don’t understand about how the Fed works in two other posts, part 1 and part 2).  As for whether the Fed is audited, they have a quite comprehensive list of oversight over the institution, which I will copy and paste at the bottom of the post because, really, how many people are going to click through to the Fed’s website?

One of the important issue of monetary policy particularly now in dealing with economic changes is that it can respond both quickly and in a way that has a relatively fast impact on the economy.  The need for speed was on display during the financial crisis when the Fed stepped in to stop a collapse in the financial system, while the other economic level, Congress, dithered about approving the TARP even as financial markets swooned, falling 777 points in a day.

Proposals to ‘audit’ the Fed would strip the Fed’s effectiveness because, even if it moves quickly, its moves could be subsequently reversed under political pressure, which strips the credibility from Fed moves (because the stock and bond markets react to the Fed’s moves as if they were inevitably going to be carried out).

Outside of crisis situations, there are other reasons for central bank independence.  Mostly that more independent central banks are associated with lower long-term inflation rates.

HT Mark Thoma, graph from “Central Bank Independence and Macroeconomic Performance: Some Comparative Evidence,” by Alberto Alesina and Lawrence H. Summers, Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Vol. 25, No. 2. (May, 1993), pp. 151-162

The theoretical explanation for this relationship at its simplest is that there is a benefit for each government to boost the economy before elections without recognizing fully the costs of the resulting rise in the price level (since it will tend to happen regardless of the state of the economy and whether or not it needs the stimulus).  This leads to a political business cycle of higher growth in the year before elections followed by a slowdown and then another boost near the next election.

The problem comes because the stimulative effect comes quickly, while the higher inflation (when the stimulus is pushed into an economy operating near its full capacity) comes later (after the election).  The higher inflation from each successive cycle of electioneering monetary stimulus is often not enough on its own to raise fears of higher inflation, but each successive cycle increases the inflation rate.  As a result, most countries have moved towards more central bank independence.

The idea of ‘auditing the Fed’ proposed by Ron Paul, and now Mitt Romney, would move in the opposite direction towards greater politicization of monetary policy which would harm its ability to fight crisis and, perversely for Romney and Paul’s stated goals, would likely lead to higher inflation rate.  It is an innocuous sounding way to propose a quite radical policy.


Does the Federal Reserve ever get audited?

Yes, the Board of Governors, the 12 Federal Reserve Banks, and the Federal Reserve System as a whole are all subject to several levels of audit and review:

In addition, the Reserve Banks are subject to annual examination by the Board. The Board’s financial statements and the combined financial statements for the Reserve Banks are published in the Board’s Annual Report.

See our audit page for more information on all of the above audits and more information on the accounting, financial reporting, and internal controls of the Federal Reserve Board and Federal Reserve Banks.


Voter Fraud: Now In New, Republican Flavors

by evanmcmurry

Republicans are so desperate for an actual example of voter fraud that they’re now qualifying disgraced Republican congressmen for the job. From the National Review:

This month, four staffers for former Michigan congressman Thad McCotter were indicted for forging signatures on petitions to place him on the ballot.

[…] Now, the Detroit Free Press reports that McCotter, Inc. had apparently been forging petitions for years, and he didn’t actually qualify for the ballot in at least the 2008, 2010, and 2012 elections. The Free Press reports that data archivists found that “in 2008, at least 67 of the 177 petition pages submitted were either copies or had been doctored by cutting and pasting dates from other documents onto the petitions.”

[…] The McCotter scandal should remind all of us that voter fraud is serious business and can be bipartisan. The laws and safeguards against it protect all of us.

Because it’s NRO, the writer goes on to spin this incident as a perfect example of why we need the slew of Voter ID laws Republicans are pushing in various states, all of which disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, i.e. Democratic voters.

Thad McCotter, NRO somehow fails to mention, is a Republican. This “voter fraud is bipartisan” stuff is nonsense, as the only people who ever claimed it wasn’t was the GOP, who swear without evidence that ACORN and illegals are throwing elections; having imagined Democratic cases of fraud on one side and real cases of Republican fraud on the other doesn’t make anything bipartisan. And, as alicublog points out, what McCotter committed was election fraud, not voter fraud, so it’s hard to see how the proposed Voter ID laws would prevent it. “The laws and safeguards against it protect all of us” part is pure bull: the right is misrepresenting the crimes of their own members to pass bills that would disenfranchise Democratic voters. That’s extraordinarily cynical.

It’s also working. The sad thing is the truest part of the National Review‘s post may be its first line: “A new Washington Post poll found that 74 percent of Americans support having voters show ID at the polls, and a full 81 percent think voter fraud is a problem.”  The right not only has people jumping at shadows, they have people jumping the shadows they themselves are casting.