Is This The Worst Polarization in US History?

by Will on October 14, 2013


Nate Silver writes:

But the degree of polarization in the Congress is higher than at any point since the Great Depression by a variety of measures, and is possibly at its highest point ever.

Is this accurate?

Probably so as far as the period since the Great Depression is concerned. Antagonism over Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s was more intense than anything on the landscape now — many people lost their lives — but that conflict occurred almost entirely between different factions of the Democratic Party, and congress was not where it played out for the most part. How about before the Great Depression?

Two periods stand out as marked by much more severe congressional polarization: the 1790s and the 1850s.

One rough indication of this would be the presence of actual physical violence in congress. There was a notable instance of this in 1798, when congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont spat in the face of congressman Roger Griswold of Connecticut, and the two then came to blows on the house floor. This motif recurred even more shockingly in 1856, when congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Senator Charles Sumner of Massachussetts nearly to death at the capitol, as angry punishment for Sumner’s delivery of a speech called “The Crime against Kansas” two days earlier. Were we truly witnessing the worst congressional polarization in US history right now, we might expect another such incident. Harry Reid is, recall, a former pugilist.


Both of these incidents were manifestations of quite bitter political rivalries. During the 1790s, the administrations of George Washington and John Adams received harsh, paranoid criticisms for their alleged corruption, aristocratic leanings, and pro-English bias. There were several violent uprisings. An opposition press published often uncivil denunciations of the leadership. These disagreements were ostensibly about policy, but were colored by suspicions of disloyalty and treason — the Federalists were said to be closet monarchists, striving to undermine the republican experiment and return the country to English rule, and the Jeffersonians were painted, with some justice, as contrarian cranks and naive dupes of the French Republic. In the 1850s, conflict erupted when the slave power went to outrageous lengths to preserve their political power and lay the groundwork for the further expansion of slavery. These ardent defenders of “states’ rights” sought to force slavery on Kansas at gunpoint, the wishes of Kansans be damned, and to invalidate as much as they could prohibitions of slaveholding in northern states. This rapidly caused a vigorous backlash and the breakdown of the second party system, as non-southerners became unable to ally with the fire-eaters, the emergence almost overnight of a new political party to counter the slavers, and, we all know, the largest war the world had ever seen up to that point.

To what degree do our present straits resemble these two previous periods? There are some superficial similarities to the 1850s, given the geographic distribution of the two parties’s constituents. However, in the 1850s, the issue of whether slavery would expand was a momentous one. Without new slave lands, the profitability of slavery, and the value of the slaves, would decline and disappear. There is no issue of similar import today driving present disagreements, which are largely over symbolic and even totally imaginary issues. In this, our moment resembles the 1790s. The Jeffersonian critics of the 1790s believed themselves to be taking stands on deep principles, but they were deluded and paranoid in their perceptions. The “despotism” allegedly threatened by the First Bank of the United States, the national debt, the tariff system, and the excise tax also never appeared. Indeed, when Jefferson assumed the presidency, he quickly realized the practicality of the system the Federalists had put in place, and altered little of it.

It is encouraging as we face the present fiasco to recall how these other two episodes ended. The Jeffersonians ascended to power in 1800 — but only because the three-fifths clause made southern votes more valuable than New England votes. And the fire-eaters not only did not achieve their aims; their actions condemned their beloved slave society to extinction. Disagreement is normal and productive, but dysfunctional polarization is not a stable equilibrium, and cannot hold for long.


The Tyranny of Free Information

by Will on April 4, 2013


From the Law of Hammurabi, through the Roman code of the emperor Justinian, through England’s Magna Carta and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, through the jurisprudence of our own courts over the years, the principles that were once called “natural law” came into force. The principle that every person is his own owner, subject to no unwarranted scrutiny or persecution, became more and more emphatic. Privacy was bestowed in the Magna Carta provision that “no free man” could be deprived of his liberty without due process, and further effected in the several amendments of the US constitution that protect citizens from being disturbed in their homes or daily lives in the absence of cause. It gained still further legitimacy when justice William Douglas, writing the majority decision for the court in Griswold v. Connecticut, located privacy itself as formally protected in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the constitution — a too-clever phrasing that drew much criticism, however good the point may have been. And so it was that a mere decade ago, when Whig historians fed reassuring pablum to the masses, it was a history of progress, in which human rights had been ever improving and were approaching a state of perfection.

Any people who are sufficiently full of themselves to believe such twaddle must be ripe for a comeuppance. And so the internet has come along and showed us what fools we all were.

Insofar as there has been any intercourse between the massive and powerful new “information technology” companies and the law, it has been mostly a predacious affair. Through patent law, the industries of Silicon Valley have claimed legal monopoly to countless “intellectual properties”, and have harassed competitors of all stripes with lawsuits charging their infringement on these private holdings. Insofar as privacy applies to fictitiously walled off realms, guarded by armies of lawyers, it thus remains sacrosanct in the eyes of these bold innovators.

But if the individual user of these services should imagine for a moment that these grand industries have the same boundless respect for his or her own privacy in his or her own “intellectual properties,” then the comeuppance has not yet set in. For the entire profitability of a Facebook or a Google — their whole ability to reinvest in new products, to pay lawyers to dance for them in court, to dupe investors — consists in their free and unrestricted access to the intellectual goings on of the millions of unwitting persons who make use of their services every day. The individuals’ queries, associations, likeness, and even physical locations are appropriated as the salable intellectual property of the companies. Neither the Census Bureau nor the Stasi nor any private detective could ever hope to collect such an exhaustive stock of information.

At the turn of the century, there were still many who would voice the letters “CIA” in a sinister tone. And yet the same people will submit to grant unlimited surveillance of all the details of their lives, ranging from the most casual to the most intimate, from the most personal to the most social, to unscrupulous and very powerful private actors sitting in placid offices in Palo Alto and Mountain View. If it be a central agency collecting “intelligence,” this is apparently much to be feared. But let it call itself a “Web 2.0” company, and let its centralized nature be disguised by the illusion that its actions belong to a diverse board of shareholders, and let it be collecting “intellectual property” instead of intelligence, and now the mind is at ease.

While our forebears struggled for generations to achieve institutionalized protections of privacy, to prevent a well known host of evils, the technology of the internet has proceeded more quickly than the ability of either individuals or authorities or judges to insist on, or impose, certain standards (this is true with regard to much larger topics, but I am restricting myself to one subject). People have only begun to realize the abuses to which these new powers could subject them; let alone the likelihood that this and that abuse will in fact be committed, once there is seen to be money in it, given the lack of formal rules barring this. It is alarming to see that young people, having experienced this “information age” as the only natural and proper state of the world, exhibit seemingly no concept of privacy, and contribute freely into the “intellectual property” of unknown private actors the most lurid and damaging materials. This is the natural result of our failure to put any safeguards in place.

The internet at first appeared to be something like a new Commons: a free ground belonging to all and shared by all, where goods would be for the taking. In the same way that the wise and publicly spirited landlords of bygone times saw fit to fence off and appropriate the Commons, however, so that landless persons would be forced to work as their subservients, it was inevitable that someone would find a way to stand between the user and his object even on the internet. Insofar as the only remedy proposed so far has been abstinence — a hard sell in all cases, even when merited — the current generation has shown a strange lack of imagination.



The late president discusses the cases with his adviser, John Ehrlichman (Warning: this is off-the-record Nixon, so it is as profane and abusive as Nixon was in private):

Nixon: But I do not mind homosexuality. I understand it. [Fourteen seconds mysteriously deleted] But nevertheless, the point that I make is, God damn it, I do not think you glorify on public television homosexuality. The reason you don’t glorify it John is the same as you don’t glorify whores. Now we all know that people go to whores, and we all know that people are just do that, we all have weaknesses and so forth and so on, but God damn it, what do you think that does to kids?

Ehrlichman: Yeah.

Nixon: What do you think that does to 11 and 12 year old boys when they see that? Why is it that the Scouts, that the Boys Clubs, we were there, we constantly had to clean up the staffs to keep the God damned fags out of it. Because, not because of them, they can go out and do anything they damn please, [unintelligible] all those kids? You know there’s a little tendency among them all. Well I can tell you by God it outraged me. Not for any moral reason. Most people are outraged for moral reasons, why, it outrages me because I don’t want to see this country go that way.

Ehrlichman: You know there are…

Nixon: You ever see what happened, you know what happened, to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo, we all know that, so was Socrates.

Ehrlichman: But he never had the influence that television has.

Nixon: Do you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags. The last six. Nero had a public wedding to a boy. And they’d [unintelligible]. You know what happened to the Popes? It’s all right that Popes were laying nuns, that’s been going on for years, centuries, but when the Popes from the Catholic church went to hell, three or four centuries ago, it was homosexual. And finally it had to be cleaned out.

Ehrichman: Uh-huh.

Nixon. That’s what happened to Britain, it happened to France earlier. And let’s look at the strong societies. The Russians, God damn it, they root them out, they don’t let them around at all. I don’t know what they do with them.

Crudeness aside, Nixon highlights exactly what it is about same-sex marriage that frightens its opponents so much: the message it sends to young people. I have long thought that it is important to challenge the monopolization of marriage by straight couples, precisely because of the implicit message it sends to young people, some of whom will find that they are gay or someone they know is. Official recognition of gay couples’ relationships encourages tolerance and discourages bullying.

When I was young, it was evident quite early that to be homosexual was a horrible, shameful thing, an awful curse to be lamented even if it were tolerated. It was thought that harassing them, insulting them, and even beating them was, if not right and proper, at least not repugnant. It usually took years for people who were gay to acknowledge the fact publicly. In a world where the state recognizes marriages of homosexuals as equal to marriages of opposite-sex couples, this public shaming becomes much less convincing, and probably less satisfying to the perpetrator. Already, gay teenagers who are taunted with the epithets Nixon uses above can take comfort in the fact that numerous judges, the voters of several states, and the president of the country have sided with them and against the bullies.

And this is why the question is important, and also why halfway houses like “Civil Unions” — which continue to convey that there is something different and hence shameful about gays — are not acceptable.

Because the other theory Nixon voices, the idea that allowance of homosexuality is inextricably linked to social decline, is laughable.

Any good historian, hearing the case, laughs out loud at it, which was also the response of the audience at the hearing on Propositon 8 in California’s supreme court. This was replicated in the supreme court’s hearings on the same measure. When the learned counsel in support of Propostion 8 asserted that marriage was institutionalized in law only to further procreation, he was challenged with the proposition that many persons too old to reproduce are routinely married, under all auspices of the law, the counsel then answered that in such cases, “at least one” party to the marriage still held the power of reproduction, and he supposed this to settle the question. The questioning justice quite reasonably countered that for a straight couple, the reproductive powers of one party could not be confined to one party, and that if one party of this heterosexual and legitimate marriage were sterile, so too would be the bond. The courtroom–normally a quiet and sober place–erupted in laughter.

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How History Can Be Annoying

by Will on March 30, 2013

It was bad enough that Muhammad Ali, the famous boxer, went by a name that referred also to an important Egyptian ruler in the nineteenth century.


Muhammad Ali, Modernizing Leader of Egypt after Napoleon

At least if an ambiguity arose, you could always clear it up by noting that the boxer was previously known as Cassius Clay. This name, it turns out, was also shared with another person of note; this time, the cousin of senator Henry Clay, who was also an anti-slavery politician and publisher in the nineteenth century, whose life overlapped with the Egyptian viceroy’s.


Cassius Clay, Abolitionist Publisher and Politician of Kentucky

You can’t win!


The Euro Stranglehold Must End

by Will on March 17, 2013


We must begin by allowing that all nations of the world confronted the Panic of ’08 in unison, and that all have dealt with the consequent economic fallout in one way or another. To pretend that the crisis can be blamed on the actions of one’s own government at the time–whether that’s the Republican administration of George Bush, the Labour government of Gordon Brown, or the nominally Gaullist government of Nicolas Sarkozy–is asinine.

That said, different nations’ responses to the crisis have not been in any way uniform. Some nations have responded extraordinarily well and mitigated shortfalls in employment and private lending. Iceland nationalized its banks and let its currency’s exchange rate depreciate. It has done very well. Peru was running a budget surplus and was able to engage in large-scale infrastructure spending. It has done very well. China financed huge building programs. It has done fairly well. Israel let the shekel depreciate and engineered an export boom. It has done well. The Scandinavian countries also depreciated their currencies. They have done well. Switzerland set a targeted exchange rate for the Swiss franc. It has done well.

The US had a medium-sized infrastructure program in the first year of the crisis and has increased transfer payments such as unemployment insurance and disability, which are strangely immune to political controversy and which are set by the number of people eligible for them, not by budgets. It has also seen massive cuts in state and local budgets (mostly school budgets), and somewhere around 40 percent of its “stimulus” consisted of temporary tax cuts, which do not appear to be effective. It has an accommodating central bank that nonetheless has a credibility problem (and, I would argue, too much faith in the false Quantity Theory of Money). The country’s large size greatly limits the potential of any currency depreciation to boost exports, since foreign trade accounts for a small portion of our economic activity compared to small countries like Iceland and Israel. Overall, the US has done OK but not great.

The Eurozone and the UK present a starkly contrasting picture. Here, austerity–cuts to spending, increases in tax rates–has been the order of the day. In the case of the UK, this has been self-imposed by a government led by the Tory party. The paternalistic Tory party of old has metamorphosed into its opposite, the mean and stingy Liberal Party of the 1840s. (The policies associated with the Irish potato famine, satirized so effectively by Dickens in the person of Ebeneezer Scrooge, have always had a certain allure to the well heeled).

The peripheral countries of the Eurozone, however, simply had no other choice. Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Italy could not borrow money to shore up spending, because investors–fearful that these countries would default–were bidding up interest rates on their bonds. These countries cannot rely on central bank issues to solve this problem, either, because they have surrendered this power to the European Central Bank. While advocates of austerity have claimed it would bring growth and lower unemployment, this has persistently failed to happen. The countries with the most severe austerity have also the worst unemployment and growth numbers. The ECB is a German institution in all but name. Germany, it happens, spent the 2000s performing rituals of decreasing labor costs, increasing exports, and decreasing the budget (needlessly, in my opinion). Now they are quite sure that the dire circumstances in Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Italy are the result of vice–that the Greeks, Spaniards, and Italians, like the Irish of the 1840s, are suffering the just rewards of their gluttony and sloth. The consequent orders of punishment and humiliation follow naturally. As long as the other nations of Europe remain in the currency union of the Eurozone, they will have no choice but to submit to the sadistic fancies of their cruel master.

So I say to the people of all the nations of the Eurozone: Get the hell out! It’s a  trap!

Currency union allows for such slight conveniences that it is impossible to understand the symbolic importance it has acquired. The Euro wears a mask of continent-wide solidarity; but in its operations, it reveals itself to be precisely the opposite, a harbinger of death for social democracy. So long as nations subject themselves to the stranglehold of this demonic currency, they will not breathe freely as they once did, and their bodies politic will atrophy. Equality of currency will mean gross inequality in wealth, on a scale previously reserved for the English-speaking world. In all Eurozone nations, the most pressing priority must be official repudiation of the Euro’s despotism, now and forever. Only then will the reinstatement of sound exchange-rate and finance policies be possible.

Down with the Euro!

Down with the European Central Bank!

Down with German domination of other nations’ budgets!


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Here is an experiment which the reader may perform in the safety of his or her own home.

Take a $50 bond note issued by the US Treasury and place it on the table. Let it sit for a good few minutes so that other economic actors in the world can take note.

Now remove the bond note and immediately replace it with a freshly printed $50 Federal Reserve note, bearing the stately countenance of Ulysses Grant. Destroy the bond note.

Congratulations! You have just “increased the money supply”! Go look around the world and see if you can notice any new circulation resulting from this new $50. (Hint: nothing at all will be different).

The problem is twofold. First, a definition of “money” that includes Federal Reserve notes and excludes Treasury bonds is absurd. Bonds are nothing more or less than a special kind of money, a kind of money you use when you don’t see any better investments and want the satisfaction of a modest return in interest. It is impossible to arrive at an exhaustive definition of “money”, and for this reason, monetarism must always fail in practice. Second, the quantity of bank reserves is neither here nor there. If the idea is that banks with more reserves will lend more, it is mistaken. Banks lend as much as they are going to lend, then go find whatever reserves they need to underwrite this lending. Lending is a function of the quantity of profitable investments on the horizon, not of the quantity of reserves. Just as $50 sitting on your table doesn’t mean anything whatsoever to anyone outside your house (so long as it is sitting on your table), neither does $65 billion of new bank reserves sitting serenely in the vaults at Chase bank and Wells Fargo. Bankers are many things, but they are seldom fools. If a good investment is there to be made, they will make it. If there is not, they won’t.

The prototypical critics of Quantitative Easing have claimed it would lead to hyperinflation. I claim precisely the opposite. The problem with Quantitative Easing is that it will have no effect at all.

Now, if the Quantitative Easing program sent payments to mothers with young children, or distressed debtors, or simply paid down large student loan balances, it might be a different story. We’ll probably never know whether that would be successful. Just why is it that a so-called stabilization policy that comforts financiers is on the table, but one that would comfort less glamorous persons is not?


Senators Make Poor Presidential Candidates

by Will on March 12, 2013

Senator Henry Clay: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

In following horse-race political reporting, I notice a lot of discussion of senators as possible presidential candidates. For instance, freshman senators Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz are often mentioned these days as likely candidates in 2016.  This strikes me as peculiar, given that there are few examples of sitting senators succeeding in presidential contests.

Only four sitting senators have ever won election to the presidency. These were Franklin Peirce, Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and the current president. Every other candidate to win the presidency had served as either a governor, a general, a prominent secretary in the cabinet, or vice president, with the anomalous exceptions of Lincoln and Garfield, whose highest office was the house of representatives.

In each of these four cases, the candidate won under unusual circumstances. Peirce ran virtually unopposed, as the national Whig party had dissolved and its candidate had no prayer of winning. Harding’s opponent was a mere congressman (from Harding’s home state of Ohio, mooting any “favorite son” support he might have received). Moreover, Wilson had thoroughly ruined the reputation of the Democratic party, much as George W. Bush would later do for the Republicans. Kennedy’s margin of victory was extremely narrow, and probably depended on electoral fraud in Mayor Daley’s Chicago. Obama was running against another senator, so the public was going to be stuck with a senator no matter who they voted for (this was also true in the Democratic primary). Give the people a decent choice, I contend, and they will reject the senator every time. The list of failed senator candidates for president is considerable: Henry Clay (twice), John C. Fremont, John Breckinridge, Stephen Douglas, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain. Senators rarely even win their party’s nomination.*

Why is this? I think it’s easy enough to explain. People reasonably prefer a candidate who has leadership experience. Senators don’t have the responsibility that someone running a state, or a military unit, or a department would show themselves to have. Another likely reason is that senators have a paper trail on all national issues of recent controversy. Executive and military figures can often steer clear of such debates and take vague, ambiguous positions when they must take any. Senators, however, have to vote. One-time senators who serve in the cabinet or as vice president can redeem themselves, because they have years in which to form a public identity independent of their senate careers. Sitting senators have no such luxury. Lastly, the senate is a ridiculous institution. More than any other part of the government, it tends to attract pompous, self-important, ludicrous individuals. Its members are also all ridiculously rich. Since the most popular campaign tactic in American politics, going back to 1828 if not 1800, has been to portray one’s opponent as an aloof, out-of-touch aristocrat, most senators’ personality and lifestyle make them sitting ducks.

In short, it is unlikely that any sitting senator will be a presidential candidate in 2016. More likely, the two parties’ candidates will come from statehouses, from cabinet positions, or from the higher ranks of the military.

*Diplomats, justices, and businessmen have had an even worse showing. Non-officer veterans are another notably overrated category.


President George W. Bush and porn actress Mary Carey, 2005
President George W. Bush and porn actress Mary Carey, 2005

Kevin Drum sums it up nicely (h/t Mark Thoma):

It seems to me that something has happened over the past three months: the nonpartisan media has finally started to internalize the idea that the modern Republican Party has gone off the rails. Their leaders can’t control their backbenchers. They throw pointless temper tantrums about everything President Obama proposes. They have no serious ideas of their own aside from wanting to keep taxes low on the rich. They’re serially obsessed with a few hobby horses — Fast & Furious! Obamacare! Benghazi! — that no one else cares about. Their fundraising is controlled by scam artists. They’re rudderless and consumed with infighting. They’re demographically doomed. …

The framing of even straight new reports feels just a little bit jaded, as if veteran reporters just can’t bring themselves to pretend one more time that climate change is a hoax, Benghazi is a scandal, and federal spending is spiraling out of control. It’s getting harder and harder to pretend that the same old shrieking over the same old issues is really newsworthy.

The present-day GOP presents a curious spectacle, one unusual in American history. It behaves more irresponsibly than the average child or house pet. Its only predecessors in this would seem to be the Jeffersonian Republicans of the 1790s, the southern Fire Eaters of the 1850s, and the Birchers of the 1950s and 1960s. At present it operates by creating an endless series of manufactured “crises” that its leadership badly wants to resolve, but that the base is too invested in to give up. Though the Republicans have a majority in the house, the real balance of power appears to lie with the Democratic caucus and the handful of reasonable Republicans from the Mid-West, Northeast, and West that will vote with them so that business can go on and disaster be averted. Speaker Boehner even acknowledges this reality in his pronouncements and actions, demanding again and again that Democrats themselves produce spending cuts, changes to Medicare, or whatever Republicans are at present demanding — only to attack Democrats for whatever plan they do suggest, after the fact.

This is a movement that ranks theater higher than outcome, spectacle higher than reality. This has been so since George W. Bush lost control of his party’s base over the issue of immigration reform during his second term. Rather than bargaining to make that proposed reform as conservative and anti-immigrant as possible, most Republicans chose to take an absolutist stance and reject any reform whatsoever. The balance of power within the party shifted away from the big-money establishment on the eastern seaboard, and into the rural hinterlands of aging white America, in the thralls of con-artist entertainment celebrities like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and dozens of other similar mediocrities.

What these artists offer their listeners is a form of pornography. The reason that pornography is held as a very low, undistinguished art form is not simply its subject matter — the Bible is replete with expressions of sexuality, lust, and depravity, and yet even its critics allow that it is a literary masterpiece of the first order — but because of another feature. In pornography, instant gratification is the order of the day. Features of the real world such as tradeoffs, contrary interests, the necessity of compromise, transaction costs, and the fact that actions have consequences — the very features whose treatment marks the best works of art — are eliminated from consideration. The desire of the present moment is given tyrannical omnipotence. In terms of Hegel’s conception of history, this narrative form corresponds to despotism — the primative form of society that recognizes the freedom of only one, the despot whose will is command.

In the narrative conjured up by the entertainment demagogs of the right, every issue becomes an absolute struggle between good and evil, between liberty and tyranny, that Republicans can win by holding firm and spurning all compromise. The command to win this symbolic battle becomes absolute, and all consideration of how this will affect future negotiations or other actors’ behavior or anything at all is eliminated from the picture. To achieve the policy objective of the day — defeat of compromise on the “fiscal cliff”, humiliation of Secretary of State Clinton over the Benghazi “scandal”, defeat of Republican nominee Chuck Hagel, defeat, in short, of whatever the administration is proposing at the present moment — becomes a matter of absolute necessity, a source of instant gratification to the naive consumers of this pornography.

These same demagogic pornographers make liberal use of what historian Richard Hofstadter termed “the Paranoid Style.”  Hofstadter writes:

Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.

The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.

The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

The president’s exotic name and exotic complexion cannot be ignored, and find their natural counterparts in an endless litany of other accused exocitisms: the man is a Muslim, a Marxist, a Kenyan anti-colonialist, an Alinskyite, an opportunist, a traitor. He agrees with Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan that the white man is the devil. He holds Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin in the highest esteem of all men of history. He naively assumes that socialism can be imposed by his dictate. He hates America and acts intentionally to destroy its economy and national defense. He is aloof and out of touch. He is ruthlessly engaged and seeks to actively insult ordinary Americans. He ingeniously implements his secret agenda to fundamentally transform the country. He is a lazy boob who can’t read a teleprompter. He is a true believer. He is just a welfare bum who wants to be president for the free stuff and the lavish vacations. He’s gay. He’s after our white women. The fact that these charges tend to contradict each other does not stop demagog pornographers from using each and every one of them.

If the administration is actively seeking to destroy the military, as many entertainers allege, why does it matter who is secretary of state? Why expend political capital blocking Chuck Hagel or anyone else? How much difference could it make? If the president is destroying the country with unconstitutional executive orders, what does it matter what the Republicans do, short of impeachment? Minutia of this sort is inconsequential to the game at hand: the rush of virtuous gratification that comes with such symbolic opposition is all that demagogs care about. That keeps the rubes tuning in.

Porn is, of course, big business. There’s a lot of money in it. However, it makes for poor political strategy, and even worse governance.

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He Said, She Said

by Will on February 13, 2013

Ostensible Speaker of the House John Boehner rejects the president’s call for a higher minimum wage:

“I’ve been deadling with the minimum wage issue for the last 28 years that I’ve been in elected office,” he told reporters. “And when you raise the price of employement, guess what happens? You get less of it. At a time when Americans are still asking the question ‘Where are the jobs?’ why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?”

OK, so leaving aside the question of whether the duration of Boehner’s service renders him an expert on the question, let me pose the issue in an alternate light.

When you raise the compensation for employment, guess what happens? Employers (who have income enough to choose between saving and spending) do less saving, and more spending. The minimum-wage worker has more money in his pocket to spend on goods and services. Businesses where this worker spends money will have higher revenue, and will be able to hire more people or increase orders from suppliers, either of which will increase employment.

There is an equation from Michal Kalecki I could cite that represents this point mathematically, but I think that empirical data is more persuasive. Studies show that increases in the minimum wage do not, in fact, increase unemployment. Moreover, if you look at international figures, you’ll see that high-wage countries such as Australia and Sweden often have better employment figures than countries where poverty wages prevail.

What say you, Boehner?

*I say “ostensible” because Boehner does not seem to be able to deliver a majority of votes, in contrast to the last four Speakers, and in contrast to the prime ministers who play similar roles in other parliaments.


There Is No Federal Fiscal Crisis

by Will on February 11, 2013

I have heard a number of people refer to “the pending fiscal crisis”. I even heard NPR’s Steve Inskeep devote a segment to it this morning on the radio. (I must stress, once again, that NPR’s economic and financial reporting is abysmally, inexcusably bad, to the point where it’s probably a good rule of thumb to assume the truth of the opposite of whatever they say). It is necessary to point out that this sort of talk is nonsense.

A nation is not like a household. When it spends beyond its revenues, it issues bonds that investors hold as safe assets. A crisis occurs when investors doubt that these bonds are any good–when they doubt, in a word, that the state will honor its obligations. Investors’ level of confidence or doubt manifests itself in the going rate of interest on these bonds, set by investors opting to hold or not hold them. If the prevailing interest rate is below the market rate, there is no problem. You see a crisis when the interest rate jumps and keeps jumping (as has been happening in Greece, Ireland, and Spain).

How’s the interest rate on our treasury bills these days?


It should be evident from viewing the chart that rates are at historically low levels, and low even relative to 2010, signaling that investors have vanishingly little anxiety that the government will pay bondholders (rather, their anxiety is finding a decent return elsewhere). The rate shown above is for 30-year bonds, which is higher than the rate on 10-year or 1-year bonds. The rate on 1-year bonds is lower than the rate of inflation, which is to say, in real terms, it’s below zero.

If a business were offered investment with a rate of interest below zero, by numerous reputable private investors, would you ever describe this situation as a “crisis”?

What we have is  a political crisis, resulting from institutions that were designed for the 1780s, and a population that has an unusually large number of people who have still not made their peace with the Enlightenment. That crisis is real and urgent. The so-called fiscal crisis is nothing but a sham.

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