Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Lionization of the Free Market: "But at some point, this game has to stop":

In an interview with Ezra Klein, the Director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking Robert Jackson makes the above quote. He also expands on a basic argument that our financial and political structure is institutionally biased towards creditors (e.g. banks) rather than debtors. In short, that "our politics, our lawmaking institutions, are set up to disproportionately represent people who have money." (Bold mine - JMG)

What Jackson sees as a functional result is that:
when given the choice between forcing Greek citizens through the grinder of austerity or attempting a debt restructuring that can unleash unknowable consequences in the credit default swap market or the relations between large banks, to choose austerity. They don’t understand what kind of collateral damage will be done when you resort to restructuring rather than imposing more austerity.
Those that will suffer under their government's austerity (and people will suffer, that point is elided by far too much) are underrepresented in government relative to the people who would suffer under Greek debt restructuring.

The important point I mean to make with this, is that political structure and market structure are mutually re-enforcing institutions that are shaped-at least in part-by political choices. I say this point is important, because in the process of lionizing the free market that political representatives often engage in, we lose sight of the actual complexities of markets themselves.

The basis for the appeal the "free market" has as a political slogan is rooted in an oversimplification of the idea. The internal logic is that market outcomes are must be by definition just, since the patterns of the market are inherently non-coercive. This leads all kinds of silly post hoc rationalizations for unseemly conduct because; if patterns of a free market only produces just outcomes, then the outcomes of the free market can only be just. (For an example of the genre, read Michael Levin's defense of Ebeneezer Scrooge.)

What this kind of simplistic exhalation of the market ignores is the very real dynamics of how political and cultural institutions influence the market itself (and how the markets influence those institutions). The government of Greece is much more willing to push for austerity in part because those that would suffer more under austerity are underrepresented relative to those who would suffer more under debt restructuring. To seek to understand these dynamics is the accept the fact that economic outcomes does not always occur in a vacuum of political influence, that markets are shaped many factors, and that the justice of those factors is not always clear.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fox News on UC Davis

Apropos to this clip, I am genuinely curious about a few things:

1) How long can conservative commentators and news broadcasters openly articulate their contempt for non-ideologically aligned protesters, and provide tactic endorsements to the assault of American citizens before some type of backlash sets in.

2) Is there going to be a point in which the cognitive dissonance between ostensibly supporting "limited government" yet also openly praising police state-style tactics causes some kind of intellectual issue for conservative news mouthpieces?

3) Lastly; how can any conservative of good conscience hear Bill O'Reilly say
“We don’t have the right to Monday morning quarterback the police,” he said. “Especially at a place like UC Davis, which is a fairly liberal campus.”
and remain silent on the atrocious implications of such a statement?

"A time-travelling Marco Rubio"

Daniel Larison has some good fun at Bill Kristol's expense:
I’m not sure why Kristol keeps making these bizarre pronouncements about the 2012 field. Is he trying to pioneer new ways to be spectacularly wrong about things?

I have to admit, Mr. Kristol has been an innovator in the field.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Deficient Reduction; politics versus policy

I've recently been writing on the ways that undue attention is paid to the politics of an issue, as opposed to actual policy outcomes. My first two examples came from the conservative end of the spectrum; namely Newt Gingrich and Tea Partiers cum environmental activists. Today I wanted to continue the theme, but with a different example.

First, a primer: out of this summer's debt ceiling debate/hostage crisis, a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was created as a compromise. The basic goal of the committee was to produce a plan the reduced the federal budget deficit by $1.5 trillion dollars over a ten-year period. If the committee failed to produce a bipartisan plan that could be scored by the Congressional Budget Office (a process that takes about 48 hours) before Thanksgiving, then automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion would go into effect. This is refereed to as “the trigger,” although technically it is a process called “sequestration.” At any rate, the automatic cuts where designed to do two things. First, the trigger itself is combination of defense and domestic spending cuts. This was supposed to give the Democrats and Republicans on the committee equal incentive to agree on a compromise. Second, in the event the committee suffered political deadlock, the deficit would still be reduced; albeit in a way that is somewhat draconian, yet also with political coverage for both parties.

So, a spoiler-alert for those who have more important things to do than follow politics all day: The JSC failed to produce a bi-partisan plan. Quite a bit a the political horse-race news coverage is devoted to the implications of it's failure.

With this, I wanted to highlight Matthew Yglesias' very smart piece on how the JSC's failure is a victory for those who prioritize deficient reduction, and why the emphasis on “bi-partisanship” over actual policy outcomes is absurd. Specifically, Yglesias writes that news “is being termed a “failure,” and by the standards of D.C.’s fetishization of bipartisanship, it is one. But in terms of deficit reduction, failure is actually better than success.” (emphasis mine – JMG)

This is a re-occurrence of the basic theme I have been trying to emphasize: a large and disproportionate segment of politics and political media is concerned with the political optics of an issue or event that it is with the actual outcomes of it. Read Yglesias' piece and you'll understand, from a pure deficit-hawk point of view, the failure of the JSC is the best possible outcome. Whether the outcome is coded as “partisan” or “bi-partisan” shouldn't matter.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Culture, Policy and Ideology

There are a number of factors that influence a person's political orientation. I would argue that in the day-to-day horse race coverage of political campaigns, we lose sight of the importance of cultural factors and how they shape people's ideological orientation; regardless and sometimes even in contrary to policy preferences. As a specific example of this, I would like to point to this Berkes and Harris piece published by Slate.com.

The article itself is about a regulatory loophole in that the EPA has given to cement kilns that run on hazardous waste. The basics are these plants are legally allowed “to emit greater amounts of some toxic chemicals into the air than the hazardous-waste incinerators specially designed to burn the very same chemicals—including industrial solvents, aluminum-plant waste, and other toxic leftovers from the production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and oil.” The reasoning for this allowance is unclear in the article. The EPA spokesperson quoted in the article simply states that the regulations are “set with a margin of public health and safety.”

One such plant: Ash Grove Cement Co, is located in deep red Chanute, Kansas, is causing concern among some locals. One of these locals, Jeff Galemore and his five middle-aged siblings decided take action on their concerns and organize a “Chanute Environmental Rights Group.”

The Galemores describe themselves as conservative Republicans and they align with candidates and causes not considered sympathetic to tough environmental regulation. Jeff Galemore, who works with his dad in the family oil business, recently posted a sign on his front lawn announcing a meeting of a local Tea Party group. His sister, Selene Hummer, 51, owns a home-decorating store and proudly displays a “Sarah Palin 2012” bumper sticker on the rear window of her pickup.

We're not really tree-hugging liberals,” said Hummer. “But when your environment becomes damaged or you feel that you're being contaminated—I don't care what party you're in—this is your human life.” (Emphasis mine - JMG)

Now I am quite sympathetic to the Galemore's concern for their environmental safety, and I find it a failure of government when citizens are forced to question the safety of the air they breathe or the water they drink. That being said, the Galemore's inability to draw the line from their―and their neighbors―political choices to the policy outcomes that shape their community is a crucial failure of self-awareness. Participation in a representative government has both rewards and responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to consider the possible outcomes of your choices in representatives; and that includes how much environment degradation is tolerated in the name of being “pro-business.”

This is where I think culturally factors come into play. The phrase “pro-business” is a catch-all for low-tax, low-regulation ideology that allows candidates to elide by policy specifics. This also allows voters to avoid confrontation with policy outcomes as well. What being pro- or anti-business means in terms of tax levels or regulatory regime is less important than picking a side.

To illustrate this point: the key action of the Galemore's environmental organization was to hire an independent expert, “a former inspector for the Texas Air Control Board and an adviser to the Sierra Club,” to make his own analysis of pollution levels in Chanute. At an event the Galemore's organized, the “park pavilion teeming with dozens of people, filling most of the folding chairs and lining the room’s perimeter.”

Most were not there to listen. Their T-shirts read “We are Chanute” and “Real Families, Kansas Jobs.” Some were Ash Grove employees and their families. Others were community supporters of the plant.

There was heckling when the Galemores or a few allies criticized Ash Grove and voiced concern for their health and the environment. (emphasis mine-JMG)

I think this furnishes my point. The conservative, pro-business politics of Chanute is culturally mediated. The Galemore's attempts to raise legitimate policy questions as to what being “pro-business” entails has earned them a scarlet letter.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Culturally-Identified Ideology is Unconcerned with Policy

Newt Gingrich, correctly, remarks that voters are probably uninterested in the alleged $1.6 million he was paid by the mortgage broker Freddie Mac; the very same Freddie Mac he excoriated as a key driver of 2008's financial collapse. I believe he is correct.

Specifically, the optics of Gingrich earning such vast sums of money from a right-wing boogyman is more much damaging to his candidacy than the actual policy ramifications of it. Median voters, and I think the especially Republican primary voters, are much more concerned with cultural indicators than they are with policy outcomes. The fact that Mr. Gingrich admits as much is the real surprise.

I wanted to highlight this because it is one of those moments where Gingrich's mask slips. Per Wikipedia, Mr. Gingrich has "served as the 58th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999 and before that, as House Minority Whip. He represented Georgia's 6th congressional district as a Republican member from 1979 […]" After twenty years of holding a national-level public office, and even more as a public figure, I am sure Gingrich knows the fact that voters―especially Republican primary voters―are less concerned with policy ramifications of candidates than they are with the cultural and political signals the candidates transmit. This is how a thrice-divorced Gingrich is able to be taken seriously in a primary process of a party ostensibly dominated by "family values."

Update: From Dave Weigel, a reminder on just what kind of snakeoil Gingrich is selling:

It's true to say that Gingrich never "lobbied" for the bill. Lobbying is a distinctive career; you have to register to conduct it. Gingrich merely used his status as a conservative icon, with close ties to many House members and a well of respect with others, to advocate for policies.