Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cynical yet?

Mitch McConnell is testing out some new spin today, claiming that:

[President Obama] owned the Congress for the first two years. They did everything he wanted. Everything. The only thing they forgot to do — I don’t know why they overlooked this — they forgot to raise taxes.
This is rich coming from McConnell, who was the probably the largest singular force in the Republican party's legislative obstructionism.

The point I wanted to make here is the same one I made awhile back; the actual facts of an issue are rarely important, since partisans on both sides have a tenancy to simply filter out evidence that either doesn't confirm, or outright refutes their preconceived assumptions.

Partisan filters aside, I think the facts on the issue are quite clear.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Politics of Grievance

A week ago, I rhetorically asked about what the point of supporting the Newt Gingrich candidacy was. Well, ask and ye shall receive, as Talking Points Memo has just published a piece profiling the "Gingrich Base".

I want to be honest in that I try to be reasonably equanimous on people's political partisanship. Different people believe different things for different reasons. I think a lot of conservative policy choices are wrongheaded, but I understand the extent that reasonable people can disagree. That being said, some truly abominable opinions have been coming out of the woodwork since the Tea Party began dominating mainstream political discourse. Gingrich's appeal, it seems, is his nakedly appeal to this kind of constituency. Specifically, Gingrich is "[...] more willing to name-check many of the anti-Obama arguments favored by the Tea Party that are too politically incorrect for the frontrunner to touch." For example
Gingrich frequently warns of creeping Sharia law, calls Obama a “food stamp president,” and credits the president’s decision-making to his “Kenyan anti-colonial” ideology. Even for a Republican candidate, Gingrich’s voters skew elderly, the wing of the party most susceptible this kind of language.
Examples of this include Tina Skipper, a retired school teacher from Jacksonville, FL who said that
“When Obama knelt with the Muslims of New York City, I knew we had something bad going on — he really scares me”
Not to be outdone, an accountant named Eileen Loney claimed that
The threat from Muslims — I think the others shy around it
If all TPM could find was voters attuned to the anti-Muslim dog-whistling that has been going off for the past decade, that would be one thing. But then there is an unnamed retired manufacturing entrepreneur in Cocoa, FL who complains that
Everybody’s becoming dependent. Are the blacks going to vote for Newt or Romney? The Hispanics? The unions? The teachers? The only way to win is to get someone articulate who can turn out conservatives while the others stay home. But if everyone ends up being subsidized voters, we’re dead.” (emphasis mine - JMG)
There's a certain point where I'm at a loss for words as to how people can hold these types of views, let alone be proud of them enough to articulate them to a reporter with their name attached. Specifically, the contention that traditionally Democratic-supporting constituencies are nothing more than "subsidized voters" is doubly galling in the sense that it a) denies the validity of claims the poor might have for social assistance with the actual challenges of poverty, but b) it casts those that receive assistance for said poverty as nothing more than naked rent seekers who vote Democratic.

I understand it is easy to have glib views about "the Blacks" or "the Unions." It's something else entirely, I think, to openly appeal to such a segment of America's voters. In some ways, the success of the politics of grievance in recent years is an indictment against the political opportunists that court such sentiments; in other ways, it's commentary on the state of our electorate.

The Biology of Partisanship

An interesting study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on different biological responses to political image stimuli. First, the study design:
To gauge participants' physiological responses, they were shown a series of images on a screen. Electrodes measured subtle skin conductance changes, which indicated an emotional response. The cognitive data, meanwhile, was gathered by outfitting participants with eyetracking equipment that captured even the most subtle of eye movements while combinations of unpleasant and pleasant photos appeared on the screen.
Next, the results:
Consistent with the idea that conservatives seem to respond more to negative stimuli while liberals respond more to positive stimuli, conservatives also exhibited a stronger physiological response to images of Democratic politicians – presumed to be a negative to them – than they did on pictures of well-known Republicans. Liberals, on the other hand, had a stronger physiological response to the Democrats – presumed to be a positive stimulus to them – than they did to images of the Republicans.
The researchers were careful to not make a value judgment on either political orientation. But they did note that their discovery provided an opportunity to recognize the relevance of deeper biological variables in politics and turn down political polarization.
As far as I can tell, this type of research is still fairly new. I'm interested to see how political scientists integrate findings like this to their understanding of partisanship as more studies on topic are published.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Patterns versus Outcomes

Matthew Yglesias was his usually astute self the other day, explaining how concepts of “meritocracy” as the only pattern of social mobility does not really carry its utopian implications in its final analysis. Specifically, Yglesias explains that
[...] the more important thing to keep in mind is that a meritocracy is not necessarily a very admirable place, unless it's also a human society in which people are enjoying a high quality of life (emphasis his)
Yglesias' reminder is important because, at the end, concerns for real welfare outcomes cannot be ameliorated by keeping with a patterned system of social organization, no matter how well or just that pattern may seem designed.

Now, awhile back Ron Paul claimed that
You can't save free markets by socialism I don't know where this idea ever came from. You save free markets by promoting free markets and sound money and balanced budgets.
This understanding that United States' social problems would be rectified if the only the invisible hand of the market was unleashed is, as student of markets, a frustrating oversimplification on a few levels; but more importantly it glibly ignores the long term issues of free market patterns.

Markets produce both winners and losers. This is ideal because we find markets to be the most just way to sort between people who are “worthy” of wealth and power and those who are not. What I mean by this, is that people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg produced highly profitable and demanded products that in many ways increase overall social welfare. They have been rewarded for their innovations with large salaries, public profiles and attention among public policy makers. Steve Jobs “deserves” all of the wealth he amassed because he oversaw the profitable production of productivity and welfare increasing consumer electronics.

As an aside, I want to be clear here that am not attempting to equate individual wealth with moral rectitude or human value; nor should the reader take the implication that any of the gentlemen and gentlewomen who profit substantially from their business ventures are pure Horatio Algers'. The profitability of Apple, Facebook, Google, GE, et. al., must be viewed in the context of the public goods that American society provides.

I simply wish to claim that, compared to other possible social ordering options, the one that directly links increasing social welfare in a decentralized way (through products consumers demand) with cash incentives (the profitability of efficiently offering the best product) is in my view the superior choice.

Now, the mechanism that drives these positive outcomes is market competition. As with any competition that produces winners, there are losers as well. The main issue that free-marketers like Ron Paul elide by, is that a system the produces loser who struggle to feed or house themselves, or care for their children's basic medical needs, is particularly savage. If the choice to alleviate such savagery is "socialism," then I should apply for a party card.

My basic point is that we have real concerns for welfare outcomes based in our most innate ability to have a capacity for humanity. The outcomes of markets help use realize the goal of increasing human welfare, but we need to recognize that there are very real aspects of market outcomes that does violence to that goal. To ignore that, is a cowardly attempt to take the good without acknowledging the bad.

This is not an indictment against the free market system; it is simply a plea for greater understanding of it. Furthermore, the argument that markets are an end unto themselves, is one that evidences a basic ignorance how markets work, let alone the logic of the market system itself.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Forbearance, Forgiveness, Immunity and Complexity cont.

While it's only tangentially related to the bank settlement deal I previously discussed, I think former White House economics adviser Jared Bernstein unpacks some interesting details on the complexity of the housing market mess that bear highlighting. Bernstein is mostly talking about the pros and cons of mortgage forbearance versus forgiveness, with a specific point that the Federal Housing Finance Agency conservator of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, who in turn are 80% owned by the Fed gov't) could quickly reduce the principal on millions of home loans they own or insure, without going through Congress." The FHFA can do this either through a forbearance plan with underwater homeowners (which would restructure the terms of their loans) or forgiveness (which would actually reduce the principle of the loan itself.

"The path ahead," Bernstein explains "toward forgiveness, not forbearance—should be clear." The reasons why is the main thrust of what he's writing about here. Even if you just skim it (I certainly glazed over a few paragraphs myself) you defiantly start to see the complexities of the housing market problem.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Deep Thought

If you made 1% of Mitt Romney's income, you'd still be in the top income tax bracket (if filing as an individual)

Forbearance, Forgiveness, Immunity and Complexity

I wanted to share a few housing policy related thoughts, and a few pieces that have been kicking around my head and the blogosphere. First, the AP and New York Times have published similar reports a few days apart indicating some movement toward a final bank settlement deal. The negotiations are between the Housing and Urban Development Department, State Attorney Generals and five major banks: Bank of America, JP Morgan, Chase Wells Fargo, and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC). According to both articles, the topline figures include $25 Billion from these banks for underwater homeowners, "with up to $17 billion of that used to reduce principal for homeowners facing foreclosure," according to the Times; which also reports that:

Another portion would be set aside for homeowners who have been the victim of improper foreclosure practices, with about 750,000 families receiving about $1,800 each. But bank officials said Monday that the total amount of principal reduction and reimbursement would depend on how many states eventually sign on.
A few reactions to the settlement leak, and these reports, have been making rounds (which I suspect is partly why these types of leaks occur in the first place). First there is George Zornick of The Nation. The meat of the piece is a handful quotes from representatives of progressive constituencies, like House Rep Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who laments that "When laws are broken there need to be full investigations. Wall Street should not get another bailout.” Zornick himself claims that the deal is "terrible" and the $25B figure "inadequate". Felix Salmon of Reuters has a more measured take, explaining that the $25 Billion figure is "reasonably large," but adds that "most of that is principal reductions which would make a lot of sense for the banks even if there were no settlement at all."

I think it's important to keep sight of the fact that the opinions on the settlement size vary with a person's political inclinations, as well as a person's understanding what's both good policy and legitimately feasible. (Although I would like to be clear that I am not going to personally comment on the the adequacy of $25B over $50B or $5B. I just don't have a good understanding of the scale.)

Another wrinkle here is the issue of the amount of legal jeopardy banks will be vulnerable to at the end of the deal. I think it is clear that banks would prefer total immunity from civil/criminal suits, and legislators like Rep. Brown would prefer the fullest amount of investigation legally feasible. But as Salmon points out:

"If you’re a bank in settlement talks and you want to do across-the-board principal reductions while removing yourself from legal jeopardy, of course you try to connect the former to the latter. After all, principal reductions plus immunity from prosecution looks much more attractive than principal reductions on their own. And the government can’t announce a big settlement figure if the banks have already reduced the principal on a lot of mortgages anyway." (emphasis mine - JMG)
Moreover, the negotiation of the immunity issue seems to extend beyond just banks and public representatives. According to the Times, there is a bit of internal politics within the State Attorney Generals who are (rightly) attempting to shape a final deal that most benefits their constituents. Specifically,
In a bid to win support from California officials, [Housing Secretary Shaun] Donovan proposed earmarking $8 billion in aid for beleaguered California homeowners, but that left other state attorneys general incensed, according to an official familiar with the negotiations.
The big takeaway I would like everyone to have from all of this, is that even seemingly clear-cut issues like prosecuting larger banks for the fraud associated with their mortgage/foreclosure practices, can be much more complex than they initally appear. Different stakeholders have different incentives and that the process of maximizing various interest group demands is rarely a black-and-white, let alone glamorous process.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Just Realized

I think in a lot of ways, the current base of the Republican party is made up of people who don't have a lot of concern for what they're told, as long is it reconfirms their prejudices in the most strident manner possible.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Quote of the Day

Today's is from William Deresiewicz's excellent "Solitude and Leadership"
I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.

What is the Point?

In my experience, working on a political campaign is a uniquely draining activity. The canvassing, the phonebanking, the information sessions, the registration drives. It all adds up to an untold number of volunteer hours, not to mention how taxing the itself work can be. During a campaign, the rationale that keeps me motivated and invested in the work is that there are real tangible policy outcomes that I would prefer. My contribution to getting a bill passed or an candidate elected helps government realize those personally preferred policies. I work to get more liberal candidates elected into office because I wish to realize more liberal policy outcomes overall. In converse, conservatives work to get more conservative candidates elected to help realized more conservative policy outcomes. This is an important distinction that I do not think enough commentators, much less voters, make.

I bring this up because I am genuinely confused by the Newt Gingrich surge/ascendency to “front-runner” status. In that same vein, I'm also befuddled by the recurrent suggestions from various liberals I've talked with about how Obama “should be primaried”. I find these opinions related in the sense that I think that the people who hold these views both have a fundamentally different understanding (and I would argue misunderstanding) of what politics is supposed to produce.

First, Newt Gingrich beat Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary by a significant margin (12%), and the current polling in Florida doesn't brighten the picture that much for the former Massachusetts Governor. Erick Erickson and Byron York have both written similar sounding reactions to Gingrich's victory. York found two former Huntsman supporters who have thrown their weight behind Gingrich instead of Romney.
Why? Even after four years of trying, Campbell can't quite accept Romney's changes of position on abortion and other issues. But beyond that, Campbell explained, there was something about Romney that he, like a lot of other South Carolinians, just couldn't live with. "[Voters] can't quite get that comfort level with him," Campbell said. “They don't really know quite where he really is coming from. It's an intangible." (emphasis mine – JMG)
Erickson is a little more strident with his assessment, stating that
People are mad as hell they are about to be stuck with another boring, moderate, uninspiring choice that has at best a 50/50 shot at losing to the worst president since Carter. They are flocking to Newt not because they think he’s a great guy, but because right now, he’s the only one fighting for conservatism and GOP voters are looking for a vessel to channel their anger with Obama and their complete disappointment with the GOP establishment which is now embodied perfectly by Romney. (emphasis mine – JMG)
As far as I can tell, much of the conservative reaction against Romney is grounded in voters need for their preferred candidate to emotionally embody their own anger and frustration. Newt Gingrich's pugnacity certainly fits the mold, as Erickson put it, of being a “vessel to channel [voters] anger,” especially against Romney's alleged passivity or “inauthenticity.”

Note, however, that neither York, nor Erickson however, found the space in their columns to mention Gingrich's broader ability to attract non-conservative base voters in the General Election. Talking Points Memo has conveniently just reported that “Gingrich’s favorability among general election voters — the metric that many pollsters argue is the key to understanding how the public feels about a candidate — is not high.” Specifically,
Newt’s favorability numbers have again plunged — his unfavorablity score hit 58 in a CNN poll, 56 in a Fox News survey, and 60 in Public Policy Polling (D) data.
Gingrich's toxicity has not been totally ignored, but many partisan conservative writers and commentators that are boosting for the former Speaker of the House certainly seem interested in omitting this reality. Erickson, in fact, claims that “[Republican primary voters] want a conservative fighter because most conservatives look back at Ford, Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush, and McCain and see only the ones taking a conservative path against the Democrats actually winning,” giving the implicit assumption that Gingrich is the “conservative fighter” that primary voters have been waiting for who can claim victory against Barack Obama, on the strength of his “true conservative” bonafides.*

Furthermore, CNN's South Carolina exit poll shows that among voters who said that “defeating Obama” was their most important quality, 51% of them voted for Gingrich. Now, I do not doubt that a majority of Republican primary voters of South Carolina genuinely believe that Newt Gingrich is their preferred choice for the party's nomination, but I think this shows us that the Republican primary voters of South Carolina probably have a skewed understanding of the candidate qualities necessary to win a General Election, especially against an incumbent President.

My question out of all of this; what is the point of getting a nominee elected to compete for the office of the Presidency? As I said above, there is a certain point were the rubber of political rhetoric has to meet the road of policy outcomes. Conservatives are working to elect a Republican candidate for the presidency, not a spokesmen who channels their anger. I just do not understand the point of expending all the effort the primary and general election campaigns require if your core goal is not realizing a government and policy regime that's more in line with your ideal preferences.

I do see how Newt Gingrich channels the frustration of conservative consistences, I do not see how an a man with a 60% unfavorablity rating serves the long-term goal of winning the highest national office and overseeing an enactment of the conservative agenda.

*This is the “true Scotsman” fallacy that is deliciously self-perpetuating, and is the most flagrant crutch of ideologues. If Gingrich (or Romney, or Santorum) wins the nomination and loses the general, Erickson and his hyper-partisan ilk will start writing about how Gingrich (or Romney, or Santorum) was not “sufficiently conservative enough,” and how in 2016, the Republicans will take back the Oval Office only if the party nominates whomever fulfills their preconceived litmus test of what a “conservative” is supposed to be.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Just Realized

I would be so much happier, if the poor in America were at least allowed basic dignity.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Truthiness as a Political Ideology

I would like to double, and if possible triple-down on George Packer's latest New Yorker column, specifically because of the clarity he instills on the general insanity of the Republican nomination process by highlighting the plight of the political reporter. Speficically, Mr. Packers lament:
"But political journalism—unlike war reporting—long ago stopped being about what is true or important. Sometime in the nineteen-eighties, reporters began covering politics like sports and entertainment. How many times and ways can you say that the Republican Party has descended into unreality and extremism before you lose your viewers and readers?"
My only complaint is that Mr. Packer's rhetorical question is just that; he leaves the answer to the reader. This is unfortunate because I think Mr. Packer knows what the answer is, and you should to. The answer and the problem begins with us. It has always been us. Namely, people do not particularly care about Mr. Packer's "truth" or "importance" in their consumption of political reporting. They care about their team to the extent that their team is winning, and the other is losing. In a word, Truthiness.

I'd like to spell this out a little more. I do not think it is particularly remarkable or controversial to claim that the demand for horse-race daily news-cycle reporting vastly outstrips the demand for an in-depth examination of policy. Think about the reasons why "birtherism" and "death panels" received so much breathless coverage and page views as opposed to say, the particulars of Barack Obama's biography or the political history of the individual mandate.

Now, why is that? Well, conspiratorial hysteria is what people like to buy, read and consume; and has been for quite some time. Mr. Packer is bemoaning a partly market produced outcome that unfortunately highlights the depressingly callow and unseriousness tastes of the political individual. The news media producers and consumers exist in a feedback system driven by mass interests and profit margins. People who don't like Barack Obama or the Affordable Care Act do not want (or perhaps have the capacity*) to explain their dislike for the President or the his signature legislation in policy terms. Britherism and death panels fill that void by giving non-substantive yet culturally powerful narrative of superiority and correctness (The phrase "Real Americans" comes to my mind). It allows people to rationalize their opinions without having to engage in the hard work of understanding the vocabulary and roots of our political problems and the possible policy solutions.

On October 15th, 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced the word "truthiness" on the debut of his eponymous comedy show; he defined it as a "truth" that a person claims to know from intuition only: "from the gut" or that it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. We all engage in truthiness at some time or another, especially when we form and argue our political orientation. In my mind there's nothing particularly wrong with that. To an extent, we need to form principles and ideas from our guts to begin with; you can even call it the "moral compass" if you like.

The problem is when an entire political ideology, perhaps even a major governing party begins descending into a hermetically sealed fever dream where Reagan never ever increased taxes or compromised his principles and the only way to save America is to stand athwart against the Kenyan, anti-colonial appeaser-in-chief regardless, of the validity of any of their claims. We are coming full circle to where the satire of Truthiness is now underpinning the very ideology it was trying to make light of.

*I would like to clarify by the meaning of "capacity" here. I mean to say that a number of people who oppose or perhaps aren't fully informed about the Affordable Care Act (or any other complex legislation for that matter) probably have more important things to do in their lives than master the basics of heath policy and economics.