Sunday, August 7, 2011

QOTD: HTML Mencken

The thing about the great internet satirists/comedians like Roy Edroso, Tbogg, and the Sadlynaughts is that to be a funny satirist you must first and foremost be an insightful and perceptive analyst in addition to whatever je ne sais quois makes one additionally hilarious.  So I was quite pleased to see HTML Mencken reappear at Sadly, No! a few days ago after a long absence, and it is no surprise to me that the author of one of the all-time great political posts (seriously, read and bookmark that thing if you've never seen it) is back with another great observation worth more notice (bold text added):
But it is Obama’s fault that he’s functioned as a de facto wingnut Trojan horse, and it’s his fanatic supporters’ fault that there is not a consensus on the left accepting of the reality that Barack Obama, a Democrat, has won victories for wingnuttery that Republican Presidents could never win — or dare to even try. One hears “Only Nixon could go to China” a lot these days in reference to Obama’s behavior, the point, I think, being that Obama is performing a superficially self-reversing maneuver in order to substantively further his and his party’s goals, for the good of all — which is what Nixon more or less did. Nixon’s tilt toward the Chicoms did not sabotage what he thought was the most important goal in his party’s foreign policy, which was the containment of the Soviet Union; in the context of conservatism, Nixon was unorthodox but “meant well.” In contrast, in making it safe to destroy social security and medicare, Obama does not “mean well” by liberalism; he does mean to sabotage the most important plank in his party’s philosophy, which is equality through a social safety net. Nixon was using liberal means to further conservative aims; Obama is putting a liberal face on conservative means to achieve conservative ends.
 That is a fantastic insight.  Nixon saved a major conservative goal from conservative short term stupidity in being unwilling to even talk to China when it would be clearly advantageous to the larger goal of containing the Soviet Union to do so.  Obama is not serving some larger liberal aim by cutting Medicare or Social Security.  The most generous interpretation is that he believes the neoliberalism triumphant TINA ("There is no alternative") hypothesis that says the demise of these programs is inevitable and at best he can only delay their demise (this is what I've read explains Tony Blair).   He is not even plausibly aiding his party's long term prospects.  Nixon going to China did not hurt average Americans at all.  He pissed off the extreme anti-communists but otherwise nothing bad happened to America as a result.  Obama is removing the floor that keeps the poorest Americans from falling into the basement when they get sick or old.  Lots of real people will be hurt by this, and they know it (or will be told of it by cynical Republicans happy to exploit a Democrat stepping on the third rail voluntarily).  They will vote accordingly.

The rest of the post is excellent and worth a look.  He makes reference to other events that are perhaps more comparable to what Obama is doing - Andrew Johnson siding against the reconstruction Republicans after Lincoln's death and John Tyler governing as a 19th century Democrat even though he was elected as a Whig under the deceased Harrison. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

All economic discussions need to drop absolute dollar figures

The use of absolute dollar figures in economic discussions drives me crazy.  Given the realites of inflation and population growth, the absolute dollar figures for everything will nearly always be the highest in history.  In non-political terms, the one that bugs me most is the list of top grossing movies.  Compare that list (which doesn't have a movie made before 1993 in the top 20) to this list adjusted for inflation.  One can still quibble about these things, after all in the era of Gone With the Wind there wasn't things like television, TiVo and movie piracy, and clearly these things drove increased ticket sales.  Still, the point should be obvious that you cannot measure the "top grossing" movies in unadjusted dollars and expect to get any kind of fair comparison. 

In politics, this sort of thing is far worse.  Today's example from the Politico:
The White House anticipates unemployment at 8.25 percent, and Goldman Sachs and others warn the number could be higher — close to 9 percent, which would mean no net job growth after the biggest stimulus package in the history of the world. No president has won reelection when unemployment was higher than 7.2 percent in 50 years.
I don't doubt this is true in absolute dollar figures.  But "the history of the world" is a big claim.  Was the ARRA really bigger than the construction of the Great Wall of China?  Bigger than World War II?  Bigger than the Great Pyramids?   Only a comparison using relative economic indicators (such as ratio to GDP, or some kind of inflation adjusted metric) could possibly tell you this.  Anyone who has more than glanced Krugman's direction over the past several years will know the serious economic objections to this claim anyway:  1) ARRA was far too laden with poorly stimulative tax cuts and 2) It really only counteracted the precipitous decline in State government spending so that there was no net government stimulus. In fact, once you adopt a metric that compares to the size of the economy, it's clear the US stimulus program wasn't even the biggest one in the world in 2009 - Saudi Arabia's program was bigger as a percentage of GDP. 

Leaving aside the ancient examples, it's pretty clear to me that WWII remains the biggest stimulus program ever in any meaningful sense worth discussing.  That WWII wasn't explicitly designed as a stimulus program doesn't matter, as the theory driving stimulus only requires that a) the economy be under utilized and b) that government spend a lot of money, which clearly fits the bill c1939-1942. 

I think this can be fixed.  The general public understands a surprising number of abstract and relative metrics.  We typically measure unemployment as a percentage, and not in absolute terms.  People have some sense of what "GDP" is (though I doubt many could tell you how it is calculated).  It's sloppy journalism (unsurprising from the Politico) and it opens the door to various dishonest demagogues with agendas to push.