2011/07/05

On being a "dick"

The context of the debt limit debate is that it's long since been leaning very, very heavily to the right-wing side. President Obama offered all sorts of sweeteners and concessions and outright gifts and was just asking for a few minor concessions to get revenue a bit up. What did he get for his troubles? He got called a "dick" by MSNBC’s Senior Political Analyst Mark Halperin. Full disclosure: My full legal name has always been Richmond, but I used to go by the nickname Dick. Back when I worked as a receptionist at a private school, I was thinking of changing it anyway and the final straw came when two female students were talking to each other in front of my desk: "So what do you think of [Our Vice-Principal who also taught a few courses]?" "Oh, he's okay, but he's kind of a dick." I didn't say anything to them, but I decided that since some people I liked were using the nickname of Rich for me anyway, I'd adopt that as my new nickname. So yes, in some contexts, dick is a swear word, but in others, Dick is simply a first name.

Why did progressives consider it outrageously unacceptable for Halperin to call the President a naughty name? We, as a group, are not particularly concerned with "naughty language," but James Fallows of the Atlantic put his finger on the problem:


In this case, the "what" of Obama's press conference -- the unbelievable recklessness of mainly House Republicans in inviting the largest self-inflicted economic wound in American history -- deserves every bit of frustration Obama showed, and lots more. In the long run we'll have some sense of whether Obama's typical surreal unflappability, whatever its origins (I have my theories, but for another time), was the wisest long-term response to today's Republican party -- and whether this unusual flash of emotion worked in directing public attention to a looming and entirely unnecessary blow to America's wellbeing. [emphasis in original]

The problem was, as Fallows said, that Halperin, as a political commentator, was acting instead as though he were a theater critic or a figure-skating judge. He was judging Obama's performance and making judgments as to "how it was playing in Peoria." That's not the job of a political commentator. How something plays with the public is something that should be left up to the public to decide. A political commentator can refer to polls if he likes, but he's not a theater critic and shouldn't second-guess the public. The real problem was the incredibly radical stance that the Republicans Party as a whole was and is taking in the deficit debate. That's the job of a political commentator! Their job is to look below the surface and to tell us why the actors were behaving the way they were. Calling the President names because Obama showed an uncharacteristic flash of anger shows us an incredibly shallow commentator who really should find himself another line of work.

Just ran across a piece explaining how Howard Kurtz considers Halperin "a substantive guy." Kurtz does indeed mention that

"Now the indictment is being expanded to saying Mark Halperin is the epitome superficial theater criticism and, you know, empty beltway conventional wisdom," Kurtz noted.

Of course, Kurtz's comment is a typical piece of Village "empty beltway" commentary as he completely fails to explain what any of that means to someone who hasn't been reading the blog posts of lefty critics. As a TV performer, Kurtz's audience is obviously vastly larger than those of the blogs and magazines that have leveled that charge at Halperin. The effect, of course, is to characterize Halperin's critics as making obscure, hard-to-understand charges.

Now, a very important thing to keep in mind when one looks at the deficit debate is that in 2004, President G.W. Bush offered corporations a "tax holiday," an opportunity to bring back the cash that they had earned overseas with very small taxes to pay in return:

And it was a total failure. Companies did indeed take advantage of the amnesty to move a lot of money back to the United States. But they used that money to pay dividends, pay down debt, buy up other companies, buy back their own stock — pretty much everything except increasing investment and creating jobs. Indeed, there’s no evidence that the 2004 tax holiday did anything at all to stimulate the economy.
What the tax holiday did do, however, was give big corporations a chance to avoid paying taxes, because they would eventually have repatriated, and paid taxes on, much of the money they brought in under the amnesty. And it also gave these companies an incentive to move even more jobs overseas, since they now know that there’s a good chance that they’ll be able to bring overseas profits home nearly tax-free under future amnesties.

So, does it really do America any good to permit corporations to keep more of their earnings? Sure doesn't sound like it to me. This is a critical leg of the whole deficit debate. The idea is that government spending crowds out private investment. The charts shown at the link show private investment going down from 2007 to 2009 and government spending going up. These facts are entirely true, but there was no "crowding out" effect as the collapse of the housing bubble explains private investment going down while the need for government to step in and maintain necessary services and to therefore engage in deficit spending explains government spending going up. It's simply not the case that government spending was making it difficult for private investors to obtain "scarce resources."


The problem here of course, is that the crowding out theory is a theory that regards investment as a fixed value, as a zero-sum game and not a positive-sum game. When a football team gains yards towards its goal, the other side is pushed further away from its goal. This is an example of a zero-sum game as the total yardage doesn't change. When a baseball team gets bases on the other hand, this is a positive-sum game as the number of bases that one team gets to is limited only by the time that the teams have to play in and by the competence of the teams' opponents. 


Government spending and private investment are engaged in a positive-sum game where there is no limit to the amount of wealth that they can both spend. The "crowding out" effect doesn't exist.


An interesting chart from Business Insider shows that the income of the top decile (Top 10% of income-earners) has been growing by leaps and bounds, starting in the early 1970s and really taking off during the Reagan Administration. How was productivity doing during the same period? Productivity is the value produced by each worker. Actually, the gains in wealth by the top income-earners closely tracks with the gains in labor productivity. Productivity, too, has been growing rapidly. A not-terribly-surprising result of these two trends is that corporations are sitting on enormous piles of cash, surely as much as a trillion dollars and probably more.


So how are regular folks doing? What about state finances? The government of Minnesota is alleged to have a serious spending problem. The Republican House Speaker, Kurt Zellers says


“We’re talking about runaway spending that we can’t afford,... And we will not saddle our children and grandchildren with mounds of debts with promises for funding levels that will not be there in the future.”

While the New York Times publishes this charge without making any attempt to demonstrate that the charge is either true or false, substantiated or not, the economist who quotes them shows very quickly and easily that state spending hasn't actually increased over the past decade, not is it scheduled to increase over the next half-decade. Again, as with Howard Kurtz and the "theater criticism" charge, the press corps lies by omission. It's not that they say things that are false, but that the reader is left with no way to determine whether the charge is true or not. The result of that is that Minnesota's government has to partially shut down for the indefinite future, but very few people in the state have a clear understanding as to why that is. All they know is that the Republican Party is screaming about the state suffering from some sort of fiscal crisis. A crisis that doesn't actually exist in the real world.


What are some of the other consequences of the alleged fiscal crisis? Well, Republicans in Congress have decided that certain government departments are not really needed, specifically, that "the principal federal agency that does testing for contamination — such as E. Coli — of fruits and vegetable produce" is a superfluous, unneeded waste of the taxpayers' money. Ordinarily, Americans would choose to keep such government services running anyway, but if the US is suffering a fiscal crisis, well then, sacrifices must be made!


Ordinarily, the US Government would have the political strength to punish companies that pollute through both routine leakage and spillage and through the occasional disaster.


An oil spill in Montana's Yellowstone River surged toward North Dakota on Sunday as outraged residents demanded more government oversight of Exxon Mobil's cleanup.
An estimated 750 to 1,000 barrels, or up to 42,000 gallons, spilled overnight Friday through a damaged pipeline in the riverbed, Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said. The break near Billings could be related to the river's high water level, officials said.

Montanans are urging a much more energetic reaction because their fishing industry is almost as important to the state's economy as oil is. Montana gets about 11 million tourists a year in a state with a population of less than a million. Having an oil spill like they do could do serious harm to the standard of living of residents. Obviously, an energetic clean-up effort by Exxon/Mobil would be an all-expenditure project, with no prospect of serious profit at the end. Exxon/Mobil might earn a bit of good-will, but it's hard to show that on profit-loss statements.


A strong government hand is necessary here because Exxon/Mobil is obviously slacking off and clearly doesn't wish to expend serious resources to contain the spill. Not that there's any reason, under classical capitalist theory, why they would. The problem is, this sort of strong government reaction is precisely what the Grover Norquist "Starve the beast" theory explicitly rules out. A government that's competent to take charge of the spill response is necessarily one that is well-funded and that has the extra cash and personnel to handle something like that.


In a generally good piece, USA Today makes a point that I strongly disagree with:


Republicans deserve major credit for forcing action on deficit reduction when President Obama and many Democrats in Congress were showing little interest.

But there was a reason that Democrats "were showing little interest." Cutting expenditures is a grand idea in theory and is generally a good thing for a country to do, but not when cutting expenditures interferes with more important priorities. Global Warming and Peak Oil are two problems that are vastly more critically important and that need much more urgent attention. US unemployment is around 9%. That's vastly too high a rate for Americans to be puttering around with unneeded distractions like the deficit. When, in five or ten or so years, these higher priorities have been handled, then we can worry about deficits!


I strongly disagree with President Obama's approach to dealing with Republicans. Starting up what progressives call the "Cat Food Commission" (Officially, the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission) was an awful idea that gave far too much credence to Republican complaints and distracted America from getting the aforementioned problems under control. The President is obviously a Blue Dog Democrat who leans much too far to the right for my tastes, but he has been showing some stiffening of the spine lately and that's something progressives should encourage. If that makes people like Halperin angry enough to call him names, tough for them!

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