Archive for April, 2011

The Chess Game of the Crazies

Ben Wallace-Wells’s profile of Paul Krugman contains this frustratingly imprecise paragraph:

There are times, however, when the consequences of Krugman’s perspective, the darkness of his view of American politics, come into view. In the health-care-reform debate, he saw evidence of “racial hate-mongering.” When the crazed assassin Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords in January, Krugman saw intimations of a broader disorder to come. “The harshness and the incipient violence are very real,” he told me. The liberal historian Michael Kazin, of Georgetown, told me he thought Krugman’s account of the right succumbed to the old Marxist flaw of false consciousness: “Unlike what Krugman says, conservatism is not some kind of smoke screen for another agenda.” In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman was plainer still: “Yes, Virginia,” he wrote, “there is a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

For starters, I went back and reread the passage in question in Krugman’s book and I think that Wallace-Wells has misread Krugman in his final sentence. My take, and I think Krugman’s, is that the stoking of the paranoid style in American politics, that is, feeding the dangerous, true-believing right-wing crazies, is a tactical maneuver on the part of the relatively small number of economic plutocrats who effectively rule the the GOP and the broader conservative movement.  There are tons of obvious benefits to this – not only does having a vigorous undercurrent of extremist nuts, fueled by talk radio frothers, scare the crap out of lawmakers, but it also furthers a broader political goal of distracting America’s white majority into voting against its economic interests. The passage in the book supports this interpretation – Krugman’s point here is about the institutional structure of the conservative movement, not its ultimate aims. Wallace-Wells seems to be claiming that Krugman thinks that conservatism is about producing social disorder and chaos as an end in itself – a strange and dubious idea.

With that in mind, I’m not sure there is really as much disagreement between Kazin and Krugman as Wallace-Wells has set up here. But if there is, Krugman seems to have the better of the argument. The point is that the conservative movement has, for the last 50 years, been spectacularly bad at achieving its social goals in spite of spectacular success at its economic goals. Given that track record, it’s hard for me to see how the center-left consensus on this that Krugman subscribes to is wrong: the conservative movement is happy to pursue its stated aims on abortion and crime and drugs, but when push comes to shove they’ll always take a back seat to tax cut maximalism and goodies for big business.

Why having no health insurance sucks

Yglesias notes that the $94000 “income” figure in Ross Douthat’s recent column includes the value of health insurance, but there are a couple implications from this that he doesn’t discuss. One is that this stat is just a terrible measure of wealth, and the reason is that as health care costs increase as they have been doing, so will the number, canceling out any value derived from this form of “compensation.” The other is that this really makes it clear how badly off you become  if you lose your health insurance. Bankruptcy risks aside, this is tens of thousands of dollars worth of “compensation” that evaporate in an instant relative to the compensation one’s peers are receiving.

Tax simplification

As I prepare to get up early to start dialing the IRS tomorrow because apparently someone else has already filed a return using my Social Security Number, it occurs to me that this is an underrated case for tax return simplification. As many of the leading lights of the liberal blogosphere are fond of pointing out at this time, most people shouldn’t have to file returns the way we do now – instead you should just get a statement from the IRS of what you owe/are owed since they already have all your income information. But one side benefit of this would be that proactive tax statements from the IRS will largely kill the kind of identity theft issue I seem to be facing right now. Fewer taxpayers having to submit SSNs to the IRS means fewer bogus, stolen, or mistaken SSNs being submitted to the IRS. Everyone wins – honest taxpayers have easier and safer filing, and the government wastes fewer resources on sorting out these kinds of messes.

Public Policy journals

In the field of law, the leading edge of legal thought is led by law students in the form of university law journals. So why isn’t the world of policymaking driven by university public policy students in the form of public policy journals? I’m less interested in this as an abstract question (I suspect much of the answer has to do with public policy schools being relative academic newcomers compared to law) and more in how its implications might be used as a counterweight against moneyed interests in Washington. A world in which university students are playing some bigger role in setting the policy agenda and providing expertise used by Congress is a world in which lobbyists have a little less influence.

Economics lurks in everything

I was having a real-life debate with Carlos about why Miami sports fans seem so terrible. When Miami teams win, the stadiums are only full if there’s a reasonable shot at winning a championship. And when they don’t win…things look pretty pathetic. To be sure, there’s an element of fair-weather fandom going on here, as there is in just about all sun belt cities that don’t have old pro sports traditions. But my take is that there’s more to it than that.

Sprawl is partly to blame. The main football and baseball stadium (until the new downtown baseball park is built) is about 15 miles from both downtown Miami and downtown Ft. Lauderdale. The spread-out geography of the area means that planners are stuck; if they try and split the difference and build midway between these built-up areas,  they please almost nobody except the people who live near the county line. (Traffic in South Florida competes with LA for worst in the nation when the economy is in good shape.) And if they pick a city, like the Florida Panthers did, and build a stadium relatively close to one of them, they’re writing off people in the other entirely. My interest in watching hockey live was rather diminished when the Panthers moved an extra 20 miles from my house.

Also, weather matters for baseball, I’d imagine. With so many rainouts, it’s hard to build a fan base that wants to come to the games.

But what I think it really comes down to is price. Knowing the place’s history with pro sports, my hunch was that Miami fans perennially get violated by rapacious owners who charge crazy prices for seats. And sure enough: “Miami’s median household income ranks as the fifth-lowest among the 29 major sports markets, yet the combined Fan Cost Index for its four sports teams is seventh-highest.” Note that that analysis was done before the recession, so incomes appear inflated if anything – anyone want to bet whether the owners lowered prices in proportion to consumer belt-tightening?

Surprise, surprise – when you gouge fans on seeing the games live, on the margin watching on TV becomes a more attractive substitute.

How about not being morons in the first place?

Scott Walker and his fellow GOP governors in Ohio and Michigan are starting become the targets of recall efforts, and now through a friend in Maine I see that tea partying GOP Gov. Paul LePage (the one who likes to remove labor-oriented murals) is now the subject of a nascent movement to do the same. I have some sympathy for the midwestern electorate, who didn’t see Walker, Snyder, or Kasich really play up their anti-labor preferences during campaigning. But I can’t say the same for Mainers. LePage’s problems were obvious from the beginning.

It would be nice if the people who are now demanding recall as a solution to their state’s problems would devote some effort toward aggressive civic education to prevent these kinds of politicians from being elected in the first place. If voters actually gave ten seconds thought to what the tea partiers prefer, they’d be crushed every time at the ballot box. Yet you never see this kind of long game being proposed – instead everyone’s immediately fixated on the short-term and probably anti-progressive recall outcome whenever an elected official starts pursuing a radical agenda that was clearly evident to anyone who paid even the slightest bit of attention.