It’s Only “Politicizing” When You’re Wrong

Here’s Frank Bruni on “The Exploitation of Paris” for the New York Times:

Can’t we wait until we’ve resolved the body count? Until the identities of all of the victims have been determined and their families informed? Until the sirens stop wailing? Until the blood is dry?

I’d like not to be told, fewer than 18 hours after the shots rang out, how they demonstrate that Americans must crack down on illegal immigration to our own country. I read that and was galled, and not because of my feelings about immigration, but because of my feelings about the automatic, indiscriminate politicization of tragedy.

It’s such a disrespectful impulse.

And it’s such an ugly one.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the Times newsroom when the assignments are handed out after such a tragedy. How do they decide who will write the articles denouncing politicization and who will write the politicized articles?

It wasn’t so long ago that I read Nick Kristof’s “A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths,” which details what Mr. Kristof calls “modest steps to reduce the carnage that leaves America resembling a battlefield” and which was published two days after the Umpqua Community College shooting.

Of course, both Mr. Bruni and Mr. Kristof write for the Opinion section of the Times. They haven’t been assigned viewpoints, and they’re entitled to have different ideas about the appropriate response to shootings. But it’s strange that Mr. Kristof and other perennial gun control advocates (for example, the president, who explicitly defended the practice of “politicization” immediately after Umpqua) escape Mr. Bruni’s criticism here.

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Combating Muslim Extremism Requires Nuanced Understanding

I’m frustrated today because in the wake of Paris there seems to be, once again, a post-attack popular backlash against thinking. In 2003, The Decider convinced us that The Gut was our best analytical tool. Today hordes of people blinded by anger and sorrow are taking to social media to denounce the sin of thinking (the timidity!) in the face of Western Civilization’s Greatest Threat.

I posted the following video clip on Facebook with the caption:

Always a breath of fresh air listening to someone who’s capable of entertaining nuanced thought (I’m not talking about Don Lemon). Our political discourse is So. Stupid.

 

A friend of mine, whose thinking is usually quite clear, posted the following response:

I’m afraid people like Reza are so enlightened and progressive that we are going to continue to fail to solve the problem that keeps pounding us in the face. The kind of Chomsky-ish apologetic way of thinking is not going to get rid of groups like ISIS, is not going to make the world a better place for women, is not going to stop suicide bombings… We have to be honest with ourselves about what the problem is if we are going to solve it. The problem is that there is large percentage of the Muslim community that believes ideas such as drawing cartoons of the prophet should be met with a death sentence, and believes that women should be punished for leaving their homes without proper clothing. It’s incredibly boring to hear people regurgitate over and over again that this isn’t a Muslim problem but an extremist one. The “extremists” causing all the trouble in the world are arguably the most devout believers on the planet. What does it say about a religion when we seek to point out all the good members of it because they’re moderates, that they don’t really take their belief seriously, that they don’t really believe everything written on the pages? It’s people like Reza that think it’s fair to attack the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for being offensive and that if anything we should all blame ourselves for western imperialism. Specific beliefs have specific consequences and right now we are all in considerable danger because there’s a lot of people that believe very specific things. The only way forward is to try and figure out a way to make Islam as a religion compatible with the modern world, the way Christianity, Catholicism, and others are. They all had their dark times in the past, sure, but there’s a reason you don’t worry on a daily basis of a Catholic is going to cut your throat. They reformed, and Islam has to as well. But saying that none of this is representative of Islam, that these assholes are just extremists and that we are all guilty of making them hurt us is masochistic bullshit that I’m afraid is going to get us nowhere.

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Time To Give Up On Good Macro Policy

A majority of the knuckleheads elected to run our country are opposed to the traditional use of macroeconomic policy to correct fluctuations of the economy. The size of the national debt seems to be the only measure simple enough for them to understand. Here’s a novel idea: Let’s sacrifice the economy at the altar of reducing the debt and hope that, when the smoke clears, economics is allowed to be the primary driver of economic policy again.

I had the privilege of attending the Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy conference at the International Monetary Fund in April. Terrific fun. But while I was only able to see this month’s Annual Research Conference panels online, I could still hear the despair in the voices of the last session’s guests all the way over here in Bangkok.

Why the long, bearded faces? As Adam Posen says, “You can’t defeat fiscal policy with monetary policy.” He’s explaining why Japanese monetary measures have been ineffective in the past two decades. Unfortunately, he happens to mention later in his comments that, with traditional fiscal policy off the table in the United States for political reasons, American monetary policy (which deals partly in expectations) is also hobbled by the public’s understanding of what is and isn’t on the table. “It may not be economically rationally justified to worry about the confidence fairies or about the austerity nutters, but they’re out there.” Posen’s eventual recommendation is basically to try to push unconventional monetary policy as far as it will go…because it probably doesn’t do much, anyway. Ouch.

Paul Krugman follows and echoes the idea that both fiscal and monetary measures face crippling political obstruction. “Fiscal policy is ruled out…the sad discovery is it turns out that adequate monetary policy also seems to be ruled out. And so what is the answer? I have no idea.” He’s almost crying.

These guys should stop beating their heads against the wall. Throw in the towel. Applying realpolitikal strategy to macroeconomic policy suggests that liberal (or Keynesian, or interventionist, or at this point any sort of traditional) macroeconomists should join the chorus of voices calling for a reduction in the national debt.

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Is This Cristiano Ronaldo’s Ultimate Goal?

I know what Cristiano Ronaldo really wants. At least, I think I do.

The former Manchester United winger and current Real Madrid superstar is the subject of constant speculation. Will he return to England or stay in Spain? Will he eventually move to MLS?

A lot of the speculation focuses on Cristiano’s motivations. Fans in Manchester dare to dream every time a Sunday rag claims the Portuguese still loves United. Madridistas, on the other hand, take solace from reports that he’ll finish his career with the club he grew up supporting. I believe the key to Ronaldo’s future is a more concrete motivation:

Cristiano Ronaldo thinks it’s possible for him to finish his career as the leading all-time goalscorer at both Manchester United and Real Madrid. Which means he may be eying a move back to Manchester as soon as August.

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Price Controls?

Does anyone know why Jim Grant is out and about calling expansionary Fed policy “price controls”? Do I just not know what price controls are?

Attacks on the Fed for its having the gall to follow the tenets of basic monetary policy – low rates during a time of high unemployment and weak demand – are to be expected from Rand Paul’s putative favorite for Fed chairman. (A bit like W.’s pick for the U.N., isn’t that?) But the use of the term “price controls” in this circumstance is just baffling to me.

I agree, though, that the Fed will remain patient on interest rates, for two reasons. One, there are still plenty of threats to our nascent recovery. And two, Janet Yellen don’t take no s**t from nobody.

Founding Foresight

Here’s Tom Cotton on the Founding Fathers’ extraordinary foresight

The Founding Fathers insisted that Congress have the power to ensure that no president, whoever he or she may be, can make a binding international agreement, especially one about nuclear weapons, with the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism.

I’d be tremendously surprised if Washington and Jefferson and company had actually said all that. 

But hey, that may be because my understanding of the Constitution is murky. I’ll be waiting by my mailbox for clarification.

I See White And Gold, But I Admit I’m Wrong

Like everyone else in the world, I’ve spent today trying to figure out what color this dress is. Some people think it’s blue and black, others see white and gold. Having asked people around me – without giving them context or choices – I can assure you it’s not a trick. People really do see different colors, and those around me are splitting about 75% White/Gold to 25% Black/Blue, just like BuzzFeed quiz responders.

I see white and gold. But I have very good reason to believe my brain is tricking me. Why? Here’s what the original image looks like:

Photo Feb 27, 09 20 05

And here’s what it looks like with the colors inverted:

Photo Feb 27, 09 20 05

While people differ on the color of the original, everyone sees the inverted version as white and gold. Which both damns my original White/Gold perception and offers an explanation for it.

Damns it because the opposite of white is, of course, black. And the opposite of the royal blue other people report seeing is the light gold we see above, as this juxtaposition of opposite colors shows:

olympia_blue

So it seems obvious that the true colors of the dress are blue and black, as other pictures show.

It explains it because those of us who see White/Gold are seeing the opposites of the true colors, Black/Blue, but switched around. I reckon our brains are perceiving the Black/Blue dress as being in shadow (or something) and simply making a color correction that we don’t need to make. (I don’t know how we’re then switching the two colors.) People who see Black/Blue aren’t making the same (mis)correction. Anyway, it’s an interesting insight into the degree to which what we see is what our brains decide to show us.

(P.S. The dress is way better in white and gold. That is not subjective.)

(P.P.S. “What Colors Are This Dress?” Seriously? Seek the subject, my friends.)

UPDATE: It’s blue and black for me now and I can’t get it back. The good news is I now believe the people who say it’s changing for them.

“Violent Extremism” Is The Correct Term

Fareed Zakaria has a piece in the Post today defending President Barack Obama’s use of the phrase “violent extremism” instead of “Islamic extremism.” I encourage you to read it for its profile of an Egyptian boy’s defection to ISIS. But I disagree with his argument that the president’s choice is just a bit of political strategery:

…far from being a scholar concerned with describing the phenomenon accurately, the president is deliberately choosing not to emphasize the Islamic State’s religious dimension for political and strategic reasons. After all, what would be the practical consequence of describing the group, also known as ISIS, as Islamic? Would the West drop more bombs on it? Send in more soldiers to fight it? No, but it would make many Muslims feel that their religion had been unfairly maligned. And it would dishearten Muslim leaders who have continually denounced the Islamic State as a group that does not represent Islam.

All of those things are surely actual benefits of not using the word “Islamic.” But President Obama’s “violent extremism” is not just politically and strategically reasonable. It’s absolutely more accurate than “Islamic extremism.”

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What Tim Worstall Is Telling Us About Inequality

I’m six months late, but I’ve just read this Forbes editorial by Tim Worstall. And I’m very confused.

Why I’m Confused

The article is about Paul Krugman’s take on the IMF’s take on inequality’s effect on growth. One way inequality affects growth is by reducing opportunities for the poor to use their talents. I’m going to quote Mr. Worstall at length here, so you can understand the source of my confusion:

Yes, it’s most certainly true that the poor in the US (most especially the urban and African American poor) do not have the same opportunities to make use of their talent. But this is a comment upon the disastrous state of the urban education system rather than anything else. That a system can have pupils for 12 years, spend $11,000 a year on each and every one of them on average, and still have people coming out of said system functionally illiterate and innumerate means that there’s something very wrong indeed inside that system. It’s not a lack of resources here, other school systems in other countries do very much better on much less money. Heck, the parochial school system inside the US does better on less money. Given that those inner city school systems are, and have been for decades, controlled by the sort of lefties who complain about inequality I’d say there’s some soul searching rather overdue there myself.

So, since urban schools spend a lot with little to show for it, there’s no “lack of resources” holding back the urban poor. And, of course, schools outside such poor areas do much better.

Wait…what?

Isn’t the fact that schools in poor areas struggle to achieve results no matter how much money they spend a very strong argument in favor of the idea that the poverty of the students themselves is what’s preventing them from reaching their full potential? How likely is it that the same “something very wrong indeed” just happens to present itself only in schools attended by impoverished students? There is not, to my knowledge, a unified “urban education system” that coordinates the efforts of its leftie controllers across America’s poor regions. And do those miraculous “school systems in other countries” happen to be located in places that do a better job of keeping their citizens above the poverty line?

Mr. Worstall seems to be forgetting that we’re talking about inequality rather than spending, which I can only assume is a favorite bogeyman of his (oh…quite). Poor kids are held back by the lack of resources that hangs over every aspect of their lives, not by academic under- or over-spending. That’s the problem with the poverty prevalent in unequal societies, of course: it creates obstacles too great for a bit more school spending per student to overcome. And that’s what Tim Worstall is – inadvertently – telling us about inequality.

Why Else I’m Confused

As an aside, I’m also confused about the article’s “important point.” Here’s Mr. Worstall:

And thus we reach our important point. Yes, it’s true, excessive inequality can damage economic growth. Yes, reasonable measures to reduce inequality can increase economic growth. But most industrialised countries are already above that level and it’s really only the US that is particularly below it. And even for the US there’s not all that much room to do more in inequality reduction before we do start damaging economic growth. Another 3 points off the gini perhaps is possible.

Ah. So we should really be talking about this specifically in the context of America. What did Professor Krugman actually say?

This (emphasis mine):

American inequality has become so extreme that it’s inflicting a lot of economic damage.

And this:

Think about it. Do talented children in low-income American families have the same chance to make use of their talent — to get the right education, to pursue the right career path — as those born higher up the ladder? Of course not.

And this:

Will the new view of inequality change our political debate?

And this:

And government programs that reduce inequality can make the nation as a whole richer.

So which nation does Mr. Worstall think Professor Krugman is talking about? I’m confused.

Too Little, Too Late?

The European Central Bank finally announced today a 1.1 trillion euro program of quantitative easing (buying private bonds in addition to government bonds). It may not be enough, and the ECB won’t be getting much additional (fiscal) help from European governments.

Though ECB president Mario Draghi famously promised two years ago that the body he leads would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, the consensus seems to be that today’s announcement comes too late to prevent a prolonged period of trouble for Europeans. Even this larger-than-expected round of QE will be hard-pressed to stave off the clear and present deflationary danger that necessitated it.

Of course, though the new monetary measures may fall short of alleviating that danger, European governments aren’t likely to budge from their hard line against fiscal intervention. Angela Merkel recently came out in favor of economic distres…er, pressure. And today Draghi himself said, “It would be a big mistake if countries were to consider that the presence of this program might be an incentive to fiscal expansion.” That’s despite historically low borrowing costs and high unemployment in large swathes of Europe.

We Americans should be careful about throwing stones, though. In a similar position for the last few years, we’ve also been relying on unorthodox monetary policy instead of fiscal stimulus. And as far as I know, the Europeans don’t even have the benefit of regular bridge collapses to point them toward a potential use of stimulus funds.

The two big problems with using QE instead of fiscal measures to revive consumption/inflation at the “zero lower bound” are that 1) it’s inefficient, and 2) it tends to exacerbate inequality.

They’re related problems. Since QE usually involves a central bank pumping money into the economy by buying private bonds from large corporations, the immediate beneficiaries are the wealthy (as this famous-but-not-terribly-nuanced video demonstrates). Hence its inefficiency; the wealthy are much less likely to spend additional income than the poor. It should already be clear now why it promotes inequality, unless you’re still practicing voodoo after all these years.

But for now quantitative easing is Draghi’s only viable option in Europe. The reason liberal economists like Paul Krugman support QE, despite its flaws, is that it’s probably better than nothing. Let’s hope so, for the Continent’s sake.

Oh, and speaking of Professor Krugman, here’s Draghi’s blunt reasoning for warning against fiscal measures: they “would undermine confidence.” Expecting a Confidence Fairy blog post in 3…2…1…