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The Famous Baseball-Watching Equality-Equity Graphic, Scrutinized

The Famous Baseball-Watching Equality-Equity Graphic, Scrutinized

Here’s the graphic, widely used to explain why equity outcomes require unequal treatment of different people.

Benjamin Studebaker (hat tip Naked Capitalism) doesn’t like it at all: “I hate it so much.”  But his complaints, about the way the graphic elides classic debates in political theory, strike me as being too redolent of grad school obsessions.  The graphic is not trying to advance one academic doctrine over another; it just makes a simple case for compensatory policy.  I agree in a general way with this perspective.

Consider the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandates special facilities in public buildings to accommodate people in wheelchairs or facing other mobility challenges.  This is unequal treatment: extra money is spent to install ramps that only a few will use, rather than for amenities for everyone.  But it’s a great idea!  Yes, compensation is concentrated on a minority, but it aims to allow everyone to participate in public activities, and in doing this it embodies a spirit of solidarity that ought to embrace all of us.  By making a simple, intuitive case for focused compensation, the graphic captures the spirit behind the ADA and many other policies that take account of inequalities that would otherwise leave some members of the community excluded and oppressed.

Unfortunately, however, there are serious limitations to the graphic; above all, it embodies assumptions that beg most of the questions people ask about compensatory programs.  Some are challenges from conservatives of a more individualistic bent, others might be asked by friendly critics on the left, but all are worthy of being taken seriously.

 

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A Nobel for the Randomistas

A Nobel for the Randomistas

I don’t think anyone was surprised by this year’s “Nobel” prize in economics, which went to three American-based specialists in the design of on-the-ground experiments in low income countries, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer.  I think the award has merit, but it is important to keep in mind the severe limitations of the work being honored.

The context for this year’s prize is the long, mostly frustrating history of anti-poverty projects in the field of development economics.  Much of the world, for reasons I’ll put to the side for now, is awash in poverty: billions of people lack access to decent sanitation, medical care, education and physical and legal protection, not to mention struggling to put food on the table, a roof over their head and cope with increasing demands for mobility.  A lot of money has been spent by aid organizations over the years to alleviate these conditions, without nearly enough to show for it.  (My specialty, incidentally, has been in child labor, which has been the focus of a large piece of this work.)

There have been various reactions to the lack of progress.  One has been to argue that the effort has been too weak—that we need more money and ambition to turn the corner.  This is Jeffrey Sachs, for instance.  Another is that the whole enterprise is misbegotten, a relic of colonialism that was always destined to fail.  You can get this in either a right wing (William Easterly) or left wing (Arturo Escobar) version.  (I critiqued the “left” stance on child labor here.)  A third is where this Nobel comes in.

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Medicare for All

Medicare for All

The abstract for “Does Medicare Coverage Improve Cancer Detection and Mortality Outcomes?” by Rebecca Mary Myerson, Reginald Tucker-Seeley, Dana Goldman and Darius N. Lakdawalla:

Medicare is the largest government insurance program in the United States, providing coverage for over 60 million people in 2018. This paper analyzes the effects of Medicare insurance on health for a group of people in urgent need of medical care – people with cancer. We used a regression discontinuity design to assess impacts of near-universal Medicare insurance at age 65 on cancer detection and outcomes, using population-based cancer registries and vital statistics data. Our analysis focused on the three tumor sites with recommended screening before and after age 65: breast, colorectal, and lung cancer. At age 65, cancer detection increased by 72 per 100,000 population among women and 33 per 100,000 population among men; cancer mortality also decreased by 9 per 100,000 population for women but did not significantly change for men. In a placebo check, we found no comparable changes at age 65 in Canada. This study provides the first evidence to our knowledge that near-universal access to Medicare at age 65 is associated with improvements in population-level cancer mortality, and provides new evidence on the differences in the impact of health insurance by gender.

I can’t vouch for the results, not having read the article in full, but the study design looks good, provided they avoided the spurious results from higher order nonlinear relationships separated by the discontinuity.

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Take Your Pick of Left Wing Climate Change Narratives: Green Abundance or Righteous Austerity

Take Your Pick of Left Wing Climate Change Narratives: Green Abundance or Righteous Austerity

While I was preoccupied with other things, the US left settled on a pair of competing climate change narratives.  By the time I looked, the choice was down to just these two, and no other views could be considered.

View #1, Green Abundance, is that combating climate change means unleashing the power of renewable energy.  Fortunately, according to this story, renewables are already the cheapest way to go, or if not quite, they will be once they are scaled up through a massive infusion of public investment.  And this investment is a golden opportunity to ameliorate other problems like anemic economic growth, un- and underemployment, and sluggish incomes.  We will provide green jobs at union wages for everyone who wants one, with special opportunities for workers in the fossil fuel sector.  We will do for this generation what FDR’s original New Deal did for our grandparents, restoring prosperity and a building a vibrant middle class.  We’ll do it even better this time, because we will design our programs to fight racism, sexism, and the oppression of LGBTQ people, immigrants and indigenous nations, along with every other impediment to social justice.  Meanwhile, we will tax the handful of giant corporations that are responsible for most of the carbon emissions, using their ill-gotten gains to finance an environment that’s healthy for people and other living things.  Climate change will turn out to be a godsend, because the struggle against it will unite us around an all-inclusive economic, ecological and social agenda.

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Trump: When Reality TV Becomes Reality

Trump: When Reality TV Becomes Reality

The New York Times has an excellent dissection today of the Trump presidency as a reality TV show that has managed to set up shop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, written by its chief TV critic, James Poniewozik.  His op-ed digs down into the props and story line of “The Apprentice” and how its tone evolved over its 14-year lifespan.  He places it nicely within the ecosystem of post-Survivor entertainment and the particular celebrity culture it spawned.  Nice job, and read it for yourself.

But there’s something missing.  Yes, that’s who Trump is and how he operates, but he could never have gotten to where he is without cutting deals with people whose personas are light years away from his—the plutocracy, particularly in its financial and resource extraction modes, the Republican Party apparatus in the think tanks and lobby shops in and around Washington, and the Christian Right, with its fixation on the courts as a bulwark against cultural change.  There is a real, which is to say a real real, side to the Trump presidency, and it takes the form of tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks and judgeship appointments.  This differentiates it from reality TV, which is only itself.

And so we are left with an obvious response: stop rebroadcasting the reality TV stuff.  Leave it alone.  Don’t fixate on the bluster, viciousness, racism or obscenity of his tweets and rallies.  Rather, examine the real real viciousness, racism and obscenity built into the policies of the people who use Trump as an avatar, an attention-grabbing figurehead who enables them to hold and use power.  Yes, I’ve said this before, but it’s still the way to go.

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Cheerleading for Austerity

Cheerleading for Austerity

Not content to follow a news strategy that maximizes Trump’s prospects for re-election, the New York Times leads today with a story that combines economic illiteracy and reactionary scaremongering in a preview of what we’re likely to see in the 2020 presidential race.

“Budget Deficit Is Set to Surge Past $1 Trillion” screams the headline, and the article throws around a mix of dollar estimates and vague statements about growth trends, leavened with quotes from budget scolds from both Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle.  (That shows balance, right?)  After terrorizing us with visions of a tide of red ink, the article concludes with a ray of sunshine in the form of prospects for a Grand Bargain under a lame duck Trump that would cut benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare to put us once again on a stable path.

Where to begin?  Should we start by mentioning that nowhere in this lead article does it give the single most relevant statistic, the ratio of the federal budget deficit to the size of the overall economy—the money part, GDP.  The raw size of the deficit itself is meaningless, and the trillion dollar line is meaningless squared.  As Dean Baker likes to say, the article shows its respect for our powers of thought by informing us the deficit is a Very Big Number.  Scared yet?

Measurement aside, the article simply assumes that “large” deficits are unsustainable and bad, and that only irresponsible political motives prevent action on them.  In the name of a nebulous, unspecified Evil of Debt, the population of the US must be subjected to a regime of austerity, beginning with cuts in the programs many depend on to keep themselves and family members out of poverty.  Worse, it opines, Democrats will run for office next year on a platform of spending increases, demonstrating they are the party of ruin.  We can only hope, goes the argument, that they are just saying these things to get votes from the gullible public, and once in power they will join the deficit-cutting crusade.

No reason is given for the assumed Evil of Debt, and it’s no surprise, since it’s based on ignorance, willful or otherwise.  To begin with, federal debt is denominated entirely in US dollars, so servicing is not a problem.  Countries that borrow in foreign currencies, like Greece (which had no control over the euro) and Argentina, can default; that’s not a problem for the US.  Second, government debt is private wealth, and the relevant question is whether there are too many or too few government bonds in private portfolios.  If private wealth holders are satiated with public debt and prefer other securities, it would be a problem.  But that would be a world in which interest rates on the debt would be high in order to sell them, and rates are about as low as they can go without flipping negative (as they have elsewhere).

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Krugman on Trump and Trade: Not Tariffic

Krugman on Trump and Trade: Not Tariffic

I’m no fan of the Trump tariff tantrum, but weak criticism of it does no one a service.  And while I agree with Paul Krugman on a lot of things, he has a long history of being misguided on trade policy.  Alas, his op-ed in today’s New York Times continues the legacy of the Bad Krugman, not the good one.

Before getting to the theoretical meat, let’s take a moment to observe the holes in his argument that should have been identified and vetted before publication.

1. He cites a graphic from the Peterson Institute for International Economics that claims that Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods have risen to 21.5% this month from 3.1% under Obama (under the Most Favored Nation provision).  Applied to $500 billion in imports from China, that comes to almost $100 billion more in tariff collections, right?  Not so fast.  He reproduces a FRED chart that shows tariff revenue rising by only about $35 billion during the same period.  He hedges a bit (“the revenue numbers don’t yet include the full range of Trump tariffs”) and then tries to squirm his way out of the evidence that US consumers aren’t really paying $100 billion more for these goods.  We’ll get to the squirm in a moment, but note that some portion of the tariff will be paid by Chinese producers in the form of lower prices to maintain market share, and the evidence suggests that this portion is much too great to simply handwave away.

 

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Climate Equity: What Is It?

Climate Equity: What Is It?

While action against climate change languishes, the rhetoric keeps getting more intense.  For several years now it hasn’t been enough to demand climate policy; we need climate justice.  We will not only eliminate fossil fuels in a decade or three, we will solve the problems of poverty and discrimination, and all in a single political package.  It sounds good, but what does it mean?

You might look for an answer in new legislation introduced by AOC and Kamala Harris, the Climate Equity Act.  As reported yesterday, it establishes a federal Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability, whose job would be to evaluate all proposed regulations according to their impact on low income communities.  No doubt this would bring more attention to issues at the intersection of green politics and social justice, which is all to the good, but creating new layers of oversight still doesn’t answer the question, what is climate justice?

Is justice about taking care of, say, the bottom 20% of the income distribution?  The bottom half?  Some other number?  And what counts as an impact?

The first thing to notice is that, by limiting matters of justice to low income communities, the bill reinforces a politics that divides the world into the socially excluded, the poorest and most vulnerable, on the one hand and everyone else on the other.  The majority of voters are effectively enlisted as allies of those at the bottom.  This is the consequence of drawing the line where they do.  A very different politics was proposed by Occupy, placing 99% of us in one camp and the top 1% in the other.

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Pledging Zero Carbon Emissions by 2030 or 2050: Does it Matter?

Pledging Zero Carbon Emissions by 2030 or 2050: Does it Matter?

We now have two responses to the climate emergency battling it out among House Democrats, the “aggressive” 2030 target for net zero emissions folded into the Green New Deal and a more “moderate” 2050 target for the same, just announced by a group of mainstream legislators.  How significant is this difference?  Does where you stand on climate policy depend on whether your policy has a 2030 or 2050 checkpoint?

I say no.  Neither target has any more than symbolic value, and what the government does or doesn’t do to prevent a klimapocalypse (can we use this interlingual word?) won’t depend on which one gets chosen.

Endpoint targets have no constraining power at all.  A 2030 target won’t be met or unmet until 2030, and by then it will be too late.  Same, and worse, for a 2050 target.  Moreover, the whole target idea is based on a misconception of how carbon emissions work.  The CO2 we pump into the atmosphere will remain for several human generations; it accumulates, and the sum of the carbon we emit this year plus next plus the one after and so on is what will determine how much climate change we and our descendants will have to endure.  (The relationship between our emissions and the earth system’s response is complex and may embody tipping points due to feedback effects.)  Every additional ton of carbon counts the same, whether it occurs today or just before some arbitrary target date.

What we need instead is a carbon budget, an announced total quantity of emissions we intend to hold ourselves to, starting right now and continuing through the end of the century.  That way, whether we’re living up to our pledge or scrapping it is put to us each year based on how quickly we’re using up our quota.  It sets the meter running now.

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Repeat Message to the Mainstream Media: Stop Serving as Trump’s Propaganda Machine

Repeat Message to the Mainstream Media: Stop Serving as Trump’s Propaganda Machine

I don’t usually like to repeat myself in these posts, but when it comes to the media getting suckered by Trump and serving as bots in his reelection campaign, I have to get shrill: no more headlines reporting on Trump’s tweets, taunts and tantrums!  Just stop!  Now!

The New York Times is one of the worst, and they would do well to read their own reportage on the matter.  Today’s edition carries an article entitled Trump Aims Words at Working Class, but Policies at Its Bosses, and the body says exactly that—which should come as no surprise to anyone who has been remotely paying attention the past two and a half years.  There is virtually no correspondence between what Trump says and what he does.  (And the exceptions, like border repression and the Muslim travel ban, are in policy realms in which he [unfortunately] enjoys majority support.)

Trumpian blather and obscenity are not an accident.  He has been doing this stuff for decades.  He gets to make his background and true agenda invisible while he slums as a dude with 1950s white working class politics, at the same time reaping the benefit of being perceived as unscripted, honest-for-better-or-worse and the opposite of every politician who has ever tried to put one past you.  But every word he utters is the opposite of what it claims to be: Trump’s themes are carefully scripted, cavalierly dishonest and political to the core.  It is all about misdirection, and like a devious martial arts move, it turns his opposition’s disdain to his own use.

The solution is simple.  The media should just stop megaphoning Trump’s mouth unless he is announcing a policy or personnel action he has actually taken.  Make Trump’s true agenda visible by stuffing everything else into the asides or back pages or just deleting it altogether.

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