Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

I Think, Therefore I Know: San Francisco Edition

I Think, Therefore I Know: San Francisco Edition

Strange as it may seem, the biggest stumbling block on much of the left may be a crude philosophical error, dogmatic subjectivism.  This is a position that holds that subjective experience is the highest form of knowledge, whose claims can’t be challenged by “lesser” criteria like logical analysis or empirical observation.  To the extreme subjectivist, if I feel something to be true there is no legitimate counterargument: I think (or feel), therefore I know.

This is at the heart of the current blowup over the mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco.  It was painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a member of the Communist Party and acolyte of Diego Rivera, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration.  To make his point about the centrality of racism and oppression in American history, he portrayed Washington as the slaveowner he was, with a group of slaves toiling away to make him rich.  He also showed pioneers headed westward past the body of a dead Indian.  Not surprisingly, Arnautoff got into trouble during the McCarthy era and was effectively hounded out of the world of public art.

But several groups and individuals who claim to speak for today’s oppressed think the mural glorifies racist violence and makes the high school an “unsafe” environment.  The San Francisco School Board’s advisory group, The Reflection and Action Working Group, deemed Arnautoff “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.”  One of the Board members said that efforts to save the mural from being painted over were reflective of “white supremacy”, since the artwork some want to save is “white property”, while its effects are harmful to “Black and Brown ppl [people]”.  The head of the high school’s Indian Education Program asserts this and other Arnautoff murals “glorify the white man’s role and dismiss the humanity of other people who are still alive….”  Others bring up the triggering effect of images that remind us of the brutality that permeates American history.

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Elliott Maraniss

Elliott Maraniss

It’s with more than average interest that I just read a review of David Maraniss’ new book about his father Elliott, A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father.  I knew Elliott during my years in Madison as a contributing writer to his newspaper, the Capital Times, and as an informal sounding board for his thoughts on the New Left.  The period in question was the early 1970s.

First, Elliott was the most visibly nervous person I had ever met.  He talked quickly in a loud but skittish voice, and his usual facial expression was a half-smile that seemed to reflect a deep uncertainty about everyone and everything.  Of course, he held a position of authority—editor—and he was able to make decisions rapidly and with conviction.  Still, it always seemed there was something more going on; I had no idea.

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The New York Times: A Propaganda Machine for Trump

The New York Times: A Propaganda Machine for Trump

The Times thinks it’s leading the forces of reason and light against Donald Trump, but it doesn’t have a clue.  Every day their front page is festooned with the latest noxious Trumpian remark, followed by paragraphs of commentary on how unprecedented it is for a president to talk this way and how appalled most politicians and political observers are.  They think Trump is making one mistake after another, and if their readers are exposed to the whole lot of them, they will turn against the Donald.  But his pompous bullying is not a mistake at all; it’s pretty much all he does.

Trump has been nothing but consistent during his first run as a reality-show business tycoon and his second as a national politician.  He presents himself as a sort of alpha male, bigger, badder and sexier than anyone else on the block.  People don’t support him because they think he’s nice or sophisticated in his reasoning; they want someone who can get the job done, and Trump presents himself as willing and able to bash his way to success.  Threats and insults are standard operating procedure.

The irony, of course, is that once you get past his mouth he turns out to be an uncommonly weak and ineffectual president.  True, his allies and cronies are securing judgeships and eviscerating regulations, but Trump himself is 99% PR.  He was a fake business kingpin the first time around, and now he’s a fake president.  His only job is to distract you from what the real movers and shakers are doing.

So the Times, by giving us megadoses of Trump’s mouth are playing right into his strategy.  If they secretly want him to be re-elected, they should go on doing it.  On the off-chance that they want to defeat the guy, however, here’s a better way:

1. No, absolutely no, front page news on Trump unless he actually does something—and saying stupid or mean stuff doesn’t qualify as doing.

2. Have a regular section deeper in the paper, on page 8 say, devoted to the man’s various harangues and tweets.  Record his weird and ugly babbling for posterity.  Provide reputable internet sources for factual correctives.  But keep it small and tucked away.

3. Change the ruling meme from “He is upending the world through his threats and insults” to “He is a blowhard who actually does almost nothing.”  Treat him not like an alpha but more like an omega with endless vocalizations, best ignored.

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CORE and Periphery in the Reform of Econ 101

CORE and Periphery in the Reform of Econ 101

Thanks to Greg Mankiw, I’ve seen a preview of the piece by Sam Bowles and Wendy Carlin that will be published in a forthcoming Journal of Economic Literature.  It’s apparently part of a roundtable on the teaching of introductory economics, and not surprisingly Bowles and Carlin focus on the freely downloadable CORE text produced with support from the Institute for New Economic Thinking.  The starting point of their article is the revolution in economic textbooks inaugurated by Paul Samuelson in 1948, when Keynesian analysis and policy became the centerpiece of what every introductory student was expected to know.  Today, they say, we need a new revolution, since the introductory texts are equally out of date and fail to grapple with the issues students rightly care about.

Much of the article is taken up with a detailed comparison of their text to two leading competitors, those of Mankiw and Krugman/Wells.  They use frequency of word use to contrast the relative importance of different topics and describe in a more general way the key benchmark models that structure the alternative narratives.  They make the point that major changes in economic theory, such as greater behavioral realism, the relevance of institutions and the role of game theory, are largely absent from the mainstream texts but fundamental to CORE’s.

Of course, I strongly urge everyone one of you who happens to be an economics instructor to check out CORE.  It brings together the thoughts of a number of leading economists on how to make frontier concepts accessible to novices.  It is intellectually stimulating, and the price is right.

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A Bernie Sanders Narrative for Seniors

A Bernie Sanders Narrative for Seniors

What follows is some unsolicited advice for the Sanders campaign.

Politico has an important piece on the downside of the extraordinary age bias in Sanders’ support.  Like a teeter totter, the large advantage Sanders enjoys among younger voters is counterbalanced by his dismal showing among the older crowd.  The article reviews voting breakdowns from the 2016 campaign and current poll results, and it shows that Sanders is not just behind among seniors, but way, way behind.  His political strengths guarantee he will survive the winnowing of the twenty-odd 2020 pretenders, but sheer arithmetic suggests he will need to make significant inroads among older voters, something he hasn’t done up to this point, to overtake Biden—assuming of course Biden doesn’t overtake himself.

So how can he do this?  The first thing to realize is that he doesn’t need absolute majorities among retirees and near-retires, just enough support so his advantage among the non-elderly isn’t erased.  The second is that direct material benefits alone are never enough.  People don’t simply vote in their immediate financial interest, although of course interests play an essential role.  Economic motives are like nuclei around which layers of narrative form, but it’s the narrative—the meaning—that orients people, and an economic condition can be explained in multiple ways.  Not all explanations are equally valid, of course, but in politics that’s largely irrelevant.  So yes, Sanders can and should talk up Social Security expansion and how universal health insurance would benefit  those on Medicare too.  But that’s not a sufficient political strategy; it lacks an encompassing narrative.  This narrative doesn’t have to be one all older people will gravitate to, but it has to speak to a significant portion of them.

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A Decision Theory Case to Chew On

A Decision Theory Case to Chew On

Here’s something I posted over on Andrew Gelman’s wonderful blog:

I read Alive and thought it unknowingly made a very powerful point about decision theory, that you always have to balance the risks of action against the risks of inaction. The plane was stuck in snow on a slope that led down to a valley that was partially inhabited. Yes, the immediate survivors could not see this, and sending a party down the slope seemed very dangerous (which it was), so they delayed for months. Meanwhile, without thinking explicitly about it, they accepted the risks of staying put, which included the obvious one of an avalanche (how can you not know this about snowy mountain slopes?), which in fact transpired, killing a large fraction of those who had survived the initial crash. In retrospect, once it was obvious they would not be rescued by being spotted from the air, they should have sent a party down to the valley, and it is probable many lives would have been saved. The whole cannibalism thing is a distraction, IMO.

As for the munchy business, I once knew someone who, when giving his name at a restaurant, said “Donner” so he could hear them call out “Donner party of four!”

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Meidner Lives!

Rudolf Meidner, one of the unsung economics heroes of the last century, argued for solidarity wages on several grounds, one of which is that low wages subsidize less efficient firms.*  Bring the bottom up, he said, and you will change the mix of enterprises and boost overall productivity.  It’s just a hypothesis, but here’s a bit of recent evidence from a pair of researchers:

We study the impact of the minimum wage on firm exit in the restaurant industry, exploiting recent changes in the minimum wage at the city level. We find that the impact of the minimum wage depends on whether a restaurant was already close to the margin of exit. Restaurants with lower ratings are closer to the margin of exit on average, and are disproportionately driven out of business by increases to the minimum wage. Our point estimates suggest that a one dollar increase in the minimum wage leads to a 10 percent increase in the likelihood of exit for a 3.5-star restaurant (which is the median rating on Yelp), but has no discernible impact for a 5-star restaurant (on a 1 to 5 star scale).

*Unsung in English.  What are they singing these days in Sweden?

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Two Recent Studies, Children of Incarcerated Parents and the Long Run Effects of Student Debt

Two Recent Studies, Children of Incarcerated Parents and the Long Run Effects of Student Debt

Amid the blooming flowers of May, each year sees the arrival of the Papers and Proceedings volume of the American Economic Review, containing short and sometimes punchy gleanings from the previous ASSA meetings.  Here are two abstracts of interest.  I haven’t gone through the papers themselves, so I can’t vouch for their methodologies, but the results they claim to have found are politically important.

Title: Student Debt and Labor Market Outcomes
Authors: Gerald Eric Daniels Jr. and Andria Smythe

We study the impact of student debt on various labor market outcomes, namely, income, hourly wages, and hours worked. Using the NLSY97 and a difference-in-difference approach, we find statistically significant differences in labor market outcomes for individuals who received a student loan versus those who received no student loan. We find that the difference in post- versus pre-college income is 8-9 percent higher for individuals that received a student loan relative to individuals who received no student loan. Further, we find evidence that this higher income is due to higher work hours.

Title: The Child Left Behind: Parental Incarceration and Adult Human Capital in the United States
Author: Laura E. Henkhaus

Exposure to parental incarceration is particularly prevalent in the United States, where about 7 percent of children have lived with a parent who was incarcerated. In this paper, I use nationally representative US data and apply partial identification methods to bound the likely effects of parental incarceration on education and labor market outcomes. Findings suggest that parental incarceration leads to substantially higher rates of high school dropout. Results provide some support for negative effects on likelihood of college degree attainment and employment in young adulthood. This work has important implications for criminal justice policy and social policies toward children.

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Why I’m Not Going to Properly Review “The People’s Republic of Wal-Mart”

Why I’m Not Going to Properly Review “The People’s Republic of Wal-Mart”

I’ve been thinking about alternatives to capitalism for a long time now.  I’ve taught several courses on the topic and plan eventually to write up what I think I’ve learned, so naturally I was intrigued by the new book, The People’s Republic of Wal-Mart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations Are Laying the Foundation for Socialism (PRW) by Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski.  I picked up a copy and started reading it, intending to write a review for this blog.

Well, I stopped about a quarter of the way through.  It’s not worth my time or yours, and I briefly want to tell you why.

For over a hundred years, socialists have looked to the organization of capitalist businesses for a vision of what a post-capitalist society might look like.  The conception of socialism as a single, all-encompassing public enterprise was widely recognized by advocates and opponents alike.  Marxists in particular looked to each new management strategy as a building block for the socialist future, since Marx’s idea was that the new society will be the product of the old, when the forces of production are liberated from the old, confining relations of production.  Remember Lenin’s encomium to the “scientific management” of F. W. Taylor?

And so there has been much left wing debate over the years about what is progressive and valuable about management, and what needs to be discarded.  You would think someone writing a book on this topic today would review that literature to see what might be learned from it.  Not this one.

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Prisoners of Overwork: A Dilemma

Prisoners of Overwork: A Dilemma

The New York Times has an illuminating article today summarizing recent research on the gender effects of mandatory overwork in professional jobs.  Lawyers, people in finance and other client-centered occupations are increasingly required to be available round-the-clock, with 50-60 or more hours of work per week the norm.  Among other costs, the impact on wage inequality between men and women is severe.  Since women are largely saddled with primary responsibility for child care, even when couples ostensibly embrace equality on a theoretical level, the workaholic jobs are allocated to men.  This shows up in dramatic differences between typical male and female career paths.  The article doesn’t discuss comparable issues in working class employment, but availability for last-minute changes in work schedules and similar demands are likely to impact men and women differentially as well.

What the article doesn’t point out is that the situation it describes is a classic prisoners dilemma.*  Consider law firms.  They compete for clients, and clients prefer attorneys who are available on call, always prepared and willing to adjust to whatever schedule the client throws at them.  Assume that most lawyers want sane, predictable work hours if they are offered without a severe penalty in pay.  If law firms care about the well-being of their employees but also about profits, we have all the ingredients to construct a standard PD payoff matrix:

There is a penalty to unilateral cooperation, cutting work hours back to a work-life balance level.  If your firm does it and the others don’t, you lose clients to them.

There is a benefit to unilateral defection.  If everyone else is cutting hours but you don’t, you scoop up the lion’s share of the clients.

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