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A Small Anecdote about Alan Krueger

A Small Anecdote about Alan Krueger

It was back at the beginning of the 1990s, and I was putting together a panel on NAFTA for the ASSA meetings.  This would be URPE’s big plenary at the event, and, among others, I was able to enlist Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a leader of uncommon integrity and seriousness of purpose whose victory in the 1988 Mexican presidential election was overturned through blatant fraud.  I wanted someone of stature to present the case in favor of NAFTA, however, and I thought of Krueger because of his influential paper with Gene Grossman that argued for an “Environmental Kuznets Curve”.  (I discovered later the paper had been financed by the Mexican government.)  I sent a request to him, and he agreed to do it.

Needless to say, he faced a hostile audience.  He was denounced from the floor, and there was no one in the room to defend him.  I disagreed with him too, but on a human level I admired his willingness to take on this job—one for which he would receive no reward of any sort from his department, university or profession.  I’ve had the experience of making similar requests to bring mainstream panelists to URPE events (something I believe in strongly), and it isn’t an easy sell.  Alan took it all in stride.

I’ve subsequently leaned on him a few times for his opinion about empirical controversies I needed to address for UN-related work, and he was always prompt and helpful, a real mensch.  I’m sorry to see him leave us long before his time

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What’s New About Fake News?

What’s New About Fake News?

The apparently falling standards for what people are willing to believe in seems to be the topic of the day.  We have immense, well-capitalized media outlets like Fox News just making stuff up, crazy conspiracies on the internet, a refusal to accept scientific expertise on matters, like climate change, where it is as well established as it’s ever been.  What’s up with all this?

I was provoked into thinking about this by a dreadful book review in The Nation: David Bell on Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth.  I haven’t read Rosenfeld, and maybe she’s pretty good, but it’s clear Bell is confused about the very starting point for thinking about the problem.  He talks about “regimes of truth”, which he cribs from Foucault: there is no capital-T truth out there, just different views on it which possess more or less power/authority.  We happen to suffer from elites or at least some portion of them, writes Bell, who have particularly dismal standards regarding what should count as true.  The solution is to replace the bad authorities with good ones, more or less.

The error, which ought to be obvious, is that capital-T truth is irrelevant.  It’s the wrong reference point, and it doesn’t matter that no one really knows (for sure) what it is.  The real question is, what are the standards we hold ourselves to in learning about the world and minimizing error?  For instance, do we honestly engage with those who disagree with us?  Do we maintain a modicum of self-doubt and face up to the evidence that could show us we’re wrong about something?  Do we respect logical consistency?  These standards don’t guarantee we’ll arrive at the Truth, nor even that we’ll know it if we stumble on it by accident.  They do reduce the risk of error, and that’s about all we can ask.  By not centering the discussion on standards for argument and belief, Bell can’t even pose the relevant question.

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Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology in Higher Education

Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology in Higher Education

 A few weeks ago I speculated on the structural aspect of neoliberalism at an economy-wide level, the way its characteristic framing of economic decision-making may have emerged from changes in the role of finance in business and the composition of high-end portfolios.  My purpose was to push back against the common tendency to view neoliberalism solely as a philosophy, to be countered by other philosophies.  Today I stumbled across this superb bit of reporting from the Chronicle of Higher Education that implicitly makes the same kind of argument in a different context.  (Hat tip: Naked Capitalism.)

The article describes the massive expansion of non-profit online education that has occurred in recent years, with several institutions approaching 100,000 students each.  Interviews with planners and administrators make it clear that the motivating force is not a philosophical rethinking of what education means or should mean; rather they are responding to the emergence of a market that someone needs to serve—if not them, someone else.  More than 30 million adults in the United States have some college credits under their belt but no degree.  With the labor force increasingly segmented by credentials, many of them are desperate to finish their degrees as quickly as possible.  Since they are trying to make ends meet at low-wage jobs, they want programs that are as convenient and inexpensive as possible: commodity education.  Everything about the new online degree providers is dictated by this situation.

Read the article for yourself.  Here’s what I like about it:

It isn’t weighed down by explicit value judgments.  It lets readers do this for themselves.

It presents what we can call a neoliberal turn in higher education not primarily as a change in philosophy or mode of discourse, but as a reflection of changing circumstances.  There’s a two-way dance between the economic pressures facing students, their expectations and competences in a world in which the role of consumer has been made more determining and ubiquitous, the shift toward tuition financing, and other economic factors on the one hand, and the cognitive structures those implementing these systems use to justify and assess what they’re doing on the other.  If anything, the article foregrounds the arrow going from economic context to cognition, which redresses the balance somewhat (as I see it).

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Another Question for the Census

Another Question for the Census

The Trump gang has kicked up a ruckus over its plan to insert a question about citizenship in the 2020 decennial census.  It’s a transparent attempt to reduce the response rate of immigrants, disenfranchising them in reapportionment and government spending formulas, despite the Constitution’s call for an enumeration of “persons”, not citizens.

But why stop at citizenship?  When you think about, there is no government interest greater than its ability to collect taxes, the main obstacle to which is tax avoidance, legal and illegal.  Researchers looking into this problem, not to mention government analysts themselves, struggle in the face of rampant secrecy.

So why not use the census to get a better picture of tax cheating?  Insert just a single question, “Within the past year have you failed to pay your lawful federal, state or local tax obligations?”  Respondents should be reminded that a dishonest answer constitutes a violation of federal law.  The fine is small compared to most tax avoidance, but the last thing most tax scofflaws want is added attention to their financial duplicity.

I can see the confusion when the numbers are tallied in 2021.  “Gee, there are all these big houses, shady streets and golf courses, but according to our data no one actually lives here.”

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Test Tube Politics: llhan Omar, Anti-Semitism and AIPAC

Test Tube Politics: llhan Omar, Anti-Semitism and AIPAC

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a political statement triggering evidence (mixed) about its own truth as dramatically as Ilhan Omar’s quip that pro-Israeli bias in congress is “about the Benjamins, baby”.  It’s as if you wrote a letter criticizing the Post Office and had it returned to you with a USPS message stamped on it.

But let’s dig down one level.  The criticism, partly fair, of Omar is that she bought into (so to speak) the anti-semitic slur that Jewish money constitutes a secret conspiracy against “the people”.  This is the old socialism-of-fools stuff, endlessly recycled by bigots right up until this morning; see the demonization of George Soros, for instance.  Because it exists, people who want to combat bigotry—and this includes progressive politicians—should build a giant moat around it and not go there.  By suggesting that hidden Jewish money had bribed Congress into blind support for Israel, Omar crossed a line.  It’s the same line that George Bush senior crossed with the Willie Horton ad, and that Trump crosses a dozen times every Twitter-soaked evening.  Invoking a bigoted stereotype is a bad thing to do, especially for politicians with giant megaphones.

Yet the very response to Omar’s tweet demonstrated the truth she was stumbling for.  A chorus of political and media honchos of every denomination, religious and political, rose up to denounce her.  They didn’t make fine distinctions and they didn’t welcome a correction; their goal was to punish and silence.  Sweeping accusations were made against Omar’s character, leaving the impression that any criticism of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, was proof of antisemitism.  And this attempt to isolate and politically crush Omar was itself the embodiment of her protest.  This is the power of AIPAC in action, the lobby that can’t be named, the doctrine—the transcendental importance of Israel and the rightness of its religious self-definition—that can’t be questioned.

So the truth content of the original Omar tweet depends on how we explain this onslaught.  If it’s really just about the Benjamins (the hundred dollar bills with Ben Franklin looking back at us), that means she was being trashed, directly or indirectly, for pay.  Politicians joined the mob either to protect their campaign revenue or shield themselves from other politicians defending their own campaign revenue.  How likely is that?  The answer depends on two prior questions: how important is campaign finance in setting the basic contours of US policy, and what proportion of this finance is controlled or strongly influenced by AIPAC?

These are questions for specialists in these areas, not me.  I will go out on a limb, however, and say that the truth lies between the endpoints: some but not all of the bias in the US political system is attributable to the influence of big donors, and AIPAC has a substantial but far less than a complete lock on the flow of political money.  You could compare it to other lobbies, like the NRA (National Rifle Association) and AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), both of which are feared for their ability to alter the balance of funding in competitive political contests.  But neither of these two outfits is immune from attack, while AIPAC is.  Gun control advocates go after the NRA all the time, and, while AARP is not exactly a political lightening rod, the complaint that greedy seniors are stealing money from our children is a popular meme on the Right.  So AIPAC is different.  This difference does not seem to be about money, at least not solely, as important as money is to the system and the groups that try to dominate it.  AIPAC appears to possess a complementary form of power, perhaps rooted in the infrastructure of synagogues and other religious organizations as well as the allegiance of many socially prominent Jews active in secular organizations.  When it marshals this network, you get the sort of response we saw to Omar.

This was a ferocious rebuke of a politician, clearly intended to be career-ending.  It will be interesting to see if she can recover without abandoning her advocacy of Palestinians; I certainly hope so.  The attack on Omar, however, is itself the embodiment of the fear all of her colleagues have to feel, that if they step out of line on Israel they will be crushed.  Catering, intentionally or otherwise, to antisemitic tropes is completely unnecessary: the proof of the pudding is in the attack on it.

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The Two Percent Solution: Warren and the Stochastic Jubilee

The Two Percent Solution: Warren and the Stochastic Jubilee

Wait long enough, and great ideas come back around, although not necessarily wearing the same garb.  Elizabeth Warren has just come out for a 2% wealth tax (above $50 million).*  But this is simply an annualized version of my lump sum stochastic jubilee.  What’s the advantage of redistributing the whole thing every 50 years (on average) vs a steady trickle?  A periodic reset would interrupt long run processes of wealth inequality more fully than a tax, so long as the rate of return on financial assets is high enough to compensate for the extra annual pinch, which it most likely would be, since wealth holders would demand a higher rate of return.  It would also be a lot more fun.  On the other hand, it would be more complicated to administer and might be resisted by force.

On balance, I’d go for the jubilee, but I’ll take Warren’s version as a close second.

*There’s also an extra 1% on wealth in excess of $1 billion, but this is largely symbolic.

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The Key to Gentrification

The Key to Gentrification

In the world of urban politics, there is probably no more potent populist rallying cry than the demand to halt gentrification.  Activists have fought it on multiple fronts: zoning, development subsidies, permitting, rent control—every lever housing policies afford.  But what if they’re mistaking cause for effect, hacking away at the visible manifestations of the problem while leaving the problem itself intact?

Pivot to an important article in today’s New York Times, reporting on recent research David Autor  of MIT presented at the economics meetings in Atlanta earlier this month.  It’s all summed up in this set of charts:

As you can see from the tiny print at the top, the data are being read horizontally within each chart, from less dense regions (rural areas) on the left to high density cities on the right.  The question being asked in the article is, if you live in a rural area or a small town, how much benefit can you get from moving to a big city?

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Economic Growth and Climate Change: Mistaking an Output Variable for an Instrument

Economic Growth and Climate Change: Mistaking an Output Variable for an Instrument

When I first started arguing against the degrowthers, I thought they were a small, uninfluential fringe, important only because they had a sway over a portion of the left—what we might call the Naomi Klein left.  That was then.  Today degrowth is entering the mainstream, as can be seen by the latest David Roberts piece in Vox.  Roberts reviews a discussion between several economists on the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) website.  (INET is a Soros-affiliated outfit whose mission is to push economics in a more progressive direction.)  The key article is by Enno Schröder and Servaas Storm; using historical data, they test for the potential of decoupling economic growth and carbon emissions, finding the scale of decarbonization we need is incompatible with economic growth—hence the need to reject economic growth as a social objective.  A similar perspective is provided by Gregor Semieniuk, Lance Taylor, and Armon Rezai, while a rebuttal comes from Michael Grubb.  All three papers are authored or coauthored by important figures in the academic left or center-left, and their point of dispute reflects the expanding influence of the degrowth perspective.

If I had more time I’d write up a response in the form of a paper.  (Actually I am writing a response, but it will be a book.)  For now a blog post will have to do.  Here’s what I think these estimable economists are missing:

1. Economic growth is not, not, not a policy variable.  There is no magic button available to society that delivers a given rate of economic growth, or degrowth for that matter.  It’s an outcome of a host of factors, some of which are controllable, others not.  Indeed, as we wait for quarterly GDP numbers to be revised several quarters later, we still don’t know what economic growth or contraction we’ve experienced.  It is true that politicians often speak of the need to adopt some policy or other for sake of economic growth, but at best they are proposing to push on one of the many factors that influences it.  There is no growth dial, and even if there were, twisting it a few notches would have almost no impact on carbon emissions, which need to fall by nearly 100% within two generations.

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The US Postal Service in a Parallel Universe

The US Postal Service in a Parallel Universe

Imagine that, instead of the dinosaur of a postal service we have today—the product, among other things, of congressional insistence that no government outfit can compete with private business in lucrative new markets—we had an entrepreneurial, innovative public dynamo.  In this other universe, the USPS was always on the lookout for new opportunities to build on its postal infrastructure, providing better services to the public while broadening its revenue stream.

USPSʹ, this better but hypothetical twin, greeted the arrival of the internet a generation ago with anticipation.  Yes, it was obvious that email would be a threat to its core business of moving mail, but there would also be new possibilities for people to shop and do other business remotely.  If a postal customer goes online to find a new product to clean his bamboo floor and decides to buy it, somehow that product has to find its way to its new owner.  This is a job for the post office!

Driven by the urge to leverage its vast delivery infrastructure, USPSʹ years ago set up a website for remote shopping.  They encouraged producers to list their goods by making it free; the postal service stood to profit from providing the logistics for any transaction, so there was no need to cream any revenue from the site itself, meaning no need to sell advertising.  Of course, they hired top programming talent to make the site as searchable as possible and improve the online shopping experience for simplicity and transparency.  The idea of allowing users to review and rate products was imported from other sites and found to be reasonably effective.

Over time, our hypothetical USPSʹ became something like Amazon, but Amazon wedded to the delivery infrastructure of the traditional postal service.  No Jeff Bezos got to be a gazillionaire out of it, there was no crass commercialism and as a public institution it was amenable to democratic input.  The health information and products site, co-managed with the National Institutes of Health, was a big hit.

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On the Front Lines of Climate Change: Old White Homeowners, Many of them Upper Class

On the Front Lines of Climate Change: Old White Homeowners, Many of them Upper Class

The other night I was sitting at home, locked in a conversation about climate change and race.  How is this a racial issue, I asked?  I realize that the society I live in has pervasive racism, and one should always keep this in mind, but how specifically is climate change worse for nonwhites?

Well, it’s all about first and worst impacts, I was told.  People of color are on the front lines.  They are the one experiencing the most severe consequences, and therefore failure to act against climate change is environmental racism.  The key example is Hurricane Katrina.  That was an early impact of global warming, and what was it if it wasn’t a racist horror show?  Whose houses were flooded?  Who was forced to flee the city?  Who were gunned down by police and blocked by white vigilantes along the way?  Whaddyamean climate change isn’t about racism?

OK, I replied.  I understand the racial geography of New Orleans, and the aftermath of Katrina was every bit the nightmare you say it was.  But what about the recent Camp Fire in California?  That was an early impact of climate change too, and lots of people were killed.  Even more lost everything they had.  But from what I could see in the coverage of it, most of the folks out there were white working people or retirees who were priced out of the Bay Area.  I guess that makes the vanguard of the movement against climate change a bunch of older white dudes.

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