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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bachmann Time Turner Overdrive

Michelle Bachmann reverses time twice in one week.

Bachmann ... saying Franklin Roosevelt turned a recession into a depression through the "Hoot-Smalley" tariffs: ... the tariff referred to here was actually the Smoot-Hawley bill, co-authored by Republicans Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah and Rep. Willis Hawley of Oregon, and signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.

Interestingly, this speech also happened on the same day as when Bachmann connected the 1970s swine flu outbreak to Democrat Jimmy Carter being president, even though it was actually Gerald Ford in office at the time.

This post is totally pointless. However the title will be screamingly funny to everyone else who is familiar with both of Bachman Turner Overdrive and "Harry Potter an the Prisoner of Azkaban"

Sunday, April 26, 2009


The Washington Post Opinion Pages continue the War on Arithmetic. The latest is

The latest in Marc Thiessen's op-ed which includes the claim

Before the CIA used enhanced techniques . . . KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, 'Soon you will find out.' " Once the techniques were applied, "interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates."

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles."


without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.

This claim is inconsistent with the assertions of Frances Townsend on a conference call with journalists

On the Weast Coast (Library Tower) plot a conference call quoted at The Counterterrorism Blog
How far along was this plot when it was “disrupted?” What was their level of operational planning? Were they close? Fran Townsend replied:

"We don't know exactly when the plot was scheduled for. The intelligence tells us that Khalid Shaykh Muhammad began to initiate it in October of 2001. We know that between then and when the lead operative was arrested in February of '02, between those two periods of time, they traveled through Afghanistan, they met with bin Laden, they swore biat, they came back, and the lead guy is arrested, which disrupts it in February of '02. So you see what I'm saying? It's during that short window of time, between October of 2001 and February of 2002, but we don't know when they planned -- we don't know when it was planned to actually be executed."

So the leader of the plot was arrested and the plot was disrupted in February '02.

Even better, from

In 2002, we broke up a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast. During a hearing at Guantanamo Bay two months ago, KSM stated that the intended target was the Library Tower in Los Angeles.

(all via SadlyNo)

Khalid Sheik Mohammad was arrested in 2003. The claim that information from his interrogation made the disruption possible depends on the claim that 2002>2003.

So how could Thiesen end up writing something so silly ? I think it is like the game of telephone in which people whisper in each others' ears and a phrase is amusingly transformed. In this case each of the people is desparately eager to argue that the Bush administration and, in particular, torture, kept us safe.

Thiesen is relying on the 2005 OLC memo by Bradbury which is based in part on a memo and a fax from the CIA. As is clear from the Op-ed the memo does assert that the successes in 2002 were caused by interrogation in 2003. I assume that Bradbury is not a fool. Therefore, I guess that the CIA memo and/or FAX were very very carefully phrased to give a misleading impression of the timing. Hmm I wonder if I could do that.

Interrogation with enhanced techniques led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles. This plot was disrupted when its leader, Hambali, was arrested.

All possibly true. The secret (as has been noted many places on the web including especially Talking Points Memo) is that a plot can be disrupted without being discovered. It is very possible that Hambali (and associates) were arrested in 2002, but no one thought they were planning to fly a plane into the library tower. Then, KSM described such a plot while he was being water boarded, and the CIA concluded that the earlier arrests had disrupted that plot.

I have generated what seems to me to be a misleading pair of sentences by quoting Theisen and paraphrasing Townsend. It is natural to assume that the events described in the second sentence occured after the events described in the first. It is even natural to assume that the events in the second sentence were at least partially caused by the events in the first. These are normal inferences for adjacent sentences with no indication that the topic has been changed. However, the pair of sentences does not constitute a lie.

Note that there is no proof that there ever was such a plot. The words "The plot" asserts that there was, but no evidence not extracted under torture is cited. In fact, Zachary Abuza at The Counter-Terrorism Blog argues that there never was such a plot in the linked post.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What Happened to the Republican Party ?

The GOP does not seem to be in good shape. They are in opposition and unpopular, but what's worse is that the seem to be incapable of facing those facts. In fact they seem to be incapable of facing any inconvenient facts at all. I'm going to write a sloppy unoriginal essay about how this happened.

OK US policy resets with the great depression. The old arguments made by the Republicans were refuted by the depression and they were in opposition for a while. Then they regained power and embodied the establishment more than the Democrats. My story starts then with the Eisenhower presidencies.

First Eisenhower made peace with Roosevelt. He accepted Social Security and actually expanded it. Of course he was a war hero leading a nation that had recognised the benefits of being led during world war II. He was presented as the right leader for the US in the Cold war. Now obviously a large part of the appeal of the Republican party was their untarnished anti-communism. Stalin was loathsome in so many ways that he united people who had little else in common by epitomising everything they hated most. So a party could unite people whose ideologies were religious, militaristic/imperialist, pro-market, pro-business, nationalistic, and conservative. Quite a broad tent, held together so long as USSR existed and it was possible to define oneself in opposition to it (and pretend that atheists, doves, egalitarians, civil rights activists, internationalists and liberals were soft on communism because they rejected the many ideologies which claimed a monopoly on anti-communism, or rather, claimed to share an oligopoly and formed a cartel.

Note I consider such a response was reasonable when Eisenhower was inaugurated. I don't think opposition to Brezhnev was so demanding that it required all those groups to put aside their differences, but they managed to convince themselves.

The party was threatened by its Western or crazy wing (my god back then Ohio was Western !?!) and by the fact that some Republicans let their disrespect for Democracy show and lied so blatantly that they got caught (details skipped it was long ago).

The first political event which I remember was the election of 1964, looks like the Republicans had decided to be a fringe party. The attempt at political suicide failed. I think it is clear that the event which saved the GOP from itself was the Civil rights movement and the Southern strategy. The extremism of the new left helped too. I think the party learned one of its post Eisenhower lessons from Nixon. The first lesson is that the party can gain by allying itself with people whose views are unpresentable in public -- to wink and nudge and get their votes without suffering to much from the taint of association. The second was, oddly, that dirty tricks work so long as you don't go to far. I would have thought that the correct lesson was that they are to be avoided as they backfire, but I'm not a Republican. On the other hand I think Nixons opportunism and well Nixonianness offended Republicans too. After Nixon one is tempted to look for someone with principles, which often means ideological purity.

Yes then came Reagan. It is plainly obvious that he is the leading figure to conemporary Republicans. The party pretty much defines itself as the party of Reagan. Nixon, Eisenhower and, of course, Ford are forgotten. Now the case of Reagan is very strange. I just didn't get it. I still don't get it. I really have no business trying to think about the Republican Party. However, it is clear that Republicans think they learned important lessons from Reagan.

Facts don't matter. Reagan was famously ignorant by choice. First he showed that Americans could elect and respect someone whose ignorance and intellectual laziness were the subject of nightly comedy routines. Odd. I wouldn't have expected that.

"Deficits don't matter Ronald Reagan showed that" I'm quoting Dick Cheney. I don't know what he had in mind -- that deficits don't harm the economy even in the long run or that they aren't really unpopular in the short run. This was a huge change. The Republicans had always been the party of fiscal responsibility which used to mean balanced budgets as well as low spending. The rule was "don't spend but if you must spend tax". It became "Well ideally you aren't supposed to spend but, in any case, don't tax." This is a huge change. It is surprising that a great country could fall for the blatant scam that what it needed was tax cuts with or without spending cuts (which either weren't necessary or were supposed to follow because deficits were more unpopular than taxes).

Cut rich people's taxes. This is an obsession. It can't just be a desire for campaign contributions plus self interest (Republican party leaders are not poor). The belief that this is good for the economy is plainly not based on evidence. It's hard to believe that it wasn't always this way.

The adversary will collapse if you are bellicose and build lots of weapons. Couldn't have been a coincidence.

Simplify simplify simplify.

From Bush senior they learned its good to fight Iraq and bad to compromise with Democrats.

The other lesson was learned in 1994. This is that refusal to compromise can be useful if your opponents are blamed for the gridlock. Language can be used as an instrument of power (don't tell me that Gingrich didn't consider 1984 as an instructin manual). Slogans are suited for soundbites. Slander bears no costs. The press can be played, because they feel they must be Ballanced they balance truth and lies. Blatant corruption will be ignored if it has nothing to do with Bill Clinton.

This leads to a party which has no interest in reality. They consider ignorance to be a good thing and they are totally willing to lie. I think by now most Republican leaders really have no idea how one adapts ones beliefs to the facts. They have learned that only fools admit that inconvenient facts exist. So many facts have been banished that their version of reality is unrecognisable to anyone not raised in the party. I'm not sure how they get out of their current state.
The Clinton didn't try to kill Obama Osama lie has been enlisted by the defenders of torture.

comment on Steve M at No More Mr Nice Blog who already demolishes David Frum and James Taranto,

I note that Frum wrote "President Clinton's decision not to kill bin Laden when he had the chance,...." Of course Clinton attempted to kill Bin Laden (remember the cruise missiles). Bush did not. The assertion that Clinton could have killed bin Laden but chose not to has no basis in fact.

It is clear from the 9/11 commission report (which I have read in full) that the Clinton administration was focused on al Qaeda and the Bush administration wasn't. Frum and Taranto turn history on its head in an effort to come up with an alleged parallel, no matter how absurd.

It is also absurd to claim that Democrats may face investigation and prosecution only if Obama investigates Republicans (actually that means only if Obama refrains from improperly interfering with DOJ investigations). In fact Democrats have been investigated ad nauseum already (remember Whitewater) and prosecuted on absurd grounds.

That happened during the Clinton Presidency.

The Frum and Taranto position is that investigating torture would violate an implicit rule while investigating admitting to the FBI that you paid your mistress money but not saying how much (Henry Cisneros) *must* be investigated.

In 2001 Republicans insisted on investigating the Mark Rich pardon (definitely a policy decision not a crime) and alleged vandalism at the White House (didn't happen).

Of course they are threatening to just make up crimes. The threat is plausible. This is what they do. The hint that they might refrain from such abuse of the justice system out of gratitude if Obama protects Bush era criminals from investigation is clearly made in bad faith. Republicans will use every weapon to hand no matter what Obama does.

update: I did it again ! Steve Waldman pointed this out in an e-mail.
Good Faith Beliefs and the law

The argument that, say, Richard Cheney isn't a criminal is based on the idea that and act is not a crime if one believes in good faith that it is necessary to save many lives.

Thus Cheney et al believed in good faith that Saddam Hussein was assisting al Qaeda and, when they insisted that torture be used to make al Qaeda captives admit this, they weren't using torture to get bogus evidence to support a lie, but seeking proof of what they were sincerely sure was a true statement. When they claimed that the Constitution put the President above the law, they believed it in good faith. When they decided that torture was needed, they believed it, even though (almost) everyone with any expertise told them it was counterproductive as well as criminal

I think a reasonable case can be made that Cheney is not guilty under the law, because he could not grasp the criminality of his actions. This legal approach has a commonly used name -- The Insanity Defence.

If I were a prosecutor I'd have no idea how to try to prove that Richard Cheney is not insane.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Now Not Aweful Washington Post Editorial

The Washington Post Editorial board surprised me. This editorial unequivocally states that the US tortured and that this was a crime. They advocate an investigation by an independent commission. They hedge on whether there should be prosecutions leaning against, but admitting that they don't know all the facts which the proposed commission will discover.

All in all pretty solid given the fact that many pundits still argue against releasing the OLC pro torture memos. I was reluctant to read the editorial as I feared it would make me dangerously angry (I only read it after reading a non angry reference at Glenn Greenwald's).

I'm sure there was heated debate among the board. The editorial clearly starts with a draft editorial against investigations which I take to be, in effect, the minority report. The editorial is, of course, balanced, but it is balanced between Obama and critics who want prosecution.

Needless to say, the editorial contains utter nonsense which was required for balance. They are

"Should Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger and their team have been held criminally or civilly liable for dereliction of duty 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, given that they knowingly allowed Osama bin Laden to flee Sudan for sanctuary in Afghanistan?"

This is an old canard. Bin Laden was no more arrestable when he was in the Sudan than when he was in Afganistan. The US military was asked what it would take to arrest him, and, as always, they insisted on overwhelming force. There was no material change when Obama Osama moved. The false claim has been watered down from the totally claim that Sudan offered to send Obama Osama moved to the USA and someone said no thanks, but it remains essentially unhistorical. The facts are that Clinton tried to have Obama Osama moved killed before September 11 2001 and Bush did not.

Furthermore the claim that a policy decision makes one "criminally or civilly liable for dereliction of duty" would be criminalization of the policy debate. It has no connection to actual law on deriliction of duty. The sentence is an absurd straw man standing on a plainly false historical claim.

The other absurd claim made for balance is "The answer does not lie with those congressional Democrats who are eager to put the entire Bush administration on trial. " Said congressional Democrats are not named for the simple reason that they don't exist. As far as I know, no one is proposing such a thing (and I live in the fever swamps of the left blogosphere). Such an act would be clearly unconstitutional as it violates the 4th amendment.

The 2 sentences aren't even a serious effort to set up a straw man. I am sure no member of the Editorial Board would be willing to defend them in debate.

OK the first is a question and it is not asserted that anyone thinks the answer is yes. I'm sure, none of them would be willing to argue that the cases are analogous, and, indeed the editorial goes on to argue that they are not. However, the premise of the rhetorical question is plainly false. The post 9/11 investigations made it clear that the Clinton administration was, if anything, less derilict than the Bush administration. To the board it was necessary to find something to say against Clinton to balance their assertion that Bush is a criminal. The facts of that other case can't get in the way.

The second is a plainly false assertion. It is very clear and specific. It is totally false.

update: extremely embarrassing typos corrected thanks to Vance Maverick
More Ticking Time Bombs

I think we know now that we sold our national soul for nothing, that torture did not work and that the victims provided missinformation to make the pain stop. I know the debate continues, but so does the debate about evolution by natural selection.

I want to shift to a hypothetical. Can anyone imagine how torturing al Qaeda terrorists could have helped the US government prevent a terrorist attack ?

Now I understand that the screnwriters for 24 address this issue quite often, but
1) I don't watch the show so I don't know their ideas or whether they are credible
2) They don't deal with the reality of al Qaeda. Importantly there is no evidence that al Qaeda has penetration agents, moles, spies or such like. Nor are there time bombs with timers that last days.

Then more specifically, if someone manages that to their satisfaction, how can changing the approach to interrogating Abu Zubaida after months prevent an attack. I would require al Qaeda to stick to a months old plot even though someone who knew about it had been captured.

A correspondent of Matthew Yglesias notes that one could get his ATM card's PIN number by torturing him.

This is true, but not relevant to the debate about investigating torture (so much better to type that than "the torture debate" roughly in the way that dissentary is better than Cholera).

I think the key point about the PIN number is that a claim that my PIN number is 98769 can be quickly checked and proven false if you have the ATM card (I typed the number at random so don't try to steal my ATM card to check).

Now if the card had been destroyed, it would be easy to get my PIN number (who cares anymore -- my bank asigns a new number when it replaces cards). But if that specific information mattered for some reason, I could lie.

The fact that a target will be attacked in a month is specific, but it can't be checked for a month.

Torture can make me talk, but it can only make me talk if the torturer can quickly find out if I lie.

Another key aspect of my PIN number is that my card can't change its PIN number, because it knows I have been captured and might talk.

I don't know how al Qaeda works (really honestly couldn't tell you if you tortured me) but secretive organisations typically act on the assumption that captured people talk -- not because they do but to be on the safe side.

It is hard to imagine how a terrorist attack could be prevented by a new approach to interrogation of someone who had been held for months.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ticking Time Bombs and Torture

The argument that torture may be morally justified if it is the only way to find a ticking time bomb before it explodes is not relevant to the Bush administrations crimes for many reasons.

First, the standard assumption is that there is an imminent threat not that there might be one. Ticking time bomb + 1% doctrine = total depravity.

Second it is assumed that torture works quickly.

Third statements about the location of the ticking time bomb can be verified quickly. False statements are not very costly. 10 false statements and one true statement are much better than nothing. In the real world, false statements can be very costly. The falsehood of one was demonstrated by invading Iraq.

Fourth for some reason which I can't understand (I don't watch 24 so I am not expert on Bush administration reasoning about torture) it is assumed that the ticking time bomb can't be moved. I suppose, in the thought experiment, the person in custody who might be tortured acted alone. Or perhaps the terrorists still at large don't know he has been captured. Otherwise other terrorists could just move the ticking time bomb.

The argument that torture prevented subsequent al Qaeda attacks or that people might seriously have believed that they could prevent subsequent al Qaeda attacks really relies on the assumption that the ticking time bomb can't be moved. That plots known to the tortured prisoners were not modified after their capture.

In "White House Watch" which is not part of the operation edited by Fred Hiatt and is thus, probably reliable, Dan Froomkin notes that the claim that the torture of Abu Zubaida lead to the capture of Ramzi bin al Shibh can't easily be reconciled with the fact that bin al Shibh was captured more than 6 months after abu Zubaida. Wouldn't he have had time to figure out how to avoid places known to abu Zubaida ?

This isn't as extreme as the claim, in the ever reliable opinion pages of The Washington Post that the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammad lead to the disruption of a plot to fly airplanes into the Library Tower in LA-- which success was announced by the Bush administration before Khalid Sheik Mohammad was captured. I assume that there will be no correction since the Washington Post opinion pages are clearly a fact free zone.

The thought experiment only applies when there is information which is so valuable that obtaining it might justify torture and the information can rapidly be distinguished from misinformation and someone knows something about the present and future, not about plans in the past which would normally be changed because that person was captured.

How could anyone have believed they were in such a situation ? Did anyone believe they were in such a situation ?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

6 beautiful words bolded

The decision to promise no prosecution of those who followed the legal advice of the Bush administration lawyers was easier, aides said, because it would be hard to charge someone for doing something the administration had determined was legal. The lawyers, however, are another story.

It seems to me almost possible that President Obama plans to do something to redeem the honor of the USA and of the legal profession. I am, I admit, a neurotic nationalist, so I sure hope so for the USA. Also, I am amazed at the idea that there is such a thing as the honor of the legal profession.

Can we make people think of lawyers as expressions of our moral sense and agents for good ? Can we say "it was acceptable for a layman, but you are a lawyer and have betrayed your higher vocation" without getting laughed of the stage ?

Personally I think "No we can't," but looks like there is a lawyer in the White House who disagrees.

hmmm love that article which goes on

Three Bush administration lawyers who signed memos, John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury, are the subjects of a coming report by the Justice Department’s ethics office that officials say is sharply critical of their work. The ethics office has the power to recommend disbarment or other professional penalties or, less likely, to refer cases for criminal prosecution.
Matt Yglesias writes

There’s so much insanity in this piece about financiers whining about how everyone hates them that it’s hard to know what to pick out. I’ll just say this. Of all the things these guys don’t “get” — and there are a lot of them

Heh indeed. They don't get it or this or that or the other thing. Let me count the ways.

1. Many people (including Yglesias and me) think it would be very good for society if smart people got out of finance. They can be very productive. The fact that they are very smart and work in finance is a social cost of finance. This is a very widespread view. A thing that stunned me was the article in Business Week (or Fortune maybe) which celebrated wonderful MBAs who were public spirited enough to actually manage manufacturing corporations rather than selling out for the big Wall Street bucks. When MBAs who manage make the cover of a magazine, something strange is going on.

2. No one who doesn't believe in the tooth fairy believes in banks' balance sheets or profit and loss statements. "My bonus is justified because my desk generated profits" is like "My bonus is justified because my desk is the round table and my spitoon is the holy grail." Even people who aren't as smart as you aren't total idiots.

3. I know you are doing the same thing you did in 2007 when you received a 7 figure bonus. We aren't saying you deserve lower compensation now. We are saying that your 7 figure bonus was a mistake.

4. in 2007 median household income was $50,233.00

5. Most people consider income of $ 250,000 to be obscenely rich.

6. Most people are mad as hell with you.
Natural Religion

Assume for the sake of blogging that there is a God, an all powerful creator with an aim. Thereby assume that there is a purpose of the Universe, that our lives and suffering are part of some great plan. Let us attempt to deduce the plan, let us attempt to understand the creator by observing his or her creation. What could we deduce about God under these assumptions ?

J.B.S. Haldane was a brilliant population biologist, a libertarian communist, and (redundant perhaps) one of the craziest people who managed to stay out of an asylum. He was asked what he could deduce about God from His creation. He responded "He must have been uncommonly fond of beatles." That would be the order colleoptera not the rock group (hmmmm were they inspired by the divine spirit to the enlightened understanding that, for reasons incomprehensible to mere mortals, many people would become fans of a band named after an order (or class for all I know) of insects.

So what can we tell about His or Her intentions ? First I think it is clear that God is not benevolent. Theodicy rhymes with idiocy and I think this is not fair to idiots. However, God is not simply a sadist. Things could be worse (McCain didn't win I rest my case).

I incline to two possibly competing hypotheses (both conditional on the assumption that God exists on which I put a subjective probability of 0). First it seems to me entirely possible that God is motivated by a really sick and twisted sense of humor. I mean otherwise why would sexual intercourse be both so desired and so silly looking ? Is pornography an offense against the Will of The One because they try to do it in a way which doesn't make the audience laugh ? Why isn't there comic porn ?

I mean is merely human idiocy alone capable of producing libertarians for imperialism ? If that's not a joke, what is ?

Ah yes idiocy. The other hypothesis is that He (or She) is seeking the utter abyss of idiocy. This is alarming, because I fear that, once we achieve utter idiocy, the Universe will have served its purpose and will cease to exist. This possibility causes me to feel alarmed whenever I watch TV. I think we are flirting with nonexistence and dancing on the edge of the abyss of utter idiocy.

Hmm not to get megalomaniacal, but, if the purpose of the universe is to find the nadir of total stupidity, will it continue to exist after I click teh "publish post" button ? Only one way to find out. Here goes.

update: As far as I can tell the Universe still exists. Looks like the post above wasn't the nadir of idiocy or maybe my thoory is all wrong.
K-Streetwalker n. congressperson whore who is willing to sell his or her vote for campaign contributions.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Why does Europe have a More Equal Income Distribution than the USA.

Warning I teach a course on this. Some quick notes in response to a question in comments.

That aside, the basic reason IMHO income is more distributed in Europe is not taxation. It's that their systems make it harder for speculators and CEOs etc. to skim off so much money to begin with. Am I right?

# posted by Neil' :


It's real complicated. First it is definitely true that European pre tax and transfer incomes are more equally distributed than US pre tax and transfer incomes.

However, US inequality is not of the form of a few super rich people and the lower 99% having income distributed as it is in Europe. The income of the lower 99% is less equally distributed in the USA too. This is probably due to differences in wage setting institutions. In continental Europe there are legally binding minimum wages by industry occupation seniority etc. This means that wages for similar workers in high wage firms and in low wage firms are much more similar than in the USA.

The left blogosphere has been focusing on the very upper tail in the USA, because that is where the dramatic change in the past 20 years has been concentrated. Even there it is not CEOs. CEOs of large firms have huge compensation in the USA, but there aren't many of them.

I read somewhere a summary of fairly recent data whihc gave total compensation of fortune 500 CEOs is about 6 billion -- an insignificant sum compared to the income of the top 1% in the USA. Total compensation of the top 5 officers of the top 2000 corporations is about $ 28 billion.

The compensation of officers of large corporations is obscene, has increased enormously, and is more or less open theft from shareholders, but it is *not* the main explanation of the huge income of the richest 1% in the USA.

Instead you have to look at the speculators -- people in finance. That's where the money went. I think the main cite for this claim is the Kaplan-Rauh paper noted here

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Soak the Rich. Non lessons from Europe.

Lane Kenworthy too. Vance Maverick in comments told me about his post.

The claims, always based on the same few data points are
1) Differences across a few rich countries in the effect of policy on inequality have a lot to do with transfers, nothing to do with the progressivity of the tax system and a lot to do with total tax take.
2) The options open to the USA are described by outcomes in these countries.
3) therefore egalitarians should support increased taxes on the non rich.

update: Welcome Thomists. This post is here because I had already posted on the topic at Angry Bear. I have another thought. The distinction between progressive taxes and egalitarian transfers which is the focus of the posts which I criticize is often a distinction without a difference.

Let's imagine 2 hypothetical countries called the USA and Sweden. In the USA there is overwhelming popular support for progressive taxation and deep popular hostility for government transfers to the non elderly. Therefore, transfers are called something strange like "refundable tax credits." The national neurosis is clearly indicated by the fact that one party insists that such refundable tax credits are welfare -- which for some reason is not defined as what is good or even as something good but as something bad. Damned if I know why and damned if I care what we call it so long as we do it. The result is that in the offical statistics you see a highly progressive tax code and small transfers which have a small impact on inequality.

There is another country which has an equally strange idea that everyone should pay high taxes and which likes government transfers. Therefore they have a barely progressive tax code and large transfers with a large effect on inequality. However the two countries are really doing the same thing.

This littly hypothetical story is uhm false, because Sweden is, in fact, reducing inequality more (and from a more equal pre fiscal income distribution). So ? In 12 countries there is a positive correlation between the total egalitarian effect and a preference for call it a transfer not a refundable tax credit.

How can any sensible person conclude that we should to decide to fight a deeply fealt easily evaded attitude about words in the the USA for this reason ?

I totally disagree with this analysis in, for example, Lane Kenworthy's post. The important issues are first what is optimal policy and second what are political limits on policy. I think on both issues Obama is right and Lane is wrong.

First, the argument against Obama is that tax progressivity does not determine the effect of the fiscal system on inequality. It is not that, other things equal, a more progressive tax system is worse. Some have made that argument, basing their claim on the incentive effects of high marginal tax rates. However, the post does not make the argument (I'd say the evidence shows that distortionary effects of high taxes on the working poor are socially costly and not much on the sign of the effect on social welfare of high taxes on the rich). Rather from the claim that something is not "the key" follows the claim that it should not be an aim. This is the oldest rhetorical trick in the book.

Second, and more importantly, raising taxes on the rich is much easier politically than raising the taxes on the non rich. This isn't just electoral politics. Discussing optimal policy is a parlor game unless one asks how it will be enacted. There is no evidence at all to support the claim that the incorrect beleif among progressives that progressivity is "the key" to reducing inequality will cause reduced total tax revenues. There isn't even an argument.

The evidence presented is, I think, based on the assumption that Europe is perfect. If European taxes aren't very progressive, then taxes shouldn't be very progressive. Otherwise what is the point of noting that European taxes aren't very progressive. It sure doesn't show that taxes can't be progressive.

Importantly, different countries are, uhm different. The USA has an extremely unequal distribution of pre-tax income. Other things equal, that would mean that the US can raise an extremely high share of GNP as taxes by taxing the rich. In the USA a small fraction of workers are self employed. This makes it easier to collect income taxes. Many people receive huge compensation from large firms which keep track of everything. They can be taxed. The USA isn't Europe. Even if it were true that European policy is optimal for Europe, it would not necessarily be optimal for the USA.

The key policy relevant assertion in the post is "Moderate or high levels of tax revenue can’t come solely from higher rates or new taxes on the rich; the math simply doesn’t work." What math ? Where is that math ? It certainly isn't in the post.

There is now a fairly large blogoliterature all making the same argument based on the same few data points. If someone has addressed the question of what the math says about whether moderal or high levels of tax revenue can come solely from higher rates or new taxes on the rich in the USA, I would like a citation.

Evidence from Europe or the USA during the period of a much more equal income distribution does not count. The share of income going to the rich has an effect on the amount of revenue which can be raised by taxing the rich.
There He Goes Again

Matthew Yglesias argues, again, for increasing the taxes of the non-rich. I don't actually find an argument in his post.

Last time I wrote this, I linked to Klein and just mentioned Yglesias. I got a link from Klein. I didn't mean to leave Yglesias out.

Your argument contradicts itself. If the bulk of the money is coming from the wealthiest why would it be impossible to get all of the needed money from the wealthiest ?

You admit only two possibilities. The Obama proposal and increasing the effective tax rate on the median household. You must see that this is an invalid argument. The Obama proposal isn't the only possible proposal which involves no tax increases for the less rich 95%.

You say not enough money can be raised by taxing only the rich. You don't present or link to any calculation whatsoever. What is the basis for this assertion (which you have made repeatedly). The only hint of evidence I have found in this blog is a reference to Europe which is, of course, perfect, and has higher taxes on the median family than the US does. The argument is that if Europe can't raise enought money from the rich then neither can the USA, since, of course, the fraction of national income going to the very rich is the same in the USA and Europe.

I think that you are fascinated by the argument that, if the revenues are reasonably well spent, increased taxes including increased taxes on the non rich would be better than the Obama proposal. This argument omits two interesting issues. What policy is optimal and what is the best policy which is poliitically feasible. That is, I think, it omits every consideration which has any useful role in the policy debate.

You never argue that your proposal is the best policy which implies it is better than any policy which includes tax increases only for the rich. You assert that not enough money can be raised by taxing the rich, but you provide no evidence whatsoever for that assertion. I'd consider that a bit of a gap.

More importantly, you absolutely ignore politics. It might be politically impossible to raise the optimal revenue taxing only the rich, but all the evidence suggests it is politically much easier to get a given revenue from the rich alone than from a broader set of families. For example, Obama was elected President. Also polls reliable show majority support for higher taxes on the wealthy.

It seems to me that you are arguing "sure my proposal is not optimal and, yes, it is extremely unpopular, but it is still best because it's what they do in Europe."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Update: I find the following post a bit embarassing. Turns out that I am outraged by the same announcement that Glenn Greenwald applauds. Obviously the part on which I comment is not news. I do think that my interpretation of the idea that people in the executive branch sould be able to rely on the OLC is the only one which makes sense. However, the OLC is not new and the idea that it can give out pre-emptive pardons isn't either.

The ranting post follows.

I consider the phrase "relying in good faith on opinions of the justice department" to imply the utter rejection of the rule of law. If employees of the executive can "rely" on something written by one of the President's subordinates, then the President has absolute power. In repeating this argument, I think the Obama administration has joined the Bush administration's effort to destroy limited government and the rule of law.

I am enraged by their statement of their decision to release the three still secret torture memos which includes "In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution."

It might be best not to prosecute or even investigate. However, the statement "it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution." is totally unnacceptable. The Obama administration has now declared that opinions of the OLC ought to determine whether or not there is an investigation *even* if the OLC wrote them in bad faith. This gives OLC opinions the force of law.

If employees of the executive can "rely ... on opinions from the Departement of Justice" then the executive is supreme and can brush the constitution, the law and supreme court opinions aside by pretending to interpret them as saying what the supreme executive wants them to say. the deleted qualifier "in good faith" does not imply that the Justice Department must write its honest opinions in good faith. It refers only to the "good faith" of the subordinates who follow orders.

Obama is making opinions public, but does not commit to making all future opinions public (and couldn't bind a future President anyway). In fact, the explanation of why the 3 memos are being public makes it clear that it is definitely not Obama administration policy to make future OLC opinions public.

Thus we have a body subordinate to the President with the power to arbitrarily rewrite the law. This is not bipartisan consensus policy. Thus Obama has decided to attempt to eliminate the rule of law and the principle of divided government and checks and balances. He might not succeed, but I don't see why not.

If actions taken in good faith following OLC opinions are not to be prosecuted (good faith by the actors not the OLC) then there is nothing left. In particular the Supreme Court is no help. If the OLC can rewrite the constitution and the laws, then it can rewrite supreme court opinions. Supreme court decisions are important because they establish precedents, not because of the resolution of the particular case. The OLC can make a plainly dishonest secret interpretation of Supreme Court precedent. If no one can be punished for acts which the OLC dishonestly claims are constitutional, legal and consistent with Supreme Court precedent, then we are not protected by the Constitution, the law or the Supreme Court.

There was no need for Obama to abandon the constitution and the idea of constitutionalism. He could just have ordered his subordinates to not investigate or prosecute without appealing to the OLC. the English legal tradition includes prosecutorial discretion and the barrier between the President and career prosecutors at DOJ is a tradition, not a requirement of the constitution. By arguing that OLC opinions, no matter how clearly written in bad faith, are decisive, Obama decided that the law must bow to the power of the OLC which is subordinate to the President. I'm actually not worried about what he will do with his recently claimed absolute power. However, if there is a bipartisan consensus that the executive can't be punished for breaking the law, his successors will have absolute power too. I think that the political advantage of publicly promising not to investigate Bush administration crimes does not justify the destruction of the constitution and the rule of law.
Hanging Curve Ball

Defenders of the Bush administration's illegal warrantless wiretapping policy argue that it was different from Watergate, because the illegal means were used only for the noble end of fighting terrorism. The policy, while forbidden by the law, was, they said, not abused for political gain.

The evidence supporting this claim was the fact that no evidence of such abuse was in the public domain, which would be completely unrsuprising if the program were abused for political gain, since it was all top secret.

Erick Lichtblau and James Rising report in the New York Times
new details are also emerging about earlier domestic-surveillance activities, including the agency’s attempt to wiretap a member of Congress, without court approval, on an overseas trip, current and former intelligence officials said.

knock me over with a wrecking ball. I am so not surprised. I wonder if any of the people who argued the now falsified defence of the Bush administration are surprised.

Who would have thought that secret programs are used by people who have no respect for the law as such for purposes other than the ones they present in public.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rightwing Bloggers: More stupid than you imagine possible even when you take into account the fact that they are more stupid than you imagine possible.

I am kicking myself for not posting a question about US conservatives when I saw video of US troops applauding and photographing Obama. I recalled the conservative who was surprised that homeless people have cell-phone cameras, and seriously considered asking if they would be surprised that service people had digital cameras.

I thought I was joking (and the joke might seem disrespectful of military personel).

The joke is on me.

Conservative bloggers, acting on a tip from an anonymous viral email (seriously), have been running with a story accusing President Obama of "staging" his raucous meetings with US troops in Iraq. According to the chain email, and the bloggers, the troops' overwhelming support for their commander-in-chief was faked. You see, the Obama people hand-picked troops who only voted for Obama, the story goes, and then they gave them all very expensive $200 and $300 cameras in order to "take photos" of Obama, in a brilliantly coordinated stunt worthy of Capricorn One.

The proof? All the cameras in the photos of Obama with the troops are the same!

Except, of course, they're not.

Oh Aravosis links to Sargent.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Totally Depetive Headlines

The AP reports on the fact that a 3 judge panel has declared that Al Franken was elected to the senate, and that this should be certified immediately (which implies he should be seated immediately).

"Minn. Court Declares Franken Leader "

this is absolutely false. The court declared him the winner. One is only the leader until the contest is over and they declared it over. Calling for a certificate is the most emphatic way they can say that the chellenge is over and done.

Now that doesn't mean the legal battle is over. The three judge panel is subordinate to the full Minnesota Supreme Court and the US Federal Courts might meddle (after Bush vs Gore 2000 one can't pretend there is any limit on what they might do).

But the declaration of the panel was as clear as it can be and the AP's version is deliberately misleading.

A decision that will be appealed is, to the court that made it, a decision.

The headline is simply false. The article does not hide the facts, but does downplay them in a way which makes Coleman's blatently frivolous quest for delay seem normal.

Note a Coleman spokesman says they will appeal, However, they won't for days. They ahve to appeal within 10 days and they will run out the clock. As far as I know, the decision of the panel contains no news which would require them to rephrase their appeal. As far as I know, they will delay 10 days because keeping a legitimately elected senator out of the senate for as long as possible is their only aim.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Keeping up with Fox I am promoting the "Tea Parties." Is this what they mean ?

Not noticibly more absurd than the protests planned for Wednesday.
Today's is a Parody right ? I mean it must be that Brad DeLong's evil twin and Glenn Greenwalds doppler hacked the site and rewrote the headlines to make them look as Hacky as possible.

We have the number 1 story on life death and who won the week

Captain's Rescue Leaves Obama an Early Victory
Successful resolution of confrontation with Somali pirates could help build confidence in president's ability to direct military actions abroad.

Michael D. Shear

Trying to guess what the crowd will believe.

If you must focus on all politics all the time, there is a better political analysis from John Cole -- we're dumb and shallow but not that dumb and shallow.

Then we have the hard hitting

Bo's Trip to the White House
The new first puppy's journey started in western Pennsylvania and ended at 1600 Pennsylvania.

Manuel Roig-Franzia

And the Piece di resistance, ciliegino sulla torta straw that broke my back

"Emanuel Overhauls His Image"

Psst Shailagh, the headline is not supposed to say it's a beat sweetener, have you been rude to the shmo who writes the headlines recently ?
Google ads is very sophisticated. It noticed that I have been writing about Keynes. It was just a little confused about which Keynes and posted this ad

Your business expansion
Find out what makes Milton Keynes different. Fastest growth in S.East

Now Milton Keynes must have totally brilliant municiple economic policy rivalled only by the nearby town Maynard Friedman.

Seriously reminds me of the North Malden Icelandic Saga Society
(full length but very funny)

here the joke is (partly) that a very important battle was fought on the Field of Malden (if the other guys had won I'd be typing this in Danish) but now Malden is just a boring little town.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Paul Krugman lets the mask slip on our plan to impose dystopian oligarchic collectivism disguised as socialism.

He writes a Paean to boring banking to go with his Paeans to Ben Bernanke and Brooksley Born.

I think the masses are ready comrade. Just give the order to

Chant "B.B. B.B. B.B. B.B ...."

at the two minutes hate.
Why Is the Obama Administration Abusing the State Secrets Doctrine ?

Glenn Greenwald has been on this for months.
Dan Froomkin has, as usual, a good summary. ù

Froomkin explains

the way the state secrets privilege has typically worked since then is that the government can refuse to publicly disclose a specific item of information if it explains why to the judge. The idea is not that government officials get to tell a judge to dismiss an entire case because they don't want to answer any questions at all.

But it is precisely such a sweeping assertion that the Justice Department -- the Obama Justice Department -- is making in three cases that relate to torture and warrantless wiretapping.

And asks

What is motivating Obama's lawyers here? What exactly trumped his promises of transparency and the restoration of the rule of law? It's got to be something big. Is this about not wanting to give up executive power, now that they have it? Is it about protecting Bush-era secrets? Are they terrified of rebellion in the CIA or NSA? Are Justice Department lawyers still somehow under the influence of the old regime?

I have a semi guess, well a hope, actually more a wish than a hope.

Republican Senators are holding up approval of Dawn Johnson as head of the Office of Legal Council. They have made it clear that they will fillibuster the appointment if there is any investigation of Bush administration law breaking.

I hope this is the issue. The reason is that, sooner or later, the Senate will have to approve a head of OLC. Then the Obama administration will have more freedom of action. More importantly, the office in the executive branch which is supposed to tell the rest of the executive that it can't do something is exactly the office of legal council.

Once approved the head of the OLC can say that the Bush/Obama interpretation of the state secrets doctrine is nonsense. Then the Obama DOJ has a perfect excuse for changing their position.

I wish this were the explanation. Not sure I can actually manage hope, but I'm trying.
YP17 Turns Out 17 is the Only Random Number after all.

As an HCSSiM alumnus I was delighted when a fool pulled 17 out of his hat.

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) puts the number of socialists in the House at 17.
“Some of the men and women I work with in Congress are socialists,” Bachus told local government leaders on Thursday, according to the Birmingham News.

Bachus gave the specific number of House socialists when pressed later by a reporter.

Via Matt Yglesias
MInds Think Alike

Steve Benen comments on US views of Socialism

people don't think "socialism" is all that bad.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.

Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better.

Specifically, Rasmussen asked respondents, "Which is a better system -- capitalism or socialism?" A narrow majority (53%) supported capitalism as the superior system. One in five backed socialism, and a surprisingly high 27% weren't sure.

You just can't have an effective red scare with numbers like these.

In terms of interpreting these results, the numbers certainly aren't what I expected, and it's hard to know why respondents answered as they did. Perhaps "capitalism" lost some of its appeal when our economy collapsed. Maybe a lot of people heard the media connect Obama and "socialism," and since they like the president, they figure socialism can't be that bad. In a similar vein, if right-wing blowhards like Limbaugh keep screaming that socialism is manifestly evil, there may be some who assume the economic model must have merit.

My immediate reaction as a comment

I'd consider an explanation of the results based on not quite so recent events. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics did a whole lot of damage to the socialist brand. People under 30 were, at most, 13 when the USSR collapsed.

How much of previous dislike of socialism in the US public and continuing dislike among the not so young is based on dislike of western European social democracy and how much is based on dislike of self declared "really existing socialism" ?

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on April 9, 2009 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Matthew Yglesias's immediate reaction in a blog post

The generational change here is interesting. I think it reflects the fact that on a basic level “socialism” is good branding. The whole idea is that we should put society first rather than capital, or money. That sounds good! But in the United States we never had a Socialist Party so “socialism” was primarily associated with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which was not at all good. But to people under 30, there’s less of that old resonance. And saying that Obama, who’s popular, is a “socialist” may simply tend to make people have warmer feelings toward the word “socialism.”

Yglesias has a photo, plus it's impressive that he has such insight into the views of the not so young, since he was about 6 when the USSR collapsed.
Understatement of the Week in the New York Times

Celia Dugger addresses the question of whether the opposition M.D.C. will offer an amnesty to ZANU-PF officials.

“We wanted to find out if it would be possible to have amnesty dating back to 1980s,” the official said. “The M.D.C. did not sound very forthcoming.”

Indeed, the opposition has so far offered no such assurances.

“I’d rather rot in hell than agree to anything like that,” said Roy Bennett, the opposition’s third-highest ranking official.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Waldmann Smackdown Watch

In a rare Event Elisabetta Addis asked Robert Waldmann for help with English (the more common event is I ask her how to spell something).

She asked for a qualifier for the word Democracy to describe the sort of things that Spain, Greece and Portugal became in the 70s.

R: Democracies
E: What was the Soviet Union
R: Not a Democracy
E: But they said they were
R: (visibly puffing up) in English words have meanings without needing modifiers. A lie is called a lie, not the liars "truth." A plainly false claim is not recognised by the language.
E: So is Italy a democracy now ?
R: ...
(crickets chirp).

Can I put this dialogue up on the web ?

In the name of absolute truth, I admit the posted version of the dialogue is an edited version of the actual real live dialogue (in English "the dialogue"). The characters R and E are fictional and any resemblence to actual real live people (in English "people") is approximate.
I get Pissed with Matthew Yglesias for two reasons.

He allows someone to use the label "efficiency" for money metric welfare without objecting *and* he decides to translate it as "short term economic growth." The first step is deciding that lump sum transfers (including from Bill Gates to starving children) don't effect "efficiency" (by definition of efficiency) which is a common abuse of the term among economists but ought to be explained whenever the term is so abused by economists so long as non economists take economists seriously (as Matthew Yeglesias for example clearly does). The second step (made by Yglesias in the first person by himself) is total nonsense. Together they only make sense if mazimizing economic growth is efficient. This is a totally new definition of efficient which would make sense only to Stalin (who achieved very high economic growth). It is exactly the strategy of "The Club for Growth."

Anyway read the post.

My comment

You assume that the effect of tax policy on growth is the effect due to inventives and dead weight losses. This is not true. I think you are too convinced by economic theory (as usual by the way).

The argument from economic theory is that changes in money metric welfare (dead weight losses) due to lump sum taxes and transfers add up to zero. This is true, because it is a tautoloty.

Then money metric welfare is equated with efficiency. This makes no conceivable sense and must make every utilitarian turn over in his or her grave (including me alghouth I am still alive and you who calls yourself a "consequentialist". This makes no sense. It is *not* the same as saying we can only say one state is more efficent than another if it is Pareto superior. This definition of "efficiency" yields a concept of no conceivable value or interest.

You know this (it's your field) yet you presenta table which lables changes in money metric utility (under a bunch of false assumptions too) as "efficiency costs" without criticizing the totally nonsensical non logic behind the calculation (which, I'm sure you agree, is depraved idiocy).

Just one of the idiotic assumptions is that there is no cost from global warming so the best policy would be liassez faire. Few would argue this, certainly not the people who assert it in their table labled "efficiency costs." Why did they lable the figure "efficiency costs" ? The least hypothesis is that they are schizophrenic but I'm sure something else is going on (maybe all is made sane in a footnote somewhere).

Aside from presenting the table with their title and no criticism, you know that calling money metric welfare "efficiency" is nonsense so you translate "money metric welfare" into a phrase to which ordinary people can relate (because it isn't a stilly calculation totally unrelated to anything that matters and ordinary people know that it is and suspect that "money metric utility" is as pointless as it sounds). So you replace "money metric utility" with "economic growth".

Wrong. They are not the same even in economic theory at its most reality defying. In fact, lump sum transfers will typically affect economic growth. The reassoning "its a lump sum transfer so it has no effect on economic growth" is just plain wrong. It's (generically) wrong in the hardest of hard core neoclassical models.

It's wrong if the rich are, on average, more patient (have a lower subjective rate of time discount) than the poor (this seems uhm plausible as it is hard to believe that people have identical subjective discount rates and more patience makes one richer other things equal).

It's wrong if firms are liquidity constrained.

Obviously firms are liquidity constrained at the momement (duh). In curent conditions, I would guess that taxing people lump sum and giving the money to firms would cause increased growth in the short run. For a fairly high tax, it would also cause people to starve. I'm all against it. But don't write "economic growth" when you mean something else.

Also especially don't give a table whcih shows the change in money metric utility (under a pile of false assumptions too) and call it efficiency cost. I mean if Harvard trained philosophers specializing in metaethics don't stand up to such nonsense who will ?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

I think I can piece together a devastating argument against "future combat systems" made by Defence secretary Gates from 2 sources each of which reports half of the argument.

The intelligent source is Matthew Yglesias who reports on a conference call with Gates
On specifics, Gates said that the problem with the Army’s Future Combat Systems program isn’t just the cost. It’s that there wasn’t enough flexibility. Based on the operational lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s useful to have a broad range of different kinds of vehicles, and it wasn’t proving feasible through the FCS process to design a system that could replace the full spectrum of currently available vehicles.

The making an argument in a news article (and making it badly) sourse is Jeffrey Smith in the Washington Post who writes

the V-shaped hull of the costly Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle deflected the worst blast effects of buried explosives.

Within weeks, and after some pointed demands for the MRAPs from Capitol Hill, Gates decided to make accelerated production of the vehicles his top priority, using a special task force that circumvented the department's normal purchasing methods -- and the initial opposition of the Army and the Marine Corps.

Putting the relevant but abstract argument by Yglesias and the praise of Gates tangetially (if at all) related to the current debate by Smith together, I guess that Gates argued that if "Future Combat Systems" were "Current Combat Systems" it would have been even harder to get US service people in Iraq safely in V shaped hulls.

Even without having to give up fancy electronics to save lives, he claims the Army and Marine Corps resisted his efforts. His argument seems to be that, if service people had been trained so they were dependent of FCS electronics and no FCS MRAPs were available (a lack of flexibility that) more Americans would be dead by now.

That seems to me to be an argument devastating enough to shut Senator Inhofe up, if anything can (but obviously nothing can).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

From Facebook (a comment on Juan Cole)

Patrick Hasburgh alle 15.01 del 07 aprile
Waqaas's observation that fossil fuel rich are populated by Moslems is simply coincidental is exquisitely accurate... If the world was stealing Spanish oil, paying native Spaniards' leaders and oppressing the Spanish poor, we'd be ass deep in matadors wearing sequined bomb vests...

I'd cut out the middle man of arguing about how we dmad them hate us and write

"If most of the worlds remaining oil were in Spain we'd be ass deep in matadors wearing sequined bomb vests."

I don't think the claim is strictly true, but it does focus the mind.
Commenting on Yglesias commenting on Crook

Yglesias writes

Government spending on effective social welfare programs is very progressive. The main thing to do, from an egalitarian point of view, is to have a lot of it and to pay for it through whatever taxes are politically viable. Compared to Europe, the American tax code is toward the high end of progressivity, though not off the charts. The big difference, though, is that our overall tax revenues are lower, and a much larger share of our revenues goes to the military. Whatever you do to shift spending from defense to domestic priorities, and whatever you do to increase revenue, is a step in an egalitarian direction.

It may be that it’s easier to raise revenues through taxes on the rich, because they bite fewer people. Beyond that, there are concerns about growth. Certainly I think it’s clear that restoring Clinton-era taxation won’t kill the economy. But over the long run we’ll need even more revenue than that. So I think some consumption taxation may be necessary.

As Yglesias notes, his argument has not practical relevance whatsoever. We do not have to choose between whether to have a generous social safety net or whether to soak the rich. The only remotely politically feasible way for the US get a generous social safety net is raise taxes on the rich. There is overwhelming support for such tax increases (75% in the latest CBS Washington Post poll).

Significantly increasing taxes paid by most US residents is almost certainly politically impossible. Saying it would be OK even if not as good as a progressive increase in taxes is like saying one would rather be turned into a frog than dead. Maybe it would be better, but VAT in the USA is about as likely as Matthew Yglesias turning into a frog.

The fact that non rich people pay high taxes in Europe does not mean that it is an option open to activists or policy makers in the USA.

Yglesias mentions “growth”. The logic of his argument is that Clinton era taxes were fine, but any increase above Clinton era rates is impossible or would have intollerable effects on growth. That is, he either assumes that there is a huge discontinuity in the effects of marginal income tax rates on growth at exactly the Clinton era tax rates or he is making an argument which makes no sense at all.

A plea to my readers (or reader don't want to make false claims about traffic at this blog).

Do you know of any evidence that high taxes on the rich have any effect on growth ? How about any evidence that raising the same amount of money with VAT is better for growth than raising that amount of money by taxing high incomes ? The argument is made very often, so often, that one might imagine there must be some evidence supporting it.

I don’t know of any.
Helene Cooper discovers a President who likes to argue with Straw Men

On Barack Obama (not George Bush)
He often reverted to his favorite rhetorical devices — straw men — to make his points to the students. For instance, he said that “some people say that I’m being too idealistic” and ask him why he’s reaching out to Iranians, saying that trying to use diplomacy to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb is “too hard.”

On nuclear Weapons Newt Gingrich (who is not, technically, made of straw)

GINGRICH: The president’s in a world where Hamas is firing missiles every day into Israel, Iran is building nuclear weapons, and the North Koreans today during — basically during his speech fired a missile, and he has some wonderful fantasy idea that we’re going to have a great meeting next year. […] I just think that it’s very dangerous to have a fantasy foreign policy, and it can get you in enormous trouble.

The accusation that Obama is too idealistic is not made only by straw men. I wonder if Cooper understands the conventional meaning of " rhetorical devices — straw men." It refers to making up an non existent opponent who says something which is easy to refute. It does not refer to describing real live critics briefly and without naming names.

I'm glad that the New York Times is willing to criticize public figures and not just report what they said. However, it would be nice if they managed an accurate criticism instead of claiming that Obama was setting up a straw man when he was responding to his critics.

I don't recall reading that George Bush liked to debate straw men in the New York Times. That was the only debate he could tolerate.

I'm sure Obama uses the rhetorical divice. However, in the quoted passage he was not debating a straw man.

In the cited case, Obama was not inventing an imaginary opponent who doesn't exist, he was accurately albeit generically discussing the most common really existing genuine criticism of his foreign policy made by real flesh and blood people. Furthermore he wasn't choosing some obscure opponent with unusually extreme views. He was mentioning the main stream, virtually unanimous, position of the Republican party.

The article is innaccurate. Cooper's claim on a matter of fact is false. I think the New York Times should publish a correction.

update: Cooper's distortion is much worse than I thought. She suppressed the very clear reference to very real people who very clearly accused Obama of being too idealistic. The quote which she butchered to make her totally false "straw men" allegation is as follows

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, some people say that maybe I'm being too idealistic. I made a speech in Prague about reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons, and some people said, ah, that will never happen. And some people have said, why are you discussing the Middle East when it's not going to be possible for the Israelis and the Palestinians to come together? Or, why are you reaching out to the Iranians, because the U.S. and Iran can never agree on anything?

My attitude is, is that all these things are hard. I mean, I'm not naïve. If it was easy, it would have already been done.

He's clearly listing specific accusations that he is too starry eyed. All correspond to real flesh and blood critics, but Cooper totally supressed the one which refers to extremely recent and widespread criticism and which makes her claim that Obama was setting up "straw men" plainly false and not just false as I asserted based on her quotation.
I send letters

Dear ActBlue

I was not at all pleased to find this link
to an actblue fundraising page for Evan Bayh.

I support the Democratic party for the same reason that I oppose senators who vote against Obama's budget because it would increase the deficit, then vote to eliminate the estate tax on estates from 7 to 10 million dollars.

I have in the past donated via ActBlue and (if I recal correctly) tipped you. I will not do so again so long as you raise money for that friend of the rich and enemy of the rest of us.

p.s. Ben Nelson's from Nebraska so he gets a pass.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

A Tiger by the Tail

Just last year many were talking about how China is conquering the world economy. Now more wonder if there will be a world economy to conquer. I'm old enough to remember long long ago when Japan was conquering the world economy (roughly the 80s).
Didn't turn out that way exactly did it ?

I see a pattern. A country has a persistent trade surplus with the USA. Therefore they are winning and the US is losing. Their currency is strong. Therefore they are winning and the US is losing. They invest huge amounts of money in Treasury securities to keep the dollar from depreciating too much (how humiliating for the USA). Then they give up.

Then they are in deep trouble.

Japanese banks mainly got into trouble loaning to comercial real estate developers during the 1980s bubble, however, following requests from the ministry of fincnance, they invested hundreds of billions in dollar denominated assets. Those assets were worth many fewer yen when they needed yen. Japan was guaranteeing itself a huge loss on capital (which hurt expecially because it came as a loss of bank capital). This was considered brilliant economic strategy by US based Japanophobes.

Then the USA was number one for a while.

Then the PRC emerged as a booming economy and invincible competitor. They couldn't be beaten on the market becawuse they bought trillions of dollard denominated assets to prop up the dollar.

Fortunately the People's Bank of China can't run out of Yuan. However, I don't think the Chinese working masses will be pleased to find out what they get for their decades of working and saving.

Ah the contradictions of communism.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Wish I'd said that

I would also venture that 30 years from now people are going to look back and see America’s relationship with India and China as rising great powers as more important issues than our relationship with Pashto-speaking town elders in rural Afghanistan

M Yglesias

Yeah but the Uzbeck speaking youths are key.