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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Effective demand and famines

There's a three-toed sloth at Carnegie Mellon University who thinks he understands what causes famines.

You may be refusing to take this seriously, objecting that I have loaded the rhetorical deck pretty blatantly --- and I have! (Though not more than is customary in teaching economics.) But this is the core of Amartya Sen's model of famines, which grows from the observation that food is often exported, at a profit, from famine-stricken regions in which people are dying of hunger. This occurs not just in cases like the USSR in the 1930s, but in impeccably capitalist situations, like British India. This happens, as Sen shows, because the hungry, while they have a very great need for food, do not have the money to buy it, or, more precisely, people elsewhere will pay more. It is thus not economically efficient to feed the hungry, so the market starves them to death.

Newt and immigration: Why it's the third rail for Republicans

by John MacBeath Watkins

Newt Gingrich is getting hammered by his opponents for suggesting that mass deportations are not "humane."

Mitt Romney:
“I just think we make a mistake as a Republican Party to try to describe which people who’ve come here illegally should be given amnesty to be able to jump ahead of the line of the people who have been waiting in line.”
Linking Gingrich's comments to "amnesty," is a pretty hard-edged political implement, because it's a fighting word for social conservatives on the immigration issue.

Michele Bachmann laid the ultimate Republican insult at his feet, calling his stance "the most liberal" of the Republican candidates. The "L" word is about as close as she ever comes to profanity.

I'm not sure how it escaped Gingrich's notice that Republican primary voters are in no way interested in treating immigrants in a "humane" manner.

As I pointed out in this post, the political polarization in this country has a lot to do with immigration. It's at times when we have a lot of immigrants, like the late 19th century, that we have a lot of political polarization. It's times when immigration falls, such as the 1920s, that polarization falls.

Perhaps the most perceptive comments I've heard along these lines is that of Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who described the modern Democratic coalition as diverse America and the whites who are comfortable with diverse America.

As we discussed in this post, fear of non-white America is what binds together the diverse elements of the Republican coalition. It is therefore a coalition in which one can appeal to various groups by offering to lower taxes for business conservatives, ban abortion of religious conservatives, end the Fed for libertarians, and none of these promises will resonate outside the particular group you are pandering to. But the one thing they all agree on is their ethnic panic, as discussed in this post.

As a result, pandering to groups that make up the Republican coalition can help you with them, but alienating them on the issue of immigration alienates them all.

Bachmann may think that if she can push Gingrich off the pollster's mountain, she can ascend and be queen of it again. But I doubt that Republican voters are ready to start going through the roster of non-Romney candidates again, searching for a great white hope. At this point, it's Gingrich, Romney, or no one, and you can't beat someone with no one, so Republicans really must choose between the two.

That's what Gingrich has going for him, and the one chance he has that Republican ethnic panic won't doom his hopes for the nomination.

And why do they keep seeking a non-Romney? For one, they don't trust him, and who would? He's shown he will say whatever he must to get the office he wants, morphing into a moderate liberal to get elected governor of Massachusetts, then morphing into a conservative when he decided he wanted the presidency. The man is a pandering jukebox, ready to sing whatever song you want. If conservatives don't trust his depth of conviction, it only shows they are paying attention.

And, of course, Mormons are The Other as well.

 A quarter of voters will not vote for a Mormon. That's fewer than will vote for a black, a Jew, a woman or a Hispanic. That doesn't mean Gingrich is a lock, because 30 percent will not vote for someone who has been married three times.

But then, in 1959, the year before John Kennedy was elected president, 25% of Gallup's respondents said they wouldn't vote for a Catholic for president. It didn't matter, because a little more than 50% did. Kennedy managed to convince people that he wasn't The Other, and he had the good fortune to be telegenic at a time when television started to influence elections.

Sometimes, it matters more who a candidate is than what obvious characteristics can be polled for. But it always matters where they stand, and Gingrich has chosen some slippery footing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Angela Merkel and the Agonistic Fancy: The Third War of German Hubris?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Is this the third War of German Hubris?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted on an irrational economic policy in which the European Central Bank is not allowed to act like a Central Bank (which is, after all, in the name) and all countries in Europe that are not Germany must suffer for being morally inferior to Germany. They must pay every penny back that they borrowed, whether because their government was improvident (Greece) or their banks failed (Ireland and Spain.) They may not have higher inflation to help reprice their economies. As recently as Tuesday, she insisted that the ECB could not act as a lender of last resort to prevent runs on Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and possibly France.

Since the Euro was instituted, there has been a distinct pattern, in which Germany got the jobs and the periphery got the debts.

 The result can be seen in this graph, which by they way shows that this was not the situation before the Euro:

That graph is from this Paul Krugman post, in which he points out that:
'Now these imbalances need to be unwound. As anyone who has studied international macro can tell you, this requires two things. First, it requires a redistribution of spending, with the creditors spending more while the debtors spend less. Second, it requires a real depreciation on the part of the debtors, a real appreciation on the part of the creditors — that is, wages and prices in the GIPS must fall relative to those in Germany.

'But the official policy of the eurozone’s leaders is that this adjustment should be entirely one-sided. Spending must fall in the debtors, but there will be no offsetting expansionary policy in the creditors — so the thrust of policy is entirely contractionary for the eurozone as a whole. At the same time, the ECB is committed to very low inflation at the aggregate level, which means that real exchange rate adjustment must take place mainly through deflation in the GIPS, which is both very difficult and has the effect of raising their debt burden relative to GDP.'

There is a type of art once popular in Christianity called the Agonistic Fancy, in which the chosen look down with evident satisfaction on the suffering of the sinners in Hell, a bit like Jan Van Eyck's Last Judgment.

Germans seemed to think they were in this enviable position, and the Greeks, Irish, Spaniards, Italians, and Portugese (and possibly the French) were in the position of the sufferers in Hell. The story they told themselves was that Germans were not suffering because Germans were better, harder working, thriftier, just all around better.

Now investors have developed doubts about German bonds.
'BERLIN (Reuters) - A "disastrous" German bond sale on Wednesday sparked fears that Europe's debt crisis was starting to threaten even Berlin, with the leaders of the euro zone's two biggest economies still at odds over a longer-term structural solution.

'The German debt agency could not find buyers for almost half a bond sale of 6 billion euros. That pushed the cost of borrowing over 10 years for the bloc's paymaster above those for the United States for the first time since October.

"It is a complete and utter disaster," said Marc Ostwald, strategist at Monument Securities in London.'

The Financial Times refers to bonds priced as risky assets as "the Apocalypse trade."

But if the Germans are to burn on the fires of Hell, unable to finance their debt at any reasonable level of interest, perhaps they will conclude that this is not a passion play, but an exercise in ordinary economics, in which the solution is not the suffering of sinners but the perfectly ordinary application of the traditional roles of central banks, one of which is to be the lender of last resort.

After all, Greece can run out of Euros, so can Italy, even France. And now, it turns out that even Germany can run out of Euros. As Matthew Yglesias has so cleverly put it, "Sometimes central banks need to dig into their pockets in order to keep bond interest rates low. But when rich countries’ central banks dig, what they find is their pockets are full of printing presses."

None of the nations of Europe have a printing press in their national central bank. They have given all their money-printing apparatus to the European Central Bank, and it's time to as the ECB to avail itself of that apparatus.

The Germans fought two world wars to test the proposition that they were better than other people, and in the process inflicted terrible suffering on the whole of Europe. These might be called the Wars of German Hubris.

And now, they are doing it again, economically instead of militarily. And for the third time, they will find that they are pretty much the same as the rest of humanity.

'On Bullshit,' a book that tells us the techniques of the Romney campaign

by John MacBeath Watkins

Steve Benen today referenced a lovely little book, On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt, who used his training as a philosopher to bring rigor to the concept of bullshit.

Perhaps the classic example of bullshit was when George W. Bush in a June 19, 2005 radio address justified the Iraq war by saying, "We went to war because we were attacked, and we are at war today because there are still people out there who want to harm our country and hurt our citizens."

It was a statement carefully written so that everything in it was true, and the effect was to get people to believe a lie. We were attacked by al Qaeda, and Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein, a man too jealous of his own power to allow such an organization to operate in his country. In short, claiming we invaded Iraq because we were attacked by al Qaeda was bullshit.

Benen mentioned the book because it seems to apply to Mitt Romney. The Romney campaign's first television ad targeting President Obama is bullshit.

As Benen noted in this post,

'To briefly recap, Mitt Romney’s very first television ad of the 2012 campaign pushes a blatant, shameless lie. In 2008, a month before the president was elected, then-candidate Obama told voters, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’” In Romney’s new attack ad, viewers only see part of the quote: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”'
CBS News followed up on the Romney campaign's deceit with Romney senior New Hampshire adviser Tom Rath and got this response:

'Pressed on whether it was unfair to lop off the top of Mr. Obama's comments -- which would show the president was quoting the McCain camp -- Rath said, "He did say the words. That's his voice."
He then suggested that the more people discuss the ad, the better it is for the Romney campaign.'
Which, of course, is more bullshit. The statement "He did say the words. That's his voice." is literally true, but the intent and effect are to deceive. And the television station running the ad, WMUR, says it cannot legally refuse a campaign ad from a qualified candidate for inaccuracy. Over the years, many campaigns have been pressured to remove ads for inaccuracy, which of course is only possible if the campaign cares about whether it has a reputation for telling the truth.

Think Progress did some creative editing to demonstrate what such an ad would look like if it were about Romney and used the Romney campaign's standards of truth:

Which, of course, is not how the Obama campaign will respond.

The smartest thing they can do is portray him as what he is, a person willing to say anything to become president, without regard for truth and with no core beliefs, save that he should be rich and powerful.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Shouldn't conservatives want to keep government out of religion?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Via Steve Benen, we find this Newt Gingrich quote from the Thanksgiving Family Forum:

“A country that has been now since 1963 relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have,” the thrice-married, serial adulterer said. “Because we’ve in fact attempted to create a secular country, which I think is frankly a nightmare.”
Since when was the government the same as the country? And shouldn't conservatives, who want the government out of everything else, want it out of religion? After all, once you've got religion in government, you've got government in religion.

We live in arguably the least secular of the developed countries, and that is not a coincidence. Countries with established churches, such as England, where the Church of England is the official national religion, tend not to take religion very seriously, and those English who do take religion seriously tend not to belong to the C of E.

My grandfather, Amos Watkins, was an Evangelical Christian, and during the 1930s, when my father was in school at Laurel, Ore., he was the president of the school board. Did he insist that the school promote Christianity?

Of course not. It wasn't the school's business. What people are forced to do, they tend to rebel against, in any case. Amos and Lily Watkins raised four children, all devout Christians. My uncle Steve became an Evangelical minister, my aunt Jean married a Seventh Day Adventist missionary. My uncle Ted is a lay leader in his church, and my late father was active in the Episcopal Church.

All that, with no religious observance in school. That's because the home and the church were doing their job, passing on the traditional beliefs, and the government was staying out of the way so that they could.

Not everyone in my father's community was Christian, by the way, His best friend growing up in the 1920s and '30s was Kenji Inahara, and Kenji's parents, like many Japanese immigrants, had images of their gods on the mantle. But a couple hundred years ago, the founding fathers decided that the way to deal with religion was to keep the government out of it, so they were free to worship their gods.

After all, many immigrants in the early days came to this country to be free to practice religion as they saw fit. In England at the time, you had to be a member of the Church of England to be an officer in the military or to practice law or hold public office. The founding fathers knew what an established state religion looked like, and wanted no part of it.

They were also familiar with the efforts of the Catholic Church in England to suppress Protestantism, even ordering the strangling of William Tyndale for translating the Bible into English, and the subsequent burning of his remains so that he could not be resurrected on Judgement Day. There is a great book, Fox's Book of Martyrs, that tells the story of the suppression of the English language Bible. I've mentioned it before in this post. It's easy to forget that the practices of established state religions in Europe were once about as oppressive as the practices of modern-day Iran.

Part of the reason our constitution is written to keep the government out of religion was that not everyone who fled the state religion of England and other nations wanted to practice the same religion. One of my ancestors was a Puritan, but got in trouble with his church for giving shelter to Quakers in a storm. He and his family became Quakers.

But while some colonies could be intolerant of those who did not belong to the dominant sect, for us to be a nation, we all had to tolerate those who did not believe as we did.

Some Christians may think taking over the apparatus of state power would help them promote their own religious views, which they are certain are the right ones. But if religion were to take over the government, you'd soon see divisions like those between the colonial Puritans and Quakers, and eventually you'd see many religious people wishing they could get government out of religion.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy the campaign: Make government serve the 99%, not the 1%

by John MaBeath Watkins

Driving up to Capitol Hill yesterday evening, I saw Occupy Wall Street protesters walking down the hill in the other lane. It always warms my heart to see people marching against the powers that be, but it occurred to me that it was deuced cold out there, and not the sort of conditions humans evolved for.

We are naked apes. Our ancestors evolved in the tropics, and other than our giant brains, the great genetic innovation for humans is their loss of body hair, which allows us to shed heat better than our hairy prey and engage in successful persistence hunting.

If we were polar bears or grizzlies, camping out on pavement all winter might be tenable. We'd just crawl in our tents and hibernate, the ultimate in passive resistance. But we are the naked sons and daughters of Esau, that hairy man, and continuing to occupy all winter is neither comfortable nor good strategy.

At some point, the same thing is going to happen to OWS as happened to the Tea Party, when the anger that the public sympathized with has been expressed and the tactics start to grate on people's nerves. Their popularity will decline, but will they have achieved the kind of political change the Tea Party managed?

It was an easy transition for the Tea Party, which is made up primarily of politically active Republicans. They just took their enthusiasm and organization and took over a big chunk of the Republican Party, intimidating the party in such a way as to practically dictate its policy stands.

It's tougher for the OWS crew to turn their enthusiasm into political influence, because about 70% of them are political independents who are fed up with all the powers that be, not just one political party. The trouble is, once you've made the transition from colorful representative of the way a lot of people feel to total pain in the arse, what can remain for such a group?

I'd say the next step is to occupy campaign events. When a representative of either party holds a town hall meeting, they should meet people who may not be of their party, but represent the feelings of Americans who aren't being properly represented by a political party.

Both parties are getting big donations from Wall Street, and both need to have their feet held to the fire to serve the voters, not the financiers. I saw a quote from a Wall Streeter claiming that politicians needed to "remember who their constituents are." He wasn't talking about voters, because there just aren't that many people working in the finance sector. He was talking about campaign financing.

In short, he was saying those congressmen needed to remember that they were bought and paid for, and they needed to stay bought.

We, as citizens, need to remind them that they are public servants, not the servants of the fat cats who can donate more money. We need to cut through the deceptive rhetoric of the 1% that tries to divide and conquer the 99%.

For example, people who advocate a flat tax claim they want to simplify the tax code. Well, the tax brackets aren't what's complicated in the tax code, it's the myriad of exemptions written in opaque prose that the 1% have lobbied for. It's complicated and opaque for a reason -- they don't want you to know who the tax giveaways are going to.

We've simplified the tax code before, and lowered the top rate, under Ronald Reagan. So what happened? The 1% paid their lobbyists to write exemptions back into the code, while leaving the top rate alone. Now they want to repeat the process, lowering the top rate again, eliminating the exemptions that are defended by the less powerful interests, then over the years riddling the tax code with a Swiss cheese of exemptions again.

There are a variety of scams like that being sold to voters, and the way to fight back is to educate people, and tell our elected officials that we know what's going on and won't stand for it. And there's an obvious way to do that:

Occupy the campaign.

Don't occupy congress, they've got the force to push you out of there. Occupy campaign events, that's where the candidate is taking a sounding to learn how constituents feel.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Now I am become Romney, destroyer of jobs

by John MacBeath Watkins

When J. Robert Oppenheimer saw the first nuclear bomb explosion, he later said a verse from the  Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

I think of that when Mitt Romney talks about how his business expertise will help him increase employment in this country.

Has Mitt Romney ever created jobs? His business experience was with Bain Capital Management, which tends to buy a company that has been making money, load it up with debt to pay Bain's big fees, then cut employment and sell before revenues crash.

I've created a few jobs in my day. I started a business and hired people to work for me. I hired them because they created value with their labor, and I got part of that value because I organized the business so that their labor could create value. That's how business works, and why it's a creative enterprise rather than a zero-sum game. It's also very different from the deals Romney helped structure.

Consider the case of Dade International, an Illinois medical devices and sales company.

"Bain and a small group of investors bought Dade in 1994 with mostly borrowed money, limiting their risk. They extracted cash from the company at almost every turn -- paying themselves nearly $100 million in fees, first for buying the company and then for helping to run it. Later, just after Mr. Romney stepped down from his role, Bain took $242 million out of the business in a transaction that, according to bankruptcy documents and several former Dade officials, weakened the company."
Bain also laid off 1,700 people before selling the business, and quadrupled its debts. Everything it did enriched Bain, and although Bain managed to dress up the balance sheet to make the business salable,  they did not run it to create more value. They doubled the company's sales by buying up rivals, which added to the company's debt. And Bain is still using the system Romney helped design.

Bain bought Clear Channel, the profitable radio company notorious for its cost-cutting measures, and loaded it up with debt, then laid off, as near as I can tell, about 3,000 people.

Why haven't they sold it? Maybe prospective buyers have learned to look a little more closely at properties offered by Bain for that green weenie in the fridge. After all, would you buy a company from Gordon Gekko?

I remember the '80s and '90s. When companies that did not carry a huge load of debt were always a target for takeover artists like Romney. Takeover artists may have been heroes on Wall Street, but they were never accused of creating jobs.

Contrast that to entrepreneurs like Bill Gates. Gates and his partner, Paul Allen, took a tiny company and turned it into a behemoth employing 96,000 people by 2000. Bain makes it difficult to find out how many jobs have been added and how many they've destroyed, and I assume they do so for good reason.

After all, destroying jobs and piling up debt is how the last Republican president operated. Romney and his buddies at Bain wouldn't want you to know that he had the exact same record in business as George W. Bush did as president.

There's a controversy, it seems, about whether it is a better strategy for the Obama campaign to portray Mr. Romney as a flip-flopper or a hard-right ideologue. Neither captures the man's defects. All that is needed is to tell the public his record. Romney knows how to make a business have more debt and provide fewer jobs. What do you think, do we want our country to have more debt and fewer jobs?

Thought so.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ethnic panic, prejudice and ideology: What separates the parties?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The unfortunately named Carl T. Bogus has written an article in interview form for the National Review titled, A Liberal Reads the Great Conservative Works. It's an interesting read, and not long, so I suggest that you, gentle reader, consume the whole thing here:

The most cogent observation he makes is that conservatives talk more about ideology than do liberals:

"One striking difference is that the iconic conservative works are about ideology. By contrast, the most influential liberal books of the era are about policy issues. Those works are Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962), The Other America by Michael Harrington (1962), The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), and Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader (1965), which helped launch the environmental, anti-poverty, feminist, and consumer movements, respectively."
And he's largely right about the different taxonomies of conservative ideology:
"Conservatives have big appetites for ideology; liberals don’t. There are, of course, taxonomies of conservative schools of thought. People on the right classify themselves as libertarians, neoconservatives, social conservatives, traditional conservatives, and the like, and spill oceans of ink defining, debating, and further subdividing these schools of thought. There is no parallel taxonomy on the left. Maybe, in part, it is because a central tenet of liberalism is that ideology should be eschewed in favor of the supposedly enlightened, pragmatic approach of making ad hoc judgments about issues."
 Certainly the pragmatism of liberals has been on display lately, as President Obama adopted the Republican plan, as developed by the Heritage Foundation and put into Massachusetts  law by Mitt Romney, for healthcare reform, only to have Republicans dub it "socialism."

But if Republicans are all about ideology, why do they object to their own ideas once they are adopted by Democrats? Surely, their ideology has policy consequences, and the policy still passes conservative muster even when the opposing party adopts it.

Ezra Klein offers two readings of this. One is that partisanship and motivated skepticism are the reasons, and I would agree that partisanship is the reason motivated skepticism (sometimes called blowback) comes into play.

He adds:

"But a more generous interpretation is that because conservatives are more concerned with philosophy, they see the motivations of the legislators as much more important than liberals do. 

"So when liberals celebrate a liberal policy proposal coming from a conservative president — note the Democrats who joined with President Bush on No Child Left Behind and, until the conference committee shenanigans, Medicare Part D — it’s because their analysis is focused on the proposal. If the proposal lines up with their ideas, they support it. When conservatives turn on a onetime conservative proposal that’s been embraced by a more liberal president, it’s because they’re looking behind the policy to the philosophies of whoever is championing it. For them to feel comfortable supporting it, the philosophy of whoever is proposing it has to line up with their philosophy, too."
Frankly, this makes no sense to me. An idea is an idea regardless of who espouses it.

But one of the seminal thinkers of conservatism is Edmund Burke, who provides a better explanation. From Reflections on the French Revolution

"You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature."
 One seldom sees such a defense of prejudice. And I must confess, the example of the utopian projects of the 20th century, such as the communist and fascist regimes that slaughtered millions, give some credence to the notion that we should not trust "naked reason." But Burke was pragmatic, and some would say a conservative liberal (which in our modern political world seems like an oxymoron, but remember that Frederich Hayek called himself a liberal as well.) He did not cast out reason, and I'm quite confident that he would not advise, for example, ignoring the conclusions of the scientific establishment on global warming.

The modern conservative movement can abandon its previously held policy positions because it has cast out reason, and indulged itself in prejudice. This is why the conservative movement has become, as I noted in this post, decadent.

A policy that was conservative when Republicans promoted it does not become "socialist" because of ideology, it becomes socialist because of what Burke would have termed prejudice.

The original sin here falls on President Nixon. In his 1968 election campaign, he set out deliberately to divide the country, based on the idea that such divisions would benefit Nixon. In a famous memo to Nixon, one of his aides, Pat Buchanan, wrote that the Republican tactics should include:
“Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”

Nixon was not, by modern standards, a conservative. He used price controls, expanded the welfare state, and took the troops out of Viet Nam. He ran in 1968 as a peace candidate, but also, on a more subtle level, as someone who would stand up for the prejudices of the constituency he was pursuing.

Nixon's chance came because the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act offended the prejudices of Southern Democrats. Although both bills passed with bipartisan support, they did not pass with Dixiecrat support. And in 1964, the conservative flag-bearer, Barry Goldwater, opposed the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds. This paved the way for many former Dixiecrats to switch to the Republican Party, and bring their constituents with them.

In one way, rank racial prejudice was driving this, but on another level the sort of prejudice Burke was speaking of, the collective wisdom of the culture, as also operating. The anti-war protesters were responsible for ending Lyndon Johnson's hopes of re-election, and Nixon ran as a peace candidate, but he set himself rhetorically against the damned hippies of the peace movement and on the side of the military. One of the more deeply engrained "prejudices" (in Burke's sense) of the American people is an abiding respect for the military.

Nixon wasn't just appealing to blue-collar whites based on racial prejudice, and if he had been, he would not have won the election. He was also running on the more respectable "prejudices" of loyalty to country and respect for law and order, and applying his greatest skill, the ability to exploit hatred and fear. His message to whites was not merely that the racial order was being upset, but that their entire way of life was under threat. That message is now usually understood as the culture war.

Very few people regard themselves as racist, but Nixon could appeal to the buried attitudes and fears of the voters. Dog-whistles about race might not even be heard by the voters he appealed to, operating below the level of conscious self-image.

The Nixon model for winning elections has proven durable, and remains the default setting for Republican politics. This is why ideology does not lead to consistent policy positions. The great works of conservatism may be ideological, and on an intellectual level conservatives may indulge a rich taxonomy of ideologies, but when it comes to winning elections, all is subsumed by the culture war. That is why Nixon, known in political science circles as "the last liberal" president, is a conservative icon, regardless of his actual policies. He pushed the right culture war buttons, and that is what makes him, by the standards of conservatives, worthy of being called a conservative, despite the ideological gulf between him and modern conservatives. The intellectual underpinnings of modern conservatism may look ideological, but the success of modern conservatism is the result of the ethnic panic of certain whites.

There is a term of art in psychology, "homosexual panic," in which a person fears he may give in to homosexual urges and finds himself acting in an excessively macho manner, attempting to avoid a change to a homosexual identity. Ethnic panic, as I conceive it, works in a similar manner, with people panicking because their country is changing its ethnic identity.

As noted in this post, the Democratic coalition is composed of diverse America and those whites comfortable with diverse America. At some point in the not-too-distant future, whites will cease to be a majority in this country. At that point, for those whose conception of what it is to be an American is based on a sort of tribal and racial identity, what it means to be an American will change, as it has already begun to change. For those whose conception of what it is to be an American is not based on ethnic fault lines, what it means to be an American will not change. That is what separates the Republican and Democratic coalitions.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What are you reading? What the numbers say

by John MacBeath Watkins

When we started our rss feed, I put up a post about our most popular posts. Now I'd like you to look at a different metric, how much time people spend with our posts.

After all, sometimes people google something, and what comes up doesn't really matter to them. I suspect that many people who come to All this education, and I'm still not a drunk, may be simply Googling animal beer. I've been looking at engagement time as a better guide to the enduring value of a post than the number if reads it gets, and thought our readers might like to see if they'd missed anything that might interest them.

At the other end of the scale from the post illustrated with a picture of animal beer, this month the average engagement time for Prof. Gene Sharp and nonviolent action: The most influential book you've never heard of is 15 minutes 31 seconds, so pretty much everyone who finds that post reads it. Many people are finding it with search engines from other countries, so they probably read it more slowly than native speakers of English do.

With nearly as long an engagement time, Top 100 Sci-Fi/Fantasy books list is getting thoroughly read. And how will our minds be rewired this time has an engagement time of more than 10 minutes, so it's getting a thorough read as well. The illustration is my own photography, so unlike, say, 1860, 2008, and not accepting the legitimacy of an elected president, people aren't searching for a map and finding my post. That post gets a lot of hits, but the engagement time indicates that many people find the map they are looking for and leave without reading the entire post. Which is a shame, because I think it's rather insightful. The engagement time for the month is 49 seconds, but for all of the time it's been up, it's 3 minutes, so when I first put up the post people must have been reading the whole thing.

Jamie hasn't posted at all in the last month, so I've also set parameters to look at engagement time for the entire period we've been using Google Analytics  to count our hits. Her post, My Encounter with Huck Finn, has an engagement time of 5 minutes 33 seconds, which is probably more time than it takes to read. My post, What Huck Finn means to me, has an engagement time of 3 minutes, so although it's getting more hits, people spend less time mulling it over -- the time they spend with it on average is only the time it takes to read it. Of course, some are spending much more time with it, some are looking at it and deciding it's not what they are looking for. As is usual with our posts, mine is more cerebral, Jamie's is more personal. I suspect that mine comes up on web searches more often because it tackles the questions teachers want students to tackle, while Jamie tackles something few people consider about the novel. Her post, Volcanoes, and the unexpected benefits of their eruptions....gets more than six minutes of attention on average. The top crow post is crow affection towards this human.

With an engagement time of more than 8 minutes, Eugenics, the opposite of natural selection, beats both the posts on Huck Finn. Clocking in at better than 6 minutes, Party polarization: Ideology trumps regionalism, does as well. The Pirate with a Hook for a Heart, which is actually very few words, beats both of them as well, at 5:35. The Ideology of capitalism and the ideology of liberalism has more than an 8 minute engagement time.

When debt is sovereign and ledes are buried, which on reflection is a rather odd title, gets an average engagement time of better than 6 minutes. To Read is to become a stolen child is just under 6 minutes at 5:59, while Flight of the Euphemism is next in line, followed by The government that governs least governs Somalia: More government can mean more freedom, then A story of slutty snakes and warfare.

I should mention that I also put some longer stuff up on Scribd. There, Songbirds of the Primate Species and the Poets Who Fail to Sing has the longest engagement time, followed by A Fish who Worships Fire, after that a short story titled The Torturer's Apprentice, a humorous short story titled The Schatterman e-mails, then versions of a couple blog posts that didn't get as much attention here, Intellectual Amnesia and the American Way and He must be Wicked to Deserve Such Pain: The benevolent universe of Objectivism. The very first writing I put up on the web, Thoughts on Structuralism and the Death of Ghosts, also has one of the longer engagement times, and has been read more than a thousand times.

The most popular thing I've posted on Scibd has very few words, Canal Life In Thailand, a photo essay. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Miss Pettigrew, the flapper Cinderella

by John MacBeath Watkins

I once had a customer who collected versions of the Cinderella story. He had Chinese, Muslim, and European versions, and it seemed every time I recommended a new one, he already had it.

I wonder if he had the flapper version?

The title is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson, and it is one of Jamie's favorite books, so I'm hoping she'll be along shortly to talk about what it means to her and meant to her mother.

Guinevere Pettigrew is oppressed not by her sisters, but by those who control her work, the agency where she hopelessly shows up to ask if they have anything for her, the overbearing employers such as Mrs. Brummegan, and a landlady ready to put her out on the street if she doesn't find a job that day.  One might say she is also oppressed by her social position, the daughter of a curate who must always act as a respectable (if impoverished) gentlewoman.

She is dressed for the ball not by a fairy godmother but by a nightclub singer and the owner of a beauty salon.

She begins not as a soot-covered girl, but as a penniless 40-year-old spinster seeking a job as a governess, a job she is painfully aware that she does poorly, lacking the ferocity required to manage a stranger's children. She lacks confidence, but possesses empathy and a sharp mind.

Thrown into a world where women sleep with men to whom they are not married, and marry for mercenary ends (as Miss Dubarry, the beauty salon owner, has done) and sometimes are attracted to men who will make them unhappy. And in that world, her virtues of caring, empathy, and a quick mind, bring her in contact with her Prince Charming, a middle-aged man who comes to the nightclub where Miss LaFosse (one of the fairy godmothers) sings with a hard but lovely young woman on his arm.

The book has a curious history, its author all but forgotten, but the book finding followers when the publisher did not want to publish it and when it spent time out of print. It has endured because its fans keep coming back to it, re-reading it for comfort, passing it on to friends as Jamie passed it on to me. Winifred Watson wrote few books, and the early ones were the sort of domestic romances that almost no one reads any more. But this one has continued to be read, and was even the subject of a 2008 movie.

It is the sort of very pleasant book that makes no pretense of being great literature, but outlives many books that have every pretension of great literature, and fail, leaving us to wonder, what is greatness in a book?

The easy way to write a book that is regarded as having literary merit is to write something deeply disquieting about the dark recesses of human nature. The hard way is to write something that actually makes people feel good. The latter are likely to be regarded as great by their fans, but deemed trifles in the halls of academe.

But they have an enduring value that is different in kind from the work of writers like Kafka or Celene, and a value worth recognizing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Trouble ahead for Republicans as America looks more like the world, less like 18th century Europe

by John MacBeath Watkins

A Pew poll has confirmed what we talked about in this post: The relationship between the binding element of the Republican coalition and race.

Which may help explain why the average Republican is getting older, and demographics are working, over time, in favor of Democrats. Consider this chart from the Pew poll:

As Ronald Brownstein notes:

"On the day after Barack Obama's sweeping victory in 2008, veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg described the modern Democratic coalition as diverse America and the whites who are comfortable with diverse America"
"Among the whites who find the increasing number of newcomers troubling, Obama's approval rating in the new Pew survey stood at just 21 percent with 70 percent disapproving. The president runs much more strongly among whites comfortable with the changes: 45 percent of them approved, while 47 percent disapproved."
And guess what? The people uncomfortable with the changes occurring in this country tend to be older, white, and Republican.

If you're part of the Republican coalition, you have to realize that for a while, you can win at the polls by turning out the people who feel as you do, but eventually, they will be outnumbered, as people adapt to what America is becoming.

And what is America becoming? It's looking more and more like the world, and less and less like 18th century Europe.

Some Republicans have responded to the changes by reaching out to groups that are increasing in size, such as George W. Bush and Rick Perry reaching out to Hispanics. In states where Hispanics are a big voting bloc already, that makes a lot of sense. In states where ethnic panic is still a bigger factor, it's a non-starter, which is why Perry's Texas version of the Dream Act offended so much of the Republican base.

At some point, Republicans will have to adapt to the reality that whites will not much longer be a majority in this country, and they will do so. But there's going to be a painful transition in the meantime, with division and culture wars afflicting our politics.

Republicans have seen what happens when they don't adapt. Robert "B-1 Bob" Dornan, one of the most conservative members of the House, lost his seat to a Hispanic woman, Loretta Sanchez, because Orange County, Calif., legendary for its conservatism, had gained enough Hispanic voters to oust him. Dornan anticipated some of the current Republican memes, claiming that illegal immigrants had voted in the election and caused him to lose it. He ran against her twice, once winning with the help of signs proclaiming that Hispanic voters should be ready to prove their citizenship at the polls. Personally, until my passport is renewed, I won't be able to prove my own citizenship, so you can see the problem.

People like Bob Dornan could get elected with the help of ethnic panic until some point was passed where the Hispanic community and others comfortable with them became a majority. We're likely to see this played out on the larger stage as what occurred in Orange County happens to the country as a whole.

Monday, November 7, 2011

And how will our minds be rewired this time?

by John MacBeath Watkins

I took this picture as an undergraduate. The legend on the back of this print says, "Timster at the altar, 1977." At the time, I was studying journalism and my housemates were Timster, a geology student, and Eirik, who studied geology sometimes but mostly worked at a hospital as a janitor, applied his knowledge of crystallography to crystals found in patients' urine when doctors asked him to, and climbed mountains. Eirik is now a geology professor, and I've long since lost track of Timster.

This was the state of play in terms of student technology in the 1970s. The only screen in the place was the black and white television, which was not connected to cable. Although we had access to computer terminals hooked up to a mainframe, I had little occasion to use them. Hand-held calculators were expensive enough that few students could afford one, and no student I knew owned a computer. Our living room, like most of those in America, had the typical altar arrangement around the television. If someone wanted to watch something on the television, all those present had to agree to watch it, or leave. Study consisted of reading books, taking notes with a pen on paper, writing papers and either typing them yourself or hiring a typist. We had a telephone which plugged into the wall and was useful for, well, phone calls.

A modern picture of student life might have several roommates in a room, each at a laptop or smartphone, surfing or texting or playing 'angry birds' or watching streaming video, researching papers by accessing resources all over the world instead of working through the card files in the Mable Zoe Wilson library. Writing on a computer is infinitely more forgiving than typing, as you can just backspace and take out errors instead of having to open the white-out and apply the little brush to the offending character.

Do students know more? Alarmists keep telling us no, they are terrible mathematicians, poor readers and worse writers. And yet, as a society, we continue to know more and more. From a presentation by Yuri Milner:

If you add all information that was generated by the mankind for the last 30,000 years beginning with the first drawings on the walls of the caves until year 2003, equal amount of information was created last year for only two days. It took two days to create equal amount of information to the one that was created by all people that ever lived from the dawn of civilization until 2003. And moreover the same amount of information will be generated in ten years from now only within one hour.

But is this a change from knowing a few great things to possessing a mass of trivia? Did we once drink deeply of the well of knowledge, only now to be drowned in the fire-hose blast of knowledge?

I like this blast of knowledge, and find it stimulating. But I'm painfully aware of what a distraction machine the internet is, and know that sometimes, to accomplish something, I need to limit my intake of information. At other times, I need to distract my mind from its own processes enough to allow inspiration to percolate through to consciousness.

There was a time when academics had little enough access to books that they needed to construct a memory palace* for knowledge of texts they could not continually refer back to. Printing, freeing scholars from that need, was nearly as profound a change in the nature of knowledge as the written word. But reading is a thing one only masters by doing a great deal of it at the right time of life, because it rewires our brains. So, I'm sure, does writing.

Perhaps the internet will rewire our brains again, and change the nature of our consciousness in a way that we will quickly forget. It is part of the strangeness of being human. I've talked before about the odd world we inhabit, stolen children of the book, in this post.

What new strangeness awaits us? And who will remember how our minds worked before the change?

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Where I live now, yet again

by John MacBeath Watkins

Fall colors have come to Vashon Island:

And when the fog is burning off the harbor, it's lovely.

If you click on the photos, they get big.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"Anchor babies?" Let's welcome some good citizens

by John MacBeath Watkins

Chinese parents are spending around $30,000 to come to America, pay cash to our overpriced hospitals, and have their child in America. It's a way to get around China's one-child laws while getting American citizenship for their children.

What kind of idiot would want to put a stop to that?

 This kind.
“They are gaming the system…and people should be put in jail,” said Representative Phil Gingrey (R-Ga), one of several members of Congress trying to put an end to birth tourism.

If those babies hadn't been born yet, I bet Gingrey would regard them as people. And those rich parents who are getting around the one-child rule? Job creators is the term most Republicans have for rich people who already live here.

So, are we supposed to keep those children from being born, under Chinese law? Are we supposed to turn away rich kids? Does Gngrey think Chinese kids can't hack it in American schools when they come here?

We have a system that has encouraged poor people to pick fruit in this country for less money than any American would work for, and show up at the emergency room in labor because if they come any sooner we'll kick them out of the country. Farmers are howling bloody murder because they can't hire enough pickers, because a) the Mexican economy is improving, and jobs are easier to find south of the border than north of it and b) a number of states have passed laws that make it hot for any illegal immigrants.

Freinds from the harvest
 Unlike most American citizens, I've worked in the harvests. I've done a bit of picking, which didn't pay at all well (this was in the Boeing bust, when there were few jobs available even at minimum wage) and my best job in the orchards was at Wax Orchards during the cherry harvest. I've provided you with a couple of my pictures from that harvest to give you a feel for it.

A hard-working picker
 There were Native Americans, high school kids, some Okies who slept in their cars and followed the crops, a junkie trying to stay away from the city where he knew he'd fall back into his addiction, a bartender who got tired of his customers running into his car in the parking lot, and some Hispanic pickers, who were the best in the orchard.

I liked the pickers I suspected were illegal, and frankly, I hope some of them stayed and taught their work ethic to their children. But I'm aware that much as they might want to give their child a good start in life, there are Chinese businessmen who can finance a better education for their children and provide them with better business contacts in what will in a generation or so be the biggest economy in the world.

I visited Vancouver, B.C.'s Chinatown in 1970. It was sleepy, quiet, a bit moribund. By the 1980s, it was hopping. What happened there that didn't happen to Seattle's Chinatown?

Hong Kong Chinese could buy their way into Canada, but they could not buy their way into America. By investing in Canada, they could get citizenship, and as a result, they settled in Vancouver, the nearest Canadian city to Hong Kong. The city came to life, with a surge in investment, new trade contacts with Hong Kong, and vital new immigrants who settled in the city making it more wealthy and more cosmopolitan.

At the time, it was clear to me that we had missed out. We were getting immigrants who were the salt of the earth, but not financially or culturally equipped to give us new trade ties to the fast-growing economies of Asia.

Thank heaven we've been given another chance. And we don't have to do anything but accept the gift we're being offered: Young people who will be paying Social Security taxes when I'm retired. People whose parents are wealthy enough and motivated enough to give them the best start they can possibly have in life.

What start? Being American.

Hell, I'm flattered. Aren't you?