Category Archives: Politics

Is the U.S. an Oligarchy?

I came across something the other day that isn’t particularly noteworthy on its own, but serves as a useful example of a common journalistic malpractice. Plus, it’s from the Washington Times, so it presents an opportunity to abuse a non-MSM source while getting in on the ground floor of the predictable internet arguments over the subject matter of the article.

The article in question bears the arresting headline, America is an oligarchy, not a democracy or republic, university study finds, which seems like pretty good click-bait for an article that doesn’t contain a word about a single Kardashian. Now, for those of you without a lot of time to spare, I’ll tell you right now that this “study” finds no such thing, so you can move along now and sleep comfortably. But there’s quite a bit to unpack from this silly article.

First, there’s really no such thing as a “university study”, despite the fact that newspapers constantly use this term. What this thing is, and what all such “studies” are, is a humble little academic paper written by two guys with jobs as professors at some universities. It gets worse in the main body of the article, where this paper is pimped as a “study jointly conducted by Princeton and Northwestern universities.” The casual reader would be nearly blameless in inferring that high-ranking officials at those two schools had decided to order members of their faculties to drop everything and get to work studying the state of the American polity. But that’s a laughably incorrect notion of academic life, where in reality profs are rewarded for grabbing some “external funding” for their research. The subject matter is of no particular interest to university officials unless it generates a lot of bad publicity. The only things that really matter to them about research are the money kicked in to the university’s general slush fund and the number of publications the authors can squeeze out of their projects.

OK, what about the research that underlies the bold claim of the headline?  The basic argument is that organized interest groups exert some degree of influence on the US government. Oh, and business lobbying is aimed at increasing business profits. No, I’m not kidding. That’s it. Pretty much stuff that Marxists and libertarians agree on, although they differ radically on the implication of this for the optimal size and scope of government.

So where does the “oligarchy” stuff come from? The actual “study” uses the term only in reference to work by another Northwestern political scientist, Jeffrey Winters, who–as far as I can tell–argues that concentrated wealth is the same thing as concentrated political power. Wealth inequality in the US therefore means oligarchy because money buys influence over policy. You can get a pretty good idea of Winters’ views from his recent post at HuffPo.

Of course, this argument is nothing more than underwear-gnome logic without specifics about the influence that the wealthy exert over policy. Did they install their fellow rich guy Mitt Romney as president? Did they kill Obamacare? Going back a few decades, when the oligarchs gave us President Nixon, why did they allow him to sign the laws creating the EPA and OSHA?

No, Prof. Winters isn’t so foolhardy as to claim that oligarchs rule the US in the way that they run, say, Russia. Instead, our unambitious oligarchs largely concern themselves with lowering the top income-tax rate. Which is to say, they’ve had to deploy all their political might to reducing the amount of their wealth voted away from them. This has got to be the most sorry-ass oligarchy ever.

The argument made by Winters’ colleagues, in the study that is the subject of the WashTimes article, is a bit different. They look at opinion survey data for the US and contrast the for/against views for an unspecified group of policy proposals, distinguishing between the responses of the top 10% of income earners and those of “average Americans”. They then attempt to estimate the responsiveness of each actual policy outcome to the preferences of these respondent groups (plus some lobbying groups). Unfortunately for the authors, the policy views of “elites” and average Joes in the US are highly correlated (to the tune of a .94 correlation coefficient, where 1.0 represents exact conformity, 0 represents complete independence, and -1 represents completely opposing views). So the main thing to be learned from their study is that there’s hardly any class warfare at all in the US.

But that’s not what the two scholars in question concluded. Being determined to sort out the differential influence of the people being taxed heavily relative to those being taxed lightly, they proceeded to massage their data in the name of eliminating “measurement error”. I’m not competent to evaluate their procedure–and only partly because they do not describe it in this study, but refer the diligent reader to a separate paper–so I’ll only report that the “cleaned” data are used to find that the opinions of ordinary Americans have no influence on public policy.

Now, one important thing to bear in mind is that merely fitting a statistical model like this and getting some estimated effects of assorted variables doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about the importance of the results. It’s the “predictive” power of the model that tells us how important it is, and this paper never discusses that. (One type of measure of this is reported, and it’s very small, but we’re not told which of the several possible measures it represents.) In fact, this study doesn’t even contain the customary table reporting the simple summary statistics for its sample. So, for example, we aren’t told what percentage of the 1,779 “policy proposals” in question were actually enacted. This is pretty important to know in order to assess the statistical model. In a world where you get 50% “positives” and 50% “negatives”, a model that can predict positive outcomes 75% of the time is pretty good. On the other hand, if only 5% of the outcomes are positive, there’s not much to explain.

Furthermore, real-world policy outcomes aren’t binary, which means that the data used in this study contain an unknown degree of subjective opinion. Suppose, for example, people are asked if they favor or oppose an increase in the top income-tax rate, and that high-income earners oppose it while average earners favor it. Also suppose that there are three options considered by Congress: Raise the top rate by 10%, raise it by 5%, and leave it unchanged. If what passes is a 5% increase, should that be classified as a “win” for the fat cats or for the hoi polloi? And that’s a simple case. Suppose what happens is that the top rate is increased but the income threshold for being in the top bracket is also increased? How would you code that? And, given that a lot of policies are rolled up into a single mess of an omnibus bill, what are we to make of the assorted logrolling deals that were made to get the ultimate legislation passed?

I don’t mean to say that this study is rubbish, but it does seem awfully weak to serve as the basis for the view that the US is an oligarchy.  What I do mean to say is that the Washington Times report on this study is indeed rubbish, and not at all unrepresentative of MSM summaries of social-science research.

Oh, plus this: The Constitution is supposed to establish a republic, not a simple democracy that quickly passes laws that embody the weakly held, indifferently thought-out views of a simple majority. I can’t believe that I have to make that point in writing about a study by a political scientist, but then the other author is a sociologist.

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You can’t clown around here! This is a rodeo!

Assuming that you’ve already heard about the Missouri Rodeo Clown Incident, I’ll just add my take without going into the details.

1. I’m annoyed by the injection of politics into nearly every aspect of daily life. It seems like there’s hardly a day when some dipshit at ESPN or the local sports section decides either that Sport Is a Metaphor or Sport Is an Example of What’s Wrong in Society or Sport Is a Suitable Mechanism for Social Change, and pumps out a thousand words of repackaged Sociology 101 to educate those of us who just want to read about the day in baseball. So even though I do occasionally think of Obama as a clown, if I were looking for some fun and relaxation at a state fair I’d resent the injection of politics of any sort into my day. We can’t all “just get along” if we keep shoving our political views into each others’ faces at every opportunity. So my message to rodeo clowns is the same as it is to sportswriters: Please just do your job and STFU about politics, thankyouverymuch.

2. I’m disgusted at the way Missouri officialdom has reacted to whatever complaints it got about Tuffy Gessling, the clown in question. First, Tuffy’s been hit with a lifetime ban from the Missouri State Fair (MSF), which is also contemplating some sort of action against the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association. (I wonder where the NLRB would come down on this.) Second, the MSF is going to force all rodeo clowns in its purview to undergo sensitivity training.

I invite you to contemplate the fact that I just wrote a sentence containing the words “rodeo clowns” and “sensitivity” without referring at all to the parts of their anatomy most commonly at risk of being roughed up by angry bulls. If this weren’t a documented story, I’d be almost certain that it was a spoof of political correctness.

3. The lynch mob that’s been whipped up can’t distinguish between the official announcer for the event, who said nothing much about Obama at all, and the rodeo clown in the arena, who wore a wireless mic and called Obama a clown lacking self-awareness. (video here) The announcer at the event, Mark Ficken, is a local school superintendent worried about losing his job. He’s lawyered up, and has resigned from his position as head of the MO Rodeo Cowboy Association. I’d be a lot more sympathetic to Mr. Ficken were it not the case that he’s not resigning in protest of the State Fair’s gutless conduct. Instead, he’s mad that Tuffy Gessling hasn’t yet been kicked out of the MRCA as an official scapegoat.

4. As far as I can tell, this entire pot of steaming bullshit is entirely due to one overwrought spectator’s whining. AFAIK, Perry Beam–self-described musician and self-evident hysteric–remains the only complainant quoted in the media who was actually at the event. Unfortunately, what he thinks he saw and heard bear only the slightest resemblance to what actually happened (which you can verify by watching the video linked above). Here’s Perry’s “eyewitness” description:

“I began to feel a sense of fear. It was that level of enthusiasm,” said Beam:

“It was the usual until the very end at bull riding. As they were bringing the bulls into the chute and prepping them … they bring out what looks like a dummy. The announcer says ‘Here’s our Obama dummy, or our dummy of Obama.’ They mentioned the president’s name, I don’t know, 100 times. It was sickening. It was feeling like some kind of Klan rally you’d see on TV.”

This guy is either delusional or a partisan fabulist. (1) There was no dummy–as everyone has now seen, it was a rodeo clown wearing an Obama mask. (2) The announcer didn’t say any of those things. The clown said, “Obama’s a clown but he doesn’t know it.” Which, as political commentary goes, isn’t exactly wide of the mark IMO, and certainly not racist. (3) The president’s name was mentioned maybe a half-dozen times or so, not “100”. (4) Unlike Perry Beam, I don’t regularly watch Klan rallies on TV or otherwise, so I can’t challenge his accuracy on that score. I didn’t see any burning crosses in the MO state fair video, though, and it’s my understanding that those are de rigeur at any Klan rally.

My take on this is that Perry Beam is either the most hypersensitive 48-year-old man in the US or else he’s a “progressive” doing his bit to add whatever he can to the balance on the Democrats’ maxed-out race card. Evidence in favor of the latter is this: Before this bullshit story went national, it was touted on a blog called Show Me Progress (“Missouri’s Progressive Politics Community”) by somebody named Bob Yates, linking to the Facebook page of “my friend, Perry Beam.” It’s interesting to compare Perry Beam’s initial Facebook description of the rodeo with what he said later to the media. Here’s Perry’s original version of events:

Last night, Lily and I took a student from Taiwan to the rodeo at the Missouri State Fair. Just prior to the start of the bull riding event, one of the clowns came out dressed in this. The announcer wanted to know if anyone would like to see Obama run down by a bull. The crowd went wild. He asked it again and again, louder each time, whipping the audience into a lather. One of the clowns ran up and started bobbling the lips on the mask and the people went crazy. Finally, a bull came close enough to him that he had to move, so he jumped up and ran away to the delight of the onlookers hooting and hollering from the stands. We then left quickly and quietly. Lily’s student is an inquisitive boy and asks a lot of questions about what he sees, and though he had never been to a rodeo he asked nothing about it, nor anything about America this time. We rode the sixty miles home in silence. In a way I’m glad. I had no answers for him.

What Palpitations Perry described on Facebook is nothing other than what I gather is a standard rodeo clown performance, with the added feature of an Obama mask. Perry appears to have been taken to a personal dark place by all that, which is his own business, but the whole Klan rally experience seems to be something that only occurred to him later.

This appears to be nothing more than a standard case of an Obama worshipper being shocked and offended by people who treat Obama the same way they treated previous presidents.

5. The president passed up an opportunity to be magnanimous. He could’ve had his minions issue a statement along the lines of, “Treating presidents as objects of ridicule is one of our oldest traditions in this country. As president it’s my duty to defend the Constitution, not to question a citizen’s exercise of his First Amendment rights.” Everyone would’ve cheered. But Barack Obama is never inclined toward magnanimity. He appears to be a man quick to take offense and eager for revenge, so what the White House actually had to say on this absurd controversy was this:

“I can tell you, as a native Missourian, it’s certainly not one of the finer moments for our state and not the way that I like to see our state mentioned in the news,” Josh Earnest, the deputy White House press secretary, told reporters in Edgartown, Massachussetts.

Earnest said he did not know if Obama, who is on an eight-day vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, had a reaction to the incident.

At this point, I suppose having a mealy-mouthed functionary issue a bit of pap like that is an improvement over “The clown acted clownishly.” There are plenty of other fools in what used to call itself the “Show Me” state ready to punish free speech in Missouri while the prez chills on Martha’s Vineyard.

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Question of the Day

Does former Weiner condiment Olivia Nuzzi’s last name rhyme with “scuzzy” or “tootsie”? Surely the latter, right?

BTW, am I way off-base to wonder if Veronica Lake may be an ancestor of hers?

 

Star of "I Married a Witch"

Star of “I Married a Witch”

 

 

Star of "I Worked for a Bitch"

Star of “I Worked for a Bitch”

 

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On Libertarianism

The big news for libertarians lately has been that their news profile is finally high enough to provide a target. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in particular are catching flak, particularly from fellow Republicans.  Sen. John McCain did his crazy old guy routine by calling them “wacko birds“, while NJ Governor and Number One Springsteen Fatboy Fanboy Chris Christie stooped so low as to play the 9/11 Widows and Orphans Card on them (and you know how hard it is for that guy to stoop at all). These National Security Statists–who’ve never seen a government intrusion on personal liberty that isn’t justifiable as long as somewhere on this planet there are people who hate the US and have access to telephony–have staked out a political position that is as fear-based and fact-free as an Obama speech. Try to debate them and they’ll tell you that the republic cannot survive if you keep asking questions about the scope of the activities of the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office or the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. And, by the way, stop bitching about the TSA, too, you wacky widowmaker.

That seems to be the main battle right now, but waiting in the wings is the social-justice critique of libertarianism. It’s already come up in the context of Rand Paul’s misgivings about public-accommodations laws for their restriction on the rights of property and voluntary association. It is a potentially devastating line of attack–more so, I think, than national security issues, because in this case libertarians appear to be siding with out-and-out racists.

A distinct, but closely related, critique of libertarianism comes from reasonable moralists like blogger Theo Boehm, who recoils from the freewheeling libertinism and strong egoism that he associates with the “pure drop of libertarianism“. This is the critique I’d like to address in what follows.

The basic problem, as I see it, is the term “libertarianism”, which seems to define an ideology in much the same way as “socialism”. This is a mistake. Libertarianism is not a program for remaking society; it is a predisposition to skepticism toward the expansion of the authority of the state. While it has its obvious appeal to those whose tastes run toward promiscuity of all types, it does not advocate promiscuity. In the moral sphere, what libertarianism calls for is simply personal responsibility.

I’m not a moral philosopher, so I hesitate to argue too strenuously in this domain. But a well-known argument is that humans cannot truly be moral unless they are able to choose to be moral. This, I believe, is the true foundation of libertarianism.

Impatience with mankind’s imperfection is perhaps the defining feature of contemporary liberalism. Do you think it’s wrong to judge people by their race or sex? Well then, it’s not enough that you yourself don’t do that; there oughta be a law. Don’t like the n-word? Don’t just rebuke people for using it; prosecute them for hate speech. Think that too many people are eating too much junk food? Don’t just eat sensibly yourself; put a tax on junk food. Libertarianism stands in opposition to this impulse. But that doesn’t mean that libertarianism requires that people use the n-word or eat pork rinds. 

The completely unsubtle message of contemporary liberalism is, “the state will tell you what’s right to do.” Resistance to this message may arise from totally disparate motives: religious conviction, self-indulgence, or simple stubborn independence. That’s why the coalition that opposes the liberal agenda is so fractious compared to liberalism itself. 

As the government’s domain over our personal choices grows, the need for enforcement mechanisms grows with it. Without penalties, there can be no Obamacare. And when we’ve socialized healthcare costs, we’ve justified the regulation of diet and lifestyle. A national-surveillance state isn’t just a handy way to thwart terrorists or to catch pederasts online; it’s also an essential tool for monitoring “hate” speech. And, really, what’s more hateful than speech directed against policies necessary for achieving “social justice”?

 

Both the NSA and the DEA justify shocking violations of privacy and liberty (what is liberty without privacy?) as necessary tools in the pursuit of their missions. At the everyday level, we see this same mentality on display whenever we observe the seemingly endless parade of ridiculous “zero-tolerance” policies in the public schools. While conservatives bash the “educrats”, and lefties bash the national intelligence apparatus, they seem to miss the common core of their complaints–the threats to freedom posed by an overarching state.

The common issue in national security, in health care, in education, in energy policy, and pretty much any policy you can think of is this: how much autonomy are you willing to cede to the government in the pursuit of safety or equality or any other Good Thing? How much moral responsibility do you want to relocate from the citizen to the state? How free do you want to be?

Libertarianism is simply the inclination to answer that last question like this: Freer than I am right now.

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Al Sharpton, Entrepreneur

I saw that pic of Al Sharpton and his new squeeze today on Drudge. Gotta say, I’m impressed.

I mean, here’s a guy who looked like this when he was 29. He was a better candidate for the dead pool than the dating pool. By any measure, the man’s been hugely successful. But at what?

As far as I can tell, the man’s basic skill set consists of an uncanny ability to get out in front of a crowd, to whip up that crowd with remarkably poor rhetoric, and to avoid being held accountable for the subsequent, frequently substantial, damage resulting from his actions.

This can’t just be a run of incredibly good luck. No, Sharpton seems to have identified–or stumbled upon–a previously unmet demand in the marketplace: a demand for ignorance. The thoroughly depressing aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict demonstrates that that many of our fellow citizens seem positively eager to hold strong views fueled by massively mangled facts. This is as true when the subject is economic policy as it is when the topic is criminal justice. When the truth is readily available at low cost and people still prefer to be wrong, then it’s got to be concluded that they prefer to be wrong. In econojargon, they demand it. And Sharpton supplies it the way Nike provides shoes.

So, in the spirit of reconciliation, I salute Al Sharpton as a canny entrepreneur with apparently excellent taste in female companionship. What Bill Gates did for personal computing, Al has done for ignorance.

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Mrs. Warren’s Obsession

Noted fabulist and law professor (but, as Mark Twain might have said, I repeat myself) Elizabeth Warren made the news today with her question about labor productivity and the minimum wage. You can watch her in action here, but her point boils down to this: If the minimum wage had risen at the average rate of growth in labor productivity since 1960, it would be $21.72/ hour today. Since the actual minimum wage today is $7.25, the junior senator from Massachusetts wants to know “what happened to the other $14.75?” (Hey, she made a lot of wild claims in her election campaign, but she never claimed to be good at arithmetic.) Her implication, of course, is that it was stolen by labor-exploiting plutocrats like Mitt Romney.

Senator Warren apparently is one of those people who find it preposterous to think that a 6-ft.-tall man could drown in a river with an average depth of 4 ft., because she’s committing precisely that error with respect to labor productivity.

While it’s certainly possible–and occasionally useful–to calculate an economy-wide average value for labor productivity (a.k.a. “output per worker”), it’s essential to keep in mind that labor productivity differs tremendously across industries and among workers of different skill levels. In any discussion of the minimum wage, the average value of labor productivity is utterly irrelevant for the simple reason that the people affected by the minimum wage are those whose productivity is the lowest in the entire economy. So, in the interest of helping Mrs. Warren in her quest for knowledge, I’ve looked up the rates of productivity increase in those industries that most commonly employ minimum-wage workers. These data are the annual average rates of change in output per hour of work since 1987, which is the starting date for which I could easily find the relevant data. Here they are:

Grocery stores 0.3

Department stores 0.3

Limted-service eating places 0.5

By contrast, the average annual growth rate for the entire nonfarm business sector over the same period was 2.0 percent. What difference does that make? Well, if the minimum wage had risen at 2% per year in real terms from its 1987 level of $3.35, it would be about $11.12 in current dollars. If, on the other hand, it had risen at 0.5% per year it would only be about $7.68. today. In short, the current minimum wage of $7.25 pretty accurately reflects the actual, very slow, growth in worker productivity in those industries that typically employ minimum-wage workers. The proposed immediate increase to $9/ hour will raise the cost of a low-skilled worker by almost 25%. Anyone who thinks that won’t have an adverse effect on the employment of those workers hasn’t been paying attention to the recent effects of Obamacare’s implementation.

Senator Warren could have found all this out free of charge by placing a call to the Congressional Research Service. Why, instead, did she rely entirely on a bogus article at HuffPo? I can only presume that her obsession with the “unfairness” of the U.S. economy overrides her interest in the truth. But if she really wants to figure out who’s to blame for the hideously low rates of productivity growth among the least skilled people in the U.S., she would do well to investigate the public school system that has trained them.

 

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