Archive for the 'Politics' Category

State of the Union

I’m leaving this one up to my readers. What was the most egregious moment?

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Blinded By Prejudice?

I’ve been reading about the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which, in its original form, banned racial segregation in theaters, restaurants and hotels (though by the time it was passed, almost all of the content had been stripped out). There’s a part of this history that makes no sense to me and I’m wondering if someone can explain it.

Remember first that this was at a time when several southern states enforced laws that mandated segregation in theaters, restaurants and hotels.

It was also at a time when, as I understand it, the outcome of the legislative battle was very much in doubt, so that each side feared the worst and was eager to compromise. Supporters weren’t sure they could beat a filibuster, which meant the bill might never even come to a vote. Opponents feared a filibuster might be beaten and the bill passed without amendments.

Lyndon Johnson, the majority leader of the Senate, wanted above all else to avoid a major fight, and was eager to facilitate any compromise both sides could agree on. He floated several compromise proposals and actively solicited others, from legislators, attorneys, and everyone else he could think of.

In Master of the Senate, the third in his three-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro describes a vast number of compromises that failed before the passage of the final successful compromise.

Now here’s what astonishes me: Here you had all these lawyers and politicians, desperately trying to find a creative compromise — and yet, as far as I can tell, nobody ever proposed the compromise that seems (to me) to be obvious. The Republicans and northerners wanted mandatory integration. The southerners wanted to maintain mandatory segregation. The obvious compromise, I should think, would be to have neither — the northerners agree not to pass a federal law, and the southerners agree to repeal some state laws.

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Vocabulary Lesson

So…Democrats want to increase federal spending. Republicans supposedly want to decrease federal spending. The “compromise” is to increase federal spending by $45 billion.

I do not think the word “compromise” means what these people seem to think it means.

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Minimum Insight

Paul Krugman argues that:

  1. Hiking the minimum wage has little or no adverse effect on employment
  2. and therefore

  3. A minimum-wage increase would help low-paid workers, with few adverse side effects


In other words, Krugman, not for the first time, is peddling the sort of claptrap that few of us would accept from a college freshman.

The first point — that hiking the minimum wage has little effect on employment — is an empirical one. Not all smart observers agree with Krugman’s reading of the data, but many do — so for the sake of argument, let’s assume he’s right about that.

The question now is: How the hell do you get from point 1 to point 2? Answer: Only by forgetting the most basic principle of economics, which is that things have to add up. If the minimum wage has no effect on employment, then it’s basically a pure transfer of resources. Which means that the costs and the benefits are equal. The only way there can be “few adverse side effects” —- i.e. few costs — is if there are few benefits. Our job as economists is to make sure people understand such things.

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This Day in History

Fifty years ago today at 1:30 PM eastern standard time, a minor tragedy took the life of President John F. Kennedy. A little over an hour later, a major tragedy ensued, as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in to replace him.

If there is such a thing as evil, it lived in Lyndon Johnson, whose life was one long obsession with the accumulation and exercise of power. His biographer Robert Caro relates how, in college, Johnson engineered, by intimidation and deceit, a takeover of the Student Council partly so that he could, apparently for sport, force the removal of talented and hardworking students from the editorships of campus publications, replacing them with non-entities and reveling in the tragic aftermath as ousted incumbents (who had received small but urgently needed stipends for their work) were forced through financial hardship to drop out of school.

It was downhill from there. As President, Johnson presided over a misbegotten war in Southeast Asia — a whirlpool of destruction fed with lives and treasure — and an equally misbegotten “War on Poverty” that too often became a war on economic freedom, the only effective antidote to poverty the world has ever known.

The War on Poverty might have been more accurately termed a war to consolidate Johnson’s influence. Poor rural families got grants and loans to expand their farms — provided they stayed on the farms, where Johnson needed their votes. Job training, educational programs, small business loans — all were available as long as you lived your life in a way that suited Lyndon Johnson’s purposes.

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Six Observations

Do correct me if I’ve got any of the history wrong here:

1. It seems pretty likely that a big part of the reason why Amazon’s website works so well and Obamacare’s website works so poorly is that Obamacare, unlike Amazon, is not subject to the discipline of the market (and therefore, for example, employs coders with no equity in the enterprise).

2. A whole lot of people predicted that the Obamacare bureaucracy would not work well because it would not be subject to the discipline of the market. I’m not sure anyone pointed to the webpage as a particular point of vulnerability, but plenty of people made the general observation that large government bureaucracies don’t work well and that this was a reason to be skeptical of Obamacare.

3. Paul Krugman pooh-poohed those concerns.

4. Paul Krugman reminds us approximately 914 times per month that only a very bad person would fail to acknowledge accurate predictions of his adversaries. (It’s true that in approximately 914 of those 914 cases, the vindicated adversary is Paul Krugman. But he has indicated support for the general principle.)

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The Sky Won’t Fall if the Ceiling Holds

Paul Krugman proffers a trademark sneer to the “default deniers” who are “asserting that the government can prioritize, so as to avoid a default on interest payments”. Not so, says Krugman, who insists that

The crucial point here is that even if they’re right about interest payments — which is unclear — the government will (a) still go into default on obligations to vendors, Social Security recipients, and so on (b) be forced into spending cuts so large as to guarantee a recession if the standoff lasts any length of time.

Well, first of all, as I wrote the last time the debt ceiling got raised, it’s easy to cover all of the interest on the national debt via spending cuts. At least to a rough approximation, you could do it by eliminating the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Labor, none of which should ever have existed in the first place.

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Power Transmission

Robert CaroAs I work my way through Robert Caro’s monumental four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, I’m repeatedly astonished by Caro’s gargantuan appetite for detail on the one hand, and his near total incuriosity about the big picture on the other.

Case in point: We get almost 40 densely packed pages on the appropriations (eventually totaling $25 million) for the Marshall Ford Dam and another 30 or so on what a dramatic change the dam (and the electricity it brought) made in the lives of Texas Hill Country farm families. But unless I overlooked it, we’re never told how many of those farm families were affected — and are thus left with absolutely no basis for thinking about whether this dam was a good investment.

At another point, we’re told of a $1.8 million expenditure to bring electric lines to 2892 Hill Country farms. (This is, of course, over and above the cost of the dam, which presumably benefited many more than just these 2892.) This time, thankfully, we are at least told how many families are affected. But since the expenditure comes to $622 per family in a time and place when one dollar a day was a good wage, where there was no running water and very little communication with the outside world, and where the soil was bad and getting worse, this raises the question of whether that $622 could have been better spent relocating that family to a better place. (All the moreso if we top off that $622 with the family’s pro rata share of the dam cost.) Caro never even acknowledges the question, pausing simply to celebrate the benefits of electricity, which, he seems to imply, were great and therefore (!) justified the expenditures.

Well, there are two ways you can get the benefits of electricity. The electricity can come to you, or you can go to it. Sometimes one way is better; sometimes the other. When conditions are as Caro describes them — with the land essentially worn out, starvation rampant, and everyone too poor to get a fresh start in, say, Austin — there’s a pretty good likelihood that the guy who could have helped you move, but instead spends a bundle to bring you an electric line, has something other than your best interests at heart.

I’m not far enough along to be sure of this, but after a little peeking ahead, it’s beginning to look like this is how Caro’s going to treat the Great Society also — hundreds of pages on the details of the legislation, hundreds more on the good it (allegedly) did, and not a single inquiry into how much more good somebody could have done with expenditures of that magnitude.

And then there’s this passage, which I feel compelled to assure you I am not making up:

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The Story Darkens

It turns out that last week’s tag-team smear of a young Heritage Foundation economist, executed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and his lackey Paul Krugman of the New York Times, was even worse than we knew.

As you’ll recall, Salim Furth of the Heritage Foundation testified before the Senate Budget Committee, accurately presenting data on economic policy changes in various countries for the years 2007-2012. Then Senator Whitehouse, cheered on by Paul Krugman, spent eight minutes excoriating Furth for inventing those numbers — the sort of accusation which, if it were taken seriously, would surely destroy Furth’s career. (As well it ought to, if it had contained a grain of truth.)

And what was Senator Whitehouse’s evidence for Furth’s “meretriciousness”, as he put it? Well, it was the fact that Whitehouse had gone to Furth’s source, looked for the numbers, and found them to be entirely different.

What Senator Whitehouse didn’t tell you was that he was “refuting” Furth’s accurate report of the historical record with projected numbers, which is to say pie-in-the-sky promises by politicians about what they’re going to do in the year 2016. It was, as I said last week, as if I’d announced plans to lose 30 pounds and then promptly gained 10. When Furth accurately reports my recent weight gain, Whitehouse calls him a liar because a 10 pound gain is not a 30 pound loss.

Paul Krugman, who must know better, cheered on this mendacity when he wrote:

a Heritage Foundation economist has been accused of presenting false, deliberately misleading data and analysis to the Senate Budget Committee.

What’s so shocking? Not the false, misleading data and analysis — that’s SOP at Heritage. … What’s shocking is that they got called on it, in real time.

Now it turns out that Senator Whitehouse’s numbers were even farther off base. Not only was were the numbers invented to begin with; he took those numbers for various years and added them up, even though they were already cumulative. It’s as if I’d announced plans to lose 30 pounds in 2013 and another 20 in 2014 — a total of 50 over two years. What Senator Whitehouse did was the equivalent of adding the initial 30 to the total of 50, and then announcing that my projected weight loss is 80 pounds. And then calling Furth a 90-pound liar for accurately reporting my 10 pound weight gain.

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Lies and Lying Liars

When a politician misleads the public with distorted or flat-out fictional data, or uses eight minutes of national TV time to smear the character of the careful scholar who dared to report an inconvenient set of facts, you can always count on Paul Krugman of the New York Times to leap to the defense of truth and honesty — or, alternatively, to jump on the bandwagon if the politician happens to be a Democrat.

Here, you see, is what happened this week: Salim Furth, an economist at the Heritage Foundation (and a graduate of the University of Rochester, where I knew him to be a thoughtful and honest researcher) testified before the Senate budget committee, where he presented data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showing that most European governments have recently increased their spending. (This isn’t surprising for several reasons, one of which is that governments often spend more in recessionary times.)

Enter Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who spent eight excruciating televised minutes lambasting Furth and questioning his honesty, by reading out OECD numbers that differed dramatically from what Furth had reported. Some choice comments:

Dr. Furth, I am very concerned about your testimony….

When I look at the graph, for instance, which you source to the OECD — did you actually look at what the OECD says?….

They’ve actually written what the numbers are. And here’s what the numbers actually are, according to the OECD….

I am concerned that your testimony to this committee has been meretricious…I am contesting whether you have given us fair and accurate information.

And then there’s another eight minutes of reading out numbers that are, Senator Whitehouse keeps reminding us actually from the OECD, as opposed to these other numbers reported by Furth, which Furth claims are from the OECD, but obviously can’t be, because Whitehouse has the actual OECD numbers right here, and look how different they are — all of this interspersed with a barrage of attacks on Furth’s character and integrity. (See the video below, if you have the stomach for it.)

Now here’s the thing: There are a couple of legitimate reasons why Furth’s and Whitehouse’s numbers don’t agree. The first is that they’re for different time periods. Furth’s are for the years 2007-2012, while Senator Whitehouse’s are for the years 2009-2016. That’s right, 2016. Which brings us to the other reason these numbers differ: Furth’s come from the historical record, while Senator Whitehouse’s come from somebody’s ass.

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But Foolish *In*consistency Can Also Be Problematic…

Paul Krugman is at it again, bemoaning the mendacity of politicians who, for “careerist reasons”, will never admit their mistakes and therefore lock themselves into bad policies. He even quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

And Krugman’s solution to this problem? More power for the politicians, of course.

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Thoughts on the Minimum Wage

The usual case against the minimum wage has three components:

  1. Minimum wages reduce employment among unskilled workers.
  2. Therefore minimum wages are bad for unskilled workers.
  3. Therefore minimum wages are bad policy.

The problems with this case are that

  1. Minimum wages might not reduce employment very much.
  2. Even if they do, that doesn’t make them bad for unskilled workers.
  3. Therefore we cannot conclude (via this route) that minimum wages are bad policy.

Minimum wages are bad policy, though — but for entirely different reasons.

I’ll get to those reasons shortly, but first let’s examine the traditional argument a little more closely. I’ll number my paragraphs to make it easier for commenters to respond.

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Why The Debt Ceiling Matters

A number of commenters (at least one here and several elsewhere) have asked why we need a debt ceiling. If the Congress wants to spend less, why don’t they just go ahead and spend less?

The answer is that different spending programs command different majorities. Snip and Snap vote to fund rabbit hospitals; Snap and Snurr vote to fund trapeze subsidies; Snurr and Snip vote to fund lava lamp research. Plausibly, they’d all prefer to eliminate all these programs. Even if Snap thinks rabbit hospitals and trapeze subsidies are both great bargains, he might not be so happy about getting two for the price of three.

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How High Should Taxes Be?

How high should taxes be? High enough to cover expected outlays going forward — but no higher.

That’s because any additional revenue would be used to pay down the federal debt, which is a bad idea. It was almost surely a mistake to run up this much debt in the first place, but now that we’ve got it, the best thing to do is to keep it forever.

Here’s why:

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Your President Hopes You’re Stupid

Joe Biden says that Mitt Romney has lied about Jeep and outsourcing; Romney intimates that President Obama has lied about Libya. I presume there’s been substantial truth-stretching on both sides and about many issues. Truth-stretching (or lying) relies on the ignorance of voters. There’s plenty of ignorance to go around, which is why truth-stretching works.

Treating voters as ignorant is one thing; treating them as stupid is quite another. You rely on ignorance when you cite “facts” that are hard for people to check — as, for example, when the President presents himself as sympathetic to immigrants and hopes you don’t know about the record number of deportations on his watch. You rely on stupidity when you blithely contradict yourself, hoping nobody will notice. The latter seems far more cynical.

I’m sure both candidates have been guilty of treating voters as both ignorant and stupid, and I called attention to several instances (on both sides) in my commentary on Debates One, Two and Three. But it does seem to me that it’s the President who is banking most heavily on voter stupidity.

A few examples:

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The Mourdock Platform

Richard Mourdock, Indiana Senate candidate, has announced his opposition to interference with God’s revealed intent. I presume, then, that he’ll be taking a principled stand against firefighting, medical intervention, federal debt reduction, and unseating incumbent Presidents.

Update: Mourdock now clarifies his position by saying that “God does not want rape”. I’d thought he was saying that if a pregnancy occurs, God must have wanted it, which would seem to be an instance of the general principle that if anything occurs, God must have wanted it. Now we’re told that there is no such general principle — from which I am left to conclude that the only way to tell what God wants is to ask Richard Mourdock. This is a logically consistent criterion, but what if, for example, Mourdock happens to be indisposed at the moment when, say, terrorists attack the White House? How will we know whether it’s okay to resist?

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Debate Number Three

Limited commentary this time, partly because I am no expert on foreign policy so there’s no reason you should care about most of my opinions. On the other hand, the candidates had an exceptionally broad definition of foreign policy, which included trade, deficits, unemployment, education, etc. Commentary also limited by the fact that my attention wandered from time to time.

That said, here are my comments, typed in real time, unedited, not carefully thought through, perhaps in some cases ill-advised:

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Second Debate

My wife, who really ought to have her own blog, heard only the few minutes dealing with immigration and then China and summed up the candidates’ shared position as “We sure love immigrants, but we sure hate foreigners”.

I, by contrast, slogged through the entire thing. Here are my own less brilliant comments, typed in real time while watching the debate; not edited and perhaps in some cases not sufficiently thought through:

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Krugman — So Right and So Wrong

Paul Krugman offers a nice thought experiment to illustrate why government debt, in and of itself, does not make the country as a whole any poorer:

Suppose that … President Santorum passes a constitutional amendment requiring that from now on, each American whose name begins with the letters A through K will receive $5,000 a year from the federal government, with the money to be raised through extra taxes. Does this make America as a whole poorer?

The obvious answer is not, at least not in any direct sense. We’re just making a transfer from one group (the L through Zs) to another; total income isn’t changed. Now, you could argue that there are indirect costs because raising taxes distorts incentives. But that’s a very different story.

OK, you can see what’s coming: a debt inherited from the past is, in effect, simply a rule requiring that one group of people — the people who didn’t inherit bonds from their parents — make a transfer to another group, the people who did. It has distributional effects, but it does not in any direct sense make the country poorer.

Two comments:

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The Great Debate

Okay, I watched the debate —- and jotted down responses as I watched. These jottings were made in real time while trying to listen to the candidates, and are, I’m sure, in many cases, not as well thought out as they ought to be. But here they are, unedited:

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Stopped Clocks

Paul Krugman gets this one exactly right; among the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax in a given year, most do pay federal income tax at some point in their lives — and thus have at least some stake in the tax system.

But even putting that aside, what’s particularly distressing about Mitt Romney’s “47%” speech is the failure to recognize at least one of the following two propositions:

a) Even people who never pay federal income tax have a substantial personal stake in a healthy, thriving economy, and therefore have a stake in federal tax policy. In particular, wages are determined by productivity, and productivity depends to a substantial extent on the accumulation of capital, which can be directly influenced by tax policy.

b) It is possible for a skilled candidate to explain the above, and to sell pro-growth tax policies as pro-wage-earner tax policies.

Yes, the candidate who tries to make such a reasoned case will be the victim of a certain amount of demagoguery about “trickle-down economics”, but the candidate who allows himself to be paralyzed by such threats should not be running for president.

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Playing the Dunce

This morning I heard President Obama call for universities to lower their tuition rates so that “everybody in America can go to college”.

I am virtually certain that the President is not stupid enough to think that if tuition rates fell to zero, there would magically be enough room in the colleges for everybody in America. So I’ve got to believe that he’s purposely saying stupid things in order to appeal to stupid voters — the sort of voters, in other words, who probably don’t belong in college.

To believe what the President wants you to believe, you’d have to be not just stupid but badly misinformed. At the University where I teach, we do not lack for applicants. The reason we don’t have more students is not that they can’t afford us; it’s that we don’t have room for them.

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The Final Night

— Thank God for the hurricane; I don’t think I could have taken four nights of this.

— Off to a weak start tonight with Connie Mack mouthing platitudes and the Gingriches not adding much.

— Jeb Bush should have been the nominee. In fact, he should have been the nominee back in 2000. He was great tonight.

— It is heartening to see Bush, Condi Rice and others pushing education to the forefront. Rice called it the civil rights issue of our time. Me, I’d rank it second after immigration.

— Too damned many musical interludes.

— I feel like it’s my job to be cynical about the tearjerker stories, but I have to admit they were very effective.

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I Brag and Chant (and Complain a Bit) of Ryan, Ryan, Ryan, Ryan

Notes from the second night of the convention:

— What follows will be in more or less chronological order, except that I want to say upfront that Condi Rice gave one of the greatest political speeches in American history, and if you didn’t see it, you should scroll most of the way down this post and watch the video right now. (And no, that does not mean I agree with everything she said.)

— It took Cathy McMorris Rodgers less than 30 seconds to segue from “We will send every American to college” to “We will shrink the role of government”. This is the kind of thing that makes people hold Republicans in well-deserved contempt.

— Rand Paul lived up to my almost impossibly high expectations. He was superb:

— Rob Portman was good, on both substance and presentation. He did commit the sin of defending free trade as a boon to producers, as if consumers were nothing more than potted plants, but that’s only a sin of omission, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect too much depth in a ten minute convention speech. What he did say was spot on:

— There were far far too many musical interludes.

— Did I mention far too many musical interludes?

— Unlike Paul and Portman, Tim Pawlenty relies almost entirely on substance-free one-liners. He leaves me feeling dirty.

— Mike Huckabee, like Pawlenty, starts off largely substance-free and often negative, but pulls it off better because he’s more likable. Then he moves on to big themes, hits them well, and comes off lofty. He’s one of the best orators in American politics:

— I keep hearing, from speaker after speaker, that if you’ve been successful through study, hard work and risk-taking, then “you built it”, and therefore deserve your success. Okay. But it’s also true that if you’ve been successful through study, hard work and risk-taking, you probably had the good fortune of being born into a family that encouraged study, hard work and risk-taking. Not everyone has that good fortune, and it would be nice to hear that acknowledged.

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Report Card

Here, for what it’s worth (and I’m sure it’s not worth much) are the grades I assigned to last night’s speakers. These are primarily for presentation, not content. They’re mostly quite high, which is unsurprising because of course these people were chosen largely for their skill as presenters. I’m sure that some of them would have gotten different grades if they’d spoken a half hour earlier or later, when I was worse or better fed. I am not prepared to defend these grades terribly vigorously, but maybe they’ll provoke some interesting discussion:

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Conventional Wisdom

I became a lifelong political convention junkie in 1972, the year that George McGovern secured the nomination with a brilliantly executed ploy that nobody saw coming until it was over, and that even the sainted Walter Cronkite mistakenly reported as a disaster.

I was 18 years old. Most of the Democratic convention was held in the wee hours of the morning, and I went sleepless following the battle on black and white TV, jumping up every few minutes to twirl the dial to another network. All realtime analysis came from the anchormen, and at the crucial moment, the anchormen had no idea what was happening.

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In the Matter of Todd Akin

So there I was, putting together a long post on the fabric of the Universe, when Todd Akin came along and seemed to demand at least some brief commentary. A few remarks on that, and I’ll get back to the rest of the Universe in a day or two:

1) The exact quote, in response to a question about pregnancies resulting from rape, is: ““It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

2) It seems to me, from what I understand from news sources, that the female body does not in fact have ways of recognizing rape and preventing conception. I have absolutely no expertise in this matter; therefore my understanding might be wrong. Nevertheless, I’m happy to pass that understanding along.

3) It also seems to me that the phrase “from what I understand from doctors” says, in effect, “I am not an expert, so this might be wrong, but here’s what I’ve heard”. It is not unreasonable for people to make statements like this. In fact, I did it myself, just one paragraph back.

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Charting the Tax Plans

Ezra Klein, quoted with approval by Paul Krugman, offers this chart of how the Obama and Romney tax proposals will change rates for taxpayers in various quintiles:

What we’re supposed to infer, according to Krugman, is that

we have an election in which one candidate is proposing a redistribution from the top … downward, mainly to lower-income workers, while the other is proposing a large redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the top.

But no such thing is remotely true. What we actually have is an election in which both candidates are proposing massive redistributions from the top downward, one slightly less so than the other. You’d never know this from looking at Klein’s chart because it illustrates changes in rates, whereas what actually matters is the rates themselves. It makes no sense to ask whether any particular group ought to be paying more or less without reference to how much they’re already paying.

Indeed, this is a classic example of what I once called the “Grandfather Fallacy” — by focusing on changes instead of absolutes, Klein’s chart conceals any existing inequities and hence treats them as “grandfathered in”.

Fortunately, Greg Mankiw has provided the numbers that allow us to make the requisite correction. Here, according to Mankiw, are the current tax burdens on various income groups (counting transfers as negative taxes, as of course one should):

Bottom quintile: -301 percent
Second quintile: -42 percent
Middle quintile: -5 percent
Fourth quintile: 10 percent
Highest quintile: 22 percent

Top one percent: 28 percent

That “-301 percent” means, for example, that a typical family in the bottom quintile receives $3.01 in net transfers for every $1 that it earns.

By adding these numbers to the numbers in Klein’s graph, we can construct a picture that actually depicts something interesting, namely the projected tax burdens for each group. It looks like this (the vertical axis represents percentage of income):

Note, for example, that, contrary to the impression you might have gotten from Klein’s and Krugman’s posts, both plans place the highest percentage burden on the top 1%, and both plans place a negative burden on the middle quintile — though Obama’s does both of these things to an ever-so-slightly greater extent than Romney’s does. There’s room for disagreement about which plan is fairer, but no room, I think, for disagreement about which chart is relevant.

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In the News

As long as we have anything like traditional marriage, I believe that restricting it to heterosexual couples is an exceptionally bad and stupid policy, laced with unnecessary cruelty. It is not, however, an issue that is likely ever to affect my vote, because so much else dwarfs its importance. Legalizing gay marriage would make life substantially better for a few million people of the wealthiest people in the world (i.e. Americans) and is therefore a good thing, but if I’m going to pick my battles, I’ll cast my lot with, say, the tens or hundreds of millions of Third Worlders who are relegated to dire poverty by American trade and immigration restrictions. I’ll take the homophobic free trader over the protectionist crusader for sexual equality every single time.

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Frankly Speaking

Here’s something curious about this year’s political rhetoric: The Republican candidates claim that President Obama has made things worse, while he claims he’s made things better.

You might not think that’s a hard thing to explain. If so, I conclude that you are not Robert Frank, who keeps reminding us via his New York Times column (this one for example) that in many circumstances people care less about their absolute economic well-being than about their place in the pecking order. According to Frank, we buy big homes and fast cars not because we like big homes and fast cars, but because we like our homes and cars to be bigger and faster than our neighbors’. This in turn calls for a tax increase to tamp down that wasteful arms race.

But here’s the thing: Each of us has pretty good information on how we ourselves are doing. When politicians say the economy is doing poorly, they’re mostly informing us that other people are doing poorly. If Frank is right, we’ll consider that good news and (if we believe the news to be accurate) reward the incumbent who brought everyone else down. In other words, is Frank is right, then President Obama’s best strategy is to take credit for a disastrous economy, while his Republican opponents should argue that in fact we’re in the midst of a strong recovery.

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