Posts tagged ‘kevin drum’

My New Rules

Well, I guess it should be obvious that I have not totally given up blogging.  I thank everyone for the nice emails and the nice comments.

However, I am going to try some new rules for the next month, less on my blogging and more on how I engage with the news.

  1. No more Twitter.  For those of you who use Twitter as a news aggregator, my posts will still appear on twitter and from time to time I will post things there that fit on twitter better than in a full blog post.  But I am not going to read my feed, and I am really not going to engage with things in my feed.  Everyone is trying to piss me off, and worse, a few times they have been successful and I have posted juvenile retorts that I later regretted.  I am going to keep a Civ 6 game on my computer and every time I am even tempted to open twitter I will play a couple of turns of Civ 6, worrying instead how to keep Gandhi from nuking me again.  Ironically, I just today ticked over 1000 followers on Twitter, so thanks very much for the support, but if you tweet at me over the next month I won't see it.
  2. Paring down my RSS feed.  I have read partisan political blogs on both sides of the aisle for years.  In fact it has been a point of pride that I read from both sides.  But these folks are all crazy, all the more so because they waste so many electrons arguing their side is sane and the other is crazy.  Everyone on these blogs is trying to just make me angry or afraid.  I am not going to play.  I can get angry and afraid all by myself.  All the political blogs are going out the window for the next month.  The more polemical climate blogs are going out.  Anyone who uses the words "Comey" or "Russia" or "Impeach" or "Benghazi"  in two out of three posts is gone.  Unfortunately, this means, at least for this month, that I cast off Instapundit as well, which is hard for me because Professor Reynolds really gave me my first traffic and helped promote my book.
  3. I have been reading the same stuff for years.  Over time I need to find some like-minded folks interested in discussing policy while still capable of assuming that folks who disagree with them may actually be people of good will.  But I don't want to spend my time in full wonk mode either.  I will call Megan McArdle my benchmark of what I am looking for, and I am accepting recommendations for folks Left and Right of her to read.  Kevin Drum for example on the Left was pretty good on this dimension when his guys were in office but he is much more in team politics mode now (Mother Jones banning me didn't help, particularly since they banned me for referring to the "NRA" in a comment -- particularly funny since I was referring to FDR's National Industrial Recovery Act and not to the much-hated-by-progressives National Rifle Association).

My wife never reads my blog and probably is not too in touch with my existential blogging angst of late, but out of the blue the other day she suggested it would be fun to set up a salon where we could bring together folks across the political spectrum to have discussions of issues of the day.  I thought this was a great idea and have been thinking about how to pull this off.  Unlike what seems to be fashionable today, we actually have friends across the political spectrum -- something that has been easy considering one of our families consists of Massachusetts Progressives (from Antioch, no less!) one is of Texas Conservatives (with oil company executives, no less!).  Our families always got along great but I worry that a few of my friends my be at each others' throats if we have them talking politics in the same room.  So we have to figure out how to discuss policy, not politics.

Trump Silver Lining: Liberals Are Now Defending Trade Deficits

Thanks to Trump, it appears that some of the Left have discovered economic reality and are defending trade and suddenly seem less unsettled by trade deficits.  Here is Kevin Drum with one in a series trying to downplay panic over trade deficits, in this case with Mexico.    Here are some of my recent thoughts on the trade deficit.

International trade is such an obvious benefit to the country that it is simply incredible that we are, hundreds of years after Adam Smith and Ricardo and Bastiat, still trying to explain and defend it against ignorance.  It's like we have to constantly battle recurrences of the phlogiston theory of combustion.

I Still Don't Understand Why Racism is Defined Assymetrically

What if I wrote this:

"For me as a white man, it's really nice to just go out with other white men sometimes," ... "I have to do so much less translation. When you're white around black people, you have to explain every little thing, even with people who are perfectly nice and well-meaning."

My presumption would be that this would be treated as evil and racist.  But what was actually written was this, which by its reception by Kevin Drum and others is apparently perfectly OK

"For me as a black woman, it's really nice to just go out with other black women sometimes," said Sabrina Stevens, an activist and progressive strategist. "I have to do so much less translation. When you're black around white people, you have to explain every little thing, even with people who are perfectly nice and well-meaning."

The answer I generally get for treating racism asymmetrically (e.g. almost anything a white person says about blacks is racist, but nothing a black person says about whites is racist) is that it's all about privilege and power imbalances.  But the author, at least in this passage, is not talking about privilege and power imbalances.  She is merely talking about differences in outlook and perspective, which are presumably symmetric.  She is more relaxed around similar people, which is likely true of many of us.

Drum, fortunately, seems to get the point about safe spaces, that there is a huge difference between people privately creating spaces populated only by folks of their own selection (ie freedom of assembly) and public institutions (such as universities) enforcing segregated groups and spaces, particularly spaces meant to avoid contact with ideas at an institution dedicated to spreading ideas.  The first strikes me as fine, the second as generally unacceptable.    Of course women have spent the last 30 years of trying to purge private spaces where men choose to hang out solely with other men, so they shouldn't be surprised if they get a teensy bit of push back when they try to create such spaces for themselves.

Thank God We Don't Have Cable Neutrality

Time Warner Cable, the owners of the Dodgers local broadcast rights is continuing to battle with local cable channels to be added to their cable package.  Like last year, it appears that no deal will be forthcoming and the Dodgers (and perhaps more disheartening, Vin Scully in his last year) won't be on many TV sets this summer in LA.  Kevin Drum essentially says bravo to the cable companies for opposing the Dodgers bid to jack up basic cable rates in the area.

Boo hoo. They tried everything—everything, I tell you. Except, of course, for the one thing that would have worked: the right to make the Dodgers an extra-cost option, not part of basic cable. Most cable operators see no reason that every television viewer in the LA basin should have to pay 60 bucks a year more in cable fees regardless of whether or not they care about baseball.

And that's the one thing TWC won't do. Why? Because then it will become crystal clear just how few households actually care enough about the Dodgers to pay for them. And that would truly be a disaster beyond reckoning. There's a limit to the amount of sports programming that people are willing to have crammed down their throats!

I actually agree with him, and will add that it is always great to see a progressive acknowledge consumers do actually exercise accountability on businesses.

But I will observe that had we adopted cable neutrality rules** as we have for net neutrality, the cable companies would have found it impossible, or at least much more difficult, to oppose carriage by a pushy and expensive content provider.  It is this sort of intra-supply-chain tug of war that generally benefits consumers in the long run (as it has in LA, at least for Drum) that is essentially outlawed by net neutrality rules which basically declare content providers the victors by default.  As I wrote before:

Net Neutrality is one of those Orwellian words that mean exactly the opposite of what they sound like.  There is a battle that goes on in the marketplace in virtually every communication medium between content creators and content deliverers.  We can certainly see this in cable TV, as media companies and the cable companies that deliver their product occasionally have battles that break out in public.   But one could argue similar things go on even in, say, shipping, where magazine publishers push for special postal rates and Amazon negotiates special bulk UPS rates.

In fact, this fight for rents across a vertical supply chain exists in virtually every industry.  Consumers will pay so much for a finished product.  Any vertical supply chain is constantly battling over how much each step in the chain gets of the final consumer price.

What "net neutrality" actually means is that certain people, including apparently the President, want to tip the balance in this negotiation towards the content creators (no surprise given Hollywood's support for Democrats).  Netflix, for example, takes a huge amount of bandwidth that costs ISP's a lot of money to provide.  But Netflix doesn't want the ISP's to be be able to charge for this extra bandwidth Netflix uses - Netflix wants to get all the benefit of taking up the lion's share of ISP bandwidth investments without having to pay for it.  Net Neutrality is corporate welfare for content creators....

I am still pretty sure the net effect of these regulations, whether they really affect net neutrality or not, will be to disarm ISP's in favor of content providers in the typical supply chain vertical wars that occur in a free market.  At the end of the day, an ISP's last resort in negotiating with a content provider is to shut them out for a time, just as the content provider can do the same in reverse to the ISP's customers.  Banning an ISP from doing so is like banning a union from striking.

** Footnote:  OK, we sortof did have cable neutrality in one respect -- over the air broadcasters were able to obtain crony legislation that cable companies had to carry every locally broadcast channel.  So that channel 59 that you never bothered to watch now get's equal treatment with the NBC affiliate.   This was a huge boon for these stations, and the value of these often tiny stations exploded with this must-carry rule.  Essentially they were given an asset for free, ie position in a cable lineup, that other competitors had to fight for.

Al Gore, as an aside, actually became rich with exactly this game.   It is hard to fight your way into a cable lineup nowadays.  Al Gore did it with this Current TV startup based on his name and a promise of a sort of MTV for politics.  The channel went nowhere and lost a lot of money, but it now had one valuable asset -- placement in cable TV lineups.  So it sold this asset to Al Jazzera, which had struggled to get placement.

Disney's Amazing Star Wars Deal, Which Might Help Fill In Disney's Amazing ESPN Profit Hole

How did Disney buy Star Wars for only $4 billion?  I first saw this question asked by Kevin Drum, though I can't find the link (and I am not going to feel guilty about it after Mother Jones banned me for some still-opaque reason).  But Disney is going to release a new movie every year, and if it is anything like the Marvel franchise, they are going to milk it for a lot of money.  Plus TV tie-ins.  Plus merchandising.  Plus they are rebuilding much of their Hollywood Studios park at DisneyWorld in a Star Wars theme.

The answer is that this is the kind of deal that makes trading in a free market a win-win rather than zero-sum.  Lucas, I think, was played out and had no ability, or no desire, to do what it would take to make the franchise worth $4 billion.  On the flip side Disney is freaking good a milking a franchise for all its worth (there is none better at this) and so $4 billion is starting to appear cheap from their point of view.

By the way, Disney is going to need the profits from Star Wars to fill in the hole ESPN is about to create.  A huge percentage of the rents in the cable business have historically flowed to ESPN, which is able to command per-subscriber fees from cable companies that dwarf any other network. Times are a-changin' though, as pressure increases from consumers to unbundle.  If cable companies won't unbundle, then consumers will do it themselves, cutting the cable and creating their own bundles from streaming offerings.

ESPN is already seeing falling subscriber numbers, and everyone thinks this is just going to accelerate.  ESPN is in a particularly bad position when revenues fall, because most of its costs are locked up under long-term contracts for the acquisition of sports broadcasting rights. It can't easily cut costs to keep up with falling revenues.  It is like a bank that has lent long and borrowed short, and suddenly starts seeing depositors leave.   And this is even before discussing competition, which has exploded -- every major pro sports league has its own network, major college athletic conferences have their own network, and competitors such as Fox and NBC seem to keep adding more channels.

Achievement Unlocked: Banned by Mother Jones

Not really sure what I did to reach this achievement, but somehow I got banned in the last 2 days by Mother Jones, and probably by Kevin Drum.   My comment history is here, and I am totally perplexed what led to this.  My last comment was on a post of Drum's about hospital price competition, where I wrote:

The authors portray this (at least in the quoted material) as an anti-trust issue, but I suspect a bigger problem is the cronyist certificate of need process. In many locations, new hospitals, or hospital expansions (even things as small as buying a new cat scanner) require government permission in the form of a certificate of need. As one may imagine, entrenched incumbents are pretty good at managing this process to make sure they get no new competition. This, by the way, is a product of classic progressive thinking, which in its economic ignorance saw competition as duplicative and wasteful. We are lucky the Supreme Court shot down FDR's NRA or we would have this sort of mess in every industry.

Hard to believe this got me banned, unless Mother Jones has gotten really thin-skinned.   The second to last comment I made there was actually in support of Mother Jones, congratulating them on winning a libel suit against them.   The most recent one before that was over 2 months ago.  This leads me to believe the comment above had to have gotten me banned, but the mind boggles -- did I run into some secret National Industrial Recovery Act fetishist?

Update:  Mr. Drum, who I respect while disagreeing with frequently, was nice enough to write me back and said he didn't ban me, it had to come from Mother Jones staff somewhere.  Which leaves me even more confused.   Not sure why this comment among all the flotsam that washes ashore in the totality of Mother Jones comment sections would earn the ire of some intern.

Black Lives Matter Has a Pretty Decent Plan. Too Bad they Don't Seem to Know What to Do With It

There is much to criticize in how the BLM movement operates, but I can get behind much of the plan they introduced last month.  I don't agree with all of it, but I seldom agree with all of any plan I see proposed from any side of the aisle.


In discussing the plan, Kevin Drum fails to address the elephant in the room for the Left in making progress on this, and that is the enormous reluctance of Democrats to challenge a public employee union.  And you can bet that police unions will likely be the biggest barrier to getting a lot of this done, even perhaps ahead of Conservative law-and-order groups (you can see the token sop thrown to unions in point 10 of the plan, but it ain't going to be enough).

By the way, there is much that progressive and conservative groups could learn from each other.  Conservative groups (outside of anti-abortion folks) are loath to pursue the public demonstration and disruption tactics that can sometimes be helpful in getting one's issues on the public agenda.  The flip side is that public disruption seems to be all BLM knows how to do.  It can't seem to get beyond disruption, including the unfathomable recent threat to disrupt an upcoming marathon in the Twin Cities.   It could learn a lot from Conservative and libertarian groups like ALEC, that focus on creating model legislation and local success stories that can be copied in other places.  Many of the steps in BLM's plan cry out of model legislation and successful pilots/examples.

Best Possible Thing for Low-Skilled Workers: Having Others Get Rich off Their Labor

I had an argument in a comment thread of one of Kevin Drum's minimum wage or some such posts (sorry, I can't even find which one now to link it).  Anyway, my concluding remark was that the best thing that could ever happen to the unemployed, and particularly to low-skilled workers, would be if people were to discover ways to get rich from their labor.   Of course, I was met with total scorn, as if I had suggested sacrificing virgins to improve the climate.

The reason I mention this is that this disconnect seems to be at the heart of the problem of Progressivism.  I am convinced that they honestly want to help low-skilled workers and the poor do better economically, but they advocate for policies that are 180-degrees askew.  Most of what they wish for -- higher minimum wages, larger mandated benefits packages, more paid leave, more ability to sue employers over trivial slights -- absolutely, with near mathematical precision, raise the cost of hiring low-skill workers, making it increasingly unlikely anyone will do so.  Low-skill workers get hired for one and only one reason (which is the same reason any worker gets hired):  someone thinks they can profit from that labor.  It is the potential for profit that is the sole reason for hiring anyone, but it is exactly that profit potential that Progressives most fear and deride.

The DOL is Admitting That New Overtime Rules Won't Lead to Much Extra Pay

Here are some numbers from the DOL draft rule.

They think there are 21.4 million salaried workers subject to the wage test.  Since the new number was set at the 40th percentile of these workers, presumably about 8.6 million will fall below the new number.  But of these, only 4.6 million would be have to be shifted to hourly/overtime rules (not sure why the difference, I guess other tests must still apply as well).

Those 4.6 million are expected to cost employers an additional $1.2 billion in wages, which seems like a lot but equates to an additional $261 per person per year extra.   In other words, a pittance for all this disruption.

The Left is already saying that companies won't adjust and all these folks will get raises.  But the DOL obviously thinks differently.  Either it thinks these folks are only working maybe an hour each of overtime per week, such that the overtime rules will only cost a few bucks a week, or the DOL thinks that a lot of work and wage rates are going to be pared back leaving folks about where they are today, except now as timeclock punchers rather than trusted salaried professionals.

I am still going through all the tables in the back where they generate this stuff, but there are a couple of admissions there you WILL NOT find on liberal blogs today

  1. The DOL expects that base wage rate for regular work hours to fall for the affected workers with this new law.  You heard that right.   See table 21.  The fall from $18.38 to $18.21 after this rule in DOL projections
  2. You will see folks (like Kevin Drum linked above) saying that this ends 60 hour work weeks.  In fact, in table 22 the DOL says the average work week of those affected by the rule is 41.6 hours, which will go down to 41.5 hours by this rule.  In fact, the 60 hour folks are a minority of go-getters who are trying to prove themselves out for upper management.  These are the folks hamstrung by this law, hammering precisely the upwardly mobile folks one would hope to encourage.

Has The US Undermined European Self-Reliance?

Kevin Drum featured this really interesting Pew poll.


This is pretty amazing.  Few European citizens support their country fulfilling its NATO treaty obligations to their neighbors, perhaps because most expect the US to do it for them.

Kevin Drum Claims "We" Haven't Learned Anything from Deepwater Horizon. What you mean, "we," Kemo Sabe?'

Kevin Drum claims that "we" haven't learned anything from the Deepwater Horizon disaster (the BP oil rig that exploded five years ago in the Gulf, killing a number of people and creating a large oil spill).

What is his evidence?  Has he looked at oil company drilling practices and found them unchanged since the disaster?  No, he does not mention any evidence based on observed drilling practices one way or another.  His sole evidence that "we" have not learned anything is that the US Government has not shut down drilling in the Gulf and has not passed any new laws.

This is almost a caricature of progressive thinking -- nothing matters except what the government does.  But presumably oil companies have been influenced by the cost of the disaster on BP.  So far BP has paid out about $30 billion (billion with a B) in reparations and restoration expenses and may be facing another $20 or so billion in fines based on a 2014 court decision.  All this ignores the loss of the platform itself, of access to the resource below the platform, and of BP's reputation.

One would presume that the prospect of losing $50+ billion would be enough to get the attention of private companies and cause them to make changes to their procedures.  I suppose it is also possible that they completely ignored this, but Drum offers no evidence one way or another.  To him, anything not done by the government is irrelevant.

Why Large Corporations Often Secretly Embrace Regulation

I wrote the other day about how Kevin Drum was confused at why broadband stocks might be rising in the wake of news that the government would regulate broadband companies as utilities.  I argued the reason was likely because investors know that such regulation blocks most innovation-based competition and tends to guarantee companies a minimum profit -- nothing to sneeze at in the Internet world where previous giants like AOL, Earthlink, and Mindspring are mostly toast.

James Taranto pointed today to an interesting Richard Eptstein quote along the same lines (though he was referring to hospitals under Obamacare):

Traditional public utility regulation applies to such services as gas, electric and water, which were supplied by natural monopolists. Left unregulated, they could charge excessive or discriminatory prices. The constitutional art of rate regulation sought to keep monopolists at competitive rates of return.

To control against the risk of confiscatory rates, the Supreme Court also required the state regulator to allow each firm to obtain a market rate of return on its invested capital, taking into account the inherent riskiness of the venture.

@kevindrum Finds Absolutely Ubiquitous Feature of Regulation to be Mysterious

Kevin Drum simply does not understand why Wall Street might be piling into broadband stocks despite proposed "tough new regulations."  He posits a number of hypotheses -- that Wall Street expected the rules to be worse than they turned out to be.  But this can't be it because the hundreds of pages of rules are still a secret.  He also hypothesizes there might be some nefarious secret loophole buried in the rules Wall Street knows about but we don't.

This is crazy!  How can a reasonably bright person like Drum who writes about the political economy not understand the issue of regulatory capture?  Seriously, I have always figured that the Left, which has a seemingly infinite appetite for regulation, must favor regulation because they find the benefits to out-weight the crony-ist downsides.  Is it really possible Drum is unfamiliar with the downsides altogether, or is he just being coy?

Here is what regulation, particularly utility-style regulation, tends to do -- it locks in current business models and competitors.  It makes it really hard for new entrants to challenge incumbents with innovative new business models or approaches, because regulations have been written based on the old business model and did not take the new one in account.  So a new entrant must begin business by getting regulators to allow their new model, which never happens because by this time incumbents have buildings full of lobbyists aimed at the regulatory process.  Go ask Tesla and Uber and Lyft about how easy it is to enter a heavily regulated business even with a superior new business model.

This is particularly true in the technology world.  The biggest threat to incumbency is someone with a new technology or approach to the technology.  Don't believe me?  I suggest you go to the offices of Netscape or AOL or Lycos or Borders or Circuit City or Radio Shack and interview them about the security of their multi-billion dollar businesses in the face of new online technologies.  At best, regulators put a huge speed bump in the way of competitors, costing them time and money to get their alternative business model approved.  At worst, regulators block new competitors altogether.

I will give you a thought experiment.  Let's say these exact same rules were adopted in the year 2000, when AOL and Earthlink dial-up ruled the internet access world.  Would cable and satellite and DSL have grown as quickly?  I can see the regulators now -- "hey, all the rules specify phone dial up.  There's nothing here about cable TV.  Sorry [Cox, Comcast, whoever] you are going to have to wait until we can write new rules.

The other thing that happens with utility-style regulation is that companies in the business tend to get their returns guaranteed.  Made a bad investment in a competitive market?  Well good luck getting customers to pay extra to bail you out from your bad decision when they have other options.  But what happens when your local power company wastes $10 billion on a nuclear plant that never opens -- it gets built into your rate base!

In the cast of broadband, they are locked in what business school students would see as a classic supply chain battle.  Upstream companies like Netflix supply content via downstream broadband companies.  Consumers are only willing to pay a certain amount for this content, so the upstream and downstream fight a lot over who gets what share of that consumer $.    This happens everywhere in the business world, from Cable TV to oil refining to selling TV's at Wal-Mart.  There is a real danger that broadband will lose this fight in the future -- but not now.  Regulated industries never die, they appeal to their regulators for help.

As of yesterday, Wall Street is looking at broadband companies and realizing that they are now largely immune from competition and some level of minimum returns are likely now gauranteed forever.  Consumers should hate this, but what's not to love for Wall Street?

Postscript:  Kevin Drum describes the new regulation this way:  "Basically, under Wheeler's proposal, cable companies would no longer be able to sign special deals to provide certain companies with faster service in return for higher payments."  This is a bit like describing the Patriot Act as a law to force people to take their shoes off at the airport.  Yes, it does that narrow thing, but it does a LOT else.  The proposal is hundreds of freaking pages long.  It does not take hundreds of pages to do the narrow little niche thing Drum (like most neutrality supporters) wants.

This Administration has cleverly taken this one tiny concern people have and have used it as an excuse to do a major regulatory takeover of the Internet.  This is a huge Trojan Horse. But I have already ranted about the details of that and you can read that here.

Surprise! Greek Problems Were Not Solved By Kicking the Can Down the Road

Greece is looking like it's falling apart again.  Or perhaps more accurately: Greece continues to fall apart and the lipstick Europe put on the pig a few years ago is wearing off and people are noticing again.

I warned about this less than a year ago:

Kevin Drum quotes Hugo Dixon on the Greek recovery:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

Color me suspicious.  Both the media and investors fall for this kind of thing all the time -- the dead cat bounce masquerading as a structural improvement.  I hope like hell Greece has gotten its act together, but I would not bet my own money on it.

In that same article, I expressed myself skeptical that the Greeks had done anything long-term meaningful in their labor markets.  They "reformed" their labor markets in the same way the Obama administration "reformed" the VA -- a lot of impressive statements about the need for change, a few press releases and a few promised but forgotten reforms.  At the time, the Left wanted desperately to believe that countries could continue to take on near-infinite amounts of debt with no consequences, and so desperately wanted to believe Greece was OK.

I have said it for four years:  There are only two choices here:  1.  The rest of Europe essentially pays off Greek debt for it or 2.  Greece leaves the Euro.  And since it is likely Greece will get itself into the same hole again some time in the future if #1 is pursued, there is really only leaving the Euro.  The latter will be a mess, with rampant inflation in Greece and destruction savings, but essentially the savings have already been destroyed by irresponsible government borrowing and bank bail-ins.  At least the falling value of Greek currency would make it an attractive place at for tourism if not investment and Greece could start rebuilding its economy on some sort of foundation.  Instead of bailing out banks and Greek officials, Germany should let it all fall apart and spend its money on helping Greece to pick up the pieces.

By letting Greece join the Euro, the Germans essentially let their irresponsible country cousins use their American Express Platinum card, and the Greeks went on a bender with the card.   The Germans can't keep paying the bill -- at some point you have to take the card away.

Keynesian Moving Target on What Constitutes Austerity

The other day I said I was confused by what exactly creates Keynesian stimulus, and in reverse, what constitutes austerity.  I had thought that it was deficit spending that creates the stimulus, but then sometimes it seems to just be spending and in the case of the Kevin Drum post I was discussing, he says it is not the level of spending but only the first derivative of per capita real government spending (with no reference to whether it is debt or tax funded) that matters.

I figured that I was just confused because I had not formally studied economics past my undergrad years, but apparently practicing economists are also confused.  Here is Scott Sumner:

What is the proper measure of austerity?  The textbooks talk about deficits.  But most of the Keynesian bloggers focus on government purchases.  So which is it?  And if it’s purchases, why did these same bloggers claim that austerity would result from big tax increases in the US in 2013, and a big tax increase in Japan in 2014?  And why does the measure chosen (ex post) usually seem to be the one that best supports their argument in that particular case?

As a postscript, I will add that every climate skeptic can totally empathize with this Sumner concern:

A number of Keynesian bloggers have recently expressed dismay that the rest of us don’t buy their model.  Maybe it would help if they’d stop ignoring our criticisms of their model, and respond to our complaints.

The Big Government Trap: Does Stimulus Require Government Spending to Continuously Rise?

There has been a lot of back and forth over the last few years about "austerity".  I have wondered how government spending levels over the last few years that dwarf any peacetime levels in history could be called "austerity", but that is exactly what folks like Paul Krugman have been doing.   Apparently, the new theory is that the level of spending is irrelevant to stimulus, and only the first derivative matters.  In other words, high spending is not stimulative unless it is also increasing year by year.   Kevin Drum provides an explanation of this position:

Austerity is all about the trajectory of government spending, and this is what it looks like. You can argue about whether flat spending represents austerity, but a sustained decline counts in anyone's book. The story here is simple: for a little while, in 2009 and 2010, stimulus spending partially offset state and local cuts, but by the end of 2010 the stimulus had run its course. From then on, the drop in government expenditures was steady and significant. It was also unprecedented. If you run this chart back for 50 years you'll never see anything like it. In all previous recessions and their aftermaths, government spending rose.


So, by this theory of stimulus, the fact that we spent substantially more money in 2010-2014 than in pre-recession years (and are still spending more money) turns out not to be stimulative.  The only way government can stimulate the economy is to increase year-over-year per capital real spending every single year.

I will leave macro theory (of which I am increasingly skeptical) to the Phd's.  In this case however, Drum's narrative is undermined by his own chart he published a few weeks ago:


In his recent austerity article quoted above, he describes a sluggish recovery with a step-change in 2014 only after "austerity" ends.  But his chart from a few weeks earlier shows a steady recovery from 2010-2014, right through his "austerity" period.  In fact, during the Bush recovery he derides, we actually did do exactly what he thinks is stimulative, ie increase government spending per capita steadily year by year.  How do we know this?  From another Drum chart, this one from last year.  I changed the colors (described in this article) and compared his two charts:

click to enlarge


By Drum's austerity theory, the Bush spending was stimulative but the Obama spending was austerity.  But the chart on the right sure makes it look like the Obama recovery is stronger than the Bush recovery.


A better explanation of the data is that a recession driven by the highly-leveraged mis-allocation of too much capital to home real estate was made worse in 2008-2009 by a massive increase in government spending, which is almost by definition a further mis-allocation of capital (government is taking money from where the private sector thinks it should be invested and moves it to where politicians think it should be spent).  The economy has recovered as that increase in government spending has been unwound.

Wrong Way Corrigan

I missed it, but Dan Mitchell had a good article starting from my post on Kevin Drum's unintentionally anti-Keynesian chart pair.

Readers will know from my "trend that is not a trend" series how fascinated I am by how often data referenced in the media tells exactly the opposite story as the one claimed.

Kevin Drum Inadvertently Undermines His Own Keynesianism

This is a follow-up from a post this morning here.  Kevin Drum is a Keynesian who thinks that the government is committing economic suicide if it does not increase its spending substantially during and after a recession.  Kevin Drum is also a fierce partisan who wants to defend President Obama against his detractors.  Unfortunately, trying to do the two simultaneously has led to what I think may be an embarrassing result for him.

In the chart below, I combine two graphs of his.  The one on the left is a chart from last year in a Mother Jones cover story blasting "austerity" and lamenting how dumb it was to decrease spending in the years after a recession.  The chart on the right is from the other day, when Drum is agreeing with Paul Krugman that the recession recovery under Obama has been much stronger than the one under Bush II.  The result is a juxtaposition that seems to undermine his Keynesian assumptions - specifically, the recession where we had the "austerity" was the one with the better recovery.  The only thing I have done to his charts is removed lines in the left chart for other past recessions and changed the line colors on the two charts to match.   You can click to enlarge:

click to enlarge

The blue line is the Bush II recession, the red line is the Obama recession.  I believe the start dates are consistent in both charts.  All the numbers and choice of start dates and measurement scales are Drum's.  Don't yell at me for something in the chart construction being unfair -- they are his choices.

The conclusion?  Higher government spending seems to inhibit recovery.  Thanks Kevin!

Kevin Drum Undermines His Own Cover Story and Refutes His Own Keynesian Assumptions

Update:  I have posted an update with a side by side chart comparison here.

Last year, Kevin Drum wrote what I believe was the cover story of the September / October issue of Mother Jones (I read the online edition so exactly how the print version is laid out is opaque to me).  That article, entitled "It's the Austerity, Stupid: How We Were Sold an Economy-Killing Lie" features this analysis:

Click to enlarge


He described the chart as follows:

 In the end, for reasons both political and ideological, Obama decided that he needed to demonstrate that he took the deficit seriously, and in his 2010 State of the Union address he did just that. "Families across the country are tightening their belts," he said, and the federal government should do the same. To that end, he announced a three-year spending freeze and the formation of a bipartisan committee to address the long-term deficit.

The Beltway establishment may have applauded Obama's pivot to the deficit, but much of the economic community saw it as nothing short of a debacle. Sure, there were still a few economists who believed that even in a deep recession government spending merely crowded out private spending and thus did no good, but they were a distinct minority. Most economists acknowledged that deficit spending was appropriate at a time like this. Paul Krugman fumed that Obama was cravenly trying to score political points by doing a "deficit peacock-strut" that would be destructive in the wake of the financial crisis. Mark Zandi, a centrist economist who has advised leaders of both parties, used more judicious language, but likewise warned that spending cuts might "cost the economy significantly in the longer run."...

Taken as a whole, these measures have cut the deficit by $3.9 trillion over the next 10 years. And that doesn't even count the expiration of desperately needed stimulus measures like the payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits.

This was unprecedented, as the chart above shows. After every other recent recession, government spending has continued rising steadily throughout the recovery, providing a backstop that prevented the economy from sliding backward. It happened under Ronald Reagan after the recession of 1981, under George H.W. Bush after the recession of 1990, and under George W. Bush after the recession of 2001. But this time, even though the 2008 recession was deeper than any of those previous ones, it didn't.


I thought the choice of baseline dates for his charts was deceptive, but never-the-less for the moment lets accept this at face value.  Make sure to take a note of the red line, which is the current recession, and the brown line, which was the recovery from the recession in the late Clinton / early Bush years.  By Mr. Drum's earlier analysis, the earlier 1990 recession was better handled than the current one (against his Keynesian assumptions) by the government continuing to increase spending after the recession to keep the recovery going.   The point of Drum's earlier article was to say that Republicans in Congress were sinking the current economy by not increasing spending as was done after these earlier recessions.

So this is what Drum published the other day, I think based on a Paul Krugman article.

But I think Krugman undersells his case. He shows that the current recovery has created more private sector jobs than the 2001-2007 recovery, and that's true. But in fairness to the Bush years, the labor force was smaller back then and Bush was working from a smaller base. So of course fewer jobs were created. What you really want to look at is jobs as a percent of the total labor force. And here's what you get:


The Obama recovery isn't just a little bit better than the Bush recovery. It's miles better. But here's the interesting thing. This chart looks only at private sector employment. If you want to make Bush look better, you can look at total employment instead. It's still not a great picture, but it's a little better:

Awesome, Kevin!  So I guess that austerity you were complaining about was the right thing to do, yes?

Seriously, in his article a year ago Drum argued that the Republicans in Congress were sinking the economy vis a vis the 1990 recession by not continuing to boost spending in the years after the recession.  Now, he admits  (though since he does not refer back to the original article I guess it is not an admission per se) that this "austerity" led to a stronger recovery than the spending-fueled 1990 version.  All hail smaller government, the solution to growing employment!

PS-  I wonder how much of this change in private employment since the last recession came in the oil and gas industry, whose expansion the Left generally opposes?  Well, they'll bash on oil tomorrow but today, they will take credit for the jobs added.

Update:  Here are the two charts combined, with other recessions removed and the colors on the data series set to match (click to enlarge)

click to enlarge

Kevin Drum's Sensible Thoughts on Ray Rice: Why Doesn't The Same Logic Apply to Universities?

Kevin Drum has some sensible thoughts on Ray Rice, discipline and the NFL -- "Sensible" defined in this case as largely mirroring my own:

Ray Rice committed a crime. We have a system for dealing with crimes: the criminal justice system. Employers are not good candidates to be extrajudicial arms for punishing criminal offenders, and I would be very, very careful about thinking that they should be.

Now, I'll grant up front that the NFL is a special case. It operates on a far, far more public level than most employers. It's a testosterone-filled institution, and stricter rules are often appropriate in environments like that. Kids take cues from what they see their favorite players doing. TV networks and sponsors understandably demand a higher level of good behavior than they do from most employers.

Nevertheless, do we really want employers—even the NFL—reacting in a panic to transient public outrage by essentially barring someone for life from ever practicing their craft? Should FedEx do that? Should IBM do that? Google? Mother Jones? Perhaps for the most serious offenses they should, and it's certainly common to refuse to hire job candidates with felony records of any kind. (Though I'll note that a good many liberals think this is a misguided and unfair policy.) But for what Ray Rice did?

I just don't know about that. Generally speaking, I think we're better off handling crimes through the criminal justice system, not through the capricious judgments of employers—most of whom don't have unions to worry about and can fire employees at a whim. I might be overreacting, but that seems like it could become a dangerous precedent that hurts a lot more people than it helps.

I agree 100%.  The NFL  was simply insane to venture into the role as a shadow legal system to apply punishments based on their investigation and judgement in parallel with those of the legal system.  They would have been much better off simply establishing a schedule of internal penalties that were based on the outcomes of the legal system.

That being said, I wish other writers on the Left would read Drum's column and ask themselves why this same logic wouldn't apply to colleges as well. It is unbelievable to me that Liberals of all people -- who have largely defended due process rights in the legal system for years against Conservative attempts to trim them -- would suddenly wage a campaign to substitute kangaroo courts run by university administrators in the place of normal police and judicial procedures for crimes as serious as rape.  I am historically skeptical of the legal system and the people in it, but all of these problems would only be worse trying to have a bunch of amateurs at universities setting up a parallel system.

There is certainly a problem to be solved -- though the 1 in 5 statistic is completely bogus and exaggerated -- but the diagnosis of the problem has been all wrong.  The problem is that Universities have historically created internal police forces and disciplinary processes for the express purpose of protecting their students from the normal legal system.  This is a practice and tradition that goes all the way back to the Middle Ages.  And it worked fine, at least as far as I am concerned, when the University was protecting students from marijuana or underage drinking busts by town police.

But institutions develop a culture, and the culture of university disciplinary processes has been to 1.  keep the student out of the legal system and 2.  get the student to graduation.  I have friends who have been kicked out of top universities a few times, but the University in the end bent over backwards to take them back and get them over the finish line.

So it is disappointing, but not surprising, that universities approached more heinous crimes with this same culture and mindset.  And some egregious sexual assaults got swept under the rug.  Again, I think some folks are exaggerating these numbers by assuming there are tens or hundreds of these cases for every one we hear about.  But we can agree on the core fact, I think, that the typical college disciplinary culture of protecting students from the legal system has failed some victims of sexual assault.

But this is where everyone seems to be going off track.  The Obama Administration solution for this problem is to demand that universities develop more robust fact-finding and disciplinary processes for such felonies, and remove procedural protections for the accused as a way to offset the historic university culture to go to far in protecting wrongdoers.

This is nuts.  Seriously.  Given the set of facts, a far simpler solution, fairer to both accused and victims, would have been for the Obama Administration simply to demand that Universities hand over evidence of crimes to police and prosecutors trained to know what to do with it.  If the University wants to take special steps to get victims help coping with their recovery using University resources, or help victims and the accused who are University students cope with the rough edges of the legal process, great.

Postscript:  Another problem is that punishments meted out by universities are going to always be wrong, by definition.  Let's say a student is accused of rape and kicked out.  Two possibilities.  If he is innocent of the charge, then he was punished way too much.  If he was guilty, if he really raped someone, he was punished way too little -- and by the University screwing around with it and messing up the chain of evidence and taking statements without following the correct process, they may have killed any chance of a conviction in the legal system.    The current process the Obama Administration is forcing punishes the innocent and protects the truly guilty.

Government Accounting: The Report That Says Green Loan Program is Profitable is A Total Joke

The government claims to be making huge profits on its greentech loan program, despite losses at companies like Solyndra.

The U.S. government expects to earn $5 billion to $6 billion from the renewable-energy loan program that funded flops including Solyndra LLC, supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to back low-carbon technologies.

The Department of Energy has disbursed about half of $32.4 billion allocated to spur innovation, and the expected return will be detailed in a report due to be released as soon as tomorrow, according to an official who helped put together the data.

The results contradict the widely held view that the U.S. has wasted taxpayer money funding failures including Solyndra, which closed its doors in 2011 after receiving $528 million in government backing. That adds to Obama’s credibility as he seeks to make climate change a bigger priority after announcing a historic emissions deal with China.

Even Kevin Drum calls partial BS on this:

And yet....I'd still remain a bit cautious about the overall success of the program. Out of its $32 billion in approved loans, half represent loan guarantees to nuclear power plant developers and Ford Motor. These are not exactly risky, innovative startups. They're huge companies that could very easily have raised money without government help, and which represented virtually zero danger of default. If DOE is including returns from those loans in its forecast, color me unimpressed.

The genuinely risky half of the loan program is called Section 1705, and it includes everything that most of us think of as real renewable energy projects (wind, solar, biofuel, etc.). DOE hasn't broken that out separately.

I call further BS.  It turns out this program is actually losing money, not making money.

  1. This "study" is a classic case of assuming your conclusion. The reason the risky parts of the portfolio would lose money is if they don't pay off over the next 20 years or so they have to run. But all the study says is "The $5 billion to $6 billion figure was calculated based on the average rates and expected returns of funds dispersed so far, paid back over 20 to 25 years." In other words, if the loans turn out not to be risky, they won't be risky. LOL.
  2. I bet they are not accounting for things like Ivanpah, there the holders of the government loan are looking to pay off the government loan with .. a government subsidy. So if you squint, the loan to Ivanpah looks profitable, but no rational person would come to that conclusion about the program as a whole.
  3. Ivanpah is just a subset of a larger problem. Companies like Tesla get government subsidies (and their customers get subsidies as well) from dozens of sources. Is it really a win for taxpayers if they pay back their government loan with government money?
  4. They count the 37 basis points above treasury rates that they charge as "profit". This is crazy. I run a fairly large business. No business is getting Tbills +37 BP loans. Heck, since Tbills are at about 0%, this means they are loaning money to private concerns at less than 1%. This is a crazy large subsidy.  I could make money in over a 2-5 year period in just about anything if I could borrow at effectively 0%.
  5. Worst of all, they are not using present value.  Let's say their average spread from the Bloomberg article is 100 BP over treasuries.  That means that ignoring loan losses on a $32 billion portfolio they are making a spread of $320 million a year.  Over 20-25 years that is $6-7 billion.  Less some large loan losses that is $5-6 billion.  But notice I never discounted.  This is just adding up nominal interest spreads over 25 years.  This is insane.  Absolutely no private investor on the planet would think like this.  If you discounted the interest spread payments at any reasonable risk-adjusted rate**, then the net present value may already be less than losses in Solyndra and others and thus already in the hole, even without considering future losses.  This report is an embarrassing political exercise, not a serious economic analysis.

All of this leaves out the inherent cronyism of the whole exercise.


** I would argue that in many of these loans, and despite interest rates charged in the 0-2% range, the government was taking an equity risk.  Worse than equity risks -- these are essentially venture capital investments risks with T-bill returns (note the one private comment on the returns in the Bloomberg article is from a venture capital investor in greentech).   The taxpayers are bearing all the risk but getting none of the returns.  Any discount rate for these risks under 15-20% is far too low.

Regulatory Deception

Kevin Drum quotes Politico about a coming series of Administration environmental diktats:

...The administration was committed to its upcoming deadlines many months ago, in some cases under court order, after postponing a number of the actions until after the 2012 or 2014 elections. Now that Obama is almost out of time, they’re coming all at once.

The whole "under court order" and "our of time" thing is an scam.  The Administration colludes with environmental groups to sue them demanding some regulation the Administration wants but knows it can't get through the regular legislative or regulator process.  The Administration immediately rolls over in the suit and settles, agreeing to implement the regulation it wanted in the first place.  Then it can claim the settlement of the court suit "requires" them to proceed with these regulations.  I can't tell if I should be embarrassed for the reporter writing this that they are so ignorant of how these suits work or angry that the reporting is essentially colluding in this deceptive practice.

I often wonder if Democrats really believe they will hold the White House forever.  I suppose they must, because they seem utterly unconcerned, even gleeful in fact, about new authoritarian Presidential powers they would freak out over if a Republican exercised.

Coyote's first rule of government authority:  Never support any government power you would not want your ideological enemy wielding.

Trend That Is Not A Trend: Rape Culture

From Mark Perry:

click to enlarge

I suppose one could argue that there is some change in reporting rates, since rape is well-know to be an under-reported crime.  However, I would struggle to argue that under-reporting rates are going up (which is what it would take to be the prime driver of the trend above).  If anything, my guess is that reporting rates are rising such that the chart above actually understates the improvement.

PS-  Folks commenting on this post saying that by reporting a declining trend I demonstrate that I don't care about rape or don't treat it seriously are idiots.  I have lived through dozens of data-free media scares and witch hunts  -- global cooling, global warming, the great pre-school sexual abuse witch hunt, about 20 different narcotics related scares (vodka tampons, anyone?).    Data is useful.    In this case, knowing there is improvement means we can look for what is driving the improvement and do more of it (though Kevin Drum would likely attribute it to unleaded gasoline).

"Trend that is not a trend" is an occasional feature on this blog.  I could probably write three stories a day on this topic if I wished.  The media is filled with stories of supposed trends based on single data points or anecdotes rather than, you know, actual trend data.  More stories of this type are here.  It is not unusual to find that the trend data often support a trend in the opposite direction as claimed by media articles.  I have a related category I have started of trends extrapolated from single data points.

For A Brief Moment I Almost Agreed With Kevin Drum, Then I Got Over It

Kevin Drum seems here to be making the case for Federalism

Via Vox, here's a colorful map from Broadview Networks that helps illustrate one reason that policymaking in Congress often seems so disconnected from the real world. It's because policymakers tend to be pretty well-off folks living in a pretty well-off region that shelters them from the problems many of the rest of us encounter. If you live in Missouri, you might be annoyed [about a local problem].  But if you live in Washington DC or northern Virginia, guess what? [Your local situation is much better]! Virginia is ranked #1 in the nation, and DC is right behind it. So is it any wonder that this really doesn't seem like a pressing problem in Congress?

Wow, this seems like a great argument for Federalism, as well as a number of libertarian critiques of government in general.   Good going, Kevin!

But then I realized he doesn't really believe this.  Drum is as much a supporter as anyone on the Left of Federal mandates over local action (e.g. Common Core).

Further, I realized that he was essentially nuts.  Because the issue he is lamenting is Internet speeds.  Some people have faster Internet than others, and he is just so frustrated that Congress does not realize this.  He actually seems to be hoping Congress will somehow intervene to equalize Internet speeds.  I would love to know, in these people's minds, if there are any issues to trivial for Congress to wade into.

By the way, if Congress had stepped into Internet regulation, we would still probably be surfing at 1200 baud.  After all, all that high speed Internet stuff might kill jobs at Hayes and US Robotics (makers of old telephone modems for those too young to remember).  Look at how long it took to get a political/corporate consensus on HD TV standards.  Ugh, we would probably all have that goofy French TV-computer solution the Left wanted to force on the United States 15 years or so ago.

Postscript:  The UN ITU spent a lot of time driving phone manufacturers to using micro-USB in a bid at government-led standardization.  The only problem is that micro-USB sucks.  It is ubiquitous, which is nice, but from a form and function standpoint is far harder to use and plug in than Apple's lightning connector, which is much easier to insert, less prone to damage, and can be inserted in either direction.  Perhaps young people with better eyes do not notice but I spend a lot of time jamming micro usb cables in the wrong way.  I hate having to put on my glasses just to plug in my phone, which is why I like my Nexus 5 with wireless charging.

Obamacare Newly Insured Numbers Miss by at least 50% vs. Projections

With our new prosthetic memory, called the Internet, it should be easy to go back and look at past predictions and see how well those predictions played out.  Heck, sports talk radio hosts do it all the time, comparing their beginning of season predictions with what actually happened.  But no one ever seems to hold the government or politicians similarly accountable.

Here is one I found by accident.  In July of 2011, Kevin Drum quotes this prediction from the CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a government agency).

In 2014, the Affordable Care Act will greatly expand access to insurance coverage, mainly through Medicaid and new state health insurance exchanges which will facilitate the purchase of insurance. The result will be an estimated 22.9 million newly insured people.

In March of 2014 Kevin Drum quotes this from the LA Times

As the law's initial enrollment period closes, at least 9.5 million previously uninsured people have gained coverage. Some have done so through marketplaces created by the law, some through other private insurance and others through Medicaid, which has expanded under the law in about half the states.

The tally draws from a review of state and federal enrollment reports, surveys and interviews with insurance executives and government officials nationwide.

....Republican critics of the law have suggested that the cancellations last fall have led to a net reduction in coverage. That is not supported by survey data or insurance companies, many of which report they have retained the vast majority of their 2013 customers by renewing old policies, which is permitted in about half the states, or by moving customers to new plans.

This is presented as a great victory, but in fact it is nearly 60% below expectations of less than two years earlier.  We don't know the final number.  Drum, who should be expected to be on the optimistic end of projections, has upped his estimate to 11-13 million, but this is still barely half what was expected.   The disastrous Obamacare exchange rollout did one thing at least -- it hammered expectations so low that even a 50% miss is considered a great victory.