Ten Miles Square


July 18, 2014 1:52 PM Why “Ann Coulter” Would Love Cricket

By Henry Farrell

Somehow I saw this rather lame attempt to parody Ann Coulter yesterday. I don’t mind football, I’ve even come to enjoy watching it a bit as a result of my daughter’s enthusiasm, but I do enjoy the odd rant against it, and have always found it funny that Americans assume that because of my accent I have a favorite team and know the offside rule (I don’t have a favorite team, but I do know the offside rule, though my knowing it is rather like my ability to recall the entire cast of the Love Boat, the result of an unhealthy tendency to remember entirely unimportant things that I don’t care about).

So here are “Coulter”’s objections to football (many of which, btw, suggest “she” has never seen a game), with responses providing evidence that the article is, in fact, an attempt by Geoffrey Boycott to popularize cricket among American conservatives:

1. Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks and drop fly balls—all in front of a crowd. When baseball players strike out, they’re standing alone at the plate. But there’s also individual glory in home runs, touchdowns and slam-dunks.

Cricket: wickets, sixes, fours, catches, run—outs; long hops, dropped catches, hit wicket, Alastair Cook’s current form. Anyway, the perfect balance between teamwork and individual achievement/failure.

2. No serious sport is co-ed, even at the kindergarten level.

Cricket isn’t co-ed (whatever that means).

3. No other “sport” ends in as many scoreless ties as soccer.

Cricket: No scoreless ties. On this count cricket is superior to all “American” sports, because even scored ties are almost impossible, and are the most thrilling games of all (33 first class ties since 1948, worldwide). If scoring is what you care about, cricket beats all other sports hands down: the 1st test between India and England last week yielded 1342 runs and 29 wickets!

4. The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport…Baseball and basketball present a constant threat of personal disgrace [sic: I assume from context she means danger—ed]. In hockey, there are three or four fights a game—and it’s not a stroll on beach to be on ice with a puck flying around at 100 miles per hour.

Cricket: The ball is smaller than, and heavier than, a baseball, and it (normally) hits the ground before reaching the batsman: 85-90 miles an hour are not uncommon speeds. The fielders routinely catch the ball at similar speeds. Oh, and none of this wimpy “mitt” business. Bare hands. Sometimes just a few feet away from where the ball is hit. . Oh, and Ewen Chatfield.

5. You can’t use your hands in soccer. (Thus eliminating the danger of having to catch a fly ball.) What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs.

Cricket: plenty of hands (bowling, catching (see above), holding bats, etc)

6. The number of New York Times articles claiming soccer is “catching on” is exceeded only by the ones pretending women’s basketball is fascinating. I note that we don’t have to be endlessly told how exciting football is.

Cricket: NOBODY is telling you how exciting cricket is, or that it is catching on. [NOTE: in fact we are being constantly told how exciting “football” is: it’s constantly marketed, and, incidentally, talent-development is achieved mainly through huge public subsidies in the form of funding for public high school athletic directors, football fields, uniforms, and coaches; at a cost to the actual education of kids in those high schools (not just the opportunity cost of the funds but, worse, principals who knowingly hire incompetent social studies and science teachers because they will be good coaches).]

7. It’s foreign.

Cricket: its existence in the US predates both American Football and Baseball. The first official international cricket match was an all-North American affair, and took place in New York. Cricket was, in the 1840s and 1850s “by far the biggest sport in the USA”.
Oh, also, one of the two greatest books about cricket,Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise, is by a North American Marxist; and the other, Beyond a Boundary, is by a Marxist who lived in the US for 15 years (before, admittedly, being deported).

8. Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it’s European. Naturally, the metric system emerged from the French Revolution, during the brief intervals when they weren’t committing mass murder by guillotine.

Cricket: Actually, I didn’t understand this point, it just seemed like a random stringing together of words, but, whatever cricket is like, it is not like the metric system.

9. Soccer is not “catching on.” Headlines this week proclaimed “Record U.S. ratings for World Cup,” and we had to hear—again—about the “growing popularity of soccer in the United States.”

Cricket: Nobody is telling you that cricket is “catching on”. But it is.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

July 18, 2014 9:29 AM What Republican Foreign-Policy Fight?

By Jonathan Bernstein

Kevin Drum asks:

Honest question here. I’ve been wondering this for a while, but it crystallized last night after reading this Ross Douthat post about conservative foreign policy. My question is: Is there really a big foreign policy split in the Republican Party?

Good question. Drum says that if this is simply a fight between Senator Rand Paul and everyone else, it isn’t a meaningful split. And Paul is much quicker to seek rhetorical safe ground than his father was.

The way to look at this question is to remember that most of the time, and for most people in both parties, foreign affairs and national security aren’t central to either their electoral prospects or their policy concerns. Other than in times of war, voters generally don’t care about foreign policy. With the exception of people who specialize in the issue, the same appears to be true of many politicians and governing professionals from both parties.

So unless a party believes its electoral interests are at stake or unless new people enter the party who care passionately about foreign policy, the debate takes place mostly among specialists. For Republicans, many of those were either in the George W. Bush administration or strong cheerleaders for its actions. And many of them never stopped defending the Bush administration’s record.

It’s interesting that, over the last decade, very few Republicans seem to have seen the Bush foreign-policy record as an electoral risk, at least beyond the course correction immediately after the 2006 election. That’s very different from the way Democrats reacted to their own foreign-policy fiascos in 1968 and after.

So I suppose the answer is that there is a foreign-policy split between the Paulites and an overwhelming majority of the Republican Party. And that many sensible Republicans within that majority believe something when horribly wrong among their national security-professionals in the middle of the last decade, but there’s no movement to do anything about it.

This isn’t a recipe for future policy success.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 18, 2014 9:13 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: He Walked By Night

By Keith Humphreys


Last week I recommended The Naked City, one of the many crime investigation procedurals that became popular after World War II and continue to be a staple of television and movies today. This week’s recommendation opened in theaters a few months after The Naked City, but is markedly different than that film because of its pronounced noir elements: He Walked by Night.

Normally, police detectives have substantial advantages over perpetrators. The typical violent offender is unintelligent, impulsive, minimally-skilled and ignorant of police procedures. But every once in awhile a criminal comes along who is smart, planful, technically proficient and knowledgeable about the investigative methods of law enforcement. One of such extraordinarily dangerous people was Erwin M. Walker, who repeatedly evaded Los Angeles law enforcement while engaging in an extended violent crime spree in 1946. He Walked by Night is a Dragnet-style dramatization of the Walker case, and indeed the origins of that famous radio and TV show are right here to see.

Richard Basehart gives an icily compelling portrayal of Walker, who is here re-named Roy Morgan. Basehart’s is particularly skilled at embodying Morgan’s disturbing level of emotional restraint, even when he is inflicting violence on others. The only visible break in the killer’s sociopathic detachment comes in a riveting scene in which he does meatball surgery on himself to remove a bullet from his ribcage. On the other side, Roy Roberts, as Police Captain Breen, is credible as usual in one of his many no-nonsense authority figure roles. Some of the portrayals of police procedure (e.g., the assembling of a composite sketch) will be dramatically slow for modern audiences who have seen it all before. But of course that wasn’t true of audiences in 1948, so be forgiving.

he walked by night 7The docudrama’s look is one of the many jewels in legendary cinematographer John Alton’s crown. In an interview, he said the crew and director all asked him where the lights were when they started filming the justly famous chase through the sewers. He told them that a single flashlight was enough, which gives you an idea of how very dark he preferred his shots. If you watch very carefully you will see that the king of darkness did have a trick up his sleeve: There are wires visibly trailing the actors in some of the sewer chase shots, indicating that he rigged the flashlights with much more powerful than usual light bulbs.

In addition to Alton’s bravura work behind the camera, this film also benefits from effective use of silence. In several highly arresting sequences (no pun intended), the sound goes dead as the police close in on the killer. The suspense is amped up enormously by these eerie scenes, as hunter and prey creep noiselessly through the dark until a violent confrontation shatters the silence.

The one mystery this film does not solve is who directed what. Alfred Werker got the director’s credit on screen, but it was later revealed that much of the film was actually directed by Anthony Mann (whose work I have previously touted here and here). Some scenes scream “Mann” in their style but others could have been directed by either him or Werker. Whoever did what, this taut, exciting film hangs together in tone and style with no directorial seams showing.

He Walked by Night is sadly little remembered today, but it did launch some much better known radio and television shows. Jack Webb, who plays a police investigator here, befriended L.A. police technical advisor Marty Wynn on the set and soon launched Dragnet to dramatize the real-life cases of the L.A.P.D. (FYI: This story is well-told in John Buntin’s terrific book L.A. Noir). Richard Basehart never became a big movie star, but was able to parlay his modest cinema success into a long-running career on television, most notably as Admiral Nelson on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

This thrilling, visually stunning docudrama is in the public domain, so I am posting it right here for you to enjoy.

p.s. The fabulous sewer chase sequence in one of the greatest films in British history, 1948′s The Third Man bears more than a little resemblance to the similar sequence in He Walked by Night. No one seems to know for sure, but given that He Walked by Night’s production studio, Eagle-Lion films, had extensive British ties it is entirely possible that Carol Reed et al saw this movie and decided to mount something along the same lines.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

July 17, 2014 8:06 AM Inflation Cranks Keep Cranking

By Ramesh Ponnuru

“I don’t think you have until 2012 before this gets out of control and there’s hyperinflation. It could go past that to 2014, but we’re seeing all sorts of things happening now that are accelerating the inflation process.” Thus spoke economist John Williams in May 2011.

The Consumer Price Index rose 1.6 percent in 2012 and another 1.6 percent in 2013. It has been rising at a somewhat faster clip so far this year, but slower than it was in, say, the first few months of 2008. The Billion Prices Project, which collects a wide range of data from online retailers, gives roughly the same picture as the CPI.

There’s no hyperinflation if you believe the official statistics.

Some people don’t, including Williams. His “Shadow Government Statistics” website argues that the government systematically understates inflation. Some conservatives and libertarians lend credence to his numbers, as Amity Shlaes does at National Review Online today.

Measuring inflation is admittedly tricky. But it’s easier to measure the total amount of goods and services produced and bought, and these output numbers tell a story that is much more consistent with the official version than the “shadow” statistics.

If inflation were as high as these conservatives claim, then the economy would have to be shrinking fast. Williams is willing to bite that bullet: His site would have you believe that the economy has been continuously shrinking since 2005. But if that’s the case, then we also ought to see rapidly rising unemployment. Even he isn’t willing to go that far.

People who think inflation is much higher than officially estimated generally argue that the Federal Reserve is hurting American consumers by raising the prices of food, gas and other necessities. That’s where Shlaes is coming from.

It’s certainly true that a looser monetary policy raises those prices and a tighter one would bring them down. But these policies would have the same effect on the price of labor. It’s the ratio of goods and prices to wages that matters for living standards. There’s no reason to think that the Fed’s policies are doing anything to increase the percentage of household budgets spent on food.

If we want to bring down the price of food relative to wages, we’d be better off looking at our agricultural policies than at our monetary policy. And we’d be better off, as well, if we stopped paying attention to statistical cranks.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 17, 2014 7:59 AM Mommy Police With Real Handcuffs

By Megan McArdle

A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

I’m not interested in defending mothers who are under stress or are low-wage workers without a lot of great child-care options. I mean, fine, but these defenses should be unnecessary because what the heck are we doing arresting parents for things that were perfectly normal 30 years ago?

At the age of 9, I walked to school with a group of other 9-year-olds. Or by myself. Across the very busy streets of the Upper West Side, at a time when New York City really was very dangerous. Past housing projects. Around construction sites. My sister rode the subway to school at that age. My best friend got on the crosstown bus by herself in the first grade. Attrition rate among my classmates and myself: 0.

Leaving an infant in a car is extremely dangerous, and parents should take great care not to do so, including buying something like this. Leaving an 11-year-old alone in the car is no more dangerous than letting her go to the ladies’ room by herself. Infants die in cars because they can’t regulate their own body temperature very well, open the doors or windows, or get out of the car. If your 11-year-old doesn’t know how to open your car doors or has to be strapped in, then by all means, take them into the store with you. But if you are the parent of a normal, healthy child, then there’s no reason that he or she cannot be left by themselves for a few minutes.

Nor is there any reason that a normally intelligent 9-year-old cannot be allowed to play in a busy, safe park by herself. Could something bad happen? Yes, though the risks of accident in a crowded park are pretty limited. But something bad can happen anywhere. The rate of stranger abductions is very low, and it has been very low for a long time. Yet when I ask parents why they can’t let their kid out of their sight, stranger abductions generally top the list.

You know what’s really dangerous to your child? Getting in a car. It’s the leading cause of death among kids ages 5 to 14, followed by cancer and drowning. Stranger abductions are way, way, way down on the list. Yet at the same time we’ve been tethering our children to our knees in an effort to make sure nothing bad ever happens, we’ve actually slightly increased the number of vehicle miles they travel. Why aren’t the cops on that?

You can argue that driving is necessary, but it seems to me that raising independent children is also necessary. Arresting parents who allow any child younger than a college freshman to spend time alone amounts to a legal mandate to keep kids timid and tethered. This should not be an object of public policy.

What is truly bizarre is that the cops cuffing these women were most likely raised with exactly the freedom they are now punishing. Do they think their parents should have been put in jail? Or have the intervening years rendered tweens unable to figure out how the car doors work?

I’m not saying that parents should take their toddlers into the wilderness and leave them there to hike their way out. What I can’t understand is how our society has lost the ability to distinguish between that and letting your pre-teen hang out in the car for a half-hour or spend some time in a nearby park. As Jessica Grose says, if this had been illegal in 1972, every single mother in America would have been in jail. Yet millions upon millions of us lived to tell the tale.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 17, 2014 7:53 AM We Don’t Need a Corporate Income Tax

By Megan McArdle

You can think of corporate taxation as a sort of long chess match: The government makes a move. Corporations move in response — sometimes literally, to another country where the tax burden is less onerous. This upsets the government greatly, and the Barack Obama administration in particular. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has written a letter to Congress, urging it to make it stop by passing rules that make it harder to execute these “inversions.”

I’ve got a better idea: What if we made our tax system so attractive to corporations that they would have no interest in moving themselves abroad?

Tax Inversion

The problem with this extended chess game is that every move is very costly. First, it adds to the complexity of the tax code. With every new rule — no matter how earnestly said rule attempts to close a “loophole” — it becomes harder to know whether you are in compliance with the law. This is true on both sides; corporate tax law has now passed well beyond the point where it is possible for a single expert to be familiar with its ins and outs. This makes it harder to plan business expansions, harder to forecast government revenue, and it requires both sides to hire more experts in order to determine whether corporations are compliant. It also means more lawsuits, and longer ones, as both sides wrangle over how this morass of laws should be applied to real-world situations.

You can think of it this way: Every new law has possible intersections with every other tax law in existence. As the number of laws grows, the number of possible intersections grows even faster. And each of those intersections represents both a possible way to avoid taxes and a potential for unintended consequences that inadvertently outlaw something Congress never intended to touch. This growing complexity makes it more and more difficult for either companies or lawmakers to forecast the ultimate effects of new tax laws. That’s bad. It’s also expensive.

Then there’s the immense amount of time, money and human talent wasted structuring business activity to minimize tax bills — up to, and including, moving your headquarters to another country. This is a total loss to the economy: All the resources used to structure those transactions could instead have been employed doing something useful, or at least not actively harmful.

You can argue that corporations shouldn’t do this, but this is rather like arguing that people shouldn’t waste so much water on hot, luxurious baths when they’re on vacation. All the incentives run in the wrong direction, and moral suasion isn’t going to get many bath lovers to take stingy showers — or many corporations to give the government a cent more than they are legally required to fork over.

You can also argue that the government should crack down on all this structuring. But this is precisely backward. Those armies of tax lawyers were raised because of all the earlier attempts to close the loopholes, which made more laws for them to study and exploit. Yet our response is always the same: even more laws to change the earlier laws that aren’t working.

I know what you’re thinking. You want a simple tax code that raises a bunch of money by closing the loopholes. Many people think this because they think that taxing income is simple, so “loopholes” must be illicit backdoors placed in the tax code at the behest of greedy corporations.

And to be sure, the tax code contains plenty of senseless giveaways to corporations. But these are small beer. Most of the “loopholes” that we argue about are not a result of congressional pandering, or even sharp lawyers who bend sensible rules. They’re an artifact of the fact that calculating corporate income is really hard.

Why is it so hard? Because unlike with the personal income tax, calculating corporate income tax requires taking account of a corporation’s expenses. The Internal Revenue Service basically ignores most personal expenses because it can assume that the operating costs are the same from person to person. You may think that a BMW and a pied-a-terre in Gstaad are basic survival equipment, but the IRS doesn’t care. Everyone gets the same standard deduction; if they itemize, they can only itemize select big-ticket expenses — children, excessive medical costs, mortgage interest and so forth.

But that won’t work for a corporation because basic living expenses can vary wildly, from tech firms whose only assets are a few computers and a handful of programmers to airlines and aluminum mills that run huge workforces and buy lots of heavy equipment meant to last decades. If you ignore expenses and just tax revenue, you’ll either end up giving the tech firms a hell of a deal or handing low-margin businesses such as grocery stores a tax bill for 800 percent of their profits.

Once you’ve decided to tax profits instead of gross revenue, you’re going to spend a huge amount of time arguing over what constitutes a legitimate expense (say, flying to Vegas for a major trade show: If you say yes, you’ll ensure that trade shows and conventions are held in a lot of prime vacation slots so business owners can catch a little tax-deductible R&R on the side; if you say no, you may have just outlawed the trade show), when revenue and expenses are recognized, and whether particular transactions have a genuine business purpose. This is not because businesses are all engaged in a nonstop tax scam on the public. It’s because — as you may know from your own interactions with the IRS — it’s possible to have legitimate differences of opinion from the government.

Take two of the “loopholes” most frequently cited by the Obama administration: the carried-interest deduction and the depreciation of corporate jets. Most people believe that these are special deals inserted into the law at the behest of nefarious lobbyists. In fact, “carried interest” is a long-standing feature of partnership taxation, and it wasn’t designed to let hedge-fund managers have a special, low rate of tax; it was designed to equalize the treatment of partners who contribute equity and partners who contribute labor. You can argue that it’s not worth the cost, and maybe I’d agree (though the cost is really trivial, on the scale of federal taxation). But if you change the law, you will also be privileging partners with money to invest over partners with ideas to invest, which benefits the relatively wealthy. These sorts of trade-offs are exactly why tax policy is hard.

Depreciation of corporate jets, meanwhile, is not some special loophole. All assets depreciate, which is to say they become less valuable over time as they become outdated and suffer wear and tear. Both financial accounting and the tax code recognize this. Depreciation is how the tax code handles investment expenses; if you disallow this, you would be essentially levying extra-heavy taxes on capital-intensive businesses.

The Obama administration liked to talk about loopholes for corporate jets, but all it was talking about was depreciation. And it wasn’t saying that the jets shouldn’t be depreciated; it just wanted to lengthen the time period over which companies took the depreciation allowance, meaning they’d take a smaller deduction for more years. Ultimately, the net effect on tax collections is negligible: You get more now, less later. Which is not to say that the administration is wrong; I have no opinion at all about the proper schedule for depreciating an aircraft. But these are not the easy questions that the administration made them out to be — and they are not special favors to businesses that own jets.

All of which is to say that there is no such thing as a fair, simple corporate tax code that can’t be gamed. And the harder we try to squeeze them for each extra dime, the harder — and more expensively — they will resist. So here’s my proposal: Let’s not try. Let’s eliminate the corporate income tax, or at least lower the rate so far that they won’t spend so much time and energy trying to avoid it.

There are two possible objections to this. One is that corporations won’t be paying “their fair share” and the other is that giving up the corporate income tax would be very expensive.

The first objection is not a good reason to keep trying to pummel more money out of American companies. Now, I know you’re getting all red in the neck, but hear me out. The truth is that you can’t tax a corporation at all. All “corporate taxes” ultimately come out of the pocket of some person: an owner, a manager, a customer, an employee. A corporation can’t pay its “fair share” because, in the end, a person is paying.

And the corporate income tax is not a particularly good way to ensure that those individuals are paying their fair share. It’s a blunt instrument that falls equally on all owners — from filthy-rich hedge-fund managers to lonely widows sitting on a few hundred shares of AT&T.

But while I don’t agree that we need to make corporations pay their “fair share,” I do agree that jettisoning the corporate income tax would be expensive. So here’s my proposal: Eliminate the corporate income tax and take the money from people. That’s what you’re doing anyway, so do it in a simpler, fairer and more progressive way, by raising income taxes on the wealthy and taxing capital income (dividends plus capital gains) more like ordinary income. And stop wasting everyone’s time and money on this insane, unwinnable chess game.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 16, 2014 6:11 PM The Cynicism Behind John Boehner’s Lawsuit

By Joel Dodge

Suddenly John Boehner is willing to go to court to fight for the employer mandate. On Thursday, the House Speaker announced that he intends to sue President Obama for delaying the ObamaCare rule requiring employers to offer workers health insurance. “[T]he president changed the health care law without a vote of Congress,” Boehner alleges, “effectively creating his own law by literally waiving the employer mandate and the penalties for failing to comply with it.”

Of course, Boehner and his fellow conservatives hate the employer mandate. And they are now suing Obama to enforce a policy that they despise. All of which makes the entire concept a rather awe-inspiring exercise in shameless cynicism.

The employer mandate is a rule under ObamaCare that requires firms with more than 50 full-time employees to provide affordable health insurance or else pay a penalty. Conservatives have stridently opposed the mandate as a burden on small businesses that would make hiring more costly.

Boehner himself has warned that the employer mandate would “drive up cost of employment.” He has said that employers would be “forced to cut back on hiring, expansion, employee benefits and other priorities for working families as a result of [ObamaCare’s] hostile mandates and penalties.”

In February, conservatives trumpeted a Congressional Budget Office report as proof that ObamaCare was a job-killer. Mangling the report’s actual findings, Republicans claimed that the C.B.O. expected the law to “destroy 2.3 million jobs.” “The middle class is getting squeezed in this economy,” Boehner said, “and this C.B.O. report confirms that ObamaCare is making it worse.”

This in itself was a deep dive into cynically willful distortion. What the C.B.O. actually said was that many Americans would now opt to work less because ObamaCare would help them better afford health insurance. Over the next decade, people would reduce their workloads to the equivalent of 2.5 million people voluntarily leaving the labor force, which the C.B.O. said “stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply.”

But let’s momentarily grant Boehner’s grossly inaccurate gloss on the C.B.O. report. Contributing to the expected decline in full-time-equivalent workers is — that’s right — the employer mandate. The C.B.O. expected the employer mandate penalty to initially deter employers from hiring. But eventually, it said, “the penalty will be borne primarily by workers in the form of reduced wages or other compensation” — reducing incentives for people to work.

So those 2.3 million jobs destroyed and that middle-class squeeze that Boehner (falsely) warned us about? The employer mandate is a culprit — a culprit that John Boehner is now going to court to defend.

The irony is that Boehner’s lawsuit comes at a time when liberals are abandoning the employer mandate in growing numbers. ObamaCare included the mandate because liberal groups like labor unions saw it as an important way to impose social responsibility on employers. But many left-leaning wonks and think tanks have grown skeptical of the mandate because it imposes costs on hiring while doing little to expand insurance coverage — policy weaknesses that might explain the administration’s delays in implementation.

Of course, Boehner’s lawsuit isn’t really about the policy wisdom of the employer mandate. Looking to sue Obama for something, he latched onto the mandate because there’s a tenable argument that Obama’s delays have exceeded his executive authority. Boehner probably just isn’t the right legal party to bring the suit.

Nonetheless, Boehner’s suit is a product of the Republicans’ own abdication of responsible governance. With growing bipartisan agreement that the employer mandate is bad policy, repealing it ought to have been an easy legislative fix. But once Republicans took control of the House in 2010, the legislative process around healthcare completely broke down. Republicans held vote after vote to repeal the law in total, refusing to entertain constructive measures that might improve it.

True, House Republicans passed a bill to delay the employer mandate legislatively — but it also would have delayed the law’s crucial individual mandate. This wasn’t substantive legislating, but rather a dramatization of a Republican talking point: that it was unfair for the administration to give employers relief without doing the same for individuals (even though the two mandates bear no policy relationship).

Facing a broken legislative branch, Obama had little choice but to round out the law’s rough edges through his own executive authority. Boehner’s threat to sue him for so doing is a replay of Republican tactics during the debt-ceiling crisis. There, Republicans threatened to impeach Obama if he ignored their failure to increase the nation’s borrowing limit. Just as they do now, Republicans promised legal reprisal for Obama’s steps to fill a void of responsible governance of their own creation.

Ultimately, the absurdity of this lawsuit shouldn’t come as a surprise. Boehner is suing Obama to speed up implementation of bad policy that he openly opposes. Over the last four years, we’ve seen a consistent preference from Boehner and his caucus for empty stunts over honest policymaking. It’s enough to make you cynical.

July 16, 2014 5:15 PM So What If Obama Talks About Himself?

By Jonathan Bernstein

The National Journal’s Ron Fournier theorized yesterday that the reason President Barack Obama is struggling is that he casts himself as the hero of his own story. In short, he talks too much about “I, me, my.”

This is nonsense. The Fix’s Philip Bump did a quickie study and found that Obama doesn’t actually talk about himself much more than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton did. Bush did so somewhat less than the other two, and Obama barely edges out Clinton.

What Bump forgets to mention, however, is that the president who talked about himself least (of these three) was also the least popular. Bump looked at each president’s words in their sixth summer in office. Obama’s approval ratings are in the low 40s. In the summer of 1998, in the thick of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton was coasting in the low to mid 60s. In his sixth summer in office, Bush was in the high 30s.

The truth is that presidential rhetoric, though important in some ways, doesn’t have much to do with either presidential popularity or policy achievements. The former is mainly driven by events: Clinton was popular in 1998 because of peace, prosperity and the perception of Republican overkill in the Lewinsky scandal. Bush was unpopular in 2006 mainly because of the Iraq War. And Obama’s mediocre approval ratings? The main driver appears to be continued economic dissatisfaction, though the recent (possible) mild drop in approval may be an effect of several foreign policy events along with the high-profile border-security story.

While Bump doesn’t track the numbers over presidential terms, I’d guess that each president was relatively consistent in the amount of time they devoted to talking about themselves — but their popularity and ability to get things done swung wildly over the course of their presidencies.

Meanwhile, it is absurd to believe that Obama could somehow get House Republicans to cut deals with him on, say, immigration, if only he managed to construct a “narrative” that was about the country and not about himself. This notion doesn’t fit with anything that either political scientists or most sensible political observers (or, for that matter, partisans on either side) have seen. There are solid reasons why House Republicans and Obama are far apart on many policy items, and very real reasons why House Republicans aren’t interested in the sorts of deals that are available (for example, the immigration deal some Senate Republicans approved).

In other words, both congressional gridlock and Obama’s mediocre approval ratings have understandable structural causes. All this stuff about narratives is mostly an attempt to personalize something that goes a lot deeper. It might be nice if a president’s choice of words in his stump speeches were critically important in that way, but it ain’t so.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 16, 2014 12:51 PM Nope, Republicans Aren’t an Endangered Species

By Jonathan Bernstein

About the politics of the so-called millennials, and specifically the question of whether they might turn conservative with age, Matt Yglesias muses in a nice item: “More interesting than asking whether people born in the 1990s will be voting GOP in the 2020s, I think, is asking what kind of a GOP it would have to be for them to vote for it.”

He then takes a quick tour of Republican policy positions and rhetoric (focus on Ronald Reagan, the idea of “Beyonce voters,” opposition to bicycle lanes) that he considers “weird.” Or at least, he claims they sound weird to most younger voters.1

Two things are going on here. One is that a lot of the rhetoric, and perhaps many policy positions, are being driven not so much by the demographics of Republican voters, but by the demographics of consumers of Republican-aligned media. That is, people who watch Fox News are really old! We can look, then, at the extent to which the particular biases and preferences of customers of the conservative marketplace wind up affecting Republican policy positions.

The other thing is that Yglesias has it mostly backwards. He finds Republican positions such as (to add one he doesn’t mention) fetishizing old-style light bulbs “weird” because they’re not logically connected to the small government/low taxes ideology.

But that’s expecting too much of ideology. If parties are becoming more ideological, they are more likely to converge on an ideology of consistent positions than one of logically coherent big-picture ideas. That is, what we mean by saying that Republicans are more ideological is that, increasingly, Republicans (at least at the elite level) take identical positions on everything from health care to abortion to gun control to torture to bike paths and light bulbs. So if someone says they’ll never eat at Chick-Fil-A, you can guess that person is pro-choice on abortion, approves of the Affordable Care Act and opposed the Iraq War. What it doesn’t mean, however, is that there exists a set of principles that would allow us to deduce where either party will stand on any emerging issue.

All of which means that Republicans will adapt to the biases and preferences of people who vote Republican in the 2020s, rather than only attracting people who are drawn to the current Republican mix of policies and rhetoric. And why will people be Republicans? Because they started out as Republicans (either by inheritance, or because they started voting in good Republican years). If the economy collapses when a Democratic president is in office, Republican “oldster” rhetoric isn’t going to matter much.2

Or, to put it another way: The reason that Democratic positions and rhetoric, especially on second and third-tier issues, sound good to Yglesias and those younger than him is that he and so many of those folks are Democrats. Not the other way around. And when younger voters are mostly Republican (and, yes, that’s going to happen at some point), then Republican rhetoric and policy preferences will adapt to that cohort.

1 Huge caveat: we’re all grossly generalizing here; not all younger voters are alike, of course, with income and ethnicity and region and all sorts of things mattering in many cases far more than age. I’m okay with it being a useful, if limited, generalization, however.

2 Yglesias is skeptical of the research showing that partisanship is relatively fixed once people begin voting, citing the stuff he’s been reading about the 1850s. And, yes, it’s always good to remember that in politics past trends may not hold. But you probably couldn’t find a more unusual decade to work from as a comparison, at least after the Jacksonian expansion of voting. One party collapses, a new one replaces it, the other major party cracks in half and takes the Union with it … Well, sure, if traumas of that scale occur, then research covering the last 70 years or so might not apply, but that doesn’t seem very likely.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 16, 2014 12:47 PM Democracy is Bad for Business

By Henry Farrell

A story that has gotten weirdly little play in the US (I can’t speak for the UK press or the press in other countries) is the pushback by the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms against the democracy movement in Hong Kong. On July 1, over 100,000 people marched in protest against Chinese plans to curtail democracy in Hong Kong. But the Big Four had not only made it clear that they didn’t like the protests – they had threatened that business would pull out of Hong Kong if the protests continued.

The big four global accounting companies have taken out press advertisements in Hong Kong stating they are “opposed” to the territory’s democracy movement, warning that their multinational clients may quit the city if activists carry out threats to disrupt business with street protests. In an unusual joint statement published in three Chinese-language newspapers on Friday, the Hong Kong entities of EY, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC said the Occupy Central movement, which is calling for electoral reform in the former British colony, posed a threat to the territory’s rule of law.The group of pro-democracy activists is calling for 10,000 people to block traffic in the central business district as part of a campaign to put pressure on the Hong Kong government, although if and when this will happen is still under discussion. In the advert, the big four firms warned that protests would disrupt the Hong Kong stock exchange, banks and the headquarters of financial and professional services firms causing “inestimable losses in the economy”. It added that clients of the four firms had reflected further concerns about the wider impact of the protests: “We are worried that multinational companies and investors would consider moving their regional headquarters from Hong Kong, or indeed leave the city entirely. This would have a long-term impact on Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre,” the joint statement said.

This is a quite remarkable initiative. It was published in Chinese rather than English – presumably both to speak more directly to potential protesters, and to make it less likely that it would seep into the English speaking press. According to one of the firms, it was pushed by local branches rather than the accountancy groups’ international management. Even if this is true, the statement is signed in the names of the firms and have not been publicly repudiated.

Of course, this isn’t the first shameful decision made by Western companies looking to build business in China – see Bloomberg’s squashing of a story on corruption among family members of senior Chinese leaders, or, for that matter, Rupert Murdoch’s instruction to Harper-Collins not to publish Chris Patten’s memoirs. But this goes substantially further than quiet acquiescence, to public and active opposition to the pro-democracy movement, and the issuing of threats intended to stifle it. It would be nice to see Ernst-Young, KPMG, Deloitte and Price-Waterhouse Cooper put on the spot by US politicians and journalists about their Hong Kong offices’ unrepudiated public statements opposing pro-democracy protestors.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

July 16, 2014 10:38 AM No, Shakespeare Didn’t “Say” That

By Mark Kleiman

How often have you seen this passage quoted as “Shakespeare says …”?

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Not having read the play for several decades, I was surprised to find that the context of that passage, which I could have repeated more or less accurately from memory, entirely subverts its text. Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all” but so concerned about displaying his Stoic virtue as to neglect the practical details, is debating with the less attractive but much sharper Cassius whether their army should come down from the high ground and engage Antony and Octavian at Philippi, or instead hold position and force the enemy to come at them. Cassius advises Fabian tactics, but Brutus insists on rolling the dice, much to the delight of Antony when he gets the word.  As a result, the anti-Caesarean side gets wiped out. (This is largely Shakespeare’s invention, without much warrant from Plutarch’s account.)

In context, then, Brutus’s soaring oratory is entirely ironic; the scene warns against rash risk-taking rather than encouraging it.

Footnote Like many Boomers, I had to read Julius Caesar in the 10th grade; not really one of the Bard’s better efforts, but full of quotable passages and reasonably easy to follow. (As You Like It, by contrast, if read rather than watched, makes absolutely no sense to a sixt Shakespeare wrote great musicals.) This would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any actual idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

If I ran the zoo, students would first watch a good performance of whichever play they were going to read, and then act it out for themselves. That might actually give some of them a taste for good drama. But it wouldn’t help them score well on standardized tests, so who cares?

[Cross-posteed at The Reality-Based Community]

July 15, 2014 3:38 PM Obamacare Isn’t Hurting Democrats

By Jonathan Bernstein

Democrats received a bit of good news in two Marist/NBC Senate polls today showing Mark Udall in Colorado and Gary Peters in Michigan holding solid, though not especially large, leads. Throw these results into the polling averages, and Democrats appear to be ahead in both states.

Neither race is a must-win for Republicans to get to a 51-seat Senate majority. However, the more live targets, the better the chances for Republicans to get the six seats they need. And at any rate, we’re talking about the Senate, where every seat is important. A 53-47 advantage would give Republicans a far better working majority than a 51-49 split, and would make it more likely they could retain that majority after 2016.

At The Fix, Aaron Blake points out that Obamacare polled particularly badly in both of these polls, but it didn’t seem to have much spillover onto the candidate surveys. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The Affordable Care Act may be working reasonably well now, but it’s almost designed to be unpopular, or at least to poll badly, even if it’s successful. At the same time, it would be shocking if a law passed more than four years ago, and that is unlikely to generate any front-page news in the six months or so leading up to Election Day, had any direct effect on midterm elections.

As far as policy is concerned, although Republicans have a solid chance to win a Senate majority in 2014 and could win unified control of Congress and the White House in 2016, repeal of Obamacare is more of a pipe dream than ever. The Marist/NBC poll may show that people say the ACA was a mistake, but every poll that asks about alternatives finds that flat-out repeal, or even the Republicans’ supposed “repeal and replace” position, to be a non-starter with the public. The last thing anyone, including most Republican politicians, want is a messy, disruptive start-over. Unified Republican government would produce some real changes to the ACA: perhaps reducing or eliminating some revenue, and perhaps cutting subsidies and a few regulations. The strategy of impeding and obstructing the program, however, will look a lot less attractive to a Republican president who would be blamed for anything that goes wrong.

As I’ve said, we are seeing the end of Obamacare politics and the return of health care as a normal issue — and one that most likely will continue to (marginally) favor Democrats. We’re probably not quite there, but it’s getting closer.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 15, 2014 11:40 AM Buffett, Gates and Adelson Don’t Get Immigration

By Ramesh Ponnuru

A trio of billionaires — Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates — say they want to “End the Immigration Impasse,” to quote the headline of their recent New York Times op-ed article.

The article will do nothing to end that impasse, however, because the authors show no understanding of why it exists in the first place.

For the authors, the way to end the impasse is for Congress to enact a comprehensive reform along the lines of the bill that the Senate passed last year. They imagine that everyone important in Washington agrees on the broad outlines of that bill and are merely squabbling over petty details. Everyone would resolve their differences in short order if they only remembered their larger purpose of serving the people.

None of this is true, of course. Some people in Washington oppose the bill, or don’t want to vote for it, and not just because of the details. Others mildly favor the bill but have reasons for letting the opponents get their way. Many suspect Speaker of the House John Boehner falls into this category.

Adelson et al say nothing to address either the opponents’ concerns about the bill — such as their worry that legalizing illegal immigrants will create an incentive for new illegal immigration — or Boehner’s concerns about angering the opponents.

Yet the authors inadvertently point a way forward. Their obvious interest is in increasing high-skilled immigration. They devote 10 sentences to that subject, and only two to the contentious issue of providing legal status for immigrants who entered or stayed in the country illegally. And they say nothing at all about increasing unskilled immigration levels, another feature of the Senate legislation.

On the issue that most concerns them, the authors are right to say there’s a broad bipartisan consensus. Although there are holdouts, most in Congress want to increase high-skilled immigration. And there is no reason Congress couldn’t do that without taking on every other immigration issue from a border fence to legalization. If Congress were voting on stand-alone legislation to boost high-skilled immigration, it would pass easily.

But the reason nothing like that has happened is that advocates of “comprehensive immigration reform” have insisted on holding the issue of high-skilled immigration hostage to the resolution of other issues, such as legalization and the creation of a guest-worker program.

That strategy makes a certain kind of sense. Advocates of comprehensive reform know that if a high-skill bill passes, the coalition for their broader proposal loses a lot of support from, well, the likes of Adelson, Buffett and Gates. (And by “support” I mean campaign contributions and ads.) But the strategy works only if the hostages go along, and never demand that stand-alone vote or even acknowledge the truth of their situation.

By focusing their words on their actual concerns, these corporate leaders have probably gone about as far as they can go in clarifying the situation. Think of their op-ed article as a muffled cry for help. If their attempts to advance a comprehensive bill continue to go nowhere, maybe they will someday try to make a break for it.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 14, 2014 3:31 PM Fun Summer Reading

By Henry Farrell

Books I’ve read in the last while that I’d recommend:

Linda Nagata, passim. (Powells, Amazon).

In particular, Vast. It’s the final novel in her Nanotech Succession series, which I read in reverse order when Vast first came out, and which is not a bad way imo to read them. Deception Well, the middle book in the series has some lovely ideas, but doesn’t quite hang together, while The Bohr Maker is good but quite different. Vast is a masterpiece of a certain kind of widescale science fiction – a chilly universe, conflict among vast inimical forces, with humans forced to adapt in ways that are sometimes grotesque to survive. A kind of Darwinist Universalism – ‘evolution’ is the connecting thread. Alistair Reynolds cites Vast somewhere or another as a basic influence on his Revelation Space books, which is a good metric – if you like those ones, you’ll probably like this one. The books aren’t available in print, but rights have reverted to the author, so she has made them available in Kindle and other formats. She also has some new novels – two fantasy novels which I didn’t enjoy as much, and a near future military SF book, The Red: First Light, which I did enjoy quite a bit.

Elliott Kay, Poor Man’s Fight (Powells, Amazon).

Again self published, and again excellent. The most fun I’ve had for three dollars since I don’t know when. It’s very clearly located in a line of descent leading from Heinlein’s juveniles and Starship Troopers through John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. It’s also its own thing. While the politics are neither one-dimensional nor belligerently in your face, they are considered and explicit (e.g. societies based on student-debt slavery). If you like thick juicy steak as well as, or instead of, molecular gastronomy, this is as good as it gets. It came out in 2013, and deserved all kinds of awards that it didn’t get.

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences (Powells Amazon).

At first glance, this may look like a complete departure from the previous two – Davidson is a Columbia literary theorist, and her book has detailed (and fascinating) sentence by sentence readings of extracts from Proust, Sebald, Perec and James. Yet it also has very astute things to say about Neil Gaiman’s work and the narrative problems George RR Martin faces in A Game of Thrones, and does so without any sense of self-consciousness or slumming. Davidson (like Francis Spufford and Randall Jarrell whom she cites, and Jo Walton, whom she doesn’t) is a voracious reader of broad interests and sensibility. Her blog’s great too.

Greg van Eekhout, California Bones(Powells , Amazon).

I’ve been hoping he’d write a book like this ever since I read ‘The Osteomancer’s Son,’ the short story that it riffs upon. A warped California, with wizards who gain power by consuming the bones not only of magical creatures but of their rivals, and complex family relations. The book itself is enormous fun – a kind of heist novel – and two sequels promised which sound likely to add layers of political intrigue to the slyly Freudian drama of the original.

So that’s what’s been keeping me entertained. What about all you?

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

July 14, 2014 3:24 PM Days of Glory: The Case Against

By Andrew Sabl

Happy Bastille Day. As a liberal and an American, I can think of no better way of celebrating it than by defending American individualism against French (small-r) republicanism, the pursuit of happiness against compulsory fraternity, and personal lives in all their diversity against the longing that citizens all hold the same purpose in common (and it doesn’t matter what it is).

Writing against David Brooks’ latest lament for the “spiritual recession” entailed by creeping loss of faith in the gospel [sic, several times] of democracy promotion, independent-minded paleoconservative Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote a great piece a couple of weeks ago defending the sufficiency of private life and the unsung sacrifices involved in living it well (h/t: Daniel Larison). I can’t help but quote a good third of it:

Brooks’ linking of American ebbs of American idealism with tides of American materialism is not only wrong but perverse, as if Americans were somehow worse off for buying cars in the 1920s than they were dying of gas attacks in Europe a decade earlier. And if noble causes were a cure-all for the materialism of the elite, then the Truman Committee would not have been booking companies for war-profiteering as the Greatest Generation made its name.

Times of peace are not absent of ennobling effects of sacrifice and duty. But the common sacrifices that fathers and mothers make for children, that entrepreneurs make for the future, that researchers make for the legacy of science, are somehow beneath our notice.

An analogy might suffice. Stern fathers often make the mistake of believing that their children will not defend the home or the values of the family if martial discipline is not instilled. But turning the homestead into a garrison then drives the children to go AWOL. Instead, all the father has to do is make his home a place of love and, yes, comfort. Having done that, his sons will defend it from any real threat with fire in their eyes.

Ideologues prefer the idea of an ideological nation, a crusader state. Crusader states inspire great battle poetry. But a democratic republic like America needs no purpose, no mission civilisatrice. It needs no poetry. America just needs to be our home — that will require sacrifice enough.

Dougherty rightly aims his attack against national greatness conservatism, which is by a long way the most prevalent and dangerous form of American fraternatism. (Shorter NGC: “Americans, admit it: your lives only have meaning when your country is killing a fair number of foreigners or loudly proclaiming an eagerness to do so.”) But though it now persists only in the minds of Robert Kuttner and about twelve other people, there once was common on the Left an equally cloying and also pernicious habit of averring that when people live their own lives and make their own choices they’re effectively surrendering to selfishness. America, on this neo-Deweyan view, is worth the trouble only when “private interest” yields to “public purpose”—i.e. having things run by the state, as a matter of principle and, to simplify only slightly, in as many areas as possible.

Of course no sane and decent person believes that people should lead callous, narrow “private” lives in which we ignore our duties to others and our obligation to contribute to the public goods that all of us count on. (Lots of people do believe that. But they’re not sane and decent.) And on the unusual occasions when ordinary people do turn their attention to politics, I hope they will keep those duties and obligations strongly in mind. But the rest of the time, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Americans’ leading our diverse, untranslatable, personal lives, lives of strife and sacrifice and ineffable, idiosyncratic goals. As we live such lives, the condition and the feelings of our family and friends will, inevitably, strike us more directly than those of other fellow citizens.

And even if there were something wrong with our leading such lives, we will in any case live them anyway: a human being is not by nature a self-forgetting animal. A constant, tub-thumping commitment to national greatness, solidarity, fraternity, la patrie, or public purpose will not make a person altruistic. But it may—very commonly does—distort his or her good judgment, and deaden good moral sense.

So: let’s go, children of their actual parents. An ordinary day of summer camp has arrived—and no shame in that.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Ten Miles Square Archive