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February 22, 2015 10:03 PM How 401(k) Accounts Widen Race/Ethnic Wealth Disparities

By Harold Pollack

My latest Wonkblog column is based on a recent NBER working paper that examined 401(k) contributions and withdrawals among continuously-employed workers at a single firm between 2003 and 2010.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 3.00.13 PM

Few workers at this firm set any land speed records for saving and investing. But the race/ethnic disparities in saving remained really striking. Ironically, minority workers contributed surprisingly similar amounts to their non-Hispanic white counterparts. Yet they were vastly more likely than their white counterparts to make withdrawals or to borrow against their 401(k) funds. Minority workers were also much more likely to invest their money in money market funds and other safe assets that bring really low rates of return.

In effect, these workers were using their 401(k) accounts as current savings reserves or as an emergency fund. As my writing collaborator Helaine Olen noted over email, these apparently foolish savings behaviors suddenly seem to make a lot more sense in the life-context of the people who are actually making these decisions. Upper-middle-class people who already have a secure financial foundation can invest at age 40 or 50 for the long-run, and thus accumulate significant nest eggs. Many others realistically can’t or won’t.

The American employer-based retirement system increasingly relies upon tax-advantaged savings vehicles exemplified by the 401(k). In so many ways, 401(k) accounts are basically designed for upper-middle-class and affluent people.  This system works reasonably well for us, because (a) we have money to contribute, (b) we have other money we can use for short-term emergencies; (c) we face high marginal tax rates that provide strong incentives to contribute to tax deferred accounts, and (d) we possess basic comfort and familiarity with the general world of mutual-fund investing. Most of us are also guaranteed a pretty decent Social Security benefit when we retire. With these floors in place, we’re free to take reasonable risks making long-term investing for our eventual retirement. Outside this top economic layer, this system works much worse….

I’m sure many minority (and non-minority) workers would benefit from better choice architecture that channels people’s investments into more sensible low-fee investments. But that’s not the main issue. People really need a better basic Social Security retirement benefit. That’s the only way millions of people will have a secure retirement.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 20, 2015 4:39 PM Netanyahu’s Strategy Makes No Sense

By Chad Stanton

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to the joint session of Congress is controversial, and it may undermine the bipartisan support his nation enjoys here in the States.

Considering the obvious risks, what is Netanyahu’s end-goal and how will his actions lead him there? Given his willingness to damage U.S.-Israeli relations, even to the point of leaking sensitive information about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, it appears that he prefers military action to any alternative.

What isn’t clear is how his actions today will lead to military action tomorrow. It seem obvious that Netanyahu has made the calculation that the Obama Administration is more interested in a deal with Iran than in military confrontation, so he’s trying to work around the President to get what he wants.

While Netanyahu could convince Congress to impose more sanctions on Iran, scuttling negotiations and putting us closer to a war footing, it seems unlikely that the executive office would take the next step and authorize strikes while Obama still holds office. At best, this puts the possibility of a military “solution” two years or so away.

One has to assume, then, that Netanyahu is operating under the belief that a potential President Clinton or President Walker will be more willing to go along with the idea of strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites.

Given the strategic uncertainty of success that seems to be a seriously dubious belief. Add to this, the American public’s reticence about engaging in yet another military action in the region and one must question Bibi’s confidence that a future president will be more amenable to his plans that the one currently holding office.

With most citizens chiefly concerned with income inequality and jobs , who is advising Netanyahu on America’s willingness to launch another war? With figures such as Bill Kristol lionizing Netanyahu and raising expectations on the reaction to his speech to stratospheric heights, we can assume that the PM is banking on the neocon viewpoint of reshaping the world through sheer will as a lynchpin of his strategy.

In my estimation, in won’t be possible to move the American public from it’s position today into one that would support airstrikes on Iran with all the subsequent blowback that would entail. The rationale would be highly reminiscent of the push to enter into war with Iraq. A President Clinton or Walker stating that a strong military response to Iran is needed would be met with derision.

Ironically it seems that Netanyahu’s perorations have not only damaged him in the short term but have made his ultimate end goal, strikes against Iran’s nuclear strikes, that much more difficult to obtain as well. The American public won’t be more willing to engage in a war they don’t want because Netanyahu made it necessary.

February 20, 2015 10:39 AM I Tried to Talk Us Out of Libya

By Martin Longman

Back when Libya first started to fall apart in February 2011, I noted that Gaddafi was nearing the point where hanging from a lamppost might be an attractive alternative to an exile in Pyongyang. In the beginning, I wasn’t focused on possible U.S. intervention. I was just enjoying some of the more creative protest signs.

I was still cautiously hopeful that momentum from the Arab Spring might lead to some more representative government in the Arab world, with a corresponding drop in terrorism. But when Europe started calling for U.S. intervention in Libya, I was immediately resentful.

People complain about the U.S. intervening all over the globe, but when things get out of hand and innocent people are getting killed there is always pressure on Washington to do something. When we don’t, as in Rwanda, we get blamed for that, too. So, other than reimposing sanctions, what are we supposed to do about Libya? Are we supposed to take over their air space?

Personally, I think Gaddafi is on his way out, and the U.S. is all he has left to justify his rule. If we start pushing him out, it will only give him hope and a rationale for staying.

Obviously there is some limit of violence beyond which we can’t just sit back and passively watch. But this is another case where I resent our role as the sole superpower. Why can’t the Europeans take over Libyan air space if that is what the international community feels needs to be done? And who’s offering to pay the bill for any intervention?

Before long, I raised the key question: “Do we even know who we want to win?”

As pressure mounted on the president, I urged him to resist.

I’m nervous. but so far I am quite proud of how Barack Obama and Robert Gates have resisted calls to get our country overly involved in the situation in Libya. I fear reports of Gaddafi’s demise have been premature. But, probably a much more important consideration than Gaddafi’s fate is the general lack of knowledge about what might follow his regime. I am not concerned about radical Islamists taking over. I don’t think that is likely. I am concerned about no one taking over. I haven’t seen any compelling evidence that there are the makings of a functional government that can unite the country waiting in the wings.

Of course, it turned out that no one took over, which turned Libya into a failed state in which radical Islamists run rampant. But, while there was still time, I kept urging the president to stick to his guns.

The truth is that Libya really isn’t our problem or our responsibility. It’s all fine for our government to call for Gaddafi to step down. But we should not interject ourselves in what is likely to be a civil war to see who can control Libya’s vast oil reserves.

I’ll keep saying it because it needs to be said. It would be easy for Obama to really screw up his presidency by getting Libya wrong. So far, he’s right on the money.

I was comforted that both Robert Gates and the president were standing up to thoughtless interventionists like Joe Lieberman.

Maybe Lieberman should call his pal Silvio Berlusconi and ask him how Italy will do without access to their oil fields in Libya for a prolonged period as the country descends into tribal rivalry and chaos.

What disturbs me is the absolutely thoughtless way that so many Americans and American leaders are willing to commit our country to the use of violence and meddling in other countries. In some cases it is justifiable, but can someone do a week of research before they start sending in the 82nd Airborne?

I mean, Jesus, seriously…

Today, Libya is operating at one-tenth of their oil-producing capacity. This was something I kept warning about:

We have marginal corporate interests in the country, and we don’t want to see their oil off the market if that is going to lead to severe energy inflation in Europe. But that argues for stability, not for a sustained period of civil war and uncertainty. Getting Gaddafi to resign does nothing to assure stability. Who says that his opponents are unified? Who says they will agree to split the spoils equitably? Saddam ruled his country the way he did not only because he was a sadist but because the country would tear apart at the seams without some heavy-hand to keep things in order. The same may well be true about Gaddafi. I’m not opposed to the idea of democracy for Libyans, but we shouldn’t get too invested in the idea. There’s no evidence that Libya is ripe for parliamentary democracy. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, let’s make sure we’re not to blame.

And I wouldn’t stop:

Let me say this again. We don’t know what kind of leadership would emerge from this opposition if they were to prevail, but they don’t even appear to have operational leadership in the field. We have no compelling reason to commit ourselves to this fight. It’s a mistake. And the president has been pushed very far out on a limb here, probably through a false sense of momentum arising from the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. It will be painful to walk this back, but unless Hillary Clinton discovers a compelling, organized opposition in Benghazi when she arrives there this week, our commitment to regime change in Libya should be scaled back. It’s not our problem. Obama is in the process of making it our problem. We should stand ready to prevent massacres and offer asylum, but should not commit our military to do what the rebels cannot do themselves. If we want to pursue other angles, like seeking out potential alternatives to Gaddafi from within his circle, that seems to me to be unwise but still preferable to getting into a civil war on the side that our intelligence director says is likely to lose. Once we commit a tiny bit, we’ll wind up doing the fighting because we can’t afford to lose.

But what will we have won? Good will? Don’t be silly.

Once it became clear that we were committed to regime change, I started arguing against arming a rebel force and promoting a civil war: “It isn’t humanitarian to turn a country into Somalia just so you can pretend that you don’t have any boots on the ground.”

And, of course, turning Libya into Somalia is exactly what we wound up doing. And I warned of that even at the moment of maximum American triumphalism.

I know the temptation is strong to talk smack about the Republicans’ lack of enthusiasm for our excellent adventure in Libya. I mean, it looks like Gaddafi is the hunted rat now, doesn’t it? And it really wasn’t so hard to accomplish if you think about it. Most of the world is fairly pleased or no worse than neutral about our role in this. Innocent people’s lives were saved. We’re on the cusp on getting some justifiable revenge for the Americans who were killed by Gaddafi in the 1980’s. Maybe Libya will get a decent government and actual representative democracy. And the president pulled it off without losing any airmen, or even any equipment as far as I know. So, why not ask some skeptics to eat crow?

I’ll tell you why. Right now in the streets of Tripoli, armed gunmen are running everywhere firing off their weapons indiscriminately, without the slightest hint of discipline. Gaddafi’s compound is being looted down to the copper. And when the Sun comes up tomorrow, it’s unclear who can or will restore order. Yesterday and today, the rebels were united by their desire to oust an odious regime. Tomorrow, powerful tribal and military leaders will be divided over who gets the spoils. Those loyal to Gaddafi may be small, but a small group can create outsized trouble.

I will say this. I was concerned that the war would remain a stalemate for longer than five months and that the country would be torn apart worse than turned out to in fact be the case. So, things have gone better than I feared up to this moment. Libya has a decent starting place, and there’s solid reason for hope. But the really hard part starts tomorrow.

So, looking back four years later, how many lives did we save by intervening in Libya? Is Libya a better place? Is their oil supply more secure? What can we say is actually better than it would have been if we had just minded our own business?

Go ahead and make your argument, but it wasn’t hard to predict that causing a regime change in a country where we had no allies and almost no intelligence would be reckless.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

February 20, 2015 9:11 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

By Keith Humphreys

life-and-death-of-colonel-blimp-4

Have you ever seen a movie that stuck in your head for reasons you couldn’t fully explain? A film that you eventually realized had a much bigger impact on you than it seemed to when you were sitting in the theater? That was my experience with this week’s film recommendation: 1943′s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Made during the war by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (aka “The Archers”), the film tells the eventful life story of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) over a more than 4-decade span. The borderline-bizarre opening sequence, which might just as easily have presaged a big-budget MGM musical, introduces us to Candy in the winter of his life, where he has taken on the unappealing characteristics of the self-satisfied, out of touch cartoon character known as Colonel Blimp. But with a nice bit of camera trickery, Candy recalls the memory of his salad days, and is transformed into the markedly different young man that he was: Handsome, kind, brave and in some ways boyishly innocent. The film then portrays his adventures through heroic moments, comic situations, romance and friendship, with two other other figures serving as foils. One is a noble German officer whom he meets in World War I (Anton Walbrook) and the other is the eternal feminine: Three different characters all played by Deborah Kerr who stay the same age as Candy ages through life.

There is much to love about this long, multi-layered and richly rewarding film. The craft and humanity of the producer-director-screenwriting team is on full display, making it surprising that this movie is not remembered as often as their other triumphs such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Powell and Pressburger’s characters are unusually well rounded and evolve over time, which was rare for movies of this period. Indeed, Winston Churchill allegedly opposed the release of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp because it portrayed a German soldier so movingly that the British public might sympathize with their current enemy (once you have seen the movie, you will realize how ludicrous this fear was).

The thematic latticework of the film is truly compelling. On the surface, the movie can be enjoyed as an exciting life story full of moments of humor and action. But at a deeper level, the film explores how old-fashioned values were unable to meet the demands of the mid 20th-century, how the young can grow up to be very different older people than ever they planned, how loving one’s country has rewards and limits, how men may think they are smarter than women but are almost always wrong, and how we don’t always understand what we long for until it is gone. Wonderfully, the film never preaches a particular simple message about any of these themes. Rather, it gives each character and viewpoint its due, sympathetically and sometimes sadly, without ever taking sides.

Visually, this is Technicolor at its best, with Georges Périnal painting the screen with one stunning shot after the other. The anchoring performances by Livesey, Walbrook and Kerr are also magnificent, not just individually but in the way they play off each other. Indeed, the performances (and the well-scripted characters) make the film even better than a similar epic movie made in the same era: Calvacade. That fine movie at times kept the viewer at some emotional distance because its toffy characters were a bit inaccessible; here one can’t help but be drawn into the emotional lives of the people on screen.

There could be no better closing to this review that Martin Scorsese’s description of how this landmark movie was restored to its original, glorious form. Scorsese is not just a brilliant filmmaker in his own right; he is also a lifelong student of cinema and a champion of preserving its past. He first saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as a child. Even though it was a mutilated version with over 40 minutes cut out and the rest of the scenes re-arranged, and even though he watched it on a small black and white television, he could still perceive Powell and Pressburger’s genius. Scorsese’s 5-minute featurette is an inspiring example of what film restoration can do and also includes intriguing information for film buffs on how Technicolor movies were made.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 19, 2015 9:20 AM Does Scott Walker Love America?

By Mark Kleiman

Rudy Giuliani, speaking at a Scott Walker fundraiser, with Walker present:

I do not believe – and I know this is a horrible thing to say – but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

Now we get to see whether Scott Walker is a man or not.

The smart money is on “Not.”

Footnote This came the same day as the Tweeted comment of another right-wing heart-throb, Dinesh D’Souza, saying of the President “You can take the boy out of the ghetto … ”

No, it’s not reasonable to hold everyone in a political movement liable for the comments of everyone else in that movement. But there’s a pattern here. At some point, Republican office-seekers have to either disown the racism that plays so well to the party base, or own it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 18, 2015 7:56 AM Making Roadside Cannabis Use Testing Effective and Fair

By Keith Humphreys

Breathalyzers are extremely useful for detecting drunk driving. They allow rapid roadside testing that is accurate for answering the critical question: Is this person intoxicated right now? In contrast, urinalysis for detecting cannabis-intoxication in drivers has multiple liabilities. The test can’t be done at the roadside so the person has to be hauled in (perhaps unjustly) to a testing station. Also, a recent paper in the Journal of Analytic Toxicology points out another serious problem:

the typical target in urine is the inactive metabolite, [which is] less relevant with respect to impairment. In addition, drug metabolites become concentrated in urine and may be excreted for many hours, or days after use, and are less probative with respect to whether a person’s drug use was recent or more historical.

Tetrahydrocannabinol is lipid-soluble and regular pot smokers excrete it over time in their urine even if they haven’t smoked recently. As a result, a urine test could result in a cannabis-impaired driving conviction even though the person isn’t currently stoned. The JAT paper evaluated a different approach which may resolve these problems: Oral fluid sampling. The driver suspected of impairment is mouth swabbed at roadside and the saliva is placed in a machine, which rapidly prints out a result. This technology is fairer than urinalysis because it is only sensitive to recent marijuana use rather than use that happened a day ago or a week ago.

Of the devices the researchers tested in the study, the Dräger Drug Test 5000 (pictured above) had the best results. Assuming it doesn’t cost a mint, this technology could be a breakthrough for law enforcement as well as an important civil rights protection for people suspected of drug-impaired driving.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 17, 2015 2:51 PM The IPCC is Wrong

By James Wimberley

IPCC WG III on mitigation of climate change had this to say on the costs of a forceful 2 degree C strategy (Summary for Policymakers, page 15, my italics, their godawful prose):

Scenarios in which all countries of the world begin mitigation immediately, there is a single global carbon price, and all key technologies are available, have been used as a cost-effective benchmark for estimating macroeconomic mitigation costs … Under these assumptions, mitigation scenarios that reach atmospheric concentrations of about 450 ppm CO2eq by 2100 entail losses in global consumption – not including benefits of reduced climate change as well as co-benefits and adverse side-effects of mitigation (footnote 19) – of 1 % to 4 % (median: 1.7 %) in 2030, 2 % to 6 % (median: 3.4 %) in 2050, and 3 % to 11 % (median: 4.8 %) in 2100 relative to consumption in baseline scenarios that grows anywhere from 300 % to more than 900 % over the century. These numbers correspond to an annualized reduction of consumption growth by 0.04 to 0.14 (median: 0.06) percentage points over the century relative to annualized consumption growth in the baseline that is between 1.6 % and 3 % per year.

This has been summarised by retail commentators, including yours truly, as an estimate that “2 degree mitigation will cost 0.06% of GDP growth, or “nothing” within the margin of error.”

But it’s wrong. What is the point of an estimate of “macroeconomic mitigation costs” that excludes a substantial part of them, viz. the co-benefits and co-costs? One way forward is to try for a comprehensive estimate in welfare terms, including biodiversity, long-tailed risk of civilisational catastrophe, psychic burdens of anxiety, corrections for inequality, heightened risk of conflict, etc. This is pretty much impossible. Or you limit yourself to a GDP estimate, with its well-known flaws and the merits of familiarity – in which case you must put in all the GDP components. The whole point of mitigation is to prevent the damage from climate change. Not all of this is captured in GDP, but a lot of it is. Leaving out the avoided damage is a fatal flaw in the IPCC’s estimate of net costs. It’s much, much too high.

The WG’s excuse is given in the obscure footnote 19:

The total economic effect at different temperature levels would include mitigation costs, co-benefits of mitigation, adverse side-effects of mitigation, adaptation costs and climate damages. Mitigation cost and climate damage estimates at any given temperature level cannot be compared to evaluate the costs and benefits of mitigation. Rather, the consideration of economic costs and benefits of mitigation should include the reduction of climate damages relative to the case of unabated climate change.

dog-ate-homework

The way I read the last sentence is: the dog ate our homework. They had a shot at it, but gave up on integrating the co-benefits.

Can we have a quick-and-dirty try at this ourselves, misusing the IPCC’s own data? The analysis I found is in chapter 6 of the full report,  especially Table 6.7, pages 469ff. Unfortunately this is essentially qualitative. The experts forgot Robert Watson-Watt’s dictum for advising policymakers – “second best tomorrow” – and went for an impossible Theory of Everything, down to changes in land tenure.

We are on our own. I can’t suggest a credible GDP estimate of net costs, but think we should concentrate on three simpler questions.

1. Is there any significant chance that adverse effects of aggressive mitigation could outweigh the positives? The adverse effects seem to be either trivial amenity arguments (ugly wind turbines) or worst-case conjectures, such as pensioners freezing to death en masse because the electricity supply fails. The co-benefits are solid. Absent some serious scenario, I think we can rule this out.

2. Can we estimate the reduced damage from extreme weather? We do know that the damage is already very large, from the increased likelihood of storms, floods and droughts. It will get worse. So we have an unknown but large number. Help from commenters welcome.

3. Can we estimate the benefits of reduced air pollution from fossil fuels? Any effective mitigation programme will slash this, let’s say by 80%. UNEP estimates the cost of air pollution in OECD countries plus India and China at $3.5 trillion a year, in ill-health and lives lost.  Most of this is due to fossil fuels, though a significant amount comes from wood-burning stoves, which also emit CO2.

Should we really include the lives lost in a GDP estimate? Most economists would I think prefer GDP per head to plain GDP as the welfare indicator, rejecting the Vatican view of the more the merrier. So let’s be cautious, and shunt the value of life per se into the box of non-market values, along with polar bears and biodiversity. We can I think take $1 trillion p.a. as a very safe lower bound for the global GDP health savings from aggressive mitigation by 2050. World product in 2013 was $75 trn, according to the World Bank. Assume straight-line linear growth in abatement starting today, and the cumulative addition to world product by 2050 is $18.5 trn, or 25% of one year’s GDP.

In other words, the health co-benefits of mitigation absolutely swamp the 3.4%-of-a-year’s-GDP estimate of the energy-system costs, which just looks like a rounding error.

The IPCC should have concluded:

Aggressive mitigation starting now is the best bargain the human race has ever seen.

Endnote 1
Niggle, niggle: you could point out that the air pollution can be reduced by measures that don’t do anything for the climate, say by replacing wood cooking fires by diesel-powered electricity. True, but are these measures at all sensible or likely? OECD countries have spent fortunes reducing the air pollution from vehicles, and in London it still kills 4,000 a year. Progress on air pollution is far more likely if, as in China, it is also a climate change measure. We should measure policy against the real world, not an implausible Plan B.

Endnote 2
The cost estimates of WG III optimistically assume that “all key technologies are available”, including carbon capture for coal power stations, which is looking more hopeless by the day. On the other hand, their numbers for wind and solar energy are already too high. Compare the LCOEs in WG 3′s Annex III to Lazard’s latest survey of US energy costs (September 2014), all prices in $ US per mwh:

Onshore wind
IPCC, 10% WACC         min 51 / median 84 / max 160
Lazard, 9.6% WACC    min 37 /                    / max 81

Utility solar
IPCC, 10% WACC         min 84 / median 160 / max 210
Lazard, 9.6% WACC    min 72 /                      / max 86

US prices are keener than in many countries, but not China and India. It is virtually certain that prices of wind and solar will continue to fall relative to coal in most countries, so the net cost of the energy transition in electricity will become negative. The WACC is also becoming unrealistically high for investments that are now perceived as very low risk.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 17, 2015 9:26 AM The High Price of Bibi’s Reelection

By Martin Longman

Living conditions for Jews in Europe are obviously a touchy subject that arouse some defensiveness on the part of European leaders. They do not appreciate hearing Israeli officials like Natan Sharansky say that the Jews have no future in Europe and should emigrate. But this is part of an emerging theme that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing everything he can to encourage.

He’s getting support for amateurs, too, like this guy who decided to walk around Paris and its suburbs in identifiably Jewish dress and film the reactions he received. As you might imagine, some people in the Arab neighborhoods were confused by his presence and others were outright hostile. I guess if you go looking for intolerance and hatred, it’s not that hard to find, but this hardly proves that all French Jews need to be on a plane for Tel Aviv by tomorrow noon.

“I can’t allow things to be said in Israel that would lead one to think that Jews have no place in Europe and particularly France,” French President Francois Hollande said near Paris after vandals damaged about 300 gravestones at a Jewish cemetery in northeastern France.

“The fact that you’re in an election campaign doesn’t mean you can just make any statement,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Monday. “The place for French Jews is France.”

I’m not an expert on Israeli politics, by any means, but Netanyahu’s campaign has irritated Western leaders to such a degree that there is going to be lasting fallout for Israel’s relationships with their best and most powerful allies. And the Israeli right’s policies were already making it increasingly painful for popularly elected European officials to remain allied with them before Netanyahu decided to attack Europe as anti-Semitic and uninhabitable for Jews. It was painful enough before Netanyahu nakedly tried to destroy the Iranian nuclear negotiations, to which the U.K., France, and Germany are parties.

You have to wonder, at what cost is Bibi willing to secure his position?

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

February 16, 2015 10:45 AM Rating the Presidents

By Julia Azari

Two presidency scholars, Justin Vaughn and Brandon Rottinghaus, will release a survey of their fellow political scientists who specialize in the presidency. (They are both friends of mine and Justin and I have written a few papers together) The survey- in which I participated - asks respondents to identify presidents who were overrated and underrated, and to evaluate presidents in several areas. It’s a good effort to systematize scholarly evaluations and compare it to scholars’ perceptions of conventional wisdom. Jonathan Bernstein praised the survey for its emphasis on skill. Bernstein’s piece, and the survey itself, raise good points about the need for scholars to develop transparent and systematic criteria for evaluating leaders.

I’ve written about presidential evaluation here before, and I feel compelled to expand a bit in response to the attempt to systematically evaluate presidential skill. Even when we attempt to develop static criteria for presidential leadership, evaluating presidents is a historical exercise. It requires evaluators to understand the political conditions of the past, and to ask questions about the relationship between historical developments and current conditions. (Throughout the post, I’ll use “we” and “us” to refer to anyone evaluating presidential leadership, scholars/experts or otherwise. My use of this pronoun is also somewhat ethnocentric here and reflects my perspective as an American politics scholar and a U.S. citizen living in the United States.)

Presidential history is American history

Andrew Jackson is probably the classic example of this dilemma. Rottinghaus and Vaughn report that their academic respondents revealed great ambivalence about Old Hickory. He demonstrated a fair amount of strength in skill in getting others to do what he wanted. There’s no escaping the moral downside, though. His treatment of Native Americans through removal policies, especially cruel Trail of Tears, complicates our ability to admire his political successes.

Jackson’s decisions were part of a larger system of nineteenth century policy toward the native population (read more about this in Stephen Rockwell’s book, Indian Affairs and the Administrative State in the Nineteenth Century, which I cannot recommend enough ). If someone else had been president from 1829 to 1837, different decisions might have been made. Would that alternative president - John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, who knows - have brought justice and equality for Native Americans? Probably not. The debate about so-called Indian removal (involuntarily moving communities westward) began before Jackson’s presidency, and systematic abuse of Native communities lasted for many more years after Jackson left office.

Questions about slavery and the mistreatment of African-Americans are similar. The first president to really stake political capital on civil rights was Harry Truman, and some accounts suggest that he nevertheless held racial attitudes that would be objectionable by today’s standards.

Of course past leaders are limited by the prevailing ideas of their historical contexts, and yet of course any rejection of moral relativism should apply across time as well as across space. But when we fail to grapple with racial injustice perpetuated by past presidents, we aren’t giving them a pass for being products of their times. Instead, we are giving ourselves a pass for being products of our history.

In other words, our reaction to the racial wrongs of presidents past tends to be over-historicized. Their ideas were wrong, the logic goes, because of outdated ways of thinking, which, happily for us, have been left in the past. This places historical presidents on a different evaluative grid, and it suggests that these injustices are something we no longer need to worry about. The legacy of these ideas, though, is still very much alive when it comes to disparities in the well-being of different groups in American society. From the standpoint of scholarship, policy, and plain old citizenship, it’s productive to ask whether a particular president made decisions that contributed to racial hierarchy and white supremacy in the United States. Or did a particular president, despite personal imperfections, make decisions that helped mitigate this circumstance, or to move toward greater justice? These questions don’t require us to move the moral goalposts, only to be honest about where current society and leaders - in addition to those of the past - stand in relation to them.

Norms and expectations are a big part of the presidency

I really like Bernstein’s to-the-point phrasing when he says, “I ask how good they were at presidenting, not whether I agree with their policies.” Presidenting, however, is largely a matter of conforming to or defying norms and expectations.

This dynamic contributes to the difference between ratings in retrospect and ratings of the most recent presidents. Presidents who defy the norms of the time by reconceptualizing the power base of the presidency, the acceptable scope of presidential involvement, or the political practices of presidents and aspirants, often face major backlash. Jackson’s presidency is full of examples, as is FDR’s. Lincoln was often working without direct precedent during the Civil War, with little blueprint provided by the norms established by either Jacksonian Democrats or Whigs. Theodore Roosevelt’s pursuit of the nomination through primaries, Jimmy Carter’s efforts to make the image of the presidency less formal, and Obama’s occasional attempts to defer to Congress on policy-making are also examples of presidents who chose to defy immediate precedent and received norms. Eisenhower’s “hidden-hand” leadership might also fall into this category, as it defied the norms established by the communicative and active presidency of FDR. Nevertheless, in retrospect, Ike’s approach might seem, to many evaluators, to have been effective and appropriate.

Mostly, though, the norm violation goes the other way, and presidents get more involved in policy, communicate more directly, and refine more unilateral tools, than their predecessors, which makes them look controversial in their own times and powerful in historical perspective, once the standards they defied have become routine.

Skill is not apolitical

Thanks to a sparsely written Article II, the tools of presidential influence have never been clearly settled. Per the point above, these tactics have been shaped and constrained by informal norms. Tactics for persuading Congress have been especially controversial. Jefferson used his personal friendships and skill at throwing dinner parties to persuade members of Congress to do what he wanted - while maintaining the appearance of a deferential presidency. This worked well for Jefferson but left little in the way of institutional capacity for his successors. Andrew Jackson’s use of the veto on policy rather than Constitutional grounds was a new and disruptive innovation. Speaking directly to the people about policy was also a tactic that evolved alongside changing norms and changing technology.

We see this with contemporary presidents, too. Examples include what many perceived as Bush’s use of ideological patronage as part of his toolkit to accomplish policy goals, and Obama’s use of extensive “ground game” operations and use of electronic and social media. Both of these choices have implications for institutions that will outlast their presidencies, like the executive branch and their respective parties. The way we think about how historical presidents used tactics and resources is often under-historicized.


Evaluating presidents is normative work, which can be uncomfortable for scholars accustomed to empirical research. But the choices often perceived as normative also reflect the need to place presidents in historical context. This means understanding presidential choices as the result of the ideas and constraints of their times - not just products of their raw skill. It also means understanding their impact on the development of American politics. By trying too hard to develop objective criteria, we risk losing sight of the historical component. Thinking about presidential leadership isn’t just a fun game; it’s also an opportunity for reflection about our priorities, values, and expectations.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

February 16, 2015 8:26 AM The Subjectivity of War Journalism

By Keith Humphreys

Charles Lane of Washington Post has written a thoughtful, commendably candid piece on war journalism in the wake of Brian Williams’ prevarications. Chuck points out that the typical life of a war correspondent - long, boring stretches interspersed by frightening, humiliating moments - contrasts starkly with the legends that can dominant the journalistic mind:

Alas, the notion that nearly getting killed confers some sort of extra reportorial credibility is a deeply ingrained cultural norm, among both producers and consumers of news. I don’t know who’s to blame for this; maybe it all goes back to Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and the civil war in Spain.

Ernie Pyle with Marines on Okinawa, 1945

Ernie Pyle with Marines on Okinawa, 1945

Personally, I think of the amazing Ernie Pyle as the ghost some war journalists are chasing, not just because he took tremendous risks and ultimately died in combat but also because the grunts accepted him as one of their own. To newsreaders who spend more on hair care products each year than the typical soldier’s salary, the thought that hanging out with G.I.s on camera will bring them some precious “down to earth, regular guy” cred is extremely tantalizing. Such journalists are just as tempted to manufacture that image as they are to gin up phony tales of combat like Williams did.

The Williams scandal is an instance of a more general challenge of war journalism in that by its nature, it offers less opportunity for editors to monitor and fact-check journalists’ work. A lot of the reporting relies on one person’s subjectivity, and if that person is dishonest, they can distort the story far more than they could ever get away with in a different setting. But in my observation, self-promoting embellishment is not the main found of subjectivity that can color how wars are covered by journalists.

I got to know a number of war correspondents through my Iraq work, and some of them I would rank among the most impressive people I have ever met. But I was also struck how many of them were depressed, were fleeing disastrous marital/family situations, drank too much and/or were terminal adrenaline junkies. Some had full-blown PTSD, a larger group had less serious but still significant problems of that sort (perhaps masking it as world-weary cynicism/bitterness).

Like our soldiers, a number of them had mental health problems when they came back. I tried to help those who asked for support as best as could, and at least some of them have pulled things together and are doing well stateside. But some continue to struggle, permanently altered for the worse by the events to which they were exposed in war zones.

These experiences changed the way I consume war-related news coverage. As I read, I weigh in my mind that the person writing it may well have some emotional scars that lead them to report events in a different way, most commonly tilted toward a bleaker take than objective events warrant. I don’t say this in criticism because I appreciate that, unlike Williams, they have an excuse when their personal psychology begins to dominate their reporting. But it does lead me to be unusually cautious in taking their reports at face value.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 14, 2015 2:35 PM Watch The President Trivialize His Office With a Comic Video

By Keith Humphreys

President Obama is being lambasted by some critics for allegedly trivializing his office by making a funny video. An unprecedented low that was particularly inexcusable when ISIS is slaughtering innocents and Russia is menacing the Ukraine? Never would have happened in the good old days, especially not before a US-hating Democrat took the White House?

Well, the passing of Laugh In’s Gary Owens made me remember some relevant history:

And don’t forget that Nixon was running for President at the time and we were at war in Viet Nam.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 14, 2015 2:32 PM More on the Washington State Cannabis Price Collapse

By Mark Kleiman

I feel sorry for the farmers getting caught in the downdraft. More than that, I’m worried about the impact of cheap pot on problem use, and on illegal exports out of state.

But as a pure analyst, I’d just like to ask Beau Kilmer to take a bow. He calculated the cost of Dutch legal medical cannabis at approximately 1 Euro ($1.30) per gram. Now the reported wholesale price in Washington is $700-$800/lb. That works out to about $1.65 a gram.

Will wholesale prices rise as more retail stores are licensed? Maybe, for a while. But there’s every reason to think that next year’s crop will be bigger, and therefore cheaper, than this year’s. In the long run, the pre-tax price of a joint will be the pre-tax price of a cigarette or a teabag: pennies, not dollars.  That’s the policy problem we need to wrestle with now. It seems inevitable that cannabis will become legal. But will it do so in a more-public-health-friendly way, or a less-public-health-friendly way? Right now, the auspices aren’t favorable.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 14, 2015 2:28 PM Mourning David Carr, Another Stranger Who Made My Life Brighter

By Harold Pollack

I was thinking about how much I am mourning New York Times reporter David Carr. I never met him even once, though many of my friends and colleagues remember him as a treasured friend and mentor. I particularly liked this remembrance, and this, and this.

Carr’s death stops me in my tracks for many reasons. He was struck down at the top of his game. He had such tremendous human vitality. I would so look forward to catching his latest column on my morning commute. He was just someone who made my life a little brighter, provided a flash of wit and insight, delivered with apparently effortless style.

As I thought about him, I started thinking about a few wonderful friends living with advanced cancer, about the morning last week when I happened to break bread with two good friends who are pretty amazing in their different ways, who I hadn’t seen in awhile.

We all know so many amazing people who light up our lives in routine everyday ways. We take them for granted. How could we not? You can’t start every morning sending effusive emails to every friend, acquaintance, let alone every stranger who makes life a little more special today. It’s more than too time-consuming. It would be staggering even to draw up the list.

We often don’t notice these special people until something unexpected happens that snatches them away. But they are there. Our lives are part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 13, 2015 4:02 PM Abraham Lincoln’s Party Politics

By Julia Azari

We celebrate Lincoln’s birthday this week (Thursday), and with it we celebrate the often misguided mythology of what presidential leadership actually is. Lincoln’s popular image tends to rest on his status as a war president (which has particular moral significance in light of the end of slavery), his biography outside of politics, and his rhetorical legacy. Not surprisingly, these aspects have overshadowed one of Lincoln’s most important legacies: as a party politician.

Lincoln came into office as the first Republican elected to the presidency, a former Whig. Both Whig and Democratic approaches had failed to address the nation’s sectional crisis. The Republican Party formed out of this wreckage. Jacksonian Democratic ideas about popular sovereignty and sectional balance had produced a series of compromises, each more divisive than the last. Whig anti-partyism and refusal to address the slavery issue head-on had resulted in a splintered party, with future Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens leading the Southern Congressional faction. Northern Whigs, along with some Northern Democrats, Free Soilers, and other opponents of slavery, joined to form a new party. One of the key ideological tenets of this party was that slavery should not be extended, noting in their 1860 platform:

That the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom: That, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory, ordained that “no persons should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” it becomes our duty, by legislation, whenever such legislation is necessary, to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it; and we deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.

Lots of scholars in political science and history, including the late David Herbert Donald, have considered the implications of Lincoln as a party politician. The early Republican Party functioned very much in the nineteenth century tradition, with factions, patronage, a localized campaign apparatus. Lincoln’s political career was inextricably bound up with that system of party politics.

Lincoln illustrates why presidential rhetoric is so important (despite serving in an era when presidents were fairly limited in their rhetorical opportunities). But while contemporary notions of rhetoric envision a president speaking directly to the people, avoiding party intermediaries, Lincoln’s instead draws on his party’s ideas about the purpose of the American nation. People talk about the second inaugural today, which is terrific political rhetoric. One of the key functions of inaugural addresses is to reconcile the nation after an election, and Lincoln’s does this with both meaning and grace.

But when it comes to Lincoln’s best rhetoric, I’m partial to the Gettysburg Address. For one thing, the Inaugural is a much more ready-made opportunity for a president to say something memorable. In November 1863, Lincoln was just part of the oratorical program for the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.

And there, in the number of words most of us use for our Midwest abstracts, Lincoln reinterpreted the Constitution and American national identity. (See a short version of Garry Wills’ classic argument.) By identifying the Declaration of Independence as the key moment in the American Founding (four score and seven years ago=1776), Lincoln not only reminded his audience that the purpose of the war was to save the nation - he also clarified the substantive values of the nation. For Lincoln as a Whig and as a Republican, respecting the Constitution meant following its process - the reason why no attempt was made to end slavery through executive fiat (see J. David Greenstone’s The Lincoln Persuasion). But the Gettysburg Address fused the substantive ideals of the Declaration of Independence - equality, liberty - with the procedural content of the Constitution.

This fusion of substance and process is still highly relevant today. Both liberals and conservatives have used arguments about process to shy away from difficult debates. This speech also stresses the civic national identity of the United States: a country defined by its commitment to a greater idea than our immediate needs or preferences. This was a direct challenge to the “popular sovereignty” solutions that dominated Jacksonian Democratic leaders (including Lincoln’s Illinois rival Stephen Douglas) during the preceding decade. These politicians offered local preferences as a solution to the growing divide over slavery. Lincoln’s words argued instead that the nation was about more than, as we political scientists would say, minimum procedural definitions of democracy.

But this rhetoric, despite its ceremonial setting, was also political. The war had cost many lives, and the country had grown weary of the ongoing conflict, as people often do. In 1864, nearly forty-five percent of the electorate would cast their votes for the Democrat, George “peace before reunion” McClellan. Defending the war, and its purpose, was a political position.

The unfortunate thing about the Lincoln myth is that it neglects his ambition, skill, and identity as a party politician. In contemporary political life, presidents are expected to provide stirring rhetoric that fixes problems - an impossible task anyway - but this is understood to be an act of distancing themselves from their parties. We ask presidents to provide meaningful solutions to serious, complicated problems, as we should ask of our elected officials. Many still also look to the president to reinvigorate our understanding of national identity - to offer guidance about what it means to be an American in our particular context. These aren’t unreasonable, but it’s not reasonable to want the president to provide these solutions and ideas alone, in isolation from party. Maybe if we understood this facet of historical “greats” like Lincoln a bit better, we would have an easier time seeing contemporary presidents in that light.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

February 13, 2015 8:03 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: Obvious Child

By Johann Koehler

Romantic comedies have a peculiar relationship with sex. It’s treated as the goal, yet it’s rarely mentioned explicitly. It’s hard to attain, yet for the lucky few who succeed, all other fortunes and contentments await. But if romantic comedies struggle to talk about sex explicitly, then they are outright squeamish to talk about its consequences. Not so in this week’s movie recommendation Obvious Child, in which debut director Gillian Robespierre takes aim at rom-coms’ queasiness about the ramifications of an impromptu fling.

Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a New York stand-up comic who regularly bears her soul on stage for the amusement of strangers. Hers is the comedy of the revoltingly personal, replete with confessions about farts, filthy underwear, and her moribund sex-life with her scoundrel boyfriend (who happens to be present in the audience and is forcibly corralled into the humiliation). After one such set, he frankly reveals that he’s been cheating on Donna with her friend, and leaves her to pick up the pieces of her already unstable life.

Screen shot 2015-02-12 at 13.09.05

In a drunken stupor one night at the bar, Donna meets Max, a handsome and sweet guy who could as comfortably be typecast as a librarian as a model for Ralph Lauren’s winter collection. He’s the guy you’d be happy to introduce to your mum, but not the guy you envision for a rough-and-tumble one-night stand. When they clumsily hook up, Donna becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and has to deliberate about whether and how to tell Max that she intends to have an abortion. You heard it right: it’s a comedy about an abortion.

The self-effacing honesty of Jenny’s professional comic persona is a vehicle for the hapless, shrug-and-take-what’s-coming attitude she brings to the abortion. But Obvious Child achieves more than just rehearsing the tired trope that sets a comedian’s stage act in relief to the bitterness of their home life. On the contrary, Jenny’s comedy feels like a necessary catharsis, both for her and for us. As audience members, we also struggle to process the challenge in which Jenny finds herself. Not only does her standup routine force us to commiserate with Jenny as she works through her predicament, but we’re also wrested into being active—and unwitting—participants in that therapy. It’s not enough that we listen to her complaints and exasperations; we’re also recruited into her cheering section, demanding that everyone around her do their best to make things just a little easier for her.

Screen shot 2015-02-12 at 13.08.19

The recent alignment of stoner comedies with shock-factor film-making (see The Interview - or preferably don’t - for a noteworthy example) has nonetheless retained a space in which some of the most mundane topics still remain absolutely off-limits. Even Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, which ostensibly was about the same theme of an unplanned pregnancy, desperately steered clear of even mentioning the word abortion (Jay Baruchel’s character wincingly refers to it as “an A-word”). Then again, where there’s discomfort, there’s ripe material for comedy, and while Obvious Child takes aim at that discomfort, it doesn’t go the whole way: The main sources of laughter in Obvious Child are the peripheral challenges that attach to an abortion, including the awkward conversations and the confused questioning about one’s ‘readiness’ to be a parent. It ultimately steers clear of addressing some of the really routine and mundane happenstances that truly can make abortions the uncomfortable life event they are for many, such as unsupportive family members, the stigma, and the expense. Instead, everyone from the best friend to the mother to Max is hearteningly understanding of the life challenge Donna is experiencing. The result is that Obvious Child is a comedy about an inconvenient (aren’t they always?) abortion in a nurturing environment.

It’s Valentine’s weekend, folks. Nothing says ‘I love you’ like ‘I support a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.’

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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