Friday, April 08, 2011

Racism lives on

This surprised me:

46% of Mississippi Republicans said [interracial marriage] should be illegal to just 40% who think it should be legal.

I thought we had long since moved past the question of whether interraical marriage was OK, and were now debating whether to extend the right to marry to gay and lesbian couples. But then, I don't know any Mississippi Republicans.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Copyright and the Internet

The Op-Ed piece titled "Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?" tries to make the case for copyright.

An obvious problem with this piece is that the primary example cuts against the value of copyright. When the Globe Theater was built, it marked the start of a golden age for drama, despite the lack of copyrights at the time. When the theater shut down, it marked the end of the golden age, despite the fact that a copyright law had been passed in the mean time. The obvious conclusion is that what playwrights need most is not copyright law, but professional theaters to perform their works.

A more serious flaw, in my view, is that the authors consider only half of the picture. They warn:
[Progress is] the result of abiding by rules that were carefully constructed and practices that were begun by people living in the long shadow of the Dark Ages. We tamper with those rules at our peril.
But the rules have been tampered with, at the behest of copyright holders. The U.S. Constitution specifies that Congress may write laws that protect intellectual property "for limited times," but these days copyrights rarely expire; instead the laws are changed to increase the length of the copyright protection. In the wake of Citizen United, the odds of works like the early Micky Mouse cartoons ever entering the public domain are less than ever. The anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act extend the reach of intellection property law in a variety of ways, in particular interfering with the "fair use" that has traditionally been allowed under copyright law.

In short, the bargain implicit in copyright is being undermined from both sides. Copyright owners are winning most of the legislative battles, demonstrating that special interests with a lot of money at stake can often prevail over broad interests of the public at large. On the other side, consumers are doing massive amounts of copying of copyrighted works, and probably most of this is not fair use excerpts or works created 60 years ago.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Republicans and the Deficit

If you don't want to increase the deficit, you have to pay for any new government spending by raising taxes or other revenues. And if you want to go further and actually reduce the deficit, you have raise taxes by more than the new spending, right?

Not according to Charles Krauthammer, who considers the notion so absurd that he doesn't even try to spell out what's wrong with it; he simply suggests that anyone making it deserves to be "laughed out of town."

Having linked to Krauthammer's piece, I should link to some counters to his misstatements. Ezra Klein disects the six years of expenditure vs. ten years of taxes claim here. A brief summary of the CLASS Act reveals that the long term care insurance benefits will be paid for out of premiums (and thus, contra Krauthammer, won't bust the budget).

But on the central point of this post, no link is required because Krauthammer lays out the facts for us. Republicans want to cut revenues by about $770 billion over the next 10 years while reducing expenditures by only $450 billion. Democrats claim that this will increase the deficit; if Republicans want to cut taxes by $770 billion without increasing the deficit, they have to match those tax cuts with $770 billion worth of spending cuts. Krauthammer thinks this is absurd.

Krauthammer doesn't speak for all conservatives, but he is an influential conservative commentator. If he can get away with this article, I doubt that Republicans are feeling too much pressure to address the deficit. And we know from their behavior during the Bush years that most of them don't have any desire to do so.

Update 2011-01-22: In a comment on Ezra Klein's blog, Fishpeddler suggests that:

People like Mankiw appear to be tripped-up by the disconnect between what they ask for and what they actually want. Let's say someone has a budget of $100 and revenues of $50, and they really, really want to cut spending. One way of pressing for the desired spending cuts would be to insist that the budget be balanced. However, when someone comes back and says, "We did what you demanded. Revenues have been increased to $100", they feel like a fast one has been pulled on them, because the end result is nothing like what they envisioned.

I think that's it. Folks like Krauthammer are so used to pretending that their desired for spending cuts is actually a concern about budget deficits that they lie automatically, without even being consciously aware that they are doing so. So when someone calls them on the lie, they can't figure out what happened.

The only thing I would add is that most Republicans seemed fine with the spending increases of the Bush years, so it seems safe to say that a lot of Republicans don't oppose higher spending per se, they oppose spending when Republicans don't get to decide how the money is spent.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Alleged Gonzales Lie

Matthew Yglesias gives a slightly unclear explanation of Waxman's latest memo.

On page 51 of the Senate intelligence committee's Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq, we read the following:

In a response to questions form Committee staff, the White House said that on September 24, 2002, NSC staff contacted the CIA to clear another statement for use by the President. The statement said, "we also have intelligence that Iraq has sought large amounts of uranium and uranium oxide, known as yellowcake, from Africa. Yellowcake is an essential ingredient of the process to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons." The CIA cleared the language, but suggested that "of the process" be changed to "in the process." The President did not use the cleared language publicly.

According to Waxman, the White House statement was false; the CIA refused to clear the language. The false statement appeared a letter written in reponse to a request for information that the intelligence committee sent to Condoleezza Rice. The writer of the letter was Alberto Gonzales, who was White House Counsel at the time.

Waxman tells us that Gonzales also claimed, falsely, that the CIA had cleared language intended for use in a speech by Bush to the United Nations. (See page 49 of the Intelligence Committee report.)

I don't know whether Gonzales lied or was misled, which is why I include the word "alleged" in the title. If I felt that Gonzales's reputation hung on the distinction, I probably wouldn't use the word "lie" at all without spending some time trying to figure out whether it applied. But as I see it, Gonzales has so thoroughly discredited himself that his reputation can't get any worse.

Taking into account Waxman's corrections to the record, here is the timeline in a nutshell:

  • On Sept. 11, 2002, the CIA rejected language saying that Iraq was attempting to obtain yellowcake.
  • On Sept. 24, 2002, the White House again requested that the CIA approve language stating that Iraq was attempting to obtain yellowcake, and again the CIA rejected the claim.
  • On Oct. 6, 2002, the White House then included the claim in a draft of the Cincinnati speech (see Intelligence Committee report page 55), and the CIA rejected it again.
  • On January 27, 2003, the CIA received a draft of the State of the Union message (see page 64), but it is not clear who if anyone at the CIA read it. The next day, Bush delivered the State of the Union message containing the infamous 16 words.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Case for Employer Mandates

The consensus on the political left seems to be that a single payer health care system is the best approach if you are designing a system from scratch. The alternative, building on the existing system to provide universal coverage, is generally seen as somewhat inferior from a policy point of view, but much more politically feasible because you can transition to it without forcing people to give up their existing coverage.

I was therefore interested to see a 1989 paper by Lawrence Summers, who is slated to head Obama's White House National Economic Council, that takes a somewhat different point of view. The paper discusses mandated benefits in general (it is not limited to health care), and makes the case that mandating benefits is more efficient than having the government provide the same benefits out of tax dollars. It also lists some downsides to the use of mandates. Summers' basic concern is to argue that economists should pay more attention to the differences between mandated benefits and benefits provided directly by the government, and therefore he doesn't deal with the question of when the benefits of mandates outweigh the drawbacks. It is interesting to see that there are arguments for mandates (as opposed to single payer) that don't depend on political considerations or transition costs. The complete paper (in PDF format) can be found here.

I suppose I should give a hat tip to Pjeman Yousefzadeh at, although his posting is stupid on many levels, one being that he misreads Summers' paper so badly that I suspect he didn't actually read it at all.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Big Government Ahead?

David Brooks is about eight years too late with his column titled Big Government Ahead. Government spending has grown faster under Bush than anything we've seen in recent memory. For some reason Brooks counts tax cuts as spending, which would make Bush's record look even worse.

So what will happen to government spending going forward? If McCain is elected, he has talked about controlling spending, but I don't know how serious he is about that. McCain is willing to tell blatant lies in order to win this election, so it's not clear we can believe him when he talks about what he will do if he is elected. His talk about cutting earmarks is not a serious approach to controlling the budget, because earmarks are generally for small amounts of money. More recently, McCain has proposed freezing most of the budget for one year. That is a more serious suggestion, but it would face strong opposition in Congress. Freezing spending on programs such as unemployment insurance, which normally cost more during a recession, is both bad economics and bad politics.

Now let's suppose that Obama wins. When Obama states that he has explained how he will pay for all his proposals, he is describing something similar to "pay-go", the Congressional budgetting discipline which requires spending and tax cut proposals to include matching tax increases or spending cuts. Obama compares his spending proposals to a baseline which assumes that the Bush tax cuts are permanent. In contrast, the pay-go rules use a baseline in which the tax cuts expire. (That's because the expiration is current law, passed by a Republican congress and signed into law by Bush.)

What that means is that deficits will continue under an Obama presidency at something like the current level. It's fairly easy for a politician to run up the deficit; it is politically difficult to bring it down. My sense is that, after seeing how quickly Bush was able to wipe out Clinton's legacy of fiscal prudence, Obama isn't interested in spending a lot of political capital to bring down the deficit. On the other hand, Obama is indicating that he doesn't plan large increases, either. That means that the growth in government spending should be significantly slower under Obama than under Bush.

Obama's proposals don't take the current economic downturn into consideration. Depending on how the economy plays out, Obama may see a need for government spending to stimulate the economy. But doing that would involve a one time increase. I feel fairly safe in predicting that if Obama is elected, federal spending will grow more slowly during Obama's first term than it did during Bush's first term.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

McCain Advertisement Disses Hillary

McCain's has an advertisement featuring Biden's supposed gaffes. The whole notion that a handful of stupid-sounding comments taken out of context form a sound basis for evaluating a candidate strikes me as silly, but I won't dwell on that because there are a lot of silly political advertisements out there. What I find striking about this one is that one of the supposedly embarrassing clips in one in which Biden says that, "Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am" to be Vice President.

I know that the far right has spent the last 15 years trying to demonize the Clintons, but after watching Clinton's performance in the Democratic primary I don't see how anyone could believe that she's not qualified to be President or Vice President. I've been critical of Clinton at times, but her command of the issues and her ability to lead have never been in doubt. So when McCain releases an advertisement premised on the notion that Clinton is not qualified to be Vice President, I have to wonder what was going through McCain's mind when he approved the ad. Does he really think that Clinton is unqualified? Or is he pretending to think that in order to appeal to the Republican base?

To give McCain the benefit of every possible doubt, I suppose it is possible to interpret McCain as saying that Biden shouldn't say that Clinton is qualified even if she is. But that interpretation leaves McCain saying something that doesn't make any sense. Clinton, like the majority of people who run for President, didn't actually win. What she did accomplish was to demonstrate that gender is not a disqualification for the Presidency. Remember the 3 AM ad? It may or may not have persuaded any voters to vote for Clinton, but the fact that Clinton could run it demonstrated what Clinton had already accomplished. By spending years studying foreign policy issues, and explaining them to the public in ways that the public could understand, Clinton made people understand that she would have an idea of how to deal with the crisis, no matter what it was.

Contrast that to Palin's recent performance. Republicans are pleased that whenever Palin got a question that she couldn't answer during the Vice Presidential debate, she simply ignored the question and talked about something else. Being able to smoothly change the topic is an excellent ability for a hostess to have, but a President who gets a 3 AM phone call can't make the problem go away by talking about how wonderful her five children are. Palin's performance would be feeding every stereotype saying that woman can't lead if it weren't for Hillary Clinton. But because of what Clinton accomplished, it's crystal clear that Palin's problem isn't that she's a woman; it's that she's running for a position that would require her to deal with issues that she's never been interested in.

Given the significance of Clinton's campaign, and the need to bring the Democratic party together after a hard-fought primary campaign, there was every reason for Biden to acknowledge what Clinton had accomplished.

That leaves us with the obvious interpretation of McCain's ad: McCain, whether he believes it or not, is saying that Clinton is not qualified to be Vice President. Given the historical significance of Clinton's campaign, I suspect that there is a bit of misogyny behind that position. If there are any Hillary supporters who are still considering voting for McCain, I hope they see this ad.