Posts Tagged 'Ezra Klein'

Death by Information link dump

Ask and you shall receive. Well, sort of. After my first post on suboptimal internet use, I’ve noticed a number of other bloggers talking about that problem. At the bottom of this post, Chris Hayes talks about his internet use, and here’s Ezra Klein’s take. I assume more will follow. From Hayes’ post, I caught wind of two applications, Freedom and Anti-Social, that are a first rough hack at the sort of software I was calling for in my post (essentially, they lock you out of the internet or certain websites for a certain period of time that you set). But by far the most interesting piece I’ve read is by Paul Graham, about the addictiveness of the internet, which I think has implications beyond just the internet (and which I’m surprised isn’t discussed at all in the social sciences blogosphere). Money quote:

as the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of “normal” is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.

These two senses are already quite far apart. Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.

That last point, if true, is going to be a tough one to wrestle with, since we don’t yet really have a firm sense of what is living well or badly in the modern world, the way we do with say, alcohol consumption or other addictive vices.

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Do markets understand politics?

[by JSC7]

Ezra Klein weighs in on Tyler Cowen weighing in on the Krugman/Rogoff debate about what debt-to-GDP ratio America can stand before growth starts to feel a drag. Klein says that maybe we shouldn’t be worrying about the specific number, but rather how well our political system can deal with the problem in general. Money quote:

But the driver behind that question is not how much debt we have, it’s whether our political system can make the difficult choices to deal with that debt. So long as the political system is working reasonably well, we can get out from even quite a lot of debt. But the more it breaks… the more it has reason to worry.

What I think is worth asking, if that’s the case, is how well our business world understands the political system. We talk a lot about how politicians don’t understand economics, but what if the reverse is true? Even assuming no change in the system itself, it’s a pretty opaque system to someone who isn’t involved in it (not relevant to the budget, but all the stuff coming out of the Top Secret America report can’t be an anomaly). But, of course, you have to factor in the political systems ability to change itself, especially in response to crises (like a ballooning deficit). I don’t know how many people on Wall Street have a good sense of this.

Especially when it comes to the budget deficit, you can see the possibility of a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Businesses think that government will respond reasonably to a large deficit, and so U.S. Treasury prices stay low, but because Treasury prices stay low, the government doesn’t feel an imperative to fix the problem, and maybe even continues to make it worse. If that’s a threat, then I’m glad we’re having debates about what debt-to-GDP levels are feasible, because it at least gives us a chance to point to a concrete number and say, okay, now we have a problem, rather than relying on markets to correctly predict politicians or vice-versa.

A note to everyone who looks like the people from the bar last night: you’re on my list

[by JSC5]

If you were looking for a concrete example of what I was talking about in my previous post on how terribly puerile our privacy culture is these days, then look no further.* The libertarian/conservative law prof blog Volokh Conspiracy has you covered. Here’s Prof. Kenneth Anderson talking about the effect the JournoList ‘scandal’ has had on his perceptions of reporters in general:

When I was reading Peter Finn’s reporting on the Washington Post website on the CIA for my previous post, and despite this being a widely reported, straight-facts story, and despite my long-time, continuing, unstinting admiration for Peter Finn as a reporter on national security and related issues at the WaPo, I do admit that one of the first thoughts in my head was … is he a JournoLister?  And if he is, do I need to somehow discount his account as being part of a pre-conceived narrative?  And if so, by how much? 

So Kenneth Anderson used to have tremendous respect for Peter Finn’s work as a reporter because of his extensive body of work as a journalist. But post-JournoList, suddenly Kenneth Anderson has grave doubts about Peter Finn’s reporting — so much so that he’s decided to cast aspersions about Finn’s work on a widely-read media outlet.

That’s quite an about-face to be caused by one listserve. For those of you who’ve rationally decided to care more about your own things than the latest inside-the-beltway ‘scandal’, here’s a brief recap. JournoList was a private listserve for center-left journalists, opinion writers, professors, bloggers, and public intellectuals. From what I know, J-Listers used it to chat about current events, policy, sports, gossip, and the state of journalism. Some members clearly used it to let off steam. Dave Weigel, a former journalist/blogger for the Washington Post, famously used it to complain to his friends on JList about Rush Limbaugh and some other celebrities on the right. Someone with an anti-Weigel axe to grind leaked the JournoList archives to a new right-wing website called the Daily Caller. It was a win-win for all involved in the shady deal: the Daily Caller got a bunch of new hits, and the leaker got Weigel fired and may have destroyed his career (we’ll find out in a few years).

Some conservative media outlets decided to run with the story that JournoList was a liberal cabal coordinating stories and manipulating the news. The evidence to support this view is pretty weak / non-existent, but that hasn’t stopped some people – like Kenneth Anderson – from moving into full freak out mode.

It’s probably unfair to single out Kenneth Anderson, since there are plenty of other examples, but I think it’s important to have a concrete example of how insane our culture has become. Anderson used to have a very high opinion of some journalist named Finn based on years of experience consuming and appreciating  his reporting. But now that some partisan hack media outlets are publishing vague accusations of journalistic misconduct among a group of people on J-List, Anderson is suddenly extremely distrustful of ALL JOURNALISTS. I apologize for the profanity, but that’s just fucking nuts. I’ll echo my colleague JSC7 in asking why vague allegations about JList, or specific citations of intemperate words said in private, should be such a powerful signal that should change a person’s professional credibility despite years and years of actual work product that could provide a more accurate source of judgment?

Let me put this another way: A random, untrustworthy dude on the street comes up to you and says that some heinous shit went down at a local bar last night. Do you (A) dismiss the bum’s allegations and go on with your life unless you get some actual, credible information, or (B) gasp in horror and publicly question the morals and credibility of anyone who even looks like the people who would have been in that bar last night — even if you had just recently asked one of them to be your newborn child’s godfather?

Common sense says (A). Certain oh-so-earnest and concerned political operatives on the right say (B).

Does this mean that everything about JournoList was above board? I don’t know. I wasn’t on it. But nothing yet has come out that makes me think JournoList was any more problematical than an office water cooler. So like any sane, good-spirited person, I’m choosing not to believe the worst and most outlandish conspiracy theories until I see some credible evidence. I’d like to even stop reading, writing, or caring about this topic untill/unless this credible evidence materializes. Unfortunately, the cause of maintaining standards of decency and privacy is too important.

* The title of the piece in question, as you’ll notice if you click through, is “A note to all the non-JList reporters”. Combine that with my bar analogy later in the post and you have the odd title to my blog post. Sorry about that.

How to end tax expenditures the right way

[by JSC5]

As per Ezra Klein in today’s Wonkbook, Martin Feldstein has a plan for decreasing the deficit: end tax expenditures.

Now, regular readers of the blog will remember tax expenditures from one of my old posts inspired by the craziness of Hawaii’s ‘Exceptional Tree’  tax deduction. The basic point to remember with tax expenditures is that they give people money through the tax code instead of by cutting them a check directly. In many ways, tax expenditures and direct spending are exactly the same: the net effect on recipients is the same (they get more money), and the net effect on the government is the same (it gets less revenue).

But tax expenditures come with a whole host of negative effects. By making Swiss cheese of the tax code, they make compliance overly complicated. They distort work and income incentives. They don’t need to be reauthorized, so they tend to persist for a long time without any legislator taking a look at them and making sure they’re still a good idea. Furthermore, most people miscategorize tax expenditures as tax cuts instead of spending, so they are easier to enact and harder to repeal than regular spending programs. Just about any economist would tell you that we should run spending programs through normal spending procedures while keeping our tax code standardized and simple.

So it’s unsurprising that veteran economist/conservative political operative Martin Feldstein has come out against tax expenditures. As a foe of tax expenditures myself, I heartily welcome the support. And yet I find it hard to really trust his plan. Let me explain.

Feldstein begins his argument for cutting tax expenditures by mentioning three areas in particular that rely on the tax code for spending: education, child care, and health insurance. One gigantic tax expenditure – the mortgage-interest tax deduction – doesn’t get a mention until the very end of the article, when Feldstein says it’s probably best to  slightly reduce (not eliminate) the deduction “to avoid economic disruptions.” Did you catch the pattern? Tax expenditures that liberals and Democrats support get the axe. Tax expenditures that conservatives and Republicans support are handled with kid gloves, since – gosh! – they’re particularly important!

The lesson I draw from reading Feldstein’s politically-opportunistic support for tax expenditures is this: if we’re really going to end spending programs through our tax code, then we need to do it all at once and for everything. If you take it issue-by-issue, then there’s always going to be a big lobby in support of that particular expenditure and a small minority whose primary concern is tax expenditures in general. Mr. X is a high income homeowner and votes yes on eliminating education tax credits and no on mortgage-interest deductions. Mrs. Y is a low-income renter and votes the opposite way. Nothing gets done.

My proposal is simple: pass one bill to eliminate tax expenditures as a way to run programs and automatically convert all tax expenditures into equally-sized direct expenditures. Everyone congressperson who dislikes tax expenditures as a tool of government can get on board — regardless of the actual content of any particular tax expenditure. Tax expenditures won’t get used as a political football by advocates with an axe to grind. Then we can leave decisions about actual levels of spending to a case-by-case review at Congress’s leisure.

We get the benefits of a vastly-simplified tax code, with easy compliance and standard, predictable incentives. And small government conservatives would still find plenty to like here. The calculus has changed: everyone now realizes that these are real dollars being spent, moving through the regular appropriations process.

That’s what real concern about tax expenditures looks like. And that’s why I doubt Professor Feldstein’s commitment to Sparkle Motion.

Douthat: right policy, wrong politics

[by JSC5]

Ross Douthat’s column today presents a smart critique of the richboy subsidies and corporate welfare enshrined in current law, from the mortgage-interest tax deduction to agricultural subsidies and lack of means testing in Medicare and Social Security. It’s a broad, if not very definitive, endorsement of a more egalitarian state that doesn’t shovel quite so much money towards non-needy recipients each year. There’s a lot of good policy that could come out of Douthat’s vision, and it is heartwarming to have a voice of sanity on the right these days — even if he is (sadly) out of the mainstream of his own party and completely without influence over actual Republican decision-makers. So instead of offering the kind of backhanded compliment you just read in the previous sentence, I should probably be doing my bit to politely encourage engagement on the general principles Douthat lays down.

But I just can’t keep myself from pointing out a very weird moment in Douthat’s column:

“The trick is to channel those [pitchfork] impulses in a constructive direction. The left-wing instinct, when faced with high-rolling irresponsibility, is usually to call for tax increases on the rich. … [But] the class warfare we need is a conservative class warfare, which would force the million-dollar defaulters to pay their own way from here on out.”

So Douthat wants us to believe that leftwingers wake up every morning looking for a tax they can raise, while the conservatives are the adults in the room making sure the government doesn’t subsidize the rich? Pardon me while I scoff. Douthat’s error here is common, if not innocuous. All of us have the tendency to let tribalism infect rational political debate. But it’s still improper to identify a good set of policies and then assume that because (a) you like those policies, and (b) you usually see yourself on Team Red, then (c) those must be conservative policies. It seems to me that means-testing parts of the safety net, rolling back subsidies of McMansions and suburban sprawl, and cutting Big Agra’s welfare checks are all … not conservative policies. They’re broadly ‘liberal’ policies, with everyone from leftwingers like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias to libertarians like Tyler Cowen* signing up for the same general principles. To my knowledge, no such broad swatch of leading conservative intellectuals (besides Douthat) are ready to heartily endorse these reforms.

Now, to be fair, you’d be hard pressed to find actual politicians of either political flavor ready to sign on to these reforms. But at least they are operable ideas within the liberal realm of thought!

That said, I now retract my backhanded compliments to Douthat, replace them with forehanded compliments, and politely encourage more people from all political walks of life to seriously engage with the issues Douthat raises in his otherwise excellent column today.

—-

* My apologies for not providing links here. I’m just extrapolating from past posts I’ve read of each of their work. If anyone finds information to the contrary, please let me know and I’ll update.

Fame and awkwardness

Besides being intensely jealous of JSC7’s brush with blogging fame in China, I also have one observation to add: the single biggest obstacle to spending time with interesting / important people isn’t the target’s busy schedule or sense of self importance. It’s your own awkwardness, your fear of your own awkwardness, and the target’s fear of your awkwardness and their own awkward reaction to it. The bottom line: we’d all be spending more time hanging out with the people we want to hang out with if we could give better signals as to our ability to hold a normal, interesting conversation.

This is also a major skill that great schools don’t teach.

JSC’s brush with blogging fame

Our faithful readers will be happy to know that when there’s not a smorgasbord of vague topics engaging our talents of producing excessive word counts, we at JSC sometimes spend our time hobnobbing with the international blogging elite. On Monday night, along with a co-worker and Beijing’s uncontested cupcake queen, I met for drinks with Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias and Brad Plumer, who are on a journalist trip through China. Aside from some great anecdotes that stem from the words “journalist” and “China” popping up in the same sentence, it was fun to hear their views on the country and argue a few of our own (my co-worker and I represent two-thirds of the shadowy “ex-pats who run a small company trying to spread Western educational techniques” mentioned in Ezra’s post).

Now that you’re sufficiently disarmed and dazzled by my lifestyle, there’s a cool lesson from this. I arranged the meeting by sending a message to Ezra through the Washington Post website, telling him that there were some entrepreneurs in Beijing who would love to meet up and chat about China. Now, in a well-functioning world, there would be someone more important than me to get in touch with him. Whatever your opinion about blogging, these guys represent an important slice of public debate in the United States. If you’re a China scholar, or some kind of official willing to meet off record, or even an American Chamber of Commerce official, don’t you try to pull these guys off to the side for a few hours? Anyone? Bueller?

This is an example of an important school of philosophy, which goes by the name of “people in important positions are not on top of their own business”-ism (another fun example was a story a friend told me about how last week during Hillary’s visit to China, she was doing a speech and some totally unrelated guy got up on stage while she was standing for a photograph, ran up, shook her hand, said some words, and walked off, without anything happening. Secret Service? Bueller?). Anyway, if you live in a country that someone important is visiting, try to shoot them an e-mail. There’s a good chance they’re holed up in a fancy hotel looking for an excuse to get out.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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