Friday, February 14, 2014

The Contradictions of the American Voter

Fantastic article by Paul Rosenberg about the paradox of American voters' ideological conservatism and political liberalism. He probably overreaches at a few points, but I think his argument cuts to the heart of the Republican identity crisis. The polling data he cites is especially interesting.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Page from the Life of Pete Seeger, August 18, 1955

 Testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee:
. . . Mr. TAVENNER: The Committee has information obtained in part from the Daily Worker indicating that, over a period of time, especially since December of 1945, you took part in numerous entertainment features. I have before me a photostatic copy of the June 20, 1947, issue of the Daily Worker. In a column entitled “What’s On” appears this advertisement: “Tonight—Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming.” May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?

Mr. SEEGER: Sir, I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.

Mr. TAVENNER: I don’t believe there is any more authoritative document in regard to the Communist Party than its official organ, the Daily Worker.

Mr. SCHERER: He hasn’t answered the question, and he merely said he wouldn’t answer whether the article appeared in the New York Times or some other magazine. I ask you to direct the witness to answer the question.

Chairman WALTER: I direct you to answer.

Mr. SEEGER: Sir, the whole line of questioning—

Chairman WALTER: You have only been asked one question, so far.

Mr. SEEGER: I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.

Mr. TAVENNER: Has the witness declined to answer this specific question?

Chairman WALTER: He said that he is not going to answer any questions, any names or things.

Mr. SCHERER: He was directed to answer the question.

Mr. TAVENNER: I have before me a photostatic copy of the April 30, 1948, issue of the Daily Worker which carries under the same title of “What’s On,” an advertisement of a “May Day Rally: For Peace, Security and Democracy.” The advertisement states: “Are you in a fighting mood? Then attend the May Day rally.” Expert speakers are stated to be slated for the program, and then follows a statement, “Entertainment by Pete Seeger.” At the bottom appears this: “Auspices Essex County Communist Party,” and at the top, “Tonight, Newark, N.J.” Did you lend your talent to the Essex County Communist Party on the occasion indicated by this article from the Daily Worker?

Mr. SEEGER: Mr. Walter, I believe I have already answered this question, and the same answer.

Chairman WALTER: The same answer. In other words, you mean that you decline to answer because of the reasons stated before?

Mr. SEEGER: I gave my answer, sir.

Chairman WALTER: What is your answer?

Mr. SEEGER: You see, sir, I feel—

Chairman WALTER: What is your answer?

Mr. SEEGER: I will tell you what my answer is.

I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

Chairman WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

Mr. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

Chairman WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.

Mr. SCHERER: I think that there must be a direction to answer.

Chairman WALTER: I direct you to answer that question.

Mr. SEEGER: I have already given you my answer, sir.

Mr. SCHERER: Let me understand. You are not relying on the Fifth Amendment, are you?

Mr. SEEGER: No, sir, although I do not want to in any way discredit or depreciate or depredate the witnesses that have used the Fifth Amendment, and I simply feel it is improper for this committee to ask such questions.

Mr. SCHERER: And then in answering the rest of the questions, or in refusing to answer the rest of the questions, I understand that you are not relying on the Fifth Amendment as a basis for your refusal to answer?

Mr. SEEGER: No, I am not, sir. . . .

Mr. TAVENNER: You said that you would tell us about the songs. Did you participate in a program at Wingdale Lodge in the State of New York, which is a summer camp for adults and children, on the weekend of July Fourth of this year?

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

Mr. SEEGER: Again, I say I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business.

Mr. TAVENNER: I am going to ask you.

Mr. SEEGER: But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.

Mr. TAVENNER: Did you sing this song, to which we have referred, “Now Is the Time,” at Wingdale Lodge on the weekend of July Fourth?

Mr. SEEGER: I don’t know any song by that name, and I know a song with a similar name. It is called “Wasn’t That a Time.” Is that the song?

Chairman WALTER: Did you sing that song?

Mr. SEEGER: I can sing it. I don’t know how well I can do it without my banjo.

Chairman WALTER: I said, Did you sing it on that occasion?

Mr. SEEGER: I have sung that song. I am not going to go into where I have sung it. I have sung it many places.

Chairman WALTER: Did you sing it on this particular occasion? That is what you are being asked.

Mr. SEEGER: Again my answer is the same.

Chairman WALTER: You said that you would tell us about it.

Mr. SEEGER: I will tell you about the songs, but I am not going to tell you or try to explain—

Chairman WALTER: I direct you to answer the question. Did you sing this particular song on the Fourth of July at Wingdale Lodge in New York?

Mr. SEEGER: I have already given you my answer to that question, and all questions such as that. I feel that is improper: to ask about my associations and opinions. I have said that I would be voluntarily glad to tell you any song, or what I have done in my life.

Chairman WALTER: I think it is my duty to inform you that we don’t accept this answer and the others, and I give you an opportunity now to answer these questions, particularly the last one.

Mr. SEEGER: Sir, my answer is always the same.

Chairman WALTER: All right, go ahead, Mr. Tavenner.

Mr. TAVENNER: Were you chosen by Mr. Elliott Sullivan to take part in the program on the weekend of July Fourth at Wingdale Lodge?

Mr. SEEGER: The answer is the same, sir.

Mr. WILLIS: Was that the occasion of the satire on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

Mr. TAVENNER: The same occasion, yes, sir. I have before me a photostatic copy of a page from the June 1, 1949, issue of the Daily Worker, and in a column entitled “Town Talk” there is found this statement:

The first performance of a new song, “If I Had a Hammer,” on the theme of the Foley Square trial of the Communist leaders, will be given at a testimonial dinner for the 12 on Friday night at St. Nicholas Arena. . . .Among those on hand for the singing will be . . . Pete Seeger, and Lee Hays—and others whose names are mentioned. Did you take part in that performance?

Mr. SEEGER: I shall be glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.

Mr. TAVENNER: I ask a direction.

Chairman WALTER: You may not be interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question.

Mr. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

Mr. TAVENNER: Have you finished your answer?

Mr. SEEGER: Yes, sir. . . .

Mr. TAVENNER: Did you hear Mr. George Hall’s testimony yesterday in which he stated that, as an actor, the special contribution that he was expected to make to the Communist Party was to use his talents by entertaining at Communist Party functions? Did you hear that testimony?

Mr. SEEGER: I didn’t hear it, no.

Mr. TAVENNER: It is a fact that he so testified. I want to know whether or not you were engaged in a similar type of service to the Communist Party in entertaining at these features.

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

Mr. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Further Reading on Income Inequality

In two recent posts at Slate, Matt Yglesias offers further thoughts about income inequality. First, he makes the case that an innovation economy relies on greater income for the lower and middle classes:
To many conservatives, recent attention paid to income inequality is at best a distraction from the real challenge of growth and innovation. But in reality these issues are inextricably linked. The development of new and better kinds of products is key to producing long-term economic growth. But determining what kind of products to develop and bring to market hinges crucially on whether or not people will be able to buy them.
In another column, he cites the recent work of economists Raj Chetty and Emmanuel Saez and the forthcoming work of Gregory Clark.
Now today we get the new conventional wisdom, which says that America is a low-mobility country but has been this way for a while.

I'd like to put on the table a different research program, associated with UC–Davis economic historian Gregory Clark, which argues that economic mobility is low almost everywhere. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Income Inequality Debate

About six weeks ago, President Obama made a speech about income inequality in which he made the following claim:
The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe. 
Since then columnists across the spectrum have been investigating the problem of income inequality with, unsurprisingly, a great variety of prescriptions. It has been a demonstration that the presidency can be, at the very least, a generator of national debate.

The latest to weigh in is New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose editorial misdemeanors have been a subject of this blog in the past. Brooks offers four salient points to make his case against raising the minimum wage as a mechanism to alleviate inequality. Let's take them one by one (in each quotation, emphasis his):
In the first place, to frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related. What we call “inequality” is caused by two different constellations of problems.

If you have a primitive zero-sum mentality then you assume growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor, but, in reality, the two sets of problems are different, and it does no good to lump them together and call them “inequality.”
This might be true if the economy were growing at the kind of pace it was in the mid-20th century. With substantial growth, the rich could become more affluent and the classes below them could also reap some of the profits. If, as in the US over the past twelve years, there is anemic economic growth and the wealth is going to the top 1%, or more accurately the top tenth of 1%, then there is little generated wealth for everyone else. It is, in fact, a sum. We can actually add up the wealth and then see who's getting it.

Causation is a trickier issue. Brooks is on somewhat safer ground when he objects to a causal relationship between growing wealth at the top and immobility at the bottom, but it's still a pretty dicey argument. If we had a sound regulatory system in place along with a more progressive tax code and a stronger social safety net, then the profits the affluent brought in would get funneled into programs we know alleviate immobility: education systems, transportation and infrastructure, unemployment insurance, and a higher minimum wage. But largely because the Republican Party has staunchly opposed them, we haven't implemented these policies.


In a political economy in which the wealthiest take the lion's share of all the new wealth generated, and the political party that represents their interests continually obstructs any measures taken to redirect that wealth toward the rest of society, it is hard not to conclude that the immobility of the poorest is caused, at least in part, by the growing affluence of the rich.

Brooks continues:
Second, it leads to ineffective policy responses. If you think the problem is “income inequality,” then the natural response is to increase incomes at the bottom, by raising the minimum wage.

But raising the minimum wage may not be an effective way to help those least well-off. Joseph J. Sabia of San Diego State University and Richard V. Burkhauser of Cornell looked at the effects of increases in the minimum wage between 2003 and 2007. Consistent with some other studies, they find no evidence that such raises had any effect on the poverty rates.
This is close to intellectual dishonesty. When Brooks assures us that this study is "consistent with some other studies," the vagueness itself should raise suspicion. Indeed a host of comments from his readership pointed out that Brooks pointedly ignored data from other surveys that arrived at the opposite conclusion. Economist Arindrajit Dube, currently at MIT, surveyed all of the data from a variety of different studies, including the one Brooks cites in a vacuum, and came to this conclusion:
When I consider the set of nearly all available estimates of the effect of minimum wages on poverty, the weight of the evidence suggests that minimum wages tend to have a small to moderate sized impact in reducing poverty. 
Brooks continues:
Third, the income inequality frame contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems.
He then lists all his favorite social ills that represent, as he puts it, "the fraying of social fabric": single motherhood, high school dropout rates, de-industrialization, and (more mysteriously) the ill-chosen behaviors of young men. Each, he notes, has a "strong correlation with low social mobility." Then Brooks postulates, with no evidence offered, that "Low income is the outcome of these interrelated problems, but it is not the problem. To say it is the problem is to confuse cause and effect." It is unclear how Brooks moves from his own language of "strong correlation" to his unsubstantiated certainty that behavioral problems and poor social choices (for lack of a better term) cause low income. That seems just as simplistic a reduction of complex problems of which he accuses others. Paul Krugman responded (without calling out Brooks directly) in his own recent column on inequality:
Even on its own terms, it postulates opportunities that don’t exist. For example, how are children of the poor, or even the working class, supposed to get a good education in an era of declining support for and sharply rising tuition at public universities? Even social indicators like family stability are, to an important extent, economic phenomena: nothing takes a toll on family values like lack of employment opportunities.
And Brooks's final point:
Fourth, the income inequality frame needlessly polarizes the debate.

Democrats often see low wages as both a human capital problem and a problem caused by unequal economic power. Republicans are more likely to see them just as a human capital problem. If we’re going to pass bipartisan legislation, we’re going to have to start with the human capital piece, where there is some agreement, not the class conflict piece, where there is none.

Some on the left have always tried to introduce a more class-conscious style of politics. These efforts never pan out. America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness. 
America has "always done better" when we haven't focused on inequality? That is an extraordinary statement to make four days prior to Martin Luther King Day. Does Brooks have an even passing familiarity with the history of class politics or the rise of class consciousness in America? Between 1870 and 1940, America suffered from calamitous inequality, intractable social immobility, a corrupt political system beholden to business interests, a Supreme Court that favored corporations over individuals at virtually every opportunity, and class conflict in which the policing power of the federal government was brought to bear against laborers in defense of wealthy capitalists at every opportunity. Then, as now, class consciousness and drastic wealth inequality were the presiding issues. Here's a quick glance at the historical trends from 1916 onward illustrating income among the top tenth of 1%:


Class consciousness has historically been generated under conditions of stark inequality and the failure of government to respond to the needs of labor. This is almost a self-evident point... but apparently it eludes Brooks, who wants everyone to use the happier vocabulary of "opportunity and mobility." One wonders if he would have told SNCC in 1960 to stop using the incendiary language of race politics and instead celebrate the "new birth of freedom" Lincoln promised everyone at Gettysburg a century earlier. "America has always done better," he might say, "when we have focused on dead white soldiers rather than our national problems with race relations."

To further illustrate Brooks's detachment from history, consider Teddy Roosevelt's direct engagement in class politics with this line from his 1906 State of the Union Address:
The National Government has long derived its chief revenue from a tariff on imports and from an internal or excise tax. In addition to these there is every reason why, when next our system of taxation is revised, the National Government should impose a graduated inheritance tax, and, if possible, a graduated income tax. The man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the State, because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government. Not only should he recognize this obligation in the way he leads his daily life and in the way he earns and spends his money, but it should also be recognized by the way in which he pays for the protection the State gives him.
Today, national progress and national prosperity are being held back chiefly because of selfishness on the part of a few.

You know their reasoning. They say that in the competition of life for the good things of life; "Some are successful because they have better brains or are more efficient; the wise, the swift and' the strong are able to outstrip their fellowmen. That is nature itself, and it is just too bad if some get left behind."

It is that attitude which leads such people to give little thought to the one-third of our population which I have described as being ill-fed, ill-clad and ill-housed. They say, "I am not my brother's keeper"—and they "pass by on the other side." Most of them are honest people. Most of them consider themselves excellent citizens.

But this nation will never permanently get on the road to recovery if we leave the methods and the processes of recovery to those who owned the Government of the United States from 1921 to 1933.
When Brooks claims that such class based language "needlessly polarizes the debate," he seems to be arguing that our political language, not economic conditions themselves, has radicalized the argument. Why should we believe that? The Roosevelt presidents were hardly radicals. They began utilizing a political vocabulary indebted to class consciousness because economic conditions and their constituents demanded it. That is lost on Brooks. While offering only the solution that poor people should find full time work and behave themselves better, Brooks would feel much better if they and their political allies would stop with all the upsetting complaints and demanding a higher minimum wage.

Luckily there are far more compelling and less offensive public intellectuals. There are plenty of people for whom the minimum wage does not seem like a panacea (and rightly so... much more needs to be done alongside raising the minimum wage.) And there are a few conservatives who have suggestions worthy of actual debate. Josh Barro at Business Insider came up with these eight ideas for "a new supply-side economics." Reihan Salam, one of the few voices worth paying attention to at The National Review, has a much more substantial argument to make about the problem in linking poverty to income inequality. Salam wrote an even more interesting piece for Reuters on the local economies of Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Pittsburgh where, despite tremendous income inequality, social mobility matches rates in Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Norway (the gold standard for mobility advocates).

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Brazil's World Cup

The first time I really watched a World Cup was, like a lot of other Americans, in 1994 when the US hosted the tournament for the first time. Since then I've been an avid watcher, not just because it's an extraordinary sporting event worth watching in its own right, but because the international and national politics of football are remarkable.

The upcoming tournament this year in Brazil is no exception. For fans, the draw itself is a moment of great intrigue. Which matchups will be the toughest? Who is in the Group of Death? The Guardian has the answers in this handy interactive on the 32 teams. Still, based on the events of the past year, politics may have trumped football. Football, as everyone knows, has always been regarded a divine pursuit in Brazil, a national obsession, so it is no surprise that Brazilians madly celebrated their successful host bid. More surprising has been the protests of Brazilians that erupted in June last summer challenging the excess, waste, and corruption of World Cup (and 2016 Olympic) preparations. Beset by delays and setbacks, Brazil is in jeopardy of being unprepared to host the Cup. As embarrassing as that would be, however, the protesters have deeper concerns about the capital being poured into this project, money that isn't going into schools, hospitals, or state infrastructure. Even footballers themselves are getting political, although with a slightly different agenda: the exploitation of players by owners.

These protests are especially interesting to observe because this year is an election year, with Brazil's embattled incumbent Dilma Rousseff, the nation's first woman president, campaigning for reelection. She has been forced into a defensive posture on a number of issues, including the World Cup itself. Just a few days ago, she had to issue a statement assuring a world of doubters that the nation would be ready on schedule.

But the most unlikely detail in this saga of sport and politics is Romário de Souza Faria, a football legend in his own right and now a politician in the National Congress of Brazil as part of the Brazilian Socialist Party. I remember Romario as the star of the 1994 Brazilian National Team that won the World Cup, defeating Italy in the final in a penalty shootout. He was the player who fed the other Brazilian star of that squad, Bebeto, for the only goal in Brazil's defeat of the US team, in what was an inspired performance of the underdog host against an international powerhouse. Take a look:


Now the two former star players are political opponents. Bebeto is a spokesman on behalf of Brazil's World Cup organizing committee. Romario, known when he was a player for his extravagant, self-indulgent lifestyle, has become a populist, demanding social change and a curb on corruption. He has unceasingly criticized Brazil's World Cup preparations for its waste and graft, and the opportunities missed to divert that money to Brazil's lower classes. As he explained in an interview:
Nobody tells me to close my mouth because they know it will never happen. When I was a player, I was an idol. People saw me as one of the best ever. I was able to get to the top. I was able to be the best in the world at a certain time. In politics, I don’t think I’ll be the best politician in the world. But I know I won’t be quiet, either.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Some Christmas Groove

Apologies, readers, for the slowdown in posts. The holiday season has set me back a bit, but in the words of "Christmas Blues" writer Sammy Cahn "I've done my window shopping / there's not a store I've missed." With that completed, more posts will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, if you're looking for some Christmas groove to get you through the season and Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas, while always great, feels just a bit too familiar, then look no further than Jimmy Smith's Christmas Cookin'.

Jimmy Smith was one of the all time great organ players, recording a host of albums for Blue Note in the 50s and 60s and he kept on performing his whole life. He was asked by Quincy Jones to play for Michael Jackson when they set down Bad.

Who might need a little more B-3 organ playing while celebrating Christmas? Everybody. Don't miss "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (both versions), a swinging rendition of "We Three Kings (Of Orient Are), and "Jingle Bells."


Merry Christmas to all from The Union Marches.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Chait on Obamacare

Jonathan Chait at the Daily Intelligencer offered his own take on Obamacare's end-of-November reboot:
The main questions at hand are how well [Obamacare] will muddle through. The dreaded “death spiral,” in which insurance markets are overloaded with sick, expensive customers, is highly unlikely to materialize, for several reasons: Both insurers and the administration have extensive plans to reach out to younger customers; the enrollment period lasts through the end of March, and people tend to enroll at the last minute; the law has a crucial financial backstop to protect insurers in case they get stuck with disproportionately sick customers to begin with.

Democrats will not repeal Obamacare. Even in their most panicked moments, only a handful of Democrats in the House voted for the Upton bill, which would have kept unregulated individual market plans that skim off healthy customers operating in perpetuity. The only way to repeal or cripple the law before 2017 is to muster a veto-proof majority in both chambers of Congress, a conservative fantasy that would require the support of huge numbers of liberals in Congress.

So what are we fighting about? How smoothly the law operates, and how many customers it manages to enroll by the end of Obama’s term, are open questions. Likewise up for debate is whether Obama’s approval ratings will recover. But these are not fundamentally questions about the life or death of Obamacare. They’re about how much political pain Democrats in Congress must endure. We’re not fighting over health-care policy. We’re fighting about the midterm elections.
Exactly.