Saturday, January 31, 2009


The concept of bandwidth has gotten a lot of attention since the beginning of the Internet Age. In it's literal meaning it's a computer geek thing of course, but the general concept, ie, the amount of information that can be successfully sent across a channel at any one time, extends to any form of communication. Occasionally you can even hear management-guru types talk about the desirability of "high-bandwidth relationships."

In any case, what I'm interested is the application of bandwidth in political sphere. It's a subject that's gotten little or no attention, but it should. The ability of a politician or pundit to make his audience hear as he intends to be heard is a very valuable commodity, and in many cases a scarce one. Anyone who has had the misfortune to be a conservative or a Republican recently has been affected.

Let's recap. Starting from the middle of 2006 or so, the American people fundamentally tuned out President Bush (and by extension the Republican Party). It's not so much that they disagreed with him about this or that, as much as they simply quit listening. Conservative politics have carried an ethos of make-believe ever since. No has to care what Mike Huckabee or Rush Limbaugh says, because nobody's listening anyway. This lasted until the selection of Sarah Palin as bottom half of the GOP Presidential ticket. Gov. Palin was clearly fresh on the scene and had nothing to do with President Bush. For two glorious weeks or so, the Republicans weren't forced to carry the dead weight of the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, when the Republican party finally got the chance to be heard on its own terms, it turned out that John McCain didn't have much to say about the economic crisis. The world went back to ignoring the Republicans, and that more or less settled the election.

And here we are. President Bush is now former President Bush, and Democrats have subsantial majorities in both chambers of Congress. President Obama proposes $819 Bn, $1.2 trillion, 43 quintajillion whatever "stimulus" package. The amount of money is so large that the Republicans are actually back in the game a little bit. So, right away Michelle Malkin calls this the "Generational Theft Act of 2009." Congressional Republicans have complained that the bill is comprised mostly of giveaways to favored constituencies. I have some sympathy for their arguments but I fear that this is the sort of knee-jerk reaction that will continue to get ignored.

If I were in charge of the Republican message, the first thing I would point out is that the original TARP plan passed Congress was intended to respond to a particular kind of crisis. Ie, do something or else the world's financial system will collapse in two days. We might still be in a crisis but if we are it's a different sort: getting out of our current economic jam is going to be a long hard slog. Whatever the economic remedy is, we need it done right more than fast. Second, I'd point out that President Obama and the Democrats haven't told us what this plan is supposed to accomplish. I'd try to get the Democrats out in front for what this package is supposed to do and hold my fire until then.

In any case, the Democrats are the majority and they will get to set the agenda for a while. Whatever attention the Republicans get from the American people, they should use carefully and wisely.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Oh Yeah....That'll Work

One thing we've seen over the last month or so is the attempt of various left-of-center types claiming to have "won" by default the debate over stimulus economics, present past. Here's a couple specimens. As much as libertarians and conservatives like to complain about the chilling effects of PC and such, this particular example variation of it is more comical than anything. Nobody is going to be intimidated by it, and in the year of Our Lord two thousand and nine nobody except doctrinaire liberals are heavily invested in FDR/New Deal mythology.

For me, it's one reason things aren't as bad as they look for my team. There is no wizard of liberal Oz, just a little man behind a curtain.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Environmental Fantasy, pt II

The world goin' one way, people another. - Poot, The Wire

I'm not going to get too far about any particular topic on this blog without talking about the political consequences. For the last week or so, one theme has been that the situation isn't as bad as it looks for conservatives and conservative ideas, even as the Republican party is far out of office as it's ever been.

The more I think about it, environmentalism is a two-edged sword. The motivations behind are going to weaken a little bit because everybody's attention will be taken by our various non-environmental crises. There was a famous poll taken last year which claimed that the American people weren't willing to pay one cent per gallon gasoline tax to solve or alleviate global warming (at a time when gas was over $4/gallon).

But precisely because environmentalism operates at a quasi-religious level, the attitude shift will be slow. What's worse, contra David Frum, Rod Dreher and others, it can't be coopted either for the same reason. Even if we wanted to, we can't do the environmental agenda like we could build a bridge or a jobs program. And because a fair bit of the Republicans' poor standing has to do with a credibility crisis, it's not a good time to promise things we can't deliver on.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Environmental Fantasy, New Appreciation for Reality

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. - FDR

It's a very pleasant experience when something we can see than some supposedly ominous threat turns out to be more or less inconsequential. Well, it's put up or shut up time for the environmental movement. The political environment (no pun intended) is friendly, so if the Obama Administration doesn't enact a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, can we safely conclude global warming was complete crock from the get-go?

Not necessarily, to answer my own question. But I think we will see a shift in perception. It's harder to get motivated about a hypothetical crisis fifty or a hundred years from now when we're in the middle of an actual one. We don't even have to convince ourselves that anthropogenic global warming can't happen. We may decide that it's something we can adapt to, or even
like it.

Several conservative
commentators have argued that modern environmentalism is more like a religion than a science, or just special interest pleading for the cynical-minded. If this is true (and I for one believe it is), this hasn't gotten a lot of mainstream traction. But if we try to argue that environmentalism is just religion for postmodern liberals, we have to acknowledge that it's relatively short on rituals, priests and Scriptures. Instead let's acknowledge that the epistemology of environmentalism is aesthetic: harmony and tranquility are good, mindless noise and consumerism are bad. And on its own terms, the environmental aesthetic is at the very least unobjectionable, and often praiseworthy. But there are other aesthetic goods, (eg happiness, elegance, justice, etc.) and in our lives we usually rely on judgment and context to fit them in as best as we can.

On a more concrete level, the inductive logic between the environmental aesthetic and what we recognize as environmental advocacy today is very flawed. And slowly but surely I suspect it will increasingly be perceived to be flawed.

Demand for Aggregate Demand, pt III

Hat tip to Reihan Salam for this one. A blogger from the other team essentially translates what I'm getting at here, here and here into Left-liberalese. Here is the key point:

The real danger of this moment for the Republicans is structural reform, fundamental changes to the American welfare state, or labor law, or regulation of carbon.That's where we'll see the big league, scratch and claw, any means necessary opposition. - Chris Hayes
Let's just add to this that structural reform is the operative danger for the Democrats too, they just haven't caught on yet.

Me to California: Drop Dead

In 1975, the municipality of New York had a severe crisis and required outside assistance to prevent default. The city received a loan from New York State and when that was not sufficient, asked President Ford for assistance. Ford was slow to offer assistance, prompting the New York Daily News to print the headline Ford to City: Drop Dead. Of course that was something of an exaggeration, because in early December of that year President Ford signed a bill authorizing loans of up to $2.3 Bn per year for the following few years. But, the conditions that were attached were very important: tax increases, wage freezes or cuts, staff cuts, and all the rest of it. And equally as important, the terms of the loan also commadeered the city's revenue streams to pay back the feds before the city's political establishment could get a hold of it.

We are again in period of debt crisis, of course. As big as it is, New York City is only one municipality. We are now in a situation where several states and many municipalities are danger of bankruptcy. But California is the worst case. And it's inconceivable that Congress and the Obama Administration will not bail out a state that gave 55 electoral votes to Obama and elected umpteen Democrats in the House of Representatives. Therefore, let the Congressional Republicans get out in front: yes, we'll propose the government loan California (and implicitly every other state) whatever it needs to stay afloat, with similar terms that President Ford bailed out New York City. By circulating the idea first, the GOP can frame the issue on their terms instead of merely offering some less of the same alternative.

The operating principle is that we ought to help our states and municipalities if we can, but the terms of assistance should be onerous enough, especially to the political classes there, so that they should never plead poverty to the feds if there's any chance they can make it without federal money.

The other team is the majority of course, and they might choose to give California money instead. Everybody really knows, that the GOP is, relatively speaking the party of fiscal conservatism. George W. Bush was an expensive exception, but an aberration nonetheless. We might as well take the opportunity to remind everyone.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Shovel Ready

Like Steve Sailer and others have pointed out, the Obama Administration (and liberals in general) would like to use federal stimulus money to fund big new infrastructure projects and big Green infrastructure projects in particular. Unfortunately, the planning and design stages for such things take years and years, therefore defeating the notion such projects will do anything to stimulate economic growth. Wait till the liberals figure out that the stimulative projects that are shovel ready are the ones that have little or no environmental impact to wade through, ie, new weapons systems for the Pentagon, or are built in the middle of a barren desert, ie, the fence across the Mexican border.

Demand for Aggregate Demand, pt II

Like I mentioned before, I have a gut feeling that the political foundations of the American welfare state are the weakest that it's been in my adult lifetime, therefore there is a compensating increase in interest in the nuts and bolts of Keynesian economics. But, one aspect that's gotten relatively little attention, especially with respect to it's political implications, is that the Keynesian theories of fiscal stimulus are very business cycle dependent. For now, everything's kosher because we're in a business cycle trough so aggregate demand is weak so government fiscal policy will supposedly stimulate it. But of course that hasn't always been the case in recent memory and hopefully won't be the case again sometime reasonably soon.

Furthermore, whereas the ability to finance the stimulus used to be an academic triviality, is reasonably likely to be in jeapordy before before we are clearly in a recovery. It is not going to go without notice, either by our current creditors or our prospective ones, that Iceland has already defaulted on its government debt and several other European countries including the UK are on the verge of it. Whatever happens, voters are not likely to forget soon, just as the political impact of the Great Depression took forty years or so to dissipate. Whoever can propose credible cuts in formerly sacred cows of government spending might get a more respectful hearing now than ever before.

The Way Out, pt Ia

Today, Megan McCardle has a great post on a subject I brought up a while ago, ie, the inefficiency in shopping from the wares of the Education Establishment to prepare for success in the labor market. (Perhaps coincidentally, Instapundit put up a link to this as well.) If anything, I'd quibble that the ivy-and-quad campuses are less efficient than the for-profit vocational "colleges." A Democratic Administration notwithstanding, Americans tend to be more responsible than most for working through their own problems. By the end of this economic crisis, education in America might look a lot different than it does now.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Demand for Aggregate Demand

(Mostly borrowed from a comment on another blog.)

Bryan Caplan has noted that Keynesian aggregate demand theories are enjoying a resurgence at the moment, but wonders why. My theory is that the political foundation of the American welfare state is in greater flux now than it has been for a long time. Let's go back a little bit. The philosophical and practical justification for the New Deal was to save people from complete destitution. As time passed, the welfare state grew but the justification behind it shifted away. Sometime between 1979 and 1993 say, the political establishment almost entirely gave up the idea that the point of spending on social programs is to help the poor.

The American people have adjusted to the idea that the safety net is there is smooth away the rough edges of life in a capitalist economy. (No comment on the underlying truth of that proposition, only that the perception of it is the political foundation of the contemporary American welfare state). That foundation is getting weaker. People are starting to figure out that what really want out of the economy is the opportunity to earn a living instead of welfare state protections. The academic and political left-of-center want to protect the welfare state, and Keynesian theories of aggregate demand is the tool for that particular job. Nobody needed that tool before now because the welfare state was built on political foundations that didn't require it.

This has, for me at least, some interesting consequences. Among other things, while Republican political strength is the lowest now that it's been in my adult lifetime, the mix of issues is the best it's been for five years at least.

One other thing: some of us cynics tend to view the typical theories of aggregate demand, deficit spending and fiscal surplus as an intellectual fig leaf for an assertion of social control by the political establishment over the population through government giveaways. And that is a substantial part of the story, though it's important to note, not all of it. So for that, we should thank libertarian economists like Tyler Cowen and the authors of Econlog, to sort through them on their own terms (as well as their political motivations).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blue State Blues

Since the election it's been mostly the same ol', same ol'. So far the big news has been political corruption in Illinois, highlighted by the arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the allegations by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald supporting the arrest. In California, the state budget deficit is expected to reach $40 Bn by 2010, to the point where the state will have to get emergency assistance from the federal government or go bankrupt. Finally, the Detriot Big Three are more than bankrupt, they would have run out of cash altogether except that they too, got bailout money from the feds.

There's something in common in all three of these. If were a professional Republican politician or pundit, I'd be pointing out what it is.