Tuesday, February 26, 2013

To oppose something ...

... is to maintain it. - Ursula LeGuin

So the sequester is supposed to kick in this Friday, March 1 - or, more accurately, the budget sequestration provision of the Budget Control Act of 2011. I had forgotten most of what I ever knew about how this came to be but Wikipedia explains that:

In 2011, sequestration was used in the Budget Control Act of 2011(BCA, P.L. 112-25) as a tool in federal budget control. This 2011 act authorized an increase in the debt ceiling in exchange for $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction over the following ten years. This total included $1.2 trillion in spending cuts identified specifically in the legislation, with an additional $1.2 trillion in cuts that were to be determined by a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives known as the "Super Committee" or officially as the United States Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. The Super Committee failed to reach an agreement. In that event, a trigger mechanism in the bill was activated to implement across-the-board reductions in the rate of increase in spending known as "sequestration".

The sequestration was supposed to kick in on January 1, 2013, but “the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 delayed in until March 1 of that year.”

Ah, yes. Debt ceilings, sequestration, Super Committees, fiscal cliffs, all that. And once we get past March 1, it looks like we’ll need another Continuing Resolution by March 27. Then there’s another fight over the debt ceiling coming up in May. Another fiscal cliff. Another chance for the parties to squabble, another chance for the economy to tank, another chance to have our credit rating downgraded, another chance for everyone outside of government to pay still less attention to still another crisis that never quite happens.

I'm pretty much sick of all this. So here’s what I’d like the Congressional Republicans to do, assuming they can act together.

Call a press conference.

Talk about the lousy shape the economy is in. Talk about the unemployment rate and the number of people who have stopped looking for work. Talk a lot about the morality of leaving future generations with crushing debt so we can have what we want now.

Say that the best choice for the country is the Path to Prosperity. State that the House is prepared to pass a budget based on this proposal immediately if the Senate Democrats will agree to pass it unchanged and President Obama will agree not to veto it.

Say that if the Senate Democrats and President Obama will not so agree, then the second best choice for the country is Bowles-Simpson. Acknowledge its flaws but point out that it is better than what we have now. State that the House is prepared to pass a budget based on this plan immediately if the Senate Democrats will agree to pass it unchanged and President Obama will agree not to veto it.

Say that what is bad for the country are the policies the President and the Congressional Democrats want. Explain what they are and why they are bad. If the Congressional Republicans cannot explain what these policies are and why they are bad, they should find another line of work.

Then say that nonetheless there is something that is worse for the country than the policies of the President and the Congressional Democrats: our current situation. The unending crises, the constant fiscal cliffs, the partisan bickering, the name-calling, the accusing, the lack on a budget, the constant kicking the can down the road through Continuing Resolutions and suspensions of the debt ceiling - none of that is good for anyone. Therefore, if the President and the Senate Democrats will not agree to either the Path to Prosperity or Bowles-Simpson, the Republicans are prepared to do the following:

1) Raise the debt ceiling to $21.5 Trillion.* Explain that this will be the last debt ceiling raise ever approved by a Republican-controlled house of Congress and that no future suspension of the debt ceiling will be considered.

2) Pass whatever budget President Obama and the Senate Democrats propose. Explain that Republicans will vote for a continuing resolution to get the country to the end of June and give President Obama and the Congressional Democrats a chance to put together a budget bill. That will be the last Continuing Resolution ever approved by a Republican-controlled house of Congress.

End the press conference.

The Republicans should do all this while avoiding partisan sniping, sarcasm, loaded language, and pettiness like the plague. It would be nice for at least one side to discuss the issues rather than the people involved, the supposed motives of the other side, the history of the failures, and whose fault it all is. And if high-mindedness isn’t enough reason to take this tack, the fact that bad-mouthing President Obama doesn’t work should be.

Doesn’t advocating this make me a nihilist, rooting for disaster to prove my point - or at least to gain political advantage in the long run? No.

I believe we’ll end up with a debt ceiling of $21.5 Trillion before Obama leaves office anyhow so that’s not a giveaway. As for passing the Obama/Democrat budget, there are three possibilities. One is that this approach works and the country recovers economically: unemployment drops like a rock; housing sales pick up; young people buried in student loans find good jobs; small businesses spring up like grass in a meadow and flourish like poplars by a flowing stream; the infrastructure is healed; consumer confidence skyrockets; a new sense of purpose and energy spreads across the country - and 90% of those polled now call themselves Democrats. Bad for conservatives but good for the country so I couldn’t really complain.

The second possibility is that the economy will remain in the doldrums. I believe this is the best we can hope for if we keep doing what we’re doing now so this outcome would be a wash.

The third possibility, of course, is that things get much worse. This is worrisome but I think there’s a good chance that’s going to happen soon anyhow if we keep “solving” our economic problems the way we have been - and I’m absolutely certain that’s going to happen eventually if we continue the way we are and that “eventually” isn’t much later than “soon”. I also think there’s a limit to how much damage President Obama and the Congressional Democrats can do in four years - and to how much damage they will risk doing given that all but one of them will be up for re-election shortly. It’s easy for them to talk Big Left when they know their policies won’t be implemented; knowing they are going to have to live with the consequences should induce a certain amount of realism and caution into their approach.

I truly believe that continuing down the road we’re on is the worst possible path. Taxes are going up already; meaningful, intelligent spending cuts don’t seem on the table; wandering from one crisis to another is practically the definition of a climate of uncertainty; and no one on either side is accountable for anything.

So I’d like to see the Republicans ask President Obama and the Congressional Democrats to do the conservative thing and then, if they refuse, gracefully step aside. Doing so will require President Obama and the Democrats to actually sit down and put something detailed on the table and I hope that once budgeting stops being primarily an exercise in slash-and-burn partisan politics, the Democrats will come up with something less destructive. And even if they don’t, why keep putting the economy through these fiscal cliff upheavals if we’re going to end up raising the debt ceiling and doing nothing to fix our actual economic problems anyhow?



$21.5 Trillion is an incredibly big number. However:

When Obama entered office, the debt ceiling was $11.315 Trillion. It is now $16.394 Trillion - an increase of $5.079 Trillion in Obama’s first term. If we increase the debt ceiling by the same amount in Obama’s second term, we will end up with a debt ceiling of $21.473 Trillion. Round it up a little and we get $21.5 Trillion.

To look at it another way:

When George W. Bush entered office, the debt ceiling was $5.95 Trillion. When he left office it was $11.315 Trillion. That’s an absolute increase of “only” $5.365 Trillion but a percentage increase of 90%.

If we increase the debt ceiling during Obama’s two terms by 90%, we will end up with a debt ceiling of $21.4985 Trillion. Round it up a little and we again get $21.5 Trillion.

So $21.5 Trillion it is.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Lifelong Endowment

T99 over at Grim's Hall recently put up a post called "The wages of consent". It points out that:

A welfare state threatens to become a system in which the most valuable service some voters can offer the market is to elect a politician who will drain resources from those who didn't elect him.  The politician pays for this service by routing a fraction of the loot back to his loyal voters.  The welfare state differs from our earliest attempts at state-administered charity in that the politician no longer is commandeering and redistributing only a small fraction of the nation's wealth to a small number of the most desperately needy.  Now he's commandeering from 49% of voters and redistributing to 51%.  Once the politician realizes that that's the path to staying in office (where he makes a handy living by skimming off the top of the redistributed funds), we are well on our way back to a command economy, one in which a centralized power directs where most of the resources shall be routed.  That way lies poverty for everyone.

and asks:

How do we stop a pernicious system of votes for hire?

I believe the ship has sailed as far as ever getting back to a system where people in the United States don't expect money to be taken from some of us to and given to others of us, so the fact that T99 is not asking, "How can we convince 51% of the people that wanting money to be redistributed to them is a Very Bad Thing?" seems to me to be a step in the right direction. That is, she is not asking how we can do the impossible but, rather, whether there's a way to do the maybe-perhaps-possible. There may be.

Quite a while back, someone who read my blog emailed me about a plan he had to address this very issue. Called the Lifelong Endowment*, the plan takes the government out of the equation by setting up a direct transfer of money from those who have more to those who have less. The plan document** detailing the Lifelong Endowment summarizes it thusly:

It assesses sixteen percent of all personal income and retained corporate earnings on a monthly basis, and distributes the full proceeds in equal shares to each adult citizen and quarter shares to minor citizens. Neither the assessment paid nor the benefit received is subject to federal income tax. [snip] Two pieces of companion legislation complete the proposal. The first eliminates the Social Security Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program (OASDI), and returns all employer and employee payroll taxes to the employee as wages. It also guarantees beneficiaries a total Lifelong Endowment benefit not less than the total OASDI benefit they would otherwise receive. The second measure is a corporate income tax rate reduction sufficient to make the proposal revenue-neutral for corporations.

The math here is simple and lovely. The Lifelong Endowment is:

- Flat in assessment: everyone pays the same percent.
- Flat in distribution: each adult gets the same as every other adult; each child gets the same as every other child
- Perfectly redistributive in effect: the poorer you are, the greater your net positive; once you become rich enough, the effect is a net negative

Thinking about this approach does require that we accept the inevitability of some kind of redistribution and turn our attention to minimizing its ill effects. Anyone who is still attempting to eliminate redistribution itself will not find this approach helpful. I encourage everyone, however, to think about how various scenarios would play out under this approach. When I did that, I usually found that this approach worked quite well even in those situations where I was sure I could find a fatal flaw.

How does the Lifelong Endowment "stop a pernicious system of votes for hire"? By getting the Federal government out of the redistribution business. This happens first because the sixteen percent assessment does not flow to the Federal government. Rather:

The collection of the tax and the apportionment of its receipts occur monthly. It is administered through accounts provided and maintained for that purpose by the banks of the United States, the choice among which is made according to the convenience of each individual.

The government has no control over this money and is unable to "make a handy living by skimming off the top of the redistributed funds". It "has no role other than to enforce [the plan's] operation". There is no reason to offer votes in exchange for loot since the politician has no loot to give. There are thus no special interest groups arguing for greater support for their group.

Second, because they have no control over the money, the government and its employees and sub-contractors also have no control over recipients of the money. In speaking of those who currently "look to … [government programs] to satisfy basic needs", the plan document says:

They must accept the definitions and priorities set by the [government program] for the problems that they face and for the solutions to those problems; but these and all other aspects of the [government program] emerge from public-choice processes that reflect interests unrelated to their own. They must forego productive activity on their own behalf in order to meet program eligibility requirements, but attend without fail to unproductive dealings with executive bureaucracies. Both the [government program] and the relationship of citizens to it depend solely on public-choice and resulting political factors that again reflect interests other than their own; but the possible (or threatened) loss of their [government program]-client status can command their support for those interests nonetheless. Through a combination of requirements, prohibitions, and incentives, current assistance programs are thus destructive of the personal, economic, and political liberties of those who must rely on them.

The Lifelong Endowment removes this power from the government. The money is distributed to everyone equally with no intervention from or direction by the government. Recipients need not adopt or forego specific behaviors in order to be "allowed" to receive this money; they need not support policies they don't like in order to elect the politicians who will continue to "give" them the money they need to keep body and soul together:

Citizens are not beholden for their benefit to the patronage of a political faction, but rely instead on the general prosperity that both their own efforts and the genius of their shared civic endeavor help to create.

The Lifelong Endowment also means that people who need financial assistance but would like to support themselves don't have to worry about losing the assistance when they start trying to help themselves. A young mother can take an entry level job without worrying that she'll lose subsidized day care: she goes right on getting her share of the Lifelong Endowment. Even if a big chunk of her salary goes to pay for child care her family is no worse off than it was before and she has her foot in the door of the work world. If a man with an injury that makes it hard for him to work 40 hours a week at his previous well-paid job finds an easy, low-paying job 15 hours a week, he doesn't have to worry he'll lose his disability payment:

All citizens alike can exercise and develop their personal autonomy, defining and ranking the challenges of life in accordance with their own perceived interests. All citizens have the identical incentive to pursue their economic self-interest through productive and voluntary market exchange.

The Lifelong Endowment has effects beyond interrupting what T99 calls "a pernicious system of votes for hire". One of the most important is that it undercuts the idea of a limited pie where more for the rich somehow means less for the not rich. Instead we are all tied together: the more money the Koch brothers make, the more money we all get. Everyone now has a rooting interest in policies which encourage making money. The Lifelong Endowment does this by:

… tying the benefit amount directly to national prosperity. It thereby enlists the self-interest of citizens toward the prosperity of their neighbors, and thus toward creating a nation where both they and their neighbors can prosper.

In other words, once the Lifelong Endowment is in place, proposing a plan that would limit the prosperity of anyone in the country would mean limiting the prosperity of everyone in the country. When a politician starts railing against those who are making too much money, everyone in the country can do simple arithmetic to figure out how much of that "too much money" will flow into the Lifelong Endowment and thence to them - and can see clearly that if that "too much money" flows into the government tax coffers instead, everyone will see far less direct benefit from it.

Although the plan document does not mention it, there is another aspect of the Lifelong Endowment I think is important. It brings into sharp focus the question, "How much of my income am I willing to give to other people?" That, after all, is really what's happening with all Federal income support programs: Social Security; disability payments; unemployment benefits; welfare; food stamps; housing subsidies. All of it. I am giving some of my income to other people: I get taxed; you get money. However, the Rube Goldberg contraption that funnels my taxes to your wallet is so opaque that the connection between the two simply can't be grasped. This makes it very easy to agree to an increased benefit for Person A because it appears to have virtually no impact on Person B's taxes - even if Person B is me. If we extend unemployment benefits for another six months, it may cost each of us, I don't know, $1 a year. That seems like a small price to pay to help those who need assistance. But $1 here and $1 there and before you know it you're talking either confiscatory tax rates or a multi-trillion dollar deficit.

WIth the Lifelong Endowment, we're starting from the other end. We aren't asking, "How much money do we want the needy to have?" but "How much money are we wiling to ante up?" If 16% seems like a lot to be assessed but we run the numbers and it turns out that the government is already redistributing the amount of money that a 16% assessment will provide, well, guess what? That means someone somewhere is already chipping in at least 16% to provide that money. Or, more likely, our grandchildren will be doing so here shortly. In other words, this approach also brings into sharp focus the realization that money given to people must be coming from somewhere and that somewhere is other people, either currently existing or soon to be born into crushing debt.***

I do have some concerns about the Lifelong Endowment as currently proposed. First, the plan leaves intact existing Federal income support programs. Since the Lifelong Endowment would leave most of the people currently receiving them above the means-testing line, the idea is that those programs would be unused without ever being repealed. I have serious reservations about this. I believe eventually the poverty line for participating in those programs would simply be raised and we would end up with a Lifelong Endowment and massive Federal income support programs. (The framework for that is already in place with the trend toward redefining poverty from an absolute condition to a relative one.) I would prefer that the existing income support programs be discontinued.****

That said, the plan document is not just about defining the Lifelong Endowment: it is also about building a coalition to pass it. Leaving the existing Federal income support programs in place may be necessary to build that coalition:

… the continuing availability of current aid programs … serve[s] to reassure voters that their support of the proposal carries little risk.

I am also hesitant about the proposed distribution formula; I lean toward simply giving each adult a full share and children no share. My concern here is about children being seen as little ATMs, whether we're talking about families getting more money the more children they have or divorcing couples whose child custody fights suddenly get much uglier. However, I can see the appeal of providing shares for children so I go back and forth on this issue.

Then there is the assessment on retained corporate earnings. I am leery of corporate income taxes in general so this makes me uncomfortable. However, again, the plan is designed to build a coalition to actually enact the Lifelong Endowment. It may be that the assessment on corporations is necessary to make the Lifelong Endowment large enough to be embraced by a "hyper majority" and/or that requiring corporations to "pay their fair share" may be required to garner support on the Left. Furthermore, the plan envisions an offsetting income tax reduction so the effect on corporations is neutral. We should be aware, however, that once we go this down this road it will probably be impossible to ever remove the Lifelong Endowment assessment against corporations. That means we will always have, a minimum corporate income tax (at least one retained earnings) of 16%.

Finally, what keeps the same "pernicious system of votes for hire" from kicking in and resulting in politicians increasing Lifelong Endowment assessment from 16% to 18%, then 20%, then 25%?

Nothing. Which is why it would be nice to set this up as a Constitutional amendment if possible.***** The plan's author takes the long view here:

The proposal envisions that some variant of a Lifelong Endowment would eventually be adopted as a constitutional amendment. An effort to curtail government powers rather than expand them has the advantage of tactical flexibility: this and other restrictions of government spending can proceed at first through legislation, and their effects can be studied and debated, before the more difficult task of adopting a constitutional remedy is ever attempted.

My own shorter view is that while this type of assessment creep will be a danger if the Lifelong Endowment is enacted through legislation, I believe it is less of a danger when how much is really being paid for a benefit is front and center. It can sound very reasonable to say, "Poor people need more money. Let's increase everyone's food stamp allowance." It can sound even more reasonable to say, "Poor people deserve better food. Let's loosen up requirements for food stamps on top of Lifelong Endowment shares." It should sound pretty unreasonable, however, to say, "Getting 16% of your money isn't enough; poor people need 20%." And if that doesn't sound unreasonable, we're pretty much toast anyhow.

So. Comments, questions, problems, screams of outrage?



* I like the name "Lifelong Endowment" because it removes the word "redistribution" and the word "entitlement". It emphasizes the idea that we are all in this together. It removes the stigma of government handouts. It also removes the implication of charity which is a serious consideration if a plan is going to garner support from the Left.

** The Lifelong Endowment plan does not exist in a website although a summary of it can be found in this comment to a PJ Media post. When I quote the plan, I am quoting with the author's permission from our correspondence, including an approximately thirty-page document detailing the plan. Throughout this post, I have snipped specific dollar calculations and amounts when I quote from the plan document. They are not the focus of my post and they are based on older data and need to be updated.

*** I disagree with the statement by Fabius Maximus here that "Proposals like this are dross unless we see the numbers". If the plan is a way out of our current situation then we figure out if the numbers can work. If it causes more problems than it solves then the numbers are irrelevant.

**** I believe health care/insurance issues must be handled separately so I would treat Medicare and Medicaid separately.

***** In the form of the plan outlined at the comment to a PJ Media post, the author proposed a variable rate, set by an independent board. This proposal was not part of the plan document I have. I am extremely leery of a variable rate since such rates seem to travel in only one direction.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

This is not the fight they (want to) believe it is

[Now that I’m blogging again, I’ve started going through pieces I wrote - or started and let languish - while I wasn’t blogging. This one is about a year and a half old but not much seems to have changed in this area.]

The New York Times has up an opinion piece entitled “How Do You Put a Nation on a Diet?”. I read it with the overwhelming sense of discouragement I always feel when reading about attempts to wipe out obesity in the country and, I assume, eventually the world. Why? Because of writing like this:

The institute says that a major cut in obesity rates will require multiple strategies on a population-wide scale. This will be even more challenging than the fight against smoking. But there isn’t any choice if we want to protect the public’s health, the strength of the economy and the government budget.

Those who are proposing government intervention and large societal changes to fight obesity think they are re-fighting the largely successful war against cigarettes. They’re wrong. What they are re-fighting is the utterly futile battle we now refer to simply as “Prohibition”.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Imagine that a man who has brutally murdered several people, including children, is testifying at his own trial. Cameras are allowed in the courtroom and a television network is taping his testimony. The tape is played on the evening news.

When he see the news the murderer is incensed. The network, he claims, played only the part of the tape that showed him confessing to the killings. It edited out the part of the tape where he explained his very good reasons for doing so. The network, he claims, has materially misrepresented him.

I would not see media malpractice here. What the man did is so utterly unacceptable that his reasons for doing so are irrelevant. There is literally no reason for the network to broadcast them.

Now imagine that a major newspaper prints an article on child sexual abuse. The article praises the social workers who identify the abused children; the police and prosecutors who work to put the abusers in prison; and the counselors who help the victims have a chance at a normal life. They barely mention the abusers, except to express disgust that anyone would commit such an act.

After the article comes out, a pedophile advocacy organization protests that their side of the issue was not considered. No one interviewed them; the article’s author doesn’t even mention that such organizations exist. Perhaps, they acknowledge, the author of the article doesn’t agree with their position but he has an obligation to at least know what their arguments are, explain them honestly, and rebut them if he can.

I would not see media bias here. The advocacy organizations are not legitimate players in any public discourse. There is no need to take their views into account or even to acknowledge that anyone holds those views. They exist outside the realm of decent, serious society.

Perhaps what look like media malpractice and media bias to people on the Right; what look like deliberate decisions to deceptively edit and knowingly omit; what look like actions in service of an ideology and a goal; perhaps all that is simply a result of a mindset that defines certain people as existing outside the realm of decent, serious society and that believes no reason is sufficient to explain their utterly unacceptable ideas and policies.


Related reading:

If It Will Save a Single Life, We Must Get Piers Morgan's Stupid Fat Face off the Television - The idea for this post has been running around my head for a while. Reading this over at Ace of Spades made me decide to write it:

This is the underlying assumption that they simply will not confess, for if they did confess it, it would be game over for them. All of their conclusions -- all of their bias, all of their double-standards -- flow from this premise, which they will not admit, but will only dance around.

The premise is simply that liberal speech is much more valuable than conservative speech and this is of course because liberal politics are much more valuable than conservative ones.
Perhaps it’s not that they “will not confess” so much as that they do not realize there is anything to confess.

Conservatives need to create powerful, “sticky” messages that lead the electorate to a tipping point - From Bookworm:

... for decades the Left had created an intellectual atmosphere in which it was easy for people to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that Romney was an evil, soulless man, and that a Republican America would be, as Ted Kennedy so memorably said about Robert Bork,
a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy….
That none of this came to pass during any Republican ascendency is irrelevant. 

Obama’s Thunderdome - From the Wall Street Journal:

What is striking about the Obama technique is that it's not so much criticism as something closer to political obliteration, driving his opposition out of the political arena altogether.
After the inaugural speech, Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer said that Democrats don't have "an opposition party worthy of the opportunity."

The problem with starting an alternative media on the right - From Neoneocon:

The much more basic problem with an alternative conservative media is that the media on the right has been so demonized—and any alternative media would be equally demonized—that Democrats and even many of those in the middle have been taught that it’s unreliable and will not watch it, and/or they automatically discount what it says.

So God Made a Fawner - Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. At the end of this piece, she writes:

... Mr. Kroft is a reporter whose job it is to be impartial and nonpartisan, and who works for a towering journalistic institution, "60 Minutes."

People like him are supposed to approach political figures with no fear or favor.

Their job is to grill. What are they afraid of?
I suspect the answer to that question can be found here:
In response to: The left is quite open about its intentions - From Breitbart (via Ace who is doing some interesting writing on media bias):

People don't want to be thought of as "extremist". No one wants to think their opinions are stupid, hateful or unpopular.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Everybody needs a hobby

[Obviously this post is not going up "later today" as I said it would in my previous post - from Thursday. On the other hand, it's not the post I intended to put up, either, so perhaps that balances things out. That post crashed and burned but I am going to re-work it and get it up, well, I was going to promise a specific date but we've just seen how well that works so I'll just say "soon". Or perhaps "eventually". In the meantime,something a little lighter. ]

I wander over to the Naked Capitalism blog every several months to look for cute animal pictures. I download them, put them in folders, and use them as screen savers. It drives my husband nuts.

Occasionally while I'm over there I think I should be reading some of the posts. After all, they have great cute animal pictures; surely that means they're the kind of people worth reading. I find, though, that when I try to read the posts I either don't understand them or, if I do understand them, their tone is so unpleasant I would be inclined to distrust what they're saying even if they told me that the sun rose in the east.

During my last foray (which netted some wonderful pictures), I ran across a couple of posts referencing Megan McArdle, both in a negative way. Since I usually find McArdle's writing interesting and helpful, my initial reaction was to assume the writer had an ax to grind and ignore what was being said. However, I do at least try to keep an open mind so I read them.

One of the posts was entitled "Project S.H.A.M.E.: Megan McArdle, a Covert Republican Party Activist Trained by the Billionaire Koch Brothers". The introduction read:

We are delighted to post the latest offering of Project S.H.A.M.E., a media transparency initiative led by Yasha Levine and Mark Ames.

The article lists bullet points that it claims are "The recovered history of Megan McArdle". The first several items had nothing to do with "the Billionaire Koch Brothers" but then came pay dirt: three items tying McArdle to the "right-wing Institute for Humane Studies, headed by Charles Koch since the 1960's". The first two revealed that McArdle had "received journalism training" from the Institute and had "returned to her Koch alma mater as a guest lecturer and instructor". (So far as I can tell, the "journalism training" is some kind of Internship Program .) Third was this item:

In a sign of just how close and trusted McArdle is to the Kochs, in October 2011, she was chosen to emcee Charles Koch’s 50th Anniversary gala celebration of his flagship libertarian think-tank, the Institute for Humane Studies, featuring Charles Koch as the keynote speaker and guest of honor. McArdle and Koch were joined by hundreds of leading GOP donors and activists. An IHS newsletter wrote of her performance: “Emcee Megan McArdle wove a humorous narrative through the program.” The IHS attempted to hide McArdle’s involvement, scrubbing her name from the dinner announcement page.

The link supporting the "scrubbing claim" goes to an Evernote page which provides links to copies of two announcements of the event:

Original announcement (accessed Sept 2011)
Scrubbed announcement no longer lists Megan McArdle as emcee (accessed after event took place)

I checked the two announcements and, yes, the first one lists McArdle and the second one doesn't. However, the second announcement has not only "scrubbed" McArdle; it has also "scrubbed" everyone else listed on the program. The original announcement contains this listing:

Remarks - Charles G. Koch, Koch Industries, Inc. & IHS Chairman
Tribute - Walter E. Williams, George Mason University
Stories - A Parade of IHS Alumni
Emcee - Megan McArdle, The Atlantic

That entire section is gone from the "scrubbed" announcement which contains this notice:


Apparently the Institute not only wanted to hide Megan McArdle's involvement in this event; they also wanted to hide Charles Koch's involvement as well as that of their own alumni and Mr. Williams. The writers of the piece do not explain why this was important to IHS.*

I have to admit that after that I didn't pay much attention to the rest of the points but one other caught my eye:

In 2008, McArdle argued that the recession had a silver lining for liberals and the 99%, claiming the economic downturn would reduce wealth inequality because it hurt the rich more than middle- and lower-income Americans: “Recessions are bad for everyone, but they’re worse for the wealthy.” In fact, wealth inequality has substantially worsened since then.

As anyone who has ever read McArdle can probably guess, this claim cherry-picks the quoted post. Still, while cherry-picking the writing of someone you're attacking is not quite right, it is so common on the Internet as to be hardly worth mentioning.

More interesting to me is the link backing up the "wealth inequality has substantially worsened" claim. That link goes to a Naked Capitalism post , published in April 2012 and entitled, "Growth of Income Inequality is Worse Under Obama than Bush". The embedded graph shows that for the period from 2009 to 2010:

Average Income Real Growth was +2.3%
Top 1% Incomes Real Growth was +11.6%
Bottom 99% Incomes Real Growth was +0.2%%
Fraction of total growth (or loss) captured by top 1% was +93%

Based on those numbers, inequality did substantially worsen from 2009 to 2010. However, the chart also shows that for the period from 2007 to 2009:

Average Income Real Growth was -17.4%
Top 1% Incomes Real Growth was -36.3%
Bottom 99% Incomes Real Growth was -11.6%
Fraction of total growth (or loss) captured by top 1% was -49%

In other words, from 2007-2009 (which I believe includes the 2008 during which McArdle wrote her post) the rich took a bigger hit than anyone else - just as McArdle claimed they were and would.

Of course, none of this is substantively important. The writeup was clearly an amateurish hatchet job, pure and simple, and those are a dime a dozen in blogs. If someone finds McArdle an interesting and generally sensible writer, he or she will continue to do so. If someone doesn't, then the claims of this piece won't be examined closely and it will simply provide a gratifying rush of confirmation basis.

But while the substance is uninteresting, the form in general fascinates me for a couple of reasons. First, and most simply, it's another entry in the Category I never got around to setting up called "Always click on the links". It still amazes me that people provide links to support their claims when those links do nothing of the kind. Perhaps the sheer flood of information means that most people don't click on the links most of the time and so the writer knows he can claim whatever he wants about what is on the other end of that link. But that brings me to the other aspect that fascinates me: is the writer knowingly providing a backup link that doesn't back up his claims, or does he truly read what's at the link as supporting his contentions?

So I wonder about what goes on in the minds of the people who write these types of pieces. How could the authors of the piece on McArdle not notice that all the names in the program had been removed from the Institute announcement? Or, if they did notice it, how can they find some conspiracy relating just to one person in that fact? How can they not notice that the link they cite as proof McArdle was wrong in 2008 in fact says just what she was saying at that time?

I understand despising someone - even someone you've never met. I understand vendettas and righteousness and being absolutely certain you are right and someone else is wrong. Believe me, I understand all that. I even understand, in an excess of bile, saying something untrue about the hated person. It's reprehensible but sometimes emotions overcome us. But writing is a lengthy process, requiring thought and consideration. What process goes on that makes it possible to write something untrue about someone you want to discredit? Is it a calculated move, designed to harm an enemy, without consideration of truth or falsehood - the ends justify the means? Is it that the writer can tell himself he's not actually being dishonest: the things he describes did kind of happen and if his choice of words implies something more than what's there, well, that's not really lying? Or is it that the writers of these types of articles truly do not see what is right in front of them? I don't know. It's very strange to me.

Beyond that, I simply find it sad that a site with such great cute animal pictures would re-post something like this. On the bright side, it does mean I can stop feeling I should be reading posts at Naked Capitalism. On the not so bright side, I worry I should re-examine my attachment to cute animal pictures.



* As this was about to go to press, I read this at Instapundit:


I think whether you read the linked post from the NPR Ombudsman as admitting to "scrubbing" or as explaining why this wasn't scrubbing in the sense of "attempting to conceal" depends on your politics and your opinion of NPR (which may well be the same thing).

I read the explanation from NPR as "not scrubbing" as did the person making the original complaint (see the first comment, the third and fourth points). Therefore, if I wanted to highlight this incident, I would have referred to the Howard Bryant's comment rather than to NPR. Or, if I wanted to praise NPR, I would describe the incident as "NPR removes a gratuitous swipe at a civil rights organization".

Thursday, February 7, 2013

I'm back

I'm blogging again and will have a substantive post up later today. I think I have the blog set up so that people can comment but while I was away Blogger redid the entire interface. There are fields in my setup that have no value and I have not touched them for fear of causing a problem I have neither the time nor the inclination to struggle with.

So if you do comment and your writing is transliterated into Armenian or something, drop me an email. My email address is in my profile, over there ---> in the left margin.