Browsing the blog archives for December, 2010.

Happy Humbug Day

Obama Administration

Just a short note today. If you have time tomorrow, stop by for the Christmas Maha-Spectacular.

Paul Krugman writes today about the Humbug Express:

Have you heard the one about how there’s been an explosion in the number of federal regulators? Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute looked into the numbers behind that claim, and it turns out that almost all of those additional “regulators” work for the Department of Homeland Security, protecting us against terrorists.

Still, why does it matter what some politicians and think tanks say? The answer is that there’s a well-developed right-wing media infrastructure in place to catapult the propaganda, as former President George W. Bush put it, to rapidly disseminate bogus analysis to a wide audience where it becomes part of what “everyone knows.” (There’s nothing comparable on the left, which has fallen far behind in the humbug race.)

And it’s a very effective process. When discussing the alleged huge expansion of government under Mr. Obama, I’ve repeatedly found that people just won’t believe me when I try to point out that it never happened. They assume that I’m lying, or somehow cherry-picking the data. After all, they’ve heard over and over again about that surge in government spending and employment, and they don’t realize that everything they’ve heard was a special delivery from the Humbug Express.

See also “People, We’re in Deep Trouble” by Gene Lyons.

Even compared to the manifest swindles and perversions of the past 20 years or thereabouts, the United States has never seen anything like Fox News. The closest comparison to what Fox does daily would be the party-line propaganda sheets of the far left and extreme right that made Orwell worry “that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”

If you read the comments — and I don’t necessarily recommend that you do — it becomes apparent that it does no good to tell the lemmings they’re being lied to. The truth is whatever Faux says it is.

Elsewhere: Brian Beutler has more to say about why moderate Republicans voted for some Democratic bills in the lame duck session.

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Senate Clearance Sale

Obama Administration

So the Senate passed START and a watered-down 9/11 first responders bill. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been signed into law, and a lot of other stuff got done at the last minute. One might ask why the Senate didn’t hustle and get this stuff done sooner. Ezra has a theory:

DADT repeal passed because Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Scott Brown voted with the Democrats. The tax deal went through because a host of Republicans voted with the Democrats. Same for START, the food-safety bill and the DoD authorization. If the bill helping 9/11 responders get medical benefits passes, that too will be because of Republican support.

The question is why the Republicans didn’t just drag their feet and let things expire and then come back to everything in 2011, when they’ll have more allies in the Senate and control of the House? …

… The answer, I think, is that there are plenty of Senate Republicans who aren’t too comfortable with the class of conservatives who got elected in 2010.

I think some Republicans were shamed into supporting the 9/11 responders bill, although the one passed likely will prove to be inadequate. The objection I have is that, as I understand it, the program runs for only five years. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers released thousands of tons of toxic substances into the air, and the diseases these substances can cause are not going to disappear in five years. Some of them, especially the cancers, develop very slowly; symptoms may not show up for another ten or twenty years, or even longer. But at least the responders who are sick now will get some support.

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The Internet Is a Marxist Conspiracy

Obama Administration

Yesterday the FCC decided on some “net neutrality” regulations that had some in the the leftie blogosphere sputtering about an “Obama sellout.” Now the Right is weighing in, and they don’t like the new regs, either.

John Fund:

The Federal Communications Commission’s new “net neutrality” rules, passed on a partisan 3-2 vote yesterday, represent a huge win for a slick lobbying campaign run by liberal activist groups and foundations. The losers are likely to be consumers who will see innovation and investment chilled by regulations that treat the Internet like a public utility.

Fund goes on to explain that the whole “net neutrality” issue is a scam thought up by some socialist-Marxist academics and fringe organizations like the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Free Press has been funded by a network of liberal foundations that helped the lobby invent the purported problem that net neutrality is supposed to solve. They then fashioned a political strategy similar to the one employed by activists behind the political speech restrictions of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill. The methods of that earlier campaign were discussed in 2004 by Sean Treglia, a former program officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, during a talk at the University of Southern California. Far from being the efforts of genuine grass-roots activists, Mr. Treglia noted, the campaign-finance reform lobby was controlled and funded by foundations like Pew.

I don’t know that anyone claimed “net neutrality” is a “grassroots” issue, since the people who understand and care about net neutrality are those of us who live online most of the time. And unlike the Right, lefties don’t use astroturf organization to conjure a facade of populism in front of issues that are really being pushed by the elite.

But, basically, Fund’s argument is that anything thought up by liberals must be part of a totalitarian plot. Seriously.

As I’ve looked at some comments today, it strikes me that some people view the Internet primarily as a tool for free speech, and others view it primarily as a tool for commerce, and these two groups are way not in alignment. But the Right today is reacting with a viciousness that suggests someone very high on the food chain with very deep pockets is really, really angry, and the tools have been ordered to fight the regs tooth and nail.

So, dutifully, Little Lulu has declared that Net Neutrality is “Obamacare for the Web” and declares that “Internet access is not a civil right.” Pretty rich, coming from someone whose career is largely based on her Web activities.

Nate Anderson has a good background article on why everyone hates the new net regulations. The main players are FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and one of the Republican commissioners, Meredith Baker.

To Baker, charging companies like Netflix for better access to ISP customers is unabashedly pro-consumer, since it might (insert a gentle cough of skepticism here) lower consumer broadband prices. As for network management, it’s an “engineering marvel.” Baker’s statement made clear—repeatedly—that she was bewildered by any view of ISPs as huge companies that might misuse their power and control, and she rejects any attempt to limit their “innovation.”

Genachowski apparently started from a more pro-neutrality position, but then attempted a “pro-investment” compromise that preserved part of the “net netrality” platform. But people aren’t in much of a mood to compromise these days, are they?

Anyway, Republicans vow to drag the regulations into court to have them overturned, so the fight is far from over.

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Teaching Sponges to Dance

Obama Administration

Bless George Monbiot for attempting to explain science to righties. It’s futile, but I admire him for trying.

He provides a fairly readable explanation based on scientific evidence of why the process of global “warming” is causing some parts of the world to be colder. I’ll let you read this for yourselves. This is not a new phenomenon, of course; scientists have been noting that global climate change is causing some areas to cool for a while now. Then Monbiot says,

I can already hear the howls of execration: now you’re claiming that this cooling is the result of warming! Well, yes, it could be. A global warming trend doesn’t mean that every region becomes warmer every month. That’s what averages are for: they put local events in context. The denial of man-made climate change mutated first into a denial of science in general and then into a denial of basic arithmetic. If it’s snowing in Britain, a thousand websites and quite a few newspapers tell us, the planet can’t be warming.

According to Nasa’s datasets, the world has just experienced the warmest January to November period since the global record began, 131 years ago; 2010 looks likely to be either the hottest or the equal hottest year. This November was the warmest on record.

Sod all that, my correspondents insist: just look out of the window.

And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. Utterly ignoring the scientific explanation, the brainless life forms known collectively as “righties” simply howl with derision.

One says,

Snow, he is trying to tell us in all earnestness, is another sign that Man Made Global Warming is definitely happening. Nothing to do with solar minima or El Nino and La Nina or any of that reality-based nonsense. No, sirree. It’s definitely, definitely still our fault because of all that evil plant-food our factories have been pumping into the atmosphere. Weather is not the same as climate. Etc.

Now, Monbiot doesn’t say a word in his article about whether the changes in weather patterns are man-made or not. He is explaining only how it is that an overall warming trend is causing British winters to be colder. But the brainless life forms can’t be bothered with, you know, reading. Or thinking, for that matter.

Might as well try to teach sponges to dance.

There have been all kinds of predictions about how global climate change will affect this or that part of the world, and some — not all — predictions have been wrong. If you go back a few years, you can find British scientists predicting Britain would get warmer. However, other scientists have been predicting that Britain, which enjoys milder weather than other parts of Europe on the same latitude, would get colder because of changes in the Gulf Stream.

But Monbiot says, it turns out that changes in atmospheric patterns are the primary cause of Britain’s current colder weather. These changes also are also being driven by global climate change.

Mass media has done a terrible job explaining climate change science to the public, and often what gets reported are the more fantastical predictions, because they make better headlines. And, of course, if one scientist somewhere was wrong about anything, then all science is discredited, even the science that is turning out to be right. For this reason, I predict the sponges won’t be dancing anytime soon.

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All Your Holidays Are Belong to Us

Obama Administration

Ross Douthat writes,

In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Oh, boo hoo. Listen, Christians, you can’t have it both ways — you can’t whine incessantly about your holy day being contaminated by consumerism and then insist that your holy day be celebrated by consumerism. You can’t complain that other traditions are horning in on the pristine observation of Christmas and then browbeat non-Christians into observing Christmas.

And the idea that “Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism” is stopping Christians from observing Christmas any way they like makes as much sense as the argument that allowing gay people to marry will destroy the marriages of “straight” people.

This weekend on some panel discussion, Nina Totenberg said, “I was at — forgive the expression — a Christmas party.” Now, I don’t know why she said that, and I don’t much care. I assume that somebody with the name “Totenberg” is Jewish, and maybe she feels a little uncomfortable attending any social event with the label “Christmas.” But the way the right blogosphere reacted, you’d think Totenberg had admitted that she personally had crucified Jesus.

See also Hot Air, Mediaite, Sister Toldjah, Fausta’s Blog, Scared Monkeys, Althouse, American Glob, Don Surber, Creative Minority Report, The Right Scoop, Pat Dollard, The Gateway Pundit and theblogprof.

These are not the complaints of an “embattled” people. These are the complaints of people who believe they are owed deference and aren’t getting it. It’s something like segregationist whites who expected people of color to step off the sidewalk as they approached.

I’ve said in the past that when people like Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly who can’t even fake religiosity well complain about others’ lack of faith, they’re really complaining about disrespect of tribal totems.

Nobody is stopping Christians from observing Christmas as a deeply holy day. They just have to do it. But they need to understand that they can’t expect everyone to take part in a big, gaudy, commercial pig-out festival and then complain if non-Christians observe the holiday solely as a big, gaudy, commercial pig-out festival.

If they want Christ put back into Christmas, then they should keep Christmas confined to Christianity.

The other solution is to completely divorce Christmas from the big, gaudy, commercial pig-out festival. Restore Christmas to what it was to Christians of centuries ago, with church services and a banquet, but no shopping, no presents, no Santa Claus.

And if you want to celebrate the big, splashy, commercial gift-giving festival, you can do that, too. Just don’t mix them up. We could even call the secular festival “Yule,” a name taken from a pagan winter celebration.

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Fight for Net Neutrality

Obama Administration

Al Franken writes about the most important free speech issue of our time. Come to think of it, it’s pretty amazing they haven’t shut us bloggers down already. I suspect the only reason they haven’t is that rightie blogtopia is a useful enough tool.

Elsewhere — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says he doesn’t remember the civil rights era of 50 years ago as being all that bad. Yes, and I’m sure there are a great many other things the governor doesn’t remember.

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What’s Happening Now

Obama Administration

Yes, the Senate has voted to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and I understand all that’s left to make it so is President Obama’s signature.

Republican senators who voted “yes” were Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois, John Ensign of Nevada, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, George Voinovich of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (take that, teabaggers) and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.

The DREAM act has died, however. Dems voting against cloture were Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and both Montana Democrats, Jon Tester and Max Baucus. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who was known to be opposed, played hooky from the Senate and missed the vote.

John McCain

Senator John McCain Before the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Vote

They’re still working to ratify the START treaty. Earlier today Republican senators John McCain and Bob Corker were threatening to derail START if DADT was voted on, but it appears not all of the GOP marched behind them on that.

Then McCain wanted to change the language of the START treaty, and the Senate shot that down, 59-37.

John McCain has been having one pout after another these last few days. A few years ago he was the Senate’s happy maverick. More recently he was the old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn. But he’s turning into the Senate’s Miss Havisham, bitter and weirdly living in the past. He needs to retire.

In another brilliant move, House Republicans came out in favor of forced marriages of girl children. I understand the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act would have provided some funding and a plan to discourage forced marriages of girl children. The bill had already passed in the Senate.

The bill’s defeat in the House Thursday left Durbin fuming.

“The action on the House floor stopping the Child Marriage bill tonight will endanger the lives of millions of women and girls around the world,” Durbin said in a statement after Thursday’s House vote. “These young girls, enslaved in marriage, will be brutalized and many will die when their young bodies are torn apart while giving birth. Those who voted to continue this barbaric practice brought shame to Capitol Hill.”

Who would not want to save those poor children? Why, wingnuts, of course, who spotted the bill as a clever ploy to fund abortions.

Just before the vote, Republicans distributed a memo to pro-life House members arguing that the bill could ultimately end up funding abortions.

“The bill provides little structure or oversight on how the money may be spent,” the memo read. “The President is authorized under this bill to provide assistance through nongovernmental organizations that are charged with the promotion of ‘health’ of girls and women. It is possible that some of these NGOs may view abortion as health care and promote abortion services as a part of that health care.”

So it’s OK if those little bodies are torn apart in childbirth, as long as those little girls aren’t allowed to have abortions! Priorities, you know.

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The McArdle Mystery

Obama Administration

… the mystery being why a respectable publication like The Atlantic keeps a dimwit like Megan McArdle on the payroll.

In the past few hours McArdle has dropped two Atomic Bombs of Stupid, one of which is nicely debunked by Scott Lemieux.

In the other, titled “Government Arguing That Health Insurance Premiums Are Really Taxes?“,

The arguments on the health care mandate in Florida went forward today, with the government trying to clarify how the mandate is a tax, (though not in a way that would mean Barack Obama lied about raising taxes on people with incomes below $250,000 a year), and not an attempt to grossly exceed the enumerated powers of the legislature.

Is the Obama Administration arguing that the mandate is a tax? McArdle provides no evidence for this.

McArdle is discussing a suit brought by the state of Florida against the insurance mandate. The state of Florida’s argument is that the feds are assuming the right to regulate all economic behavior. The judge asked, “They can decide how much broccoli everyone should eat each week?” and an attorney for the plaintiff said yes. But, McArdle continues, the State Department attorney argued that insurance is a financial mechanism, not a product.

I am glad to see that the government’s fine lawyers can make these sometimes difficult distinctions. But the issue here is not whether insurance is a financing mechanism or a physical good like shoes or vegetables. The issue is whether under the Constitution the federal government can compel an individual to participate in a private market transaction–purchasing health insurance from a private company–in which the individual had not otherwise chosen to participate.

Moreover, if it’s really just a revenue-raising mechanism, a way for the government to pay for health care, then aren’t they saying that the insurance premiums paid to health insurance companies actually taxes? This is different from the administration’s argument that the penalty for not complying with the mandate is a tax. Instead, they’re effectively describing the premiums themselves as taxes–financing mechanisms that the government uses to pay for care.

But in this case, it’s not the government paying for the care. The care is being paid for by private insurance.

But if that’s the case, shouldn’t the CBO have scored the total cost of these premiums–the cost involved for everyone to purchase insurance? That wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Is she saying that the cost of all the insurance purchased from private insurance companies be figured into the federal deficit? If she’s arguing that someone should calculate the overall impact of the mandate on the nation’s health care costs, lots of people already have done that, including the CBO.

I have a different question: could it possibly be legal to define the health insurance premiums as a tax? As far as I’m aware, it’s not legal for a third party to collect and disburse US government tax revenues with relatively minimal oversight, which is what we’re talking about here. Not that I want to define our massive health care bureaucracy as constituting “minimum oversight”, but there are a bunch of missing controls that we’d require from an actual government agency.

In other words, it’s not the Obama Administration who is arguing that the mandate is a tax. It is McCardle arguing that it is the same thing as a tax. The constitutional argument has nothing to do with taxes, however, but with Congress’s powers to regulate interstate commerce.

I wrote earlier this week that the individual mandate is necessary to making the health care reform law work at all. Without it, the whole thing will pretty much collapse. The Obama Administration is arguing that the commerce clause applies, because all the decisions to purchase health insurance in aggregate will have a massive impact on the cost of insurance for everyone and the cost of health care generally.

Anyway, this big ol’ pile o’ stupid inspired the second big ol’ pile of stupid, linked above, arguing that if Congress can tax anything it wants, it could discourage abortions by taxing them. I don’t have the strength to deal with that one, which is why I defer to Scott Lemieux.

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The Impact of Mao

Obama Administration

Frank Dikötter writes for the New York Times that China is quietly de-classifying tons of documents related to the “Great Leap Forward” that began in 1958. Dikötter has traveled all over China looking at these documents, mostly housed in local party headquarters, and has determined that Mao’s policies in the Great Leap Forward — not famine or natural disaster — were responsible for the deaths of 45 million people.

Further, it is apparent Mao knew full well that he was causing these deaths, and he shrugged it off.

Some of the details are horrific. People died of starvation when what little food people had was taken away by the government. Between 2 and 3 million were killed by torture or summary execution.

Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction. People accused of not working hard enough were hung and beaten; sometimes they were bound and thrown into ponds. Punishments for the least violations included mutilation and forcing people to eat excrement.

One report dated Nov. 30, 1960, and circulated to the top leadership — most likely including Mao — tells how a man named Wang Ziyou had one of his ears chopped off, his legs tied up with iron wire and a 10-kilo stone dropped on his back before he was branded with a sizzling tool. His crime: digging up a potato.

When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, the local boss, Xiong Dechang, forced his father to bury his son alive on the spot. The report of the investigative team sent by the provincial leadership in 1969 to interview survivors of the famine records that the man died of grief three weeks later.

I was too young to have been paying attention to international relations at the time, and I don’t remember how much news of the Great Leap leaked to the West. But people need to know this.

I hope that someone finds documents related to the invasion and subjugation of Tibet. The official Chinese history of the Peaceful Liberation is, shall we say, somewhat different from other accounts. Tibetans in exile claim up to a million and a half Tibetans were slaughtered and hundreds of monasteries destroyed. The Chinese version, which you can read at Wikipedia, is that the peaceful Chinese troops of liberation handed out cash and candy bars and quickly won the loyalty of the oppressed Tibetan people.

It may be that the truth is somewhere in between, but the Chinese version simply is not credible, especially in light of the truth about what happened in China. The violence in Lhasa that brought about the exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many other high lamas occurred in March 1959, during the Great Leap Forward, when China officially had gone crazy.

One of the few high lamas to remain in Tibet after the uprising, the 10th Panchen Lama, spent years in prison and was subjected to torture. He eventually was released and considered “rehabilitated.” But in 1989 he returned to Tibet and delivered a speech mildly critical of Beijing, and died five days later of a “heart attack.” He was 51.

In 1995 a six-year-old boy was recognized by the Dalai Lama as the rebirth of the Panchen Lama. Within the week, this boy and his parents disappeared. They have not been seen since. Beijing chose another ethnic Tibetan boy who was the son of a high Communist Party official, named him the Panchen Lama, and had him enthroned. Today the faux Panchen Lama is a highly prized mouthpiece, appearing in public frequently to praise Chinese rule over Tibet.

I notice the Wikipedia web page on the Panchen Lama glosses over the fact that Beijing very probably executed the 10th and 11th Panchen Lamas. I run into way too many people who brush aside the brutality visited upon Tibetans, saying that Tibet is better off with China running things. But accounts of what happened in Tibet, and what is happening now, amount to “he said, she said.” Some corroboration would be nice.

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The Inequality Issue and Why It Matters

Obama Administration

I picked up the chart above from Ezra’s blog. You’ll notice the peak inequality years are 1928 and 2007, which suggests a link between income inequality and economic instability. And there’s a long historic link between wealth inequality and political instability as well.

Economics professor Tyler Cowen addresses this in an essay I find deeply unsatisfying. He dismisses the idea that the growing income inequality could lead to political instability —

In terms of immediate political stability, there is less to the income inequality issue than meets the eye. Most analyses of income inequality neglect two major points. First, the inequality of personal well-being is sharply down over the past hundred years and perhaps over the past twenty years as well. Bill Gates is much, much richer than I am, yet it is not obvious that he is much happier if, indeed, he is happier at all. I have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that Gates does. Like the vast majority of Americans, I have access to some important new pharmaceuticals, such as statins to protect against heart disease. To be sure, Gates receives the very best care from the world’s top doctors, but our health outcomes are in the same ballpark. I don’t have a private jet or take luxury vacations, and—I think it is fair to say—my house is much smaller than his. I can’t meet with the world’s elite on demand. Still, by broad historical standards, what I share with Bill Gates is far more significant than what I don’t share with him.

Compare these circumstances to those of 1911, a century ago. Even in the wealthier countries, the average person had little formal education, worked six days a week or more, often at hard physical labor, never took vacations, and could not access most of the world’s culture. The living standards of Carnegie and Rockefeller towered above those of typical Americans, not just in terms of money but also in terms of comfort. Most people today may not articulate this truth to themselves in so many words, but they sense it keenly enough. So when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society. Instead, they think their lives are pretty good and that they either earned through hard work or lucked into a healthy share of the American dream. (The persistently unemployed, of course, are a different matter, and I will return to them later.) It is pretty easy to convince a lot of Americans that unemployment and poverty are social problems because discrete examples of both are visible on the evening news, or maybe even in or at the periphery of one’s own life. It’s much harder to get those same people worked up about generalized measures of inequality.

I’m sorry, but I don’t think the average American wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Yes, life sucks, but at least we have antibiotics!”

Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and also a successful author. Academia doesn’t pay as well as private industry, true, but if Cowen thinks the situation of a tenured professor at a top university is representative of an Average Working American he has led a very sheltered life. He hasn’t even noticed that increasing numbers of Americans have lost access to 21st century medical care.

Second — I’m not sure how Cowen is measuring “personal well-being,” but when he compares the quality of life of today to that of the late 19th century, he leaves out a huge psychological factor — expectation. The gap between expectation and reality is filled with dissatisfaction. If the gap gets big enough, it can also be filled with fear, and then rage. The fact that our quality of life generally is better than it was 120 years ago is less important to the nation’s politics than whether it is what we expected fifty years ago, or twenty, or even five years ago.

Third — Personal security is not measured just by how much stuff we have, but how close we are to losing it.

And fourth — Cowen seems to think that the issue of inequality is that people are envious of those who have more stuff than they do. I don’t think that’s it at all. I do not think most not-rich people begrudge the rich and their cushier lives. The issue is that increasing numbers of middle-class Americans feel their own financial situations are being whittled away, and the ground beneath their feet shifting treacherously, and no one in power seems to care. The issue is that the economic system has been rigged so that most of us can no longer get ahead, no matter how hard we work.

Which takes us back to expectations. Most people will endure hardship and deprivation if they see a road away from hardship and deprivation. In other words, most people don’t spin their wheels in envy of wealthier people if there’s a real possibility they could be wealthier themselves someday. And I think this is true even if the individual’s hopes are never fully realized, as long as he can see that his work and effort are being rewarded with improved circumstances. Opportunities for upward mobility are a great political stress reliever in a nation.

At the other end of the scale, I understand that a people subjected to utter poverty, who have no hope and no expectation of their lives getting better, rarely rise up in rebellion. The truly discontented are not those who have nothing, but those who don’t have what they expected to have. (It should come as no surprise that the loudest political movement in recent months, the Tea Party, is mostly filled by people who aren’t really being hurt, yet, and is led by unvarnished demagoguery.)

So when Cowen writes …

So when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society. Instead, they think their lives are pretty good and that they either earned through hard work or lucked into a healthy share of the American dream.

… I think he’s missing a big point. No, people generally don’t get worked up about income inequality per se. They get worked up about income inequality when they think they’re getting hosed by it.

I think Cowen is wrong here, also —

A neglected observation, too, is that envy is usually local. At least in the United States, most economic resentment is not directed toward billionaires or high-roller financiers—not even corrupt ones. It’s directed at the guy down the hall who got a bigger raise. It’s directed at the husband of your wife’s sister, because the brand of beer he stocks costs $3 a case more than yours, and so on. That’s another reason why a lot of people aren’t so bothered by income or wealth inequality at the macro level.

I don’t know how Cowen became expert in where people’s resentments are directed, but let’s go on … again, I don’t think people resent wealth per se. But in the age of mass media, “local” is a pretty big place. We’re talking about a culture in which people are more personally invested in who wins Dancing With the Stars than in what’s going on with the family next door.

This is something I wrote about on the other blog a few days ago — advertising, especially television advertising, presents to us a picture of what a “normal” life is supposed to be that is increasingly out of reach. These days, it seems every other television ad is about getting either new car (with a bow on top) or diamond jewelry for Christmas. We’re also perpetually being told which financial services companies can best handle our investment portfolios so that we can retire to our dream beach house someday.

Possibly more than in any other time in history, people are getting prosperity and abundance rubbed in their faces, as they sit in their own living rooms, every day. That’s pretty damn “local.”

That’s OK in a society in which upward mobility is possible, and people have reasonable hope they could have some of those sparkly things too, someday, if they work hard and save their pennies. But when there’s a strong assumption that this prosperous life is “normal,” and for most people “normal” is utterly out of reach, you are looking at the seeds of massive political instability.

That’s what Tyler Cowen doesn’t get.

And then, every time we turn around, we’re being told that those of us losing ground already must sacrifice more so that the wealthy are not inconvenienced. Professor Cowen, envy is not the issue here.

I think the only reason there isn’t more anger and discontent out there is that after thirty years of relentless assault by right-wing propaganda, people have internalized the ideas that government can’t help, and if your life sucks it’s entirely your own fault. I postulate that a lot of the gap between expectation and reality currently is being filled, quietly, with shame. People are doing their best to appear “normal,” to not admit their lives don’t measure up and that they are afraid of what might happen next.

The people on television who get new cars for Christmas don’t seem worried, after all.

If normal political channels are closed to us, and it is increasingly obvious that they are, it may be that what progressives need to do now is to stop selling the public on this or that policy. It should be to tell the people they have nothing to be ashamed of if their lives don’t measure up to expectations. The failure is not personal; it is national.

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