Monday, December 26, 2016

2016 Wrap up in Books

The best book I read in 2016 was American Amnesia by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.  It's a spirited defense of the mixed economy America knew in the middle of the 20th century, when the country was at the peak of its military and economic power.  And it's a diagnosis of the subsequent decline, as America began systematically reducing public investment in everything from education to infrastructure.
The economic challenges that face affluent democracies are well known: the increase in global competition, the shift from manufacturing to services, the ascent of high-rolling finance as both a powerful shaper of corporate strategies and a dominant sector of the economy in its own right.  But the social institution of the mixed economy could have been updated to respond to these changes.  The balance between effective public authority and dynamic private markets could have been recalibrated rather than rejected.  Instead, the political coalition in favor of such a constructive balance shattered under the pressure of an increasingly conservative Republican Party and an increasingly insular, parochial, and extreme business leadership.  The moderate perspective that government and the market needed to complement each other gave way.  It was replaced by a destructive insistence that these two centers of power were locked in mortal combat- destructive because so many of those in power rejected adaptation in favor of upending, destructive because this insistence so often magnified rather than mitigated the economic challenges faced, and destructive because so few Americans now trust their democracy to do what democracies do to ensure broad prosperity.
The second best book I read was a biography of Tip O'Neill.  It fills in some blanks- why was the Democratic Party so broken in 1980, why did they roll over for Reagan in the House, and how despite this did Reagan accomplish so little of his "revolution?"

In a word, Democrats were old fashioned.  They were old men representing old urban neighborhoods and old political machines that had run out of gas.  They represented an old fashioned horse-trading way of doing politics in a post watergate era that saw horse-trading as corruption.  And they represented New Deal social supports that worked so well that the middle class they'd created took them for granted.  When Republicans took the Senate and the White House in 1980, Democrats weren't just defeated.  They were in total collapse, the expectation was that in 1982 Republicans would sweep the House too.

O'Neill started with this and not only kept Democrats in control of the House, but successfully rallied the country around Social Security and Medicare.  He preserved the core of the New Deal and kept it at the center of Democratic self identity.  Neither of those things was inevitable.

What these books have in common is a story about how the pursuit of purity turns things to shit.

In American Amnesia, it's the story of the financialization of Corporate America in the 70's and 80's.  While executives nominally worked on behalf of shareholders, they enjoyed wide discretion in setting priorities.  There was "room" for executives to care about their local communities, or about employees.  That changed when maximizing the benefit of shareholders became the be-all end-all.  After that, the only thing that mattered was share price, the only thing management needed to care about was share price.  Community welfare, employee welfare, gone.

In Congress the New Deal owed its existence to machine politicians who thrived on horse-trading.  Their ethos was, "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."  The whole concept of social insurance could be reduced to that.  But after Watergate, trading favors was seen as corruption.  An odd abstraction was idolized, a monk-like politician who had no connections or interests, who only decided anything after monk-like meditation in a cave somewhere.  Jimmy Carter was the embodiment of this, and he sucked at every level- even the voters who thought they wanted someone like him couldn't wait to get rid of him.  Instead of grappling with the nitty gritty of competing interests, voters turned to the fantasy land Reagan offered where there were no conflicts and everyone agreed on everything.

I see the same thing today in people who couldn't tolerate the moral grays of Clinton or Obamacare, instead accepting sewer filth of Trump.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A funny joke

There's a funny joke you can play with the fortunes you get out of fortune cookies.  Just add, "... in bed" to the end.  "You will have good luck tonight" becomes, "You will have good luck tonight in bed" and so on.  The suffix changes the nature of the statement, typically to something amusing and occasionally to something outrageous.

You can play a similar game with passages talking about the America's constitution, democracy, and political economy.  Just add, "... with President Trump" to the end.

Here's an example from Acemoglu and Robinson's "Why Nations Fail:"
Secure property rights, the law, public services, and the freedom to contract and exchange all rely on the state, the institution with the coercive capacity to impose order, prevent theft and fraud, and enforce contracts between private parties.  To function well, society also needs other public services: roads and a transport network so that goods can be transported, a public infrastructure so that economic activity can flourish, and some type of basic regulation to prevent fraud and malfeasance.  Though many of these public services can be provided by markets and private citizens, the degree of coordination necessary to do so on a large scale often eludes all but a central authority.  The state is thus inexorably intertwined with economic institutions.
 It's a deep and complex thought on what society needs, and how government and private interests can provide it.  Now read it again but add "... with President Trump" to the end.  The statement becomes a sick parody of itself, a mockery of economics and politics.

I wonder how academics will keep a straight face while they work under Trump.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What Opponents of Measure 97 Accomplished

Public services in general and schools in particular were looking down the barrel of a gun because of PERS costs.  Measure 97 was a way to shield them.  It would have given time for the legislature to find a legally enforceable reform package, at the expense of someone other than our children.

But Measure 97 failed.  That didn't solve PERS either, the vote against M97 changed nothing about pension obligations or the politics around it.  We're no more likely to reform PERS than we were before the election, or if M97 had passed.

All opponents of Measure 97 did was put our kids are on the firing line

Nice going, dicks.

Why I no longer read editorials in the Oregonian

The 2016 election wasn't just a political choice, it was a moral one. 

Trump is a racist and a bigot.  His politics is to scapegoat: not to solve problems but to use them to incite hate against anyone he can mark as "Other."  Trump's political lineage flows through no American, foreign despots like Putin and Saddam Hussein are his heroes.  Trump is an affront to America's democracy and a threat to its citizens.

On that choice, the OEB had no opinion.  No opinion about a man who threatens fundamental freedoms like speech and press.  No opinion about whether women in the military should have to salute Donald Trump as their commander in chief.  No opinion on whether Trump's bigotry sbould be embraced or condemned.  No opinion on his religious tests or his threat to deport millions.  On the moral choice which is now the struggle of our times, the OEB was silent.

They are boot lickers.

I don't need to read their words to know what passes from their lips.

Monday, June 27, 2016


This decision won't get as much attention as other rulings that came out today, but it's worth noting.  Especially for those following the story of former Oregon Governor Kitzhaber.
The supreme court without dissent vacated the conviction of the former governor of Virginia on corruption charges, because the construction of bribery used in the case was overly broad.
I think the heart of the ruling is here:
Section 201 prohibits quid pro quo corruption—the exchange of a thing of value for an 'official act.'  In the Government’s view, nearly anything a public official accepts—from a campaign contribution to lunch—counts as a quid; and nearly anything a public official does—from arranging a meeting to inviting a guest to an event—counts as a quo...

But conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns
That is, the conduct potentially subject to criminal sanction is the root of democracy. You like candidate X, you work for their re-election. There is a quid. They in turn pursue policies you like. There is a quo. Is that corruption?

Separate but related is the arbitrariness of a broad definition, and how that's incompatible with due process, emphasis mine:

...under  the  Government’s  interpretation,  the  term  “official  act”  is  not  defined  “with sufficient  definiteness  that  ordinary  people  can  understand  what  conduct  is  prohibited,”  or  “in  a  manner  that does  not  encourage  arbitrary  and  discriminatory  enforcement.” Skilling, 561 U. S., at 402–403 (internal quotation marks  omitted).   Under  the  “‘standardless  sweep’”  of  the  Government’s reading, Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U. S. 352, 358 (1983), public officials could be subject to prosecution, without  fair  notice,  for  the  most  prosaic  interactions.  “Invoking so shapeless a provision to condemn someone to prison”  for  up  to  15  years  raises  the  serious  concern  that the  provision  “does  not  comport  with  the Constitution’s guarantee  of  due  process."
I think what these concerns have in common is a fear of separating politics from the people.  If we want self government, we need to allow for political leaders like us.  It's unreasonable to expect politicians to sequester themselves like monks, interacting with the public only through formal public hearings or sessions.  And we probably wouldn't like it if they did.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Does having a school with high foundation contributions encourage residents to vote against tax increases?

In discussions about Portland Public School foundations I sometimes see this assertion.  Often it's part of a broader critique of foundations and their impact on equity.  The claim is that foundations don't just increase inequity, but actively harm students in other neighborhoods because parents in "semi-privatized" communities don't support public taxes.

For kicks, I got shape files and a vote abstract from Multnomah County and charted it.  Below is a heat chart for 2011's measure 26-122.  This is a property tax levy specific to Portland Public Schools, it passed with 58% of the vote.  The red indicates low support and green indicates high.  The labeling is based on decimals, 0.5 = 50% to 60%, 0.4 = 40% to 50%, etc.

I've marked with red dots the rough location of the top 4 elementary schools and K-8's based on fundraising.  What do I see?

I see 3 of the 4 schools are located in precincts where the levy passed, and are surrounded by precincts with similar support.  I also see a vivid geographic pattern: the inner city neighborhoods supported the levy more than outer neighborhoods.  This pattern dominates the story of which precincts supported the levy and which did not, I don't see any correlation with the location of a high-foundation school.

Below is the same chart for 2010's measure 66, a statewide tax increase.  Same thing:
I don't think the presence or absence of a high-foundation school has any effect on voter support of taxes.  Saving this for the next time I see that claim pop up.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Presidential Leadership and how I assess it

A response to Brett about how I evaluate presidential candidates, which turned into something too long for facebook.

Before assessing candidates I filter for likely supreme court picks and electability.  These are pass/fail tests, and only Clinton and Sanders pass them.  They're the ones I'll evaluate as leaders.

I think of leadership geographically.  A good leader's task depends on understanding:
  • Where we are (the real)
  • An intended destination, a place they want to lead us to (the ideal)
  • A route, a plan of action to go from where we are to where we should be.  That route is grounded in the real,  but looks forward to the ideal.
    • Implicit in the route is an understanding of time, and some reasonable expectation of whether the route they're following takes one year, 4 years, or 20 years.
    • Also implicit is an understanding that they're *leading* us down the path, not directing us.  That requires consent and confidence, and an ability to rally support even when (especially when) it feels like everyone is turning on you.
 I'll start with the ideal.  I think both Sanders and Clinton want to move us to a better place.  I think Sanders' ideal is in many ways preferable, we'd be better off with stronger social insurance and investments in education.  But I think Clinton's ideal isn't bad either, particularly on foreign policy.  I think Sanders ideal their is a United States that stays home, while Clinton's ideal is a strong global leader capable of effectively confronting global challenges.  Those challenges include climate change and trade relations as much as they do military conflicts.

Next let's look at their grasp of the real.  Here Clinton is overwhelmingly better.  I think Sanders reduces everything to a Manichean dichotomy of good guys and bad guys.  Why is the health care system the way it is?  Bad guys did it!  Why is there massive economic inequality?  Bad guys did it!  Why have Republicans dominated Congress for most of the last 20 years, and control most state governments?  Bad guys did it!  I think what Sanders dismisses as mere moderation is a view of the world which recognizes that truth may be complicated.  

I think Clinton has a much better grasp of why things are the way they are because she's more conscious of history, and how things change with time.  Women's rights are an obvious example, women today have far greater opportunities than they did when she was young.  In addition, she played a direct role in shaping history in some pretty important ways.  Health care reform isn't an abstraction to her, she knows what it's like to try developing and passing a national program and she knows how hard it is to push the status quo.

Now we get to route, and Sanders' biggest deficit against Clinton.  As far as I can tell, his plan for every issue consists of:
  • Everyone will share my values, and therefore
  • Everyone will do exactly what I want, and
  • Anyone who does otherwise is a bad guy and will be politically neutralized by my blindingly obvious rightness and goodness.  (not only does Sanders reduce the world to good guys and bad guys, he doesn't put much thought into why the bad guys win so often)
For Clinton, I'd guess her domestic policy would be focused on stopping the Republican Congress from doing harm and helping Democrats win votes next time around, with her most important action being good picks for the courts (and getting them approved).  I think we'd see a stronger foreign policy, particularly on climate change, because that's where there's more leeway.  Those are modest steps, but they're oriented towards a better place than where we are now, they're achievable, and they're progress.   

I have no idea what a President Sanders would do, because I don't think any of his ideas work.  What do you expect of someone who promises to build a ladder to the moon?  Pretty much anything but a ladder to the moon.  That said, go back to what I said at the beginning about filtering and electability.  There's a lot I dislike about Sanders, but I'd vote for him (happily) if he were the Democratic nominee.