How thought experiments go wrong
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How thought experiments go wrong

O’Reilly Radar republishes a blog post imagining what Steve Jobs would do if he were President of the United States and needless to say, the writer supposes that Steve Jobs would do lots of cool stuff. What the article really shows is that the writer has no clue how the government actually works. Our government is structured in such a way that it’s incredibly difficult to get a lot done, regardless of who you are, and the sort of silly thinking that this article espouses only makes the problem worse. What the country needs is structural change that makes it possible for our leaders to be more effective, not magical thinking about the persuasive powers of great leaders.

Thinking about what should happen is easy — the hard part is figuring out the mechanisms by which it can happen, whether it’s political reform at the national level or setting up a continuous integration platform for your software development project. After seeing the excitement and hope of the Obama campaign transition into two years of excruciating political trench warfare, I just don’t have any interest in hand waving and big, silly ideas.

The federal government is full of smart, competent, persuasive people working in a system that prevents them from rapidly addressing even the problems with obvious solutions. Let’s see some realistic thought experiments that address that.

Scott Sumner illustrates why it’s easy to hate libertarians
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Scott Sumner illustrates why it’s easy to hate libertarians

Libertarian economist Scott Sumner talks about the “marshmallow test” and says that he doesn’t trust Democrats:

What do we do if Social Security needs to be trimmed in order to balance the budget? I hear lots of talk about cutting back on benefits for those who “don’t need it.” That would be people like me. Here’s why I don’t trust the Dems—I see them as the party of one marshmallow eaters. They represent people who have less self-control. I fear they will cut my benefits, but not cut the benefits of people who didn’t save for retirement. I fear they will use “wealth” as the criterion to determine who is needy and who isn’t; not lifetime wage earnings.

In my view there is nothing egalitarian about redistributing income from two marshmallow eaters to one marshmallow eaters. They’ve already had their fun when young, loading up their three car garages with all sorts of fun toys. I’ve never even had a garage.

My take on this is that Scott Sumner is a selfish bastard who’s painfully out of touch. There are plenty of people in America and around the world who were never offered the first marshmallow. The Democrats don’t do much to help them out, but Republicans and libertarians don’t seem to believe the government should help them at all. In fact, their main concern is that people with many, many marshmallows can eat them all themselves, and they justify that stance the same way Scott Sumner does. If you’re poor, it’s because you’re inferior to people like them.

Where libertarians and liberals could find common ground
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Where libertarians and liberals could find common ground

I’ve been reading the new Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog with interest. I’m not a libertarian by any stretch of the imagination, but I find myself in agreement with many of the principles that underpin it as a political philosophy. Jacob Levy gets at the heart of the differences between liberals and libertarians and then explains why, from a political perspective, they are not really very important:

So libertarianism as a doctrine in political philosophy had this distinctive contribution to make: it rejected state activity to increase the material well-being of the poor. I think by gradual drift, that came to seem like all libertarianism was concerned with.

But in the real world, state action to improve the material lot of the poor is not a very large portion of state action. This is politically predictable, almost trivially so. But that means that the focus on libertarianism’s apparent philosophical difference with Rawlsian liberalism gives us a very distorted sense of the work libertarians could do politically in the world. We don’t live in a Rawlsian world, separated from Nozick’s by the existence of poverty-alleviation programs. We live in a world characterized by massive state action of all sorts, most of which does nothing to alleviate poverty and a great deal of which is actively regressive or harmful to the worst-off.

If everyone in America understood those two paragraphs, this country would be a much better place.

Mark Bittman’s food manifesto
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Mark Bittman’s food manifesto

Mark Bittman has a list of food-related political reforms that would improve Americans’ diets and be good for the environment. Here’s how he introduces them:

… we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.

It’s unlikely that any of them will be enacted, but it’s nice to dream.

The role of the federal government
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The role of the federal government

What’s the role of the federal government? Here’s one answer, courtesy of Matt Yglesias:

One of the main things the federal government does is transfer resources from high-productivity urban areas to low-productivity rural ones.

In principle, I don’t have a huge problem with this. However, I do have a problem with the fact that the people in the more subsidized areas fail to understand that this is how things work, and indeed consider themselves to be exploited by the federal government rather than exploiting it.

Mainly, I just appreciated reading that sentence. I had never really thought of things that way.

Where we are today
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Where we are today

Ezra Klein sums up the current state of the union as briefly and accurately as you could hope for:

When they were asked about shifting their focus to the future when the economy was so bad in the present, they explained that they got pretty much everything they thought they could get — and, in fact, more than they thought they could get — in the tax-cut deal, and it was time to let that work. Left unsaid is that they can’t get anything more out of a Republican House, and so there’s little point in begging.

In the meantime we’re treated to Republicans repeating the words “failed stimulus” over and over as if they cannot be used separately, in spite of the fact that state governments all over the country are facing massive deficits in the absence of the federal stimulus dollars that saw them through the worst of the crisis.

The lasting success of the libertarian project
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The lasting success of the libertarian project

Former Cato staffer and software developer Timothy B. Lee argues in The Return of Bottom-up Liberalism that generally speaking, libertarian philosophies have done very well in the policy arena over the past few decades:

Rather, what’s happened is that liberalism in general has internalized key libertarian critiques of earlier iterations of liberal thought, with the result that a guy with a largely Friedmanite policy agenda can plausibly call himself a liberal. And actually, this shouldn’t surprise us at all, because Friedman called himself a liberal too.

I think he’s absolutely right about that, at least in terms of economic policy. Even the much-maligned health care reform bill is very market-oriented in that it sets up a marketplace in which private insurers compete as opposed to establishing a new government-run insurer.

Why Republicans are fighting for the Bush tax cuts
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Why Republicans are fighting for the Bush tax cuts

Here’s a short post on politics. The Republicans claim to care most about the deficit and restoring fiscal sanity for the country, and yet the biggest fight they’ve put up has been to defend the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of the year. If all of the cuts were allowed to expire, then nominally speaking, the projected budget deficit over the next 10 years would fall by trillions of dollars. (Ignore the degree to which a large, sudden tax increase would stunt economic growth and thereby worsen the fiscal picture going forward.)

When the tax cuts passed 10 years ago, they were given an expiration date so that they could be passed through the reconciliation process, thereby avoiding a Democratic filibuster. The Republicans bet that in 2010 (in other words, now), the Democrats would not be willing to make the unpopular move and allow the tax cuts to expire in the face of all out Republican resistance. Predictably, they were right. Democrats are not going to let the tax cuts expire.

Here’s the important thing: those tax cuts are to Republicans what the health care bill should be to Democrats. It was the signature legislative achievement of the Bush Presidency and their Congressional majorities from 2001 to 2006. They passed other bills, but it’s the one they most wanted, as demonstrated by the fact that they will stop at nothing to defend it. Rank hypocrisy is no deterrent when it comes to preserving an achievement that you fought so hard to gain in the first place.

Update: This is an accurate description of the big picture.

Where America is headed
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Where America is headed

I’ve read a lot of pre and post-election analysis, and I agree most closely with John Judis on what comes next for America:

Like the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, this slowdown was also precipitated by the exhaustion of opportunities for economic growth. America’s challenge over the next decade will be to develop new industries that can produce goods and services that can be sold on the world market. The United States has a head start in biotechnology and computer technology, but as the Obama administration recognized, much of the new demand will focus on the development of renewable energy and green technology. As the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans understand, these kinds of industries require government coordination and subsidies. But the new generation of Republicans rejects this kind of industrial policy. They even oppose Obama’s obviously successful auto bailout.

Instead, when the U.S. finally recovers, it is likely to re-create the older economic structure that got the country in trouble in the first place: dependence on foreign oil to run cars; a bloated and unstable financial sector that primarily feeds upon itself and upon a credit-hungry public; boarded up factories; and huge and growing trade deficits with Asia. These continuing trade deficits, combined with budget deficits, will finally reduce confidence in the dollar to the point where it ceases to be a viable international currency.

The election results will also put an end to the Obama administration’s attempt to reach an international climate accord. It will cripple its ability to adopt domestic limits on carbon emissions. The election could also doom Obama’s one substantial foreign policy achievement—the arms treaty it signed with Russia that still awaits Senate confirmation. In other areas, the Obama administration will be able to act without having to seek Congressional approval. But there is little reason to believe that the class of Republicans will be helpful in formulating a tough policy toward an increasingly arrogant China, extricating America from Afghanistan, and using American leverage to seek a peaceful settlement of Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Why is this going to be happen? Because America is a country that cannot be effectively led. I’m not just referring to the Tea Party here, either. I look at this country and see a majority who are unwilling to grapple with the scope of our problems, much less realistically evaluate potential solutions. I see one political party that is perfectly happy to indulge fantasies about the need for lower taxes and talk vaguely about cutting spending without proposing any spending cuts, and another that worried more over the past two years about positioning itself to minimize its losses rather than going all out to solve our problems when they were in a position to do so.

I’m out of patience for blaming politicians, though. We live in a country with deep problems that portend very bad things for the next generation, and yet voters under 30 didn’t even bother to show up. Old people showed up to vote for cuts to all government spending except the defense budget and the entitlements that benefit them personally, even though that’s the very spending that makes up the bulk of the budget.

We live in times that demand that we rise to the occasion, and yet as a country we are mired in apathy, delusion, and impotent anger. I really wish I could just stand at a distance and laugh.