Friday, April 29, 2011

The New Morality

It strikes me that so much of our political rhetoric is engineered to accomplish two ends:  simplify the issue for mass consumption, and frame it in a way that creates volitional momentum for the electorate.  I guess that’s kind of stating the obvious.  Maybe some issues really are like that . . . but I suspect that, more often than not, politicians and pundits are seduced by this framing mechanism as a political shortcut.  Why deftly wield a scalpel when you can forcefully wield a sledge-hammer?

Consider the current public debate regarding the budget and federal debt.  The Left appeals to some moral principal in the matter – “what would Jesus cut?” – assuming that just because the government does spend money on certain programs, it does so as a moral obligation.  Under this logic, government spending eventually absorbs the entire economy, and, like our Greek friends, people riot in the streets because the government won’t give them jobs.  I’m not exactly sure who is responsible for creating wealth in that model.

On the other hand, the Right, seeing the political expediency of a moral appeal, frames the issue of deficits and debt as a moral abdication of the highest order – the equivalent of stealing food from the mouths of babes.  These are the same people, mind you, who object to the alteration of the Social Security normal retirement age.  So the political dialogue is now largely a matter of who can more convincingly portray righteous indignation, and you merely have to decide which moral outrage you find particularly compelling.

Deficits are not intrinsically moral or immoral – this holds true even for BIG deficits.  It’s just a number.  The question is really about the utility of those deficits.  Suppose, for instance, the result of recent deficit spending had been a massive surge in investment, jobs growth, and productive output.  Or suppose someone had a magic crystal ball where everyone could see exactly what would have resulted without that spending, and saw some sort of post-Apocalyptic Mad Max scenario.  We would all be saying, “ah, good show, Mssrs. Bernanke and Geithner.  Huzzah.”  But, it didn’t and we can’t, so we don’t and we won’t.

In another little contrendium factoid, I would like to point out to conservatives (data provided below) that the Reagan administration embarked on a policy of almost unprecedented deficits, and conservative economists praise him for doing so, and that on three fronts:

  1. it pitted the credit rating of the US against the USSR, effectively bankrupting and dismantling the Evil Empire without all the nastiness of assured mutual destruction.
  2. by reversing increases in capital gains taxes, the Administration was willing to put current receipts on the line for the sake of investment and growth.  In retrospect, most economists agree this fueled growth and recovery, but it was probably ‘hella scary at a time of increases in defense spending and high interest rates.
  3. in the perspective of dyed-in-the-wool supply-side advocates, it shifted wealth “to more productive utilization,” meaning the top, where it could be used for investment and growth.

In other words, the smartest thing Reagan ever did was run up a big deficit.  How we judge that decision now is through the effects.  How we judged it then was our belief about its anticipated effects.  And that, I think, is the real argument at hand.  I'm not arguing that deficit spending or the current level of Federal debt is a good thing.  I'm just arguing that the argument about morality is weak, at best.  If we want to avoid the accusation that we're being opportunistic and disingenuous, then we should get back to the real point.

Receipts, Expenditures, and Deficits (Inflation-Adjusted, 2005 dollars)

Federal Deficit as a % of GDP

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Valkyrie Rides Again

I have briefly mentioned in previous posts my confusion in the apparent “about-face” for conservatives with regard to immigration policy – namely, that conservatives are supposed to favor pro-business immigration policies that, admittedly, might have deleterious wage effects at the bottom of the economic ladder. At the same time, I observe that the fairer sex, even among conservatives, could be counted upon for a sympathetic response to the plight of the immigrant: “they just want what’s best for their children,” “they’re being exploited in their home country,” “they’re starving,” and reasons of a similarly incomprehensible nature. And while I am alarmed at the new Conservative Marxism, I am appalled, yes appalled, by the rise of the New Conservative Woman. "An ill wind that bloweth no man good-- The blower of which blast is she.”

The Palins and the Bachmanns and the Brewers and the Angles; these are no wilting flowers. They cleave their way through enemy ranks, wielding the shrill cry of “Man Up” like Thor’s Hammer. The message is clear. They have more testosterone pumping through their American veins than the effete East Coast literati, and if their own men won’t live up to their burly standards, they can grow chest hair for two.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” I murmur (but not out loud, as “methinks” and “doth” would immediately identify me as an effete East Coast liberal). I propose that the entire agenda of Conservative immigration hysteria originates with and is impelled by WASP Female Self-Preservation. Let’s take a brief journey into the anthropological mists of time.

For the male of the species, self-preservation was largely a matter of the individual in question against the hostile forces of nature. To supply for himself and his family, he worked hard, toiled under the sun, breaking his back carrying animal carcasses hither and thither – but the success or failure of others in similar occupations were of no consequence to this noble savage. Of course, he might have had his disagreements, but these were honestly resolved by a sharp blow to the head from a rock conveniently at hand. But, just as often, he didn’t, because the yoke of Adam’s curse is lighter when shared. He needed to slip away from the family cave with his earthen pot of beer, and to talk to his brethren of the mammoth that got away – of that particularly spiteful tree stump – of the advisability of purchasing that plot of land down at La Brea. Sometimes, no words were needed. A quiet belch or two as the jug was passed around could more than sufficiently express the anguish of the male psyche. So much could be said with this simple gastric utterance.

For the female of the species, force against nature and foe were not an available option. She achieved her will through cunning, and her success was achieved at the expense of her competitors. “Well, you never see discarded bones outside the Thrack cave, do you?” “Sometimes I think you love fermented berries more than you love me!” “Oh, Sampson, you’re so big and strong!” Each word, each intonation, were carefully devised to achieve their accomplished end. Your average girl in middle school is capable of such subterfuge as would make a hardened KGB double-agent blush. When faced with a threat to her social supremacy, there are absolutely no lengths to which a woman will no go to destroy her competition.

And so, when I consider the cunning and devious mind of Woman, I hear a quiet little voice: “why are conservative women so passionately vocal about law enforcement and labor supply?” Is it merely a coincidental feminine fetish, like cucumber sandwiches, Pilates, or book clubs? I propose to you, conservative Catholic gentlemen, that there are darker, conspiratorial forces at work, here.

Consider your self-interest in the matter, gentlemen! On the one hand, you have a continent full of Latin women, just south of our border. They are devoted to the Catholic faith, they can cook (and they use lard, bless them!), and they don’t have centuries of Puritanical repression making them embittered and frigid. On the other hand, you have, well, not that. And what’s critically important is that WASP women are fully aware of the threat posed by their Catholic sisters to the South. They are determined, at any cost, to secure their death grip on all social capital in the US.

You can splutter and protest all you want, but I ask you, brothers, are you speaking your own mind, or are you blindly doing the bidding of the more powerful and devious Female Mind? Think about it. Or, you can “man up,” and let the WASP women do your thinking for you.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Conservatives and the New Social Contract

Defying a clear popular mandate, the author of Contrendium has not made the Great Celestial Checkout. He has simply assumed a new role at his company and moved his family half-way across the country.

I originally wrote this entry in December, shortly after Obama’s deficit reduction commission published the questionably ironic “Moment of Truth” document.

Although the content is a couple months “out of vogue,” I think the general observations still hold true, and my perplexity remains.

I’ve been wondering about the Tea Party’s newfound love affair with social entitlement programs. I have to admit – I am befuddled. Perplexed. One might even say “benighted.” Not often, of course, but one could.

I thought I understood the Tea Party movement to be a popular uprising against the encroachment of the Servile State; a renaissance of the ideals of American liberty and self-determination. So when the White House deficit reduction commission in December recommended some minor adjustments to Social Security eligibility (in 2050 and 2075), the Tea Party was the last place I thought to look for a hostile reaction. If anything, I expected the Left to view this as another indication of Obama’s betrayal of liberal values.

At first, I thought the response was simply jaded political posturing. Allow the enemy no quarter, and all that. After speaking with Tea Party faithful about this, I am persuaded this isn’t the case. “I’ve paid Social Security taxes my whole life, and the American Government needs to keep its contract.” Complete sincerity.

I don’t get it. First of all, look at it from a perspective of personal consequence. Most of them would be dead before the 2050 date, and I will be dead before the 2075 date (possibly earlier if my wife decides the insurance payout is worth it). It doesn’t affect our benefits. The people it does affect are just beginning to pay income taxes, so they have a clear expectation of retirement conditions at the beginning of their career. Which leads to the second point . . . whether social entitlement benefits are an obligatory “contract.”

Perhaps there’s a generational context, here. Given the demographics of the tax base during the Golden Years of “the Greatest Generation,” my grandparents could be reasonably assured of the viability of Social Security and Medicare. Their children seem to have a similarly sanguine perspective, while I fully expect Baby Boomers to attempt everything in their power to vacate the labor-force for an orgy of self-actualization, and to lobby heavily to make opiates and naturopathy allowable medical expenses under Medicare Part D. The disturbing thing here is the real and proportionally shrinking labor base left with the responsibility of funding The Last Great Trip. In 1950, there were 16 people in the workforce for every Social Security beneficiary. In 1960, that number had decreased to 5. Presently, there are 3 wage earners for every beneficiary, and in 2025, that number will be 2.3. The only hope of retaining some portion of Baby Boomers in the workforce and prolonging the Day of Reckoning is their legendary self-indulgence. They are crappy savers. When they eventually moved back home from their training in Ayurvedic Bowel Control in India and started saving, they had the bright idea of making up for lost time by loading up on “high-return” funds (also known as “high volatility), which is fine, as long as you’re not lookin’ like David Crosby. So maybe that plan didn’t play out so well, and they might decide to slog it out with the rest of us drones for a while longer. Regardless, they still view their Social Security benefits as real, while those in my generation view them as “aspirational.” We might get them, we might get a part of them, and we might not.

So there’s the issue of personal consequence, the skewed generational expectations, and lastly the question of definition and history. When did people begin to look at these social entitlement programs as a “contract for future benefits?” There were always pay-forward programs, meaning the current labor force was funding current benefit payments. Furthermore, the expectation of those payouts, at the time these programs were created, assumed a lower average life expectancy. When Social Security was created, average life expectancy was 64, meaning you would only expect to collect benefits for a couple of years. It’s now 78, but the eligibility for normal retirement age has not kept pace with that increase in life expectancy. The proposal of the commission was relatively modest – increase the normal retirement age to 68 in 2050, and 69 in 2075. Either we decrease the payout amounts, increase the age threshold, or increase the contributions of the current labor force. I thought the Tea Party would be with me on this one, but apparently, they are so fixated on some abstract moral principle that they will fight to the death to protect the entitlement programs they love to hate.

They say that extremes meet at some point. Atheists take on an air of religious fanaticism. Fascism and Socialism blend together in some sort of Statist nightmare. I guess I now see an entire movement of Libertarians espousing the virtues of New Deal social programs. Maybe there’s a subtle distinction in there, but it eludes me at the moment. I’m waiting to hear Sarah Palin speak of Eleanor Roosevelt as a “mama grizzly,” and then I will know we have arrived.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Only Foolin'

Sociologists might look back on the last six months, during my absence, as the “Dark Ages” of the 21st Century. The all-night prayer vigils . . . the protests of self-immolation . . . the celebrity telethons . . . all deeply appreciated. No, YOU are a beautiful person, Ryan Seacrest, and you shouldn’t worry about anyone who says otherwise.

I was wondering if anyone caught this little op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on April 1:

At first, I thought the WSJ had invited James Hoffa to join the staff as a contributing writer – a touching piece of Teamster’s nostalgia. Or, more likely, a cynical attempt to use the emotional tug of “American can-do” to generate public outrage at public sector employment. Perhaps I should explain.

I don’t think the story, here, is the replacement of manufacturing jobs with public sector jobs. That’s the headline, but it’s not the real story. If you bother to look at the data (in the spirit of my “all others must bring data” mantra, I’ve created two new WolframAlpha widgets for you to play with to see for yourselves), the real story is the shift of the US economy from a manufacturing to a service-sector market. The author expresses shock and outrage that public-sector jobs now outnumber manufacturing jobs in the Unites States. What he fails to mention is that manufacturing jobs only represent a small portion of the economy. From the ‘40’s through 2010, manufacturing in the US has declined from 40% of total employment to 14% (roughly), while public sector employment has increased from approximately 14% to 18% in that same period. ‘Dem numbers don’t add up, do they? The real shift was away from manufacturing towards services. In short, a lot of the “stuff” we used to make costs too much to produce here, so we have moved “up the value chain.” Although this shift put Akio Morita and the US labor movement all in a dither, orthodox, conservative economists viewed it as an inevitable consequence of market forces and globalization. Fighting the drift was like fighting gravity – smart money would find ways of exploiting shifting conditions to maximize wealth creation, eventually moving the US labor force into areas that emphasized intellectual capital, services, and technical know-how. Everyone recognized that shift would cause pain and displacement, but measures like import tariffs would only delay the inevitable, and would waste valuable time and resources that could be used to establish America’s dominance in sectors that had a real future.

So, what do you think – pro-Union, bleeding-heart liberal economics, or cynical rhetoric? It’s the Wall Street Journal – c’mon. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not happy about public debt and spending. But I still think you have to fight fair. I’m not buying the Normal Rockwell Assembly Line motif.