Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, December 31, 2007

More Krugman Bullshit

Krugman links to Lambert, who channels him admirably. The only problem is that Lambert's post is drivel. Has it come to this?

But the moment when my head cleared, and I realized that Krugman was wrong and Obama (mostly) right, was when Krugman cited Elizabeth Warren ("the Harvard bankruptcy expert") approvingly.

I'll just give you a taste of Warren's work. Here's (part of) 11 USC 503(c), which Warren inserted into the Code during the BAPCPA mess (and yes, a liberal can oppose BAPCPA for intelligent reasons - not the least of which is 11 USC 503(c)):

(c) Notwithstanding subsection (b), there shall neither be allowed, nor paid-
(1) a transfer made to, or an obligation incurred for the benefit of, an insider of the debtor for the purpose of inducing such person to remain with the debtor's business, absent a finding by the court based on evidence in the record that-
(A) the transfer or obligation is essential to retention of the person because the individual has a bona fide job offer from another business at the same or greater rate of compensation;
(B) the services provided by the person are essential to the survival of the business; and
(C) either-
(i) the amount of the transfer made to, or obligation incurred for the benefit of, the person is not greater than an amount equal to 10 times the amount of the mean transfer or obligation of a similar kind given to nonmanagement employees for any purpose during the calendar year in which the transfer is made or the obligation is incurred; or
(ii) if no such similar transfers were made to, or obligations were incurred for the benefit of, such nonmanagement employees during such calendar year, the amount of the transfer or obligation is not greater than an amount equal to 25 percent of the amount of any similar transfer or obligation made to or incurred for the benefit of such insider for any purpose during the calendar year before the year in which such transfer is made or obligation is incurred.

Yet More Krugman, Special Bullshit Edition

So part of the discomfort I feel watching Krugman become a "team player" is that he's steadily buying into the mass bullshit of the left. So for instance, here he criticizes Obama for criticizing trial lawyers.

Now, it's true that trial lawyers are unduly maligned at times, but this (approvingly linked from the link Krugman uses, and the basis of Krugman's point) is just ludicrous:

"Is Barack Obama broadening his criticism of John Edwards to suggest that his lucrative trial lawyer past indicates less of a commitment to public service than Obama has?"

The point here is to take a conservative caricature of liberals (liberals sure do love those trial lawyers!) and then embrace it wholeheartedly. Fuck yes, a career as a trial lawyer indicates less of a commitment to public service than Obama's biography does. That's because it's not fucking public service. Now, it's fair to argue that trial lawyers play an important role in our system, they help internalize externalities, they protect people who would otherwise get screwed over, etc. But plenty of people help other people - that's not what's meant by public service. Jimmy Kilts did a fantastic job as CEO of Gillette, but it wasn't public service. Transplant surgeons save lives, but it's not public service. It's not public service because these people are well-compensated for their work. John Edwards has a house that cost something like $20 million. If public service paid this well, we would have no private sector left.

The response from TPMcafe? A video showing the mother of a tort victim who won her case thanks to John Edwards (I presume, I'm not going to watch the damn thing). What a noble career choice it was to represent someone like that, and for only 30% of her eventual recovery against the tortfeasor! Public service!

Remember what's going on here. Trial lawyers donate overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party. Conservatives use this to attack the Democrats. Good team players recognize that trial lawyers are a key part of the coalition (got to get that campaign money somewhere) and defend them. Obama upsets this awesome strategy by pointing out that trial lawyers are not public servants. Progressives lash out with sarcasm (haha Obama - do you really mean to suggest that trial lawyers aren't public servants?).

It's at the point that bullshit like this becomes the party line, and Krugman starts repeating it, that I get off the train.

More Krugman

Actually, Krugman has given me exactly the material I need. I suspect he opposes Obama because of sentiments along these lines, from a piece in Slate he published on December 26. Then, today his column does a good job illustrating why I think Krugman is so wrong in his general approach.

Krugman's theme is that Obama is insufficiently partisan to get things done. The obvious objection to this is that Krugman is judging Obama largely on the basis of his rhetoric, along with a few minor policy judgments. On almost every policy issue, Obama is to the left of Senator Clinton and to the left of former President Clinton, a man whose administration Krugman admires (more on that later). Note too that President Bush, who cannot be criticized as insufficiently partisan, uses bipartisan rhetoric when it suits him. The distinction is so obvious that it barely needs to be stated - it's one thing to use the language of bipartisanship, and another thing to naively practice it. Krugman has no good evidence that Obama will play nice with the Republicans once he's elected.

I think Krugman's antipathy toward Obama comes down to the fact that Krugman envies the conservative movement. In a sense, there's a lot to envy: the movement has achieved a lot (in a sense) and has proven remarkably resilient in the face of deep unpopularity and the evident damage done by conservative policies in almost all aspects of American life.

But wait a minute - two things about that last sentence are not at all enviable. First, the conservative movement has become quite brittle and maladapted to the modern world, despite its supposed vibrancy. Krugman notes this when he describes the unpopular, out-of-step policy positions of the GOP presidential candidates, all of whom have humiliated themselves in their quest for the conservative mantle ("double Guantanamo" is my own favorite moment, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, to choose from). I don't think this is a coincidence, either; the conservative movement's strengths have become its apparently fatal weaknesses.

What's driving this, I suspect, is group polarization. The conservative movement is just that - a movement - and it prizes loyalty and internal solidarity more than truth or accountability. This has been well documented over the last decade or so, I won't go into details here. The problem is that when you organize yourself that way, as a monoculture instead of a balanced equilibrium, you have this runaway tendency toward extremism and lack of self-criticism. You end up with Fox News and Ann Coulter instead of NPR and Cass Sunstein.

And Krugman envies this. He looks at academia and NPR and he sees weak dishwater liberals, riven by internal nit-picking while Sauron gathers his forces in Mordor. He looks at the conservative movement and he sees something that can get things done. Krugman has a lot he wants to get done - this is how he defines a progressive, as someone who wants to achieve liberal goals - and so he has no patience with the liberal institutions in their current form.

There's something the matter here, though, and it brings us back to the second striking thing about the conservative movement: it has a perverse Midas touch, turning everything it touches into shit. Where conservatives have arguably been successful, it has mostly been through incorporating their ideas into mainstream liberalism (an example would be pollution trading, though whether conservatives get credit for that is debatable). Where conservatives have fucked up the most, it's been where they have most delusionally turned inward and sheltered themselves from all criticism.

All of this is to say that conservative institutions - megachurches, Fox News, the WSJ op-ed page - are deeply dysfunctional and incapable of getting almost anything right. They are also corrupt to their core, in one sense or another. It is impossible for me to envy conservatives - the most prominent conservatives are all assholes or idiots or both. This is a function of the lack of self-criticism among conservatives, of group polarization, of institutional failure on a massive scale. Ironically, the smartest conservatives have had to disengage from the movement almost entirely. The U of C law school faculty has plenty of conservatives, but very few who are at all comfortable in today's GOP. The liberal faculty members - such as, until a few years ago, Barack Obama - are much more comfortable in the Democratic Party and in the liberal movement as a whole.

Contrast the insanely destructive failures of modern conservatism with the Clinton administration which, while mildly liberal, was not really progressive at all. Clinton had his flaws, but in terms of policy he went from success to success. It is true that he failed to advance certain key aspects of the liberal agenda, a point to which I'll return shortly.

I'd like to think that liberals are inherently immune to the kind of group polarization that conservatives have fallen prey to. Liberals are defined in part by open-mindedness, nonconformity, and a tolerance for dissent. Lately, though, we've seen progressives become more thuggish, more consensus-enforcing, more tolerant of bullshit when it supports their side in an argument. The end result of all this is bad policy and rage. Tune in to the GOP debates and you'll see the conservative movement, hopefully in its death throes, but still anchoring a major political party in nonsense and hatred.

The big tradeoff is that conservatives are supposed to be ruthlessly effective at getting their way in Washington. This is a bit of a joke - conservatives are good at serving their paymasters, but conservatism as an ideology hasn't accomplished a lot to be proud of. In a sense, though, it has been effective, at least in shutting down liberal initiatives, and I'm all for liberals standing up and fighting for what they believe in. The question is whether it's worth forging a unified movement to carry this out. I strongly believe not, Krugman strongly believes so. In a sense, this comes down to how quickly you want universal health care, versus how much value you put on traditional liberal values that undercut political effectiveness. It's also a fight about whether unilateral disarmament makes sense - in the face of a massive, well-funded, and truly insane conservative movement, maybe the only way out is to have a progressive movement as well.

In a bigger sense, though, I think all of this ignores the basic division of labor that characterizes a mature political movement. You have your academics, who mull over ideas, come up with creative solutions, weed out bullshit, and prize intellectual honesty. You have your politicians, who get elected and implement the ideas, while maintaining a certain intellectual... "flexibility" that would reflect poorly on an academic. You have your partisan hacks, who press your party's advantages and deploy rhetoric to fire up the public. In Krugman's world, the progressive movement will mush these things together the same way the conservatives have, destroying the creativity and intellectual honesty that created the ideology in the first place. So, no criticizing unions! Don't you know they're on our side? No criticizing protectionists! etc. etc.

Well, I've rambled on way too long, so I'll just sign off by saying that I don't think Krugman will be very happy if the progressive movement does emulate the conservative movement. At some point, Krugman will choke on the bullshit, and disengage from the progressive movement, and then he'll be Krugman again - the guy who got it right about almost everything because he didn't give a shit about playing nice with anyone.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Matt Bai You Silly Freak

I was going to make my next post about Krugman, Obama, and the "progressive movement," but I don't have a lot of time and this amused me. Matt Bai writes on a times pseudo blog, "Now, I like Fred Thompson, I do. How can you not, really? My wife and I never missed a turn of his on 'Law & Order,' even if it’s never been clear to me how Manhattan got a D.A. who sounded like Atticus Finch."

So the thing is, Bai's post is actually fairly good, and yet it's hard for me to overcome my pure revulsion to everything written by Matt Bai. So for instance, what the fuck? Fred Thompson does a passable job as DA, but no one will ever come close to matching the awesomeness that was Adam Schiff. However, that's beside the point. Bai is trying, and failing, to be funny by ripping off a Colbert line. A Colbert line that was published in the New York Times! Here's Colbert's line: "In my opinion 'Law & Order' never sufficiently explained why the Manhattan D.A. had an accent like an Appalachian catfish wrestler."

You see how it's done, Matt Bai? That's who I am, and you're nothing.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Full Metal Krugman

Krugman has gone on a rampage lately. Usually that's fun, but this time the target is Senator Obama, and I have to say it's getting on my nerves. I'll lay out the background in this post, and then I'll write a post explaining why I find myself in the unusual position of disagreeing with Krugman.

I believe it all started with Social Security. Krugman wrote a blog post attacking Obama for buying into the idea that Social Security faces a crisis. Krugman played a substantial role in the liberal pushback against Bush's privatization agenda, and I'm inclined to think he's right on the merits (Social Security is not in serious trouble financially, unlike Medicare). Krugman followed up here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, the Obama campaign released this.

Krugman keeps returning to the same theme: Obama is a fool for trying to be non-partisan in a partisan world. Obama has been duped by the conservative movement and/or the clueless, superficial chattering classes (Russert, Matthews, et al.).

I'll write more about this later, but I want to make a few observations. It's important not to get bogged down in the individual policy issues here. I'm inclined to think that Krugman is right about Social Security, healthcare, etc. Certainly some of Obama's rhetoric has been mildly troubling. The thing is, though, that Krugman is Krugman. If he wanted to steer Obama toward a better position, he could pick up a phone (maybe he tried, but couldn't get a signal). I guarantee you that any Democratic campaign would take Paul Krugman's call. He could call up Austen Goolsbee and say, "Hi, I'm Paul Krugman. Dude, I invented friggin New Trade Theory. Have you heard of it?"

But I don't think Krugman wants Obama to run a better campaign. I think he wants Obama to lose. What's strange is that Obama isn't really the frontrunner (except, possibly, very recently), and Senator Clinton is much more beholden to anti-progressive forces than Obama is.

Also, of course, Krugman is drawing sweeping conclusions from a few data points. That worked well when the data points indicated that Bush was a lying, incompetent idiot. That's an extrapolation that has proven highly accurate. In this case, Krugman is going on the war path over a few incidents that, even if they are revealing, can't possibly allow inferences to be drawn with such confidence.

Finally, Krugman isn't just having a chat with some colleagues or something. He's writing a very influential column and a blog that must be at least somewhat popular with the kind of Democrats who vote in primaries. His attacks have to be seen as something more than mere commentary - they are an attempt to take Obama out. But why? I'll try to give a convincing answer in my next post.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Better Judges Needed

So I'm reading a transcript of a hearing in a bankruptcy court, and the judge says, "And also that the change of control premium is effective even though you're claim is going to be paid off under the terms of the plan..."

This is just shameful. The your/you're mistake is one that a high schooler should be able to avoid, so for a sitting judge to make this mistake - from the bench, no less - is embarrassing.