Monday, May 11, 2009

Hope for the Economy?

The less we deserve good fortune, the more we hope for it. -- Seneca

In this week's Sift:
  • Which Way is the Economy Going? It depends on whether you focus on stocks or jobs. And the long-term irrationality of the world economy still hasn't been addressed.
  • Who Gets to Audition for the Supremes? The white males who dominate punditry are very upset that white males aren't being considered for the Supreme Court vacancy.
  • Onward Christian Soldiers. Al Qaeda tries to make American soldiers unpopular by calling them "crusaders". So why are they acting like crusaders?
  • The Do-As-I-Say Theory of Teen Sex. Like many mothers of infants, Bristol Palin has discovered abstinence.
  • Short Notes. Should I have had children? The demography of religion and politics. Pork and swine flu. Arresting journalists is OK if you're American. And the iPhone commercial you'll never see on TV.

Which Way is the Economy Going?
Every time I try to write an article about the economy, I run into the problem that I don't really know what to tell you. Depending on what you look at, you can argue that the economy is headed either up or down. The Dow (see this one-year chart) has already made a considerable rebound: It hit a low of 6440 in early March and (despite a bad day today) is well over 8000 as I write this.

Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke expects the economy to start growing again by the end of this year, while the Fed unemployment projections have it topping out soon and starting to go down slowly in early 2010. The Obama administration is predicting a 3.5% growth rate by the end of 2009.

The problem I have putting it all together is that there are economic problems on many different time scales, a few getting better, some still getting worse.

Inventory. The shortest-term problem has been an inventory correction: When the economy crashed in September, businesses of all sorts realized they had more stuff on the shelves than they could sell, so they stopped ordering new stuff. This happens fairly often even in healthy economies and is nothing to worry about. As long as sales don't fall to zero, eventually businesses work through their inventory and start ordering again. That's starting to happen.

Jobs. In April, the economy was still losing a lot of jobs (539,000 of them), but not as fast as in the previous few months. Unemployment is up to 8.9% officially -- a 25-year high. It's even worse if you add in "marginally attached workers" (who would like a job and have looked for one in the recent past, but not recently enough to count in the official rate) and part-time workers who want full-time work but can't find it. That bumps unemployment up to 15.8%, according to Americans for Democratic Action. A ZNet article on jobs notes the economy needs to generate 127,000 jobs a month just to keep up with our growing population. "In other words, the economy is currently 7.8 million jobs below where it would need to be simply to maintain pre-recession employment rates."

Bonddad, one of my favorite economic bloggers, notes that average-weekly-hours-worked is still dropping. That's a bad sign, because a company that is cutting hours is moving towards firing, not towards hiring. You'd expect to see employers increase hours before deciding that they need to hire more workers.

Real estate. Then there's the housing bubble. reports that Americans lost $704 billion in real estate valuations during the first quarter, and that 21.9% of homeowners have negative equity. Their real-estate index is down 21.8% from its peak in 2006. The good news -- and this is pretty thin for good news -- is that the cities where the real estate crash started are now falling more slowly. "It’s quite a statement of current market conditions when the good news is that the bad news isn’t getting worse."

Banks. The best news is that talk about the banking system collapsing has subsided. in the last few months, some of the best gainers in the stock market have been the big banks. A share of Citigroup was briefly below $1 in March, and is now up around $4. (Of course, it was over $50 in 2007.) You can say a lot of bad things about TARP, but in September there was a real look-out-below moment when Great Depression II seemed very likely. That seems to have passsed.

The dollar and the deficits. On a much longer time scale, though, the world economy has been doing something fundamentally unsound for a long time. The United States has a huge budget deficit and trade deficit. In the simplest possible terms, that means that the U.S. government prints dollars, which go overseas in exchange for things like sneakers and TVs. Ordinarily that would cause inflation as foreigners shipped those dollars back to America. But instead, they have been trading that paper for more paper: U.S. government bonds.

In other words, foreigners have been content to keep their savings in American paper, and haven't demanded that we take that paper back in exchange for anything tangible. And as long as they are all content, they have every reason to be content. It's a Yossarian Paradox. (In Catch 22, people keep asking Yossarian "What if everybody thought the way you do?" And he answers, "Then I'd be a damn fool to think any other way.") But if significant numbers of them were ever to worry that something awful might happen to the dollar, then something awful would happen to the dollar. Maybe that will happen tomorrow, maybe 20 years from now.

The worrisome thing is that the different time scales conflict. Short term, the government needs to run a huge deficit to keep the economy going until the inventory correction is over and the housing bubble has stabilized. But it makes the long-term dollar problem worse.

Matt Yglesias explains why you can't count on markets to correct themselves in any kind of timely fashion. His title comes from a quote often attributed to John Maynard Keynes: The Market Can Stay Irrational Longer Than You Can Stay Solvent.

Who Gets to Audition for the Supremes?
As the Mainstream Media Village considers the prospect that somebody other than a white male might be appointed to the Supreme Court, wagons are beginning to circle. WaPo's Richard Cohen protests that such affirmative action is a relic of a bygone era:
For most Americans, race has become supremely irrelevant. Everyone knows this. Every poll shows this.
Yeah. That's why the Obama Waffles joke was so funny. And the Obama monkey. Atrios comments:
When the white guy is chosen, all of the people who bemoan the evils of affirmative action nod and clap at how "qualified" he is, despite the fact that generally white men are the greatest beneficiaries of various forms of affirmative action in this society, from inherited wealth and privilege, to the good old boys' club, and to, of course, fluffing by our media.
As we all know, a white man has to be over-qualified and razor-sharp to make it in this politically correct world. If you don't believe me, look at George W. Bush. Or ask Digby, who also has her sarcasm dial set to 11:
After all, the women and the minorities are just overflowing the Supreme Court with unqualified losers and the poor white guys can't catch a break.
So far, 43 out of 44 presidents and 106 out of 110 Supreme Court justices have been white males. Draw your own conclusions.

Ezra Klein disputes the whole most-qualified-individual premise:
[The Court] is responsible for a country that's 51 percent female and whose law graduates are 48 percent female. Its highest profile cases revolve exclusively around things that happen in a woman's body. If we were aware of those facts and were stocking the Court from scratch, there is no doubt that we would strive for more gender balance. Viewed from that perspective, the situation clarifies considerably. The reason white men are disadvantaged in this nomination process is pretty simple: They are not, right now, what the Court needs. They are not the best candidates for the job.
Maybe a sports analogy will help guys grasp this point: If a basketball team played the best five individuals it could find, it might wind up with five centers or five point guards. The team would suck.

I've got an idea for how to move the Overton window on this nomination: Obama should leak (and deny) a short list that includes Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The Right would have a hissy fit of Biblical proportions, because Marshall wrote the same-sex marriage decision of 2003. No other name on the list would get the slightest attention. The actual nominee, when announced, would seem like a compromise candidate.

Let's put Alan Page on the list, too. As a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court and the leader of the Vikings' famous Purple People Eater defense of the 1970s, Page could continue the Court's Whizzer White tradition. He would also represent a different kind of affirmative action: I don't think a defensive player or a lineman has ever been appointed to the Court.

No matter who Obama nominates, we're sure to hear conservatives rail about "judicial activism". My opinion on so-called judicial activism hasn't changed since my Wide Liberty essay of 2005, which explained why same-sex marriage or the right to privacy do not depend on judicial activism: Claims of judicial activism almost always rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution and our founders' views about rights. Interestingly, when Hamilton spoke against writing a Bill of Rights in Federalist #84, he predicted this misunderstanding would arise.

Onward Christian Soldiers
Here's a great way to make American soldiers unpopular and unsafe in Muslim countries: Al Jazeera reports that military chaplains are encouraging soldiers in Afghanistan to convert Muslims to Christianity. If true, that's a violation of military policy and probably of the U.S. Constitution. Worse, the Afghan government we're supposedly supporting has a law against attempting to convert Muslims to another religion. The report backs up the Al Qaeda characterization of American soldiers in Muslim lands as "crusaders" -- enemies of Islam.

The smoking gun here is a film of a prayer meeting of U.S. soldiers. They've got a stack of Bibles in the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashtu, and a chaplain seems to be leading a discussion on ways to work around the military order against proselytizing. A separate video shows the top military chaplain in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Gary Hensley, giving a sermon where he says "as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. ... That's what we do, that's our business." Now this might well be exactly what the military claims -- remarks taken out of context. (Hensley might be encouraging soldiers to evangelize to other American soldiers -- also dubious, but at least not against Afghan law.) But I'm sure Hensley (wearing part of his uniform and holstering a gun) looks very threatening to a Muslim TV audience.

A deeper issue here is the overall corruption of the chaplain corps by evangelical Christians. Paying ministers with taxpayer dollars is tricky under the Constitution. The chaplains pass muster because they have a secular purpose: Without chaplains offering the sacraments and guidance soldiers want and believe in, the military could only recruit people who were willing to give up their religious practices for months at a time. So the chaplains are paid to serve American soldiers, not to serve God or any religious institution. When chaplains try to convert soldiers to a religion they did not hold when they enlisted, though, a line has been crossed. It's illegal, unconstitutional, and the chaplains should be fired.

The Do-As-I-Say Theory of Teen Sex
Back in February, Bristol Palin's interview on Fox News ventured beyond the prepared talking points, and she made an uncommon amount of sense: "Everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it's not realistic at all."

I guess the deprogrammers are finished with her now, because now she's back on message:
I just want to go out there and just promote abstinence, and just say "This is the safest choice. This is the choice that's going to prevent teen pregnancy and prevent a lot of heartache."
Naturally, the best person to tell you you're full of crap is your ex. Levi Johnston (who is getting bonus time on his 15 minutes of fame) says:
I don't just think telling young kids: "You can't have sex" -- it's not going to work. It's not realistic.
The NYT's Gail Collins shares my horror:
If you have ever watched Levi Johnston on TV for two minutes you will appreciate how terrifying it is when he has the most reasonable analysis of a social issue.
But then Collins goes too far. She has the bad taste to bring facts into the discussion:
while encouraging kids to wait is obviously fine, the evidence is pretty clear that abstinence education is worse than useless. Texas, where virtually all the schools teach abstinence and abstinence alone, is a teen pregnancy disaster zone.
The alternative is to teach kids about birth control, so that the ones who do have sex won't necessarily make babies. But according to the Right, that is a "mixed message". Apparently they think any message more complicated than "No" just won't fit into a teen-ager's tiny brain.

I guess Bristol's message sounds clear to them. Here's how Collins sums up the moral of the Bristol's-baby saga, as presented at the Republican Convention:
If your handsome but somewhat thuglike boyfriend gets you with child, he will clean up nicely, propose marriage, and show up at an important family event wearing a suit and holding your hand. At which point you will get a standing ovation.
Even now that Levi is history, Bristol thinks her baby is "wonderful" and "a blessing", even if he is "a lot of work". She isn't sorry she has him, she just wishes she'd "waited" -- about ten years, according to her Fox News interview. (Waited ten years with Levi? Or if without him, how would that be the same baby?)

That's the abstinence message in a nutshell: Babies and sex are like pieces of chocolate cake that you can't eat until you finish your lima beans. At a time in your life when fifth period seems like it will never end, you should swear off that chocolate cake for a decade or so. Because babies are a lot of work and ... I guess you're too lazy and stupid to deal with them.

Was there ever a message better designed to provoke an "I'm going to prove them wrong" response? I wonder about the people who compose these "unmixed" messages and convince the Bristol Palins to repeat them. Were they ever teen-agers? Have they ever listened to a teen-ager?

Even for people who don't remember their adolescence, the general ineffectiveness of abstinence programs has been clear for at least two years. The full report is here.

In a duel of high-profile Republican daughters, Meghan McCain responds to Bristol Palin:
The key, honestly, is communication between parents and children. ... Unfortunately, Republicans typically don’t like to discuss or deal with things they think are wrong or immoral. And that’s a huge mistake. If we can’t discuss birth control in addition to abstinence, and in a nonjudgmental way, kids will continue to make bad choices for lack of having access to informed, safe options. ... [T]he GOP continues to struggle with open communication about serious issues most people deal with rationally, and on a regular basis. Unless we learn how to integrate that kind of discussion, our party will continue its descent into irrelevance.

Short Notes
In addition to my current-events blogging, I also write a column for the UU World web site. My day-after-Mother's-Day column is about not being a parent, and how that decision looks as my friends' daughter gets ready to graduate from high school.

On OpenLeft, Chris Bowers makes demographic projections about religion and politics. He breaks the country into four religious groups: white evangelicals (plus Mormons), white traditionals (i.e., Catholics and mainstream Protestants), non-Christians, and non-white Christians. Of the four, white traditionals is currently the largest (37% of the electorate), and the most bipartisan (7% advantage to McCain in 2008). The other three groups all skew at least 3-to-1 to either the Democrats or Republicans.

Using demographic data, Bowers then projects the future size of each of these groups, and comes to the conclusion that each will be about 1/4 of the electorate by 2032, with both non-Christians and non-white Christians passing the white evangelicals. In 2032, white traditionals are still the largest group, but down to 27%.
Combined, the two strongly Democratic groups, non-Christians and non-white Christians, should increase from 39% to about 52% of the electorate between now and 2032. A shift like that would add another 10% to the Democratic margin if partisan preferences within the groups remain the same.
This underlines a point I was making last week: Long-term, Republicans really need to start appealing to Hispanics. Blaming all our problems on Mexican immigrants is one of the dumbest things they could be doing.

Every now and then something reminds me that I overestimate public intelligence. Apparently, the pork industry has to waste advertising money telling people that they can't catch swine flu by eating bacon -- I got to this link by clicking through an online ad. Which makes me wonder: Is the poultry industry doing enough to educate us about chicken pox?

Iran has decided to suspend the sentence of Roxana Saberi, a free-lance journalist (BBC, NPR) who hold dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship. She was convicted of spying for the U.S., though it's widely suspected she was just being a journalist. She'll be released today, but she's banned from working as a journalist in Iran for the next five years.

Glenn Greenwald notes how different this result (and its surrounding publicity) is from the cases of journalists arrested by Americans. Sudanese cameraman Sami al-Haj was working for Al Jazeera when he was arrested in Pakistan and shipped to Guantanamo. He stayed there for six years with no trial of any kind. Bilal Hussein was a photographer for Associated Press until we arrested him in Iraq and held him for two years without charges. We still refuse to release Reuters photographer Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed even after an Iraqi court has ruled that there is no evidence against him.

SlateV finds this parody of the iPhone commercial.

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