Monday, January 6, 2014

Force and Injustice

There underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.

-- Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891)

This week's featured article: The Sifted Bookshelf: Angry White Men.

This week everybody was talking, yet again, about Benghazi

Maybe the New York Times can finally lay it to rest as a "scandal". What the Times found in its exhaustive investigation was "months of American misunderstandings and misperceptions about Libya and especially Benghazi" leading up to the attack. The lesson it draws is that "an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests."

This all resembles nothing so much as the Cold War, when Americans tried to evaluate every new player on the world stage -- Castro, Mao, Nasser, Saddam, bin Laden, and countless military juntas from South America to Pakistan -- in terms of the cosmic struggle between us and the Soviet Union. We had a hard time grasping the possibility that, rather than being for "us" or for "them", leaders of other nations or national movements might be for themselves or for their own countries or causes.

Likewise today, we see everything in the Muslim world as polarized between ourselves and Al Qaeda. Benghazi appears to have had little to do with all that. The Times
turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. ... The fixation on Al Qaeda might have distracted experts from more imminent threats.

So most of the national discussion of Benghazi has been based on false premises. Sometimes that was intentional; I recommend David Frum's book The Benghazi Hoax, which chronicles Republicans' ever-shifting accusations about Benghazi, and how little basis any of them ever had.

and extended unemployment insurance

The basic conflict around extended unemployment insurance (which ran out for 1.3 million people on December 28, and is expected to run out for millions more over the next year) is simple:
CONSERVATIVE: Unemployment is supposed to be short-term help while you find another job.

LIBERAL: What if there are no jobs?

Each side has an additional, more complicated point to make. Liberals take a macro-economic view: If there aren't enough jobs for everybody who wants to work, and then you make millions of families drastically cut their spending, the economy will shrink and there will be even fewer jobs. Conservatives counter that long-term unemployment benefits create dependency: People get used to the idea that they don't have to work, so they're less and less likely to find a job.

Rand Paul put it like this:
When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy. And it really -- while it seems good -- it actually does a disservice to the people you're trying to help.

Senator Paul justifies his conclusion by mentioning a study showing that employers would rather hire a worker who has been unemployed only a short time, rather one unemployed longer. One of the study's authors responded:
Paul cites my work on long-term unemployment as a justification—which surprised me, because it implies the opposite of what he says it does. ... Paul thinks that "extending long-term benefits will only hurt the chances of the unemployed in the job market," because longer benefits will make them choose to stay unemployed longer—at which point firms won't hire them. But just because companies discriminate against the long-term unemployed doesn't mean long-term benefits are to blame. Paul might know that if he read beyond the first line of my paper's abstract.

People with marketable skills tend to get snapped up right away, but the long-term unemployed would be even less likely to find work if they had no income at all. The longer you are unemployed, the more likely you are to fall into poverty traps: situations where lack of money prevents you from mounting an effective job search. Without money, it's harder to arrange child care and transportation for job interviews, and harder to present the fresh-and-confident image employers are looking for. At the extreme, homeless people have difficulty maintaining basic hygiene, and so become almost unemployable.

The test case is North Carolina, which on July 1 cut unemployment compensation so drastically that its citizens became ineligible for federal extended unemployment benefits. By one measure the results look good: NC unemployment fell from 8.8% to 7.4%, more than twice as fast as unemployment was falling nationwide. But a closer look tells a different story: The state counted 102K fewer unemployed because the labor force shrunk by 95K. In other words, people stopped counting as "unemployed" because they gave up on finding a job.

Being unemployed or making minimum wage is bad enough on its own, but the injury is compounded by the insult of being treated like a loser. Noah Smith recalls his experiences in Japan, and imagines Americans calling fast-food workers "sir" and generally treating every worker with respect. I like the phrase he coins: redistribution of respect.

and changes that began with the New Year

ObamaCare coverage, legal pot in Colorado, gay boy scouts, and the tax credit on windmills expired (because, you know, who needs more wind energy?

Oh, and on January 2, the 199 Americans who make $50 million or more in annual salary were done paying Social Security taxes for the year.

and only a few people were talking about Dick Metcalf

Metcalf was a columnist for Guns & Ammo and appeared on The Sportsmen's Channel's Modern Rifle Adventures TV ... until he wrote something reasonable about gun control:
The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been regulated, and need to be.
Bye-bye, Dick. No more column. No more TV.

Last week I discussed Phil Robertson, who was briefly suspended from Duck Dynasty for, well, being an idiot in front of a journalist. His cause was taken up by Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and countless others who said his "First Amendment rights" were being violated, which wasn't true and showed a grave ignorance of the First Amendment.

Well, where are all those people now? Are they rushing to Dick Metcalf's defense?.

Slate's "If it happened there" series continues to be outstanding. How would American journalists write about the Duck Dynasty controversy if it were happening in some other country?

and you also might be interested in ...

The rich are trying to turn the screws on Pope Francis. Home Depot mogul Ken Langone has warned New York's Cardinal Dolan that rich donors might be reluctant to provide the $180 million needed to restore St. Patrick's Cathedral if the Pope keeps saying mean things about capitalism. "You get more with honey than with vinegar," Langone told Dolan.

Langone says he's trying to explain "the vast difference between the pope's experience in Argentina and how we are in America. ... Rich people in one country don't act the same as rich people in another country."

That last idea has become the standard right-wing talking point about the Pope: his limited experience makes him ignorant about economics. Arthur Brooks of the conservative American Enterprise Institute says: "In places like Argentina, what they call free enterprise is a combination of socialism and crony capitalism." And that's almost word-for-word what Paul Ryan said:
The guy is from Argentina, they haven't had real capitalism in Argentina. They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don't have a true free enterprise system.

I wonder how that spin technique would work for liberals. Catholic women could try to explain how the Pope's opinions on birth control and abortion are invalid because of "the vast difference between the pope's experience as a man, and how we are" as women. Why didn't anybody think of that before?

Of course, if you read Francis' Evangelii Gaudium (I did), you'll see there is nothing Argentina-centered about his economic analysis, which is about capitalism itself, not crony capitalism. Francis' economic thought is right in the middle of a Catholic tradition that goes back to the 1890s and has been re-affirmed by every pope since -- Italians, Germans, and Poles alike. It fits the U.S. like a glove.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is going to the Creation Museum in Kentucky to debate the topic "Is Creation A Viable Model of Origins?". Like Greg Laden, I can't help thinking that no good can come from this. I hope Nye understands how much easier it is to make stuff up than to debunk it, and has some strategy in mind that I don't grasp.

Speaking of people who reject science, this week we heard the annual claims that global warming must be a myth because it's cold outside. I must have been getting popcorn during the part of An Inconvenient Truth where Al Gore said it wasn't going to snow any more.

And then there are the people who get angry when confronted with facts they don't like. Josh Marshall reports: "As Obamacare Sign-Ups Surge, So Does Conservative Rage". He calculates that around 10 million people now have coverage because of the various provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and the number would be 15 million if the Supreme Court hadn't allowed Republican officials to block Medicaid expansion in red states.
These are the numbers. Lots of people have partisan or ideological or in many cases deeply emotional needs not to believe them. But these are the numbers.

An NYT article Thursday about the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations calls attention to the centrality of a point that might seem obvious: Israel insists that the Palestinians recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state.

Usually, American news coverage focuses on the "right to exist" part. Of course you can't make a deal with somebody who won't admit you have a right to exist. Denying Israel's right to exist conjures up images of Hitler's attempt to annihilate Europe's Jews, which is what convinced the world that Jews needed their own homeland in the first place.

But Israel's right to exist "as a Jewish state" is a little different. (Imagine how American Jews, Muslims, and atheists would feel about recognizing the United States as a Christian nation.) To Arabs whose families have been living for centuries in the region that is now Israel and who know no other homeland, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means agreeing that Jewish Israelis are permanently tied to the identity of the country in a way that Arab Israelis are not. It ratifies a Jewish-centered national narrative in which the Palestinian refugees of 1948 are collateral damage.

Esquire provides some relevant backstory to Dr. Eben Alexander's best-seller Proof of Heaven. Dr. Alexander has a long history of making up convenient details after the fact.

The House Republican leadership has a plan to improve the do-nothing Congress of last year: They plan to do even less.

and let's end with something fun

The wonders of PhotoShop. You can edit present-day celebrities into classic paintings.

1 comment:

Chris G said...

> But a closer look tells a different story: The state counted 102K fewer unemployed because the labor force shrunk by 95K. In other words, people stopped counting as "unemployed" because they gave up on finding a job.

Yup. The Employment-to-Population Ratio is a better metric for exactly that reason.

History for ages 25-54 here:,