Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Poor News Judgment From ABC

I don't know if the national network is to blame, or merely my local (Washington, D.C. suburbs) affiliate, but: somebody in the ABC News hierarchy has some pretty warped ideas regarding what warrants a special news bulletin. Last night I was watching my DVR recording of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." when suddenly -- in the middle of the scene showing Ward and Malick making nefarious plans in that corporate boardroom -- the recorded transmission was interrupted by an ABC "Special News" bulletin.

I immediately felt a twinge of fear: what sudden news development could be important enough for a network to interrupt a prime-time broadcast? Has there been a terrorist attack on American soil? Did somebody assassinate the president? Maybe North Korea fired missiles at Seoul?

None of that, thankfully; 'twas merely an announcement that analysts projected Ted Cruz to win the Wisconsin primary, followed by a couple minutes' worth of George Stephanopoulos confirming this.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Could a Guaranteed Basic Income Save America's Free Market Economy?

Remember when then-vice president Dick Cheney said “The American way of life is non-negotiable?” When you get right down to it, that attitude explains the current popularity of Bernie Sanders among American left-wingers and Donald Trump among the right – if you define “the American way of life” as “Anybody who's honest and willing to put in a full day's work can make a decently comfortable life for themselves, and perhaps a small family.”

Yet for many working- and middle-class Americans, that way of life is dying if not already dead. High school graduates who a generation or so ago could've found good-paying factory jobs are instead flipping burgers for eight bucks an hour – and evermore college grads are doing the same thing, with the added burden of an enormous (and bankruptcy-proof) student loan debt weighing them down even more. So it's no surprise that Donald Trump gets massive applause at his rallies when he promises to bring factory jobs back to America, either via undoing international trade agreements or imposing punitive tariffs on imports.

But such actions would be catastrophic for the country's economy, and cause serious pain to American consumers as well. Consider this relevant anecdote: over the past few weeks, Mein Spouse and I have fallen into the habit of watching early 1970s episodes of Monty Hall's old game show Let's Make A Deal, airing on a cable network. Neither of us are interested in the “deals” contestants make, but we like seeing all the early 1970s prizes that they win, and what those prizes suggest about technological changes and improvements since then.

A couple nights ago, somebody won a 25" color television worth $700, in 1972 dollars. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator, $700 in 1972 was equivalent to $3,970.76 today. By way of comparison, when I bought my 36" high-def TV in 2013, I paid just under $300 excluding sales tax.

In other words: the real, inflation-adjusted price of my television, not even counting the larger screen, clearer images and other advantages it has over a 1972 model, was only one-thirteenth as much as it would have cost 44 years ago. And I could cite similar anecdotes about every home appliance Monty Hall gave away in 1972: refrigerators, dishwashers, laundry washers and dryers, window-unit air conditioners – all cost as many if not more U.S. dollars in 1972 than they do today, even before adjusting those dollars for inflation (especially the microwave ovens, which were still new tech back then -- on another episode, somebody won an Amana Radarange that sold for $400 in 1972, compared to the $50 or so a countertop microwave costs today).

Some of those price drops over the past four decades are due to technological improvements, yes, but some of that is also comes from moving the factories out of America to countries with lower labor costs.

It's undeniably awesome that such wonderful appliances can be had for so very little money. Even people working crummy McJobs at $8 an hour can afford a microwave oven and color TV nowadays. At the same time, it's no mystery why today's un- or under-employed American ex-factory workers are unhappy about losing their steady, well-paying jobs and replacing them with low-paying, insecure gigs.

The problem boils down to “diffuse benefits, concentrated costs”: the benefits of these trade deals and technological improvements are spread out among all American consumers (not to mention the overseas factory workers whose jobs lifted them out of poverty), whereas the costs have been largely concentrated on American working-class families. Consider the perspective of an American McJob worker who, back in the day, had a high-paying factory position making 25" TVs that sold for $4,000 apiece and now flips burgers or stocks shelves for eight bucks an hour: yeah, he probably owns more and better appliances than did his 1972 counterpart working in the TV or microwave oven factory. But his job is a lot worse: a steady, constant, 9-to-5 position with regularly scheduled time off, paid vacation and sick days, full benefits and so forth is inherently better than a part-time, ever-changing schedule, no paid leave and no bennies gig, even if both have the same base pay (and they don't). At the same time, bringing back those high-paying American factory jobs via trade restrictions and tariffs would be spectacularly bad for consumers and the economy as a whole: if my TV cost $4,000, I wouldn't have one.

So Trump's plan to bring factory jobs back to America wouldn't bring prosperity with it. What about Bernie Sanders' proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15? Sounds good at first, but the end result would likely be a net loss of minimum-wage jobs. And his proposal to make four-year college educations free for all would only make a four-year college degree the new high-school diploma: a minimum educational credential that isn't remotely enough to qualify for a good job, merely an entrance ticket to the next level of schooling required for a shot at a decent job and a decent life. (Besides, even in a Lake Wobegon America where everybody has above-average intelligence and educational credentials, we'll still need shelf-stockers and burger-flippers, and they'll still need enough money to live on.)

In other words, bringing “good” working-class jobs back to America isn't a feasible option, and making today's working-class jobs as “good” as they used to be isn't an option either. Ignoring the pain of the working classes is another non-option; the people bearing the concentrated costs of America's economic changes are not only not mollified by reminders that all Americans benefit from the availability of affordable, high-quality consumer goods; they are getting angry over the repeated platitudes that their personal and familial hardships are a small price to pay for the greater good, or that they're selfish and entitled for wanting a better life than what they've got.

What about the suggestion that they retool themselves and acquire the skills necessary to be useful in the new economy? That's what they've been hearing for at least a generation now, and that's exactly why Donald freaking Trump is the GOP presidential frontrunner.

So here's a modest proposal: rather than passing trade restrictions or minimum-wage increases in the vain hope of making working-class jobs better, how about we eliminate minimum-wage laws altogether, discard our current patchwork coupon/voucher/food-stamp welfare safety net, and replace all of this with a modest Guaranteed Basic Income for all American citizens over age 18? Off the top of my head, let's say $250 per adult per week – rising every year pegged to the inflation rate, and classified as ordinary income for income-tax purposes.

Granted, giving $250 to every adult citizen would cost a fortune in tax money – but those costs would be somewhat offset by the elimination of however-much we currently spend on patchwork welfare programs (Section 8 housing vouchers, EBT “food stamps,” and so forth). Giving this money to every adult citizen regardless of “need” would be cheaper than our current system of maintaining an army of well-paid bureaucrats to decide who is and is not qualified, and hold the various hoops through which welfare recipients are expected to jump. Consider also the resulting economic boost—money given to the poorest of people goes back into the economy almost immediately, because those po'folks are not stuffing the money in their mattresses; they're immediately spending it on household necessities. (And of course, whichever companies they buy those necessities from are paying taxes on their resulting profits.)

Eliminating the minimum wage would (presumably) make this proposal more palatable to American employers – but at the same time, the end result would not be “Certain crap jobs end up paying a dollar a day,” because that basic adult income would reduce if not eliminate the number of people desperate enough to take any job they can get, at any wage that is offered. And while $250 per adult per week is not enough to pay for a comfortably secure middle-class existence (indeed, it's only a little higher than the official federal poverty level for one person), that guaranteed subsidy combined with whatever wages a worker could earn in a truly free marketplace would bring back the old “American way of life,” defined as “Anybody who's honest and willing to put in a full day's work can make a decently comfortable life for themselves, and perhaps a small family.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Bigotry After Brussels

ISIS has claimed responsibility for today's horrible terrorist attack in Belgium, followed by Islamic leaders throughout the world condemning this appalling crime, which in turn was ignored by the usual bigots demanding to know "Where's the Muslim outrage, huh?"

It's obvious that the only way to satisfy these people is for every individual Muslim to replace standard punctuation with condemnations of terrorism, as follows:

"Could you please pass the salt? I'm outraged by terrorist violence."

"Congratulations on the birth of your new baby! I say this as a Muslim who hates terrorist violence."

"Sorry, can't meet you for dinner tomorrow; I have to study for my math final and be outraged by terrorist violence."

"Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and I condemn terrorism too."

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why Sanders? Why Trump? It's The Economy, Stupid

I don't know if the media narrative has changed in the past week or if I'm just seeing a wider variety of headlines than I used to, but the old conventional wisdom “Trump supporters: 100% bigoted white folks” is now being supplemented by “Trump supporters: downwardly mobile Americans being left behind by the New Economy, and scared witless over it.”

Last week, Thomas Frank (of What's the Matter with Kansas? fame) wrote an article in the Guardian  pointing out that, while most media coverage of the Trump phenomenon focuses on his horribly bigoted soundbites, if you listen to his speeches in their entirety you'll mostly hear talk of economic matters:
... Last week, I decided to watch several hours of Trump speeches for myself. I saw the man ramble and boast and threaten and even seem to gloat when protesters were ejected from the arenas in which he spoke. I was disgusted by these things, as I have been disgusted by Trump for 20 years. But I also noticed something surprising. In each of the speeches I watched, Trump spent a good part of his time talking about an entirely legitimate issue, one that could even be called leftwing.

Yes, Donald Trump talked about trade. In fact, to judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern – not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.

Trump embellished this vision with another favorite leftwing idea: under his leadership, the government would “start competitive bidding in the drug industry”. (“We don’t competitively bid!” he marveled – another true fact, a legendary boondoggle brought to you by the George W Bush administration.) Trump extended the critique to the military-industrial complex, describing how the government is forced to buy lousy but expensive airplanes thanks to the power of industry lobbyists....
Not that Trump's half-baked or quarter-baked ideas would actually do anything to solve the economic problems of the working and lower-middle classes, but at least Trump, unlike most Republicans (and most Democrats with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders) admits there's a problem.

I've complained for years now that the GOP is long overdue for a restructuring, or rethinking of what the party as a whole stands for: abandon the extreme socio-religious conservatism, and return to its alleged old-school standards of “small government, personal freedom and fiscal responsibility.” But seeing Sanders' rise in popularity makes me realize that the Democrats are due for a restructuring, too. When I was a kid, the difference between the two parties (at least in theory) could be summarized as: Republicans are the party of big business, and Democrats the party of the middle and working classes. But now, instead, the Democrats are the party of big business, and Republicans the party of extreme social or religious conservatism. Nobody in either party speaks for the poor and downwardly mobile—which is why Sanders is getting such support from Democrats while Trump sweeps up Republicans.

I don't agree with Sanders' proposal of free four-year college degrees for all, because I think the end result would be simply to make college degrees the new high school diplomas: a minimum educational credential that's not remotely enough to qualify one for a decent job, merely an entrance ticket to the next level of schooling required for a shot at a decent job and a decent life. At the same time, though, I completely understand why Sanders' proposal is so popular, especially among college students and graduates still weighed down by enormous (and bankruptcy-proof) student loan debt. Right now, the American job status quo can be summarized as “You must have a college degree if you want any shot at a decent life.” And for poor or middle-class kids – anyone whose parents can't or won't pay for that degree, in other words – that status quo means “If you want a decent job when you grow up, you must start your adult life weighed down under a hefty student debt load.”

Neither Sanders nor Trump are likely to fix the problems facing downwardly mobile Americans – but at least those two admit such problems exist, rather than gaslighting or handwaving those problems away.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Stupor Tuesday

Back in 2008, when I lived in Connecticut, I spent six days as a registered Republican solely so I could vote for Ron Paul in the primary. (And as soon as I cast my vote that Tuesday, I made haste to the registrar's office to change my party affiliation back to "independent," because I wasn't going to be a Republican one freaking nanosecond longer than I had to.)

This year I'm in Virginia, which lets people vote in primaries without registering as an official party member first. I was going to cast a Republican vote for not-Trump, but realized I could not in good conscience vote for any of his rivals, since all seek to use the power of the state to force pregnant women to remain so against their will. So I voted for a Democrat.

[Sings] ♫♩ I feel dirty, oh so dirty, I feel filthy, and slimy, and groooosss....♪ ♫ [/Sings]

For all that I'm horrified by the thought of what a President Trump would do to America, I highly doubt he'll have a chance of winning a general election, unless some left-wing/Democratic type runs a third-party campaign to split the not-Republican vote. I base this not on any faith in the alleged intelligence of the American electorate, but on simple demographics: back during the 2012 election, when Romney & Co. were convinced they'd win and win handily against Obama, I remember reading that a Romney adviser admitted Romney's campaign strategy was to focus exclusively on winning a supermajority of white voters whilst ignoring everyone else. However, the same adviser admitted that, due to demographic trends, 2012 would be the last year that the white vote alone would be enough to win the presidency (though in retrospect it clearly wasn't). But Romney merely ignored white voters, whereas Trump has actively insulted or threatened most of them.

With luck, a Trump candidacy (and subsequent electoral drubbing) will force the national GOP to rethink the extreme social conservative strategy it's pursued these past many years, and finally realize "Gay people and friends thereof, scientists, secularists, non-whites, and sexually active women [willing or otherwise] who don't want to be mommies yet" are voters to court, not threats to campaign against. 

EDIT: Oh, yeah, I forgot to identify which Democrat I actually voted for! I can't quite bring myself to do so; I'll say only that it's somebody who shares a name with a certain internationally famous seller of fried chicken. (Yes, I know, the bulk of his economic ideas are not merely bad, but downright hallucinatory. But every major-party candidate stinks regarding economic matters, albeit in different ways, and at least the not-Colonel admits that American police brutality is a serious problem, and doesn't share Clinton's foreign-policy hawkishness. Plus, Congress would block his worst economic proposals anyway.)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Feminist's Argument Against Hillary For President

If “full-body cringing” counts as “exercise,” then I got quite a workout last weekend after Madeleine Albright implied that women who won't vote for Hillary Clinton will go to hell, and Gloria Steinem sneeringly suggested that the only reason any young Democratic women might prefer Bernie Sanders over Clinton was so those women could meet boys. (Advice for young women choosing their political affiliations solely in hopes of meeting a single man: start going to libertarian meetups.)

Although I voted libertarian in the last presidential election, I'll almost certainly be voting for the Democrat (whoever it is) this time around – or, more specifically, I'll be voting against the Republican. And if voting for the Dem means voting for Hillary then I'll do so, but that doesn't mean I'll like it. Speaking strictly as a feminist: I hope Hillary Clinton does not win the title of “America's first woman president,” because I would much prefer to see that honor go to someone, left or right wing, who built her political career entirely on her own merits, rather than one whose entire political career is based on being married to a former president. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being a woman who married well; I'm just saying that rewarding a woman for doing so does not count as a feminist victory.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

A Sincere Question For Marco Rubio

I've joked for years now that the national GOP leadership must've been infiltrated by deep-cover Democratic operatives whose mission is to ensure that no matter how bad a Democratic candidate is, the Republican opponent will be even worse. Sometime during the 2012 presidential election, that Democratic mole earned his salary and then some, by convincing the GOP “You know what America's real problem is? Pregnant rape victims are not legally forced to bear their rapists' offspring! We should totally use the power of the state to change that.”

But that was four years ago. Today, in 2016, I can't say for certain whether Marco Rubio is a sincere Republican or one of the aforementioned deep-cover Dem operatives, but Rubio still says that, if elected president, he will try to ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest. 

“Abortion to me is not a political issue. It's a human rights issue,” Rubio said.

(For what it's worth, I actually agree with him there. Only difference is, I believe “human rights” apply to human women even if they're pregnant, whereas Rubio clearly does not.)

So Rubio says that forcing a woman to give birth against her will is a just, righteous and moral use of government power, and even if I could have a personal conversation with him I wouldn't waste my time trying to convince him otherwise. But there is one question I'd genuinely like to ask Rubio and other forced-birth advocates: if you want to use state power to force pregnant rape victims to bear their attackers' offspring, would you at least be willing to let tax dollars cover said rape victims' full hospital and birthing costs plus lost wages? Or is that too much like “socialism” for your tastes?
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