January 27, 2009


Just took the Jeopardy online test and man, it kicked my ass.

January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

George Bush's second term as President of the United States is over and Barack Obama's first term has begun. That's reason enough for a return to posting and a little celebration.

Incidentally, I though Obama's speech was good, but not great. It was delivered as well as any of his speeches, which is pretty good, but there really wasn't a single, big, memorable line for the ages. I mean, it's a historic speech just by the nature of Obama becoming the first black president, but it would have been great if there was a line like "Don't ask what your country can do for you..."

January 19, 2009

MLK Day reprint: The warm, fuzzy, unthreatening sort of radical

Today is Martin Luther King Day, 2009. For extra historical significance, it's also the day before the inauguration of our first African-American president. So, naturally, not only do I not have the day off, I have two hours of practice before my oral exam on Wednesday, and I get to spend the rest of the day trying to get groceries.

In short: no time for a full post, as much as a full post is due. So here's a reprint of something I wrote about MLK last April:

I love Martin Luther King. First, he is without a doubt in my mind the most brilliant American orator of the twentieth century, and quite possibly the greatest since Abraham Lincoln. Second, he words are not just moving; they are deep and insightful. `Letter from Birmingham city jail' is one of the great philosophical treatises on civil disobedience.

And third, King was truly radical in his opposition to racism, poverty, and war.

That last sentence might be kind of surprising. In the narrative I got in high school American history, King was the moderate, keeping the civil rights movement from spiraling off into the violence and destruction of Malcolm X and, later, The Black Panthers. King was the safe alternative, who wanted us all to get along. He wasn't going to shoot at you, or burn your house down, or make a pass at your wife. He was the Nice Black Man who, after centuries of being stomped on, was politely asking for those evil racists to please take their boot off his face.

This narrative is almost 100% bullshit. It's true that King and X disagreed deeply over the use of violence. But King didn't speak with a voice of submissive pleading. He didn't ask for improvement. He demanded justice, at whatever costs necessary. Jim Crow was his most famous enemy, but it was far from the only one. King fought the de facto apartheid of the Northern cities, the invasion of Viet Nam, and the way capitalism ground down communities into a fine, atomic powder of poverty. (Obviously, I'm not as good with the metaphors as he was.) King was systematically and radically opposed to virtually every aspect of the American and international power structure. And on the fortieth anniversary of his death (which was yesterday, but I was busy and the past two weeks have been exhausting -- sorry Dr. King) it's vital that we respect the radicality of his vision.

Some links:
  1. Kai Wright with more on this theme:

  2. His 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' is in fact a blunt rejection of letting the establishment set the terms of social change. 'The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation,' he wrote, later adding, 'We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.'

  3. The NewsHour segment from last night, with three academics who work on race issues and Cory Booker, the progressive mayor of Newark, NJ. (Booker is undoubtedly someone to keep an eye on. I predict that this man is going to be one of the great activists of the 21st century.)

January 18, 2009

Reason's five arguments against stimulus-by-spending

There are two basic tools of fiscal policy that a government can use to stimulate the economy: increase spending and decrease tax rates. Because, given the sorts of things the government spends money on, it puts money more or less immediately into the hands of workers, increased spending is often called a `demand-side' stimulus; this is the centrepiece of a Keynesian approach to economic stimulus. And, because the proposed taxes to be cut are often capital gains taxes and the highest marginal income tax rates, decreases in tax rates are often called a `supply-side' stimulus.

Anthony Randazzo has five arguments against stimulus-by-increased-spending over at Reason. Let's take a look at them.

  1. Stimulus packages frequently misdirect national resources

    The argument here is that the government, because it's not omniscient like the market, doesn't know as well as the market where to invest. If the government decides to invest in, say, counting the number of gains of sand in the nation's beaches, the stimulus won't be as effective as if the money was invested in, say, rebuilding aging bridges so they don't fall down. The market, by contrast, will use price signals to direct money to the areas where it can be most effective.

    There are two problems with this argument. First, the basic structure of the business cycle shows that the market is not omniscient, especially in the short term. You might argue that the two bubbles we've seen over the last ten years or so (the stock bubble connected with the dot-com boom, and the housing bubble) are caused, in part, by government mismanagement of the economy. Monetary policy could, and should, have been used to make it harder to get a mortgage (by increasing interest rates) several years ago. But the housing bubble came into existence in the first place by virtue of the simple fact that a lot of people had the profoundly irrational belief that housing prices would never, ever go down under almost any circumstances. Similarly, Alan Greenspan called the dot-com bubble `irrational exuberance'. This isn't to say that the government always does better than the market, or anything along those lines. It's just to say that the market is not, in fact, omniscient.

    Second, and more importantly, this argument fails to understand the economic diagnosis, and proposed treatment, of a Keynesian stimulus plan. The fundamental problem with our economy is not that people want to buy lots of a certain kind of widget, but there aren't enough of these widgets around for them to buy. It's not, in a word, undersupply, to be corrected by encouraging the production of the highly valuable but scare commodity. Indeed, our problem is exactly the opposite: we have too much supply, and not enough demand. Commodities are sitting around, unsold, due to a vicious combination of fear and unemployment. (Remember FDR's inaugural? `The only thing we have to fear is fear itself' was -- and is -- exactly the problem.) Hence, the increase in production is actually entirely incidental. It doesn't matter what people are doing to get the government money. The nice thing about building bridges and repairing school roofs -- as opposed to counting the grains of sand -- is that, afterwards, you have some brand new, durable, public goods. But the value created is, again, an entirely incidental benefit. What you're really doing is giving people money to spend.

  2. Stimulus packages don't increase aggregate consumption

    The argument here, in its entirely, is as follows: `In order to inject money into the economy, the government has to take money out of the economy. Whether by increasing taxes, national debt, or printing the money (growing inflation), the government has to damage long-term wealth in order to provide short-term economic activity.'

    I don't see any charitable way to interpret this argument. In theory, a Keynesian government uses deficit spending to stimulate the economy during a bust; Randazzo has that part right. But -- assuming the stimulus works -- the economy will be booming again before too long. At that point, between the increased tax revenue (because the economy is booming) and the decreased spending (because the stimulus spending is a short-term thing), the government is able to pay down the accumulated debt. Similarly, if the government prints money to pay for the stimulus, the result is inflation, but the idea is that the economy will eventually grow fast enough to balance out the harmful effects of inflation.

    You might object that, as a matter of fact, the government will not reduce spending as the economy booms -- the sand-counting firm enjoys a pretty lucrative contract, so they pay off members of congress and senators to keep the contract going, or some such -- but this isn't what Randazzo is arguing (that's argument 5). He's making a purely economic argument. But then he has to assume that the stimulus will be unsuccessful, which makes it question-begging.

  3. Stimulus packages don't create sustainable jobs

    Here Randazzo argues that, since stimulus spending in short-term, the contracts are for short-term jobs, and hence the people hired to perform the work won't expect any kind of long-term security. So the stimulus spending doesn't actually escape the cycle of fear and hoarding -- workers will just take the government money and hide it under their mattresses, saving for the day their short-term jobs end.

    This is a good argument, actually. It's an entirely legitimate way in which demand-side stimulus can fail to work. But there are two reasons I don't find it persuasive in the case of Randazzo's article.

    First, a supply-side stimulus proposal (lowering capital gains tax rates, for example) would be vulnerable to exactly the same problem. The only difference is that, instead of working-class people hoarding their money and not spending it on consumer goods, you can imagine capitalists hoarding their money and not spending it on new business ventures. Randazzo doesn't give any reason to think that a tax cut proposal would do any better on this front than a spending proposal.

    Second, the way to prevent this failure is for Obama and his economic advisors (and other people who know a lot about the economy) to say lots of positive, optimistic things about the stimulus plan. It doesn't really matter whether the stimulus money goes directly toward creating long-term or short-term jobs, just like it doesn't really matter whether it's used to build bridges or count sand. The goal is to get consumers spending, and the hope is that, once consumers are spending more, the usual engine of economic activity will finally catch and restart.

  4. Stimulus packages increase national debt or cause rapid inflation

    This argument doesn't seem any different from argument 2. The only thing I would add here is that since we're currently experiencing deflation*, which is far, far worse than even moderate inflation, funding the stimulus by printing money isn't an idea to be dismissed out of hand.

    * To read that chart: The number in each box is the percent change in prices for a fixed bundle of goods since, like, 1982. So an increase in the number from month to month is inflation, while a decrease is deflation. Notice that we've been experiencing deflation since last July, to the point where inflation over the last year has been basically zero.

  5. Stimulus packages are pork-laden and caught up in federal bureaucracy

    This is another good argument. Like 3, it expresses a real practical worry that must be kept in mind when designing the stimulus package. Fortunately, once again, it doesn't really made what the money is used for, so long as it gets into consumer's hands, and they turn around and spend it.

    There is something a little disturbing about the projects Randazzo identifies as pork, though. In particular, he derides proposals to build `[d]uck ponds, dog parks, sports parks, tennis centers, and swimming pools'. I don't think of the creation of parks and public spaces as pork. These are things that everyone -- or at least a large swath of the citizenry -- can use and enjoy. How is it wasteful, or a mismanagement of public funds, to build and maintain public spaces?

So, all together, I think Randazzo has a couple legitimate worries about the actual design and implementation of the stimulus plan. But the best way to avoid these problems is to have an honest and thoughtful public discussion about how it's supposed to operate -- and how things can go wrong. And then, of course, for the people to keep an eye on their public officials, and make sure the money is going where it's supposed to be going. In a order, the stimulus needs to be handled democratically.

Finally, Randazzo says a few things that suggest he thinks a spending-based stimulus and a tax-cut-based stimulus are mutually exclusive -- you can do either one or the other, but not both. But this is not the case. There's an important technical debate over which we can expect to be more successful -- but why not try a mix of both?

January 10, 2009

Crayon Physics

This morning I played the demo for a new game called "Crayon Physics". The full game is only $20, and after playing the demo I think many of you will be very tempted. Link.