Monday, November 26, 2012

The phony skills gap

Adam Davidson's 20 November 2012 piece, "Skills Don't Pay the Bills", debunks the myth, promulgated by both major parties in the recent presidential race, of a "skills gap".
“It’s hard not to break out laughing,” says Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, referring to manufacturers complaining about the shortage of skilled workers. “If there’s a skill shortage, there has to be rises in wages,” he says. “It’s basic economics.” After all, according to supply and demand, a shortage of workers with valuable skills should push wages up. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of skilled jobs has fallen and so have their wages.
The problem is that manufacturers, behaving with complete economic rationality, have peered into the near future of their industries, and they don't see higher wages (above $18 an hour, according to the article) allowing them to remain economically competitive.

During the campaign it was good rhetoric to promise job training for displaced manufacturing workers, since we all assumed that if these workers had the new skills required, they'd happily fill the hundreds of thousands of job openings about which we kept hearing. The reality, though, is that even with retraining, most of these workers are not going to rush to take positions that start at $10 an hour, which is in the neighborhood of what some workers make at fast-food outlets.

Last month I wrote about the trouble that part-time retail and hospitality workers have making ends meet. As a practical matter, employers are taking advantage of the fact that they can attract enough workers paying ridiculously low wages. Moreover, if you accept the wisdom of the free market, there's nothing wrong with that. In a free market, the employer has no moral obligation to ensure its workers can sustain body and soul on the wages it pays.

And yet, I spotted a flaw in the grand logic of the free market:

If you look beyond the tip of your nose, though, a bigger question presents itself. Is the U.S. economy able to provide enough jobs that pay livable wages to support a robust consumer sector?

If enough people are working at jobs that don't pay them enough to cover their cost of living, that means these people can't be good consumers, right? What happens to the U.S. economy then? Hell, what happens to the United States as a whole?

(By the way, I'm aware that that's not a moral argument, either. For the sake of this discussion, I'm staying within the parameters of the free market.)

I'm not the only one who has spotted this obvious shortcoming in our economy, of course. From Davidson's 28 November piece:

Manufacturers, who face increasing competition from low-wage countries, feel they can’t afford to pay higher wages. Potential workers choose more promising career paths. “It’s individually rational,” says Howard Wial, an economist at the Brookings Institution who specializes in manufacturing employment. “But it’s not socially optimal.”
Not socially optimal, indeed.

It's worth noting that the oft-cited father of the free market, Adam Smith, did not believe we should surrender ourselves completely to it. I wrote about the modern misunderstanding of Smith's "invisible hand" earlier this month.

You could argue that the confluence of these pieces shows that the New York Times' editors are conspiring to undermine our confidence in the remarkable power of the free market — but you wouldn't convince me. That these articles were published in the last month or two simply means that we're finally coming to understand the limits of the free market, having allowed it to run without significant impediments over parts of our economy.

While it's easy to caricature (or to demonize) market oversight as "socialism", as many Republicans have done over the last decade and especially during the last four years, free-market advocates are going to have to address the socially suboptimal effects of the untrammeled market if they expect to reach people like me. For I don't see some governmental intervention in the market as socialism: I see it as civic and personal self-defense.

The free market has been the best compromise humanity has discovered to permit our society — in which individual liberties are treated as paramount — to flourish. I don't see an attractive competing philosophy on the horizon. However, people need food, clothing, shelter, and rest, too. If the free market's advocates can't figure out how the market can satisfy those needs, people are going to look for alternative solutions, the market be damned.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Alton Brown on Mythbusters

I suppose it was inevitable that the only guy talking about food science on TV, Alton Brown, would cross paths with the Mythbusters crew. With the metastasis of antiscientific nonsense on the dial, it's probably a good idea for the forces of light to join up whenever they can.

Brown is on tonight's new episode of Mythbusters; you can also catch clips from the episode on discovery.com/mythbusters/. Beware that the clip I saw contained spoilers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Advice for the Republican Party

It might seem the height of presumption for a confirmed non-Republican to be offering the party advice, but since everyone else is jumping on this particular bandwagon ...

Everything I've read about the Republican Party's search for answers to its defeats on the presidential and senatorial fronts says the discussion is taking place along two lines: "we need to reach out to minorities", and/or "we picked lousy candidates".

This tells me the party doesn't understand people like me, and I daresay I'm not as far from the mainstream as usual.

Yes, the party put forward lousy candidates (Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, anyone?). The subtext of "lousy candidate" that folks bandying about that excuse want to convey is, "These people did not truly represent the party." The thing is, people like me believe those "lousy candidates" did truly represent the party. Those candidates weren't thrown into the race haphazardly. By and large, they were put forward, after due consideration, as the best representatives and standard-bearers of the party's values (that the party could convince to run, anyway).

Put another way, voters can accept one bad apple as a fluke. If there's more than one, and the rot in them all smells the same, we're going to wonder whether there's something wrong with the orchard. So far, the Republican Party seems unwilling to accept that its orchard is tainted, deeply so.

As for the "we need to reach out to minorities" argument, that's not so much a flaw as a strategy to compensate for a flaw. It might be a good strategy to pursue with some, but people like me are going to see it as a deeply hypocritical and cynical endeavor. We aren't going to reward the party for making the right noises when it hasn't had a change of heart.

The Republican Party, as all the demographic analysis I've read shows, is essentially white and male. There would be nothing wrong with that except that the reason it's white and male is that its policies repel the majority of women and racial minorities, who can see that the policies enshrine the prejudices of conservative white men. Whether the subject is rape, immigration, or entitlement reform, the Republican Party ends up favoring white men at everyone else's expense. That's the elephant in the room that this election lit up in a spotlight.

If the Republican Party wants to turn its fortunes around, it's going to have to talk about that elephant. I'm not sure that will happen anytime soon. Many of the voters who make up the party are not willing to admit the elephant is there. To do so would call into question those voters' own values and characters. They would have to confront the possibility that they are not heroic underdogs fighting to save the nation, but rather are ... well, a lot less than heroic.

Before it reaches out to constituencies its number-crunchers identify as crucial to its future, the Republican Party must search its soul. A majority of its members, average citizens and politicians alike, need to understand just how intolerant, mean-spirited, and flat-out ignorant some of its policies are.

It's the nature of conservatism to value what was. A healthy society needs conservatives to ground itself, to promulgate values and ideas and traditions that have proven their worth over their time. The trouble with today's extreme conservatives, the ones who control the Republican Party, is that they've lost sight of why certain values and ideas and traditions are worth cherishing. Instead, they simply focus on holding onto the trappings of the past without regard for whether those trappings actually reflect values worth cherishing.

What, for instance, is the reason to oppose gay marriage? (For the record, I'm neutral on the subject: I genuinely neither support nor oppose the movement.) If Republicans could make cogent arguments for why it harms others, that would be one thing — but they can't. Instead, all their arguments come back to "our parents' generation didn't do it", "I just don't feel comfortable with the idea", and "my religion forbids making homosexuals feel welcome". Lost in all that noise is the question, "Isn't it a good idea to celebrate the love of two human beings?"

What exactly are Republicans fighting to preserve on the gay marriage front, and is it worth preserving? They certainly have not found an argument that makes any sense to me, and I think I'm in the majority on that score.

Other issues are more contentious; there's genuine room for argument and disagreement on abortion, on the role of religion in the public square, and probably on other issues about which I haven't thought. The problem is that taken in toto, the world view Republicans espouse isn't an especially welcoming place: there's a tendency on economic issues to say "anything business wants is okay" and on social issues to say "if you deviate from the norm we define, we're coming after you". These positions aren't backed up by arguments that induce the rest of us to embrace these positions, to cherish them as valuable. Instead it seems to be the Republican view that their way of looking at the world is obviously the only way and opposition to that viewpoint is meritless.

Republicans aren't interested in persuading. They simply want to dominate.

Republicans were rebuffed on the national level because they no longer promote values a majority of the rest of us respect. Until the party comes to grips with that truth and genuinely embraces different values, or finds a way to convince the rest of us its values are worth embracing, it won't find better candidates, and its efforts to reach out to other constituencies simply won't work.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How to choose a president

Gary Gutting's Opinionator piece in the New York Times is actually entitled "How Not to Choose a President" because he goes through a lot of the bad criteria we use to pick the one for whom we're going to vote. However, the useful prescription is simple.
How, then, should we choose our president? Typically, I propose, by voting for the party rather than the person.
Frankly, this isn't much of an insight to me: I'm pretty sure this is how a lot of people pick their candidate these days, because ever since Reagan the presidents have been all but hostages to their parties. If you haven't been following this practice, read Gutting's piece to find out why you should.

"The invisible hand" isn't what we think

Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the well-worn phrase "the invisible hand" doesn't quite have the meaning we all assume. That's John Paul Rollert's contention, anyway.

The "invisible hand" refers to the tendency, in a "free market" (that is, one not regulated by a sovereign), for the players in that market to find its own equilibrium, and for that equilibrium to accrue to the net benefit of society.

... every merchant would pursue the most profitable trade available to him, making the most efficient use of his own time and money. Granted, he would act with an eye only toward his personal “security” and “gain,” but in so doing, he would “render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can.” He would be “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention,” namely, to benefit society and the broader welfare of its citizens.
So far, so good. What's the catch?
The wealthy, says Smith, spend their days establishing an “economy of greatness,” one founded on “luxury and caprice” and fueled by “the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires.” Any broader benefit that accrues from their striving is not the consequence of foresight or benevolence, but “in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity.” They don’t do good, they are led to it.

The moral paradox of the invisible hand often seems lost on those who speak loudest in its favor. Take the stubborn rhetoric of the “jobs creators.” Insofar as it portrays a conspicuous group of people who act with conscious moral purpose, it bears no resemblance to the phenomenon Smith describes. We might as well call this vision of development the “visible hand” of capitalism, for it has the original theory backward.

Worse for "small government" advocates, Smith didn't believe "the invisible hand" could replace many government functions, including those that seem eminently privatizable to those advocates today.
Smith held that the sovereign had a role supporting education, building infrastructure and public institutions, and providing security from foreign and domestic threats — initiatives that should be paid for, in part, by a progressive tax code and duties on luxury goods. He even believed the government had a “duty” to protect citizens from “oppression,” the inevitable tendency of the strong to take advantage of the ignorance and necessity of the weak.

In other words, the invisible hand did not solve the problem of politics by making politics altogether unnecessary.

This is an excellent piece that has more insights than I've quoted here. Check it out.

Representative, except when they're not

Remember how Republicans during the George W. Bush years would smugly admonish Democrats to stop complaining about Republican policies, because Republicans won the election(s) and therefore "the people" clearly wanted Republican policies to be enacted?

Evidently, turnabout's not fair play.

Representative John Fleming, Republican of Louisiana, conceded that some moderate Republicans are ready to give in to Mr. Obama on tax increases for the rich, but he said conservatives are not.

“A majority of Americans thought it was just fine to raise taxes on higher income people, but that’s more of an emotional response, more ’I’m in pain, I want someone else to pay,’” he conceded in an interview. But, he added, “how does that solve America’s problems? That’s counterproductive to go down that road.”

How does that solve America's problems?

Is he kidding?

Let me put it in a nutshell for you, John: the rich haven't been paying their fair share for the services government provides and which we all share.

Before you start whining about people having to pay for programs they don't use, we all pay for programs we don't use because we all use different programs. (Yeah, you really do, whether or not you believe it.)

More importantly, you know what one of America's biggest problems is right now, John? The insane debt we accumulated due to two unfunded wars shoved down our throats by the last Republican president and his Republican enablers in Congress (and yeah, a lot of Democrats too). Paying down that unplanned mountain of debt would help quite a bit. If the well-heeled could pony up $400 million to Karl Rove this last election cycle, they can damned well pony up a little more to help the nation. The marginal effect of those dollars on their lives is just that: marginal. A family getting by on $30,000 a year just can't afford to be slammed equivalently. We're in a crisis. How about the well-off show a little patriotism? Hell, how about just a little compassion?

Isn't it funny. how Republicans who decry "judicial activism" supposedly trumping "the will of the people" again and again are suddenly trying to play the wise, temperate adults in the room?

It doesn't wash. They haven't been wise, temperate, or in a lot of cases even adult over the last twenty years. They've pandered to their supporters' basest instincts on a host of issues and they're in no position to claim the moral or intellectual high ground now.

The people spoke on 6 November, John. You got reelected, but your would-be standard bearer, Mitt Romney, didn't, and your party lost seats in the Senate. Your party has bleated endlessly about respecting the will of the people. Well guess what? Their will has been expressed loudly and clearly, not just in this most recent election but in the last one as well. We're tired of subsidizing the wealthy at the expense of our national well-being. And as we've said again and again, it's not resentment against being rich that animates us: it's resentment against the clear reality that the wealthy have stacked the legislative deck in their favor for decades. When we were less indebted and the economy was chugging along at a faster clip, that was tolerable (though still immoral). Now? Not so much.

Yeah, there's waste that can be trimmed from the federal budget. It's going to be a mountain of a task identifying it, because the larding of governmental budgets isn't confined to discrete programs but rather permeates the bureaucracy (cutting funding wholesale to PBS wouldn't fix $700 wrenches and other procurement fraud in the defense budget, for instance).

But to take the obstinate position that spending cuts are the only solution on the table, and that marginal tax rates on the wealthiest citizens and businesses shouldn't rise a few percentage points ... that doesn't just defy the popular will. That defies good sense.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Conservative vs. mainstream media

Conor Friedersdorf's recent piece in The Atlantic, "How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File", is pretty much exactly what its title promises.
On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media. And movement conservatives, who believe the MSM is more biased and less rigorous than their alternatives, have no way to explain how their trusted outlets got it wrong, while the New York Times got it right. Hint: The Times hired the most rigorous forecaster it could find.
Sooner or later, ignoring reality comes back to haunt you.

The world on U.S. election

A piece on the world's reaction to Obama's reelection in Buzzfeed didn't sound too promising. I expected a dry article quoting newspaper articles from around the world.

What I actually got was a snapshot — many of them — of the articles in those newspapers. Many of the articles were featured on the papers' front page. For one who has a healthy skepticism of the United States' oft-mentioned exceptionalism, this was a jolting reminder that whether or not the U.S. is exceptional in the way that American exceptionalists would like to believe, the U.S. unquestionably is a big enough factor in world affairs to be worth people's attention worldwide.

One thing that caught my eye was the electoral maps accompanying a few of the articles. Can you imagine a general-readership U.S. paper, even the New York Times, breaking down the national vote of Russia, or Switzerland, or even Canada along administrative boundaries?

I can't help wondering, does the color scheme on the map of the U.S. — the red-and-blue familiar to U.S. readers, denoting the disposition of each state's electoral votes — mean anything to Singaporeans? Do Malaysians understand why the Electoral College vote totals they quote (not to mention the donkey and elephant symbols next to each number) are significant? Is the U.S. election so big a deal to Kiwis that the electoral map and the breakdown by party of the Senate, House of Representatives and state governorships should all be displayed prominently on the front page of The Press (New Zealand)?

It's incredibly humbling to suspect that yes, these things are meaningful to at least some of these papers' readers. (I can't claim an equivalent familiarity even with Canada, and geopolitically they don't get any easier to know than the English-speaking country next door.)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Republicans and conservatives: the aftermath

I broke a recently adopted rule of mine and checked out the 24-hour cable news outlets for their election coverage Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Tuesday coverage, which was reasonably cogent and on point. By Wednesday morning, things had returned to the status quo, which is to say the usual blather that is so depressingly bad that it drove me away from these outlets. I maintain that the only time to check out the cable news channels is when news is breaking; otherwise they seem to have no idea how to fill time.

The Wednesday morning blather was largely of the "what do Republicans do now" variety, with a little bit of "the people want divided government" thrown in for good measure.

"The people want divided government"? What crap.

"The people" don't want divided government: the people want a functioning government. Unfortunately, we, the people, have incredibly divergent views of what constitutes a functioning government. That's why the House of Representatives looks the way it does. It's a collection of polarized and polarizing politicians because that's what we look like as a nation.

With that out of the way, what do Republicans do now?

The party that loses the election does a self-examination to figure out what went wrong. I don't know what that process was like before 1980, but in my political lifetime the losing party is wont to recalibrate itself and its message, sometimes drastically. It took a while for Democrats to figure out how to nominate someone electable after Reagan swamped Carter, but eventually they did. Clinton wasn't exactly my favorite politician: he bent with the political wind and drove me nuts with his habit of unfailing accommodation. Others, though, would call that reasonable compromising, the hallmark of a well-regarded and successful politician of any party.

Democrats, whether politicians or voters, are used to having to compromise in the wake of the vaunted Reagan Revolution. They're used to having to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils (John Kerry for president, or the flawed Affordable Care Act, for instance).

The controlling plurality of Republican voters, though, is locked into a mindset of "no compromise". Some of them feel like they've been denigrated and abused by the rest of the country and they're not taking it any more. Some of them are appalled by how the rest of the country thinks and are indignant enough to take their stand here, metaphorically speaking. Some of them are scared enough by The State Of Things Today that they feel they have no choice but to rise up and take back the country from those that would otherwise destroy it.

Longtime politicians of any party are, well, politicians, who generally understand the need to compromise. Their motivations may be pure ("this is what's best for the country", or at least "this is the best we can do for the country") or not ("if I vote my conscience I'll be voted out of office, so the hell with my conscience"), but the net effect is the same. Without trivializing them or their beliefs, they act as if politics were a game with two objectives: get themselves reelected, and get as many like-minded souls elected as they can.

So while Republican politicians — those who predate the Tea Party movement, anyway — might be ready to modify the party's positions on various issues in order to get something done, the controlling plurality of Republican voters isn't ready. These voters are fighting for what they think is right, and they see themselves as the only heroes in the country. Moreover, they have an entire media ecosystem to feed their sense of self-righteousness.

Longtime Democrats should understand this bunker mentality, because they — we — have felt this way about certain issues for ages. Climate change, anyone? I've been worried about it since I was a kid in the 1970s. A lot of us feel pretty damned self-righteous about it, too.

The thing is, a bunker mentality can close your mind to reality. And while I've met my share of Democrats and progressives who are divorced from reality, the majority I know are heavily invested in facts, the kind of facts that are reported in, say, scientific journals and reputable periodicals that don't have an avowed axe to grind.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of that aforementioned plurality of Republican voters. So while the rest of us consider what steps to take to keep the country functioning and to ameliorate what's bad, that Republican plurality is listening to a self-congratulatory echo chamber that also, to keep its ranks closed, promotes paranoia about Democrats and liberals in general, and Barack Obama in particular.

It's a toxic brew (and the fact that MSNBC engages in similar tactics on the political left is disgraceful). It keeps millions of my fellow citizens from looking at the same facts the rest of us see, and discussing them in a reasonable way. It keeps those same millions fearful (or contemptuous) of science and knowledge generally, making them unwilling to support the best tools we have for understanding ourselves and our problems.

So where does this leave the Republican Party?

No one knows. And the fact that none of the bloviating commentators on cable news yesterday was willing to acknowledge that fact reinforced my belief that giving up on cable news was the right thing to do.

The Republican Party could split. If it did, my guess would be that the most uncompromising of its current members, politicians and voters both, would form a new party; let's call it the Conservative Party for lack of a better term. The Republican Party left standing would suddenly be a far more moderate place, though what its political heft would be is unclear.

Or the Republican Party might double down on its current bet, deeming Mitt Romney to have failed because he was insufficiently conservative. (I hate using that term, by the way, for reasons I mentioned the other day.) Over time it would purge itself of even more moderates, a process I imagine would be akin to the "self-deportation" Romney espoused during the campaign. The end result might be a Republican Party very much like the "Conservative Party" I mentioned above.

And then, of course, there's the long shot: those voters in the controlling plurality of the Republican party could, slowly, awaken to their isolation from the rest of the country, and wonder if, just maybe, they should take a hard look at themselves and their beliefs.

I hope for the long shot to come off, because frankly I think the voters who are what one might call the Tea Party base are right that something is wrong with the country, just as those who are part of the Occupy base are right that something is wrong with the country. I want both groups to join the rest of us in figuring out what the something is and in fixing it, rather than humming self-congratulatory nonsense to themselves.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A genuine conservative

As I understood it when I was growing up, the term "conservative" meant an inclination to preserve what is, rather than embracing the new for its own sake. I've felt for a while that many self-identified conservatives today don't match my understanding of the term. My impression, though I admit I haven't thought too hard about it, is that while they claim to be trying to restore some kind of lost glory to the nation, they are in fact indulging in radical social reengineering to create the nation of their fantasies. The nation of low taxes and infinite freedoms that they imagine simply never existed. The actual country once may have been simoly too spread-out and thinly populated for the federal government to exercise more than token control, but that is simply no longer the case. Nor should it be, since in our densely populated society, a myriad of powerful technologies and economies of scale make it altogether too easy for our neighbors — businesses as well as people — to affect us adversely without some sort of referee acting to support our individual right to well-being.

Therefore it was with some relief that I read Maurice Manning's Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, "My Old Kentucky Conservatism".

... I don’t see how a man who has multiple homes around the country, whose business has been to serve investors seeking purely monetary gains — that is, people with no interest in local preservation or local well-being, and those who do not live side by side the community into which they are invested — can be considered conservative.

That kind of extravagance has not been good for our country or anywhere else; it places making money ahead of making sense.

Mr. Manning is referring to Mitt Romney in this passage, but Mr. Manning recognizes that Romney is simply embodying his party's inclinations.

The freedom to make money doesn't trump every other value we might have. Mr. Manning's piece does a good job of reminding us what some of those other values are: a reverence for the land, concern for our neighbors' well-being, a desire to "enhance our shared prosperity". Republican politicians pay lip service to these values, but the policies they put into place undercut them.

The conservatism espoused by most Republican politicians, in fact, places a greater emphasis on freedom than responsibility. Mr. Manning's is the kind of conservatism I can respect and even embrace: it's a balanced and thoughtful response to novelty rather than an excuse to indulge greed and intolerance.