So Much That Ain’t So

It is better to know less than to know so much that ain’t so. Josh Billings
(ironically, the line is usually attributed to Will Rogers or Mark Twain)

This week’s featured post is “Rethinking Immigration“.

This week the audacity of hope was back

With his administration’s final election behind him, President Obama has started acting like he’s President of the United States or something. I’m picturing him like the high school girl who finally gives up on getting asked to the big dance, and goes back to acing her tests, running cross country, working on her novel, and just generally being her amazing self again.

I guess we’ll never know whether a Democratic Party centered on this Obama would have done better in the midterm elections. Anyway, here’s what he’s been up to.

Net neutrality. It started Monday with his net neutrality statement. He called on the FCC to implement net neutrality rules that preserved four principles: no blocking (if a web site is legal, an ISP can’t keep you from accessing it), no throttling (an ISP can’t intentionally slow down some sites and speed up others), increased transparency (monitoring what happens to internet traffic up and down the line, rather than just at the “last mile”), and no paid prioritization (a web site or internet service can’t pay a fee to have its content delivered faster).

What this comes down to is a debate over what kind of economy we want to have and how we want people to make money: Do you get rich by creating innovative new products that people want, or by getting control of a choke-point where you can charge a big toll? (I described that choice here two years ago.) Comcast and Verizon are building a big toll gate that will prosper at the expense of whoever is creating the next FaceBook or NetFlix. Net neutrality is about preventing that.

In order to have the legal authority to implement these net neutrality principles, the FCC needs to re-classify ISPs as providing a telecommunications service rather than an information service. Courts have already said the FCC can do that (as I explained here).

The FCC is an independent agency that can do what it wants. So Obama’s statement is a bully-pulpit thing, not a unitary-executive thing. But net neutrality is a struggle between organized people and organized money. If it happens in the dark, Comcast/Verizon money will certainly win. So the spotlight Obama is shining on the issue might make a big difference.

Funny or Die has the cleverest approach to this issue: “Porn Stars Explain Net Neutrality“. Whether it’s safe for work or not depends on where you work.

Carbon and China. Until Wednesday, the final argument of the do-nothing-about-global-warming crowd was: “Even if we cut our carbon emissions, it won’t make any difference because China won’t.” On Wednesday night’s All In, Chris Hayes collected video clips of congressional Republicans making that argument.

That framing makes climate change fit the barbarians-at-the-gates story I described last week: Environmentalists want to handicap the United States in its economic death-struggle against the Yellow Peril. It never made sense, though, because China has an internal motivation to get its emissions under control: Its major cities are choking on their own coal dust. According to the Boston Globe:

China now holds two seemingly contradictory titles: It creates the most greenhouse gas pollution of any country, and it has developed more renewable energy than any country.

It is the largest producer of wind turbines, followed by the United States and Germany. It produces the most photovoltaic solar panels. It has shut down inefficient old manufacturing plants. And the agreement it announced Wednesday follows other ambitious — and largely successful — long-range planning goals to cut carbon.

But Wednesday, the U.S. and China agreed on mutual goals for carbon-emission reduction. Vox gives more context, and Grist outlines the pressure the U.S./China agreement puts on India.

Next up: Immigration and Impeachment. Speculation is always more fun than reporting on something real, and you never have to issue an embarrassing correction when your speculation turns out to be wrong. (Just move on and speculate about the next thing.) So most of the media jumped ahead to the immigration executive order Obama hasn’t issued yet, and how Republicans will respond to it. They speculate that the order will be bigger than most people expected, and that the Republicans will respond by either shutting down the government or starting impeachment proceedings.

This should all sound familiar. Two years ago, when Obama was about to issue an executive order about guns, right-wingers panicked that he was going to order an unconstitutional confiscation and threatened to impeach him when he did. His actual order was well within his powers and the Republican response was minimal. So let’s wait until he does something before we get excited.

Among people upset about Obama’s possible immigration moves, National Review‘s Mark Krikorian takes it to a whole other level:

With all due respect to Andy McCarthy, impeachment is out of the question; there is almost nothing the first black president could do that would lead to his impeachment. Yes, it’s a double standard, but Obama was only nominated and elected because of his race, so his de facto immunity from impeachment should not come as a  surprise.

Because when white presidents like Ronald Reagan did the exact same thing, they were impeached immediately. Weren’t they?

This is how the racial thing has played out all through the Obama administration. The Right doesn’t hate him because he’s black; they hate him because everything he does seems unique and horrible to them. And it seems that way because he’s black.

Meanwhile, everybody was talking about a comet

The European Space Agency landed an unmanned probe on a comet, which had never been done before. (Remember when we used to lead the world in stuff like that?) Unfortunately, the solar-powered probe landed in a shady spot, so its battery is dead now (though it may get enough occasional light to perk up later). Sky and Telescope gives full geeky details, and Vox explains why the mission is already a huge success.

and Democrats were talking about fixing the Party

Here’s one plan:

But I’m going in a different direction. Last week’s “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” was the kick-off to a long, vague project that will proceed at no particular pace: What story of America should Democrats be telling?

The reason it will proceed at no particular pace is that I want the historical parts of the story to be true, and its projections into the future to be based on the way the world actually works. If the problem were just to make up some bullshit that might fool some low-information voters into voting Democratic, I could probably do that now, and so could a lot of other people.

So this week’s “Rethinking Immigration“, which reviews Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented, is part of the background for that project. We need to understand how things really are before we start trying to explain them to the public.

Meanwhile, other people have been outlining the biggest problem that needs to be addressed: Why doesn’t rising productivity lead to higher wages, like it used to? (That’s a root cause of the pervasive middle-class anxiety I described last week.) Josh Marshall posted this graph:

and commented:

[A] stark reality: Democrats don’t have a set of policies to turn around this trend. Republicans don’t either, of course. But they don’t need to. Not in the same way. As a party they are basically indifferent to middle class wages. … But you cannot make middle class wage growth and wealth inequality the center of your politics unless you have a set of policies which credibly claims some real shot at addressing the problem. At least not for long.

Economist Alan Blinder lists “Seven ways to raise wages“, but whether his plan — education, unions, higher minimum wage, fiscal stimulus — would fix things or just tinker around the edges, it doesn’t sound like a fix. And that’s a big chunk of  the problem.

One thing did come clear to me from reading these articles: The standard Republican response to any of the stuff on Blinder’s list is that it would hurt productivity growth. We can argue, but that’s not the right conversation to have. The right answer to the productivity objection is: “So bleeping what?” If increases in productivity don’t benefit ordinary people any more, why should we care about them?

and ObamaCare’s second season

ObamaCare enrollment season started Saturday, which of course means that the second-year premiums are out. How to read those numbers varied a lot from one source to the next. One set of NYT writers led with the negative:

The Obama administration on Friday unveiled data showing that many Americans with health insurance bought under the Affordable Care Act could face substantial price increases next year — in some cases as much as 20 percent — unless they switch plans.

While another NYT writer led with the positive:

Early evidence suggests that competition in the new Affordable Care Act marketplaces is working, at least in some areas. Health insurance premiums in major cities around the country are barely rising.

TPM was positive with caveats:

Taken in the aggregate, Obamacare premiums for the 34 states using are almost completely level in 2015 compared to 2014, according to a new analysis from Avalere Health.

That comes with a lot of caveats. Premium changes vary widely from state to state, and individual consumers who are re-enrolling might need to shop around to avoid substantial spikes in what they pay next year.

But ThinkProgress was just positive:

For the second year in a row, Obamacare premiums are lower than anticipated and millions of Americans can expect to find affordable health insurance options during the second open enrollment period.

And CBS was just negative:

With the Affordable Care Act to start enrollment for its second year on Nov. 15, some unpleasant surprises may be in store for some.

That’s because a number of low-priced Obamacare plans will raise their rates in 2015, making those options less affordable.

The gist, as best I can piece it together from these Rashomon-like accounts, is that a few insurance companies are raising rates substantially, but even if you are one of the affected consumers, you should be able to keep both your cost and level-of-coverage relatively stable if you are willing to switch to another insurer. Averaged over the whole country, premiums will increase, but far less than the average premium was increasing before ObamaCare.

I guess that must make a crappy headline or something.

and you also might be interested in …

I know that what everybody was really talking about: Kim Kardashian’s internet-breaking photo shoot. I tried to come up with an insightful comment about that story’s deep cultural significance, but I got nothing. I thought about not even providing a link, but that would just be acting out against the trivialization of news, which is a real thing. Go ahead and look. Promise me you’ll come right back.

October numbers are in: another global temperature record. 2014 continues on pace to replace 2010 as the hottest year ever.

Former coal executive Don Blankenship was indicted for his role in the safety violations that killed 29 miners in 2010. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Subtext in this story: why industry can’t regulate itself, and why we need to get money out of politics. Here’s an account of Blankenship buying a state supreme court judgeship for an ally in 2004.

and let’s close by singing the blues

or maybe by letting a toddler sing them for us.

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  • Michael Wells  On November 17, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Another well written and thought-provoking essay. However, “So bleeping what?” is not a convincing response to Republican (or conservative economic) criticisms of actions that reduce productivity. All other factors being equal, lower productivity lowers profits. I am not troubled by reducing the profits of large corporations but we need to be able to address the argument that lower profits lead to less investment and fewer jobs.

    • weeklysift  On November 17, 2014 at 11:59 am

      But that’s precisely the point: Productivity and profits have come unglued from jobs and wages.

  • Jess  On November 17, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    The most coherent story I’ve heard is that we’re transferring from an economy where labor was the limiting factor to one where natural resources are the limiting factor. We clearly aren’t all the way there yet, but I feel like we’ve crossed a tipping point.

    As such we need to change the way we view economics and social programs. Exactly what that should look like is hard, but freeing up people to do more creative work and encouraging more part time work seem like good starting points. Certainly half-baked though. 🙂

  • Michael Wells  On November 17, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Let me try this as a way of including your conclusion in an argument to a hypothetical rational Republican: The current economic conditions in the U.S. show that increased profits do not result in increased investments or job growth. Corporations are sitting on large piles of cash from profits. Those corporations are not investing those sums to create jobs. Therefore, economic policy should focus on investments (public and private) to foster job growth rather than focus on productivity.

  • coastcontact  On November 17, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    You have missed the main point of the November 4 election. The economy ought to be the primary target for both parties. There was a poor turnout because neither party addresses the issues. Your graph showing increased productivity without increased remuneration is on the right path but there is more to this than saying businesses have not kept pace with higher outputs.

    Higher productivity is not the outcome of employees working harder or smarter. It is the result of new technologies and out sourced jobs. Those technologies are the consequence of new tools and new software. Those technologies lower the needed manpower. A good example is the elimination of ticket takers/payment clerks as you leave a parking structure. They are now being replaced with automated systems. Those same systems will eliminate order takers at McDonald’s, etc.

    What will we do with all the people who no longer have jobs? That is the question that politicians can’t answer. Those illegal aliens? Their jobs are on the line too. Capitalism in a free enterprise society translates to hiring the least expensive labor. Of course politicians don’t want to talk to the electorate about this issue.

    Is the solution more subsidies and aid for the “middle class”? That appears to be the only solution. Neither political party wants to admit we have a problem with no apparent solution.

    • weeklysift  On November 18, 2014 at 8:42 am

      One thing the graph points out is that there is money available to raise wages, but workers don’t have the market power to claim it. That’s why the (so-far failing) efforts to unionize Starbucks, WalMart, and fast-food franchises are important. And I think that there is a paradox in the fact that so much is going undone — fixing decaying infrastructure, upgrading the electrical grid, etc. — while we mourn that there aren’t enough jobs.

  • John Nowaczyk  On November 18, 2014 at 11:16 am

    The comic about Democrats simultaneously vilifying the GOP and claiming to want to work with them is hugely important. Republicans do the same thing, of course. Ad hominem attacks are routine – and hugely destructive to our mutual prospects for progress. The people hear these things from their leaders and pundits and other opinion-makers, and they eventually start to believe them. People they respect say that Obama hates America and Republicans hate poor people and people of color – both of which are wrong. We desperately need important persuasive voices starting these inherently adversarial policy discussions by acknowledging that the other side has good intentions and some good ideas and that most of these issues are extremely complex and involve difficult choices and many different solution recipes. Failing to do so, failing to fight against the hatred, will doom us to perpetually disfunctional politics and national division.

    • Michael Wells  On November 18, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      Another example of “both sides do it” nonsense. Your evidence is your conclusion that it is “wrong” to say “Republicans hate poor people and people of color.” You say that they “have good intentions and some good ideas.” Really? I could care less about their “intentions” when their POLICIES are designed to make poor people poorer and rich people richer. (Although I could make a case that Mitt Romney revealed his disdain for the “47%,” his category which includes poor people and people of color). When Republicans stop fear mongering and race-baiting as part of their continued obstructionism, we might be able to have a fruitful conversation.

      • John Nowaczyk  On November 19, 2014 at 11:10 am

        Michael Wells, I hear you, but the Republicans I know – cousins, coworkers, friends, Uncles, etc. – don’t want poor people to be poorer, and if I start the conversation with them by saying that is what their favored policies are “designed to” do (tantamount, in their ears, to accusing them of wanting poor people to be poorer) then I have made a mistake on a couple of levels. If they think that I think they have bad intentions, I will have little chance of opening their minds to the possibility that they should recognize the fear mongering and race baiting for what it is and think critically about what the leaders and pundits who use those tactics are saying. You don’t necessarily have to give ground on the policy arguments, but I think you have to start the conversation with the other side in a different way. And I didn’t mean to suggest a false moral equivalence – I agree Republicans painting liberals as disloyal anti-American traitors and enemies of Freedom, or painting Obama as a terrorist sympathizer, etc., etc., is perhaps worse than painting Republicans as selfish, greedy, racists, bigoted, war mongering, etc., etc. but neither kind of painting serves to move us forward. I don’t propose blindly excusing bad policy or hateful rhetoric, I just propose trying harder to acknowledge the humanity and goodwill of the other side. Otherwise, why should they listen to me? Sure, some people are truly hateful and beyond fruitful dialogue, but I think most are not. As I said, they are friends and relatives and coworkers who share most of the same values as I do, but with a different set of beliefs about how the world works and what priorities are highest. Sure, I will never get Ted Cruz and Sara Palin to stop spewing hate, but maybe I can persuade my friend that they should perhaps stop believing them so willingly. For most of us, that’s the best we can do to help move things forward.

      • weeklysift  On November 20, 2014 at 8:56 am

        This is a very tricky issue, and something I have to wrestle with all the time as I write the Sift. I am partisan in the abstract sense that I believe the current policies of the Republican Party are evil and need to be defeated. (The Democratic Party is partly corrupted as well, but it’s all we have to work with.) I suspect that some of the leaders of that movement — the Koch brothers, say, or Ted Cruz — are evil as well, in the sense that they understand the harm they’re doing and intend to do more of it. I can’t take seriously the idea that they are reasonable people trying to do good things, so I don’t think they can be compromised with.

        But the vast majority of the people who support them are (as John points out) just ordinary folks. The arguments of the Right are designed to sound reasonable to them, and do. To the extent that they identify with the Kochs and Cruz, they will feel attacked when I attack the people I see as evil. And that may well cement their identification rather than break it.

        The answer can’t be to soft-pedal my opposition to the conservative agenda, but we also can’t make any headway once the tribalistic us-against-them emotions set in, because we need people to think and feel like citizens, not like warriors. It is a difficult line to walk, and I don’t always do it well.

      • Michael Wells  On November 20, 2014 at 11:55 am

        Thanks to both for taking the time to respond. I distinguish between public and private conversations. In the latter, I find it unnecessary to probe too deeply into the other’s beliefs unless we share a common language. By “language” I mean more than using the American version of English but also reasoning that follows logic and use of evidence available to both. In public conversations, like the one we are having on the Sift, I assume that common language. I am unconcerned about personal beliefs or intentions in these public conversations because it is a distraction from the real issue: the actions taken that allegedly follow from those beliefs. I don’t know what are the personal beliefs of “ordinary folks,” but I do know that when they vote for politicians who are unmoored from reality, it causes real damage to this country.

        Analogously, we have a president in his sixth year in office who apparently has discovered that “playing nice” with the congressional Republicans isn’t working. It is long overdue.

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