Media of Special Note


As the year draws to a close, there’s a video I highly recommend watching.  It shows that mankind is truly making great progress in terms of lifespan and income.  I had no idea that things are really getting that much better around the globe.  Take a look at this outstanding and informative presentation.  It is entitled Hans Rosling’s 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes – The Joy of Stats – BBC Four.

The point of this is not to pat ourselves on the back.  It’s to redouble our efforts to address both the inequality and monstrous poverty that still grips many millions around the globe.  We can do much better.

Best wishes for healthy and prosperous 2011.

This Brooks-Shields piece from the Lehrer NewHour last night is well worth watching.  David Brooks’ comments are particularly insightful.

I’ve addressed my concern with over-identification with political party a number of times on this blog over the years.   One such posting was entitled The Negative Consequences of Identification With Political Party.
It’s a big problem. Now comes along a group, about which I’m still seeking additional information, called No Labels. I’m intrigued. Could this be a MoveOn for Americans tired of partisan politics and interested in solutions?
Watch this YouTube video and let me know what you think.

Yesterday I was introduced, via a Facebook friend, to Susan Boyle of Blackburn, Scotland.  My introduction was via a YouTube videoof her performance in the British television show called Britain’s Got Talent.  It was reminiscent of the performance of Paul Potts from the same show two years ago.  Paul Pott’s performance can be found here.  (Embedding is not allowed or I’d have embedded both videos here).

What’s interesting about both performances is that we are presented visually with an image of someone who we expect to fail, probably because they are not pretty and look like an everyman.  When they soar, so do our spirits as we watch them.  We realize, I think, that we could likewise possess a hidden talent that would allow us to soar as well.  For the moment we can soar vicariously.  And so we do.

And so let me introduce you to Susan Boyle of Scotland singing “I Dreamed a Dream”.  

For more on the story, there’s a Washington Post piece today entitled The Scot Heard Round the World.  I’m particularly interested in the Susan Boyle story since her stated hometown is, as she explains in the video, a group of villages that include Bathgate, Scotland.  Bathgate is the birthplace of my maternal grandfather who no doubt dreamed a dream when he left Scotland for Canada in the early 1900s.  I like to think I and the rest of his progeny are continuing to live his dream.       

According to a story on Bloomberg.com yesterday, “[t]he U.S. government and the Federal Reserve have spent, lent or committed $12.8 trillion, an amount that approaches the value of everything produced in the country last year, to stem the longest recession since the 1930s.  Astounding.  This kind of comparison begins to put some meaning behind the very significant numbers. 

Also valuable yesterday was a graphic in the New York Times, entitled Schott’s Stimulus Simulator, copied below.  Gee, trillions is a lot.  

 

The nay-sayers on climate change came out in a big way today with a full page advertisement in the Washington Post and New York Times under the sponsorship of the Cato Institute.   I suspect they are wrong but in the interest of laying it all out there, I think it is important to consider the advertisement and the argument that’s being made.  Perhaps they are right and the rest of us are wrong.  The consequences of them being wrong, however, will likely be catastrophic.

I must also question their involvement with the nay-sayers on this issue.  Who can argue with the Cato Institute’s motto of “free markets, liberty and peace”.  In my view, however, Cato has become much more than its motto.  It has become the home of the rigidly ideological libertarian.  While I can understand that libertarians, who possess a general aversion to government, might chafe at any solution to a problem that necessarily involves a large role for government, I am deeply suspicious in this case that it is Cato’s ideological rigidity more than any science that’s at play here.  It would appear that what’s happening is that Cato and its ideological brethren would rather deny the problem (and science) than accept the inevitable government involvement that would be required should the problem and the science be accepted.       

I suggest that instead of denying climate change that a much better and productive focus for Cato would be on how government can best address the phenomena.  I am firmly in the camp that believes that “cap and trade” as a solution to climate change is folly and that the only viable solution, and the only one that truly relies on market forces, is the carbon tax.  For a variety of reasons beyond climate change a carbon tax, is an idea that needs to be given the most serious consideration.  

It is my view that the American public will neither understand nor ultimately accept the massive government bureaucracy that will be required to administer a cap and trade system.  We would be better off doing it right in the first place with a carbon tax.  For decades we have been subsidizing the internal combustion engine by refusing to attach to the price of gasoline, through a tax, the cost to our government of keeping gasoline inexpensive.  This subsidization has notably included the billions of dollars in defense expenditure required each year to keep the middle east “secure”.  Their have been other notable consequences of this subsidization.  The low cost of gasoline has wreaked havoc on our countryside and our road systems with the burgeoning of suburbia, what I call “McMansions in the burbs”.  This lifestyle is and always has been unsustainable, made possible only by government subsidization of oil imports.  A carbon tax, implemented by government but relying on the market appears to me to be the soundest solution, and a solution that Cato with its ‘less government’ philosophy could help to promote if it weren’t already aligned with the nay-sayers on climate change.  Cato may come to regret this alignment as the train toward climate change legislation moves forward.  I’d argue they could play a much more important role in shaping that solution than they are playing in denying its necessity.

Cato and other libertarians need to quit denying the underlying reality and direct their anti-government instincts toward solutions to climate change that minimize the role of government and emphasize the role of the market.    

To his credit, the President held a fiscal responsibility summit yesterday at the White House.  The basic story can be found in a Washington Post story entitled Health Care Tops Fiscal Need List.  Dana Milbank in his Washington Post column today reports that it was sparsely attended. 

While not the serious effort it was perhaps first conceived as being, the 3 1/2 hour meeting was important.  It signalled that the President understands there’s a problem that needs to be addressed and it certainly helped to educate America about the problem.  The President is to be commended for the effort.

Defusing the ticking time bomb that is our entitlements crisis will be complicated.  It is the raison d’etre for the Peter G. Peterson foundation of which I’ve previously written.  They are doing important work bringing the crisis to the nation’s attention and keeping it on the radar screen.  They launched a new ad campaignyesterday featuring an iceberg.  On their website you can also sign a petition thanking President Obama for holding yesterday’s summit. 

The liberals are striking back, however.  In a column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect decries The Deficit Hawks’ Attack on Our Entitlements.  Forget about deficits he seems to say.  If we get our economy back on track we’ll be fine, and by the way, the country needs needs its entitlement programs just as they are.  “The attack on social insurance is really an ideological assault, dressed up as fiscal high-mindedness.”  Peter G. Peterson gets special critical mention.  

So, according to Mr. Kuttner, presenting the liberal case, the entire point of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation is to conduct an ideological assault on our country’s entitlements programs.  The fact is we have a serious problem in America.  It can’t be ignored.  It doesn’t mean gutting our social safety net, but it does mean mending it.  This was all enough of a concern to the former head of the General Accounting Office, David M. Walker, that he left GAO to head up the the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.  There’s an interesting piece on David M. Walker in today’s Washington Post, entitled Internal Gadfly Tries Other Side.  Somehow Mr. Walker doesn’t strike me as a right wing ideologue.  Does he you?

For my partner, Damien, 21 years and counting:

 

The unanimous vote of House Republicans against the Stimulus Bill is a disappointment not because the Republicans voted no but because the House Democrats under Speaker Pelosi’s leadership made no real effort to accommodate their views.  That every Republican voted “No”, as well as eleven Democrats, is significant.  It signals clearly that the bill is one-sided, something I alluded to yesterday in a posting on this weblog.  A bill of this size and magnitude needs to be as bipartisan as possible.  It’s too important. 

While I might criticize President Obama for allowing this to happen, I will withhold judgement until after a Senate vote and a House-Senate conference on the two differing bills has taken place.  It may be that Obama is simply being very smart to let the House bill pass without his interference in the hope that saner heads will prevail in the Senate.  Meanwhile, he avoids a confrontation with Pelosi and keeps his lines of communication open with House Republicans by inviting them for cocktails at the White House (as he did on Wednesday night).  A shrewd man is this Barack Obama.

The stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post today on the House passage of the stimulus bill can be found in stories entitled House Approves $819 Billion Plan For Economic Aid and House Passes Obama Stimulus Package, respectively. 

My issue is the clear lack of an attempt on the part of House Democrats to reach a reasonable accommodation with House Republicans.  It is partly the consequence of the overly-ideological character of many of the stimulus components of the House Democratic package.  On a scale of A-Z, with liberal Democrats being “A” and conservative Republicans being “Z”, the House Democrats produced a bill that didn’t get much farther than “C” or “D”.  That’s not good enough in a bill of this magnitude and national significance.  With “M” representing the middle of the alphabet, I wouldn’t expect Democrats to compromise to “M” either.  They did win the election after all.  I would hope, however, that they could get to “H” or “I”.  That would demonstrate a real effort to produce a bipartisan bill and it would be rewarded by significantly more Republican votes than last night’s bill produced.

Would I have voted for the Republican substitute yesterday, presumably the “Z” bill?  Not for a minute.  First, I don’t agree with the Republican over-emphasis on tax cuts.  I’d support the tax cut approach only insofar as the cuts can be demonstrated to have a stimulatory effect on the economy.  In fact I think I’d be quit happy on the Democrat side of the A-Z continuum, again at perhaps “H” or “I”. 

What should the bill look like?  An Op-ed by “conservative economist” Martin Feldstein in the Washington Post today entitled An $800 Billion Mistakesuggests a potential answer.  His major point is similar to the one I made yesterday in my above-linked posting.  He advocates delaying “legislation for a month, or even two, if that’s what it takes to produce a much better bill.”  He goes on to say that ‘[w]e can’t afford an $800 billion mistake.”  No, we can’t.  It is important to note that Martin Feldstein is not in the group of economists opposing any Keynesian economic stimulus named in a full page ad in this morning’s Washington Post.  (A copy of the ad, sponsored by the Cato Institute, can be found here.)  In fact, I quoted Dr. Feldstein in my posting Keynes Lives earlier in the month.  He fully supports a Keynesian stimulus as do I.

There’s also a column on the stimulus today in the Washington Post by George F. Will.  It’s entitled Stimulus Math for the GOP.  While I don’t consider the column a must-read, I was struck by one particular paragraph.  It reads:

The opposition should oppose mere opportunism, which comes in two forms. One is presenting pet projects hitherto considered unworthy of funding as suddenly meritorious because somehow stimulative. The other attaches major and non-germane policy changes to the stimulus legislation, counting on the need for speed to allow them to escape appropriate scrutiny.

Clearly we need to think a lot more about the content of the bill before we rush to final passage.  We should be looking for the best stimulus bill possible, not the best stimulus we can get passed and signed into law by next week.  We need to eliminate the “unmeritorious” stimulus and strive for the best and most effective stimulus we can get.

In closing let me note that I am not saying that the House bill that passed last night isn’t adequately stimulatory, merely that we can do better andmake a better effort to accommodate Republican concerns.  As for the stimulatory impact of the bill, there was a good segment on last night’s Lehrer Newshour entitled Stimulus Debateand there’s an analysis by David M. Herszenshorn in today’s New York Times entitled Following the Money that would suggest the bill will stimulate the economy, in some cases very well. 

Here’s an example of why the American political system is in trouble.  It’s an advertisement that the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee will apparently be running in Nevada against Senator Harry Reid in a first salvo against the Senate Majority Leader in his 2010 Senate re-election bid.  I’m no fan of Senator Reid.  He is overly partisan and part of the reason our system isn’t working, but this is an irresponsible and disgusting advertisement.  Most economists think the country needs a stimulus bill that is large, probably approaching $1 trillion.  One can criticize, as I have, the precise terms of the stimulus, but a categorical indictment of anyone who votes for the stimulus bill is not right. 

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