Tag Archives: Noah Millman

The Asteroid Can Hit If It Means We No Longer Have To Listen To Bad Aerosmith Songs

Mark Kleiman:

When I saw that Rand Paul (R-Comedy Central) had voted against a bill outlawing the use of lasers to blind airline pilots on the grounds that “the states ought to take care of it,” I was reminded of this week’s best Onion story imagining an effort by Republicans to repeal a law providing for the destruction of an asteroid coming at the Earth.

The Onion story didn’t mention lawsuits seeking to have asteroid-destruction declared unconstitutional as a violation of the limited, delegated powers of the Federal government. But I’d be grateful if one of our libertarian-leaning readers could point me to the specific provision of the Constitution under which the Federal government could spend money on asteroid destruction. It’s not, properly speaking, defense, unless the asteroid was deliberately launched at us by the Klingons. The asteroid isn’t “in commerce” at all, so it can’t be covered by the Commerce Clause.

No doubt some socialists would assert that the reference to “the General Welfare” in the first sentence of Art. 1, Sec. 8, plus the Necessary and Proper clause at the end of that section, would cover asteroid destruction. And I might agree with them. But of course from the libertarian perspective that proves way, way too much.

So I offer this as a challenge: If you think that the doctrine of limited powers forbids much of what the federal government currently does, please explain why that same argument wouldn’t forbid spending money to shoot down an asteroid.

Footnote If your objections to “big government” are based on economics rather than constitutional law, please explain why the public-goods argument that justifies shooting down the asteroid doesn’t apply to the programs you don’t like.

Pejman Yousefzadeh:

As a libertarian-conservative, I am glad to help resolve this question. Of course, it should be noted from the outset that the framing of these kinds of questions is a common Kleimanian tactic; he tosses out an appealing public policy approach, and then dares readers to conclude that the approach may not be constitutional. I certainly agree with Kleiman that asteroid defense cannot be covered by the Commerce Clause (thank goodness that there are some limits recognized by the Left on the reach and scope of the Clause), but I don’t see why he is so quick to dismiss asteroid destruction as a defense measure merely because the asteroid was not “deliberately launched at us by the Klingons.”Original public meaning jurisprudence assists us in showing how asteroid destruction can be justified by Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution as being “for the common Defence.” I am indebted to Professor Larry Solum for his excellent and comprehensive definition of original public meaning jurisprudence, which is excerpted below:

The original-meaning version of originalism emphasizes the meaning that the Constitution (or its amendments) would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoptions. How would the Constitution of 1789 have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted? Of course, the same sources that are relevant to original intent are relevant to original meaning. So, for example, the debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia may shed light on the question how the Constitution produced by the Convention would have been understood by those who did not participate in the secret deliberations of the drafters. But for original-meaning originalists, other sources become of paramount importance. The ratification debates and Federalist Papers can be supplemented by evidence of ordinary usage and by the constructions placed on the Constitution by the political branches and the states in the early years after its adoption. The turn to original meaning made originalism a stronger theory and vitiated many of the powerful objections that had been made against original-intentions originalism.

This sets the stage for what is sometimes called “the New Originalism”  and also is called “Original Meaning Originalism.”   Whatever the actual origins of this theory, the conventional story identifies Antonin Scalia as having a key role.  As early as 1986, Scalia gave a speech exhorting originalists to “change the label from the Doctrine of Original Intent to the Doctrine of Original Meaning.”   The phrase “original public meaning” seems to have entered into the contemporary theoretical debates in the work of Gary Lawson  with Steven Calabresi as another “early adopter.”   The core idea of the revised theory is that the original meaning of the constitution is the original public meaning of the constitutional text.

Randy Barnett  and Keith Whittington  have played prominent roles in the development of the “New Originalism.”  Both Barnett and Whittington build their theories on a foundation of “original public meaning,” but they extend the moves made by Scalia and Lawson in a variety of interesting ways.  For the purposes of this very brief survey, perhaps their most important move is to embrace the distinction between “constitutional interpretation” understood as the enterprise of discerning the semantic content of the constitution and “constitutional construction,” which we might tentatively define as the activity of further specifying constitutional rules when the original public meaning of the text is vague (or underdeterminate for some other reason).  This distinction explicitly acknowledges what we might call “the fact of constitutional underdeterminacy.”   With this turn, original-meaning originalist explicitly embrace the idea that the original public meaning of the text “runs out” and hence that constitutional interpretation must be supplemented by constitutional construction, the results of which must be guided by something other than the semantic content of the constitutional text.

Once originalists had acknowledged that vague constitutional provisions required construction, the door was opened for a reconciliation between originalism and living constitutionalism.  The key figure in that reconciliation has been Jack Balkin, whose influential 2006 and 2007 essays Abortion and Original Meaning and Original Meaning and Constitutional Redemption have argued for a reconciliation of original meaning originalism with living constitutionalism in the form of a theory that might be called “the method of text and principle.”  Balkin has called his position on the relationship between originalism and living constitutionalism “comptibilism,” but it is important to understand that this means that an originalist approach to interpretation is consistent with a living constitutionalist approach to construction.

Per Professor Solum’s definition, we have to ask how “the common Defence” would “have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted.” Specifically, we have to demonstrate that the notion of “Defence” against a threat does not depend upon that threat being initiated by a sentient being, or group of beings. This entails showing Kleiman that the non-presence of Klingons or any other sentient beings in a scenario which features an asteroid threatening life on Earth does not prevent the necessary countermeasures from being considered constitutional as acts of “Defence.”

In order to proceed along this line of inquiry, a definition of “defence” or “defense” (however one wishes to spell it) is needed. I can think of no better lexicographical authority than Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Consider especially the following bit of information: In his book Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, the writer Henry Hitchings quoted Joseph Emerson Worcester as saying that “[Johnson’s] Dictionary has also played its part in the law, especially in the United States. Legislators are much occuped with ascertaining ‘first meanings,’ with trying to secure the literal sense of their predecessors’ legislation . . . Often it is a matter of historicizing language: to understand a law, you need to understand what its terminology meant to its original architects . . . as long as the American Constitution remains intact, Johnson’s Dictionary will have a role to play in American law.”

So, Johnson’s Dictionary was/is quite useful when it comes to analyzing bodies of American law. Now, we have to ask what Johnson wrote about the definition of the word “defence.” Well, it just so happens that we can look. Feel free to examine the definitions of “defence,” “defenceless,” “to defend,” and “defendable.” One will find that none of the definitions in question make it necessary for a threat to have been launched by some form of sentient being, or group of beings, before one can be said to organize and implement some kind of “defense/defence” against that threat via preventive measures. Absent any competing definitions of similar or greater influence, one may reasonably conclude that “an ordinary adult citizen” would not have understood “defence” to mean a countermeasure against a threat set into motion by a sentient being, or group of beings–like Klingons, for example. A “defence” can therefore be mounted against a threat that appeared or emerged sua sponte, without any sentient beings or higher intelligence having brought that threat into being, and/or having directed that threat against us.

Indeed, if Kleiman wanted to get a libertarian legal analysis regarding this issue, he might have done well to ask Glenn Reynolds, whose blog is full of posts regarding the need for asteroid defense. I recognize that Kleiman loathes Reynolds, and has nothing but contempt for him, but it perhaps would not have been a bad idea for Kleiman to put his loathing aside and consider that Reynolds’s example might indicate that there are plenty of libertarians who (a) are concerned about defending the Earth against extinction-causing asteroids, and (b) might be able to justify it (as I have) constitutionally. As a general matter, it might be best for Kleiman to consult actual lawyers regarding constitutional or statutory interpretation, before trying to navigate legal thickets on his own. I mean, it’s his blog, and he can do what he wants, but it is worth noting that past Kleimanian efforts to play lawyer have ended quite poorly.

Jonathan Adler:

This post by Mark Kleiman is a good example, in that it puts forward a laughable caricature of libertarian and originalist constitutional thought that would have been discredited with but a moment’s investigation into the question (as I noted here, and Pejman Yousefzadeh discussed here).  To Prof. Kleiman’s credit, he backed off (a little) when other took the time to respond, but that a prominent, thoughtful academic would post something like this as an ostensibly thoughtful critique of right-leaning ideas says quite a bit about the state of much academic discourse.

Sasha Volokh:

I agree with Jonathan below that the Constitution (through the spending power) allows Congress to spend tax money to protect the Earth from an asteroid.

On the other hand — and at the risk of confirming Mark Kleiman in his belief that libertarians are loopy — I don’t speak for all libertarians, but I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.

On the other hand, if you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn’t apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public.

This does make me uncomfortable, much like my view that patents are highly useful but morally unjustifiable, so I’m open to persuasion

Matthew Yglesias:

I think this is a mistake about how a reductio works. The mere fact that Volokh is willing to bite this bullet has no real bearing on the fact that the conclusion is clearly false, and so the argument is either logically invalid or else proceeds from false premises. I’d say “false premises.” The best liberal thinking—classical, modern, whatever—proceeds from broadly consequentialist ideas about making human beings better off.

Brad DeLong:

So not only does Sasha Volokh claim that it is immoral to tax people to blow up an asteroid (or install lightning rods, or mandate lightning rods, or pay for a tree-trimming crew on the public roads), but it is immoral to tell people of an approaching asteroid so they can scramble to safety because it will cause violations of rights through looting.

Wow.

Ilya Somin:

That said, I don’t think that Sasha’s view is necessarily ridiculous or “insane.” Any theory based on absolute respect for certain rights necessarily carries the risk that it will lead to catastrophe in some instances. Let’s say you believe that torture is always wrong. Then you would not resort to it even in a case where relatively mild torture of a terrorist is the only way to prevent a nuclear attack that kills millions. What if you think that it’s always wrong to knowingly kill innocent civilians? Then you would oppose strategic bombing even if it were the only way to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. How about absolute rights to freedom of political speech? If you are committed to them, that means you oppose censorship even if it’s the only way to prevent Nazi or communist totalitarians from coming to power and slaughtering millions.

Many such scenarios are improbable. But over the long sweep of human history, improbable events can and do happen. Had Kerensky suppressed the Bolsheviks in 1917 (as he easily could have that summer) or had the Weimar Republic done the same with the Nazis, the world would be a vastly better place, even though most political censorship (even of evil ideologies) causes far more harm than good. A civilization-destroying asteroid attack during the next few hundred years is also a low-probability event.

Thus, the potential flaw in Sasha’s view is one that it shares with all absolutist rights theories. Scenarios like the above are one of the main reasons why I’m not a rights-absolutist myself. But I don’t believe that all the great moral theorists who endorse such views from Kant to the present are either ridiculous or “insane.”

It’s also worth noting that Sasha’s approach would in fact justify asteroid defense in virtually any plausible real world scenario. As he puts it, “if you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn’t apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public.” It’s highly unlikely that news of an impending asteroid impact whose onset was known to the government could be prevented from leaking to the general public. Even if it could, “all hell” would surely break loose after the asteroid impact, resulting in numerous violations of libertarian rights by looters, bandits, people stealing food out of desperation, and so on. Either way, Sasha’s analysis ends up justifying asteroid defense.

If I understand Sasha correctly, he’s only partially a rights absolutist. He doesn’t believe that you can ever sacrifice rights for utilitarian benefits, even truly enormous ones. But he does think that you can justify small rights violations as a way of forestalling bigger ones. Sasha is an absolutist when it comes to trading off libertarian rights for other considerations, but a maximizer when it comes to trading off rights for greater protection of those same rights in the future. Effective defense against a massive asteroid impact easily passes Sasha’s rights-maximizing test.

Obviously, I welcome correction from Sasha if I have misinterpreted his views.

Mark Kleiman:

I’m glad that Adler agrees with me – and disagrees with many Tea Party lunatics, including some recently elected to the Senate and the House – that there’s no actual Constitutional question about funding the Department of Education or National Public Radio. That, of course, was my point.

I’m also glad that Sasha is standing by his guns, thus demonstrating that my argument was not directed at a mere straw man, though his objection to spending is philosophical rather than Constitutional.

Sasha worries that his honest and forthright response might confirm me in my belief that “libertarians are loopy.” That’s certainly a reasonable concern. But I would have thought that a bigger concern would be that the conclusion is, in fact, obviously loopy, and – like any good reductio ad absurdum argument, ought to lead to a re-examination of the premises that would lead to such a loopy conclusion.

Ilya Somin is right to point out that any theory that puts an absolute constraint on action runs into problems when inaction has catastrophic consequences. But if he really can’t see the difference between torture and income taxation – can’t understand why absolute opposition to torture is not analogous to absolute opposition to public spending on public goods – then “loopy” is entirely too weak a word.

Eugene Volokh:

I leave it to others to debate the constitutional and moral merits of government spending on asteroid defense (my view is that such spending is both constitutionally permissible and morally proper, but I have nothing original to add on the subject). I just wanted to add that one side of the debate is an unusually near-literal application of the saying, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”

Noah Millman at The American Scene:

An impending catastrophe – asteroid strike – threatens to kill everyone in the society. That doesn’t violate anyone’s “rights” because you don’t have a “right to life” but rather a right not to have your life taken away by somebody else against your will. Therefore, the government has no right to tax you to protect you – and everybody else – from the asteroid.

So how is the asteroid to be stopped?

Presumably, everyone in society would agree voluntarily to cooperate to stop the asteroid. That is to say: we could still have collective action, but it would have to be voluntary, not coerced.

But would everyone participate?

The government goes around, passing the hat for contributions to stop the asteroid. A certain percentage of people, though, don’t believe in asteroids. Another percentage believe that the asteroid will bring the Rapture and so must not be stopped. These people are crazy, though, and crazy people are not interesting to talk about. Let’s hope there aren’t too many and ignore them.

Some people, though, notice that there are wealthier people than them in the society, and figure those other people should shoulder the burden of saving society. These are the “free-riders.”

Now, so long as this group is relatively small, no problem. Enough people will still put up enough money to stop the collective catastrophe. But so long as that is the case, free-riding is the economically rational thing to do. Indeed, in any large enough society, free-riding is always the rational thing to do: in a society with enough people putting up enough money voluntarily to stop the asteroid, free-riding is costless; in a society without enough such people, contributing is pointless.

The salvation of this ultra-libertarian society, then, depends upon the existence of a sufficient number of irrationally self-sacrificing people, people who ignore their rational self-interest in order to procure a social good for the group, without regard for the amount of “free riding” going on around them.

On the assumption – which I don’t think is pushing it at all – that there are a whole lot of communal problems that require collective action to address, libertarianism is only practical in highly communitarian societies.

I don’t know that that’s a knock-down argument against libertarianism. Wikipedia is a highly communitarian activity that grew up in a highly libertarian environment (the Internet), and most of the world is free-riding.

But it’s worth stressing nonetheless, because libertarians tend to talk as if rationality will lead to the necessary level of cooperation. But it won’t. In any case of communal threat where attempted free-riders cannot independently exposed to the threat, while contributors are protected, the rational thing to do is free-ride.

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Filed under Conservative Movement, Go Meta, The Constitution

Talkin’ About Adding The Value

Grace Snodgrass at Huffington Post:

One day soon, my name and performance evaluation could be printed in your morning newspaper. It will tell you that I’m a teacher who has clear strengths and weaknesses in helping my students advance academically.

But as valuable as my so-called “Teacher Data Report” is in helping me identify these areas, it really doesn’t say much about the overall quality of my teaching. And printing the results — as an NYC judge just gave the city the right to do — will do little to make me, or any of my colleagues, better teachers. At least, not right away. What will help is the Department of Education and the teachers’ union putting aside their differences and improving these reports so that teachers like me receive good information about our performance and clear steps towards achieving our classroom goals.

As an educator, I want to be evaluated. I know that my students’ success hinges on the quality of my teaching. The Department of Education is actually on the right track with the “value-added” method it uses to calculate the impact teachers have on their students’ academic growth. Value-added compares a student’s predicted performance on standardized assessments with how he or she actually performs.

Dana Goldstein and Megan McArdle on Bloggingheads

Jim Manzi at The Corner:

Recently, Megan McArdle and Dana Goldstein had a very interesting Bloggingheads discussion that was mostly about teacher evaluations. They referenced some widely discussed attempts to evaluate teacher performance using what is called “value-added.” This is a very hot topic in education right now. Roughly speaking, it refers to evaluating teacher performance by measuring the average change in standardized test scores for the students in a given teacher’s class from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, rather than simply measuring their scores. The rationale is that this is an effective way to adjust for different teachers being confronted with students of differing abilities and environments.

This seems like a broadly sensible idea as far as it goes, but consider that the real formula for calculating such a score in a typical teacher value-added evaluation system is not “Average math + reading score at end of year – average math reading score at beginning of year,” but rather a very involved regression equation. What this reflects is real complexity, which has a number of sources. First, at the most basic level, teaching is an inherently complex activity. Second, differences between students are not unvarying across time and subject matter. How do we know that Johnny, who was 20 percent better at learning math than Betty in 3rd grade is not relatively more or less advantaged in learning reading in fourth grade? Third, an individual person-year of classroom education is executed as part of a collective enterprise with shared contributions. Teacher X had special needs assistant 1 work with her class, and teacher Y had special needs assistant 2 working with his class — how do we disentangle the effects of the teacher versus the special ed assistant? Fourth, teaching has effects that continue beyond that school year. For example, how do we know if teacher X got a great gain in scores for students in third grade by using techniques that made them less prepared for fourth grade, or vice versa for teacher Y? The argument behind complicated evaluation scoring systems is that they untangle this complexity sufficiently to measure teacher performance with imperfect but tolerable accuracy.

Any successful company that I have ever seen employs some kind of a serious system for evaluating and rewarding / punishing employee performance. But if we think of teaching in these terms — as a job like many others, rather than some sui generis activity — then I think that the hopes put forward for such a system by its advocates are somewhat overblown.

There are some job categories that have a set of characteristics that lend themselves to these kinds of quantitative “value added” evaluations. Typically, they have hundreds or thousands of employees in a common job classification operating in separated local environments without moment-to-moment supervision; the differences in these environments make simple output comparisons unfair; the job is reasonably complex; and, often the performance of any one person will have some indirect, but material, influence on the performance of others over time. Think of trying to manage an industrial sales force of 2,000 salespeople, or the store managers for a chain of 1,000 retail outlets. There is a natural tendency in such situations for analytical headquarters types to say “Look, we need some way to measure performance in each store / territory / office, so let’s build a model that adjusts for inherent differences, and then do evaluations on these adjusted scores.”

I’ve seen a number of such analytically-driven evaluation efforts up close. They usually fail. By far the most common result that I have seen is that operational managers muscle through use of this tool in the first year of evaluations, and then give up on it by year two in the face of open revolt by the evaluated employees. This revolt is based partially on veiled self-interest (no matter what they say in response to surveys, most people resist being held objectively accountable for results), but is also partially based on the inability of the system designers to meet the legitimate challenges raised by the employees.

Noah Millman at The American Scene:

I do want to add a few additional points of my own:

1. Evaluations establish the principle that there is such a thing as performance in the first place. A great deal of discussion nowadays in education revolves around the idea that what we need to “fix the schools” is great teachers. But if that’s what we need, we’ll never do it. What we need, instead, are mechanisms for getting marginally better performance, year after year, from a teaching pool that remains merely adequate.

One bit of low-hanging fruit for achieving that goal, meanwhile, is the ability to dismiss the bottom 5% of teachers in terms of performance. Not only are these teachers failing comprehensively in their own classrooms, but their mere presence has a corrosive effect on an entire organization – on the teachers, on the students, on the management of the school. But right now, firing these teachers is essentially impossible. For all the difficulty of doing a rigorous evaluation in order to improve teaching performance across the board, I suspect it is a whole lot easier to identify the worst teachers in the school. If that could be done, the pressure to be able to terminate them would be significant, and that could do a lot to improve school performance right there.

2. Value-added metrics wind up punishing perfectly good but not spectacular schools with above-average student bodies. It may be that these schools should suffer reputationally, because the staff is not actually delivering as much value as they should. But high-stakes standardized testing actually pushes these schools to destroy themselves, wiping out the programs that actually do deliver value to these high-aptitude students and instead focusing on teaching to the tests.

That’s not an argument against using value-added metrics as such. It’s an argument that they need to be used intelligently, with some understanding of what “value-added” means at different points on the performance spectrum. But that, in turn, would require admitting that different standards are needed for students with different aptitude, which, in turn, is extremely difficult for our education system to admit. (And, admittedly, it’s a problem in corporate cultures that cross widely different customer bases as well. How well would Wal-Mart manage Tiffany?)

3. Nobody goes into teaching “for the money” – that is to say, teachers in aggregate make significantly less than people with their educational credentials and academic aptitude could make in other professions. So monetary rewards are useful primarily going to prove useful as signaling devices. There’s a lot of evidence coming in from high-performance charter schools suggesting that a monetary reward system tied too closely to evaluations actually degrades performance, because it gets teachers focused on the evaluations rather than on the performance. The evaluations should primarily be used as a diagnostic, to identify correctable deficiencies in teacher performance so they can be corrected through staff development, and to identify gross deficiencies in teacher performance so the teachers in question can be dismissed.

4. Similarly, across a system, what evaluations are useful is for research purposes and to drive market discipline. Evaluations of a school should be very useful to parents seeking to select a school for their child. Schools that consistently achieve high valuations (particularly for value-added metrics) should be objects of study by administrators and others looking to replicate that performance in lower-performing but still basically well-run schools. The least-important use of the evaluation is to directly “reward” or “punish” a school bureaucratically – and, indeed, if that becomes the primary use then the school is likely to start focusing overwhelmingly on the evaluation process and lose sight of actual performance. I’ve seen this happen over and over in New York City schools; it’s not a theoretical question.

Conor Friedersdorf at Sullivan’s place:

And it helps explain the inherent tension between teachers unions and the rest of us. Unions exist to protect the interests of their members. Even in the best case scenario, that means lobbying for an evaluation system that maximizes fairness to the people being evaluated. As citizens, our primary goal should be creating the best education system possible, even if doing so sometimes means (for example) that the teacher most desserving of a bonus doesn’t get one. Saying that there is a conflict between the common good and the ends of teachers unions isn’t a condemnation of the latter. It’s just a fact. And everyone seems to understand the basic concept if you talk about prison guard unions.

Reihan Salam:

Part of what makes me nervous is that productivity varies dramatically within industries. It is very common for comparable factories at the 90th percentile produce four times as much as factories at the 10th percentile. Moreover, the scorecards and shortcuts used by factories at the 90th percentile wouldn’t necessarily work for those at the 10th percentile. Managerial insights are usually embedded in a complex tangle on personalities and practices that can’t easily be replicated. This is natural, and I’d say that I’d much rather see a few firms race ahead than allow all firms to remain mired at the low end of the productivity spectrum.  Suffice it to say, this is not the ethic that governs how we generally think about public schools.

In a time when at least half of the political spectrum is deeply troubled by inequality, i.e., by the fact that some firms, individuals, and households are racing far ahead of others, what at least some education reformers are saying is that we want to unleash a few inventive, well-managed schools to start deploying the same per pupil resources to much greater effect. That is, we want to, in the short run at least, make the K-12 educational landscape more unequal, in the hope that leading schools will identify instructional methods, e.g., effective virtual instruction, that will prove scalable.

Much depends on how one interprets the fact that some firms, individuals, and households are racing ahead of the others. I take what I think of as a nuanced view. Generally speaking, some firms, individuals, and households race ahead of others due to a combination of luck, opportunity, and smart investments in organizational capital. In some cases, we see rent-seeking, tax and regulatory arbitrage, etc. But whereas Simon Johnson and many of my friends on the left see this as the dominant narrative, I see it as a significant but nevertheless relatively small part of the wage dispersion story.

Nicholas Bloom and John Van Reenen have written a neat essay in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on how effective management practices spread. I was struck by many of their observations, including some that will be familiar to those of you who see organizational capital as very important (“firms that more intensively use human capital, as measured by more educated workers, tend to have much better management practices”).

The United States has a commanding lead in terms of the quality of management in firms. This is very interesting considering our relative weakness in terms of educational attainment at the median in the prime-age cohorts. And I suspect that this feeds back into wage dispersion as well as assortative mating, family breakdown, and other sources of “stickiness” at the low end of the income distribution. For a variety of reasons, our economy is rewarding people with managerial skills, and, in a crude sense, one might be able to extrapolate the ability to manage a wide range of tasks in the workplace to the ability to maintain constructive relationships in other domains. The obvious objection is that many hard-charging executives neglect their families and personal lives, etc. But it could also be true that the that neglect of parental responsibilities is somewhat more common among those marginally attached to the labor force, due to the greater prevalence of substance abuse and other risky behaviors.

Jonathan Chait at TNR on Manzi:

That’s an interesting insight into the general problem with quantitative measures. Here are a few points in response:

1. You need some system for deciding how to compensate teachers. Merit pay may not be perfect, but tenure plus single-track longevity-based pay is really, really imperfect. Manzi doesn’t say that better systems for measuring teachers are futile, but he’s a little too fatalistic about their potential to improve upon a very badly designed status quo.

2. Manzi’s description…

evaluating teacher performance by measuring the average change in standardized test scores for the students in a given teacher’s class from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, rather than simply measuring their scores. The rationale is that this is an effective way to adjust for different teachers being confronted with students of differing abilities and environments.

..implies that quantitative measures are being used as the entire system to evaluate teachers. In fact, no state uses such measures for any more than half of the evaluation. The other half involves subjective human evaluations.

3. In general, he’s fitting this issue into his “progressives are too optimistic about the potential to rationalize policy” frame. I think that frame is useful — indeed, of all the conservative perspectives on public policy, it’s probably the one liberals should take most seriously. But when you combine the fact that the status quo system is demonstrably terrible, that nobody is trying to devise a formula to control the entire teacher evaluation process, and that nobody is promising the “silver bullet” he assures us doesn’t exist, his argument has a bit of a straw man quality.

Manzi responds to Chait:

My post wasn’t about if we should use quantitative measures of improvement in their students’ standardized test scores as an element of how we evaluate, compensate, manage and retain teachers, but rather about how to do this.

Two of the key points that I tried to make are that the metrics themselves should likely be much simpler than those currently developed by economics PhDs, and that such an evaluation system is only likely to work if embedded within a program of management reform for schools and school systems. The bulk of the post was trying to explain why I believe these assertions to be true.

An additional point that I mentioned in passing is my skepticism that such management reform will really happen in the absence of market pressures on schools. Continuous management reform, sustained over decades, that gets organizations to take difficult and unpleasant actions with employees is very hard to achieve without them. There’s nothing magic about teachers or schools. The same problems with evaluation and other management issues that plague them arise in big companies all the time. It’s only the ugly reality of market discipline that keeps them in check.

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“The Celebration Of Lifelong Heterosexual Monogamy As A Unique And Indispensable Estate”

Ross Douthat at NYT:

Here are some commonplace arguments against gay marriage: Marriage is an ancient institution that has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman, and we meddle with that definition at our peril. Lifelong heterosexual monogamy is natural; gay relationships are not. The nuclear family is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children.

These have been losing arguments for decades now, as the cause of gay marriage has moved from an eccentric- seeming notion to an idea that roughly half the country supports. And they were losing arguments again last week, when California’s Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that laws defining marriage as a heterosexual union are unconstitutional, irrational and unjust.

These arguments have lost because they’re wrong. What we think of as “traditional marriage” is not universal. The default family arrangement in many cultures, modern as well as ancient, has been polygamy, not monogamy. The default mode of child-rearing is often communal, rather than two parents nurturing their biological children.

Nor is lifelong heterosexual monogamy obviously natural in the way that most Americans understand the term. If “natural” is defined to mean “congruent with our biological instincts,” it’s arguably one of the more unnatural arrangements imaginable. In crudely Darwinian terms, it cuts against both the male impulse toward promiscuity and the female interest in mating with the highest-status male available. Hence the historic prevalence of polygamy. And hence many societies’ tolerance for more flexible alternatives, from concubinage and prostitution to temporary arrangements like the “traveler’s marriages” sanctioned in some parts of the Islamic world.

So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.

Or at least, it was the Western understanding. Lately, it has come to co-exist with a less idealistic, more accommodating approach, defined by no-fault divorce, frequent out-of-wedlock births, and serial monogamy.

In this landscape, gay-marriage critics who fret about a slippery slope to polygamy miss the point. Americans already have a kind of postmodern polygamy available to them. It’s just spread over the course of a lifetime, rather than concentrated in a “Big Love”-style menage.

If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals.

But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.

Rod Dreher:

I don’t think most people realize how epochal the social shift we’re living through now, with regard to the big tangled ball involving sex, sexuality,marriage, civilization and Christianity. I take it for granted now that we are going to have same-sex marriage in this country, because the elites are all for it, young adults are all for it, and their support of it makes sense for the reasons of “postmodern polygamy” Ross identifies. But few people seem to have thought through the deeper ramifications of this civilizational shift. Most people seem to think this is merely a matter of moving the lines a bit more to the side, to bring gay couples into a stable social framework. In fact, it’s revolutionary to the core.

Andrew Sullivan:

Look at how diverse current civil marriages are in the US. The range and diversity runs from Amish families with dozens of kids to yuppie bi-coastal childless couples on career paths; there are open marriages and arranged marriages; there is Rick Santorum and Britney Spears – between all of whom the civil law makes no distinction. The experience of gay couples therefore falls easily within the actual living definition of civil marriage as it is today, and as it has been now for decades. To exclude gays and gays alone is therefore not the upholding of an ideal (Britney Spears and Larry King are fine – but a lesbian couple who have lived together for decades are verboten) so much as making a lone exception to inclusion on the grounds of sexual orientation. It is in effect to assert not the ideal of Catholic Matrimony, but the ideal of heterosexual superiority. It creates one class of people, regardless of their actions, and renders them superior to another.

Ross’s view is increasingly, therefore, one faction of one religion’s specific definition of Matrimony out of countless arrangements that are available for cohabitation in civil society and world history. It’s a view freely breached within his own church itself. And it has already been abandoned as a civil matter in some of the most Catholic countries on earth, including Spain and Argentina. And heterosexuals-only marriage is only a microcosm of civilization if you exclude all other relationships from civilization – friendship, citizenship, family in the extended sense, families with adopted, non-biological children, etc.

And – this is my main point – Ross’ argument simply ignores the existence and dignity and lives and testimony of gay people. This is strange because the only reason this question has arisen at all is because the visibility of gay family members has become now so unmissable that it cannot be ignored. Yes, marriage equality was an idea some of us innovated. But it was not an idea plucked out of the sky. It was an attempt to adapt to an already big social change: the end of the homosexual stigma, the emergence of gay communities of great size and influence and diversity, and collapse of the closet. It came from a pressing need as a society to do something about this, rather than consign gay people to oblivion or marginalization or invisibility. More to the point, it emerged after we saw what can happen when human beings are provided no structure, no ideal, and no support for responsibility and fidelity and love.

If you have total gay freedom and no gay institutions that can channel love and desire into commitment and support, you end up in San Francisco in the 1970s. That way of life – however benignly expressed, however defensible as the pent-up unleashed liberation of a finally free people – helped kill 300,000 young human beings in this country in our lifetime. Ross may think that toll is unimportant, or that it was their fault, but I would argue that a Catholic’s indifference to this level of death and suffering and utter refusal to do anything constructive to prevent it happening again, indeed a resort to cruel stigmatization of gay people that helps lead to self-destructive tendencies, is morally evil.

What, in other words, would Ross have gay people do? What incentives would he, a social conservative, put in place to encourage gay couples and support them in their commitments and parenting and love? Notice the massive silence. He is not a homophobe as I can personally attest. But if he cannot offer something for this part of our society except a sad lament that they are forever uniquely excluded, by their nature, from being a “microcosm of civilization”, then this is not a serious contribution to the question at hand. It is merely a restatement of abstract dogma – not a contribution to the actual political and social debate we are now having.

Glenn Greenwald:

First, the mere fact that the State does not use the mandates of law to enforce Principle X does not preclude Principle X from being advocated or even prevailing.  Conversely, the fact that the State recognizes the right of an individual to choose to engage in Act Y does not mean Act Y will be accepted as equal.  There are all sorts of things secular law permits which society nonetheless condemns.  Engaging in racist speech is a fundamental right but widely scorned.  The State is constitutionally required to maintain full neutrality with regard to the relative merits of the various religious sects (and with regard to the question of religion v. non-religion), but certain religions are nonetheless widely respected while others — along with atheism — are stigmatized and marginalized.  Numerous behaviors which secular law permits — excessive drinking, adultery, cigarette smoking, inter-faith and inter-racial marriages, homosexual sex — are viewed negatively by large portions of the population.

The State’s official neutrality on the question of marriage does not even theoretically restrict Douthat’s freedom — or that of his ideological and religious comrades — to convince others of the superiority of heterosexual monogamy.  They’re every bit as free today as they were last week to herald all the “unique fruit” which such relationships can alone generate, in order to persuade others to follow that course.  They just can’t have the State take their side by officially embracing that view or using the force of law to compel it.

But if the arguments for the objective superiority of heterosexual monogamy are as apparent and compelling as Douthat seems to think, they ought not need the secular thumb pressing on the scale in favor of their view.  Individuals on their own will come to see the rightness of Douthat’s views on such matters — or will be persuaded by the religious institutions and societal mores which teach the same thing — and, attracted by its “distinctive and remarkable” virtues, will opt for a life of heterosexual monogamy.  Why does Douthat need the State — secular law — to help him in this cause?

Second, Douthat is quite confused about what Judge Walker actually ruled.  He did not decree that there are no legitimate moral, theological or spiritual grounds for viewing heterosexual marriage as superior.  That’s not what courts do.  Courts don’t rule on moral, theological or spiritual questions.  Such matters are the exclusive province of religious institutions, philosophers, communities, parents and individuals’ consciences, but not of the State.  That’s the crux of this judicial decision.

Thus, one can emphatically embrace every syllable of Judge Walker’s ruling while simultaneously insisting on the moral or spiritual superiority of heterosexual marriage.  There would be nothing inconsistent about that.  That’s because Judge Walker’s ruling is exclusively about the principles of secular law — the Constitution — and the legitimate role of the State.  That legitimate role ends where the exclusively moral and religious sphere begins.  That’s why we call it “secular law.”  Judge Walker’s ruling concerns exclusively secular questions and does not even purport to comment upon, let alone resolve, the moral and theological questions which Douthat frets can no longer be “entertained” in a society that affords legal equality to marriage.

The court ruled opposite-sex-marriage-only laws unconstitutional not because it concluded that heterosexual and homosexual marriages are morally equal, but rather, because it’s not the place of the State (or of courts) to make such moral determinations.  Moral and theological debates are to be resolved in the private square — through the kinds of discussions Douthat claims he wants to have — not by recruiting the State to officially sanction one moral view or the other by using law to restrict moral choices.  Judge Walker, citing decades of clear precedent on that question, made as clear as can be that the issue Douthat seems to think was resolved by his ruling — namely, whether heterosexual marriages are morally or spiritually superior — is the exact issue he refused to adjudicate, precisely because those are the issues that courts have no business addressing and the State has no business legislating

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

Now, I gather that Greenwald is a pretty radical civil libertarian (of the hard leftist variety, of course), but we aren’t talking about his preferences. When he writes that racist speech is a fundamental right that is (and should be) widely scorned, I’m with him. But is it really treated as a fundamental right? What about speech codes? Hate-crimes laws? Similarly, secular law does permit cigarette smoking, but lots of states regulate it and essentially ban it in all public areas. Try smoking in public in California. Try getting a job at some hospitals if you smoke.  Meanwhile, tax dollars are routinely used to stigmatize smoking and excessive drinking. And then there are the countless exhortations in public schools and elsewhere against racist speech and attitudes as well. Whatever the merits of these policies, I don’t see anything like the state neutrality Greenwald is alluding to and he would certainly be livid if the state of California (or the federal government) countenanced public-service advertisements against gay marriage or homosexual behavior (I wouldn’t like it either, for the record) or if government treated gay couples the way it treats smokers (“Do that in the privacy of your own home, but not on the job or near children!”).

Douthat responds to Greenwald:

Well, first of all, I don’t believe that having the truth on your side is any kind of guarantee of success in public debate. (Nor, I’m sure, does Greenwald, or else he would have abandoned his views on torture and executive power long ago.) This is particularly the case when the truth in question asks men and women to engage in sacrificial and frankly counter-biological behavior, in pursuit of an ideal that few societies in history have even attempted to achieve. I will return to this point again and again throughout my responses, but let me be clear: The marriage ideal that I’m defending would be in equally serious difficulties in contemporary America if homosexuality did not exist, because what it asks of straight people is in deep tension with what straight people want to do, and with the way that the incentives of modern life often line up. This is why I’ve spent much more time writing about divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates (and pornography, for that matter) than gay marriage over the years — and I wouldn’t be writing about gay marriage today if Judge Vaughan Walker’s decision wasn’t poised to throw the issue before the Supreme Court, where it might be settled legally once and for all.

Second, I think that most of Greenwald’s examples of cultural norms that aren’t legally enforced actually tend to back up my belief that law and culture are inextricably bound up, rather than his case that they needn’t be. A stigma on racism, for instance, would hopefully exist even in a libertarian paradise, but it draws a great deal of its potency from the fact the American government has spent the last 40 years actively campaigning against racist conduct and racist thought, using every means at its disposal short of banning speech outright. The state forbids people from discriminating based on race in their private business dealings. It forbids them from instituting policies that have a “disparate impact” on racial minorities. It allows and encourage reverse discrimination in various settings, the better to remedy racism’s earlier effects. It promulgates public school curricula that paint racism as the original sin of the United States. It has even created a special legal category that punishes crimes committed with racist intentions more severely than identical crimes committed with non-racial motivations. In these and other arenas, there isn’t a bright line between the legal campaign against racism and the cultural stigma attached to racist beliefs; indeed, there isn’t a line at all.

Or take alcohol and cigarettes. Why are Marlboros more stigmatized than Budweisers in contemporary America? Well, in part, it’s because there’s been a government-sponsored war on tobacco for the last few decades, carried out through lawsuits and public health campaigns and smoking bans and so forth, that’s far eclipsed the more halting efforts to stigmatize alcohol consumption. Here again, public policy, rather than some deep empirical or philosophical truth about the relative harm of nicotine versus alcohol, has been a crucial factor in shaping cultural norms.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at The American Scene:

In his column, Ross puts forward the most eloquent defense I’ve seen of “lifelong heterosexual monogamy” as an institution that should be afforded special status by a society’s laws.

Unfortunately, responses to Ross’s column have been predictably dire. Supporters of gay marriage are increasingly candid about their belief that there can be no legitimate, non-bigoted argument against gay marriage, a view which I believe to be false and says more about a certain kind of narrow-mindedness than about anything else. (At this point I should probably produce my non-troglodyte Ausweis and state that I am in favor of legalizing same sex marriage.) Most responses make a spectacle of the author’s incapacity to consider viewpoints that do not fit neatly into her own biases.

Two interesting responses to Ross that stand out from this sorry lot have been from Hanna Rosin and Andrew Sullivan, two writers whose work I admire.

I’ll start with Andrew Sullivan. Reading Mr Sullivan is often frustrating to me because of what I take to be a reflexive tendency to cast anathema upon ideological opponents with inflamatory language (I don’t find it correct or useful, for example, to describe the Catholic Church’s stance on women in the priesthood as “un-Christian”).

Yet Mr Sullivan put forward what I think is the best response to the column, largely even-handed, generous, and very touching. His post is very much worth reading. If Ross puts forward the best argument on one side, clearly Mr Sullivan puts forward the best response. Even though at times Mr Sullivan comes close to reaching for the flamethrower (I don’t believe, as he seems at one point to imply, that Ross is “indifferen[t]” to gay victims of the AIDS epidemic; and I don’t know what it means to say that the Church is in a “High Ratzinger phase”), he is very generous and lucid.

He (and one would not think it should be noted, but given the other responses it must) actually understands Ross’s argument and gives what I think are the two best responses. That while the ideal Ross extols might be wonderful as a religious or even a moral ideal, it does not necessarily follow that the law should promote it at the exclusion of everything else. And that even if that were true, the fact of countless homosexual unions exists, unions that are worth something, and that denying them the legal protections of marriage is a very heavy, to the point of being inhumane, price to pay for a theoretical protection of another kind of ideal.

But really I don’t do it justice. I basically agree with Mr Sullivan, and felt more attention should be given to a great piece of writing.

“Hanna Rosin’s take”!http://www.doublex.com/blog/xxfactor/marriage-was-awesomein-17th-century is also worth reading, considerate and rooted in the teachings of history as it is, although she fails to actually grapple with Ross’s argument in certain key respects.

Where Ms Rosin fails is that, after acknowledging that Ross’s argument is substantially different from the regular litany of gay marriage opponents, she still takes it as a nostalgia argument. Ross wants to “go back” to an era where marriage was defined a certain way. She asserts that the kind of marriage that Ross defends never actually existed, or only existed at the cost of “love or choice.” I actually think that’s highly debatable, but I also think it’s beside the point. Her assertions that “[t]here is no barbaric Orientalist marriage which contrasts with a pure, Western one” and that “[m]arriage in the Bible was almost always polygamous” are correct but also irrelevant, because Ross never claimed any of that.

Just as Ross is a very effective critic of the sexual revolution because he recognizes that it has had many positive repercussions, his critique of gay marriage is worth taking seriously precisely because it doesn’t harken back to some mythical era which he starts out by acknowledging never existed.

If Ross wants to “go back” to anything, it’s not so much an era as ideas — ideas that have been with us for a very long time, even if they were all too rarely practiced.

Adam Serwer at The American Prospect:

I can’t speak to the Catholic view of marriage, but I will say this: My parents met in the 1950s when they were teenagers in a small town in upstate New York. They married in their early 20s, and went on to raise two kids. In many ways they are the embodiment of Douthat’s religiously inspired ideal of heterosexual marriage. Except that for about the first five years or so of their relationship, it would have been illegal in many parts of this country for them to get married, because my father is white and my mother is black. My parents’ relationship was startlingly apolitical given the era — they told me they weren’t even aware of Loving v. Virginia at the time despite being married only two years later.

I don’t know what it’s like to be gay and not be able to marry one’s partner, but knowing that my parents, who are more in love with each other than any two people I’ve ever known, could have been legally prevented from getting married within their lifetime because they are not the same race has always framed the issue of marriage equality for me. It’s heartbreaking for me to think of my parents not being able to be married for no other reason than because of entrenched cultural taboos against miscegenation, because their kind of love is so rare that denying it implicates the state in an indefensible act of cruelty. Reducing marriage to a matter of procreation seems ridiculous to me because I don’t consider myself or my brother the most meaningful product of my parents’ marriage; it’s the fact that more than 40 years into it, my mother and father are still each other’s best friend. I’m not in awe of me, I’m in awe of that.

I can’t help but reflect on my own parents when I think about how many people are denied that experience simply because they happen to share the same gender. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone could see that as any kind of justice.

Paul Waldman at Tapped:

These are the words of a defeated man. And they may reflect what’s currently going on in the conservative elite. If you’re a part of that elite, by now you’ve probably had plenty of exposure to gay people — at college, in the course of your work, and in the place where you live. So you probably find the kind of naked bigotry still expressed by some in the religious right to be repellent. The rhetorical shift of recent years — in which conservatives take pains to stress that they aren’t denying gay people’s humanity or rights, just trying to defend tradition — is something you genuinely believe. But that leaves you with the sentiment reflected in Douthat’s column, which is this: Yes, gay unions are meaningful and worthy of respect. But straight unions are really, really awesome. The problem is that marriage-equality opponents can’t define what gets taken away from the straight couple when the gay couple gets married, so they have nowhere to fall back to except vague encomiums to marriage between a man and a woman. Which is all very heartwarming, but it still doesn’t tell you why same-sex marriage should be illegal. And I’m pretty sure Douthat and other people making this argument know it.

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

The reason I always make fun of low-level Times semi-conservo-wonk Ross Douthat being unwilling to publicly explain his opposition to gay marriage is that he said it was too personal, essentially. (I know: quite unlike being singled out by society your entire life for being gay—though I guess some people take that personally too? Anyway, that’s why they call it privilege, Ross! Privilege literally means you don’t have to deal with such things.) So good news! He has laid it out, and I really encourage everyone to sit down and read it slowly. I found it an amazing experience. I won’t spoil the actually stunning conclusion—I was actually stunned! I had to sit down for a few minutes to gather myself!—but, in short, he apparently believes that gay marriage is some seven-week-old fetus that needs to be thrown out along with the bathwater of the society that straight people have so thoroughly fouled. After that, you can read the incredibly well-reasoned comments that were allowed on the Times site before they were shut down (hmm!) and then Glenn Greenwald picking apart a few points nicely—but in an incredible way, Douthat is literally unaddressable. Douthat really does want people to be happy, I think. But this all reads like he’s never met a person before, so how would he know?

UPDATE: Noah Millman at The American Scene

More Douthat

And even more Douthat

Ezra Klein

UPDATE #2: Douthat responds to Sullivan

Patrick Appel at Sullivan’s place responds

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Filed under Families, Gay Marriage, Mainstream, New Media

Maybe If They Hire Joss Whedon Or J.J. Abrams…

Squid314 (Scott):

But then there are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.

I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called “World War II”.

Let’s start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn’t look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn’t get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn’t even mind the lack of originality if they weren’t so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren’t that evil. And that’s not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not only Prime Minister, he’s not only a brilliant military commander, he’s not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he’s also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he’s supposed to be the hero, but it’s not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.

So it’s pretty standard “shining amazing good guys who can do no wrong” versus “evil legions of darkness bent on torture and genocide” stuff, totally ignoring the nuances and realities of politics. The actual strategy of the war is barely any better. Just to give one example, in the Battle of the Bulge, a vastly larger force of Germans surround a small Allied battalion and demand they surrender or be killed. The Allied general sends back a single-word reply: “Nuts!”. The Germans attack, and, miraculously, the tiny Allied force holds them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of battle. Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military.

Probably the worst part was the ending. The British/German story arc gets boring, so they tie it up quickly, have the villain kill himself (on Walpurgisnacht of all days, not exactly subtle) and then totally switch gears to a battle between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific. Pretty much the same dichotomy – the Japanese kill, torture, perform medical experiments on prisoners, and frickin’ play football with the heads of murdered children, and the Americans are led by a kindly old man in a wheelchair.

Anyway, they spend the whole season building up how the Japanese home islands are a fortress, and the Japanese will never surrender, and there’s no way to take the Japanese home islands because they’re invincible…and then they realize they totally can’t have the Americans take the Japanese home islands so they have no way to wrap up the season.

So they invent a completely implausible superweapon that they’ve never mentioned until now. Apparently the Americans got some scientists together to invent it, only we never heard anything about it because it was “classified”. In two years, the scientists manage to invent a weapon a thousand times more powerful than anything anyone’s ever seen before – drawing from, of course, ancient mystical texts. Then they use the superweapon, blow up several Japanese cities easily, and the Japanese surrender. Convenient, isn’t it?

…and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously. They have this whole thing about a war in Vietnam that lasts decades and kills tens of thousands of people, and they never wonder if maybe they should consider using the frickin’ unstoppable mystical superweapon that they won the last war with. At this point, you’re starting to wonder if any of the show’s writers have even watched the episodes the other writers made.

I’m not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named “Enigma”, because the writers couldn’t spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means “Man of Steel” in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman “Man of Steel” and the Frenchman “de Gaulle”, whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).

So yeah. Stay away from the History Channel. Unlike most of the other networks, they don’t even try to make their stuff believable.

Noah Millman at The American Scene:

So I Guess Maeby Was Right To Pass On That History Text

H/T pretty much everybody in the universe, but yes, I, too thought this was pretty funny.

Eugene Volokh

Charlie Jane Anders at I09:

If you think your favorite science fiction TV show is full of nonsensical plot twists and lazy writing, you should check out the World War II documentaries, suggests Squid314 on Livejournal, in the funniest blog post you’re likely to read this week. Who on Earth would believe that the Allies could actually win the Battle of the Bulge? It’s total nonsense, and “Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military

[…]

I’m convinced. We should start a write-in campaign to get the writers of the twentieth century fired. Who’s with me? More incredible brilliance at the link.

Joe Carter at First Things:

There have been some great television shows that have explored the theme of war and combat (M*A*S*H, Battlestar Galactica, F-Troop). But I have to agree with the brilliant TV critic Scott that the ongoing series that runs on The History Channel isn’t one of them

[…]

Read the rest. You won’t want to miss the part about the “unstoppable mystical superweapon” the never appears in the sequels.

Ed Driscoll at Pajamas Media:

Part of the problem is that in the 1970s, television writers were a crazed, psychedelic lot, a bunch of stoner sixties retreads more into scoring controlled substances than scripting controlled plotting.

Take this rock star wannabe who appeared in several segments of the World at War, and his seriously seventies mullet:

Don’t recognize him? I only knew who he was because his voice preceded his image, but I did a double take when he finally appeared:

Yes, it’s Stephen Ambrose in the early 1970s, back when he was in his mid-thirties, decades before the plagiarism scandals, and prior to that, his more sober C-SPAN and PBS-friendly look:

So yes kids, World War II was pretty cliched, but back in the 1970s, when it came time to watch TV, it was either that or Maude and Adam-12. We made do, somehow.

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns, And Money

Matthew Yglesias:

These are all fair points. In terms of gritty realism and morally complex drama, you can make mine the Napoleonic Wars. The anti-hero at the center of the action has a great plot arc, the horses look cool, and the whole metric system conceit is so clever I’m surprised people don’t use it in practice. Even the North American spinoff is pretty interesting. It’s just too bad they didn’t let well enough alone after Elba—the TV movie special felt pointless and tacked on.

Doug Mataconis:

Just goes to show you that reality rarely makes good television.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bloggy Funnies, History, TV

Not Every Explosive Tape Contains Mel Gibson Melting Down

Andrew Breitbart at Big Government:

We are in possession of a video from in which Shirley Sherrod, USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development, speaks at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner in Georgia. In her meandering speech to what appears to be an all-black audience, this federally appointed executive bureaucrat lays out in stark detail, that her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions.

In the first video, Sherrod describes how she racially discriminates against a white farmer. She describes how she is torn over how much she will choose to help him. And, she admits that she doesn’t do everything she can for him, because he is white. Eventually, her basic humanity informs that this white man is poor and needs help. But she decides that he should get help from “one of his own kind”. She refers him to a white lawyer.

Sherrod’s racist tale is received by the NAACP audience with nodding approval and murmurs of recognition and agreement. Hardly the behavior of the group now holding itself up as the supreme judge of another groups’ racial tolerance.

Ed Morrissey:

Actually, if Sherrod had a different ending for this story, it could have been a good tale of redemption. She almost grasps this by initially noting that poverty is the real issue, which should be the moral of the anecdote. Instead of having acted on this realization — and perhaps mindful of the audience — Sherrod then backtracks and says that it’s really an issue of race after all. It certainly was for Sherrod, who admits that “I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.” Notice that the audience doesn’t exactly rise as one to scold Sherrod for her racism, but instead murmurs approvingly of using race to determine outcomes for government programs, which is of course the point that Andrew wanted to make.

Andrew has a second video, which is more relevant to the out-of-control expansion of the federal government than race. Sherrod in the same speech beseeches her audience to get work in the USDA and the federal government in general, because “when was the last time you heard about layoffs” for government workers? If Sherrod is any example, it’s been too long.

Doug Powers at Michelle Malkin’s:

We interrupt this “Tea Partiers are so incredibly racially biased” broadcast for the following update:

Days after the NAACP clashed with Tea Party members over allegations of racism, a video has surfaced showing an Agriculture Department official regaling an NAACP audience with a story about how she withheld help to a white farmer facing bankruptcy — video that now has forced the official to resign.

The video posted at BigGovernment that started it all is here if you haven’t seen/heard it yet.

Breitbart claims more video is on the way.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled “Tea Partiers are so incredibly racially biased” broadcast.

Tommy Christopher at Mediaite:

As it’s being presented, the clip is utterly indefensible, and the NAACP was quick to denounce Sherrod:

We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers.

Her actions were shameful. While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man.

The clip that’s being promoted is obviously cut from a larger context, and while this is often the dishonest refuge of radio shock jocks, in this case, it makes a real difference. Here’s what Sherrod told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

But Tuesday morning, Sherrod said what online viewers weren’t told in reports posted throughout the day Monday was that the tale she told at the banquet happened 24 years ago — before she got the USDA job — when she worked with the Georgia field office for the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund.

Sherrod said the short video clip excluded the breadth of the story about how she eventually worked with the man over a two-year period to help ward off foreclosure of his farm, and how she eventually became friends with him and his wife.

“And I went on to work with many more white farmers,” she said. “The story helped me realize that race is not the issue, it’s about the people who have and the people who don’t. When I speak to groups, I try to speak about getting beyond the issue of race.”

Sherrod said the farmer, Roger Spooner of Iron City, Ga., has since died.

It doesn’t seem that Ben Jealous or Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are aware that Sherrod wasn’t working at USDA when this occurred, or that she did, in fact, help the farmer in question. That changes everything about this story, including the reaction of the crowd. The entire point of the story is that her actions were indefensible.

If what Sherrod says is true, this is not a story about grudgingly admitting that even white folks need help, but rather, a powerful, redemptive cautionary tale against discrimination of any kind. Both the AJC and Mediaite are working to locate a full video or transcript of the event.

This incident is being posed as the right’s answer to the NAACP resolution against “racist elements” in the Tea Party. This story also comes at a time when the New Black Panther Party has been thrust into the spotlight by Fox News (with predictable results), and debate rages over an Arizona immigration law that many say encourages racial profiling.

This is precisely the danger of ideologically-driven “journalism.” It is one thing to have a point of view that informs your analysis of facts, but quite abother when that point of view causes you to alter them.

David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo:

The 82-year-old wife of the white Georgia farmer who was supposedly discriminated against some quarter century ago by the black USDA official forced to resign this week — if the video released by Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government and re-run by Fox is to be believed — is now confirming that in fact Shirley Sherrod saved her and her husband’s farm from bankruptcy and is a “friend for life.”

CNN also spoke with the farmer’s wife and with Sherrod. Rachel Slajda has more.

Kevin Drum:

In a second video, BigGovernment.com says “Ms. Sherrod confirms every Tea Partier’s worst nightmare.” Although this is ostensibly a reference to a joke she made about no one ever getting fired from a government job, that’s not really every tea partier’s worst nightmare, is it? On the other hand, a vindictive black government bureaucrat deciding to screw you over because you’re white? Yeah, I’d say that qualifies.

This is just appallingly ugly, and the White House’s cowardly response is pretty ugly too. This is shaping up to be a long, gruesome summer, boys and girls.

Atrios:

One of the under reported stories of the 90s was just how much Starr’s merry band of lawyers totally fucked over relatively lowly White House staffers in the Great Clinton Cock Hunt. That was largely through subpoenas and lawyer bills, but lacking subpoena power the Right has now turned to a credulous news media and the power of selectively edited video to go after random government officials.

Apparently Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart rule Tom Vilsack’s world. Heckuva job.

Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs:

Andrew Breitbart: the heir to Joseph McCarthy, destroying people’s reputations and jobs based on deliberately distorted allegations, while the rest of the right wing blogs cheer. Disgusting. This is what has become of the right wing blogosphere — it’s now a debased tool that serves only to circulate partisan conspiracy theories and hit pieces.

UPDATE at 7/20/10 8:33:55 am:

Note that LGF reader “teh mantis” posted a comment last night at around 6:00 pm that made exactly these points about Breitbart’s deceptive video, in this post.

UPDATE at 7/20/10 9:00:01 am:

It’s disturbing that the USDA immediately caved in to cover their asses, and got Sherrod to resign without even hearing her side of the story; but also expected. That’s what government bureaucrats do. And they didn’t want the USDA to become the next ACORN.

But it’s even more disturbing that the NAACP also immediately caved in and denounced this woman, in a misguided attempt to be “fair.” The NAACP is supposed to defend people like this. They were played by a con man, and an innocent person paid the price.

UPDATE: Rachel Slajda at TPM

The Anchoress at First Things

Caleb Howe at Redstate

Digby

Tom Blumer at The Washington Examiner

David Frum at The Week

Erick Erickson at Redstate

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect

UPDATE #2: Dan Riehl at Human Events

Noah Millman at The American Scene

Scott Johnson at Powerline

Victorino Manus at The Weekly Standard

Andy Barr at Politico

UPDATE #3: More Johnson at Powerline

Jonathan Chait at TNR

Bill Scher and Conor Friedersdorf at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #4: Eric Alterman at The Nation

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Legal Insurrection

Ed Morrissey

UPDATE #5: Ben Dimiero and Eric Hananoki at Media Matters

UPDATE #6: Bridget Johnson at The Hill

UPDATE #7: Kate Pickert at Swampland at Time

3 Comments

Filed under Political Figures, Politics, Race

Where Is Radar O’Reilly When You Need Him?

Calculated Risk:

Usually the Fed minutes are pretty boring, but the minutes for the two day meeting held on June 22nd and 23rd, to be released on Wednesday, might be a little more interesting.

This release will include a revised forecast. Look for the Fed to revise down estimates for GDP and for inflation. And revise up estimates for unemployment.

The Fed April forecast for 2010 (most recent) was:

  • Change in real GDP: 3.2% to 3.7% (probably under 3.0% in first half, and GDP growth will probably slow in the 2nd half)
  • Unemployment rate: 9.1% to 9.5% (Unemployment averaged 9.7% in the first half, and will probably remain elevated)
  • PCE inflation: 1.2% to 1.5% (PCE inflation increased at a 0.7% annualized rate over the first 5 months – and appears to be dropping).Also the Fed might have discussed possible additional easing measures at the June meeting, and if so, it will be interesting to see the options discussed.
  • Jon Hilsenrath at WSJ:

    Fed officials still expect the U.S. economy to keep growing. But an updated forecast to be released Wednesday afternoon with the minutes of the Fed’s late-June policy meeting is likely to show that officials have trimmed their second-half forecasts—as have many private forecasters.

    One topic under debate is the possibility that today’s already-low inflation may turn into a debilitating bout of deflation, a broad drop in prices across the economy.

    Fed officials disagree on the risk of deflation. A few see it as a threat; others call it very unlikely, Fed officials said in recent interviews.

    For now, the Fed—and particularly its most-powerful member, Chairman Ben Bernanke, who has ultimate say—appears to be very much in wait-and-see mode. But differences among his colleagues are growing more evident. One problem: Having already cut interest rates to near zero, most of the Fed’s options for spurring growth aren’t very appealing.

    […]

    In public comments, Mr. Bernanke has played down the risk of a double-dip recession. But he has been keeping his options open.

    The Fed is better equipped to solve some economic problems than others. As Mr. Bernanke noted in a now-famous 2002 speech, the Fed has the power to fight deflation—or falling wages and prices—by printing money.

    But the bank’s tools aren’t perfectly suited to reducing unemployment, which is influenced by a range of factors including fiscal policy, regulation and global demand.

    Paul Krugman on Hilsenrath:

    Sorry, but that’s totally wrong. The question is whether, at the zero bound, the Fed has the ability to increase aggregate demand — full stop. If it can increase aggregate demand, it can fight both deflation and unemployment; if not, not.

    In a way, the problem with Bernanke’s speech was that he made increasing demand and fighting deflation sound too easy. The Fed can print money, if you increase the supply of something its price will fall, end of story.

    But as I tried to point out a long time ago, this simple story breaks down when short-term interest rates are near zero.

    Here’s one way to think about it: when the Fed conducts an open-market operation, buying short-term debt with newly printed money, this normally affects the short rate because bonds and money are imperfect substitutes: money yields less, but has the advantage of being something you can use directly to make payments, that is, it’s more liquid.

    But when you have bought so much debt and created so much money that rates are near zero, the public is saturated with liquidity; from that point on, they’re holding money simply as a store of value, which makes it no different from bonds — and hence a perfect substitute for bonds. And at that point further open-market operations do nothing — they just swap one zero-interest asset for another, with no effect on anything.

    So why not forget about open-market operations, and just drop the stuff from helicopters? Well, remember that at this point cash and short-term bonds are equivalent. So a helicopter drop is just like a temporary lump-sum tax cut. And we would expect people to save much or most of such a tax cut — all of it, if you believe in full Ricardian equivalence.

    Brad DeLong:

    But we don’t believe in full Ricardian equivalence. Maybe we would if this year’s helicopter drop was to be followed by next year’s great helicopter vacuuming, but it isn’t. So printing money now–and promising never to buy it back–is a way of having some impact on future inflation, and thus of getting some traction. Moreover, “much or most” is not all.

    The “much or most” is, I think, reason to go for money-financed government spending as a preferable policy to a helicopter drop–which is a money-financed tax cut. And it is reason to go for an explicit raising of the Federal Reserve’s long-term inflation rate target from 2% to 3%.

    But if we are not going to do either of those things–and it looks like we are not–it’s time to rev up the helicopters…

    Tyler Cowen:

    First, cash and short-term bonds may be near-substitutes but they are not literally, strictly equivalent.  The nominal rate on T-bills is not exactly zero and furthermore you can’t use a T-bill for every retail purchase.  The demand curve for real cash need slope down only slightly for a quantity theory result to hold.  After everyone spends the new cash balances, and prices rise, people end up with the quantity of real balances which they initially desired.  These equilibria have “knife-edge” properties, where “identical to T-Bills” and “nearly identical to T-Bills” do not bring the same results.  Tsiang showed this in a very good JMCB article on Friedman’s optimum quantity of money, in the early 1970s and you might regard it as implicit in Bewley’s Econometrica article on Friedman.

    Second, after a helicopter drop no one need expect future taxes to be raised to retire the money (although maybe a sufficiently credible government could create such an expectation).  So there is no Ricardian motive to save the new cash, as Brad DeLong points out.  Indeed, if you think there is some chance that others will spend the money, raising the price level, you will want to spend your new cash soon, so as to preserve its value against forthcoming price inflation.  The resulting game-theoretic equilibrium, applying dominant strategies, again leads to higher prices, higher aggregate demand, and the desired quantity of real cash balances held.

    Those are not the only possible cases (see the work of Fischer Black) but I take them to be the most sensible default cases.  Both indicate that a helicopter drop of cash will work fine in boosting aggregate demand.

    The most likely scenario for no positive AD effect is simply that the helicopter drop is so small that no one expects a price level rise and thus no one expects an inflationary tax on the new cash, people (for bounded rationality reasons) treat the new cash as a transfer purely to themselves, the precautionary motive for saving is strong, and so the new money is simply held.  A larger helicopter drop should overcome that inertia, if need be.

    Maybe these arguments are incorrect but they date from a consensus established in the mid- to late 1960s and early 1970s, much of it springing from Patinkin’s book on money and the subsequent discussions thereof.  Krugman suggests this perspective is wrong, but he hasn’t yet given me — or others — a reason to budge from it.

    Tom Maguire:

    Well, suppose our helicopter flies very carefully and only hovers over the homes of the unemployed; further, suppose the pilot also announces “this is unemployment insurance” before pushing the money out the door.

    Now, at least as I understand current Dem talking points, this is no longer a useless tax cut but a vital stimulus program.  But I am not sure when the substantive change occurred.  As the money fell through the air, maybe?

    Well.  The unemployed may calculate that aggregate taxes are likely to rise in the future, but they may also guess that those taxes will rise for Someone Else (it’s the American Way!).  In which case, they will feel free to spend all of their helicopter windfall.  Of course, The Current Rich may increase their own saving in anticipation of these future taxes, but what about the Future Rich?  Are law school students going to forego pizza in anticipation of higher taxes on their partnership income in fifteen years?  Maybe not.  (As a related puzzle, why is it that temporary tax cuts don’t spur permanent changes in hiring and investment but temporary spending increases do?  File that under Unsolved Mysteries.)

    Could similar logic apply to a lower-income payroll tax cut today made up by (likely) taxes on “the rich” later, resulting in transfers as stimulative as unemployment benefit extensions?  I am not smart enough to be a Dem strategist or psychologist. I just know tax cuts are something they can’t say yes to.

    Matthew Yglesias:

    Meanwhile, I think Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong (and again), and Tyler Cowen are really all saying the same thing about the prospects for re-inflating the economy by printing money and dropping it from helicopters.

    To make monetary stimulus work, you need to raise inflation expectations. But to achieve this, you need token of your inflationeering. If you drop the money and say “don’t worry about inflation, I have an exit strategy” that won’t work. If you just drop the money and don’t say anything, it might or might not work depending on some hard to assess factors. But if you drop the money and say “I’m dropping this money because I want prices to go up faster in order to catch up to the long-run trend” that should work.

    Noah Millman at The American Scene:

    I have a question for people who know more economics than I do.

    Right now, if I understand the state of debate about the Fed, there are two camps.

    One camp holds that the Fed can do a variety of things – such as purchasing debt of somewhat longer maturity than T-bills – that are metaphorized as “dropping money from helicopters” in order to reduce the value of money, which should stimulate demand, and help pull us out from what might otherwise be a double-dip recession.

    The other camp holds that the Fed really shouldn’t do these sorts of things at all except in a Titanic-scale emergency because of the risk to the ultimate credibility of the currency – that you’ll overshoot the desired outcome of “inflation expectations go up” and go directly to “the Fed’s gone mad – let’s put all our money in gold (or Euros, or whatever looks like a better store of value than dollars that are being dropped from helicopters).”

    (Interestingly, Paul Krugman, in his 1998 article on Japan argues that it is only the expectation of precisely this kind of irresponsibility that could possibly make unconventional monetary policy work:

    If this stylized analysis bears any resemblance to the real problem facing Japan, the policy implications are radical. Structural reforms that raise the long-run growth rate (or relax non-price credit constraints) might alleviate the problem; so might deficit-financed government spending. But the simplest way out of the slump is to give the economy the inflationary expectations it needs. This means that the central bank must make a credible commitment to engage in what would in other contexts be regarded as irresponsible monetary policy – that is, convince the private sector that it will not reverse its current monetary expansion when prices begin to rise!

    Put that in your rotor and smoke it, helicopter Ben.)

    In any event, the alternative to action by the Fed is action by the Treasury – increase borrowing and put the money into the economy via either government spending or tax cuts. We all know the political constraints on this kind of action, and I rather think it’s subject to the same kind of criticism – if the Treasury issues a whole bunch of 10-year debt, that should push up the yield on government bonds, which should stimulate more private savings to take advantage of the yields, and that rise in private savings should offset the stimulative effect of the tax cuts, so there isn’t any point. Japan’s public debt has grown positively brobdignagian since the early 1990s, but it’s all financed by domestic savings and has therefore traded off with dwindling private sector demand; hence it’s done precious little to stimulate growth. Again, the only way to make this work is to reduce confidence that the government will pay back the bonds in good coin – in other words, to behave truly irresponsibly.

    So now we come to my question.

    Our goal is to increase the output of the economy, either increasing aggregate demand for goods and services relative to demand for money (the demand side approach), or encouraging the deployment of “dead” money in productive investment (the supply side approach).

    Wouldn’t a meaningful wealth tax do both?

    A tax on wealth (financial assets and real property) is functionally equivalent to a rise in inflation (that’s why inflation is also described as a tax on savings). Money currently earning a nominal zero percent per year in a savings account would now earn negative two percent per year because of the tax. Spending on assets that naturally depreciate (cars, toasters, trips to Florida) would look more attractive than watching one’s money evaporate through taxes. So would taking risk on a productive investment that might yield a big return but might go bust – just as when inflation expectations rise people shift out of safe short-term bonds and into riskier assets, to “stay ahead of inflation.”

    More Krugman:

    Does the Fed have the right to do a helicopter drop, i.e., just hand out cash? My guess is not: it’s empowered to buy assets, which is what it does in an open-market operation, but not just to give stuff away.

    So to do the equivalent of a helicopter drop, the Fed would have to work with the Treasury: it would have to buy government debt, and the Treasury would then hand out the money.

    But the Treasury can’t do this without enabling legislation.

    And enabling legislation can’t pass without Ben Nelson.

    I think we have a problem here. There’s a hole in the bucket.

    However, the Fed can change its inflation target any time it likes.

    Yglesias:

    I think that with a modicum of creative thinking the Fed could get around that. True, the only thing the Fed can do is buy assets. But who’s to say what constitutes an asset? They could start up a Sock-Backed Lending Facility (SBLF) that offers “loans” of up to $1,000 per person in exchange for a pair of socks as collateral. Citizens who fail to repay the loan default ownership of their pair of socks to the Fed but don’t otherwise face any consequences. That’s not the same as literally dropping money from helicopters, but it’s about the same.

    The important thing, as Krugman was saying earlier, isn’t so much what exactly you do but how you frame it in terms of expectations. You don’t want people to think of this as an early government tax refund that’s going to have to be repaid soon enough. People need to see that you’ve got a wacky bunch of characters running the central bank who are determined to keep printing up cash and trading it for socks until the economy re-inflates back to the trend level. The idea isn’t just that you want people to spend the $1,000 (or go buy new socks), it’s that you want to purge the economy of the excessive demand for money and get people thinking they’d like to trade their money for something else—consumer goods, fixed investment, blah blah.

    Now it seems the Fed isn’t inclined to do this, but it can be encouraged to change its mind. The problem is that you can’t have the President of the United States running around talking about belt-tightening. The country isn’t stricken by a crop plague that’s inducing a famine. We’re not at 9 percent unemployment because we’ve become a society with less skills or capital goods than we had ten years ago. If there’s less stuff to go around, then everyone has to tighten their belts. But our shortage is a shortage of money and demand and the government doesn’t fix that by tightening belts, it fixes it by creating more money and more demand.

    UPDATE: More Krugman

    Bruce Bartlett

    More Yglesias

    1 Comment

    Filed under Economics, The Crisis

    And Now The Left Picks Up That Old Tenth Amendment

    Rachel Slajda at TPM:

    A federal judge ruled today that part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional.

    Judge Joseph Tauro, of U.S. District Court in Boston, issued rulings on two separate cases today.

    “This court has determined that it is clearly within the authority of the Commonwealth to recognize same-sex marriages among its residents, and to afford those individuals in same-sex marriages any benefits, rights, and privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of their marital status,” Tauro wrote in the decision for Massachusetts v. Health and Human Services.

    “The federal government, by enacting and enforcing DOMA, plainly encroaches upon the firmly entrenched province of the state, and, in doing so, offends the Tenth Amendment. For that reason, the statute is invalid,” he wrote.

    Ed Morrissey:

    The 10th Amendment application seems a little odd to me, especially in the case of Medicaid coverage.  That program uses federal funds in part to cover medical bills.  The federal government would therefore seem to have jurisdiction on how its own funds get spent, although the state should have the same latitude with its own funds.  After all, DOMA doesn’t tell states that it can’t recognize same-sex marriages, but just exempts marriage recognition from the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution so that other states don’t have to follow suit.  It also retains federal jurisdiction on marriage definition for the purpose of spending federal money on partner benefits, which also has nothing to do with the 10th Amendment.

    If the Supreme Court endorses this stand, though, it sets up an interesting question for conservatives who express support for better enforcement of the 10th Amendment.  Can they get behind this interpretation?  And will this sudden interest in applying the 10th Amendment by the judiciary start spreading to other issues, especially in rethinking a century’s worth of decisions on the commerce clause?

    Andrew Sullivan:

    And so one of the principles held most dearly by some of the tea-partiers must logically hold DOMA unconstitutional. Much more on this tomorrow. But let me note right now the political ironies of this. The right is hoist on their own federalist petard and will now have to choose whether states’ rights or marriage inequality is more important to them. The Obama administration, meanwhile, now has to decide whether it will further defend DOMA in the courts, fighting against the principles of the tenth amendment so dear to conservatives or the fifth amendment so dear to liberals. The incoherence of the Republicans and the cowardice of the Democrats are now exposed more than ever.

    Or they could both listen to Ted Olson. This issue is neither right nor left; it is about human dignity, civil equality and civil rights. And it is way past time the American polity grappled with this, instead of exploiting it for mutual partisan purposes.

    Jack Balkin:

    I am a strong supporter of same sex marriage. Nevertheless, I predict that both of these opinions will be overturned on appeal. Whether one likes it or not– and I do not– Judge Tauro is way ahead of the national consensus on the the equal protection issue. I personally think that discrimination against gays and lesbians is irrational, but a federal district court judge– who must obey existing precedents, and who is overseen by a federal judiciary and a Supreme Court constituted as they currently are–is in a very different position than I am.

    Perhaps more importantly, his Tenth Amendment arguments prove entirely too much. As much as liberals might applaud the result, they should be aware that the logic of his arguments, taken seriously, would undermine the constitutionality of wide swaths of federal regulatory programs and seriously constrict federal regulatory power.

    To be sure, there is something delightfully playful and perverse about the two opinions when you read them. Judge Tauro uses the Tenth Amendment– much beloved by conservatives– to strike down another law much beloved by conservatives–DOMA. There is a kind of clever, “gotcha” element to this logic. It is as if he’s saying: “You want the Tenth Amendment? I’ll give you the Tenth Amendment!” But in the long run, this sort of argument, clever as it is, is not going to work. Much as I applaud the cleverness– which is certain to twist both liberal and conservative commentators in knots– I do not support the logic.

    The arguments of Judge Tauro’s two opinions are at war with each other. He wants to say that marriage is a distinctly state law function with which the federal government may not interfere. But the federal government has been involved in the regulation of family life and family formation since at least Reconstruction, and especially so since the New Deal. Much of the modern welfare state and tax code defines families, regulates family formation and gives incentives (some good and some bad) with respect to marriages and families. Indeed, social conservatives have often argued for using the federal government’s taxing and spending powers to create certain types of incentives for family formation and to benefit certain types of family structures; so too have liberals.

    In both opinions, Judge Tauro takes us through a list of federal programs for which same sex couples are denied benefits. But he does not see that even as he does so, he is also reciting the history of federal involvement in family formation and family structure. His Tenth Amendment argument therefore collapses of its own weight. If the federal government cannot interfere with state prerogatives in these areas, why was it able to pass all of these statutes, which clearly affect how state family law operates in practice and clearly give incentives that could further, undermine, or even in some cases preempt state policies?

    Dale Carpenter:

    Analytically, the Gill decision is like the state court decisions rejecting common rationales for limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.  The court doesn’t hold that sexual-orientation discrimination is subject to strict scrutiny or that there is a fundamental right to marry that includes same-sex couples. Instead, applying the increasingly non-deferential rational basis test, the court concludes that there is no legitimate purpose rationally served by denying federal benefits to same-sex married couples while giving the same benefits to opposite-sex married couples.  Previous state court decisions, like Goodridge, have also held that traditional marriage limitations are irrational.

    What makes the case a bit different from some of the state cases are (1) the Obama Justice Department’s abandonment of the classic rationales for limiting marriage to its traditional understanding, and (2) the peculiar federal dimension involved.

    Congress gave four basic reasons for Section 3: (1) encouraging responsible procreation and child-bearing, (2) promoting traditional heterosexual marriage, (3) defending traditional notions of morality, and (4) conserving scarce resources. The Obama Department of Justice conceded that none of the four were rationally served by Section 3. Op. at p. 23.

    Nonetheless, the court attacked them. As for the first — encouraging responsible procreation and child-rearing — the court treats as settled the debate over whether children do as well with gay parents as with heterosexual ones.  Op. at 23–24. It is not even a rationally debatable question, says the court, based on the consensus among learned family experts that has emerged since 1996.  But even if that question were rationally debatable, refusing to recognize same-sex marriages does nothing to make heterosexuals more responsible procreators and parents. Op. at 24. And, with what I’m guessing was particular glee, Judge Tauro cites Justice Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas for the proposition that the ability to procreate has never been a precondition for marriage. Op. at 24–25. Justice Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence is effectively the first draft of a brief for SSM.

    The second congressional rationale — promoting the traditional institution of marriage — was unavailing since it’s not likely that state-recognized same-sex spouses would seek opposite-sex marriages. And punishing same-sex spouses in order to make opposite-sex marriages seem more desirable would be just another way to express disdain for a politically unpopular group. Op. at 25–26.

    The third rationale — promoting traditional morality — is insufficient after Lawrence.  Op. at 26. No opinion in Lawrence was clearer on the constitutional demise of morality than was Justice Scalia’s dissent.

    And the final congressional rationale — conserving resources (by providing them only to certain married couples) — could not explain why Congress chose to draw the line in this particular way. Op. at 26–27.

    That left the DOJ to hypothesize some possible justifications for Section 3. One was to say that Congress had an interest in preserving the status quo at the federal level on a contentious and evolving social question.  Congress had a legitimate interest, said the DOJ, in staying out of the debate over marriage and letting the states resolve it.  Judge Tauro responded that in fact DOMA changed the status quo at the federal level — from one in which the federal government had historically relied solely on states to determine the meaning of marriage to one in which Congress would now weigh in with its own understanding.  Op. at 28–35.

    A related justification, said the DOJ, was Congress’ interest in moving incrementally on the issue.  The court rejected that justification on the ground that no federal administrative burden was eased by excluding married same-sex couples and that DOMA itself barred incremental evolution at the federal level. Op. at 35–37.

    What also makes Gill (potentially) distinguishable from the state marriage decisions is the federal context.  Failing a legitimate justification, the court says, there is nothing to explain the 1996 federal law except animus against gay people. That animus was displayed in the cavalier way Congress passed DOMA without examining its extensive effects, op. at 5–6, and in the moral condemnation expressed in both the statutory text and in many statements by members of Congress. Op. at 5 (noting congressional remarks) and at 5, 26 (noting congressional moral disapproval of homosexuality).

    Joe Sudbay at AMERICABlog:

    Today, we celebrate. But, this is only the beginning of the process. We’ll have to find out if the Obama administration plans to appeal these rulings. (Note to Obama administration: Please don’t.)

    UPDATE: More Balkin

    Noah Millman at The American Scene here and here

    1 Comment

    Filed under Gay Marriage, The Constitution

    Come Up To The Table, And We’ll Argue Whether To Stay Or Go

    Ross Douthat at NYT:

    Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

    Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

    Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

    This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

    The first is what we’re doing now: the counterinsurgency campaign that Gen. David Petraeus championed (and now has been charged with seeing through), which seeks to lay the foundations for an Afghan state that’s stable enough to survive without our support.

    The second way is the “counterterrorism-plus” strategy that Vice President Joe Biden, among other officials, proposed last fall as a lower-cost alternative.

    Advocates of a swift withdrawal tend to see Biden as their ally, and in a sense they’re right. His plan would reduce America’s footprint in Afghanistan, and probably reduce American casualties as well.

    But in terms of the duration of American involvement, and the amount of violence we deal out, this kind of strategy might actually produce the bloodier and more enduring stalemate.

    It wouldn’t actually eliminate the American presence, for one thing. Instead, such a plan would concentrate our forces around the Afghan capital, protecting the existing government while seeking deals with some elements of the insurgency. History suggests that such bargains would last only as long as American troops remained in the country, which means that our soldiers would be effectively trapped — stuck defending a Potemkin state whose leader (whether Hamid Karzai or a slightly less corrupt successor) would pose as Afghanistan’s president while barely deserving the title of mayor of Kabul.

    Noah Millman at The American Scene on Douthat:

    Ross gives three reasons why we won’t leave: first, because we can’t “lose” to the people who attacked us on 9-11; second, because we need Afghanistan as a base to fight in Pakistan; third, because we can’t allow a “vacuum” in Afghanistan that might destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.

    All the work related to actual American interests is being done by that last sentence. America has an enormous interest in preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al Qaeda or other groups who might actually use them as weapons of terror; to the extent that our presence in Afghanistan helps prevent that eventuality, you’ve got your justification right there for spending a great deal of blood and treasure. But that “to the extent” is where the real argument is: whether our presence is making things better or worse in terms of stability in Pakistan. Reverse the sign on that equation, and your whole argument blows up.

    And, while I don’t want to belabor comparisons between Nixon and Obama that I’ve made before by bringing up the Cambodian incursion, the sign probably should be reversed. The Pakistani military and intelligence services bankrolled the Taliban for years. But their goal is to secure their rear, to make sure that Afghanistan does not become an ally of any potentially hostile power (the old Soviet Union once, now Iran or India) and thereby become a potential base for operations against them. Given that our war in Afghanistan is very unpopular in Pakistan, and is directly contrary to the interests of the Pakistani military, it’s not at all clear why we should assume as a given that the war serves the interest of securing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons against capture by terrorists.

    I mean, think about it. The purported goal of our counterinsurgency campaign is to prop up an Afghan state capable of surviving “on its own.” But “on its own” certainly doesn’t mean “able to avoid being undermined by Pakistan,” a vastly larger and more powerful country next door with a profound interest in Afghan affairs. So what exactly does it mean?

    Let’s be honest. The United States attacked Afghanistan not because we could not tolerate a failed state that played host to terrorists – Afghanistan isn’t the only one of those in the world, and it’s far from clear that the war and occupation was either necessary or sufficient to achieve that aim – nor because we were worried about Pakistan being destabilized by the Taliban next door – if anything, we were worried from the beginning that our attack would destabilize Pakistan, indeed that al Qaeda attacked us precisely because they knew we would respond, and that our response might destabilize Pakistan, finally delivering its nukes into their hands – but because al Qaeda attacked us on 9-11 and we needed to respond by destroying those who attacked us, lest we invite further attack. If we had carried the bodies of Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri out of Tora Bora, we would not now be debating how to achieve “victory” in Afghanistan; rather, we’d be talking about what policies would be most likely to prevent a recurrence of a 9-11-type attack. And, in that hypothetical scenario, even if the Taliban were still active on both sides of the Af-Pak border, I’m not at all sure that Ross would be taking the view that we should occupy Afghanistan indefinitely for the sake of stability in the region.

    Millman then references this Matt Yglesias piece in the Daily Beast:

    Afghanistan and Iraq are different in many ways, but the “good war” could also benefit from some reframing. In particular, we’re currently suffering from a bad case of unrealistic expectations. The United States went into Afghanistan with a pretty clear goal of getting the bad guys responsible for 9/11. We succeeded to some extent, but failed to nab the key leaders, at which point Bush decided he wanted to invade Iraq. He didn’t, however, either declare victory in Afghanistan or admit failure. Instead, he shorted resources for the mission even while allowing it to be reframed in terms of grandiose aspirations to create a functioning, democratic Afghan central government.

    Perhaps at some point this would have been achievable, but years of drift have made the goal ever more distant. What’s more, the government of Afghanistan centered around Hamid Karzai simply hasn’t proven itself to be especially capable or well-intentioned. Consequently, the surge of forces McChrystal’s been overseeing appeared to be going nowhere fast—killing Taliban operatives and flushing money around the country even while the legitimacy and credibility of the Afghan government continued to erode. Utterly committed to the goal of winning the war, McChrystal has been coming into conflict with other members of the Obama administration over his willingness to pour an essentially limitless quantity of money and manpower down the drain in an effort to crush the Taliban.

    Strategically, this just doesn’t make sense. Despite the military’s best efforts to repackage old information about lithium reserves as a newfound trove of wealth, Afghanistan is a poor, distant, landlocked country containing essentially nothing of value. It would be much more reasonable to restrain our goals, shy away from efforts to conquer hostile territory, and simply try to provide some help to friendly Afghans while scaling our commitment of resources down to a more sustainable level. The politics, however, are bound to be treacherous, especially for a Democrat with reason to fear opportunistic attacks from the warmongering right.

    Douthat responds:

    Noah Millman’s critique of my column today makes reasonable points about the potential advantages of accepting failure in Afghanistan and simply picking up and leaving. I wish, though, that he’d reckoned a bit more with what I intended to be the thrust of the piece — namely, the fact that what many critics of counterinsurgency keep presenting as an exit strategy (drawing down troop levels and focusing on counterterrorism) might well turn out to be anything but.

    Millman praises the realism of this Matt Yglesias piece, for instance, but note where Yglesias ends up: He concludes that American policy toward Afghanistan should “restrain our goals, shy away from efforts to conquer hostile territory, and simply try to provide some help to friendly Afghans while scaling our commitment of resources down to a more sustainable level.” Aiming for “a more sustainable” American presence doesn’t sound like a policy oriented toward an actual withdrawal; rather, it sounds like a recipe for what Rory Stewart, in an essay admirable for its honesty about the scope of the commitment he has in mind, suggested would be 20 years or more of muddling through in Afghanistan.

    This possible future seems at once unacceptable and all-too-plausible. And it’s precisely because I don’t think we can afford to spend upwards of two decades heavily invested in the Hindu Kush that I’m unwilling to give up on the hope of a more decisive outcome — not a final victory, which I agree is a chimera, but a shift in the balance of power in Afghanistan that makes it easier for leading U.S. policymakers to embrace a real withdrawal. I’m not optimistic that this is attainable, but I’m very pessimistic about what seems to be the other option on the table at the moment — and the main purpose of today’s column was to explain the reasons for my pessimism, not to attempt to permanently settle the “should we stay or should we go?” debate.

    The Rory Stewart essay Douthat mentions, in the New York Review of Books:

    A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.

    What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.

    Meanwhile, Obama’s broader strategic argument must not be lost. He has grasped that the foreign policy of the president should not consist in a series of extravagant, brief, Manichaean battles, driven by exaggerated fears, grandiloquent promises, and fragile edifices of doctrine. Instead the foreign policy of a great power should be the responsible exercise of limited power and knowledge in concurrent situations of radical uncertainty. Obama, we may hope, will develop this elusive insight. And then it might become possible to find the right places in which to deploy the wealth, the courage, and the political capital of the United States. We might hope in South Asia, for example, for a lighter involvement in Afghanistan but a much greater focus on Kashmir.1

    I began by saying that “calling” in poker was childish and that grownups raise or fold. But there is another category of people who raise or fold: those who are anxious to leave the table. They go all in to exit, hoping to get lucky but if not then at least to finish. They do not do this on the basis of their cards or the pot. They do it because they lack the patience, the interest, the focus, or the confidence to pace themselves carefully through the long and exhausting hours. They no longer care enough about the game. Obama is a famously keen poker player. He should never be in a hurry to leave the table.

    Millman responds to Douthat:

    I want to thank Ross Douthat, first of all, for responding to my critique of his latest column, and I think I understand better what he’s getting at. Now let me see if I can clarify what I am getting at.The choices Ross presented in his column, and that are usually presented, are between trying to win and just muddling through. The third, usually excluded choice, is: planning for the exit. Ross explicitly excluded that choice by simply saying that the Obama Administration is not considering it and that “the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.” But neither of these are arguments for staying – they are arguments for not considering whether we should stay because we simply will. He chose to frame the question that way, and that framing shaped my response.

    To grapple with the heart of Ross’s argument, then. Apart from the overarching point that our resources, our responsibilities, and our interests are all limited, the key point that Rory Stewart makes in his article that Ross cites as “admirably honest” is that “[t]here are, in reality, no inescapable connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” If this is true, then if our goal is overwhelmingly to keep al Qaeda from again regaining its prior position in Afghanistan, to say nothing of Pakistan, then we should not assume that defeating the Taliban and/or keeping them out of power should be a primary war aim. Right now, nearly all the discussion about Afghanistan is predicated on the assumption that the American goal is to keep the Taliban out of power. If, instead, the assumption were that the Taliban, in some form, was inevitably going to return to power – not necessarily to exclusive power, of course – then we’d be having a very different conversation.

    The key questions are: what does Pakistan (or the Pakistani army) really want; is it well-aligned with what we want; can they deliver; and can we live with giving them whatever it is they want that doesn’t dovetail with what we want.

    My sense is that Pakistan wants a docile Afghanistan dominated by the Pashtun majority that is beholden to Islamabad and, in particular, doesn’t have any meaningful relations with India. Al Qaeda is more a threat to their regime than to us, so I should think if our preeminent war aim is to separate al Qaeda from the Taliban, that our aims are well-aligned in that regard. Whether we can live with Afghanistan being turned into a Pakistani puppet is another question – but it’s a question worth asking.

    Whether Pakistan can deliver is another story entirely, but it strikes me as very peculiar indeed to believe simultaneously that the Pakistani army can’t be relied on but that after a decisive effort we could hand the reins over to the Afghan army.

    The question remains: does occupying Afghanistan recruit more than 50 terrorist for al Qaeda? At 51 new Jihadists, we are creating more terror than we are defeating in Afghanistan. And since the only way to tackle al Qaeda in Pakistan is by exactly the kind of tactics that Biden – and not Petraeus – has suggested for Afghanistan, one has to ask if pursuing counter-insurgency in one place and counter-terrorism in another is … well, spectacularly incoherent. You get all the human and fiscal cost of counter-insurgency occupation and all the blowback and Jihadist-recruitment of counter-terrorism.

    Then there’s the factor that Ross doesn’t even mention: what if the core object of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is, in the best of all possible worlds, simply impossible? What if that failed state, after a generation of religious and ethnic warfare, cannot be turned into a functional state at any price in any foreseeable time-frame? Washington doesn’t like to believe there are some things it simply cannot do. Even now. Even after Iraq, they still believe in their power to do anything.

    This is how great powers destroy themselves. By the pride of elites and the fears of the masses.

    Douthat responds to Millman:

    The point has been made, correctly, that much of David Petraeus’s accomplishment in Iraq involved managing expectations, shifting goalposts, cutting deals, and redefining “victory” to mean a halfway decent outcome rather than a triumph for democracy. But these essentially political successes were inseparable from the surge’s military gains, which strengthened America’s hand and improved the position of Maliki’s government even as they weakened the irreconcilable elements of the insurgency and incentivized more compromise-inclined elements to peel off and negotiate. And likewise, the weaker the Taliban’s position in Marja or Kandahar or any other contested territory, the better the chances of a grand bargain that actually stabilizes the country, and that has some hope of holding up without a permanent American presence.The point of a counterinsurgency campaign, in this sense, isn’t to crush the Taliban once and for all. It’s to create an environment in which they feel like they could be crushed, and to turn those security gains to political ends. Whereas so long as the Taliban’s leaders and fellow travelers are convinced that they’ve all but won the war, any “orderly entry” into government that they negotiate is likely to end in disaster — for our interests, and for Afghanistan.

    UPDATE: Ross Douthat and Noah Millman at Bloggingheads

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    Filed under Af/Pak

    David, Go To Your Corner… Paul, Go To Your Corner… Matt, Go To Your Corner… Noah, Go To Your Corner

    David Brooks at NYT:

    Many economists say we need another stimulus bill. They debate about whether the stimulus should take the form of tax cuts or spending increases, but the ones in your party are committed to spending increases. They trot out a plausible theory with computer models to go with it. If the federal government borrows X amount of dollars and pumps it into the economy, that would produce Y amount of growth and Z amount of jobs. In a $14 trillion economy, you’d probably have to borrow hundreds of billions more to have any noticeable effect, but at least you’d be doing something to help the jobless.

    These Demand Side theorists are giving you a plan of action. But you’re not a theorist. You’re a practical executive, and you have some concerns.

    These Demand Siders have very high I.Q.’s, but they seem to be strangers to doubt and modesty. They have total faith in their models. But all schools of economic thought have taken their lumps over the past few years. Are you really willing to risk national insolvency on the basis of a model?

    Moreover, the Demand Siders write as if everybody who disagrees with them is immoral or a moron. But, in fact, many prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus. Most European leaders and central bankers think it’s time to begin reducing debt, not increasing it — as do many economists at the international economic institutions. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong?

    The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years. There is no way to know for sure how well the last stimulus worked because we don’t know what would have happened without it. But it is certainly true that the fiscal spigots have been wide open. The U.S. and most other countries have run up huge, historic deficits. And while this has helped save public-sector jobs, we certainly haven’t seen much private-sector job growth. It could be that government spending is a weak lever to counter economic cycles. Maybe monetary policy is the only strong tool we have.

    The theorists have high I.Q.’s but don’t seem to know much psychology. Lord Keynes, though a lesser mathematician, wrote that the state of confidence “is a matter to which practical men pay the closest and most anxious attention.”

    Paul Krugman responds:

    A quick note on David Brooks’s column today. I have no idea what he’s talking about when he says,

    The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years

    Funny, I thought we had a perfectly good explanation: severe downturn in demand from the financial crisis, and a stimulus which we warned from the beginning wasn’t nearly big enough. And as I’ve been trying to point out, events have strongly confirmed a demand-side view of the world.

    But there’s something else in David’s column, which I see a lot: the argument that because a lot of important people believe something, it must make sense:

    Moreover, the Demand Siders write as if everybody who disagrees with them is immoral or a moron. But, in fact, many prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus. Most European leaders and central bankers think it’s time to begin reducing debt, not increasing it — as do many economists at the international economic institutions. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong?

    Yes, I am. It’s called looking at the evidence. I’ve looked hard at the arguments the Pain Caucus is making, the evidence that supposedly supports their case — and there’s no there there.

    And you just have to wonder how it’s possible to have lived through the last ten years and still imagine that because a lot of Serious People believe something, you should believe it too. Iraq? Housing bubble? Inflation? (It’s worth remembering that Trichet actually raised rates in June 2008, because he believed that inflation — not the financial crisis — was the big threat facing Europe.)

    The moral I’ve taken from recent years isn’t Be Humble — it’s Question Authority. And you should too.

    Scarecrow at Firedoglake:

    Note Brook’s cowardice is not naming Krugman, DeLong, Baker, et al, or for that matter, traditional Republican economic advisers like Bruce Bartlett and Mark Zandi, who recently called for more stimulus now and strongly warned Congress against cutting spending before the economy has more fully recovered.

    Brook’s intellectual sleight of hand is to say, “well, all economists have been wrong, so why pay attention to Krugman and friends?” That’s just dishonest, because not all economists have been wrong, and it’s important to know which have been right and which have been catastrophically wrong.

    Over the last 30 years, a particular group of economists has been proved dead wrong, and their belief system nearly destroyed the economy. It’s the school of economists who claimed markets are self correcting, that financial markets don’t need much oversight, and the government shouldn’t use fiscal policy to help a depressed economy recover even when monetary policy (lowering Fed interest rates) becomes ineffective. When Alan Greenspan in a moment of candor admitted his surprise and shock that his entire economic philosophy had failed, he was speaking for that school, which Krugman et al have vilified for forgetting essential lessons from the Great Depression. It is Greenspan’s school, not Krugman and friends, that has been arrogant in rejecting well deserved criticism. But Brooks seems completely ignorant of this distinction.

    Ezra Klein:

    At first glance, David Brooks and Paul Krugman have released precisely opposite columns over the past few days. Krugman’s Sunday effort blasted the Senate for failing to pass further stimulus in the form of unemployment benefits. “We’re facing a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused,” he lamented. Brooks’s column is an effort to punch holes in the case for stimulus. “Debt-fueled government spending doesn’t increase confidence,” he writes. “It destroys it.”

    But if you actually look at their prescriptions, they are, in this case, similar. Krugman wants to see unemployment benefits extended. So, it turns out, does Brooks. “Extend unemployment insurance,” he recommends. “That’s a foolish place to begin budget-balancing.” He goes on to argue for a program that would “mitigate the pain caused by the state governments that are slashing spending” by tying state and local aid to the passage of state budgets that make long-term sense — but notice that he’s recommending state and local aid.

    Now it may be that a retrenchment to state and local aid and unemployment insurance represents a tremendous defeat for those of us who believe the economy needs further government help to get back on its feet. But getting passage of both — and quickly — would also mean it gets some of the most necessary, and quickly-usable, help that government can provide. If you can’t do much more on stimulus, you can at least mitigate some of the pain and prevent some of the most predictable sources of economic contraction.

    Brad DeLong on Brooks:

    David Brooks advises Obama:

    David Brooks: You are practical…. Too much debt could lead to national catastrophe. Too much austerity could lead to stagnation. Well, there’s a few short-term things you can do. First, extend unemployment insurance; that’s a foolish place to begin budget-balancing. Second, you need to mitigate the pain caused by the state governments that are slashing spending. You need a program modeled on Race to the Top. You will provide federal money now to states that pass responsible long-term budget plans…

    And David Brooks advises Obama:

    David Brooks: A Little Economic Realism: These Demand Siders have very high I.Q.’s, but they seem to be strangers to doubt and modesty. They have total faith in their models. But all schools of economic thought have taken their lumps over the past few years. Are you really willing to risk national insolvency on the basis of a model?… [M]any prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus…. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong? The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years…. The theorists have high I.Q.’s but don’t seem to know much psychology… debt-fueled government spending doesn’t increase confidence. It destroys it. Only 6 percent of Americans believe the last stimulus created jobs…. Consumers are recovering from a debt-fueled bubble and have a moral aversion to more debt. You can’t read models, but you do talk to entrepreneurs in Racine and Yakima. Higher deficits will make them more insecure and more risk-averse…. They’re afraid of a fiscal crisis. They’re afraid of future tax increases. They don’t believe government-stimulated growth is real and lasting… they are the ones who invest and hire, not the theorists. The Demand Siders are brilliant, but they write as if changing fiscal policy were as easy as adjusting the knob on your stove. In fact, it’s very hard to get money out the door and impossible to do it quickly. It’s hard to find worthwhile programs to pour money into. Once programs exist, it’s nearly impossible to kill them. Spending now creates debt forever and ever…

    Did he have a long dark night of the soul that led to a complete ideological conversion? Was important new information about the structure of the economy brought to his attention? Did word come down from the Conintern demanding that he cease his line wobble?

    Did his doctor change his meds–drastically?

    Nope. None of the above.

    The first quote starts four lines after the second ends.

    Dean Baker at CEPR on Brooks:

    There also is a basic question of logic that Mr. Brooks neglects. If the country really did start to face insolvency (i.e. no one would buy its debt), why would the Fed not simply step in and buy up government debt itself, as it has been doing to some extent over the last year and a half? This could cause inflation, which could be a serious problem, but then the issue would be inflation, not insolvency.

    Of course, as practical matter, it is more than a little far-fetched to believe that we will have to worry about inflation any time soon. All the measures of inflation are in the 1-2 percent range and headed downward. With the unemployment rate still near double-digit levels and huge excess capacity in nearly every sector of the economy, it would take some real magic to spark inflation. (Since Brooks is anxious to argue that central banks and international financial institutions, who all missed the housing bubble btw, agree that insolvency is a real concern, it is probably worth mentioning that Olivier Blanchard, the chief economist of the IMF, believes that the economy would benefit from a somewhat higher rate of inflation.)

    After inventing a crisis of national insolvency to concern the president (should President Obama also worry about invading Martians?), Mr. Brooks tells readers that:

    “The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years.”

    Hmmm, is that right? Seems to me that we have a very simple theory to explain the past two years. There was a huge bubble in housing that burst beginning in 2006. This led to a plunge in residential construction that cost the economy more than $500 billion in annual demand. In addition, the loss of $6 trillion in housing wealth, coupled with the loss of around $7 trillion in stock wealth, has cost the economy more than $500 billion in annual consumption demand. This is the result of the wealth effect on consumption, a phenomenon that economists have been writing about for close to a century. In addition, there was a bubble in non-residential real estate that collapsed about a year after the collapse of the housing bubble. This cost the economy about another $150 billion in demand. That gives a total loss in annual demand of around $1.2 trillion. All of this was completely predictable and predicted by at least some demand siders.

    It was also easy to see that the stimulus approved by Congress was inadequate. Demand siders rely on something called “arithmetic” to reach this assessment. After pulling out the $80 billion fix to the alternative minimum tax, which had nothing to do with stimulus, and the $100 billion or so designated for later years, the stimulus provided for roughly $600 billion in spending and tax cuts over the years 2009 and 2010. This comes to $300 billion a year. Roughly half of the federal stimulus was offset by cutbacks and tax increases at the state and local level, leaving a net stimulus from the government sector of roughly $150 billion a year.

    Demand siders did not believe that $150 billion in annual stimulus from the government could offset the contractionary impact of a reduction in annual spending by the private scctor of $1.2 trillion ($1.2 trillion > $150 billion). That is how demand siders explained the failure of the stimulus to have much impact in reducing the unemployment rate. Perhaps this explanation is too complicated for Mr. Brooks (he repeatedly complains about the high IQs of the demand siders), but it actually seems fairly straightforward. If he wants to be honest, he could at least say that he doesn’t understand the demand siders’ explanation, rather than asserting that demand siders do not have an explanation.

    Matthew Yglesias:

    David Brooks, writing skeptically about the case for more fiscal stimulus, says:

    But the overall message is: Don’t be arrogant. This year, don’t engage in reckless new borrowing or reckless new cutting. Focus on the fundamentals. Cut programs that don’t enhance productivity. Spend more on those that do.

    So leaving aside the fact that it’s a bit difficult to know exactly which programs enhance productivity and which don’t (arrogant, even), obviously “do more productivity-enhancing stuff” is never terrible advice. But it just can’t be emphasized enough that even though the American economy is in fact sub-optimal on the supply side in many ways, this is also true of every other economy on earth at every other time on earth. When nations fall into a macroeconomic funk, it’s natural—and in some ways even a bit healthy—for people to start focusing on structural problems that they didn’t care about so much a few years ago in fatter times. But it can also get morbid.

    […]

    Over the long-run, boosting our productivity growth rate will help us become more prosperous. But over the short-run, our potential to produce goods and services simply isn’t the issue. The issue is that because of demand shortfalls, that potential isn’t being used.

    Having said all that, the really odd thing about Brooks’ column is that after bashing stimulus proponents for many grafs, he turns out to basically agree with stimulus proponents:

    First, extend unemployment insurance; that’s a foolish place to begin budget-balancing. Second, you need to mitigate the pain caused by the state governments that are slashing spending.

    Exactly. But if that’s what Brooks thinks, he should be complaining about conservative senators who don’t want to do those things, not about Paul Krugman.

    Noah Millman at The American Scene:

    Question for Matt Yglesias:

    Your answer to our economic situation is that we need to ramp up government spending to stimulate consumer demand to increase employment. It’s not important to be efficient in how we deploy our stimulus money; it’s much more important just to get people buying stuff and making stuff for people to buy.

    Your answer to the problem of climate change is that we need to substantially increase the price of carbon so that consumption patterns change and we all buy less stuff that is very carbon-intensive and either spend more of our income on non-carbon-intensive goods and services or simply live lives of greater overall leisure without so much emphasis on getting and spending. The government should do what it can to ease the economic pain of the transition, but some short-term economic pain is a reasonable price to pay for saving the planet.

    I think the tension between these two positions should be obvious. I think Matt would reconcile that tension by saying that, no, he doesn’t really think that ramping up government spending on just anything is a good idea – he thinks we should ramp up spending on things that would help make the transition to a greener economy, even if this means sacrificing a bit of stimulus.

    In other words, he thinks we should be planning for the long term when we spend in the short term, and now more than ever since this “spend lots of money now” window isn’t going to stay open forever.

    In other words, if David Brooks had said “[D]on’t engage in reckless new borrowing or reckless new cutting. Focus on the fundamentals. Cut programs that entrench the existing carbon-based economy. Spend more on those that help foster a green transition” instead of talking generically about productivity and investing for the long term, Matt would have applauded instead of sniping.

    Right?

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    Filed under Economics, Mainstream, The Crisis

    Has Anyone Thought Of Asking Pixar To Fix The Oil Spill?

    Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

    As Charles de Gaulle dryly observed, the graveyards are full of indispensable men. One might add, in a related vein, that the attics are full of indispensable toys–once central players in a childhood fantasy, now upstaged, outgrown, and consigned to the corrugated purgatory of a cardboard box.

    Such is the cruel afterlife facing the eponymous heroes of Toy Story 3 as the film opens. In the 11 years since the last installment of the Pixar franchise, their half-pint custodian, Andy, has grown up, and as he prepares to debark for college, retirement looms for Buzz Lightyear, Jesse, Rex, Ham, the Potato Heads, and the rest of their narrow Toyverse. (Though not Woody, who initially appears fated to accompany Andy to school as a childhood memento–a touching plan, but one that, if my own collegiate memories are any guide, would likely entail Woody being refashioned into a bong by sophomore year.)

    Andy, however, makes the mistake of putting his attic-bound ex-playmates into a plastic garbage bag, and his mother makes the mistake of assuming this was not a mistake. After a brief flirtation with the sanitation department (it will not be the last), the gang finds themselves delivered to a local daycare, presided over by a Strawberry-scented pink bear named Lotso (short for “Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear“), who promises them an endless stretch of play-filled days with a rotating cast of kids who will never grow old. This Paradise is no sooner found than it is lost, though, and the bulk of the film delightedly toys (so to speak) with the conceits and conventions of the prison-break genre.

    John Nolte at Big Hollywood:

    What gives this refreshingly simple, perfectly paced, and absolutely flawless story the kind of emotional depth that creeps up and catches you off guard, is a richly complicated theme that explores the struggle between the loyalty and faith required to slug ones way through the ups and downs of any relationship and the universal need and understandable desire for constant validation and affection. The toys feel, for lack of a better term, jilted. Andy’s moved on, grown a little bored with them, and now they live in that awful in-between world filled with the artificial highs that come with any sign things might go back to the way they were and the unavoidable lows that are a natural part of the insecurity that comes with the fear of being discarded.

    Essentially, “Toy Story 3” is about the consequences of disloyalty, of losing faith and giving up on an imperfect relationship to go off in search of something better. But what consequences! Through an immersion into wondrous detail that boggles the mind and Pixar’s uncanny ability to effortlessly and fully exploit any concept – in this case, a world where toys come to life when humans aren’t around – the adventure and, yes, the humanity makes for the best time you’ll have at the movies since, well, Pixar’s last go-round, “Up.”

    And your kids will enjoy themselves even more.  The action set-pieces rival the best of the Indiana Jones’ films and this is easily the funniest of the three thanks to a cast of well-rounded characters whose relationships continue to develop realistically and with honest warmth and clever humor.

    Dana Stevens at Slate:

    The idea-generating table at Pixar must be one lively and raucous place, because if there’s a toy-related visual gag conceivable by the human imagination, it’s somewhere in this movie. Shot after shot bursts with whimsical weirdos popping out of boxes and scuttling atop shelves: There’s a Fisher Price rolling telephone who communicates only by ringing up his interlocutor. A monster robot guy who toggles in between two expressions—happy and mean—by pounding his own head. A lederhosen-clad hedgehog (hilariously voiced by Timothy Dalton) who fancies himself a gifted thespian. And a brilliant long-form gag that raises the ontological question: In what feature of a Mr. Potato Head (voiced by Don Rickles) does the spud’s spiritual essence reside? But somehow, the profusion of characters, jokes, and action sequences never feels disorienting or excessive. Through it all, the toys’ motivation remains simple and crystal-clear: They must get back home to the boy who, grown up or not, still loves them. As for that last sequence after they do—hold up. I need a moment.

    Go ahead and sneer it: Is there anything wrong with Toy Story 3? Well, the addition of 3-D to the franchise’s universe does seem like a move motivated more by marketing than artistic necessity (which was also the case, I thought, with Up). The depth effect looks crisp enough, but with a couple of somewhat gimmicky exceptions, it rarely gets used. (That weakness is more than overcome in Day & Night, a wordless short that precedes the movie and is the most inventive use of animated 3-D I’ve ever seen.) And I guess—racking my brains here—that a few of the newly introduced characters are a little underwritten. (Though Ken is a marvel—one of the most complex characters, animated or otherwise, to appear on screens this year.)

    Anyway, nitpicking a movie this abundantly stocked with wonderments feels like an act of ingratitude. Toy Story 3 is a near-perfect piece of popular entertainment, a children’s classic that will be watched and loved when my daughter’s (and one day, her daughter’s) now-beloved toys are gathering dust in a basement. Shit—now I’m crying again.

    Jonah Lehrer at Wired:

    Screenwriter William Goldman once famously declared that the most important fact of life in Hollywood is that “nobody knows anything.” It was his way of describing a reality that continues to haunt the movie business: Studio executives have no idea which pictures will make money.

    Unless, of course, those pictures are made by Pixar Animation Studios. Since 1995, when the first Toy Story was released, Pixar has made nine films, and every one has been a smashing success.

    Pixar’s secret? Its unusual creative process. Most of the time, a studio assembles a cast of freelance professionals to work on a single project and cuts them loose when the picture is done. At Pixar, a staff of writers, directors, animators, and technicians move from project to project. As a result, the studio has built a team of moviemakers who know and trust one another in ways unimaginable on most sets.

    Which explains how they can handle the constant critiques that are at the heart of Pixar’s relentless process. Animation days at the studio all begin the same way: The animators and director gather in a small screening room filled with comfy couches. They eat Cap’n Crunch and drink coffee. Then the team begins analyzing the few seconds of film animated the day before, as they ruthlessly “shred” each frame. Even the most junior staffers are encouraged to join in.

    The upper echelons also subject themselves to megadoses of healthy criticism. Every few months, the director of each Pixar film meets with the brain trust, a group of senior creative staff. The purpose of the meeting is to offer comments on the work in progress, and that can lead to some major revisions. “It’s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,” says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.”

    The proof is in the product. The average international gross per Pixar film is more than $550 million, and the cartoons are critical darlings—the studio has collected 24 Academy Awards. Nobody in Hollywood knows anything. Pixar seems to know everything.

    More Orr

    Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

    But Pixar’s specialness must come from something on top of that omnipotence. After all, there are plenty of animated movies that were horrible (the last one I saw was Shrek 3). What’s more, the novel provides authors with similar omnipotence, and without naming names, let us merely agree that some novelists are downright bad. In short, control is not the only key to narrative brilliance.

    I used to rationalize Pixar’s otherworldly consistency by thinking the time and resources needed to produce a CGI picture were so overwhelming, one had to aim for perfection. But that’s an incomplete answer, too. The first Toy Story movie was completed on a $30 million budget with a staff of 110, according to Wikipedia, and it spearheaded an entire genre. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was released the same year on a $175 million budget, and it spearheaded a lot of jokes about Waterworld.

    Maybe looking for the secret to Pixar’s sauce is pointless. They make beautiful, familiar, old-fashioned stories about relationships that happen to use monsters, toys and fish for characters, and they do it almost perfectly time every time because … well, they’ve just figured out how to do it.

    John Tyler at Cinema Blend:

    Until a few hours ago, Toy Story 3 had a 100% fresh rating on the review compiler Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a feat almost never accomplished by modern movies. The few other films to carry the 100% fresh rating all pre-date the modern era or they were reviewed by a small handful of critics, usually fewer than forty or fifty. Yet with more than 130 reviews in, Toy Story 3 had a 100% fresh rating. Enter two assholes.

    Their names are Armond White and Cole Smithey, and they’re the only two critics in the world who hate Toy Story 3. Thanks to them, and only them, Toy Story 3 now has a 99% fresh rating on RT. And they’re wrong. Flat out wrong.

    Armond attempts to justify his hatred by accusing you, and everyone else who loves the Toy Story movies of being brainwashed. He slanders Toy Story 3 as being one big advertisement, overwhelmed by ridiculous amounts of product placement. This actually isn’t an opinion, it’s an accusation, and it’s the entire point of his review. One problem: It’s untrue.

    White would have you believe that simply using a Barbie doll in your movie means you’ve sold out to some corporation. But if that were what Pixar was doing, they’d have used the latest Barbie and decked her out in all the latest outfits to dazzle viewers into running out and buying one. But this Barbie is frumpy, her wardrobe is outdated, and she’s clearly trapped in the 80s. Instead what Toy Story has done, and has always done, is use something specific. They could have thrown in some random Barbie-like doll, but you’d have been distracted by it and left wondering why they didn’t use the real thing. Instead they use Barbie and in the process make an instant connection between your memories of playing with that specific toy and what’s going on in the film. It’s your window into their world. It’s not product-placement, it’s good storytelling.

    Armond White’s review is full of hatred, unfounded accusations, and condescension. It rails against anything which is popular and begs people to watch obscure movies instead, just because they’re obscure. He actually thinks Small Soldiers is better than anything Pixar has to offer, and that’s not just a bad opinion, it’s insanity.

    A look back at Armond’s past reviews reveals that he’s not someone who should be allowed to review movies. He’s more a negative film critic stereotype than an actual reviewer. He’s the kind of guy that’s getting fired from newspapers in droves, and no one seems to miss them. This is a man who hated Avatar and Up in the Air, but loved The Losers and From Paris With Love. His review record indicates that he’s a contrarian. If everyone else likes it, he hates it. If everyone else hates it, he likes it. If it’s an obscure indie movie nobody cares about, he’s given it a positive review. If it’s a Hollywood blockbuster which most people enjoyed, he thinks it represents the end of modern cinema. This is not someone that anyone should listen to.

    Cole Smithey’s review (which I refuse to link to) is slightly more reasonable, but perhaps that’s only because he barely managed to write three paragraphs about the film. His website proclaims him “The Smartest Film Critic in the World”, yet he doesn’t seem to have anything to say. He’s writing one of the only negative reviews of one of the most universally loved movies of all time, yet he can barely come up with three small paragraphs to justify his position. Scratch that, two paragraphs. One of them is devoted entirely to plot synopsis. He seems less interested in the film than he is in ancillary issues. He spends most of his review complaining about the film’s rating, an issue to take up with the MPAA and no fault of Toy Story 3’s. The closest he comes to a real criticism is in complaining about how much money the movie cost to make.

    Yet Cole Smithey loves Marmaduke of all things and didn’t seem to be bothered by its bloated budget. And he loves Shrek Forever After, which cost as much to make as Toy Story 3 but had less to say. He managed four paragraphs about that one. Look through his resume and you’ll find yourself asking this question: Did Cole Smithey really hate Toy Story 3, or did he like the traffic hating it would bring to his website? He is, after all, the Smartest Film Critic in the World.

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