30 April 2013

Banks Have Become “Too Big To Fail” Again. Uh-Oh.

Simon Johnson

Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy

It has become, for liberals and leftists enraged by the way Republicans never suffer the consequences for turning electoral politics into a cesspool, a kind of smoking gun. The late, legendarily brutal campaign consultant Lee Atwater explains how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Now, the same indefatigable researcher who brought us Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, James Carter IV, has dug up the entire forty-two-minute interview from which that quote derives. Here, The Nation publishes it in its entirety for the very first time.

The back-story goes like this. In 1981, Atwater, after a decade as South Carolina's most effective Republican operative, was working in Ronald Reagan's White House when he was interviewed by Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University. Lamis published the interview without using Atwater's name in his 1984 book The Two-Party South. Fifteen years later—and eight years after Atwater passed away from cancer—Lamis republished the interview in another book using Atwater’s name. For seven years no one paid much attention. Then the New York Times' Bob Herbert, a bit of an Atwater obsessive, quoted it in an October 6, 2005 column—then five more times over the next four years.

Those words soon became legend—quoted in both screeds (The GOP-Haters Handbook, 2007) and scholarship (Corey Robin's 2011 classic work of political theory, The Reactionary Mind). Google Books records its use in ten books published so far this year alone. Curious about the remarks' context, Carter, who learned Lamis had died in 2012, asked his widow if she would consider releasing the audio of the interview, especially in light of the use of race-baiting dog-whistles (lies about Obama ending work requirements for welfare; "jokes" about his supposed Kenyan provenance) in the Romney presidential campaign. Renée Lamis, an Obama donor, agreed that very same night. For one thing she was “upset,” Carter told me, that “for some time, conservatives believed [her] husband made up the Atwater interview.” For another, she was eager to illustrate that her husband's use of the Atwater quote was scholarly, not political.

So what does the new contextual wrapping teach us? It vindicates Lamis, who indeed comes off as careful and scholarly. And no surprise, it shows Atwater acting yet again in bad faith.

In the lead-up to the infamous remarks, it is fascinating to witness the confidence with which Atwater believes himself to be establishing the racial innocence of latter-day Republican campaigning: “My generation,” he insists, “will be the first generation of Southerners that won’t be prejudiced.” He proceeds to develop the argument that by dropping talk about civil rights gains like the Voting Rights Act and sticking to the now-mainstream tropes of fiscal conservatism and national defense, consultants like him were proving “people in the South are just like any people in the history of the world.”

It is only upon Professor Lamis’s gently Socratic follow-ups, and those of a co-interviewer named “Saul” (Carter hasn't been able to confirm his identity, but suspects it was the late White House correspondent Saul Friedman), that Atwater begins to loosen up—prefacing his reflections, with a plainly guilty conscience, “Now, y’all aren't quoting me on this?” (Apparently , this is the reason why Atwater’s name wasn’t published in 1984 but was in 1999, after his death).

He then utters his infamous words. The interlocutors go on to kibitz about Huey Long and barbecue. Then Atwater, apparently satisfied that he'd absolved the Southern Republican Party of racism once and for all, follows up with a prediction based on a study he claims demonstrates that Strom Thurmond won 38 percent of South Carolina’s middle-class black vote in his 1978 Senate campaign (run by Atwater).

“That voter, in my judgment,” he claims, “will be more likely to vote his economic interests than he will anything else. And that is the voter that I think through a fairly slow but very steady process, will go Republican.” Because race no longer matters: “In my judgment Karl Marx [is right]... the real issues ultimately will be the economic issues.” He continues, in words that uncannily echo the “47 percent tape” (nothing new under the wingnut sun), that “statistically, as the number of non-producers in the system moves toward fifty percent,” the conservative coalition cannot but expand. Voila: a new Republican majority. Racism won't have anything to do with it.

Not bloody likely. In 2005, the political scientists Nicholas Valentino and David Sears demonstrated that a Southern man holding conservative positions on issues other than race is no more likely than a conservative Northerner to vote for a Democrat. But when the relevant identifier is anti-black answers to survey questions—like whether one agrees “If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites”—white Southerners were twice as likely than white Northerners to refuse to vote Democratic. As another political scientist, Thomas Schaller, wrote in his 2006 book Whistling Past Dixie (which naturally quotes the infamous Atwater lines), “Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters...the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”

Which one particular Republican spinmeister, when he wasn't preening before political scientists, knew fully well—which was why, seven years after that interview, in his stated goal to “rip the bark off the little bastard [Michael Dukakis]” on behalf of his candidate George H.W. Bush, Atwater ran the infamous ad blaming Dukakis for an escaped Massachusetts convict, Willie Horton, “repeatedly raping” an apparently white girl. Indeed, Atwater pledged to make "Willie Horton his running mate." The commercial was sponsored by a dummy outfit called theNational Security Political Action Committee—which it is true, was a whole lot more abstract than saying "nigger, nigger, nigger."

For more on the GOP's effort to roll back enfranchisment, read Ari Berman's Why We Still Need Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Rick Perlstein

November 13, 2012


17 April 2013

12 Rules of Goldbuggery

Barry Ritholtz

What are some of the most ridiculous startup ideas that eventually became successful?

Michael Wolfe


Empirical Methods and Progress in Macroeconomics

Mark Thoma

‘If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon’

Ezra Klein

The Limits of Good Faith

UPDATE: This comment seemed particularly on point. -ed.
"You've described the very core of Teabonics. To demolish a fallacious, dishonest public statement is to attack the speaker's First Amendment rights. How dare you? 
My favorite example of this is the claim that attempts to prevent from American Christianists from enforcing their holy book via legislating interferes with their freedom of worship. This was inevitable in a nation that teaches children that the Pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom, when in fact what they wanted was the freedom to persecute anyone who did not believe as they did. The more things change…"

Why doing your taxes is much harder than it ought to be

Neil Irwin

02 April 2013

Jack-booted Insurance-bringing Thugs

Paul Krugman:


Jonathan Chait and Aaron Carroll both have fun with Elizabeth Cheney‘s bonkers op-ed about how Obamacare will destroy our freedom.

As both note, the stirring quote from Ronald Reagan the younger Vader uses comes from the recording he made for Operation Coffee Cup, a 1961 project organized by the AMA to mobilize doctors’ wives and their friends against the looming horror of Medicare, which would clearly turn American into a totalitarian state.

However, neither Chair nor Carroll mention what seems to me to be an obvious parallel, which is with the whole Hayekian notion that the welfare state sets us on the slippery slope to Stalinism. Yes, I’m aware that defenders of Hayek claim that this wasn’t what he said — but as far as I can tell their argument is very weak, and anyway more or less irrelevant to the role Hayek plays in American political discourse. Even if that isn’t what Hayek meant to say (in which case, what exactly was his point?), it’s the message American conservatives chose to take from his work.

And with Hayek, as with Reagan, the truly amazing thing is that we have people citing as a source of wisdom someone who has been as thoroughly refuted by history as anyone can be. Three generations into the modern welfare state, and western democracies look less Stalinist than ever.

Of course, you can still say that social insurance destroys freedom if you define freedom as the absence of social insurance — which isn’t quite what these guys are doing, but may capture the spirit of the thing.

The Price Is Wrong

Paul Krugman:

But which price — that is the question.

It’s a slow morning on the economic news front, as we wait for various euro shoes to drop, so I thought I’d share a meditation I’ve been having on the diagnosis and misdiagnosis of the Lesser Depression. It’s not really different from what I’ve been saying all along, but maybe coming at it from a different angle is somewhat enlightening.

So, start with our big problem, which is mass unemployment. Basic supply and demand analysis says that things like that aren’t supposed to happen: prices are supposed to rise or fall to clear markets. So what’s with this apparent massive and persistent excess supply of labor?

In general, market disequilibrium is a sign of prices out of whack; and most people commenting on our mess accept the notion that one or more prices are for some reason not adjusting. The big divide comes over the question of which price is wrong.

As I see it, the whole structural/classical/Austrian/supply-side/whatever side of this debate basically believes that the problem lies in the labor market. (I know, the Austrians will deny it — but it doesn’t matter what you say about their position, any comprehensible statement leads to angry claims that you don’t understand their depths). For some reason, they would argue, wages are too high given the demand for labor. Some of them accept the notion that it’s because of downward nominal wage rigidity; more, I think, believe that workers are being encouraged to hold out for unsustainable wages by moocher-friendly programs like food stamps, unemployment benefits, disability insurance, and whatever.

As regular readers know, I find this prima facie absurd — it’s essentially the claim that soup kitchens caused the Great Depression. But let’s stick with the economic logic for now.

So what’s the alternative view? It’s basically the notion that the interest rate is wrong — that given the overhang of debt and other factors depressing private demand, real interest rates would have to be deeply negative to match desired saving with desired investment at full employment. And real rates can’t go that negative because expected inflation is low and nominal rates can’t go below zero: we’re in a liquidity trap.

There are strong policy implications of these two views. If you think the problem is that wages are too high, your solution is that we need to meaner to workers — cut off their unemployment insurance, make them hungry by cutting off food stamps, so they have no alternative to do whatever it takes to get jobs, and wages fall. If you think the problem is the zero lower bound on interest rates, you think that this kind of solution wouldn’t just be cruel, it would make the economy worse, both because cutting workers’ incomes would reduce demand and because deflation would increase the burden of debt.

What my side of the debate would call for, instead, is a reduction in the real interest rate, if possible, by raising expected inflation; and failing that, more government spending to increase demand and put idle resources to work.

So how can you tell which side is right? Well, these differing views make differing predictions. If you believe that the problem is excessive wages, you believe that the economy is fundamentally suffering from a supply-side constraint. In that case government borrowing is competing with the private sector for a limited quantity of resources, so big budget deficits should lead to soaring interest rates; meanwhile, because the supply of goods is limited, large increases in the money supply should lead to soaring inflation. Oh, and cuts in government spending should, if anything, be expansionary, because they both release resources to the private sector and make life tougher for workers who try to live on public benefits.

If, on the other hand, you believe that the problem lies in a shortfall of demand due to the zero lower bound, you believe that government borrowing needn’t drive up rates, because it puts unemployed resources to work; that monetary expansion won’t be inflationary, because the money will just sit there; and that fiscal austerity will be strongly contractionary.

I leave the adjudication of these competing claims as an exercise for readers.

Oh, and one more thing: no, you can’t say “Well, there may be truth to both views”. Either the economy is supply-constrained or it’s demand-constrained. Of course even the most ardent demand-siders will admit that there are supply constraints in there somewhere, that if we had an economic boom we would, after some period of time, enter a regime where printing money is inflationary and government borrowing drive up interest rates. But not here, not now.

So yes, the price is wrong — but it’s a terrible, disastrous mistake to focus on the wrong wrong price.

And more from Mark Thoma:

Why should workers bear the burden of a recession they had nothing to do with causing? We should do our best to protect vulnerable workers and their families, and if it comes at the expense of those who were responsible for the boom and bust, I can live with that (and no, the cause wasn't poor people trying to buy houses -- people on the right who are afraid they will be asked to pay for their poor choices, or who want to pursue an anti-government, do not help the unfortunate with my hard-earned investment income agenda have tried to make this claim, and they are still at it, but it is "prima facie absurd").

The Rewards of Being Very Serious

Paul Krugman:

A while back, before moving to Slate, Matthew Yglesias had what I considered a brilliant insight into the incentives facing small-country political leaders:
Normally you would think that a national prime minister’s best option is to try to do the stuff that’s likely to get him re-elected. No matter how bleak the outlook, this is your dominant strategy. But in the era of globalization and EU-ification, I think the leaders of small countries are actually in a somewhat different situation. If you leave office held in high esteem by the Davos set, there are any number of European Commission or IMF or whatnot gigs that you might be eligible for even if you’re absolutely despised by your fellow countrymen. Indeed, in some ways being absolutely despised would be a plus. The ultimate demonstration of solidarity to the “international community” would be to do what the international community wants even in the face of massive resistance from your domestic political constituency.
How small does the country in question have to be? Maybe not very: Nicolas Sarkozy’s road from the Elysée to private equity. As it turns out, Sarkozy’s money-making plans may be on hold due to a strange combination of legal troubles and the possibility of a political comeback thanks to Hollande’s timidity. But it remains true that Keynes’s dictum — “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally” – is probably even more true for politicians than it is for bankers. And this probably helps explain the persistence of the austerity cult despite years of failure.

Commenter Peter:

Austerity has not been a failure for rich people. It lets them keep their current wealth, increases their wealth relative to the proles, and greatly increases their chances of future high wealth.

Creating opportunity for the masses can only reduce the relative power of being rich. Why would they want to pay for that? Or even enact costless policies for that?