He’s No George Costanza

I found the recent editorial from the Wall Street Journal, comparing President Obama to Seinfeld’s George Costanza amusing but exaggerated:

In a 1994 “Seinfeld” episode, George realizes that “every decision that I have ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.” Jerry replies: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

So Costanza approaches a gorgeous woman in the coffee shop and announces, “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” To his surprise, she’s interested. He lands a job with the Yankees after insulting George Steinbrenner.

Maybe President Obama ought to take Jerry’s advice too. That’s our reading of a striking new economic study that examines Congress’s decision to zero out extra unemployment benefits last year.

The authors find that this abrupt policy shift created some 1.8 million jobs, or slightly more than three of five net positions filled in 2014. The cuts also pulled a million workers who dropped out of the labor force back into the workplace. This reality happens to be the opposite of what Mr. Obama and other liberal sachems predicted.

Unlike the editors of the WSJ, I do not believe that the president’s policy preferences can be improved by taking every one of them and doing the opposite. I think the president is opinionated, incurious, has a dislike of private businesses, and an inexplicable confidence in the workings of government. That’s not to say that every business is to be praised while every government action is malignant. Good policy is just more complicated than that.



I think this is a good time to remind my few readers that one of my favored rhetorical devices is synecdoche, in which a part stands in for the whole. I used it because it allows me to express something tersely yet graphically which would otherwise become intolerably wrong. That said in the full recognition that my writing is barely tolerable as it stands.

Our discourse is greatly impoverished when we must spell out every detail for the unimaginative but there you have it.

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The Ladder

I’m not going to get into the pissing contest between James Taranto and Nicholas Kristof over whether empathy will solve our social problems. I didn’t read Mr. Kristof’s lament for a high school acquaintance of his whom he apparently calls a victim of “inequality and a lack of good jobs” but I did read Mr. Taranto’s column reacting to it. Here’s a snippet:

Yet Kristof’s account of his friend’s life makes some good points on behalf of the straw men [ed. those lacking in empathy]. Green did make a series of bad choices, including fathering children out of wedlock: “He fell in love and had twin boys that he doted on. But because he and his girlfriend struggled financially, they never married.”

When he lost his job because of a back injury, the girlfriend took the kids and left him. That’s when he let his health go: “Kevin’s weight ballooned to 350 pounds, and he developed diabetes and had a couple of heart attacks,” Kristof reports. “He grew marijuana and self-medicated with it, [Green’s brother] Clayton says, and was arrested for drug offenses.”

Even Clayton Green lends his support to conservative arguments about the baneful incentives of welfare: “Disability [benefits] helped Kevin by providing a monthly check that he desperately needed, but it also hurt him because he might have looked harder for a job if he hadn’t been getting those checks, Clayton says.”

When I did I thought of Luke 21:1-4:

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, 2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. 3 So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God,[a] but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

That in turn made me think of Maimonides’s Ladder of charitable giving:

The greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs no longer beg from people.

Below this is the one who gives tzedaka to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor. For this is performing a mitzvah for the sake of Heaven.

Below this is one who knows to whom he gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins into the doors of the poor.

Below this is one who gives to the poor person before being asked.

Below this is one who gives to the poor person after being asked.

Below this is one who gives to the poor person gladly and with a smile.

Below this is one who gives to the poor person unwillingly.

Giving to the poor via your tax dollars is the lowest level. The millions of words devoted to the tax code and tax regulations should make us confident that taxation is not strictly willing. Even those who believe in the causes supported by tax dollars, like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, only pay as much as they must by their own admissions.

The other question that occurred to me was are we really employing fewer cement finishers (the craft at which Mr. Kristof notes that his acquaintance’s father earned a decent living) than we did a generation ago? Or have we imported millions of people who want to be cement finishers?

The reason given for importing these people that is frequently given is compassion. Compassion, apparently, is a double-edged weapon.

I think that if we are to have a just and compassionate society we’ll need to come to the realization that some people’s highest and best employment is as a neurosurgeon while others will be farmers, cement finishers, or day laborers. This is not Lake Wobegone. All of the children are not above average. Some accommodation must be made among market economics, compassion, and human nature and we are far from that accommodation.


The Lesser Evil

In the aftermath of the re-taking of the Syrian town of Kobane from DAESH by Kurdish fighters, the editors of Bloomberg have lurched uncontrollably onto the point I made more than a year ago, that the least intolerable outcome in Syria comes in a package that includes Assad:

&#133lthe U.S.’s conflicted Syria policy has become stuck. The current plan to begin vetting, training and arming the moderate Syrian opposition this spring is unlikely to unstick it. The only way out of this appalling stalemate is to come to terms with Assad — without letting him back in control of Sunni Syria.

What is happening in Syria and, more broadly, the Middle East has been called “the Great Sorting Out,” in which the region is re-dividing into homogenous Sunni and Shia territories, with minorities squeezed out or eradicated. It happened across Europe at the end of World War II, and it almost happened in Yugoslavia after the collapse of Communism. This can be a long and bloody process.

“Re-dividing” is a benign sort of way of referring to bloody ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, with millions of dead or refugees. There is no clean, sanitary partition of Syria to be had. Anything that would be done would need to be done town by town and even block by block or family by family. We are not suited for that process, should not want to be suited for it, and should keep our noses out of it. Leave that up to the Syrians or the erstwhile Syrians.

At the end there will still be Assad and/or his regime and we should accustom ourselves to that reality. Après moi, le déluge.


The Last Slice

Today for lunch I had the last slice of the pie that I made when my niece and her boyfriend came over for dinner on Saturday night.

Ever since my stay in Bath I’ve had a taste for pie and I’ve been working on my technique. On Saturday I did something which I would not recommend as a general practice: I tried something completely new. In this case it was hot water pastry. I made a beefsteak, mushroom, and pearl onion handraised pie with a hot water pastry crust, sort of a fusion of traditional English cooking with French cooking. I served the pie with mashed potatoes, a tomato-based sauce, and a green salad.

It turned out beautifully but I can now see quite clearly that hot water pastry is one of those things that incredibly easy to make but tricky to make well. It has just four ingredients: butter (150g), water (160ml), flour (375g), salt (2g). Melt the butter in boiling water. Combine the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix until well-blended. It could hardly be easier.

However, American flour just isn’t the same as English or even Australian flour. My sense is that plain English flour is probably somewhere in between our all purpose flour and our pastry flour which means that a pie crust made with our all purpose flour won’t be quite as flaky as it should be. The hydration of the flour might be different, too. Their butter isn’t the same, either. I’ll keep experimenting.


If All of Your Friends Jump Off a Cliff, Will You Jump, Too?

Former Morgan Stanley Asia Chairman Stephen Roach doesn’t think much of the European Central Bank’s plan to start their own program of quantitative easing:

In the QE era, monetary policy has lost any semblance of discipline and coherence. As Draghi attempts to deliver on his nearly two-and-a-half-year-old commitment, the limits of his promise – like comparable assurances by the Fed and the BOJ – could become glaringly apparent. Like lemmings at the cliff’s edge, central banks seem steeped in denial of the risks they face.

In his view European conditions don’t favor QE working very well for them and it hasn’t worked very well in the U. S. or Japan. Unless, that is, your operative definition of “working well” is making the ultra-rich a heckuva lot richer. Pumping up the stock market isn’t an unforeseen side effect of QE, it’s part of the basic mechanisms of the plan as Dr. Roach points out in his op-ed.


The Republican Field

Political consultant Charlie Cook categorizes the Republican field of presidential candidates into four categories: the establishement candidates like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, conservative governors like John Kasich or Mike Pence, tea party candidates like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, and social conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.

Right now the Democratic field seems limited to Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Saunders. None of those in the Republican field other than possibly Ted Cruz is awful enough that I could envision being driven to vote for one of them.

I can imagine voting for John Kasich or Mike Pence. I’d vote for either of them over Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Cook concludes:

Each of these brackets make up distinct and substantial segments of the Republican electorate, with contestants fighting each other for dominance and the ability to move onto the next level. Theoretically, the establishment bracket winner will face off with the winner of the conservative governor bracket, each competing for the less ideologically hard-lined Republican voters, while the tea-party and religious bracket victors will face off among the most conservative of Republican primary voters.

noting that there are bound to be “twists and turns” along the way.


Election 2016 Preview

If the presidential race in 2016 turns out to be Hillary Clinton vs. Ted Cruz, I’m going to entertain moving to Australia.


Prosthetics Via 3D Printing

Here’s an interesting slideshow of prosthetics made via 3D printing. It seems to me the greatest potential for this technology is not in fully customized production but in scale. In other words, once you’ve made one of anything the cost of making the next one, even given some level of customization, should be considerably less.

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Regulation, Subsidy, and Wages

Much as I might like to I don’t find Edward Lazear’s argument pointing to regulation as the source of wage stagnation convincing enough. Here’s the kernel of his evidence:

First, the decline in the share of workers in financial activities from 2006-10 was about one-fifth as rapid as that between 2010 and 2014. Given that the financial crisis peaked in autumn 2008, one would have expected the earlier period to see the most rapid declines, not the reverse.

Second, the share of workers in hospitals increased rapidly from 2006 to 2010, placing it among the top 10% of industries in labor growth. That trend was reversed in the past four years. Nursing and residential care’s share of employment also grew in the early period and declined in the latter one. Ambulatory health-care services, whose share did continue to grow from 2010 to 2014, slowed to one-fourth the pace of growth that prevailed from 2006 to 2010.

Third, industries with educationally similar workforces to those in finance and hospitals, like professional and technical services, enjoyed continued growth in their share of the workforce during the latter period. Even the construction industry, which was at the center of the recession and saw substantial declines between 2006 and 2010, experienced slight increases in share between 2010 and 2014.

Still, wage declines did not occur merely or even mostly because of movements out of hospitals and finance to lower-paying jobs. Even without the changes, the economy would have witnessed about three-fourths of a percentage point decline in wages from 2010 to 2014. Wages tend to move with productivity—and tax hikes on capital, threatened or actual, were not helpful to business investment, which spurs growth in labor productivity. Higher taxation of dividends and capital gains, as has occurred under President Obama, reduces incentive to invest and makes it more difficult to attract capital to the U.S. The president called for even more such increases in last week’s State of the Union address.

Healthcare is highly regulated as is finance. One of the far from unintentional effects of the regulation is to limit entry.

Is he defining “regulation” too broadly? My observation is that industries that have been subsidized are prospering and those that haven’t are declining. That the net effect of subsidizing unproductive industries while disincentivizing capital investment in productive ones would result in less growth than might otherwise be the case is hardly a controversial insight.