Change of the Guard

The editors of the Wall Street Journal remark on the changing of the guard in Springfield:

Mr. Welch was first elected in 2013 from Hillside, a Chicago suburb south of O’Hare Airport, and at least he’s talking about decentralizing power. “I want to examine the rules and possibly make changes—possibly make a lot of changes,” he said. One might be a 10-year term limit on the speakership.

Mr. Welch, who is Illinois’s first black speaker, urged a lowering of partisan tensions. “Why do our politics have to be about negativity and destruction?” he asked. It’s a good question. But it will take more than bipartisan bonhomie to reverse Illinois’s spiral of high taxes and bloated government, which has caused so many residents to flee over Mr. Madigan’s tenure.

Democrats finally dumped Mr. Madigan because they feared his high public profile and a corruption probe were hurting them. But they still like Mr. Madigan’s system of public-union dominance and gerrymandered districts. The old boss may be gone, but his system survives.

I think that “like” understates the scope of the problem. It’s intrinsic to their business model.

I’m not opposed to labor unions but I’m highly skeptical of public employee labor unions. The arrangement of recycling taxes to wages to political contributions not to mention foot soldiers is inherently corrupt.

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How to Repay?

There is one thing in newly-elected Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch’s acceptance speech, reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, with which I am in total agreement:

“The state will never be able to adequately thank Speaker Madigan for the job he has done,” said Welch, who recently torpedoed a Republican-led effort to use a special House investigative committee to follow up on matters raised by a federal investigation into Madigan’s dealings with Commonwealth Edison.

Laws against involuntary servitude and cruel and unusual punishments prohibit it. Although I suspect that was not what he meant.

We can only hope that the Department of Justice takes care of repaying him for us. If only to “encourage the others” as Voltaire put it.

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The editors of the Washington Post have published what I wouldn’t be surprised to become a growth genre, the “Trump was awful but some of the things his administration did weren’t so bad” piece. In this case it’s the recommendations of President Trump’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice:

WE DID not have high expectations for the commission that President Trump appointed to “study crime . . . and how we can restore public confidence in law enforcement to its rightful place.” Its membership was skewed, with only past and present law enforcement officials represented, and its proceedings were secretive and closed. A federal judge deemed the group in violation of federal law and ordered its findings to include a prominent disclaimer. So it’s a pleasant surprise, and an indication that law enforcement professionals and their critics can find some common ground, that its final report includes some useful recommendations. The Biden administration should build on them while undertaking a more expansive review of the country’s criminal justice system.

What were the recommendations of which they approved?

To help restore confidence in police, the committee recommended that every state require police departments to have an independent agency investigate all fatal shootings and other serious use-of-force incidents and make improvements in how complaints from citizens are handled. Also noteworthy were proposals to allow officers to issue summonses for low-level offenses instead of making arrests, adjust felony thresholds for nonviolent offenses, provide mental health and substance abuse screening for jail inmates, and offer more help to crime victims.

They conclude:

The report’s complete silence on key issues of systemic racism and mistrust in law enforcement unfortunately has helped undermine its useful recommendations, with some critics suggesting the work simply be discarded. That’s shortsighted. Instead, the report — along with the thoughtful conclusions of the prior Task Force on 21st Century Policing commissioned by the Obama administration — should serve as starting points for the soon-to-be Biden administration as it tackles the critical questions facing U.S. criminal justice.

There is a tremendous temptation among incoming administrations, particularly those which have billed themselves in one way or another as “reform administrations” which characterizes both the Biden Administration and the Trump Administration, to attempt to do everything the opposite way in which it was done in the previous administration. It should be resisted. Just as being the “un-Obama” was impossible it is likely that being the “un-Trump” will be equally difficult.

You can deviate from the style of your predecessor but events have shown that there are reasons, whether political, geo-political, or otherwise, which guide policies and they tend to have considerable inertia.

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Creating Problems

I wanted to pass along one brief passage from Holman Jenkins’s most recent Wall Street Journal column:

Seldom has there been a clearer test of how the media sets the agenda for politicians. The press repeats this misleading statistic [ed.: “confirmed cases”] a thousand times a day to no real purpose, leaving us only less certain where we stand in the herd-immunity race. Underplaying the disease’s true prevalence, we have (without realizing it) conditioned people to be less careful even as we preach at them to be more careful. We cause them to underestimate their exposure risk and overestimate their death risk.

Rather than emphasizing closing businesses and masks we should be emphasizing social distancing. Rather than reporting case positivity rates we should long ago have been doing epidemiological testing.


Raining on the Parade

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal John F. Cogan and John B. Taylor throw some rain on the parade of those who support $2,000 relief checks:

Since the mid-1970s, one-time cash payments to individuals to stimulate economic growth have been tried on at least five separate occasions. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter promised that their stimulus checks would restore economic growth by inducing higher consumption. Yet in both instances the payments failed to deliver the promised results. Their impact on economic output was at best negligible and only temporary.

More recent attempts by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were similar flops. The one-time cash payments under Mr. Bush in early 2008 had no discernible impact on the economy. Having seemingly learned nothing from this experience, Mr. Obama proposed the same remedy in 2009 as part of a larger economic stimulus plan. His temporary and targeted cash assistance had, if anything, only a negligible near-term impact. Over the longer run, the economy experienced a remarkably anemic recovery.

These failures are consistent with the permanent-income and life-cycle theories of individual consumption behavior. Both theories suggest that individuals’ consumption is determined primarily by their income over the long term. Hence, a one-time cash assistance grant doesn’t boost consumption. As we wrote on these pages about such programs in 2010, theory and evidence shows that “they did not work then and they are not working now.”

Although data are still coming in on the effects of the one-time cash payments authorized by last March’s Cares Act, so far the pattern is the same. Using a large-scale survey of its effects, a National Bureau of Economic Research study by Olivier Coibion, Yuriy Gorodnichenko and Michael Weber found that “most respondents report that they primarily saved or paid down debts with their transfers, with only about 15 percent reporting that they mostly spent it.” Thus the payments have done little to boost the economy.

As I’ve been saying these aren’t “stimulus checks” because they don’t stimulate. Temporary grants paid to state and local governments for the same purpose have the same defect—they don’t stimulate spending.

If the primary motivation is humanitarian, spending should be focused on those business and individuals that have experienced hardships due to the state and local government imposed lockdowns. Broadbrush one-time handouts are mostly political gimmicks rather than based on humanitarian or economics grounds.


Which Is the Problem?

In an op-ed in the Washington Post former Congressional representative Donna F. Edwards has an op-ed about her experiences travelling through Red States alone in an RV. Here is an example of the horrors she endured during her 4 month adventure:

On Inauguration Eve 2017, I set up at Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola, Fla. But I didn’t quite have the hang of backing up Lucille yet — an essential skill. Out of nowhere, two older White men appeared to direct me into my spot, and they gave me helpful advice: “Set a chair at the back of the drive and use that as your rearview focus in your side mirrors.” My guides, a retired union electrician from southern Illinois and a small-business owner from rural Alabama, and I became friends for a couple of days.

On Inauguration Day, I heard televisions inside and out broadcasting the festivities. There was an air of celebration in the campground when I took my morning stroll before the swearing-in. It was one that I did not feel as I watched the “American carnage” speech in my own “home.”

That evening, my neighbors and I shared a beer around a glowing firepit. We talked about our travels, as well as the events of the day. They were excited about the new president, and they wanted to talk politics. It was clear they believed Trump was the answer to their concerns about immigration, job loss to China and a range of other grievances.

We went back and forth, in the way that friends do — friendly, teasing, laughing. At one point the electrician began sharing a story about an experience with his union — more new members and fewer jobs. But then he slipped as he described the new union members, the “colored” ones. I didn’t bat an eye in the momentary awkwardness, while he quickly corrected himself.

But there it was — the heart of the Trump thing.


Even as we shared pictures of our children and grandchildren (one with a Black grandchild, the other with a Latino grandchild) and talked about their dreams, they did not seem to perceive the irony. We all complained about health-care costs, me with my multiple sclerosis and them with high blood pressure, cancer remission and a wife with Parkinson’s disease. Still, there was no recognition of our shared interests.

That’s her sole example. Perhaps she experienced worse.

I guess this is a “glass half empty” sort of thing. I read her anecdote as a sign of the enormous and remarkably rapid progress that we have made on race over the past 50 years. But it’s certainly true that if you look for racism you are sure to find it. I wonder if she think that things would have been materially different if her travels had been in New York or Massachusetts rather than Florida and Texas.


Krugman’s Economic Advice for the Incoming Administration

In his latest New York Times column Paul Krugman offers his advice to the incoming Biden Administration. In brief it amounts to spend as much as you want on anything you want and be prepared to ram it through the Congress using reconciliation:

Putting all of this together, the message is “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Neither defunct ideology, nor bogus economic concerns, nor the vain hope of comity should be allowed to stand in the way of delivering the policies America needs.

His advice actually consists of four points:

Rule #1: Don’t doubt the power of government to help.

This first point is one on which I’m in partial agreement with Dr. Krugman. It’s the reason I’m a Democrat. Yes, government can help. Not just the federal government but state and local governments as well and it’s darned helpful if they’re all rowing in the same direction. Where I differ from Dr. Krugman and many Democrats is that don’t believe that everything that the federal government does is de facto helpful. It may be helpful, counter-productive, or not do much at all other than pay bureaucrats and political cronies. And beware of unforeseen secondary effects! You can’t just enact a law and trust the bureaucrats to do the right thing.

Rule #2: Don’t obsess about debt.

On this point I’m in partial agreement as well. Don’t obsess about it. But don’t dismiss it or ignore it, either. Going into debt is reasonable for long-term investments but not for consumption. An updated sewer system or electrical grid is a valid long-term investment. A “bridge to nowhere” isn’t. You can torture the meaning of investment to include things like healthcare spending and spending on higher education but beware! Paying operating expenses or for consumption with debt is a losing proposition even for the federal government.

Rule #3: Don’t worry about inflation.

I don’t agree with him on this one or at best I think his explanation is a part-truth. Consumer inflation has been low for many things for the last decade. But asset prices have soared. When Barack Obama took office the DJIA was around 8,000. Now it’s around 31,000. I don’t think there’s any credible explanation for that other than asset inflation.

The prices of some services have risen sharply, too, education and healthcare in particular. So, for example, healthcare spending per person has increased more than 40% 2009 to 2019. You can rationalize that in all sorts of ways but I think that we need to acknowledge that inflation is one of the causes.

Rule #4: Don’t count on Republicans to help govern.

This, too, is at best a part-truth. His explanation:

The original sin of Obama economic policy was the underpowered stimulus of 2009. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped stabilize the economy, but it was much too small given the depths of the crisis. This isn’t hindsight; some of us were very publicly tearing our hair out in real time.

One reason the plan was too small was that Obama was trying to gain bipartisan support, rather than using reconciliation to push it through with Democratic votes (which is how Republicans passed the 2017 tax cut).

I can and have produced copious evidence from December through January of 2008-2009 of President-Elect Obama and his chief economic advisors saying unequivocally that the amount they were seeking was exactly the right amount. Not too hot, not too cold, just right. If they were wrong, it was not simply because they were trying to secure bipartisan support. They were equally trying to appease members of their own caucus. As H. L. Mencken to every problem there is a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. For the first several years of Obama’s first term the Democratic-led Congress was passing things in reconciliation. If you don’t want reconciliation to be abused, don’t abuse reconciliation yourself.

I also wonder how Dr. Krugman explains the uncomfortable truth that the Great Recession was over before a dollar of the money appropriated under the ARRA was disbursed?

In summary I think that Dr. Krugman’s column shows us the contours of what unifying the country may look like. Fasten your seat belts, we’re in for a bumpy ride.


Searching for Moral Clarity

As is frequently the case I both agree and disagree with Nikolas Kristof’s latest New York Times column. In the column he makes a plea, I presume to Democrats, to use President Trump’s second impeachment as a opportunity to “invoke moral clarity”:

Invoke “moral clarity.” We instinctively reach for the military toolbox when we’re attacked, but it’s also important to fight a war of ideas and delegitimize certain behaviors and speech. To me, that’s why it’s crucial that impeachment be a teachable moment.

Pursuit of moral clarity always leads to flurries of whataboutism and bothsidesism, and there are usually elements of truth to such objections. But we can accept that the world is nuanced and inconsistent without giving up a moral compass to navigate it.

It is unclear to me how Democrats can “invoke moral clarity” when the Democratic leadership is neither moral nor clear. Quite to the contrary I find them ruthlessly and predictably pragmatic and remarkably ambiguous.

It is not merely “whataboutism” when you impeach a president for speech that stopped short of advocating violence while you engage in precisely the same sort of speech yourself. It is cognitive dissonance. Using “fight” in a political context is completely normal political speech—it’s among the first words on the Democrats’ own home page.

But, as I’ve said before, context matters. When angry people are demonstrating on the steps of the Capitol, urging them to fight is reckless and inflammatory. And, as I have been counseling for months, we need to dial back on the rhetoric and that doesn’t just pertain to Republicans.

He goes on to advocate deplatforming of those advocating “rightwing terrorism” and stripping advertising from media outlets who support them as well as “disarming terrorists”. IMO there are serious risks actually involved. Is a media outlet that covers those of whom Mr. Kristof disapproves but does not endorse them guilty of something? Is just shooting off your mouth enough to trigger the actions Mr. Kristof advocates or are some actual acts required?

More broadly when does politics as usual become terrorism? Is advocacy of ideas, even ideas that are demonstrably false, sufficient? What about ideas that aren’t demonstrably false but would be better characterized as “unproven allegations”?


One Month In

Today marks the end of one month of vaccinating Americans against SARS-CoV-2. Here’s a report by Madeline Buckley and Joe Mahr from the Chicago Tribune on the State of Illinois’s progress to date:

Though COVID-19 vaccines could be available soon for essential workers and older people throughout the state, most county health departments in the Chicago area are still working to vaccinate those included in the initial phase — health care workers, and those working and residing in long-term care facilities.

Data released on Tuesday shows that roughly 1 in 45 Illinoisans has gotten at least the first shot of a vaccine, with wide variations across the state.

The new batch of data — the state’s first broad release of COVID-19 vaccination numbers since vaccinations began about four weeks ago — comes a day after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said county health departments can begin vaccinating people in phase 1b if they have already run through people in the initial phase who want the inoculation, so as not to leave doses sitting on the shelf. The state as a whole remains in phase 1a.

The data comes as Illinois grapples with how best to roll out the vaccine, including when and where to expand vaccinations to senior citizens and front-line essential workers. The state’s 1b phase includes people 65 and older, and workers such as first responders, teachers, grocery store workers and public transit workers.

The graphic at the top of this post is from the Illinois Department of Public Health. The two dips in vaccinations you see in the trend line represent Christmas and New Years. If that trend holds I would say it actually looks pretty favorable but at this point it’s really to early to tell. The accompanying heatmap illustrates how far we have to go.


What’s Next?

Yesterday Donald Trump gained the unwanted distinction of being the first American president to be impeached twice. Bill Chappell reports at NPR:

The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to impeach President Trump for “high crimes and misdemeanors” — specifically, for inciting an insurrection against the federal government at the U.S. Capitol.

Just one week before he will leave office, Trump has now become the first U.S. president to be impeached twice.

Wednesday’s vote came a week after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a chaotic scene that left five people dead.

Ten Republicans broke party ranks to vote in favor of impeachment, including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who chairs the House Republican Conference.

To the best of my ability to determine the House has not yet conveyed that conviction to the Senate where it would be tried.

I don’t believe that President Trump’s statements meet the legal definition of inciting a riot in the federal code. But context matters and in context Mr. Trump’s remarks were reckless, inflammatory, and contributed to the breaching of the Capitol by rioters. Under the circumstances in my opinion the House was correct in impeaching him.

My present understanding of Republican politics is extremely fuzzy. I just don’t get it. The materially party line vote in the House signals that very few House Republicans thought that the president’s remarks rose to the level of impeachment. I haven’t done a review of those who voted to impeach. I can’t interpret the votes either way.

Now the questions are

  1. Will the House convey the article of impeachment to the Senate?
  2. What will happen in the Senate?

As I read the calendar the first day on which a Senate trial could begin would be Inauguration Day. That seems excessively inflammatory to me as well. Will they bother? Will they engage in a symbolic trial? Will they try and convict? Will they take some other action?

I genuinely have no idea.

Here’s Ben Shapiro’s explanation, reproduced at Politico of House Republican thinking:

Opposition to impeachment comes from a deep and abiding conservative belief that members of the opposing political tribe want their destruction, not simply to punish Trump for his behavior. Republicans believe that Democrats and the overwhelmingly liberal media see impeachment as an attempt to cudgel them collectively by lumping them in with the Capitol rioters thanks to their support for Trump.


Conservatives see the game. It doesn’t matter whether you held your nose when voting for Trump; it doesn’t matter if you denounced his prevarications about a “stolen election” (for the record, I was met with great ire when I declared the night of the election that Trump’s declaration of victory was “deeply irresponsible”).

If you supported Trump in any way, you were at least partially culpable, the argument goes. It’s not just Trump who deserves vitriol — it’s all 74 million people who voted for him.

And that claim, many conservatives believe, will serve as the basis for repression everywhere from social media to employment. Evidence to support that suspicion wasn’t in short supply this week…