Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Poverty and Welfare

Nathan Newman compares the US with Nordic countries, and Uncle Sam don't look so great:
Many US political leaders engage in happy talk that welfare reform was a success, but the documented reality is that both over the last few years and over the last few decades, the low level of US spending to help the poor has meant less opportunity for the children of the poor to attain the dream of a better life than the poor in Europe, where more welfare spending and fairer education systems gave them a chance to join the middle class.
Nathan quotes this Economist article (subscription required):
Around three-quarters of sons born into the poorest fifth of the population in Nordic countries in the late 1950s had moved out of that category by the time they were in their early 40s. In contrast, only just over half of American men born at the bottom later moved up.
The Nordic countries are distinctive in one further way: the sons born at the bottom (into the poorest fifth) earn roughly the same as those born a rung above them (the second-poorest fifth). In other words, Nordic countries have almost completely snapped the link between the earnings of parents and children at and near the bottom. That is not at all true of America.
So why is this?
The obvious explanation for greater mobility in the Nordic countries is their tax and welfare systems, which (especially when compared with America's) deliberately try to help the children of the poor to do better than their parents. One might expect social mobility and economic flexibility to go together—in fact, to be two sides of the same coin. But to the extent that redistribution is an explanation, it implies the opposite: that social mobility is a product of high public spending, a bit like the low incidence of poverty or longer life expectancy (on both of which Europe also does better than America). But greater public spending tends also to be associated with less economic flexibility—which is why Nordic countries have sought to limit the more arthritis-inducing features of their tax-and-spend programmes.

Yet redistributive fiscal policies cannot be all there is to it. If they were, Nordic countries would not do as well as they do (their welfare states are not appreciably more generous than Britain's). The other part of the explanation seems to be their superior education systems. Education has long been recognised as the most important single trigger of social mobility—and all four Nordic countries do unusually well in the school-appraisal system developed by the OECD.
So... why did I leave Norway again? Good question. The best answer I can come up with is an early-stage wanderlust coupled with later-stage inertia. And then there's luv, of course.

Monday, May 22, 2006

New England Yankees

A fascinating take on American political history:
From John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams to Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, Massachusetts politicians associated with the Greater New England traditions of reformism, intellectual elitism, and anti-militarism have been defeated by rivals who embody the southern synthesis of social conservatism, populism, and martial patriotism.
Today, outside of big cities with large black and immigrant populations, the Democratic Party is slowly being confined to Greater New England. The political heirs of the Federalists, the Whigs, and the Progressives, today’s Democrats are in danger of following those parties into oblivion.
What to do?
For Democrats today, the Midwest is the key to the White House, for the same reason it was crucial a century ago: Its location at the confluence of the major cultural regions of the United States means that its politicians must appeal to more than one tradition. During the era when it was the party supported by Greater New England, from 1868 to 1932, the Republican Party sent only two New England presidents to the White House: Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge, both from Vermont. Of the 11 Republican presidents during this era, seven -- Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, William Henry Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Warren Harding -- were from Ohio. Democratic talent scouts should be eyeing midwestern governors.
Greater New England will be the regional core of the Democratic Party for a long time to come. But the next Democratic majority, if there is one, will be one in which the New England political tradition is merely one of several. The Democrats may remain the party of New England. But the Democrats must not be the New England party.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Am I a Liberal?

Atrios posted a list of policies that he thought most liberals would agree on a while back. He was trying to counter centrist (DLC) arguments that the liberal blogosphere had extremist viewpoints. But it turned out to be an interesting list anyway. Kevin Drum refined it a bit, and then today I saw that Dan Drezner went through it to see where he stood (he concluded he's 36.6% liberal). So anyway I figured I would do the same, just for the hell of it:
  • Undo the bankruptcy bill enacted by this administration Yes.

  • Repeal the estate tax repeal Yes! I'm all for capitalism, and I recognize that people need something to work for. But inheritance (i.e. lack of inheritance taxation) screws it all up because some kids have huge advantages over others.

  • Increase the minimum wage and index it to the CPI
    No. Not a big fan of minimum wages. They often lead to higher unemployment (as in Europe). Some amount of workers rights, yes. But minimum wages are not necessary and fraught with market-distorting problems.

  • Universal health care (obviously the devil is in the details on this one) YES! It would cut the paper-pusher/doctor ratio at most medical offices dramatically, vastly improve healthcare for the bottom 50% of the population, and decrease overall healthcare spending and waste.

  • Increase CAFE standards. Some other environment-related regulation Yes (even without knowing the details). The US is far too polluted.

  • Pro-reproductive rights, getting rid of abstinence-only education, improving education about and access to contraception including the morning after pill, and supporting choice. On the last one there's probably some disagreement around the edges (parental notification, for example), but otherwise. Yes.

  • Simplify and increase the progressivity of the tax code Big yes to both.

  • Kill faith-based funding. Certainly kill federal funding of anything that engages in religious discrimination. Yes.

  • Reduce corporate giveaways Yes.

  • Have Medicare run the Medicare drug plan Sure (don't know what this would entail but Atrios is usually pretty smart about this stuff).

  • Force companies to stop underfunding their pensions. Change corporate bankruptcy law to put workers and retirees at the head of the line with respect to their pensions. No. At least not without careful research. Mucking with established corporate law is often counter-productive and may produce undesired results.

  • Leave the states alone on issues like medical marijuana. Generally move towards "more decriminalization" of drugs, though the details complicated there too. Yes.

  • Paper ballots Whatever.

  • Improve access to daycare and other pro-family policies. Obiously details matter. Yes.

  • Raise the cap on wages covered by FICA taxes. Not sure.

  • Marriage rights for all, which includes "gay marriage" and quicker transition to citizenship for the foreign spouses of citizens. Yes.

So that's 12 yes, 2 no and 2 don't know, which comes out to 86% liberal.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Media Explained?

This over at Josh Marshall's TPM, along with this response strikes me as an important contribution to the question of why MSM journalists are doing their jobs so poorly. An MSM (presumably) political journalist explains:
I have had people (three men) show up at my front door at 9 am on a Saturday morning to complain about my coverage of their cause and demand to be invited in. I had another two guys stalk me, waiting until I left my office at 10 pm to accost me and take issue with my coverage of their pet issue.
So, MSM journalists don't investigate challenge administration views because they are afraid of right-wing threats. Makes sense. Now how do we fix it?

UPDATE: In case anybody wonders what I mean by the media "doing their jobs so poorly", here's Digby putting it better than I ever could:
After 9/11 when they helped the president promote the idea that the country was at "war" (with what we didn't exactly know) I knew it was a terrible mistake and would lead to a distorted foreign policy and twisted domestic politics. But I didn't blame the media because it was very difficult to fight that at the time. They're human, after all.

And when they helped the government make their case for this misbegotten war in Iraq, I assumed that they knew what they were talking about. After all, I had been defending their credibility for years now, in spite of everything I've mentioned. If they would screw up something like this, then for what was I holding back my criticism? This was the most serious issue this country had faced in many a decade.

When no WMD were found and I was informed that the NY Times had assigned a neocon shill to report the story, and then defended her when she was implicated in a white house smear to cover up its lies going into Iraq, I no longer saw any need to defend them or any other mainstream media outlet who had rah-rahed the country into Iraq because of promises of embedded glory on the battlefield and in the ratings.

This is fifteen long years of watching the Times and the rest of the mainstream media buckle under the pressure of GOP accusations that they are biased, repeatedly take bogus GOP manufactured scandals and run with them like kids with a brand new kite, treat our elections like they are entertainment vehicles for bored reporters and generally kowtow to the Republican establishment as the path of least resistence. I waited for years for them to recognise what was happening and fight back for their own integrity. It didn't happen. And I began to see that the only way to get the press to work properly was to apply equal pressure from the opposite direction. It's a tug of war. They were not strong enough to resist being dragged off to the right all by themselves. They needed some flamethrowers from our side pulling in the opposite direction to make it possible for them to avoid being pulled all the way over.