Odds and Ends

January 8th, 2012 at 8:36 pm

A few Q&As and a great book review:

From comments:

Q: Re moving seasonality in that BLS series: will the monthly BLS revisions “fix” this?

A: I don’t think so.  The BLS payroll employment data are revised for two months after the first print, and they do rerun the seasonals, but they only adjust the past few months.  Every year, they do a major revision of the past five years (coming next month!), but that probably won’t fix this either, given that it’s a relatively new pattern that their method hasn’t picked up yet.

Q: What about the BLS birth/death model?  A while ago, people were worrying about its accuracy—has that been resolved?

A: I don’t think that was ever a big issue.  In order to make better estimates of employment given their fixed sample of firms, the Bureau must make assumptions about firms that are born and die but are not in their sampling frame.   Folks raised reasonable concerns that the model doesn’t capture cyclical turning points (when presumably fewer firms are born and more die), but I don’t think there’s much evidence to support this—i.e., those annual revisions based on updating the sample to include actual births and deaths never seem to show this to be a notable problem, at least not to my knowledge.


I found this Michael Kinsley book review of Tom Frank’s new book to be a great read.   Frank’s book is surely worth a read too, but Kinsley makes two points worthy of reflection.

First, apparently Frank is pretty tough on the President. “[Obama] ran like a populist, Frank believes, but he has governed like a plutocrat, or at least a friend of plutocrats.”

It’s not an uncommon view, and there are certainly times I wanted the administration to push harder in a more progressive direction, including when I was on the team.  But I think Kinsley pretty much nails it here:

It seems to me that a Democratic president who gets us health care reform and tough new financial protection for consumers, who guides the economy through its roughest period in 80 years with moderate success (who could do better?), who ends our long war in Iraq and avenges the worst insult to our sovereignty since Pearl Harbor (as his Republican predecessor manifestly failed to do, despite a lot of noise and promises); a president who faced an opposition of really spectacular intransigence and downright meanness; a president who has the self-knowledge and wisdom about Washington to write the passage quoted above [see review for this reference], and the courage to publish it: that president deserves a bit more credit from the left than Frank is willing to give him.

One can anticipate the pushback: the stimulus should have been larger, fin reg isn’t tough enough, ACA isn’t a single payer system.  And there’s of course something to these critiques.  But Kinsley’s assessment strikes me as correct and fair, especially when you consider the part about the intransigent opposition.

Kinsley’s second point questions whether the Republicans that Frank is inveighing against have really been all that effective:

Conservatives have dominated the debate, and usually the government, for three decades now, yet they haven’t managed to abolish a single cabinet department or eliminate a single major entitlement program. Nothing big has been “privatized.” Somehow or other, against all expectations and despite a conservative Supreme Court, abortion rights and affirmative action have been preserved. Gay rights are advancing so fast that the Republican Party itself is probably ahead of where Democrats were a generation ago. The Constitution has not been amended to require a balanced budget or forbid flag-burning.

Yeah, but a key theme of Frank’s—one Kinsley acknowledges as correct—is that this stuff is just key-dangling for the real agenda: stack the economic deck to promote massive upward redistribution of resources.  And here, conservatives have been remarkably successful.  Not just in the upward redistribution, but more importantly (because it unceasingly promotes the redistribution) in the intellectual and economic debate that has far too many people convinced that if we just make the wealthy even wealthier, we’ll all be better off.


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7 comments in reply to "Odds and Ends"

  1. Tom High says:

    Mr. B, thought you framed the Frank’s review rather harshly. Most of us on the left who are critical of the President are very aware of the constraints provided by the opposition of the other Party. It would be nice, however, that our critiques be met with an occasional “Yes, and that’s a problem”, rather than the pervasive “But look at all he has accomplished”. Just my opinion.

  2. Gordon Wilson says:

    Nice catch on the Kinsley review, albeit is only a partial list. Republicans are basically running against their own record while trying, with more success than should be having, to tie that record to three years of Obama. Since Ronald Reagan there has only been one other Democratic President, which is in itself a false flag, but that’s the perception everyone has of Presidential influence and power, so we have to go with it. Thanks.

  3. davesnyd says:

    But Kinsley’s assessment strikes me as correct and fair, especially when you consider the part about the intransigent opposition.

    Fine. But many of us realized earlier than six months ago that this was the case. The President spent the first 30 months of his administration trying to “reach out” to Republicans who were smacking him back.

    Had he gone on the offensive earlier, and fought for a public option, reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, a shutdown at Guantanamo, prosecutions on Wall Street, a cleanup of the housing mess, a larger stimulus, and the like, he’d have more support on the “left”.

    Instead, we’re wondering: is the last six months what we’ll see in his second term or the first thirty? Is he likely to be “our” champion or revert back to being the Republican-Lite that we saw initially?

    If what we’re seeing lately is the Real Obama– then many of us would be rushing to help with the campaign. But we suspect he’s just doing this as part of the campaign. Help us believe otherwise.

  4. James Edwards says:

    I have two major issues with the whole populism rhetoric. The first is that people project onto Obama what they want to believe. In many ways he is very much like Chauncey Gardner in Being There. He campaigned on bipartisan leadership in Washington. He did not campaign on populism until John Edwards made him. I think that people forget that they got exactly who they voted for. If they wanted someone more go for the throat there was Hillary and if they wanted populism then there was John Edwards, no relation.

    That’s my issue with people who think Obama changed. He did not.

    My second issue is with Obama for not being populist. If we use FDR as our guide, he sat by the fire with the whole country listening and told everyone he understood things were bad, but “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Given the gross inadequacies of FDRs programs, it was these fireside chats and his stand with the people speeches that held the country together. FDR could boast about far more than Obama on progressive accomplishments, but never bragged about them even by proxy, nor had to. It was because He “Welcomed their hatred” that nobody called FDR out of touch or despairs doesn’t get it.

  5. Chris G says:

    I’ll second davesnyd’s and James Edwards’ comments. And I’ll elaborate a little on the specific issues you noted:

    1. The stimulus should have been larger: Yes. If I believe Krugman and co – and I do – macro models suggested it should have been 2-3x larger to actually stimulate the economy rather than just keep us treading water. Obama never fought for the policy which had the best objective chance of working. He started from a compromise position. That’s just lousy politics.

    2. Financial regulation isn’t tough enough: No. (For what’s going on with financial regulation I read Matt Taibbi over at Rolling Stone and doing so usually raises my blood pressure by at least 20 points.) And he did nothing to fight to get Elizabeth Warren appointed head of CFPB. Then, after letting Warren fall by the wayside, how long did it take him to get around to appointing Cordray? And remind me again who’s being prosecuted for the mortgage securities fraud which precipitated the mess we’re in now? Yeah… Obama’s record here is profoundly unimpressive.

    3. ACA isn’t a single payer system: Nope. But the fact that it isn’t single payer isn’t in and of itself. Single payer is one means an end. Beyond increasing the percentage of population insured, the goal of health policy should be to keep costs manageable and while increasing the quality of care for each dollar spent. As with the Stimulus, he started from a compromise position in developing ACA but, more significantly, how exactly is ACA going to control costs? In practice, how is ACA going to reduce cost growth? Hey, maybe forcing everyone to buy insurance on the open (for profit) market will reduce costs, but I’m not holding my breath. What are the mechanisms which will drive revenue towards improving quality of care rather than being spent on executives salaries, marketing, and other overhead expenses? My complaint with ACA isn’t that it isn’t well-intentioned, it is; my complaint is that it seems to rely heavily on magical thinking to achieve long term success.

  6. Chris G says:

    A quibble with Kinsley’s review of Frank’s book… He writes:

    “Conservatives have dominated the debate, and usually the government, for three decades now, yet they haven’t managed to abolish a single cabinet department or eliminate a single major entitlement program. Nothing big has been “privatized.””

    WRONG! How about the military? Compare Gov’t expenditures on contractors now with those a generation ago… two generations ago. Contractors are being paid to do all sorts of things which the services previously did for themselves. This includes ‘security-related’ activities as well as tasks suitable for civilians like serving food, doing laundry, etc. I’d be willing to bet that the mercs are getting paid a heck of a lot more than our Special Forces troops. Cafeteria workers? I have no idea but it would be interesting to see a cost analysis of outsourcing in the military.