Today’s Papers

May 19th, 2013 at 11:58 am

–The NYT ran one of their “Sunday Dialogues” based off of my full employment op-ed.  I thought it was a great selection of provocative letters, all worth a read. 

Like many people I talk to about this, especially non-economists, most respondents agreed with the proposition that something’s changed, i.e., accelerated, in the impact of labor-saving technology in the workplace (interestingly, most commenters on this blog go the other way).

As I’ve stressed in numerous posts (e.g., here), while I worry that the “people” might be right about this, it’s not yet evident in the data (productivity growth, capital investment) in obvious ways.  One analytic problem is that in the last bunch of years, we’ve had this collision between visible labor-displacing technologies (robotics, AI software) and weak demand for labor.  While it’s natural to assume the former must be prodding the latter, there’s this confounding matter of a massive housing bubble, great recession, and all that mess.

So too soon to tell, and history is replete with examples of this mistaken prediction.  On the other hand, this feels to me like it might be one of those times where folks on the ground are a step ahead of the aggregate data.

I found this to be a moving, smart passage:

My husband thinks back to his father, coming of age during the Depression, and how fortunate that the Civilian Conservation Corps was available for him. A repurposed C.C.C. is just what we could use — and we are so not alone in this. Many people our age have found themselves jobless, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have skills, talents, determination and, most important, the desire to get a feeling of satisfaction back after years on the corporate track.

Also, the accompanying illustration was…um…unsettling, and very well done.


NYT, John Hendrix

–There’s a long cover story on the Cincinnati IRS office which is ground zero for the recent scandal.  The piece paints a picture of an understaffed, poorly managed group of mid-level bureaucrats, trying to follow impossible guidelines.  Clearly, the agency screwed up in a big way that threatens to worsen our already dysfunctional politics.  That said, partisan bias on behalf of the agents is not obvious.

What would help clear up this part of the issue is a number I’ve yet to see showing that (c)(4) groups with conservative names were disproportionately targeted.  It’s clear, for example, that more “Tea Party” and similarly named applications were given extra scrutiny than liberal ones (like those with “Progress” in their title) but it also seems that there were a lot more of the former.  The question of proportionality has yet to be answered.

Even so, i.e., even if the numbers ultimately show that conservative groups were not disproportionately targeted relative to their number of applications, how did the impropriety of the exemption agents’ actions evolve?  That’s the subject of this very informative Propublica piece that tells the story of decentralized decision making, under-staffing, diminished training efforts, and basically relegating these impossibly complex decisions to a relatively low-paid backwater with little guidance from DC, even as the number of applications from political groups was exploding.

All this combined to create an isolated office in Cincinnati, plagued by what an inspector general this week described as “insufficient oversight,” of fewer than 200 low-level employees responsible for reviewing more than 60,000 nonprofit applications a year.


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5 comments in reply to "Today’s Papers"

  1. urban legend says:

    If there was no partisan bias among the IRS agents, then how can you say somebody “screwed up”? Because they should have known the Tea Party people would whine to their favorite Congresspeople? That’s not a legitimate demand. If their purpose was to focus on organizations with some indicia of being political and not qualified, then they were doing exactly the right thing, period. If anyone screwed up, it was higher-ups who were playing the optics game.

    You can’t have it both ways. Either they were doing their jobs properly in order to identify unqualified applicants or they were not. If they were not targeting conservative groups because of their political philosophies, then they simply were not “targeting” them and the Acting IRS head was right to say that term is misleading.

    It’s unfortunate that the President and IRS managers covered their own asses and threw the agents under the bus. They should have had the guts to say we aren’t doing anything until the investigation is finished. You certainly cannot draw even a single conclusion until all the information is in. The information will not be in until (1) we have heard from the IRA agents themselves, and (2) data on applications, demands for further information and support for such demands has been analyzed. Were the requests for additional information disproportionate in relation to the number of applicants from each side? In relation to names that had political cast to them?

    There is a simple principle that moderately liberal centrists (or any fair-minded person for that matter) need to understand. If there is a hue-and-cry coming today from Fox News, Drudge and the Congressional GOP, the issue is virtually certain to be completely bogus, the product of one of the party’s oppo research boiler rooms. That really is not a disputable point. It can’t wished away with soft-minded “both-sides-do-it” bromides. If the centrist wishes to have a guideline to work with to at least pretend that the foregoing will not always be true for the foreseeable future — even I used the word “virtually” — it’s not “trust but verify.” It’s “distrust but let them prove the opposite.” That’s hard to do with a mainstream press that routinely let’s right-wing shouting set its agenda, but somebody ought to have the courage to try.

  2. Joseph Nobles says:

    Two things from the IG report on the IRS – they did two different statistical samples from the applications that were not selected for extra scrutiny. They could not find any Tea Party-type group among them. This speaks to the effectiveness of the improper standards – easy to remember and apply. However, using the IG Report’s numbers, I calculated that 84% of the Tea Party-type applications would have been selected for extra scrutiny using an impartial standard. A grand total of 15 should not have been chosen. So it’s a bad situation, but it’s “LAPD framing OJ” bad.

  3. Tom in MN says:

    Are the IRS and Benghazi so called scandals a win for the GOP? Both of them point to poorly funded agencies trying to do their jobs and failing, and why are they poorly funded? GOP is why. Their economics (austerity and 90% debt ratio) have fizzled into “never mind.” So they have nothing left but to win by making the other guy lose. If we want the government to work better then we should expect to pay for it. MN just raised taxes on the top 2% and it’s about time. But the GOP still managed to kill the bonding bill — clearly not the time to be borrowing money! I really don’t have a clue as to what their plan is other than not what the other guys want. Hope the private sector will step up and pay the $2B in deferred maintenance at the U of MN and fix potholes? That bonding bill as it was did not even keep up with the growth in the deferred maintenance.

  4. Corey Mondello says:

    Of 300 groups flagged by Cincinnati IRS, only 100 were tea party groups, other two-thirds flagged were Liberal groups