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The Welfare Myth

[ 46 ] November 21, 2015 |


Alec MacGillis has an excellent article on the demobilization of poor voters in poor counties, which leads to the election of governments that slash benefits they desperately need. Kentucky has received a lot of discussion, but there’s also Maine:

In Maine, Mr. LePage was elected governor in 2010 by running on an anti-welfare platform in a state that has also grown more reliant on public programs — in 2013, the state ranked third in the nation for food-stamp use, just ahead of Kentucky. Mr. LePage, who grew up poor in a large family, has gone at safety-net programs with a vengeance. He slashed welfare rolls by more than half after imposing a five-year limit, reinstituted a work requirement for food-stamp recipients and refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare to cover 60,000 people. He is now seeking to bar anyone with more than $5,000 in certain assets from receiving food stamps. “I’m not going to help anybody just for the sake of helping,” the governor said in September. “I am not that compassionate.”

His crusade has resonated with many in the state, who re-elected him last year.

But at least splitting the anti-LePage vote totally bully pulipted the Overton Window to the left!

This seems like a good time to note that the ostensible basis for LePage’s war on the poor is entirely without empirical foundation:

For as long as there have been government programs designed to help the poor, there have been critics insisting that helping the poor will keep them from working. But the evidence for this proposition has always been rather weak.

And a recent study from MIT and Harvard economists makes the case even weaker. Abhijit Banerjee, Rema Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken reanalyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programs in poor countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.” Attacking welfare recipients as lazy is easy rhetoric, but when you actually test the proposition scientifically, it doesn’t hold up.


Saturday Links

[ 25 ] November 21, 2015 |

New Hampshire, the Establishment, and the Base

[ 181 ] November 20, 2015 |


Nate Cohn:

The last two Republican presidential primary contests have followed the same script: A conservative candidate wins in Iowa, a relative moderate wins in New Hampshire, and the latter — with broader appeal and all of the establishment’s resources — outlasts the former in a protracted fight for the nomination.

But so far this cycle, New Hampshire’s voters aren’t playing along. Donald Trump has led every poll in New Hampshire since June. Candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have struggled to get out of the single digits.

There is, however, one significant twist. Trump is the non-Establishment candidate, but he’s also the relative moderate. On issues like Social Security, Trump has shrewdly exploited gaps between Republican elites and the Republican base by moving to the left. His xenophobic rhetoric doesn’t reflect any substantive differences with the other major candidates.

It is time for me to concede that the people who saw Trump as a real threat to win the nomination (including Paul) were onto something. I would still rank this as less likely than Rubio or Cruz winning. And I’m not backing off at all on Carson — I don’t think a 70% burn rate and campaign skills scarcely better than Rick Perry’s are propelling anyone to the nomination. But is it possible for Trump to be the Republican nominee? I have to say that it is. If they were held next week he would almost certainly win Iowa and New Hampshire, and it’s hard for me to say that someone who can do that can’t win.

The Unbearable Lightness of Antonin Scalia

[ 61 ] November 20, 2015 |

Scalia gesture

As always, what’s particularly offensive about Antonin Scalia’s PROVOCATIVE comparisons of the rights of gays and lesbians and the rights of child molesters is that the underlying arguments are ludicrously incoherent:

If your theory leads you to the conclusion that Brown v. Board of Education was incorrectly decided, you need a new theory. Of course, Scalia has said elsewhere that he would have voted with the majority in Brown. But this just makes his theory less coherent than Rehnquist’s. “Judges cannot determine which minority groups are entitled to heightened protections under the equal protection clause except when they can” loses quite a bit of force as a critique of the Supreme Court’s holding that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right.

How can Scalia justify making an exception for Brown? It certainly cannot be derived from the text of the 14th Amendment, which does not mention race. Instead, Scalia has to argue that the equal protection clause was originally understood as applying to discrimination against African-Americans, and only this form of discrimination.

This argument, however, quickly collapses. Cases in which Scalia has interpreted the 14th Amendment as forbidding racial discrimination have generally not concerned the rights of African-Americans. Rather, these decisions have done things like shut down integration measures pursued by local school districts or protected the alleged rights of mediocre white college applicants to attend their first choice of school.

These applications pretty much destroy Scalia’s allegedly “originalist” reading of the 14th Amendment. There is no evidence that the 14th Amendment was originally understood as forbidding affirmative action programs, and Scalia has never even tried to make such a case. Scalia can try to escape from this by saying that the 14th Amendment forbids a broader, more abstract principle of racial discrimination than it was originally understood as doing. But once you’ve started down that road, there’s no principled reason to deny that the amendment forbids invidious discrimination against groups Scalia does not think are protected by the 14th Amendment, like women and gays and lesbians.

And, of course, it’s worse than that for Scalia. For all his bluster implying that he’s America’s Last Honest Judge, we shouldn’t forget that Scalia joined and has aggressively defended Bush v. Gore, the nakedly partisan resolution of the 2000 presidential election that, as it happens, was decided based on the Equal Protection Clause. Scalia would have us believe that it’s absurd to think that discrimination against gays and lesbians is forbidden by the 14th Amendment. But, apparently, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that the 14th Amendment forbids counting votes without a uniform state-wide standard if the count threatens to result in George W. Bush losing an election… and not in any other case (including the non-uniform count that awarded Florida’s electoral college votes to Bush.) Scalia has never offered an “originalist” defense of Bush v. Gore, and I’m pretty confident we’re never going to get one.

Joint Causality Does Not Allow Any Individual Willful Cause to Escape Responsibility

[ 259 ] November 19, 2015 |


Given the obvious indefensibility of third party spoiler campaigns as an electoral tactic, as we’ve seen recently in comments dead-enders who remain apologists for Ralph Nader’s disastrous game of heighten-the-contradictions in 2000 have to rely on a variety of transparently specious arguments. The most common is a strawman with an underlying logical fallacy. If one observes that if not for Nader’s campaign, Al Gore would have been president, they will at some point being accused of arguing that Nader’s campaign was the only relevant variable in the 2000 campaign. Needless to say, nobody believes this. Obviously, election outcomes are the product of the complex interaction of many variables. Prominent Florida officials and Supreme Court justices and Ralph Nader all needed each other to achieve their common goal of putting George W. Bush in the White House. Under some other plausible scenarios, they would not have succeeded, and in others the help Nader’s campaign provided to Bush would have been superfluous. In terms of whether Nader deserves responsibility for the predictable potential consequences of his actions, this is all neither here nor there. Things could have worked out so that Nader failed to throw the election to Bush. Could have, but didn’t. And even if he had failed, it would have remained worth pointing out that as a tactic for pushing the Democrats to the left spoiler campaigns are all downside with no upside.

A variant form of apologism is to concede that Nader bears his share of responsibility, but to whine about how he’s been singled out. Why attack poor Ralph? Antonin Scalia and the Bush brothers are the real enemy! Well, first of all, most Nader critics are plenty critical of the Republican bad actors involved (certainly I have been.) The media has generally not gotten enough criticism (although I’ve been beating that drum forever.) But, especially going forward, there’s a rather obvious reason to spend time criticizing Nader for supporting Republicans instead of criticizing Jeb Bush for supporting George W. Bush. It is obviously futile to try to persuade Republicans not to advance Republican interests. It is, however, worth trying to persuade people who don’t support Republican interests not to support Republican interests.*

Essentially, this line of defense is like the people who defended Mike McCarthy for his series of irrational tactical decisions because the Seahawks needed a near-miraculous series of events to ultimately take advantage of the points he left on the board. But this makes no sense. The reason to maximize your number of points is that you’ll never know when you’ll need them, and the fact that you might not is beside the point. The particular path the NFC Championship took to being close at the end was unusual, but it certainly was highly plausible at the time he made stupid decisions to kick field goals that the game would be close. Similarly, it was eminently foreseeable that the 2000 election would be close, and that a spoiler campaign could act to tip the scales. The fact that more than one thing had to happen for Nader’s campaign to help swing the election to Bush doesn’t mean he can somehow duck accountability.

*Another version of Nader apologism asserts that Nader and most of his supporters and liberal Democrats do not have the same goals at all. This is really stupid. Most Nader supporters were not revolutionary socialists; they’re people on the broad left of American politics who had no problem pulling the lever for Kerry and Obama. And if we’re dividing people between “liberal” and “left,” Nader of course would be in the former category. He’s a quintessential 60s liberal legalist, and not a particularly left-wing one. His differences with mainstream liberal Democrats are not ideological, but temperamental, rooted in his unwavering belief that any Democratic public official who cannot deliver precisely what he wants when he expects it is hopelessly corrupt.

The Party Decides and the 2016 Republican Primaries

[ 91 ] November 18, 2015 |



This post isn’t about what you think it’s about. I’m not talking about a looming coup; I’m talking about the problems facing political science, which — it recently occurred to me — are a bit like the problems facing macroeconomics after 2008.


Yet I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that so far this cycle the political scientists aren’t doing too well. In particular, standard models of how the nomination process works seem to be having trouble with the durability of clowns. Things don’t seem to be working the way they used to.

And this makes me think of the way some economic analysis went astray after 2008. In particular, I’m reminded of the way many fairly reasonable analysts underestimated the adverse effects of austerity. They looked at historical episodes, and this led them to expect around a half point of GDP contraction for every point of fiscal tightening. What actually seems to have happened was around three times that much.

A couple of points are worth making at the outset. First of all, it’s premature to declare the theory of The Party Decides dead. If Carson and Trump crash and burn in the actual primaries, the fact that they led in the polls for a longer period than the typical outsider if anything strengthens the theory and certainly doesn’t disprove it. And second, I don’t think that The Party Decides reflects quite as much a “political science” consensus as Krugman suggests. It is a good and useful book, but the contemporary competitive presidential primary comprises a small “n,” and even so the model explains some outcomes more persuasively than others, and these limitations are recognized by numerous political scientists.

All this said, I think Krugman is onto something. This is the considered judgment of a political scientist, not “political science,” but I think the robust performance of Trump and Carson does probably tell us something about the limitations of the most influential theory of how presidential primaries are decided. And yet I still think Carson has virtually no chance of winning the nomination and Trump not a lot more than that.

My theory is this: it is possible to win the nomination without the ex ante support of party elites. But it is not possible to win the nomination without serious commitment and a real campaign apparatus. Turning out votes in the long primary process has generally required a real organization backed up with money, and I still don’t think the magic of the internet means that this is no longer true. I don’t know if a Ben Carson who was running a real campaign could win the nomination, but I’m very confident that a Ben Carson who’s plowing 70% of his fundraising into more fundraising can’t. His pre-existing support among evangelicals might make him very competitive in Iowa if he stays in the race, but I think he’d be spent and maneuvered into oblivion after that just like Santorum and Gingrich and Huckabee were after their early wins against establishment candidates the base was notably unenthusiastic about.

This doesn’t mean that the party will “decide.” Although I’d put a modest bet on Rubio if I lived in a jurisdiction that allowed it, he may never catch fire. But if neither he nor Jeb! can emerge as a frontrunner, the most likely beneficiary is not Carson or Trump but Ted Cruz. Party elites don’t like him because of his grandstanding, but he has a lot of support in the base, and he’s an actual professional politician who understands the importance of organization and has a lot of cash. And if it comes down to Cruz v. Trump, party elites will mostly end up rallying around the former.

Finally, Someone Willing to Set Priorities

[ 21 ] November 17, 2015 |

Republican presidential candidate in the formal sense Chris Christie has things to say:


As the GOP presidential hopefuls compete to see who can strike the toughest, most macho-looking anti-immigrant pose, we’ve witnessed Donald Trump’s “Operation Wetback,” thrilled to Ben Carson’s plan to Make Mexico Great Again, and heard Marco Rubio say “We can’t. We just can’t.” But here comes swaggering dicknose Chris Christie to deliver the hard truths those other pussies won’t: Not even an orphaned Syrian four-year-old would be allowed into the U.S. on his watch.

“The fact is that we need for appropriate vetting,” he told Hugh Hewitt Monday, “And I don’t think orphans under five should be admitted into the United States at this point. They have no family here, how are we gonna care for these folks?”

Maybe three-year-old orphans are TROJAN HORSES! We can’t be too careful! Besides, any money that goes to war orphans cannot be funneled to developers of failed casino projects.

The Grownups Are Back In Charge

[ 305 ] November 17, 2015 |


No, no, for real this time:

“We have the right strategy and we’re going to see it through,” Mr. Obama told reporters as he wrapped up a summit meeting with world leaders before flying to the Philippines. He has consistently said that it would take time, he noted, and he would not change that strategy simply because of domestic pressure. “What I do not do is take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough.”

If he did not gratify a public hunger for retribution, or at least the language of it, the president gambled that his position was actually closer to the broader American reluctance to get entangled in another land war in the Middle East. Sending large numbers of American ground troops to fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, would repeat what he sees as the error of the Iraq invasion of 2003 without solving the problem at hand.

“That would be a mistake, not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before,” Mr. Obama said. Victory over terrorist groups, he said, requires local populations to reject the ideology of extremism “unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”

It’s like Bill Belichick using his timeouts before the two-minute warning. In a rational universe, you wouldn’t deserve much credit for doing something so obvious, but compared to other potential decision-makers it makes you look really good. For example:

His message drew fire back in Washington, where Republicans and other critics saw it as evidence of an out-of-touch fecklessness. “Unfortunately, the president’s press conference today confirmed that he is unwilling to acknowledge his failed policies or re-evaluate his strategy moving forward,” Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, said.

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, described the president’s news conference as “excuse-laden and defensive,” proving he had no resolve or strategy to defeat the Islamic State. “Never before have I seen an American president project such weakness on the global stage,” he said.

Yes, if any strategy has proven effective for preventing terrorist groups from filling stateless vacuums, it’s the SHOCK AND AWE of BOOTS ON THE GROUND showing AMERICAN RESOLVE AND CREDIBILITY. Republican foreign policy is like Mike McCarthy or Dan Quinn kicking field goals on 4th-and-goal from the 1 because YOU HAVE TO PUT THE POINTS ON THE BOARD in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, with far deadlier consequences if they’re actually in charge of the White House.

Allen Toussaint In 10 Songs

[ 6 ] November 16, 2015 |


And That Worked Out Great!

[ 114 ] November 16, 2015 |


Shorter Verbatim Rick Moran [@ Edroso, so you can get out of the boat]: “Some of these young intellectuals will be mugged by reality and wake up to the truth. It happened here after 9/11. PJ Media’s Roger L. Simon was one such leftist whose eyes were opened on 9/11. Christopher Hitchens was another.”

If there’s any intellectual giant whose wisdom should guide us as we confront ISIS, surely the man who compelled Pauline Kael to retire should be near the top of the list.

Anyway, I’m sure everyone remembers when, with the enthusiastic support of people like Simon and Hitchens, the Bush administration razed Iraq, and reasonably assumed that Ahmed Chalabi and some Heritage Foundation interns could construct a stable liberal democracy ex nihlio in its place. If I recall correctly, this worked extremely well, and certainly did not create a stateless vacuum in which particularly vicious and atavistic terrorists could seize territory and launch attacks on other countries. So I’m sure if we try it again it will work out just great. Or at least it will as long as the president says the phrase “radical Islam” a lot. War cannot fail; it can only be stabbed in the back.

Roe in the Crosshairs

[ 47 ] November 16, 2015 |


Next June, the Supreme Court will determine whether Texas’s draconian restrictions on abortion are constitutional. If the statute is upheld, Roe has been overruled whether Kennedy says it explicitly or not:

In theory, the “undue burden” standard could have provided a fairly robust protection of a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion; in practice, it has not.

Among other things, the court held in Casey that a mandatory waiting period for a woman seeking an abortion was constitutional, although the restriction placed a significant burden on some women – particularly poor and/or rural women – while not advancing any legitimate state interest in the protection of its citizens. Mandatory waiting periods are simply designed to make abortion maximally inconvenient and provide no heath benefits to the women subjected to them. As then-justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his opinion in Casey: “The mandatory delay … appears to rest on outmoded and unacceptable assumptions about the decision-making capacity of women.”

The Texas statute is the obvious end point of a ruling like Casey; it’s the culmination of a process in which anti-abortion forces have piled regulation upon regulation until they have forced most of the state’s abortion clinics to close. In the case of Texas, HB2 was upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals even though it would place a major burden on the reproductive rights of women outside of a handful of urban centers, and despite the fact that the law has no plausible connection to protecting a woman’s health. The clinics are not being closed because they don’t provide safe abortions, but because they do.

As with so many cases, it is nearly certain that the fate of a woman’s right to choose in the United States will come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy, the only member of the five-justice Casey majority still on the court. Supporters of Roe have ample reason to be pessimistic. Kennedy – always the shakiest member of the Casey five – has upheld 20 of the 21 abortion restrictions to come before him as a US supreme court justice under the new “undue burden” standard. It’s possible that he could vote to uphold the Texas statute and continue the process of asserting that Roe remains in force while making it devoid of any meaningful content.

I would estimate the chances that HB2 is Kennedy’s breaking point at about 60/40. I don’t think Kennedy would want to write an opinion overruling Roe. But is he capable of writing an opinion upholding HB2 and hence overruling Roe sub silentio while convincing himself that he’s not actually doing it? Sadly, yes.

A Town Without Law

[ 18 ] November 16, 2015 |

This is an amazing story about a lot of horrible things:

For years, people in the tiny Louisiana town of Marksville watched the feud between their mayor and local judge like some kind of daytime soap opera, with varying degrees of frustration and bemusement.

Then came the Nov. 3 shooting that killed a 6-year-old boy. Suddenly, the petty small-town bickering began looking more tragically sinister.

Why in the world, residents ask, were deputy marshals — whose main job is serving court papers for the judge — out there chasing cars and shooting up suspects? How did one of the deputies — who had been charged twice for aggravated rape and racked up a string of lawsuits for excessive force — even get hired? And how did a speck of a town like Marksville wind up with a shadow police force on its streets?

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