Barack Obama And The Supertanker Of State


Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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140 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    What IS this new course? Where are we headed, or rather, where would he like to steer the ship? I can ubderstand the idea of a political realignment, an entrenchment of the Democratic party in suburbia, but what is the Obama vision for the country? Reagan, and Johnson and Eisenhower and FDR, were all able to articulate their visions even if the reality worked out to be different. Aside from a warm fuzzy feeling of moving past the crudest of our racial struggles and looking more to the government to address health care problems of individuals I do not know what Obama’s future for the USA looks like. School me.Report

    • My sense is that his vision is mainly one in which American political culture isn’t reflexively (at least rhetorically) anti-state. Effectively, this would lead to a American version of the welfare state as seen in Western Europe, but with a greater emphasis on “green” jobs. I don’t think it’s primarily about applicable policy so much as fostering an environment where the bounds of what’s politically feasible have been altered, shifted leftward.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I do not know what Obama’s future for the USA looks like. School me.

      I think that’s a fair question. Mos def. But look, I think part of the problem here is that conservatives have pushed things so far to the right that Democrats are really fighting a rearguard action at this point. They’re just trying to preserve programs and institutions from a relentless onslaught by the right: Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, education, the EPA, abortion-rights…Trade policy is one thing, but all US President’s take their cues on this from private business (since the business of America is business!). And foreign relations is overwhelmingly determined by CFR and other groups.

      So Obama’s ‘future America’ is one where these institutions are sustained (either by entrenchment or consensus) and they’re paid for. Sure, he’d like to achieve a post-partisan political order where people who actually do agree about stuff and agree to pass policy about it. But that hasn’t really worked out very well. The other stuff is pretty incidental (more or less) at this point. Or so it seems to me.Report

  2. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I think I’d rank those things differently in terms of likeliness. It’s nearly certain that the economy will regain something of its former luster and the question is really how soon that will happen. Meanwhile, I’d give Obama about 50/50 odds of reëlection and would say it’s highly likely that the Supreme Court will do serious damage to Obamacare.

    As for changing what’s politically possible, I’d be happy if that was unchanged, but someone could make what’s politically probable a bit less horrid.Report

    • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Rufus F. says:

      I think it’s very possible that we’re in a semi-permanent era of high unemployment, especially if we factor in the likelihood (high) that another financial panic will occur within the next 15 years.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Elias Isquith says:

        Well, the rich got richer the LAST time we had a financial panic, so… you think they’re apt to try again?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Elias Isquith says:

        That collapse is as predictable as the orbit of Venus.   While OTC derivatives remain unregulated, it’s an absolute certainty 2008 will happen again.    And while the regulators cannot be distinguished from the regulators, it’s going to resemble the end of Animal Farm:

        But they had not gone twenty yards when they stopped short. An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously.

        Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    Well if Obama’s term concludes with the left putting the idea of intervention to prevent inequality on the back burner that’d certainly strike me as a productive and helpful change. Of all the windmills to tilt at inequality strikes me as an especially unproductive one.Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    There’s a general rule wherein supertankers and other large vessels must be brought in by a licensed harbour pilot.   Obama’s proven capable of getting most of what he wants by keeping his focus relatively tight where he needed it but bringing in ACA and other legislation required bribing the Congressional likes of Byron Dorgan and kowtowing to Big Health Insurance.

    The political junkies tend to think of legislation in terms of “Obama steering the ship”, forgetting Mr. Madison’s architecture of government.   Health care reform didn’t spring full-grown from the brow of Zeus Obama.   It was so much Bismarck brand sausage.

    A ship is a creature of the tides and currents and winds.   Sometimes it gets bad enough to where it comes down to putting the prow into each oncoming wave, keeping a weather eye out for the big bad roller coming in from port or starboard, capable of rolling the ship like a toy in the bathtub.   It’s not like the presidency is any different and the supertanker is a fine analogy.   The Republicans have made sure Obama will never have decent weather:  while the likes of that old snapping turtle Mitch McConnell continue on their path of destructive interference with anything Obama and the Democrats might do, Obama will stay offshore in deep water where at least he can keep a hundred fathoms of water under the keel.

    There is no Obama Model.   That’s the first fallacy to overcome if anyone’s going to come to terms with this president.   There used to be an Obama Model.   Trouble is, the GOP had a model too:  call Obama a Kenyan Marxist and obstruct everything he tried to do.   Didn’t matter whether it was good or bad for the country, didn’t even matter than the health care model Obama proposed was lifted wholesale from the GOP’s own models over time.

    So what should we expect from Obama?    He’s no longer playing a nice polite hand of contract bridge, where strategy and cooperation matter.   Now it’s Texas Hold ’em with two cards down, a simple game where the flop is followed by the turn and then the river card.   It’s about how to bet, not who has the best hand.  Sure, there are some strategies about how to view that game, hand after hand after hand, but it comes down to the art of bluff and the stack of chips, not necessarily a superior hand.

    Texas Hold ’em is a game for ill-dressed weenies who wear sunglasses and headphones trying to avoid tells.    The players would wear masks if they were allowed in tournament play.   Online players often find they’re wretched players in the flesh.   Same goes for armchair pundits:  politics is a different game when it’s played in the flesh.

    Our political system, like our legal system, is based on an adversarial set of relationships.   What’s Obama’s plan?   Get re-elected.   That’s it.   If there are any objectives beyond that, the GOP will go on obstructing them, not because they’re no good but because that’s who they are, a rageful sea ceaselessly roaring and crashing, entirely devoid of any intent or purpose.

    And Obama has no harbour pilot in the Congress. He will stay out to sea, outwaiting the Republicans.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I suppose the question is whether his ship will break up at sea before the electorate gets sick of the storms and force calmer weather.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North says:

        Hoping the American voter will act in his own best interests is wishing in one hand and shitting in the other.   We know which hand will fill up first.   Romney will lie his ass off between now and election day and nobody can stop him.  It’s expected of him.   He’ll iterate through every aspect of policy, foreign and domestic, casting ridiculous aspersions on everything Obama has done and his constituency will eat it up.

        It’s pointless for Obama to deny any of it.   It’s like LBJ saying his opponent the pig farmer had carnal relations with his swine.  LBJ’s horrified advisors said “Lyndon, you can’t say such things!”   LBJ responded “I just want to see him deny it.”

        And that’s how this whole sorry campaign will proceed, mark my words.   The siege engines are already being rolled up, the barrels full of flaming doo-doo are already hoisted into the buckets of the catapults, the brainless trolls are steadily pulling the gantries up to the battlements.   Obama’s just waiting for them, waiting for them to come within range of his own massive shitflingers.   Obama will give as good as he gets, or bad, depending on your viewpoint.

        The ship won’t break up at sea.   My little models say Obama will be re-elected handily if the RBOB prices and unemployment numbers are any guide.   America doesn’t think, it reacts.   Our system isn’t engineered for long-term thinking so it’s beyond pointless to think of any objectives.   Even at its best, a president is thinking one term at a time, four years max, and nobody in recent history has enjoyed a second term rally.    Usually it’s Scandal Time and Lame Duckery Deluxe for the last four years:  why anyone wants a second term is beyond me.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to BlaiseP says:

          From your lips to God(ess?)’s ear Blaise.Report

        • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Good comments, but possibly trapped within the very paradigm that’s at issue.  So, in another comment you write:

          Our political system, like our legal system, is based on an adversarial set of relationships.   What’s Obama’s plan?   Get re-elected.   That’s it.   If there are any objectives beyond that, the GOP will go on obstructing them, not because they’re no good but because that’s who they are, a rageful sea ceaselessly roaring and crashing, entirely devoid of any intent or purpose.

          The description turns on a seemingly non-ideological (ideologically emptied or neutralized) power struggle right back around into the supreme ideological struggle over conceptions of the state, with all that that implies – the central question of American politics in every era, on the shape, limits, and possibilities of democratic self-governance.  Given America’s role in the world, it’s also a global question, likely  to be answered only over the relative “long term” – whether we think about it, or imagine ourselves to be thinking about it, or not.

          Obamaist progressivism is an attempt to enhance, where necessary to re-create, positive self-governance via the political system and public administration, on the level of the nation-state.  Tea Party Republicanism expresses as rage, cynicism, nihilism, and most of all as obstructionism, within the formalized political superstructure because it operates according to a principle of devolution and displacement of power, especially at the nation-state level. It has no problem converting almost instantaneously, as well as somewhat jarringly where not comically, into positive forms in relation to the alternative sectors to which power under its scheme would flow:  above all capitalism in all of its complexity, conjured as “business” and “entrepreneurialism,” but also the military and religious authority, to be called upon for traditional security functions if and when things get sticky.

          When healthy skepticism about the state, or pessimism about human nature generally, turns into mere cynicism, it tends to serve that process of devolution and displacement. I wonder if you consider that a good or inevitable thing, or even a foregone conclusion.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            I’m not sure Obama’s a progressive at all.   He might have been, back when he was trying to get ACA passed.   Every American presidency has a similar full-court press for a few objectives.   With Bush43 it was tax cuts and education.   That’s the sum total of his campaign issues,  he got them passed in a few months, that’s it.    Obama shot his wad with ACA, he’ll never have another such objective again:  he has no political capital left.

            The Tea Partiers, having known a few of them, are dead set on the expansion of government.   When I raised a few issues where the scoundrels they so correctly denounce might have been stymied by effective regulation, they grimly nodded in agreement.   That sort of regulation they like.   They’re not stupid, these Tea Partiers.

            Funny thing is, when I talk to the Libertarians around here, who are substantially more intellectually sound in their belief structures than the Tea Partiers, I get the same reaction.   There is a role for effective government regulation by their lights.   Though they’re always rattling on about the evils of Big Gummint, they know the markets don’t regulate themselves.   They know the crooks and tax dodgers and all those shitheel lobbyists are out there, intent upon tearing down reasonable regulations, written in blood most of them.

            Here’s the deal with my comparison to the legal system.   The only place you can’t lie in a courtroom is in the witness box, under oath.  Outside that little box, it’s all lies and half-truths.   I don’t think I’m trapped in anyone paradigm, though that’s not for me to say, since I’m trapped inside it I might not realise it.   American politics, especially campaigning, is bullshit from top to bottom.   No escaping that truth.  None of these guys are engaged in meaningful debate:  it’s all preaching to the choir about the sins of the next church over.   Even around here, I point out Romney’s lying his ass off and some idiot feels the necessity of putting strike tags through Romney and adding Obama.

            There is another analogy I’ve been considering.  Politics as Religion.  There’s no American Religion:  there are two or three, each utterly convinced that Agnostic God is rooting for the justice of its causes.   They damn each other with such frequency and vehemence, all the while disobeying their own commandments, it’s literally impossible to think a just God would do anything for these folks but send down bolts of lightning to reduce them to crisp bacon.Report

            • Avatar wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Blaise, your vitriolic and unceasing attacks on all things Republican is wearing a little thin. You have  become your own caricature of a shit flinging monkey, albeit one with a more developed frontal lobe but an unfortunate tendency towards Tourettes and verbal diarrhea. You claim Romney lies, and criticize me for bringing up that Obama lies too? Should I have just stated that all politicians lie and left it at that? But we aren’t faced with politicians in the abstract here, but THE politician who is going to lead this country, a not insubstantial consideration.

              The Tea Party didn’t spring up as some rearguard action by brilliant Machiavellians in the Republican camp. No, they sprang up as a direct consequence of what they saw happening to the country they had grown old in, but no longer recognized. It won’t matter how many times we tell you that Republicans are the only bulwark against overly intrusive and continuously expanding government your only response is… more shit flinging. I don’t particularly like the Republican Party, but I dislike what I see in the Democrat Party even more. I truly wish the Tea Party had gained traction on its own and perhaps become a viable 3rd Party in this country. I am a Libertarian but I’m no pie in the sky economist who believes that humans can be neatly made into neat spherical objects as did Lenin. I have lived nearly as long as you and seen just as damn much and know the evil that lurks in the heart of men. The world does have the beginnings of a Libertarian utopia, you’re using it right now (the Internet). It will take time to gel, and for statism to pass, but pass it must.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to wardsmith says:

                IOW, don’t immantize the eschaton.

                Y’know, I really miss Cheeks at times like this.  He could rant with the best of ’em, full of pith and vinegar.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to wardsmith says:

                The libertarian utopia, built and created by the government?Report

              • Avatar Mo in reply to wardsmith says:

                Are you referring to the same Republican Party that created the PATRIOT Act, led to the largest expansion of government since the New Deal, defended the use of torture and went to court to defend their ability to suspend habeus corpus? I’m no fan of Obama or the Democrats, but calling the Republicans “the only bulwark against overly intrusive and continuously expanding government ” is partisan bovine excrement. For the Republican Party the right time to shrink government is when a Democrat is in the White House. Unless you can give me a modern example of a Republican administration that shrunk the size of government or one who did anything meaningful about the deficit.

                I am curious what you think happened in the fall of 2008 that made the country unrecognizable to Tea Party members.Report

              • Avatar Mo in reply to Mo says:

                “one who did anything meaningful about the deficit” should be “one who did anything meaningful about the deficit since Eisenhower”.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Mo says:

                The Republicans who blew out the size of gov’t were themselves blown out by those other Republicans called voters. I’ve had done to me exactly what you are calling torture. Almost all SERE participants go through it, that was why it was picked for the enhanced interrogation technique. It is decidedly unpleasant but not life-threatening nor permanently harmful. Mike Guy did it in a rather famous video, thinking he could beat the 15 second record. So did Hitchens.

                Shrinking the size of gov’t correctly belongs to Congress (they manage the purse), not the Executive branch. However, a strong executive who actually espouses same would have my vote. Obama isn’t running anything, he is a perfect example of outsourced gov’t inaction (no that wasn’t a typo). Obama didn’t write Obamacare, Obama has done virtually nothing this presidency except lower his handicap on the golf course and read speeches written by others off a teleprompter.

                Like you, I’m no big fan of the Republicans either but at least as they’ve voiced their displeasure with massive gov’t I’ll take them at their words, until they show they can’t do the job, at which point I’ll happily vote against them. The Democrats on the other side have been most open about an unwillingness to shrink gov’t or the debt, so we aren’t really comparing apples and apples here are we?Report

              • Avatar Mo in reply to wardsmith says:

                Over 90% of Republican incumbents in 2010 were reelected. So the guys that blew out the government are still in government and currently hold leadership roles.

                As for torture, by your logic, there’s no difference between rape and consensual sex. Or that solitary confinement is fine and dandy because I periodically like to be alone and do nothing. By ignoring the fact that people like Hitchens and the SERE volunteers know that the people conducting it bear them no ill will. Something our detainees do not know. I find it telling that you link to the video of Hitchens, rather than his article on the experience titled, Believe Me, It’s Torture*. Also, torture is not limited to causing permanent physical damage. Extreme sleep deprivation, electrical shocks and extended solitary confinement do not cause permanent damage, but are still considered torture. FWIW, in the release Hitchens signed, it stated, “‘Water boarding’ is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.” That seems to contradict what you claim.

                * Let’s note that Hitchens was an unapologetic cheerleader for the war and prior to the experience did not think that waterboarding was tortureReport

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mo says:

                The GWB administration permanently soured me on the Republican Party.  Before that I’d been skeptical but not completely unfavorable.

                Now, unfortunately, I have to be strongly opposed to both mainstream political parties.  It isn’t easy.Report

              • Avatar Mo in reply to Mo says:

                I disagree. Both parties make it very easy to strongly oppose them.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mo says:

                I meant — <em>sniff</em> — it isn’t easy not having any friends.Report

              • Avatar Will H. in reply to wardsmith says:

                I don’t particularly like the Republican Party, but I dislike what I see in the Democrat Party even more.

                I have long said that, when faced with a choice between something terrible and something absolutely monstrous, rational people will choose the terrible.
                I would say that the Republican Party has become significantly less terrible in the years following the retirement of Bush43.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Will H. says:

                So, moving far to the right on abortion, collective bargaining, immigration, and taxes is “less terrible?” Hrm.Report

              • Avatar Will H. in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:


              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Will H. says:


                Repealing equal pay laws, squashing public sector unions and mandating transvaginal ultrasounds are much less terrible than invading countries on false pretenses, torturing “suspected” terrorists and  flubbing disaster relief efforts.Report

              • Avatar Will H. in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                That’s quite a bit of misinformation you have there.
                First of all, I’m one of those journeymen from a trade union that believes that public sector unions (including government employees, teachers, police, and firefighters) would be better off not squashed, but outright illegalized.
                I have no issue in mandating oversight to risky medical procedures.
                To my knowledge (and I keep a pretty close eye on such things), there has been no effort to repeal equal pay laws. That whole Lily Ledbetter thing was about reducing the amount of time to bring a claim. If you really want to get upset about something, you can look here, and tell me why that’s not subject to the four-year statute of limitations that other civil actions under the federal code are.
                Were there not so many of the Democrats complicit in the invasion of Iraq– twice!– you might have a good point there.
                Maybe you see the killing by drones of suspected criminals as being somehow superior in that the collateral damage is far greater; however, I respectfully disagree.
                Likewise, the amount of graft and outright embezzlement in the Haiti relief effort was something I found to be appalling.

                Government is a dirty business.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Will H. says:

                The whole point was more about GOP policy priorities since George W. Bush’s “retirement”.

                On the whole the GOP voted against Ledbetter and have since made efforts to repeal equal pay protections at the state level,
                An example being Wisconsin’s equal pay law.

                Your willingness to have collective bargaining for yourself, but wanting to make it outright illegal for government employees is…strange. But I’m sure you have your reasons.

                There’s nothing “oversight” related about the raft of abortion provisions being bandied about or passed by GOP legislatures across the country. To describe it as “mandating oversight” is not just flagrantly untrue, but downright offensive.

                Your point about Democratic complicity in Iraq is a non-sequitor. The question was regarding whether or not the GOP is “less terrible” than it was during 2000 – 2008.

                As for drone strikes, again a non-sequitor.

                Screaming “Lefties are evil!” (which seems to be your default response to everything) doesn’t actually absolve policy failures or positions taken by the Republicans.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Will H. says:

                What is the implication of putting retirement in quotes?Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Will H. says:

                Nothing really. Man’s no longer a public figure, I suppose and he’s stayed out of the spotlight for the most part.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to wardsmith says:

                Oh can the faux outrage, Ward.   And ditto for the tu-quoque bullshit, you argue like a petulant teenager — everyone lies.   Well, yes, I suppose everyone does lie.   You scrubbed out Romney and put in Obama, which is to say Romney doesn’t lie.   Excuse me to death for your failure to understand the semiotics of span style=”text-decoration: line-through;”   It’s come to a sorry pass when your browser can render what you clearly don’t understand, Ward.

                Yes, Romney does lie.   A lot.   It’s becoming a pattern.   If you don’t like the GOP, my advice is to quit defending Romney.


  5. Avatar Roger says:

    Would someone please remind me why it is we assume that a diverse population of people with different values, goals, life stages and contribution levels would expect to achieve consistent economic outcomes?

    And as I read the opening ungated paragraphs of the WSJ article the proper headline should be ” everyone gains, those that contribute the most gain the most”. Whoa, major scandal.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Roger says:

      I think the Internet gremlins ate my reply, I’ll try again,

      The dispute is over what level of “[in]consistent economic outcomes” is acceptable – and furthermore, what are the consequences of large inequality for social cohesion? In what sense are we all in a community enterprise together, or alternatively, are we just many individuals who happen to live side by side but care rather little for the well-being of our neighbors? That’s throwing it into rather stark relief, but the stats on US inequality are breathtaking (via PBS Newshour),


      • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        Thanks Creon,

        I wish you posted more frequently, as I always love your empirical approach.

        As the one time contractual employer of Mr Ariely, I am well versed on his insights of behavioral economics. Here he deploys the art of Framing. He assumes a pie and the shows how it is distributed. The truth of course is that the pie has to be created. Someone has to grow the ingredients, transport and gather them, combine them, bake them, raise the capital for the kitchen, take the risk nobody wants them, serve them and so on. Point is that in a reasonably free market, those that bake more pies get rewarded more even as they create more desserts for everyone else. Blessed are the pie bakers!

        I am pretty sure Rufus T Firefly would agree (the elder statesman of Freedonia)

        But that isn’t even my main point. My main point is that this assumes people all want the same amount of pie and are willing to exchange their other values for it. This is one doozy of an assumption. People in the real world have different values and goals and I personally believe this is a good thing.

        Some value free time, some value independence, some value immediate consumption, some value security, some value risk taking, some value hard work, some value saving for the future. Some value respect, some value status displays. Some spend their lives baking cakes, and some just want to eat them.

        If people are free to pursue different things, we would expect them to achieve different things. To reframe the problem as inequality is to ignore their goals and contributions in the kitchen. It is pretty well established that the lower quintile in America is disproportionately made up of households that have not pursued higher education, that are not married, that have kids out of wedlock, that work fewer hours even when more hours are available, that have issues with authority and respect, and that have shorter time horizons. In other words they are the kids that eat the marshmallow rather than waiting five minutes for two tasty treats. I respect their right to eat the marshmallow. I do not respect people claiming they have a right to coercively claim of those who did not consume them all.

        Note: this is not argument over reasonable safety nets, which I am a fan of.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Roger says:

          *hugs* thanks for being a fan of safety nets. *hugs*

          document : work fewer hours when more hours are available. Most people I’ve known from the lower classes have been working well more hours (and harder) than people of means.

          Issues with authority and respect? I read a book about Spanish harlem once… i don’t think your “issues with authority and respect” mean what you think it does. I also dont’ think you understand the problems that depression and low self-esteem inflict on the community.

          (I dig the shorter time horizons — not from my own experience, but from Field Negro’s).Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Kimmi says:


            The stat comes from the following research by Murray. Lower class working age joblessness went from 10% to 20% prior to the recession.


            Looking at average hours worked per household per week reveals the amazing difference of 13 hours per week for the lowest quintile ( it includes retires) to 74 hours per week for the top. When people work five or six times as many hours per week, it makes sense that they earn more too.


            I empathize with the issues of depression and self esteem. The problem is that people are often dissatisfied with their choices in life. Just about all the people I knew in the corporate suites were miserable too. As they warn in the Third Indiana Jones movie…. “Choose wisely”.Report

        • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Roger says:

          Roger, there are several other things wrong with the graphical approach taken here. One has been discussed at some length here on the League, which is that with negative net worth, almost 50% of the population drop into the statistical abyss. We can put them in whatever quintile we like, but they still are skewing the numbers dramatically. The other issue was brought up by Patrick Cahalan in a recent comment. For the past 30 years of globalization, the dramatically LOWER wages of developing countries have been factored into the wage potential of the American worker. Not being skilled places one at the lower rungs of a massive ladder that is only getting longer. The solution /could/ be education, but Americans are sitting on over a Trillion dollars of college loan debt with not much to show for it. The expected value of that particular lotto ticket is a bit complex to cypher. Especially when one considers hundreds of thousands spent on marginal degrees with minimal economic utility. Again, your choices argument in spades.Report

          • Avatar Will H. in reply to wardsmith says:

            Two points I would like to expand on here.

            I remember seeing the statistic that 23.2% of all degrees awarded in the US are in business administration. Each degree awarded devalues the last. Sending everyone to college means that a college degree becomes the new high school diploma.
            Myself, I dropped out of college twice before I was organized in to a trade union as a journeyman. I was recently (2009) consider going back to school to complete my engineering degree. I discovered that would reduce my earning to 60 – 70% of where they currently stand, constrict the market to entry-level positions, and I would basically forfeit my pension. Not hard to tell which way I went on that one.
            Odd thing is, I was offered an opportunity to teach at Daytona Beach Community College right before I left Florida; second-year courses on instrumentation and such. For many purposes, a five-year apprenticeship (or in my case, credit for that apprenticeship) is considered the same as a master’s degree, with two important exceptions: the earnings, which are notably greater, and it places me squarely at odds with the mindset of academia. The fact that I’m capable of actually doing something is frowned upon by many.

            The other thing is the concept of a social safety net. There are very few who would argue to do away with it entirely. But its purpose is in question. I can see a need for a defined low point in the wave-form; but I believe the purpose should be more geared toward dusting yourself off and getting back up again. I don’t see providing long-term subsistence as a viable goal. I don’t want to see inches turn into miles, and I think we’ve gone a ways beyond the half-mile marker.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to wardsmith says:


            Yeah, there is the whole issue of debt and negative net worth. I still remember the cartoon about the panhandler bring the only person with a positive net worth.Report

        • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Roger says:

          Roger, thanks for the compliment, I’d like to comment more but time/work constraints interfere. I do get a chance to read a lot of the posts and comments – but replying, and not just drive by replies, substantive replies take me some time.

          The kitchen-pie thing to me just appears as a restatement of the question: how should the gains from productivity be distributed? Who should get what share? Does the market do a good-enough job at distributing the fruits of our labors? Should that “our” be focused more on an individual’s contribution, or what the community has brought to bear (education, healthcare, court system, etc.)?

          I don’t think I’m willing to follow you into the bottom 80% of the population simply has different values than the top 20%. Those in the lower quintiles aren’t exactly enjoying the fruits of a much healthier work-life balance and self-actualization through less well-earning means. The whole working-poor thing means they have difficult, difficult lives making horrendous trade-offs between medication and the rent, or paying the light bill or the water bill. I think the portrait you paint,

          It is pretty well established that the lower quintile in America is disproportionately made up of households that have not pursued higher education, that are not married, that have kids out of wedlock, that work fewer hours even when more hours are available, that have issues with authority and respect, and that have shorter time horizons.

          is bound up in the inequality, that is to say inequality reproduces itself. Working and going to college is really tough. One may value a college education and still have a combination of obligations that make the opportunity particularly difficult to reach. It isn’t like college education’s cost has been growing at a low rate, nor is it the case that the US has committed the funds to Pell Grants and such to support those on the losing end of globalization (or these income/wealth distribution charts). On the other end of the scale, if you have the money for college counseling, tutoring, and a bevy of activities to make you a well-rounded applicant, you’re pretty much a shoe in at a selective college (yes there’s stress about the highest end of the selectivity spectrum, but there’s a college looking for you and your (parents’) money).

          I’d like to address your “kids that eat the marshmallow” point more intelligently, but here’s the shorthand of what I’d say: it sounds like an undeserving poor argument to me, blame the poor for being poor. Those lacking in the ability to delay gratification reap the consequences in lower earnings and wealth for themselves, their families, and their children – down through generations. That’s just antithetical to social justice to me – I know, not a convincing argument, more just a statement of belief. But there it is.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:


            As usual your response is pretty fair. I exaggerated my point for effect.

            Where I agree with you is that a free market by itself, absent reasonable social safety nets is not yours or my idea of a good society. It is not one we would choose behind a veil of ignorance. That said, I am very leery of interfering with the free market to engineer particular outcomes. I prefer instead to add reasonable safety nets with proper incentives. The market rewards pie baking, with pie defined as consumer utility. Hard work, investment, risk, creativity and luck all play a part, but the consumer is sovereign and thus we are all tied together into a system where we all serve each other. The system is good. It bakes pies better than any other. But it is not compassionate or forgiving.

            I understand that working hard and dealing with disrespectful bosses and customers, and saving and investing for the future, taking risks, and going to college are tough. That’s why some don’t do it. That is why the market rewards these activities, or at least offers the chance of reward if consumers are pleased enough to buy it. The system is one which creates value and incentivizes people do try to do so. If we mess with these incentives within the system, we risk breaking it.

            As my comments below reveal, people do have other values than making money. And this is good. But if they don’t try to make a lot, or don’t get the memo on how to, then they aren’t going to do well. And yes, I will be glad to draft the memo. It will say if you want to live a middle class or better lifestyle, go to school, study hard, be respectful, dress cleanly, be dependable, work hard, save for a rainy day, get married to someone as industrious as you, and teach your kids the same. This, and a reasonable safety net will get people a long way. If my grandson gets this message I will be content.

            The shorter time horizons argument is a tough one. I believe they should be free to choose as they do, but I realize they will often later come to regret their decisions or lack thereof. And of course, some people are not capable at all. Again, I endorse safety nets.

            There is something that does soften the blow of the curse of being unable to delay gratification. For what it is worth, I believe these people benefit more from living around those that invest in the future than vice versa. in other words, to switch metaphors, the grasshoppers benefit from ants more than ants do from grasshoppers.

            In summary, the market and income statistics should not reflect equal outcomes. Social justice goes above the market though.Report

            • Avatar Robert Greer in reply to Roger says:

              Yes, and the really perverse thing about the “kids who eat the marshmallow” argument is that mental capabilities like willpower and attention are best characterized as resources themselves, so right-wingers are naturalizing inequality by inappropriately treating exogenous factors for individual failure as endogenous ones.  Like traditional “resources,” willpower can be depleted, and is unevenly distributed based on socioeconomic class: High-stress environments (like poor neighborhoods) are correlated with elevated stress hormones, which impair the executive functioning needed to delay gratification.  But I think conservative economics is more interested in victim-blaming than in figuring out what’s really going on.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Robert Greer says:


                I am not sure where your argument is going. I certainly agree that willpower, opportunity and attention are both affected by intrinsic and environmental factors. I agree that both factors can be unequally distributed. I agree that some people are dealt a better or worse hand than others. Finally, I believe universal compassion is a good thing and that we should care about the way the cards are dealt.

                That said, where are you going?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Roger says:

                I think his point is that willpower is not a skill; it’s a resource which is to say it can and is depleted. So if you’re a poor kid and you have poor nutrition and a poor home environment, your willpower resources will be depleted more before you get to school than, say, a middle class kid and thus you’ll have less willpower available to study, focus on homework etc. Thus your odds of becoming undereducated and underemployed are heightened and thus poverty self perpetuates.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to North says:

                North, you apparently haven’t had first hand experience with the “willpower” or lack thereof among the well-heeled. It is never a given. Wealthy parents are just as or more concerned about their progeny’s lackadaisical ways as the next parent down the economic chain.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to wardsmith says:

                I get that it is a resource and that we can get self amplifying and perpetuating cycles of frustration and all.

                Again, what does this imply? Given x, what is your y?

                Safety nets? Better schools? Enhanced opportunities? Free Tony Robbins videos?Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Creon Critic says:

        Wouldn’t it be more insightful to compare the different 20% brackets between the US and Sweden, because if we simply have more wealthy top 20 percenters, that wouldn’t be a bad thing would it? Now if we have a lot more in the bottom 20% worse off than than those in the bottom 20 percent in Sweden, that’s something else, but just having a larger top 20% doesn’t say much except that we’re doing well at the top. Maybe if we had a direct comparison rather than as a percentage of total wealth of the two lowest quintiles in each country we could see whether we are worse off at the bottom.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to MFarmer says:

          If “inequality” is seen as bad in and of itself, it doesn’t matter if your bottom 20% has an apartment with a warm bed, a fridge, a microwave, enough calories to eat every day, a television, and a game system.


          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jaybird says:

            Are we really going back to the Heritage Foundation, “those lucky duikies have a second-hand Playstation 2 and a microwave, so we should cut taxes and elimiate social services” deal again, are we?Report

            • Avatar Roger in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

              Not speaking for JB, but this gets back to my point about differing goals and values.

              I used to read a blog called Captain Capitalism. A few years ago he got sick of the state of the economy and just said “Fish it” and decided to work minimal hours, live conservatively and play XBox all day. I respect his decision. He voluntarily agreed to drop to a low quintile of income and wealth in exchange for living the life he wanted.

              Everyone makes similar decisions. Do I have children before getting married? Do I go to college or drop out? Do I take my kids to the library and read to them every night or not? Do I show respect to my boss and customers? Do I continue the executive path or surf every day?

              I too chose the low income quintile path. I surf instead. That is ok though. It was my choice.

              Different goals and different paths leads to different outcomes. That is how the world works, and it is not a bad thing.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Roger says:

                I’ll go tell all the people who got laid off in the past few years and had to take a lower-paying job because their other job no longer exists that they chose that.

                A single person can choose to drop off the grid and live minimally. A family who has been laid off from their middle-income jobs in the past five years and have no 401k or retirement anymore didn’t make a choice.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                Hence the need for unemployment insurance and other safety nets. Markets may produce lots of pies, but they are cruel and heartless kitchens.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Roger says:

                Safety nets you largely want to turn over to the private sector so that they can make a profit off of them.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:


                I only want to privatize the ones that should be privatized, no more, no less.

                Seriously though, profit is the voice of the consumer, that is you and me. Eliminating the profit motive is saying screw the consumer and replacing consumer choice with bureaucratic or power centered voice. I reject this as wholly evil, unamerican and fattening.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

              See? If inequality is seen as bad in and of itself, it does not matter if your bottom 20% has an apartment with a warm bed, a fridge, a microwave, enough calories to eat every day, a television, and a game system… because there are people who will look at that and say that it is still not enough.

              As such we can never say what would consist of a sufficient safety net… because provision of “the basics” will always be compared to what the top 20% has.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

              Are we really going back to the Heritage Foundation, “those lucky duikies have a second-hand Playstation 2 and a microwave,

              Well, Jesse, we could take a knee-jerk ideological approach, or we could recognize that the size of the pie matters just a little bit.  I’d rather have .01% of a trillion dollar pie than 80% of a 100 million dollar pie.

              Equality, in and of itself, doesn’t take account of how well off people actually are.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to James Hanley says:

                Well if we’re going on size of the pie…

                Nominal GDP per capita:
                Sweden – $56,956
                US – $48,387

                I mean, yeah China has a GDP 12x larger than Sweden, so I guess it has a bigger pie…

                In the case of the comparison of distribution and economies between developed, industrial economies, it’s not really important to discuss the size of the total pie, given that the per capita size is going to be about the same.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                That is to say, we’re not comparing Qatar and Gambia here.Report

        • Avatar MFarmer in reply to MFarmer says:

          If my group of five splits up a million dollars with 20% at 400,000, 20% at 300,000, 20% at 200,000 and 20% 75000 and 20% 25000, and I’m in the second quintile, and another group of five splits up 10 million with 20% at 7 million, 20% at  1.5 million, 20% at 600000, 20% at 500000 and 20% at 400000, then I’d rather be in the bottom quintile of the second group.Report

          • Avatar Mo in reply to MFarmer says:

            Depends on the structure of the economy. If you’re competing with goods and services within your own group of five, I’d rather be in the first group. Or in real world terms, I’d rather make $100,000 in Phoenix than $150,000 in Manhattan.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Creon Critic says:

        First reaction:  “Freedonia” could only be made to exist if total wealth were zero.

        Second reaction:  It could never be very free, either.

        Third reaction: How much do the prison guards get paid? Do they get counted in the stats?Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Creon Critic says:

        NOBODY caught this?

        That’s two wealth, one income. Whomever came up with this bloody thing deserves to be raked over the blasted coals. This is downright deceptive, and poor statistics.Report

        • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Kimmi says:

          Kimmi, In a footnote the authors remark (Via Felix Salmon – Reuters),

          We used Sweden’s income rather than wealth distribution because it provided a clearer contrast to the equal and United States wealth distributions; while more equal than the United States’ wealth distribution, Sweden’s wealth distribution is still extremely top heavy.

          Here’s Sweden vs US wealth distribution, as you comment, a fairer comparison (from the same link),



          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic says:

            Good catch indeed, Kimmie.


            We used Sweden’s income rather than wealth distribution because it provided a clearer contrast to the equal and United States wealth distributions;

            is blatantly dishonest.  I would roast any of my research methods students who did that–I know most of them will never actually be researchers, so a big focus in my class is teaching them to notice when people are trying to fool them by rigging the figures.

            This is just goddamed despicable, and deserves highly visible public condemnation–more highly visible than we can make it here.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic says:

            Creon, your link doesn’t work. Do you have a better one?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic says:


              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Ugh, I can’t believe that article got published by a respectable journal. And the authors are from Harvard Business School and Duke’s Psych Department…I hope they’ve gotten a few cold shoulders for their methodological dishonesty.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                Just from skimming, I don’t really ahve a problem with the studies themselves, though the paper that presents them invites the misleading media representations by saying things like “Americans prefer Sweden.” What their data shows is that Americans prefer more equal wealth distributions. It doesn’t matter, for the study, that the Swedish pie chart was of income distribution, because the participants didn’t know that. The authors would have done better to leave Sweden out of their conclusions, and just say, “Americans prefer a distribution that looks like this to one that looks like that.” Of course, I suspect we would then have said, “Duh!”

                What social scientists have to be thinking about anytime they’re writing up data that is likely to get media attention is, “The media is going to misrepresent my findings, because they always do. How can I make it more difficult for them to do so?”Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

                Virtually everyone chooses their policy preferences based on moral intuitions, not based on facts.  Researchers on some level know this. The misleading pie charts were selected precisely because these researchers knew they would square with a set of widely held moral intuitions.  (Intuitions that, it goes without saying, they shared and wished only to promote.)

                Policies do not succeed or fail based on intuitions, however.  They succeed or fail based on the incentives that they create.  This annoys the typical voter, who goes back to the polls again and again to insist ever more strongly on his moral intuitions.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                Jason, I agree. The studies say one thing, not a particularly interesting thing mind you, but they do say something. The paper suggests that they also say something else. The problem is in the paper. I suspect the problem is in the paper because the researchers realized that if they discussed with the studies actually say, no one would care. “Oh yeah? People like more equal wealth distributions? That’s nice. Was there some reason to think that they wouldn’t? Next paper, please.”Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

                This may surprise you, but — given no other facts at all — I’d prefer more equal income distributions, too.  In the absence of any knowledge about particular situations, all we have to go on are some very, very general moral intuitions, and my most general intuition tells me that people are to be treated as having equal moral worth and dignity, at least until they demonstrate otherwise.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                This may surprise you, but — given no other facts at all — I’d prefer more equal income distributions, too. 

                Wait, what? You’re a human? I didn’t think it was possible to be a human and a libertarian, which is why they all look like this (actual photo of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard):

                On a serious note, no, it doesn’t surprise me. This may surprise you, but I can think you’re wrong without thinking you’re evil. Hanely, though? Pure evil.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Chris says:

                Hanely, though? Pure evil.

                Yeah, I hate that guy.

                James HanleyReport

        • Avatar Roger in reply to Kimmi says:

          Good catch Kimmi! Those numbers are quite different!Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Roger says:

      The headline should probably be more like:
      “Everyone SHOULD gain but those with the most resources have made sure they gain at the expense of others by funding political agendas that give them more through tax credits and crony capitalism.”Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Nob Akimoto says:


        Seriously, I’m with you on cronyism. So, do you agree that we should limit government power so that government can’t favor the rich and powerful over the small players and the powerless? When our statist system created a feeding trough, it attracted the biggest hogs, so don’t you think we should tear down the trough and prevent government from building such troughs?Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to MFarmer says:

          The problem with your framing is that you’re assuming the power imbalances form as a result of government having too much authority, rather than the simple fact that basic functions required of government in themselves have the necessary loopholes to create distortion.

          The simple fact is that the more dangerous collusion and cronyism tend to result when you start paring down governmental functions for the sake of promoting private activity. It’s an application of Mandeville’s theory of private vices/public virtues.

          Taxation, which is a basic, fundamental requirement of government whatever its size, scope and function, will always have a distorting effect. For about 300 of the 400 years of modern nation-states, that distortion was always structured toward providing for the status quo authority. Progressive taxation helped alleviate that somewhat, until things like capital gains taxes and estate tax exemptions began to get thrown around.Report

          • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

            So, if we give government more power and control over the economy, this will ameliorate the problem of cronyism and favortism toward the rich?Report

            • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to MFarmer says:

              The strength of government vis-a-vis the economy has steadily gone hill from the days of wage controls and price setting of yore.

              Ameliorating cronyism and favoritism is more a matter of changing the character of people who make legislative decisions, and for that you need to get at the issue of money in politics. Either you do that by changing the distribution of money in society via tax and redistribution policy, or you do it by limiting money in campaigning.

              What you can’t have is unlimited money in political campaigning, plus selective dismantling of government regulations.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                Do you really think that getting money out of campaigns will ameliorate cronyism? I don’t see how this can be done, for one thing, without a lot of coercion that can’t be outwitted, but even if private money is banned from campaigns, there are other reasons for cronyism. You appear to think that rich people have taken advantage of public servants, but is it possible that crony relationships are sought by statists for their own purposes of power maintenance? It is in the interest of statists to control the relatively few Big Coporations in major industries to avoid the unpredictable outcomes from a free market, with all those small and medium size businesses competing and succeeding and going in their own directions, affecting changes in society that aren’t predesigned — how would they be controlled?Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to MFarmer says:

                I think lobbyists say they spend a surprising amount of time actually avoiding politicians who seek them out and pester them for fundraisers. No, seriously. They can only give to so many politicians and all of them need money, so politicians have the lobbyists on speed dial, so to speak.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                “The strength of government vis-a-vis the economy has steadily gone hill from the days of wage controls and price setting of yore.”

                Actually, the strength of government vis-a-vis the economy is stronger than it’s ever been. Wage controls and price setting are simply failed interventions that no statist would recommend with a straight face, although prices and wages are affected indirectly by interventions, as Obama’s war on regulators is attempting.Government interventions affect prices and wages indirectly, now, and are mostly unintended consequences– the interventions/regulations are not lessened, though. Reducing statism to wage controls and price setting is only a denial of the problem.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer in reply to MFarmer says:

                “The simple fact is that the more dangerous collusion and cronyism tend to result when you start paring down governmental functions for the sake of promoting private activity.”

                You dodged my question. If cronyism is caused by paring down government functions for the sake of promoting private activity, then it stands to reason that cronyism is ameliorated if we give government more power and control, with the right people in control, of course, and rely less on the private sector. Is this what you believe?Report

              • Avatar MFarmer in reply to MFarmer says:

                “Obama’s war on regulators” — I meant war on speculatorsReport

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Nob Akimoto says:


        The difference between my headline “everyone gains, those that contribute the most gain the most” and yours, spins around a few factors.

        My headline starts with a fact that you are trying to bury or ignore. Every class did gain. I have no idea if everyone should gain. For example, I dropped out of the work force, should I have gained? Of course, I am not a class. To be honest, I don’t believe equality in outcome is even slightly desirable. As I argue elsewhere, different goals, values and contribution levels would almost guarantee unequal outcomes measured along one dimension.

        The second difference spins around my emphasizing the market. Yours spins around politics and rent seeking. In a properly functioning market, interactions are positive sum. To prosper as an individual, you need to supply expected value to someone else. The top quintile doesn’t just represent those best rewarded, it also tends to represent those adding the most value to others.

        Yours highlights that there is another, less legitimate way to prosper individually. That is to manipulate the rules so that one is advantaged, usually at the expense of another. Politics is (once the basic rules and incentives are set up) primarily a zero sum, win lose game. Oddly, progressives tend to focus on the zero sum game and ignore and even actively campaign to convert the positive sum one to a zero sum one. Go figure!

        To the extent the unequal gains came via free markets, I believe my title is accurate. To the extent it came from crony capitalism and rule changes, I believe your title works. Either way, as MF points out, you won’t get any arguments for cronyism or more political interference from this crowd of classical liberals.Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Roger says:

          Over the past decade, wage growth outside of the very high earners has been flat despite an overall increase in economic output. That suggests to me that only a handful of people have actually gained despite the fact that every class has actually pitched in. The gain’s distribution is a matter of politics.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Nob Akimoto says:


            The facts that this string is working on are those in the opening paragraphs of the WSJ article, and the pie charts supplied by Creon supplemented with the data I supplied on hours worked per household. If you want to introduce new facts, please do so.

            The data supplied suggests that every class gained (though I can’t access the entire article due to gate, so please correct me if it reverses the opening). Furthermore you are suggesting that every class “pitched in” by which I assume you mean every class contributed in the same way to the same exact increase in marginal productivity or something similar. This seems like a baseless assertion, but feel free to correct me here too.

            Finally, I admitted that distribution of income is likely a factor of some mix of productivity within the market and politically driven distributional rules. You are boldly asserting it is “just a matter of politics”.

            I’m not sure if you are just providing a haphazard argument, or if you are acting upon your intuitions and ignoring all possibilities outside of your worldview. Care to clarify?Report

            • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Roger says:

              I go from BLS statistics that say normalized wage growth for those with high school diplomas and college degrees averaged somewhere in the order of 0.1-0.3% from 2000 – 2010 while productivity growth has averaged in the 2.5% range per annum in that same period.

              The only substantial income decile that saw its overall income grow in that period (after inflation) was the top 10%. When you go by percentiles it works out to about the top 1% of households that actually saw the substantial growth. Much of that growth came on the heel of tax cuts. Particularly cuts to the top marginal tax rate and to capital gains taxes.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Nob Akimoto says:


                Ok. According to the WSJ paragraph, the BLS data from 2000 to 2007 and your summary of the BLS data through 2010, the factually correct headline is the same. All classes DID gain. Top class gained the most (we can still argue why).

                I’m still not sure why you think they should rise the same. After all, the bottom floor of the lowest decile is always zero ( or minimum wage) and the top ceiling of the highest decile is infinite. People can and do move between deciles. I wish I could understand why you see this as a problem.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

                . People can and do move between deciles.

                This is a point Tyler Cowen frequently hammers on.  Deciles are not indistinguishable from the people that occupy them at any given point in time.  If the bottom decile only increases its wages by 0.3%, that does not mean that all the people in that decile at time T1 only increased their wages by 0.3% at T2, because lots of the people in it at time T1 moved up and out to a higher decile and were replaced by new people, some of whom dropped from a higher decile, but more of whom are simply new to the economy in time T2 (my kid, for example, ain’t in the economy yet, but in a few years she will be, and she won’t be making any substantial amount of money at the start).  What any increase in decile earning mean is that the people in that decile at T2 are better off than were the people in that decile at T1.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

                The income gains by family based upon starting quintile is absolutely startling, even if dated. The fact is, those families in the lower quintiles gained substantially, overwhelmingly more than those in higher. If this keeps up, the one percent will need to start occupying parks. The injustice of it all!


              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

                The thing I noticed when doing research on this a million years ago was that the vast majority of the people making minimum wage are under 25. So I looked at previous years and, again, under 25.

                The conversation was here, if you’re interested. (It’s a Freddie post!)Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Jaybird says:


                That was a good discussion! You were more patient in your answers back then. I take it after a few years you get tired of rewinding the same conversations. They make accusations, we prove that they pulled them out of their backsides and they just move on, only to bring up the same accusation a month or two later.

                We need to find a way to ratchet our progress, so we don’t live out some sad example of Libertarian Ground Hog Day.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jaybird says:

                if you’re interested. (It’s a Freddie post!)

                Ugh. That was classic.

                He: “You libertarians are all X!”

                Thee: “No, we’re not all X.”

                He: “You are! I know because I read a comment on Megan McArdle’s blog and it said X!”

                People like that are about as useful as a bikini wax on a Holstein.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Jaybird says:

                BTW, it was interesting to watch how you and Mark started in alignment then divided on the issue of coercive reinforcement of unionization.Report

            • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Roger says:

              You can get the full WSJ article if you follow a link through Google News, I’m not sure if this is time limited but I just tried again and it worked, and I’m guessing there might be an article per week/month limit too, but that’s how I got access to the full article.

              I’m curious how you respond to this pieces from Business Insider that’d been making the rounds a while back, Here’s What The Wall Street Protesters Are So Angry About... Quoting the bullet points that are related to your exchange with Nob Akimoto:

              • CEO pay has skyrocketed 300% since 1990. Corporate profits have doubled. Average “production worker” pay has increased 4%. The minimum wage has dropped. (All numbers adjusted for inflation)
              • After adjusting for inflation, average hourly earnings haven’t increased in 50 years
              • Of course, life is great if you’re in the top 1% of American wage earners. You’re hauling in a bigger percentage of the country’s total pre-tax income than you have at any time since the late 1920s. Your share of the national income, in fact, is almost 2X the long-term average!
              • And, by the way, few people would have a problem with inequality if the American Dream were still fully intact—if it were easy to work your way into that top 1%. But, unfortunately, social mobility in this country is also near an all-time low
              • So what does all this mean in terms of net worth? Well, for starters, it means that the top 1% of Americans own 42% of the financial wealth in this country. The top 5%, meanwhile, own nearly 70%
              • And then there are taxes… It’s a great time to make a boatload of money in America, because taxes on the nation’s highest-earners are close to the lowest they’ve ever been

              Also, there seems to be a no-true-Scotsman element to some assessments of markets here. When they’re performing well and producing good outcomes, suddenly we’ve arrived at the True Nature of Markets. But when markets are fouling up – producing perverse outcomes or acting contrary to moral intuitions, well there’s crony capitalism involved.

              Overall, I have a lot less faith in the idea that the top quintile represents those adding the most value to others. I see a much larger role for arbitrariness and luck. Where you’re born, who your parents are, what physical and social capital your family has access to. I don’t want to obliterate the efforts of the individual, but there’s a whole family/community element that’s left out when focusing on an individual’s industriousness or delayed gratification and locating desert there.


              • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:


                The data shows that real income per capita has almost doubled since 1967. Furthermore, when we stop looking at classes – which have people entering and leaving every year – the data reveals that actual families in the lowest starting quintiles have been gaining the most over time. I do not have access to current data, but from 1977 to 1986, the families in STARTING in the lowest quintile gained Over 75% while those starting in the top quintile gained only 5%. In percentage terms and in absolute dollars future gains in income are overwhelmingly weighted to the poor.

                More recent data shows that the lower the starting quintile, the higher likelihood that a family will increase to a higher quintile over the next decade. From 1996 to 2005, over half the bottom two deciles moved up one class or more.

                The first data is here…

                The second data is self evident if thought about ( young inexperienced low quintile workers move up over time) but the old data is here.

                Third data set

                I believe that to the extent people want to make more money and follow the rules of free enterprise they should be free to do so. The data supports that this continues to be the case.

                More to follow….Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:


                Continuing the discussion;

                1) I do not want to get lost in a discussion on CEOs. The reasons are many. First I have no idea what they should make. Second I suspect rent seeking activities are present within boards which need to be corrected. Third I suspect there is a lottery payoff structure in place which means the proper measure is not CEOs but all executives. Fourth, I trust the market to correct these over time, if they are indeed broken, and I am pretty sure political solutions will make things massively worse. Hell, to the extent CEOs contributed even a minuscule amount to doubling of corporate profits, your data would suggest they are being underpaid. Fifth, I suspect CEO pay is a branding or advertising cost more than a performance measure. Finally, CEO pay is insignificant compared to the paper clip or ink jet toner budget of a major corporation. It’s just something that people that are jealous of others tend to fixate on.

                2) I agree with James and Jaybird and others that the important thing is not equal outcomes, but underlying standards of living. Free markets deliver the goods better than any alternative by a country mile, but they do need to be supplemented with social safety nets, some public, some private. The reason the market is so productive is partially because it is such a heartless bitch. It doesn’t care if our kids need shoes or if we mean well. It just rewards solving problems for others aka utlity. I support markets, but do not support ONLY markets.

                3) I agree with the importance of upward mobility for those that choose to pursue it. As my above post mentions, it is still alive, though I would like to see more. I am concerned here. I think globalization is a great thing overall, but that it has contributed to the recent trends, as has the fact that lower class workers had a historic windfall at the end of WWII. Furthermore, I believe unions are coercive institutions of exploitation. Workers today outside of government service are less able to exploit an unfair share of surplus as unions have declined due to market pressure. More importantly, I think our schools and value systems are fubar, especially for the lower classes. On another LOOG topic, all the progressives are arguing how tribalism and mercantilist practices are jolly good ideas. We reap what we sow, and progressives sow salt.

                4) I am also arguing that economic rewards will not be equally deserved for those that are not equally pursuing them. People keep dismissing this argument. Whether intrinsic or extrinsic, if people pursue leisure, freedom from authority and immediate gratification, they will probably receive a disproportionate share of these things and not much economic rewards. Grasshoppers don’t get what ants get via free markets, and we don’t have to blame the grasshoppers for this to be a fact. We may want to point it out though.

                5) As Wardsmith points out, wealth includes the fact that lower quintiles and younger people wisely ( and sometimes unwisely) leverage debt. I would expect wealth to be massively concentrated in the top tiers. More importantly I do not fear this. I wish there were more billionaires, more trillion aires and a gobbstopple of gazillionaires to boot. In free markets, wealth is created in a positive sum fashion. You get rich by creating utility for others.

                My favorite quote of the year is this one from The Calculus of Consent ( thanks James)  “Here the purely selfish individual and the purely altruistic individual may be indistinguishable in their behavior.” That is what makes markets so good. They convert greed into altruism.

                I am not a fair weather friend of markets. Their track record is 250 years of prosperity vs 100000 years of zero sum exploitation for all other institutions. The movememt is cyclical though, especially when governments interfere as in the two great depressions. Adam Smith may have been the most important person to have ever lived.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:


                When you get time, I would like to know why you believe the wealthy will abuse their wealth and how you fear they will do so.Report

              • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Roger says:

                Roger, I don’t think “abuse” is the word I would choose. I think overall I have a more communitarian outlook (though soft-communitarian), so I weight the consequences for social cohesion of runaway success for the top 1% (or 0.1%) while the middle and bottom stagnate heavily.

                But if I absolutely had to stick with the term abuse, then I’d say, there’s the prospect of abuse to our democracy and within our democracy. To our democracy meaning the outsize voice money speaks with in campaigns and elections. The recent This American Life episode, Take the Money and Run for Office, gets at this point. Less direct than I give you money, you vote my way, more, I give you money, and I get to hang out with you golfing, in hotel ballrooms, at house parties. I get to tell you (the politician) over and over my outlook on the issue. Many, many people go unrepresented in such a system. In the TAL episode a politician mentions how he had qualms about taking money from payday lenders, knowing that the opposite side of the issue wouldn’t be represented in the halls of power by high priced lobbyists. Having a really unequal society aggravates this already outstanding problem.

                As for harm within the democracy – given my communitarian streak, it matters to me that in some sense we’re all in this together. When wealthy have opt-outs for inadequate public services, there’s an incentive to strip away their participation in improving/funding those services. Because quoting oneself requires asking forgiveness first, you’ll have to forgive me for this, how I put it in a post,

                Additionally, the extra income buys opt-outs. Unsatisfactory local schools, you can opt-out of that – move to a better school district or send your kids to private school. Medical care in your city not up to par, you can opt-out – travel to a medical facility that specializes in your illness. Local authorities considering building something loud, smelly, inconvenient, or unsightly near your manicured McMansion or penthouse, lo and behold, money helps with that too; there’s a pretty strong case to be made that NIMBY and income inequality intersect in ways that don’t redound the benefit of the less equitable scenarios. “In Longstanding Plan for Met Expansion, Battle Line is Fifth Avenue” (NYT), or Googling this will bring up a good deal of relevant environmental equity literature: “Commission for Racial Justice United Church of Christ. Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States; A National Report on the Racial and Socio-economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites”. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to propose that extensive opt-outs for certain sections of society have invidious consequences for everyone else (witness America’s experience with segregation).


              • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:


                You would be surprised at how much I agree with your concerns.

                In a way, I think my concern is just broader. I also fear the abuse of special interests, and they do not require large wealth to be a threat, just numbers or the potential for concentrated gains. I also fear the abuse of the police and regulators and bureaucrats themselves. I believe special interest privilege seeking is like a cancer in democracy.

                It seems that some of us are focusing on the potential abuse of wealth (I’ve participated in similar discussions with David Brin on his blog — he agrees completely with you) and addressing it at the level of inequality. Others are trying to address it by creating walls and limits on the ability of those with power to exploit others. We want to limit the scope of interference to that which is absolutely necessary.

                I know I sound like some kind of utopian broken record, but I believe human progress comes about via institutions which aim human endeavors in positive sum, win win interactions. When I look at institutions I believe the quest for humanity is to figure out how to convert win lose interactions and convert them into positive sum (Pareto in nerd speak) interactions.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic says:

                if the American Dream were still fully intact—if it were easy to work your way into that top 1%.

                I didn’t know only the top 1% could have a white picket fence around their nice suburban home.Report

              • James, I think the chart associated with that bullet point at Business Insider,

                is from Uncovering the American Dream: Inequality and Mobility in Social Security Earnings Data since 1937 (pdf, page 41). P ranges represent quintiles, with P0-20 being the bottom quintile, and P0-40 represents the bottom two quintiles.

                Ok, and reading through more of the paper, I can see that the bullet point is a rather incomplete encapsulation of the point the authors are making. There are caveats in the study (focus on commerce and industry, limitations of the particular data set the authors are using prior to 1957, etc.), and so like many, many academic disputes, the paper is a contribution to a larger discussion about how to measure/assess/make sense of some social fact.

                Since I’m commenting well away from the areas that I’ve seriously studied this might not be worth very much, but my sense is there’s an overconfidence in the levels of mobility attenuating the consequences of having such high levels of inequality. Because ‘my sense’ is less useful than serious scholarship on the issue, I’d point to this OECD paper, Intergenerational Transmission of Disadvantage: Mobility or Immobility across Generations? A Review of the Evidence for OECD Countries (pdf).Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:


                Some rhetorical questions…

                1) Do people want to make more income? In general yes.
                2) Are they willing to put time and effort into this as opposed to other things they can do with their time and effort? Sometimes.
                3) Assuming they do want to put in the time and effort, do they know how? Not always.
                4) Assuming they know how and want to put in the effort, are they usually able to? Yes, and in general I would say a good system would enable them gain income with reasonable assurability if they do so.

                Creon, I think you gloss over points 2 and 3. I agree with you on points 1 and 4. Where are you on 2 and 3?Report

  6. Avatar Damon says:


    “His aim is to establish a long-term political direction — one centered on a more activist government that shapes and polices the market to strengthen the foundation for sustainable, broadly shared growth. Everything else — the legislative tactics, even most individual policies — is negotiable. ” 

    This is new or visionary?  This has been going on for the past 50 years and its created depressions, recessions, double digit inflation, currency devaluation, and massive debt in its wake.  Most of the states are bankrupt, the Fedgov certainly is, and the only solution to fix the fallout from multiple industry bubbles (tech stock, housing), which were caused by these policies, is to ramp up the printing presses even more.  Yeah, cause it all about “change you can believe in”.  What change?Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Damon says:

      Last I checked the phenomena of depressions, recessions, double digit inflation, currency devaluation, and massive debt are not the products of the last 50 years of governance.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to North says:

        To clarify:  The “more activist gov’t” mindset in the US has been going on for at least 50 years.  The debasement of the currency and inflationary practices is the driver for the depressions, etc. I mentioned.  That has been going on since the Roman Empire, if not longer.Report

        • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Damon says:

          Of course, ignoring the fact that the period of strong government regulation of the financial system was probably the most stable in world history, with no depressions and a growing middle class.Report

  7. Avatar Kolohe says:

    A big unstated assumption in your post is that the PPACA actually ‘works’.  With the status quo as complex as it is, and the reform act as complex as *it* is, there’s plenty of potential for unknown pitfalls to emerge like a Mandrelbrot fractal.  There’s always downside risk of any major policy initiative in any case.

    But if health care reform ‘works’ then you’re totally right.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Kolohe says:

      But if the opposition of ACA wants to destroy it, they may be able to. If that happens, then what do we make of your view of the status quo? Which status quo are you referring to?Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Stillwater says:

        The status quo, as of 2009, was a complex labyrinth of employer paid health insurance, HMO’s, HSA’s, Federal Medicare, Federal Medicaid, Tri-care, State Medicaid,  uninsured folks, under-insured folks, rich folks, poor folks, healthy folks, sick folks,  in-between folks, small medical practices, large medical practices, private hospitals, not-for-profit hospitals, public hospitals, general doctors, specialty doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners,  dentists, optometrists, podiatrists, and a whole lot of other types of medical professionals.   Plus, some actual healthcare.

        The PPACA is a 900+ page law that attempts to tackle all that without, as the saying goes, doing any harm, but also without substantially changing the existence of all those pieces and parts.  (‘cept maybe uninsured folks.  maybe)

        So they may make things better, but they could easily make things worse.  It’s a House episode where the American body politic is the patient.


    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

      Fractal complexity is always reductive:  the mountain can always be resolved to smaller and smaller triangles.   Doesn’t go from small to large.  The status quo is very bad:  insured patients are already paying for the uninsured via insane $19 USD per unit acetaminophen pills.   The market isn’t working.   That’s demonstrable.

      Now here’s where Mr. Mandelbrot’s Capital D does fit into health care legislation:  the complexity of health care can be reduced to a few finite variables in every single case.   We have transaction sets for everything of statistical value.  Everything.   Each case has unique aspects, but composing fractal dimensions for health care… well, let me put it into a picture for you.

      I can look at any one maple leaf and identify it as such.   A maple tree stands in a forest at the end of summer, I pull all the leaves off it and sort them by size.   One will be the largest, another the smallest.   Armed with a fractal generator, I can induce just enough randomness into a maple-leaf drawing algorithm to generate roughly the same number of pictures as I found leaves on the tree, pictures which vary in size and shape as do the leaves I’ve just picked.   I don’t want my algorithm generating leaves as big as a house.  I don’t want it generating a billion leaves.   It won’t generate the same number of leaves with each run but it will be pretty close.  You might be surprised by how few variables are involved in that process.

      Same goes for the tree trunk.   Same for the roots under the ground.   Nature is conformal to this process.

      If there are any Unknown Pitfalls, they will arise from a lack of data, not from the consequences of the reforms.   The insurance companies jealously guard their data, leading to the conditions you fear.   But if we’ve primed the engine with enough numbers, it will cope nicely.   There’s an adaptation strategy for all the diagnosis codes:  we can build such a strategy by asking any three physicians who meet up with this condition and treat it routinely.   We can even train the model to question the diagnosis on a probabilistic basis:   the old adage about when you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras — well, there are zebras and a competent physician who’s been around the block enough times knows a zebra when he sees one, not that he sees a lot of them.

      The enemies of PPACA don’t understand what they’re opposing.   They’re innumerate.   They don’t think like physicians, they don’t even think like good cost accountants.


      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Fair enough on the actual math of it, but also keep in the mind that the other facets of the mathematical principles of a iterative process are  the potential for great sensitivity to initial conditions, as well as the necessary imperfectness of data.

        Plus, Mr. P, you probably know better than anyone the old saw about ‘the enemy having a vote’ in operational planning.  That’s literallyjoebiden true in this case for your purposes.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

          Expert systems aren’t subject to sensitivity to initial conditions:  they grow over-sensitive on the basis of over-training.   The use case here is deriving costs from historical claims data.   HIPAA has been ongoing since 1996.   If we had the data, which we don’t, because the health insurance companies won’t turn loose of it, deriving costs would become a matter of mapping all the claims data for all patients presenting with a given diagnosis code.   We would backpropagate into the medical community, looking at outcomes on a cost basis.

          We extend this expert system into a spectrum analysis, determining which codes appear most frequently,   lots of little kids with earaches, oldsters with pneumonia and COPD, working out to the right along the X axis to the incidence frequency of the Ridiculously Rare condition our friend Rose’s kid has, which is probably quite expensive.  It’s probably not as rare as all that and physicians who work with the condition would benefit enormously from seeing how other physicians are managing it.   It’s probably hiding in the claims data of a dozen big insurance companies, especially in the claims denials.   The current system is hiding that data and the insurance companies are dead-set against revealing it.

          A single payer system would give us a nice doorway through which that claims data would move.   Thereafter, we start watching those claims appear in the system.    If a cluster of hantavirus infections ever appeared, gosh, I’ll bet the epidemiologists at CDC would be all over that.   But they don’t have such a picture, they rely on hospitals and physicians to call that stuff in.

          The health insurance industry is nothing but a collection of unregulated banks.   They collect deposits, then when someone attempts to collect, decide if and when they’ll pay.   They fuck with the physicians and hospitals, they fuck with the patients, they fuck with the employers, they fuck with the regulators and nobody can do anything about them because they’re capable of looking the President of the United States in the eye and saying “You put through Single Payer and we’ll run a billion dollars worth of attack ads.”   That’s a fact.

          Now them’s initial conditions.   Cherrypicking, malfeasance on a massive scale, inefficiencies of every sort, paralysing market distortions.   We pay more for health care than any other country and we’re getting terrible outcomes.   We can fix this but it will start with finding out where we are and that will begin with just such an expert system as I have described, which puts physicians back in charge of this goddamn situation.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe in reply to BlaiseP says:

            And you think PPACA will both create those expert system and break down (and/or route around) the instituional inertia (and/or deliberate obstacles) you describe?Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

              Without Single Payer, no.   But it’s a good start.   Those expert systems already exist within the insurance companies:  that’s how they work out what they’re going to pay for a given diagnosis code.   Those prices aren’t uniform, even within an outfit as large as Blue Cross / Blue Shield.

              Inertia isn’t the problem so much as friction.   And gravity.   As long as the industry can hide the data and bully the politicians, as in graf 4 above, the nation will be afflicted by hordes of fearful idiots with pitchforks and torches, all hardware in previous metaphor furnished courtesy of the health insurance scamulators.Report

  8. Avatar Scott says:

    So the purpose of this post is the naive hope that there is something great, or at least good that can come out of Barry’s failed administration?  I guess if your last hope is that that his admin might be well judged by history it really says something about the admin’s present accomplishments.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Scott says:

      My hope is that in 2052, Barack Obama is seen in realignment terms as the Democratic Nixon. The guy whose policy may have been close to the consensus of the time, but his words and deeds began a realignment to the left. Now, I just gotta’ figure out who will be out Reagan in 2020 or 2024.Report

      • Avatar Will H. in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        So… it’s pretty much generally accepted on the Left that the Obama presidency was a wash.
        Got it.Report

        • Avatar Scott in reply to Will H. says:

          Exactly, the admin that began with hope and change has now been reduced to maybe his image will be rehabilitated in 20 years. I guess that like the Cater admin we will be happy that Barry didn’t screw things up too badly while in office.Report

          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Scott says:

            Actually, I was never a believer in hope and change. I was a believer in the biggest possible election win. But, as has been said on this site, Obama’s the most liberal President since LBJ. Just like in 1972, saying Nixon was the most conservative President since Coolidge wasn’t saying something. But, it was the beginning of a shift. Just like hopefully, Obama will be.

            Like I said a week or so back, I want to die with my current political beliefs being seen as right-wing quackery. If that happens,  I consider it a win.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

              Obama’s the most liberal President since LBJ.

              Oh, how depressing that statement must be to actual liberals. If you’re looking for leaders who accomplished realignment, Nixon is not small potatoes given his recapture of the south for the GOP, but FDR and Bill McKinley were the real giants in that arena, for pulling in cleavages of the populace that had national scope and significant impact on elections.Report