Matt Taibbi is one of my favorite writers.  He is generally called a “liberal”, though in my opinion that word does not give a very good idea of either his views or his style.  “Jacobin” is perhaps the best word, though it is a pejorative which suggests he means some sort of violent revolution.  I don’t think he does, but his writing is very angry and his ideas very radical for the modern Democratic party.

Anyway, Taibbi wrote an article for Rolling Stone about Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital.  It is not a bad article, though Taibbi is more of a polemicist than a journalist, and so he tends to cast all of Romney’s actions in the worst possible light.  He also makes a few questionable assertions, such as:

If you haven’t heard much about how takeover deals like Dunkin’ and KB Toys work, that’s because Mitt Romney and his private equity brethren don’t want you to. The new owners of American industry are the polar opposites of the Milton Hersheys and Andrew Carnegies who built this country, commercial titans who longed to leave visible legacies of their accomplishments…

The men of the private equity generation want no such thing. “We try to hide religiously,” explained Steven Feinberg, the CEO of a takeover firm called Cerberus Capital Management that recently drove one of its targets into bankruptcy after saddling it with $2.3 billion in debt.

The first rule of Private equity is “you do not talk about Private Equity”, huh?   If so, then why is Romney running for President, when he must know that his background will be investigated? And if the other private equity people are so anxious to protect their wheelings and dealings, why are they not using their considerable resources to make him drop out?

Taibbi is wrong.  The reason you don’t hear about how Bain Capital works is that it’s too complicated and too boring for the average voter to pay attention to–especially given that when Romney worked there, he was just some rich guy that no one had reason to pay attention to.  Maybe they should have, but they didn’t.  Romney didn’t need to go to a lot of effort to keep his activities secret.

But then, towards the end, Taibbi says something very interesting.  I don’t want to post it all here, but the part beginning “Listen to Mitt Romney speak, and see if you can notice what’s missing…” is where it starts.  Taibbi notes that Romney and Obama both have what he calls a “post-regional attitude”.  If Obama represents the cosmopolitan worldview, then Romney represents international finance… and neither of these views are well-liked by the nationalists, as I have written about many times.  This, in other words, is the key to why Romney struggles among social conservatives.

 

Try to ignore the awful background music, and focus on what Senator Santorum says.  Notice first of all that Santorum tries to get in all kinds of subtle digs at Romney.  He even makes an allusion to “telling stories about having a dog”.  Maybe that was just coincidence, but I suspect it was calculated to evoke this.  He suggests that Romney is not an “idea man”, he repeatedly emphasizes how unlikable Romney is, and that he says he “offered” the Romney camp advice, not that they took it.

People thought Palin had “gone rogue” towards the end of the 2008 campaign; heck, here’s Rick Santorum putting down the nominee in the middle of the Republican convention.  Santorum does everything except say “Romney is not likable, and he won’t win for that reason.”  I am pretty sure that such pessimism, even when totally warranted, is frowned upon at political conventions.  He actually compares Romney to Al Gore and John Kerry!  It’s a highly accurate comparison in many ways, but I bet the Romney campaign is none too pleased.

This was the most interesting thing I’ve seen at the convention so far; a bit of subtle, passive-aggressive psychological manipulation that would make Darth Traya proud.

My word, watching the Republican convention last night was dull and dreary.  So many of the party’s ideas contradict each other; it’s hard to listen to.  Also (and this is true of every convention I have ever seen) it was painfully obvious that everyone had been told to include certain points.  All the speakers I saw made sure to mention the untrue claim that Obama removed the work/welfare requirement, for instance.

I think businessman Phil Archuletta’s speech really summed up the party’s beliefs the best of anyone.  I didn’t watch Ann Romney’s speech (she was supposed to “humanize” her husband, which ipso facto says he’s not likeable) or Chris Christie’s (I hear he mostly talked about how great he is).

Mostly though, it just seemed like a boring waste of time.  Nobody wants to say anything controversial, they are all giving speeches based on some sort of Master List of talking points, and, finally,  their obligatory assessments of Romney’s abilities are, at best, heavily biased data points.

It’s kind of like watching pre-season football, actually.  Your just seeing people going through the motions of politics and running the most basic of talking points.  Almost no one will remember anything that was said at the convention come November–unless somebody makes a truly awful gaffe–and so it’s just a lot of empty talking.

For the past week, all any one is taking about is Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek article on the case against re-electing President Obama.  There has been a lot of arguing between Ferguson and many high-profile bloggers about various points in the article which are either false or misleading.  There is also the revelation that Newsweek does not actually fact-check their articles.  I think that aspect of it has been pretty well hashed-over, so I’m not going to spend much time on it.

What I want to address is why Ferguson thinks Romney would be any better.  Because, the question is not “is Obama the best candidate for the Presidency,” but  “is he better than Romney?”  Ferguson’s reasons for favoring Romney seem to rest largely on the fact that his V.P. is Paul Ryan.  Big deal.  The Vice-Presidency is practically worthless except in the hands of somebody with vast experience with how Washington works and tons of connections within the political arena.  But I don’t think Romney wants to market Ryan as “the next Dick Cheney”.

Then, of course, there is the problem that Ryan is not really all he’s cracked up to be, as documented by Ferguson’s arch-nemesis, Paul Krugman.  I’ll address that in a minute but first let’s allow, for the sake of argument, that Paul Ryan is, as Ferguson writes “truly sincere about addressing this country’s fiscal crisis.”  He’s still just the Vice-President.  Arguably, he could do more to implement his budget schemes in his current position as Congressman than as Romney’s back-up.

But here is where things get problematic:  Ferguson’s argument is that the economy has sucked under Obama.  That’s true.  There’s no two ways about it, as they say.  And while that’s not completely or even mostly Obama’s fault, his administration has definitely made some mistakes on that front.

So, is the Romney/Ryan ticket likely to do a better job or a worse job?

Ferguson describes Ryan’s plan, kind of assuming that his plan is what Romney will pursue:

Replace Medicare with a voucher program for those now under 55 (not current or imminent recipients), turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants for the states, and—crucially—simplify the tax code and lower tax rates to try to inject some supply-side life back into the U.S. private sector. Ryan is not preaching austerity. He is preaching growth.

“Growth”, eh? Well, to get growth, you need a multiplier effectThe estimated values for multipliers on tax cuts range from 1.29 to 0.27, according to Mark Zandi, Chief Economist at Moody’s, in a study cited by Wikipedia. The same study estimated the multipliers for government spending increases ranged from 1.73 to 1.36.  These are the different effects a change in tax cuts or spending have on growth of domestic output. (GDP)

If you notice, the number 1.36 is greater than the number 1.29.  That means that if you multiply the same number by both, you get a greater answer from the number that’s greater.  The spending increase number is greater than the tax cut number.  I realize this is difficult to understand.  Apparently, a Harvard professor and the Republican candidate for Vice-President can’t follow it.

Alright, so I’m being a sarcastic jerk.  There is an alternative explanation: that everything we thought we knew about basic macro-economics is wrong, in which case all bets are off.  We may as well just go back to the barter system.  Neoclassical synthesis?  No thank you!  The Republicans seem beholden to a school of thought which, rather than having a macro-economic model and a micro-economic model, simply extrapolates the principles of classical micro to describe the macro.

Remember what Ferguson wrote, about “supply-side life”?  Well, that’s a swell plan if you’re facing a supply side recession, as we were in the 1970s.  But we’re not facing that now.  We’re facing a demand-side recession.  How do I know this?  Because there has been a decrease in GDP and low inflation–almost deflation.  If it were a supply-side issue, there would have been a decrease in GDP and a rise in the price level–aka “stagflation“.  Meaning, the supply-side stuff advocated by Ronald Reagan that worked to an extent in the early ’80s won’t work now.

(Not that I suppose you care, but here is a graph of what the present problem is.  It’s lousy quality, and I just sketched it without using any numbers or anything, but I couldn’t find any public domain graphs of an Aggregate Demand decrease online.)

The Recession: Aggregate Demand decreases, causing decrease in price level and GDP

So, Paul Ryan–and, Ferguson would have us presume, Romney–are bringing supply to a demand fight.  Their plan is to cut taxes and reduce spending, when what they should be doing is increasing spending and leaving taxes alone until the economy has recovered, at which point they could reduce spending and raise taxes to start dealing with the debt problem.

That is why, even though Obama has messed up his handling of the economy, it would not be smart to vote him out because of it.  His replacements would be even worse.

Official Portrait of Congressman Paul Ryan

No doubt you are all reading about the big political announcement of the day. Everyone is talking about it.

I am referring, of course, to William Russell Sype’s announcement of his candidacy for President in 2016.  As long-time friends of my blog, he and his campaign manager P.M. Prescott will have my support.  I will not even expect him to appoint me Chairman of the Federal Reserve in exchange for my endorsement. (hint, hint.)

But there is actually another political announcement in the news today.  Apparently, the candidate the Republican Party Doesn’t Want But Thoroughly Deserves has gone and picked Paul “Andrew” Ryan as his running mate.

Yes, the man who said “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” is now running for Vice-President.  That statement, on the face of it, would probably have made Ayn Rand ill, since saying “public service” to an objectivist is like saying “it” to the Knights Who Say “Ni”.  But, perhaps they would be willing to make an exception for someone willing to attack the irrational values of charity from within, a la Darth Sidious.

In my opinion, this does not really change anything about the campaign, although it does excite the base.  The Democratic base, that is, because I think they dislike Ryan more than the Republicans ever really liked him.

It would easy to criticize this ad’s central claim, that Obama declared a “war on religion”.  Yes, they can quote a newspaper headline to back that up, but it’s clearly not an actual fact.  Nothing short of a direct quote from Obama saying “I hereby proclaim that a state of war exists between me and religion”  would qualify it as a fact.  It’s just a manner of speaking.

But that’s not what’s interesting about this ad, even though that’s all anyone is saying about it.  No, what’s interesting is what happens next: the narrator says Romney “believes that’s wrong”.  Then we have a clip of Mitt Romney saying something about the Pope.  Then an endorsement from a guy who met the Pope.  And finally the question “when religious freedom is threatened, who do you want to stand with?”

What’s missing here?  Well, the ad never actually says Romney will do anything about this alleged threat to religious freedom.  It doesn’t even say he’ll repeal the health-care law which allegedly does the threatening, even though that  used to be his standard campaign line.  It sort of insinuates that he might, but it makes no actual promises to do so.

Now, I think the whole “war on religion” story is bogus, but then, I’m not Romney’s target audience, who presumably does believe Obama wages war on religion.  What I wonder is, does it not strike that target audience as curious that all Romney is willing to say is that he believes ‘war on religion’ is wrong?  He is not willing to say he would do anything about it.  It is almost like he is a cynical businessman using slogans to rally people to his side without actually committing to doing anything for them.  Surely, that could not be so!

As I’ve said several times, I don’t think Romney will win the election, because he isn’t as likeable and charismatic as Obama.  But people ask: “he could win, though, right?  There’s a chance?  There is not, as John McLaughlin might say, ‘absolute metaphysical certitude’ of his defeat?”

Is there a precedent for the charismatic, gifted orator being beaten by the boring but wealthy guy?  Why yes, yes there is.  In 1896 William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan despite Bryan being a brilliant and popular speaker.

President William McKinley

McKinley represented the business interests of the city and Bryan represented the poor farmers—the populists.  Bryan embarked on a tour of the country; McKinley stayed on his front porch and let the people come to him.  Bryan was youthful and exciting, McKinley had more money.  Indeed, McKinley’s campaign created the modern form of campaign finance: convincing businesses to give you money by telling them your opponent will be bad for them.

Case in point: you want to hear some class warfare?  Here’s the end of Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech:

It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

William Jennings Bryan in 1896

Wow!  It sounds like Pat Robertson speaking on behalf of Occupy Wall Street!  This sort of thing was what enabled the Mckinley campaign to convince business that it was worth their while to give lots of money to the cause of preventing Bryan’s election.  And, evidently, it worked.  As the chart here shows, 1896 had by far the most campaign spending of any campaign in history as a percentage of GDP.

So, there is Romney’s blueprint: have more corporate money on his side than Obama and hope that will see him through.  There is some reason to think this could happen, given the Citizens United decision and the rise of so-called “Super-PACS”.  It could, I repeat, could happen.

However, there are lots of reasons why I think 2012 is not 1896:

  • No radio/television/internet in 1896.  These technologies are a force multiplier for charisma.  If they had existed in 1896, Bryan would probably have won.
  • Bryan was not the incumbent President.  Incumbency gives someone an advantage in that they are not only some guy running for President, but actually the President of the United States.  Even if unpopular, the office gives the occupant an automatic degree of authority and respect.
  • Romney isn’t as good at campaigning as McKinley.
  • Obama is more friendly to the business establishment than Bryan was.  Ask around among the disappointed progressives and you’ll see that they can only wish Obama would give a “cross of gold”-style speech.

I’ll allow that there is a slim chance Romney could win, but I still do not think it is likely.

A new poll has come out showing that only 49% of Americans think President Obama is Christian.  17% think he’s Muslim.  James Rainey writes:

The lingering questions about Obama’s faith likely come from people of two mind-sets. One is those who have an intense dislike of the president and find confirmation of all their fears in a fever swamp of conspiracy websites. Where a birth certificate is not accepted as proof of someone’s place of birth, forget about verifying something as intangible as a statement of faith.

The second factor driving up Obama’s “Muslim number” is doubtless the urge of some respondents to stick it in the pollsters’ ear — to commit a small act of defiance by giving an answer the voter knows is untrue. When the interloper in the Oval Office is deeply loathed, why credit him with anything, least that he is a Christian?

Rainey focuses his attention largely on 17% who think he is Muslim.  Probably this is because it really is incredible that anyone could honestly believe he is a devout Muslim, as so many of his actions are inconsistent with that faith.

What I wonder about is the people who answered “don’t know” or “other” in the poll.  Is there also a conspiracy theory that Obama is secretly Buddhist?  Actually, most of the people I’ve talked to who doubt Obama on this suspect that he’s an atheist, not a Muslim.  Not sure why those people would answer “don’t know”, though.

As for the results on Romney’s religion, I was surprised how many didn’t know it.  It’s one of the most notable facts about an otherwise fairly dull politician.

Longtime readers know that I reject the typical left-right political spectrum in favor of a trichotomy of political philosophies called “cosmopolitanism”, “nationalism”, and “materialism”.

At present in the United States, we have a choice between a cosmopolitan, Obama, and a materialist, Romney.  The curious part is that Romney must try to persuade the nationalists that he is one of them, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.  He has not done a very good job of it so far, although he is bound to get some of the nationalist vote simply for not being a cosmopolitan.

You may ask: “why isn’t there a nationalist candidate?”  Well, there was. Rick Santorum was his name, but he failed to get the Republican nomination.  So now, in another renewal of the delicate alliance that is the Republican party, Romney has to try to get the people who didn’t want him and wanted Santorum to vote for him.

Romney has been fairly socially liberal himself in the past, and he now has to try to assure nationalists that this won’t happen again, whether by blaming circumstance, claiming his hand was forced, or saying he’s changed his mind and/or heart on social issues like gay marriage, abortion, contraception and gun control.  Some politicians might be able to get away with this sort of thing.  Not Romney, though, because he is not charismatic and hence people do not innately trust him.

Candidates like Reagan, and to a lesser extent, George W. Bush had the ability to use their charm to cover for the contradictions in nationalist and materialist philosophies,  and thus hold the voting coalition together through their personal popularity.  Paul Graham wrote in his influential essay on charisma in Presidential elections:

The charisma theory may also explain why Democrats tend to lose presidential elections. The core of the Democrats’ ideology seems to be a belief in government. Perhaps this tends to attract people who are earnest, but dull…

A different flavor of the same idea: The post-1970s Republicans need to have the more charismatic candidate to win, because otherwise the differences in the Republican coalition become apparent and the party fractures.  (The Graham essay is what first interested me in this topic, and I consider it required reading for those curious about this subject.)

This is why likeability is everything for Romney, and history suggests that it is something which cannot be learned; so if he does not have it now, he never will.  For that reason, there is very little reason to think Romney will win in November.

Romney may have gotten one good line in, but as I mentioned, his answer to NBC’s Brian Williams’ question on gun control was awful.  The only place I was able to find a full transcript was a Conservative website, but here it is:

Williams: As governor you signed an assault weapons ban in Massachusetts. And you said at the time, quote, ‘These guns are not made for recreation or self-defense. They are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people.’ Do you still believe that?

Romney: Well, I actually signed a piece of legislation, as you described, that banned assault weapons in our state. It was a continuation of prior legislation. And it was backed both by the Second Amendment advocates like myself, and those that wanted to restrict gun rights, because it was a compromise. Both sides got some things improved in the laws as they existed. And I happen to think that with regards to the Aurora, Colorado disaster, we’re wise to continue the time of memorial and think of comforting the people affected. And political implications, legal implications are something which will be sorted out down the road. But I don’t happen to believe America needs new gun laws. A lot of what this young man did was clearly against the law. But the fact that it was against the law did not prevent it from happening.

Let’s break this down bit by evasive, mealy-mouthed bit, with my comments in red.

  1. “I actually signed a piece of legislation, as you described, that banned assault weapons in our state. It was a continuation of prior legislation.”  [He is basically trying to say: “it’s not my fault, it was like that when I got there.”]
  2. “And it was backed both by the Second Amendment advocates like myself, and those that wanted to restrict gun rights, because it was a compromise. Both sides got some things improved in the laws as they existed.” [It was an assault weapons ban–that means it restricted guns, period.  Don’t try to retcon everything so that you were more radically conservative.  He’s trying to appeal to the hardcore NRA members by lying to them, and what’s worse is that it’s not even a very good lie, as it makes him look like an incompetent governor.]
  3. “And I happen to think that with regards to the Aurora, Colorado disaster, we’re wise to continue the time of memorial and think of comforting the people affected. And political implications, legal implications are something which will be sorted out down the road.” [I said something similar on the day of the atrocity; I thought we should wait until more facts were known before talking about what to do to prevent it.  But now, more facts are known.  Romney is trying to dodge the question so that he doesn’t have to alienate any voters.]
  4. “But I don’t happen to believe America needs new gun laws.” [What happened to what you said in the previous sentence?  Do you want to talk about the political angle or not?  If America doesn’t need new gun laws, then tell us: what does it need?  Surely something can be done to prevent this kind of tragedy.]
  5. ” A lot of what this young man did was clearly against the law. But the fact that it was against the law did not prevent it from happening.”  [What? Yes, everyone knows mass murder is illegal, and yet it still occurs.  That’s true.  But the point is, you can make it harder for the crime to be committed.  What Romney said is a trivial generality; an attempt to dodge the question again.  And it succeeded, because Williams then moved on to another topic.]