Archive for December, 2013

At the end of last year, I made six predictions for 2013. How did they turn out?

1. Bashar al-Assad will no longer be in power in Syria at the end of 2013. However, the civil war will continue.

Half right. The civil war has continued, but shortly after I wrote this, the tide of conflict turned against the rebels, and Assad seems assured of retaining power for some time.

2. U.S. troops will not be sent to Mali.

Correct, although the situation in Mali remains unstable.

3. The PPACA will suffer another flesh wound when Oklahoma wins its case against the federal exchange subsidies.

No-decision. The case has yet to be decided on the merits at any level, though legal commentators are taking it seriously. I still think Oklahoma will win.

4. The sequester will not occur.

Half right. The sequester did occur for one fiscal year: FY 2013. For FY 2014 and 2015 it was reversed.

5. Scott Brown will win back a seat in the U.S. Senate in a special election.

Wrong. He decided not to run. However, he may yet run for Senate from New Hampshire in 2014.

6. An assault weapons ban will not pass the House.

Correct. In retrospect this was an easy call, but shortly after Sandy Hook it looked as if anything might happen.

Looks like 3 out of 5 — not so great, but not enough sample size to say whether I’m doing any better than random chance. Here are some predictions for 2014:

  1. Oklahoma will win its case (carry over from last year).
  2. U.S. real GDP growth will top 3% in 2014.
  3. Obama’s net approval rating will be higher on election day 2014 than it is now (-11.3).
  4. Republicans will pick up a few seats in both the House and Senate, but not quite enough to take back the Senate.
  5. Dems will retain control of the executive council and the governorship in New Hampshire, but the GOP will retain the Senate and take back the House.
  6. The Scottish independence referendum will fail by about 10 percentage points.
  7. Catalonia will hold an informal “public consultation” with multiple options, in which “independence” will win a plurality and not a majority. Without a strong mandate for any particular alternative, political wrangling will continue indefinitely.
  8. There will be no successful deal to roll back agricultural trade barriers in the Doha Round

Update: What I mean by the Catalan plebiscite’s not yielding a majority to independence is that a majority of all those voting will either vote against independence or abstain on the second question. For another example of how this can happen in a two-question referendum, see my analysis of the Puerto Rico statehood vote. The Catalan “referendum” is much better worded but could still yield no majority.

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Snowden v. Leviathan

One of the more consequential events of the 2013 involved the ongoing revelations about the NSA.  Barton Gellman (Washington Post) has an excellent piece on Edward Snowden based on some recent interviews.  One excerpt:

“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” he [Snowden] said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

I remain uncertain as to what to make of Snowden. But clearly his revelations have forced a higher level of attention to the surveillance state created in the wake of 9/11. Whether there are significant changes in policy remains to be seen. Crisis invariably leads to an expansion of state power, and as Robert Higgs reminds us, it is usually a one-way ratchet.

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On December 18, Gallup released its latest results from a poll conducted December 5-8. “Seventy-two percent of Americans say big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than is big business or big labor, a record high in the nearly 50-year history of this question.”jlaajnj50uiqlfbphys0qq

I am sure it is tempting to attribute this to the government shutdown and the drama surrounding the roll out of the Affordable Care Act website. But the slope change came in 2009 (see the graph). I would have expected the concerns over big business to remain steady or increase since the financial collapse, given the sluggish recovery and the bad press that business has received (remember the Occupy movement, the debates over corporate tax avoidance and the Buffett rule, the attack on all things Bain in 2008). But the fear of big business has fallen steadily (organized labor has remained inconsequential).

Bottom line: a record percentage of Americans appear to agree with Ronald Reagan, who remarked that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

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Madison Aghast

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled yesterday that the NSA collection of metadata is likely unconstitutional under the 4th amendment (Klayman et al., v Obama et. al.). The most notable paragraph:

“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval.  Surely, such a program infringes on ‘the degree of privacy’ that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. Indeed, I have little doubt that the author of our Constitution, James Madison, who cautioned us to beware ‘the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power,’ would be aghast.” (p. 64)

It is an interesting decision (for example, on page 49, Leon describes the technology used to store and analyze metadata as “almost-Orwellian.” On page 61, when questioning the efficacy of the program, he notes that “the Government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.”). The footnotes are interesting as well (e.g., an analogy to the Beatles in note 36).

It will likely be some time until the decision works its way through the process–I imagine it will end up at the Supreme Court. You can find the complete decision here.

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Some must-reads to start your week:

1.  Theodore Dalrymple (aka Anthony Daniels) has an absolutely superb takedown of the new DSM-5 in City Journal.  “Responsibilitarians” (HT: Sorens) will find themselves using his arguments frequently in the current age in which practically everything wrong with us is a “disorder” that undermines our agency – though doing so won’t make you the life of the party.  Here is a nice snippet:

The DSM is ultimately an instrument for weakening human resilience, self-reliance, fortitude, and resolve. It turns human beings into mechanisms, deprives their conduct of meaning, and makes them prey to entrepreneurs of human misery.

2.  In this season of grading, one professor argues that we should get rid of the term paper.  I’m not getting rid of mine yet.  But similar to what this prof calls for as a replacement for the term paper, I did ask one class of students who performed poorly on their papers to come talk to me at length about the book which was the subject of their assignment.  I was not impressed with their knowledge of the text.

3.  AP argues that George P. isn’t a typical Bush.


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Channeling Thomas Ricks

If you’ve read Thomas Rick’s book The Generals, maybe you too could imagine him saying something like this in the wake of Army firing its football coach after 5 years of poor results (and 5 of the 12 straight defeats to Navy):

Lose football games: get fired.  Lose in war: no problem, business as usual.  What a country.

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It appears that President Obama’s address on inequality was the beginning of a larger move to the left and an embrace of economic populism. As Edward-Issac Dovere  (Politico) explains:

[Obama is] connecting to progressive populism with an aggressive, spending-oriented, activist government approach to the economy personified by Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. Obama’s already backed raising the minimum wage, the start of what White House officials say will be a 2014 domestic agenda — including his State of the Union address and budget — that centers around income inequality and what the government is doing to increase economic mobility.


Obama needs his base invested to help him recover from his low poll numbers and give his party a platform as Democrats try to make the House competitive and hold onto to their majority in the Senate. And those in the coalition that won Obama two elections — young people, African-Americans, Latinos, single women and immigrants — are precisely the ones hit hardest by the doldrum economy.

Will this strategy succeed? The answer would seem to hinge on three things.

  1. Success in shifting the focus from the sluggish economy (e.g., the “jobs deficit,” problems of long-term unemployment, dramatic reductions in the labor force participation rate) to inequality in income distributions and the claim that these inequalities (rather than economic policy or the intrinsic problems of recovering from a financial crisis) have impeded recovery.
  2. Success in convincing voters that the correct policy response to this situation is an expansion of social policy expenditures (e.g., increases in Social Security) and a higher minimum wage
  3. Success in convincing voters that they should, in essence, vote themselves a raise in the 2014 midterm elections since there are limits to what can be achieved through executive action.

I am skeptical that this strategy will succeed for a host of reasons (e.g., the contours of public opinion, the likelihood that ongoing problems with Obamacare implementation will dominate the news, the President’s lack of follow through on priorities announced in the State of the Union). But given the poor economic performance since the financial collapse there is likely a growing pool of desperate  voters open to these claims. They may  apply a sufficiently high discount rate to the future that the long-term fiscal consequences of expanded social policy expenditures will not matter much.

For those who are interested in reading more, see Alex Pareene, “Why Elizabeth Warren Baffles Pundits” (Salon), Frank James, “Is Economic Populism a Problem or a Solution for Democrats?” (NPR) and Third Way’s John Cowan and Jim Kessler’s op-ed (WSJ), “Economic Populism is Dead”

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