House of the mailbag
Pragmatist in Westerosi politics, kids and conflict, and Bangor's bright future
Fall is, objectively, the best season.
Dave: I am confused about why deficit reduction would reduce inflation? Is it because reducing the deficit necessarily requires higher taxes and/or lower spending, which takes money out of the economy? Is it because the ephemeral entity of “market confidence” affects interest rates and “markets” prefer a smaller state? Or is it something else?
What I had in mind in this post is, as you say, the mechanical impact of people having less money via the mechanism of higher taxes or lower transfers. American households built up a big pile of savings during the pandemic, and it’s now being spent down in a way that allows consumption to exceed income, which is fueling inflation.
With deficit reduction you can speed the draw-down of that stockpile in a targeted way so that you’re taking money out of the pockets of people in the top half of the income distribution. Of course you could also do the opposite — cut SNAP and Medicaid and Section 8 to focus the pain on the most vulnerable people. I think we have to admit that the latter approach would “work” as a technical matter, but it’s immoral. What I outlined in the post were some better ideas.
FlyingPerson: As the originating voice of vaxxed-and-relaxed, do you have any advice for engaging with people in real life who are still in a COVID lockdown mentality? I have a friend who *still* refuses to meet inside, and it is getting quite cold out! I've mostly taken to ignoring these folks on Twitter, but it's much harder to do when they're a bonafide in the flesh friend. It feels like the Internet and real life have merged, because when I try and discuss this with them, I just get the standard Internet talking points about how some people are still vulnerable, the hospitals still must be protected, and we must all do our part. As a broader social point, it seems like we put a lot of society wide effort and energy into convincing people to be concerned about COVID and now there is a group of people who need that same sort of effort to help them re-adjust.
I don’t think berating people in your personal life or trying to “convince” them is going to get you very far. It’s worth recalling that good relationships with friends are one of the most important things in life, so it’s probably worth just being polite and agreeing to disagree. If it’s too cold to comfortably do things with your friend, you can say that respectfully and look forward to hanging out come spring. But if that’s the situation you are in, I would really urge you to proactively reach out as soon as the weather is nice and maintain the friendship.
But in terms of mass persuasion, I think the best thing people like me can say and do is not so much to argue with people about Covid-19 as to reiterate the value of life.
I went to a kinda dumb school assembly recently to see elementary school kids do song and dance routines for Hispanic Heritage Month, and it was delightful. It was nice to see the kids, it was nice to see the parents, and the energy of a packed house clapping and cheering was delightful. It’s important to see people and do things. It seems to me that part of the way Covid politics got off the rails in the first place was from public health officials underrating the value of positive messaging. I think it was completely correct pre-vaccine to discourage people from high-risk activities like indoor socializing. But that should have been paired with an active and vocal campaign to encourage folks to meet up with friends for outdoor activities. Not just as a “harm reduction” concession to reality, but as an embrace of the positive benefits of human relationships and socializing. I personally had a lot of good times in somewhat uncomfortably cold weather between November 2020 and March 2021 because even though nice weather is nice, time spent with friends and family is better.
I’m not so utopian to believe the entire polarization could have been avoided. But I do think that if the message had consistently been “be as cautious as possible consistent with continuing social life,” then it would have been easier to get people to see the need to normalize once vaccines were broadly available.
Matt C: If the candidates for Georgia US Senate were “reversed,” i.e., the D candidate was terrible and incompetent and opposed by a “respectable” R candidate (Romney-ish), yet both still held their core party views and would vote for their party for control of the Senate, there is still no reasonable choice but for Democrats to vote for the D in that case, correct?
I sometimes think Ds think they have some higher moral ground on this kind of question - but we would all hold our nose and do it.
I think the right answer to this question genuinely hinges on what your substantive beliefs are. If you agree with 90% of a political party’s platform, then yeah, you’re going to vote for that party even if they nominate a scumbag. If you only agree with 65%, then I think “vote for the scumbag” becomes much less compelling.
But I broadly agree with what you’re saying and think it’s a big weakness of American political institutions. Our elections are organized as if these are highly personal contests between two individuals, but Congress actually operates as a very polarized very partisan body. We’d be much better off with electoral institutions that matched that reality.
Dave Coffin: I'm curious if after reading Reeve's book on Men and Boys Matt has any thoughts on the intersection of raising boys and the post-columbine era of anti-bullying zero tolerance? I feel like there's an under-explored connection here that implicates both the development of healthy masculinity and the broader sort of conflict aversion/fragility we've seen rise in the culture. Have we overcorrected on bullying? Do kids not learn conflict resolution any more? Have we replaced disagreement with appeals to authority figures?
I don’t know how much this has to do with “anti-bullying” efforts per se, but I do agree with the diagnosis that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt offer in “The Coddling of the American Mind” that we’ve gotten into over-training young people to resolve interpersonal disputes with appeals to authority.
One of my pet theories is that the kind of dysfunctional racializing of disputes that aren’t necessarily racial in nature is downstream of this. The way American college campuses operate is that if you’re in a dorm and you can convince someone in authority that something someone has said is racist, you can get the administrators to step in and force them to stop. By contrast, if you say “Caleb said he thinks taxes should be lower, but that’s objectively contrary to the interests of low-income people,” nobody is going to come to your rescue. So everyone is implicitly trained to think that if you can find a way to reframe Caleb’s idea as bad for Black and Latinx people rather than bad for poor people, you have gained the discourse high ground. Contemporary progressives not only seem to me to struggle with the particular tactical question that poses but also with the larger reality that there is no authority figure that can tell the electorate what to do. There’s a pervasive sense that if you could get the media to just state really clearly and directly “Republicans are bad and whatever your qualms about the excesses of the left, you shouldn’t vote for them because the GOP is a threat to democracy”, then Democrats would win by default.
But we’re not in a dorm, we’re not in a classroom, and the RA isn’t going to step in no matter how persuasive your argument.
Binya: Should Rhaenys Velaryon have killed the Hightowers (/"Greens")? While burning alive one's relatives is very bad, consigning the realm to a near-certain continent-wide civil war that will be fought with weapons of mass destruction appears much worse. In addition, she had an opportunity to deter future wars by immediately crushing the first usurpation since the conquest, and failed to do so.
I thought this was really bad screenwriting. Obviously, she can’t have just killed them all at the end of the episode or there is no series. But given that reality, you need to either:
Write the episode so as to not give her an easy opportunity to kill the Hightowers then and there and preempt the war.
Give her character some clear in-universe motive for sparing them.
I think the second option is the most interesting. Maybe one of her grandchildren could have been up on the dais as a hostage so she doesn’t do it in order to spare her life, which then sets up a classic dilemma where the best thing for the realm probably wouldn’t have been to burn her granddaughter to a crisp, but we understand why nobody would do that. In general, I think the show has worked a lot better on a scene-to-scene basis than as a whole — it’s like a lot of well-executed acting exercises rather than a well-plotted show.
Taylor: Which character do you most identify with in the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire universe?
Mass media doesn’t exist in George R.R. Martin’s pseudo-historical setting, and not only is that the only career I’ve ever had, but it’s also the field that my mother and father worked in. So I’m really deep in that bubble and don’t find anyone in this universe particularly relatable.
But Margaery Tyrell is the character who seems to care about things like public opinion, and I’m into that. I think a cynical fan would say that she only pretends to care about the common people in order to boost her own political ambitions. But what she’d say in her defense — and I’d agree — is that this is really a false dichotomy. She sincerely wants people to believe she is looking out for them, and the best way to accomplish that is to actually do things that help them.
This is also one of my biggest problems with the saga, though — the Tyrells are portrayed as very pragmatic and politically savvy, but seem remarkably blind to the obvious course of action where Margaery marries Renly but then Renly and House Tyrell all support Stannis’ claim to the throne and Renly just becomes Stannis’ heir rather than trying to usurp him.
Marc Robbins: What is your probability prediction on which of the following two will occur first: the aggregate annual sale of EVs in the US will exceed those of ICE vehicles for the first time, or the government will completely remove the requirement to remove shoes and limit liquids to under three ounces in order to board planes? (Mine is 65/35 in favor of the first.)
I’m 95 percent on EVs. I don’t think the shoe change is under consideration at all. I wouldn’t rule it out entirely, because I think it would be a fun populist cause for Secretary Mayor Pete or someone to adopt, but it’s more likely than not that this shoe thing will be with us forever.
City of Trees: You say that “I alone am in the true pessimist camp that says remote work is bad and will stick.” Why do you think remote work is bad, and why do you think it will stick?
To be a little clearer (this was in reference to a tweet), I am pessimistic about the impact of remote work on productivity and growth.
I could give a formal account of this, but I am really just reiterating my experience with journalism, because journalism is a profession that has been remote-friendly forever. Long before Covid-19 or Zoom or even email, the norm was for a news organization to have correspondents scattered around the world, not clustered together in an office. But why were they scattered around the world? Because it’s important to talk to people in person. You use information technology to get further from the office because that lets you get closer to the story.
I think using IT to let people get further from the office in order to save themselves commuting time or make it easier to run errands concurrent with the workday or get cheaper housing are all things that are appealing and will make remote work sticky. But what we’re saying is that the benefits to workers of remote are so large that they will overwhelm the costs to productivity.
Luke Christofferson: If you could plop a 2 million person metropolitan area (Approximately the size of Cleveland, Nashville, or Virginia Beach/Norfolk) anywhere in the country, where would you put it?
If this is allowed, I would put it where Bangor, Maine is located. There’s already a metro area there but it’s tiny — 150,000 people across the MSA — but it’s a good spot for a city. Traditionally northern Maine’s population has been suppressed by the fact that it’s cold, but it gets warmer with every passing year. There’s plenty of fresh water up there and thanks to remote work, labor market opportunity is everywhere.
Mark: Right wing activists on abortion and other issues are much more disciplined and strategic than left wing activists, whose theory of change is basically 1) throw soup on painting, 2) ???, 3) profit. But the voting bases are basically the opposite, where the GOP primary consistently elects insane people to lose winnable races, while Democratic primaries mostly nominate widely acceptable candidates. How do you explain this contrast?
If you go back to the origins of electoral democracy 200-300 years ago, you see a basic issue that emerges quickly — the median voter is always poorer than the national mean, so there is a potential electoral majority for redistribution.
There is a set of political forces — the right — that wants to resist that redistribution. And there is a contrary set of forces — the left — that wants to encourage it. The left’s strategy is to make this dynamic explicit and transparent — we the people can seize the levers of power and make ourselves better off. And the right’s strategy is to obfuscate — the left will denigrate God, endanger public safety, weaken our national defenses, and so forth. That’s politics boiled down to its essence.
But this in turn gives rise to the characteristic flaws of the left and the right.
On the left, that’s a kind of romanticism about politics that holds that every issue comes down to the masses versus narrow moneyed elites. It denies that the people themselves may just be wrong or short-sighted, so it believes that the answer to every problem is to raise the temperature with more dramatic stunts and “calling out.”
On the right, it’s a fondness for conmen and grifters. Because right-wing politics is organized as a conspiracy to mislead people into not voting to give themselves more money, it creates structures that elevate and reward hucksters and flim-flam artists. GOP politicians and conservative media figures elevated Donald Trump as a political spokesman in the Obama years not despite the fact that he’s a fraud and a liar but because he’s a fraud and a liar. They know it would be toxic to put a professor up there to tell people about the Chamley-Judd theorem and why we should cut capital gains taxes. You need someone who’s going to talk about Mexican rapists and how Obama is secretly Kenyan.
Eli: The leaked recording of LA city council members discussing redistricting had a lot of offensive stuff, some of which hopefully everyone can agree was racist (comparing a black kid to a monkey and calling Oaxacans ugly because they tend to be short and dark-skinned are pretty indefensible). But other stuff in the tape seems like it violates liberal moral norms but not necessarily those of the culturally conservative people of color who make up a big chunk of the Democratic coalition. For instance, *I’m* offended by the suggestions that gay men’s kids are badly parented because there’s no woman in the house and that badly behaved kids would benefit from a beating, but those are fairly mainstream views, whether I like it or not. But there isn’t a coalition of Hispanic culturally conservative Nury Martinez supporters jumping up to defend her, at least not in media outlets I read. Why do you think that is?
Jay Caspian Kang wrote a really good piece about this that I would recommend to everyone. In terms of why people aren’t leaping to Martinez’s defense, it’s because (a) most people with access to the media are educated liberals and (b) because it’s bundled up with her saying things that are incredibly racist. If you’re going to go make waves with a defense of spanking (Milan, I know you’re out there), that’s not the context you’re going to want to do it in.
It’s also worth saying that the research on kids raised by same-sex parents is pretty positive on it. In general, adopted kids don’t do as well as kids raised by their biological parents, which is understandable, but you’d have to have a screw loose to understand that as the adoptive parents harming the children relative to the relevant counterfactual. So you really do need to be very homophobic to reach the conclusion that married gay couples adopting orphans is bad. I think it’s pretty understandable that nobody is leaping to her defense, even though I agree with your broad point that there are probably a lot of working-class Mexican Americans in California who agree with some of what she said.
Stormo: I’m curious how you think about inflation as both a US and global phenomenon. You’ve indicated that you think the stimulus was too big but was it so big it set off global inflation? Or was global inflation caused by supply shock (oil, grain) and if so did the stimulus help Americans maintain spending power in the face of these headwinds?
If you just look at nominal spending, the U.S. is above-trend and the Eurozone is below-trend. So what happened is that in the face of a couple of big real shocks (the pandemic, remote work, the war), Europeans have failed to stabilize demand while in the United States we have overshot on demand. The supply shock to Europe is worse than the shock to the United States, so they have inflation despite deficient demand.
But I think they ought to be letting their currency depreciate more relative to the dollar, even though that will make inflation even worse because they, unlike us, are not overstimulated. A sharper decline in the euro/dollar exchange rate would encourage U.S. demand to “leak” to Europe, which would be good for both sides of the Atlantic.
I take issue with the narrative I’ve heard some friends repeat that throwing soup at a painting is at least “courageous”. I think the left is sometimes too quick to bestow that accolade on people who do sort of shocking but low personal risk stuff (she’s a trust fund baby who might spend a night in the clink at worse but probably not). It makes progressives look deeply unserious.
Thank you so much on noting that we should have encouraged more outdoor activity. This in my mind was overwhelmingly the biggest failure of pandemic policy, and I was seeing it as early as near the beginning when we were doing insane things like closing off playgrounds. It was so critical to run a cost/benefit analysis to demonstrate that getting more people outdoors would in turn keep them away from far more dangerous behavior indoors.
But we didn't. And my guess as to why is that we ceded too much authority to the public health crowd, who through this experience I've noted are some of the most neurotic people on the face of the earth. That's understandable given what they study. But it shouldn't have meant turning the keys entirely over to them on societywide policy, since most people are nowhere near as neurotic as them. That should have been strictly within the realm of elected executives to decide in a more holistic manner, who have a better read on how important socialization is to most people.