Archive

August 20th, 2016

All of a sudden, economists are getting real jobs

    John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930 that "if economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid." Almost a century later, he's getting his wish.

    Economists tend to be a grandiose bunch. They advise presidents and billionaires. They are generally unashamed about offering semi-professional opinions on everything from moral philosophy to politics to family life. Their models make sweeping assumptions about the future of technology, and leave out huge things like norms, values and emotions. I once joked that scientists might like to play God, but economists simply write down some equations for God and calibrate His parameters.

    But there are signs that some economists are now embracing a humbler role. Instead of holding forth on policy issues or the welfare of nations, many are working with companies to create the kind of ideal markets that were previously confined to the pages of their academic papers. In other words, Keynes' dream of economic dentistry -- or, more accurately, economic engineering -- might at last be coming true.

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August 19th

A retweet from freedoms: If our forefathers replied

    Donald Trump says he wants the news media to stop being crooked, dishonest and - his favorite word - rigged.

    What he really seems to want is for journalists to stop doing their jobs, which is to examine the backgrounds of candidates and hold them to the truth. As many reporters have toughened their questioning in recent weeks, and as his campaign has struggled under one self-inflicted disaster after other, the Republican nominee has squealed ever louder.

    Based on every complaint Trump has made, he doesn't understand what journalism's role in our democracy is supposed to be. It is not, of course, shilling for Donald Trump - or any other candidate.

    The attacks have an unmistakable whiff of desperation, and they are surely meant as a distraction and as a hearty helping of red meat to his political base.

    Many of his objections, naturally, have been expressed in tweets - @realDonaldTrump's favorite form of direct-to-the-people communication.

    Here are just three examples from the past few days:

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'A Lot of People Are Saying' Trump's a Democratic Ploy

    How would Donald Trump assess Donald Trump's candidacy? As he might put it: A lot of people are saying his campaign is an operation on behalf of the Democratic Party to destroy the Republicans.

    "A lot of people are saying"? That's not a very high evidentiary standard. What else?

    Well, to start there is the photo. You know the one, where Trump and his new bride Melania are rubbing elbows with the Clintons. Bill Clinton spoke with Trump right before Trump announced his candidacy. Trump has of course contributed to Clinton campaigns in past years as well. This doesn't even get into the fact that Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton are friends.

    All of that adds up to a lot of conjecture and coincidence. It's more likely there is a less sinister explanation for Trump's obvious political errors in the general election: An isolated egomaniac rejects the advice of political professionals.

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A defense of Obama's Mideast 'balancing act'

    For those responsible for U.S. foreign policy, explaining and defending it is often one of the most challenging aspects of government. The ideal goal in selling the policy is always to be intellectually honest, respectful, and responsive while making sure not to wander away from approved talking points.

    And that's not always an easy balance to maintain. In 1989, while working at the State Department under Secretary James Baker, I gave a talk to a large and primarily Jewish audience in Detroit. I was doing my best to persuade a clearly skeptical - and sometimes hostile - crowd that in fact President George H.W. Bush and Secretary Baker had been enacting policies that were staunchly pro-Israel. The last question came from an elderly man sitting in the back row. First, he politely thanked me for my remarks and then, with perfect comedic timing, asked: "If things are so good, why do I feel so bad?"

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Politics as an Olympian endeavor

    Simone Manuel, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles will not be eligible to run for president until 2032, although Michael Phelps hits 35 years old in 2020. After watching these Olympians display so many traits we admire -- persistence, discipline, grace, goal orientation, resilience, and inner strength -- perhaps we should consider drafting one of them some day.

    It is both a blessing and a curse that the Summer Olympics happen during the election year. The blessings are obvious. Especially in this campaign, it is a relief to watch a display of American talent that truly brings the country together. It's a nice change of pace to see participants judged by objective standards (with all the caveats that gymnastics scoring invites). It is good to see these men and women achieve because they absolutely earned it.

    And during a campaign in which one of the issues is whether the United States has lost its "greatness," a glance at the Olympic medal board suggests otherwise while a look at the members of Team USA suggests how our diversity is part of our strength.

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Wisdom, Courage and the Economy

    It’s fantasy football time in political punditry, as commentators try to dismiss Hillary Clinton’s dominance in the polls — yes, Clinton Derangement Syndrome is alive and well — by insisting that she would be losing badly if only the GOP had nominated someone else. We will, of course, never know. But one thing we do know is that none of Donald Trump’s actual rivals for the nomination bore any resemblance to their imaginary candidate, a sensible, moderate conservative with good ideas.

    Let’s not forget, for example, what Marco Rubio was doing in the memorized sentence he famously couldn’t stop repeating: namely, insinuating that President Barack Obama is deliberately undermining America. It wasn’t all that different from Donald Trump’s claim that Obama founded ISIS. And let’s also not forget that Jeb Bush, the ultimate establishment candidate, began his campaign with the ludicrous assertion that his policies would double the American economy’s growth rate.

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Trump not the first Republican to court calamity for his party

    Not for more than half a century, since the 1964 landslide debacle of the Barry Goldwater campaign, has the Republican Party faced the prospect of a comparable election defeat and peril to its survival than it does now in the campaign of Donald Trump.

    Three months after Goldwater's resounding defeat, at a Chicago meeting of the Republican National Committee, Rep. Bob Wilson of California, the chairman of the GOP Congressional Campaign Committee, summed the party's need for self-preservation thus: "If I was in hell, with one leg gone and one arm gone and one eye gone, I'd still be thinking: How can I get out of here?"

    One other attendee, Richard Nixon, the defeated 1960 presidential nominee, offered what turned out a personal self-preservation plan. He proposed that all Republicans declare a moratorium on 1968 presidential politicking until after the 1966 congressional elections and instead concentrate on winning Senate and House campaigns.

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Religious liberty is different for the military

   How much leeway should Marines have to express their religious beliefs? According to Congress, religious liberty laws apply with full force to the military. But last week the highest court in the armed forces put some limits on claims by active-duty personnel. Those limits cut against recent trends in Supreme Court jurisprudence -- but they make a lot of sense in a military context, even if they shouldn't necessarily be copied by other courts for civilians.

    The case arose when Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling was charged before a court-martial with six counts of disrespect, disobedience and failing to do her job. The record shows that Sterling's chain of command was frustrated with her poor performance and recalcitrant attitude. But what got her charged was her refusal to take down three identical signs that she hung in the work cubicle she shared with another Marine. The signs read, "No weapon formed against me shall prosper."

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Manners still matter, Mr. Trump

    When you've dug yourself into a hole, as an old saying goes, stop digging. Most people are smart enough to follow that advice. They aren't Donald Trump.

    In the two weeks after their parties' conventions, the Republican presidential nominee has been digging himself into a hole, falling badly behind his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the polls -- and he keeps on digging.

    At a rally near Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, for example, he came up with a new piece of nonsense that President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton "founded" the Islamic State, or ISIS, our No. 1 jihadi enemy these days.

    Like a small child who has discovered a new word -- or a salesman who has run out of new things to say -- Trump was too delighted by the phrase to stop repeating it in his rambling rap, at least a half-dozen times. Count 'em.

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Blue corners of Pennsylvania have turned red, but it won't matter

    The lunch group in Monessen, Pennsylvania, is evenly divided between Trump supporters and Trump opponents. But the dark mood across the whole room suggests why this working-class town might end up favoring him in November.

    Monessen, once a steelmaking hub, has steadily lost plants, jobs and population over the decades. Along Donner Avenue, there are more boarded-up buildings than open stores. Mayor Lou Mavrakis points out one that has clearly been inhabited by birds for decades, and not cleaned.

    The mayor assembled a group of locals for lunch at Felicia's Restaurant and Lounge, where they talked about the problems they see at home and abroad. "I'm tired of being a 911 for the world," says Kevin Iacovangelo, who fixes and sells computers.

    This is Westmoreland County. Here and in the adjacent struggling southwestern Pennsylvania counties, Donald Trump hopes to roll up big wins. He campaigned in Monessen early this summer; the last national figure to stump here was John F. Kennedy, for the 1962 midterms.

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