Amplifying Kevin Drum's remarks, Ezra Klein points out:

You hear a lot about "countercyclical policy" amidst deep recessions. You don't hear much about it amidst periods of joyously fast growth. Instead, our thumb is always on the same side of the scale: We have counter-recessionary policy and pro-expansionary policy.

The problem, as Kevin puts it, is both human and political. "How do you ensure that [countercyclical policy] happens not just during downturns, when everyone is eager for it, but also during upturns?" he asks.... "After all, no one wants to spoil a party when everyone is having a good time."

The answer to this, in part, was supposed to be that the Federal Reserve chairman is insulated from congressional meddling and popular opprobrium. He can do what must be done. But that didn't work out in the latter years of Greenspan's tenure and he was, in part, considered a hero for permitting such an awesome economy.
This is all true. It's worth noting, though, that during the 1980s, when Greenspan was doing exactly what Drum calls for, his strongest critics were on the left. I remember William Greider arguing that wages at the bottom of the income distribution only start to rise when the economy's really booming and we're close to full employment. By cutting off the highs, as Greenspan did by raising interest rates when things got too hot, he eliminated the part of the cycle when the poor get theirs.

So why have the sides switched, to the point where it's now progressives like Drum and Klein who are calling for counter-expansionary monetary policy? Perhaps it's the economic history of the Bush years, in which economic growth was decoupled from rising income not just for the poor but for the middle class too: liberals just don't root for robust growth in the way they used to.


Weird NYT front-pager on a decision confronting President Obama: "whether the government must provide health insurance benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees."

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama said he would “fight hard” for the rights of gay couples. As a senator, he sponsored legislation that would have provided health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

Now, Mr. Obama is in a tough spot. If he supports the personnel office on denying benefits to the San Francisco court employees, he risks agitating liberal groups that helped him win election. If he supports the judges and challenges the marriage act, he risks alienating Republicans with whom he is seeking to work on economic, health care and numerous other matters.

Is it just me, or is this in fact not a particularly tough spot at all? The situation is apparently as follows: Obama supports same-sex-partner benefits. His base supports same-sex-partner benefits. And a clear majority of the American people (73 percent, according to a Newsweek poll from three months ago) support same-sex-partner benefits. (The Times story doesn't mention this last point for some reason.) The only people who don't support it are members of the minority party. And Obama is supposed to capitulate to them because he needs their support on health care? How is that going to work? Are the Republicans going to explicitly agree to vote for health care reform as long as the gays don't get benefits? Or is Obama going to fold in the hope that folding will in some intangible way make the Republians more tractable on big economic issues? What's the percentage in capitulating, for Obama?

Behind this Times piece, I suspect, is the present media consensus that Obama's change-the-tone rhetoric somehow means that any kind of confrontation will be disastrous for him. So far, there is little evidence to support this.


Inevitable 'Watchmen' review post

When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons began work on Watchmen, the twelve-issue DC Comics maxiseries (yup, that’s what we called them in 1986) that would come to bear the literary aspirations of superhero comics fandom on its shoulders, they chose to restrict themselves by declaring certain established techniques off-limits. Watchmen contains no thought balloons, the cloud-shaped bubbles used for expository interjections or angsty soliloquies. It has no narrator to say “Meanwhile....” Perhaps most tellingly, Watchmen—cited in a hundred newspaper articles with the headline “Pow! Zap! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!”—contains none of the onomatopoeic sound effects that Roy Lichtenstein and the Batman TV show made a symbol of the medium. When characters in Watchmen throw punches or fire guns, the bangs and crashes are entirely implied by the images. The only sound that’s explicit in Watchmen is the characters’ speech, of which there’s a lot. For all its sudden eruptions of violence and magic, Watchmen consists largely of people talking to each other.

Starting in the early 1960s, superhero artists had begun to explode the rigid borders of the comic-strip panel into vivid, kinetic layouts. With Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons moved ostentatiously to the opposite extreme: every page of the series is a variation on a rigid nine-panel grid. (If Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four is a Beethoven symphony, Watchmen is the Goldberg Variations.) This metronomic regularity is part of Watchmen’s intricate fitting of form to content: the scenes of high adventure and everyday life are accompanied by a constant reminder, as if from the omniscient perspective of some objective overseer, of time’s steady passage.

The soundtrack to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie, which I saw last night, is crammed from start to finish with pop songs, melodramatic synthesizer fanfares, and digital effects. Every punch is accompanied by a whoosh of air and a percussive crack. When characters in Snyder’s movie fight, they alternate between Matrix-style “bullet time” and the sped-up style of kung-fu movies. Whereas Snyder has gone to great and sometimes absurd lengths to transliterate the story from comics to film—taking dialogue verbatim from Moore, recreating Gibbons’s images down to the smallest details—he steadfastly refuses to restrict his options as they did. Sweeping strings? Graphic dismemberment? Superspeed gymastics on the part of characters without superpowers—characters whose whole narrative purpose centers on the fact that they’re ordinary human beings? Sure, man, it looks cool!

I enjoyed every minute of the movie, although everything I got from it was derived from having read the comic a dozen times more than a decade ago. The casting is mostly very good: I genuinely believed I was watching Rorshach and Nite Owl and the Comedian. (The glaring exception is Ozymandias, who should be a Tom Cruise type, great-looking and super-likeable, rather than a skinny, sinister Euro.) And Snyder’s self-indulgence is fun to watch, in a way. Moore’s goal was to present a superhero story as seriously as possible, and he sometimes ran into that limit and kept going. Cranking up the volume, as Snyder does, highlights the lurid pulp elements, the ultraviolence and fetish costumes, that Watchmen insists are guilty pleasures.

But beyond formal rigidity, something central is missing. Watchmen isn’t great literature, but at least it’s about something. It’s a critique of the ideas of power and morality that are fundamental to the superhero genre; it’s about what it means to wish for godlike abilities, or to imagine that you’re fighting for justice, or to appoint yourself the protector of others. If you read superhero comics you’re probably invested in these ideas, at least unconsciously, which is why Watchmen was a meaningful experience for me at the age of thirteen: it makes you think. It’s hard to imagine Snyder’s movie making anyone think.



First of all, we don’t want policymakers to assume the worst about the future when shaping economic policy. Nor do we want them to assume the best. Actually, we don’t want them to assume anything. Instead, we want them to come up with the most accurate forecast of the future they can, and to adopt the economic policies that make the most sense given that forecast.
Unfortunately, it's more complicated than that. Surowiecki's proposal would have us ignore unlikely-but-still-possible events -- "black swans," as we're now learning to call them -- because they don't fit into our "most accurate forecast of the future."

Rather, we want politicians to forecast the entire range of reasonable possibilities, estimate the probability of each of those forecasts coming to pass, and then adopt the economic policies that best optimize outcomes across that range of possibilities, taking into account the estimated probabilities and constantly adjusting the forecasts, the probability estimates, and the policies themselves in the light of new events and information. Plus also we'd like a pony.

Update: One might imagine that Surowiecki would be too busy to post a response in the comments section of this post. One would be wrong. In case it's not clear: the difference here is semantic and hinges on the definition of "forecast," which I had taken to mean "single predicted outcome" where J.S. was using it to to mean "predicted range of possible outcomes."


Matt Linderman writes:

Imagine you’re the drummer in a band. If you ask the bandleader for permission to do something different, it starts a whole conversation that may result in an argument or your idea being shot down.
 But what if you just do what you think is best? What if you switch to the ride cymbal during the chorus or use brushes instead of sticks? If it sounds good, it sounds good. Everyone can agree on that.
The one thing I think we can safely conclude from this is that Matt Linderman has never been in a band.


Best news of the holiday season: David Denby has written a book entitled Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation -- setting up what will no doubt be a knock-down, drag-out contest to write the best negative review. Adam Sternbergh takes an early lead.


Link rodeo:

  • Adam Gopnik remembers Saul Steinberg.
  • The real progenitors of modern Republicanism are not Goldwater and Reagan but McCarthy and Nixon.
  • Terry Gross interviews the great Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, of Philadelphia International Records [web, iTunes].