I was on Stossel's State of the Union special last night, so I watched the speech in the company of David Boaz, Matt Welch, and Governor Gary Johnson. I had a lot to say about it on television, which you can watch here.
I thought the speech was better-written and better-delivered than many of the critics I read this morning; it had a lot of good applause lines (along with, yes, the groaner about spilled milk), and the president is stylistically a very good speaker.
But I also thought that, three years in, I'd like to see a little more from his speeches than base-pleasing applause lines and pleasing delivery. The content of the speech was sorely disappointing.
The harsh way to put it is that the speech was an extended whine about how all the rich bankers and George Bush have screwed everything up. That was fine campaign rhetoric when he was a Senator. But it's pretty weak when he's been in charge for most of a full term--two years of that with a majority in congress.
Of course, one can argue--correctly--that Obama actually doesn't have the power to fix the economy; the recession was deeper than he thought it would be. I'm entirely sympathetic to this argument except for one thing, which is that Barack Obama got himself elected by claiming that "the Republicans have driven the economy into a ditch" and he could drive it out again. It doesn't seem unfair to judge him on his failure to actually deliver what he promised:
Lauer: "At some point will you say, `Wait a minute. We've spent this amount of money, we're not seeing the results. We've got to change course dramatically.' "
Obama: "Yeah, look, I'm at the start of my administration. One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I've got four years and...
Lauer: "You're going to know quickly how people feel about what's happened."
Obama: "That's exactly right. And you know, a year from now I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress. But there's still going to be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."
If Obama didn't want to be judged on the basis of the economy's performance, he shouldn't have let his mouth write checks that he couldn't cash. If it turned out to maybe be a little harder to steer the economy where you want it than he thought it was, then maybe he should lay off claiming that the Republicans drove the thing into a ditch.
But he hasn't. Instead he's complaining that the GOP won't let him steer--pretty rich considering that he started out with a 60-seat majority in Congress, and chose to ignore the economy in favor of passing a health care bill that has gotten even less popular since we passed it to find out what was in it.
That's the harsh version. The slightly kinder version is that Obama, stymied by an economy that's still pretty weak, and an opposition that has no more interest in cooperating with him than Republicans did with Hoover, has turned to a laundry list of weak proposals that sound pleasing to interest groups, but wouldn't achieve much. Of those, the best was allowing students who study here to stay here; the stupidest was probably adding yet another investigation of bank fraud (what have you been doing for the last three years, Mr. President?) And the worst was the bizarre proposal for states to force students to stay in school until graduation or the age of 18. Beyond the obvious enforcement questions, by the time people drop out of high school, they're normally already badly lagging their classmates, with low grades and test scores, and high rates of truancy. Commanding them to physically stay in the building for another two years is not going to fix those problems; presumably, it's a sop to any teachers he pissed off by proposing that we might fire those whose students aren't learning.
There's no real common thread holding all of these proposals together except what you might call "nostalgianomics".
Think about the America within our reach: a country that leads the world in educating its people; an America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs; a future where we're in control of our own energy; and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.
We can do this. I know we can, because we've done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.
What a strange thing to say. "We know how to do this?" Do what? Have World War III?
Surely Obama's economic advisors have not told him that they know how to replicate the growth of the 1950s--and if they did, surely the last three years have given the lie to this belief.
I think the speech made it even clearer that other speeches have that the president's vision of the world is a lightly updated 1950s technocracy without the social conservatism, and with solar panels instead of rocket ships. Government and labor and business working in tightly controlled concert, with nice people like Obama at the reins--all the inventions coming out of massive government or corporate labs, and all the resulting products built by a heavily unionized workforce that knows no worry about the future.
There are obviously a lot of problems with this vision. The first is that this is not what the fifties and sixties were actually like--the government and corporate labs sat on a lot of inventions until upstart companies developed them, and the union goodies that we now think of as typical were actually won pretty late in the game (the contracts that eventually killed GM were written in the early 1970s).
And to the extent that the fifties and sixties were actually like this, we should remember, as Max Boot points out, that this was not actually the day of the little guy. Big institutions actually had a great deal more power than they do now; it was just distributed somewhat differently--you had to worry less about big developers slapping a high-rise next to your single-family neighborhood, and a whole lot more about Robert Moses deciding he wanted to run a freeway through the spot where your house happened to be.
The military model of society--employed by both Obama, and a whole lot of 1950s good government types--was actually a kind of creepy way to live. As Boot says, "America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies." If you want the 1950s except without the rigid conformity and the McCarthyism, then you fundamentally misunderstand what made the 1950s tick.
Finally, there's the fact that the 1950s ended in the 1970s. In the 1950s, American products were envied all over the world; by 1980, they were a joke. This is not some radical disconnect; it is the beginning and end of the same process. The technocratic American institutions became sclerotic agents of inertia. Bosses whose pay was capped poured their energy into building personal empires instead of personal fortunes. Unions like the UAW began making demands on their companies so heavy that even the UAW president who had negotiated these amazing pay increases began to fear that his members had lost their minds.
As David Boaz said last night, Obama's talk of blueprints was telling. A blueprint is a simple plan that an architect imposes on an inanimate object. Obama really does seem to think that he can manage the economy in the same way. No, I don't think that he is a socialist. Rather, I think that he really believes there are technocratic levers that can make the income distribution flatter, the rate of innovation faster, and the banking system safer, without undesireable side effects.
The problem with all nostalgia isn't even that it's necessarily wrong--by many standards, the 1950s was a great time to live. Rather, the problem is that it almost always wants to turn a transient moment into a steady state--or worse, only "the good parts" of those transient moments.
I had hoped that the last three years had taught Obama the limits of this sort of thinking. But if they have, he certainly hasn't chosen to share that hard-won knowledge with the rest of us.
By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
A boring juice product sold itself as the next great technology phenomenon. There was only one way things could go.
Juicero is a startup that sells a $400 machine that squeezes packets of diced fruit and vegetables to produce fresh juice. A person might assume that a product so simple and boring, yet weirdly expensive, couldn’t possibly attract the entire internet’s derision. A person would be wrong.
It’s best to begin this story in March of last year, when the New York Timespublished a profile of the company’s founder Doug Evans, a former Army paratrooper who had already started and sold the successful Organic Avenue line of cold-pressed juices and healthy snacks. Evans was not a Silicon Valley veteran, but he spoke like one, rhapsodizing his product with quasi-religious grandiosity. “Not all juice is equal,” he told The Times. “How do you measure life force? How do you measure chi?”
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
For the first time in modern French history, neither candidate is from a major party.
Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front, is through to the second round of the French presidential election, where she will face Emmanuel Macron, the independent, who won Sunday's first round with 23.7 percent of the vote. Le Pen won 21.7 percent. It's the first time in French history that neither candidate from a major political party is in the second round runoff. It's also the first time a far-right candidate is in the second round since 2002 when Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, lost to Jacques Chirac.
Macron and Le Pen’s strong showings Sunday, which saw an approximately 77percent voter turnout (slightly lower than the 79 percent who voted in the first round in 2012), signaled a rebuke of the political establishment that has dominated French politics for decades. Macron launched his centrist party in August 2016 after he quit his role in President François Hollande’s Socialist government, and despite the party’s youth it boasts a quarter of a million members. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s FN secured the most votes it has ever received in its nearly half-century history, surpassing the 18-percent first-round finish it saw in 2012.
Thursday’s terrorist attack in Paris did not “help” Marine Le Pen.
Following Thursday’s terrorist attack on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, which killed one police officer and wounded two others, Donald Trump made a prediction. “The people of France will not take much more of this,” he wrote on Twitter. “Will have a big effect on presidential election!” It seemed like the American president was implicitly backing one of the leading candidates in that election, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who has campaigned on rooting out Islamic extremism from the Republic and practices a Trump-like brand of populist-nativist politics.
Then Trump dispelled any doubt about his message. The attack, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, will “probably help” Le Pen’s chances, the American president told the Associated Press, “because she is the strongest on borders and she is the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” (This despite the fact that the Champs-Elysees attacker was a French citizen ensconced well within French borders.) Trump didn’t explicitly endorse Le Pen. But he effectively endorsed her sales pitch to voters. “I believe whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism and whoever is the toughest at the borders will do well at the election,” Trump said.
The 45th president’s journey of discovery could be a public service, if it helps bring his supporters to greater understanding of the complexities of governing.
Let the betting pools begin: What will be the next policy issue that Donald Trump suddenly discovers is way more complicated than “anyone” ever imagined?
Already, the aggressively policy-ignorant president has marveled that dealing with touchy issues such as North Korea, China, the Ex-Im bank, Syria, and health care, requires more than trash talk and an itchy Twitter finger. And, while he has yet to break the bad news to the dying coal towns that backed him, Trump has been meeting with energy execs, some of whom have had to gently explain that, when it comes to saving the industry, there’s not all that much he can do. Because—all together now!—it’s complicated.
As it turns out, no matter how much reality TV experience one brings to the table, one cannot simply snap one’s fingers and instantly solve the nation’s most vexing problems.
Inside Walmart’s curious, possibly ingenious effort to get customers to build up their savings accounts
Late last summer, Dawn Paquin started keeping her money on a prepaid debit card from Walmart instead of in a traditional checking account. The wages from her factory job—she works from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., inspecting blades on industrial bread-slicing machines—now go directly onto the Visa-branded card, which she can use like a regular debit card, though unlike most debit cards, it is not linked to a checking or savings account. She made the switch after a $4 check she wrote to buy coffee for herself and a friend tipped her checking account below the required minimum and triggered $100 in overdraft fees.
This was before she got the factory gig, and she wasn’t working full-time. Paquin lives in Salem, Illinois, where, she told me recently, if you don’t have a college degree, your job choices are “fast food or factory.” Money was extremely tight. “I kind of had a bit of resentment about banks after that,” she said dryly.
Tracking the controversies, allegations, and investigations into the president and his administration
Donald Trump entered the White House as one of the most scandal-tarred presidents in American history—what his imbroglios may have lacked in depth, they made up in variety, encompassing legal, ethical, and sexual controversies. (In a twist, one of Trump’s few competitors for the crown was his rival, Hillary Clinton.) They ranged from race discrimination to mafia connections, from petty hypocrisies to multimillion-dollar alleged frauds.
Now that Trump is president, some of those controversies have continued to shadow him. But the presidency has also occasioned a whole new set of disputes. Looming largest is the question of whether his campaign colluded with Russian agents to interfere in the election, a question being investigated by the FBI as well as panels in both houses of Congress. They also include ethical and legal questions surrounding members of his cabinet, his allegation that Barack Obama spied on him before the election, and various conflicts of interest.