Monday’s Mtg: Causes and Lessons of the Great Depression

When the U.S. economy teetered near collapse due to 2008’s financial crisis, the panicked debate over what to do about it scratched an old wound: What caused the similar-in-many-respects Great Depression and did government policies cure it or made bring it on? The debate quickly divided into two ideological camps. The neo-Keynesians, lead in the popular press by Paul Krugman, said the situation was pretty simple. Just like in the Great Depression, private economic activity and credit had dried up, so the government and the federal Reserve should stimulate the economy temporarily by as much as necessary to fill the hole in aggregate demand. Once growth resumed, the stimulus could be withdrawn and budget deficits would fall. The other side, conservatives, opposed fiscal stimulus (except tax cuts), arguing that austerity would reassure investors to kick start growth again.   After an $800 billion stimulus package, 40% of which was tax cuts, budget austerity has largely prevailed and the federal budget deficit has shrunk drastically.

The other tool of government economic management is the Federal Reserve, under its chairman, Ben Bernanke. Bernanke, an academic expert on the Great Depression, took the opposite approach to austerity. The Fed quickly lowered interest rates to near zero based on the consensus position that the Fed had done a lot to bring on the Great Depression by tightening the money supply when the crisis first hit.  When touching the “zero lower bound” interest rate in 2008 failed to work, the Fed increased the money supply further via an unprecedented program of buying bonds, known as “quantitative easing.”  Only recently has it begun to taper off that extra monetary stimulus.

Six years later, the debate still rages on whether the Fed and the Congress should have done more, or less, or different things. Krugman and others scream that we need to have large-scale spending stimulus and continued loose money. Conservatives all want to slash government spending and taxes and many also want interest rates raised to head off potential inflation. These approaches are polar opposites, really. One thing we can be certain of is that, since the United States regularly has financial crises, something like all of this will happen again and the same arguments will be trotted out.

So, what are the right lessons to take out of the Great Depression and the Great Recession? This topic can become really complicated really fast and it challenges my economic knowledge to try to do so. But, on Monday I will open us up by outlining the main theories about what caused and prolonged the Great Depression and which lessons policymakers tried to apply when they faced the abyss in 2008-09. Then, we can discuss the matter. There are several good non-technical angles we should be sure to get into, including how and why ideology seems to influences people who comment on economics in the news media and punditry.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What are the main theories on what caused the Great Depression?   How did government policy help to cure (or prolong) it?
  2. How similar and dissimilar was the crisis of 2007-09? How did the policy response differ based on lessons learned 80 years ago?
  3. Who is right: Austerians or Keynesians?
  4. How/why does political ideology drive economics, especially lately on this issue? How can we know what’s right and wrong?

LINKS –

ABCs of the issue –

Liberal POV –

Conservative POV –

Next Week: Political Bias In Academia

Monday’s Mtg: Homelessness in San Diego and Beyond – What Should Be Done?

I’m surprised we’ve never done this topic before. Thanks to Linda for suggesting it. Homelessness has become a big issue in San Diego recently (see links). Nationally, it’s part of that constellation of problems that our political system tends to ignore, along with most anything else connected to poverty.  Our stunted national debate pretty much starts and stops with debating whether homeless people are entirely at fault for their own misery or merely almost entirely. Public policy in many cities tries to “manage” the homeless problem so it’s less visible, and often leaves it to non-profit and private do-gooders to cope as best they can – even in deep recessions, when the need is greatest and the funding (public and private) dries up.

Yet, I don’t mean to imply that homelessness is not a complicated problem or would be fixable with simple solutions. In fact, it’s a really, really, tough issue because homelessness often lies at the intersection of many of our social ills (like joblessness, poverty, lack of affordable housing, over-incarceration) and people’s personal tragedies (such as mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse). I hope to learn more about all this at the meeting and from the links, below. Linda will run the show, but I’ll be there in my usual capacity to call on speakers in as arbitrary a manner as I can. The background readings focus on San Diego’s homelessness problem, which was Linda’s intent, but I linked toy much more information about the homelessness issue, provided by two organizations devoted to eradicating it.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Who is homeless in San Diego and why? What about nationally? What role do personal factors play versus structural/economic factors? What does this tell us about solutions?
  2. What is San Diego doing about homelessness? How’s that going: what’s working and what is not working?
  3. What do other cities generally do – and not do – to combat homelessness?
  4. What would a more effective strategy against homelessness look like? What role would be played by our national government, state/local governments, and the non-profit sector and charities?
  5. How can we make people care more and judge less?

LINKS –

Next Week:  Causes and Lessons of the Great Depression.

Monday’s Mtg: Racial Profiling and Stop and Frisk.

Racial profiling is one of those issues that most members of our discussion group probably have very little feel for. Most of us, I’ll bet, have never lived in a neighborhood where young people are routinely stopped and scrutinized by the police, or in one with the crime levels that are used to justify the practice. Racial profiling has been illegal since 1968, when SCOTUS ruled that police cannot legally search someone solely on the grounds that their race or ethnicity makes them “suspicious.” But, the police still have enormous discretion in who they can stop and search and how, and young men/women in many poor communities of color are subject to interrogation and search by law enforcement whenever they leave the house.

Allegations of racial profiling and debates about its effectiveness have been in the news a lot the past few years. In 2013, a court struck down NYC’s controversial “stop and frisk” program, wherein law enforcement made it a deliberate practice to stop lots and lots of people on the street and search them for weapons and contraband. Mayor Giuliani and others argued that it lowered crime in the city and that the inconvenience to law-abiding citizens was worth it. Opponents said stop and frisk violated the rights of tens of thousands of innocent people, did not cause NYC’s drop in crime, and amounted to a kind of tax on poor people of color. Racial profiling also has been a huge issue in immigration, via Arizona’s A.B. 1070 “papers please” law, and in the anti- terrorism realm since 9/11.

We have a special guest Monday night, via Carl, who will talk about another topic and answer questions for the first 20 minutes. Then, I’ll give a very brief issue intro on our main topic and open it up. Let’s all stretch ourselves a little on this one and try to imagine how other people’s experiences might lead them to see the world differently than we do.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is “racial profiling?” Why is it outlawed and what discretion do the police still have to search someone based partially on their appearance?
  2. Stop and frisk: Does it work? How high are the costs to poor communities of color and how do they compare to the benefits of falling crime (if it does that)? Also, who should get to decide what to do?
  3. Read the articles below on what it feels like to be racially profiled. Does this move you to think differently about our topic?
  4. Immigration: Any unique issues that make racial profiling more or less permissible?
  5. Terrorism: Same question.

Links –

Next Week:  How to handle territorial disputes in the 21st century.  (Iraq and Israel/Palestinians, anybody?)

Monday’s Mtg: Territorial Disputes in the 21st Century

I picked up a New York Times earlier this week and it was like it was 1933 or something. Nothing but territorial disputes and dueling nationalisms. Japan is about to reinterpret its pacifist constitution to allow more military freedom of action to counter China, with which it has territorial disputes. Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites were busy drawing the borders of Iraq’s successor states. More saber rattling by Putin over Ukraine. Israelis and Palestinians murdered in the streets. You get the idea.

Ron suggested we devote an evening to how territorial disputes are supposed to be resolved these days, and it certainly seems well-timed. International institutions and law have matured enough that there’s usually a forum in which to resolve a territorial beef peacefully if the parties really want to. Globalization is supposed to make going to war over such things more unwise than ever. Yet, almost every country in the world – including the United States and plenty of developed countries – still have festering territorial disputes. So, what gives? Why do these things linger?

Beats me. Many of the worst such conflicts are unsettled for good reasons, like those islands that China claims that sit on vast mineral or energy wealth or in Palestine, where both sides want the other not to exist. Still, is building stronger transnational institutions going to help what the disputants can’t do themselves?

After I do my reading on this one I’ll open Monday with a brief introduction, probably just highlighting the most contentious territorial disputes. I think we may have to lean on our resident international relations types like Bruce and Zelekha.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Where are the worst ongoing territorial disputes between nations? What are they about? Do they have any common features that give us insight into the phenomenon?
  2. Why have the worst disputes not been settled? Security? Access to natural resources? Politics and nationalism?
  3. What formal mechanisms exist for resolving territorial disputes? Why are they not used more?
  4. How has globalization changed the picture? Can we expect more wars over territory in the future (see link below that says we can) or fewer? Are we entering the 21st century or, with no hyper-power, another 19th or even 17th?

LINKS –

NEXT WEEK – Homelessness What can be done, in San Diego and beyond?

Monday’s Mtg: Liberal Versus Conservative Foreign Policy Principles

This has got to be our accidently best-timed meeting ever. As events spiral out of control in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and elsewhere, the old guard neoconservatives (Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, McCain) seem to be making a push to reassert their relevance in our national conversation and their primacy in the Republican Party. Plus, a month ago Obama gave a major speech on foreign policy that many found bold (or frightening). So, I can’t think of a better time to talk about what both conservative and liberals really stand for in this area.

Another reason is I just don’t know what either left or right believes in foreign policy anymore. Conservatives are in chaos, still so haunted by the neocons’ failures they seem unable to do much beyond criticizing everything Obama does and hoping no one notices they have no replacement vision of how the United States should interact with a rapidly changing world. Progressives seem to me to be stuck in their usual spot, the let’s-rely-on-international-institutions spot. They don’t understand, In my view, that the world still leans heavily on the United States to provide the “public goods” of globalization and global security. The IO’s do not and cannot always protect American interests.

Worst of all, the punditry and news media have done a terrible job of explaining the principles behind President Obama’s foreign policy. If it can’t be labeled a doctrine and put on a bumper sticker, they ignore it until bad things happen and then they ridicule it. (Is Obama a failure or a weakling? Where’s the vision?) There is a strategy behind what Obama is doing on foreign policy. You may not like it, but it’s been there the whole time in plain sight.

Since Obama is the leader of the party in power for two more years and Hillary will have to pivot off of his policies when she runs, I’ll open our meeting on Monday by quickly explaining the principles behind Obama’s foreign policy. Then, rather than trying to answer our evening’s question, I’ll finish by reminding the group of the different major internal factions that both parties have to satisfy on foreign policy. These groups (neocons, Libertarians, religious right; white liberals, African-Americans, Latinos, Hillary’s people, etc.) have different and hard to reconcile ideas for which principles should guide our foreign policy.

  • A huge link-fest this week because I track foreign policy a lot. The long articles are mainly for those who want to climb deep into the weeds of foreign policy. And, yeah, yeah, there are not many good links to the conservative POV.  Sue me.

Discussion Questions

  1. Consensus: Elites have always had their way within narrow limits on USFP. Free trade. Frequent use of force to enforce world order. Protect energy supplies. Etc. Will that ever change? Could a right-wing or left-wing foreign policy ever really happen??
  2. Obama: What are the principles behind his foreign policy? What view of the future does it emanate from? Critique/defense of it?
  3. Factions: What different factions do liberals and conservatives have to satisfy when establishing their foreign policy visions? Which ones are most influential?
  4. Conservative FP:
    • Is Neoconservatism dead? What were the principles behind it?
    • What do conservatives stand for on FP right now?
    • Future: Who/what principles will win this fight? Rand Paul? Neos?
  5. Progressive FP:
    • How do they view the world and America’s role in it?
    • How do liberals feel about using American power? Are they fundamentally uncomfortable with it?
    • What do progressives stand for on FP right now?
    • Future: Hillary was a hawk and a (kind of) progressive as SecState. What would she do as president?

Links –

Understanding Obama’s foreign policy –

Conservative Principles –  

Liberal Principles –

Next Week:  Racial Profiling and Stop and Frisk

Monday’s Mtg: The Future of Abortion in the United States

I’ll be late, maybe very late, to Monday’s meeting due to another commitment. This post will be a little longer than usual so you can get the idea of why I picked the topic and what my angle is. Carl will preside in my absence.

We last discussed abortion in 2010 and it was great. Civilized even though we had both pro-life and pro-choice voices in the debate. It was multi-faceted, too. We got into the moral case for and against abortion, women’s motives for having them, and the effect Obamacare was expected to have on abortion. (Basically, better access to health insurance and the contraception mandate = likely fewer abortions, but not for certain)

I thought this time we’d maybe focus on the future of abortion. Why? Ever since the Tea Party-led wave election of 2010, Republican elected officials have passed a blizzard of laws to restrict abortion in almost every way imaginable. Bills passed by the GOP House all died in the Senate. But, in the dozen states the GOP gained control of, literally hundreds of new restriction passed. For a movement that was supposed to be libertarian, the Tea Party sure has prioritized abortion. And, 2014 may see a repeat of all of this, since the Republicans are expected to do very well and could take even more statehouses and legislatures.

Crucial to understand, and the reason I wanted t debate this topic again, is that the pro-life movement has evolved a wholly new tactic that is designed to fly under most people’s – and the Media’s – radar: “Supply side” anti-abortion policies, they call them. These policies use health and safety laws and regulations to force abortion providers to close their doors. The pro-life movement has discovered that it’s easier and less visible to target providers than work to reduce unwanted pregnancies, I guess. So, Tea Party governments are deliberately imposing the kinds of pesky regulations that they normally bemoan to crush businesses, since they are business they don’t like. Worse, the “abortion mills” being closed (it’s working, see below) often are health clinics that provide contraception and basic health services to poor women. Of course, if abortion is murder then this sort of thing would be justified, wouldn’t it? Tough issue.

Anyway, since I’ll be late, no lecture from me.  I’ll see you late on Monday, probably.  Thanks to Carl for subbing.

Discussion Questions

  1. Has the public’s opinion of abortion changed recently?
  2. Why are Tea Party-supported governments making abortion such a top priority in the states and Congress? Where does abortion fit in the Tea Party constellation of issues and priorities?
  3. Liberals often say the pro-life movement is anti-women. What do they mean by this? This infuriates conservatives. Do they have a point? What is the rebuttal?
  4. Compromise: The public supports current law, mostly, which is legal abortion with many restrictions. Will we ever really diverge from this middle ground, or will one “extreme” win in the end?
  5. Future: Will we end up a divided country, with abortion legal in blue states and in red states legal but so restricted that in practice it’s a right that only women with money can exercise? Is this our future on issue after issue?

Links –

Pros/cons if you need them.

Public opinion on abortion –

Trends in abortions– (note: Data and spin from pro-choice group)

Big recent changes in abortion policy – (The reason why I chose this topic!)

Next Week:   Liberal and Conservative Principles, Part II:  Foreign Policy.

Monday’s Mtg: Corporations and the First Amendment

You may not know it, but we may be in the beginning of a mini-revolution in Constitutional doctrine, and many conservatives are determined to make it a full-on revolution. It all concerns the first amendment and its applicability to corporate behavior as both a free speech and free religious exercise matter.

The first two linked articles, below, explain it in detail, but, long story short, some big companies, backed by conservative legal groups, have persuaded courts that some government regulations intrude on companies’ free speech rights. One day soon, commercial speech may be as protected as political speech is now, and corporations’ political speech rights may equal those of natural persons. Some companies are even claiming first amendment religious rights, as in the Hobby Lobby case due to be decided by SCOTUS any day now. (We discussed conscience clauses as a topic a year ago.)

So, you can see why I thought this topic might be perfect for us. It’s one of those huge political changes that goes on right under our noses because it’s under the Media’s radar due to its complexity and lack of cable TV-friendly drama. I’ll lay out some of the basics on Monday night and then we can discuss it. Bruce probably follows this issue closely, too, but from the other side, politically. We might even have some common ground, since I think some of the issues involved are not nearly as cut and dried as they seem on first blush to progressives. (Example: If corporations have no political free speech rights, then what happens to journalism? Can the government shut down the New York Times?)

Discussion Questions –

  1. How have companies been trying to expand corporate first amendment rights? What justifications do they use?
  2. Why is this happening? Does it mirror attempts to use the bill of rights to enshrine corporate power a century ago (in the “Lochner era”)?
  3. Which constitutional principles are at issue? Which political principles – and political and economic interests – are at stake?
  4. Liberals: Are you sure corporate commercial and political speech shouldn’t be protected under the Constitution? Why not? Should the non-powerful be given a special advantage?   How can we distinguish “good” (i.e., protected) speech from “bad” unprotected speech?
  5. Conservatives: If the first amendment protects commercial speech, then how can basic health and safety and consumer and investor protections be protected? What about the integrity of the democratic process; doesn’t that deserve protecting, too?

Links – The 1st amendment now is being used to…

NEXT WEEK: What is the Future of Abortion in the United States?

Monday’s Mtg: Is There Still a Sexual Double Standard?

Gale suggested an interesting cultural topic: Does American society still imposes a sexual double standard on women and men? There have been a lot of changes in our moral outlooks and sexual culture and expectations since most of us in the group were young. But, the old Stud versus Slut issue seems not to have faded away. Why? What causes this double standard and who is hurt or benefits from it?

I love our culture topics and, tragically, this one is particularly well-timed thanks to our latest mass shooting spree. The killer in last week’s UCSB shooting left behind multiple videos and a 140-page screed justifying his actions. The attack was spurred – he said so – by his volcanic hatred of women that came out of his anger that he was not able to participate in the “hook-up” culture found among some of today’s young people. In his mind, he was entitled to some of the sex he perceived young women handing out all of the time. He belonged to a creepy on-line subculture of resentful, failed “Pick Up Artists,” or PUAs. PUAs are guys that pay to take courses in the art of picking up women for one-night stands. The killer was unsuccessful at it, apparently, and he blamed all women for his failure and decided to take his revenge.

But, fear not.  There’s a lot more to talk about on this topic than a few men’s bizarre overreaction to modern women’s sexuality. Maybe these questions would be interesting.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What is the sexual double standard? Where does it come from? How is it enforced and reinforced?
  2. Is having a sexual double standard – stud versus slut – fair or unfair? Who does it help and hurt?
  3. Has the sexual double standard become less powerful in recent decades? Why/not? What larger social forces are at work here?
  4. Is this a Red state versus Blue state cultural thing?  How have cultural conservatives reacted to these changing mores?  What are the politics of all of this?
  5. What advice would you give to young women and men on sexual ethics?

Links –

NEXT WEEK: Corporations and the First Amendment.

Monday’s Mtg: Are We In a New Cold War With Russia?

There’s been a lot of talk about Vladimir Putin’s new territorial aggression in Ukraine and how permanent Russia’s icy rift with the West is. Some commenters have jumped on the “we’re in a new Cold War” bandwagon. Most of the experts I read find this term inappropriate, if for no other reason than Russia is a far, far weaker power than the Soviet union ever was. This weakness makes our relations with Russia a far lower priority than they used to be, anyway. Still, a new cold war (lower case version), even with a 3rd rate power version of Russia, is still worrisome. Putin could seek territory or hegemony in other parts of the former USSR, Our European allies depend on Russia for energy supplies. And, we all have to care about the fate of Russia’s Central Asian neighbors, with their large Muslim populations and – there we go again – huge energy supplies.

Mike suggested we talk about Russia for another reason. Some people view Putin’s actions as more defensive than offensive. Ukraine is three layers deep in the former USSR. We promised Russia in the early 1990s that NATO would never expand eastward into eastern Europe and beyond, and we broke our word and did that. Mike wants us to discuss this, and I think a good airing of why we always see other nations moves as aggression and our own as benign is in order. I do not want us to roll back NATO, but it’s worth discussing this broader point, at least.

I’m out of town now through Sunday night, so I won’t say much in my introduction. I’ll preface the topic for those who don’t read the background, and then let Mike do a short summary of his argument.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What are Putin’s motives here? Is he acting in a fundamentally aggressive way, or are his actions really defensive, as Mike has argued? How does the answer to this question relate to who is to blame for this situation?
  2. Regardless of one man’s motives, have Russia’s interests just diverged from ours and the West’s? If so, why?
  3. Is Russia crazy to do be doing this, anyway, because it’s too interconnected to the world economy to throw it all away for a little more territory and local influence?   Or, is the opposite true: Does Western dependence on Russian energy render it helpless to stop Putin?
  4. Should we have done anything different to prevent or manage this crisis over Ukraine? Or, has Obama done a pretty good job (see link below)?
  5. In the 21st century, can regional powers still demand a buffer zone of weak states on their borders?  (We will have an entire meeting related to this subject in July.)

Links –

NEXT WEEK: Is there Still a Sexual Double Standard In Our Society?

Monday’s Mtg: June 2013 Primary Ballot

Linda suggested we go over the June 3 election ballot, as we do for most elections. She pointed out that there is some pretty important stuff on it, both statewide and locally. Also, this election will mark the first time that statewide constitutional officers (like Secretary of State and Treasurer) will face CA’s new “top two” electoral system, wherein the top two primary vote-getters advance to November’s general election regardless of their party affiliation.

Idea: Bring your sample ballots to mark up?

Links –

  • Endorsements: City Beat – Liberal
  • Endorsements:  SD County Taxpayers Association – Conservative.
    .
  • Governor: It’s a wild race in the GOP primary. One major candidate is Tim Donnelly, a Tea Partier and former Minuteman last seen patrolling the border in search of illegals,
  • 52nd congressional, with Scott Peters and Carl DeMaio.
  • Superior Court judge race in San Diego gets hot!

 

NEXT WEEK: Are we entering a new Cold War with Russia?

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