The Regressive Austerity Arguments of the Washington Post

Austerity is where governments refuse to pursue policies that boost consumer demand. Austerity really has hurt a lot of people and there’s even evidence that the poverty it caused has ruined millions of lives.

Last week the Washington Post ran a column by Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, one of the many pro-austerity organizations that received generous funding from the late Peter Peterson. The immediate target of the column was the standoff over the debt ceiling, but the usual complaints about debt and deficits were right up front in the first two paragraphs.

“At the same time, the federal debt as a share of the economy is the highest it has ever been other than just after World War II. ….”

“So our plan is to borrow a jaw-dropping roughly $900 billion in each of those years — much of it from foreign countries — without a strategy or even an acknowledgment of the choices being made because no one wants to be held accountable.”

This passes for wisdom at the Washington Post, but it is actually dangerously wrong-headed thinking that rich people (like the owner of the Washington Post) use their power to endlessly barrage the public with.

The basic story of the twelve years since the collapse of the housing bubble is that the U.S. economy has suffered from a lack of demand. We need actors in the economy to spend more money. The lack of spending over this period has cost us trillions of dollars in lost output.

This should not just be an abstraction. Millions of people who wanted jobs in the decade from 2008 to 2018 did not have them because the Washington Post and its clique of “responsible” budget types joined in calls for austerity. This meant millions of families took a whack to their income, throwing some into poverty, leading many to lose houses, and some to become homeless.

At this point, the evidence from the harm from austerity in the United States (it’s worse in Europe) is overwhelming, but just like the Pravda in the days of the Soviet Union, we never see the Washington Post, or most other major news outlets, acknowledge the horrible cost of unnecessary austerity. We just get more of the same, as though the paper is hoping its readers will simply ignore the damage done by austerity.

And it is not just an occasion column from a Peter Peterson funded group, the Post’s regular economic columnist, Robert Samuelson, routinely complains about budget deficits, as do the Post editorial writers. We get the same story in the news section as well, for example, this piece last week telling us about the need to “fix” the budget. The Post is effectively implying that a lower budget deficit, which results in lower output and higher unemployment is “fixed.”

If the Post cared about the logic of its argument, instead of just repeating platitudes about the evils of budget deficits, it should quickly recognize that its push for austerity makes no economic sense. The argument of the evils of a budget deficit is that it is supposed to lead to high interest rates and crowd out investment.

That leaves the economy poorer in the future, since less investment leads to less productivity growth, so the economy will be able to produce fewer goods and services in future years. (The implicit assumption is that the economy is near its full employment level of output so that efforts by the Fed to keep interest rates down by printing money would lead to inflation.)

The nice part of this story is that there is a clear prediction which we can examine; high budget deficits lead to high interest rates. Or, if the Fed is asleep on the job, high budget deficits will lead to high inflation.

The interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds at the end of last week was just over 2.0 percent. That is incredibly low by historic standards and far lower than the rates of over 5.0 percent that we saw when the government was running a surplus in the late 1990s. The inflation rate is hovering near 2.0 percent and has actually been trending slightly downward in recent months. So where is the bad story of the budget deficit?

In the classic deficit crowding out investment story, if we cut the budget deficit, investment rises to replace any lost demand associated with lower government spending or higher taxes. We can also see some increased consumption, mostly due to mortgage refinancing, and some increase in net exports due to a lower valued dollar.

But what area of spending does the Washington Post and its gang of deficit hawks think will fill the gap if it could find politicians willing to carry through the austerity it continually demands? It shouldn’t be too much to ask a newspaper that endlessly harps on the need for lower deficits to have a remotely coherent story on how lower deficits could help the economy.

There is also the burden on our children story that the Peter Peterson gang and the Post likes to harangue readers with. Our children will inherit this horrible $20 trillion debt that they will have to pay off over their lifetimes.

This story makes even less sense than the crowding out story. The burden of the debt is measured by the interest paid to bondholders, which is actually at a historically low level relative to GDP. It’s around 1.5 percent, after we subtract the interest rebated by the Fed to the Treasury. It had been over 3.0 percent of GDP in the early and mid-1990s.

And, even this is not a generational burden. It is a payment within generations from taxpayers as a whole to the people who own bonds, who are disproportionately wealthy. Much of this money is recaptured with progressive income taxes. More could be captured with more progressive taxes.

But this is actually the less important issue with this sort of accounting. Direct government spending is only one way the government pays for things. It also provides patent and copyright monopolies to provide incentives for innovation and creative work. These are alternatives to direct government payments.

To be specific, if the government wants Pfizer to do research developing new drugs, it can pay the company $5-$10 billion a year to do research developing new drugs. Alternatively, it can tell Pfizer that it will give it a patent monopoly on the drugs its develops and arrest anyone who tries to compete with it.

Generally, the government takes the latter route with innovation. This can lead to a situation where Pfizer is charging prices that are tens of billions of dollars above the free market price. This monopoly price is equivalent to a privately imposed tax that the government has authorized the company to collect.

Anyone seriously interested in calculating the future burdens created by the government would have to include the rents from patent and copyright monopolies, which run into the hundreds of billions of dollars annually, and possibly more than $1 trillion. (They are close to $400 billion with prescription drugs alone.) The fact that the deficit hawks never mention the cost of patent and copyright monopolies, shows their lack of seriousness. They are pushing propaganda, not serious analysis.

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Research: Junk TV Can Make People Less Intelligent

Perhaps it’s similar to junk food, where it can worsen people’s physical condition.

A raft of new research shows that watching junky cable and other lowbrow TV is actually making people dumber — literally lowering their IQs.

In research published in the American Economic Review this month, Italian researchers showed that people with greater access to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s trashy entertainment TV network, Mediaset, in the 1980s were much more likely to vote for Berlusconi later in later elections. Furthermore, people with greater exposure to Mediaset as children were “less cognitively sophisticated and civic-minded as adults, and ultimately more vulnerable to Berlusconi’s populist rhetoric.”

From the American Economic Association’s writeup of the research:

In 1980, Berlusconi was an up-and-coming media entrepreneur hoping to fill a void in the television market, which was dominated by a state-owned network driven by an educational mission. Catering to a growing middle class eager to spend on entertainment, Berlusconi spent the decade rolling out Mediaset to new markets throughout the country.

At the time, Mediaset’s programming did not suggest that he was using it as a propaganda tool for political gain. Nearly all the shows were shallow, critically poorly received, and purely for fun with no educational value. Mediaset did not have a news show component until 1990. Yet, the authors found very real effects of their influence on viewers’ political sympathies.

“The language codes that were popularized by TV also made people much more susceptible to the populist party because they used very simple language,” Ruben Durante, one of the paper’s coauthors, said. “They used accessible language. And that can potentially be very powerful.”

Andrea Tesei, another coauthor, spoke to The Washington Post’s Nikita Lalwani about some of the findings.

Lalwani: You show that exposure to entertainment TV most affected the voting behavior of the very young and the very old. Were they affected in the same way?

Tesei: For the elderly, the effect was happening through habit formation. They were hooked by the kind of television that Berlusconi showed — the salacious shows and sports. They were then much more likely to watch news shows on Mediaset when those shows were introduced universally in the ’90s. And we know that news on Mediaset was slanted toward Berlusconi.

Unlike the elderly, kids were not more likely to watch news on Mediaset later on — there was no habit formation. What was happening was that kids who were introduced to Mediaset in the 1980s were much more likely to grow up socially and civically disengaged, and even more, they appear to be more cognitively shallow compared to their peers, who grew up without this entertainment diet. We were able to show that kids who grew up in Mediaset-exposed areas performed significantly worse on standardized exams taken in adulthood.

The results also applied to another Italian populist politician, Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, that was not as ideologically right-wing as Berlusconi. “The fact that our results apply not just to Berlusconi but also to the Five Star Movement suggests that there is perhaps a more general message,” Tesei said. “Less civically minded voters may be more vulnerable to populistic rhetoric.”

Two Hours of Nature a Week is Key for Well-Being and Health

A new reason for wanting to preserve natural environments. There are many people today that are struggling with too much stress and health problems, and some good doctors have started prescribing time in nature because the evidence more and more shows its effectiveness.

Spending at least two hours a week in nature may be a crucial threshold for promoting health and wellbeing, according to a new large-scale study.

Research led by the University of Exeter, published in Scientific Reports and funded by NIHR, found that people who spend at least 120 minutes in nature a week are significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological wellbeing than those who don’t visit nature at all during an average week. However, no such benefits were found for people who visited natural settings such as town parks, woodlands, country parks and beaches for less than 120 minutes a week.

The study used data from nearly 20,000 people in England and found that it didn’t matter whether the 120 minutes was achieved in a single visit or over several shorter visits. It also found the 120 minute threshold applied to both men and women, to older and younger adults, across different occupational and ethnic groups, among those living in both rich and poor areas, and even among people with long term illnesses or disabilities.

Dr Mat White, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the study, said: “It’s well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people’s health and wellbeing but until now we’ve not been able to say how much is enough. The majority of nature visits in this research took place within just two miles of home so even visiting local urban greenspaces seems to be a good thing. Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit.”

There is growing evidence that merely living in a greener neighbourhood can be good for health, for instance by reducing air pollution. The data for the current research came from Natural England’s Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey, the world’s largest study collecting data on people’s weekly contact with the natural world.

Co-author of the research, Professor Terry Hartig of Uppsala University in Sweden said: “There are many reasons why spending time in nature may be good for health and wellbeing, including getting perspective on life circumstances, reducing stress, and enjoying quality time with friends and family. The current findings offer valuable support to health practitioners in making recommendations about spending time in nature to promote basic health and wellbeing, similar to guidelines for weekly physical.”

Perseverance for Goals Can Help Fight Mental Health Problems, 18-Year Study Finds

Good new research on treating mental health problems without the use of drugs is out.

People who don’t give up on their goals (or who get better over time at not giving up on their goals) and who have a positive outlook appear to have less anxiety and depression and fewer panic attacks, according to a study of thousands of Americans over the course of 18 years. Surprisingly, a sense of control did not have an effect on the mental health of participants across time.

The study was published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

“Perseverance cultivates a sense of purposefulness that can create resilience against or decrease current levels of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder,” said Nur Hani Zainal, MS, from The Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study. “Looking on the bright side of unfortunate events has the same effect because people feel that life is meaningful, understandable and manageable.”

Depression, anxiety and panic disorders are common mental health disorders that can be chronic and debilitating and put a person’s physical health and livelihood at risk, according to Zainal and her co-author, Michelle G. Newman, PhD, also of The Pennsylvania State University.

“Often, people with these disorders are stuck in a cycle of negative thought patterns and behaviors that can make them feel worse,” said Newman. “We wanted to understand what specific coping strategies would be helpful in reducing rates of depression, anxiety and panic attacks.”

Zainal and Newman used data from 3,294 adults who were studied over 18 years. The average age of participants was 45, nearly all were white and slightly fewer than half were college-educated. Data were collected three times, in 1995 to 1996, 2004 to 2005 and 2012 to 2013. At each interval, participants were asked to rate their goal persistence (e.g., “When I encounter problems, I don’t give up until I solve them”), self-mastery (e.g., “I can do just anything I really set my mind to”) and positive reappraisal (e.g., “I can find something positive, even in the worst situations”). Diagnoses for major depressive, anxiety and panic disorders were also collected at each interval.

People who showed more goal persistence and optimism during the first assessment in the mid-1990s had greater reductions in depression, anxiety and panic disorders across the 18 years, according to the authors.

And throughout those years, people who began with fewer mental health problems showed more increased perseverance toward life goals and were better at focusing on the positive side of unfortunate events, said Zainal.

“Our findings suggest that people can improve their mental health by raising or maintaining high levels of tenacity, resilience and optimism,” she said. “Aspiring toward personal and career goals can make people feel like their lives have meaning. On the other hand, disengaging from striving toward those aims or having a cynical attitude can have high mental health costs.”

Unlike in previous research, Zainal and Newman did not find that self-mastery, or feeling in control of one’s fate, had an effect on the mental health of participants across the 18-year period.

“This could have been because the participants, on average, did not show any changes in their use of self-mastery over time,” said Newman. “It is possible that self-mastery is a relatively stable part of a person’s character that does not easily change.”

The authors believe their findings will be beneficial for psychotherapists working with clients dealing with depression, anxiety and panic disorders.

“Clinicians can help their clients understand the vicious cycle caused by giving up on professional and personal aspirations. Giving up may offer temporary emotional relief but can increase the risk of setbacks as regret and disappointment set in,” said Zainal. “Boosting a patient’s optimism and resilience by committing to specific courses of actions to make dreams come to full fruition despite obstacles can generate more positive moods and a sense of purpose.”

Prosecuting Assange for Publishing Classified Material Would Set a Dangerous Precedent

This prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act would be a clear danger to press freedoms — the government could subsequently use the Assange case as a precedent to go after whistleblowers acting in the public interest by them disclosing classified material about corruption that should be known to the public. Assange has done some things that are quite wrong in my view — it’s another matter to debate what things those are — but he has also done some good things and regardless of his character, it’d be harmful to prosecute him in the way the U.S. government is now trying to do so.

Assange was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday. The charges are seen by many proponents of press freedom on both the right and the left as part of an effort from the White House to criminalize dissent by journalism and to produce a chilling effect on reporters exposing classified documents that the government would prefer remain hidden.

Despite the unpopularity of the Trump administration among Democrats, however, at press time only three members of the party’s congressional delegation has spoken up: Wyden, of Oregon; Warren, of Massachusetts; and Independent Sanders of Vermont.

In a statement, Wyden said that he was “extremely concerned about the precedent this may set and potential dangers to the work of journalists and the First Amendment.”

“This is not about Julian Assange,” said Wyden. “This is about the use of the Espionage Act to charge a recipient and publisher of classified information.”

“Let me be clear: it is a disturbing attack on the First Amendment for the Trump administration to decide who is or is not a reporter for the purposes of a criminal prosecution,” Sanders said in a tweet Friday. “Donald Trump must obey the Constitution, which protects the publication of news about our government.”

[…]

Critics of Assange have claimed that the Wikileaks founder is not a journalist, so his “crimes” are not applicable to journalists and journalism as a whole. But, as Knight First Amendment Institute staff attorney Carrie DeCell pointed out in a twitter thread, that’s not the case.

“The government argues that Assange violated the Espionage Act by soliciting, obtaining, and then publishing classified information,” DeCell tweeted. “That’s exactly what good national security and investigative journalists do every day.”

[…]

In a column at The Intercept, journalist James Risen put the indictment into context.

“If the government gets to decide what constitutes journalism,” Risen wrote, “what’s to stop it from making similar rulings about any outlet whose coverage it doesn’t like?”

The Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel made the stakes clear in a tweet.

“Espionage charges against Assange are a threat to press freedom,” said vanden Heuvel.

Assange also got support from The Washington Post‘s executive editor, Marty Baron. In a statement, Baron said that the Trump administration was making a jump from hostility to the press to criminalizing journalism.

“With this new indictment of Julian Assange,” said Baron, “the government is advancing a legal argument that places such important work in jeopardy.”

Baron was joined in his denunciation of the indictment by the editors of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Times executive editor Dean Baquet said in a statement the government was threatening a “basic tenet of press freedom.”

“Obtaining and publishing information that the government would prefer to keep secret is vital to journalism and democracy,” said Baquet. “The new indictment is a deeply troubling step toward giving the government greater control over what Americans are allowed to know.”

More Devastating Tornadoes Likely Linked With the Climate Crisis

Climate change (some have plausibly enough recommended it be called the climate emergency or climate crisis due to the devastation it could bring in the not too distant future) has quite likely caused an increase in the severity and even prevalence of tornadoes.

As the death toll in Oklahoma rose to six Monday amid an outbreak of nearly 200 tornadoes across the Midwest in recent days—as well as in areas far less accustomed to them—climate scientists said such patterns may carry warnings about the climate crisis and its many implications for extreme weather events.

In Oklahoma, tornadoes touched down in at least two cities, including El Reno and Sapulpa, over the weekend, injuring dozens and leveling a number of homes. The tornado that hit El Reno, a suburb of Oklahoma City, was given an EF3 rating, with wind speeds up to 165 miles per hour. Only about five percent of tornadoes are given an EF3 rating or higher.

The tornadoes hit after much of the state endured severe flooding last week, following powerful storms that overflowed the Arkansas River and damaged about 1,000 homes.

Outside the Midwest, at least one twister touched down near Washington, D.C., with reports of tornadoes in Texas and Colorado, and Chicago facing a tornado watch on Monday.

While tornadoes have long been a fixture in the Midwest, meteorologist Eric Holthaus tweeted last week that there is “reason to believe major outbreak days…are getting worse,” while climate scientists are examining links between the storms and the climate crisis.

The so-called “Tornado Alley,” which covers parts of Texas and Kansas as well as Oklahoma, appears to be growing, according to a study published in Nature last year—making tornadoes more frequent in states that rarely saw them previously including Arkansas, Mississippi, and eastern Missouri.

“What all the studies have shown is that this particular part of the U.S. has been having more tornado activity and more tornado outbreaks than it has had in decades before,” Mike Tippett, a mathematician who studies the climate at Columbia University told PBS Newshour earlier this year.

As the Kansas City Star reported on Sunday, scientists believe the warming of the globe—fueled by human activities like fossil fuel extraction—is contributing to higher amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere, causing heavier rainfalls which can spawn tornadoes.

The increase in destructive tornadoes across wider swaths of the country than in previous decades “may be suggestive of climate change effects,” Purdue University researcher Ernest Agee told the Star.

And the unusual occurrence of tornadoes in far more densely-populated areas than those that frequently see such weather events has led to concerns that tornadoes will become more deadly and destructive than they’ve been in the past.

People Can Taste Flavor With Smell Receptors, Not Just Taste Ones

According to the latest research, the flavor of food is also a result of cell receptors associated with smelling things.

Scientists from the Monell Center report that functional olfactory receptors, the sensors that detect odors in the nose, are also present in human taste cells found on the tongue. The findings suggest that interactions between the senses of smell and taste, the primary components of food flavor, may begin on the tongue and not in the brain, as previously thought.

“Our research may help explain how odor molecules modulate taste perception,” said study senior author Mehmet Hakan Ozdener, MD, PhD, MPH, a cell biologist at Monell. “This may lead to the development of odor-based taste modifiers that can help combat the excess salt, sugar, and fat intake associated with diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes.”

While many people equate flavor with taste, the distinctive flavor of most foods and drinks comes more from smell than it does from taste. Taste, which detects sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory) molecules on the tongue, evolved as a gatekeeper to evaluate the nutrient value and potential toxicity of what we put in our mouths. Smell provides detailed information about the quality of food flavor, for example, is that banana, licorice, or cherry? The brain combines input from taste, smell, and other senses to create the multi-modal sensation of flavor.

Until now, taste and smell were considered to be independent sensory systems that did not interact until their respective information reached the brain. Ozdener was prompted to challenge this belief when his 12-year-old son asked him if snakes extend their tongues so they can smell.

In the study, published online ahead of print in Chemical Senses, Ozdener and colleagues used methods developed at Monell to maintain living human taste cells in culture. Using genetic and biochemical methods to probe the taste cell cultures, the researchers found that the human taste cells contain many key molecules known to be present in olfactory receptors.

They next used a method known as calcium imaging to show that the cultured taste cells respond to odor molecules in a manner similar to olfactory receptor cells.

Together, the findings provide the first demonstration of functional olfactory receptors in human taste cells, suggesting that olfactory receptors may play a role in the taste system by interacting with taste receptor cells on the tongue. Supporting this possibility, other experiments by the Monell scientists demonstrated that a single taste cell can contain both taste and olfactory receptors.

“The presence of olfactory receptors and taste receptors in the same cell will provide us with exciting opportunities to study interactions between odor and taste stimuli on the tongue,” said Ozdener.

In addition to providing insight into the nature and mechanisms of smell and taste interactions, the findings also may provide a tool to increase understanding of how the olfactory system detects odors. Scientists still do not know what molecules activate the vast majority of the 400 different types of functional human olfactory receptors.