Labor Day Satire

On this Labor Day, ideally accompanied by a beer between innings, and shared with a few good friends, take five minutes to (again) enjoy the Onion’s all-time greatest piece – perhaps the most prescient satire ever written:,464/

Have a safe, happy holiday – the Liberal Field Guide will return with new material on Wednesday.

The Experiment is Done – Conservatives are Wrong

A liberal and a conservative are having a heated debate. The conservative rails against government: that it’s always the problem, never the solution; that it sucks money out of private enterprise, and squanders it according to the prevailing political winds of the day. Not so, replies the liberal: government gives us public education, infrastructure, and many kinds of insurance that would not be supplied by private markets. Who’s right?

It would be great if we could simply do an experiment: take a country, jack up the size of its government, and then wait around for a few decades to see what happens to economic growth. We’re not talking about a few measly percentage points – we’re talking about tripling, quadrupling, even quintupling the size of government.

Unbeknownst to many, the experiment has already been done – in the US, and practically every other country in the West – and the results are in. Government, it turns out, is really good for growth.

Back in 1900, US government spending on all levels totaled 7.5% of GDP, as it had since the 1870s. By 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression, government spending had crept up to about 11%. By 1950, government spending reached 23% of GDP – triple what it was during most of the 19th century. In 1960 it reached 28%; in 1970, 30%, in 1980, 33%; in 1990, 35% – and remains at about 36% today, almost quintuple what it was in 1900.

How did that impact growth? We look at long-term measures – 25 and 50-year growth rates in real per capita GDP – so that the results dont get skewed by year-over-year ups and downs. During 1870-1928, the growth in per capita GDP for any given 25-year period ranged from a low of 12% (for 1889-1914) to a high of 82% (for 1877-1902). Through the 1920s, 25-year growth rates were below 40% every year except 1904-29, when it touched 42%.

By comparison, 25-year growth rates in per capita GDP during 1950-2008 never fell below 61% (1968-93), and peaked at 88% (1961-1986). Even when looking at 1950-2013 – to see the effects of the Great Recession – 25-year growth rates never drop below 44% – still better than the best 25-year growth rates seen during the so-called roaring 20s. 25-year growth as of 1932, Hoover’s last year in office: negative 8%.

50-year growth rates paint a more compelling picture. Between the 1870s and 1920s, real per capita GDP expanded about 125% over any given 50-year period (ranging from 114% to 143%). Between the 1950s and today, 50-year growth rates never fell below 167%, were often greater than 190%, and peaked at 209%. (50 year growth as of 1932: 36%. Those were the days….)

This isnt a close case. After the US tripled the size of its government – and while it was eventually quintupling the size of its government – economic growth¬†dramatically accelerated. What’s more, the quality of that growth has also been far superior. In the 60 years between 1870 and 1930, the US went through 3 depressions (1873, 1893, 1929). Since then: not one depression. And if you think 2009’s Great Recession was bad, recessions in 1884, 1904, 1908, 1914 and 1920 were worse!

You might imagine an analogous experiment, in which we ask whether a certain food is good or bad for rats. So we feed them hundreds of pounds of the stuff for years on end. At the end of the study, the rats are bigger and healthier in every measurable way. Now imagine some joker standing up in the back of the room to rant about how this food nonetheless is really, really bad for rats. That’s a conservative. It was never about the facts, after all – theirs is just naked belief in a vacuum of fact.

Economics is a science, not a religion. Our theoretical constructs must in the end be based in fact, and surely must yield to the facts once they’re brought to light. Conservatives can bleat all they like about how government is bad for the economy – but they have no scientific arguments to offer; they can only recite their religious beliefs, which are not merely lacking any basis in fact, but persist in spite of them.



data on the size of government:

data on real per capita GDP growth:


The Field Guide wishes a happy birthday to Rose. Have a lovely liberal Labor Day weekend – we’ll return Wednesday.









Sound Policy in a Luckocracy

Perhaps it’s for the better that we, as individuals, have an exaggerated sense about the degree of control we exercise over our own destinies. Ignoring the room’s 800-pound gorilla – that our sense of free will and autonomy are almost certainly illusory – how our lives turn out is significantly not about innate talent, but dumb luck.

On Monday the Field Guide discussed some of the macro-level facts that almost entirely determine your quality of life, length of life and income: where you were born, who you were born to, and what sex organs you got. But there are many, many other “shocks” that individuals are subject to, which, while smaller in magnitude, have an enormous combined effect, to overwhelm the relatively minor contribution of individual talent. The world is a luckocracy.

Graduating in a recession year has a devastating effect on income. The effect follows an individual through their entire working life, reducing lifetime earnings by as much as 10%. Simply being in utero during a weak economy will also take a bite out of your lifetime wages and lifespan. The increased mortality that comes after you’re laid off stays with you for the rest of your (shortened) life. Exposure to radiation has been measured to reduce IQ not just for the person actually exposed, but for two generations to follow! Kindergarten class size is predictive of future income, even when controlling for other factors. Taken individually, each of these shocks are significant. But when you combine them over the course of a human life, their net effect is overwhelming.

It isnt practical to neutralize all the inequities of life – any cure would likely be worse. But one good policy guideline is to strive for “equality of opportunity” – to provide excellent education, nutrition and medical care to all young people, to give them the chance to fully realize their potential, that their talents might be more determinative of their level of success than the happenstance of their birth.

No matter an individual’s skills or industriousness, in the course of a life, sh** happens – and that’s what social insurance is for. Like every other form of insurance, social insurance is something every reasonable person should want to have – while hoping that they never need to use it! Next time you hear a conservative foolishly complaining that he’ll never “get his money back” on what he’s paid into social security – ask him if he’s also concerned his house will never burn down and his car will never get stolen – that he may never “get his money back” on his homeowners and auto insurance policies either. Or ask a billionaire if he’s distressed that he’ll never get to use Medicare or food stamps – because billionaires are covered by those social insurance programs too. (They’re just not very likely to use them – for which they should be happy.)

More than 40 years ago, the philosopher John Rawls posed an interesting solution to a problem many had struggled with. Rich people, like the infamous Koch brothers, commonly oppose social insurance programs. This may not be very nice, but it is superficially in their interest to not see their taxes go to support public programs that they’re not likely to benefit from directly. Poor people are frequently guilty of the opposite species of self-dealing: voting for politicians who promise to be generous with programs they expect to rely on. (Though trailer parks across the American heartland are filled with folks worried to death about estate taxes….)

Rawls’ novel resolution of the problem is the “veil of ignorance.” He would ask, “How generous would you want social insurance programs to be, if you didnt know your own circumstances?” Imagine you’re an unincorporated spirit, about to be cast at random into a live birth in the US. If you study the income distribution of Americans, you’ll find you’re much more likely to be born middle class or poor than super rich. If you’re perfectly rational, you’ll probably be glad to give up a little extra income in the event that you’re lucky enough to get tossed into a rich family – so you’ll have a little more insurance just in case you land at the bottom of the luckocracy, along with the 25% of American children who are born into poverty.

The fact is that the rise of social insurance coincides with the golden age of capitalism. Western economies never grew so rapidly – and without as many wild booms and busts – before the age of the welfare state. And so while insurance is extremely desirable for individuals, it’s also a big positive for the economy as a whole. Rawls called his book “A Theory of Justice” – but it’s also a formula for success, which we’ll discuss on Friday, when the Field Guide returns.



The Luckocracy

It’s better to be lucky than to be good – as any card player will tell you. Of course, over the long haul, talent wins out – but in any given shuffle, the outcome is largely determined by the cards. And the central fact of life is that it’s a one-shot deal. (We hope that top people are working on this problem.) Over many iterations, one would expect talent to dominate other factors. But there are no iterations – how your one passage through life works out is much more about the circumstances you are born into than your individual skills.

Cross-country comparisons vividly illustrate how vast differences in quality of life are primarily attributable to dumb luck, good and bad – to facts completely beyond an individual’s control. Taken at random, a human being is 40% likely to be in India or China, and 5% likely to be in the US (the three most populous nations). American incomes, on average, are about five times greater than Chinese incomes and ten times greater than Indian incomes. The minimum wage in America – about $15,000 per year for a 40 hour work week – is 50% greater than the average Chinese income, and triple the average Indian income. Being born in America is a far better boon to lifetime earnings than being born brilliant or hardworking.

People born into affluence in the West have no more innate talent than the majority of humanity that’s born into grinding poverty – 50% of whom live on less than $2.50 per day; 80% of whom live on less than $10. In fact, people in modern-day stone-age cultures, often surviving on incomes of less than $1 per day, probably have greater innate intelligence than the typical resident of a modern, affluent western city. As Jared Diamond sagely observed, the greatest evolutionary hurdle faced by urban Westerners has, for centuries, been infectious disease. Stone-age cultures are much more violent, putting evolutionary pressure on individuals to be socially and politically adept. Thus it is that Westerners of today descend from ancestors blessed with strong immune systems; while the Pume and Guaja of the Amazon, e.g., descend from ancestors clever enough to survive the machinations of others.

At the margins, individual talent counts for something. In Papua New Guinea, for example, a better gatherer might come home with a larger coconut – but she’s not likely to score a cushy corporate board seat or test into an elite prep school. Millions born in rural India and China have practically zero chance of achieving the living standard of an American stocking shelves at Walmart. If material comfort and length of life are your wishes, it is far better to be born with an ordinary mind in Alabama than to be an Einstein born in Calcutta. Even one’s individual talents are tellingly called “gifts:” what you get – or dont get – is, alas, beyond your control too.

Within individual countries, one finds the same patterns on a more compressed scale. Among Americans, individual incomes are largely predicted by race, gender and parental income. Education is predictive too – but the quantity and quality of an individual’s education are significantly determined by socioeconomic factors – like race and parental income. Education seems to be the consequence of more basic inputs

Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds are not very likely to rise to the highest income levels. Contrary to the myth of “the American Dream,” in no developed country does your parents’ income determine your own income more than it does in the US. The entire world is a luckocracy – but the American luckocracy is absolutely the least meritocratic in the western world. And not only are poor American children much less likely to grow rich – they’re far more likely to suffer such pitfalls as drug abuse, incarceration and teen parenthood, while enduring poorer health and shorter lives. An American child of a low-level Walmart employee is surely far better off than a typical child in the developing world – but he has a much smaller chance of growing rich than a similarly situated person in another western country.

The Field Guide returns on Wednesday, to consider how our knowledge of the luckocracy should inform public policy.






Baghdad Basket Case

While liberty and democracy can and should be protected with military force, they generally cannot be spread by force – believing otherwise was among the primary conceptual errors that led the US into the Iraq War. It takes a polity a long time to incubate a culture that respects democratic processes, along with individual and minority rights, and the rule of law; such values cannot be imposed from outside.

However once such a polity is established, it is well worth defending. As the Field Guide has asserted, liberalism is not pacifism. The world grows demonstrably richer and more secure as it grows more liberal and democratic – it is in the long-term interest of people in liberal democracies to defend kindred states.

Thus the case for defending Iraqi Kurdistan is strong. Liberal and democratic, it cannot be allowed to succumb to the disease of theocracy, whether in the form of Islamic State (IS) or otherwise. The case for defending the regime in Baghdad is however much weaker.

As Obama observed during the fight for the dam above Mosul, the wolf is at the door for the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Years of bad politics have alienated Iraq’s Sunni minority; IS insurgents have exploited the rift between them and the ruling Shia to take control of a huge swath of the country. The end of Nouri al-Maliki’s premiership may be too little, too late to unite the two factions. Iraqi Kurdistan is gone already – it is an independent country in all but name.

Since June, IS has been in control of Tikrit, population 200,000, just 85 miles north of Baghdad. Since January, Fallujah, population 300,000 and just 40 miles west of Baghdad, has been controlled by IS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and-or Sunni tribesman antagonistic to the Baghdad regime. IS insurgents are literally an hour’s drive away from Baghdad’s Green Zone.

US military support for the Baghdad regime has come recently in the form of airstrikes against IS. But it is not clear that air power alone will be enough to prevent the IS tide from washing over Baghdad and the Shia population to the southeast. If the US were to use infantry to head off the IS advance, in the absence of an effective Iraqi military, they might have to remain indefinitely. Comparisons with Vietnam are unavoidable, where the US effort to prop up the government of South Vietnam failed in the absence of popular support for that government, much less a competent military to defend it.

US intervention in Iraq will occur not because the regime in Baghdad is worth saving, but because a humanitarian disaster looms. IS has already performed mass executions of fellow Sunnis who were not sufficiently devout or submissive; one might consider their savaging of the Yazidis to be a warm-up act, and expect IS’s penetration into Shia territory to result in a Rwanda-scale civilian massacre. This is something the international community cannot countenance.

The US has no good options. Beefing up the Iraqi military is no longer a viable course, because past transfers of weapons have found their way into the hands of IS, worsening the situation. The US should immediately begin building a coalition, and be ready to launch a ground intervention on short notice, should it become necessary.

Going forward, the original plan for a single federal Iraq should be scrapped, in favor of a three-country solution, for Kurds, Sunni and Shia. Unfortunately, while splitting the country now might shore up the Shia southeast – perhaps to see it become a viable, functioning state – it would leave central Iraq to decide its political future at a time when the region’s dominant force are Sunni Islamists. The timing could not be worse.

For the moment, we should hope that al-Maliki’s successor will have better success at building consensus, while the US makes preparations to head off the humanitarian disaster now threatening to unfold.


Editor’s Note: Having spent most of the past month on international issues, the LFG will next week return its attention to domestic affairs. While liberal principles are vitally important to arrive at optimal foreign policy positions, we recognize that many good liberals approach such matters on a “gotta eat my broccoli” basis. To those of you who digested the Guide’s various musings on Israel, Iraq, Syria and Gaza – we congratulate you on your diligence. To those who gave it a skip – welcome back – the Field Guide loves you anyway.

The Case for Kurdistan

Bush Duh had his share of dumb ideas. To begin our analysis, it’s useful to be reminded why invading Iraq in 2003 was especially idiotic. Iraq contained no WMD and no terrorist organizations. Hussein was a brutal dictator, but he’d been contained for more than a decade, since the end of the Gulf War. He was furthermore a secular leader, whose regime would not have tolerated the rise of Islamists – while the US was containing Hussein, Hussein was doing the US a favor by containing radical Islam.

The notion that the US could invade Iraq, overthrow its government, and then oversee the installation of a liberal democracy, was unqualifiedly dumb, and not just in hindsight. The strong likelihood that Iraq – or any nation so constituted – would readily devolve into a melee of competing factions, was among the primary objections to the fiasco that became the Iraq War. Far from advancing the so-called “War on Terror,” the removal of the Hussein regime has been a boon to terrorists, who for more than a decade have been using Iraq as a recruiting tool and a training ground.

Unless you’re a foreign policy wonk, you’ll be surprised to hear that ten years ago, Joe Biden, among others, called for the breakup of Iraq into three entities – a Kurdish north, a Sunni central, and a Shia southeast – either bound together in loose confederation, or fully independent. That breakup has in fact come to pass despite US efforts – and anyone with an open mind who looks closely at the facts on the ground would see that Iraq quite naturally fractures this way. Since its 1932 genesis, the country was only ever held together by brutal strongmen, among whom Saddam Hussein was quite typical. Many analysts were skeptical that the country would hold together in the absence of such a tyrant. We should now consider the concept of a unified, democratic Iraq as having been tried and failed.

For the cause of liberalism and democracy, the US should turn the page and salvage what it can by recognizing Iraqi Kurdistan as a sovereign country, and aiding them in their fight against the Islamist insurgent group IS. The ongoing air attacks are a good first step. But the US and its allies should be willing to commit infantry to help defend an allied liberal democracy on the border of fellow NATO member Turkey.* One can hardly imagine a more appropriate application of US military force, than coming to the aid of an allied liberal state under siege by theocratic fanatics.

For all the bad that’s resulted from the Iraq War, at least one good thing has come out of it: Iraqi Kurdistan is a living, breathing democracy, liberal by the standards of the region, complete with elections, respect for minorities, and an effective military that is today fighting for that nation’s survival. The US should be willing to commit all resources necessary – including US troops – to make sure that the Republic of Kurdistan survives the assault of radical Islam.

How the US should proceed with the nominal “Iraqi Government” based in Baghdad is much less clear, and will be taken up by the Field Guide on Friday, when our analysis continues.



* Turkey is the main reason why the US has not thus far advocated for a fully independent Kurdistan. Turkey has a large and occasionally restive Kurdish population, and has long feared that the establishment of a Kurdistan on their border would stir nationalist sentiments among the Kurds concentrated in eastern and southern Turkey. However Turkey has over the past few years become economically invested in its southern neighbor, and has recently signaled its willingness to accept Kurdistan, particularly as an alternative to a fanatical Sunnistan. Turkey has itself been explicitly targeted by ISIS, whose advance could destabilize the nation of 75 million – more than 95% of whom are Sunni – with the world’s 17th largest economy. Turkey’s hold on secularism has always been tenuous, and is under particular stress today, as Islamist sentiments are gaining ground in Turkish politics.






Liberalism is Not Pacifism

Liberalism is not pacifism. Liberal values must be brought to bear on international affairs, and liberals should support the use of diplomacy and, when necessary, military force, to facilitate the spread of liberalism and democracy; and to defend it when threatened. In 230+ years of American history, many commodities, modalities and technologies have had their time of economic and-or military importance: ships, railroads, whale oil, cotton, petroleum, rocketry, enriched uranium, etc. But the proliferation of liberalism and democracy worldwide has been, and shall always be, of enduring importance to US economic and security interests – and to that of all liberal democracies. Oil may or may not be critical to US interests in 20, 50 or 150 years. But liberalism and democracy at home and abroad surely will be.

Events ongoing in the region where once existed the countries of Iraq and Syria are today reshaping Middle Eastern geopolitics. The cause of liberalism is not indifferent as to what the outcomes will be – the US must intelligently assert itself to see that liberal and democratic values are given the best opportunity to flourish. In this series of posts, the Liberal Field Guide will try to elaborate a coherent US policy toward that end.

Syria and Iraq are gone, and five unstable proto-countries now occupy their place on the map. (1) The Islamic State (IS, also ISIS, ISIL) has cut the two former countries in half, severing (2) the “Iraqi Government,” based in Baghdad, which maintains tenuous control over the southwestern Shia quarter of the former Iraq; from (3) Iraqi Kurdistan, which is now effectively an independent country in the mountainous northeast along the Turkish and Iranian border. IS has also severed the nominal (4) “Syrian Government,” based in Damascus, which controls the southwestern third of what used to be Syria; from (5) Syrian Kurdistan, which is now independent of the Damascus regime, in the mountains bordering Turkey. IS continues to grow at the expense of the other four entities, attempting to push north into the two Kurdistans, while having more success in its attempt to encircle Baghdad. IS has merged central Iraq and northeastern Syria into a single Sunnistan.

The US is faced with the choice of helping to prop up one or both of the Iraqi regimes (one in Baghdad and one in Iraqi Kurdistan) that it’s spent the past decade helping to fashion and form; or abandoning them to fight for their survival without US aid, as the two Syrian regimes (in Damascus and Syrian Kurdistan) have been left to fight for theirs.

For its extraordinary cost, the Vietnam War has proved to be invaluably instructive for US foreign policy. Perhaps the greatest lesson is the folly of intervening in a civil war for a party that’s not interested in fighting for its own cause. This lesson applies to the Baghdad regime, which has been as inept politically as its military has been useless in the field. This lesson does not however apply to Iraqi Kurdistan, a liberal democracy under siege by IS, and well worth defending.

During its short existence, IS has proved to be exceptionally awful, with reports documenting its systematic practice of rape, torture, mass execution, ethnic cleansing, and violation of every human right you can name. IS has buried people alive, crucified others, and collected young women and girls to be sold into slavery. They are so extreme that they’ve been unable to work cooperatively with many other Sunni-oriented organizations, including, remarkably, Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The worst case scenario in the former Iraq is the same as the worst-case in the former Syria: the establishment of a radical Sunni Islamist regime. In light of IS’s quick rise to power, the US must rise beyond archaic antagonisms rooted in the Cold War and US-Israeli relations, and reevaluate the Assad regime in Damascus; as it must also consider the case of Syrian Kurdistan. No matter how bad you think Assad may be, his regime is several upgrades over IS.

The Field Guide will refine these broad strokes this week, as our analysis continues.