Friday, July 30, 2010

It's Never Too Late To Hate On Mark Penn

I like how Nate Silver's new scale for the dishonesty of polling analysis is done on a scale of one to five Penns. I remember Mark Penn's work well -- if you just looked at the underlying polls, it would often be obvious that he was trying to scam you.

In addition to being dishonest, Penn was incompetent at everything except preventing Democrats from doing useful stuff. (Why Democrats tolerated a strategist who ran a firm that gave more money to Republicans than Democrats is beyond me.) Keeping him away from the White House was a solid reason to be an Obama guy rather than a Clinton guy. I hope Penn's days as a major force in Democratic politics are over, and I'm glad Nate's helping to bury him.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

To Infinity and Beyond! USA 4EVAH!

When I first read about John Thune's unserious plan to produce deficit reduction out of thin air, I thought we were just in for more of the same: punt the hard problems to a commission, never have to put any specific cuts on the table, never mention the size of the defense budget relative, to everything else, etc. But no, Thune is instead trying to appeal to Barbie Doll owners. Here's the punchline:
Appearing on Fox News, Thune and host Greta Van Susteren discussed the bill’s call for the creation of a Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, tasked with reducing the deficit 10 percent year over year.


According to Thune's plan, "the new Joint Committee must introduce legislation that eliminates or reduces spending on wasteful government programs and achieves a savings of at least 10 percent of the previous year's budget deficit."
People are snarking about Zeno's paradox, but the real snark here is to observe that John Thune is burnishing is "Proud to be an American" credentials by claiming that the United States of America will be around for an infinite number of years. Since, of course, while Thune is wrong that it will eliminate the budget deficit in ten years (at which point, in reality, the deficit would have been reduced by about 65%, far less than Bill Clinton was able to achieve in eight years without being so lazy as to defer the hard choices to a commission), he's right that it will eventually eliminate the deficit. In each year the deficit is nine-tenths of the deficit in the previous year, and for all values of a less than 1,
limx → ∞ ax = 0
therefore Thune is correct that the deficit will be eliminated infinity. Q.E.D.

I'm trying to decide if it's reasonable to expect the leader of the free world, or even a man one heartbeat away from the leader of the free world, to understand the concept of limits and geometric decay. I've heard the phrase "half-life" bandied about in politics, which suggests a basic awareness of the concept. So, Thune may have forgotten his high school pre-calculus, but the "America: Fuck Yeah!" crowd should eat it up.

Preemptive correction: Technically, some of the hard decisions relating to defense cuts during the Clinton administration were deferred to commission. But other tough decisions—raising taxes, non-defense spending cuts, and the 1995 Balanced Budget agreement—needed no delegation.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Full Warren

Mike Konczal at Rortybomb has a nice send up of McMegan's attempt to claim that Elizabeth Warren has been juking the stats. Megan McArdle's point, which I've heard before, is that Warren's seminal research on the impact of medical bills on is too broad, including things like gambling addiction, alcohol abuse, etc., where the actual cost of medicare isn't the direct driver of bankruptcy. There are two counter arguments to this. One is that Warren is pretty up front that she's trying to get at this broadest measure possible, and that the issue here isn't just medical cost but illness associated income losses, etc. If America's workers' compensation system looked more like Germany's—heck, if the whole country simply adopted Washington state's level of workers' comp—there would be far fewer bankruptcies . The other is that examination of court records tends to undercount debt due to medical costs. If you owe the hospital money, and you pay it on your credit card or mortgage your house, by the time you file for bankruptcy it doesn't look like you have any medical debt. But in this case it's pretty clear that without the medical bills you wouldn't be in court.

This is all well and good, and people need to understand that the Affordable Care Act will help drive down the number of bankruptcies in this country. But just as interesting as the discussion of Warren's data is a long article Warren wrote for the Boston review on the root causes of the middle class squeeze. All the talk about designer brands and fancy household appliances tends to obscure the fact that prices of these goods have been declining thanks to globalization. Middle-class Americans aren't engaging in more frivolous spending than they were 20 years ago, they're engaging in different frivolous spending. Warren identifies three big ticket
  • The normalization of one car per driving-age member of the household.
  • The rise in cost of "the basics": medical care, child care, and education (pre-kindergarten and college)
  • The rise in housing prices, often largely driven by a frantic search for quality school systems.
All of these, particularly the rise in housing prices, have led to an increase in demand for credit, which has also been increasing in cost. So when you think about the "middle class squeeze", think about these three items.


The cute little gal depicted at left is a zedonk -- the offspring of a zebra father and a donkey mother. She's four days old at present.

In addition to all its other flaws, overemphasis of bipartisanship (see: Unity '08, David Broder, etc) often ends up being deeply parochial. There are a lot of creatures on our planet besides donkeys and elephants. The idea that a donkey-elephant crossbreed might bring together the best things the political world has to offer is testament to the narrow horizons of one's political world.

One Year For Plain Blog

Jonathan Bernstein's "Plain Blog About Politics" just celebrated its first birthday, and he kindly thanked us for blogrolling him early.

There's a lot of useful knowledge sitting on dusty attic shelves in the ivory tower. (Obviously, there's also a bunch of useless stuff and bad ideas.) I'm really happy when someone who's spent their life learning an issue inside-out in the careful and focused way typical of academia delivers useful knowledge about that issue to all of us. Jonathan has a Ph.D in political science and knows more about how legislative dynamics have historically worked than anybody else you're likely to read on the internet, and that's what you get from him every day.

The stuff I do in philosophy is much further removed from politics, though on rare occasion I can bring philosophy to bear in a useful way. I wish my knowledge were more relevant than it is. Jonathan is living the dream.

Hate The Senate, Love The Senate Majority Leader

I think this Jamelle Bouie-Ryan McNeely consensus conflates two different things:

The Netroots Nation straw poll, conducted during the conference by Revolution Messaging, shows President Obama with an approval rating of 84 percent among the attending activists, journalists, and bloggers... By contrast, I'm sure that if you were to ask Netroots Nation attendees to give their opinion on the Senate, you would get abysmally low numbers. Nearly every complaint I heard was directed at the filibuster and Senate Democrats' inability to pass legislation without significant concessions to centrists and conservatives.
The institution of the Senate deserves all the hatred it gets. It's a chamber with ludicrous rules that prevents us from dealing with major national challenges. It systematically disadvantages progressive interests and helps conservatives. While the realistic path forward merely involves reforms like eliminating the filibuster and anonymous holds, I was nodding along when Dylan Matthews proposed abolishing the Senate altogether. The fact that we could get health care reform through it doesn't change this. The stuff that makes the Senate distinctive as a parliamentary body almost universally operated to make the legislation worse.

On the other hand, I'm quite happy with a bunch of individual Senate actors. I've been an off-and-on defender of Harry Reid for many years, and he justified my faith by really coming through for us on health care reform. He's trying to get legislation through a chamber with ridiculous rules, Ben Nelson, and Joe Lieberman. The more you hate the Senate as an institution, the more you should love the Senate Democratic leadership for somehow squeezing huge legislation through it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Chipotle And The Humane Society

Chipotle is supporting the Humane Society's campaign for stronger animal welfare standards on Ohio farms. It's the best picture I've seen of an effective political coalition that could reduce animal suffering.

This is a smart business move for Chipotle. Once you're doing the right thing, you can put the squeeze on your competitors who do the wrong thing by banning their suppliers' inexpensive but vicious business practices. I wish the Humane Society luck in bringing more pro-animal-welfare businesses into this coalition. Eliminating the cruel practices that allow their opponents to undercut their prices is in their collective interest.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

August 15th, A Happy Day

The WSJ reports that John Dugan the head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency will be leaving on August 14th. Dugan is perhaps the best example that banks will engage in "forum shopping" in attempts to find the regulator who is most in tune with their interests. He's a real piece of work; you can read more about his sordid history of standing up for the little bank that could in the face of Big Consumer at CAP's Wonkroom.

Given the circumstances, if Obama is unable to find a decent nominee, Obama would be better off awarding a recess appointment to this ficus, who will almost certainly suck less than Dugan.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Today in Demoralization

Yes, heaven forfend that the head of a Consumer Finanical Protection Bureau be someone who is genuinely interested in protecting consumers.

This hasn't been a good week. Hill, White House, and especially USDA staffers need to dig their West Wing DVDs out of the storage closet.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Conservatives Icing Congressmen

Apparently some jagoff is out there offering $100 to the first person to punch Alan Grayson (D-FL). In the interest of promoting peaceful conflict resolution, I promise to instead pay $200 to the first person to present him with a flavored malt beverage and demand that he get down on one knee and chug. Of course, Grayson might have enough meme awareness to "ice block" you, so watch out.

Remember, folks, pics or it didn't happen.

If You Need To Get Depressed For Some Reason, Read This

Today my friend Sarah, who's just finished residency to become a pediatrician in Texas, told me about a 15-year-old girl she knew from the hospital who needed a bone marrow transplant. Her condition was such that you could keep her alive for a while through frequent blood transplants, but this wasn't a permanent solution, and it raised the risk of her immune system rejecting the bone marrow if a transplant eventually did occur. She had lived in America since age 1, but since she was born in Mexico, she wasn't a citizen and was ineligible for Medicaid. Sarah said the girl's best option was to commit a crime and fall into the prison system. There was a chance she'd get deported, but there was also a fair chance the prison system would take care of her and give her the transplant.

I asked Sarah what became of the girl. She didn't know, but she said that the girl was probably dead by now.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Shadow Of India, And Other Stories

Pew has a tendency to do nifty polls like the one at right. I should look at more of them.

I agree with Matt that the growth of China's economy is a good thing for America as a whole, and it's unfortunate that people don't see it that way. What you'd want here is to take the good neoliberal thing where you do mutually beneficial trade with the emerging Chinese economy and pair it with the progressive thing where you tax the proceeds of that trade and spend it to make things as painless as possible for the losers. But this is exactly the sort of grand bargain that you can't actually do in the American political system. So lots of people are just responding to the immediate short-term pain that they're going to feel, and they're right that it isn't going to be ameliorated, except way down the line when somebody is able to tax the winners to pay for social service improvements in a way that doesn't explicitly connect the issues. (Of course, people also get to buy cheap Chinese stuff, but that disproportionately benefits the few who actually have enough money to spend.) No wonder you get results like this.

Pakistan likes the rising Chinese military most. The big underlying dynamic here is that Pakistani foreign policy is all about India, except when it's about some other issue that Pakistanis are going to think about anyway in relation to India. Having an ally against India is something they're excited about. I'm kind of surprised that even this many Indians are okay with rising Chinese military power. Who's the plausible mutual enemy? I guess Pakistan is enough of a basket case that having them connected with a country that's fairly rational is some kind of move up, but you don't want them to end up stronger and ally with a country against whom you've also had a war.

In a sign that human beings aren't insane, everybody likes Chinese economic growth better than rising Chinese military power. Even with the distributional issues, people would rather play the positive-sum game where we buy and sell stuff than the negative-sum game where we get better at killing each other.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Fundamental Unseriousness of the Republican Party

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY):
“We’re all for extending unemployment insurance,” McConnell said. “The question is, when are we going to get serious” about the surging federal deficit.
The answer is: when the Republican party is a very, very, different party from the one it is today.

This has been another edition of Simple Answers to Simple Questions. And keep in mind that this chart doesn't show the negative impact of Bush's unfunded Medicare part D, nor the positive impact of the Affordable Care Act. Extending Unemployment Insurance would barely register on this image.

Hat tip to Simon Charlow for a link to the graph.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Shutdown Without a Shutdown

John Quiggin (via Krugman and Yglesias) try to figure out whether or not a Republican House would shutdown the government.

I think the answer to that is actually "no". I think the Republicans have conceded that actually shutting down the government was bad for Newt Gingrich and bad for Republicans. It ultimately painted the GOP as the uncompromising party, and of course the economic rebound let Bill Clinton and the Democrats regain their approval rating.

What I think we'll instead see is a more extreme version of what we're seeing today, which is that Republicans will effectively shut down the government, but keep the lights on at enough agencies that most people notice the government is still around, just less responsive than it use to. We've seen this movie before, in both 1998 and 2006, when the House majority, anticipating a favorable political climate coming soon, decided not to engage in political confrontation. And somehow, we're seeing it today, thanks largely to baroque (and broke) Senate procedure. The appointments process for sub-cabinet officials, District and Circuit Court judges, etc., has already slowed to a crawl. Should Republicans gain even the House majority, it will slow further. Regulatory actions will be subject to scrutiny from subpoena-empowered cranks, which will slow the federal bureaucracy from doing much of anything new, including implementing needed portions of the Affordable Care Act and the financial reform bill. People will still get their Social Security checks. But if you were expecting any agency to do something new that might help you out, you're probably going to be SOL if Republicans take back the House.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Orkney Islands

I'm discovering the same thing in Scotland that I did in New Zealand. Both places are really beautiful, with rolling green hills that you want to reach out and touch. The trouble is that they're crisscrossed with barbed wire to keep livestock in their pastures. So you can't get very far unless you're willing to deal with the wire about every 200 yards. Which I did for about five miles. It's mostly a matter of figuring out where the gate is and climbing over that, but sometimes you have to climb the wire. Other times there's no gate and the wire is too difficult and you just go back.

Once I encountered a farmer who drove up near me in his truck while I was in his cow pasture. I told him that I was just hiking around, and he gave me what I think was a 'salt-of-the-earth local guy encounters eccentric but harmless tourist' smile.

The picture up there wasn't taken by me, but it gives you a clear view of the situation, with the exception that I had a worse sky and got rained on a lot. My ship sails from Orkney to Aberdeen in an hour and a half, so I don't have time to put up one of my own.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Hey, does a pro-counterfeiting position make sense at this point? If the Fed isn't going to expand the money supply and we're going to just stay here in our liquidity trap with unemployment over 9% and businesses sitting on piles of cash, maybe it's time for citizens to take matters into their own hands.

This crazy expansionary monetary policy idea brought to you by the author of "Japan Replaces Yen With Beef."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hate The Player, Hate The Game

Several years ago, I read the first forty pages or so of The Game, after it was recommended to me by two friends, both younger, who wanted to help me out. They both had cool girlfriends and were nice people, so I was interested in seeing what the book had to say.

The primary effect of the book was to depress the hell out of me. One concept I've applied to dating advice since then is that of the porn threshold -- there's dating advice so unsavory that if that's what you had to do to find yourself a woman, you'd rather just give up on the whole affair and stick to porn. The whole inhuman way of thinking about women (and women who fascinated lonely me!) blew past my porn threshold. Fortunately, I subsequently ran into some wonderful ladies who for some reason were attracted to my silly self, and no thanks to The Game, the past four years have been much better than the four before.

I guess there is one thing I sort of learned from it. Unlike Lizardbreath, I'm still far from internalizing the third-grade lesson that "teasing people you're attracted to is an effective way of attracting their interest." The natural way I feel like acting when I'm attracted to someone is being incredibly nice to her. For whatever reason, this isn't very effective. I find it pretty frustrating to hold in my feelings about how much I like someone, but apparently that does in fact raise your batting average.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I'm Still Not Convinced This Isn't a Very Clever Onion Article

Palestinians dance to Lady Gaga in Hebron, to counter video made by IDF troops

Video created in response to clip posted on YouTube last week by soldiers who performed routine to Kesha's hit Tik Tok.

This is, apparently, a Real Thing in the Real World. Perhaps modern dance-pop can do what five six U.S. Presidents, who knows how many Prime Ministers and Palestinian Presidents, and the United Nations could not.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Road Goes Ever On And On

Blogging has been light lately because I've been traveling more than a member of the Duke basketball team. Right now I'm in Southampton, England. Tonight I arrive in Dublin for a conference, and on the 12th of July I'll be in St. Andrews for a talk the next day. Then I'll be gallivanting around Scotland, going down to Bristol on the 21st, and to London on the 24th. On August 1 I return to Singapore.

I don't know if we have any UK readers, but if you're on my way or slightly off of it, let me know!

Friday, July 2, 2010

In Defense of Cheating

Conveniently, this handball doesn't exist on Ghana kicks a penalty kick for some reason, but they won't show you what it's for...
I find myself holding an odd appreciation for Luis Suarez's game-saving blatant handball at the tail end of today's Ghana-Uruguay matchup. It's a rather cold calculation, but Suarez faced two possible outcomes. He could let the ball sail past him, ensuring his side's defeat. Or he could commit an obvious foul, get ejected (and probably suspended for the remainder of the tournament), and give his team a non-zero probability of staying in the tournament. The situation isn't that much different from Hack-a-Shaq, or an NFL cornerback who commits pass interference on a long throw to stop a sure touchdown. This isn't middle school kickball; this is the freakin' World Cup. If you're not going to play to win the game under these circumstances, when will you?

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama and other officials tour the Theodore Staging Facility in Theodore, Ala., June 14, 2010, where oil containment boom and other equipment is cleaned, decontaminated, and repaired. This was the President's fourth trip to the Gulf Coast to assess the ongoing response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)"

Today's Kitsch Cover is Avril Lavigne covering Joan Jett and the Blackhearts "Bad Reputation"