Monday, January 31, 2011

Simple Answers to Complicated Questions

Ezra Klein:
... [I]f you believe that Reagan substantially transformed American politics, what features of the state or trends in the economy do you consider the strongest evidence for your thesis?
From Keith Poole's talk "The Polarization of American Politics"

Income inequality (the red line) was close to its all-time measured low at the time of Jimmy Carter's inauguration. It rose slightly during his presidency, but really took off during the Reagan years, and has shown no signs of turning back, other than a brief respite in 2008 when the financial meltdown sapped income of the financial class. (Update: here are some more charts on income inequality, most of which show things starting to spin out of control in the Reagan years).

Some of this can be attributed to a new mindset at the Fed, which prioritized keeping a lid on inflation over maximizing employment. But changes in tax and regulatory policy, particularly in finance, have also played a role in widening inequality, and for those I think we have The Great Communicator to thank. In retrospect, eliminating the top tax bracket has been a godsend for the ultra-rich, who now can have solidarity with upper-upper middle class when it comes to raising the top marginal rate.

Update II: just a note on the correlation here. This shows that political polarization is highly correlated with measures of income inequality. For metrics where we have data going back to the early 20th century, the correlation is weaker but still easily visible, mostly because the inequality measurements we have aren't as good. This part of the chart has nothing to do with Reagan ushering in a new conservative era. It's just a convenient side effect. Reagan seems to have presided over an initial rise in inequality, which help drive political polarization.

Mohamed My Friend

When there's some tumultuous but promising news event that happens in a faraway land, it's easy to fix on the one cool famous person you know from there and hope that they'll come to power. (You see this happen in Senate primaries a lot -- remember Paul Hackett?) This can be a mistake, as perhaps there are lower-profile good folks who for complex reasons are actually much better suited to rule. Confession: I'm feeling that way regarding Egypt and Mohamed ElBaradei.

How often does successful anti-authoritarian sentiment break out in a country and you have a Nobel Peace Prize winner on hand who has been staking out an anti-regime line? ElBaradei has spent his career trying to get the nations of the world onto the right side of one of the biggest issues facing humankind - nuclear nonproliferation. He called Bush on the WMDBS during the Iraq War and took a very firm line against attacks on Iran.

The downside is that he's spent many of his years outside Egypt doing nuclear nonproliferation stuff rather than sticking it out in the country doing anti-regime stuff, which damages his cred among some Egyptians who've actually been suffering under the regime. So maybe there's some awesome revolutionary leader who's been Victor Laszloing his way around Egypt, always one step ahead of Mubarak's thugs as he stirs up pro-democracy activism, and who'd make a really good president or whatever they're going to call it after the revolution. That's the sort of person who gets regarded as most legitimate by the populace in these situations.

But there's a lot of ways things can shake out. And maybe the strategic thinking will be that the best thing to do is to put ElBaradei at the top to secure international support, and the politics of revolution will allow that outcome. If so, cool!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Friedman-Induced Singapore Blogging

Unfortunately at a certain point in this op-ed about how Singapore does education well, somebody presents a metaphor to Tom Friedman and he runs with it.

Things that are true: the government here is very smart about running a mixed economy well, education is good and well-funded, public servants get paid very well at the top, and corruption is between low and nonexistent. Also, it's a real hub of biomedical research. It's one of the places stem cell research came when America started restricting it for silly reasons.

Don't Worry About The Decline Of Manufacturing, Worry About Republicans

Back in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, people might've been surprised that we're now lamenting a decline in manufacturing jobs. Back then, factory work was dangerous both in terms of immediate dismemberment and long-term health, and poorly paid for long hours of toil. Due in part to effective labor organizing and progressive political activism, we managed to turn it into a good life for lots of people, to the point that it sounds to us like a good example of the kind of employment we hope we can make available to ordinary folks.

There's no reason we can't do basically the same thing for service sector employment (well, no reason except that it costs various people money and they'll support right-wing politicians so they can stop it). Making manufacturing jobs good is in many ways a bigger leap than making service jobs good, as safety issues on the manufacturing side present nontrivial technical challenges that really don't have an equivalent on the service side. And while we might have to do things like updating health insurance provision to fit a more fluid economy where you don't work at the same job all your life, this is well within the capacity of a properly functioning mixed economy. There's no reason why the decline of the manufacturing base has to result in the decline of the middle class, unless people on the left just get destroyed at politics.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Information Feudalism

My esteemed senior colleague John Holbo: "What strong IP protection generates is not a free market but something more like information feudalism: a market-unfriendly clusterfuck of fiefdoms and inescapably inefficient lord-vassal terms-of-service arrangements that any friend of freedom, in any ordinary sense, ought to look upon with disgust."

To add to the metaphor, if copyright protections on something last the author's life plus 50 years, there'll be a hereditary copyright nobility who enjoy the vast riches won by their ancestors without having to produce anything useful themselves.

Friday Obama Caption Contest and Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama shakes hands with Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 25, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)"

Here's beatboxer Kid Beyond doing Portishead's "Wandering Star". It's pretty crazy:

Leave your captions and nominations for next week's Kitsch Cover in the comments.

Today In "Shit State Legislators Say": Guns in the Mountain West

Ladies and Gentlemen, Montana Senator Verdell Jackson (R-Kalispell):
The president of the Utah Senate on Thursday debunked a Montana lawmaker's story about six gun-wielding Utah senators stopping an armed intruder there.

Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups, a longtime legislator, said the incident recounted by Montana Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, is not true.

"No, the closest thing we had was the (Utah) Jazz Bear mascot come into a (House) legislative meeting one day and shoot a confetti gun," Waddoups said. "One of the representatives pulled his weapon, but it never came out."

Jackson is sponsoring a bill that would allow Montana lawmakers with concealed-weapon permits to carry their guns into legislative chambers. As an argument for his bill, Jackson told the Missoulian State Bureau earlier this week about the Utah incident as recounted to him by a Utah legislator at a national conference a decade ago.
If reading about these nincompoops motivates you to run for public office, Progressive Majority is a great organization devoted to electing people with great ideals at all state & local levels of government.

Also, props to Verdell for keeping his campaign website on

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Music To My Ears

MSNBC: "DHS will formally scrap color-coded threat system". I'm fairly sure it's been at orange almost continuously since it came into existence.

It should be noted, by the way, that the number of deaths on US air lines last year was ... zero, so I think the skies are pretty safe these days, elevated threat level or not.

State Of The Union

I realize that the State of the Union address has some importance for marking the direction an administration desires to take and drawing attention to public policy questions of national concern. But I don't really understand why it has to be called the "State of the Union" address, or why there should be any expectation that the president will report on the state of America. Most of us live in America and we've more or less made up our own minds about what the state of the union is. Having the president say it's "strong" or "getting better" or "on fire" isn't going to impart any significant information that we don't have already.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Today in Chickenshit Politicians

Apparently Senate Democrats simply don't want to get anything done this Congress, out of fear that moving the Senate slightly in the direction of majority rule will hamper their ability to prevent bad things from happening in the future (possibly, they think, as soon as 2012). This is, of course, incredibly short-sighted, and makes me wonder if moderate Democrats would simply prefer not to get anything done, while using the new social norm of 60-votes as a convenient scapegoat. We can only hope that Merkley, Udall, Bennett, and the others stick around in the Senate long enough to have the opportunity to be the ones calling the shots, and maintain their zeal for the cause.

Update: link fixed.

Even Nixon Can't Take Us To China

To follow up on Neil's post about Colin Powell's support for defense budget cuts, it's worth pointing out that House Republicans will try their mightiest to force the Pentagon to engage in some deficit spending to buy a bunch of equipment that it doesn't need. To recap, one of the many benefits of retaining George W. Bush's secretary of defense was his ability to get the top Pentagon brass to swallow some "tough" procurement reductions that actually had close to zero impact on the country's warfighting capabilities but are "tough" because Congress has never met a defense project it didn't want to fund. This was all fine and dandy as long as Democrats controlled Congress, but now Republicans, whose districts employ a larger share of defense contractors, are in power, the game may be up. It's going to take yeoman's work from Gates, his replacement, and top admirals and generals to hold the line here.

My guess is that the next Defense Secretary will be unable to fend off this Congress or the next, but perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised.

Powell For Defense Budget Cuts

I think it's interesting how we can get top-level military leaders under Republican presidents (Gates and now Powell) to push for cuts in the defense budget. I don't have an especially good handle on how they manage to get the right answer here while politicians of both parties are generally getting this wrong. Maybe it's that their fates don't depend on support from the military/industrial complex, and they have a keen sense of where the wasteful defense spending is?

George Allen: Great Racist Of Our Time

The last fifty years haven't been very good for racism. We've gone from the segregated South to a black president, and people have come to agree that racism is a bad thing. But if you're looking for someone who's done all he can to keep the fire of racism alive, George Allen is your man.

It's sad but understandable how somebody who grows up in a deeply racist culture can come to have racist sentiments. What's amazing about Allen is that he absorbed and fetishized the symbols of racial prejudice despite having every opportunity not to. As a high school kid in California, he posed for his yearbook photo with a Confederate flag lapel pin. His law office included not only Confederate flags, but a noose hung from a tree.

The stuff from college is really kind of bonkers:

"Allen said he came to Virginia because he wanted to play football in a place where 'blacks knew their place,'" said Dr. Ken Shelton, a white radiologist in North Carolina who played tight end for the University of Virginia football team when Allen was quarterback. "He used the N-word on a regular basis back then."

A second white teammate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from the Allen campaign, separately claimed that Allen used the word "nigger" to describe blacks. "It was so common with George when he was among his white friends. This is the terminology he used," the teammate said.

A third white teammate contacted separately, who also spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of being attacked by the Virginia senator, said he too remembers Allen using the word "nigger," though he said he could not recall a specific conversation in which Allen used the term. "My impression of him was that he was a racist," the third teammate said.

Shelton also told Salon that the future senator gave him the nickname "Wizard," because he shared a last name with Robert Shelton, who served in the 1960s as the imperial wizard of the United Klans of America, a group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.

Dude! You gave your buddy the nickname "Wizard" because he shares a last name with a Klan imperial wizard! How deep into racism do you have to be in order think that might be a cool thing to do?

The Macaca thing was in some ways the most spectacular moment. For those who may not have been in the game at the time, here's the summary and the video:
On August 11, 2006, at a campaign stop in Breaks, Virginia, near the Kentucky border, Allen twice used the word macaca to refer to S.R. Sidarth, an Indian-American, who was filming the event as a "tracker" for the opposing Webb campaign. Allen apologized and later said that he did not know the meaning of the word. In 2008, The Washington Post speculated that, were it not for this double utterance, Allen would have been a strong candidate for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. Macaca is a pejorative epithet used by francophone colonialists in Central Africa's Belgian Congo for the native population.

And that's why George Allen is such a great racist. He isn't just content with ways of being racist that are obvious or close at hand. He'll reach across the world to find racist expressions from francophone colonialists in the goddamn Belgian Congo and bring them into American politics. He can teach racists in America amazing new ways to be racist that they had never thought of before.

Back in about 2005, Allen was a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. But the disastrous Senate campaign in which he lost his seat to Jim Webb removed him from contention. Now Allen has decided to run for his old seat again. I'm kind of nervous, because I don't know if Webb is running for re-election. But Jamelle Bouie offers optimism:
It's still too early to say, but odds are very good that Allen will face an electorate that looks like the one in 2008, where blacks, Latinos, and younger whites were nearly half of all voters. If Allen can't improve on McCain's performance, or if the Democratic nominee matches Obama's total, then Democrats hold the seat without much problem. Again, conditions can change dramatically over two years, but with any luck, this will be Allen's last gasp for political relevance.
If that's right, it'll be a sad day for racism.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Irish And Scottish Folk Song Recommendations

In comments last weekend, Dan Miller asked for some Irish and Scottish folk song recommendations. I'll take that as a nice excuse to ramble on about a bunch of music I like, starting with the well-known stuff and working down to the lesser-known bands. Probably about three of our readers are into this stuff, but for those three of you, it's your lucky day...

The Chieftains are everybody's standard traditional Irish band, but my favorite album of theirs is the very nontraditional Santiago, when they go down to Spain and Cuba to record with local musicians. I imagine that a lot of people would find their collaborations amusing – for example, Long Black Veil with Mick Jagger, which is pretty good. Especially moving is The Lowlands of Holland, sung by Natalie Merchant as a widow whose husband was forcibly conscripted into the military:
I will wear no stays around my waist
No combs all in my hair
I will wear no scarf around my neck
for to save my beauty fair
And never will I marry
Not until the day I die
Since these four winds and these stormy seas
came between my love and I
You probably don't need me to tell you about the Pogues, who are probably my favorite band of all time. I also like Shane MacGowan's Popes album, The Snake – the title track is a spectacular addition to the tradition, as so many of his songs are.

The best versions of Roddy McCorley and Nancy Whiskey that I've heard are on there as well. (I don't like his solo album, The Crock of Gold – it's in his period of utter personal decay, and it sounds like they shoved a sheet of paper with a song into his hand and all he knew was that his next bottle of whiskey depended on mumbling the words along to the peppy musical backing.)

As far as the old-school folk songs go, the group I started out with was the Clancy Brothers. I take their version of Whiskey in the Jar to be definitive and awesome. The song was covered by Metallica, bizarrely enough, and Metallica made silly lyrical choices. You can't change the girl's name from “Jenny” to “Molly” – it has to rhyme with “penny”! My favorite song to sing in the whole wide world is Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile, which I do just like the Clancy Brothers except with the 2nd and 3rd verses reversed – I like putting the boisterous verse about how Grainne Mhaol and her thousand warriors will kick English ass before the thoughtful verse about how the narrator would be happy to live only one more week if only he could see Grainne Mhaol come over the sea with her thousand warriors and kick English ass. Anyway, that's how the Harvard Celtic Society, who got me into all this stuff, passed it down to me.

I can't stand the oversynthified musical backing on a lot of Sinead O'Connor's 80s pop stuff, but Sean Nos Nua, her little-known Irish traditional album, is lovely. She does wonderful heartfelt versions of I'll Tell Me Ma and The Parting Glass, plus a fiery Oro Se Do Bheatha
Her Mantle So Green tells the story any Irish folk song lover will know, about the guy who hits on a girl, and she's still waiting for a guy lost in war or at sea, and he knows something about what happened to the guy, and I won't spoil the ending for you if you haven't heard it before. I don't know what Baidin Fheilimi is about but it's good too. I could do without the interminable Lord Baker duet, but the album is excellent overall. (Sinead also has a reggae album, Throw Down Your Arms, and while some of it comes off as a bit silly, there are some good tracks, especially Curly Locks.)

Among my favorite lesser known bands is Silly Wizard, fronted by Andy M. Stewart. Their most consistent album is Caledonia's Hardy Sons. It ends with The Broome O' the Cowdenknowes, a mournful song from a lad who's been banished from Scotland for getting too close to a girl whose politically powerful dad wanted her to marry someone else. I don't know what to make of The Ferryland Sealer – a cheerful song about killing seals for their pelts. The instrumentals are very good, though, and Monymusk Lads tells a story with a biting insight about class prejudices and romance, though you'll need to look up the lyrics to get through the Scots dialect.

Songs about hopeless love are a big part of the Silly Wizard oeuvre. On their other albums, I love this verse from Wi' My Dog and Gun, about the all-too-practical woman the narrator meets in the forest:
I said, “Fair maid, if you wed a farmer
You'll be tied for life to one plot of land
I'm a roving Johnny, if you gang wi' me
You will have no ties, so give me your hand”
Also make sure you hear the Loch Tay Boat Song, the best of many songs I've heard about the red-haired girl who breaks your heart.

Mary Dillon of Deanta won national singing competitions with her crystal-clear voice and delicious accent. The songwriting on a bunch of her original stuff is kind of schlocky, but when she does a good traditional song like The Lakes of Pontchartrain, the results can be spectacular.

I also recommend Deanta's version of Eleanor Plunkett, an instrumental composed by the blind 17th century harper Turlough O'Carolan. More than anything else I've ever heard, this song can make you stop feeling angry. Let the soothing melody absorb you, and you'll get this calming perspective on anything upsetting. (On a totally different note, another good song for dispelling anger is I Touch Myself by the Divinyls, because it prevents anyone from taking anything seriously. I played it in sophomore year when my roommates looked like they were about to come to blows in a messy fight about a girl who was present at the time and crying. Nobody could sustain their anger and violence was averted.)

Scotsman Sean Connery described
Karen Matheson of Capercaillie as having "a throat surely touched by the hand of God." I like Capercaillie's traditional songs best, particularly the ones in Scots Gaelic and the instrumentals. Am Buachaille Ban, a simple song from a lovelorn girl who wishes a handsome shepherd would notice her, is one of my favorites. I think I've heard a couple versions of Fear a Bhata by them as well, and all are good. It's a beautiful song written by a woman from Tong wishing the fisherman she loved from Uig would come back and marry her. (I don't expect you to know where Tong and Uig are, I just find the names a little funny. They're on the Isle of Lewis in northwest Scotland.)
Caledonia's Hardy Sons by Silly Wizard, which I mentioned above, has an excellent version with the verses translated into English.

Also, this dude on YouTube has one hell of a voice. Anyway, that should the Celtic folk fans on this blog going for a while. Let me know in comments if there's anything you think I should check out!

Friday, January 21, 2011

We All Decide Who Are People And Who Are Not

Comments like this are really silly:
"The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer: Is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no," Santorum says in the interview, which was first picked up by CBN's David Brody. "Well if that person, human life is not a person, then, I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'We are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"
Then what's a black man supposed to do? Nobody of any race can go through life without drawing the people / nonpeople distinction somewhere. For example, unless you draw it in such a way that some foods aren't people, you can't eat anything without committing a murderous act of cannibalism. And if your pants are people, you go around wearing people a lot, which is less bad but still kind of weird. The more serious disagreement involves animals -- some of us think they deserve some portion of the regard that persons do. Others don't think so.

The philosophical issue surrounding the personhood of the fetus is that some of us think you need a mind of some minimal sort in order to be a person, while others think it's just a matter of having human DNA, or being able to at some future point become a human. A few years ago I wrote something about why the former view is a lot better than the latter.

I'm not going to pretend that the psychological roots of people's feelings about abortion lie entirely in this philosophical question -- attitudes toward female sexuality play a huge role. But as far as the personhood question goes, drawing the person/nonperson boundary is something both sides have to do, and anti-abortion people shouldn't be taken seriously when they claim that only their opponents are doing it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Today in the Robot Uprising

Via Kevin Drum, There seems to be some official-looking footage of the Watson-versus-Champions Jeopardy! practice round: Sadly, this official footage doesn't include Watson's "thinking", which is the most fascinating part of the whole thing. I'm way more interested in Watson's second and third guesses, as well as what it thought the answer was when it decides not to buzz in.

Elsewhere, a collection of grad students at UC-Berkeley taught a computer to teach itself to play Starcraft, a Real-Time Strategy game involving elements of maximizing army production, constructing the proper unit type to defeat your opponent, maneuvers, etc. Note the distinction here. After several attempts to build in logic of strategies already known to humans, they eventually decided to let the computer itself come up with tactics based on endless practice runs.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Five Panels on Joe Lieberman's Retirement

Joe Lieberman, in the 111th Congress, Sucked

I agree with everything Robert Farley said in response to Ezra Klein's oddly mixed retrospect of Joe Lieberman's performance over the past two years. To review, Lieberman's three main accomplishments in 2009 and 2010 were:
  • Spiking a public option compromise that would have enabled individuals to buy into Medicare, which would have been easy to message in an election, popular, and sound public policy, not to mention a policy Lieberman once professed to support.
  • Working with John Kerry and Lindsay Graham to produce some sort of bipartisan energy bill, initially a cap-and-trade bill, and then something else, all of which was dead on arrival in the Senate. Note that said work included sabotaging the work of Maria Cantwell and Olympia Snowe, who were engaged in some outside-the-box thinking to attract bipartisan support for a "cap-and-dividend" model (note that as in health care, we have establishment centrist Democrats with clunky compromises--Baucus, Kerry & Lieberman--sabotaging wonky centrist Democrat with more elegant solutions--Wyden, Cantwell.
  • Muscling through the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
We have to evaluate this in the context of replacing Joe Lieberman with a generic Connecticut Democrat. Considering Chris Dodd made statements supporting the addition of a public option through reconciliation, we have to believe that Ned Lamont, Susan Bysiewicz, Chris Murphy, or really anyone would have been more useful on health care than Lieberman. On DADT, given the number of Republicans who ultimately voted for cloture and, it seems unlikely that Lieberman can take credit for all of the votes. Chiefly, I suspect that Snowe, Collins and Brown would have zero chance at winning a general election had they voted to preserve DADT. On the Democratic side, there are enough donors who are chiefly motivated by gay rights issues, that another year with minimal progress would have damaged the party's finances.

Now, that said, in the context of Lieberman holding a Senate seat, Reid clearly made the correct decision not to punish Lieberman too harshly so as to keep him in the fold on a large number of issues. But this doesn't negate the fact that, on net, Joe Lieberman did more harm than his replacement would have done.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Today in "Shit State Legislators Say": HIV Treatment

Ladies and Gentlemen, State Representative Larry Brown (R-NC, and presumably no relation to the basketball coach of the same name):
"I'm not opposed to helping a child born with HIV or something, but I don't condone spending taxpayers' money to help people living in perverted lifestyles," said Brown, who ran unopposed in the November election to win a fourth term.
Emphasis mine. Have you considered running for office? No? You should!

Brown wouldn't give specifics on what he considered "perverted", but later in the interview he seems to imply that an adult who acquires HIV through sexual activity or drugs -- regardless of the context of said activity, shouldn't get access to live-prolonging treatment. The Journal managed to find Republicans willing to go on the record that Brown's ideas are, well, bad ideas.

Hat tip to reader Willie Carey.

Mass Gunfights Of Confused Citizens

It's a special day when Amanda Marcotte links favorably to a good William Saletan article, so I'll join the conga line.

It always seemed obvious to me that arming ordinary citizens in general would be a disaster, because some of the armed innocent people would mistakenly think they were in a Jared Loughner situation when they weren't and they'd accidentally shoot someone. The per capita mad gunman death rate is really small -- we're in a country of 300 million and it's not like these things are happening every hour somewhere. But how often does some ordinary citizen get firmly convinced he's in a Jared Loughner situation and he's got to kill a mad gunman? Don't know for sure, but in a country of 300 million, at least every hour seems like a good bet. If you saturate the public with concealed handguns, you get a lot of confused citizens killing other citizens whose behavior they misinterpreted.

The real horror hadn't occurred to me -- what if you iterate this scenario? Saletan:
In the chaos and pressure of the moment, you can shoot the wrong person. Or, by drawing your weapon, you can become the wrong person—a hero mistaken for a second gunman by another would-be hero with a gun. Bang, you're dead. Or worse, bang bang bang bang bang: a firefight among several armed, confused, and innocent people in a crowd.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Failure As Blogger

Sadly, I don't have any inspiring MLK-related content for you today, other than the comment that he's a natural choice for being on money.

All I have is this story, which includes the note: "police issued a reminder that latex sex dolls are 'not recognised flotation devices.'" The original adds the detail that "Police say the fate of the dolls is unknown."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

You Can't Download This In Asia

I started an eMusic subscription when I lived in the States. My subscription still works fine from Singapore, but before I log in I get the weird message at right. I get similar stuff on YouTube and other video sites a lot -- videos sometimes won't play if the user IP address is in Singapore. Tech-savvy friends of mine have established IP proxy accounts in the USA to deal with this sort of thing.

I don't have a good sense for why this is happening -- do they think Singapore is a den of piracy or something? It's really not. The rest of Southeast Asia can be all yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, but as with many other things Singapore is a place where laws are obeyed at least as well as in the USA.

eMusic, by the way, is a pretty good deal, though it seems that the way the plans are structured are constantly changing. Before I was getting an excellent bargain on a narrow selection of (non-DRM) music, but then prices went up while the size of the collection increased. Now I'm getting a pretty good deal on a wider selection -- 9.99 per month buys me about an album and a half. I liked the earlier deal a bit better, since they were pretty good on obscure Irish and Scottish folk songs that I like. I don't know whether I'll renew at the end of the year, but at worst it's been a pretty good deal while it lasted.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Good Regulations Make Confident Consumers

Captain Y: "If you imagine some rule that’s really important to preventing cans of beans from giving people botulism, that rule doesn’t suddenly become less important in a recession. What’s more it’s hard to imagine a 12-month holiday on food safety rules for canned goods leading to a spike of job creation. It would mostly freak people out."

Furthermore, the freaked-out people would be less likely to buy canned goods. People freaking out and not buying canned goods costs you jobs in the canned-goods sector.

To expand this into a general point: you buy things assuming that they'll work the way they're supposed to, and that they won't make you sick or blow up and kill you. Some non-governmental entities help with this -- my dad had stacks and stacks of Consumer Reports magazines when I was a kid and those folks seem to do a great job. (Growing up in a household with these magazines lying around probably helped me develop good modern consumer habits.) But evaluating whether every new company selling a cheap can of beans is an efficient producer giving you a good deal or some kind of fly-by-night operator with lax health standards is beyond their powers. Even if you can do research on your big-ticket items, lots of people wouldn't have the time to research the vast number of things they buy in the course of a modern consumer lifestyle, even if reliable data was out there. And that's before you get into the issue of separating reliable information from cleverly designed ad copy, something that's probably easier for sophisticated consumers of media like readers of this blog than it is for the population at large.

As far as I know, there are basically three options here. You can have the government regulate products and services to make sure they work. This isn't perfect, as some good companies might design nifty stuff that technically falls afoul of clumsy well-intentioned regulations but really has no problems. Also, there's the possibility of regulatory capture. Or you can punish bad companies by lawsuit. One hopes that the threat of a lawsuit scares the companies straight, but if it doesn't, you have messy expensive lawsuits and hurt people.

Or you can not do anything and let the buyer beware. But don't expect this to create a bunch of jobs. It may just result in a bunch of freaked-out consumers who are too afraid to buy anything because it might blow up on them, and if it does, there's nothing they can do about it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Skynet Becomes Self Aware, Defeats Ken Jennings in Jeopardy!

In February, IBM's Watson supercomputer will challenge past champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter over 3-days. Today, they did a practice round, and someone bootlegged a bit of it and posted it. Jeopardy! is challenging because it has such a high level of word play and involves "natural language processing". Understanding the context of English sentences isn't something computers do very well.

I can't embed it, but go watch it. Now. It will blow your mind.

Update: if you follow the link, there's now an interview with Dave Gondek of IBM. Gondek, it turns out, was a grad student at Brown when I was an undergrad. This may not make him the most famous person actually know, but it sure makes him the most awesome. Well done, sir, well done.

Credit Where Due

Mark Thoma catches Wolf Blitzer actually asking the tough questions! Blitzer tries to pin Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN) on the fact that Republicans pay lip service to the deficit, but when in office, do significantly damage to the country's fiscal position. Indeed, Blizter Daniels was director of the OMB under George W. Bush. Historically, the OMB director is the chief voice of fiscal responsibility within the executive branch. The OMB tries to provide pushback to political actors, whose instinct is frequently to enact policies without worrying about their impact on the deficit. But when Daniels held this position, he folded like a house of cards. The Governor tries to blame the Bush-era deficit on the post-bubble recession and other factors, but simple arithmetic shows that Bush's deficit-increasing tax cuts, deficit-increasing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deficit-increasing Medicare part D are much larger contributors than any recession. He also tries to place bipartisan blame on Congress, but of course Republicans controlled congress for most of the Bush era of deficit explosion. The evidence shows that elected Republicans don't care about the deficit.

Props to the beard on this one. And more like this, please.

Today in "Shit State Legislators Say" (Extreme Local Edition): Wake County School Board

Update: via a commenter, it turns out that in response to investigations from accrediting agencies, the Wake County school board is considering dropping accreditation. Good times!

Via digby, Tea Partiers take over Raleigh, NC area school board, attempt to eliminate modestly successful integration policy, claim that concentrating poor &underperforming students in one school is a good thing:
If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful," [school board member John Tedesco] said. "Right now, we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it".

For one, this flies in the face of the long history of high-poverty schools quickly become basket cases, unable to retain quality teachers, and unable to provide the level of support needed to bring students up to par. In the same way that high-crime areas often pass a "tipping point" where police resources are unable to keep up with demand, schools can suffer in the same fashion.

For two, the No Child Left Behind Act specifically demands that schools demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress across a variety of demographic subcategories to force administrators to pay attention to historically low-performing groups even when their presence is diluted.

For three, you're on the damn school board. It's your job not to ignore the problem.

For four, remember, folks, it's slander to suggests that racial prejudice is a motivator behind any part of the Tea Party agenda. But I'll let you draw your own conclusion.

The likely outcome of this will be a long and protracted lawsuit. Considering the districts current integration plan is actually race-neutral, and the district stands a substantial risk of re-segregation, the new move will most likely withstand the scrutiny of the current Supreme Court.

If this sort of thing drives you crazy, consider this a plea to run for school board or city council (especially if you're female! Women are significantly less likely to receive encouragement from party operatives to run, which is a major source of underrepresentation. But don't let this discourage you!). Especially in suburban districts and small/medium-sized town districts, these positions are not always held by professional politicians. But the Right has built up a significant infrastructure devoted to winning these small offices and implementing rather pernicious parts of the far-right agenda. The country is in desperate need of non-crazy folks to run for office at all levels, but especially at the state & local level to act as a counterweight to this sort of nonsense. Even if you're a moderate Republican who disagrees with me on a whole host of issues, holding down a school board or city council seat is a valuable contribution to your community if it's preventing this sort of train wreck.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Incentives And Blaming

Sure, Mitch McConnell responded to his incentives correctly and made a shrewd strategic move in implementing a generally obstructionist strategy. But I don't think that this gets McConnell personally off the hook for doing bad things. In fact, this is exactly the sort of situation in which people who don't like obstructionist politics should do a lot of angry Mitch-blaming.

Part of the reason to have angry public criticism of people, as a social institution, is so that we can set up costs for bad behavior that we aren't punishing with enforceable rules. I may be following my incentives perfectly well in overusing scarce communal resources for my own personal ends. But if I do so it still makes sense for others to express anger towards me. Maybe their expressions of anger and the social consequences of their expressions aren't enough to shift my individual utility calculus against selfish behavior. But their anger against me isn't any less justified for that.

I don't know what held things together and prevented rampant filibuster abuse for so many decades. Certainly, it isn't holding things together anymore, so it's time to change the rules. (If "Don't blame Mitch McConnell" means "Don't think obstructionism would stop if the Senate GOP leader had been someone else" or "Focus on changing the filibuster rules rather than trying to change who leads the GOP in the Senate" those are things I definitely agree with.) But if there are any public and social costs of strategic obstructionism, they're costs McConnell should very well have to pay.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Brief Notes on "Shit State Legislators Say"

Since SSLS has become a relatively easy way to produce content something of a mainstay here at Donkeylicious, I wanted to say a couple of things about the criteria for inclusion on SSLS.
  • SSLS is not specifically partisan. If you can find a crazy quote from a crystals & wuwu dirty hippie Democrat who represents some hotbed of liberalism, I'll be more than happy. That said, for structural reasons The Crazy on the right is more likely to have political representation than The Crazy on the left. Also, the news sources I consume are more likely to pick up said Crazy. But again, happy to report on shit lefty legislators say if anyone finds it.
  • Local elected officials--mayors, city council members, etc.-- are also eligible for SSLS: Extreme Local edition.
  • I have mixed feelings about the concept of SSLS. On the one hand, it's funny as hell. On the other hand, it contributes to the generally negative attitude people have about elected officials, who are working long hours dealing with hard questions, often for little pay. So, just remember that for every time I quote someone saying something dumb, there are a half-dozen members of the state Budget committee poring over spreadsheets with their handful of staff members while eating Chinese takeout.
Of course, this blog is for the readers as much or more than it is for our own personal glorification. What does everyone think of Shit State Legislators Say? Fun times, or annoying debasement of an honorable profession?

    Tiger, Seal Penises Saved By Viagra

    In these dark times, it falls to me to spread the good news: Viagra is saving seals and tigers from getting killed. It does so by providing an impotence remedy that works, causing people to forgo exotic animal penis.
    Viagra may be making inroads into the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) market where little else has. A survey of 256 men in a Hong Kong TCM clinic revealed that, compared to other common ailments, erectile dysfunction was the only condition for which men switched from a traditional remedy to a Western medicine. (1) True, the numbers are small. But the authors of the study (von Hippel et al.) also point out that in 1998, the year Viagra entered the global marketplace, the price of seal penises fell to Can$15-20 each from a price of Can$70-100 in earlier years, and only 20,000 penises were sold to processors–compared to 30-50,000 processed in 1996. In 1999, the market was virtually nonexistent and it has not rebounded since. (2)
    I had too many image choices for this post. Tiger penises are weird-looking pointy things, so I could've put up one of those. There was also the option of putting up a photo of Tiger Woods, but I decided to go a bit more tasteful.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Today in "Shit State Legislators Say": Gun Control in Arizona

    Ladies and Gentlemen, State Representative Jack Harper (R-AZ):
    State Rep. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, partly blamed the shooting on Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who has himself blamed caustic political rhetoric and lax gun-control as contributing to the massacre.

    "If he would have done his job, maybe this doesn't happen," Harper told USA Today on Monday. "Sheriff Dupnik did not provide for the security of a U.S. congresswoman."

    "When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim," Harper continued. "The socialists of today are only one gun confiscation away from being the communists of tomorrow."

    Dupnik was not immediately available to respond.

    Members of Congress do not routinely have local police security at their events. They are free to request it if they feel threatened, authorities say.
    On the Palin scale of incoherence, I give this quote four out of five Courics.

    Gabrielle Giffords, Excellent Congresswoman

    The ironic news of the day is that Gabrielle Giffords won the Arizona Mental Health Association's "Legislator of the Year" award in 2004 when she was in the state Senate. Both there and in Congress, she supported legislation to help the mentally ill.

    Since being elected to Congress at age 35, she's been an excellent Democrat, voting for the stimulus bill, cap and trade, and health care reform both times. Then she won re-election in a district that went for Bush and McCain in the last three presidential elections. I suppose that's why Sarah Palin's website put crosshairs over her district.

    Doctors say that her chances of surviving being shot in the head are looking good. It'd be another wonderful achievement by someone who's done a lot of wonderful things.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011

    Bolsa Familia!

    This is pretty high up on my list of Things That Are Awesome:
    Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country. Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent...a major part of Brazil’s achievement is due to a single social program that is now transforming how countries all over the world help their poor.

    Brazil’s conditional cash transfer programs were begun before the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but he consolidated various programs and expanded it. It now covers about 50 million Brazilians, about a quarter of the country. It pays a monthly stipend of about $13 to poor families for each child 15 or younger who is attending school, up to three children. Families can get additional payments of $19 a month for each child of 16 or 17 still in school, up to two children. Families that live in extreme poverty get a basic benefit of about $40, with no conditions.

    Do these sums seem heartbreakingly small? They are. But a family living in extreme poverty in Brazil doubles its income when it gets the basic benefit. It has long been clear that Bolsa Familia has reduced poverty in Brazil. But research has only recently revealed its role in enabling Brazil to reduce economic inequality.

    It's worth reading. The idea of conditioning the payments on people doing basic right things, like graduating from high school or taking their kids in for medical checkups, is a really nice one.

    A program like this is going to show far more dramatic results in Brazil than it will in America. A country that has really tremendous inequality, with the people at the bottom earning $40 a month, is primed for a given quantity of cash to have a tremendous impact.

    This is one of the reasons that I often like to ask people from other countries like India and Malaysia how one can go about influencing political developments in their homelands. In terms of making the world a better place, the amount of bang for your buck you can get by changing the facts on the ground out there is incredible. I generally approach these things by trying to impact US policy that affects developing countries in favorable ways, because that's the system I know most about and the one where I'm a citizen, and the US government has lots of resources. But in a country with lots of money up top and terrible poverty at the bottom, like Brazil, people who can affect politics so that programs like this are instituted have a wonderful opportunity to do great things.

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    Today in "Shit State Legislators Say": Immigration

    State Rep. John Cauthorn (R-Mexico): "The average guy on the street hates Spanish, and it is everywhere,” Cauthorn said. “To the average guy, that is important. We are almost to the point of losing our identity as a nation.",

    And no, that's not a misprint, there really is a town called "Mexico, Missouri", and the guy who represents it is not a big fan of Mexicans. The census estimate for 2009 puts Audrain county's Latino population at 1.5%, so this is obviously a pressing local concern for him.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Fear Not The Buffer Bloat (Nerd Alert)

    Kevin Drums digs up this blog post from Bob Cringley about "bufferbloat", who alleges that Windows 7, OS X, and other fancy new technologies are going to destroy the Internet by inadvertently causing logjams at various points between, say, your Xbox 360 that streams Netlix content and the actual Netflix content. We're going to take a brief digression from policy and politics to talk a little bit about the fact that yes, Virginia, the Internet is getting faster, and Win7/OSX won't destroy it. This is a long and drawn-out story, but there are two main components to it. 
    1. Web browsing feels slower because web pages today are doing much, much more than web pages as little as five or ten years ago.
    2. The protocols governing the transfer of data across the internet were designed, as Cringley points out, in the mid-1980s. At that point, the Internet was used to send large files over slow networks. Today, most web traffic consists of short files being sent over fast networks. (Streaming video is somewhat different, but we'll set that aside). Modern web browsers and quality websites play tricks to try to compensate for this, but there's only so much they can do.
    The people who build large websites, web browsers, and networks are not idiots, and they're hard at work figuring out how to deal with this. If you really want to get your nerd on, here's a 25-minute presentation by Google's Urs Holzle where he goes through some ideas on how to make things drastically faster simply by altering protocols:

    It's like that Beatles song about things getting better all the time.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Or Maybe Not?

    Kevin Drum thinks that the Udall filibuster tweaks won't mean much: "Finally, there's #5: require honest to goodness Jimmy-Stewart-talk-til-you-drop debate if you want to filibuster a bill. It's not clear just how this would work technically, but in any case it's not really much of an impediment to filibusters. If you have 40 senators willing to join in, each one just reads the phone book for an hour or two and then yields. That's about one hour of phone book reading per week per senator, which is hardly onerous. In fact, it's so obviously non-onerous that I imagine it changes nothing in practice."

    To coin a phrase, it depends on what your definition of change is. A number of bills and nominations have had their final passage/confirmation delayed, despite eventually garnering support far in excess of 60 votes. I find it hard to believe that Mitch McConnell is going to be able to get 40 of his colleagues to waste their time yakking about the perils of appointing Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board, or the tyranny of the Food Safety bill. These bills would likely pass and pass quickly. Yes, large, high-impact pieces of legislation—like health care reform—would still be subject to filibuster-based delay. But more run-of-the-mill stuff would likely hit the President's desk much more quickly, and with fewer brain-dead concessions to the opposition.

    Nonetheless, this is yet another reason why requiring 40 no-on-cloture votes is a good idea (a number of cloture votes failed with the minority having fewer than 40 votes, but several Senators not being present).


    TPM has the deets on Tom Udall (D-NM's) filibuster reform proposal. The punchline:
    • The "motion to proceed"—a vote on whether or not to begin debate on a bill—is no longer subject to filibuster.
    • A ban on anonymous holds.
    • If a cloture vote fails, the filibuster begins immediately. If no one holds the floor, then cloture is invoked automatically.
    • Post-cloture debate on nominees is limited to 2 hours.
    • After cloture is invoked, the minority is given the opportunity to offer three amendments, with one hour of debate per amendment.
    Essentially, the Senate will cease to be a body where individual Senators may tie up some or all Senate business. Slowing down debate will require a minority vocal and passionate enough to keep the filibuster going. Ideas that have been neglected:
    • Shortening or eliminating the time between filing for cloture and the cloture vote (currently 30 hours or so).
    • Forcing the filibustering side to round up 40 "keep filibustering" votes (currently, the majority must round up 60 "stop filibustering" votes). Ignoring this distinction seems like at least a modest problem.
      The obvious bargaining chips here are to allow the minority to offer more amendments in the post-cloture period, and to tweak the burden on the filibustering minority in some direction.

      Exciting stuff!

      Changing Senate Rules Is Not Rocket Science

      Ezra Klein, again: "If a divided Democratic Caucus ends up settling on filibuster reform that doesn't solve any of the actual problems with the filibuster -- that is to say, it neither reduces the time wasted in constant cloture votes (and their associated three-to-four days of waiting around) nor revises the 60-vote threshold that now applies to everything in the Senate -- they will have fought a bitter and brutal battle over the Senate rules for, well, nothing. ... And that complaint will have costs: Many of them, having gone on record against the filibuster, will find it difficult to argue against a future Republican effort to revise the filibuster rules in a more significant wa."

      Rocket science requires many years of advanced math, physics, chemistry, and engineering. Ensuring that the Senate can actually do anything requires getting fifty-one Senators to agree that they're (a) not able to function as a legislative body today, and that (b) something should be done about that. Let's get this show on the road, people.

      Revenue Neutral Higher-Education Reform Probably Isn't Reform

      Goldy at Horse's Ass spots a task force of "civic leaders" who brainstorm some ways to tweak higher ed in Washington State, but which seem to have started from the premise that government spending on education. Thanks to the lack of a state income tax as well as various initiative-driven procedural nonsense that makes it difficult to raise taxes, and bipartisan paranoia when it comes to tax increases, state education funding at the K-12 level has already dropped perilously close to Deep South levels, and state-run college education appears to be the next target. As he points out, most of the proposals don't improve higher ed, they "make it cheaper… and in every sense of the word."

      Some of the reforms may be good ideas, but the political consensus that the size of government is currently at an ideal level eliminates a number of avenues for reform in a wide variety of areas.

      Tuesday, January 4, 2011

      A Brief History of Senate Procedural Reform

      Ezra Klein puts together a timeline of modifications to the filibuster rules. In the 20th century, the ability of the Senate to bring debate to an end has been weakened four times. In a fifth rule change, budget Reconciliation allows for certain Senate functions to be immune from the filibuster. The current rules have been in place since the mid-1970s, the longest such stretch in the last century.

      Julius Erving was a great basketball player in his day, but who knows how he would do in a world with a 3-point line.
      There is no reason to treat the Senate filibuster rule as sacrosanct, as Senators themselves have demonstrated in the past. If we still lived in a world with the rules of 1975, NBA basketball wouldn't have a 3-point line, NCAA basketball wouldn't have a shot clock, the NFL allowed horse collar tackles, helmets were optional in the NHL, the HANS device had yet to be invented to say nothing of made mandatory, etc. Our understanding of the impact that rules have can change; as that happens, so to should the rules themselves change.

      Update/correction: it has been pointed out that Dr. J played several season in the ABA, which adopted a 3-point line in the mid-70s. However the ABA-NBA merger put him pack in a 3-pointless world until the '79-80 season. Clearly I need to know my '70s basketballers better.

      Social Program Expansions In A Silly World

      Is this a reasonable strategy for how Democrats can expand social programs in our times?

      (1) When Republicans are in power and decide they want to pass a bloated and ill-designed domestic program without paying for it, vote with them so it passes. (See: Medicare Part D.)

      (2) When you're in power and you decide that you want to pass a well-designed program that will cost some money while reaping the supposed political benefits of being deficit-neutral, suck some of the money out of the bloated program and use it to pay for your thing. (See: Affordable Care Act.)

      As Ezra points out, Democrats didn't see any big political benefits from the ACA reducing the deficit. Maybe the successors of the defeated Blue Dogs won't care so much about deficit stuff and we won't bother with paying for stuff next time around. But if we have to, is this a reasonable plan?

      The Non-Paradox Of The Unborn

      Ross Douthat, in a post about how some people have abortions and other people try really hard to have babies: "This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed."

      I deal with paradoxes in my day job. I just checked in with them, and they're not at all happy that this lame observation is being counted among their number. Russell's Paradox is beside itself. Don't tell the Liar Paradox, or there could be an explosion.

      Some women really want to have kids now. For them, getting pregnant is awesome, and I'm happy for them if it happens. Other women really don't want to have kids (or more kids) now. For them, getting pregnant would be a bad situation, and I don't want them to have (more) kids. Those who have basic familiarity with the ways of humans will understand how these desires are rational results from different people's life situations and personal aspirations. Once you zoom out a little from the fetus itself and consider the interests of the woman carrying it, things quickly become non-paradoxical.

      Monday, January 3, 2011

      Mitch Daniels and The Rules

      Family Matters may be a convenient excuse, but I can't believe that a pot bust in 1970 and a messy divorce that ended with he and his ex-wife remarrying eight years later would keep him away from a Presidential run. In the Republican primary, the topic would be more or less off limits, and Democrats never went there with John McCain's more blatant philandering and maltreatment of his first wife. The Palin family drama did manage to hit the Freak Show, but their drama was more current and ... um ... dramatic.

      Saturday, January 1, 2011

      Paul Ryan is Merely the Nominal Czar of Spending

      Republicans have decided to use the House rules to codify, once and for all, the fact that controlling the deficit is not very important; reducing spending levels is somewhat important; and shifting the tax burden from the present to the future under the guise of "cutting taxes" is really, really important. In addition, as a sort of threat to committee chairs and appropriations committees, in the event that no agreement on overall spending levels is reached, the chair of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, is empowered to arbitrarily set them. But this is a bit of kabuki. Ignoring Ryan's spending targets is out of order on the House floor, but House Rules can be waived by a simple majority vote. As long as the White House and Senate Democrats recognize this for what it is—hot air—it shouldn't have much impact.