Thursday, June 30, 2011

Going To New Zealand, BRB

Ash cloud permitting, I'm going to be flying down to New Zealand tonight for the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, which is in Dunedin. So there probably won't be much blogging from me until July 9 or so. From July 14-17 (which I guess will be more like the 13-16 in American time zones) I'll be at the Naturalisms in Ethics and Australasian Philosophy of Religion Association conferences in Auckland. There should be time for blogging after that, especially when I'm hanging out in Tasmania. But for the next week-plus, this site will be in the hands of the gentleman at the center of the picture.

If you're interested in my travel schedule for July, I have it here. I travel the United States (mostly east of the Mississippi, but there are some western places too) in the fall, powered by a generous travel grant and a semester of leave. If you're interested in hanging out sometime, let me know!

Debt Ceiling Follies

It's possible that the Greek austerity program is a sufficiently bad thing for Greece that they might've done better to just default. I don't know the situation well enough to say. What I do know is that passing this austerity program was a pretty decisive bit of political action.

I'm thinking about that in light of the debt ceiling situation in America. We're not facing a brutal choice like Greece. Everybody who understands the issues -- supermajorities in both houses of Congress -- knows that not raising the debt ceiling would lead to an unnecessary catastrophe. And yet it's such a difficult thing to do.

You know this already, but the US legislative system is a structural disaster.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Today in Constitutional Trivia

Much has been made of the scorched-Earth tactics of Senate Republicans when it comes to confirming nominees. In addition to the handful of "controversial" current and former nominees you may have heard of (Elizabeth Warren, Craig Becker, Dawn Johnsen, Goodwin Liu, etc.), an even large number of relatively non-controversial nominees have languished for what appears to be no reason other than spite. There's very little that can be done about this, short of bypassing the Senate and making a large number of recess appointments

In the current standoff, Senate Republicans, who are in the minority, have asked House Republicans, in the majority, to refuse to adjourn. But the endgame here actually favors the White House, Jonathan Berenstein points to a Public Citizen article on HuffPo that grabs the relevant bit of the Constitution.
[The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.
(emphasis mine) When one considers that one of the primary grievances against King George was that he had dissolved colonial legislatures, the fact that the President has any power to adjourn the legislative branch for an unspecified length of time is a bit astounding. But in our present circumstances it might come in handy as a way to end disputes over appointments.

... if anyone can work up the gumption to use it. Instead it appears we may just declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional and move on.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Better Than Those Temporary Asexual Monotheist Shindigs

A columnist at wingnut supersite WorldNetDaily writes that the freedoms initiated by the legalization of gay marriage in New York will include "much more than a perpetual pansexual pagan party."

Why is it that Republicans can make the consequences of marriage equality sound so much more awesome than I can?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Medicaid For The Middle Class: A Feature, Not A Bug

There's a big freakout in Washington about a surprising consequence of the Affordable Care Act: Americans making up to $64K could get insurance nearly free under Medicaid! Orrin Hatch says it's unacceptable. Government actuary Richard Foster says it keeps him up at night. HHS spokesman Richard Sorian says that they're trying to figure out what to do about it.

Politicians have done something that benefits the middle class. This is not something to be horrified about! There seems to be some kind of assumption here that government spending is only supposed to be charity for poor, not a way to help everybody. That's a disastrous assumption that nobody interested in advancing human well-being should make. Some services work so that having the government provide them is more efficient. Other services work so that having the government provide them is less efficient. We should be eager to spend government funds on providing services of the former kind, regardless of who's receiving them.

Government-run health care systems are more efficient generally, and Medicaid is no exception. Since Medicaid holds costs down better than private health insurance, it's a step towards getting American health care costs under control. As Paul Krugman says,
since 1970 Medicare costs per beneficiary have risen at an annual rate of 8.8% — but insurance premiums have risen at an annual rate of 9.9%. The rise in Medicare costs is just part of the overall rise in health care spending. And in fact Medicare spending has lagged private spending: if insurance premiums had risen “only” as much as Medicare spending, they’d be 1/3 lower than they are.
And check out the research:
The simulations demonstrate that if people with Medicaid coverage--with their health status, disability, and chronic conditions--were given private coverage, they would cost considerably more than they do today. Conversely, if the privately insured were given Medicaid coverage, spending would be lower.
Putting people into Medicaid is a good thing, and it shouldn't stop. If smart Democratic health care wonks in the bowels of some Congressional office are giggling with glee right now about having gotten this into the legislation, I'll be happy to buy them some booze for a party. Schedule it for after we stop Orrin Hatch and company from undoing the good work.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Man Robs Bank Of $1

In North Carolina, a 59-year-old guy robbed a bank of $1. Then he sat down and waited for the police to arrive. He had a pretty good reason. He needed medical care, and the best place to get it seemed to be jail.

The dude's story basically rolls together all sorts of policy-relevant misfortunes. He lost his job as a Coca-cola deliveryman during the recession (the Fed should support full employment). His new job as a convenience store clerk involved lots of heavy lifting and wasn't good on his joints (don't raise the retirement age for Social Security). He had lots of health problems that he couldn't take care of (poor people need better health care). Anyway, I hope things get better for him.


This is Michael Barrett. He's the new Sergeant Major of the Marines, which makes him the top enlisted man in that branch of the Armed Forces, which makes him the living, breathing personification of the phrase "not fucking around".

And he lived up to that while telling his fellow Marines not to worry to much about Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal.

Without Illegal Immigrants, Crops Rot In The Fields

Via Shaun, it appears that driving illegal immigrants out of Georgia meant the loss of the labor supply just before harvest time. Now the state is trying to fill in the gaps by sending in unemployed criminal probationers.

Monday, June 20, 2011

This or That

Okay, having finally watched some of the "This or That", while the concept of pinning down elected officials is sound, the actual pairs used were pretty hideous.

Senate Elections And Filibuster Reform

This is about six months too late to be prescient or even topical, but I wonder if the failure of Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall's attempts to restrict filibusters was partly an artifact of which Senators were up for re-election when. The beginning of the 2012 session was an inopportune time to pass the legislation, and things will look a lot better a few years from now.

In 2012, the partisan composition of the Senate class up for re-election will be 21D-10R. In 2014, 20D-13R. Even if the electoral climate in these years is neutral, we stand to lose seats. We finally have a serious shot to gain ground in 2016, when it's 10D-24R. So I can imagine a bunch of Democratic Senators sitting around back in January and thinking, "Why should we pass filibuster reform now? If Republicans take the Senate in 2012 or 2014, it'll just be used against us. And anyway we can't actually pass anything with a big GOP majority in the House. So yeah, filibuster reform is a good thing that should happen, but let's wait on it."

If this is right, it was a good thing for Merkley and Udall to at least talk to their Democratic colleagues about filibuster reform after the 2009-2010 Congress while sentiments in favor of it were high, even as the tactical case was at its ebb. Maybe in 2015 or 2017 when the tactical case is huge and sentiment is weaker, they'll be able to remind people how they used to feel in late 2010.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Awesome Brain Research Brought To You By USC, Wake Forest, And Federal Science Funding

Via Matt, this is awesome:
Scientists have designed a brain implant that restored lost memory function and strengthened recall of new information in laboratory rats — a crucial first step in the development of so-called neuroprosthetic devices to repair deficits from dementia, stroke and other brain injuries in humans.

Though still a long way from being tested in humans, the implant demonstrates for the first time that a cognitive function can be improved with a device that mimics the firing patterns of neurons.
I'm excited about this not only because of its implications for "repairing deficits" as the article puts it, but for integrating mechanical devices into the brain more generally. Like giving humans new awesome powers. Or, as Dylan Matthews reminds us, downloading otherworldly sex dreams!

But right now I'd like to focus on something a little more banal. The lead author of the study is Theodore Berger at USC, who worked with a bunch of people there and at Wake Forest. His bio states that "Dr. Berger currently is chairing a world-wide study of brain-computer interfaces that is being funded by multiple agencies of the NSF, NIH, and DoD." And that fact is probably going to be forgotten when private industry starts selling a cure for dementia or a way to surf the internet using a chip in your brain or whatever, and by whatever I mean Remus Lupin and Alyson Hannigan having celebration-sex in Lothlorien after they won it for the good guys. Or, um, whatever you'd download.

But the point is, all that starts with a government-funded study done by a professor. It's an awesome scientific breakthrough! And I don't see why we couldn't pile breakthrough upon breakthrough using the government for funding and academia for talent (plus contract labs for the grunt work, commissioned by a Fed-like body of scientist/technocrats who would decide which projects deserved that kind of investment) to get the silicon all the way into your head. Even if it ended up being a bit slower than the current process, where all the basic research is done by the Theodore Bergers of the world and funded by you and private interests carry the ball the last three yards into the end zone and do a touchdown celebration as they collect billions in profits, that would be worth it for making the intellectual property free to everybody immediately instead of making it cost a fortune until 17 years later or whenever it went off-patent.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vancouver Riot Guy And Riot Grrl Make Out

Weiner Pissing Off Democrats

Nick hypothesizes that Congresswomen were personally upset with Weiner's flagrant sexting, and that could be right. I'd understand if they were also personally upset with his awful handling of the scandal.

People work really hard to keep up the party's image. And then Weiner goes around emailing people cock pics, lying about it, forcing Democrats to defend him, and then revealing that yeah those were his cock pics. This is how to irritate your teammates. Not just so they'll make the cold decision that you're a liability, but to make them mad.

Minor silver lining -- Weiner was pretty bad on Israel/Palestine issues.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Junes 2011 Republican Primary Debate: In Defense of "This or THat'

Apparently a large portion of the debate last night tried to pin the candidates down on their feelings on early '90s hip-hop1:

There was much mockery of "this or that" question framing on my Twitter feed, but I think we need to consider alternatives. It's true that either-or framing tends to oversimplify often complex questions, but given the opportunity to respond freely, most candidates would not offer complex answers; they'd evade, offer campaign brochure platitudes, attack other candidates, and generally ignore the question being asked as best as possible. So while this particular technique may be a crude instrument, trying to box candidates into situations where evasiveness makes them look smarmy is a positive development.

1 This song is now twenty years old. It's as old today as "Me and Bobby McGee" was when this song came out. Think about that for a second.

Counter Counter Counter Conventional Wisdom on Anthony Weiner

I think we need to take seriously the possibility that the female members of the House Democratic leadership, as well as the female members of the rank-and-file, are actually personally upset with the behavior of a certain Congressman from New York City. If any of these photos were unwanted, Weiner would quite clearly have engaged in some form of sexual harassment. Obviously there's political calculus involved in any public official's statements, but we need not eliminate the human element from the equation entirely.

New IMF Head: Christine Lagarde?

Apparently Christine Lagarde is the leading candidate to run the IMF. This makes an obvious sort of political sense -- if a male former leader dishonors your organization by raping, and you have qualified candidates of both genders available, it's nice to pick a woman.

I'm trying to get a sense of what she thinks about monetary policy, but it's hard to see. Two months ago she said that 2% inflation in France isn't alarmingly high, which I guess means she's not insane, but obviously I'd like to see easier money than that. Heike Gobel, translated from German, seems to be saying that "She recommended to Germany to dampen its strength in exports via higher wages" which sounds nice.

I'm pretty sympathetic with the rest of the world's requests to end the system where an American runs the World Bank and a European runs the IMF. There are lots of other countries (and, um, races) out there. The other leading candidate, Mexican Agustin Carstens, fits that bill. I guess what really matters to me is that we get someone who combines technocratic competence with concern for the well-being of people in the lower reaches of the income scale. Someone should ask Esther Duflo and Amartya Sen whom they want. If they agreed on somebody I'd be totally for that person.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Post-NBA Thoughts: LeBron And The Dirkwasher

I'm sure the people who hate LeBron James are enjoying themselves now, and it's their right. In addition to all the leaving-Cleveland stuff, he is kind of dour and annoying, and when he loses I hope the haters get their full measure of enjoyment out of it. This is entertainment, after all.

But looking back at his decision to go to Miami, you'd have to say that it's turning out reasonably well. The Heat won their Eastern playoff series 4-1 each time, beating some formidable teams along the way. With seven more points distributed over two games, they'd be holding trophies now. While Boston, LA, and San Antonio are aging, they're still reasonably young. I'd imagine they'd be anyone's title favorite for next season. I would've liked him more if he had said that and talked up his team instead of just dissing his haters.

Anyway, if you're looking for more interesting NBA commentary today I'd suggest Matt's post on Dirk Nowitzki and immigration. In comments I defend immigration by comparing Dirk to a robot who washes dishes and then to a large number of Mexicans.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Elizabeth Warren, D-MA?

I was intrigued by Ezra's argument that Scott Brown should support Elizabeth Warren's confirmation to get a potential Senate opponent out of the way.

How formidable would she be? I don't know, but if she manages to win the primary, that'll be evidence that she can do the running-for-office thing, which is the big question I'd have about her at this point. Overall, she looks like she'd make a good Senator -- populist heart, technocratic head.

The funny thing is that if Brown follows Ezra's plan, he has to do it either quietly or effectively. If he's publicly supporting her for confirmation and she doesn't get confirmed, his criticisms of her in a general election are going to look silly.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Life In The Big City

Our house was broken into yesterday. We're out a decent amount of electronics; though not everything or even most things, some luggage that was presumably used to carry out the electronics; and a $20 flat iron (no, we don't understand that one either).

Seeing as how nothing of sentimental value was taken, and there was no personal animus expressed by the burglars, in the grand scheme of things the level of personal violation we feel is pretty low. It could have been a lot worse. Saying "it's just stuff" can sometimes trivialize the importance of stuff to one's quality of life, but clearly times like this make you think about which bits of your stuff are truly important, and none of that stuff is gone. We live in a high-crime area by Seattle standards, which has a somewhat high rate of property crime for a large non-Southern city, but an extremely low rate of violent crime. The event doesn't give us a sudden desire to move out of our neighborhood, let alone the whole city, though we will probably be more choosy in terms of the physical security of the house we move into next. Nor is it causing me to rethink of my views on crime control policies, which mostly have to do with devoting more police resources to physical security in urban areas and fewer to the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs.

In the meantime here are some straightforward, low-cost tips that might take a modest amount of work for you this afternoon, but would increase the chances that your stolen goods are recovered (or not stolen in the first place) and the thieves are apprehended. They will also make dealing with police and your insurance company much more pleasant for all involved.
  • Keep a Google spreadsheet with the serial numbers of the major pieces of electronics (and perhaps kitchen equipment) handy. Lester Freamon will know when your stolen goods show up in a pawn shop.
  • Also keep the MAC addresses of any network-capable electronics written down (computers, iPads, video game consoles, IPTV gadgets like the Roku player or Google TV, etc). When you configure your wireless router there is probably somewhere you can see a list of "attached devices" that will tell you these addresses. They look something like this: "6A:02:5F:2E:E8:73".
  • Make sure you have the "Console ID" of your Xbox 360 written down along with the serial number. The console ID is different from the serial number, and can be used by law enforcement and Microsoft to try to track down your console if it ever tries to connect to Xbox Live. Here are instructions from Microsoft on how to find your Xbox 360 console ID. Presumably the PS3 and Wii have similar magic numbers that can be used for tracking purposes; I just don't know where they are.
  • Install Hidden ($15/year; bulk discounts for multiple licenses) on your Mac, which can help the police gather evidence needed to catch the thief, or at least the possessor of stolen goods. If anyone has recommendations for PC equivalents, that would be useful.
  • Make sure your renter's/homeowner's insurance has the lowest deductible you can afford. There are a decent number of policies out there where this burglary wouldn't have hit the deductible.

Abortions for the Underserving, Debt Because of Them

Amanda Marcotte's definitely headed in the right direction as she points out how the deficit has become part of the culture war along side abortion issues. Money quote:
The right wing story is basically that this country is going to hell because people have abandoned traditional values, and now they're fucking in the streets and that the hard-working white man has to pay for all this bad behavior with his tax dollars.
I might even make the case that the connection between the two doesn't need to be quite so direct for the abortion and debt issues to wind up next to each other. The populist story in general is that there are two kinds of people, The Deserving ("us") and The Undeserving ("them"), and that today The System Is Rigged and only we, the The Populist Savior, can make sure that you, virtuous members of The Deserving, can stop the lazy folks in The Undeserving from taking advantage of you. You can plug in any almost any proper nouns to this story and it still works. The main strain of Left-wing populism tends to identify The Undeserving as bankers and large businesses, who are engaging in unfair business practices, labor practices, and insider trading to enrich themselves without actually doing any hard work. Right-wing populism has many strains, but again they tend to keep the common theme that various "others"—overpaid union workers on contract, shiftless welfare recipients, illegal immigrants jumping an imaginary line, etc., academics who want to make energy watching wind turbines spin instead of working the oil fields or the coal mines—aren't working as hard as you and yet they're still getting a good deal. Ta-Nehisi Coates sums this up as the idea that "Somewhere, Someone Black is Getting Away With Something", but really any perceived Democratic interest group will work in a pinch.

So how does right-wing populism manage to make deficits a culture ware issue? Because deficit spending is about who is virtuous and who isn't. And claiming to want low levels of spending, especially on social programs, is a sign of virtue, with the added benefit that it prevents your hard-earned tax dollars from going to The Undeserving (defense spending sends your tax dollars to The Deserving, naturally). You can see the echoes of the virtuous nature of "fiscal conservatism" all over our discourse. During the 2008 debates, Obama attacked McCain's hypocrisy on fiscal issues by referring to the Bush years as an "orgy of spending". "Fiscal profligacy" is the preferred pejorative for deficit spending, and it would surprise me if Frank Luntz told House members to start referring to "fiscal promiscuity". Even the basic "government must tighten its belt the way any household would when the family budget hits hard times" fits into this frame; after all, he's talking about well-run families like yours, not those lazy households who don't bother with this sort of stuff, right? And so we just end up pitting the virtuous against The Undeserving, whether the subject matter is abortion or debt or labor laws or the Pigford settlement or NPR or whatever it is we're supposed to be angry about today.

[1] Last weekend I went to a cousin-in-law's wedding in Spartanburg, South Carolina, population roughly 39,000. I didn't find an Applebee's, but there was a yoga studio and a Thai restaurant in the part of town where we walked around.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Electric Cars Help, Even With Fossil Fuel Electricity

Juan Cole's caveat in a positive post about electric cars: "Of course, driving an electric car only reduces carbon emissions to the extent that the electric plant that recharges its battery is powered by non-fossil fuels, such as hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, wave or solar."

It turns out that electric cars are even better than that. The Union of Concerned Scientists writes that even if battery-electric vehicles "are recharged with electricity from power plants that use fossil fuels, they are up to 99 percent cleaner than conventional vehicles and can cut global warming emissions by as much as 70 percent." Apparently electric cars only produce carbon emissions on par with gasoline cars if you use entirely coal-based electricity to power them. (Coal is really bad, since it's almost entirely carbon. Natural gas has more hydrogen, which burns into water.)

Part of the reason is that car engines are a lot less efficient at turning fuel into motion than power plants. It's one of the trade-offs you'd expect in designing small portable things like cars as opposed to big stationary things like power plants. Power plants can be built to capture every last bit of energy, while cars have to meet a bunch of other design constraints or they won't go.

Friday Cat Blogging

Because today is one of those days I feel like I've been repeating myself for ages and have very little new to say:

Cats on fabric

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Issue Polls Without Partisan Debate Tell Us Nothing

This Pew poll showing majority support for higher taxes and less defense spending has been making the rounds:

But we shouldn't be too excited about these figures, because these issues aren't being exposed to partisan demagoguery at the moment. Before John McCain made a campaign issue out of Obama saying that we should "spread the wealth around", most Republican voters responded favorably to poll questions about redistribution (they were less supportive of the concept than Democratic voters, but still reasonably supportive). Afterward, there was a sharp drop in Republican support for such ideas. Likewise, support for the vague concept of "health care reform" cratered after the Obama administration took up the issue. Undoubtedly, the moment the President said he wanted to raise the Social Security cap, Republican voters would decide it was the worst idea since Hitler invaded Poland.

The best thing you can say about this poll is that tax increases and defense cuts are more popular than other ways out of our budget mess, such as cutting Medicare or education.

Specific Plans In Primaries Make Educated Partisans

Jon Cohn on well-designed policy proposals in primaries: "At this point four years ago, John Edwards and Barack Obama had put out detailed health care plans that had realistic assumptions, vetted by economists and health care experts, and actually looked pretty similar to what eventually became the Affordable Care act. Hillary Clinton would soon do the same. By the time the primary season was over, all three had also put out detailed plans on the economy and foreign policy ...overall I think it reflects well on the Democrats who ran for president then -- and poorly on the Republicans running now."

Yglesias: "I wouldn’t get too nostalgic about Democratic plan-mania. To me, the main consequence of that business was to raise unrealistic expectations and lay the groundwork for unfair backlash when it turned out that in the United States of America laws are written by congress."

Democratic plan-mania deserves Cohn's nostalgia. It wasn't to blame for unrealistic expectations. The fact that laws are written by Congress, as Yglesias says -- and especially the Senate, where Lieberman and Nelson were needed swing votes -- was going to make any plan fall short of initial expectations, primary-era plan-mania or no. If all the candidates just gave us vague generalities in the primary and our first happy encounter with a specific plan was in February 2009, whatever passed a year later would be missing some of our favorite parts of the Feburary 2009 plan (public option) and disfigured in some way (Stupak). And there would be the same disenchantment and backlash.

There's one way in which the detailed plans really helped. Democrats taught themselves about the least intuitive aspect of health care reform -- individual mandates -- during the primary rather than during the legislative fight. Politically, I can see why Obama introduced a plan without a mandate during the primary. Mandates are weird and scare people. But once we'd managed to talk it out amongst ourselves and the pro-mandate side won the argument by explaining adverse selection, it was harder to scare Democrats away from their own proposal by telling them about the mandates.

If primary candidates are willing to lead by introduce policy detail into the conversation -- as Edwards did by introducing a good, detailed plan first, and Obama and Hillary did when they shut up the moderators' lame questions and kept arguing about mandates during the Texas debate -- you'll end up a with more knowledgeable party. I'm generally skeptical about the ability of the election process to really educate voters. But I've seen it once, and that was when the detailed plans of the 2008 primary made it happen. If you want educated partisans, you want an intelligent debate, and hashing out detailed plans is a good way to get that.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Three Page Bills In The Modern World

Herman Cain recently promised Republican primary voters that he wouldn't sign any bill longer than three pages. Jonathan Bernstein points out that this would in practice lead to more power for bureaucrats. My thought is just that this kind of thing shows the inability of the Republican base to understand the modern world.

I like the modern world a lot. It lets me be a philosophy professor and use Wikipedia and not die of cholera. I know that the ability of the modern world to make all this stuff work out depends on a whole bunch of institutions -- publicly subsidized education, telecommunications networks, public sanitation, and a financial system behind it all -- working properly. These are complex institutions, and there are plenty of ways that they could fail. While markets have their place in making sure many institutions operate in a socially beneficial way, there are lots of ways markets could fail, and then we need government to regulate. Properly regulating complicated things that could break down in many ways requires long bills. As Steve Benen writes, "That’s to be expected. We live in an advanced 21st-century superpower, and legislation often deals with complex issues."

I think a lot of ordinary Republicans don't share this basic picture of how the modern world operates. You get Sue Lowden talking about the good old days when you paid your doctor with chickens. There's less appreciation of the importance and complexity of modern institutions, and thus of the importance of government in carefully managing them. Since they don't see the problems that big government with long bills is meant to solve, the whole enterprise looks unnecessary -- and suspicious. It could all be giveaways to interest groups (which does happen a lot). Or death panels for grandma (which doesn't).

Democrats generally agree that government has an importance place in making sure other modern institutions don't fail. That of course requires that government doesn't fail, and we recognize myriad ways in which that could happen. Falling under the control of wealth and prejudice are among the ways to which we're the most sensitized. Keeping the modern world from chewing itself up requires constant vigilance from public-spirited people -- and long bills with complicated solutions to complicated problems.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What To Talk About When There's Nothing To Talk About

A conversation with a friend of mine helped me put a finger on just why it is that DC news coverage has felt like it's had zero redeeming social value of late. The basic problem of the current situation is that nothing is getting done, and nothing probably will get done, until at least the next election, if not longer. But reporters still have to fill the same number of column inches, and the same amount of air time, as they did when the much more energetic 111th Congress was actually trying to pass bills. So we spend about a week talking about the sexting habits of a New York Congressman who's not in the Democratic leadership, just to have something to talk about.

Obviously DC gossip stories were with us before, and they'll always be with us, but at the moment there's no meat-and-potatoes news to counterbalance the stuff that's bad for your health.

In this sort of legislative stalemate, I think it's worth thinking hard about what sort of newsgathering would lead to informative stories. Clearly we're not getting it today.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Why America Subsidizes Brazilian Cotton

Emelie Peine presents an amazing story of American agricultural policy gone horribly wrong.

It starts with the WTO finding that American subsidies to our cotton industry violate trade agreements with Brazil. After America doesn't get rid of the cotton subsidies, Brazil threatens to retaliate by imposing tariffs and -- scariest of all -- pulling out of intellectual property agreements so as to let Brazilian farmers use American seeds from Monsanto and Pioneer without paying for them. It looks like the US government is caught in a bind between two interest groups: they can either drop the cotton subsidies and hurt Big Cotton, or let the agribusiness giants lose their seed profits.

But they thought up a clever solution. They could satisfy trade agreements to Brazil while making all the interest groups happy by just subsidizing Brazilian cotton too! And that's what $147 million of your tax dollars do every year.

(I've spent about 20 minutes trying to get the roll call of the vote on Ron Kind's amendment to eliminate this $147 million expenditure, which was defeated on February 18, 2011. Unfortuately, it's really hard to find information about who voted for and against a failed amendment. It could be this thing, but I don't know.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

In Soviet Russia, Ape Evolves From You

Via Yglesias' twitter feed, Stalin was interested in creating ape/human hybrid warriors:
Moscow archives show that in the mid-1920s Russia's top animal breeding scientist, Ilya Ivanov, was ordered to turn his skills from horse and animal work to the quest for a super-warrior.

According to Moscow newspapers, Stalin told the scientist: "I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat."
...Mr Ivanov's ideas were music to the ears of Soviet planners and in 1926 he was dispatched to West Africa with $200,000 to conduct his first experiment in impregnating chimpanzees.

Meanwhile, a centre for the experiments was set up in Georgia - Stalin's birthplace - for the apes to be raised.

Mr Ivanov's experiments, unsurprisingly from what we now know, were a total failure. He returned to the Soviet Union, only to see experiments in Georgia to use monkey sperm in human volunteers similarly fail.
I hope the human volunteers were actually volunteers. If they found women who wanted to be the mothers of a new ape-human warrior race, those would be some pretty impressive ladies. Given the early USSR's record on human rights, though, I'm worried that it wasn't anything like that.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Old People Vs. Radiation

Impressive utilitarian moral reasoning from these elderly Japanese people. Over 200 older volunteers have offered to help out at the Fukushima power station:
Volunteering to take the place of younger workers at the power station is not brave, Mr Yamada says, but logical. "I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live," he says.

"Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop. Therefore us older ones have less chance of getting cancer."
I hope I'm this awesome when I'm old. (Via)