Feb 29, 2012

Plinkett reviews

Pardon me, I'm just recovering from pounding every review on this section of Red Letter Media, and trying to figure out just why they were so compelling. (I'd recommend watching at least the Phantom Menace review, just to get a taste. Trust me, it's worth it.) They're the first reviews I've ever seen that are in some cases almost as long as the films themselves—but they're so enjoyable I watched the ones even for movies I hadn't even seen before. Anyway, here's my bullet-point list:

1. They're really funny. That's the most obvious good part. The timing, delivery, and visuals are really good, and show some obvious hard work. The dude's wheedling drone was also great. I'm hearing it in my head now reading other people. The joke about how Lucas changed the title of Return of the Jedi (in the Sith review) had me cackling hours later. (The rape jokes, on the other hand, for me went too far in places.)

2. They go through the plot with a fine-toothed comb. I've never seen someone take so much care in explaining just how everything in these prequels makes no sense on the most basic logical level. I've been chipping away at a novel, and it gives me a good sense of how you would go through to tighten up the plot and make sure everything fits together.

3. They're great criticism. I thought at first that they would just be funny takedowns, but they actually reveal serious love of film and of the original series. They explain really clearly why the original films work so well. Obviously the first Star Wars weren't super-great art, but they clearly got something right. As a hyper-literal science guy, good, clear art criticism that I can understand is rare. As Keith Humphreys said the other day when talking about the usual art critics:
Perhaps I am too “low church”, but when I read art critics, I usually think three things: 
1) I have doctoral level education, and I can barely understand what you are saying
2) I suspect that you are writing more about yourself than the artist in question
3) You are making it harder rather than easier for people to get something out of the experience of art

Many people are intimidated by art and thus shy away from it. Jargon laden art criticism makes this problem more rather than less acute, and that makes me mad both on my own behalf and on behalf of other people who miss out on the richness of art because high-end criticism makes it seem over their head. In contrast, although it probably gets derided as mere “art appreciation class” instead of serious criticism, I am quite grateful when an expert relates plain-spoken observations about a painting that help me understand it better.
Good stuff.

Feb 26, 2012

Sunday chemistry blogging

Got a cold, and can't be bothered to jump through the increasingly obnoxious hoops to get some cold medicine? Witness this awesome paper from, apparently, the Journal of Apocryphal Chemistry:
A novel and straightforward synthesis of pseudoephidrine from readily available N-methylamphetamine is presented. This practical synthesis is expected to be a disruptive technology replacing the need to find an open pharmacy.
Nice to know that good old American spirit of innovation is still alive and well.

How Nelson Mandela helped create South Africa's unemployment crisis

In case you didn't know, unemployment in South Africa is spectacularly high: about 24 percent at last measure. This is no fluke, either; it's been at least that high pretty much since the end of apartheid:

Obviously I'm no economist, but I've been trying to come up with a lay story about why this is. Here are my picks for proximate explanations:
1. The education system is atrocious in many places. And I mean atrocious, as in teachers don't set foot in the classroom and Grade 12 kids can neither read nor write nor multiply simple numbers in their heads. Though there are many top-notch schools in South Africa, mostly in the cities, in rural areas there are a lot more awful ones. This is surely behind the persistent demand for high-skilled people in government and business while millions sit idle—the unemployment rate is highly correlated with educational attainment. This raises the question, though, of why nobody sets up China-style sweatshops to take advantage of all that cheap labor. 
2. Minimum wage laws set rates too high and are too strict. Turns out unskilled labor isn't that cheap in South Africa. Take a look at this NYT piece to see how this could work. Basically, if workers can't generate enough revenue for a company to justify their wages, then they won't have jobs. Set the minimum wage too high, and this effect will start to bite.
I should note that I agree with Jared Bernstein that this argument doesn't hold at all for the US situation. Econ 101 says that a tiny increase in the minimum wage should result in immediate unemployment, which does not seem to be true. But the principle does make some sense: if we jacked up the minimum wage to an absurd rate, say $20-$30 per hour, we would surely see a lot more unemployment. (Also, there are some enormous loopholes in the US minimum wage laws in the form of internships and food service exemptions.)
3. Labor unions are too strong. This is strongly related to both the previous factors. In South Africa, increased wage demands are so common there is a "strike season." I hadn't been paying attention to this for some time, but sure enough, I consult Google, there's a violent mine worker strike going on right now near Rustenburg. Wages have been increasing far faster than productivity for years. In addition to pricing people out of jobs, that's a recipe for inflation, and it looks like a serious wage-price spiral in 2008 (with an inflation spike to nearly 14 percent) was halted only by the financial crisis.
When I lived in South Africa, I was often struck by a strong current of naked, corrosive greediness in society. During a public sector strike, teacher would describe their interests in utterly self-serving terms. The interests of the students, who were in this case put out of school for five weeks, did not enter into the conversation.*
These factors** raise the ultimate question: why doesn't someone in government change these things? The simple answer is the African National Congress (ANC), which has won every election since 1994 with over 60 percent of the vote, doesn't want to. Labor unions, especially the public sector ones, are a key base of support for the ANC, and are obviously behind the incessant strikes and high wages. From the 2010 Times piece:
Eight months ago, Mr. Zuma proposed a wage subsidy to encourage the hiring of young, inexperienced workers. But it ran into vociferous opposition from Cosatu, the two-million-member trade union federation that is part of the governing alliance, which contended that it would displace established workers. The plan has stalled.
Teacher's unions also fight accountability and standards hammer and tong, which partially accounts for the rot described in #1.

In other words, the unemployment problem is essentially political.

Mandela is responsible for this in that he governed as, and remains, an ANC partisan. He thereby lent his enormous (and, to be sure, well earned) moral credibility to the ANC and thus guaranteed them smashing electoral success. Something similar to this happened in most African countries as they shook off the colonialist yoke, and there were similar, though much more severe, problems. Outside of East Asia at least, single-party states are doomed to failure and stagnation. As this more recent piece on crime in South African slums put it:
The frail, 92-year-old Mandela may remain the most beloved and respected man on the planet, but during its years in power, the organization he championed, the African National Congress, has become, in the words of the historian Martin Meredith, “just another grubby political party on the make.”
None of the above, of course, should diminish Mandela's stunning accomplishments in the struggle against apartheid. He is a great man, and one of the great moral leaders of our time. But even he was not enough to inoculate South Africa against pervasive political dysfunction.

UPDATE: I should clarify that this explanation is about the lowest-hanging fruit. If South Africa managed to take care of my pet problems, undoubtedly unemployment would fall some and then hit a probably much more intractable barrier caused by lingering damage from Apartheid and hysteresis.

*It would be easy to look at this argument and conclude I'm some kind of right-winger, which is not the case. I believe good economic outcomes, other things equal, come about when power is more-or-less equally distributed throughout the economy, when neither labor nor capital is running roughshod over the other. Give one group free reign, and bad things happen, as we see in the US with the plutocrats trampling everyone.

**Here are some explanations I don't find convincing.

1. Too much government support in the form of pensions, child credits, etc. These may have some other effects, but there are lots of people willing to work who can't find jobs. The pool of unemployed would have to be vastly smaller before this would be a primary cause.

2. Too much inequality. This one doesn't make sense to me either. Brazil is hugely unequal and hit less than 5 percent unemployment recently.

In case of low blood pressure emergency

Via Atrios, witness the abject, soulless NIMBYism from the well-fed aristocrats on the Upper East Side:
They are fears normally associated with the less-charming realities of urban life, like a homeless shelter or a late-night dive bar. But in this case, they are focused on something quite different: new entrances to a subway station.

Some New Yorkers can only dream of having a subway train ferry them straight to their front door, but residents of East 69th Street say the entrances have no place on what they believe to be one of the prettiest streets around.
That kind of entitlement has to create its own weather.

Feb 24, 2012

I'm with Rand Paul on this one

This law looks to be totally bogus. Even if we grant that enforcing laws is all well and good, those who may have committed a crime deserve a speedy trial. You know, I think I read that somewhere.

Collected links

1. A strain of MRSA has been definitely tied to pig farming. The question of "which gift from God have we squandered most outrageously?" has some stiff competition, but tossing away antibiotics, surely one of the greatest discoveries in history, so we can eat slightly cheaper meat for a few decades at most takes the crown for me. Tossing pearls before swine, you might say.

2. The new Romer & Romer paper on marginal tax rate incentive effects.

3. Ferociously critical look at Steve Jobs. The shine is definitely coming off the old Jobs mystique.

4. The fall of Scott Ritter.

5. John Sullivan on DFW and his last book, The Pale King.

Feb 23, 2012

Good writing

I really enjoyed this Men's Journal piece on the rise of bodybuilding I linked earlier. It's written in a kind of goofy, exaggerated, hyper-manly style that fits the subject perfectly:

"Robby Robinson, a wedge of black marble, arrived in Venice Beach in 1975 with one oversize suitcase and seven dollars."

"Wherever Arnold went, his Rat Pack followed; he rolled eight-deep, even to breakfast."

"No one had to hunt and peck for a source, either: Mexico’s farmacias were two hours south, every shelf stocked with prime gear."

Well done.

Economics and climate

Noah Smith has a great post laying out a kind of bird's eye view of macroeconomic models. Here are two pulls; first, a look at the simplifying assumptions behind the first iteration of the most common macroeconomic model:
1. The assumption that the economy can be modeled with a representative agent; in other words, that the macroeconomy behaves as if there's only one person in it.

2. The assumption that government doesn't exist, or exists only to transfer income from one person to another.

3. The assumption that prices are fully flexible.

4. The assumption that firms are simple profit-maximizers and make zero profits in equilibrium.

5. The assumption that individuals have rational expectations.

6. The assumption that risk preferences can be entirely modeled using people's utility of consumption, and that this utility can be modeled using a small number of parameters that do not change over time.

7. The assumption that labor markets clear.

8. The assumption that "technology" is represented by the Solow residual, and that technology is exogenous and evolves according to a simple time-series process (for example, an AR(1)).

9. The assumption that the business cycles we observe represent small enough fluctuations that the model that describes them can be linearized around its steady state.
Second, a list of the things which the latest version of this model doesn't include:
Fast-forward to 2007, and have a look at the Smets-Wouters model of the business cycle. This "New Keynesian" model is currently considered the "best" DSGE model in terms of forecasting performance. Which is to say, it performs ever so slightly better than the judgment-based forecasts of well-informed individuals. Consequently, some variant of the Smets-Wouters model is used by most central banks as their DSGE model of choice (which they use as a complement to other types of models, such as SVARs, reduced-form models, and judgment-based forecasts). Of course, the fact that Smets-Wouters is the "best" DSGE model does not mean it is very "good." Its forecasts are basically useless more than one quarter into the future...

And yet, despite being so complex, and despite making heroic assumptions about the "structural-ness" of certain parameters, and despite being 25 years in the making, the Smets-Wouters model does not come even close to capturing all of the "frictions" that people believe are at work in the macroeconomy. It does not include the financial frictions that many people believe caused the 2008 financial crisis. It does not include behavioral effects like habit formation, hyperbolic discounting, etc. It does not include learning. It does not include limited enforcement of debt contracts. It does not include hysteresis in labor markets. It does not include income or wealth heterogeneity among households or firms. And this is not even close to an exhaustive list of the relevant things that it doesn't include. To include all those things in one model is prohibitively difficult with current technology; the state space of the model explodes, and you would need a supercomputer to solve it if it could be solved at all.
I thought of climate modeling when I read this post. Both climate and the macroeconomy are clearly chaotic systems, in that they are impossible to rigorously predict on a short-term basis. One can no more predict the exact number of people that will be hired in New York City in August 2014 than one can predict exactly how much rain Portland, Oregon will get in the same month. But chaotic systems, though they are noisy, have some deep structure:

The climatologists seem to have it basically figured out. They've got models which, while pretty damn complicated, give reasonably accurate descriptions throughout many time periods for overall climate behavior. Economics is clearly missing that qualitative accuracy.

So what's the problem? Is the macroeconomy fundamentally more complicated than climate? Or are agents just tougher to include than carbon dioxide molecules? Or are we starting from bad premises? Further study is required.

Xhosa is hard to say

Over at The The Crux, Julie Sedivy has an interesting breakdown of how clicks are used in both African languages and English:
If clicks do sound like exotic noises to you, it might surprise you to know that there’s nothing especially difficult about making click sounds in speech—they’re easily mastered by toddlers who still struggle making truly difficult sounds like s and z. And it might really surprise you to learn, as found in a recent study by Melissa Wright at Birmingham City University, that as an English speaker, you likely riddle your own speech with click sounds, using them much more frequently and systematically than just the occasional “tsk” of disapproval. If that’s so, why on earth do the African clicks sound so strange to English speakers, to the point of being un-language-like?
It's a good post, and that might be an easy thing for toddlers to learn, but as a grown adult, it is devilishly tricky to master even the three basic click sounds in Zulu and Xhosa. Especially the "q" sound, which involves popping your tongue off the roof of your mouth. During a vacation in Eastern Cape once, it took me hours of practice to just be able to make the noise right, let alone stick it in a word with anything approaching accuracy.

Collected links

1. Big NYT piece on Iran and war. Much better than the last go-round.

2. The rise of muscle culture.

3. Mark Kleiman has a basically reasonable piece on Mexico and the drug war.

4. Matt Yglesias' new book is coming out March 6th. Reserve your automatically delivered e-copy now, only $4!

5. Conor Friedersdorf has a magnificent piece on beer in his life. Utterly wonderful.

Feb 22, 2012

Everyone hates Utah

Kevin Drum has a crazy chart looking at the favorability ratings of each state:

Coincidentally, Colorado (where I lived from age nine) is the fifth-most popular state, while Utah (where I was born and lived until age nine) is the fifth-least popular state. This is nuts, in my view. Sure, Utah has more than its fair share of crazies, but that's more than balanced out by its superior scenery and generally high-quality governance.

Parfit on the morality of abortion

Karl Smith complains that the discourse around the morality of abortion lacks philosophical rigor:
Abortion seems to me to be a particularly poor example of a lack of moral resolution. From listening to the discourse from almost every corner its clear that bordering on no one takes the issue seriously and is primarily just posturing.
I have heard no mention of whether or not fetuses or infants for that matter are p-zombies and if so would that matter. I have heard no serious treatment of the difference between the duty to prevent miscarriages and the duty to prevent abortion. I have heard no mention of whether or not all potential existing persons have moral relevance. I have heard no mention of wrongful life. These are trivially basic issues underpinning all this, yet the conversation does not even try to address them. Not fail. Not wave away. They simply don’t try.
Now, it seems here Smith is talking about the mainstream conversation, not academic philosophy, but since I've been plowing through Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons (on the recommendation of Tyler Cowen and Yglesias), I feel like hoisting a bit out of that book. It's from the section dealing with personal identity. Here "Reductionist" refers to a view saying that identity of a person is reducible to certain physical and psychological facts, which has the implication that personal identity is fluid. I may be just as much a different person compared to a nearby friend as compared to my younger self. "Non-Reductionist" means rejecting that view. (I'm probably bungling it a little, but that's pretty close.)
On the Non-Reductionist view, since my existence is all-or-nothing, there must have been a moment when I started to exist. As in my imagined Spectra, there must be a sharp borderline. It is implausible to claim that this borderline is birth; nor can any line be plausibly drawn during pregnancy. We may thus be led to the view that I started to exist at the moment of conception. We may claim that this is the moment when my life began. And, on the Non-Reductionist View, it is a deep truth that all the parts of my life are equally parts of my life. I was as much me even when my life had only just started. Killing me at this time is, straightforwardly, killing an innocent person. If this is what we believe, we shall plausibly claim that abortion is morally wrong.
On the Reductionist view, we do not believe that every moment I either do or don't exist. We can now deny that a fertilized ovum is a person or a human being. This is like the plausible denial that an acorn is an oak-tree. Given the right conditions, an acorn slowly becomes an oak-tree. This transition takes time, and is a matter of degree. There is no sharp borderline. We should claim the same about person, and human beings. We can then plausibly take a different view about the morality of abortion. We can believe that there is nothing wrong in an early abortion, but that it would be seriously wrong to abort a child near the end of the pregnancy. Such a child, if unwanted, should be born and adopted. The cases in between we can treat as matters of degree. The fertilized ovum is not a first, but slowly becomes, a human being, and a person. In the same way, the destruction of this organism is not at first but slowly becomes seriously wrong.
[Quick note here that late-term abortions are almost always for medical reasons.]

I think most liberals, seeing that argument, would probably accept it, but the underlying architecture is a bit more difficult to accept. One of Parfit's famous thought experiments involves a tele-transportation device, which destroys my body in one location and constructs an exact replica somewhere else. On Parfit's view of Reductionism, the question as to whether or not I survive this experience is empty, or devoid of meaningful information. He thinks also that the survival of my Replica is about as good as ordinary survival; or, stated differently, ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed in one place and rebuilt in another.

That's a tricky thing to believe, but he has about convinced me. (There are, as you might imagine, a lot more to these arguments.) It's a good book, though dense. I've had to stop a couple times and chow through a quick Terry Pratchett just for a breather.

Feb 21, 2012

Pointless accumulation

Steve Randy Waldman brings us an equation, with a graph and some comments:
An increase in unit labor costs can mean one of two things. It can reflect an increase in the price level — inflation — or it can reflect an increase in labor’s share of output. The Federal Reserve is properly in the business of restraining the price level. It has no business whatsoever tilting the scales in the division of income between labor and capital.

Yet throughout the Great Moderation, increases in unit labor costs were the standard alarm bell cited by Fed policy makers as an event that would call for more restrictive policy. And all through the Great Moderation, except for a brief surge during the tech boom, labor’s share of output was in secular decline. (More recently, the Great Recession has been accompanied by a stunning collapse in labor share. Record corporate profits!)

In case it's not clear, the graph is showing labor's share of total economic output. Steve goes on to make the point that if the Fed uses rising labor costs as a proxy for dangerous inflation, and tightens fast at the faintest whiff of such an increase, while doing nothing if the opposite happens, you will tend to see a secular decline in labor compared to capital.

Meanwhile, Karl Smith brings a similar graph, this time of the price markup over unit labor costs:

One more related fact: Apple has accumulated a staggering hoard of $100 billion, and it's increasingly clear the firm's management isn't going to give it back in the from of dividends or stock buy-backs. Instead they look like they'll invest it in other things, which means either accumulating even more money or squandering it on some boondoggle.

This discussion gets rapidly technical, but on a basic level, here's the picture I'm forming in my head. Roughly speaking, capital has thoroughly beaten labor in the last 30 years, and has used the increased leverage to direct large and increasing profits to owners and managers. Because the small cadre of very rich couldn't possibly spend all this money, it resulted in a global savings glut, which in turn sparked huge demand for AAA-rated investments and thus a large part of the 2008 meltdown. Since then, the Lesser Depression walloped labor again, even harder, and now that the economy seems to be picking up, pointless accumulation seems to be accelerating again.

The decreasing leverage of labor is certainly partially caused by globalization, but as Steve notes in his comments:
I don’t know the magnitudes. I don’t think anyone does, and attempts to estimate would be very contestable. Globalization, communications, and cheap transport have certainly created “real” headwinds for labor bargaining power. Labor is not as scarce a factor as it once was. But then, for much of the decade preceding 2008, we had a “global savings glut”. In the US, capital was not at all a scarce factor, Wall Street was cheating to invent means of deploying it. That should would have militated towards to an increase in labor share, but we certainly didn’t see that.
The main point in favor of trying to increase labor share, and thus restrain corporate profits, would be to prevent this pointless accumulation. Worldwide, vast hoards of money are inherently unstable, and that money would be less dangerous placed in as many hands as possible.

UPDATE: Here's Karl Smith's version. It's actually surprisingly similar, though I suspect Smith would not be too sympathetic to my more power-based version:
Labor’s share began a secular collapse sometime in the 1990s, leading to a large run-up in loanable funds. That run up put large downward pressure on the natural rate of interest. This was offset for a time by finding ways of expanding the pool of credit worthy borrowers through financial innovation. Once a major set of those methods was revealed to be untenable [RLC: as in, financial apocalypse] the natural rate of interest collapsed not only below the Funds rate but well below zero. The large gap between between the natural rate and the Funds rate put large downward pressure on aggregate labor demand resulting in the Great Recession.
To have cleared the labor market with the pool of borrowers available in 2009, real wages would have had to make up for over a decades worth of missed decline. This was exacerbated by the fact that falling nominal wage disbursements (whether from pay cuts or layoffs) further depress the pool of eligible borrowers by raising real debt levels, requiring even further falls in the real wage.
On the strict economics, that seems reasonable. Just why "labor's share" collapsed is the next question, and that's where Smith has some fairly wild theories.

Big-time bloggers have fathers too

Yglesias pulls one of my old tricks: outsourcing a post to the old man!
I swore I was going to hang up. What I had done so far was foolish, but romantic. This was merely stupid. I barely recognized the voice that gave them my credit card number for three seats $230 each. I expected my sons to have me committed in order to save what was left of their inheritance.
Good stuff. It even kind of sounds like my dad. Rafael Yglesias, I should note, is actually a very successful novelist in his own right.

Collected links

1. Science has spoken: the rich really are more morally depraved.

2. Chunks of virus DNA has been found in critical human genes.

3. Physics have built a "single atom transistor." Not quite as miraculous as that headline sounds, but still cool.

4. Christina Romer's favorite books.

5. Obama's idiotic, and inexplicable, hard turn against medical marijuana. WTF, man?

Feb 20, 2012

Speaking of God

Here's Daniel Larison making a fairly obvious riposte against Rick Santorum's vicious swaggering:
Santorum has defended his statement in terms of affirming a Biblical understanding of man’s role as a steward of creation, but if we took this later remark at face value we would have to say that Santorum doesn’t understand the concept of stewardship very well. After all, the purpose of Christian stewardship isn’t simply to serve human needs (much less desires), but to preside over the natural world as God’s viceregents and to rule it in a manner pleasing to God, all of which is directed towards giving God glory and thanksgiving for the blessings He has bestowed upon us. We are to see creation as something entrusted to us by God, and as something that we are responsible for preserving and keeping as part of our obedience to Him. That necessarily involves limiting and restraining our desires so as not to exhaust or waste what has been entrusted to us. Viewed that way, we are here to care for the earth and for one another, and in so doing serve the Creator Who made both.
This seems uncontroversial from a Christian perspective.

Listening to the King James

So far I'm nearly done with Exodus, and it is by turns tedious and astonishingly beautiful. (Well performed by Alexander Scourby, I should add.) The verse that has thus far stuck in my mind the most is from Genesis 41: 47. It's when Joseph is in Egypt and running the Pharaoh's business. Pharaoh has a dream which Joseph interprets as seven years of good harvests followed by seven years of famine. Here's how the KJV describes the good years:
And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls.
Isn't that something? Compare that to the New Living Translation:
As predicted, for seven years the land produced bumper crops.
It's as written by an accountant. Blah.

Feb 16, 2012

The morality of content

Kevin Drum has a provocative thought:
I am, as always, speaking only for myself, but I think this is too cramped. The Constitution says that the purpose of patents and copyright is to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts," but the fact that the Constitution says this doesn't mean it's the only reason to grant patents and copyrights. There's another reason too: because creators have a moral right to profit from their works. In real life, pretty much everyone acts as if they believe this, and I suspect that for most of us it's the real underpinning of our support for IP law.
I don't think this works, though as a broke-ass writer I would much like it to be true. The act of writing, or making music, or whatever, is not an intrinsically worthy undertaking. Suppose I write some book and put it in a cabinet in my basement. Do I deserve to profit from that, simply from the act of creating it? If Hitler yet lived would he have a moral claim to monopoly rents from Mein Kampf? Does everyone who borrows a book from a friend, or checks one out from the library, have a moral obligation to pay the author? This is absurd.

I do think, however, that some moral principle might be salvaged. The readers are what is missing from the equation. No one deserves to profit from something that is not read. Here's a try: anyone who consumes some content, and likes it, has a moral obligation to compensate the creator in some way. This is to say that abject illegal downloading is morally wrong. It could take several forms, including just passing the word that it was a great work and you enjoyed it, especially if you are famous yourself. Publicity, especially for relative unknowns, is often more valuable to the creator than cash.

Can anyone come up with a better principle?

Feb 15, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the unbearable whiteness of journalism

Here's the great man riffing off the latest racism directed at Jeremy Lin (people claiming he only gets attention because he's of Asian descent):
I would bet that part of the attention that Neil Degresse Tyson gets has to do with people geeking out on a black astrophysicist who can make science interesting. If were not black he probably would be somewhat less interesting. But if he weren't a good communicator, he would not be interesting at all.
I consider myself a writer of some merit and talent, who says some interesting things from time to time. That's all very nice. But I understand that if I were in my exact same job, and happened to be just another white dude from an Ivy, I'd attract less interest. Race, as lived by individuals, is biography and people are always interested in biography when it differs from the norm in any field. I have no idea why it should be any different with Lin.
Coates is right on this score, and his forthrightness is as always impressive. I always think about this sort of thing in the context of journalism, which is (as Coates has said before) surely one of the white-malest professions out there. At the Monthly, all of the editorial staff are white men (save the new intern, who is a Chinese woman, and an amazingly good fact-checker, I might add). Of the Atlantic bloggers, seven out of nine are white men. Now, I should note that I don't think there is much in the way of conscious racism on the part of most publications in journalism, certainly not on the part of the Monthly. But something has developed which has fenced out most minorities and women in some way.

That is bad for a lot of reasons, most of them well-trodden. But one which comes up unbidden in my own mind is selfish irritation about being lost in the crowd. No wonder I can't get a job—I'm just another mid-twenties balding white guy in a profession (and city) that has them like a plague of locusts. But I really do have an interesting background, pleads the whining child in my head. I didn't go to an Ivy school! I grew up working-class, in an absurdly small town in an interesting and beautiful state! My parents met in Grand Canyon! My dad builds awesome tables out of stone! I lived in South Africa for two years!

It's hard to imagine anything more preposterous than a decently accommodated white man whinging about his lot. And yet, I have these thoughts. No point pretending I don't, except to make like I'm better than I really am. What interests me is that this is just one more example of the harm that oppression inevitably inflicts upon its perpetrators as well as its victims, how it erases our personhood into the various categories. In that video above, it's telling that Folds' parody band is composed of a bunch of copies of himself.

Today in appalling moralizing

Witness Vanessa Rossi, at a New York Times roundup:
Portugal has failed to cut its external deficit for a different reason: it has had virtually no internal devaluation. Nominal G.D.P. remains at its 2008 peak. The nation has export capability (over 30 percent of G.D.P.), but it must do more to boost net trade. Portugal may actually be a country that would find adjustment a whole lot easier if it could have a little more wiggle room on its exchange rate.
The failure of internal devaluation can only reflect on the moral weakness of the Portuguese, never on the policy itself.
By comparison, Ireland may be struggling with the sudden appearance of bank bailout debt, but early fiscal austerity coupled with internal devaluation were effective in stimulating net exports and eliminating its boom-time current account deficit. And export-led growth will at least help to stabilize the Irish economy and improve a budget position now saddled with debt servicing costs.
Ah yes, the great Irish success of austerity. How's that going again?

Ireland Export Adviser Warns of Weak Growth:
The economic adviser to the Irish Exporters Association—representing small and large exporting firms—warned Wednesday that Ireland's economic outlook has worsened significantly as the economy will, at best, not grow at all this year.
The best sentence is at the end, though: "Debt restructuring alone is insufficient and may even encourage a return to laxity." Oh, the dreaded laxity. Where would we be without elites to castigate the moral failings of the masses?

Feb 14, 2012

How the Bahrain Spring was crushed

The Monthly has a special sneak preview of the new issue with a long piece on Bahrain. The thing was a beast of a fact-check, but it's a really interesting and a great read. Take a look.

Feb 13, 2012

Longform depreciation

Matt Yglesias on the immortal digital back catalog:
The existence of this deep back catalog is great for readers, but not necessarily as rewarding for the forward-looking production of longform pieces. Each day—each hour, even—all previous "newsy" items become obsolete and the demand for new newsy items is robust. But the existing stock of well-hewn blocks of substantial prose is already very large and it no longer depreciates the way it did in print.
His point is well-taken, but it seems to me it would be a rare piece indeed that would last more than a couple years. Novels have a much longer shelf life, and that never stopped the frantic production of new ones, even back in the pre-digital days of yore. Now, I grant that large collections of great longform stuff might have a substantial draw in the aggregate, but I still suspect the large majority of that kind of content will be topical and quickly forgotten, and the back catalogs will be of most interest to the curious few and historians.

Biggish news

So, I've finally got a job, sort of! Last week was the end of work for the old business manager at the Washington Monthly, so I've been asked to step in and pinch hit until they hire someone permanently.

The big question now is if I should apply for the real thing. On the one hand, it is a lot of administrative busywork—don't get me wrong, I don't mind that kind of work, I just wonder a bit if I would be sidetracking my career. On the other hand, I really need money. On the third hand, I do think it's important, particularly as the media landscape is shifting beneath our feet, for up-and-comers to be familiar with the nuts-and-bolts of how journalistic outfits make their money. Plus I feel like the Monthly is due for a big overhaul in their business model; I would be very interested in doing something like that. On the fourth hand, I know and like everyone here, and even if I were just doing admin stuff, I'd still be in journalism and in a perfect place to pitch stories and the like.

I suppose I'm leaning toward apply. Any advice out there?

Collected links

1. Awesome old-timey photos of celebrities.

2. A good case for 2011 as Obama's worst year so far.

3. A middle aged man enthusiastically endorses the use of Ecstasy.

4. The latest from Taibbi.

5. Gay marriage's top foe.

Feb 10, 2012

Contraception? Really, GOP?

This never ends. The GOP has managed to whip their base into a frenzy over contraception:
But more than the other rallying points, the battle over contraceptive coverage at religiously affiliated institutions has bound together Republicans of all stripes because it hits core GOP themes: religious liberty, government intrusion and reproduction politics. Perhaps more important politically, it has given Republicans something to talk about other than the economy, just when Obama’s gotten a lift from modest gains.

The power of the issue with conservatives was on display on the first day of CPAC, where the contraception regulation was the dominant topic — virtually every speaker tried to fire up the audience talking about it.
Kevin Drum is righteously pissed:
My position on this is plain: the church hierarchy's objection to birth control is medieval and barbaric. All those Catholic pundits raising hell over the new contraception regs should spend their time instead raising hell with their own church over a policy that's caused incalculable pain and misery for millions of women around the globe. Instead, they're all claiming that although they don't have any problem with contraception, they think the government should be more sensitive toward those who do. But it turns out there's practically no one who does. They're all pointing their fingers toward a group of people that barely exists
Adam Serwer provides some background:
The unacknowledged background to this fight is that, as my colleague Nick Baumann reported earlier this week, federal law has required employers to offer health insurance for more than a decade—which is why DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in America, already offers birth control coverage to its employees. Far from being an unprecedented "assault on religious freedom," the narrow religious exception here has ample legal precedent. As Michelle Goldberg has written, contraception mandates are in effect in 28 states in various forms, and the courts have ruled against challenges brought to those state laws. And in a 1990 opinion,Justice Antonin Scalia found that laws "neutral toward religion and generally applicable" don't hamper inviduals' constitutional rights, so the administration seems to be on firm legal ground.
The mind reels.

Feb 9, 2012

New York City books bleg

Some time ago I finished The Power Broker, on the recommendation of Kevin Drum, and I think I agree that it's the best nonfiction book I've ever read. So good that I'm still mulling over the lessons therein, and trying to think up a good post on it.

But it left me wondering. At the end of the book New York is nearly a smoking ruin. Yet I lived there for a time in 2008-2009 and it was actually quite pleasant. Well governed, at least by US standards.
So does anyone know of a good book that could bring me up to present day, and tell me how on Earth they manage to salvage the place? I would be most grateful.

Washington passes marriage equality

Huzzah! And, for once, a Republican is on the right side of this one:

Feb 6, 2012

A table for the ages

Pops says this is maybe his greatest creation yet. I'm inclined to believe him, and that's saying a lot. I won't tell you exactly how it started, but in brief, about 25 years ago my dad bought a slab of sandstone about the size of a sheet of plywood. He put it up on a wood frame, and there it sat, including a move from Utah to Colorado, until a couple months ago when my mom threatened to finally buy a new table or else. The story of how he got it polished is itself quite the yarn—I'll see if I can get him to write it up for you sometime. (In case you don't know, cutting and polishing sandstone is incredibly hard, more difficult than granite.)

But here's how it looked after the polisher got through with it:

While I was home for Christmas, I helped him move it around with the tractor so we could get the bottom set up to attach the legs and frame, which my dad welded up himself:

Unfortunately the bottom of the rock wasn't terribly flat, so we had to grind off some high spots to get the steel to lie flush (or close to flush):

Here are the legs, ready to be welded together:

Here's my dad taking the sharp edge off with some sandpaper:

Then we put about a gazillion coats of finish on the sucker:

Unfortunately I left before it was finished, but here's the boys helping my dad move the slab down to the house (from my dad's shop, where he was working on it):

Here you can see my dad's custom legs and frame:

The finished product:


Eurodoom update

I've said this before, but things look to be coming to a head in Greece. Felix Salmon explains:
This isn’t good; the Greece talks have now moved past their clear deadline and have reached the finger-pointing stage. The broad outline of the dynamics here is now very clear: you need three different parties to agree on a deal for the whole thing to have a chance of success. Private-sector bondholders need to agree to a very deep cut in the value of their bonds; the Greek government needs to agree to enormous spending cuts over and above the 1.5% of GDP that they’ve already offered; and the Troika of the EU, ECB, and IMF needs to agree to pony up extra bailout money to cover the larger-than-expected deficits that Greece is running.
His conclusion:
If the Troika fails to save Greece, the past 66 years of ever-increasing European unity will come to a sudden and drastic halt, and all eyes will turn to Portugal, asking if it will be next. (The Europeans will say no, and indeed already the ECB seems to be pre-emptively shoring up Portuguese bond prices; the bond markets will say yes.) There will also be a second sovereign default, sooner rather than later, in Cyprus, and at that point the European and international communities will have essentially no credibility in terms of its ability to prevent dominoes from falling.
But I’ve never seen less appetite, at the European level, for a policy of continuing to kick the can down the road. Which means that there’s a very good chance that the long-awaited and long-feared crunch might soon be upon us. Greece and the Troika might not be able to agree on whether the latest deadline has been missed, but there’s one deadline no one can move: March 20, when Greece’s big €14 billion bond issue comes due. Either there’s an exchange offer in place by that point — or else the European project will have failed.
Paul Krugman brings the pessimism:
And here’s the thing: when this started, Greece was running a large primary deficit — which meant that even if it repudiated all its debt, it would still have been forced to make a major fiscal contraction. This is no longer true. So we’re now looking at a scenario in which Greece is forced into killing levels of austerity to pay its foreign creditors, with no real light at the end of the tunnel.

This is just not going to work.
Matt Yglesias explains the political calculus underlying the insanity:
Bild, the super-high-selling right-of-center German tabloid is out with a new poll which shows that fifty-three percent of Germans want Greece out of the euro, and just 34 percent want it to stay in.
On the merits, I think a "Greece out, everyone else stays in" solution was perfectly possible 24 or 18 or 12 months ago. Today, however, it's not going to work. The exit of Greece from the system would likely lead to a run on Portugal. And while "Greece out, everyone else in" in a psychologically and politically plausible stopping point "Greece and Portugal out, everyone else stays in" isn't. If Portugal is out then Spain is out and if Spain is out then Italy's out, and if Italy's out then France is out, and if France is out there's no point. So you're left with either a big bailout of Greece or a big bailout of Portugal, and the basic technical logic of just doing it for Greece rather than mucking around is very sound. The political case is much weaker, however, as the poll illustrates. So what's happening right now is that European officials are trying to get Greek politicians to agree to vicious austerity measures not so much because the austerity per se will actually solve anything, but because the politics of Northern Europe demands that Greece pay a pound of flesh in exchange for its bailout.
Ezra Klein, meanwhile, is still convinced that this will determine the 2012 election:
So the question as we look towards Greece's troubles today and the Eurozone over the next year is whether the rules governing the macro question -- whether the Eurozone will survive -- trump the rules governing the everyday panics and political decisions that imperil its survival. Or perhaps there's some theory that can bring them both together. The answer to this question, perhaps more than any other, will decide whether Obama's momentum continues, or fizzles out amidst a new economic crisis.
Krugman parries, noting European exports only account for 2% of GDP, while Yglesias adds that the slow grind of crisis has given US elites a long time to prepare themselves:
What's interesting is that a few months ago I was incredibly alarmed about Europe dealing a hammer-blow to the American financial system. We turned out to be much more intertwined with the European banking system than one would have thought. But these various deals that European leaders have worked out over the past several months have been a boon to the United States from this perspective. For one thing, they've bought time. European banks haven't collapsed, and American officials, American banks, and American non-financial firms have all had time to start thinking through the implications and insulating themselves. That's been an extra source of problems for Europe but it's good for us. The other factor is that while Europe's leaders haven't hit upon a way to forestall a years-long span of catastrophically high unemployment and falling living standards, they do appear to be really really really really committed to saving banks. This kind of "bankers and and rich people first" approach to coping with an emergency is terrible for the average European, but it does take care of our main concern from Europe which was that we might get hit with a sudden credit crunch.
I sure hope he's right about that, but I'm still skeptical.

Feb 5, 2012

Collected links

1. Welcome to Cancerland. The Komen idiocy has a lot of people looking hard at what they actually do, and some of it isn't great.

2. Really good article on the rise of Pitchfork.

3. Potheads in DC.

4. A theory of consulting. This sounds very convincing to me.

5. Seven lessons from the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Feb 3, 2012

One damn thing after another

On the heels of Koman's shamefaced backpedaling from its decision to defund Planned Parenthood:

...here comes the latest culture war awfulness, from some chowderheaded bigots in Louisiana:
Three Girl Scout troops in Louisiana won't be hawking Thin Mints this year. They've disbanded in protest after the Girl Scouts of Colorado accepted seven-year-old transgender child Bobby Montoya as a member. Montoya was born a boy but has considered herself a girl since she was two years old, says her mom Felisha Archuleta. In October, Archuleta took her daughter to speak with a Denver troop leader about signing up, and took her daughter away crying after the Scout leader referred to the child as "it" and said "Everyone will know he's a boy." Three weeks later, the statewide Girl Scouts body issued a statement saying, "If a child identifies as a girl and the child's family presents her as a girl, Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout." When they heard about this reversal, three moms and troop leaders in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana decided to dissolve their troops and leave Girl Scouts.
It only gets worse from there.

The week in review

The best Onion stuff is usually just the headlines.

Embarrassed Steven Chu Accidentally Calls Barack Obama ‘Dad’ In Cabinet Meeting

The Huffington Post bit is the best from this one:

Poll: GOP Nomination Now Two-Way Race Between Mitt Romney, Total Voter Apathy

Feb 2, 2012

Department of WTF, pets bureau

Susan G. Komen For the Cure sucks

Jeff Goldberg has the goods:
But three sources with direct knowledge of the Komen decision-making process told me that the rule was adopted in order to create an excuse to cut-off Planned Parenthood. (Komen gives out grants to roughly 2,000 organizations, and the new "no-investigations" rule applies to only one so far.) The decision to create a rule that would cut funding to Planned Parenthood, according to these sources, was driven by the organization's new senior vice-president for public policy, Karen Handel, a former gubernatorial candidate from Georgia who is staunchly anti-abortion and who has said that since she is "pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood."

...The decision, made in December, caused an uproar inside Komen. Three sources told me that the organization's top public health official, Mollie Williams, resigned in protest immediately following the Komen board's decision to cut off Planned Parenthood. Williams, who served as the managing director of community health programs, was responsible for directing the distribution of $93 million in annual grants.
Not that I have any money to give away, but when I do, these chumps won't be getting any of it until they reinstate Planned Parenthood on their hands and knees. As Atrios wrote, now it's okay to say they suck.

This Onion piece seems appropriate: 6,000 Runners Fail To Discover Cure For Breast Cancer.

UPDATE: Here are some ways to help.

Easy green stimulus

Sorry to keep banging on this particular patch of dirt, but this previous post is a textbook example of what Yglesias is talking about here:
The photo above is of a building under construction at 2400 14th Street NW here in the District. It's a pretty big multifamily dwelling and the energy cost of heating the units will, due to the efficiencies inherent in multi-family construction, be substantially less than one a single family detached structure would run you. It's also near a Metro line, near the city's most frequent bus service, and walkable to a wide variety of amenities on the 14th Street and U Street corridors. But like basically all DC real estate projects, it won't be built out to the profit-maximizing height because regulations prohibit the construction of tall buildings. This is precisely the same kind of "jobs" scenario as is at issue with Keystone XL—the private sector wants to finance more building trades employment, but government rules won't let it—except instead of a fossil fuel pipeline it's an energy efficient building. And these stories play out all across America.
Obviously my example (at right) is not quite as great as right in downtown DC, but the point still holds. Bigger buildings would mean more and longer construction jobs while getting a significant efficiency boost compared to all those single-family homes. Besides, if one is thinking only slightly more long term, the benefits are even more apparent. More density means more people means more businesses, jobs, and less need for cars. This vacant lot here could be the start of a walkable corridor centered around the metro station, but instead it's just a tiny patch of lame suburbs.

Feb 1, 2012

Intern jams

Caught this joint on Pandora. For some reason electronic is my favorite style for writing and research.