Mar 30, 2012

*Freedom and Fairness*

I read this one on the advice of Tyler Cowen, and quite liked it. As Cowen says, it's an excellent introduction to New Zealand history, and worth reading for that alone. Kiwi history is actually really interesting, and the parallels were quite surprising at times. Here are the main things that jumped out at me:

1) Ideas matter. The way in which colonists of each country treated their native populations is instructive. In America, the Indians were treated with unconscionable viciousness and cruelty, up to and including genocide. In New Zealand, while relations between colonists and the Maori were strained, and at times deeply unfair and bloody, they were far, far more decent than here. Fischer explains this, convincingly, as the progress of Enlightenment ideals. New Zealand was founded about 200 years after America, and it made a huge difference.

2) The book could have used some more quantitative economic explanation. The US has a much higher GDP per capita, but also vastly higher poverty. What kind of implications does this have? How much of that extra GDP is going to finance and the super-rich? Has the Kiwi focus on fairness dented their standard of living? Fischer doesn't explain enough.

3) The US is a barbaric place. As a liberal, it was hard not to think boy, this New Zealand sure sounds nice! The US makes out like a dumpster by comparison. Time and again Fischer would make some comparison, ostensibly talking about the pluses and minuses of each country, and time and again the Kiwis won hands down. The Trail of Tears, slavery, Jim Crow, an enormous prison system, and galloping inequality...

Anyway, I thought for most of the book that the frame just didn't work. Sure, Kiwis are obsessed with fairness, and it seems like a reasonable, self-consistent belief, but the American obsession with freedom and liberty is a lot less coherent, bordering on sloganeering. The people that talk the most about freedom, like the Tea Party brigades, have a notion of it that couldn't withstand a fifth-grade discussion. Throughout history it has often explicitly meant things like "freedom to steal the freedom of others." It reminded me of an old Yglesias post:
Freedom-talk is an important influence in American rhetoric, but it—and especially its self-consciously antiquarian cousin liberty-talk—has nothing to do with any analytically respectable conception of freedom. It has to do with safeguarding the perceived self-interest, lifestyle, and social status of the right sort of people. This is a country where the free market position is that for-profit colleges should have a right to unrestricted government subsidies.
But Fischer pulled it out at the end, with a brilliant concluding chapter. It does again make New Zealand look better by comparison, but it's a great discussion of freedom, fairness, the pitfalls of each, and their interlocking and mutually supporting natures. Great book, and worth a read.

Mar 29, 2012

The Rise of Lysenkoism on the Right

Chris Mooney pulls out the following figure:


The figure basically says it all. The upgraded picture is swiped from Kevin Drum.

UPDATE: A reader asks me to explain the word "Lysenkoism." Lysenko was a Soviet pseudo-biologist who rejected the ideas of Mendelian genetics in favor of some cockamamie baloney about acquired characteristics. Lysenko's doctrine, supported by Stalin, became enforced party doctrine, and Soviet biology was set back a generation. The Wikipedia summary is remarkably apt:
Lysenkoism is used colloquially to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives.
Conservative beliefs on evolution and climate change (among others) quite obviously fit this description.

Mar 28, 2012

Resolved: I Will Write More About Climate

David Roberts was quoted the other day by Harold Pollack:
For climate change, there are very few Jonathan Cohns, Ezra Kleins, and Merrill Goozners – very few in that non-government, non-NGO middle tier who combine serious knowledge of policy with the ability to write for the general public. The level of policy knowledge on cap-and-trade is abysmal. That goes for the journalists, pundits, and pols just as much as the public.
Something clicked when I read this. I've been feeling recently that I'm sort meandering in my purpose here, that I need to find a bit of a specialty and settle down some. Not that I won't keep publishing lots of random crap, but that I should focus a bit more.

Energy and climate make a lot of sense to me. I've got the science background. I'm a committed environmentalist--Edward Abbey is probably my favorite writer, even today. I know a bit about the policy, and the basic economic logic of externalities, but I don't have the policy depth, particularly on how greenhouse gases are regulated worldwide. 

So, I'm going to start studying. Any reading suggestions would be highly appreciated.

Hunter S. Thompson on 9/11

The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.
It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy. Osama bin Laden may be a primitive “figurehead” — or even dead, for all we know — but whoever put those All-American jet planes loaded with All-American fuel into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon did it with chilling precision and accuracy. The second one was a dead-on bullseye. Straight into the middle of the skyscraper. [...] 
We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once. Who knows? Not even the Generals in what remains of the Pentagon or the New York papers calling for WAR seem to know who did it or where to look for them. 
This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why. If the guilty won’t hold up their hands and confess, he and the Generals will ferret them out by force.

Mar 27, 2012

Peace Corps Article Background

I've been meaning to put this up for ages. But here is some background on my Peace Corps article--things that I referenced, or things that got left out of the article.

1. Read about the group that got the ball rolling on that 20/20 report. The group is called First Response Action, and it's dedicated to improving the situation of Peace Corps volunteers who were victims of rape and sexual assault. It was founded by another South Africa volunteer named Casey Frazee, who I have since met online. I've always supported that group wholeheartedly. I wanted to put a nod to them in the article, but couldn't find a good spot for it.

2. Read about the law FRA got passed in November. This was a big step forward for rape and sexual assault, certainly, but didn't completely address the general oversight issue. I again wanted to stick that in the article somewhere, but couldn't find a good spot.

3. Read the post that got me kicked out of PST.

4. Finally, if you'd like a great backgrounder on the Peace Corps, check out Meisler's When the World Calls

Mar 26, 2012

Failure

Since I've arrived in DC last September I've been scraping by, living in a basement off scraps and charity. I've applied for around 200 writing jobs and been rejected from every one, even the corporate hack work I tried for in a fit of desperation. Today I add to that list of failure probably the best job so far: the American Prospect writing fellowship. It always was a Hail Mary longshot—it's probably the most highly-coveted entry-level job for lefty magazine writing—but it still kinda smarts getting rejected from your dream job.

What I'm realizing now is that journalism is a really tough business. I knew it before, I suppose, but it's only sinking in now. It's insular, competitive, nepotistic, in the midst of a painful paradigm shift, and most importantly, there are vastly, vastly many more people who want to do it than could possibly be paid for it.

The only solution, of course, is to keep plugging away, and prepare for a lot more rejection. Likely as not I'm going to be poor for twenty years or more, and I'm okay with that. (I do, however, have two more longshots I haven't been rejected from yet: a New Republic job, and a paid internship at Mother Jones. Worth a shot.)

Harnessing Vanity

Old man Coates had an interesting thought the other day about reading, riffing off a piece about not finishing books:
I think Tim Parks--even as an aside-marks the border between a young reader and a mature one...It's often true that books improve as you delve in. But I don't think there's anything wrong with never making it through Ulysses.
I think this is, strictly speaking, correct. Some books, even (especially?) highly lauded ones just don't work for everyone. I slogged through Ulysses and felt, in the end, that most of Joyce's masterful technique was simply lost on me. I had one of those decoder ring books that explains what the fuck is happening, as well as a sample of the allusions and symbolism, etc., and while it was interesting to see how much work Joyce had gone through, and often his writing was delightfully good, in the end I was mostly just bored and confused.

And yet, and yet. I've been recently appreciating what powerful motivators vanity and status-seeking are. I think it's safe to say that 90+% of people who read Ulysses are motivated by vanity; either in that they can boast about reading it (subtly, as I am doing now, or otherwise), or feel better about themselves for having made it through a difficult and important book. It's certainly the reason I read it. (And it that goes double for writers.) Witness part of Orwell's list of the motivations of writers:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.
Witness also this incredible piece by Alec MacGillis on the wounded vanities of the hedge fund titans, who have turned on Obama with thundering outrage for, essentially, a tiny bit of the most milquetoast criticism. I think Karl Smith explained this best, in one of my favorite posts:
The lesson I would take is as follows. Profit or consumption maximizing incentives are just incredibly weak. We think we see consumption incentives in the general populace but we are really seeing status seeking. Folks earn or consume more in an effort to raise their status relative to others. 
However, at very high income/status levels this has odd results. When Jaime Dimon or Leon Cooperman say that what they really want is to be loved, they mean it.
This is again familiar from the land of exercise. All the reading about the long-term benefits of exercise doesn't get me out the door, looking in the mirror and not being happy with what I see does. We like looking good. Of course we do.

I say we should try to harness this vanity, and embrace it to a limited extent. TNC's young/mature dichotomy above implies a little too much that reading should just be about enjoyment. I think one should push a little more than that (and I suspect Coates would agree). Reading tough books, like for example Reasons and Persons, isn't exactly fun, but learning heavy ideas isn't easy. Learning mathematics is especially not easy. But understanding those heavy ideas can be extremely rewarding and even lucrative. We should not be ashamed of using every trick in our mental toolbox to get ourselves doing that hard work. It doesn't mean that we should slog through every book that is horribly unpleasant from start to finish, but that we shouldn't give up a widely acclaimed book at the first sign of displeasure.

Now, I don't want to glorify this too much. Vanity can be obnoxious, and I think it's important to push against it in actual discussions. I always try to write as straightforwardly as possible. But as far as making oneself learn, I say it's on balance a good thing.

RTDH, ctd

A common experience writing on the internet is mulling over an idea in your head, putting down a sketch of your thoughts, checking your RSS feed, and finding that someone has done your idea better than you could have. Steve Randy Waldman pulled one of those on me this morning. He also read Ryan Avent and Matt Yglesias back-to-back, and had very nearly the same thoughts that I did about their theses, but more detailed and smarter. I looked for some grafs to expropriate, but really you should read the whole thing.

Mar 23, 2012

Opinion Survey

My father and myself have had a plan cooking for awhile: bundling up a few of our best stories as an ebook, and selling them on the usual platforms for $3-4. On the plus side, it would be a kind of cute book idea, father son thing, which could help sales. On the minus side, he has a lot more good stories than me, and it might seem like I was just trying to piggyback off his writing. On the plus side, it would still be a good impetus to get his stories put together, regardless of me... I could go on like this for some time.

What do people think? Would you shell out a couple bucks for some really good stories? Should I just put my dad's together and sell those alone? Your input would be much appreciated.

Mar 22, 2012

New Madeon!

Huzzah!

Quote for the Day

From Michael O'Hare: "In Florida you may kill anyone who’s not in an iron lung machine, or comatose, at will, as long as you do it with no-one else around and you are willing to say you were scared of your victim at the time."

Also see this excellent Gail Collins column. I'm not a big fan of gun control, but it looks like its time for some lefty pushback just to give the NRA something to fight against.

Mar 21, 2012

Mea Culpa

I should take another look at this post from yesterday. I saw this post by Conn Carroll and was exercised, rightly I think, by the howling errors contained therein. Obamacare's costs have doubled, he argues, by comparing summations of costs which included not only different sets of years in which the program was active, but also just different numbers of years. It wasn't just an apples-to-oranges fallacy, it was different numbers of apples and oranges. A more elementary error would be hard to imagine.

Energized by the old Someone Is Wrong on the Internet juice, and the correct possibility that I might get some traffic from the liberal healthcare wing, I banged out a quick bit of lefty snarking, calling Carroll all sorts of nasty names. In my hurry, I included not only the above critiques, but a comment about how a $1.76 trillion "gross costs" figure he mentioned did not appear in the CBO report.

I was wrong about this. Not only was the figure in the report, it was in the tables I posted, which made me look, frankly, like the kind of irresponsible hack that I was (correctly) accusing Carroll of being. This has no bearing on the validity of the previous two critiques, which are more cogent anyway. Carroll's argument is completely and utterly bogus. But it damaged the post, my credibility, and most importantly, made me feel like I had violated my own standards. I promise, in the future, to look twice before I hit publish, and never let my delight in discovering staggeringly boneheaded errors in a post slide into concluding that everything that person says is equally boneheaded.

You deserve better, loyal readers, and I apologize.

Mar 20, 2012

Generational Warfare

Jamelle Bouie reports on the new Paul Ryan budget (which is only slightly less insane than the last one):
For the last two years, Republicans have tried to defend the prerogatives of the elderly and near-elderly—opposing health care reform and anything else that would redistribute income to young people—for the sake of preserving their political coalition and providing benefits for the wealthy. The “makers” aren’t just rich people—it also includes the elderly people who feel entitled to the benefits they receive.
If you forget how this is quite blatantly dividing the country, the obvious problem with this is that old people tend to die, and young people like myself will be mighty pissed if Ryan's cut-the-rope, devil-take-the-hindmost plan comes to pass. Relying on the forgetfulness of the voting public has seldom caused electoral problems, but I sense real anger if the Tea Party actually succeeds in gutting the welfare state.

UPDATE: Yglesias slices up Ryan's blather about strengthening the safety net. If you have even a passing familiarity with Ayn Rand, you know any kind of safety net at all would be absolutely abhorrent to her.

Mar 19, 2012

Collected links

1. I think we should just start assuming that every single electronic communication of any kind is being read by the NSA.

2. Brainstorming is bullshit.

3. Matt Taibbi goes after Bank of America. Fun piece.

4. In favor of OTC birth control. Count me in.

5. The New Yorker on Tyler Clementi's suicide. Disturbing, but important. This case is much more complicated than people thought at first.

Tesla Coils Put to Their Original Purpose

Science is awesome:



Nikola himself would be proud.

Conn Carroll Can't Count

Conn Carroll has an amazingly duplicitous post over at the Washington Examiner, titled "Yes, Obamacare's Costs Have Almost Doubled." Here he is:
New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait, The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, and The Washington Post's Ezra Klein all wrote posts have all written posts denying that Obamacare's costs have doubled since it became law. Below are the gross cost tables from both: 1) the March 18, 2010 CBO Obamacare cost estimate; and 2) the March 2012 Obamacare cost estimate.
$1.76 trillion is not double $940 billion, but it's close. Throw in one more year of full implementation ($265 billion in 2022) and the real ten year gross cost of Obamacare is north of $2 trillion.
Questions about the cost of government programs often involve time periods. Social Security, for example, has one cost over a single year and a different cost over five years, or 20 years. Looking at different numbers in this way allows us to think about how the costs are changing, and what we might do about it. If the cost went up, say, we could ask: is the cost structure fundamentally altering, or are more people entering the program? These are good things to think about.

However, when thinking in this way, it is important to be clear about when the program starts. This is the first boneheaded screwup Coll makes. Suppose I pass a law to start building a new jet fighter in 2014, and continue production for the next 20 years. Obviously, if I compare the window of 2010-2019 to the window of 2012-2021, the second will have a larger headline cost because it includes two more years of production. Obamacare is like this—most of the big programs start in 2014, as you see in the chart above when the spending increases by a factor of 5-10. Claiming this represents an increase in the cost of Obamacare is like saying a new aircraft carrier is cheap because its cost in 1960 was zero.

It gets worse, though. He hasn't even read his table. He quotes $1.76 trillion as the "gross cost," or the total spending ignoring revenues in the program, but his chart shows net costs of $1.25 trillion. Did he even glance at these tables before putting them up? He obviously didn't read the report, because $1.76 trillion is not in it anywhere. [UPDATE: A reader points out that I am mistaken here. That figure is in the table. Nevertheless, the remaining points stand.]

But that, unbelievably, isn't even the stupidest mistake Coll makes. (You might have spotted it already.) His tables don't have the same number of years. 2010-2019 is 10 years, which one can verify by counting if subtraction is too hard, and 2012-2022 is 11 years.

This is either transparent hack work, or straight-up idiotic. I'm not sure which is worse.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein adds graphs of the relevant years.

Mar 17, 2012

Not Cynical Enough

In my Why Nations Fail review I mentioned that their vision of elites is a bit cynical sometimes, even for me. Something I should add is that sometimes, it isn't cynical enough. Elites can be wholly self-interested, yes, but sometimes they are also straight-up stupid and cruel, even in ways which step on their own interests.

Quick Trip to Space

Someone put some cameras on the solid rocket boosters of the shuttle:

 

 What fascinates me about this is the sound. The quotidian creaking and whooshing make it seem so much more real.

Mar 16, 2012

Collected links

1. Prison makes you crazy.

2. Good piece on partisanship in churches.

3. Why we should care more about blowback. It used to be uncontroversial to think that people might be driven mad when our government blows up dozens of innocent civilians.

4. The online privacy debate is also about power. This is a great way of looking at the issue. Each person is not giving up all that much, but together, we are ceding corporations astounding influence.

5. Why 4G and 3G are bogus terms.

Political decay watch

Witness this awesome graf in Ezra Klein's latest Wonkbook:
This is a bad time to do a half-measure on infrastructure. We have literally trillions of dollars in unmet infrastructure needs. We have massive unemployment in the construction sector. Materials are unusually cheap because of a depressed global economy. Borrowing is unusually cheap because we're one of the few safe havens left in the global financial market. And it's cheaper to repaid an aging bridge today than rebuild a crumbled one 10 years from now. So waiting to do the bulk of our infrastructure passing a half-measure on infrastructure investment later is like waiting till after the big sale ends to buy your groceries. It's just bad financial planning.
Things are not working on the most fundamental level.

*Why Nations Fail* and George Carlin

I've just finished Why Nations Fail, and before I get into the argument, I'd like to sound a note (imagine a low D on a baritone sax) in favor of their deliciously cynical view of human leadership. It's not far from this (NSFW):



Acemoglu and Robinson (A&R) would disagree that Carlin's description applies to America, but it's a remarkably apt summary of their view of failed states. (Really!) Even for successful countries, they don't credit individual morality at all, at least on the elite level. In their scheme, every leader of every country can be treated as interchangeable greedy assholes wholly concerned with their own interests. Or as Carlin might say, elites are interested in "their own power, keeping it, and expanding it wherever possible."

Anyway, the book is about institutions. The book says there are basically two kinds in countries: extractive, and inclusive. Extractive ones are as you might expect, where the elite pins everyone down and siphons off as much of the country's wealth as possible. This is why nations fail. In order to have a modern, successful country, one needs innovation, which won't happen if people know the elite will just steal all the extra things they make. Innovation also threatens the elite because new ways break down the old. Furthermore, a successful society takes advantage of as much of the population's talent as possible, which threatens the elite because talent is broadly shared in a society.

Extractive economic institutions reinforce extractive political institutions, and vice versa. This is one of the best ideas in the book. It explains why so many repressive dictatorships have been overthrown by idealistic rebels, who then proceed to create their own dictatorship. It also explains why economic "reform" (as imposed under the Washington Consensus) and a large fraction of international aid have been ineffective. Without political and institutional reform, elites will steal the aid and rig the new "free market" to line their own pockets.

Inclusive institutions, on the other hand, are where power is broadly shared and no one can do much siphoning. They have the usual panoply of modern societies: the rule of law, democratic, accountable governance, open markets, etc., where people have an incentive to innovate and no one can siphon off the wealth of the country. But again, countries didn't develop these because their citizens and leaders are better or wiser—they got them by accident. England, they say, got the Industrial Revolution first because they happened to develop a governing body with power broadly shared (by the standards of the day) and where no group could get a conclusive upper hand and crush the opposition (and then, of course, loot the country blind).

The implication to this is that no extractive, authoritarian country (as China is now) will ever become truly wealthy. A dynamic economy requires innovation, which is impossible to get with an extractive institutions. What China is doing now is copying previous innovation, mainly moving their population out of agriculture, which allowed the Soviet Union to get strong growth for several decades before they hit a wall in the 70s.

I enjoyed this a lot, but in the end it's a little too cynical even for me. They reach too far with this premise. Ideology surely plays a much stronger role in societies, as well as the norms that develop over time. Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order, while more complicated and hedged, and a lot less fun, is ultimately more convincing. But the basic idea that the incentives created by institutions powerfully influence how elites govern is a good one, and well worth keeping in mind. Far too much current political analysis focuses on personality, and not nearly enough on the incentive structure of institutions. Maybe Fukuyama can adapt these ideas to the second part of Origins.

Mar 15, 2012

Not All Evildoers Are Murderous Sociopaths

Jeremy Scahill had an excellent piece in The Nation a couple days ago about how, according to Scahill and his sources, President Obama is leaning on Yemen to keep a journalist named Abdulelah Shaye imprisoned there because he had been reporting on things that Obama would have rather kept quiet, like revealing that US had killed civilians with cluster bombs, and interviewing accused terrorists like Anwar Al-Awlaki. Kevin Drum doesn't buy it:
Everything that Shaye reported in 2010 had long since been common knowledge. Obama has suffered, as near as I can tell, literally zero embarrassment from this episode. The al Majala attack got a small bit of media attention when it happened and has been completely forgotten since.
So what kind of person would pressure the Yemeni president to keep an innocent journalist in prison over a slight so tiny as to be nearly nonexistent? Almost literally, this would be the act of a sociopath.
The U.S. government insists that Shaye is no mere journalist. "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating Al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment," says Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen. Is that true? I have no idea.
But which do I find more likely? That Shaye is indeed affiliated with al-Qaeda based on evidence that hasn't been made public? Or that Barack Obama is a sociopath who pressures foreign leaders to keep innocent journalists in prison based on the fact that they very slightly annoy him? Call me what you will, but I have to go with Door A.
Let's break it down:
1) Obama has not actually been very embarrassed by Shaye. Others have reported his stories and not much has come of it.
2) Therefore, Shaye has not been very damaging to Obama.
3) Only a murderous sociopath would keep an innocent journalist imprisoned for a trivial embarrassment.
4) Obama doesn't seem like a murderous sociopath.
5) Therefore, Shaye is probably a terrorist (as claimed by US officials) and we haven't seen the evidence.
No offense to Kevin, but this is some shoddy reasoning. This kind of bank shot argument relying entirely on the perceived characteristics of someone sharply reminds me of the "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?" argument for Jesus' divinity (which, in case you haven't heard, is bogus).

Let's start with 1 and 2. As Glenn Greenwald notes in the comments, while Kevin is right that nobody gives a crap about this kind of thing in the US anymore, it was huge news in Yemen because the Yemeni government had originally claimed they had carried out the strikes, and Shaye's photos of the bomb parts stamped with "Made in the USA" were direct proof they were lying. Furthermore, they could be keeping him imprisoned not just for what he's done, but what he might do. A dogged reporter like that, with a proven ability to get access to people like Awlaki, might get some other more scandalous evidence, and thereby cause a firestorm. Lack of attention in the past is no guarantee that there won't be a sudden media explosion—just look at the Kony 2012 video.

But by far the biggest error Kevin makes is with the nature of this kind of behavior in 3. You don't have to be a murderous sociopath, gleefully skinning people alive in your basement, to carry out evil acts. This is the basic conclusion of Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, and the Stanford prison experiments, and the Milgram experiments. (Though I should note that the Milgram experiments are more complex than how they are usually portrayed—see this episode of Radiolab for an excellent discussion of this and related topics.) Ordinary people, especially if they believe their actions are normal and accepted, can carry out great evil, up to and including genocide. President Bush also imprisoned journalists without charges or trial, including Bilal Hussein (for two years) and Sami al-Haj (for seven years), and numerous others. Was he a murderous sociopath? We don't even have to invoke evil—there's always good old-fashioned bungling and bureaucratic CYA when someone finds, say, they have the wrong guy and keeps him locked up anyway to prevent embarrassment.

The United States security apparatus has these kind of behaviors in spades. Most of the people in Guantanamo are innocent. Bradley Manning is still being held without trial. Lynndie England. John Yoo. Eric Holder. The subtitle of Arendt's book was "The Banality of Evil," and it's as true is it ever was.

UPDATE: See Adam Serwer for more:
Institutions tend to do what they can get away with, a tendency that can become ever-more problematic when they can do so under cover of official secrecy.
The response to the government declaring someone a terrorist should be, "prove it." A sham trial by a US client regime propped up by US aid offered because of war on terror expediency doesn't cut it.

UPDATE II: Marcy Wheeler adds additional facts. Obama has a long track record of war crimes and cover-ups already.

Mar 14, 2012

Goldman Sachs is not a trading company

The big news in financial circles is one Greg Smith's scathing exit memo on departure from Goldman. According to Smith, as Matt Taibbi pointed out all those years ago, Goldman really is a morally bankrupt con operation that makes money by screwing its clients. Matt Yglesias theorizes that this is about a change in business strategy for them:
Translating out of indignationese, point c) is that trading is now the focus of the business. Points a) and b) are indicating that the client-advising side of the business is now compromised for the sake of the trading side. If that's true, then Smith is probably correct that clients will gravitate away from Goldman in the long term. But his claim that that spells death for the bank is wrong, that would just mean a further transformation of the focus of the business away from advising clients and toward trading.
Yglesias appears to be badly mistaken here. On a tip from one of his commenters (ht: shubik), I checked out Goldman's latest financial disclosure reports (for 2011), and in their 10-K form (pdf) there is a table describing their operations. Investment banking, investment management (both of which are for clients), and institutional client services make up 93 percent of Goldman's revenue. The latter by itself accounts for 60 percent. Their "investing and lending" section makes up 7 percent, but actually showed a $531 million loss, which might be why they closed two trading desks earlier this month.

So no, Goldman is not focused on trading, unless all those disclosures are also lies. For more possible explanations of how Goldman could still be in business, see Noah Smith.

Mar 13, 2012

More on overpopulation

Here's some more evidence from Yglesias for the thesis that overpopulation is not a critical environmental issue:
...the most important point about global population growth is the point David Brooks makes today—it's slowing down almost everywhere and the global trend is clearly toward birthrates that are below the replacement level. Because of "demographic momentum" and rising life expectency, relatively few countries are poised for falling population in the short-term but Russia is already there, Japan will be soon, Spain and Italy will follow, and while China is difficult to predict they're looking at the sharpest cliff.
You hear a lot that if everyone lived like Americans then we would need five Earths' worth of resources to support everyone. That's true, but the converse is that if everyone lived like Ethiopians we could comfortably support 10 billion people or more. You might respond that would eat up all the available land, but if everyone in the United States lived in a city with Brooklyn's density, we could fit everyone into New Hampshire.

Again, the most critical environment issue is climate change, and it isn't caused by overpopulation. It is caused by inefficiency and poor resource allocation.

Where taxes can be raised

So Kevin Drum is in the midst of an argument with Ezra Klein over his latest New Yorker article. Ezra says the president isn't that good at convincing people, while Kevin disagrees somewhat. I think they both make good points, but I was struck by this passage from Kevin:
Before 1980, it was possible to raise taxes both locally and at the federal level. After 1980 it became virtually impossible, and after the early 90s it became very nearly literally impossible. In Congress and at the polling place, where it really matters, public opinion was loud and clear: higher taxes were a killer.
Mesa Verde, the Cortez economic support system
I completely agree when it comes to the federal level (obviously), but I immediately thought of my old rinky-dink hometown of Cortez, Colorado, population ~8500. It's a pretty conservative place--our representative is the ur-shmuck Tea Party hack Scott Tipton. You see, a few years back people had the idea that the local government should build some kind of recreation center. Neighboring Durango, a bigger, far more liberal town, had one, and it was working out well for them. So someone organized enough signatures to put a small sales tax increase on the ballot to pay for its construction. Fat chance, I thought.

But you know what? The damn thing passed! This tiny rural town, full of proud Republican truck-driving rednecks, had voted themselves a tax increase for a public service. I was astonished. And furthermore, it was completed close to on time and on budget, and turned out quite nice! For a middling-to-poor small town it's downright sumptuous. It's got a rock wall, basketball and squash courts, a gym, indoor track, some conference rooms, and a fairly elaborate pool, where I worked as a lifeguard for a time:


I'm not sure what the lesson is here. Maybe people will agree to raise taxes if and only if they can see the immediate benefits. But it didn't feel that way to me. It felt more like an issue of trust. Cortezians knew the people in government, and trusted their money wouldn't be wasted (or not too much anyway), and their trust was reinforced when the project came in more-or-less as promised. Something opposite obtains at the federal level—what Francis Fukuyama might call a low-level equilibrium trap.

UPDATE: The conclusion is a little vague here. Let me sum up: American government is vulnerable to fanatical, take-no-prisoners behavior, so the continuing conservative anti-tax crusade partially relies on government fecklessness at the federal level as proof of their (self-fulfilling) prediction that government can't do anything right in a way that doesn't work at the local level.

Collected links

1. A great piece from GOOD on the service jobs where my generation works.

2. I'm skeptical, but it looks like the MEK shills might get in some trouble.

3. The solar system is real big.

4. RIP otter foster mom.

5. Ezra Klein hits the even bigger time.

6. Before and after pictures of Japan and the tsunami damage.

Mar 12, 2012

Guest Post: Intoxicated

[This is a column from the old man.]

We’ve all enjoyed those entries in the “Crime Wave Continues” section of this paper, where someone’s misadventure with law enforcement can be trace to being in an “intoxicated” state. The toxin, in most, cases is alcohol. An “intoxicated state” is being poisoned beyond the point you can function normally. Our laws cite a level of precisely 0.08% alcohol in your blood as what it takes to be legally intoxicated, but different substances are toxic at different levels and virtually anything can be toxic at some level of concentration. Excessive drinking of water, for instance, can cause an electrolytic imbalance called hyponatremia which can be fatal. Water is poisonous, but it takes a lot of it. Botulism toxin, the world’s deadliest known poison, is lethal at a dosage of 40 to 90 nanograms, which means it would take about five pounds of it to kill everyone on earth. Grain alcohol, or ethanol, the toxin we drink as a beverage, is generally produced by the metabolic processes of yeast, a fungus that consumes sugar and excretes alcohol and carbon dioxide. In a closed system, like one of those barrels down at the winery, winemaking yeast will consume the sugars in the grape juice and multiply like gangbusters, excreting waste until the concentration of alcoholic yeast poop reaches 12.5%. Then they die, intoxicated to death by their own excrement. The carbon dioxide they produce would kill them too, eventually, but the alcohol is more poisonous, so those bubbles of carbon dioxide in Champagne aren’t what did in their producers, though they do help with the quality of the headache you can sustain.
Yeast, via Wikimedia

Carbon dioxide, the second major component of yeast poop and a part of every other oxygen- dependent creature’s exhalations, is a gas that makes up a tiny little bit of the atmosphere, about .039% on an average day at sea level, which doesn’t make it a big part of the air around us. It is, however, the fifth most common gas in every breath we take, right below argon, so it’s assumed to be harmless. On the toxicity scale, from botulism toxin to water, CO2 is way down toward the “water” end. The relative concentration of carbon dioxide in the air doesn’t become noticeably poisonous to humans below one percent, which would be a tremendous increase in the current atmospheric content, more than the most wild-eyed global-warming fanatic would predict. If you’d like to know what a 1% concentration of CO2 feels like, put a bag over your head for a couple minutes and your own metabolic processes, which are a lot like the ones the yeast use, will do that for you. Researchers say this level can have a “narcotic” effect over time, though to me it feels like simply “suffocating.” The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone up by about a third since mankind got the hang of firemaking on an industrial scale, but it has a long way to go before you could become intoxicated by simply breathing. Nobody is arguing about whether the level of CO2 in the air we breathe is going up. That is a measurable fact. The “controversy” is about whether that matters or not.

The idea that one creature, even the powerfully numerous human race, could actually determine the make-up of the atmosphere of an entire planet, is balderdash to many, but it’s happened before. The oxygen-rich atmosphere we rely on didn’t show up on the planet until cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, started producing it as a product of their own metabolism, which isn’t at all like yeast’s. These little devils can make their own food through photosynthesis, just like a plant, and what they make it out of is carbon dioxide, which is like flour to them. Oxygen is their primary waste product and it took uncountable jillions of them something like 2 billion years to enrich the earth’s atmosphere with the highly reactive gas which makes human life possible. Oxygen will react readily with all kinds of other elements, and the fact that it all hasn’t, that it remains available in the atmosphere not only for the burning of gas, oil, coal, wood and other fuels, but the respirations of 7 billion humans, had scientists puzzled for decades. Elsewhere in the universe, oxygen is pretty much always locked up in the eternal embrace of some other element – iron, sodium, or even uranium, for heaven’s sake. You get a molecule of oxygen and it will be trying, with all its might, to burn your house down, rust out your fenders and oxidize your retina. Oxygen will bond with just about anything, so scientists who are looking for evidence of life on other planets seek out its signature spectrum because it takes energy to create. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, gives up energy when it is created, and once formed, is as stable as a sumo wrestler. The game is heavily weighted toward the formation of carbon dioxide and there are vast stores of it, in liquid and gaseous form, “sequestered” in places all over the earth, or hidden as a solid in other compounds of carbon. In 1986 some of the CO2 hidden in the mud at the bottom of Lake Nyos in Cameroon was shaken loose, like popping the top on a shaken can of soda, and 1,700 people died of CO2 poisoning in a matter of minutes. We are all hoping that sequestered carbon stays where it is. We are betting the farm it will, but there are more immediate problems than this.

CO2 is a lot more toxic to some other forms of life than it is to us. Its increased concentration in the atmosphere affects chemistry of the oceans, making seawater more acidic. Acidic water dissolves the homes of corals and shellfish and makes it harder for oxygen producing microorganism to do their work. The gas is transparent to most light but reflects infrared, so , like a blanket, it tends to concentrate radiant energy, increasing the amount in the atmosphere for all sorts of mischief; hurricanes, tornados, floods and drought. Dry areas get dryer, glaciers melt, chunks of ice the size of Rhode Island break off the polar ice caps, and Texas goes up in flames. The Greenland ice sheet is losing 47 cubic miles of ice every year, raising sea level, diluting the surrounding salt water and messing with deep sea currents. We’ve gotten very good at recording these changes, but we are still figuring out the basics of how everything fits together. In the sixties we discovered that a store of carbon estimated to be the size of all the various fossil fuels combined was secreted away in vast deposits of methane hydrate, or “fire ice,” a solid formed in cold, high pressure conditions, like those found in deep oceans. A warmer ocean couldn’t retain these millions of tons of toxic gas and might just let it out it in deadly belches rather than a little at a time. Who could have guessed? In 1986 researchers found that a single species of cyanobacteria, prochlorococcus, carries out half the oxygen-producing photosynthesis in the open ocean. There are probably pieces of the puzzle this size still undiscovered.

During most of the time since homo sapiens have been leaving tracks around the globe, we weren’t a big factor in the contest between the carbon emitters and consumers. With the plants and certain microbes breathing out oxygen and the rest of us, from amoebas to humans, changing it back to CO2, things were balanced pretty well. It worked out. A few thousand years ago a small change in average temperature melted the ice sheets that were covering most of the temperate zone and opened up vast tracts of productive land that set the stage for an explosion of terrestrial life. About 15,000 years after the glaciers left, let’s say about 1750, the number of humans stood at approximately ¾ billion. Now it is roughly 10 times that number. Back then the average person breathed and burned maybe 2 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Now, in the US, it’s about 20 tons per person. That’s ten times the number, many of us putting out ten times the amount. Roughly 100 times more carbon emitted, for an American, in about two and a half centuries. At the same time we have dramatically altered the fundamentals of the natural world, largely at the expense of the oxygen producers. “Assault” is not too strong a word. About half of the world’s tropical forests are gone, their carbon released into the air, their oxygen production finished. We’re busily at work on what’s left. Most of the oxygen in the air is produced by microscopic organisms in the sea, but you remember what we are doing to that. A quarter of the world’s coral reefs are dead already, but we still count on adding another 3 billion humans this century, part of a growth curve biologist E.O. Wilson described as “more bacterial than primate.” It’s hard to think that these factors cannot have some significant effect on the environment. It’s easy to conclude that we are headed down a steep slope toward a cliff.

As a people, we Americans have decided it’s not a problem. We’ve decided we just won’t believe it. We’ve decided to not to make the smallest effort. We won’t even stop burning gas for fun. A proposed pipeline to the Gulf coast would deliver a supply of fuel from tar sands in Canada whose extraction roughly equals the amount of carbon released by burning it. As an added bonus, tar sand mining will devastate vast reaches of temperate forest. Here’s an opportunity to double the intoxicating effects of every tank of gas, and we’re all for it. It’s giant step backwards in our half hearted efforts to limit the poisonous effects of “progress” and, of course, enjoys broad support among those who could benefit in the short term. Republican politicians, who have made denial of climate change an article of faith, recently linked an acceleration of the Keystone pipeline approval process to a popular middle class tax cut. The short term is all we can see. It seems odd that our species, blessed with consciousness and cognition and assumed by many to be beloved of God, could behave so precisely like yeast.

Department of WTF, terrorism bureau

Greenwald waxes righteous on the case of well-paid Washington insiders shilling for designated terrorist groups:
How reprehensible is the conduct of Fran Townsend here? Just two years ago, she went on CNN to celebrate a Supreme Court decision that rejected First Amendment claims of free speech and free association in order to rule that anyone — most often Muslims — can be prosecuted under the “material support” statute simply for advocacy for a Terrorist group that is coordinated with the group. And yet, the minute Fran Townsend gets caught doing exactly that — not just out of conviction but also because she’s being paid by that Terrorist group — she suddenly invokes the very same Constitutional rights whose ersosions she cheered when it came to the prosecution of others. Now that her own liberty is at stake by virtue of getting caught being on the dole from a Terrorist group, she suddenly insists that the First Amendment allows her to engage in this behavior...
The background here: an Iranian cultish anti-regime group, called MEK, was designated as a terrorist organization by the US for assassinating Americans back in the 70s. Recently, they've been (allegedly) picked up by Israel as a useful tool for attacking the Iranian regime—MEK has claimed credit for assassinating those Iranian nuclear scientists in the last few months. Thus they've begun a well-funded media push to get removed from the US list of terrorist organizations, which has previously succeeded in the European Union.

That's how we get a long list of media and political superstars shilling for this group: Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Michael Mukasey, Ed Rendell, Andy Card, Lee Hamilton, Tom Ridge, Bill Richardson, Wesley Clark, Michael Hayden, John Bolton, Louis Freeh, and Fran Townsend. As Greenwald points out, this is an open-and-shut felony according to current law.

I consider myself an exceptionally cynical person, but this is jaw-dropping. I quite literally could not have imagined it.

Mar 11, 2012

Department of WTF, helicopter bureau

Holy crap:



I had no idea that was possible. Upside-down hovering with a helicopter? WTF??

And the outro music is pretty good too:


Springtime!

The blooms are coming out!


Mar 8, 2012

An online education model?

A loyal reader pointed me to this piece by David Platt:
At the source of the coming revolution is this simple fact: The inflation-adjusted price of college has quadrupled since 1982 (source: cnnmon.ie/bApHLC). Has the value of that education quadrupled, or even doubled? Not that I can see. That artificial price increase has created an academic bubble like the stock and real estate bubbles we’ve encountered recently. Now combine disruptive technology (ubiquitous fast Internet) with the worst economy in living memory and you spark off cataclysmic structural change. The bubble is about to burst.
[...] 
Imagine taking the world’s 10 best teachers of freshman calculus and paying them each a million dollars for a video. Put them all online at $100 a pop, including exams and problem sets. Capture just 3 percent of the roughly 4 million college freshmen in the United States, and you’ve recouped your investment in the first year.
Wouldn’t students prefer that to paying $12,500 (one-fourth of their yearly bill at a private university) to suffer through an apathetic graduate student boring everyone in a 500-seat lecture hall? Wouldn’t they rather enjoy a far better instructor, watch on their own schedules, re-run confusing sections until they understood them, progress at their own paces, for less than 1 percent of the price? Not just yes, but hell, yes!
Now expand this idea to any large lecture class where the material seldom changes: freshman economics, organic chemistry, English literature, even introductory computer science. It won’t cover everything, but looking back at my own college transcript (painful), it could have replaced about three-quarters of my classes. Quality way, way up; price way, way down.
You'll get no argument from me about the problem with rising costs, but I don't think quality instruction is the biggest problem to overcome with online education. Shoot, lots of really great courses are online already for free, and they haven't disrupted much yet. There are some other things at work here.

Let's get a couple things out of the way first. The most obvious problem will be with the credential aspect of the degree. The most likely place for online programs to make inroads is with state schools (high-status places like Harvard will always be around, I suspect). There is a lot of cheating at state schools and I would imagine there would be even more if people were taking a course online, so there would be problems with diluting the prestige of the degree, especially if there are hundreds of thousands of students. But there could be many ways around this--special testing venues, where no computers or phones are allowed, etc. There are a lot of different ways to attack that problem.

Rather I think the big problem will be with motivation. I went to Reed College, and while it has its share of problems, the best thing about the place is the intense atmosphere of learning that has developed there. The culture is such that there is enormous peer pressure to study really hard, all the time. During my junior year I was working until past midnight seven days a week for most of the first semester. (I took four science classes, three of them with labs, at once. I wanted to figure out how much I could handle. That's about the maximum.)

Of course, not every degree will require that kind of work, but learning is hard, and can be sort of unpleasant. Regular old curiosity or greed won't cut it, especially when we're talking about science and math classes. The online model that figures out how to get people to put up serious effort will be the real paradigm-breaker.

Quote for the day

Hendrik Hertzberg on taxes and climate change:
The sensible, if at present unachievable, solution would be (a) to impose a whopping great gasoline tax, as part of a whopping great tax on all carbon-dioxide-emitting fossil fuels, and (b) to rebate the proceeds to the American people and the American economy by cutting or eliminating the payroll tax. 

Mar 7, 2012

New urbanism, environmentalism, and RTDH

Matt responds to my review and defends the Sun Belt:
Obviously the Sun Belt is doing something right. And what they're doing right is that they actually want to add people. And that's how cities grow. Public officials and thought-leaders down to grassroots people in the community take a kind of pride in growth that leads you to sit down and say we want to work this out so that lots of houses and infrastructure get built here. Lots of American cities—particularly the smaller, cold ones with declining industrial bases, your Buffalos and your Clevelands—face the very serious problem that people don't really want to live there. But Washington, D.C. and its environs are absurdly squandering the fact that there's high demand to locate things in and around our city. I don't think that's a point that's best emphasized by highlighting the aesthetic failings of cookie cutter Sun Belt subdivisions.
Fair enough, but that's not really what I was getting at, though reading my post again it is a bit muddled. Let my rephrase my point. It's mostly aimed at environmentalists, anyway. So, another try.

Part of Yglesias' overall argument, besides the policy brief, is trying to assemble a political coalition around the idea of greater density. Conservatives should support it because anti-density regulations are an infringement on property rights, and liberals should support it because of general environmental and efficiency reasons. This is all good. But the environmental argument is phrased almost entirely around wonky technocratic points about how cities are more efficient and use less energy.

Again, those are all good points, but my addition was that probably the most well-trodden path to environmentalism is an aesthetic and moral one. But it can lead to some errors in thinking, and Matt could appeal better to this environmental wing. (Let's face it, conservatives are not going to be convinced.) I can personally illustrate this. I grew up in the canyon country of the Southwest and feel a deep connection to the land there. Looking at the galloping suburb growth around Phoenix chewing up virgin desert by the square mile, I developed an aversion to this kind of development and quite naturally connected it to population growth.

This is the big mistake. Environmentalists tend to think that the big problem in the world is that there are too many people in the world and that's why humanity has such a heavy environmental impact. Edward Abbey had this belief and so did Walter in Franzen's book Freedom. It is wrong. The big environmental problem is not population growth, the problem is resource allocation. A lot of people I know out west make this mistake, and can become rather obsessive about it.

What environmentalists need to realize (and where Matt could do a better job convincing them) is that if they want to reduce suburbia's appetite for fresh land, they shouldn't blame the suburbanites. They should blame (at least for now) the heavily zoned urban cores for keeping people out.

Mar 6, 2012

FIST PUMP

My journalism career is now officially launched, with my first paid piece, published in the March/April issue of the Washington Monthly. Huzzah! I am now officially a freelancer!

Now that I'm famous, ten more years of grinding poverty await.

*The Rent Is Too Damn High* part 1

I just pounded this thing (it's not long, maybe an hour or two's read). I actually finished awhile ago, but I've had a few things at work to do first. I won't do a full-scale review here, rather a series of posts on things I find worth mentioning.

Anyway, it's good stuff. It's solidly written and very well-thought out, though sometimes his penchant for hyper-literal argumentation makes things a little stale. Yglesias builds paragraphs like an engineer building a basement out of cinderblocks--it's solid, and functional, but hardly elegant. This is a minor quibble, and surely better than the converse. As far as the actual thesis, for long-time fans there's not much new, but the various parts of the argument have a new power all brought together in one place. It's well worth a read.

The first thing I'd like to highlight is the section on sprawl. Basically, the argument is that the more expensive the urban core becomes through restrictions on density, and the more the automobile is subsidized compared to trains and buses, the more sprawling suburbs will be created to house people who don't want to pay high rents. Sprawl can thus be seen not as a moral failure of the American people, but as a basically logical response to goofy land-use regulations and car subsidies. This makes sense. However, this phrase jumped out at me:
The sprawl phenomenon sometimes attracts too much criticism from people who have aesthetic objections to it and who ignore the deep logic of car-centered development (Locations 320-321).
I think Yglesias misses an opportunity here. Later in the book he outlines the strong environmental rationale behind greater density, and indeed, the case is airtight. Cities are far better for the environment compared to the alternative of spreading those people out over the land, which is something classic environmental writers have sometimes missed. Edward Abbey, for example, once wrote:
At what distance should good neighbors build their houses? Let it be determined by the community's mode of travel: if by foot, four miles; if by motorcar, twenty-four miles; if by airplane, ninety-six miles.
This is madness. But it comes from a deeply-held sentiment in the environmental movement: an aesthetic and moral appreciation for the land, and an abhorrence to the pollution and disconnection from nature represented by cities. You can draw a basically straight line between Thoreau and this idea. In the same book, Abbey wrote on Los Angeles:
That was fifteen years ago. And I still have not seen the fabulous city on the Pacific shore. Perhaps I never will. There's something in the prospect southwest from Barstow which makes one hesitate. Although recently, driving my own truck, I did succeed in penetrating as close as San Bernardino. But was hurled back by what appeared to be clouds of mustard gas rolling in from the west on a very broad front. Thus failed again. It may be however that Los Angeles will come to me. Will come to all of us, as it must (they say) to all men.
I think this attitude is worthy of more than just casual dismissal (that's still one of my favorite books). The outer suburban rings of Phoenix, for example, really are a blighted dystopian hellscape, with endless identical Santa Fe-style tile roofs marching into the hinterlands like some great fungal outbreak, and the horror inspired by them and their ilk could constitute a powerful political force to be harnessed. What those kind of environmentalists need to understand, and what Matt could tell them (and does tell them, rather obliquely though), is that the worst parts of cities—the sprawl, the pollution, the bland sameness, the endless traffic—are not something inherent in the cities themselves, and furthermore not living in them drastically increases one's output of carbon dioxide.

If one (correctly) has a strong aesthetic dislike for the excesses of suburban sprawl, a love for unspoiled wilderness, and a concern about greenhouse gas emissions, there are actually some reasonable solutions to all those things. Instead of apocalyptic rants about how awful sprawl can be (or, perhaps, in addition to that) one should support removing restrictions to density in the urban core.

*The Rent Is Too Damn High*

Matt Yglesias' new book is out today, yours for only $4. (Note that though it is an ebook, you can still read it on a computer if you like.) I haven't finished it yet, but I'd like to point out the dramatic improvement in title and cover design from his last book. Here's the first one:


It's not a bad book, but I can't imagine what they were thinking there. Yeesh. But here's the new one:


Not bad!

Collected links

1. Pretty.

2. Krugman with another wide-scale diagnosis of what went wrong in economics.

3. When innocence isn't enough.

4. What are your most captivating books? If you've got some, by all means post suggestions.

5. Inside Japan's nuclear meltdown. Yikes.

Mar 5, 2012

Karl Smith, DFW, and meta-arguments

Here's Karl Smith, talking about the Eurozone endgame:
Regular reader know my long standing policy advice that averting disaster for now – kicking the can down the road – is the essence of success. In part, I want to use this example to highlight why this makes sense.

There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of by any policy maker, or blogger. Few people know how the medium and long term will actually unfold and I hope I am not waxing to Hanson-esque to say that arguments about the long term are really arguments about the arguers status.

If we actually want to help the world, we focus on details and that usually means the short term. Things we can see closely and understand the nuances of. In short, we Stop Disaster.
Now, Karl is obviously a sharp guy, and I don't have the background to quibble with his economics, but this kind of pop-psych declaiming about the appropriate scope of arguments is one of his most annoying habits. He just casually rules out any sort of future large-scale prediction as a priori impossible, and justifies it in a completely ad hominem way: we can safely ignore any prediction past the medium term, because people making such arguments are really just trying to boost their own status.

Now, some of that is undoubtedly true, and probably applies to all public writing. Vain status-seeking is a powerful motivator--just look inside a gym sometime. As Orwell said, "all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy." But let's take Smith's leg-sweeping one step further. Is arguing that all cosmic predictions are 100% status-seeking itself a kind of status-seeking? After all, declaring a sizable percentage of economic predictions—and a bunch of academia too—to be entirely about self-aggrandizement is pretty derned cocky. Further: by suggesting this, am I also status-seeking? (Well, yeah.) Does this have fuck-all to do with whether any argument is true? Nope.

This kind of infinite regression, "arch-meta...heavily footnoted, winky-winky, self-conscious-about-its-winky-winkyness, too-clever-by-half, drunk-on-postmodern-hijinks" stuff is what makes David Foster Wallace such a pain in the ass on occasion. Sometimes you have to stand up, brush your shoulders off, decide to forget about all that meta-psychological shit, and give each argument an honest consideration. After all, if we look at history, sometimes people do get the big things right. Here's Milton Friedman on the Euro in 2000:
I think the euro is in its honeymoon phase. I hope it succeeds, but I have very low expectations for it. I think that differences are going to accumulate among the various countries and that non-synchronous shocks are going to affect them. Right now, Ireland is a very different state; it needs a very different monetary policy from that of Spain or Italy...

You know, the various countries in the euro are not a natural currency trading group. They are not a currency area. There is very little mobility of people among the countries. They have extensive controls and regulations and rules, and so they need some kind of an adjustment mechanism to adjust to asynchronous shocks—and the floating exchange rate gave them one. They have no mechanism now.

If we look back at recent history, they’ve tried in the past to have rigid exchange rates, and each time it has broken down. 1992, 1993, you had the crises. Before that, Europe had the snake, and then it broke down into something else. So the verdict isn’t in on the euro. It’s only a year old. Give it time to develop its troubles.
He nailed that prediction. It was almost completely correct. If Europe had followed his advice, things would have turned out very much better in the long term. Was that status-seeking? What was it, a coincidence? One could also posit that the desire for higher status might motivate people to make predictions that turn out to be correct. In any case, who cares? This kind of question is impossible to answer.

The ironic thing is that Smith himself is sometimes prone to the worst kind of boneheaded big-picture projections. Take this stunner of a post from last December:
Nonetheless, we should pursue the development of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible including looking for ways to streamline regulation in North American regarding fossil fuel production...

Lastly, and this will persuade few people but it is important, 100 years is a long time in the industrial age. However, it is simply forever in the information age. There is an extremely high chance that the very nature of human society itself will have changed by that time in ways that render this entire issue moot.
This was memorably skewered by James Wimberley:
Read the whole thing as a fine example of yahoo values, data-free scaremongering and reckless optimism, and an indifference to economic reasoning.
The last paragraph cited is self-refuting. It´s very likely to Smith that humans will stop needing food, transport, consumer durables, heating and cooling, and shelter because of an unspecified information singularity, as in Charles Stross´ SF romp Accelerando. On the other hand, the risk of population losses on a genocidal scale as a result of well understood and carefully modelled climatic processes can be ignored.
Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I am not remotely convinced that kicking the can down the road is the essence of success. Sometimes it is possible to see, with some margin of error, what will happen on a grand scale. Right now it looks to me like the Eurozone was a crazy idea that could never have worked and will never work, and that Ireland, and Portugal, and Greece and Spain and Italy et al, will be forever doomed to poverty so long as they remain inside. Kicking the can, therefore, looks like it will just postpone the inevitable.

Quote for the day

"The truth is that punitive, hysterical religions thrive, while soft, mystical ones must hide their scriptures somewhere in the hot sand." --Adam Gopnik, reviewing a new book on Revelation.

Let Iran have nukes

Via Fallows, that is the title of a refreshingly realistic piece in the upcoming Washington Monthly. The casual talk about war with Iran that I've been hearing over the past few weeks is astonishingly boneheaded and irresponsible. This essay lays out what you might expect—that Israel already has a nuclear deterrent, that Iran's leaders are just garden variety authoritarians, not suicidal madmen, and that a war with Iran would be a catastrophic disaster.

This is one of those times, I'm afraid, for those with the spark of life to stand up and be counted. Go read, and we'll think about other things we could do if things get worse.

Mar 2, 2012

I like this guy

Some redneck physics. And I mean that in a good way.



Monetizing free operating systems

Yglesias has a pretty amazing graph:


He was also emphasizing the other day the issues with Google's "give stuff away free" business model:
Gmail is great, and it's free. Google Search is great, and it's free. Google Maps is great, and it's free. Android is not my favorite smartphone software, but you've got to admit it's impressive that Google went through the trouble of creating it and then gave it away for free. But of course Web services actually have a lot of costs associated with them. You either need to engage in a lot of fundraising, à la Wikipedia, or else you need to sell ads à la Google.
There is an important exception to this. Google did not develop Android from scratch. Let's back up a bit, and read a bit of that classic Neal Stephenson essay "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," and his great car analogy for the big operating system companies:
Imagine a crossroads where four competing auto dealerships are situated. One of them (Microsoft) is much, much bigger than the others. It started out years ago selling three-speed bicycles (MS-DOS); these were not perfect, but they worked, and when they broke you could easily fix them.
There was a competing bicycle dealership next door (Apple) that one day began selling motorized vehicles--expensive but attractively styled cars with their innards hermetically sealed, so that how they worked was something of a mystery.
The big dealership responded by rushing a moped upgrade kit (the original Windows) onto the market. This was a Rube Goldberg contraption that, when bolted onto a three-speed bicycle, enabled it to keep up, just barely, with Apple-cars. The users had to wear goggles and were always picking bugs out of their teeth while Apple owners sped along in hermetically sealed comfort, sneering out the windows. But the Micro-mopeds were cheap, and easy to fix compared with the Apple-cars, and their market share waxed.
Eventually the big dealership came out with a full-fledged car: a colossal station wagon (Windows 95). It had all the aesthetic appeal of a Soviet worker housing block, it leaked oil and blew gaskets, and it was an enormous success. A little later, they also came out with a hulking off-road vehicle intended for industrial users (Windows NT) which was no more beautiful than the station wagon, and only a little more reliable.
[...]
On the other side of the road are...competitors that have come along more recently...Linux, which is not a business at all. It's a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks; these are more like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But they are better than Army tanks. They've been modified in such a way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free.
Customers come to this crossroads in throngs, day and night. Ninety percent of them go straight to the biggest dealership and buy station wagons or off-road vehicles. They do not even look at the other dealerships.
Of the remaining ten percent, most go and buy a sleek Euro-sedan, pausing only to turn up their noses at the philistines going to buy the station wagons and ORVs. If they even notice the people on the opposite side of the road, selling the cheaper, technically superior vehicles, these customers deride them cranks and half-wits...
The group giving away the free tanks only stays alive because it is staffed by volunteers, who are lined up at the edge of the street with bullhorns, trying to draw customers' attention to this incredible situation.
Obviously, this was written in 1999 and much has changed, but it's still broadly accurate. I learned to use Linux in South Africa because it is basically immune to viruses, which are rampant on PCs in South Africa, and when I came home and got a new (cheap) laptop, I installed it (Mint, if you're curious) alongside Windows 7. It's a great OS. While Windows and OS X are a lot more polished, more fundamental rooting-in-the-innards things are vastly, vastly easier with Linux. Most servers and other huge computers that need an OS that absolutely will not crash use Linux or something similar.

What does this have to do Android? Android is based on Linux. Later in the essay Stephenson recommends that Microsoft and others should just get out of the operating system business and unite around Linux. Apple and Google have basically done this. Apple's OS X and iOS are based on Unix (so they are like Linux's cousins), and Android is completely based on Linux. Except where Stephenson envisioned a single, open standard OS distributed for free hacker-style, Google and especially Apple saw a lot of free labor they could swipe, alter a bit, polish to a high gloss, and wall off. I should emphasize that Apple is by far the worse offender here. Where Google is kinda halfheartedly trying to compile your personal information and make you buy their stuff, Apple has deliberately crippled their devices (particularly the iPhone and iPad) to force you into the Apple ecosystem.

However, let me end on a small high note. When I tried to access my girlfriend's iPad using Windows so I could give her some of my (public domain! some of them!) ebooks, it wanted me to download iTunes and sign in to the Apple store, and then wouldn't let me just transfer the goddamn files. However, when I tried it with Linux, some hacker had already figured out how to bypass the iPad file blocks, and built it into the Linux infrastructure. After a bit of fiddling, I could get past even the Great Wall of Apple.

Know hope.