Thursday, December 8, 2011

Boo, Yale

Why do they do this? You of course recall my recent post noting how uninformative all those comparisons about stacks of dollar bills to the moon were.  Now the New York Times "Green" blog quotes a paper from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, saying that yearly carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. rivers and streams are "equal to a car burning 40 billion gallons of gasoline, enough to drive back and forth to the moon 3.4 million times."

Helpful? How many times do you drive back and forth to the moon in a year? Does this give you any idea about the magnitude, other than "big"?

Let's make it simple. According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. consumes 378 million gallons of motor gasoline per day. So the annual emissions from rivers and streams are equal to a little over 100 days of emissions from cars burning gasoline, or between a quarter and a third.

At this point it becomes apparent that either we've buried the lead, or we're not understanding the story. Here we are going to all this trouble about carbon emissions from cars, and we haven't done anything about killer rivers and streams. I presume that this study is not really about finding a huge new source of carbon emissions, but about changing our understanding of transport mechanisms. But that gets obscured by the image of The Little Camry That Could making those millions of round trips (it's a long commute, but the scenery is great).

Anyway, no more moon statistics, OK?

The Huntsman Miscalculation

Over at The New York Times, Ross Douthat, the Other Conservative Columnist, is apparently discouraged by the assortment of dolts and liars running for the Republican nomination for President. He has devoted a column to lamenting the "staggeringly inept" political mistakes that have kept a more plausible conservative, Jon Huntsman, mired in the low single digits in popularity.

Douthat says Huntsman was not well known to conservatives in the Republican base. Therefore he should have tenderly wooed them (I'm paraphrasing). Instead, what did he do? "He picked high-profile fights on two hot-button issues — evolution and global warming — that were completely irrelevant to his candidacy’s rationale....Imagine a contender for the Democratic nomination introducing himself to liberal voters by attacking Planned Parenthood...."

Well, gosh, Mr. Douthat, can you see any difference between attacking Planned Parenthood and supporting evolution? How about the fact that the "hot-button issues" for the Republican base involve denying reality? Doesn't it bother you to be a supporter of a party whose other supporters have to be appeased by never mentioning what you and every other educated person know to be true? Doesn't that ever make you wonder if you've got the wrong party?

Actually, I think Huntsman was following a conscious strategy. Here's the calculation: "People don't like Romney. Everyone else who runs is going to be appealing to the Tea Party. They split the votes, and I get the votes of all the rest, the people who are sick of all the nut jobs. That may not be a majority,but it  might be a plurality, say 30%. There have got to be at least that many Republicans who are still sane."

But apparently, there aren't. Oops.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Who's Got Cultcha?

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center has created a minor stir. It seems that a mere 49% of Americans agree with the statement, "Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others." True, this is higher than other countries, but it's down from 60% in 2002. Fox and Friends wasted no time in blaming this on Obama, despite the fact that the figure had already declined to 55% by 2007.

It's time for someone (i.e., Obama) to take on this whole Republican thing  about "American exceptionalism." The Republican idea seems to be that because we're Americans we're exceptional, without the need to actually do any of the things that made us exceptional. For example, America used to have the best-educated population in the world. Not any more.

That aside, there were two odd things about the Pew survey. First is the whole idea of Americans thinking of themselves as having a "superior culture." Offhand, I would've said that the American attitude is better expressed as, "When I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my remote."

Second is the international comparison. Wouldn't you think that Germans would be a little reluctant to describe themselves as having the Uberkultur? You'd be wrong: 47 percent felt their culture is superior, almost as many as in the US (though 52 percent disagreed). The real stunner, though, is France: only 27 percent thought their culture was superior. I thought the whole point of being French was to feel culturally superior to everyone else, and to see France as the  fount of enlightenment for the whole world. Maybe they're discouraged because they haven't been able to produce a talent to equal Jerry Lewis. Or because they've realized John Lennon really is better than Johnny Hallyday.

Courage, mes amis. I mean, just the food alone...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Constitution versus Brocco-Tyranny

The mandate to purchase health insurance is the primary legal issue in the case soon to appear before the Supreme Court. Does the Federal government have the authority under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to make people buy something? What, opponents of the bill frequently ask, is to stop the government from making everyone buy broccoli?

This  argument ignores the fact that state governments already have this power. There has been no constitutional challenge, after all, to the mandate in the Massachusetts health care law. So why is it that, over the last 220 years, not a single state has passed a law requiring citizens to buy broccoli?

The answer can be found in the U.S. Constitution. Not in Article I, Section 8, where the Commerce Clause is found, but in Article IV, Section 4: "The United States shall guarantee to each state a Republican Form of Government." States don't require their citizens to buy broccoli, because they are democracies and voters don't want a broccoli mandate.

This is the ultimate security for citizens in general. It doesn't protect minorities against tyranny by the majority; the Bill of Rights does that. But the intended protection of citizens against tyranny by the government is representative democracy.

Of course, citizens don't want an insurance mandate, either. But they overwhelmingly do want a ban on exclusion by insurance companies for preexisting conditions. It's up to the advocates of a mandate to explain that having one without the other would be like telling people they could wait until after the accident to buy auto insurance.


What is one to make of all these claims by right-wing pundits that the coverage of Herman Cain's alleged boorishness represents racism? On its face the charge is absurd. Senator Bob Packwood and Rep. Anthony Weiner are among  the prominent white boys who have had their careers derailed by evidence of inappropriate behavior towards women.

What I think lies behind the charges is a variant of a ploy widely practiced among elementary-school students when insulted: saying "I know you are, but what am I?" Republicans get tired of being called racists and start itching to turn the tables. Thus, after Obama's election in 2008, there was a spate of comments on right-wing websites about how blacks were racists for supporting Obama just because he was black, as if they hadn't overwhelmingly supported John Kerry and Al Gore. And let's not forget Rush Limbaugh's charge of racism against Sonia Sotomayor.

But it's even better when, instead of accusing a member of a racial minority of being racist, you can really stick it to the liberals by accusing whites. Republicans don't get such an opportunity very often, but Clarence Thomas employed this strategy with notable success.

Another favorite table-turner is sexism. Thus, if people criticize Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin, it's not because Bachmann and Palin are unqualified (in both senses) ignoramuses. It's because the people criticizing them are sexists.

The larger advantage of this ploy is that it preemptively devalues things people might say about you. A past master was Yasir Arafat, who never let an opportunity pass to accuse Israel of antisemitism (Arabs are Semites, get it?) and terrorism.

The danger to Republicans in using the IKYABWAI Ploy, of course, is that it can so easily be turned against them, and with much better reason. For example, Republicans in Congress are unanimous that there should be dramatic cuts in programs helping the poor and middle class, and that no sacrifice, no matter how slight, should be demanded of the rich. What can one call this but "Republican class warfare"? The ever-polite Democrats have not called it that, of course.

And what about accepting American decline? What better exemplifies that than the Republican attitude that we can't afford to do anything big, and so we must just hunker down and try to avoid losing ground?

I never considered myself terribly astute as a politician. But when I see how bad professional pols are at doing obvious things, I have to wonder.

Pitching "The Matrix"

After seeing it again on TV:

"See, basically it's a Philip K. Dick story, but he didn't write it, so we don't have to pay for rights.

"No, not 'Minority Report' or 'Blade Runner.' I mean the books where it turns out that everything we see is a carefully constructed illusion, and reality is much worse than anyone realizes. OK, you haven't read them. Who has? They're depressing. But we put in a happy ending. Think 'Total Recall.'

"Only our target is high school and college kids, so the illusion is ... digital!  And the hero is a computer hacker. Instead of Arnold, I see Keanu Reeves.

"Then we just plug in some teenage angst, and basically we're done. The hero feels there's something wrong with the world, but he can't put his finger on it. But it turns out he's the guy everyone's been waiting for, the only guy who can save humanity and awaken people to reality!

"And there's small group of underground fighters who are the only people who can see reality and realize the hero's importance. One of them, of course, is a hot chick who falls in love with him.

"And the good guys have a computer program that instantly makes the hero incredibly good at--wait for it--kung fu! We toss in a ton of martial arts flying-through-the-air special effects.

"Oh, and lots of gunfire and stuff getting destroyed.

"No, forget about Arnold. This will be twice as big as 'Total Recall'. Think 'Terminator 2'. Oh, and did I mention we've got a men-versus-machines plot?"

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Health Numbers We Can Do Without

I was looking forward to reading Ezekiel Emanuel's opinion piece in The New York Times online about health-care costs. Looking forward, at any rate, to banging my head against the wall as he made the arguments that brother Rahm should have suggested to his boss two years ago. I was disappointed.

Instead, Emanuel first tries to give an idea of the size of health care costs with the hoary old stack-of-dollar-bills image so dear to Ronald Reagan. Can we please stop doing this? You can use it about virtually any number concerned with the US economy, and it sounds huge.

Actually, all it shows is that we're a big country. In population we're now the third-largest country in the world: there's China and India, and then us. If you stacked  up all Americans head to foot they would reach from here to the moon and beyond (assuming an average height of 4.5 feet, which seems conservative). If you put the whole U.S. GDP into one dollar bills, it would make a stack from the earth to the moon, back to the earth, back to the moon, and halfway back to earth. Or we could put it into pennies, and then it would go from here to Saturn and halfway back. Does this actually tell us anything? Americans' spending on things to read would form a pile of dollar bills four times the height of the International Space Station. Is that a lot or a little?

Emanuel has more comparisons, and again, all they prove is that the US is a big country. We spend as much on health care as France spends on everything. But we spend as much on cosmetics as Iceland spends on everything. Again, so what?

Here is what you need to know about health care spending in the US in a nutshell:
  1. Over the next ten years, we'll spend about $30 trillion on health care. 
  2. The cost of the health care reform bill is about 3% of that. Since almost half of all health care spending goes through the Federal government, the cost of Obamacare is about 6% of current Federal spending on health care.
  3. We spend about $2500 more per capita than the next-most-expensive health care system in the world. That's $10,000 for a family of four. The next-most-expensive health care system in the world has universal care and better health statistics than we do.
  4. Implication: It's not at all hard to believe that Obamacare, while covering tens of millions more people, could improve efficiency enough to decrease total Federal health care spending (and, a fortiori, total US health-care spending).
Throw in the fact that we rank between 30th and 40th in the world in life expectancy and infant survival, and you've got everything you need to hold your own at your next cocktail party.

[Notes: A dollar bill is about 0.1 mm thick. A penny is 1.5 mm thick, so a dollar in pennies is about 1,500 times as thick as a dollar bill. The average distance from the earth to the moon is about 384,000 km; the minimum distance from the earth to Saturn is 1.2 billion km. The 2010 US GDP was about $14.5 trillion.]

For Marijuana Prohibition

We often hear the laws against marijuana compared to Prohibition, usually alluding to their futility and their encouragement of violent criminal gangs. Actually, though, proponents of legalization should be advocating placing marijuana under a regime similar to the Volstead Act, the harsh implementing legislation of the Eighteenth Amendment.

Here are some things that were legal for alcohol under the Volstead Act:

  1. Possession in one's own home
  2. Serving to a bona fide guest
  3. Purchase for medical purposes, with a bona fide prescription
The slogan for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws should be "Prohibition Now!"

Of course, legalizing home cultivation would mean a drastic cut in revenues to criminal gangs, as well as making it safe again to hike in national forests, but let's start small and see how it goes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One Conclusion From Europe's Financial Crisis

People say--rightly--that the American system of government has become dysfunctional, but it could be worse. Imagine if we were still trying to operate under the Articles of Confederation instead of the Constitution. That's essentially what Europe's doing.

Is Netanyahu a Sleeper Agent for Hamas?

Of course not. Don't be ridiculous.


As you may have heard, Israel has agreed to release over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, a captured soldier. Since Shalit was captured by Hamas for this specific purpose, it will be hard for Palestinians to see the exchange as anything other than a complete victory for Hamas. Here are some of the conclusions that will be drawn:

  • Hamas, unlike Fatah, actually accomplishes things.
  • The only way to get what you want from Israel is through violence.
  • If we keep the pressure on the Jews long enough, they'll give up.

None of those conclusions is going to make Palestinians likely to accept the need for peace with Israel. As for Mahmoud Abbas, he might as well resign. My real paranoia is not that Netanyahu is an agent for Hamas, but that he sees their interests as running in parallel. No peace with the Palestinians means no giving up the West Bank. Not only does Netanyahu probably see that as a good thing in itself, but it makes it possible to hold hold together his coalition and remain Prime Minister.

Even this level of paranoia is probably excessive. The most likely explanation for Netanyahu's actions is that he is just being what he has always been: a self-interested, opportunistic politician of near-Arafatian proportions. For the fact is that, inexplicably, the Israeli public favored this deal. Granted, the idea of someone being held hostage indefinitely often does capture the public's imagination--look at the American public's obsession with the Iranian hostages.

But it's very hard to imagine the American public enthusiastically supporting a deal to exchange the embassy hostages for hundreds of Iranians convicted of murdering innocent people. Remember that Palestinian guy who posed for photographers smiling with bloody hands after taking part in the lynching of two Israeli reservists? He's free now.

We are told that Netanyahu felt that a deal had to be reached quickly, because things are changing so fast in Egypt that he couldn't be sure of Egyptian support in the future. Really? You needed Egypt's support to drive this hard bargain?

The exchange also casts a new light on the whole debacle of the Turkish flotilla and the blockade of Gaza. Surely the way for Israel to seize the high ground was to say that they would stop the blockade as soon as Shalit was released. But in all the charges and counter-charges I don't recall hearing Shalit's name at all.

In the latest twist, the Israeli government is outraged that Shalit was subjected to an interview with the Egyptian press before being released. According to the Associated Press, one of the questions was, "You have known what it is like to be in captivity. There are more than 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Will you help campaign for their release?" Does moral equivalence between kidnap victims and convicted murderers make you a little uncomfortable? That's the equivalence that the Israeli government has just signed onto.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Letter to a Friend in Pakistan

[Yes, the same one who wrote this. She may have actually been in Texas or California when I wrote it. Minor edits added.]

Can't help but be amused by how every time I criticize Pstan, you reply that I'm right, and let's not forget that the US did this and this terrible thing. Yes, under Reagan the US gave a lot of help to Afghan warlords, and that helped lead to the rise of the Taliban. But in fairness, the US was hindered by having to funnel money through Pakistan (Zia, may jackals eat his bones), who gave it to a bunch of people like Hekmatyar (sp?). Hard at this point to add up benefits and costs of funding jihadism (you might almost say founding it, though let's give the Saudis some credit), but at the same time probably contributing to the fall of the Iron Curtain.


I don't really blame you for walking out of shul, though I doubt I would've. I don't quite understand why a rabbi would make a big fuss about the danger of a Palestinian state, since I think most people in Israel wouldn't mind provided they believed that people in it would stop trying to kill them. Unfortunately that's become a harder sell. I was there for the start of the second intifada, and I saw how a once-robust left in Israel was just vaporized. One of the worst things for Israelis is to be a sucker (that's why driving is so dangerous) and people felt they'd been suckered by Palestinians claiming to be ready to live in peace with them and then shooting them. Then later, there was the withdrawal from Gaza, followed by rocket attacks. That made it hard to argue that withdrawal from the West Bank would lead to peace.

Since I've started on a rant, I'll say that I have several times started on a blog posting called "I'm So Bored with the Palestinians." How on earth did they convince everyone that they're the world's most unfortunate people? There is exactly one reason why at least 10 million refugees from the partition of India, and similar numbers from the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe (and for that matter 500,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries) are not a huge problem today: they were given citizenship in the countries they fled to. The Palestinians, in contrast, were told, "You thought you were just an Arab, but actually you're this new thing called a 'Palestinian', and since you're not a 'Jordanian', Syrian, Lebanese, or Egyptian, you have to stay in this refugee camp until we send you back. Don't blame us; this is all the Jews' fault."

There's no denying that problems have been exacerbated by Bibi's ridiculous policy in the territories, but the fundamental problem is that 60+ years later the Palestinians still can't bring themselves to say the Jews have a right to a state. They now accept a "two-state solution," as long as neither of them is a Jewish state. Of course to accept the idea of a Jewish state would mean accepting that refugees might not be able to go "home" to the exact house their grandfather lived in, but might have to live as much as 30 miles away (the actual distance from Haifa to Jenin), which for some reason would be viewed as a huge betrayal. (Their grandfather didn't necessarily live where his father lived, but that's another story.) I would call the whole thing a scam, except that Palestinians deeply believe it. They even explicitly liken the "Naqba" to the Holocaust, which is just narcissistic disconnection from reality. Can I stop now and go feel bad about the hundreds of thousands of Muslim women who were raped in Darfur, since Muslims don't seem to care?

OK, enough rant for today. Take care.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Few Brief Points About the Amanda Knox Trial

1. The prosecutor in the case called Knox a "demonic, satanic, diabolical she-devil." Earlier he had, according to a defense attorney, suggested that Meredith Kircher's death was part of a satanic ritual. That being the case, it surely seems relevant that back in 2001 this same prosecutor "proposed that the suicide of a Perugian doctor was actually a murder committed by a satanic cult, practicing since the Middle Ages, that demanded human organs for their Black Masses." Perhaps the American press was not aware of this fact, but the Italian press should have raised it instead of allowing themselves to be led around by the nose.

2. In a year in which we have learned a lot about differences between the American legal system and those of France and Italy, here's one that hasn't gotten much attention: The issue of whether to believe the DNA evidence was settled cleanly and quickly (albeit four years late) by court-appointed independent experts. If this is a practice followed in the US, I have never heard of it. We rely instead on an adversarial system, where my expert is pitted against your expert and jurors are supposed to decide which one to believe. Perhaps we should give some thought to the possibility that this is not the most effective way of finding the truth.

3. If you're ever arrested in a foreign country, do what they told me to do when I was in the Soviet Union: speak English and don't answer any questions until someone from the Embassy arrives.

4. The inimitable Nancy Grace said she knew all along that the Italians would never convict someone as cute as Amanda Knox. What a horrible woman. There are some journalists who make the public better informed, and others who make it stupider. Guess which group I think Nancy Grace belongs to.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


A story in today's New York Times describes the filing of charges against a Staten Island couple for embezzling millions of dollars in federal funds intended to provide (ouch) nutritious meals for preschoolers. What caught my attention was that the couple "surrendered to agents of the United States Agriculture Department."

It must really be a drag to be a cop in a department where no one knows there are cops. "Federal agents, huh? Let's see some ID....Agriculture Department? Hey, can I ask you a question about mulching?"

It's time for some of these people to get their own TV shows: "USDA! Put down your weapons and step away from the ground beef!" "Run! It's the Ags!" What a pity criminals don't say "Cheese it!" any more.

Friday, August 5, 2011

More Hot Debt Pix

In response to my last posting, Andy Aaron has sent this link, which is worth a couple thousand words.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Attention! This Is Important

Send this posting to everyone on your mailing list. I'm absolutely serious-- everyone, at least everyone who votes in America, needs to see this picture. Click on the envelope icon at the bottom (this sends a link), or just copy and paste.

This chart is from a report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts called "No Silver Bullet: Paths for Reducing the Federal Debt." I'm sorry it's a little small; if it bothers you, try hitting CTRL + a couple times.

The bottom dotted line shows Congressional Budget Office projections for what the national debt would be now if nothing had changed since 2000, and the top of the gray region shows the same thing with adjustments in assumptions. Essentially by 2010 the debt is zero.

The dark blue region represents increases in the debt due to changes in the economy. This started to become significant in 2008, when the economy went south, leading to decreases in revenue and increases in safety-net spending. Above that are light blue for the effects of tax cuts, green for unforeseen changes in military spending (mainly, I would imagine, the cost of two wars), gold for non-defense discretionary spending, red for entitlements, and light green (sage?) for the interest on everything else.

Take a look at the right edge. The economy, tax cuts, and war account for about two-thirds of the national debt. Interest is about another sixth. Domestic discretionary spending and entitlements together account for the final sixth.

What would a naive observer think this implies about reducing the national debt? Pretty obviously, that we should focus on reversing the tax cuts, creating jobs, and winding down the wars. But that, of course, is not where the discussion has been. Instead of focusing on the two-thirds, we've been arguing about the one-sixth. Many people in the U.S. believe that the debt has grown so rapidly because of a huge increase in domestic spending. Clearly, that is not true.

And why does no one think it's important for voters to know the facts?

BTW, if you're wondering why the chart shows actual debt as about 60% of GDP and not the 90+% everyone's been hysterical about, it's because it excludes the portion of the national debt held by the Social Security Trust Fund.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Missing Hyphens Are Bad News

No death "miracle" in Guyana airliner crash
--Reuters headline

In other words, reports of a miracle were erroneous...or were they?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Speech Obama Should Have Given in May

"Republicans are now saying they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling unless Congress and I agree to drastic cuts, including to Medicare. This is unconscionable and must stop.

"First of all, what does it mean to refuse to raise the debt ceiling? Does it mean we will spend less? No. What we spend is determined by what Congress appropriates. All it means is that when we get the bills, we won't have enough cash to pay them. It means that we will become, for the first time in our history, a nation of deadbeats.

"The consequences for our struggling economy are likely to be disastrous. It's not hard to imagine what the effect on our creditworthiness would be. People simply are not going to be willing to lend to us at the low rates we currently get.

"But the more serious point is what it would do to our standing in the world. We would be saying to everyone that we are a nation that doesn't keep its promises. We would be demonstrating to all, including ourselves, that our political system is completely dysfunctional.

"Everyone in Congress either understands this or is too uninformed to be in Congress. That's why we have never failed to raise the debt ceiling, including doing it seven times in the last administration. The debt is the responsibility of both parties--sixty percent of our current debt was incurred in the previous three Republican administrations.

"Now a small group of extremists have decided to use this means to blackmail the entire country. They say we must make drastic cuts to important programs, or they will, indeed, allow us to become a nation of deadbeats. It's not cutting up the credit card--it's using the credit card and then refusing to pay the bill.

"I understand that these people are motivated, at least in part, by concern about the deficit. I'm concerned about the deficit too, and it is urgent that we sit down together and discuss ways of closing it.

"But I will not be a party to any attempt to force down the throats of the American people cuts to crucial government services, including not only Medicare but air traffic control, food inspection, Pell grants, and many more, cuts that Americans don't want, by threatening to make us an object of pity and scorn for the rest of the world.

"The debt ceiling is one thing. The budget is another. Let's keep them separate."

The Speech Obama Should Give in July

"Looking at the mess in Washington today about raising the debt ceiling, people think, 'Can't those people in Washington do anything? What's wrong with our politicians?'

"It's understandable that people think this way. Understandable, but wrong.

"There are many things wrong with Washington, and many things that it doesn't do well. But this, working out a compromise on an issue, one that nobody loves but everybody can live with, is something it can do.

"I really prefer to avoid finger-pointing, but sometimes the truth has to be told. The current problems in Washington are not caused by Washington politicians. They're caused by a group of extremist Republicans who came to Washington determined not to do things Washington politicians do. First on the list of things they are determined not to do is compromise.

"They have convinced themselves that they were elected by people who want them to do anything, including harming the economy and damaging our international reputation, in order to get drastic cuts in essential government programs, including Medicare.

"Speaker Boehner may deny it, but he knows perfectly well that this whole crisis was created by his junior colleagues. And he knows that it could, and should, have been resolved a long time ago if his more senior colleagues had stood up to them.

"This is a democracy, and if that's what you wanted your representative to do, then by all means, vote for them again. If it's not, then vote for someone else."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lazy Job-Creators

You've probably heard the Republicans say they don't want to raise taxes on the rich in a recession, because the rich are job-creators. You may even have caught Stephen Colbert showing the cover of a comic book: "Job Creatorie Job Creator, the Poor Little Job Creator Boy."

But what you probably haven't done (and why should you, when you've got me) is go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and see  how these guys are doing. Are we getting our money's worth?

If you follow the link, you'll notice that job growth turned negative in 2008, so to be fair, let's just look at job creation before things really went to hell, from 2001 to 2007. And for reference, let's compare it to the period from 1961 to 1967.

                                                                           1961-1967              2001-2007

Top marginal tax rate (here):                 91%-70%               38.6%-35% 

Growth in private employment:               20%                           4%

The conclusion seems inescapable: job-creators have turned into a bunch of entitled slackers. Perhaps they need a crack of the whip to get them to pay attention.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

No More Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Paul

Has anyone else noticed how Ron Paul seems to be getting a free pass from the media? Partly, of course, that's because no one gives him a snowball's chance in hell of being elected President. But journalists also seem to have bought into the image of him as a crusty old libertarian who sticks to his principles no matter how politically suicidal-- the unelectable straight shooter (check out this profile from NPR). And he's playing up this image-- in an interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS he just couldn't stop talking about how antiwar he is.

So here are some questions for a future interviewer:

Congressman Paul, you were reelected in 2010 as a Republican in Texas. As you know, the 2010 platform of the Texas Republican Party states:

We believe that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans....

We oppose the legalization of sodomy [i.e., Lawrence v. Texas, a 6-3 Supreme Court decision in 2003]. We demand that Congress exercise its authority granted by the U.S. Constitution to withhold jurisdiction from the federal courts from cases involving sodomy. 

Do you support these statements?

If so, how do you reconcile them with your libertarian beliefs? Do you believe that government regulation of private conduct is less onerous when done by a state government than when done by the Federal government? Do you think that states should have the right to regulate gun ownership, or just sexual conduct?

If not, did you have any qualms about running on this platform? How, if at all, did you make your opposition known?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Three Things About the Debt Ceiling You Probably Haven't Read

1. Bring back shame
Am I really hopelessly old-fashioned? I find the conversation about the debt ceiling very odd. There has been a lot of discussion about whether failing to raise it would really be catastrophic. (Almost certainly it would, but if you live in a fact-free zone like Michele Bachmann you can just ignore that.) But is no one interested in discussing the moral issue?

Suppose someone told  you, "I've been spending too much money, and I can't afford it, so I've decided to stop paying my bills. That includes the kid who just mowed my lawn. Oh, and it also includes that money I borrowed from you last week." What would your opinion be of someone like that? Not very high, I imagine.

That's what we'd be saying if we announce we're not raising the debt ceiling: not that we're going to reduce spending, just that we're going to stop paying our bills. The Tea Party was incensed about proposals to help people who were delinquent on their mortgages. Now Bachmann is suggesting that we become a nation of deadbeats.

This is a matter of, to use an old-fashioned term, our national honor. It is unfortunate for modern Democrats that they have never been comfortable using the language of morality and national honor, because it strikes me as a rhetorical approach that would leave the Republicans flummoxed.

And not only with regard to the debt ceiling. What about the national dishonor of the biggest economy in the world being a place where hundreds of thousands of people go bankrupt because of medical bills, that ranks worse than thirtieth among nations of the world in both life expectancy and infant survival, and 27th in students' proficiency in math? Politicians may be shameless, but are the rest of us?

2. Is this how Frankenstein felt?
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has sent a letter to Congress urging it to raise the debt ceiling "as expeditiously as possible." No mention in the letter of the fact that the Chamber is probably more responsible than any other single actor for the crisis. The Chamber spent unknown millions of dollars getting Republicans elected to Congress in 2010. Now it's trying to rein them in.

Not that it's showing much evidence of a sudden conversion. "The Chamber believes it is imperative that any path to deficit reduction focus on...cutting spending, especially mandatory spending, rather than shortsighted tax increases." Still, saying "focus on" rather than "only consist of" is moderation of a sort. Unfortunately, I don't see any sign that the new members of Congress understand who put them there.

3. Abandonment issues
Democrats in Congress have been loudly and vociferously opposed to making major cuts in Medicare and other entitlement programs. According to the newspapers, that's because doing so will deprive them of a good electoral issue: the House Republicans' quixotic attempt to turn Medicare into a voucher program that doesn't keep up with health-care cost inflation.

I believe this story as far as it goes, but I think it misses the real point. Which Republicans will be hurt by this issue, if it is an issue? Not so much new candidates running against Democratic incumbents in 2012. They didn't vote for the plan. But the Republicans currently in the House did.

In other words, House Democrats want to be in the majority again. And they perceive Obama as being willing to give up on the idea of a Democratic majority in order to position himself as a centrist for the Presidential election.

They may be right, and if so, it strikes me as foolish. Being President is a lot less fun when you have a highly unified, uncompromising opposition party in control of the House. See, for example, above.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

More Bad News on the Economics of the Internet, But Good News on Yellow Perch

Discount for the fact that I'm a little grouchy about Yahoo! News, as I mentioned a few weeks ago. (By the way, they have now "published" my piece on the debt ceiling, so you can go reread it and earn me fifteen hundredths of a cent.)

But this, by any standard, is egregious: A few weeks ago, the number one story in their listing of top stories, which runs as a sidebar to their other news stories from the AP and AFP and so on, was this one, which begins:

Bell Aquaculture, a pioneer in sustainable fish farming operations, is expanding its production facility in Albany, IN. Formed in 2005, Bell Aquaculture is the nation's largest yellow perch (Perca flavescens) fish farm. Ground was broken today on a $5 million expansion project.

Are you a excited as I am? The largest fish farm in America! Well, all right, the largest yellow perch farm in America. Those folks in Albany, Indiana must be bursting with pride. Maybe Gov. Daniels should reconsider his decision not to run for President. But wait, there's more:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Madison Avenue Meets the Marquis de Sade

"A logical solution was to help their customers to recognize their products by literally branding them with the company’s name or symbol."

--The New York Times

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Gun-Owners' Fantasy

If you ever saw the old play "Charley's Aunt, " you may recall the title character's line, "I'm from Brazil, where the nuts come from." It doesn't sound as good with "Arizona",  but it applies to me.

Yes, another nut has gone into the wholesale murder business in Arizona. This time, a man shot and killed five people and then himself in Yuma. The victims included his ex-wife and her lawyer.

I'm not going to go on and on about how violent America is. Indeed the mass-shooting meme (that's the first time I've ever used that word-- I hope it was correct) has now reached northern Europe as well.

No, what always strikes me in these cases is what they reveal about gun owners' fantasy. I'm not talking about a fantasy of killing people, but about a fantasy of security.  Gun owners believe that lax gun-ownership laws will allow them to protect themselves. Yet these massacres keep taking places in states with lax gun-ownership laws. Two years ago a man in Alabama killed ten people with an assault rifle before killing himself. Despite Alabama's permissive gun laws, not one of his victims was able to put up any resistance.

After the Gabby Giffords shootings, I suggested to some gun nuts at the Volokh Conspiracy blog  that a ban on sale of ammo clips that let you shoot twenty people without reloading would easily pass Supreme Court scrutiny. Predictably, they were outraged. What if, one of them asked, he had to protect his family against a home invasion by several armed people? You or I might think that a Glock with a standard 15-round magazine would offer adequate protection for the run-of-the-mill home invasion, but hey, you never know.

And once you start down the road of being Constitutionally entitled to protection from every conceivable threat, there's no logical stopping place. What if you're being attacked by criminals in an armored car? You clearly need an RPG for self-defense. What about strafing from a Beechcraft? The Colt shoulder-launched missile, the SAM that won the West (I'm making that up). I will survive!

To some extent, of course, this whole fantasy is just the public rationalization  of the real fantasy, which is single-handedly defending yourself against the entire U.S. government. But have you ever noticed, when you read about some man-made or natural tragedy, a tendency to find reasons why it would never have happened to you? I think guns serve that role for gun owners. I would never have been killed if I'd  been at Virginia Tech, because I would've been armed.

The gun-owners' fantasy looks like another facet of the American belief in the possibility of complete security, the same belief that leads us to buy cars that can survive collisions rather than cars that can avoid collisions, and to ban shampoo from airplanes. Maybe Americans need just a dash of fatalism.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Intrade Uptick Lowdown: Update

With regard to the previous post, I discovered that Nate Silver agrees with me, which is always reassuring. He also makes I point I didn't make, which is that small increases in approval may translate into large increases in probability of reelection, because a lot of elections are close.

Reading some of the chat on Intrade's website, I realized that I had overlooked something. The number I quoted was the probability that Obama gets elected president. But for that to happen, two things must happen. First, he must get the nomination. Then, given that he has gotten the nomination, he must get elected. The Intrade markets estimate the probability of him getting the nomination at 92%. (For example, he might for some reason decide not to run. Or he might get caught up in some scandal. Or have health problems. None of these things seems very likely, but they could easily add up to 8%.) If his overall probability of getting reelected is, say, 60%, that implies his probability of being reelected given that he has gotten the nomination is 65% (.92 x .65 = .60). And 65% is a lot closer to my completely subjective and unreliable estimate of the probability that he could defeat the Republican candidate, which was around 2:1, or 67%.

So perhaps it's just as well that I didn't buy in. On the other hand, my point from before still holds: Whatever the true probability was before Osama died, it's got to have gone up a little.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Chronicle of a Death Not Foretold

Intrade is an online "prediction market." The basic idea is that markets aggregate a lot of information from many dispersed individuals trying hard to make money, and so they can usually make better predictions than individuals can. That's why most economists consider the stock market valuation of a company to be the best measure of its value.

Intrade capitalizes on this idea by setting up speculative markets in particular outcomes to be predicted. For example, they might sell shares that (to simplify slightly) will pay $1 if the Higgs Boson subatomic particle is discovered by December 31, 2011, and zero if it isn't. Then if shares are selling for $0.20, as they are, you can interpret that as the market estimating that there is a 20% chance of the Higgs Boson being discovered in 2011. (There are some big caveats here, including whether enough people are participating in this market to give you a good estimate.)

Of course, one of the things people are most interested in forecasting is election results. Recently the Intrade market was predicting the Obama had around a 60% chance of being reelected. That seemed a little low to me, so I briefly thought that I should buy some shares, but of course I didn't.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Holocaust Envy

Those lucky Jews! How come they got to have a Holocaust? Nobody ever listens to our problems, but they just natter on and on. OK, true, no one ever loaded millions of us onto cattle cars to be exterminated, but our suffering was just as great! Well, almost as great. Well, significant.

So says the Catholic Church, trying to present itself as a victim of Hitler. So say the Palestinians, staging a facsimile of Israel's Holocaust Day every year on Israel Independence Day

And now, so says Michele Bachmann, that crushing burden on anyone trying trying to maintain faith in the good judgment of the American people. At a conservative forum in New Hampshire she told of how shocked she was as a child to learn that Americans were unaware until after the war that millions of Jews had died in

Bachmann said the next generation will ask similar questions about what their elders did to prevent them from facing a huge tax burden.

"I tell you this story because I think in our day and time, there is no analogy to that horrific action," she said, referring to the Holocaust. "But only to say, we are seeing eclipsed in front of our eyes a similar death and a similar taking away. It is this disenfranchisement that I think we have to answer to."

So just to be clear, there's no analogy between the death of six million Jews and higher taxes. It's just that they're similar. Got it?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Two Remarks on the Politics of the Budget Debate

1. A milestone in Machiavellianism? We may have just seen the birth of the "open-mike fake." Obama had his supposedly private comments to supporters picked up Thursday and reported on ABC. What did he say? Did he reveal that he really does hate whites, or that Joe Biden is a pain in the neck? No. Here's some of it:

"Eliminating the health care bill would cost us $1 trillion. It would add $1 trillion to the deficit. So when Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure, he's just being America's accountant and trying to, you know, be responsible, this is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill -- but wasn't paid for. So it's not on the level. And we’ve got to keep on, you know, keep on shining a light on that.”

Any suggestions about how to "shine a light on that?" No? Boy, is his face red.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Arizona Breaks Even, Karmically Speaking

The New York Times reports that after a California corrections official sent aides to Arizona on a "secret and important mission" to borrow a lethal-injection drug that was in short supply, he sent a thank-you note to his opposite number in Arizona saying "You guys in AZ are life savers."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Man Who Wasn't There Shows Up

I was quite surprised by Obama's speech today on the deficit. First, of course, he actually stood for something besides bipartisanship. That is to say that while making  it clear he was willing to compromise, he staked out a position some distance away from the Republican position, instead of compromising in advance.

Compromise is a tricky issue for a politician, particularly for a President. One the one hand, the voters seem to hate partisan bickering and want politicians to get things done. On the other hand, politicians pay a penalty for changing their minds, even from the wrong position to the right one. And for a President, perhaps because of the national-security side of the job, looking weak is politically fatal. ( See the 2004 campaign.)  A President is probably better off standing for almost anything than standing for nothing. It helps, of course, when you're taking positions that are overwhelmingly popular: in favor of Medicare, in favor of taxing the rich.

How Not to Poll

The Quinnipiac University poll usually is pretty good. But a recent (late February) poll on funding for Planned Parenthood had a startling textbook example of a bad polling question:

"Do you support or oppose cutting off federal government funding to Planned Parenthood?"

Friday, April 8, 2011

This Statement Is False, At Least It's Intended to Be

My former senator, Jon Kyl (he's still a senator, just not mine), has issued a truly memorable clarification of his statement that abortion was "well over 90 percent" of what Planned Parenthood does. (The relevant  part begins at about minute 6:00.) That number turns out to be too high by a factor of about 30, and so his office explained that "his remark was not intended to be a factual statement..." So in the future, assume that remarks by Sen. Kyl are not intended to be factual, unless he tells you otherwise.

UPDATE: Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert at The Colbert Report picked up this story on Monday. Can't take those three-day weekends, guys, if you want  to stay on top of the news cycle. Colbert's best line: "Did you know that Jon Kyl has had sexual relations with all of his first cousins? And that is intended to be a factual statement. Note: That last statement, about the previous statement being a factual statement-- that was not intended to be a factual statement." See Colbert's follow-up segment here.

Pretzel Logic

So let me see if I've got this straight. The deficit is bad because it's "intergenerational theft." So for the sake of future generations, we must do something about the biggest source of future deficits: Medicare.

Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican who's chairman of the House Budget Committee, has a plan. Not so much a plan as a Path to Prosperity. Here is what we're going to do about Medicare:

If you're retired now, nothing.

If you're over 55, also nothing.

If you're under 55, keep paying those Medicare payroll taxes. Then, when you get to retirement age, you get a voucher allowing you to buy private insurance! Of course, since private insurers have higher administrative costs than Medicare, and pay doctors more, your voucher won't buy as much coverage as Medicare now does.

But really, the problem with Medicare is not so much what the government is paying now as what it will pay in the future. Health care costs have been rising faster than inflation for some time now, and the Congressional Budget Office projects they will continue to rise about 2% per year faster than inflation. The Ryan plan deals with this problem very simply. It indexes the value of the voucher to inflation.

Well, no, this doesn't actually do anything about rising health care costs. But it does shift them off the backs of future taxpayers. It shifts them onto the backs of... future retirees.

So here's what we're doing for future generations under the Ryan plan: They pay for current retirees. Then when they reach retirement age, they get a medical benefits package that's worth substantially less than the package those people were getting, and still less with each passing year.

Not so much intergenerational theft as intergenerational rape.

And for those who are, or will qualify to be, in the old program, don't worry. Republicans believe in freedom of choice. You will be completely free to give up the better package and get the worse one.

Just don't get trampled in the stampede.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Choose the Dictator Who Inherited the Job From Dad

Bashar al-Assad: Showing the world that being a dweeb doesn't disqualify you from being a brutal tyrant.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

No Liberty Tonight, Honey, I'm Tired

The Volokh Conspiracy and I are on a break.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I advocate reading, and politely participating in, blogs by people you disagree with politically. Though this approach doesn't always work, I did find that the Volokh Conspiracy, a site run by more than a dozen right-wing libertarian law professors, was open to outsiders with dissenting views, and that it had, and sometimes even enforced, a policy on civility. I have on several occasions used discussions I took part in there as a starting point for comments here. In fact, I found the whole thing a bit seductive.

The main reason I'm now taking a break is that I'm a slow typist, and it was eating up huge amounts of time. But I also had to ask myself whether it was really worth it, given how hard it was to really engage anyone in debate. One expects that most people who come to these sites do so to see their own views confirmed, and that faced with a good contrary argument or some hard facts, they are not going to slap their foreheads and say, "Of course! What a fool I've been!" But it was a bit wearing at times to have a long exchange with someone, and then have them change the subject or start name-calling when the going got tough. Both the right and the left tend to have their talking points, and stick to them.  I also got tired of people telling me what people like me really wanted (e.g., more bureaucracy for its own sake, the power to tell everyone what to do).

Still, I'm thinking of this as a break, rather than a breakup. To ease the separation, I want to discuss a few common libertarian arguments that come up a lot at VC. These are so deeply rooted in the right-wing libertarian worldview that you probably have run into them. Let's start by distinguishing a reasonable argument from others that are not.

Reasonable Libertarian Argument:

Activities of government involve compulsion, which limits freedom. Therefore these activities should be kept to a minimum.

This argument is reasonable if you make two important assumptions.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Not Ready for Uranium Mining on Mars

Given that the Japanese have built robots that do this:

why, one might wonder, do they have humans standing in radioactive water at Fukushima Daiichi? Turns out, according to this article, there a few problems with using a robot at a damaged nuclear power plant.

  1. It's hard to communicate with them through thick reinforced concrete.
  2. They have trouble negotiating complicated terrain and avoiding obstacles.
  3. Their brains get fried easily by radiation.
One would naively think that people would be building robots to do things that people can't do, rather than things that people can do better. But at one time people naively thought that television would be a great tool for educating people.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

More Than You Wanted on Libyan Linguistics

Wrong again. The name of Gadhafi's tribe is القذاذفـة, which I, consulting a Wikipedia article on the Arabic alphabet, read as Al-Gadhadhfah ("dh" like the first sound in "this"). So "Moammar El-Gadhafi" (which, you will recall, should really be "El-Gadhdhafi") means "Moammar of Al-Gadhadhfah tribe." Apparently rendering the definite article as "el" rather than "al" is another regionalism that's not considered standard Arabic, which is why we don't study elgebra and drink elcohol. I may be inconsistent in using "al" with the Libyan G. This tribe's home is in the Sirte region, which is where the next big battle is coming up.

Insanely obscure linguistic fact of the week: although Icelandic has a letter (ð) that's pronounced like the first sound in "this," the newspapers spell his name Gaddafi, not Gaððafi.

STILL MORE 3/30/11: The New York Times spells the name of  the tribe Qaddafa. According to Wikipedia (which uses "Qadhadhfa") the name means "those who spit out or vomit." He would never get elected in a democratic system: "Hi, I'm Fred Puker."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Letter from a Friend in Pakistan

I asked if I could post this and my friend said, "You are welcome to post anything I've written to you as long as it's clearly stated that I'm offering opinion rather than Truth As We Know It." I'm actually not sure what the difference is between those two things, but never mind. For those of you whose attention has been on other parts of the world, Raymond Davis is the American contractor (but with, apparently, diplomatic immunity) who fatally shot two people in Pakistan.

March 17, 2011

Well, Raymond Davis made his exit from Pakistan last night, after 6 weeks of high dudgeon all around. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!

The whole thing makes me sick. One hardly knows where to start, and since it’s really a vicious circle, it probably doesn’t matter where. So let’s start with the fact that U.S. taxpayers are paying top dollar—through the privatized outsourcing by which our government now conducts so much of its business—for inept spies conducting questionable business with little to no result. Spies are supposed to blend into the landscape, remain anonymous. How could this man have been quite so tone-deaf to his environment? And why do we continue paying premium prices for goods and services that don’t actually get delivered?

Then there’s the Hypocrisy Factor of Pakistani public sentiment surrounding this case. It is not, in fact, exactly unheard of in these parts for thugs to approach a fancy car stopped at an intersection for the purposes of looting its passengers, or for calamity to ensue therefrom. In fact, a close friend was telling me just this morning that a man living in Defence (a very posh suburb of Lahore) was approached in just this way about a year ago, and when he, ensconced in his vehicle, drew a weapon—who knows whether it was legally licensed or not, this being relevant only because the media here has made much of the fact that Raymond Davis’s weapons were “illegal”?—even though the would-be miscreants turned and ran, the driver chased them down and shot them. Nothing much was made of this, no hue and cry was raised, certainly nobody heard of the killer being arrested, much less prosecuted. But then, he wasn’t an American spy, just your average wealthy citizen who, because of privilege, lives above the law.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Whose Vision?

My niece took part last summer in a program in the Balkans sponsored by a group called "Abraham's Vision," which describes itself as "a conflict transformation organization that explores group and individual identities through experiential and political education. Examining social relations within and between the Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, and Palestinian communities, we empower participants to practice just alternatives to the status quo."

Unfortunately, the transformation and empowerment appear to be somewhat unequally distributed. Here's one comment from the group blog of the people that were in the program with her:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Too Weird

Those of you of an age to know the Deep Purple song "Smoke on the Water" may enjoy the bizarre spectacle (literally) of the former German defense minister handing over power to his successor. Apparently he wanted AC/DC, but the band drew the line at that. Even so, he seems in the video to be having a difficult time containing his glee. I think Alice Cooper's "School's Out" might have been a better choice, but de gustibus. Note the glockenspiel.

The ceremony is called a  "Grosser Zapfenstreich," and looking that up led to the discovery of one of the creepiest group hobbies I've ever come across. Haven't these guys ever heard of bowling?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Decline of Western Civilization

I recently stumbled on a site that will list all the New York Times bestsellers for the week of your birth. Here are the fiction bestsellers for my week in 1955:

2   AUNTIE MAME Patrick Dennis
3   ANDERSONVILLE MacKinlay Kantor
5   THE TONTINE Thomas B. Costain
6   CASH McCALL Cameron Hawley
7   THE DEER PARK Norman Mailer
9   A CHARMED LIFE Mary McCarthy
10 BONJOUR TRISTESSE Francoise Sagan
11 HERITAGE Anthony West
12 THE PROPHET Sholem Asch
13 BAND OF ANGELS Robert Penn Warren
15 THE SMILING REBEL Harnett T. Kane
 16 PAPA'S WIFE Thyra Ferre Bjorn

And what about for the current week in 2011? Of the top ten hardcover fiction bestsellers, five are mysteries or thrillers and one is a Star Wars novel. Of the remaining five in the top fifteen, one involves vampires and one is a Harlequin romance. Possibly this means that the reading audience is broader than ever before. More likely, it just means we're getting dumber.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The most affecting images I have seen of the results of the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan are these interactive before-and-after satellite photos from The New York Times.

On Wisconsin

The Wisconsin senate has now passed Gov. Walker's bill on unions. They were able to do this with a simple majority, by removing from the bill any pretense that it had anything to do with the current budget. As always, "cramming it down our throats" is in the eye of the beholder.

But what about the budget crisis? Let's just review some key points. First, states are having a lot of fiscal stress now, as they did last year. Second, the reason they are having so much stress is that we're in the middle of the biggest recession since the Depression, causing revenues to fall. I haven't figured out how to upload an Excel chart to this page, but here are the figures on state and local revenues, in millions of dollars, for each year. (To make a fair comparison, I'm omitting fourth-quarter revenues in each year, because the Census Bureau doesn't yet have Q4 for 2010. As you might expect, the big quarter for revenues is the second, since it includes April.)

 2005   809,523
 2006   869,539
 2007   915,604
 2008   949,095
 2009   885,665
 2010   907,631

Note the rather dramatic dropoff between 2008 and 2009.

Third, if the recession is to blame for the shortfall, who is to blame for the recession? That's a complicated question, but I'm pretty sure it's not teachers and garbage collectors.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Update on Libyan Linguistics

I was wrong. A New York Times blog connects to this explanation by the AP of the different spellings of Qaddafi's name. Contrary to what I guessed, the first consonant in Qaddafi (to use the Times spelling) is indeed the same Q as in Al Qaeda or Qatar, one pronounced like an English k but further down in the throat. This is distinct from what is usually  transliterated as K, which is more or less the same as in English.

So why all the different spellings of the name? The first complication is that while this is the pronunciation in Classical Arabic, in the Libyan dialect that letter is pronounced as a g. I don't know if it's pronounced like an English g or further down in the throat; I suspect the latter. Next, the second consonant is doubled, which doesn't affect pronunciation in English but does in other languages, including Arabic. It's really pronounced like two letters, which basically just means you hold it longer.

Finally, the second consonant should be transliterated as dh, which is pronounced like the first two letters in "this" or "that," as distinct from the sound in "thick" and "thin." But writing "dhdh" looks silly, so some people, like the Times, have gone with "dd." As it happens, a lot of Libyans pronounce it dh as d anyway (like "dis" and "dat" in certain American cities).

In the end the AP decided to go with how he spells it himself, in accordance with "general policy," and found a letter where he called himself "Gadhafi." So that's what they use, and I guess what I'll use from now on.

Actually, he called himself "Moammar El-Gadhafi" which means "Moammar the Gadhafi." I would guess, though my guesses haven't been too good thus far, that "Gadhaf" is either a place or a clan.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Protests in Oman

You have to expect to be the last in line when your name is Sultan Qaboos.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hypocrisy Watch III

Heard all the Republican moaning about how Wisconsin's missing state senators should do their jobs and show up for a vote? Guess what: the Republicans in the state senate have 58% of the seats... and yet can't pass this bill. Sound familiar? Remember health care? Remember all the talk about  it being "crammed down our throats"?

Obviously, what the Wisconsin senate needs is a rule that nothing can happen without the support of 60% of the senators. Then the Democrats could show up and everyone would be happy, except perhaps the Republicans. Just think of what's happening in Wisconsin as a filibuster.

Let's At Least Aspire to Futility

It's not just that the world doesn't seem able to do anything effective to stop the violence in Libya; they don't seem able to do anything ineffective either.

On Tuesday, The New York Times ran an editorial entitled "Libya's Butcher." After saying, "We have no doubt that what he really meant is that he will butcher and martyr his own people in his desperation to hold on to power," the editorial continued:

The Security Council should impose sanctions on Colonel Qaddafi, his family and other officials responsible for the repression, including a freeze on their overseas assets and a travel ban. If the government does not immediately halt the killing, the United Nations should re-impose a ban on all arms sales to Libya.

Huh? Demonstrators are being strafed by fighter jets and helicopters, and the Times recommends a freeze on Qaddafi's assets and a travel ban? And then, if that doesn't work, a ban on arms sales? You mean while this is going on, selling arms to Libya is perfectly OK? As if that horse hasn't left the barn already.

The editorial concludes with a  sentence that is anti-climactic to the point of self-parody:

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights says Colonel Qaddafi’s use of lethal force may constitute crimes against humanity. We agree. There needs to be a thorough investigation.

Take that, butcher! In six months, we'll issue a report that'll singe your eyebrows.

As pitiful as these suggestions are, none of  them has been implemented yet. The UN Human Rights Council did manage to kick out Libya, the Times reported. It's hard to see Qaddafi being deeply wounded by that; on the other hand, given that the UN Human Rights Council includes Angola, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Gabon, Saudi Arabia, and, until now, Libya, I guess you could say that if you get kicked out of that group, you must be really, really bad. (In fact, the Times said that "Arab and African states had opposed suspending Libya’s membership from the 47-member Council, fearing it would set a precedent.")

I admit that it's hard to know what to do. I doubt the world is waiting eagerly for another U.S. takeover of an oil-rich Arab country in the name of democracy. But even if all we can do is make gestures, let's at least do that.

Incidentally, I'm taking no position on how to spell his name. As I understand it, the initial letter represents a sound that doesn't exist in English, but not the one represented by "q" in "Qatar" or "Al Qaeda." If you know any Greeks, ask them how they pronounce a gamma.

Oh, and this link is pretty amusing, especially if you read the links. There's even a comment about Wisconsin.

UPDATE 2/26/01: The Security Council has voted to impose sanctions on Libya and refer it to the International Criminal Court for a war crimes investigation. Obviously it won't have any direct effect on what's going on, but it might possibly encourage more defections from among his remaining supporters.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I Don't Get It-- Or He Doesn't

There's been a glaring omission in the public discussion of Obama's new budget proposal, and in the proposal itself. No, I'm not talking about entitlements. That subject is missing from the proposal, but not from the commentariat's discussion of it, in which no article would be complete without using the "e"-word five or six times. No, what's missing is the "t"-word. That's right, taxes.

Yes, there are some tax increases in Obama's budget. He tries again to let the Bush tax cuts expire on people making over $250,000 a year, trims deductions a bit, and eliminates some corporate tax loopholes. But he is apparently setting in stone the principle that top marginal rates may never exceed 39.6 percent.

The budget is supposed to reduce the deficit by $1.1 trillion over ten years. (Does anyone else find this whole "over ten years" business confusing? It sort of sounds like the deficit ten years from now will be $1.1 trillion lower, but that's wrong-- actually it's the debt that will be $1.1 trillion lower.) $1.1 trillion is a nice number, but here's a nicer one: $2.5 trillion. Why not really put some pressure on the Republicans? They're going to have to match that, don't forget, without new taxes or cuts in defense spending.

Team Watson Begs to Differ

A reader writes:

I’m part of the team that worked on Watson. I’d like to respond to a comment you made:

But there still has to be a lag of a tenth of a second or so for a human between seeing the light and moving one's thumb; Watson obviously didn't have this lag. The result was that the humans were able to ring in first only when Watson didn't know the answer.

In fact there were many times in the televised game in which Watson was beaten to the buzzer, that was plainly visible to viewers. On several occasions you could see Watson’s answer panel showing the correct answer yet Brad or Ken got the buzz.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Libertarians of Bahrain

“The uneducated people of Bahrain, or the world, you have kids to support and you pull the kids out of school to sell water at the roadside, you cannot blame the government.”
--Ahmed Zainal, 27, a Bahraini public-relations executive and Sunni

Well, maybe not completely libertarian:

“I like how things are. I have a job. I have a house. I have free health care.”
--Rayyah Mohammed, 32, a Bahraini art project director and Sunni

The New York Times, February 17, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Not to be Missed

I don't have much of a provenance on this video, but it seems to be an authentic Iranian government product, judging from the characters' accents in Farsi (joke). I'm baffled by how John McCain ended up as a senior White House official, but possibly the writers just thought this was an American-sounding name, as with CIA Iran expert Bill Smith.

George Soros is of course the guy hated by Glenn Beck for his habit of supporting alternatives to repressive governments. Sound crazy that Glenn Beck should find himself on the same side as Iranian mullahs? Yes. He is. It's no crazier than labeling Soros an evil leftist for his role in helping bring about the fall of Communism.

Gene Sharp is the mild-mannered academic who became an overnight sensation when it turned out the Egyptian kids had read his book on non-violent overthrow of repressive governments. So far I think he has escaped the attention of Glenn Beck, though that could change any day now.

Make sure you stay tuned for the live-action part, which gives you an idea of what would happen if the makers of a 1960s high-school movie on venereal disease had worked for Joseph Stalin.

Is Humanity in Jeopardy?

By now you've probably heard how IBM's Watson computer defeated two human Jeopardy! champions by a pretty decisive margin. There are two things to be said about this.

First, it's definitely an impressive performance by IBM. They selected Jeopardy! as a problem because it requires a degree of natural-language processing hitherto (or is it "thitherto"?) unattainable by computers. It requires understanding puns, double meanings, sly allusions and so on. Watson was able to do that with fair reliability, though there were occasional weird glitches (in the second day's Final Jeopardy round, for example, when there was a question about airports in the category "U.S. Cities," Watson guessed Toronto).

Second, the final score in no way represented the relative abilities of the humans and Watson. Contestants are required to ring in, and are not allowed to do so before Alex Trebek has finished reading the clue (I believe there's some sort of light that goes on, though it's not visible to the TV audience). They gave Watson a mechanical ringer to even the odds. But there still has to be a lag of a tenth of a second or so for a human between seeing the light and moving one's thumb; Watson obviously didn't have this lag. The result was that the humans were able to ring in first only when Watson didn't know the answer. So all the scores really proved was that an electric eye is faster than a human muscle, which isn't really a very striking result.

So I'd like to see the scores with a different mechanism-- say, choosing randomly among everyone who rings in. Still, good job, IBM. Please don't start working on Skynet.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Right and Egypt

As you may recall, I often spend time at right-wing websites. It has been striking how much discomfort the libertarian right  has shown with the revolution in Egypt.

After all, libertarians are supposed to be against tyranny, right? That seems like a pretty basic requirement. And the Tea Party arm is always talking about "taking back our country." Yet here are Egyptians doing just that, and libertarians have trouble supporting them.

The obvious problem is that Egyptians are mostly Muslim. Not that the right is intolerant. No, no, no, no, no. It's just that, according to the right, Muslims are intolerant. Also violent and lacking the traditions necessary for democracy. So we need to be careful. Accordingly, a few months ago voters in Oklahoma passed a remarkably silly ballot measure barring judges from considering sharia law in their courts. This, in turn, came a few months after the morally decayed Newt Gingrich (just so you know, I'm going to start using that as a sort of Homeric epithet, like "the wine-dark sea" or "the rosy-fingered dawn") proposed a Federal law to the same effect to apply nationwide, as a barrier against the "stealth jihadis."

So what about Egypt? People on the right explained, to those who had forgotten, that Iran had had a revolution, and look what happened to them. One blogger at the Volokh Conspiracy explained that he hadn't taken a position because it was too soon to know whether the revolution would make things better or worse. (I asked whether by the same logic he would be voting for Obama in 2012.)

Meanwhile, Glenn Beck raised my opinion of his ethics by moving from "probably an unscrupulous demagogue" to "probably mentally unhinged." He's now developed an elaborate theory in which the Muslim Brotherhood establishes a caliphate (it became the #3 search term on Google) with the collusion of leftists, and ends up divvying up most of the world with China and Russia, leaving North and South America  as the last holdouts.

That's the obvious problem that the right has with the Egyptian revolution. The hidden problem is that it makes the right's rhetoric about America look ridiculous. Tyranny in Egypt is arbitrary arrest, beatings, torture, state control of the media, rigged elections. Tyranny in America is having to pay a tax penalty if you don't buy health insurance. Lucky Egyptians-- they don't have to buy health insurance! In fact, most of them don't even have health insurance! Taking back your country meant, in Egypt, going out into the street to demonstrate peacefully and facing thugs throwing Molotov cocktails. Taking back your country in America means going to Town Hall meetings and shouting down the speaker. The nerve of those Egyptians-- who do they think they are?