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Wed, Jan. 26th, 2011, 07:34 pm
To Coin a Phrase

A little while ago, I had occasion to coin the phrase, "friends with limited benefits." I think it could catch on.

Sun, Jan. 9th, 2011, 08:40 am
About the Shooting

The facts so far indicate that the mass murder in Arizona yesterday was not a replay of the Oklahoma City bombing (i.e. organized right-wing terrorism) or of the murder of Matthew Shepard (impulsive brutality arising from a climate encouraging anti-gay violence). In fact, the Arizona shooting was Virginia Tech.

Now, facts aside, there may be good reason to take this moment to highlight the cavalier bloodthirstyness that has saturated Republican and Tea Party rhetoric. But, since that's hardly news to me, I'm a lot more interested in the implications of the actual incident. So that's what I'm going to write about here.

First of all, let's stop to honor the administrators of Pima Community College for doing exactly the right thing. The students at Pima, their families, faculty and staff all have reason to feel very grateful today -- because "the system" worked.

What am I talking about?

The alleged shooter was a student at Pima Community College. While there, he exhibited erratic and bizarre behavior consistent with emerging severe mental illness -- such as schizophrenia. In addition, one of his YouTube videos apparently alarmed college administrators. As a result, the college (a) suspended him and (b) told his parents that he would have to receive a mental health evaluation to return to school.

Now, the alleged shooter dropped out of school, and nobody appears to know (yet) whether he ever did receive a clinical evaluation. And the exact course of events that followed could have policy-relevant implications. Are there gaps in Arizona's mental health system that ought to be filled? How was the course of events affected by the fact that the individual in question was a legal adult? And so on.

But I don't want to lose sight of the fact that Pima Community College did what it was supposed to do, and there's good reason to believe that this is why we're not reading about yet another campus shooting this morning.

Another policy-relevant question, of course, is precisely how someone exhibiting visible symptoms of schizophrenia was able to obtain a handgun.

Fri, Jan. 7th, 2011, 11:39 am
Best Internet Toy Ever!

If you read things on the Internet -- and if you don't, what are you doing here? -- you must check this out:


This site lets you create a little magic bookmark. Now navigate to some typical cluttered practically unreadable web page. A story at the New York Times, say, or something at Huffington Post. Whatever. When you click the magic bookmark...magic happens. And all the crap goes away.

Suddenly, instead of looking like a cross between Wired Magazine and a video game, your web page looks like...words on a page. That you can read. To gain information.

As Neo says, "Whoa."

Give it a whirl. Tell your friends.

Sun, Jan. 2nd, 2011, 11:55 pm
Ten things I've done (that you probably haven't)

Meme via heron61:
  1. Purchased ice cream from a street vendor. In Russia.
  2. Alphabetized the bookshelves of a Nobel prize winner.
  3. Witnessed the discovery of a significant (six-figure) embezzlement scheme.
  4. Been a corporate CEO for over ten years.
  5. Ended a romantic relationship on Christmas Eve.
  6. Met Art Laffer. Yes, that Art Laffer.
  7. Written a Star Trek-based computer game. For a TRS-80.
  8. Eaten Thanksgiving dinner with Darwin.
  9. Read War and Peace. Twice. No, really.
  10. Flown Aeroflot.

Sun, Jan. 2nd, 2011, 04:52 pm

Bruce Bartlett, over at Capital Gains & Games, raises the possibility that the new Congress, with its enhanced compliment of Tea Party-type Republicans, might be willing to bring about an immediate fiscal crisis by refusing to raise the federal government's statutory debt limit.

And actually, if the Tea Party folks are indeed serious, that's exactly what they should do. By holding the debt limit hostage, they can force a complete renegotiation of the 2011 budget from a position, not merely of strength, but of basically absolute power.

As of the end of November, it looked like the federal government would need to borrow an additional $1.2 trillion for fiscal 2011 (which, by the way, runs from October, 2010 to September, 2011). But the Treasury only has statutory authority to borrow another $0.5 trillion. So unless the Congress takes an affirmative action in the near future, the Obama Administration will need to find a way to scale back federal spending by something like $700 billion over the ten remaining months in the fiscal year.

Actually, it's probably worse than that, since the November figures I'm looking at don't reflect the effects of the December "tax deal," which cut the taxes of the rich in exchange for cutting social security taxes. (Boggle.) Of course, both ends of the deal increase the federal government's negative cash flow, making the debt limit even more awkward. (And that's another reason the "deal" was widely perceived as a total defeat for the Democrats: they failed to get a debt limit increase as part of the package. Oops.)

So, because I'm such a helpful sort of fellow, I thought I'd lay out a picture of the sort of cuts that keeping the debt limit unchanged would require. As a quantitative benchmark, I'm showing the fiscal 2010 total spending in each of the areas I'm "proposing" to cut. These total $864.8 billion -- but two months of the fiscal year are already gone, so they correspond to cuts of about $721 billion on a 10-month basis. Ooh! Numbers!Collapse ) Well, that was fun! What does that mean in English?

Well, I've completely abolished the Department of Education (goodbye student loans!) and the Department of Agriculture (which includes farm price supports, food and nutrition programs like food stamps and WIC, and, by strange coincidence, the national forests).

I've gutted the Department of Energy, so it becomes basically the Department of Nuclear Weapons. I've also terminated all of the DOE's environmental clean up efforts (sorry, Hanford neighbors!).

In the human services (in addition to the food programs from USDA), I've completely eliminated Medicaid, the entire Department of Housing and Urban Development (so much for low-income housing), essentially all of the income support programs in HHS (that includes "new welfare," a.k.a. TANF, plus SSI, low-income heating assistance program (LIHEAP), and many others), as well as all of the employment and training programs in the Department of Labor.

I've wiped out most of the major regulatory agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), the Mine Safety & Health Administration, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC)). (You'll be pleased to hear that I've allowed the Food & Drug Administration along with transportation safety agencies to live. Ill-maintained aircraft and poorly-tested stents might hurt rich, old people, after all....)

I've also wiped out a bunch of agencies that conservatives hate, and that mainly serve to make America a better kind of place: the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Americorps, and the Legal Services Corporation. And, while we're ransacking our cultural heritage, I thought I'd abolish the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.

NASA is gone. So are the Small Business Administration (SBA) and all of the grant programs run by the Department of Transportation (highway, transit and rail projects). Finally, the Medicare prescription drug benefit is abolished.

Now, here's the thing: it just takes forty-one senators, or a majority in the House, to force these or other cuts of similar magnitude. That gives the GOP -- and its Tea Party wing -- immense bargaining power. It's going to be interesting to see how they use it.

Thu, Dec. 30th, 2010, 07:54 pm

So...I'm re-arranging my telecommunications infrastructure for the new year. (Did we even have "telecommunications infrastructure" back in the twentieth century?) Here's the plan, for those who are interested in such doings and goings-on.

First, I've retired my aging, Windows CE-based, T-Mobile MDA with a spiffy new Android-based G2. And I'm finally springing for the mind-bogglingly expensive data plan (an extra $30 / month on top of the $48 / month I pay for actual phone service).

At the same time, I'm retiring my land-line & DSL service from Qwest. I'm now using Clearwire's wireless service for internet access at home. Since I'm also canceling business-class ISP from Infinity Internet at the same time (yes, I have two static IP addresses all to myself...and for what?), the savings will be considerable. Approximately enough to pay for the wireless data plan for my G2!

To help reduce the consumption of cell phone minutes, I'm also making use of Google Voice. I've got a headset that plugs into my PC and everything. I'll be passing out my exciting new Google Voice phone number soon (watch your e-mail in-box!). The main advantage to calling the Google number is that it will simultaneously ring at my desk and my cell phone. Like magic. Or something.

On the horizon: I plan to spend some time learning the Google Calendar and GMail APIs, as well as learning my way around the Google App Engine. Yes...I welcome our new Google masters.

(On a related note, I've decided that, while Google is undoubtedly building Skynet, it seems to me that Apple is constructing the Matrix. And, frankly, I prefer a world ruled by anthropomorphic killer robots to one ruled by a giant video game. So I'm joining the Skynet collective. Take that Steve Jobs!)

Sun, Dec. 19th, 2010, 11:12 am
Character Meme...because I just can't help it.

Via queen_in_autumn:

List fifteen fictional characters (television, films, plays, books, comics) who've influenced you and will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.
  1. George Smiley (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, et al)
  2. Miles Kendig (Hopscotch)
  3. Arthur Bishop (The Mechanic)
  4. Sarah Connor (The Terminator, et al)
  5. Spock (Star Trek: TOS)
  6. Leo McGarry (The West Wing)
  7. Tom Reagan (Miller's Crossing)
...and I think I'm out. Those who know me should feel free to remind me of any obvious candidates that I'm forgetting.

Fri, Dec. 10th, 2010, 03:09 pm
Bernie Sanders Fillibusters...

...the old fashioned way! Yes...he's still talking. You can watch a live streaming video here: http://sanders.senate.gov/

Fri, Dec. 10th, 2010, 03:02 pm
What My Liberal Friends Never Understood...

...about Barak Obama. The New York Times reports:
The decision to ask Mr. Clinton to the White House, and then to have him make a public statement, reflects the desire by the White House to counter the anger among liberal Democrats, who have accused Mr. Obama of caving too quickly on the tax deal.
Yes, the Obama White House is apparently under the impression that Bill Clinton is part of (or is well regarded by) the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

Now, this should not come as a surprise to anyone who actually paid attention to the Democratic primaries in 2008. Candidate Obama's theme was that the (Clinton-era) Democratic Party was too left-ish and should move towards "the center." Why the liberal activists in the party decided that this was their guy remains a bit of a mystery to me*. But, in any event, President Obama seems to be under the impression that Bill Clinton is in a position to give him political cover on his left, which is somewhat revealing about where Mr. Obama imagines himself to be, on the American political spectrum.

* Actually, I'm being coy: I know exactly why the liberal activists anointed Obama as their standard bearer: the vote on the authorization of the use of military force in Iraq. In 2003, Senator Obama did not know that he would be running for President in 2008; Senator Clinton did. So Clinton cast a self-protective "yes" vote, and Obama cast a do-whats-right "no" vote. And by 2008, the left was absolutely obsessed with Iraq. The fact that Obama opposed, say, the idea of health care reform with an individual mandate, or that his position on the Iraq war was quite explicitly that we should concentrate on the war in Afghanistan instead (not, you know, ending both wars), did not seem to enter into the political calculus.

Sun, Dec. 5th, 2010, 03:12 pm
Sharing the Pain

Brad DeLong writes (pdf):
Three weeks ago I was talking to some activists from the California Tea Party. I was trying to explain the Keynesian perspective: "Shouldn’t we keep public employment from falling," I said, "because right the government can borrow at such extraordinarily good terms, and if we keep our teachers at work then they educate our students and our students can earn more in the future -- and if teachers have incomes they spend money and that employs more people in private sector?"

And they said no.

They said: we have lost our jobs in the private sector. It is only fair for those who work in the government to run some risk of loosing their jobs as well. They are unionized. They have pensions. It is not fair that they should have jobs too. They need to lose their jobs as well.
Brad has his own thoughts about what's going on here, but my take is a little different: I see a perfectly valid and natural moral intuition being mis-applied to an inappropriate context.

"Share the suffering" is -- I believe -- among the hard-wired moral intuitions with which the human brain comes equipped, straight from the factory. We have it because it is a correct response to a large category of misfortunes which have befallen human communities from our hunter-gatherer origins, specifically: temporary shortages of critical resources, notably food.

When confronted with such a shortage, the chances of survival are improved if everyone goes a bit hungry, rather than some enjoying their accustomed comforts while others are permanently injured or killed by extreme malnutrition. "Share the suffering" is good strategy...if the suffering in question is the shortage of a consumable resource and sharing takes the form of consuming less so that others might consume more.

This intuition can be "tricked," however, by a faulty metaphor. In particular, we are accustomed to viewing a job as a resource and holding a job as consuming that resource. And that's not how jobs work at all.

A job isn't a resource, it is a productive activity. Doing job doesn't consume stuff, it produces stuff (net -- jobs which do consume stuff, net, tend to go away). And -- within limits dictated by things like the total population and things people would rather do than work (like care for children, pursue education, or simply retire) -- jobs make more jobs.

So applying intuitions about "sharing the suffering" to job losses yields precisely the wrong results. Eliminating Job A doesn't make Job B more secure, it makes it less. Layoffs beget layoffs.

This isn't a left-right thing, by the way. The idea of "shipping our jobs overseas" rests on the same metaphor and is misleading in similar (though not identical) ways. It's the metaphor itself that's defective.

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