Post-Slump Links

March 11, 2007

Since every hour that passes I’m more certain I’m not going to keep blogging, here are a few good links for your perusal:

Stuart Staniford of the Oil Drum explains carefully why the Saudi production decrease is due to peak oil rather than a voluntary reduction. The minutiae of the Saudi production curve are more consistent with a post-peak slump rather than with a voluntary reduction meant to give Saudi Arabia the power to flood the market at any given time.

C. L. Hanson notes that the two basic principles of relationships – that people have the right to say no to sex and that people shouldn’t sleep with anyone but their partners – are incongruous. As such, she talks about how cheating can save relationships.

Stentor rebuts market-based arguments against environmental legislation. He explains specifically that air pollution needs to be curbed collectively since air is naturally a shared resource. This isn’t an especially novel argument – the tragedy of the commons is a recognized market failure – but some libertarians’ hostility to it requires repeating it more than should be necessary.

Melissa Franklin, Harvard’s first tenured female physics professor, speaks at a conference about women in science that has just given her an award. She recounts experiences ranging from students’ crying because they couldn’t finish their problem sets to sexual assault.


That Housework Study

March 3, 2007

On Feministing, there’s a very long comment thread about a new study that shows once again that not only do British women do less housework than men, but also women do more housework when they begin cohabiting while men do less. Commenter Soullite suggests a way to doubt the study, but inadvertently reinforces its point.

Second, it’s apparent when you dig into the polls that the difference in housework is negated by the difference in work outside of the house. To argue that men should both work more than women outside of the home and do equal work to women in the home is awfully convenient. This is why the same study found that women had more leisure time despite working more often at home.

Also, despite whehter all families need to do yard work, or shovel snow or service vehicles, these activities should clearly be defined as household upkeep and as such should have been included in any study measuring that or it will skew the numbers no matter how slightly.(…)

It’s finding that men and women do equal “work” even if it’s not equal “housework”.

First, false consciousness arguments are generally too embarrassing to be for public consumption. If a man who changes the oil in his car doesn’t consider that any kind of work – household, maintenance, or whatever – it’s not work.

More importantly, the fact that men and women do equal work is well established. An old study from the 1980s reported in every recent Human Development Report shows that in developed countries, men and women do about the same amount of work, but men spend two thirds of their working hours in market-based activities while women spend only one third. The main problem is that those women not only don’t get paid but typically perform work far below their skill level.

Housework is like any other non-unionized skilled work. Some people clean homes; others work at Wal-Mart. It’s possible to overblow what “housework” exactly means and how it should be remunerated – this study is a good example – but the wage of a maid is a good yardstick that measures the substitution effect. The housework men do is incidentally more expensive on a per hour basis by that measure, not because it’s more skilled but because repairmen tend to be unionized while maids suffer from the effect of depreciation of female labor.

The study says cohabiting women do 15 hours of household labor a week in Britain compared with 5 for men (incidentally, other studies tend to get similar ratios but higher numbers). Assuming a female maid makes minimum wage, i.e. £5.35/hour (PPP$8/hour) and a male who performs all the household activities a man does makes half again as much, we get that the woman’s household labor adds £80/week to the combined income pool, while the man’s adds £40/week. So far, so good.

But in terms of who actually gets to keep the money, this isn’t good at all. Although the woman’s household labor saves the household £80/week, in terms of control of the money, her share is proportional to her market income. Even a housewife who gets to spend the family’s money has no real control of the money, since she is consistently dependent on her husband’s charity, which can be withdrawn at any moment.

In case of separation or divorce, even if she gets part of the money, she won’t have any income of her own. If the couple has children she might see some child support, but child support is set at the levels that support the children, not the whole family.

Reagan wasn’t quite right when he said people who depended on government can’t be free. The government tends to be the least demanding money giver, at least in developed countries other than the US, whose TANF system is designed to humiliate. A husband may temporarily love his wife, but that love can disappear without any prior warning, and with no income of her own, the woman will typically be plunged into poverty.


Hunger

March 2, 2007

The article about hunger’s killing 18,000 children every day is now reverberating through the left-wing blogosphere. One of the persistent problems with hunger is that it’s not an especially spectactular mode of death. Most people who die of hunger die of malnutrition rather than outright starvation. People tend to only start caring when it coexists with a different problem, such as war or disaster:

The response to these disasters and conflicts such as in Sudan’s Darfur region and Lebanon has meant that most development aid has been used to save lives — not to help communities prevent disasters and promote development through agricultural programs, education for children and water conservation, Morris said.

The agency’s biggest operation today is in Darfur, where violence and security are major problems and 2.5 million people have fled their homes and now live in camps.

There aren’t that many posts around about hunger politics, which is regrettable. This is primarily an economic and political issue rather than a scientific one. Globally there are food surpluses; thanks to Norman Borlaug, famines are largely restricted to areas where food distribution is in shambles. Still, since the number of malnourished people in the world is about 850 million higher than it should be, here is a good program for reducing hunger:

1. Abolish first-world farm aid. It undercuts farmers in the third world; although they don’t affect subsistence farmers, they throw everyone else into poverty. NAFTA increased poverty in Mexico not because it’s free trade – free trade agreements everywhere else in the world raise standards of living in the poorer partner countries – but because unlike those other agreements, it let the rich partner dump government-subsidized corn in the poor one.

2. Divert development aid from economic to political development. Poor countries are usually able to grow on their own given a government that’s interested in development. Every democratic one is by design; most authoritarian ones aren’t.  As Amartya Sen has noted, no independent democracy with a free press has ever had a famine. India’s last one was just before it achieved independence (though it would’ve had a few but for the Green Revolution).

3. Support greater access to genetically modified crops. This largely involves either buying unlimited use licenses from Monsanto in exchange for strands whose seeds can be replanted, or cutting off the research funds of every corporation that asserts a right to trademark DNA and establishing university labs aimed at producing useful GMOs instead. Right now, low-income farmers often find themselves straining to pay for the extra seeds each year. In addition, corporate control is one of the reasons for suspicion of GMOs, which reduces its use below what is scientifically sensible.

4. Unilaterally open first-world markets to third-world goods. As Krugman has shown in his research of international trade, free trade doesn’t always provide comparative advantage to the poorer trading partner. Indeed, with the exception of the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore, every newcomer to the first-world club developed by replacing imports, rather than by inviting foreign corporations to set up shop. However, first-world tariffs on third-world goods negatively impact third-world economies, making it sensible to cut them without expecting reciprocal reductions in trade barriers.

5. Invest economic aid in infrastructure rather than capital or relief. Charity aid doesn’t do anything to help depressed regions; the Tennessee Valley Authority was good for temporarily providing jobs but never promoted any long-term development. Better uses for the money include road networks that make it easier to provide local relief and startup capital for economically productive regions (i.e. cities).

6. Debt relief. Need I say more? The US can afford to pay down its debt – it just chooses not to. Countries with a GDP per capita of 800 can’t. Note to creditors: you’re not going to see that money ever again anyway; deal with it.


Ezra Opens a Second Front in the War on Science

February 28, 2007

Ezra’s latest post complains that the media doesn’t pay enough attention to partisan thinktanks. The idea is that it doesn’t matter that a study is hopelessly biased, as long as it has 500 pages of pretty graphs. Now, I know it’s attractive to project the diametric opposite of your own view onto the mainstream media. However, that’s not a very good methodology for discussing politics.

Social sciences have an outrageously low signal to noise ratio. How couldn’t they? They a) attract people who’re on average less smart than those who do natural sciences, b) give people a lot more incentive to stick to indefensible conclusions, and c) has a proliferation of methodological minutiae that can get you any result you want. For instance, multiple regression analysis depends on the variables you enter so much that the same data can be shown to lead to wildly different conclusions.

With so much chaff and so little wheat, people have to develop mechanisms of throwing out the junk. One good mechanism is the rule of thumb that if a thinktank disagrees with an academic study, the thinktank is always wrong; to take a slight refinement, academics whose chairs are funded by ideologically motivated thinktanks, like John Lott, are barely more reliable than thinktanks.

Right now, the media gives equal credence to peer-reviewed studies and to thinktank hatchet jobs. Even if it does what you imply it should, it won’t improve matters much. Laypersons won’t be any more informed, and experts won’t learn anything new.

A single news article can only offer a cursory analysis of scientific debates, and is hardly more informative than, say, direct-to-consumer drug advertising. It’s impossible to write a 1,000-word New York Times article doing justice to, say, debates within biological community about evolutionary developmental biology. And that’s an issue where it’s relatively easy to produce rigorous research; when you venture into economics, things get exponentially harder.

It’s possible for a newspaper to publish a debate between Lewontin and Dawkins, or even to commission both to write regular features about evolution. But what’s the point? Professional biologists, who know all the relevant facts and have been familiar with those debates for decades have already decided. There’s no point in a rematch in a far less professionally competent arena.

The same principle applies to social sciences. When a thinktank publishes a research, the ideal media’s reaction should be to ignore it. There’s nothing that privileges thinktank fellows over real economists enough to exempt them from peer review. Likewise, there’s nothing that privileges ordinary people’s views. Serious scholars may not be able to describe poverty or unemployment in lurid detail, but frankly the media could use fewer heartwrenching stories and more facts.

The layperson doesn’t need to know anything more than what mainstream expert opinion is, and to what extent expert opinion can be trusted (more so on climatology and evolutionary biology than on welfare economics and political science). If he cares enough to delve into the subject, that’s what books and professional reviews are for. The mainstream media can never be a substitute for scholarly books and articles; even semi-popular magazines like Scientific American are inferior to actually reading what current research is.

Check out my post on religion and welfare. The post has 1,500 words; counting graphs and tables as a number of words taking equal space, the study it critiques has 15,000. And the post doesn’t do anything that I’d expect of similar coverage in the mainstream media: literature review, quoting other experts, actually checking the data, fleshing out alternative theories. In its most cursory form, therefore, a satisfactory critique needs to be about a tenth its object study’s size. When the study in question has the 500 pages the hack Ezra quotes brags about, it takes 50 to take it apart.


Tuesday Night Links

February 27, 2007

Echidne examines the consequences of shrinking government to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. She looks at what spending cuts have done to the FDA, which is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago (link). I don’t want to blow government out of proportions; I just want to increase it to the size that I can ride the subway without being infected with cholera, eat uncooked chicken without getting salmonella, and walk under a shed without worrying about the possibility of a collapse.

Ezra writes about free trade; although he has populist sentiments, he’s fairly pro-trade. In a heated argument between Brad DeLong and Jeff Faux, he comes down clearly on DeLong’s side after Faux dodges a legitimate question about free trade’s positive effects on China. Ezra takes Faux to task for ranting about Chinese domestic economic policy for being bad for the poor. Why impoverishing China by slapping tariffs on it will cause its government to change its policy when similar sanctions against other countries have miserably failed is beyond me.

Samhita asks whether it can truly be called feminist empowerment when women in Pakistan protest the demolition of illegally built mosques. The people on the comment thread tend toward realizing that, to quote EG, “Women are a huge segment of the population, and no social/political/religious movement would succeed without any support from women. But that doesn’t make the movement inherently feminist.”

Jenny explains why it’s not a feminist duty to support Hillary Clinton. Just like I don’t accuse anyone who opposes Obama of hating black people and anyone who opposes Richardson of hating Hispanics, so do I oppose allegations that opposing Clinton is something sexist. The proper feminist or antiracist or pro-gay or pro-atheist thing to do is support a candidate based on real issues, regardless of gender/race/sexual orientation/religion. Feminism doesn’t exist to empower Hillary Clinton, but to empower the 3,249,999,999 women who aren’t so powerful as to have a shot at becoming the most powerful person in the world.

Lindsay writes about the difference between the left-wing American blogosphere and the right-wing one. While the left-wing blogosphere seeks to turn itself into part of the Democratic Party, featuring a motley crew of policy analysts, movement activists, fundraisers, and screamers, the right-wing blogosphere only engages in scalping of the type Donahue did to Amanda.

Ruchira reproduces an article about Tehran that seems to strike the correct chord in depicting the city as highly cultured and developed and at the same time suffering from a fundamentalism problem. This isn’t Kandahar or even Baghdad we’re talking about, but a modern city that doesn’t have many ingrained problems a revolution won’t solve.

Brent notes that Mitt Romney is hardly the only person in the US who thinks atheists can’t be Presidents. A clueless law professor at Colorado University rants about atheists from about every imaginable angle, including coming out in support of Romney’s bigotry. Brent takes him to task for spouting inanities about atheists’ morality.

Skatje takes down arguments for preserving the Pledge of Allegiance so that you don’t have to. Hitting the nail right on the head, she says, “An oath of loyalty is something you see in totalitarian regimes, not something you’d expect in a nation that prides itself on freedom. In a classroom with children from as young as age five robotically chanting at a flag every morning, I’d also expect a big silver screen on one of the walls. I’ve already written about nationalism. Submission and obedience to a government is another leg of it.”

Tyler rants about excessive moderates who in order to look centrist compare atheists to fundamentalists. Unlike Tyler I don’t care enough for Dawkins to get agitated when someone does a hatchet job on him, but I do care enough for reality to see that atheism is as extreme as fundamentalism to the same degree that supporting full racial equality is as extreme as apartheid.


Religion and Welfare

February 26, 2007

In most countries secularism is positively correlated with support for welfare, but does welfare make people more secular? Anthony Gill of the University of Washington says yes; in 2004, he and grad student Erik Lundsgaarde published a paper arguing that welfare provides a substitute for church attendance, making people less likely to attend church.

The full theory goes as follows: in the 19th century, the power of Christian churches came from their ability to provide social services such as charity, education, and health care. As the state started providing the same services without requiring or expecting church attendance, it became less economic for people to attend church, and less economic for church leaders to focus on welfare activities.

This theory has a lot of holes in it, but the study has some empirical backing. There’s a statistically significant relationship between a Christian country’s welfare spending as a percentage of GDP and the percentage of people in it who report attending church weekly, even when controlling for such variables as education and whether the country is Catholic or not. The weakness of the study comes not from its lack of data, but from flaws in how the variables are defined, failure to look for alternative explanations, and problems with individual case studies.

First, the study doesn’t explicitly say how welfare spending is measured. This is significant because it right off the bat fails to control for key factors. Most importantly, the most expensive part of the welfare state is social security, whose cost increases with the old age dependency ratio. But more religious states have higher population growth rates, leading to younger demographics and lower social security costs.

It’s possible to get around that by looking at states that buck the trend and are both relatively religious and relatively old. The best case study here is Poland, which is simultaneously the most religious nation in Europe and one of the oldest. Additional examples include Spain, Portugal, and to some extent Italy. The only one of the four that appears in the scattergram plotting church attendance and welfare spending is Spain, which is considerably more religious than the regression line predicts.

In addition, even when one controls for old age pensions, not all governments spend welfare the same way. The USA prefers targeted tax breaks, making its welfare system appear stingier than it actually is. In addition, some benefits can be distributed either as welfare or as spending on health care and education, which the study doesn’t account for. A good example in the US would be free lunches in schools, a welfare service that adds to the education budget.

Second, the omission of education spending is crucial. A church often thrives by having its own set of parochial schools. The standard British joke about catechism is that religious education only secularizes people, though the more common sensical effect is the opposite, namely that greater availability of parochial schools will make the population more religious. Education spending is correlated to welfare spending via the mediating variable of economic liberalism or socialism. As such, Gill and Lundsgaarde commit a grave sin of omission by overlooking it.

Likewise, a more direct political mediating variable could account for much of the correlation. In a followup paper, Gill notes that the correlation between welfare and religosity holds within US states, too. But within the US, both welfare and secularism fall under the rubric of liberal politics, contrasted with the welfare-busting and religiosity of conservative politics.

This in fact holds true in Europe and Latin America, which comprise all countries in the study but two, the US and Australia. Throughout Europe and Latin America, even more so than in the US, there is a strong tradition of anti-clerical liberalism. It’s likely that all Gill’s motivating example of Uruguay shows is that Uruguay has a long history of domination by the left-liberal Colorado Party.

Third, the main measure used for religiosity, reported church attendance, is deeply flawed. The USA’s real church attendance rate is half its reported rate. The church attendance variable tracks not how many people attend church, but how many would like pollsters to believe that they attend church. This variable has some value, but is overall less important than data based on actual church attendance.

The other figure used, the percentage of people who declare themselves nonreligious, is flawed as well. There are two dimensions to religious affiliation – one’s choice of religion, which tracks culture, and one’s position along the religious-secular spectrum. More plural areas, especially those with strong connections between religion and culture, will have a lower percentage of people calling themselves nonreligious than less plural areas.

Fourth, many of the assertions in the study admit too many inexplicable case study exceptions. Ireland and the Philippines’ unusually high levels of religiosity are attributable to the role the Catholic Church played in pro-independence and anti-Marcos politics respectively; I presume Poland could be similarly explained away, were it in the study. But other exceptions require seriously modifying the theory.

For example, the study would predict an increase in American church attendance rates after the welfare reforms of the 1990s. The American study only finds a slightly less significant correlation between welfare and religion in 1995; meanwhile, there was a measurable increase in church attendance in the two months following the 9/11 attacks.

For another example, the case study of Britain goes in almost the opposite direction as the one the study predicts. Britain hasn’t had a serious welfare system since Thatcher’s economic reforms. And yet, in the 1990s, religious belief crashed, and while children of secular parents always grew up to be secular, children of religious parents had only a 50% chance of growing up to be religious. Levels of belief crashed even among Muslims, who Britain forces a religious identity on in many respects.

And fifth, there are alternative explanations that the study should look at but doesn’t. First, it’s legitimate to ask why support for welfare correlates so nicely with secularism in Western politics. It could be an ideological accident that modern liberalism is secular and pro-welfare and modern conservatism is religious and anti-welfare; after all, in turn-of-the-18th-century Britain, it was the Tories who were more supportive of extensive Poor Laws and the Whigs who favored a libertarian economic policy.

Or, equally well, it could be the realpolitik version of what the study is trying to say: welfare is a substitute for religion. As such, religious organizations are likely to ally themselves with political groups that oppose welfare. It holds to some extent for modern conservatives, though by no means for all. In 1900, the US populists were both pro-religion and pro-welfare, and would only embrace prosperity theology in the 1960s and 70s.

A good way of gauging such political explanations is seeing if the same trends hold for non-Western countries. Muslim organizations provide the same welfare Christian ones do; in fact, one of the main power sources of Islamist movements is their strong performance in disaster relief. Of course, Islamism has an entirely different dynamic to it – its main promise isn’t charity but change – but it’s useful to examine this dynamic and see how it can apply to the West. How relevant is the promise to change the morally uncertain status quo to the rise of American Dominionism?

I should stress that except perhaps for the problematic definitions of the variables, this study is not shoddy. A data set comparing religiosity and welfare is always useful. The study’s downfall is in using the data to confirm a theory that has no other evidence to it. Although the study seems to satisfy the falsification criterion in that Gill intended for it to highlight the failure of the theory, in fact it does not falsify the statement “welfare does not cause a decline in religiosity.” All it does is superficially confirm the statement that welfare does in fact cause religiosity to fall.

Of the many different angles the study could take, the one about a direct effect of welfare on religiosity is one of the most obvious two, which is probably why Gill went with it. The other, that religious groups lobby against welfare, is more empirically plausible than the converse direction of causation, but does not fit well into Gill’s theory. But more indirect links, for example with education or political liberalism as a mediating variable, look far more fruitful. The study’s ultimate downfall is not so much that it is wrong as that it is woefully incomplete, concentrating on perhaps the least enlightening theory available.


Economic Inequality in the US Versus in Sweden

February 25, 2007

An article in Canada’s leading conservative rag about the purported failure of the Swedish model led me, once again, to comparing data from Sweden to data from the US. First, just to get this out of the way, Sweden has a higher workforce participation rate than the US.

More importantly, the staggering income inequality in the US compared with Sweden’s relative equality means that the American poor are far, far worse off than the Swedish poor, and have been so for decades. The USA’s GDP per capita is just more than a third higher than this of Sweden, $43,500 versus $31,600. But in the US, the bottom quintile’s share of aggregate income was 3.6% in 1999 and is trending down, compared with 3.9% for the Swedish bottom decile in 2004 and an additional 6% for the second decile.

In other words, assuming that aggregate income has the same share of GDP in the US and Sweden, an assumption that probably works in the USA’s favor, the Swedish bottom quintile has twice as much income as the American one. And that doesn’t count the fact the Swedish poor get free health care.

What’s more, the US has always been like that, despite populist claims that it was better in the 1960s and 70s. The share of the American bottom quintile peaked at 4.4% in the mid-70s; the share of the Swedish bottom quintile bottomed at 9.4% in 2000, a year of high capital gains.


Robert Reich Supports Sanctions on Sweden

February 22, 2007

Via Ezra: Robert Reich suggests not trading with any country without a minimum wage at least twice half as high as the median wage, and manages to come off as a lot less knowledgable than I’d expect of a former Secretary of Labor.

Sweden and Norway have no statutory minimum wages. Neither did Britain until 1998. Minimum wages are the most capitalistic of all social regulations: they say that everyone who already has work needs to be paid a wage that puts him in poverty but not deep poverty. Unions tend to support high minimum wages for solidarity reasons, but their members make far more than the minimum wage. That’s why Sweden and Norway have no minimum wages: they have Soviet levels of unionization, so workers get paid living wages thanks to their unions rather than thanks to a statute.

Reich manages to peddle the pervasive myth of the social democratic United States. When he says, “For many decades, America’s minimum wage was roughly half the nation’s median wage; only since the late 1970s has it fallen much lower than that,” he ignores the fact that at its most equal, the USA had a more unequal income distribution than Blair’s Britain. The US Gini index bottomed in 1968, when it was .388, higher than this of virtually every developed country in 2007 as well as several key developing countries, most notably India (~.32).

Now, there are reasons other than blind attachment to a mythical golden age why American leftists believe that the US used to be a social democratic heaven. Before 1973, the US economy grew very quickly, so even though its income distribution was very unequal, the lower class’s income rose.

More importantly, the sustained fast growth between 1945 and 1973 was achieved with minimal changes in inequality. Norway has grown very fast in the last 10 years, but its Gini index has skyrocketed; by 2002, it was .37 by the same method the US Census Bureau uses to calculate the US Gini index. What’s likeliest is not that the US in the 1950s and 1960s was a miracle case of growth without increase in inequality, but that the natural increase in inequality was balanced out by a reduction in inequality stemming from civil rights activism. Black poverty crashed in the 1960s, as the civil rights movement gave black people additional opportunities. It wasn’t economic policy that reduced the Gini index; the beginning of the War on Poverty more or less coincided with the end of the precipitous drop in poverty in the US. Rather, it was Martin Luther King.

This is significant enough on its own, because it underscores a point Amartya Sen is making over and over again, only to be ignored by people like Reich who are no more anti-neoliberal than he is. The most important thing in development is democratic governance. Democracies can screw things up, as India did when it took decades to abandon the idea of a planned economy, but more often than not they ensure development goes to the people who need it. Most notably, China managed to have a mega-famine in the late 1950s even though it was better developed than India, which had and still has malnourishment but never since independence a real famine.

I’m not sure why Reich thinks third-worlders need American dragooning to engage in sound economic policy. In practice what he’s promoting is not supposed to benefit anyone living US borders, but that’s not how he thinks about it or justifies it. So it makes sense to ask: why not trust the people of each country to choose the economic policy they think is most beneficial, and forego the opportunity to be sanctimonious and impose sanctions on any excessively capitalist country?

Of course, more often than not it’s not the people who make that choice. Singapore isn’t a corporate fief because its people want it to be one, but because its authoritarian government squashes any political alternative. In contrast, in India and Brazil, where the people do have a choice, they chose moderately leftist governments as the best path to development.

But it’s impossible for economic leftists in the West to tweak their claims to be about democracy without saying things they don’t want to say. First, the idea of imposing sanctions on countries with the wrong political system is too neoconservative. The leftist who has no trouble forcing countries to be more socialistic is far more squeamish about making countries more democratic, even when given a non-violent method that is far more effective than the neoconservative ideal of invasion.

And second, third-world social democrats and first-world social democrats don’t have the same agenda. Third-worlders almost uniformly oppose first-world agricultural subsidies, and so do development economists, such as those who write the UN development reports. Lula is in fact leading the charge against the first world’s dumping of agricultural goods in the third world. In contrast, first-world leftists tend to never meet a non-military government subsidy they don’t like.


Iran Won’t Know What Hit It

February 13, 2007

Via Eurotrib: Iran’s net oil exports are shrinking so much that the government is engaging in desperate measures that will probably cause it to fall. The New York Times has the story:

Some analysts say that if this acute imbalance between stagnant production and rising demand at home continues unchecked, Iran will have no oil left over to export within a decade. Its oil exports, totaling $47 billion last year, account for half the government’s revenue.

(…)

To curb demand, which has been driven in part by subsidies that keep the domestic pump price at a mere 35 cents a gallon, the government plans to begin rationing gasoline in March, a measure so unpopular, and potentially explosive, that rationing plans have been put off several times in the past.

If Ahmadinejad were serious about staying in power, he’d put off the plan for a year, and rely on overproduction, just like the Shah did in the 1970s. In such a situation, a smart US President would wait for Iran’s oil production to plummet and then engage in minor diplomatic action to ensure that the post-revolutionary government would be pro-American. However, Bush isn’t a smart President, and his advisors are not a smart administration; they’re likely to bomb either way.

It seems almost as if Ahmadinejad is trying to ensure the regime collapses before the US has any time to bomb. If he can wait it out two more years, Bush’s hotheadedness and Congress’s spinelessness will secure his regime indefinitely. The US can’t execute an invasion, or at least not a successful one; all it can do is aerially strike, giving just enough impetus to preserve the regime.

Iran’s government is repeating the same mistakes the United States’ did, which led to the crash in Bush’s approval rate. The correct way to wean a gasoline-addicted population is gradually, via either slowly increasing taxes or investing in public transportation. The incorrect way is to ration gas. Peacetime rations have never been conducive to regime support. Regimes that the people are overall satisfied with can get away with it; regimes that have a five-year shelf life can’t.

Iran won’t know what hit it. For a government that got installed when angry mobs threw out the despised, authoritarian Shah who was keeping them in poverty, it has an awfully short memory. It has an authoritarian, despised President who can’t deliver on his economic promises, who’s propped up by an equally authoritarian Supreme Leader who’d be even more despised if he were more public.

I’m willing to stake my entire corpus of posts about the Middle East on this: barring an American or Israeli attack on Iranian soil, the current regime isn’t going to survive into the 2010s. Far stronger regimes have fallen before the might of popular discontent. A year ago, Ahmadinejad could cover up his unpopularity by clamping down on opposition newspapers. Today, he could just as well jail two thirds of the Iranian population.


Tuesday Small Hours Links

February 13, 2007

There are so many good links from the last day or two.

Jessica Dreadful breaks another abortion ban story from South Dakota, this time with exceptions for rape and incest in order to make the bill more palatable. But even then, the rape and incest exceptions are created with the most draconian restrictions possible.

[Link] The bill would allow rape victims to get abortions if they report the rapes to police within 50 days. Doctors would have to confirm those reports with police; doctors also would have to give blood from aborted fetuses to police for DNA testing in rape and incest cases.

The Commissar explains exactly what is wrong with the Bush administration’s accusations of Iranian support for Iraqi militants. Instead of trying to doubt the intelligence that was used to gather the conclusions, he shows why the conclusions themselves are implausible.

At the recent US military briefing about the Iranian mortar shells given to Iraqi Shiite militias, it was reported that these super-bombs have killed 170 US troops since June, 2004. I’m sure that Shiite IED’s have killed American troops in Iraq. How many overall? If the Iranian EFP’s have killed 170 Americans, what fraction is that of the total.

(…)

Of the 553 (82+471) where the sect of the attacker can be reliably inferred, 15% of these deadly IED attacks were committed by Shiites. Extrapolated to the full set, that would be 144 overall. That’s right. Only 144 Shiite-IED related deaths since June 2004.

Ezra has a three part series on the horrors of prison rape. While he doesn’t use the wonky style we all know and love, his posts still come off as very strong. He notes,

According to the Justice Department, “[in] 2005 there were 3,145 black male sentenced prison inmates per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,244 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and 471 white male inmates per 100,000 white males.” This is important. The relative infrequency with which white Americans enter prison, particularly for extended periods of time, surely effects the political urgency of prison reform. Indeed, it’s likely the reason overall legislation pushes in the other direction — towards overcrowding and longer sentences and less rehabilitation.

Brent reproduces a letter about the invisibility of atheists in the US. Since atheists are impossible to immediately discern from theists, bigoted Christians can get away with assuming that everyone in their lives who is a good person shares their religion. Based on that, he urges atheists to come out publicly.

First, misconceptions about us abound because of this invisibility. People don’t realize that we are their doctor, their teacher, their spouse or the nice guy that just held the door for them. The only face of naturalism a person is likely to see is a militant one. Is there any doubt that the image of naturalists would improve overnight if politicians, stars and athletes would come out?

d of Lawyers, Guns and Money comments on a statement by Bill Kristol about Obama that makes Joe Biden look like the second coming of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass all rolled into one. Kristol says Obama would’ve supported pro-slavery politicians in the 1850s. d notes,

When Kristol suggests — wearing his arrogant smirk like a badge of honor — that Barack Obama “would have been for Douglas in 1858,” he seems not to know one important historical fact. According to the laws of Illinois in 1858, Barack Obama would not only have been incapable of voting for Stephen Douglas, but he also would not have been allowed to enter the state in the first place. In 1853, Illinois passed one of the most restrictive black codes in the so-called “free north.” Blacks from other states were permitted to remain in the state for ten days; if they did not leave, they were subject to arrest and temporary enslavement — they would be sold to bidders who would be entitled to their labor until the mandatory $50 fine had been worked off. If the offending individual remained in Illinois after his or her release, the fines increased by $50 increments for each subsequent offense.

In her latest basic concepts post, Shelley turns to prions, the proteins that cause mad cow disease. Although they are proteins rather than organisms, they have the capability to mess with existing proteins in a way that makes them infectious in a way.

The protein that prions are made of is found throughout the body normally(called PrPc), although what their non-disease function is is not yet known. These proteins are encoded by the PRNP gene, and mutations in this gene are responsibly for inherited prion diseases. The disease-state prion protein is called (PrPSc) and is resistant to proteases which would normally denature a protein and render it harmless. The theory of how prions become infectious to other proteins is detailed below.

Abbas reproduces a letter by Waleed Hazbun, a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut. Hazbun describes the city,

Walking down the streets of the Hamra district of Beirut I think to myself that more cities across the Arab world should feel this way. Even as the city is re-dividing itself politically and police and security forces stand watch over public spaces, key buildings, and the residences of leading politicians, Beirut remains a urban, cosmopolitan environment. By invoking this term I do not refer to the fancy shopping districts with Euro-American name brand shops, the haut-hipsters hanging out a Starbucks (or even the much cooler De Prague), or the late night dancing parties going on at the trendy clubs. Beirut is a costal Levantine city that has never been cut off from other Mediterranean cities and trade routes nor fully isolated from its Arab/Islamic hinterland. It is not a show case ‘modern’ city built next to a museumfied medieval era ‘madina,’ like Tunis nor an artificial metropolis emerging out of a desert landscape due to royal patronage or the flows of petrodollars. It is more like Istanbul and how cities on coast of Mandate Palestine might have developed in some alterative reality.

Also on 3QD, Dhiraj Nayyar writes about the parallels between India and the US. India is aspiring to global superpower status, complete with economic domination and massive exportation of culture. But the social problems of the US pale in comparison with those of India.

Can India possibly claim to be superpower, the new emperor, just because some of it’s corporates are taking over firms abroad. Corporate might hasn’t turned into well-being for the majority of the people who still languish in poverty, illiteracy, hunger: basically dismal human conditions. Even possessing a few nuclear weapons doesn’t change this fact. And if half a country’s population cannot read, feed or cloth itself, what does that say about the empire? Even the American empire seems hollow when it is estimated that one in six people in the US is functionally illiterate, a large number of them live in poverty, where poverty is often a function of race, and where hurricanes like Katrina leave the mighty government fumbling for solutions.

Tyler expresses skepticism of much-hyped developments in quantum computing. In principle, quantum computers can factor integers in polynomial time, compared with exponential time for normal computers. In practice, constructing a quantum computer is about as feasible as fusion power at this stage. Tyler explains,

An actual working 16-qubit quantum superconductor that can overcome decoherence and the ubiquitous errors that plague any effort to build a computing device on quantum principles would be quite an achievement. It would indeed be interesting to do a full scale quantum computation, perhaps actually executing the Shor factoring algorithm. But A.) 16-qubits isn’t going to cut it and B.) they’ve been ominously reserved about releasing any results for professionals and academics to evaluate. And needless to say, with the grandiose proclamations the folks at the company have made, I’m skeptical.

Zuzu rips into the third chapter of Dawn Eden’s book, The Thrill of the Chaste (the parts Zuzu quotes sound as unintelligent as the title).

The chapter opens with a description of a continuing education course on “Living Single.” Dawn reads the description — which is all about helping people confidently navigate the single world, whether they’ve never left it or are re-entering it — and all she sees is “lack.”

She would, wouldn’t she?

I mean, her whole life, she’s felt lacking, and though she’s changed her strategy, her goal is the same: get married. Thing is, as she does so many times, she breezes right by the point. The course is designed to alleviate some of the social pressure that single adults feel to be in a couple, that they are in fact lacking something. It’s designed to help people understand that they don’t need to be in a couple to have fulfilling lives. But Dawn just sees the course as evidence that women are mired in a pathetic, pop-culturally-dictated “single lifestyle” that is all about lack — that lack being, of course, lack of a man and lack of God.

Finally, Bora collects all Darwin Day posts in one big link post. I haven’t had time to look at them yet, but you should.


The Middle Class and Taxes

February 11, 2007

It’s apparently common wisdom in the US that strengthening the middle class involves cutting its tax burden. At least, that’s what John Edwards keeps saying over and over. However, as with many things John Edwards is saying, the truth is on the other side.

The middle class is fundamentally based on security, whereas the upper class is based on risk. Most middle class people would rather earn $45,000 a year to $60,000 (+/-) $40,000; most upper class people would rather earn $600,000 (+/-) $400,000 to $450,000.

This is important because a lot of government programs can be understood as middle class compacts to spread risk around. Right now, an American middle class family can expect to have to fork over $10,000-15,000 a year for four years each time one of its children goes to college, which reduces its earnings by about a quarter. Since middle class people live paycheck to paycheck (especially in the US, where people don’t save), this is often too crushing.

Instead, those families can agree to a compact wherein they pay on an annual basis, in the form of voting for a liberal government that will raise taxes and use them to subsidize higher education. Even if the average cost doesn’t change, it’s easier for someone making $50,000 a year to pay an additional $1,000 a year in taxes than to have to worry about paying for his kids’ college education.

Or, take unemployment insurance, the classic middle class welfare program. A middle class household can hope to have two working parents all the time and have nothing but meager savings and a broken social safety net to fall on if either is laid off. Or it can pay an additional $2,000 a year in taxes for unemployment benefits until the laid off employee can find another job.

It’s for the same reason that people get health insurance. If its average utility were positive or even zero, Aetna would fold. But despite the negative utility, the risk is worth mitigating for anyone who doesn’t have several hundred grand on hand to pay for an emergency.

But in fact, the utility of those forms of social insurance is positive. As a whole, it’s better for the economy to have an education system that can admit people based on merit rather than on the ability to pay, and to have professionals who, when laid off, can afford taking the time to find a job in their respective fields.

The same reasoning can be applied to government programs that help primarily the poor, like a social safety net, worker retraining, public housing, and national funding of education. It’s in everyone’s benefit that talented people can rise to the top regardless of where they’re born. It’s also in everyone’s benefit that the poor have the spending power to buy consumer goods; think of it as the public version of Henry Ford’s wage hike.

In addition, there are a lot of things the government just does better than the free market. The US health care system is so inefficient that Medicare and Medicaid cost per capita more than France’s health care system or even Germany’s, even though they cover barely a quarter of the population. The meteoric rise in college tuition in the US is traceable to the same spending problems that govern its health insurance system. Unemployment insurance likely pays for itself in the form of higher future earnings.

As some hardcore unionists will tell you, the problem isn’t high taxes, but low paychecks. This doesn’t really apply to the true middle class or to the upper middle class, but firmly governs the lower middle class. That’s mostly an issue of revoking anti-union regulations, but cash benefits to the poor exert the same upward pressure on wages as a minimum wage hike.

If the extra $3,000 a year in taxes I mentioned sound too high still, then consider the actual numbers. Each 1% of flat tax on all above-poverty income (and there I’m including interest income, capital gains, and corporate profits) generates $60-65 billion dollars in the US.

Now, the lushest higher education funding – that on everyone including room and board – will cost $140 billion per year; restricting to four years, and limiting subsidies to tuition, fees, and books, will cut it to maybe $50. Unemployment insurance costs $100. Full daycare funding at 5 grand per kid is $100. Together that’s about 4% of above-poverty income, which works out to $1,600 for a family of four making $60,000 a year, which is almost an order of magnitude less than what that family will save on health care under a decent system.

There’s no way around viewing those forms of social spending as a middle class compact. It’s impossible to saddle the rich with the entire bill, even with Swedish tax levels. For sure, some middle class families will pay more for this than others – typically, those that are richer, smaller, healthier, and with children who go to cheaper universities – but overall it’s still an intra-middle class insurance scheme.

It’s telling that the US, where the government coddles the middle class with low taxes and a mortgage deduction, the middle class is feeling the squeeze more acutely than elsewhere. The American middle class is relatively well off only by the risk-based standards of the upper class. By its own security-based standards, it’s in deep trouble due to soaring health and education costs and labor market uncertainties. What the middle class needs isn’t lower taxes, but the greater security derived from higher taxes.


Flat Taxes

February 8, 2007

Economically, it doesn’t matter that much how the government collects taxes. The tax system is almost entirely political: for example, the separation of social security taxes from other taxes is supposed to protect social security from meddling.

So given that, let me make a political case for something like a flat tax. There is no point in taxing below poverty income, so let’s give each household an exemption at 100% the poverty line. Under my minimum income scheme it should rise to 150%, which is when the minimum income is completely phased out, but without that, 100% is better. Above that, taxes should be flat.

Now, here’s the trick: the level of taxation shouldn’t be predetermined. Instead, it should be indexed to government spending. Every fiscal year, the government should collect in taxes exactly how much it expects to spend, plus or minus any correction from the previous year.

It politically underscores the point that cutting taxes is equivalent to cutting spending, and raising spending is equal to raising taxes. The only way to cut taxes under that scheme is to find places to cut spending. It’s up to the tax-cutting politician to then sell cuts in government spending to the public.

In addition, it encourages a lean government that has relatively little waste. Cuts in the most important government services, like health care, social security, and education, will be felt too immediately to be popular. “I’m going to cut your taxes by ending public health as we know it” isn’t a positive political selling point. In contrast, cuts in large subsidies nobody knows about or cares much for will produce sizable tax cuts without too much political opposition.

The American conservative movement has spent a lot of money on trying to convince people that their tax money goes to means-tested welfare and foreign aid. If I remember correctly, Americans think foreign aid is about 20% of the federal budget and want it cut to 10%; in reality, it’s about 0.6%. When they screw the social safety net and can’t reduce taxes by more than a percent, they’ll start losing steam.

In times of recession, it makes sense for the government to run deficits. That’s perfectly fine; I’m not talking about writing budget balancing into any constitution, only about reforming the tax system by statute. When it’s necessary, the government can pass an emergency stimulus bill, pegging the tax level to the spending level minus some deficit. Because it makes it clear that legislators are voting for a deficit, it will be hard to abuse when it’s not economically necessary.

The one drawback I can think of is that in the US, the poverty exemption will require the flat tax to be rather large. If I’m not mistaken, to be revenue-neutral with respect to both the income tax and FICA, it will need to be in the low 40s, and to close the deficit it will need to be at least 45%. Although the exemption will ensure that the lower classes and most of the middle class will receive a tax cut, the higher marginal tax will make it appear as if taxes are going up.

Still, the principle is the same: there are no free lunches. If you want to cut taxes, you have to cut spending somewhere. If you want to cut taxes without cutting spending, you have to openly declare being for an unbalanced budget.


China and Aid

February 6, 2007

That a lot of people miss that the Western emphasis on human rights in foreign policy is simply an advanced form of realpolitik is understandable. That Hu Jintao not only is among the people who miss that but also tries to deliberately spite that policy by giving direct aid to the Sudanese government to build a new Presidential palace is less understandable.

One of the most tragic consequences of the clash of civilizations theory is that it portrays current practices as inherent cultural notions. But the West has only imposed sanctions on regimes that violate human rights after World War Two, and especially after the Cold War. Before then, its central foreign affairs dogma was the same idea of strict national sovereignty that China’s trying to work from now.

What changed the West is obvious. But even after World War Two, realpolitik dominated American foreign policy. There was a significant contingent of liberals who wanted a greater emphasis on human rights in foreign affairs, but they were weaker than the moderates and conservatives, who favored political realism.

“They’re oppressing their people” remained a good way to get the people on board foreign adventures, but that isn’t a Western democratic notion. Arabs who aren’t Palestinians feel no particular affinity with Palestinians, and yet respond positively to propaganda campaigns based on Israel’s abuse of Palestine.

The processes that then caused the West to do something about a few human rights violations abroad were more about political pressure than about altruism: South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Bosnia. Elsewhere, it had no trouble doing nothing, as in Rwanda, or actively supporting totalitarians, as in Afghanistan.

Liberalism isn’t the only universalizing ideology. Communism, Islamism, Dominionism, and fascism are just as universalizing. Democratic governments are unlikely to be hostile to other democracies; not coincidentally, democracies try encouraging other countries to be democratic in order to protect themselves. Governments always treat exceptions to the rule as hostile political systems: the US overthrew social democracies in the Cold War, Stalin boycotted communist regimes that didn’t toe his line, and fascists only apologize for allied fascist regimes.

In other words, China’s foreign policy is based on the same idea as this of the US or the EU: support allies, increase your global influence, and protect your political system. The EU does this by promoting democratization in Eastern Europe; China does this by protecting authoritarian regimes.

The other contention in the article, the one about the Western approach to development, is more about competence than about ideology. The Western notion that economic development opens up the political system just doesn’t work. Singapore and the Gulf states have Western European GDPs per capita.

Normally, the mechanism that’s supposed to work is economic aid tied to political reforms. In that, China’s aid to the palace indeed shows the Western idea doesn’t work. The way to get allies is by subsidizing the leaders’ extravagances, and only giving the people enough welfare to discourage them from rebelling. That’s how American machine politics worked, how Islamist welfare works, and how Chinese aid works.

Doing anything useful to people with direct aid is impossible. The closest thing in modern history that came close to it and worked is the Marshall Plan, which also involved close economic cooperation and unilateral removal of American tariffs on European goods. The Soviet Union was offered aid but refused it, precisely because of the economic cooperation it entailed.

Direct aid is just charity: it’s a money sink that keeps people one step ahead of famine but doesn’t let them develop. Unfortunately, the main alternative to it is IMF-style restructuring, which doesn’t even do that. In contrast, a better form of development aid would concentrate on three things, two of which are unfortunately off the mainstream radar and one of which is practiced only on the limited basis.

The first is import replacement. Countries develop by having cities that replace imports and are productive enough to be able to absorb technological unemployment by redirecting the people to new kinds of work. Rural areas never develop; they just bleed people to the cities, as new technologies cause long-term unemployment.

The second is requiring governments to invest in productive infrastructure. Saudi Arabia will start developing the day Ghawar hits peak production. As long as it can invest in oil instead of in people, it can keep its population too poor and uneducated to revolt. This can be achieved mostly by a combination of technological developments that bypass problematics countries like Saudi Arabia, since it’s impossible to sanction resource-rich countries successfully. The Iraq sanctions only strengthened Saddam’s domestic power.

And the third is to promote democracy the right way. The Polish and Georgian models, which involve widespread delegitimization and NGO-induced grassroots liberalism respectively, work. The Iraqi model, which involves military invasion, doesn’t. The US doesn’t need to spend a cent of aid to democratize Iran. Five years ago, it needed to invest in some pro-democracy NGOs; today, all it needs is to stop engaging, in order to ensure the level of regime support remains abysmal.

There is no lesson to learn from China’s aid to Sudan that concerns the West’s conception of aid. The only lesson to learn is about the perennial intra-liberal debate: how does one turn a depressed dictatorship into a prosperous liberal democracy?


The Minimum Wage, the Democrats, and Taxes

February 2, 2007

The minimum wage standoff came to an end a few days ago when the Republicans and the Democrats compromised on a bill that would include tax breaks to small business, but balance them out with closing loopholes and reducing exemptions on big business. In other words, the Democrats got the Republicans to agree to both increasing the minimum wage and making the tax system more progressive.

By and large, this is a good thing. The minimum wage is of greatest annoyance to small businesses, which often pay close to minimum wage and have low profit margins. Big business won’t even notice the change. Yahoo News explains the idea,

The rift stems from the new Democratic Congress’ approach to tax relief, which requires that every tax dollar lost to a new tax break be offset by a tax increase or closed loophole elsewhere. It also signals the new Democratic majority’s willingness to pay heed to the small business community even as it irritates larger corporate interests.

Better yet, the Democrats have successfully used the threat of stripping the bill of its tax breaks, which are absent from the House version, to make the Republicans stop complaining that the tax breaks are temporary while the loophole closures are permanent. The three-day-old Yahoo piece quotes business lobbyists as complaining about the compromise; the newer CNN piece quotes the Republicans as begging Democrats to stick to it.


The Carnival of the Liberals, and Other Links

January 31, 2007

COTL number 31 is up on Pollyticks.

In related links, Kevin Hayden has a tribute to Molly Ivins, who’s just succumbed to breast cancer; Edward at A Fistful of Euros writes about the divergence between the healthy economic growth of Spain with the sluggish one of Germany; and Shelley links to an Ask an Expert feature that explains why people can’t tickle themselves.


I Love New York

January 27, 2007

Eliot Spitzer has just graduated from fighting corporate crooks on Wall Street to fighting the entire New York health insurance industry. He’s just unveiled his new health care plan, which centers on expanding Medicare coverage while at the same time slashing funding to hospitals that waste money.

Spitzer promised reforms aimed at cutting spending while improving care and insuring hundreds of thousands more New Yorkers. He said he would freeze Medicaid funding to hospitals and nursing homes where it is wasted, but won’t cut benefits to individuals. He also promised to use some of the billions of dollars in savings he targeted as waste and fraud to cover more uninsured New Yorkers and to improve all health care.

Needless to say, health care providers are incensed.

“These are many of the same budget cuts that Governor Pataki proposed, and they were rejected because, frankly, they aren’t reforms,” said Daniel Sisto, the president of the Healthcare Association of New York State.

“By his tone today, he intends to make it a serious fight,” he said. “The Legislature knows that these cuts, now two decades old, do not constitute reform. I’m working on the assumption we can persuade them to reject them.”

You can get the details of Spitzer’s proposal straight from the horse’s mouth. His proposal’s immediate goal isn’t universal insurance, but only universal insurance of children and cutting New York’s rate of uninsured people by half.

However, many of the planks he supports to reduce wasteful spending are the same ones that cause countries with single payer systems to spend so much less than the US. New York’s state spending on Medicaid, $2,200, is on a par with the cost of universal public insurance systems such as those of Japan, Britain, Canada, and France.

Spitzer’s eight point proposal is,

1. Stopping funding phantom medical residents, who don’t exist but still receive state money;

2. Subsidizing private insurers less, by calculating need based on the state’s calculations rather than what the providers say they need;

3. Extending Medicare Part D to Medicaid, and shifting coverage to cheaper drugs when several equivalent alternatives are available;

4. Coordinating care for patients who suffer from multiple diseases;

5. Expanding managed care;

6. Computerizing health records;

7. Cracking down on Medicaid fraud;

8. Focusing on primary and preventive care.

Points 4, 5, 6, and 8 are important reasons public systems cost so much less than what the US has. American administrative costs are sky-high partly because absent state regulations, hospitals can’t computerize health records or coordinate care, leading to more bureaucratic red tape than is necessary. The lack of universality of insurance, which requires hospitals to ensure that patients have insurance, is only part of the problem.

In addition, the lack of universal insurance has caused American health care to underemphasize preventive care. Points 5 and 8 are intended to work around the problem given the fact that there’s a private insurance industry that’s running public health into the ground.

In the interest of fairness, I should note that some of Spitzer’s goals are too ambitious. He mentions obesity as one reason to focus on primary care; but Canada and Britain, which have universal insurance, have almost the same obesity rate as the US. Obesity rates track poverty and eating culture more than they do the strength of the public health system.

Still, given that the total level of health spending on an American is higher than this on a Canadian and a Brit combined, despite the almost equally unhealthy personal habits, it’s likely reforms of the type Spitzer is proposing will help.

A full reform of American health care will likely have two components – one focusing on insurance, as in Wyden’s proposal, and one focusing on administration and costs, as in Spitzer’s. Combining the two into one is good for some rhetorical tricks, like “Our public health care spending is the third highest in the world, and we still can’t cover everyone,” but not necessarily for making the reform easier to pass.

On a completely different note, Spitzer’s speech is a joy to read if only because it gives more specifics than anything else by a politician that I can remember. If Obama or Edwards or Clinton were this frank, I’d be a lot more supportive.

Unfortunately, none of the three has much to gain from having Spitzer as a running mate. Clinton is from the same state, and Edwards and Obama have similar domestic focuses. It’s too bad; Spitzer’s just joined the club of people I’d be really enthusiastic about if they ran in the Democratic primary, instead of the three lullaby singers who have a shot at winning.


Measuring Inequality

January 25, 2007

Ezra writes about the rising income inequality in the US, in the context of an article saying that rise is largely mythical. The article’s bone of contention is that the rise is attributable entirely to the fact that Americans are getting older and better educated.

Now, that may be true, but it’s legitimate to ask why these explanations are only ever invoked when they suggest the real level of inequality is lower than it seems. The US has one of the youngest populations in the first world, if not the youngest; its unweighted Gini index is .47. Japan has one of the oldest, if not the oldest; its unweighted Gini index is .31.

The comment thread on Ezra’s blog degenerates into a kerfuffle about happiness, largely due to the article’s spurious invocation of inequality in happiness as a legitimate measure. As such, there’s relatively little discussion of scenarios like the one invoked by SamChevre,

Let’s suppose you have a society where 18-25 year olds live in their parents’ households.

Now the society gets slightly richer and builds some cheap rental apartments. The 18-25 year olds move out of their parent’s houses, and live in the cheap rental apartments.

If you measure household inequality, it has greatly increased; however, no one is worse off.

First, some countries weight their Gini indices based on the number of household members. That’s how Norway can boast a Gini index of .3, even though using the same measure the US uses, its actual index is .37.

And second, even without weighting, let’s see what happens when the household splits, under the unrealistic assumption that the cost of living doesn’t increase. Mean household income will go down by a factor of 1 + 1/H, where H is the number of households before the split.

The median can go up or down; it will go up iff both households are above median after the split, and down otherwise. In the most drastic case, that when the household is above median before the split but both households are below after the split, the median will go down by a household and a half. If a below median household splits, it will go down by half a household.

To see what I mean, suppose there are 100 households, whose incomes are 1, 2, 3, …, 100. The mean and median are both 50.5. If household 60 splits into two equal halves, the median will go down to 49, going down by a percentile and a half for the one percentile of households that split. If household 30 splits instead, it will only go down to 50. In both cases, the mean will go down to 50, which is about 1% less than 50.5.

So the median-to-mean ratio will go down in the second case iff, approximately, the ratio of percentile 49.5 to percentile 50 is less than 100/101. In the US, it is lower, by a tiny margin. The US provides data in chunks of $2,500 per year; assuming within each such chunk the distribution is uniform, 100/101 times the median is percentile 49.56.

In other words, splits like that are likely not the reason why inequality is rising in the US. The other suggestions, age and education, don’t hold much water either.

First, high levels of education don’t necessarily correlate with higher inequality. The GI Bill ushered in an era of relatively low inequality in the US; the US Gini index bottomed in 1968, apparently.

Inequality is higher among the educated than among the uneducated, but that just reflects the fact that it’s higher at the top than at the bottom. Americans aren’t becoming richer because of greater levels of education, or else wages wouldn’t be stagnating. Rather, it’s just that the middlebrow jobs of 2007 are likelier to require college education than those of 1967. In other words, as more Americans graduate from college, they’re diluting the upper class composition of that bracket, which should lead to lower inequality among college graduates, rather than higher inequality overall.

And second, the aging of the Baby Boomers is mitigated by the entry of the Millennials into the workforce. In 1999, hardly any Millennial was old enough to work and virtually none lived alone. Today, almost half of all Millennials are and many do.There are more Millennials per age cohort than Xers, so their leaving their parents’ homes and starting to work would exercise downward rather than upward pressure on inequality.

On the other hand, some of the discussion about inequality in the US is grossly exaggerated, courtesy of populists who idealize the 1950s and 60s. Between 1992 and 2005, the US Gini went up by 3.5 points, of which 2 were due to methodological adjustment. The Swedish Gini went up by 2.5 without such an adjustment between 1995 and 2004. In Norway, it went up by 2 between 1998 and 2002.

The real gap isn’t between today’s American and yesterday’s, but between the USA and most other developed countries. At its nadir, the US Gini index was higher than the current one in Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and even Britain.


Outrage Links

January 25, 2007

Lindsay has an ongoing series on Julie Amero, the teacher who is facing jail time because some spyware showed porn to her students. She has an article up on the Huffington Post about it, and a further explanation about why Amero didn’t immediately closed the offending windows.

Steve Gilliard embeds a video of someone who needs a Queer Eye makeover singing “God hates fags.” Personally I was most bothered by the line, “With a man you shall not lay.” It wasn’t the implicit sexism, but the use of “lay” when “lie” is needed (hat-tip to Bruce).

Jenny writes about the history of lobotomy, which was to treat for every psychiatric condition, real or imagined. Lobotomies have a specific purpose: to remove damaged brain tissue. Psychological problems aren’t usually about damaged brain tissue, but rather about overall chemical imbalances. To quote Simon on Firefly, “Why anyone would cut into a healthy brain…”

Skatje complains about nationalist hysteria, as manifested in the American notion that the US flag should have rights (which, incidentally, Clinton is happily flip-flopping on). Skatje comments, “Nationalism terrifies me. A country should never come before human rights. If that’s not a step towards a fascist regime, I don’t know what is. To add to my disgust, America packages nationalism as a virtue called “patriotism.” They’re more or less synonymous, but patriotism is a euphemism.”

Skatje’s dad PZ writes about a political science professor who’s under fire because she sent people an email from her university account asking to “put together a Team Franken.”

Echidne notes that the State of the Union address included lengthy references to freedom in a Middle Eastern context, without saying a single word about the USA’s role in destroying Iraq, or Israel’s role in increasing the sympathies for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Tyler posted a picture of himself. If that’s not outrage, I don’t know what is.

Jill stumbled upon a site for the vanguard of a Christian version of the Taliban‘s dress code for women. Discussion topics on the website include the importance of modesty, the need for women to make sure men don’t sin, and micromanagement to ensure that no behavior, including turning heads, causes men to sin.

On My Left Wing, There Is No Spoon is writing about the Republican threat to filibuster the minimum wage increase in the Senate. My first response is, “How the hell is Reid unable to get cloture on a bill that passed the House 3 to 1?”. My second is the same as There Is No Spoon’s: “I have absolutely no problem with watching the GOP bring Speaker Pelosi’s incredibly popular 100 hours legislation to a dead halt in the Senate by filibustering the one most popular piece of that agenda.”


Balanced Budgets

January 24, 2007

Ezra Klein complains about budget balancing even more frequently than I complain about Obama. His response to the part in the State of the Union address about budget balancing is,

I’m a bit more concerned about Bush’s promise to “submit a budget that eliminates the Federal deficit within the next 5 years.” That’s a savvy move that will be hard, politically, to reject. If Democrats accept it, however, their freedom for new spending and affirmative policies will be near nonexistent. The punditocracy does love balanced budgets, and I somehow doubt we’ll hear much about Bush’s suspiciously recent discovery of the deficit hawk within.

Let’s leave aside the complaints about the media, which are just not true. Balanced budgets aren’t some pundit invention that ought to be ignored. They’re the basis of responsible government. A lot of American liberals are now running away from their six-year attack on Bush for running deficits, because now it’s they that have to rein in spending.

There’s one good economic argument for deficit spending, due to Keynes: deficit spending can stimulate the economy. That argument is a very strong one, when the economy is doing as spectacularly badly as it did in the entire world in 1932.

Getting out of a depression requires sustained deficit spending, as Roosevelt learned when he tried balancing the budget in 1938 and triggered a second depression. Staying out of one doesn’t, as Clinton learned when he balanced the budget for several years in a row in the late 1990s.

Paleo-Keynesianism is a good way of justifying wasteful spending, but economists have largely moved on. When debating a labor liberal who complained that he cared too much about sound economics, Paul Krugman explained how neo-Keynesian economists preferred stimulating the economy with monetary policy nowadays. It doesn’t work in Great Depressions, but if balanced budgets caused recessions, Canada’s economy would be a basket case.

The reason politicians in the US tend to run deficits isn’t because it’s economically sound, but because it’s popular. Saying “I’ve balanced the budget” is a vote winner, but doesn’t recover the vote loss from raising taxes and cutting spending. More importantly, it requires the politician to avoid excessively spending money on pork barrel projects.

The progressive agenda that Ezra alludes to doesn’t require spending money like sailors on leave. All it requires is spending money wisely. Feingold’s managed to combine strict fiscal discipline with respectable levels of social spending. He hasn’t managed to get his budget proposals enacted into law, but that’s the fault of the other 534 members of Congress.

Any politician who can’t sell tax increases for a health care plan that will ultimately save the economy a couple hundred billion dollars a year is too incompetent to keep his job. Excluding that, the US budget can be balanced entirely out of eliminating the FICA cap ($130 billion), withdrawing from Iraq ($90), and slashing farm aid and export subsidies (about $100, I think).

Since determining whether a policy is effective is hard, people tend to use costs as a proxy. That’s what causes the left to prefer a welfare program that costs $350 billion a year to one that achieves the same results for $100. That logic goes, “Balancing the budget is hard, and we might fail at it; therefore, it’s a bad idea.” A more prudent logic would instead conclude that it’s imperative that the people in charge of the budget be competent and creative enough to succeed.


Friday/Saturday Headlines

January 20, 2007

Crossposted on Appletree, hence the relative paucity of snark:

Study on Nicotine Levels Stirs Calls for New Controls

A Harvard study concluding that cigarette makers have for years deliberately increased nicotine levels in cigarettes to make them more addictive led to renewed calls Thursday for greater federal oversight of the industry.

“Given the harm that tobacco causes, it shouldn’t be a game of cat-and-mouse to figure out what the industry is doing to cigarettes,” said Dr. Josh Sharfstein, commissioner of health for the City of Baltimore.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is now chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, promised to reintroduce within weeks a bill that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate cigarettes.

North Korea Reports Progress In Talks With U.S. Envoy

North Korea said Friday that progress had been made during talks with the United States this week on its nuclear program, and the top U.S. nuclear envoy suggested the foundation had been laid for more progress when six-nation nuclear negotiations resume.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said three days of talks in Berlin between U.S. envoy Christopher R. Hill and North Korea’s main nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, had been held “in a positive and sincere atmosphere and a certain agreement was reached there.” No further details were given.

This makes it – what – the four hundredth such negotiation? I’m not sure who’s being more irrational here – North Korea, which keeps spending whatever money it has on the military instead of on making sure people stop starving, or the US, which keeps botching negotiations with North Korea. -Alon.

A Downside to Heralded HPV Drug: Cost, Access

Abington pediatrician Steven Shapiro thinks the new vaccine against cervical cancer is a major medical advance that will benefit all of society.

Even so, he isn’t offering Gardasil to his patients. He says insurance reimbursements don’t cover his costs to buy, store and administer it.

“I’m in practice with four physicians and we simply can’t afford it,” said Shapiro, who also chairs the pediatrics department at Abington Memorial Hospital.

Seven months after the federal government approved Merck & Co. Inc.’s much-heralded immunization for females ages 9 to 26, Gardasil can be difficult for patients to get.

By all accounts, the vaccine could eventually save thousands of lives and billions of dollars annually in this country. But right now, it is a case study in the ragged economics of U.S. health care.

Outspoken Armenian editor shot dead in Istanbul street attack

A journalist who was a prominent member of Turkey’s Armenian community was murdered in Istanbul yesterday in an attack that the prime minister described as an attempt to destabilise the country.

Hrant Dink, 53, a Turkish citizen of Armenian descent, was shot from behind a number of times at the entrance of Agos, the bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper that he edited. Television footage showed his body lying face down, draped in a white sheet, on the pavement in front of the office.

(…)

Dink had gone on trial numerous times for speaking out about the mass killings of Armenians by Turks. He had received threats from nationalists who viewed him as a traitor. He was a public figure in Turkey and, as the editor of Agos, one of its most prominent Armenian voices.

Key Aide To Sadr Arrested In Baghdad

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces arrested a top aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in eastern Baghdad on Friday, amid growing signs of stepped-up efforts to quell Sadr and his supporters.

(…)

Nadawi said “the occupation forces are provoking Sadr . . . by these daily operations or every-other-day operations.” The spokesman added that the cleric’s followers “are the only ones demanding and putting a timetable for the occupation withdrawal.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been pressured by the Bush administration to bring the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias under control, was not forewarned about the arrest, said Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for Maliki. Dabbagh said the prime minister was not notified about every impending high-profile arrest.

Privacy Law “Has No Teeth”: Watchdog

Canadian consumers should be “outraged” that a major retailer has been collecting and storing information about their credit and debit card transactions, a leading consumer lobby group says.

Chavez: Castro “Fighting for His Life,” Progressing Slowly

Cuban leader Fidel Castro is “fighting for his life,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said in a speech to the state legislature in Rio de Janeiro.

Chavez, who said he spoke to Castro a few days ago by telephone, compared Castro’s battle against a serious intestinal illness with the Cuban leader’s time in the island’s mountains heading the revolution against the Fulgencio Batista government.

“Fidel is again in the Sierra Maestra again,” Chavez said Friday. “He’s fighting for his life. We don’t know; we want him to recover, and he continues progressing, although slowly.”

Maybe after Castro dies, Chavez can take over Cuba, where he won’t have to pretend he’s a democratic leader. -Alon.


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