Abortion Funding

December 31, 2006

The most urgent abortion-related issue in the United States is who will replace Stevens. Thereafter, once Roe vs. Wade is safe enough for the time being, it should be access, especially in the third world, where women die by the myriads every year due to unsafe abortions.

Ann‘s boyfriend Brad Plumer has an article suggesting the real possibility of a repeal of the Global Gag Rule, prohibiting the US to give any aid to reproductive rights and birth control organizations that even mention abortion.

Increased access to birth control would, of course, prevent many of those pregnancies from occurring in the first place. Thanks to the gag rule, though, many NGOs can no longer receive donations of contraception from the United States, a primary supplier. As of 2002, at least 16 developing countries had lost their entire USAID supply of birth control, because an affiliate of International Planned Parenthood had been the only group distributing contraception in the country–and refused to accept the gag. A recent study in the Lancet found that 120 million couples in low-income countries don’t get the contraception they need. Partly as a result, 80 million women have unwanted pregnancies each year, more than half of which end in abortion.

Abortion is like a double bypass surgery. It’s a great thing that it exists, but reducing the need for it is as important as making sure it’s widely available. The conservative idea that sex must have a negative consequence is not normative, but right now there already exists a negative consequence – needing an abortion, hardly the most pleasant procedure known to woman.

Another issue is population pressure. Overpopulation is a problem both globally and locally. Countries with fertility rates much higher than 2-2.5 are often plagued by overcrowding and undue pressure on their public health systems. Part of the reason the state of global public health is more pessimistic than it was in the 1970s is that world population has gone up 50% and more than doubled in some regions.

Although much of Brad’s article restates the case for funding reproductive rights organizations, its punchline is that in light of the Democratic takeover of Congress and of internal divisions in the Republican Party. Although Democrats are divided on D&X and even on D&E and earlier-term procedures, they almost uniformly support funding birth control, on which Republicans are divided.

A repeal of the Global Gag Rule does not mean the US will fund a single abortion; the only difference between Clinton and Bush’s policies is that under Clinton the US aided birth control organizations that mentioned abortion as an option or gave any accurate information about abortion. But in a country whose center has been tilting right for a long while, the left can win just by capturing the old center. If the Republicans let the Dominionist faction prevail, the Democrats could portray them as lunatics.

My New Year’s Resolutions

December 31, 2006

Happy 2007 to everyone living east of UTC -3, and a great New Year’s Eve to everyone living in or west of UTC -3.

Last year, I made a New Year’s resolution to read 100 books, which I’ve fulfilled exactly 53% of. In a vain attempt to force myself to make good on my promises for 2007, here they are. Although I surreptitiously update my posts whenever I detect a typo, or a line break that was supposed to be a paragraph break, or an egregious numerical error, this will stay as it is.

Literary: I resolve to read 100 books for real in the new year, and, if possible, 147, to make up for my laziness in 2006. As usual, math books don’t count, and neither do books from other disciplines that are best classified as textbooks. However, math-themed books that aren’t textbook and have content significantly diverging from pure math, like Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, do count. I also resolve to finish editing my book and start sending it to publishers by February at latest.

Mathematics: I resolve to learn the basics of algebraic number theory, at the level of Neukirch or Cassels and Fröhlich. The gold standard is knowing the exact statement and significance of Langlands’ modularity and preferably also functoriality conjectures, as well as understanding elliptic curves and modular forms well enough to know the basic idea of Wiles’ proof of the Taniyama-Shimura theorem.

Blogosphere: I resolve to involve myself in more mainstream discourse. There’s something hypocritical about complaining about political ineffectiveness and then segregating myself among other liberal blogs and arguing with radical leftists. So I resolve to be involved in comment threads on moderate and conservative blogs more, and to restrict my blog consumption to at most two-thirds liberal. Nothing against Jessica and Lindsay, but their readers aren’t the people I’m trying to persuade. I also resolve not to let my blogroll reach gender parity, and to link to nonwhite bloggers more; I should consistently have a female majority, at least 20-25% nonwhites, and at least 20-25% moderates and conservatives on my blogroll.

Funding the US Government

December 31, 2006

As I explained earlier, in the US it takes about 32% of GDP to fund government seriously (I’m ignoring federal-state distinctions here – I’ll talk about them later). It’s a little higher than the current level of spending, but with somewhat different priorities – less defense and farm aid and health care waste, more welfare. In other countries, where welfare payments need to be higher relative to GDP, it’s a higher proportion, probably in the mid-to-high 30s.

Now there’s the question of how to raise that money. Strictly speaking the US needs more than 32%, mostly thanks to Reagan and both Bushes’ fiscal irresponsibility. Interest on the debt is about 3% more, so in fact the US needs to raise 35% to break even.

Now, the simplest way to raise money for that is to tax individual incomes flatly. Individual income is about two thirds of the USA’s national income, so that level would have to be 53%. That’s too high, especially at the bottom, so the easiest way to divert money away is by taxing corporate profits. The current tax, 35%, generates 2.5% of GDP in income, but is full of loopholes. Corporate profits are 10.7% of GDP and rising, so closing off loopholes and hiking corporate tax to 40% should increase revenue to 4%.

Another way to divert costs away from most people is to tax capital gains at the same rate as normal income. Capital gains taxes are heavily dependent on how the stock market’s doing, and even so in 2000 they only reached 1.5% of GDP, albeit at a reduced rate.

Finally, dividend tax is supposed to complement corporate tax. If corporations pay 40% and the top individual rate is 60%, then dividends should be taxed at 33%. In terms of revenue, there’s no difference between a 40%/33% tax and a 60%/0% tax, so the revenue from that can be viewed as 60% of corporate profits.

This leaves the big two – income and consumption taxes. Assuming a top rate of 60% for capital gains and corporate/dividend purposes, it yields maybe 8% of GDP in those taxes, i.e. 27% in income and sales (note that social security taxes are functionally identical to income taxes). Right off the bat it means an average of 40% on income, if there’s no sales tax.

The question of how to divide this 40% is heavily dependent on the degree of social engineering permitted. Strictly speaking, anything but payment based on need is social engineering. For example, anything other than a precise child credit and marriage penalty socially engineers birth rates, marriage status, and within-family division of labor.

On the other hand, taxation that encourages behavior that helps the economy may be acceptable; the gold standard is whether the economic gains outweigh the social engineering effect, in some sense. Sin taxes barely decrease public health spending, so they’re out; if you don’t believe me, look up non-smoking Sweden’s health expenditure versus smoking Japan’s. Taxes on environmental externalities encourage innovation in green technologies, and on top of that raise a lot more money, so they’re in.

Raising US gas prices to European levels, i.e. $7/gallon, will net $4.50/gallon * 581 gallons/year per car * 243 million cars = $630 billion, or a little over 5% of GDP. The 581/year average is for sedans only; for SUVs it’s 813. And assuming this will reduce gas consumption to French averages, i.e. 6.2 l/100 km = 38 mpg, it will cut gas consumption by 43% from the sedan-only average, which will reduce revenues to $360 billion. In fact there’s no way it will go up to 38 mpg immediately, because it will require people to immediately move closer to the city centers and buy cars that consume less fuel, and cities to spend more on public transportation. So for the first year, a 5% receipt is likely; subsequently it will go down, but so will debt interest payments.

Assuming no further sales taxes, it makes the average income tax burden 33%, which roughly means household income tax must raise 2 trillion dollars. Now I’m going to base calculations on the assumption that all households have the average number of people, 2.65. Since my data is stratified only by income, it’s equivalent to assuming that household size is independent of income (it’s not, but that’s the best I can do).

From a need-based perspective, it makes no sense to tax people on welfare. Since my minimum income proposal goes up to 150% of poverty, which for 2.65 people equals $23,000/year, it means no taxes on income under that amount. Income under that amount averages $20,000/year, which means that adding the total income of households making less than $23,000/year and $23,000/year for each household making over that threshold yields an average of $20,000/year. That’s a third of household income, so the average tax above that amount needs to be 50%.

Although a 50% tax on income above $23,000/year sounds scary, it’s not so bad for the middle class as it seems. The median household will pay a 25% income tax, while under the current system, federal income tax starts at 10%, FICA is 14.2% of what it costs the employer to employ a person, and state income tax typically starts around 1% and rises rapidly. A head of household making $46,000/year pays 14.9% of his gross income in taxes, or 13.8% of the cost to his employer. To take one state, in Wisconsin he’ll also pay 6.1% of gross income, or 5.6% of the cost to the employer. So in fact, his income taxes will be cut to 25% from 33.6%.

Obviously, this system becomes more and more of a tax increase as income goes up. Marginal tax in Virginia for a couple filing jointly with each person making $25,000 is 13.9% federal, 14.2% FICA, and 5.3% state, or 33.4% (the couple’s total liability under my system will be 27%, down from 31.6% right now). But even at $92,000, it’s 37.5% in my system compared with 35.6% in the current one.

If raising taxes on households making above $85,000-90,000 is too onerous, there’s a way out. Note that the assumption about corporate/dividend and capital gains taxes is that individual income is taxes at 60% in the highest bracket. The top quintile’s average income is just short of $150,000/year, so hiking its tax burden by 10% nets the government $6,000 per top quintile household, or $1,200 per household, or 2% of all taxes.

2% seems low, but it allows any of a) getting rid of the debt faster, b) spending more on social security, c) having a few deductions, or d) reducing every taxpaying household’s tax burden by $1,600, or equivalently raising the income tax threshold to $26,250. The tax hike at the top makes the break-even point the same as in a pure 0/50% system, but it cuts the taxes of people in the middle three quintiles more.

In either case, although the marginal tax hike seems huge, in fact it’s a tax cut for 80% of the population, which, incidentally, makes it more politically feasible than the spending increases. In fact if the FICA cap is lifted first, the plan will be an income tax cut on almost everyone; going by Massachusetts tax rates, which are actually relatively low at the top, lifting the FICA cap will increase the rich’s marginal income tax to 51.3% of employment cost.

Given that, you may ask yourself how this plan is revenue-positive. The answer is that in the real world, the rich pay the lower of the two rates available to them, income and corporate/dividend. Big businesses take care of their own, and small business owners can choose how to compensate themselves. Not coincidentally, in the 1950s, when corporate taxes were higher, the US collected 5-6% of its GDP in corporate tax revenues. In addition, the gas tax raises 5% of GDP, which is the same as a sales tax of about 7.5%, higher than most states’ sales taxes.

More interestingly, the bracket nature of the current US income tax is such that after eliminating the FICA cap, my plan will be a tax cut on people making less than about $85-90,000, depending on the state, and on people in the current 35% bracket, which starts at $336,550; on the rest it will be a small tax increase.

But the most interesting thing about this exercise is that it tends to highlight how tax brackets are an unnecessary complication. To someone making $50,000 a year, it doesn’t matter if there’s a $20,000 exemption and 50% on everything about it, or an $15,000 exemption, a starting rate of 25% between $15,000 and $25,000, and 50% thereafter. The starting rate will raise more money from people making $15,000 to $25,000, and only from them, netting about $9 billion dollars, or 0.075% of GDP.

Also, the actual revenues are heavily dependent on the distribution of household size, which I ignored entirely. In this system the easiest thing to do is to determine a poverty rate for each size of household and then let the tax be 50% on anything above 150% of that rate, possibly with an increase to 60% at a fixed level, say $100,000/year.

It’s possible to have a more individual system, but that requires having a more complex welfare payment system. The simplest thing to do is to have a hybrid system, in which welfare and tax payments are determined based on household size, but are then split equally among members. For welfare, it means each parent gets half the check in a family household; for taxes, it means the exemption is split equally among working members. This procedure helps increase women’s financial independence without egregious social engineering.

On one last note, I haven’t said anything about deductions. That’s mostly because most deductions cause more problems than they solve. For example, the mortgage deduction is a subsidy to the middle class at the lower and upper classes’ expense, which doesn’t even increase home ownership; the USA’s home ownership rate is 69%, compared with 67% in Canada, which has no mortgage deduction.

Saddam Hussein

December 30, 2006

I don’t have that much to say about Saddam’s execution. For longer treatments, go to Majikthise and Pandagon. I’ll just note two things.

1. The trial was a sham. Just because some conservatives believe that any human rights organization that doesn’t share their views on the I/P conflict is worthless doesn’t make it so. Up until the 1960s, Western leftists were supportive of Israel, and even brushed off some of its crimes because it was a socialist state founded by an oppressed minority. But it takes intellectual bankruptcy to say MLK was not a real civil rightist because he supported Zionism. If you have an on-point refutation of Human Rights Watch’s report, you don’t have to appeal to ad hominem arguments. If you don’t, you should look into the possibility that HRW is right.

2. That said, pretending the Iraqis didn’t want that result misses the mark. Some Sunni allies of Saddam regret that he’s gone. The rest of Sunni Iraq, as well as the Shi’a majority and Kurdish Iraq, wanted him dead all along. The whole “Execute the dictator because there’s nothing else to do” is based on a tiny kernel of cynical truth, surrounded by a lot of projection of the Western left’s attitudes on the Iraqi populace.

Iran and Israel

December 30, 2006

The other thread is getting derailed, so here’s what I think about Israel, Iran, and existential threats.

1. Iran is ruled by a conservative rather than radical establishment. Conservative establishments can and do seek domination – both sides in the Cold War were behaviorally conservative – but usually not destruction. Iran’s ruler is Khamenei, a conservative cleric who, while much closer in views to Ahmadinejad than to Khatami, has often clashed with Ahmadinejad’s radical mentor, Mesbah Yazdi. Such a leader is unlikely to launch a first strike against a nuclear power.

2. There is no immediate existential threat to Israel. Palestine and Syria are too militarily weak and plagued by internal problems to threaten Israel’s existence. Hezbollah is an elite task force rather than an infantry. Iran shares no border with Israel from which to attack on the ground, and will not use nuclear weapons first.

3. Threats to security need not be existential. Hezbollah-style harassment is a military issue. Palestinian terrorism is to some extent, though Israel makes too little use of detective work. Having Syria and Iran as enemies necessitates a larger military than 2% of GDP.

4. Although the Occupation is the source of some of Israel’s problems, it’s not the source of all or even all military ones. Nasser scapegoated Israel years before the Six Day War. Syria and Lebanon are an entirely separate issue, and Iran is yet a third one (Hezbollah is pro-Iranian, but it poses a different kind of problem from Iran). The largest financial drain of the Occupation isn’t military spending, but subsidies to civilian settlers. In fact, an independent Palestine without a lasting peace agreement with Israel will not enable Israel to reduce its military spending by a shekel.

On Evidence

December 30, 2006

Simen has a few wonderful posts about atheism, including the best put-down of Dawkins’ nascent radicalism I’ve seen. He also has a very good post about the difference between atheists, agnostics, and theists.

In the latter post’s comment thread, a presumably theistic comment asks why atheists believe books that say the Earth spins but not a book that says God exists. It’s an argument I saw a few years ago, back when I was a regular on Hofesh: “Why do you believe Napoleon existed?” Since the unreflective answer is “Because history books say so,” it superficially exposes an analogy between the Bible and mainstream science.

In fact, Napoleon’s existence is more than just something written in a book. There’s a multitude of independent accounts of people who knew him, an even greater multitude of independent accounts of people who fought against or under him. There are maps he used when devising strategy, and contemporary newspapers referencing him. That’s not extraordinary evidence, but the claim that a short-statured Corsican came to be Emperor of France isn’t extraordinary either.

Now, compare Napoleon with an apocryphal historical figure, say Jesus. There’s only one independent source saying Jesus existed, Mark; the other Gospels are derivatives of him. Paul predated Mark, but he refers to Jesus in mythical terms, saying nothing about his life. Mark was not a contemporary of Jesus: he wrote his Gospel in the 70s, while Jesus supposedly died in 30. Mark’s account of Jesus is full of impossible religious miracles, while real historical accounts that leave Jesus out entirely, like Josephus’s, are not.

There is a gray area between the two extremes, of course. There are four independent pieces of evidence Socrates existed: a historical record showing Athens executed someone by that name in 399 BC, and the writings of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. The writings by and large contradict one another, and although it’s probable that someone by the name existed, it’s entirely plausible Plato invented Socrates’ philosophy. But I digress.

The actual form of the theistic argument fielded in the comment to Simen’s post is not about history, though, but about science: “How do you know the Earth spins?” The best answer to that takes the form of Popper’s scientific principles, which, while not perfect, are by and large true. The objections to Popper that aren’t batshit crazy tend to apply only to established theories, but not so much to statements of scientific fact.

Scientific hypotheses, like “the Earth spins,” make an enormous number of falsifiable predictions that can be independently verified. In case of the statement about the Earth’s spinning, its converse also makes an equally large number of predictions that are falsified: that the Sun will be found to revolve around the Earth, that there will be no centrifugal force, that there will be no Coriolis effect, and so on.

Usually, independent verification takes the form of an appeal to better-established scientific principles. That’s why the falsification of a theory is a big deal: it tends to falsify a lot more than just a single statement. In the case of the Earth’s spinning, the easiest appeal is to the parallax effect, which shows it revolves around the Sun. That’s not why scientists accept heliocentrism, but the last geocentric theory to remain standing, Tycho’s, was based on the falsifiable prediction that no parallax could be observed. A more theoretical appeal will be to Newton, whose theory had a ton of empirical backing in its own right.

It’s this stack of scientific theories, each presuming a more basal one’s soundness, that causes science and religion to superficially appear comparable. The average person barely knows science, so to him, it really is just something he read in a textbook or heard from a teacher. Most people who are asked how they know the Earth spins can’t give any satisfactory answer.

The Enlightenment didn’t make the common people more rational; it made the scientific and philosophical establishment more rational. A century of developments in public education hasn’t been able to extend knowledge of scientific evidence to more than a few percent of any country’s population. It so happens that most people in the modern world believe in true things, but it’s sheer luck. Three hundred years ago, they’d believe in witches.

The increasing complexity of scientific theories makes things even worse. In 1750, an educated person could have a grasp of the entirety of human knowledge available in his locale. In 1900, a scientist could know everything in his field. Right now a scientist is restricted to one subfield; when he knows two, it’s usually as part of a fusion of fields, like biostatistics.

I know the precise evidence for the Earth’s spinning, but I know the evidence for relativity only in general and without the math that distinguishes it from woo. The only way I can know PZ Myers isn’t lying in his science posts is that there are other evo devo-minded commenters who’d check him, who I in turn trust because I have no reason to believe that scientists are only honest when I know enough to check their work.

In contrast, I do have reason to believe scientists are materially different from theologians. Theologians may be individually honest, but their entire enterprise is predicated on premises I know to be shaky. And while scientists concentrate on accumulating evidence for their theories, theologians content themselves with hermeneutics. Therefore, I have grounds to dismiss religion as false, while possessing no similar grounds to dismiss fields I know little about except that they’re scientific, like neuroscience.

How to Spend Government Money

December 30, 2006

I think I have enough material now to outline what the government should be spending big bucks on. I’m assuming that about 7% of GDP goes to relatively small things like infrastructure and scientific research, in order to concentrate on the big items on the budget.

1. Every country needs a military. However, some countries overspend on it, usually for no good reason. In today’s world, the only developed country that is militarily threatened by anyone is Israel. The rest just fake it to placate irate Generals. A good rule of thumb is that if you spend more than 1.5-2% of GDP on defense, including military intelligence and weapon R&D, you’re wasting money.

2. Health spending is typically 8% of GDP. But most health spending is on things that don’t usually cost more when national income goes up by a little bit, like building and equipping hospitals, or buying prescription drugs, or maintaining hospital staff. So a better figure than 8% would be $2,000-$2,500 per capita. In the US, 6% would be about right, as it would in Norway, the number two public spender on health care in the world.

3. Education spending averages about 5% of GDP, but rises faster than GDP. In the US, which spends almost 7%, the main sources of wasteful spending are the need to provide teachers with health insurance, which costs $1,000 per student; overall educational disparities, which reduce performance on their own and require a higher average spending to compensate; and out of control college tuition. Note that just making college free costs 0.25% in the US. Tacking on free daycare adds another 1% or so.

4. Welfare costs money. The exact amount depends on the poverty line and the ability of unions, worker retraining, etc. to get people out of poverty without handouts; in the US, a good guaranteed minimum income program will cost 4.5-5%, and unemployment insurance costs another 2%. Finally, social security spending ranges from 2% in Canada to 9% in Sweden. Part of it is explained by the difference in dependency ratios, but it’s also due to Sweden’s paying a lot more than Canada. The US is somewhere in the middle with 4.5%, which will be perfectly fine if health spending takes care of prescription drugs.

Deficits, Spending, and the Middle Class

December 30, 2006

Why don’t Americans get that the middle class is perfectly strong in other first world countries, almost all of which place a higher tax burden on everyone? In Denmark the lowest income tax bracket is 42%. The US has one of the lowest tax burdens in the OECD even on the middle class.

To see why it’s important, consider Ezra‘s quoting Edwards as saying there’s a real dilemma between balancing the budget and having decent anti-poverty programs. In a question and answer session, the candidate said,

I think that, if we’re honest, you cannot it, it’s just common sense in the math, have universal health care, and invest in energy, and make a serious effort to eliminate poverty, to strengthen the middle class, and do some of the work that I think America needs to be leading on around the world, and at the same time, eliminate the deficit. Those things are incompatible. And anybody who claims — politicians who say ‘I’m going to give you a big tax cut, and give you health care, put more money into education, and oh by the way, we’re going to balance the budget in the process,’ it’s just make-believe, it isn’t the truth. So I think there’s gonna be hard judgments that have to be made — my commitment is to have universal health care, to do things that have to be done about this energy situation and global warming, because I think they’re enormous threats, not only to the people of America but to the future of the world, for America to lead on some of these big moral issues that face the world, and I think America has to do something about poverty, I just do. Those are higher priorities to me than the elimination of the deficit. I don’t want to make the deficit worse and I would like to reduce the deficit, but in the short-term, if we don’t take a step to deal with these other issues, it in my judgment, undermines the ability of America to remain strong in the 21st century.

On the one hand, I admire the honesty. It’s time for politicians to stop saying, “We’ll balance the budget while cutting taxes and increasing spending.” Strictly speaking universal health care will reduce government spending if done right, but the right way is probably politically infeasible nationally – Feingold’s plan of steering the states in that direction would’ve been better – and at any rate, the saving is only about 1% of GDP, though the public will get back 8% of GDP in a tax cut equivalent.

On the other, the phrase “strengthening the middle class” is misleading. Even a bad universal health care plan will be more than enough to put money into the hands of the middle class. Making public college tuition free for four years costs a pittance to the government – about $30 billion a year, I think – but will help the middle classes even more. In Denmark and Sweden the middle classes pay more, but they also get back more, and usually have unionized jobs that offer more security than is standard in the US.

Strictly speaking, there is a way to do everything Edwards says is impossible, but it involves federal regulations that are politically infeasible – not necessarily because people will oppose them, but because the Democrats won’t ever have the courage to bring them up. Edwards, who liked the War on Iraq until it became unpopular, certainly won’t.

First, the US spends way too much on defense. A withdrawal from Iraq alone will save $100 billion per year, but spending less on new weapon systems nobody needs, reducing Pentagon procurement, and letting the size of the standing military decrease should save another $150-200.

Second, what Americans don’t realize about education is that the problem isn’t necessarily spending, but equality. The US already ranks near the top in per-student spending and gets mediocre results; within the US, the same applies to New York state. But both of these also have high inequality, due to within-district funding. This a) reduces funding to low-income schools, and b) causes good teachers motivated by high salaries to concentrate in just a few high-income schools.

Third, even if tax increases on the middle class are out of the question, tax increases on the upper middle and upper classes aren’t. Any serious economic populist program should involve reinstating taxes on wealth, like the estate tax, as well as taxes on non-salary income such as dividends and capital gains. Just eliminating the FICA cap will bring in $110 billion per year.

Fourth, although my minimum income proposal costs $550-600 billion per year, anything Edwards wants to pass is a lot more modest, and anything he will be able to pass will cost even less. If he brings back welfare spending per GDP to pre-Welfare Reform levels, it’ll cost $150 billion per year more (see chart 7 here).

Fifth, energy spending pays for itself, subject to immense political constraints. Edwards can trumpet equality in education spending and single-payer health care, and let Republicans and conservative Democrats run against it. He can’t trumpet a $4.00/gallon tax on gas without being immediately demoted to McGovern status, even though, again, countries with perfectly healthy middle classes have gas taxes that make retail price the equivalent of $7/gallon.

And sixth, without a gas tax, energy policy is mostly revenue-neutral. The most important return to pre-Clintonian politics is increasing regulations about emissions. The only things that cost money are grants to researchers, which don’t make a dent in the budget.

To summarize, the only one of Edwards’ policies that will be revenue-negative is poverty elimination, which will likely cost the government about $150-200 billion per year. That’s a lot of money, but compared to a $170 billion saving by eliminating the FICA cap, another $110 billion by rolling back Bush’s tax cuts to people making over $75,000/year, a $100 billion saving by withdrawing from Iraq, and a $100 billion saving by replacing Medicare and Medicaid with a single-payer system, it doesn’t preclude deficit reduction.

(I would’ve posted about this 9 hours ago, but got tired and fell asleep)

Bigfoot Pseudoscience

December 29, 2006

Since nothing of interest happens in Canada, on the taxi ride from the University of Victoria to the airport, CBC blurted a story summarizing 2006’s Bigfoot news. The interesting thing the announcer said was that “Bigfoot is known by many names,” like Yeti around the Himalayas. He could have done something extraordinary for popular media and gone into cross-cultural studies of Bigfoot legends, for example the similarity between Bigfoot and trolls (as in epic fantasy, not the blogosphere).

Instead, he replayed interviews with Bigfoot proponents who went on and on about how awful it was that nobody was taking them seriously and how any evidence against them didn’t count. One was a Vincent Chao, an environmentalist and Bigfoot believer, who talked with glee about a state-supported search for Bigfoot in Johor Bahru. A few months later, when not a single person had signed up for the government’s drive to look for Bigfoot in the forests of Johor, he started saying that there had been insufficient publicity for some mysterious reason.

Hearing him come off as smirking but actually dreading defeat was unbridled joy for a skeptic like me. The interviewer wasn’t as hostile as Bill O’Reilly is to non-fascist guests, but she asked enough hardball questions to make skeptics radiant… and believers just as content. I’m pretty sure Bigfoot believers wouldn’t think Chao totally botched the interview, even though he did.


December 29, 2006

First things first: I have $52.67 Canadian, which I have no real use for. If you’re interested in swapping US dollars for them and live somewhere I can get to by subway, contact me.

Now, I know I promised a rant about my flight from New York to Victoria, but this flight back was a lot more interesting. When I logged in at Victoria’s airport and posted, I was still jubilant, having learned that the change to the trip wouldn’t cost me any money. When I’d tried to make the change on the phone earlier, the Air Canada representative told me it would cost an addition $900, which, as I explained to Katie, would require me to not only eat nothing for several months, but also steal money to pay rent.

In fact, I probably did end up having to pay a little more, mostly in overpriced food and drinks. If you’ve seen me in person, you probably know that averaged with Drew Carey’s, my weight is normal. In Victoria I ate even less than I normally do, and yesterday I ate even less than that. When I touched ground in Vancouver, I hadn’t ingested anything in 27 hours except a few sips of stale tap water and a single matzo.

At Vancouver Airport, it’s surprisingly difficult to find any place that sells food and is open past around 9 pm. I landed at 9:30 and got at 10 to a restaurant where the kitchen closed at, well, 10. As a result, the only solid thing that went into my mouth in Vancouver was a buff chocolate chip cookie. When I’m starving, I don’t give a damn about any heart attacks that will result in the future from overconsumption of trans fats.

I’d stave the hunger off by reading blogs and checking my four email addresses, but Vancouver Airport had no internet connection that wouldn’t cost my money I’m not willing to spend. At Victoria Airport I bought a one-day pass I ended up using for all of 35 minutes, but Vancouver and Victoria’s airports have different wireless operators. Since at Vancouver I didn’t have anything urgent to do online, like call Katie and my parents and tell them I managed to get a flight at Victoria that wouldn’t require me to sell myself into slavery to pay for.

Plane rides are one of my few opportunities to read, so while in popular culture, “airplane reading” refers to trashy novels, books I’ve read in the air include War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Name of the Rose, and The Trial. This flight’s reading was Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which I might review for 3QD this Monday.

Now, Air Canada has a lot of creative cost-cutting measures, one of which is charging people for in-flight food. So instead of getting low-quality hot meat for free, I needed to dole out $5 for a cold chicken salad, which I’m guessing had 200 calories in it. I understand the sentiment about healthier food, but when on a per-calorie basis it costs as much as a filet mignon at an upscale restaurant, something is wrong.

Fast forward to Toronto, where I had to fill out a US customs form and ask confusedly which immigration form I needed to fill out. I should change my name to Alon Levy Inc., in which case I’d be able to travel from the US to Canada to Mexico without hassle, and to Europe with minimal hassle subject only to the whims of a few protectionist lobbyists.

On the other hand, the immigration line is a lot shorter at Pearson than at any US international airport I’ve been to, so I got an hour saved right off the bat, which was promptly canceled by the fact that the flight to New York took off at 9 am when it was supposed to take off at 8:15.

In New York, things went more smoothly. The bus took forever to get me here – hence, my 10-11 forecast became 12 – but I had a very enjoyable conversation with three people, two Chicagoans who were in the city for the first time and a long-time New Yorker.

Back in New York (Almost)

December 28, 2006

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I’m going back to New York earlier than expected. I’m at the Victoria airport now, waiting for my new flight. If everything goes smoothly – i.e. if US border controls don’t give me shit because they forgot to take my I-94 when I was on my way out – I should be back at home around 10:30-11 am tomorrow Eastern Standard Time.

Now I need to find a new excuse not to go skiing in Vermont with my classmates. I’m thinking of using the fact that it may not have even snowed in Vermont yet, but if it has, I’ll be honest and say I don’t want to go ski.

Christmas in China

December 28, 2006

Hat-tip to Shelley: while in the US conservatives are trying to shove Christmas down everyone’s throats, in China they’re calling it Western cultural domination that’s causing Confucius to flip in his grave.

[Link] Ten doctoral students from three of China’s top universities have posted an online petition slamming local Christmas celebrations and calling on people to “resist Western cultural invasion,” state media said on Friday.

The students from the elite Peking, Tsinghua and People’s universities railed against “American and European culture” expanding throughout China along with “their technological and economic domination,” the China Daily said.

“Occidental culture has been more like storms sweeping through the country rather than mild showers,” the paper quoted the petition — dated with China’s traditional lunar calendar — as saying.

It was a “failure on the part of the government to maintain Chinese traditions, while encouraging the economy.”

I don’t know if it’s just in the West that conservatives use dry language, rather than florid expressions like “Occidental culture has been like storms sweeping through the country,” or if it’s just that I’m more used to English similes.

But apart from that, there’s no difference between Chinese conservatives ranting about pernicious Westerners and Western conservatives ranting about pernicious Muslims. Western conservatives use universal terms, like human rights, but Chinese conservatives could just as well rant about education or family ties; in all probability, what they care about isn’t education or family ties, but their national dick size.

The conservative opposition to giving people choices comes in plenty of forms. One is opposing their right to choose cultural customs. The nationalist therefore rails against members of his national or ethnic group who celebrate the wrong holidays or eat the wrong food or wear the wrong clothes, and at times against members of other groups wearing his group’s clothes. At times, the environmentalist who cares about cultures more than about people will join him, and indeed radical environmentalists and anti-globalists rant about cultural appropriation just like ordinary conservatives.

Edwards is an Untrustworthy Opportunist

December 28, 2006

I’ve gotten a lot more cynical since 2003, when my primary candidate of choice was Dean, followed by Edwards. Now that Edwards has declared his candidacy, I can’t help it but think the only anti-poverty programs he’ll actually pass are those that everyone already supports – universal health care, maybe a further increase in the minimum wage, and an official statement saying the government thinks poverty is bad.

The one highlight is Edwards’ admission that cutting taxes is not necessarily a good idea.

And those middle class tax cuts he campaigned on in 2004? “At this point, it’s hard to see how to do that,” Edwards said in an interview after his campaign kickoff in New Orleans.

I’m glad that after six years of skyrocketing deficits that are destroying the US dollar and with it the global economy, Edwards is realizing that tax cuts aren’t an especially responsible policy. I have nothing against revenue-neutral or revenue-positive policies that merely shift the tax burden upward, but Edwards isn’t the sort of politician who could get Congress to approve any tax increase, except maybe a poll tax on foreigners.

Ezra reports from New Orleans, where Edwards kickstarted his bid. He noted that a) the speech’s theme was about grassroots action, b) Edwards used explicit antiracist imagery, and c) Edwards didn’t talk much about poverty. While I can’t find much fault with b) and c), a) worries me; Edwards may be the Dean of 2008 – a pretend progressive who is able to avoid coming off as a Kerryesque flip-flopper by being more long-term in his opportunism, like McCain.

In addition, I fully respect candidates’ right to choose their own trademark issues, but I also reserve the right to get excited about them based on what they emphasize. The main problems that have emerged in the US since Bush took office are the deficit, Iraq, privacy, and health care. Global warming, education, immigration, and choice are lingering problems, while the gay rights movement has been a success story next to which Martin Luther King’s movement seems sluggish.

Candidates who don’t mention any civil liberties issue can’t help it but come off as people who’ll sell abortion out in a second and do nothing for immigrants and gays. Digby has an excellent post about how the Democrats are trying to appeal to Evangelists by adopting more socially conservative positions; against that background, I reserve the right not to trust candidates who deemphasize reproductive rights in their campaigns.

Dean was an untrustworthy opportunist, too. But at least he publicly stated that restrictions on abortion were futile, telling an anecdote about a 12-year-old girl who was impregnated presumably by her father. At the end, abortion was one of the few issues he was solid on. Edwards isn’t even solid on that.

War in Somalia

December 28, 2006

For years, Somalia was in a state of civil war between the internationally recognized government and Islamist militants. Now Ethiopia has intervened on the government’s side, entering Mogadishu without firing a shot. Meanwhile, the Arab League and African Union are demanding immediate withdrawal, even as Ethiopia’s official policy is to finish the invasion first.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Somalia’s pro-government troops captured the Islamist-stronghold town of Jowhar, about 90 kilometers north of the capital. As the Islamists look to consolidate their manpower and launch a counter-offensive from Mogadishu, the conflict shows no signs of abating, sparking fears of a full-scale regional war.

However, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is optimistic Ethiopian troops will not be engaged in the conflict much longer, telling reporters, “We have a mission to do. We have done more than half of our mission already. As soon as we complete the other half – and it won’t take long – we will be out of there so they won’t have a target to fight against.”

The mission Meles speaks of is to help a government he maintains very strong ties with, based mostly on secular values, such as not executing people for violating the Shari’a. But the rhetoric of completing the mission sounds eerily similar to Bush’s rhetoric about Iraq, with the crucial exception that Meles admits that it’s important to withdraw quickly. On the other hand, the Bush administration was sure that the US military would be able to leave Iraq by summer ’03, and in 1914 the Kaiser promised Germany’s troops that they’d be back from the war before the leaves fell.

In related news, Meles’s denial that the US has contributed to the attack in any way (the USA’s official position is pro-Ethiopian) is a good reminder that in today’s world, a good way to rally people around a position is to say that Bush supports the opposite position.

Also, as expected, the attack produced refugees; the Yemeni government gunned them down.


December 27, 2006

My spam filter hasn’t made a false positive in a while, but just to be sure, if you post a comment that has a lot to do with sex, nudity, or rape, please make sure I can retrieve it in case the spam filter hates you. Lately it catches too much spam – I think about 50 comments per day – for me to check every single thing, so please do one of the following:

1. If you’re a regular or semi-regular commenter, you need not do anything because I’ll know who you are from the name.

2. If your comment doesn’t appear after you post it, send me an email. I check both addresses several times a day, including the junk mail folders, which are small enough I can easily tell titles like “My comment got blacklisted.”

3. If you don’t want to email me and are writing something that is likely to get spam-listed, start your comment with the sequence PQRS. I haven’t seen any spam comment start with that sequence, so it’ll be a pretty good indication you’re human.

Democrats Draft Pro-Immigration Bill

December 27, 2006

Hat-tip to Gordo: Democrats and moderate Republicans want to draft a new immigration bill that will give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and defund the proposed fence along the US-Mexico border.

The lawmakers are considering abandoning a requirement in the Senate bill that would compel several million illegal immigrants to leave the U.S. to become eligible to apply for citizenship. The lawmakers are also considering denying financing for 700 miles of fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico that was authorized in a law, written by Republicans, which passed this year.

The greatest irony here is that since illegal immigration is a race issue important to many Hispanic voters, while legal immigration is mostly seen as a denial of the upper middle class’s inalienable right to employment, it’ll be easier to get citizenship as an illegal than as a legal immigrant.

Right now, a legal immigrant to the US typically starts as a college student, then gets a graduate or professional degree, and then gets an H1-B visa, from which position he can apply for a green card. Lately the green card application backlog is so long that some people have to leave the US for a while since H1-B visas only last for 6 years after renewal. In other words, a legal immigrant takes about 15 years just to get a green card.

Unfortunately, legal immigrants don’t have a powerful lobby. On the contrary, disgruntled American computer programmers have a vested interest in keeping legal immigrants out. This despite the fact that evidence from Canada, which has a somewhat saner immigration policy, suggests that the group that integrates the most slowly is refugees, while economic immigrants integrate quickly.

Natalist Bullshit, Redux

December 27, 2006

In an ideal world, people would read all of my posts and not make any stupid remark I’ve refuted. In the real world, Christian fundamentalists are divided into two groups: those who think the world will end because Muslims are outbreeding them, and those who think they’re going to win because they’re outbreeding atheists.

James Pinkerton belongs to the latter group, whose arguments are even more irrational than the former group’s.

[Link] So Christmas has survived yet another year.

Yes, there has been a war on Christmas, fought by a few lefty lawyers who managed to buffalo some multiculturalist bureaucrats and politicians. But it’s been a losing war:

First, and most obviously, there’s the steadfast religiosity of the American people; polls routinely show that 90 percent of Americans believe in God. Secular progressives have done their best to knock the faith out of people, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

Part of the problem is that those who are most inclined to accept “modernity” are oftentimes the least inclined to have children. So “converts” to atheism have a way of disappearing without heirs, while those who stick with their faith, including the injunction to go forth and multiply, are more likely to have kids who inherit at least some degree of devotion.

As I keep saying, if that were true, then we’d all be poor, since the poor have been outbreeding the rich in the developed world since the 19th century. That rich people exist and that the economy keeps growing should hint that people like Pinkerton have no idea what they’re talking about. Not that I expect rationality from people who believe the War on Christmas is real, but it’s still annoying.

The article gets worse. Pinkerton then says that part of Christianity’s success is due to fear of Islam. That’s partly true: the increase in religious displays in the US in the last five years has been partly caused by the idea that this generation’s struggle is between Christianity and Islam. A similar increase happened in the 1950s, when everyone in the US concurred that there was a struggle between Christianity and atheism. But Pinkerton can’t help fanning the flames of bigotry himself:

Do you want more Muslims moving to America? Do you look forward to more Muslims in Congress – you know, with access to classified national security information, including counter-terrorism plans? If the answer is “no,” then it’s likely that you are moving closer to Goode’s immigration position – and that, in addition, the sturdy observance of Christmas looks like a better and better bulwark.

Actually, I do want more Muslims moving to America. It will serve a number of political purposes. First, it will enrage the religious right; when radicals are angry, they engage in policies that are especially counterproductive. Second, since Muslim immigrants will likely settle in areas where nobody cares for Pat Robertson, they’ll likely integrate fairly quickly, providing a second example of a country where Muslim immigrants aren’t ghettoized the way they are in Europe.

Presumably, Pinkerton thinks everyone is as bigoted as he is, hating foreigners while giving a pass to local fascists. While a large number of people are indeed like that, most of them will never say so explicitly; his making it about hating Muslims will help the right-wing cause to the same extent as Trent Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond.

(Via UTI)

Gender Gap Specifics

December 27, 2006

In my previous post, I asserted that, “once the gender gap shrinks to about 10%, government policy will no longer be able to reduce it rapidly,” based on the fact that the American occupation-controlled gender gap was steady at 9%, and the Swedish one was steady at 8%. Although in terms of the national gap it’s true, it’s nonetheless instructive to see which occupations have a higher gap and which have a lower gap.

The most general rule is that the gender gap increases with social class. In the US, controlling for nothing but full-time status, the white gender gap in the median was 23% in 2004, the black gender gap was 9%, and the Hispanic gender gap was 10%. Similarly, in Britain the gender gap is biggest among whites and second biggest among Indians, the country’s best-off visible minority group. Also, in the US the gender gap increases with education, except among Ph.D. holders.

Most of it is likely due to the fact that women in high-income families have a lot more leeway when it comes to not working than women in low-income families. A woman whose work would increases family income from $45,000 to $70,000 has the option of not working; a woman whose work would increase family income from $15,000 to $27,000 doesn’t. In addition, discrimination in promotion naturally skews the gender gap upward.

So far, so bad. But there are job categories with a far smaller gap than even 10%. These tend to be female-dominated and low-paying. In Sweden, among the top ten female-dominated jobs, the gap ranges from 5% to -3% (p. 76). Contrariwise, among business professionals the gap is 21%.

Gender Gap News

December 26, 2006

Hat-tip to Vanessa: the New York Times reports a new study about the US wage gap reveals that in the last ten years, there has been no progress for women with college degrees.

[Link] “Nothing happened to the pay gap from the mid-1950s to the late ’70s,” said Francine D. Blau, an economist at Cornell and a leading researcher of gender and pay. “Then the ’80s stood out as a period of sharp increases in women’s pay. And it’s much less impressive after that.”

Last year, college-educated women between 36 and 45 years old, for example, earned 74.7 cents in hourly pay for every dollar that men in the same group did, according to Labor Department data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute. A decade earlier, the women earned 75.7 cents.

In other words, the 5.5-point decrease in the wage gap since 1990 was real, but driven mostly by convergence in labor participation rates and increases in equality in education, rather than by decreases in the level of discrimination.Echidne deals with the angle offered in the article about opting out, that is the decreases in American women’s labor participation rates in the earlier years of this decade. She deals well with the angle of cultural pressure on women to work part-time instead of full-time or to stay home with the kids.

But there’s a more straightforward angle that is surprisingly often neglected: labor participation rates go down in times of economic downturn. The statistics about American women’s labor participation rates aren’t out of the ordinary for cycles of boom and bust, counting jobless recoveries as busts.

In addition, there’s a substitution effect. Single mothers and mothers whose husbands already work need to pay for daycare or a nanny, which slashes their net income by several thousand to several ten thousand dollars a year. On top of that, the second income earner pays higher marginal taxes. In a 2001 article trumpeting the opt out revolution, the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledged that,

[Link] Soaring child-care costs was one reason Misha Safran-Doig, 33, of Clayton quit her teaching job to stay home with her five children.

“I was paying $1,800 a month in day care for the three little ones,” she said. “It came down to: Do I work and pay day care and not have anything left over or stay at home. . . . I decided I’d rather struggle and be with my children than be at work and struggle.”

Strictly speaking, there are two gender gap figures that matter. One is the gross figure, comparing the mean (or median) annual incomes of men to those of women, without controlling for anything including employment status. That figure measures women’s level of economic empowerment, reflecting the fact that in a society where women have 60% of men’s employment rate and 90% of their wages, the level of economic inequality is the same as in a society where women are employed at 90% of the male rate but make 40% less if they work.

The other is the occupation-, qualification-, and experience-controlled figure. The New York Times article cites research saying that this figure has remained steady at 91% in the US since 1990.

Interestingly, the analogous Swedish figure is 92% (p. 80 in the PDF); in other words, Sweden’s economic policies have succeeded in reducing the gaps in labor participation, which spill over to the full-time wage gap via experience, but not in reducing discrimination. Since Sweden’s policies are nearly optimal when it comes to gender, it suggests that once the gender gap shrinks to about 10%, government policy will no longer be able to reduce it rapidly.

The Issue Emphasis Shift

December 26, 2006

A few days ago, I said that the Democrats were abandoning many traditional liberal issues, such as welfare, the environment, and gun control, as part of their attempt to appeal to moderate voters. On Ezra’s blog, Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math offers a reason that makes more sense: a change in the electoral map.

In the ’80s and ’90s, both the Presidential and Congressional electoral maps were substantially different from today. At the Presidential level, Maryland, Illinois, Michigan, and Georgia were highly competitive–all states with high-crime urban areas and significant racial tensions. California was still Republican territory (it went for Carter Ford … you know … the republican in ’76), meaning the South was even more criticial to Democratic Presidential hopes. In the House, supermajority white districts in the South voted for Republican Presidents while re-electing incumbent Democratic Congressmen, marking them as prime targets for the NRCC. All of this meant that the Republican Party, already committed to the “Southern Strategy” during the Nixon era, could gain a lot of ground without much in the way of policy shifts simply by wedging Democrats on race-related issues.

Fast forward to today. Only Bud Cramer (D-AL), Gene Taylor (D-MS), and maybe Jim Marshall (D-GA) remain from the Democratic “White South“, though perhaps Heath Shuler (D-NC) is a new member of the club. In the race for the White House, the blue-tinted swing states have migrated from the South to the Midwest: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio (once Republican territory) and Pennsylvania. These states certainly have their socially conservative areas–check out the NARAL ratings for some of the Pennsylvania Democrats–but don’t have the same history of antagonistic race relations. Complaining that your opponent possesses insufficient zeal for locking people up just doesn’t get you as far in these parts of the country.

While this is certainly a plausible reason why race is less important in national politics than it used to be, it’s only one of several. After desegregation, conservative rhetoric about race shifted to codewords like “welfare queen” and “crack addict.” These were always euphemisms for “nigger,” but in a climate when being overtly racist was unacceptable, they helped convince people that the problem wasn’t with black people but with welfare, crime, and drugs. After Clinton coopted the Republican positions on these issues, that avenue of conservative racism ran out of steam.

The new racist politics, which is based on hatred of immigrants and their descendants, provides a good analogy to that. Nobody in the US or Canada or Europe who matters says, “We’re a white nation and brown-skinned immigrants should be excluded.” That would alienate too many people. Instead, the racists appeal to the majority language, Western civilization, and cultural compatibility.

As a result, that appeal causes people to accept sufficiently assimilated immigrants, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Fareed Zakaria. These tilt right, since members of the majority ethnicity always get more leeway to be antiracist than minorities do; that, in turn, helps racists rationalize their bigotry based on cultural rather than racial criteria. Not coincidentally, that makes “Actually, they are assimilating” a powerful antiracist counterargument.

Now, back to the original issue. As soon as the race problem was clothed in terms of broader social problems, racists became vulnerable to attacks on the euphemized issues, though in this case the attack was a triangulation rather than a counterargument.

In the 1990s, the declining race gap and the purging of the White South from the Democratic Party did not correlate with more strident liberal positions on racially charged issues. Part of it is due to Clinton’s strategy of governing to the right of Eisenhower, but even New York City elected Giuliani and Bloomberg twice each.