Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Petraeus's Mistress reveals a CIA prison in Benghazi, possibly

The bedroom farce of the Petraeus affair is sordid and unpleasant. I waited for Asia Times to write about the events for a real take on "Empire News" so to speak.  Pepe Escobar delivered, linking to this illuminating article: http://rt.com/usa/news/petraeus-benghazi-attack-cia-535/.

In it, Petraeus's mistress reportedly stated the following before her affair was revealed:

“Now I don’t know if a lot of you heard this, but the CIA annex had actually had taken a couple of Libya militia members prisoner,” Broadwell told a crowd at the University of Denver alumni symposium on October 26. “And they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back. So that’s still being vetted.”



With this, it all may cohere. So Benghazi may have been a CIA illegal prison of sorts, for Salafi jihadist allies/enemies/both, products of all too rapid blowback predicted by Libya and Arab Spring skeptics. This at least provides a motive for an event shrouded in mystery and unclear motives.

For some reason, I highly doubt our press corps will get to the bottom of this question, versus the tantalizing sordid details of the bedroom, but there is always Asia Times I suppose. I only wish they would remove the pop-ups...

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Taylor Swift's Red: Schizophrenic, but some Gems

Taylor Swift has clearly has captured the cultural consciousness, transcending her pop-country origins to become perhaps the leading American pop-star. Red sold 1.2 million copies its first week, the most in a decade we are told. She has sold the most albums in the past 5 years, and her fourth appears to continue this performance even admits industry sales stagnation.

But what of her song-writing development? Has the precocious author of "Fifteen" and other pop story ballads -- and subject of many a heated internet critics' debates -- progressed or regressed?

I have only listened to Red a few times but can say it is uneven, almost schizophrenic, but has plenty of great moments. The standout ballad tour de force -- "All too Well"-- is perhaps her best song yet, swelling as it does to a point of catharsis. Strangely, it is surrounded by two Max Martin pop numbers that sound like Avril Lavigne outtakes, "I Knew You Were Trouble"and "22", pretty fun and better than the somewhat irritating lead single "We are Never Getting Back Together" which is also of the same vein and originator.


There are also other rock-ish numbers that somewhat fall flat for me, although perhaps more will gain traction on repeat listen. The slower ballads, namely the aforementioned "All too Well" and "Begin Again" (the last song, what else!) push her traditional strengths further than before and are quite excellent. More controversially, I enjoy the other slower numbers such as "Sad Beautiful Tragic" and even "Everything has Changed", a collaboration dismissed widely as boring adult contemporary fare, that I think sounds great, despite its more general, even a bit boring lyric sheets by her standards.

What do we want from Taylor Swift, now that she is an adult?

She couldn't remake Fearless her whole career -- you're only 18 once. But much of her youthful appeal remains in her most recent output tinged now, however, by touches of romantic melancholy. The pop numbers will alienate some fans and win some new ones. But what remains is that Taylor Swift is, despite the expected growing pains of trying new styles, a master pop-country ballader. And one with the ear of America's youth, apparently.  




Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, MAAD City

I was hesitant to listen to Kendrick Lamar's major label debut. The expectations were too high (the next Tupac!), the remnant of the man who was once Dr. Dre was too prominently involved (Beetz...), and even Section.80, which has some truly great songs, also has its share of pretentious duds, I trait I feared major label money might only exacerbate.

Yet, I did download it Monday morning (legally), and... it has taken me about 6 listens to figure out what is going on. Which is a lot.

 From the best I can tell, this is a concept album displaying song-story vignettes of a 17 year old or so Kendrick Lamar growing up in Compton, with the main story played out in skits, songs, and skits-within-songs. Frequently, Lamar adopts a novelty voice to inhabit other characters (or even his own conscious).

A commercial play, this is most definitely not. In fact, I would venture to say that the dominant tone of the album is despair. Compton emerges as a hellhole of needless violence, and wasted lives. Indeed, Lamar seems hell-bent on removing any lingering romanticization of Compton's gang-war mystique from the public conscious, especially in the rap industry.

As an artistic statement, more than anything I am struck by what a unified statement this album is. Lamar seems to have one message to communicate and works together many songs, skits, and mini-songs within songs to accomplish his goal, completely ignoring the modern state of single-driven music commerce.

Time will tell if this album's reputation lasts, but I am enjoying it hugely. Moreover, I think it is immediately noteworthy that I was completely shocked by the scope of Lamar's ambition with this album -- even beyond the consistency of his adroit rapping throughout, his artistic consistency of message is strange to hear in 2012. It is disarming to realize the only way to way to really listen to the proper-album tracks is from the first second on, without skipping a track. The bonus tracks are clearly distinct and are lighter fare.

 To be honest, I didn't ever except to see a unified rap album statement of this kind again in the vein of Ready to Die or Only Built for Cuban Linx... again, not that this album is of that caliber, but it definitely sounds like a coherent whole much like those albums do, rather than a collection of singles patched together (usually with a dose of filler to round out the playlist) as has come to define the rap ablum.  I mean we hear things like Lupe Fiasco's The Cool will be a concept album, but of course it arrives and it isn't at all... After years of this, you become jaundiced.

Well, I am not jaundiced anymore.



Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thursday, October 11, 2012

VP Debate Moderator: Iran is the biggest danger to America

Some would differ. See Pakistan.

More broadly, I am not sure if I am missing something, but one hand, Romney-Ryan seem to be criticizing Obama-Biden for not foreseeing the dangers that manifested in the Libya debacle and also for not arming the Syrian rebels quickly enough.

Perhaps this warning of a neo-neocon revival and the confusion that entails is not off target.

Not that Biden is offering much more. I believe he just blamed the Great Recession on public sector debt build-up. By that logic, the Obama administration would be an epic fiscal failure.

As I write this, our helpful moderator just states "Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt." Ryan agrees -- "These are indisputable facts."

Dr. Lydgate would beg to differ, as perhaps Alan Greenspan, a man one would hope with some insight on the matter, would as well. See: print more money.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Traversing the BosWash Megaopolis



I've now lived for at least a time at three of the main points of concentration of the BosWash megapolis, so coined by a 60's social scientist of urban studies of some sort: Boston, Greater NYC (i.e. NJ) and now the Washington area.

Taking a bus or train between any of the cities, it is somewhat strange how urbanization never seems to end, at least between NYC and DC. Depending on your route, the trip from NYC to Boston can get somewhat rural in Southern Mass, Rhode Island, or Western CT. However, If you follow the golden coast in CT, beware of hours stuck in traffic undercutting the quasi-rural feeling of the Connecticut coast.

Going South from NYC on Amtrack, you essentially pass simultaneously from Greater NYC to Greater Philly, which quickly succumbs to Wilmington/Baltimore, and ultimately D.C. before the true American South begins.

Contrast this to the experience of leaving Indianapolis, IN which is surrounding by endless cornfields and tiny towns for hours in every direction, as you make the three hour trip to Chicago.

This amazing concentration of humanity and economic activity has its pluses and minuses, I suppose. While NYC proper seems to have solved its crime problem, surrounding communities in NJ such as Newark and East Orange have not been so lucky. Passing through North Philly, Baltimore, or even areas of D.C., one can encounter much of the same uran blight found in Detroit or St. Louis, sometimes on an even more massive if less acute scale.

This contrasts with pockets of absurd wealth throughout the region, frequently not too far from impoverished areas. While the level of wealth is perhaps matched by certain areas of California and Chicago, I do not think it is on the same scale. Witness NYC's insane trillion plus estimated GDP to support the conceited New Yorker's insistence that Manhattan is indeed "the greatest city in the world."

As winter approaches, however, doubt begins to grow in my mind. Why should we suffer this yearly pain -- not to mention, ridiculous cost-of-living -- when another megapolis with mild weather year round exists across the country exists just a short plane ride away?

As for the great ignored interior, they are perhaps having the last laugh as our inflated housing values refuse to budge despite the great correction seen across much of the country. Mit Ach and Krach...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Final Debate Thoughts



I watched the debate alone in an internet vacum, live-blogging some reactions. Though I had severe problems with both candidates' deficit hysteria, I felt Romney was worse in this regard with the absurd China comment. Overall, I thought Obama was more measured and reasonable while Romney's proposals lack seriousness i.e. you cannot seriously plan to lower taxes, create jobs and lower the deficit. Also, he set the stage for health insurance to be a major problem in American life, and then advocated repealing Obamacare without detailing any real alternative (when most states refuse to do anything and are strapped financially, state-based solutions are not a serious proposal).

I go on Facebook afterwards and it appears Obama and the host are being held in contempt -- in Lehrer's case, for reasons I do not comprehend as I felt he did a find job, and was right to let the candidates continue their discussions rather than rush them through another category they had already covered extensively.

 A sample anti-Obama comment: "Early on Pres Obama was sharp and concise, then he got a bit too wonky and too much in the weeds."

I suppose that was why I preferred his approach.

Live-blogging the debate continuing

A few notes:

 - Romney's criticism of Dodd-Frank is, in his words, more nuanced than just repeal the more stringent regulations. He criticizes supporting too-big-to-fail banks through Dodd-Frank. I will look into this more. The phrase "capital requirements" are briefly mentioned than dropped.

- Romney's healthcare discussion ignores the problem of mass, poor, and young uninsured Americans. This is an economic drag on their consumption, in addition to an overall problem.

- Romney and Obama both, paradoxically, praise Massachusett's health plan. This plan has succeeded in raising in the insurance rate (making it worth it in my opinion) and its medical inflation rate has recently slowed even more rapidly than the national rate, likely due income declines. However, they are suffering from a doctor shortage I believe, expected given the dramatic increase in insurance beneficiaries, a national harbinger neither candidate mentions.

- Obama is clearly influenced by the "30% solution" school of thought in health policy (perhaps from David Cutler, an advisor on his campaign): that is, 30% of health care spending is wasted, and we can eliminate it without affecting quality. This result comes from the Dartmouth Atlas studies on regional Medicare variation, and is endorsed at Harvard, Health Affairs, the IOM etc. Some critics, notably Robert Cooper, consider this result fraudulent. This is very interesting, mostly one-sided debate. From what I can gather, Dartmouth Atlas finds that certain regions, mostly in the South, spend far more in Medicare dollars per patient than other regions (typically Northern suburban regions) even when you control for the different risk pools each region faces. Cooper et. al., and his few if any backers, say this is merely a result of comparing low-minority, high-income Medicare spending regions with high-minority, high-risk regions which necessarily have higher spending. Dartmouth says that they control for differential risks in their statistical analysis and that Cooper is ignorant of statistics. I suppose it boils down to whether you believe multiple regression analysis can adequately control for social stratification across the country, by including variables like income in the regression. Cooper points out some strange results from Darmouth such as Mississippi having the highest spending despite its general deficit of medical specialists. Another question about the 30% hypothesis is that it is based on Medicare claims rather than overall expenditure -- possibly not a descriptive sample. Although it did not receive much mention in the debate from Romney or even explicit mention from Obama, the veracity of this 30% hypothesis is crucial. It underlies much of current health policy thought, and is the ideological foundation of the weaker, spending-control aspects of Obamacare. It has led Baicker and Chandra to publish a paper with the famous statement that "regions with higher healthcare spending have lower healthcare quality" to which Cooper has responded, in contrast,  "more is more" in health spending, not less. We will see how it plays out. As a note, Cooper has a track record of success in the field of social prognostication: he predicted the coming physician shortage about a decade ago, recognized only recently by higher authorities.

Live Blogging the Debate: How do you do cut marginal tax raes without raising the deficit?

President Obama asks.

Romney, accusing Obama of chicanery, responds "I won't implement any tax break that adds to the deficit" because he will close deductibles and loopholes to make up the revenue.* Obama parries with "math, common sense, and history" saying you cannot cut taxes, increase spending and not add to the deficit (in a word, yes).

Dr. Lydgate would like to ask, why won't we just 1. cut taxes 2. add spending 3. and, you know, add to the deficit but he doesn't exactly have a seat at the table.

-----

*Romney's tax plan, in which he lowers taxes, and raises taxes, for a net wash, is an application of the bizarre conception common among economists that people will work more if they earn a slightly higher percent of earnings regardless of their overall wealth level (I think). This, of course, completely ignores the aggregate demand gap that at is the heart of our economic malaise that very much will be negatively impacted by closing loopholes.

-----

**A few minutes later, Romney goes on a strange speech against deficit spending in which he insists it is a moral issue, invokes the burden on our children (no mention of grand-children yet) and proposes a "Is this worth borrowing from China to pay for?" criteria for every federal government program, including PBS, something that has no basis in reality, but never mind that. Obama, of course, responds with his plan to cut spending and raise taxes to close the deficit.

 Will the entire night pass without anyone asking if cutting the deficit is an unquestionable necessity?


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Don't look to Romney to Criticize Obama for Pro-Wall St. Politics

This is a very good column in Reuters looking at new book exposing Obama's TARP politices implemented by Geither. Unfortunately, little to no attention is being paid by the media to this story. Oncemore, Romeny, unsurprising for a PE alumni, is in favor of repealing Dodd-Frank rather than any meaning regulations. 

The author concludes with a discussion of BoA's Ken Lewis misleading share-holders on Merrill Lynch's value, and how the government is forcing the company to pay share-holders with its own assets: quite strange. 

Even more strange is the likelihood -- discussed at length in some accounts of that insane time -- that the government in fact forced Lewis to go through with BoA shotgun-wedding after he tried to back out upon realizing the true extent of Merrill's peril. If that was the case, the government is forcing BoA to pay its own assets out to shareholders for actions that it they originally inappropriately forced.  Everything comes full circle, I suppose.  

Sources of Demand Leakage: Student Loan Debt

Why do we have persistently elevated unemployment? I would say it is due to debt overhang mostly, over structural issues or Casey Mulligan's all too serious assertion in The Redistribution Recession that government handouts are to blame. Student loan-debt is just one facet of this, but an increasingly important one.

This Pragmatic Capitalism post demonstrates that the gap between tuition costs for college and disposable income is higher and growing.

What are the macro-economic implication of this rising student loan debt? On the margin, it seems that people in early adulthood are being forced to reduce or forego consumption to handle monthly payments in the hundreds of dollars. Consider the following:


"Those without a monthly student loan payment bought new and used vehicles at about the same frequency. But the likelihood of buying a new vehicle, rather than a used vehicle, was influenced by student loan payments. Fifty-two percent of those in the Wisconsin survey who had never had a student loan were likely to buy a new vehicle, rather than a used vehicle, compared with 32.8% who were paying a student loan."
(see here)
These couple hundreds of dollars a month for young people starting families -- on a case by case basis insignificant, but taken as a whole, a huge total -- likely dramatically reduces their marginal disposable income. 

Consequently, they not only reduce consumption but also save more of their remaining income able: both problems. The first hurts present demand, obviously, while the second is also a problem, as young peoples' inability to accumulate savings will lesson the market for future investments such as homes, as few will have the requistie down payments. 

Boomer generations blase about our student-loan debt problem may be more interested if they know that it will impact the ability of younger families to buy their current homes at acceptable prices when they decide to retire in the not too distant future. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

McCain-Palin, Obama, and Romney: Considering the Working-Class Vote



I have been somewhat critical of Republicans in the early history of this blog, so it may seem natural that I am an Obama voter.

Actually, however, I voted for McCain in 2008, despite my low estimation of his conservative principles, and my long-hold disgust with his tendency toward geopolitical war-mongering with Russia and other allies.

Why?

My vote, counted in a state with little chance of a Republican victory, was cast out of a desire to express solidarity with Palin and her broader constituency (outlined nicely in an Ape Man at Ethereal Land post, himself a member of working class rural America albeit one with an extensive knowledge of Spinoza). Indeed, I felt nothing but contempt for bigoted lynching of Palin’s personal life and depiction of her as too stupid for office (as a disclosure I have significant family connections with Alaska).


As Palin’s national career has progressed, it has become clear that she is not a great candidate for political leadership, probably because she seems to prefer a normal life to one in pursuit of power. However, I am continually distraught by the classist assumption that if one comes from a rural, non-rich background, or lacks an elite pedigree or talks in a way deviating from classic or upper-class American normalcy (more Minnesotan than Alaskan in Palin’s case), than one is unfit for office. Indeed, Palin, far from the dunce portrayed by the drama major Tina Fey, has a talent for speech delivery matching or exceeding that of Obama.

The reaction of a certain strand of American life to Palin, omnipresent in the media but not the public writ large or even Blue States, who have their fair share of non-educated working class whites, revealed that hate-fueled class discrimination against the white rural working-class is alive and well in 21st century America, so much so that someone identifying with this class will be painted as a troglodyte. A popular Facebook group of the time, populated with clueless high-school and college students without any leadership experience, stated “I [the member] have more foreign policy experience than Sarah Palin.” This clearly begs the unarticulated questions: What does that mean about Obama’s limited international experience – is he to be instructed by the bumbling Biden? What about Clinton’s foreign policy record before the presidency? Is no governor qualified for the presidency? I was most distraught about the episode because it revealed that our elites’ fantasy is to transform American democracy into a mirror of rigid European class hierarchy, in which only the intelligentsia is allowed to be considered for power.

However, in opposite to the disillusioned 2008 Obama supporter, I am probably going to vote for the incumbent this time around, despite the rather dismal economic track record of the past four years.

Why?

Romney has clearly been an elite since birth, and doesn’t even have the sense to mask it with a false persona like George W. Bush did. He made his fortune in the most blue-blood, insider of all American industries, the indefensible private-equity cabal. It seems he has nothing but contempt for the white, working poor who indeed make up much of the 47% he derides. If you get into policy specifics – difficult as he is so vague it is hard to pin him down – it seems that, like Obama, he derives his views from a cadre of elite academic advisors that are, if possible, even more misguided than their liberal counterparts. One only has to read Glen Hubbard’s partner blog – Romney’s key economic advisor -- to see pure deficit hysteria in action: http://balanceofeconomics.com/ I fear for the country if these men take Geither’s seat at the table, and I am no fan of Geither.

In contrast, Obama has an interesting relationship with the white, working poor, as Ape-Man notes, in that it is rare for someone with a Harvard degree to attempt to see more than irrational stupidity as driving conservative values among the white-working class (see What’s the Matter with Kansas for this). His famous “guns and religion” quote, if examined closely in context, was actually an attempt to prompt Bay area elitists to sympathize with the rural, white poor voter whose economic condition has been decimated by the fall of US manufacturing. Indeed, where the San Francisco audience he was speaking to likely saw (and sees) rural white Ohio voters as hopeless rubes swindled by Republicans, Obama correctly identifies the lack of economic help from either party that causes them to choose values as an election decision criteria. Indeed, I think the following paragraphs from his defense of this quote are worth quoting at length:

“But I will never walk away from the larger point that I was trying to make. For the last several decades, people in small towns and cities and rural areas all across this country have seen globalization change the rules of the game on them. When I began my career as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago, I saw what happens when the local steel mill shuts its doors and moves overseas. You don't just lose the jobs in the mill, you start losing jobs and businesses throughout the community. The streets are emptier. The schools suffer.

I saw it during my campaign for the Senate in Illinois when I'd talk to union guys who had worked at the local Maytag plant for twenty, thirty years before being laid off at fifty-five years old when it picked up and moved to Mexico; and they had no idea what they're going to do without the paycheck or the pension that they counted on. One man didn't even know if he'd be able to afford the liver transplant his son needed now that his health care was gone.

I've heard these stories almost every day during this campaign, whether it was in Iowa or Ohio or Pennsylvania. And the people I've met have also told me that every year, in every election, politicians come to their towns, and they tell them what they want to hear, and they make big promises, and then they go back to Washington when the campaign's over, and nothing changes. There's no plan to address the downside of globalization. We don't do anything about the skyrocketing cost of health care or college or those disappearing pensions. Instead of fighting to replace jobs that aren't coming back, Washington ends up fighting over the latest distraction of the week.

And after years and years and years of this, a lot of people in this country have become cynical about what government can do to improve their lives. They are angry and frustrated with their leaders for not listening to them; for not fighting for them; for not always telling them the truth. And yes, they are bitter about that.”

Here, Obama identifies what’s lost in utility-maximization arguments in support of free-trade: a job or employer in a community can produce much greater psychological value than even raising absolute levels of consumption (seen in endless bundles of cheap, purposeless goods and services available at Wal-mart, affordable even for those on unemployment or inadequately employed.) We nearly all may be richer in real terms in America thanks to globalization, but, as Obama emphasizes, communities and personal experience nonetheless can degrade significantly without employment (and mass unemployment since 2008 has only heightened this critique).

So what did Obama do to confront the Great Recession, which has further decimated rural income, job numbers, and migration to the city? Did he change the Washington equation? Not as far as I can see. In 2009, he imported Summers and Geither as his economic team, who promptly increased the bailout of Wall St. covertly, further enriching insiders through the PPIP (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public-Private_Investment_Program) – after all, we must save the banks to save the economy! They have done little to nothing that I am aware of to counteract globalization, and their central legislation was a mostly useless stimulus package that targeted income through slow, shovel-ready projects to government insiders while giving a pittance of support to indebted working-class families.

Now, you could argue that the Affordable Care Act is Obama’s one contribution to working-class America, with its expansion of Medicaid and provision of premium subsidies to lower income workers. If you take a look at it though, the touted subsidies will still not be very high for what are really fairly low income brackets.

Say for example I am a single adult earning $30,000 in income annually in a medium cost region. My premium will be $6,978 of which the government will cover $4470; the remaining total will still eat up ~8.4% of annual income. To put this in perspective, if my salary was $200,000 this would be an almost $17,000 single coverage premium in terms of equivalent percent of income.

Moreover, the provisions to combat medical inflation among private plans are mild at best, more likely toothless and fanciful in practice as they rely on curbing the 30% of wasted medical care spending perhaps proved by the Dartmouth (but with considerable questions). While 30% may be wasted, I do not see anything in the ACA to transform American healthcare to a well-oiled machine through use of HMO like Accountable Care Organizations alone. I only see medical inflation cooling if continual income falling prompts less health spending.

So in some ways the law only codifies and extends what will likely be an increasing private insurance healthcare burden on lower-wage American workers. The key flaw underlying flaw in the ACA is that it was explicitly crafted to be “budget neutral” over a ten year stretch thanks to an antiquated, gold-standard notions of government solvency. Unfortunately, now that Robert’s decision has opened up the door for states to decide whether to expand Medicaid to poor childless adults, we will likely see a truly unfortunate system in which childless adults in some states who earn under 133% of the federal poverty line will not qualify for any healthcare support while those 133-400% will.

Thus, despite trying to understand poor white America, Obama has done little to help them, aside from “Obamcare” which promises mixed results, although I suppose it is a game-changer in ways both good and bad. However, where Obama has only paid lip-service to deficit reduction, Romeny’s economic team seems fully bought into a reducing deficits, increasing prosperity mindset, so I think he is likely to be more harmful for the economy if elected, even if does not have the legislative support to repeal Obamacare, “reform” Medicare, or other plans. (Interestingly, he also seems lack no temerity in exploiting Obamacare antipathy among the public, strange given his pioneering efforts in Massachusetts. I suppose this calls his character into question.)

In the end, I will likely vote for Obama after snubbing him in the historic 2008 election. I sometimes wonder if he ever gives thoughts to fielding heterodox policy prescriptions in search of a solution to solve our mass unemployment problem, magnified in the youth and minority constitutes who make up much of his constituency. Or perhaps his presidential stature has removed him completely from the problem at hand. It will be interesting to see what happens to his first-term caution if he wins lame-duck status.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why would Qatar, a monarchy, hope to drive an autocratic regime change in Syria? And why might the US agree with a Muslim Brotherhood ME?

Unfortunately, reading The New York Times will leave you clueless. Fortunately, Pepe Escobar has an excellent column at  The Asia Times explaining the various actors motivations.

As for the US and its position in the great game, it would be comic how democratic Iraq has served to solidify the Shiite axis with Syria and Iran we now identify as enemy number one if so many lives weren't lost in the process. Until we call for regime change in similarly autocratic Saudia Arabia or Qatar, of course, our attempts to paint support of Syrian rebels as supporting idealist democrats continues to be laughable.

An Economic Manifesto: On the right path.

http://www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org/

So you have to sift through painstaking tributes to monetary policy's supposed powers in "normal times" -- which are, of course, not times when one wishes to actually stimulate the economy -- but this manifesto at least correctly identifies the rise in private rather than public debt as the source of the crisis. Worth reading.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On Sept 26 -- Stanislav Petroy Day -- Asking Once More: Why is Putin the Enemy?


One of the eternal questions of our times: Why do Republicans [and Democrats like the NYTimes!*] view Putin as the Enemy?

Drudge links to this article on why Putin likes Obama increasingly in favor of the Putin. Hint: perhaps it is because he does not mindlessly pick fights with a leading geo-political power and important source of oil with whom we have little point of a strategic conflict (no less than our number 1 foe according to Romney!)

Commentators, of course, attack Obama for spineless socialism in not "sticking up to Putin" (who is doing what to thwart us, exactly?). Interestingly, the word communism gets thrown around, though no one elucidates how Putin fits that particular epithet. 

So here we are -- on the anniversary of Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov day -- i.e. the day we almost ended but for one man's rational instinct -- and Obama is being accused of being soft on Russia for no apparent reason. 

----

*There is a great exhile piece on the absurd Western coverage of the Georgia-instigated Russia-conflict, and their mindless effort to document non-existant Russian atrocities. McCain, of course, issues a statement that, if were in office, could prompt nuclear alert against any NATO country.







All you need to know about Romney: Budget Neutral Edition

Democrats have been hammering Romney on the point that is tax plan -- reducing marginal income tax rates, and making up the losses in revenue by closing loop-holes and deductions, in order to make the whole thing budget neutral -- as it will raise taxes on the middle as the lost revenue form upper-class tax cuts must come from someone's lost deduction. So now, according to Slate, Romney's campaign is essentially acknowledging reality by admitting they simply won't slash tax-rates as much. Yeglisias presents two alternative scenarios:

 "In Version 1, we do the full rate cuts and have no decrease in government revenues because we make up the difference with higher taxes on the middle class. This is the least politically palatable but the best long-term growth policy. In Version 2, we do what Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush would do and slash tax rates mostly without offsets. The result is a big increase in the budget deficit, which I think is the best short-term growth policy"

Got that? We increase the middle class tax burden -- at a time of middle class deleveraging, no less -- but decrease the upper-class tax burden, all the spur the broader American public to work harder! (perhaps my defense of Yeglisias came too soon). He supports the first plan apparently due to the incentive structure of marginal income taxes vs. deductibles. But, here, Yeglisias is laughably over-thinking himself. If incenting people to be productive is so good, why not just tax less and have a very large budget deficit? What will happen -- hyperinflation? If he thinks, he should specify. Also, to use his framework, the marginal extra dollar is worth more for those with a lower networth, complicating the picture. Not to beat a deadhorse -- but did I mention that it is middle-class deleveraging that is driving the balance sheet recession in the first place -- and Yeglias apparently wants to increase their tax burden, therby extending the horrible ordeal! Amazing.

On a related note, I recently heard an amusing anecdote about health IT stimulus funds being paused for nearly two years as appropriate software was being written and packaged to meet the lofty requirements of the ARRA, finally trickling out sometime in 2011. This just goes to show you: Krugman is wrong, higher G is too slow (and accumulates to government contractors, not exactly known for their efficiency, despite the mysterious appeal of "shovel ready projects"). Meanwhile wage-earners continue to see their savings depleted by taxes, with Medicare set to increase thanks to Obama's misguided ACA advisors (we must protect the solvency of Medicare!). I am not even going to venture into the Medicare debate, in which both parties are advocating rationing -- what you get when medical inflation increases faster than proposed Medicare inflation, a virtual certainty -- due to what appears to be a confused belief that Medicare is set to loose solvency....

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sandra Tsing Loh's Atlantic Article "The Weaker Sex"



Sandra Tsing Low has an article in Atlantic that seems to be enraging the online men's rights movement. See the comments for her haranguing.

In the article, she paints a picture of female achievement and male inadequacy, in which the female partner in a traditional marriage, no longer dependent on the male's income stream, prompts divorce. The old traditional breadwinner is thus jettisoned in favor of Mr. Feelings (perhaps Mr. Young and Good-Looking too?).

Beneath the facade of humor, however, it is a pretty distressing picture of aging, apparently wealthy, women without partners.

Low here, of course, is an exception: she has a new boyfriend, a strange pairing of an adolescence romantic roles with menopause life-stage as she acknowledges. But, she fails to mention the romantic prospects of her similarly divorced sisterhood (aside from the still-married woman enraged at her lazy husband).

Overall, I think Low's perspective is warped by her exceptional personal experience. Consider the evidence:

- She is in her 50's but looks much, much younger, if her picture can be trusted.
- She has a B.S. in Physics from Caltech, which she fails to mention. Relatedly, she ignores the huge gender gap in STEM bachelors and graduate degrees among her female compatriots, particularly in engineering.
- Loh seems to have pursued a graduate degree in creative writing despite her technical background. Furthermore, she seems to have achieved considerable success in the creative world of LA -- a rarity, as a steady supply of LA waitresses will tell you -- to the point where she seems to think $650,000 is a normal yearly salary in any city, and that $275/hour therapy is a normal, not outrageous, service purchase.

It is unclear how an average woman acquires such a high-paying "foundation job" as her friend holds -- doing what, one wants to ask. My instinct is that Loh has spent so many years around high functioning, high IQ and, in the adult world, wealthy and successful SoCal people from Caltech onward, that she is considerably out-of-touch with the reduced economic prospects of the flood of new female graduates she predicts will readily jettison laggard males. She may want to peruse the "we are the 99% tumblr" to see the stories of some of these fellow female degree-holding young women (a sample follows, the first woman I found, but many, many more exist):

"I am a 24 year old college graduate. I have a B.A. in English. After 5 years of work to better myself, I am now working 40-50 hours a week making barely more than I did when I graduated from high school 6 years ago. I work 2 jobs and can’t afford to move out of my parents house even with a roommate. I have $33,000+ to pay in student loans. (I’m barely paying the interest.) I can’t find a full time job because I have no experience…no one will hire me so I can gain some! I’m stressed out and depressed. I feel trapped. The American Dream is dead for my generation. I AM THE 99%!!!


Somehow I cant see her casually casting off a male partner who earns a decent salary, but what do I know of female psychology?

Loh ends her article -- which, though I have been somewhat mean to, is in reality an honest and well written picture of wealthy female psychology -- by advising men to learn "dancing skills" -- that is, focus on becoming attractive for personal qualities rather than financial support, in order to win over American women (PUAs would say become more "alpha").

The tacit assumption here, however, is that American men will still want these egotistical American women. While Loh is in a relationship, what does she really think that her likely similarly-aged friends  have to offer high value men -- other than possibly wealth to support a loafer's lifestyle? Several times in the article she brings up evolutionary psychology -- e.g. to explain why we love babies (somewhat weirdly, in fact) -- so surely is familiar with the reproductive value of a post-menopausal woman.

If the America Loh predicts comes to pass, and women reject American men in mass, I hope they will not busy themselves competing for American women with fickle standards, but rather look to countries where the promise of a median American income is still a dream worth pursuing to import their brides.


- lydgate


-----

*Middlemarch readers can perhaps see Loh's disillusionment with men in the psychology of Rosamond. The category system reminds me most most of Austen, however, with the bumbler, card, and nobleman all competing for Elizabeth's confused affections. 

SAT Score Decline: Evidence of Declining Schools?

National SAT scores decline; commentators across the country lament -- our schools are failing us!

However, the pundit class is once again victim to sample size bias distorting their view as this is the natural, expected result of the increase in the numer of borderline college matriculants taking the test. 

Once more, the SAT at least wants to be an aptitude test, not a knowledge test, so using to gauge school performance is misguided.

 I have taken both the old, post-re-centering but pre-writing SAT and new, 2400 SAT and will report that it is definitely not a test designed to test what you learn in high school. Only limited high school mathematics comes up and where Algebra II occurs, it is only basic. The reading test tests reading and vocabulary in context i.e. nothing you might pick up in a competent English class. The best practice is reading dense English prose. The Writing section seems to test for having an "ear" for language, also developed best by reading. That said, it is not really used by colleges, I believe, for good reason. If I were training a student to maximize their Reading/Writing score I would probably hand them the collected works of John Updike and a dictionary and have them devout a summer to it... As for math, the most difficult questions have trickery and encourage problem solving techniques i.e. they are not certainly not testing whether the student has mastered trignometry but rather what their visual problem solving aptitude might be. And, on that, unfortunately half the students will always be below the 50th percentile.

Moral Reasoning about Football


As a failed football coach, there is one thing I know about football: it is a moral game.

You realize that moral reification by first, knowing how to run the football. 

Only if you know how to run the football, then can you think about knowing how to pass the football.

Now eventually, you can achieve ever higher planes of enlightened football-nirvana such as rushing the passer.

But first you have to know how to run the football. 

Now what if you can't trust the refs to call a fair game?

Then you can't learn how to run the football!

Enlightenment lost.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Good Institutions as the Foundation of Growth

Good institutions generate prosperity, right?

For the broader theory, see the new prominently displayed Robinson-Acemoglu treatise available in any Barns and Nobles across the world.  While I haven't even opened the new book, I am familiar with a few Acemoglu and associaties papers in which they regress various rule of law measures -- some of them quite creative -- and find a positive relationship with economic growth.

This then leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that former British colonies with English common law out-perform in terms of GDP growth, which then leads to neo-colonial efforts like Romers, which then inevitably end badly. So, now that Romer's charter city-plan of course has seemingly descended into  into violence and squabbling,  many are lambasting economics again and concluding that Central America is an ungovernable wasteland.

I take a different view

What if, empirically speaking, a non-democratic system produced greater collective wealth and growth than the one Romer advocates? Would he still advocate it?

Economists identifying property rights and personal freedom as the driver of growth are missing the point.  Following an excellent Chieften of Seir Essay (on the financial crisis, written in the summer of 2008) the United States colonialists did not rebel to set up a system of democratic governance and personal liberty because they thought it would get them rich, they set up a democratic government because they considered it a morally superior system worth fighting for. Likewise, their appeal to the common man was not promises material wealth, but a moral one.

So Romer is peddling the wrong message by promising the Hondurans riches if they all buy in to free governance. The collective may generate the most wealth if everyone buys in and respects property rights, but there is always the possibility for amassing greater personal wealth through an un-democratic, non-law-abiding system: compare the value of China's political spoils vs. America's. Wealth cannot underly rule-of-law in a society.

Unfortunately, Romer et al.'s incessant focus on economic growth is only symptomatic of America's transition to valuing its political system most highly for its wealth-creating efficiency rather than its moral superiority -- a misplaced dream which will only end badly.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Classic Youtube Comments: Part 2


damn i aint kno camels was that big

The Problem with Using Test-Scores as Performance Assessment Metrics

I've been hearing a lot about Education Reform plans lately, most recently with the Chicago strike in which teachers are objecting to using test scores as a performance metric. 

In general, the conservative view seems to feel that it is fair and proper to use test scores to award teacher compensation. I am not expert enough to say what the liberal view is, though they increasingly seem to be blaming "the schools" (see Waiting for Superman).

I think that using test scores as performance assessments for public school teachers is myopic, unless highly effective risk adjustment measures are employed i.e. ones that acknowledge reality of differenees in student starting points.

 To explain why, I thought I would examine my old Middle School (grades 6-8), which now appears to only serve grades 7 and 8.  When I was there, the school clearly had problems and the achievement gap was a source of constant debate. A glance at its performance report suggests these problems have only intensified. The test score data is available here, stratified by gender, ethnicity, grade, and free/reduced lunch status: although some of the data seems to not be displaying correctly.

The site is tough to navigate so I won't get into the specifics: most of what you need to know can be found in the first couple pages of this school improvement plan. From the plan:

- "There has been an overall decline in the performance of all students in 
Grade 8 with a variance of 5% points from 2005 to 2008." 
- "There is a 25% point gap in problem solving which is a decline from past years" (i.e. mathematics scores have decreased by that amount (I think?))

However, it is important to note that the mild decline in overall mathematics scores (and stagnant Language Arts scores) mask the deep stratification gender and economic criteria. The racial/economic achievement gap is striking, with the major change being declining White student scores: 

For Language Arts

"However, there is still a 26% point gap compared to White students over the course of five years in LA's. In the areas of reading comprehension and writing process, the achievement gap has dropped from 34-38% to 22% in the past five years, only because White student achievement has dropped 
10% over that time period.   No systematic improvement is evident."
-  "While the achievement gap of Hispanic students as compared to White students 
has declined between 8-10% points, it is mostly due to the decline in 
White student achievement levels."
-"The gap between Free & Reduced Lunch students compared to Paid 
Lunch students shows no reduction and is around 25% - 30% points in 
all three areas of Language Arts.  Only 51-54% of Free & Reduced 
Lunch students master the three LA assessments compared to 77-79% 
for Paid Lunch students."

For Mathematics, the story is basically the same:

"The achievement gap in mathematics continues to be around 20-27% 
points for Black students compared to White students. Our Hispanic and 
Free/Reduced lunch subgroups have approximately the same percentage 
point achievement gap for the years 2005-2008."  

------

Clearly, things are regressing rather than improving for Fall Creek Valley Middle School, although the decline is fairly modest in overall score averages. Most strikingly, the achievement gap shows no signs of improving. 

How do we improve this, then? Can teachers be incented to improve these scores by tying compensation to performance? Personally, I think this a highly myopic response to a broader social movement. The true source of Fall Creek's test performance decline is the rapid demographic changes Lawrence is facing, a classic white flight movement. From the report:
 
"There has been a dramatic change in demographics at our school over the past 
12 years. . .White students have declined as a percent of total school population from 76.9% 
in 1996 to 41.4% in 2008.  Black student population has increased as a 
percentage from 19.4% to 44.4% during the same period.  Multi-racial student 
population has increased from 0.3% to 6.7% during the same period and 
Hispanic students have increased from 1.3% to 6.4% during the same period. 
Free and Reduced Lunch students have increased from 14.3% in 1996-97 to 
42.3% in 2007-08 The percentage of free and reduced lunch students had 
increased to over 48% during the 2008-09 school year [Lydgate -- i.e. three times the 1997 free/reduced lunch percent]"

Thus, Fall Creek Valley teachers are fighting an up-hill demographic value as the percentage of high-risk minority/low-income students in their class increase every year, resulting in the decline in overall achievement rates and a persistant achievement gap. 

In fact, the focus on changes in school rate is completely misguided. Lawrence is simply housing a higher percentage of poor performing Indiana students, while more high performing students are shifting to outer metro area schools. I am skeptical that any real overall changes are being observed, itself hard to quantify likely due to changes to the test. 

Indeed, you cannot compare the task Fall Creek teachers face to their counter-parts in the nearby suburbs of Hamilton County: their job might as have a completely different title. Where market rewards for performance may produce some quality in a free-market business environment (a debate for another post, perhaps), public services are different in that they cannot turn away high-risk students as a private school might. While teacher benefits and unions may be flawed, performance assessment is not a reasonable answer unless extremely effective risk-adjustment techniques are employed, something I am highly doubtful will quantify the true separation in starting-point between a suburban and urban/urbanizing public school environment. 

Education reformers are looking for a magic bullet that solves student performance and achieves public sector savings (Superman, if you will). In this regard, they will only be continually disappointed.

- Lydgate 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

2012: Revival of the Pop Single?



“We Are Young,” “Call Me Maybe" and “Somebody That I Used To Know,” -- All apparently number 1 singles this year, according to this AV Club feature.


Now, I was living under a rock, culturally, for most of 2012, so the only one of these I was aware of vaguely was "Call Me Maybe" only because I heard of the tendency to produce parody/fun-sing along videos. So I decided to listen/watch to the Youtube videos for these songs.

1. "We are Young" by fun

It appears to be an funish pop song, from some white guys called "fun" -- novel! Maybe not a "I Want To Hold Your Hand" type achievement, but certainly a welcome development on America's airwaves. Youth's superiority complex articulated.


2. "Call Me Maybe" -- Number 1 single, but more importantly 265,967,547 YouTube videos and counting.

So what do we have here? I was pretty floored -- some filler setting the stage for a triumphant chorus depicting a coy romantic overture paired with that production -- I think it's the strings that do the heavy lifting here. Is it just me or does anyone else see a connection with the ur-female pop song --"Be My Baby" by the Ronettes (no less than Brian Wilson's obsession) -- in that it depicts a romantic overture from the female perspective?

3. Gotye "Somebody That I Used To Know" -- a staggering 320,000,000 + views.

Now this is weird -- a slow-burn break-up song with the strange, arty video that sounds more Elliott Smith than anything common on the pop-charts over the last few years. Also features the female perspective from "Kimbra." Australian. This was the number 1 song in America??? Very interesting. The hook is pretty pop.

All in all, it seems the internet is driving a come-back of sorts for adult (ie not pre-teen) white pop music. We will see if this sticks. Unlike A.V. Club, I don't really see much narrative per se in any of these songs. Compare any of them to the development of "Be My Baby" (or even Taylor Swift's "You Belong with Me") and it us pretty much non-existant, and that is hardly a story-song.

So, where does that leave music made by black people ? A glance at the Billboard charts sees only the least respected rapper of recent memory, Flo Ridda, is in the top ten. Kanye and company are regulated to 12 (for "Clique"), behind Gangman Style(!) for now at least.


As for "Clique," it truly is a great, slithery beat from Hit-Boy (I think he's the producer) -- but it's not pop at all and therefore doesn't sound very zeitgeist. Also, only Jay-Z shows the ability to flow adroitly on it, saying nothing of note but sounding amazing ("Yeah I'm talking" anchoring every line.) This has always been his secret calling card, allowing his collaborations with Timbaland to his the stars. Big Sean says some stupid lines (Kanye can't find a better weed-carrier than this?) while Kanye, naturally, reaches for critics' plaudits by overstuffing his lines with stupid references to awkward effect. Of course, pop-critics identify his verse as best. I don't see this making a big cultural dent.

In what seems like a long time ago, i.e. the early 2000s, rappers did actually appear in pop-love songs (see Ja Rule and Jennifer Lopez's "I'm Real" for example.) Discerning rappers hoping to remain paid might want to investigate reviving this lost art.

Gangman Style vs. Horsedick.mpeg



So the above dance from Korean star PSY seems to be taken over YouTube and hence the world ("Gangman Style"). I think I saw someone doing it on the Metro last week.

Watching the video I couldn't help but be reminded of a character from Miss March, a little seen 2009 Playboy-inspired comedy that borders on becoming an (unintentional?) absurdist masterpiece. 

Anyways, it features a rap-star named Horsedick.mpeg who dances in a somewhat more suggestive manner to a song whose title I won't repeat (very NSFW). This video doesn't capture the full glory of the song but i'll post it anyway as it was the best I could find:


Now, I don't think there was any meme plagiarism here, but rather it is an example of cross-cultural convergent meme evolution (the US meme proving much less successful it seems).

The Magnificent Ambersons: Indianapolis's Novel


Reading the always interesting Armond White's take on the latest Sight and Sound greatest films poll, I was struck by his reference to the fact that "For years, it’s been quietly accepted that Welles’ follow-up film The Magnificent Ambersons was richer, more complex than Kane (and Ambersons’ profundity makes Vertigo seem piddling)." While I have never seen the film, I suppose I should, as I consider its source material an excellent novel. 

Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Amberson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1918. The short author biography in my copy seems to imply Tarkington was a highly popular figure in his day, author of serials Broadway plays, and novels. If true, the evidence of this book suggests it was for good reason, for it is the definitive Indianapolis novel. However, I have heard the film mentioned far more often than the novel.  

Tarkington's narrative skillfully portrays the social upending of the Industrial Age on the pre-manufacturing old society of the Midwest. It focuses on the deterioration of a leading old-money Midwestern family, and where the town's economic development leaves them in the end.

Throughout,  Tarkington interweaves economic usurpation with romantic conflict involving two generations. The young Amberson prince George's romance with Lucy is dashed due to the potential reunion of their parents once George's father has died. Lucy's father -- newly rich from the automobile manufacturing destroying the social order of the Amberson's status -- attempts to marry George's mother. George comes between them, dashing the chance for both his and his mother's romantic fulfillment.

As this drama plays out, the family inevitable declines in worth as well, hastened by poor investing decisions.  There is a passage in which one Amberson gets caught up in a disastrous investment scheme that eventually destroys their savings which is a perfect rendering of the psychology bubble economics. 

The culminating image is shocking: the once aristocratic George is left as a regular factory worker who on Sundays wanders aimlessly the now unrecognizable, grimy industrial city he once traversed in a horse-and-buggy.   

Perhaps its fortunate that Detroit, not Indianapolis, won out on the auto-manufacturing boom (not a foregone conclusion in 1918) so that we would not experience the full brunt of the decline of that era.

Lake Baikal, "The Pearl of Siberia"

Apparently the oldest and deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal in Southern Siberia seems like a magnificent setting.



Perhaps one day I can travel to Irkusk and see for myself.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Apple vs. Pharma: The Value of Toys vs. Medicine

The IPhone 5 is out, and thus we are continually reminded of the triumph of Apple.

 Indeed, their market cap, revenue and profit are staggering. It dwarfs anything found on this list, the world's most profitable pharmaceutical companies. (a traditionally highly profitable and despised industry).

And yet, although I appreciate and own Apple products, the Jobs hagiography would we rather live in a world without his gifts or Dr. Herbet Boyer's? (it is somewhat unfair to single out Jobs; I am growing sick more of the general extolling of the tech entrepreneur as the best lifepath)

Instead, I find myself asking why do people not obsess over the research and development efforts that go into making products like Diovan? Gleevac? Synthetic insulin? I have yet to find an alternative with the popularity of asymco. Instead, it seems most Americans wish to clamp down on pharmaceutical profits.

 If you follow the industry, many Wall St. analysts are calling for large companies like Pfizer to spin off whole divisions while outsourcing these roles abroad in order raise cash for stock buy-backs (I wish I were kidding).

Does the US really want to destroy its domestic pharmaceutical industry, a prestige sector for so long? It certainly seems like it sometimes.

In the battle of drugs versus new toys, I for one would prefer to see the US lead the world in the former rather than the latter.

Thus, you can tell me that Apple's market capitalization is greater than 4 times that of Novartis and thus it is more valuable, but I wouldn't believe you.

Choose your own answer.

My favorite 10 albums from the 2000s, when it was the 2000s, in the order I discovered them (limit one per artist)


As I attempt to document hazy recollections of my youth. . .

--- haze--- haze --- haze -- BRITTANY-- NELLY -- haze

1. Interpol Turn on the Bright Lights (first "indie" ablum)
2. The Flaming Lips Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
3. Radiohead Hail to the Thief (first one I owned)
4. Arcade Fire Funeral (still exhilarating)
5. Broken Social Scene You Forgot it in the People
5. Kanye The College Dropout 
7. Spoon Gimme Fiction
8. Clipse We Got it for Cheap Volume II
9. The Hold Steady Separation Sunday
10. The Strokes Room on Fire (I came around late)

-- age ---

Notes:
- in the Year of Our Lord 2011, I caught Dan Bejar-fever and now I have to fit Streethawk: A Seduction in there somewhere (or others)
- a lot of these were crystalline debuts followed by subsequently disappointing careers (Arcade Fire, Interpol, The Strokes, increasingly The Hold Steady)
- Everyone knows about Radiohead's stellar 2000's run, but you have to put Spoon up there too.
- You could make a compelling argument for The Blueprint, The Fix, Stankonia, Madvillainy, Be, or even the Marshall Mathers LP, but I didn't really connect with any of these at the time except Eminem, and had mostly soured on him by 2005 anyways. Weird to see him re-emerge as a self-help coach. Rap had a weak decade; Nas didn't release anything at all (or so we should pretend).  
- I'm probably blanking on something. I think Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade was a major thing in my life at some point (one of those Canadian singers who can't sing).

Obama, W. Bush and Presidents that are "Comfortable in their Own Skin"

Is the most important presidential quality now appearing "comfortable in their own skin?"* as we are so often told Obama is and Romney clearly isn't (I wouldn't say he looks uncomfortable, more stilted).

Perhaps not in an older time, but in the age of video and web coverage, it certainly seems so. Or at least pundits keep incessantly mentioning it.

In Bill Simmons pod-cast with Jimmy Kimmel, reminiscing about their encounter with the President, both men remark about how "there is just something about [Obama] when you meet him -- he's just cool." They then compare this quality to Bill Clinton, a famed extrovert fueled by interpersonal connection.

Lost in this discussion, however, is the fact that, despite his reputation as a dim-witted bumbler, there is a reason George W. Bush defeated Gore despite the remarkable economic run of the Clinton years: he was a remarkably interpersonally gifted politician in his time as well.

His limited vocabulary and elocution skills were part of his routine rather than a flaw. I would bet that stumbling in dry policy discourse was endearing to more voters in Ohio and Florida rather than repellant. Indeed, he consistently dominated the poll question: Would you want to have a beer with this candidate? (despite his privileged East-Coast background undermining his Texas persona). Indeed, in the debates of 2000 and 2004, where Gore sounded like conceited and Kerry dry and robotic, Bush always came across as friendly and well-meaning.

 I know someone who met W. briefly, as Presidents are required to host myriad visting groups every year. He reported that he completely dominated the fairly inconsequential room socially, cracking jokes and slyly playing up his stupid persona. He had a definite swagger of the kind documented obsessively by the PUA community, only it was natural. He leaned back.

Which brings us to Obama and his reported swagger.

Sailer and others, even the New York Times, have well-documented how the President is in some ways more Coolidge than Clinton: naturally introverted.

Numerous sources report he is not one to work a room or reach out to constituents, and until recently preferred to the lone smoke-break to just about anything.

Sailer has speculated that he has mild manic-depressive cycle. More tellingly, I think, is his documentation of the changes in Obama's oratory style, as he increasingly embraced a black identity as his political career progressed.

 One possibility: Obama is an introvert who studied the behaviors of natural leaders and learned to fake it, able now to conjure up the effortless personal cool needed in video-interviews, but, crucially, someone who still retreats back into his introverted self for energy recharges.

Who then is the real Obama -- is he gifted/cursed with the irrational self-confidence of a "natural leader." Or is it all a charade -- the supposed over-competitiveness not a manifestation of his Michael Jordan like testosterone-fueled drive, but really a ploy to mask a suppressed cerebralism, even self-doubt one might expect from the author of Dreams from My Father. Or was that all an act for his intelligentsia audience, obscuring a man who has sought ever more power every step of the way?

Perhaps we won't know until his inevitable record-breaking memoir gives us yet more opaque material to sift through.

Consider, however, how this question influences his thinking on the Iran-Israel question. Where W. Bush would likely have an unshakeable trust in his gut instinct, I am not sure how Obama approaches the question. Or Romney for that matter, whose thinking and motivation for seeking power is similar;y a mystery.

Unfortunately, I feel Obama's record implies he will just do whatever his Kennedy School trained advisors tell him to do, for which reason we should all be afraid. Indeed, he has shown little interest that I can see in deviating from the liberal ivy league consensus -- pace his revival of Laurence Summers -- with disastrous consequences for our economy.

You never know, though: sometimes Presidents are forced to define themselves at crucial moments no one sees coming when we truly get to see the cut of their jib.

---

*I remember reading a David Foster Wallace essay, supposedly on the strangeness of this phrase, that in reality communicated the strange, miserable existence of Wallace himself, who seemed to me the polar opposite of a Clinton or W. Bush. It was as if the author could not imagine holding a calm large-group social interaction or mild performance without being beset by crippling self-consciousness (indeed he saw such calm as abnormal, if I recall). Perhaps his annoying footnoting habit resulted from this crippling self-consciousness -- that is, it is a product of his need to constantly clarify or modify his attempts at communicating with the outside world. I never read any of his fiction, but I of this essay immediately when revelations of his long-term depression came to light following his suicide.

Youtube Comment: Hall of Fame Series


1.
Ich Liebe Bach jedesmal wenn ich Die 9 Symphony höre zerschmilst mein Herz <3

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Thoughts on Indiana


I lived in Indianapolis, Indiana for most of my youth, up in till the age of 18 when I left for the east-coast.
Unlike most of my friends and acquaintances in Indiana, however, my family was not from the area, nor did I have any extended familial roots there. Most of the people in my circle had seemingly been there for generations, so my perspective was somewhat different. In general, I found the community friendly, but somewhat insular to outsiders.
The demographic make-up of Indianapolis seemed to be comprised mainly of Protestant Christian and whites, or Protestant Christian blacks, with some Catholic pockets as well. As with most areas of the country, the Hispanic population is increasing steadily.
Although a member of the Union during the Civil War, Indiana borders the Mason-Dixon Line and has a somewhat confused relationship with the South. Southern Indiana is very hilly and rural and almost looks and feels as if it could be a part of the greater South, despite the cold winters. In contrast, Northern Indiana is clearly Mid-Western and fits with its Northern neighbors, although it is marginalized in this capacity, serving as somewhat of an extension of cheap real estate for bordering Chicago and Michigan municipalities.
Indianapolis, a planned capital, is located at exactly the center of the state rather than on Lake Michigan or the Ohio River as would have been a more natural position. It thus straddles this north-south divide. Overall, I would place the city in the Northern domain: it feels fairly akin to what one might find in Michigan, although the cornfields that surround the city for miles lend life there a rural hue.
As a core Mid-Western state, Indiana has somewhat of an inferiority complex amongst its compatriots. In terms of national importance among Mid-Western states, it likely only exceeds Iowa (one can debate Wisconsin), the former of which plays an integral role in Presidential elections nominations. Michigan defeated Indiana in the auto-manufacturing war of the early 20th century and, despite its problems, continues to assert economic dominance over Indiana. Ohio has Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati -- multiple major cities to Indiana’s one. Illinois has Chicago, which uses North-West Indiana as a repository for disgusting manufacturing (try driving through Gary, IN with the windows down this century). IN residents from this area nonetheless will tell you they are from Chicago.
Make no mistake, Indianapolis is self-conscious of its reputation as part of “Indiana no-place.” I can see why.  East-Coast residents in my experience demonstrated little to no geographic or cultural knowledge of or in interest in Indiana, and were mostly bemused that someone would come from there.
However, this inferiority complex results in some nasty behavior: Indianans enjoy expressing misguided disdain over the supposed backwards habits of poverty-stricken neighboring Kentukians.
More broadly problematic, the intergenerational residency creates somewhat of an insular culture resulting in certain career paths (business or very local law), interests (college basketball) and values (Protestant Christianity/conservatism) becoming community myopic fixations such that deviating from them can earn you the title of “weird.” I suppose every area has similar problems, however (for Boston, it would be unwarranted elitism) and this could also be a product of my school-driven particular social circle.
Re-visiting Indianapolis, I am reminded of Orwell’s observation on country life in England in Homage to Catalonia: it can be hard to imagine that a world of strife, pain and action exists somewhere far beyond these rows of house that stretch out before you as far as the eye can see.
More pressingly, it is a place where you drive to get anywhere, a merciless tax on your time to counteract the lower cost of living. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Future Posting on Stephen Chow, the King of Comedy

Lest my readers think my interest in Hong Kong cinema was limited to respected auteurs like Wong Kar Wai, in the future I hope to craft a series of post on the cultural phenomenon of Stephen Chow.


Howvever, first I will have to acquire some of his films, as its been years since I've seen the ones ones I have in mind (Chinese Odyssey; King of Comedy; Justice, My Foot ).

Stay tuned.

Kendrick Lamar's Swimming Pool (Drank) is a Great Song


When I first heard a Kendrick Lamar song, his voice irritated me a lot.

But that has abated as I strive to decipher his lyrics.

In "Swimming Pools (Drank)" he delivers a perceptive exegesis on what motivates peoples' all too often over-shooting on drinking.

Ironically, this song seems to be in mild rotation at the bar and club circuit in D.C. already, so I'm guessing his national profile is rising.

"Some people like the way it feels
Some people wanna kill their sorrows
Some people wanna fit in with the popular
That was my problem"

As for me, I haven't been drunk in years.

- lydgate


On Mathew Yglesias, Slate's Financial Journalist


Back in the dark ages of 2004, early blogger Mathew Yglesias seemed to be reviled by everyone populat in the still nascent political blogosphere.  Conservative war-bloggers like Allah Pundit, liberals on Daily Kos, and everyone in between seemed to have it in for him. In fact, Andrew Sullivan, then supposedly a conservative, even adopted a derogatory “Ygelias award” – an action indicative of Sullivan’s future devolution.
Not knowing any better, I reflexively adopted this pervasive Ygelias disdain -- which reach its most disturbing pinnacle  in the near-celebration that met his report of being assaulted while walking home in D.C. -- while reading him maybe once a year.
Fast forward two presidential terms, and I now discover Ygelias has become a surprisingly competent financial columnist for Slate.
Consider the evidence, drawn mostly from very recent work:


  •    He seems to have a solid understanding of fiat money. (here)
  •   He recognizes that because debt is denombinanated nominally, it affects behavior, erasing the veil of money.  
  •  He repeatedly draws attention to the on the real crisis of our times – long-term, mass unemployment (multiple pieces)
  •  He asks how to fix our unemployment debacle, focusing mostly on restoring aggregate demand. Lately, he seems to have dipped into the misguided uproar over nominal GDP targeting, but then again, who hasn’t? Overall, he seems most interested in demand restoration through fiscal policy -- pace, his comments on Obama’s speech for example: what other liberal columnists correctly identifies the absence of demand restoration as a means to lower unemployment in the President’s vision?
  •  He has written two books, the second of which appears to detail how the absurd run-up in real estate values and rent in big cities like D.C. -- where prices haven't fallen -- hurts the young.
All in all, given the current state of economic understanding, I think Yeglias is one of the best financial journalists out there, perhaps because his degree is in philosophy rather than economics.

That said, this article, which rebuts the accusation that rebuttal to “QE3 will hurt savers” misses the forest for the trees. Yeglias only attempts to prove that QE is not inflationary, even though he seems to think it expands the money supply (I think? this seems like a contradiction.) In fact, reserves are not money, so it is not inflationary at all. However, while it is true that QE3 likely won’t hurt savers by provoking excess inflation, and I agree that is the general conservative argument, you cannot say it does not intend to hurt savers. The point is to reduce interests rates. 

And, for savers, per Mosler, interest payments are income. Therefore, if successful, QE3 intends to reduce savers’ interest income as we have seen occur.

Still, it seems like Yeglias is genuinely grappling with the issues in a way most financial journalists fail to, and I credit him for that.




What should we do about Medicaid?


Is switching the program to one that gives a block grant to states, as Paul Ryan suggests -- which would allow them the leeway to then govern benefits and eligibility levels -- and then tie the grant increase amount to the general inflation rather than medical inflation rate, an appropriate answer?
Moreover, is this a necessary step to avoid fiscal apocalypse
This post analyzes our options, using an MMT-inspired framework that accepts a consolidated Fed/Treasury world-view. 
First, an overview of the problem.
Growth in total Medicaid spending (state and federal) has dramatically outpaced not only the general inflation rate, but also the 4% or so average medical inflation rate over the past decade (Kaiser suggests Medicaid spending has grown about 6% a year).  
Unsurprisingly, as Medicaid is a countercyclical program for which enrollment and thus spending increases as income falls, this trend seems to be accelerating due the Great Recession. 

In 2010, total Medicaid spending was .389 trillion or about 2.7% of overall GDP. Without drastic reform, that percent will continue to increase even before considering the effects of the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. While perhaps blunted by the Supreme Court’s decision that forcing states to expand Medicaid is coercion, this change is still likely to further increase spending with the federal government picking up most of the tab.
Through a proper understanding of Modern Monetary Theory, however, we know, however, that the federal government is not at risk of being bankrupted by Medicaid spending, as it is a currency issuer. Instead, the real risk is to federal government deficit from Medicaid spending is that it will accelerate to the point that it drives unacceptable levels of inflation. 

This is definitely a risk in the long term, and for that reason, once a sufficient enrollment threshold is met  (i.e. perhaps the point where there are few uninsured ineligibles and the pro-cyclical effects of rising income promotes disenrollment in favor of private plans), I would recommend tying benefits levels to medical inflation to avoid rationing of new medical technologies. But, in the present economic environment, I see no reason for the federal government to worry about Medicaid driving inflation in the short term -- instead, it is a potential source of stimulus.
So, everything seems fine?
 Nope.
While bankruptcy is not a fear at the federal level, the opposite is true for states.
Like a household, they must tax in order to generate funding for their portion of Medicaid programs. Once more, this is required spending amount that increases when revenues decrease during recessions. Thus, in the current system, states are forced to make draconian cuts to balance a budget because  growing Medicaid spending is eating up an ever greater percent of decreasing revenues.  In this way, the state Medicaid obligation contains a pro-cyclical force promoting public sector job losses – exactly what we don’t want to happen!
Under a block grant tied to inflation, states very well could reduce Medicaid spending but they would do this by likely restricting eligibility or benefits for poor residents. This solution thus results in a deplorable loss of coverage for children, families and poor people in general. Also significant is the fact that  it removes an important counter-cyclical automatic stabilizer fighting unemployment.
The correct response seems obvious enough: the federal government should cover less than 100% of Medicaid but not much less than that -- that is, enough to keep some skin for states in the game without compromising their overall budget in any real way. Thus, federal Medicaid obligations will immediately exceed 2.5% or so of GDP. In the long run, measures will have to be put in place to control the inflationary bias of this program. In the short run, the focus should be, however, on its simulative effect.
In a broader sense, it makes more sense to me at least for our government – if it is not going to provide universal healthcare -- to be in business of providing children and families’ healthcare at least, instead of the elderly as pediatric healthcare is cheaper and a produces more years of healthy future workers per dollar. Sadly, it is exactly this population that will face medical rationing if current policy suggestions go into effect.

Unless we overcome the collective delusion that we have no funds to pay for healthcare entitlements, it will be our children rather than our grandchildren who suffer.