Friday, July 31, 2009

The Know-Nothings

DamnGoodTechnician promises a post on "dealing with the scientific uneducatedness of one's family." Yesterday I made the mistake of mentioning the term "PCR" in an email to some contemporary male friends. One guessed that PCR stood for Peruvian Chesty Redhead (hmm....)

Now, anyone who's gotten past intro bio in college knows what PCR is, but the vast majority of otherwise-educated folks have no frickin' clue. I'm not sure if this is odd or not -- I mean, it is a tremendously powerful innovation that has revolutionized biology over the past 20 years. I'm wondering what the equivalent things are in other professions. What is the lawyer version of PCR?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

1st and 10

Since humidity has finally (?) arrived in New England, I've been thinking a bit more about non-gross times, such as the fall, when there is football. If you've got a few minutes to spare, read this press conference by Coach Belichick. Who talks like that? No one, really. My favorite part:
Q: This is your 10th season here. How have you changed as a coach since your first game here in 2000?
BB: I’d say I’m a lot friendlier.

Now, I know that a lot of non-Patriots fans think he is a total jag-off. But what I love about him is that he absolutely despises the vapid media. As do I.

More coffee?

Judge Smails passes along this article from Slate, which gets at exactly what I was saying about Starbucks in relation to Diesel Cafe. Key quote:
Soon after declining Starbucks's buyout offer, Hyman received the expected news that the company was opening up next to one of his stores. But instead of panicking, he decided to call his friend Jim Stewart, founder of the Seattle's Best Coffee chain, to find out what really happens when a Starbucks opens nearby. "You're going to love it," Stewart reported. "They'll do all of your marketing for you, and your sales will soar." The prediction came true: Each new Starbucks store created a local buzz, drawing new converts to the latte-drinking fold. When the lines at Starbucks grew beyond the point of reason, these converts started venturing out—and, Look! There was another coffeehouse right next-door! Hyman's new neighbor boosted his sales so much that he decided to turn the tactic around and start targeting Starbucks. "We bought a Chinese restaurant right next to one of their stores and converted it, and by God, it was doing $1 million a year right away," he said.

Now, I don't know if this proves anything either way about a Domino's Pizza in JP... but it certainly shows that 'common sense' is often wrong when it comes to free markets and people's behavior.

Chain stores

Next week, there's a community meeting in my section of Boston (Jamaica Plain) to discuss the possibility of allowing a Domino's Pizza franchise to inhabit a currently-empty storefront. JP has a long history of having a reflexive dislike of chain stores, and I'm sure these folks will make up the vast majority of this meeting. I disagree, and think that the Domino's should be allowed in. Here's why...

First, precedent... currently JP has a CVS, a Dunkin Donuts, a 7-11, and two Tedeschi's, so it is not like you have to be a non-chain store to be there. So from solely a consistency standpoint, I don't see how they could be kept out. And if the people of JP are really, really against chain stores, then fine, don't shop there, and it will go out of business. But it seems like a sizable percentage of JP residents are not against chain stores, as the aforementioned places have been in business for awhile.

I've heard it argued that JP already has enough pizza places (by my count, there are 5 on a mile-long stretch of the main drag) so that's enough, we don't need any more. I don't like this argument either. More than one of the pizza places is, at least to my palate, terrible. That they are still in business means either that there is plenty of demand for pizza or that people really do have a wide-variety of pizza palates (or that some of the joints are mob fronts). I'm no kool-aid drinker when it comes to the power of the free market in all things, but in the realm of pizza, I'm more than willing to the let people vote with their feet.

And certainly, an open business is much better for the community than an empty store front. Areas that thrive (for example, Davis Square in Somerville) do so because they are destinations -- people want to go there because there are other people there. This is why Davis Square can support both the Diesel Cafe and Starbucks -- indeed, the former has continued to thrive despite the presence of the latter. Naively, you might think that the two coffee shops would cut into each other's business: this would be true if the number of people in Davis Square was fixed. But it isn't -- because it is an attractive place, housing occupancy is higher, and people who don't live there still visit. Contrast that to a world where the Diesel Cafe is across the street from a boarded up building. So this is an example of a rising tide lifting all boats.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mental Health

Joe Pantoliano, probably best known (by me, anyway) as Cosmo in The Fugitive, has started a foundation to raise awareness for those with depression and other mental illnesses (he has depression). The website is:

Certainly, this is a whole area that doesn't get discussed in the open nearly enough, so I'm glad to see the power of celebrity doing something in this regard. While discussing this during a Sox game with Don & Eck on NESN, he mentioned that more servicemen and women are killing themselves in Iraq than are being killed in combat. Jeebus.

P.S. You might remember him from Risky Business, The Matrix, Memento, or The Sopranos

Regular Health

Apparently the only thing happening in the world is health care. Better than dead celebrities and Harvard professors, I guess. For purely archival purposes (since I'm sure everyone has already seen it), here's Bill O'Reilly showing that he has no quantitative literacy:

I'm sure Jon Stewart had fun with that.

Turning to the White House, today they unleashed their eight things that need to be in any health care bill in order for Obama to sign it. Worth going over point-by-point:

No Discrimination for Pre-Existing Conditions: Insurance companies will be prohibited from refusing you coverage because of your medical history.
Certainly this is a good thing, although I do wonder how much higher your premiums will be if, say, you have diabetes. Or put another way, you could certainly imagine an insurance company not denying you coverage but rather charging you an exorbitant amount for it because you're risky.

No Exorbitant Out-of-Pocket Expenses, Deductibles or Co-Pays: Insurance companies will have to abide by yearly caps on how much they can charge for out-of-pocket expenses.
Ah, ask and ye shall receive, there will be a cap on expenses (I should note that I'm reading these as I post them). Okay, this raises a lot of questions, though. So, if there's only so much that you can be charged per year for health care, who picks up the rest? Is that cap a progressive cap (i.e. if you're rich, you have a higher annual cap)? And I'm no economist, but I do know that it is universally accepted that things like rent control are bad, as it creates a situation where there is not enough supply (or too much demand, or something...). I'd have to learn a lot more to know if these concerns would apply to health care.

No Cost-Sharing for Preventive Care: Insurance companies must fully cover, without charge, regular checkups and tests that help you prevent illness, such as mammograms or eye and foot exams for diabetics.
This is a no brainer. While the rate limiting step for me getting a physical is remembering to do it, time constraints, etc., there are plenty of poor folks out there who probably do think twice about that extra twenty dollar co-pay, so anything to remove the barrier, the better. I do wonder, though, how does one define preventative? I imagine there are a lot of things that are in a gray area.

No Dropping of Coverage for Seriously Ill: Insurance companies will be prohibited from dropping or watering down insurance coverage for those who become seriously ill.
This is another no-brainer. The point of insurance is to pool costs so that we're all spreading out the risk for the few who get expensively ill.

No Gender Discrimination: Insurance companies will be prohibited from charging you more because of your gender.
Well, this helps half of us, and hurts half of us. Not sure this is terribly important.

No Annual or Lifetime Caps on Coverage: Insurance companies will be prevented from placing annual or lifetime caps on the coverage you receive.
Seems like this could have been folded into point two. This is starting to read like the ten commandments.

Extended Coverage for Young Adults: Children would continue to be eligible for family coverage through the age of 26.
Fine with me, since a lot of youths continue to live with their parents post-college anyway, they might as well mooch health care coverage.

Guaranteed Insurance Renewal: Insurance companies will be required to renew any policy as long as the policyholder pays their premium in full. Insurance companies won't be allowed to refuse renewal because someone became sick.
This basically covers the loop-hole where an insurance company could say hey, we're not denying coverage, we're just not renewing it.

Okay, that's the eight. They're benign enough to be fine. What they don't discuss, of course, is cost, which is the bulk of the reason why we're trying to reform the system in the first place.

Drinking crazy juice

Ms. McGee sends along this tidbit of news:
In other pockets of the state, the reaction to Democratic proposals has been strong, too. At a recent town-hall meeting in suburban Simpsonville, a man stood up and told Rep. Robert Inglis (R-S.C.) to "keep your government hands off my Medicare."

"I had to politely explain that, 'Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government,' " Inglis recalled. "But he wasn't having any of it."
I spent awhile thinking about what exactly about this story bothered me so much. I realized it is not so much that there are stupid people out there, but rather the complete and utter confidence these idiots have in their worldview, to the point where no amount of evidence can sway them.

Indeed, you see this with the Obama-isn't-a-citizen brigade as well (which a frighteningly high number of GOP congressmen seem to not exactly discourage) -- either their sources for news are so limited, or their cognitive dissonance so high, that they honestly believe Obama wasn't born here, nevermind that birth announcement in the Hawaii paper placed forty-some years ago.

I wonder if this is one downside of the internet, that it makes it much easier for the crazies to find each other and reinforce their worldview. Or maybe we've always had people who are just as nuts. I think they were quieter in the past, though.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Take that, you straw man!

In debating Krugman, Tyler Cowen makes this point, to somewhat defend the ability of the free market to provide health care:
There are plenty of health care services in this country, such as laser eye surgery, or plastic surgery, which are supplied in more or less market settings. I don't consider their efficiency an open and shut case, but it's quite possible we'd be delighted if other areas of health care worked this well in terms of cost-lowering and innovation and even availability. It could be that these services are more transparent or it could be they are simply less regulated and further removed from third-party payment.
Cowen, laughably so, leaves out the most obvious reason for the competition that allows for "cost-lowering and innovation" -- these are totally optional procedures! You can shop around for the best price on laser eye surgery because you have time. You do not, however, have time to shop around for the best deal on a triple bypass. Further, insurance does not cover LASIK or boob jobs, and your health doesn't suffer if you don't get them. So this is really not the right way to prove Krugman wrong.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Gun control

Living in a city as I do, it is perhaps not surprising that I think the nation's gun laws are too lax, not too restrictive. Which is why I really like this tongue-in-cheek OpEd by E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post:
Isn't it time to dismantle the metal detectors, send the guards at the doors away and allow Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights by being free to carry their firearms into the nation's Capitol?

I've been studying the deep thoughts of senators who regularly express their undying loyalty to the National Rifle Association, and I have decided that they should practice what they preach. They tell us that the best defense against crime is an armed citizenry and that laws restricting guns do nothing to stop violence.

If they believe that, why don't they live by it?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Let's hope we don't have a burnout

Did you know that Carrie Fisher, i.e. Princess Leia, was once married to Paul Simon (the singer, not the Senator) and also fooled around with Chris Dodd (the Senator)?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

We're going to need a bigger boat

I knew Harvard was big, but I didn't know this big... a recent email missive from some dean, talking about Professor Marc Kirshner, noted:
To give you some perspective on this honor, only 22 of Harvard’s more than 12,000 faculty members hold University Professorships.
12,000?!?! That is a lot of dorks.

The other University Professors, in case you're wondering, can be found here. Both Gates & Summers are on the list. Kinda oddly, Kirshner is the first biologist to make the cut.

Burn baby burn

While scrolling through a database of available grants, I came across this offering from the Department of Defense:
The FY09 PRCRP Collaborative Translational Science Award requests applications from these Focus Areas only: Research into melanoma and other skin cancers related to deployments of service members to areas of high exposure by: A) Understanding molecular and immunological effects of UV at the level of the cell and at the level of the human host, and B) The genetic epidemiology and increased susceptibility to melanoma and other skin cancers.

Now, this isn't quite my area of research so it isn't something I'd apply for [by which I mean, not something I'd write a grant for that my boss would claim as his own] but it did make me think that, jeez, a lot of our servicemen probably have a lot more on their minds in Iraq than a regular application of sunscreen, yet said application is really really important for preventing problems later on. At least the DOD is thinking about that.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I'm worth $5,000,000

A little late to the party on this one, but Peter Singer had a good oped in the Times this past weekend, about rationing and health care:
When a Washington Post journalist asked Daniel Zemel, a Washington rabbi, what he thought about federal agencies putting a dollar value on human life, the rabbi cited a Jewish teaching explaining that if you put one human life on one side of a scale, and you put the rest of the world on the other side, the scale is balanced equally. Perhaps that is how those who resist health care rationing think. But we already put a dollar value on human life. If the Department of Transportation, for example, followed rabbinical teachings it would exhaust its entire budget on road safety. Fortunately the department sets a limit on how much it is willing to pay to save one human life. In 2008 that limit was $5.8 million. Other government agencies do the same. Last year the Consumer Product Safety Commission considered a proposal to make mattresses less likely to catch fire. Information from the industry suggested that the new standard would cost $343 million to implement, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission calculated that it would save 270 lives a year — and since it valued a human life at around $5 million, that made the new standard a good value. If we are going to have consumer-safety regulation at all, we need some idea of how much safety is worth buying. Like health care bureaucrats, consumer-safety bureaucrats sometimes decide that saving a human life is not worth the expense. Twenty years ago, the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, examined a proposal for installing seat belts in all school buses. It estimated that doing so would save, on average, one life per year, at a cost of $40 million. After that, support for the proposal faded away. So why is it that those who accept that we put a price on life when it comes to consumer safety refuse to accept it when it comes to health care?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bad polls

I love polls, I really do. I think they often turn up fascinating results, and a dream job of mine would be to conduct polls all day about all sorts of things. This might be why I hate it when polls are incorrectly used and bandied about. Over the weekend the Washington Post did a poll asking whether people approved or disapproved of Obama's handling of health care. Since his approval rating in this regard was has gone from 57 to 53 to 49% approval from April to June to July, this finding was treated as evidence that, well, Obama and health care reform were in trouble, that the country, the median voter, the people who will boot the Democrats out of Congress in 2010 were turning against the Administration.

But that's not what the poll said. The poll said that 49% of people approved of the way Obama was handling health care (with 44% disapproval). It did not say WHY. Paul Krugman, for example, probably disapproves of the way Obama has been dealing with health care. Does that mean he's going to vote Republican in the midterms? I don't think so. Indeed, the same poll asked who you thought was doing a better job on health care, Obama v. GOP Congressmen -- Obama won hands down, 54 to 34. Funny I didn't see that number reported anywhere.

Monday, July 20, 2009

One Small Step for... Me

Exactly 10 weeks ago, [name redacted until after the lawyers are done with me] hit me with his car while I was on my way to work. Since every action has an equal and opposite reaction, my ankle went from the picture on the left to the picture on the right.*
Kinda fitting that, on the 40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing,** my doc gave me the thumbs up to start walking again, while wearing a moon boot no less. My right leg is currently huge, while my left one is rather withered and/or atrophied.

* Actually, the 'normal' picture is what it looked like after they set it -- I didn't just happen to have a pre-accident x-ray of my ankle
** Yes, I know it was actually filmed in a Hollywood studio, please don't send me your personal manifesto

Friday, July 17, 2009

BU can suck it

A very nice girl of 22 works in my lab. She is unmarried with 3 year old twins whom she loves very much and cares for very well. Every day, she drops them off at day care or camp or school or what have you, works for 8 hours, then picks them up, feeds them, gives them a bath, puts them to bed, and then someone from her family babysits while she takes night classes at BU to earn her Bachelor of Science. And don't forget, these are twins we're talking about, meaning there's two of them.

Today I was asking how many classes she had remaining before getting her degree with a major in biomedical sciences, and she mentioned that she was nearing the end, but still had to take some required core classes: History, English, and Philosophy 101. I commented that gee, that must be damn expensive, and I was right: each class is a couple thousand bucks. I then asked why she didn't take the classes at Harvard, because as a Harvard employee, there's only a nominal fee to enroll in night classes. She said that BU won't accept Harvard classes for credit. Let's say that again: Boston University won't accept non-major classes from Harvard and instead engages in a blatant money-grab from a single mother... with twins!

I'm sure most other schools are similarly greedy, but wow, you'd think some dean would be willing to make an exception. So BU can suck it.


The Votemaster makes a point I agree with:
One of the points that be central to the 2010 campaign debates is the issue of rationing health care. It is completely taboo in America but of course it happens. Suppose you are unemployed and don't have health insurance and only a $500,000 heart transplant can save your life but you don't have the money. What happens next? Answer: you die. That's called rationing. There is no way the U.S. or any other country can provide every citizen with unlimited health care. In particular, somebody has to decide if, of example, it is worth spending $54,000 for a drug that slows the spread of kidney cancer and might increase the patient's life by 6 months, but will increase everyone else's insurance premiums. Nobody ever wants to talk about these tradeoffs in public, but there are there of course. What a health-bill will do is create some kind of committee to make decisions like how much a 6 month life extension is worth for 20-year-olds, 50-year-olds, and 80-year olds. Right now, private insurance companies quietly make such decisions every day. Any health bill will force the process into daylight and cause an uproar.

I think this is something Obama needs to get out and stress more, that there is already plenty of rationing, even for those who have health care through their employer.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Driving Lesson

Seeing as how I was hit by a car making a left turn not too long ago, this struck a cord with me. Some nice videos too, and I was able to identify the location of all of them on the first watch, mainly because certain intersections are just infamous for bad driving. My favorite part:
4. Do you have a green light, and there ARE cars/trucks/BICYCLES/bus’s etc driving toward you?

Yes - DON’T FUCKING TURN! It is not your turn to go, wait. Wait till every single one of the other people in the oncoming lane have gone, don’t creep into their lane, don’t edge out, and for damn sure don’t nearly run them over. You have to wait, you simply must wait. You have to suck it up and remember that the world doesn’t revolve around you, wait. If you do creep into the oncoming lane, expect to be honked at, expect to be given the finger, expect to get angry looks. It’s NOT YOUR TURN TO GO. I don’t know how else to explain this to you, remember in school where they made you wait for a cookie, and you had to wait till it was your turn to go get the cookie, it’s like that. You know when you wait at the grocery store to buy your stuff, and you have to wait till it is your turn to check out, like that. You know how at the bank you have to wait till the person in front of you is done before you go, just like that. WAIT, wait your turn…no really wait your turn.

2nd Half Baseball

Sox enter the second half of the season with a 3 game lead over the Yanks and a 6.5 game lead over the Devil Rays. If you look at what the standings 'should' look like, via pythagorean run expectancy,** the Sox and Yankees are overperforming by two games while the Devil Rays have been 'unlucky' to the tune of three games. In other words, in the world of statheads, the Sox 'should' have a 1.5 game lead on the Rays. Based on the Sox (actual) winning percentage of 0.614, you'd extrapolate out to a 99.5 win season, which would be damn good. For a slightly more historical take on where the Sox are going, this site offers a method of analysis that predicts 96 wins for the Sox, with a standard deviation of 5 games (if you follow the link you won't find that prediction, but following his formula that is what you get).

The Sox of '09 are looking remarkably like the post-season version of the '08 Sox . The starting pitching is good, anchored by Beckett with solid-and-sometimes-brilliance from Lester. Wakefield does what he always does, sometimes getting shelled, sometimes going 8 innings of 1 run ball. Penny has been more durable than expected, and Smoltz appears to be getting better. Buchholz has been waiting in the wings all season, and get his first ML start of the season tomorrow. So yes, the Sox currently have 6 starting pitchers on their roster (don't expect it to stay that way -- Buccholz probably gets sent down after his start, regardless of how he pitches).

The hitting goes through some frustrating spurts of non-production, but at the end of the day, the Sox are third in runs scored in the AL, so the lineup is doing its job. Papi has risen from the dead, SS is still an offensive hole, and Lowell can't stay on the field. I'd say this is the biggest area of concern for the team, because no one wants a redux of last years ALCS lineup, which had way too much of Mark Kotsay in it. The return of Jed Lowrie helps this out a little bit, as he can play third if Lowell can't go (or if Papi can't play, then Baldelli or Lowell work as DH), but Jed Lowrie is not carrying you through the playoffs (as we saw last year).

Anyway, I'm feeling pretty confident in this team's chances. Unless the Yankees get Halladay, I think the division will again come down to the Rays and the Sox -- the Yankees just don't have nearly enough pitching, either in their starting rotation or in the 'pen to effectively compete. The Sox have zero games remaining on the West Coast, while the Yanks have 13. Of the three teams, the Sox also play the easiest remaining schedule, with opponents of a 0.505 winning percentage (0.515 for the Yanks, 0.522 for the Rays). Even if they don't take the division, it is hard to see the Rangers or the White Sox or anyone else who's not from the AL East taking the wild card -- indeed, Baseball Prospectus puts the Sox chances of making the playoffs at 82%.

Go Sox!

** Expected won-loss record based on runs scored and runs allowed, using this formula: RS^1.82/((RS^1.82)+(RA^1.82))

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Smoke if you got 'em

Not sure how I missed this, although I was outta the country at the time:
Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, along with co-sponsors Ron Paul (R-TX); Maurice Hinchey (D-NY); Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA); and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), will reintroduce legislation today to limit the federal government’s authority to arrest and prosecute minor marijuana offenders.

The measure, entitled an “Act to Remove Federal Penalties for Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults,” would eliminate federal penalties for the personal possession of up to 100 grams (over three and one-half ounces) of cannabis and for the not-for-profit transfer of up to one ounce of pot – making the prosecutions of these offenses strictly a state matter.

I would put the chances of this going anywhere at "1 over a very large number" but hey, it's the effort that counts, right?

Massachusetts decriminalized the possession of marijuana last year (not that it is completely legal, but the penalty is now only a small citation, not jail time). But it is still highly illegal to sell the stuff, and probably to grow it too, so something is out-of-line in the commonwealth.

I would really enjoy seeing states-rights conservatives twist themselves into pretzels explaining how this is a bill that can't be passed because... um, well, it just can't.

Monday, July 13, 2009

LOL manuscripts

Came across this passage in Sarah Vowell's latest effort about New England Puritans, The Wordy Shipmates, which reminded me of some of yesterday's posts:
Protestantism's evolution away from hierarchy and authority has enormous consequences for America and the world. On the one hand, the democritization of religion runs parallel to political democritization. The king of England, questioning the pope, inspires English subjects to question the king and his Anglican bishops. Such dissent is backed up by a Bible full of handy Scripture arguing for arguing with one's king. This is the root of self-government in the English-speaking world.

On the other hand, Protestantism's shedding away of authority, as evidenced by my mother's proclamation that I needn't go to church or listen to a preacher to achieve salvation, inspires self-reliance -- along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy -- namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It's why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol' boy who's fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid off or killed.


For whatever reason, Tim Wakefield has long been my favorite Red Sox player. Actually, strike that, it makes a lot of sense -- he's been a Red Sox for almost as long as I've been a fan. He'll hopefully appear in the All Star game tomorrow night, and today the Globe ran a nice story about him. I'll never forget his call-up with the Sox in 1995; as Wikipedia notes, "He began the season with a 1.65 ERA and a 14-1 record through 17 games - 6 of which were complete games."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hey, they are the 100 best & brightest, right?

A Newsweek story reporting that AG Eric Holder might appoint a special prosecutor to look at Bush-era war crimes opines:
Such a decision would roil the country, would likely plunge Washington into a new round of partisan warfare, and could even imperil Obama's domestic priorities, including health care and energy reform.

I think this is totally wrong. First, we've already achieved essentially-maximal partisan warfare, whereby Republicans vote in lock-step against whatever the Democrats try to do. And it is not like the various apparatachiks (no, I can't spell that) to the two parties behave civilly when appearing on TV and radio. So how in the hell would this imperil any of Obama's priorities? Sure, Hannity will have something new to bitch about, but it is not like the inability of the news media to cover more than one story at a time will prevent the US Congress from putting legislation through the sausage grinder.

I suppose one could argue that this could be damaging to Obama's priorities if there's a vast anti-Obama backlash should the AG appoint a prosecutor, which would then give some 'centrist' Senators cover to vote against Obama... BUT they already do that! There are plenty of 'centrists' who are going to require a lot of cajoling (read: legal bribing) before they get on board with various pieces of legislation. And there are plenty of Republican Senators from states Obama carried who haven't even attempted to move left after '08 (e.g. North Carolina, Indiana, Maine). So while the newsmedia may be derailed in their ability to spout uninformed opinions on health care because they are too busy spouting uninformed opinions on Bush's war crimes, I think the Senate is more than capable of multi-tasking and screwing up many pieces of legislation no matter what the AG is doing.

History Lesson

Judge Smails provides some important historical background. To this I'll only add what The Votemaster often says: in politics, a week is a long time.

You wrote:
Honestly, I don't think the identity of the Republican nominee matters a whit -- the election will be 100% a referendum on Obama. If we have been attacked by terrorists, he loses. If we haven't been attacked by terrorists and the economy is still in the shitter, he loses. Otherwise, he wins.

I agree, in general, with the first sentence --- an incumbent Presidential election is usually a referendum on his policies (1996 might be an exception). The second sentence, however, strikes me as a bit off-center, for two reasons:

(1) I think a terrorist attack --- especially one that happens soon (say, in the next 6-12 months) --- would not hurt the Democrats as much as is popularly perceived. My guess would be that another major terrorist attack would demolish what's left of the civil libertarian element in America, on both left and right, rather than demolish the Obama coalition. Besides, he's already strongly in the right-wing of the Democratic party on the issue, and he can't be that far from the center of the Republican party. (I know it hurts liberal ears to hear/say that, but rendition/indefinite dention/state secrets/military tribunals/enhanced interrogation,etc.) That may or may not be bad for America (I would say it is), but I'm pretty sure it's not a disaster for Obama's electoral colation.

(2) More importantly, events matter. Presidential elections are hugely contingent, and 4 years is a lifetime in politics. I would say that the 2008 election was a massive historical exception, in the sense that it truly felt like a rematch of the same two basic coalitions from 2004, with changes in public opinion but few intervening events. Go back beyond that, and I can't find an election in my lifetime (except perhaps 1988) that wasn't strongly structured by events that were impossible to see during the first-year of the previous term (where we are now).

1980 election: In summer 1977, the Afghanistan invasion and the Iranian revolution / hostage crisis had not yet happened, nor had the stagflation hit its peak yet.

1984 election: In summer 1981, the economy was still getting worse. The recovery and boom of 1983/1984 were not particularly expected. Nor was the massive re-opening of the arms race.

1988 election: In summer 1985, the crack (non-)epidemic had yet to explode. Same with Challenger. And Iran-Contra. And the Reagan-Congress deals on immigration and tax reform.

1992 election: In summer 1989, the fall of the Soviet union had not happened, Germany was not reunified, we hadn't fought a war in the Middle East, and there was no recession on the horizon.

1996 election: In summer 1993, health care was going to pass, the Democrats would always control Congress, and who the hell thought anyone would ever shut down the government?

2000 election: I never thought in summer 1997 I would see a President impeached in my lifetime.

2004 election: Remember what a big deal Bush's stem cell speech was in August 2001? People were actually talking about that like it would affect the 2004 election.

Anyway, my point is not to take on the underlying structure you present: the public perception of the President's handling of the economy, as you point to, is a basically contigent event taht will always be an important factor. Same with the incumbent President's perceived ability to defend the nation and pass his highest-priority policies. But my guess is that at least a few of the main issues of the 2012 election are things we have yet to ponder seriously as possible election issues.

I mean, who cares about terrorism and the economy if Pakistan and India start a nuclear war that results in Chinese imperalist invasions in South Asia? And if that sounds far-fetched, go reread the list above.

Gosh it's hot

Back from NY. Judge Smails continues the climate discussion:
Let me press you on your central point: What percentage of your personal salary would you be willing to give up to ensure that none of these three things happened? I'm not willing to cut every American's standard of living by 80% to save New Orleans, and I doubt you are either. So there's clearly a number.

That is, after all, the question we're asking here. I don't disagree that it's tough to price these things, but I do agree with Manzi that at some price point it becomes no worth it to save the polar bears.

Of course, you correctly point out that there's a brick wall at the end of all this, because of course we can't really price out human extinction. But that again goes to Manzi's point: human extinction due to climate change isn't necessarily coming for hundreds of years. What proportion of your personal wealth are you willing to fork over now such that your great-great-great-great-grandkids may survive? The answer isn't obvious to me, but I know it's not 80% (or whatever).

But here's the problem... we're not talking anything close to 80% (I know the Judge is just throwing out an extreme number). And if everyone had to give up, say, 10% of their salary, then prices for things would drop, and probably more importantly, we wouldn't feel poorer, because one's relative place in the economic ladder wouldn't change. Certainly one can argue about how much various countries are sacrificing, but right now we're the world's worst offenders, so it seems silly to suggest that we do nothing now because later China and India might be worse than us.

Smails counters:
Perhaps that's right --- I don't know enough about economics to understand the deflationary aspects of massive taxation, although I suspect it's not quite the same as everyone literally burning 10% of their cash. We wouldn't be taking the money out of the system.

But surely your larger point is correct --- we're not talking 80%, because if that's what it will take, we're probably doomed. But it does raise another key question: is the amount of sacrifice required too demanding for a democratic society? That is, is it possible to put the necessary costs on the public prior to truly impending doom? You watch things like Waxman-Markey develop, and you get scared the answer is no. It's the classic problem of democracies as a form of government --- long-term planning that requires sacrifice is almost impossible.

The last point is perhaps the most crucial. But there have been points in our history where sacrifice was possible, most notably WWII. Another point could have been 9/11, but instead of saying, jeez, mucking about in the Middle East for the past 30 years to protect the oil supply isn't really paying dividends to the country as a whole, we doubled down on that policy and have sunk even more money into that shitstorm. But that wasn't the only option -- we could have, instead, used 9/11 as a stimulus to wean ourselves off Persian Gulf oil. I'll conclude with the words of Matt Yglesias, in writing about the generally-idiotic state of public debate:

My strong sense is that contrarianness reached its apogee in the 1990s when a general sense took over that politics was basically silly and that punditry should be seen as basically akin to the college debate circuit wherein the idea is to construct the most clever possible argument rather than to actually hit on the truth. When this general spirit of the times merged with the elite press’ inexplicable loathing of Al Gore you started getting really bizarre arguments being made with a straight face. People would say that one good thing about George W. Bush was that he was dimwitted, which made him understand leadership. Or that a big problem with Gore was that he was interested in public policy.

This attitude brought us thousands of Americans killed in a terrorist attack, thousands more killed in a senseless war, and eventually the collapse of the world economy. But that in turn has at least to a small extent reminded people that it actually does matter what happens and who’s right.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

If this is true, we're screwed

Um, so I'm hoping that this is an April Fool's joke, based on the March 31, 11:59pm post time. But if not, oh well, we've had a good run as a species. An example:
On January 12th 2009, the STT run (Standard Turing Test) confirmed behavior indistinguishable from that of a reasonable human being with above-average intelligence and 3.8 GPA (we're still struggling to understand that missing .2; we suspect it points to fundamental flaws in the GPA system rather than CADIE. It's also worth noting that CADIE was never shown any textbooks and reading material for the classes; she was only administered the exams. In fact, during the first morning of testing she pointed out several important theoretical flaws in particle physics and cosmology. On several occasions she asked us whether we were really sure we wanted to do this; it is unclear what exactly she meant by these questions, or even by the word 'this.')

Melting planet

On vacation in upstate NY, but Judge Smails asked my opinion on Waxman-Markey, so here goes:

I fall in with those who think that Waxman-Markey is unfortunately watered down and doesn't get us to where we need to be, but it is better than doing nothing so I grudgingly support it, and I worry about it will look like after it goes through the Senate.

My problem with Manzi is that the economic argument is not the right way to talk about climate change. As Nate Silver pointed out, you can eliminate millions upon millions of people and only have a 5% drop in GDP, if you just take out poor countries. What is the value of having polar bears on the planet? Or any of the thousands of other species that could be wiped out if the climate were to change? Or abandoning New Orleans completely if sea levels keep rising? To me, Manzi is simply being a contrarian while ignoring the dire state that the planet is currently in:

Further, I get the point that indefinite accumulations of CO2 in the atmosphere will eventually become very damaging.

This statement is far too blase. We're already in the curve of the hockey stick and things will only accelerate. This is not an issue of "eventually." You can't price inhabitable conditions on the one planet we have. Sure, you can do the cost-benefit analysis about various means to an end -- for example, figuring out that ethanol from corn is actually a horrible way of trying to make alternative energy. But to come to the conclusion that we should do nothing is just idiotic.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ice Queen Resignith

Well, now we won't have Sarah Palin to kick around any more. For the various reasons volleyed about for why she is resigning, I'm inclined to just go with the 'bat shit crazy' as a satisfactory explanation. And, of course, a good chunk of the commentary has been focused on 2012. Honestly, I don't think the identity of the Republican nominee matters a whit -- the election will be 100% a referendum on Obama. If we have been attacked by terrorists, he loses. If we haven't been attacked by terrorists and the economy is still in the shitter, he loses. Otherwise, he wins.*

* What if he doesn't pass health care? Honestly, I'm not sure if that is make-or-break for his administration for an election that will be held three and half years from now.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

White knight

Judge Smails comes to Kennedy's rescue (kinda):
1) Byrd [will never cast] another vote. People were more optimistic with Kennedy in the last month, but that has faded.

2) The MA special election process can't formally begin (i.e. writs of election issued and campaign period commence) until Kennedy formally retires or dies. This ain't the Supreme Court.

3) The MA legislature could at any time, however, reinstate the governor's power to fill vacancies (stripped in '04), which would help speed things up once Kennedy plays his next card.

4) I think Capuano would make a great Senator, although it's not obvious to me he's a great statewide candidate.

Obviously the Blago incident was a lesson in why it might be bad to give a governor sole discretion in appointing a Senator. But going without one for a length of time ain't great either. Wyoming (I think) had a system where the party of the out-going guy would give a list of three names to the governor and he'd pick one.

Oh, WV has a Democratic governor who can just appoint the successor, so Byrd's seat is a non-issue.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Get over yourself

Now that Al Franken can finally be seated, the Democrats number 58, plus Sanders and Lieberman, independents who caucus with them, giving them the "magical" 60. As many have pointed out, though, it is not as if this means everything progressive folks want is going to now breeze through the Senate. There are plenty of Senators who are going to be a pain in the ass -- I'm looking at you, Nelson -- and depending on the issue, it will be a different coalition of Senators who will be a pain in the ass in the name of "centrism" (i.e. pissing everyone off). Cap and trade, for example, will probably have no problem getting Collins and Snowe from Maine on-board, as least relative to, say, Landrieu. But anyway, a lot of this has been said.

Of course, you cannot vote for a bill if you aren't there, so Ted Kennedy needs to get over himself and his legacy and just frickin' retire. If he were to drop dead tomorrow, it could take months before a replacement arrives, and that is just one more vote that Reid needs to scrounge up, one more Senator who gets to extract his or her pound of flesh from a piece of legislation before it gets through. Kennedy already pissed me off when he suggested, upon his diagnosis, that he really wants his wife to have his Senate seat, as if we live in 17th century Europe and the masses should just accept this decree. Massachusetts has plenty of able-bodied, progressive people in it with legislative experience who would be more than adequate to fill the role (Capuano, perhaps?). So instead of setting ourselves up for the inevitable period when Massachusetts is only represented by a single Senator (you think Kerry is unsufferable now, wait until he's the senior Senator from Massachusetts), Kennedy should take one for the team, announce he's leaving the Senate, and allow the Commonwealth to find a replacement while he continues to serve.

But of course that won't happen, because Kennedy is much more interested in what's best for Kennedy than what's best for Massachusetts.

P.S. The same could probably be said for Robert Byrd, who's 91 and in and out of the hospital, but there's a 100% chance that Kennedy's replacement would be a reliable Democrat, but I have no idea what West Virginia would send.