hard heads soft hearts

a scratch pad for half-formed thoughts by a liberal political junkie who's nobody special. ''Hard Heads, Soft Hearts'' is the title of a book by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, and tends to be a favorite motto of neoliberals, especially liberal economists.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011
Gary Farber post on Afghanistan

Has any independent news/research organization done a poll of the Afghan / Pakistani people, as a whole and within each ethnic sub-group, and their views of the US presence, drone strikes, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban & terrorism & extremism?

Juan Cole on Syria and Libya

Sebastian Junger Remembers Tim Hetherington

Greg Campbell - Chris Hondros, RIP: How my best friend died in a combat zone

Glenn Greenwald - Manning's transfer, PJ Crowley & drone attacks in Pakistan

[Manning]: The point here is not to take any victory lap; none is warranted. . . But this episode should be a potent antidote to defeatism. . .P.J. Crowley: ". . .there were many, many people inside government and outside government who were working on this for some time. . ."

[Drone attacks in Pakistan] Can someone who defends these drone attacks please identify the purpose? . . . How many family members, friends, neighbors and villagers of the "five children and four women" we just killed are now consumed with new levels of anti-American hatred? . . .Isn't it obvious that the stated goal of all of this – to reduce the threat of Terrorism – is subverted rather than promoted by these actions? . . .

Nancy Goldstein - Getting Away with Murder on Long Island

Digby - Commander In Chief Politics

There was a good comment on the Ashlee Vance tech-bubble article pointing out that the ad-based business models are subsidizing the free Internet, which is important and beneficial. I guess my only problem with online ads is when they sell really dodgy and misleading mortgage and online education products. Felix Salmon said somewhere that when it comes to online education, the more you pay, the worse the quality, e.g. the Khan academy, used by, among others, Bill Gates's children, is free.

Krugman - OECD data on taxes as % of GDP

Doesn't the Trump birtherism sort of illustrate the dangers of too much reverence for markets? i.e. "There's a big market for Obama being a foreigner, so that's what he has to be".

A Bit Of Fry and Laurie - Bank Loan

Instapundit - Design Your Home With Google

Couple builds eco-friendly home like no other using free program. . .Using Google Sketchup, a 3D modeling program usually used by architects, engineers and other design professionals – not homeowners – the couple drew the plans for their home . . .

2 Knox news comments:

". . .thank you for bringing SketchUp to the attention of people. This is truly one of the Jewels of the Internet that remains hidden. AND IT'S FREE. Anyone with a computer should have this, especially if you have children. . .I do not work for or have any affiliation with Google. Other than, I love this software...."

"Is there a Google app for landscaping?"

Dorothy L Sayers - The Man Born to Be King (1941)

. . .It seems that wherever there is a suffering God, there is an end of tragic futility, and a trans valuation of all values. . .the disciples of Jesus, plunged into cowardice and despondency by the human tragedy of the Crucifixion, needed only to be convinced by the Resurrection that that which had suffered and died was in actual historical fact the true Being of all things, to recover their courage and spirits in a manner quite unparalleled, and to proclaim the Divine Comedy loudly and cheerfully, with the utmost disregard for their own safety. Why and how the suffering of God should have this exhilarating effect upon the human spirit is a question for Atonement theology; that it had this effect on those who believed in it is plain. . .

J.R.R. Tolkien - On Fairy Stories (1938)

. . .in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Sunday, April 17, 2011
David E. Coombs - Brig Fails to Follow Its Own Rules

Over the past few weeks, the defense has been working to facilitate an official visit for Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Mr. Juan Mendez (the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture), and a representative from Amnesty International. Despite multiple inquires from the defense and the interested parties, the Quantico Brig and the Government have denied the requests for an "official visit." . . .

from a comment:

I am just shocked that the Army has the power to deny an elected representative. Congressman Kucinich, like Amnesty International and the UN just want a clearer picture of whats going on and by denying them [official] access, Quantico seems to have a lot to hide. . .

Glenn Greenwald - Manning, Obama and U.S. moral leadership

The Guardian reports:

"A senior United Nations representative on torture, Juan Mendez, issued a rare reprimand to the US government on Monday for failing to allow him to meet in private Bradley Manning, the American soldier held in a military prison accused of being the WikiLeaks source. It is the kind of censure that the UN normally reserves for authoritarian regimes around the world . . .

. . .Mendez pointed out that his mandate was to conduct unmonitored visits, and that had been the practice in at least 18 countries over the last six years.

Since December 2010, I have been engaging the US government on visiting Mr Manning, at the invitation of his counsel, to determine his condition," Mendez said. "Unfortunately, the US government has not been receptive to a confidential meeting with Mr Manning.". . .

Bob Park on Fukushima


On Tuesday Japan raised the severity rating of the Fukushima nuclear crisis to 7, putting it on a par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Although Japan is releasing few details, you can safely conclude that radiation is really bad; beyond that you're on your own. . .

The report relies on the linear-no-threshold model to estimate the risk from multiple exposures at much lower levels, such as airliner crews. This is not only wrong, they know it's wrong. A DNA repair process is constantly at work in human cells repairing DNA damage from sources of ionizing radiation, including UV light and cosmic radiation. There is not much choice but to ignore the repair process and assume a linear model which greatly overstates the risk from multiple exposures. . .

Is is still true that the radiation from Fukushima is less than from eating Brazil nuts, or is that no longer true?

Gary Farber & Eric Martin at Obsidian Wings have some anti-intervention posts on Libya worth reading, in addition to Juan Cole.

Leader’s Arrest in Ivory Coast Ends Standoff

The picture of Gbagbo reminded me of Orwell's Revenge is Sour essay

Ashlee Vance - This Tech Bubble Is Different

[Hammerbacher] "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," he says. "That sucks." . . ."If instead of pointing their incredible infrastructure at making people click on ads," he likes to ask, "they pointed it at great unsolved problems in science, how would the world be different today?"

Robert Root-Bernstein - The Art of Scientific and Technological Innovations (via Andrew Sullivan)

. . .In medicine, the stitches that permit a surgeon to correct an aneurysm or carry out a heart transplant were invented by American Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel, who took his knowledge of lace making into the operating room . . .

Rob Cunningham - A tragic accident at Yale

A young woman was killed yesterday at Yale University in a machine shop accident. She was a senior with only several weeks until graduation.

This hits me close to home in two ways.
First- My oldest son and my daughter are both college seniors. . .

. . .Secondly- I work in the machine shop of a local college. We support the five science departments. For the most part, my co-worker and I do all the work. There have been occasions where a student will show an interest in machining and we will work with them, always stressing safety. .

. . .My thought and prayers go out to the family, faculty and students.

msnbc article

. . .Dufault was from Scituate, Massachusetts, and was graduating in a month, said her grandfather Robert Dufault. She studied constantly and loved sports, he said.

"She was a living saint," the grandfather said. "She was a good, smart girl."

An uncle called her brilliant.

"She's a wonderful, wonderful kid and that should be celebrated. There's nothing but good things to say about her," said Frederick Dufault, of Holliston, Massachusetts.

Dufault intended to work in oceanography after graduating and played saxophone in the Yale Band, Levin said.

Felix Salmon - US taxation datapoints of the day

The dean of tax reporters, David Cay Johnston, has a fantastic cover story in the Willamette Week . . .

. . .•John Paulson has paid no taxes at all on the $9 billion of income that he made in 2008 and 2009.

•Frank and Jamie McCourt, the owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers, have not paid any income taxes since at least 2004.

•Between 2000 and 2008, corporate profits rose by 12% while corporate income taxes fell by 8%. Without any change in the corporate income-tax rate. . .

Andrew Sullivan - Tax Brackets 101

. . .the top 400 taxpayers, with the highest adjusted gross income, paid an effective tax rate of 17% in 2008; the top 1% of all taxpayers paid an effective tax rate of 23% in 2008 (IRS figures from Bloomberg's Businessweek April 11-17, 2011 edition, page 45). . .

Our complicated tax system seems designed to make taxes seem high, while actually being very low. . .

I'm actually in favor of the bulk of revenue being raised with a flat payroll/income/VAT tax, with a small amount of revenue coming from a progressive wealth tax. It seems to me that flatness and even regressivity hurt the poor much less than programs which you can't rely on, because the rules keep changing.

And it's important IMO to tax wage and inflation-adjusted investment income at the same rate, because otherwise elites come up with all sorts of ways to reclassify their income as investment income, rather than wage income.

One of the first things the Bush administration did after taking office was to shut down investigations into Cayman Islands tax avoidance. Genuinely surprised me, that one did.

Brad Delong - Neoliberalism Agonistes

Mike Kimel: ". . .ever notice how countries that adopt policies favored by right wing or libertarian think-tanks tend to have a few very successful years (with much crowing by those think tanks) followed by disaster? Be it Japan, Argentina, Russia, much of Eastern Europe, Ireland, Iceland, etc., it does seem that there's a pattern. Heck, that pattern even applies to the US. I think even some of the promoters of those policies are starting to see that pattern. Its to the point where a lot of folks in those circles are trying to convince the public that Singapore, a country where the government's role in the economy is larger and more intrusive than in most other countries, is an example of a libertarian paradise. . ."

Question for economists: There's obviously no agreement among economists on fiscal and monetary stimulus. But is there agreement on what potential output is? Do conservatives agree with liberals that actual output is below potential output, and that therefore we are in some sense leaving money on the table? Or do conservatives believe that whatever is, is by definition potential output?

intend to read over the next few weeks:

William J. Baumol, Robert E. Litan & Carl J. Schramm - Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth and Prosperity (2007)

Saturday, April 09, 2011
Arthur Silber - Many, Many Thanks

. . .I'll be all right in terms of basic living expenses for the next several months. That is a very great relief indeed. Given my concerns about my "recovery" from the latest heart episode (and related problems), I'll see if I can get at least some small amount of medical care. I might be able to manage one visit to a doctor of my choosing (as opposed to a free medical clinic, which can't offer the kind of assistance I need at this point based on the inquiries I've made). But since I have no insurance, the cost of even basic tests is significant, so I'm not sure how much good that might do. I'll make some further calls, though, and see what's possible. . .

2 recent bits from Bob Park's weekly column:

[April 1, 2011]
. . .I have repeatedly urged that a tuft of "platinum wool" always be attached at the high points of nuclear containment buildings where hydrogen bubbles would be expected to collect. The platinum would catalyze the oxidation of hydrogen back to water before the mixture reaches an explosive level. The one-time cost would be trivial. . .

[March 18, 2011]

Maxwells equations were published 150 years ago this month in Philosophical Magazine. This week they are honored in a Nature editorial as a "bold unifying leap." When first exposed to Maxwells equations as a student I considered giving up physics. Not because I couldn't understand Maxwells equations, but because I realized that I could never compete on that level. But I soon realized that there was only one Maxwell. . .

Juan Cole - Hundreds of Thousands of Arabs Protest their Governments

. . .In Libya, the see-saw fighting continued. The forces loyal to the Transitional National Council beat off an attack from the east on the western city of Misrata by forces loyal to dictator Muammar Qaddafi. NATO destroyed an arms depot under the control of the Tripoli government near the rebellious city of Zintan southwest of Tripoli. Aljazeera Arabic is reporting continued fighting at Brega and Ajdabiya. . .

Venance Konan - In Ivory Coast, Democrat to Dictator

. . .How did the man who was once seen as the father of Ivorian democracy turn to tyranny? Was it the corruption of power? The intoxication of going from having nothing to everything all at once? Only a year before he was elected president, in 1999, I remember him denouncing Slobodan Milosevic, saying: “What does Milosevic think he can do with the whole world against him? When everyone in the village sees a white loincloth, if you are the only person to see it as black, then you are the one who has a problem.” But in the space of 10 years, he became deluded by power, a leader whose only ambitions were to build palaces and drive luxurious cars. . .

. . .The fear of losing everything can make a dictator, even one who once was a champion of democracy, lose his mind. . .

2 old, but timely, cartoons from R.K. Laxman:

[Bold, serious & courageous politician instructing peon who's drawing a wall-chart showing success, prosperity, etc.]

"Further up. Up, a little to the right and up - that's it! - And now let us set about achieving it!"

[Politician dealing with hostage-takers]

"I refuse! The demands are unreasonable, illegal and unfair! We will not yield for another four or five days!"

Harold Pollack - An Infected Toe, and A Few Comments on Representative Ryan's Medicaid Cuts

. . .my wife's parents cared for Vincent in their family home for 38 years, literally to the day my mother-in-law died. If it weren't for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security's "disabled adult child" program, Vincent might well be languishing in the back ward of some forbidding public institution. . .

. . .Social insurance protects each of us against burdens that would crush any one of us, if we had to face this alone. That's the spirit that animated Social Security at its enactment. The same spirit animated the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid. . .

. . .we just don't need to do this. Painful Medicaid cuts might be justified if expenditures were going through the roof, but they aren’t. . . .Person-for-person, Medicaid is probably the leanest program in the American healthcare system. . .

When Paul Ryan said his top priority was making sure able-bodied people don't become complacent. . .How do you get from there to his actual budget, which cuts Medicaid in order to lower the inheritance tax?

I guess this has clarified for me that what GOP elites, and therefore GOP leaders, really, really care about, besides pissing off Atrios, is the inheritance tax. The rest of the Bush tax cuts were really just loss-leaders to make the estate tax repeal palatable, and the projected Medicare cuts starting from 2022 (which will never happen) are an attempt to justify the estate tax repeal in the coming decade as fiscally responsible.

Well, if our GOP (and non-GOP) elites really, really want the estate tax repeal, I don't have too much of a problem giving it to them, but they should have to give something real in return: a progressive wealth tax linked to the unemployment rate, and investment income, adjusted for inflation, and then taxed at the same rate as wage income.

Dean Baker and James Fallows, among many others, were good on the Ryan plan. Matt Yglesias and Paul Krugman made the important point that the Ryan proposals, even with the Medicaid & Medicare cuts, increase the deficit.

Chris Hayes in his twitter feed noted that one of Boehner's cuts was to make sure that no new IRS agents were hired, confirming, once again, that this is not about the deficit. I wonder if there would be any bipartisan support for making violations of tax law only a civil, and not a criminal, offense? Liberals might like it because it might be part of a broader movement to prioritize violent over non-violent (i.e. drug) crime, conservatives might like it because they no longer have to worry about overly creative tax avoidance leading to loss of freedom, merely loss of money?

Christina D. Romer - Jobless Rate Is Not the New Normal

Felix Salmon - How the pros see the fixed-income market

. . .Dan Fuss coming up with a very interesting macroeconomic point. Right now, he said, about 56% of Americans over the age of 16 are gainfully employed. If that percentage were to rise to 64%, Fuss reckons, then the budget deficit disappears entirely. We’re not going to get there. But theoretically it’s possible, if the unemployment rate comes down and if people retire later, as is happening in Japan. And more generally it’s an important reminder that unemployment is a fiscal issue, and that anybody who wants to take the budget deficit seriously should put a lot of effort into increasing the number of Americans with jobs. . .

Brad Delong - Thoughts on Economics Education in America

I think the #1 thing that I should have learned in econ courses, but didn't, is that an open system is different than a closed system. I learned it only when I read Krugman's 1996 HBR piece, "A Country Is Not a Company":

College students who plan to go into business often major in economics, but few believe that they will end up using what they hear in the lecture hall. Those students understand a fundamental truth: What they learn in economics courses won't help them run a business.

The converse is also true . . .

. . .The fundamental difference between business strategy and economic analysis is this: Even the largest business is a very open system. Despite growing world trade, the U.S. economy is largely a closed system. Businesspeople are not used to thinking about closed systems. Economists are.

Let me offer some noneconomic examples to illustrate the difference between closed and open systems. . .

.. . .In the open-system world of business, feedbacks are often weak and almost always uncertain. In the closed-system world of economics, feedbacks are often very strong and very certain. But that is not the whole difference. The feedbacks in the business world are often positive; those in the world of economic policy are usually, though not always, negative. . .

. . .In a society that respects business success, political leaders will inevitably -- and rightly -- seek the advice of business leaders on many issues, particularly those that involve money. All we can ask is that both the advisers and the advisees have a proper sense of what business success does and does not teach about economic policy. . .

The example which struck me was the commuter garage. Any one commuter can assure themselves of a spot by foregoing the nightcap, tightening their belt, getting up very early, etc. But if a political leader sternly lectures his commuter-citizens that "We need to deal with this parking shortage by all tightening our belts & getting up an hour earlier", it's not going to work. Yet, amazingly, that's where American politics is at the moment.

One of Richard Feynman's letters, answering a question from a school physics teacher, hinges on this confusion between an open system and a closed system:

Richard P. Feynman to Armando Garcia J., December 11, 1985

One more letter from Feynman's collection:

V.A. Van Der Hyde to Richard P. Feynman, July 3, 1986

. . .First off, I have this 16 year old son, step-son really, that is fairly bright. No genius, you understand, but a lot smarter than I am in math and such. Like everybody else he is trying to figure out what life is all about. What he doesn't know yet is that nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and that it doesn't matter. What matters is getting on with living. . .

. . .Now, I don't want to be a pushy parent. Whatever he wants to do is fine with me. . .All I want is that he do whatever it is that he wants to do to the best of his ability. It's almost a matter of honor in a way. If you can do something well, you have some sort of obligation to yourself to do it the best you can. I'm afraid that's a concept not thought highly of in a lot of circles, now or ever, but how can an intelligent person live with themselves if they aren't doing something they love to the best of their ability?. . .

. . .Just knowing that somebody "out there" understands and cares a little can make a big difference sometimes. It helps keep the wings straight and the nose up. Thanks.

Vincent A. Van Der Hyde

Richard P. Feynman to Vincent A. Van Der Hyde, July 21, 1986

Dear Mr. Van Der Hyde,

You ask me to write on what I think about life, etc. as if I had some wisdom. Maybe, by accident, I do - of course I don't know - all I know is I have opinions.

As I began to read your letter I said to myself - "here is a very wise man." Of course, it was because you expressed opinions just like my own. Such as "what he doesn't know yet is is that nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and that it doesn't matter." "Whatever he wants to do is fine with me" - provided "he does it to the best of his ability." (You go on to speak of some sort of obligation to yourself, etc., but I differ a little - I think it is simply the only way to get true deep happiness - not an obligation - "to do something you love to the best of your ability.")

. . .Even in my crazy book I didn't emphasize - but it is true - that I worked as hards as I could at drawing, at deciphering Mayan, at drumming, at cracking safes, etc. The real fun of life is this perpetual testing to realize how far out you can go with any potentialities. . .

. . .To answer your questions in your last paragraph more explicitly.

Q: What do you have to do to train yourself to be whatever it is you want to be?

A: There are many roads all different that have been taken by many different scientists. The road I took is the one your son takes - work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do best. Try to keep the other grades from going zero if you can. Don't think of what "you want to be" but what you "want to do". Luckily he knows that already, so let him do it. (But keep up some kind of minimum with other things so that society doesn't stop you from doing anything at all.) . . .

. . .Stop worrying, Papa. Your kid is wonderful. Yours from another Papa of another wonderful kid.

Richard P. Feynman

Saturday, April 02, 2011
Arthur Silber - Once Upon A Time. . .

rough week. Japan, Libya, The Ivory Coast. No idea what the appropriate response is, policy or otherwise, to the civil war in the Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast

Johann Hari - The biggest lie in British politics (via Stephen Fry)

. . .Here’s the lie. We are in a debt crisis. Our national debt is dangerously and historically high. We are being threatened by the international bond markets. The way out is to eradicate our deficit rapidly. Only that will restore “confidence”, and therefore economic growth. Every step of this program is false, and endangers you.

Let’s start with a fact that should be on billboards across the land. As a proportion of GDP, Britain’s national debt has been higher than it is now for 200 of the past 250 years. Read that sentence again. Check it on any graph by any historian. Since 1750, there have only been two brief 30-year periods when our debt has been lower than it is now. So we can afford to run a deficit, if that has a positive effect – which we’ll get to in a minute. If we are “bust” today, as George Osborne has claimed, then we have almost always been bust. We were bust when we pioneered the Industrial Revolution. We were bust when we ruled a quarter of the world. We were bust when we beat the Nazis. We were bust when we built the NHS. . .

Our debt is not high by historical standards, and it is not high by international standards. For example, Japan’s national debt is three times bigger than ours, and they are still borrowing at good rates. . .

. . .Here’s what we learned during the Great Depression, when our view of economics was revolutionized by John Maynard Keynes. In a recession, private individuals like you and me, perfectly sensibly, cut back our spending. We go out less, we buy less, we save more. This causes a huge fall in private demand, and with it a huge fall in economic activity. If, at the very same time, the government cuts back, then overall demand collapses, and a recession becomes a depression. . .

. . .Look at the last Great Depression. The Great Crash of 1929 was followed by a US President, Herbert Hoover, who did everything Cameron demands. He cut spending and paid off the debt. The recession grew and grew. Then Franklin Roosevelt was elected and listened to Keynes. He ramped up spending – and unemployment fell, and the economy swelled. Then in 1936 he started listening to the Cameron debt-shriekers of his day. The result? The economy collapsed again. It was only the gigantic spending of the Second World War that finally ended it. . .

Glenn Harlan Reynolds - WSJ review of Michio Kaku's "Physics of the Future."

. . .Mr. Kaku recounts a lunchtime conversation with physicist Freeman Dyson at Princeton. Mr. Dyson described growing up in the late days of the British Empire and seeing that most of his smartest classmates were not—as prior generations had been—interested in developing new forms of electrical and chemical plants, but rather in massaging and managing other people's money. The result was a loss of England's science and engineering base.

Now, Mr. Dyson said, he was seeing the phenomenon for the second time in his life, in America. . ."

I think however it's important to guard against the view of math & science as something excessively noble and praiseworthy. While some math & science has practical applications, a lot of it doesn't: it's merely fun, done for the the pleasure of finding things out.

But don't tell this to Tiger-Mom, ere math & art & music be replaced by grim treatises on monetizing site-stickiness.

It's fine to peek into Gandhi's secrets & weirdness, but it's important not to forget his real importance. Can you imagine a political or religious or community leader, witnessing city-wide rioting and tribal warfare, go on an indefinite food & water strike until the rioting stopped, and the tribal leaders had agreed to try and make peace? And can you imagine it working (after 21 days and a near-death experience)?

The issue is not whether Gandhi was a ridiculous, foolish, contemptible little weirdo. Of course, he was, at least at certain times and on certain issues. The issue is how a fallible human being like Gandhi could have found the strength to do what he did?

G.K. Chesterton - The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922)

[Homer March] " . . .The Chancellor is in the pocket of the money lenders and has to do as he is told; otherwise he's bankrupt, and a bad sort of bankruptcy, too, with nothing but cards and actresses behind it. The Prime Minister was in the petrol-contract business; and deep in it, too. The Foreign Minister is a wreck of drink and drugs. . .

"I quite agree with you," said Fisher, calmly. "You are perfectly right."

"If you agree with us, why the devil don't you act with us?" demanded his friend.

" . . .I am enjoying an emotion that is entirely new to me; a happy sensation I never remember having had before."

"What the devil do you mean?"

"I am feeling proud of my family," said Horne Fisher. . ."I have the honor to remark, I am proud of my family at last."

"But why?" repeated March, rather feebly.

"I am proud of the Chancellor because he gambled and the Foreign Minister because he drank and the Prime Minister because he took a commission on a contract," said Fisher, firmly. "I am proud of them because they did these things, and can be denounced for them, and know they can be denounced for them, and are standing firm for all that. I take off my hat to them because they are defying blackmail, and refusing to smash their country to save themselves. . ."