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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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

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