Wednesday, October 31, 2007


R.I.P. Robert Goulet.

Tax reform done right

From Scrappleface (via Greg Mankiw):
The GOP measure would repeal the AMT, and make up for the $65 billion in lost tax payments by levying a 4.6 percent surcharge on Americans who download alternative rock music through iTunes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi immediately condemned the Republican proposal because, she said, “It places an unfair burden on people who already carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.”

In which the aloof and funereal economist ruins Halloween

Kevin Hassett recently published a brief article on the inefficiency of Halloween candy-giving. Putting aside the obvious juvenile weight-gaining that may be associated with such annual binging, Kevin's actually more concerned with the utility deadweight loss that comes from in-kind transfers. In other words, in fact in his own words, he would rather "Halloween donors give kids money instead of candy."
Economists haven't adopted the vainglorious practice of physicists and applied numbers to their laws, but if they did, the first law of economics would be that lump-sum transfers are more economically efficient than in-kind transfers. If you are going to give a gift to somebody, you should just give them the money. They will be a better judge of the best way to spend it.
He goes on to say:
As a conservative, I usually oppose heavy-handed regulation, but in this case, the stakes are too high. Perhaps confectioners should be required to only sell their Halloween candy in bags that mix many different types. That way, when families put the candy out for the trick-or-treaters, bowls will be filled with a wide variety of different types of candy, and each new child will be able to pick the confection that suits his or her fancy.
And from an economist at the conservative (dare i say neoconservative) American Enterprise Institute no less.

The Truth speaks

Lupe Fiasco dropping a three-and-a-half minute freestyle (a capella) in what looks like a crowded multi-purpose room at Eastern Michigan University.

I wish I knew more about the performance. There doesn't appear to be a stage (or even a DJ!). In fact, it almost looks like Lupe walked into a freshmen orientation and just grabbed the mic. Dig his peripatetic delivery as he makes sure everyone gets the full experience.

I've always felt Lupe had a spoken word origin to his style, and it's my impression that this kind of a capella performance is probably even more difficult than doing the same with a beat underneath. Given, the lack of beat allows for more flexibility in timing, but there's absolutely nothing to imply the rhythm except one's own cadence and nothing to fill in the space between lines except the audience's anticipation.

A Moral Case Against SCHIP Expansion

I seem to be on this "moral arguments" kick lately. After all, what good is evidence if an abstraction will do?

This short piece by fellow traveler Max Borders makes the following argument:
the left is attempting not only to co-opt the language of morality, but to do so with the up-is-down postmodern rhetoric that makes middle class people the "working poor" and calls coercive redistribution to them a "moral duty".
We've heard it before, and it's not really specific to SCHIP as much as it is applicable to any kind of welfare state (I think this line of reasoning goes back to at least Nozick). Unfortunately, Max's case is rather easy to refute (using the same unspecific moral language parameters he himself has set). That said, I am sympathetic to his argument but the piece is at best cute and at worst simply pedantic.

For a more humorous argument against SCHIP expanions, see this video.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the voucher

Megan McArdle (via Tyler Cowen) has an extended devil's advocate posting on the problem with school vouchers as an instrument for education reform.

Of course I was already on board that crazy ship SS Voucher before she raised the flag. In this post she attempts to pose what she sees as the most common criticisms of vouchers. And she makes overtures to the empirical evidence on the subject, but doesn't really make specific references, I think for the sake of keeping to the moral focus.

The main thread through her arguments, it seems to me however, is that opposition to vouchers boils down to a vision of the anointed public school system as a broken but perfectable system. Her point, and I would say possibly the most important one to me, is this is not the relevant comparison. The outcome of vouchers should be compared to the school system as it is, this year, for the children currently in it.

[For some empirical evidence, see here]

Friday, October 26, 2007

FEMA: we report, you decide

I don't know about all this Katrina v. Fires nonsense. I think we can agree the southern California fires have been handled better than Katrina. So congratulations to FEMA for, you know, not not doing its job.

To their credit, local officials (in San Diego County at least) were well organized from the get-go. My dad and sister, both briefly evacuated San Diego residents, seemed impressed with the coordination and communication between local officials and residents, though they were lucky enough to have family nearby to stay with and the means to get there. I'm not sure FEMA had much to do with the alleged good coordination, at least in the early stages. And the scale and scope were far less catastrophic than Katrina, not to undercut the severity of the crisis by any means.

I'm just not sure there's a lot to compare between Katrina and the fires. But don't tell that to the new FEMA! From Al Kamen's story on FEMA's 10/23 press conference:
"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" a reporter asked. Another asked about "lessons learned from Katrina."

"I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far," Johnson said, hailing "a very smoothly, very efficiently performing team."

"And so I think what you're really seeing here is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership," Johnson said, "none of which were present in Katrina." (Wasn't Michael Chertoff DHS chief then?) Very smooth, very professional. But something didn't seem right. The reporters were lobbing too many softballs. No one asked about trailers with formaldehyde for those made homeless by the fires. And the media seemed to be giving Johnson all day to wax on and on about FEMA's greatness.

Of course, that could be because the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. We're told the questions were asked by Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of external affairs, and by "Mike" Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. Director of External Affairs John "Pat" Philbin asked a question, and another came, we understand, from someone who sounds like press aide Ali Kirin.

Obviously, FEMA has turned the corner.

Biggie in wax

Via Nah Right:

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I rather like this blog post title

From international relations expert Dan Drezner, see here.

Of course the underlying point is important too.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kasparov on Bill Maher

The crazy 9/11 conspiracy theorists who disrupted Bill Maher's HBO talk show over the weekend got most of the press, for obvious reasons. But to my mind the show's best segment was Maher's interview with Garry Kasparov, greatest chess player of all time, who is now engaged in a brave campaign to challenge Vladimir Putin's grip on power in Russia. Kasparov systematically dismantles Maher's assumptions, usually before he has even completed his questions:
Bill Maher: When you look at what's going on in Russia, Putin has a very high approval rating, I mean there is something--

Garry Kasparov: How do you know? I mean are you seriously -- Are you relying on the polling results in a police state? I think that with the same tight control of media and the pervasive security force, I believe Bush and Cheney could enjoy the same approval rating here.
crossposted to What's Your Beef?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why can't Congress get anything done?

The first thing to understand is that SCHIP is supported by 80 percent of Americans. And still 154 Republicans voted against overturning Bush's veto of the bill. Seventy-six percent of House Republicans voted against a program that 80 percent of Americans supported.

Not all of these Republicans represent gerrymandered safe seats, either. To choose one district I know well, Republican Sam Graves in Missouri's 6th is facing a serious challenger for 2008 in a district that is trending Democratic. Sam Graves voted against SCHIP. Why would Sam Graves do that?

It seems to me that the political story of 2007 has been the near-absolute discipline of Republicans in Congress in refusing to break with the White House on issue after issue. But what are the implications of this?

There are a few ways to look at it:

1.) Blame the Democratic leadership for failing to persuade enough Republicans to jump ship on things like the war or this SCHIP bill. Senate Democrats don't have the votes to end Republican filibusters on anything to do with the war, and today the House couldn't override the president's SCHIP veto. What kind of politicians can't build a consensus even when the politics are clearly, overwhelmingly on their side?

2.) Credit Republicans for sticking together. It could be for honest, principled reasons, it could be a political calculation, it could be because the rigidly top-down political messaging machine built during the Rove years is still the party's main machinery. But the party's strict discipline in 2007 is the reason the occasional defection here and there has never turned into a full-fledged anti-White House revolt, on any issue. And I am including immigration, I'm even including Alberto Gonzales. The Republican Party has stuck with Bush to a remarkable degree.

3.) Congressional Republicans are leading their party over a cliff. They still think the losses in 2006 were a fluke or some kind of temporary setback, and they've become so reliant on the White House and that political machine that they don't understand that voting against children's health insurance is not exactly in a politician's long-term best interest.

Not all of these are mutually exclusive, but they are different. In comments below, Levois called the Democrats weak and said they are less popular than Republicans, which I do not think is factually correct. Still, it may indeed turn out that voters blame Democrats for not getting anything done while failing to punish Republicans for keeping anything from getting done. I don't think this is a given, though, and it certainly isn't the most outcome that makes the most sense. (Not that sense plays a huge role in politics.)

But I am pretty sure voting against SCHIP hurts individual Republicans in specific districts (like Missouri's 6th) more than failing to pass the bill hurts Democrats as a whole.

Anyway, SCHIP is not dead. Senate Democrats have the votes. House Democrats need 13 more votes, not a huge number when there are 435 people in the body. Deals will be cut, threats will be made, the bill will be brought up again closer to the election, and it will pass. A bill that is supported by 80 percent of the American public has to pass. Doesn't it?

Thursday, October 18, 2007


I literally cannot believe this. I will post some thoughts later tonight.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The question that needed to be asked

Stephen Dubner puts it to his readers.

I just saw a Land Rover commercial

featuring a song by the Flaming Lips. Does this seem odd?

My bewilderment is not of the "I thought they would never sell out, blah, blah, blah" variety, but more of the "I never thought I'd see the day when a band like the Flaming Lips would be mainstream enough to appeal to car buyers" variety.

Does this all point to a kind of convergence in rock music, where "we're all mainstream now?"

The song was "Do You Realize?"

Monday, October 15, 2007

83 days until The Wire Season Five

Sasha Frere-Jones's new project to make people angry that I mentioned before is just pointing out that the Arcade Fire are boring and indie rock is super-white. Old news!

But I was rewarded for going to the New Yorker's site with a giant 11,000-word mega-profile of future Nobel Prize recipient David Simon. "The Wire is awesome" is not a news-flash, either, but I did like this insight about the show from Simon acquaintance David Mills:
“Though people don’t talk much about the humor in ‘The Wire,’ it’s there. You drop somebody into an alien environment—a closed society like the homicide cops or the drug culture—and the key to working your way into that culture is to understand the jokes, which David does. It’s crucial, because, if it weren’t there, the work would be too depressing. It’s crushing subject matter, but not necessarily to the cops—they’re making jokes while they’re looking at dead bodies—and not to the people shooting dope, even. They’re not necessarily walking around saying, ‘Woe is me.’ There’s a grim humor that springs out of that life.”
And here, direct from Simon's own mouth, is a bit of career advice for me:
“To be a decent city reporter, I had to listen to people who were different from me,” Simon explained. “I had to not be uncomfortable asking stupid questions or being on the outside. I found I had a knack for walking into situations where I didn’t know anything, and just waiting. A lot of reporters don’t want to be the butt of jokes. But sometimes it’s useful to act as if you couldn’t find your ass with both hands.”
Act like I can't find my ass with both hands...I am writing this down...

What's the matter with Kansas (State)?

When did they get so popular I mean. Quietly they put together the best basketball recruiting class in the country.

Maybe not so quietly. First-year coach Frank Martin doesn't seem to be shackled by the spectre of Bob Huggins. Is this the Mike Davis syndrome? In other words, will this last more than a season?

Also congrats go to my friends at Georgetown for nailing down arguably number one recruit in the country.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Right Brain vs. Left Brain test

If this test is accurate, then I am completely and totally right-brained. I cannot see the dancer spinning any direction but clockwise.

Meanwhile Megan McCardle says she sees her changing directions, and Tyler Cowen's commenters have all sorts of different experiences. Not me. My brain has only one interpretation of that image. Please help! Do you see it differently? I want to know that it is possible.

UPDATE [10/14 9:59am] ... Looking at this with fresh eyes following a good night's sleep, I was able to see the dancer turning counterclockwise...for about 30 seconds. But now I can't get it back.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Someday I think I'd like to win a Nobel Peace Prize

I have posted my big ups to Al Gore and the relevant political question -- not "Will he run?" but "Who will he endorse?" -- over at What's Your Beef?, my blog at the Wausau Daily Herald.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones is mysterious about a pending jihad:
You remember last year when everybody got all mad at me? If that was--to choose a physical analogy--a rowboat, on Monday we launch the QEII. All I will say is this: listen to the podcast before you write your scathing letter.
Well I'm interested. Another anti-Radiohead screed?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Season five coming

McNulty drinking again? But I liked the sober, stable, happy McNulty of Season 4 who was not really that important a cast member.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Good life

On the concrete outside the hotel, Wausau, Wisconsin.


In the sky.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Robot band

Plays "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley on the theremin:

(Via Sasha Frere-Jones.)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"Yes and no" is not an answer

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, last seen making bold predictions that just happened to directly mirror the poll results of the day, today asks an interesting question: "Does Obama need to win Iowa?" His conclusion?
So, does Obama need to win Iowa? Yes and no.
(Original emphasis.) Great. Thanks for lending your expertise. Very prescient.

P.S. ... To be fair, Cillizza's post isn't quite as wishy-washy as I'm making it out to be: His point is that Obama can survive if Edwards wins Iowa but not if Clinton does. But I stand by my cheap shot! There's a faux-boldness to Cillizza pronouncements like "The truth is all three of the top-tier candidates need to win Iowa" that grates on me.
Young Buck said "Put me next to Kanye and he won't outsell me"? Doesn't Curtis kind of have to kick him out of G-Unit for that?
Question: How much should I volunteer to pay Radiohead for its new album? I have a steady job; is it ethical for me to just enter "£0.00" in the price field and accept the mp3s of one of my favorite rock bands for free?