Sunday, February 28

Gun rights case likely to be landmark Supreme Court ruling

LA Times:
Regardless of who prevails, the case of McDonald vs. Chicago figures to be a landmark in the history of the 2nd Amendment and its "right to keep and bear arms." It will decide whether the 2nd Amendment applies only to federal gun laws or if it can be used across the nation to strike down state and local gun restrictions.

A ruling overturning the Chicago ordinance would open the door to gun rights suits nationwide. "You will see a wave of lawsuits against state and local gun laws. This is just the first shot in a broad-based gun rights offensive,"

Thursday, February 25

Malkin award nominee

"Here is the fact: Democrats are saying they would prefer to see tens of thousands of Americans die than to see a KSM subjected to sleep-deprivation or to have his “phobias exploited.” I doubt that this reflects the values of most Americans."

Andy McCarthy, NRO


Sunday, February 21

The second time as farce

From Yglesias' comments:
Is there a word for the process whereby a political party gets so emotionally invested in defending a past mistake that they start to celebrate the mistake, and eventually transform it, willy-nilly, into a central plank of their philosophy?

R: What do you think about waterboarding a prisoner?
D: Waterboarding is torture.
R: Is not. We never torture.
D: Is so.
R: Is not, and anyway, torture might be morally justified in some cases.
D: What?! are you crazy?
R: I'm just saying, in some cases, it might be actually be necessary.
D: This is crazy. I'm taking over.
R: sulks for a year, then finally says: I’m starting to get really nervous. We can't be safe, because you refuse to torture.
D: Jesus, we're just re-establishing the Reagan standard.
R: Torture! Torture! Torture! Freedom has never been safe without torture! Torture is the centerpiece and fulcrum of all our Constitutional liberties! Give me torture, or give me death.

Personally, I think it's a losing proposition to make “torture” the centerpiece of your brand identity. But Cheney clearly disagrees.

Friday, February 19

Quote of the day

"The way to get closer to the truth is to start with the conditions under which you're wrong, not to list all the reasons you think you are right." —Tyler Cowen

Elementary, but too often forgotten

Wednesday, February 17

Deficit curbing fiscal commission: Deal or No Deal?

(cross posted at Library Grape)

As a reminder, here are charts of the fiscal mess we're headed for under current policy:

To sum up: the baseline scenario has discretionary spending gradually reducing, Social Security remaining about constant, and existing medical entitlements alone ballooning to an absurd 13% of GDP by 2050.

Well before then, near 2025 total debt will cross 100% of annual GDP, the ugly situation Greece finds itself in today that's been trashing the euro in recent trading.

Rather than candidly floating specific, politically perilous proposals such as a liberal analogue to Republican Paul Ryan's proposed budget, President Obama is looking to offload the work to a bipartisan "fiscal commission". The plan was to pass this legislatively and require Congress to vote on the resulting proposals. In the past, some Senate Republicans have been supportive of this idea, but they shamelessly joined in obstructing it. The president will now appoint the commission by executive order, so I assume this means Congress can't be required to vote on any resulting proposal.

Still, Greg Mankiw explores ideas for what we might come up with:
If you were a member of the fiscal commission, what would you try to achieve?

The answer for liberals is easy: They want to raise taxes to fund the existing, and even an expanded, social safety net, while politically insulating the Democrats as much as possible from the charge of being the "tax and spend" party. President Obama can then campaign in 2012 that he did not break his no-taxes-on-the-middle-class pledge, but rather a bipartisan group broke it. That is, the President wants to take credit for fixing the fiscal situation but duck responsibility for having imposed higher taxes.

But what if you are conservative? This is harder. You can try to stick to your no-tax-increase pledge. The problem is that doing so would require spending cuts larger than are politically realistic. If I were king, I bet I could find sufficient spending cuts. But I am not expecting to be anointed any time soon. If the fiscal commission is going to succeed, tax increases will have to be part of the deal.

A reasonable position is, perhaps, that the commission should not succeed. After all, it is the president's responsibility to put out a budget. The one he just released is, as I argued in my recent Times column, not a sustainable one at all. He just passed the buck to the fiscal commission. Perhaps conservatives should not allow him to do that but, instead, should try to force him to put out a sustainable budget on his own. After all, isn't that Peter Orszag's job?

But let's suppose that you are a conservative and you want the fiscal commission to succeed. You will have to agree to higher taxes as part of the bargain. But what should you aim to get in return? Here is my list.
  1. Substantial cuts in spending. Ensure that the commission is as much about shrinking government as raising revenue. My personal favorite would be to raise the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare. Do it gradually but substantially. Then index it to life expectancy, as it should have been from the beginning.
  2. Increased use of Pigovian taxes. Candidate Obama pledged 100 percent auctions under any cap-and-trade bill, but President Obama caved on this issue. He should renew his pledge as part of the fiscal fix. A simpler carbon tax is even better.
  3. Use of consumption taxes rather than income taxes. A VAT is, as I have said, the best of a bunch of bad alternatives. Conservatives hate the VAT, more for political than economic reasons. They should be willing to swallow a VAT as long as they get enough other things from the deal.
  4. Cuts in the top personal income and corporate tax rates. Make sure the VAT is big enough to fund reductions in the most distortionary taxes around. Put the top individual and corporate tax rate at, say, 25 percent.
  5. Permanent elimination of the estate tax. It is gone right now, but [will be reinstated soon, and] most people I know are not quite ready to die. Conservatives hate the estate tax even more than they hate the idea of the VAT. If the elimination of the estate tax was coupled with the addition of the VAT, the entire deal might be more palatable to them.
One thing is clear: The Democrats in Congress would hate the five demands above. But that is precisely the point. The fiscal commission is giving the Democrats something of very high value: political cover from a major tax hike. If Republicans are going to give them that, they should get something very big in return. If the conservatives on the commission could achieve my five goals above, it might be a deal worth talking about.
Let's make this a bit more concrete. Suppose our goals definitely involve:
  1. Reducing future projected deficits to something manageable, like under 1-2% of GDP within a few years time, and keeping it there.
  2. Raising any necessary new revenue with a new, European-style VAT.
  3. Pigovian carbon pricing (cape and trade, or a carbon tax) is off the table initially; anything we agree to later will simply lower the overall VAT commensurately.
The price for agreement will be along the lines Mankiw describes above:
  1. The retirement age will be gradually (over the next ~10 years) increased to something like 70+ and thereafter pegged to life expectancy.
  2. Distortionary taxes like the individual and corporate income rates will be capped at a figure like 25%.
  3. Permanent elimination of the estate tax.
So, bleg: what's your negotiating position with respect to the above? Can we make a deal?

Monday, February 15

The benefits of health benefits

Megan responds to Ezra Klein.

A libertarian children's story

Republican Guy recently asked his friends' little girl what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to be President of the United States (POTUS) some day. Both of her parents, liberal Democrats, were standing there, so he asked her, "If you were POTUS what would be the first thing you would do?"

She replied, "I'd give food and houses to all the homeless people."

Her parents beamed with pride.

"Wow...what a worthy goal," Republican Guy told her. "But you don't have to wait until you're POTUS to start. You can come over to my house and mow the lawn, pull weeds, and sweep my yard, and I'll pay you $50. Then I'll take you over to the grocery store where this homeless guy hangs out, and you can give him the $50 to use toward food and a new house."

She thought that over for a few seconds, then she looked him straight in the eye and said, "Why doesn't the homeless guy come over and do the work, and you can just pay him the $50?"

Republican Guy said, "Welcome to the Republican Party."
Democratic counterpoint:
Democratic Gal recently asked her friends' little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he wanted to be President of the United States (POTUS) some day. Both of his parents, conservative Republicans, were standing there, so she asked him, "If you were POTUS what would be the first thing you would do?"

He replied, "I'd give cars and boats to all my parents’ friends."

His parents beamed with pride.

"Wow...what a fabulously generous goal," Democratic Gal told him. “But you don't have to wait until you're POTUS to start. You can come over to my house and mow the lawn, pull weeds, and sweep my yard, and I'll pay you $50. Then I'll take you over to the country club where your parents friends hang out, and you can give them the $50 to use toward new cars and boats.”

He thought that over for a few seconds, then he looked her straight in the eye and said, "Why don’t my parents’ friends come over and do the work, and you can just pay them the $50?"

Democratic Gal said, "Welcome to the Democratic Party."

(Underneath her breath, muttering: "Your parents’ friends wouldn’t be caught dead in my neighborhood, guy, much less doing any manual labor.")
Libertarian response:
Libertarian Person (Elpie) recently asked his friends' little child what it wanted to be when it grew up. The child said he/she wanted to be President of the United States (POTUS) some day. Both of the child’s parents, one a liberal Democrat and one a conservative Republican, were standing there, so LP asked the child (Kid), "If you were POTUS what would be the first thing you would do?"

Kid replied, "I'd like to see everyone have stuff."

Kid’s parents beamed with pride.

"That’s great," Elpie told Kid. "But you don't have to wait until you're POTUS to start. You can come over to my house and mow the lawn, pull weeds, and sweep my yard, and I'll pay you $50. Then I'll give you the address of the US Treasury, and you can send the government the $50 to spread among all the fine people in the country."

Kid thought that over for a few seconds, then he looked Elpie straight in the eye and said, “The government can go fly a kite, I’m keeping the $50 and deciding for myself who or what to spend it on."

Elpie said, "Welcome to the Libertarian Party."
(ht Brian Wright)

Sunday, February 14

Sentence to ponder

"Society will reject capitalism once automation nears 100%."

—reddit thread on research milestones

It's easy to appreciate that in post-material society in which robots self-replicate and do all the work, there will be little use for capital markets in common material goods.

But won't there always be a market in rare goods?

As well as in research and the arts? ... at least until AI can staff the research labs and produce the entertainment for us--but at that point won't humans be obsolescent anyway?

Sunday viewing: Of Mice and Men

hulu: Of Mice and Men (1992) John Malkovich, Gary Sinise

The sustainability of Obama's budget

Mankiw opines in the Times.

Quote of the day

"If you're a larger woman, keep your chosen man hungry and he's more likely to find you attractive." —BPS research digest

Saturday, February 13

Photo of the day

A prison cell in Haiti...
We measured Cell 5 at about 20 x 20 feet. Cell 5 holds 67 people. That’s about a 2 x 3 foot rectangle for each person — for 23 hours a day. To eat, to sleep — everything. I took this picture after the cell had been vacated for a few minutes while the men took a shower. What it can’t capture is the heat and the smell. It was easily over 100 degrees, and I could barely breathe inside.
(via k-lo)

Friday, February 12

Pew Research quiz on current events

Test your, uhm, news IQ...


Making the case for child labor and sweatshops

Economist Steven E. Landsburg:
"As any historian could tell you, no society has every pulled itself out of poverty without putting its children to work. Back in the early 19th century, when Americans were as poor as Bangladeshis are now, we were sending out children to work at about the same rate as the Bangladeshis are today.

Having had the good fortune to get rich first, Americans can afford to give Bangladeshis a helping hand, and there are plenty of good ways for us to do that. Denying Third Worlders the very opportunities our ancestors embraced, whether through full-fledged boycotts or by insisting on health and safety standards they can’t afford to meet, is not one of those ways."
There's more from him on closing sweatshops.

I recently read Landsburg's The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics--it's fascinating.

(ht Perry)

Wednesday, February 10

"How much more evidence does one need?"

Two and half years ago, two political scientists published a book that said (p. 188):
Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite. In fact, anyone who says that there is an Israel lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism, even though AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents are hardly bashful about describing their influence. ... In effect, the lobby both boasts of its own power and frequently attacks those who call attention to it."  
Over at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier has provided the latest example of this all-too-familiar tactic, in the form of an incoherent and unwarranted smear of Andrew Sullivan.  Yglesias, Larison, and DeLong offer telling rebuttals.
(Yes, that's Stephen Walt.)

Al Gore's dream world

Terrorists and the right are co-dependent

Yglesias goes there. He's right, though.

Tuesday, February 9

On the other hand, world affairs are looking pretty

Quote of the day

"I mean, the fact of the matter is, is the president has been on his 60-day tour, and everywhere he goes the numbers just get worse. The American people have essentially voted on this proposal and really what you have is a situation now where I think that the president and the Republican Congress are going to need to figure out a way to save face and -- and step back a little bit. And if -- if they let go of their egos -- listen, I've been on the other side of this where -- particularly with my wife. (laughter) Where I've gotten in an argument and then at some point in the argument it dawns on me, you know what, I'm wrong on this one and it's -- it's -- it's irritating, it's frustrating. You don't want to admit it, and so to the extent that we can provide the president with a graceful mechanism to -- to say we're sorry, Dear, then I think that would be -- that would be helpful."

—U.S. Senator Barack Obama, speaking on President Bush's effort to privatize Social Security, April 25, 2005

Megan croaks "Shoe, meet the other foot" and juxtaposes amusing NYT editorials. Meanwhile...

Why Palin won't win the nomination

Ambers is somewhat encouraging.

Monday, February 8

Liberals and the Ryan roadmap

Shorter Douthat: put up or shut up.

Is it time to throw out 'primordial soup' theory?

Alternative abiogenesis: deep-sea, alkaline hydrothermal vents.

The reality of health care plans

Megan and Yglesias look at Paul Ryan's voucher plan.

Pictures of Norway, with descriptions

Really nice reddit set. My favorite:

Geiranger is a small tourist town in the western part of Norway in the region called Sunnmøre in the municipality of Stranda. It lies at the head of the Geirangerfjord, which is a branch of the Storfjord. The nearest city is Ålesund. Geiranger is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and has been named the best travel destination in Scandinavia by Lonely Planet. Since 2005, the Geirangerfjord has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"The Senate's problem is not disagreement, it's elections"

Ezra explains.

Sunday, February 7

All these years of looking for a film where the hero slides a horse under a truck trailer -- now here it is!

From amscene's comments:
Good director. He edges right up to over-the-top, but wisely stays his hand. One more horse through a plate glass window would have been too many. You can’t teach that kind of dramatic eye.

Headline of the day

NYT: Sinatra Song Often Strikes Deadly Chord

Who knew karaoke could be so dangerous?

Gordon Brown proposes instant run-off referendum

Some good news for UK's liberal dems, though it wouldn't take effect this election.

Friday, February 5

Semicontrolled demolition

"The Case Against Gays In The Military"

Andrew links...
A laughable listicle of the latest Republican panic-tropes. There really is a theme here - from the undie-bomber to resisting transferring prisoners out of Gitmo to gays in the military. The far right are just a bunch of bed-wetting scaredy cats and panic-mongers. They were trained for eight years to be terrified of everything. And that's a hard habit to break.

Econ comedy

On the prestigious PBS News Hour--where else?

Thursday, February 4

Wednesday, February 3

Ezra interviews Rep. Paul Ryan on health care

I wish more people in government were this forthright.

Update: Douthat writes of Paul Ryan's moment.

Tuesday, February 2

Quote of the day

"No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens...allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do."

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Monday, February 1

The Obama splurge continues

Keith Hennessey:
green is last year’s proposal, blue is this year’s proposal, and dotted pink (30-years) and red (50-years) are historic averages.

We can conclude:

1. The President is proposing significantly more spending than he proposed last year: 1.8% of GDP more in 2011, and roughly 1 percentage point more each year over time.

2. Spending is and will continue to be way above historic averages.

At its lowest point in the next decade federal spending would still be 1.7 percentage points above the 30-year historic average. Over the next decade, President Obama proposes spending be 12% higher as a share of the economy than it has averaged over the past three decades.
Mmm, a little decade-long 'stimulus'...

The proposed three-year spending cap is at these newly elevated 2011 levels. What a crock.

Will Wilkinson wants men to be more like Will Wilkinson

I join Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in disagreeing with him, for once. Cultural socialism, indeed.

Rep Paul Ryan (R-WI) has a daring budget proposal

This was brought up at the presidential Q&A with House Republicans. Ezra explains here. I like the solutions and am in favor of it.

But you have to figure Republicans will be killed at the polls if they seriously coalesced around cutting Medicare this way. Though a serious proposal on the merits (as Obama acknowledged in the Q&A), being politically nonviable it will only serve to keep tea partiers happy and assist Republicans in painting Democrats as not serious about Medicare's insolvency.

Really it's the public that's not serious. Medicare future deficits are unsustainable, but we still aren't willing to tolerate service cuts or tax increases to close the gap.

U.S. Senate social graph

Click the fullscreen button...

(via DIA)

Palin endorses Paul

In a Republican primary, I suppose it can't hurt...

Random fact

The first child abuse prosecution in the US was done with the help of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1874 there were no laws against child abuse but there were laws against cruelty to horses and other livestock. It was argued that since children were property of their parents and also part of the animal kingdom, they were entitled to the same rights as horses.

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