Friday, May 31, 2019

A paraphrase can make all the difference

Sometimes paraphrasing is the most useful thing you can do. For instance, putting tariffs on imports to your country is the same thing as imposing sanctions on your own country. (That point is from this 2018 Reason article.) Let’s start calling them “sanctions” instead of “tariffs,” and see how we feel about them.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

50 years of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"

50 years ago today, on May 29, 1969, Crosby, Stills & Nash released their self-titled debut album, which includes one of the gems of '60s music, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." Stephen Stills wrote that 7-and-a-half-minute song near the end of his 2-year relationship with another great singer, Judy Collins. She said this in 2000:

[Stills] came to where I was singing one night on the West Coast and brought his guitar to the hotel and he sang . . . the whole song. And of course it has lines in it that referred to my therapy. And so he wove that all together in this magnificent creation. So the legacy of our relationship is certainly in that song.

While that's easily the standout track, my second-favorite song from the album is the anti-war epic "Wooden Ships":

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest turns 10

10 years ago today, Grizzly Bear released their breakthrough album, Veckatimest. Below are a few songs, though I hate to select just a few, because this is an album that should be listened to from start to finish. Veckatimest (named after Veckatimest Island in Massachusetts) is one of those rare albums that's consistently wonderful, without a single weak song.

This Brooklyn band gets called "indie rock," but part of what I love about Veckatimest is the way it defies labeling. Much of the album is less raucous than what we think of as "rock" — more ethereal, with more open spaces. Grizzly Bear isn't a band known for wild screaming or guitar solos. But aside from the lead single, "Two Weeks," the music is too asymmetrical and enigmatic to be called "indie pop." Whatever you call it, Veckatimest stands as one of the high points in '00s music.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Are carbon offsets doing more harm than good?

"An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth: Why Carbon Credits for Forest Preservation May Be Worse Than Nothing" is a new report (from the invaluable ProPublica) about the unintended consequences of a trendy idea for fighting climate change:

In case after case, I found that carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO₂, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.

“Offsets themselves are doing damage,” said Larry Lohmann, who has spent 20 years studying carbon credits. While we’re sitting here counting carbon and moving it around, more CO₂ keeps accumulating in the atmosphere, he said. . . .

California’s cap-and-trade program allows companies to offset a small percentage of their carbon output with forest preservation projects in North America. But this year, the state’s Air Resources Board could approve its proposed Tropical Forest Standard — a blueprint for how carbon offsets could be awarded for intercontinental programs. . . .

If the world were graded on the historic reliability of carbon offsets, the result would be a solid F.

The largest program, the Clean Development Mechanism, came out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, when dozens of nations made a pact to cut greenhouse gases. European leaders wanted to force industry to emit less. Americans wanted flexibility. Developing nations like Brazil wanted money to deal with climate change. One approach they could agree to was carbon offsets.

The idea worked marvelously on paper. If a power plant in Canada needed to shave 10% off of its emissions but didn’t want to pay for technology upgrades, it could buy offsets from projects in the developing world. . . .
Read the whole in-depth report here.

(Photo by Snežana Trifunović, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Should you use your head or your heart when picking a presidential nominee?

Michelle Goldberg writes this in the New York Times, after talking with people at a Joe Biden rally in Philadelphia:

“My heart still belongs to Howard Dean because of his passion, but my head says Kerry is the one who can get elected,” a voter told The New York Times in 2004, when Democrats were desperate to unseat George W. Bush. Many Democrats thought that John Kerry, a war hero, could puncture the puffed-up commander-in-chief aura that surrounded Bush, who’d kept himself out of Vietnam. It didn’t work out that way.

Four years later, Democrats decided to follow their hearts and nominate Barack Obama, who spoke to their most sublime hopes for their country. Republicans, meanwhile, went with John McCain, who’d often infuriated the party’s base, but whose campaign emphasized his general election viability. A poll in January 2008 showed that he was seen as the most electable of the Republican candidates, and one of his advertisements claimed that he could “rally the conservative Reagan coalition while appealing to independent voters to win in November.” He picked the risible Sarah Palin as a running mate to whip up energy on the right, but still lost.

By the time of the next presidential cycle, Republicans were even more obsessed with besting Obama, leading them to once again put a premium on electability. “The only reason I’m supporting Romney is because he can win the election,” a conservative voter in Iowa told The Washington Post in 2011. Romney, of course, couldn’t win the election.

It wasn’t until 2016 that a plurality of Republican voters defied the electoral wisdom of party elites, nominating a clownish demagogue who channeled the id of the far right and was supposed to have no chance of victory. We all know what happened next.

Democrats are now in a complicated spot as they make their electoral calculations. If what you care about most is a candidate’s chances next November, then pretending otherwise is an artificial exercise, particularly if it’s just in the service of making a better judgment about electability. And some enthusiasm for Biden is genuine, if not passionate; often, when people I spoke to at the rally described him as “safe,” they meant both as a candidate and as a potential leader. “I don’t want an exciting president,” said Sue Kane, a 58-year-old commercial real estate appraiser. “We have a lot of excitement right now, in a bad way.” . . .

Given the existential stakes in 2020, it’s tempting for Democrats to put their own preferences aside and strike mental bargains with groups of people they may have never met. But being attentive to how candidates make us feel gives us valuable information. . . .

During the 2004 Democratic Convention, I wrote this in an email to my mom, Ann Althouse:
You wrote about how everyone watching the convention is imagining how the speeches will seem to someone else, even though it might be that none of those "someone elses" are actually watching the speeches. The same thing happened when Kerry won the primaries. Everyone was voting for him because they thought he would appeal to someone else. And those voters believed at the time that that was the politically savvy thing to do. But it was actually politically disastrous: if everyone was just voting for him because they thought someone else would like him, then NO ONE ACTUALLY LIKED HIM.

One problem is that if you're trying to choose the most "electable" person, I would imagine that you'd be likely to do it by process of elimination -- by ruling out all the candidates with obvious political liabilities. I think this is the number-one reason why Kerry won the primaries: he was the only candidate who didn't seem to have anything particularly wrong with him. Edwards was too inexperienced; Clark was a poor campaigner; Dean seemed kind of insane; Gephardt was too liberal; Lieberman was too conservative. So they choose the one candidate who has no qualities that would really make anyone hate him. The problem is that he also has no qualities that would really make anyone like him either.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The SAT "adversity score" and unintended consequences

News of affluent parents scamming to get their kids into top universities has again stoked complaints that college admissions are rigged. To level the socioeconomic field, the College Board now plans to assign students an “adversity score” on their SAT admissions tests. This demographic handicap may instead fuel more public cynicism and harm middle-income kids.

The College Board’s new adversity score will include 15 variables such as a student’s neighborhood crime rate, housing values and poverty. These variables will feed into an algorithm with weights assigned to each variable. Out will pop a score that students won’t be able to see or challenge before it goes to colleges.

That's from this Wall Street Journal editorial, which foresees some disturbing unintended consequences:
Middle-class kids whose parents sacrifice to send them to private schools or move to neighborhoods with better public schools would score as relatively privileged. Regardless of their own resources and opportunities, they might be compared to more affluent peers who have access to SAT prep, tutors and summer camps. The score could thus prompt families to make perverse decisions. For instance, parents may refrain from moving to marginally wealthier neighborhoods or sending their kids to parochial schools.

"I turned the radio on, I turned the radio up, and this woman was singing my song"

25 years ago today, Lisa Loeb charmed America with the unpretentious simplicity and emotional directness of her debut song, "Stay (I Missed You)." The single (by Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories) was released on May 17, 1994, from the soundtrack to Reality Bites.

American Songwriter magazine says:
Loeb rants and rails through much of the song with barely contained emotion only to pull back for some tenderness in the refrain. It’s an outstanding performance of an enduring song.
The lyrics have the feel of a rambling, stream-of-consciousness letter to a former lover, but they're cleverly crafted. Notice how she heightens the poignancy near the end by saying the title word — "stay" — for only the second time in the song. You might have missed it the first time, but you can't miss it at the end, with her emphatic hesitance. Then, to bring the song full circle, she closes with the first line.

Lisa Loeb recently played the song solo at a Reality Bites reunion:

Watch Lisa Loeb perform "Stay" at our 25th anniversary reunion celebration of REALITY BITES
‪We surprised the #Tribeca2019 audience at our 25th anniversary reunion celebration of Reality Bites with a special Lisa Loeb Official performance of “Stay,” the iconic song that closes Ben Stiller’s Gen X touchstone. Check it out:‬
Posted by Tribeca on Saturday, May 4, 2019

(If you want to explore more of her work, try her song "I Do" or check out The Very Best of Lisa Loeb.)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Wrong message, right messenger?

Donald Trump said all AR-15 rifles that are sold in America should be “made in America.” Progressives were aghast at Trump’s toxic nationalism.

I’m sorry, did I say Donald Trump? I meant Kamala Harris. Kamala Harris proposed a ban on imported AR-15 rifles. Progressives praised Harris for her bold stand against gun violence.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Why now is not the time for Democratic candidates to be getting specific on policy

In the early days of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, it was supposed to be this great thing that she was going on a long "listening" tour to hear from us, rather than starting out by telling us exactly what needs to be done. Now, I'm seeing a lot of Facebook posts saying Elizabeth Warren is the most impressive candidate because she's released a large number of specific policies very early on. I don't find that impressive, and I've never heard of this idea that the candidates should race to publish as many policy specifics as early as possible in the primaries. Also, if starting your campaign with a focus on listening to voters is such a good idea, couldn't it be better to hold off on getting too specific about your policy proposals at the very early stages of the primaries? Shouldn't the candidates be open to the possibility that listening to voters could change what policies they want to propose?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story is leaving Netflix after this month, May 2019.

Last night I watched all 2 and a half hours of the movie with high-quality headphones, which was a wonderful audio experience. The music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim are the star of the show. Aside from that, the movie has some flaws, as pointed out in this insightful review by Roger Ebert. (That review gives away much of the plot including the ending, so I don't recommend reading it unless you've seen West Side Story — which has a significantly different story from the play that inspired it, Romeo and Juliet.)

Rita Moreno, as Maria's friend Anita, is the standout actor of the original. Ebert points out that it was fitting that she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, while the two lead actors weren't nominated for Oscars (even though the movie won 10 Oscars overall including Best Picture — the most ever for a musical).

Now Rita Moreno is 87 years old, and she's going to play a different role in a remake of West Side Story directed by Stephen Spielberg, which is supposed to come out in December 2020. She'll be a female version of Doc, the drugstore owner.

If you watch the 1961 movie on Netflix, as soon as the closing credits start, the site will quickly shrink the screen and tell you another movie is about to start. I recommend overriding this by clicking back to West Side Story and watching it to the very end of the inventively done closing credits.

An idea to address censorship by Google and Facebook without excessive government intrusion

This letter to the Wall Street Journal (by Emeritus Adjunct Prof. Stephen M. Maurer) suggests a way for government to do something about Google's censorship (which could also be applied to Facebook's censorship), in a way that would seem to get around the typical line of "they're a private company, they can censor whoever they want and government can't do anything about it":

Google’s suppression of [conservative think tank] Claremont Institute ads for speech that Google’s own employees couldn’t identify is terrifying. The problem is what to do about it. Asking government to look over Google’s shoulder would likely be worse.

There is an easier way. Before inviting regulators to intervene, Congress should first ask how a search engine that suppresses such organizations can exist at all. Why haven’t consumers demanded better? The answer, as [Claremont Institute President Ryan P. Williams] explains, is that nobody—apparently including Google itself—has any clear idea of when and how censorship occurs.

But that suggests a simple fix: Require platforms to generate an automated record each time their employees suppress speech, along with the in-house rule(s) they purportedly relied on. Then make the data widely available to regulators, congressmen, scholars and (especially) any competitor who promises to do better.

The cynics will say that Google will go on censoring regardless. Perhaps, but Silicon Valley monopolies are surprisingly sensitive to competition that might unseat them.

Elizabeth Warren's Fox News snub reveals a pre-2016 mindset

Sen. Elizabeth Warren writes:

Fox News has invited me to do a town hall, but I’m turning them down — here’s why[.] Fox News is a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists — it’s designed to turn us against each other, risking life & death consequences, to provide cover for the corruption that’s rotting our government and hollowing out our middle class. . . .

Fox News is welcome to come to my events just like any other outlet. But a Fox News town hall adds money to the hate-for-profit machine. To which I say: hard pass.
In contrast, Bernie Sanders did a Fox News town hall last month.

Elizabeth Warren is going in exactly the wrong direction here. She doesn't seem to have learned the lessons of the 2016 election. Democratic politicians have to be willing to have conversations with conservatives. In a huge, diverse country like this, a national politician can't afford to broadly cast the other side as villains. I know her statement on its face is denouncing a corporation, but Fox News isn't just a corporation; it also represents a certain kind of voter. Calling your opponents deplorable is more effective at galvanizing your opponents than winning people over to your side.

Of course, shunning Fox News is a way for liberals to signal their own purity. But when you're fighting an uphill battle to win back the presidency, purity is less important than trying to persuade any voters in the country who'll listen.

“And so far ... I’m very pleased with the results,” Beto lied.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke admits that he "can do a better job" of talking to America, which is refreshingly candid, but then he also tells an obvious lie:

"It will take a lot of time, a lot of miles. A lot of hours,” O’Rourke said. "But I’m willing to put in the work. And so far we have, and I’m very pleased with the results.”
Though it's still early and one of the lesser candidates could surge into first place, Beto must be disappointed to be seen as one of the lesser candidates, months into the race. He must have expected to be doing better than this: "Beto is polling worse than ever." (Here's an interactive chart of aggregated polls from RealClearPolitics.)

Monday, May 13, 2019

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says Republicans take her too literally

This is a technique of the GOP, to take dry humor + sarcasm literally and fact check it. . . . But the GOP is basically Dwight from The Office so who knows.”

So AOC wants us to take her seriously, not literally?

Where have we heard that before?

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Pete Buttigieg on the problem with “identity politics”

"Buttigieg calls out Democrats for playing 'identity politics'" is the headline at NBC News.

Could this be Pete Buttigieg's Sister Souljah moment?

Here's the video of Mayor Buttigieg's speech to the Human Rights Campaign yesterday. I've cued this up to start just after 19 minutes in:

Here's some of what Buttigieg said. I know most of this doesn't seem unusual for a progressive Democrat. But precisely because he's mainly putting this in progressive terms, the parts where he deviates from the hard-left line have the potential to be that much more inflammatory (notice the boldface):

I'd like to comment on one of the buzz words of our time: so-called identity politics. No one knows quite what to make of it today. . . . It is true that each of us can see in our own identity all of the reasons we're misunderstood and then say, "You don't understand me because you haven't walked in my shoes" — something that is true, but it doesn't get us very far. Because we could also see in our differences the beginning of a new form of American solidarity, by recognizing that the one thing we do have in common may be the challenge of belonging in a society that sees us for what makes us all different. I'm not talking about pretending that there are equivalencies between the different patterns of exclusion in this country. . . .

We have a crisis of belonging in this country. When you do not belong, that doesn't just put you in a bad mood, it puts you in a different country. When black women are dying from maternal complications at triple the rate of white women it means for the purposes of public health they are living in a different country. It means that for a dreamer brought to this land at the age of two months old and putting herself through college without a path to citizenship and the only place she knows then even though she's as American as the rest of, us she finds her life playing out on paper in a different country. . . . When an auto worker 12 years into their career is no longer sure how to provide for their family, they're not part of the country we think of ourselves as all living in together. . . .

And these divisive lines of thinking have even entered into the consciousness of my own party, like when we’re told we have to choose between supporting an auto worker and a trans woman of color, without stopping to think about the fact that sometimes the auto worker is a trans woman of color, and she definitely needs all the security she can get. The wall I worry about the most is not the president’s fantasy wall on the Mexican border that’s not going to get built anyway. What I worry about are the very real walls being put up between us as we get divided and carved up — walls going up within the working class, within communities, even within families. . . .

I am not just like you. No two of us are like! But each of us has a story that can either separate us or connect us to those around us. Yes, I am gay and I am the son of an immigrant and an Army brat. And I'm a husband, and I am a musician, and I'm an Episcopalian, and I'm a Democrat. But above all, I am running as an American. I am here to build bridges and to tear down walls. And with your help, we can tear down those walls between fellow Americans.
When he says "these divisive lines of thinking have even entered into the consciousness of my own party" and talks about the limited usefulness of saying "you haven't walked in my shoes," he's gently but unmistakably pushing back against a strain of thought on the left that former President Obama criticized last year:
Democracy demands [that] we're able . . . to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they'll change ours. And you can't do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponent has to say from the start. And you can't do it if you insist that those who aren't like you, because they're white or because they're male, that somehow there's no way that they can understand what I'm feeling — that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.
Walter Olson has a column analyzing what Buttigieg said (the headline writer calls it "Mayor Pete's Sister Souljah Moment," which was published after I used that phrase in this post, but it's a common political term and a point that was just waiting to be made, so I'm not concerned with who said it first):
On one level, his comments critical of identity politics turned out to be pretty mild. Barack Obama has said most of the same things in slightly different words. It’s not as if Andrew Sullivan, Christina Hoff Sommers, or Claire Lehmann were ghostwriting his lines.

And what Buttigieg did say was interspersed with themes and language gratifying to social justice enthusiasts. He endorsed the sweeping Equality Act, which would federalize Main Street public-accommodations disputes while whittling down religious exemptions. He mentioned Stonewall and Harvey Milk. He even acknowledged his own “privilege.” (Though he left ambiguous the extent to which this referred to his white male-ness as distinct from, say, the fortunate path traced by his education and career.)

And yet the South Bend mayor immediately began taking flak for his HRC remarks from some social justice advocates, not a few of whom had already been caustic critics of his candidacy. They could detect from his choice of words that he is not 100 percent on board with their prescribed line—maybe not even 80 percent—and worse still, he is not afraid to say so.

One of his lines drawing fire is on the “my truth, your truth” notion. . . . Or as it might be put more aggressively: “we [members of a marginalized identity] are the only authorities on our experience.”

His response? That’s “true as far as it goes but it doesn’t get us very far.” To you or I, that might read like a platitude. To many on the identitarian left, it comes off as dire wrongthink: after some point that is not “very far” down the road, he intends to steer us all onto some other discourse in which identity is not a trump card. This doesn’t deny our subjective truth as marginalized individuals, exactly, but it does tend to dethrone it as The Truth of all truths.

Another example: Buttigieg’s comments were critical of what he forthrightly calls “white identity politics.” Again, a truism from one perspective, and forcefully stated too. But to some on his left, this will be seen as an attempt at false equivalence. Raising the idea that white and minority identity politics can resemble each other is deeply problematic to the identitarian left. . . .

Again and again in his speech, minor choices of wording that outsiders might not notice served as small—but real—signals of defiance to social justice scorekeepers. I disagree with much that Mayor Pete says here and elsewhere. But I’m glad that he seems to think for himself.

It will be interesting to see whether other Democratic contenders take issue with the mayor’s identity politics remarks. Or if, alternatively, Buttigieg has opened up space toward the center makes it possible for others to follow.

Presidential candidate Tim Ryan's weak response to Bill Maher on the economy

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio in this video seems to be positioning himself as one of the more moderate Democratic presidential candidates, and that's the kind of candidate I'm hoping will emerge as the nominee.

But Tim Ryan doesn't have a decent answer to Bill Maher's predictable question about how well the economy seems to be doing. In fact, Ryan repeatedly says that wages have been increasing! He says they should be increasing even more — but still, how did that make it into his talking points?

Democrats will have to do better than this shaky performance by Tim Ryan (on what should be favorable terrain) if they want to stop Donald Trump from being reelected.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A response to those who say: "Facebook is a private company, so it's free to censor"

If a private company is legally allowed to do all the censorship it wants, that’s why we should use more of our free speech to critique that company’s censorship. That is not a reason to stay silent about a corporation censoring people on a massive, global scale. If government can’t do anything about that problem, then it’s up to us.

Friday, May 10, 2019

25 years ago in music: Weezer, Sunny Day Real Estate, Sonic Youth

1994 was a great year for music, and May 10 was one of the better days that year. Three bands, all categorized as alt rock but all significantly different from each other, put out great albums 25 years ago today.

Weezer's debut album (self-titled but known as the Blue Album) introduced the world to a joyously poppy group that used the noisy guitar sounds of grunge rock but had no need for the angst associated with grunge.

Weezer also differed from many bands of the time by clearly articulating their lyrics, allowing vivid words to pop out from the songs: "destroy my sweater," "watch me unravel," "Mary Tyler Moore," "found Jesus," "ancient feelings," etc.

"Buddy Holly" is a tribute to that pioneer of nerdy rock songs.

In "Say It Ain't So," Rivers Cuomo tells us to "be cool." But we love Weezer because they never seem to care if they're seen as "cool."

Sunny Day Real Estate also released their debut album, Diary. The standout track, "Seven," is far from the comical quality of Weezer. In this song, Sunny Day Real Estate seems to convey a mini-drama even though they words are so slurred you can't understand them, making them all the more intriguing.

The legendary Sonic Youth put out their 8th album, and their most wordily titled album: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star.

In the lead single, "Bull in the Heather," Kim Gordon talks more than sings. As usual for Sonic Youth, the main interest of the song isn't vocals but guitars, both noisy and melodic.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Slip-ups of the day

1. Australian currency misspells the word “responsibility.”

2. Kirk Hammett slipped and fell on his wah pedal at a rainy outdoor Metallica concert. 🎸 Apparently he wasn’t seriously hurt. 🤟🏻

What happened to Pete Buttigieg?

This New Republic piece explains the state of Mayor Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign:

It appears that the media’s . . . honeymoon with Pete Buttigieg is over. Gone are the days of flattering coverage from, well, pretty much everywhere—stories about Buttigieg’s love of Ulysses, his faculty with languages, and affection for Phish and the Dave Matthews Band (well, I guess they weren’t all flattering stories).

Over the last couple of weeks, Buttigieg has received scrutiny more appropriate to a leading presidential candidate instead of simply being rolled out like a new diet soda. There have been stories investigating his time as mayor of South Bend, and deep dives into his decision to demolish hundreds of homes and to fire the city’s black police chief. . . . Instead of wondering whether he can knock off Joe Biden, journalists are now asking questions about his failure to connect with black voters. . . . [Click through to the article for links on all those stories.]

Thus far, Buttigieg has been resistant to offer specific proposals. Asked about the lack of a policy section on his campaign website, he was dismissive. “I’ve been pretty clear where I stand on major issues,” he said last month. “But I also think it’s important we don’t drown people in minutia before we’ve vindicated the values that animate our policies. We go right to the policy proposals and we expect people to be able to figure out what our values must be from that.” The recipe here is probably right—articulate a broader message and then fill it in with specifics—but the justification still sounds like a hedge, the natural distillate of a presidential campaign rooted in a person, rather than in what that person would do as president. . . .

An early blitz of coverage turned the small-city mayor into a big-time contender, but that means there are now expectations he will act like one. The sketches he has drawn on Morning Joe, Today, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert deserve to be colored in with actual ideas. . . .

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

How much should we worry about the national debt?

Somewhat, but not too much, argues this Foreign Affairs article co-written by Lawrence Summers:

The deficit dismissers have a point. Long-term structural declines in interest rates mean that policymakers should reconsider the traditional fiscal approach that has often wrong-headedly limited worthwhile investments in such areas as education, health care, and infrastructure. Yet many remain fixated on cutting spending, especially on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicaid. That is a mistake. Politicians and policymakers should focus on urgent social problems, not deficits.

But they shouldn’t ignore fiscal constraints entirely. The deficit fundamentalists are right that the debt cannot be allowed to grow forever. And the government cannot set budget policy without any limiting principles or guides as to what is and what is not possible or desirable.

There is another policy approach that neither prioritizes cutting deficits nor dismisses them. Unlike in the past, budgeters need not make reducing projected deficits a priority. But they should ensure that, except during downturns, when fiscal stimulus is required, new spending and tax cuts do not add to the debt. This middle course would tolerate large and growing deficits without making a major effort to reduce them—at least for the foreseeable future. But it would also stop the policy trend of the last two years, which will otherwise continue to pile up debt.

Policymakers must also recognize that maintaining existing public services, let alone meeting new needs, will, over time, require higher revenues. Today’s large deficits derive more from falling revenues than rising entitlement spending. More spending is not, by itself, something to be afraid of. The United States needs to invest in solutions to its fundamental challenges: finding jobs for the millions of Americans who have given up hope of finding them, providing health insurance for the millions who still lack it, and extending opportunities to the children left behind by an inadequate educational system.

Economic textbooks teach that government deficits raise interest rates, crowd out private investment, and leave everyone poorer. Cutting deficits, on the other hand, reduces interest rates, spurring productive investment. Those forces may have been important in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when long-term real interest rates (nominal interest rates minus the rate of inflation) averaged around four percent and stock market valuations were much lower than they are today. The deficit reduction efforts of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton contributed to the investment-led boom in the 1990s.

Today, however, the situation is very different. Although government debt as a share of GDP has risen far higher, long-term real interest rates on government debt have fallen much lower.

As shown in the table, in 2000, the Congressional Budget Office forecast that by 2010, the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio would be six percent. The same ten-year forecast in 2018 put the figure for 2028 at 105 percent.

Real interest rates on ten-year government bonds, meanwhile, fell from 4.3 percent in 2000 to an average of 0.8 percent last year.

Those low rates haven’t been manufactured by the Federal Reserve, nor are they just the result of the financial crisis. They preceded the crisis and appear to be rooted in a set of deeper forces, including lower investment demand, higher savings rates, and widening inequality. . . .

Low interest rates mean that governments can sustain higher levels of debt, since their financing costs are lower. Although the national debt represents a far larger percentage of GDP than in recent decades, the U.S. government currently pays around the same proportion of GDP in interest on its debt, adjusted for inflation, as it has on average since World War II. The cost of deficits to the Treasury is the degree to which the rate of interest paid on the debt exceeds inflation. By this standard, the resources the United States needs to devote to interest payments are also around their historical average as a share of the economy. Although both real and nominal interest rates are set to rise in the coming decade, interest payments on the debt are projected to remain well below the share reached in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when deficit reduction topped the economic agenda.

Government deficits also seem to be hurting the economy less than they used to. Textbook economic theory holds that high levels of government debt make it more expensive for companies to borrow. But these days, interest rates are low, stock market prices are high relative to company earnings, and major companies hold large amounts of cash on their balance sheets. No one seriously argues that the cost of capital is holding back businesses from investing. . . .

The eurozone debt crisis at the start of this decade is often held up as a cautionary tale about the perils of fiscal excess. But stagnant growth (made worse by government spending cuts in the face of a recession) was as much the cause of the eurozone’s debt problems as profligate spending. . . .

It’s true that future generations will have to pay the interest on today’s debt, but at current rates, even a 50-percentage-point increase in the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio would raise real interest payments as a share of GDP by just 0.5 percentage points. That would bring those payments closer to the top of their historical range, but not into uncharted territory.

Deficits, then, should not cause policymakers much concern, at least for now. But some economists adopt an even more radical view. Advocates of what is known as modern monetary theory (MMT), such as Stephanie Kelton, an economist and former adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, have been widely interpreted as arguing that governments that borrow in their own currencies have no reason to concern themselves with budget constraints. . . . This goes too far. . . . In truth, no one knows the benefits and costs of different debt levels. . . .

Although the U.S. government will remain solvent for the foreseeable future, it would be imprudent to allow the debt-to-GDP ratio to rise forever in an uncertain world. Trying to make this situation sustainable without adjusting fiscal policy or raising interest rates, as recommended by some advocates of modern monetary theory, is a recipe for hyperinflation.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Lead and environmental sexism

Lead pollution discriminates against boys, explains Susan Pinker in the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. counties where lead in the topsoil exceeds the national average had twice the number of five-year-old boys with long-term cognitive problems. Five-year-old girls weren’t affected. Right from conception, it seems that environmental stress, especially pollution, discriminates on the basis of sex.

Edson Severnini, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and his colleagues Karen Clay and Margarita Portnykh began with the United States Geological Survey’s recorded levels of lead in topsoil in 252 of the largest counties in the U.S. in 2000. They then turned to parents’ responses to a question on the 2000 census: Had their five-year-old experienced difficulties, for at least six months, with learning, memory, focus or decision making? The parents of over 77,000 children replied with a yes or a no.

We’ve long known lead to be dangerous, and adding the heavy metal to gasoline, house paint and pesticide has been banned now for decades. Nonetheless, we’re still living with lead’s legacy. Over the 20th century more than 6.5 million tons were released into the environment across the U.S., most of it still blowing around or sticking to soil particles. That is alarming because lead is a neurotoxin: It starves the brain—especially the frontal lobe of the developing brain—of protein and energy, and it doesn’t decompose.

To make matters worse, lead on painted windowsills and in garden soil tastes sugary. Innocently ingesting even tiny amounts of lead can translate to lower IQs and attentional and behavioral problems later on, researchers have found.

There is even evidence that higher levels of lead in the bloodstream can predict antisocial behavior and violence in adolescence and early adulthood, according to a 2012 study led by Tulane medical researcher Howard Mielke published in the journal Environment International.

The new Carnegie Mellon study reinforces the link between a child’s early lead exposure and an uncertain future. Preschoolers’ exposure to lead in their first five years of life increased their probability of compromised cognitive function, including a weaker ability to learn, solve problems and control one’s impulses. . . .

Boys are twice as vulnerable as girls to early neural damage, and even levels of lead that are currently considered acceptable can exert a deleterious effect. . . .

But it turns out that education can dampen lead’s harmful effects. “We actually show that if boys had some schooling, the [negative] effect was much smaller,” said Dr. Severnini. Except for . . . remediating contaminated soil where children live and play, we may not be able to control how much lead is still hanging around. But there is something we can do to protect our children’s brains, and it is called preschool.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The New York Times puzzles over how well the economy is doing

The New York Times explains why — unexpectedly — wages are rising and the economy has been growing at more than 3% for 9 straight months.

The Times says:

The recent gains are going to those who need it most. Over the past year, low-wage workers have experienced the fastest pay increases, a shift from earlier in the recovery, when wage growth was concentrated at the top.
The Times manages to find some not-so-great news in all that:
African-American workers have seen smaller gains over the course of the recovery, for example. And wage growth remains slow in some parts of the country that were hit especially hard by the recession.
Still, if these overall trends keep going through next year, Donald Trump will be on a glide path to reelection.

I'm not saying that to support Trump. I plan to vote against him. Just because the economy's doing well doesn't mean Trump's policies are the reason, and even if his policies are having good short-term effects they could still be bad in the long run.

But when was the last time voters denied the president a second term when the economy was doing well?

Why the right response to stories of vaccines triggering illness isn't to dismiss them out of hand

This is an important point about vaccines that I had never heard of before seeing this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (by Michael Segal, a neurologist and neuroscientist):

the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported April 26 that there have been 704 cases of measles so far this year. “The suffering we are seeing today is completely avoidable,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Monday. “We know vaccines are safe because they’re among some of the most studied medical products we have.”

So why does skepticism persist? One reason is that scientists, physicians and journalists are overly dismissive of the observations that circulate among the public.… A study led by neurologist Samuel Berkovic applied that approach to vaccine reactions, and the results provide a model for understanding and overcoming skepticism about the safety of vaccines.

Dr. Berkovic and his colleagues studied a genetic form of epilepsy caused by mutations in the SCN1A gene, a DNA sequence that specifies part of a channel in nerve-cell membranes that allows sodium ions to enter the cell. Children born with such SCN1A mutations are destined to develop seizures and regress neurologically.

The researchers found that the onset of these seizures peaked in the days after vaccination but then dipped below baseline in subsequent weeks. The net result was that vaccines had no effect on the likelihood of developing the inevitable deterioration from these mutations.

That is, vaccines did trigger the deterioration—but had the children not been vaccinated, the same deterioration would have occurred anyway the next time they had a cold.

These results are fully consistent with the large-population studies. But by studying the detailed time course in a genetically characterized population, they illustrated how vaccines can appear to be the proximate cause of an injury, yet the ultimate cause is genetic.

When parents ask me about vaccines, I inspire confidence by telling them that my three kids got all the recommended vaccinations on schedule. But when dealing with public policy about mandatory vaccinations, one needs to address the elephant in the room: the stories of deterioration following vaccinations. Many experts prefer to ignore such anecdotes, and when engaged in public debate, find it hard to resist the ethos of an advocate—pushing the conclusion but playing down the complexity. That’s been counterproductive. People hear stories about neurological deteriorations and trust their friends more than the experts.

Unless we act like scientists and explain the science, we won’t be effective in helping laymen put the anecdotes in context.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Is President Trump spending your money on booze for his own profit?

“A top-shelf, closed-door drinking session. $546-a-night hotel rooms. A special government credit card for Mar-a-Lago. Taxpayers foot the costs — and the president profits. . . .”