Thursday, June 30, 2011


What happened to Thailand in its slide from democracy to political near-chaos.

Predicting the effects of extreme climate change.

Hospice care has been hyped as delivering better care (in terms of satisfaction) for a cheaper price, and that’s led to an increase in the numbers of terminal patients using it. Has widespread fraud accompanied it?

Patents out of control—Apple edition.

When democracy and inequality collide (South Africa edition.)

Is the NBA really losing money? Accounting magic and the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, including this factoid I didn’t know:
The RDA dates back to 1959, and was maybe Bill Veeck's biggest hustle in a long lifetime of hustles. Veeck argued to the IRS that professional athletes, once they've been paid for, "waste away" like livestock. Therefore a sports team's roster, like a farmer's cattle or an office copy machine or a new Volvo, is a depreciable asset.

The underlying logic is specious at best. As Fort points out, a team's roster at any given moment isn't actually depreciating. While some players are fading with age, others are developing and improving. But the Nets don't have to pay more taxes when a player becomes more valuable. And in any case, the cost of depreciation is borne by the athletes themselves, when they pass their primes and lose their personal earning power.

Nevertheless, the IRS not only agreed with Veeck but allowed any owner claiming the write-off to deduct roster expenses twice — first under "player salaries," in the case of the Nets' documents, and then under "loss on players' contracts" — and an enormous tax shelter sprang up within the balance sheets of franchises everywhere. This can't be emphasized enough: Every year, taxpayers hand the plutocrats who own sports franchises a fat pile of money for no other reason than that one of those plutocrats, many years ago, convinced the IRS that his franchise is basically a herd of cattle. Fort calls it "special-interest legislation." "It's not illegal," he says. "It's just weird."

The magic of the judiciary and wiretaps:
A total of 3,194 intercept applications by federal and state courts were authorized in 2010, with 1,207 applications by federal authorities authorized and 1,987 applications by 25 states authorized. One application was denied. Installed intercepts totaled 2,311.
So who’s watching the watchmen, again? (not the judiciary, apparently.)

Magical Realism

There’s a novel solution to solving the debt limit crisis proposed in this TNR article: ignore it, by executive fiat. There are even some decent legal arguments for the idea, including the idea that no one would have standing to contest the decision. Then there’s this:
Garrett Epps, a legal journalist and professor at University of Baltimore School of Law, has made an even broader argument in a pair of articles for The Atlantic’s website. In an interview, Epps told me that there was a strong argument that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional because it exceeds the legislative branch’s power of the purse. The argument goes like this: Because Congress already appropriated the funds in question, it is the executive branch’s duty to enact those appropriations. The debt ceiling, then, is legislative “double-counting,” because the executive branch is obligated to spend the money Congress appropriates, without having to go back and ask again for permission.

Of course, you can figure out a reasonable-sounding legal argument for anything, and said reasonable-sounding legal argument will get accepted or not based on the interests in the judge in question, so the real question isn’t whether “ignoring it” would work legally, it’s whether it would be a good idea.

I’m not too sure about that. Aside from the practical questions of how much uncertainty would be created in the short term, there’s the question of whether or not we want the solution to every thorny legislative problem to be “Magical President Time.” This ends up leading to dangerous thoughts for just about everyone, from the President (who thinks s/he can do whatever s/he wants) to citizens (who wonder why, if the President can do whatever s/he wants, hasn’t the President solved all of life’s problems?). Magical realism regarding the Presidency is a dangerous line of thought and should be discouraged whenever possible. On the other hand, a second recession would be disastrous and would forever shatter confidence in the government. So that’s bad too.

(And, yes, it can happen: a far less radical conservative caucus sunk the TARP deal temporarily. I’m quite sure they’d be willing to risk economic armageddon.)

The Partisans and TV

The Guardian semi-seriously reviews an American book claiming American TV is too left-wing and then asks the same question of British TV. Not being a devotee of British TV, I couldn’t rightly say whether they’re correct in their diagnosis, but I think the question of American TV is a bit more interesting to consider.

It’s hard to take the question too seriously as partisans are always too likely to consider the entire world to be accosting his team specifically despite all logic and with perfect malice—if it’s not the textbooks that are too right wing, it’s the movies that are communistic. These claims should only occasionally be taken seriously. It’s especially hard to take these claims seriously in the case of art—which TV sometimes aspires to and more rarely achieves—because art is complex and complex things tend not to have neat messages.

I think of The Wire first. David Simon, the creator of The Wire, is famously left-wing; it’s pretty obvious if you read further into his background. That’s fine. Furthermore, The Wire is highly didactic and political. You’d therefore expect it to be a pretty left-wing TV show, except I’m not sure how much it is. It’s a great and complex TV show and has a lot of stuff going on that undercuts any political message.

(For one, the left-wing stereotype is that left wingers are confident about the ability of government to get things done and resolve the world for the better. It’s hard for a viewer of the show to leave with much inspiration about that life—the message about governmental effectiveness at the end of it is so much fatalism: things suck, the system makes it suck, the system actively resists any attempts to end the suckage and through bad incentives will typically end, therefore things will always suck in all probability. This is not the typical liberal message, put it that way.)

This will not do for the partisans, but it’s true.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Ezra Klein has an interesting twist on the “explosion of health inequality” theory—from abortions.

A funny article on NBA Draft fashions.

Pharmaceutical companies are decreasing their R&D investments.

Will gathering solar power in space and transmitting it terrestrially be valuable?

Judicial humor in opinions from the bench (one of these is actually funny).

Chinese migrants—a generational gap.

Very interesting development—insurers are buying hospitals. If done well, could be a boon.

Why are procedural shows so popular here and abroad?

How the FDA impedes medical innovaton—essay and blog post.

What 4chan teaches us about internet culture.


The LA Times has a wonderfully in-depth article on the perils of privatization in Indiana—some services have apparently become markedly less effective, and there are accusations of privatized companies going to friendly operators:
Key players involved in the process had ties to Affiliated Computer Services, the company that benefited the most from the deal. Mitch Roob — a Daniels appointee who ran the state's Family and Social Services Administration when it awarded the contract — was a former ACS vice president. As the state began the project, Roob occasionally sought advice from former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, a political ally of Daniels and fellow privatization advocate who also had been an ACS vice president.

The libertarian critique of many regulatory agencies and government in general is that it becomes captured by the interests they’re supposed to regulating; the solution, in their eyes, is typically for the government to withdraw. This might work in a blank slate situation, wherein the government has the choice whether or not to enter some new field; but in a situation like this, the act of withdrawing can often serve the entrenched interests it’s supposed to hurt. This shouldn’t be surprising; entrenched interests always find a way to get the first bite of the apple. But it is something to think about when someone extols the virtues of withdrawing (rather than withdrawn) government.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Today in bubble predictions—Brazil! A BBC article observes that some neighborhoods in Rio are experiencing an 80% rise in housing prices. Said BBC article neglects to mention the phrase “credit card debt” or even “debt” in general, which makes the case all the more convincing.

Ezra Klein makes the case for coming health care inequality.

More on the insurance industry, climate change, and “hundred year” disasters.

New drugs fighting prostate cancer prolong life on average by a few months and cost $500,000 a year for the privilege.

Nick Paumgarten of the New Yorker on online dating.

We did it! We eliminated rinderpest! (why it’s so hard to eliminate diseases: not the vaccines, the getting people to take them.)

Why is Germany so angry?

Are useful are biomarkers tests? Perhaps not at all much.

In Practice...

Would you like to learn new, possibly disturbing information?:
When heart attack victims are taken to hospitals that aren’t equipped to perform lifesaving procedures to open blocked arteries, standard medical guidelines recommend they be transferred to another hospital within 30 minutes. Yet only one in 10 patients is transferred in that time, a new study has found.

I had one thought, then I dismissed it for wrongness. The thought I had was that this sounds like awfully good information to share with everyone, right? That’s nice in theory, but then again—how does this help in practice? (Imagine the conversation with the EMT: “Oh, let’s go to Presbyterian—they transfer their patients according to—” [slumps over])

In this measure, as with so many, it’s hard to figure out how the accountability of the market figures for the individual consumer. Narrowly, this suggests the problems with radical transparency in actually changing health care in this country, but more broadly it suggests problems with accountability in general. If consumers aren’t to discipline hospitals that employ such faulty procedures, who are? Insurers and hospitals are locked in a constant battle and it’s hard to see the insurers being able to insist on and win demands to such forms of care. The key mover here is probably going to have to be the government through Medicare…

(Incidentally, on the information front: the problem isn’t that it doesn’t exist, it’s that it is available in incomprehensible form. Let’s take this LA Times article on a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation database: it says consumers might be able to make decisions about their local hospitals or physicians based on quality metrics. Unfortunately, it’s basically an aggregator of other people’s quality metrics, with no intent to make it usable—either design-wise (i.e. how presentable it is), or in terms of scoring which metrics are reliable descriptions of reality and which aren’t. Just because you have a lot of information does not mean it’s particularly likely to be useful for you.)

More Direct Democracy In Practice

William Saletan does not phrase it as such, but he gives an excellent additional reason to oppose direct democracy in his article about why many states might find it hard to pass gay marriage approval bills. Even though gay marriage is more popular than ever, the shift in popular opinion might not help pass bills:
That can't happen in California, Virginia, or the other 27 states where constitutional amendments forbid gay marriage…The question now is whether the new majority will get its way. To undo the constitutional amendments of the past decade, supporters of gay marriage will have to pass ballot measures in those states. In Nevada, they'll have to do it twice. Passing ballot measures is hard. People tend to vote against them out of suspicion and fear, particularly when you're messing with the constitution.

As our experience with the U.S. Congress in the early Obama years can confirm, people have a terrible status quo bias. So it’s a bad idea to make people’s whims one year binding upon the settled discussions of a few years later. Nevertheless, this is what twenty-nine states have done and the gay people of those states will find it much more difficult than necessary to enjoy the right to marriage that they always deserved in the first place.

Besides the obstacles posed by previous years’ bloat, there’s the thought that people’s human rights shouldn’t be up to a popular vote. Nor should technical issues. And yet, glancing at the ballot every year, these two types of questions predominate year after year. It’s a sign that direct democracy in practice is not a good thing and we should end it.

Monday, June 27, 2011


In medicine, new isn’t always improved (in metal-on-metal joint implants).

Well then—Chinese food safety edition:
In May, a Shanghai woman who had left uncooked pork on her kitchen table woke up in the middle of the night and noticed that the meat was emitting a blue light, like something out of a science fiction movie. Experts pointed to phosphorescent bacteria, blamed for another case of glow-in-the-dark pork last year.
Also—China’s uneven urbanization (600 million Chinese still live in rural areas.) Also, how the Chinese are manufacturing part of the new Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland.

The Coen bros. next movie will concern the Greenwich Village folk scene.

What happened to the African tennis player?

Once upon a time in Bombay (a slideshow).

The world’s most important boring man—the head of the ECB.

A pair of tick-tocks on the gay marriage bill in New York.

Who is impressed by a British accent?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

It's the Incentives, Stupid

The Atlantic has a wonderful article on HHS open-data guy Todd Park, who is being set up to try to do with health care data what NOAA did with weather data and the government did with GPS data—release the data it’s gathered into the innovation wilds and see if useful, productive services can be extracted. Coming as it does after the closure of Google Health, it’s good to hear more will be done with health information, which does seem to have some promise.

But the note to recall comes from the middle of the article, which includes this cautionary note:
Park first got a taste for the massive blockades hindering payment reform when he and his partner launched Athenahealth. Before it became a software company, Athenahealth was focused on maternity care. The team wanted to scale a model where instead of assigning a doctor to a pregnant mother, you also assign her a midwife, a nutritionist and a case manager. Though the upfront costs are slightly higher, studies found that this type of care radically reduces the chances of costly complications with the mother, which drives down costs overall by as much as 20 percent. So representatives of Athenahealth approached the major health insurance companies and proposed a new payment model: Instead of paying for professional services, the insurers would pay a global fee for all care -- hospital care, physician care, lab care -- so that if Athenahealth could keep the mother healthy, lower the rate of complications and therefore lower costs, it would be able to more than cover the cost of the additional upfront preventive care, benefit financially and in the process drive down the total amount of money the insurers had to pay out. A win-win for all. "The insurers said, 'Look, we completely agree with your math,'" Park said. "'We agree with the five-year study that shows this model will work, but we can't rewire our systems to pay you differently from everyone else. We have to keep paying you on a per-service basis, even though we completely believe that this lowers cost for higher value.' And that was my first fundamental lesson regarding the principles of how you pay for health care dictates how health care gets delivered. Because this model can't scale, can't become widespread, if it's not supported by the payment system."

Basically, Park wanted to do ACOs for maternity care, and don’t doubt it’d be a highly wonderful model for just about everyone involved. But it couldn’t work because of the structural issues—i.e. the incentives. All of the cool innovation stuff and new inventions sound great and might be successful, but the odds of it mattering are low unless the incentives are worked out and are sufficiently widespread across the health care system.

New Kinds of Labor

The Times has an article on young people taking multiple part-time jobs in order to fill the days, and concludes with this thought:
Still, is job-juggling really sustainable, particularly when the next stage of life hits and there may be a mortgage and children?

Ms. McCarty doesn’t think so. She is looking for an end to her 80-hour weeks and meager paychecks. “I don’t want to be 30 and working a bunch of small jobs so I can pay my bills,” she said.

No one wants to be working eighty-hour weeks, but why should mortgage and a children be a huge impediment to a life of multiple part-time jobs? I suppose the reason is stability and rootedness, but are we just too rooted these days? The institution of the thirty-year mortgage looks particularly odd these days; I’m sure there are a number of older people just paying off their thirty-year mortgage in Detroit right now who were looking forward to a much easier life, financially speaking, only to find it’s not quite what they wanted to be.

This may be an interesting case of culture versus economics; economically the idea of a series of part-time jobs looks intriguing—with the increasing substitutions of computers and machines for labor, actual people become less important and so part-time jobs becomes a possible economic solution. One could imagine this being appealing for many reasons too—you get to try out a bunch of different stuff and generate a variety of experiences; perhaps you’d become more entrepreneurial as you acquire a variety of experiences. Culturally, though, society is still geared against dilettante career-hopping: the thirty-year mortgage, as mentioned; perhaps marriage expectations; and career prestige is still tilted towards the people who focus over the people who hop around. So will money change our expectations or will our expectations change where the money goes?

Saturday, June 25, 2011


A very good review of David Foster Wallace’s fiction.

India: is it a poor country or a rich one?

The white elephants of Spain.

How the mortgage industry lies with statistics.

Texas Rangers hitter to wear contacts to change his eye color (to red) during day games so he can hit better.

Patent overhaul bill passes.

Germany’s two capitals (and their past and future)

Can North Africa light up Europe with solar power?

Missed Opportunity by Google

In disappointing news, apparently Google has closed Google Health, saying that it hasn’t been as disruptive as it could’ve been. In an interesting unintentional commentary on Peter Orszag’s claim that new health care information technology will disproportionately benefit the rich, apparently one of their problems was that only the affluent were using the personal health records provided by Google Health.

That’s a shame, because some form of electronic medical records is clearly necessary for moving to a more innovative, cheaper and more effective health care system. And while Google has a reputation for disruption, I’m not quite sure they were thinking disruptively enough when it came to their product: they were trying to interface with health care providers’ electronic medical records when they should have been trying to replace them entirely. In terms of creating a more functional, popular product, that’s not a big ask—not only are they too-rarely used, but the actual design of the things generally stinks (have you seen yours, if you have one? Chances are it looks like a mid-90s Windows RPG, interface-wise.) So, too bad.

Friday, June 24, 2011

How To Tell When Your Song Is Too Popular

When it starts getting played in contexts that are a totally inappropriate match for the circumstances. Classic examples include when "Who Let The Dogs Out?" started getting played at every sporting event (because what we all want to hear when watching sports is a song about inappropriate party farting) and the entire Black Eyed Peas catalog at any event ever (except, perhaps, a bonfire of BEP CDs). The other circumstance, for completeness's sake, in which you can tell your song is overplayed is "Hey Ya!", which was simply played far too much. (These songs become good after a rest--"Hey Ya!" is just as excellent now as when it began; "Who Let The Dogs Out?" is bad.) Our latest example:

We were recently played this song throughout the NBA Draft, and for an event ostensibly about the happiness of new beginnings and the future, it's odd to play a song about a bitter breakup containing the line "WE COULD'VE HAD IT AWWWLLLLLLLLLLL!" This sounds like the sort of thing you hear after the disastrous post-career bankruptcy, not the promising beginning.

In other words, totally inappropriate. The question is will "Rolling in the Deep" become "Who Let The Dogs Out?" or "Hey Ya!" While "Rolling in the Deep" is not as good as "Hey Ya!", I expect it to be more like that song--it is, in fact, a pretty solid song. But overplayed.


A look at what legalizing marijuana might do to Mexican cartels’ revenues.

The rise and fall of Myspace.

How high-speed rail will alter China.

Pharmaceutical industry going for even more intimate ties with academia.

You really do have to read Jose Antonio Vargas’s “My Life As An Undocumented Immigrant” (and then the editor’s story).

Dirk Nowitzki in Deutschland.

Zlatan Imbrahimovic: the winningest loser in all of sports.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Explanation Needed

So there's a fun enough article in the Times about a movie theater chain that takes a tough ol' Texas line against texters and assorted miscreants by kicking them out. Good for them, though I'd endorse a bit more rough Texan justice and support hanging without appeal. Nevertheless, the Times includes this one anecdote that demands additional context and explanation:
During a screening of “Shutter Island” at a multiplex in Lancaster, Calif., last year, for example, after a man asked another audience member to stop talking on her cellphone — politely, according to witnesses — her boyfriend attacked him with a meat thermometer, landing the victim in the hospital in a coma and the assailant in prison with a conviction for attempted murder.
Why does the boyfriend have a meat thermometer? (Why not a more effective weapon? What was his thought process when he decided to acquire a meat thermometer in preference to actual weapons ["Well, I could get this knife, but I'd better use this meat thermometer?"]?) How can a single meat thermometer put someone in a coma? More explanation is needed here, surely.

Regulatory Accountability

The New Yorker has a well-reported piece from George Packer on the Raj Rajaratnam insider-trading case. Most of the details we already know, but Packer makes an excellent point late:
…nearly three years after the financial crisis, Wall Street still relies on reckless practices to create wealth. An investment banker recently described the meltdown, with some chagrin, as “a speed bump.” The S.E.C. remains so starved of resources that its budget this year falls short of Raj Rajaratnam’s net worth at the time of his arrest. The agency lacks the technology to keep track of the enormous volume and lightning speed of algorithmic trades, like the ones that caused last May’s “flash crash” of the stock market. The market has become more of an exclusive gambling club for the very rich than a level playing field open to the ordinary investor.

As for the larger financial system, in Washington, D.C., implementation of the Dodd-Frank regulatory reform law has been slowed, if not yet sabotaged, by lobbying on the part of the big banks and a general ebbing of will among politicians. Neil Barofsky, the former inspector general of TARP, said, “Is Tim Geithner going to have the political will to take on the size and interconnectivity of the largest banks? Nothing in his previous career suggests he would.” Barofsky went on, “It is a remarkable failure of our system that we’ve not addressed the fundamental problems that brought us into the financial crisis. And it is cynical or na├»ve to imagine it won’t happen again.”

The Rajaratnam case, like the Bernie Madoff case, is an example of people falling in love with stories. Thematically, the Rajaratnam case and the Madoff case and the financial crisis seem very closely related; you could have a hell of a time presenting the similarities and complexities in an English time. The actual causation is harder though: Rajaratnam and Madoff are unimportant in comparison to the financial crisis, and what fed them was completely different—housing (and a nonperforming economy) vs. inattentive rich people vs. fraudulent stock practices. Similar but separate, in truth.

Nevertheless it is important to prosecute those wrongdoers that you can, if only to give the general impression that it’s all under control. Though of course it isn’t: the people who created all of these toxic products are unrepentant and wealthy. It’s odd the special lack of accountability that bankers seem to enjoy. In England, you have blatant cases of banks aiding money laundering (read the story for several laughable examples), and I don’t doubt that similar occurs in the U.S. Anything to gain a bit of extra working capital, hm? Meanwhile the big regulatory news is that the FTC is continuing its antitrust investigation of Google. I appreciate the regulatory proactivity, but I wonder if they might, perchance, examine the parts of the economy that are actually fucked up as opposed to the ones that might, maybe, become fucked up.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Peter Orszag worries that new health care technology will promote inequality; that the well-off will be able to afford the newer stuff and the not-so-well-off won’t be. He wisely chooses to focus on the gap in available information—the new brand of health care technologies collect much more information, record much more information, and thereby make much more information available for patients and doctors to act upon. This seems plausible enough on first glance, and it might actually turn out to be true. But I think there are solid reasons for skepticism: I’m not sure such technology would work, and if it does work I see few reasons why it wouldn’t be widespread.

Let’s take the latter critique first. It’s a commonplace that Moore’s Law delivers more computing power at a lower price every year; that’s often mistakenly extended to other, inapplicable fields—not all problems are computing problems, believe it or not—but this is not such an instance. Orszag’s entire case rests on the availability of information, but we know that more information is available at a cheaper price than ever before and I see no reason that this wouldn’t continue.

The more interesting point is one Orszag only hints at but doesn’t get at further, and ties into my idea that I’m not sure such technology would work. I’m using “work” in an unconventional way here—instead of its actual technical use “working,” I mean its social function “working.” The electric car works technically but may not work socially. Same thing for the type of information technology Orszag envisions—I’m not sure it will work socially unless the superstructure of the health care system is changed.

More information isn’t necessarily better. Technocrats like Orszag are very comfortable with integrating data into their lives—with knowing the context and nuance to the thing; they are comfortable with the fact that data is just another language and as such has difficulties—and so they mistakenly extend their mental model to everyone. But we know that most people don’t necessarily work that way. They did a study of calorie counts on restaurant menus in New York City a while back and found that it actually caused customers to order more calories. This, I should note, is for a fairly intuitive statistical measure. There are more obscure and hence more ignorable statistics out there for people to misunderstand.

And if human nature is one thing, how are we to interact with doctors who might be able to explain such subtleties? These days the American doctor is a harried individual packing her day full of appointments and consultations, with nary a moment for explanation. It certainly doesn’t pay at the moment to be so patient about your relationships; medicine is all about volume. And with the amount of information Orszag anticipates, volume is the enemy and context the ally—you can’t boil things down to a specific, headline number.

That’s the social stuff. I’m not even sure that the technical benefits are all that large. Most of the scans they give these days aren’t particularly useful; if you give the same doctor the same scan on two different occasions he will often give you two different diagnoses. This is to say nothing of the various state-of-the-art joint replacements that work no better than their ancestors, or the pharmaceuticals with little clinical benefit but much marketing muscle. Technologically, a lot of the new stuff is not particularly huge.

All this is a way of saying that like many prophecies it sounds good but the reality is far more muddled.


$100 million high school sits unused in mint(ish) condition in California: it’s cheaper not to use than to use.

Boston Review has a nice forum on experimental economics.

Mexican gang has moved into Guatemala.

Don’t look to courts for social change (historically, they’re conservative).

The long autumn of Roger Federer.

On the future of water.

Stop mining coal and oil and start mining heat?

The economic benefits of cutting haze from coal power plants.

Pakistan, emigration, and the ISI.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The New York Times has a pretty good article on corrupt boss Jack Warner. Warner, for those of us who are unfamiliar, is one of those political bosses in poorer countries who extracts his take from just about everything—Warner’s big thing (besides running the government of Trinidad & Tobago) is soccer: he was an executive committee member of FIFA, the President of CONCACAF (otherwise known to normal people as “North America”), and so on. This gave him quite a few opportunities to extract kickbacks, appoint buddies, steer business, etc., which of course he availed himself of mightily.

That’s not good for soccer in general, of course, but I’m not so sure it’s quite as bad in general as it’s made out to be (politically, at least). I read an interesting argument in a book whose title I forget but probably still own that posited that political corruption is actually not all that bad: it’s not as if the money from bribes et. al. disappears. Instead, it’s reinvested. If corrupt official X does a sound job reinvesting the cash, then the economy prospers even though some businessmen might have lighter wallets than otherwise. It’s possible to carry this argument out too long, but it’s worth thinking about. Certainly countries like Japan didn’t exactly lack for corruption during their upward growth phase, and China, India and Brazil are often spectacularly corrupt.

So in many ways I’m not surprised to see plaudits like this:
“He has a reputation as a doer, helping the dispossessed,” said Rita Pemberton, who is the head of the history department at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. “He has made the front pages of the newspapers, helping this one and that one — people whose houses were falling or dilapidated — and adopting children, the kinds of things that win you support at the ground level.”

If you take a lot of money, you’d better be providing services. In politics, that’s being personally accountable. To cite another book—I read the memoirs Plunkitt of Tammany Hall for a history class, and what’s striking is the level of intimacy and responsiveness politicians had to have in order to keep the wheels of the machine grinding. I’m not sure it can be precisely measured, but the responsiveness seemed much greater than people have these days in the U.S.

I’m quite certain in the long run corruption needs to be cured, but I’m not sure it’s a right-this-moment problem for many developing countries.

The Moment

New York profiles Rick Perry, and it’s striking how much right-wing ideas become ever more right-wing. For example:
In his book Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington, he contends that the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments—which allow for the Feds to collect income taxes and for the direct election of U.S. senators, respectively—are both big mistakes. To many tea-¬partyers, in fact, these positions might look more like badges of honor than marks of shame.

He maintains that the key to job growth nationally is a radical form of federalism that would allow every state to compete with ruthless abandon for corporate investment—to compete, in other words, to out-Texas Texas. To many critics, this sounds like a recipe for an abysmal race to the bottom; they point out that the state, in addition to creating jobs, is also one of the most polluted in the country, has the highest percentage of residents without health insurance, and ranks 43rd in high-school graduation.

Is there a liberal politician out there with comparably extreme views? Perhaps Bernie Sanders, who’s a socialist after all, and perhaps Dennis Kucinich too. But these guys aren’t treated seriously at all and their ideas less so. More to the point, their ideas are typically somewhat new and fresh; Perry’s ideas are old reflexes and dispositions pretending to be new motions. These ideas were discarded for a reason—they’re utterly crazy—and so it’s distressing to see them brought back for any purpose other than mocking the past.

Perry’s ideas about the Constitution probably need no rebuttal, but his second idea is probably stranger: for someone to be an avid free-marketeer, it’s odd to embrace what is essentially zero-sum competition in regulatory matters. States will only get job growth in this manner insofar as they steal jobs from other states or countries, and generally the types of jobs that get generated aren’t exactly the win-the-future type that we want. (Well, mostly—but then again I doubt Rick Perry has it in his mind to deregulate licensing and in particular medical licensing.)

So if Perry is getting this type of play, it’s a sign that the ever-more-right-wing moment will expend longer and deeper.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Ah, What's The Point Here?

Sasha Frere-Jones has a funny essay on the women of pop, comparing Beyonce and Lady Gaga, but he commits an error in his description of Gaga:
Lady Gaga, by contrast, is all distance and transgressiveness. She shows up in our lives, but only as close as her commercials for Google allow. (She’s the only pop star big enough to negotiate with Google.) Gaga has her own way of being family-friendly, which makes the idea of Sasha Fierce seem like a halting crayon sketch. At the after-party for the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, two weeks ago, having been presented with the Fashion Icon Award, Gaga danced with her father, Joe Germanotta, in a bodysuit that was only a millimetre or two away from being transparent. Even when Dad’s in the room, Gaga has no interest in playing to the middle. Her body-distorting outfits and avid embrace of the gay community don’t scare many: “Born This Way,” released on May 23rd, sold 1.1 million units in its first week, the most since 50 Cent’s “The Massacre,” in 2005. But in the second week the album’s sales were down drastically, by eighty-four per cent, placing her next to Adele, who was sticking close to the same chart position she has maintained in the seventeen weeks since the release of her record.

The familiar question—how trangressive are you really if you’re also very popular—applies with particular force to Lady Gaga. For me, it’s hard to escape the impression that she is actually very boring, both in persona and musically.

Her music generally sounds recycled from the eighties or seventies with stale synthesizers, etc., and it’s not as if the lyrics are particularly interesting or novel. But then again I doubt the Lady Gaga phenomenon is about the music: it’s about the persona. Gaga’s persona is a comfortable trangressiveness for the mainstream to embrace: few people are ready to admit to anti-gay prejudice or indeed prejudice of any sort and therefore Gaga’s anti-prejudice stance is not particularly bold. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing that Gaga believes these particular things, it’s just that you should forgive me for being uninterested when someone proclaims she wants to be bold and produces actions few people actually disagree with. The other plank of her calculated outrageousness is her fashions, but does that matter? Like, at all? Isn’t that the stuff of slideshows and instant impressions and just-as-instant forgetting? If your brand is based on transgress, at least transgress an interesting norm or two.

So—what, exactly, is the point of Lady Gaga again?


Bank exposure to Greece, parsed.

The real show of London’s upcoming Olympics—the urban renewal project.

The Guardian has a great article on Central Americans migrating across Mexico to the U.S. and the hazards they face. I recommend the film Sin Nombre if you’re interested in the cinematic treatment.

New York Times writers name their favorite nonfiction books (that Robert Caro’s “The Path To Power” is mentioned and not his “The Power Broker” is a very odd omission—really, they both ought to be on there.)

What the country needs—5% inflation?

Obama administration to stop giving out health care law waivers.

The story of the Stanley Cup.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

NBA Draft 2011

With the NBA draft coming up, it’s a decent time to take stock of the league. The initial image of the draft—that it’s bottom-heavy (and “heavy” is a relative term here)—seems to be the correct one so far. That’s a serious problem to have: NBA scouts are generally correct about the generalities when it comes to the NBA Draft. If they say there aren’t any superstars, then the probabilities are there aren’t any to be had. That’s a problem—the NBA, now as ever, is a superstar league, as the Mavericks, Heat, Thunder and Bulls prove.

It should be a rather better draft if you want to fill in some holes—which should be a boon for the Bulls, who need that one good shooting guard to get that much better (Tyler Honeycutt! Honeycutt!). That’s a bad thing for the bad teams in the league in two ways: one, the players aren’t likely to be very good for them; two, a fill-in-the-holes player is only going to be useful to you if you know what your holes actually are.

Circumstance basically determines whether or not your draft strategy is any good, and since superstars are the only way to win, you need to get lucky. With all the discussion about the structure of the league and the strategies needed to beat it, you need to get lucky.

(If I were the Cavs, I’d think about drafting Derrick Williams over Kyrie Irving with that first pick. Williams has a chance to be a distinctive player, someone few teams have the players to match up with. Maybe that’s wishful thinking. For the Bulls, I want Honeycutt and perhaps a foreign player to stash overseas.)


Slate has an interesting article about the enduring appeal of traditional medicine relative to modern medicine:
Traditional medicine has an enduring draw; consequently, it is a struggle to convince patients to stick with modern treatment. Standing in a breezy exterior hallway in Moshi's Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center near the Child Centered Family Care Clinic where he spends his days, pediatrician Dr. Rahim Damji told me that for weeks this spring, the crowds that typically throng the outpatient HIV clinic at the hospital had thinned out. Many patients stopped taking their anti-retroviral medication after making the trek several hours away to visit a new traditional healer in Loliondo, Ambilikile Mwasapile, known simply as Babu. A retired Lutheran minister, Babu began to gain fame around East Africa last fall because of a herbal concoction—called mugariga—that he claims is a miracle cure for HIV and four other major ailments, including diabetes, hypertension, and epilepsy. Lines of SUVs and minibuses crawled along, stretching for miles as people—often very ill—tried to reach him. Some avoided the line by flying in on helicopters. Babu's visitors included government officials such as Tanzania's deputy minister for Water and Irrigation….

Dr. Maya Maxym, an American pediatrician at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center with thePediatric AIDS Corps, explained Babu's draw: "People here have a very deep faith, and God is very present, real, and tangible in their lives," she said. "So, the combination of religiosity and magical thinking creates a perfect niche for someone like Babu to come in and give people hope that their suffering can be taken away by a miracle." People are willing to shell out two months' salary to "go and drink a cup of hope." The impact on HIV clinics around the area was noticeable. "People were coming here less and less. But now they've learned that these herbal medications are not working and are coming back to the hospital," Damji said. "We have had to change some medication because of resistance."

This should spur some skepticism among observers that all that’s needed to combat disease, particularly HIV, is piles of money for vaccines. Certainly widespread use of vaccines is an excellent way to combat disease, and certainly plenty of money is needed to purchase those vaccines. That’s not, however, a sufficient condition. Culture is pretty complex and powerful, and it takes more than cash to twist it to your purposes.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ah, Unsurprising

The New York Times has an excellent article on double scanning: when a patient is given a CT scan...then given another in the same day. If you've been paying attention to this blog, you know that the value of one of these scans is somewhat ambiguous, so it may come as no surprise that getting two in the same day is not a good idea--from a cost perspective, or, of course, a health one (one CT scan = 350 chest X-rays, so, uh...a lot of radiation there). Basically many of the trends you've heard about the health care system are present in the article. It's a question of incentives, first (hospitals get to bill twice); a question of culture and geography, second. (Geographically--and this isn't a surprise--Massachusetts scores best in not giving patients double scans; Oklahoma scores worst.) Culturally:
The Medicare agency believes hospitals can and should do more to change physician behavior. “Hospitals will say, ‘Wait, we don’t order tests, why are you measuring us?’ ” said Dr. Michael Rapp, who directs the Quality Measurement and Health Assessment Group for the federal agency. But, he added, “Hospitals certainly have the ability to put in policies and to monitor what’s happening.”
Correct. It's not exactly a significant source of revenue for hospitals, so the culture of throwing-the-entire-arsenal at the problem tends to reign.

And, of course, like many health care problems, reducing the amount of care here actually means better care and better health for the patient, insofar as receiving unnecessary blasts of radiation tends to injure one's health.

Bridesmaids, Awkwardness, and the Hollywood Ending

You should watch Bridesmaids: it’s a very good comedy. It also becomes more interesting as you think about it. The first impression is that it is a number of SNL skits linked together by a common, overarching plot (Kristen Wiig trying to get pulled over by a cop is hysterical), but there’s something more about it.

The film is concerned mostly with the comedy of awkwardness, which is well-trodden territory by now. Like most awkwardness comedy it talks about the perils and attraction of self-sabotage. There’s a funny little bit in which Kristen Wiig and her archenemy spar over how much people change, with each of them dancing around a point they’ve already decided on (Wiig is in the people-don’t-change camp, which is self-serving for her character in many ways: she’d prefer people don’t change because her friend, the one who’s getting married, is being pulled between Wiig and her archenemy, and if she doesn’t change she’s still Wiig’s friend. And she prefers that people don’t change because she doesn’t want to change herself—she is a cynical, self-sabotaging kind of a gal.). And of course people-don’t-change is the fundamental message of most of the comedy of awkwardness stuff--all those times you’ve embarrassed yourself, it seems to say, because you didn’t know the right thing to say, because you read someone else wrong, that’s always you and you’ll never get over that. And you know better and can’t change it. Isn’t that uncomfortably funny?

Wiig ends up embarrassing herself, driving away her friends and destroying her romantic prospects in a finely-tuned instinct for self-destruction (she can never quite resist the temptation to act out. There’s a perceptive line when the bride-to-be shouts at Wiig that instead of acting cynically publicly, she should “talk behind her back like everyone else.” The comedy of awkwardness usually relies on people not quite getting the rules, or refusing to play by them. In something like The Office, Michael Scott doesn’t get the rules [and everyone else is beaten by them]; in this film Wiig perfectly well understands what the rules are but can’t bring herself to play by them—they’ve let her down.) This is about par for the course for the comedy-of-awkwardness genre, which raises the question of “What next?”

This is always a tricky question for a writer but might be particularly tricky in this instance. Audiences like being happy and like seeing their characters change. It sounds sappy. But this is more often true than you’d think; back in writing classes the question would always be asked: how are the characters changing? It’s a perfectly sensible question to ask—if the characters are always the same, why should we focus on this particular time as opposed to any other? But the message of the comedy-of-awkwardness is typically that you can’t change, however much you might like to. This creates difficulty, which requires a lot of artfulness to solve.

I don’t think Bridesmaids solves the problem at all. It has a happy ending—the girl(s) get(s) the guy(s)—and does it well enough that you genuinely feel good afterwards. But it’s a bit dissatisfying for me, at least—I intellectualize movies as I’m watching them, and I couldn’t quite escape the feeling, even at the depths of Wiig’s character’s troubles, that she’d be solving them in Hollywood fashion. Which, of course, she did, in dramatically less screen time than it took for her to get into them in the first place. The punchline essentially defied the premise.


Why policy-minded academics should blog.

An interview with David Foster Wallace back in Sept. 2006.

FT has a detailed analysis of the Iranian political conflict.

Can we afford the military budget?

Brazil is arming against pirates on the Amazon.

Cancer death rates falling.

Are we reaching Turkey’s economic moment?

Today in budget battles: slash budgets for school lunches, keep subsidies for big agribusiness.

Universal pre-school: a necessary idea.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Question Time

A meandering, long essay about the history of corporations from 1600-2100 contains this insight about the East India Company:
At a broader level, the EIC managed to balance an unbalanced trade equation between Europe and Asia whose solution had eluded even the Roman empire. Massive flows of gold and silver from Europe to Asia via the Silk and Spice routes had been a given in world trade for several thousand years. Asia simply had far more to sell than it wanted to buy. Until the EIC came along…

Basically the EIC had to sell Asia drugs in order to balance out trade flows.

Viewed with this information, the current trade deficit with the U.S./E.U. to Asia doesn’t look like a temporary aberration but more a part of a historical pattern whereby the West wants more stuff than the East than the East wants from the West. Is this overgeneralizing? I’m not entirely sure. But why is it the equilibrium seems to feature such an exchange of money for goods?

Also: if it is true the pattern is woven in rather than an ebbs-and-flows deal, what does that say about classical economics? Can you have a one-sided free trade regime (probably not: eventually you need to hit an equilibrium in which the balance of trade is even, and therefore some countries practicing mercantilism while others practice openness will inevitably fail, one imagines.)

Afghanistan Crisis

So, uh, this:
The Afghan government will struggle to pay its bills "within a month" after the International Monetary Fund rejected proposals for resolving theKabul Bank scandal, western officials have warned.

The IMF rejected the proposals because:
. Firstly, an agreement that Afghan taxes, not foreign aid, will repay the $820m taken out of central bank reserves last year to prop up the bank. Second, they want serious criminal investigations against managers and shareholders, many of whom enjoy high level political support, who illegally borrowed huge sums of interest-free cash from the bank.

Is there any foreign military intervention of the U.S.’s that’s looking good these days? I’m struggling to think of an example. Turns out, it’s hard to bomb a society to rubble and then, while accelerating a process that took hundreds of years everywhere else, build a functioning society in its place in a reasonable time frame. Who could’ve guessed?


Charging up the world’s market for vaccines.

A new method of treating burns (spray-on skin)?

A conservative case for Medicare rationing (i.e. IPAB)

An interesting-looking bill meant to deal with antibiotics.

Can anyone stop the British tabloids from acting up?

Obama administration argues Libya war legal.

Death, drugs and corruption in Colombia.

Tragically Trivial

So the WSJ has the obligatory “what’s next for Anthony Weiner” article, in which the familiar ideas that “Americans like a comeback story” and “Americans are quick to forgive” blah blah blah are trotted out. The weird thing about the story, however, is the finger-wagging tone of it, where separate people suggest that Weiner has “a few screws loose” or that he ought to do “penance” and that he needs to show “remorse.”

All this is a goofy manifestation of a puritanical type of mindset (or, at least, assuming that one exists), because, really: who did Anthony Weiner hurt, exactly? His wife, perhaps (who hasn’t made her feelings clear one way or the other, but one assumes…) The people? As far as we know it was consensual.

What evidence is there that Weiner has screws loose? Has there been any suggestion that his actual job performance was poor? Has there been any suggestion previous to now that he was an unstable or otherwise damaged personality? As far as we can tell, the answers are no.

Basically, Weiner did a dumb thing in that other people were bound to get all wound up in a tizzy over something very silly and ultimately personal, but other than that—do what you gotta do there, champ. It’s weird to see these quotes, which are basically the same quotes you’d see after any disgraced politician story, except that it’s no ordinary disgraced politician story: it is tragically trivial.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Checking In

Foreign Policy has an article about how Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq is consolidating power and rapidly becoming the sort of controlling leader we allegedly invaded to prevent:
With these security gains, Iraq's primary challenge has now shifted. Terrorist violence is still an enormous and regular threat, of course: Roadside bombs target U.S. and Iraqi security forces; insurgents sabotage essential infrastructure; assassins murder government officials with silenced pistols; and suicide attackers carry out coordinated operations designed to rack up the highest body count possible. But as horrible as terrorist violence is, the ICG has observed that "it will take a change in the country's political dynamics in order for [insurgent] attacks to have any significant effect" on the stability of the state. The existential threat to Iraq no longer comes from isolated attacks, but from the risks of political combustion.

Maliki's growing power may now pose such a risk. Despite his security gains, he has not normalized command and control of the military. In fact, he now functions not only as commander in chief but also as the acting head of the Defense and Interior ministries, which run the Army and the police, respectively. Not only is Maliki effectively a commanding general, but he is also the chief administrator of the country's security forces. In 2009, in light of this worrying trend, the Guardiancharacterized Maliki's rule as authoritarian; Maliki responded by suing the British newspaper for nearly a million dollars and seeking to close its Baghdad bureau.

The rest of the article has the usual disturbing signs—terrorizing journalists, marginalizing the opposition, etc.—and they’re pretty disturbing. It’s worth noting, whenever news comes out like this, that the exact purpose of the initial invasion and the subsequent surge was to create a better politics for Iraq. They are better, clearly so: but are they so much better that we can say the price we paid for it was worth it? I’m going to say no.

Feel Good Policies

Via Marginal Revolution, this is a good line on banning those wasteful incandescent light bulbs:
If they’re really interested in environmental quality, policy makers shouldn’t care how households get to that total. They should just raise the price of electricity, through taxes or higher rates, to discourage using it.

Instead, the law raises the price of light bulbs, but not the price of using them. In fact, its supporters loudly proclaim that the new bulbs will cost less to use. If true, the savings could encourage people to keep the lights on longer.

This makes perfect sense and I agree. Banning a particular type of light bulbs won’t have a big effect. But I suspect that’s the precise reason they’ve been banned. There’s an anxiety about global warming—the typical have cake/eat it too one. We’d like to do global warming, but don’t want to make any substantial sacrifices to avert it. Banning a particular type of light bulbs is an easy sacrifice to make, and while I’m sure we all realize the action won’t stop global warming, it allows us to pretend otherwise. Same with all of the rest of those lifestyle modification green policies—yes, your canvas bag at the grocery store is not going to save all of the trees in the forest—but it makes us feel good.


American retail chain stores are trying again in Europe.

Russia’s VIP car policy causing citizen rage:
[The] migalka -- a blue VIP car siren that, when turned on, allows the driver to circumvent all traffic laws -- … With that blue light flashing, a driver can cut through traffic like an ambulance, and everyone else must scatter. (Although some VIPs don't even botherissuing that warning.)

China’s big health problem—lead poisoning:
The few published studies point to a huge problem. One 2001 research paper called lead poisoning one of the most common pediatric health problems in China. A 2006 review of existing data suggested that one-third of Chinese children suffer from elevated blood lead levels.

An easy way to make poor people’s lives better in developing countries—get them eyeglasses.

Coen brothers preview movie they’re working on. Hmm…

What happens after the [business] one-hit wonder?

An oral history of Dirk Nowitzki. And: playing against Dirk Nowitzki as a minor-league basketball player in Germany.

On slums and free markets.

Belgium has gone a year without an official government.

The non-existent invisible hand.

In favor of more corporate raiders?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No Wai!!

Totally unsurprising:
Almost three months into the campaign of air strikes, Britain and its Nato allies no longer believe bombing alone will end the conflict in Libya, well-placed government officials have told the Guardian.

Instead, they are pinning their hopes on the defection of Muammar Gaddafi's closest aides, or the Libyan leader's agreement to flee the country.

"No one is envisaging a military victory," said one senior official who echoed Tuesday's warnings by Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, head of the navy, that the bombing cannot continue much beyond the summer.

Of course, announcing your strategy is "We'll give up if you don't" is an excellent way to ensure you give up.

What, exactly, was the point of all this again? When was the last time bombing someone exclusively actually won a war? Don't you need to have boots on the ground in order to actually control a given piece of territory (which you would need to do in an instance like this)? What happens once we give up--haven't we just pissed off Gaddhafi for no gain whatsoever?

Thinking things through--still our greatest weakness, apparently.

Let's Get Regulatory

Here’s a pretty good article assessing the details of the Obama administration’s regulatory policy. To summarize quickly: the regulations aren’t being handed down, and the promised deregulations are mostly benefiting businesses. To wit:
"All signs are that they are imposing additional constraints on themselves in the one area where they have the most freedom to operate," Weissman adds. "The result is we're going to have less protection for health and safety for consumers and workers, the environment is going to be more poisoned, people are going to be less economically secure -- all because of a reluctance to offend the big money interests that dominate Washington politics."

This is all well and good and I mostly agree with the critique—it does suck that the administration is afraid of offending business interests, and thereby forgoes regulation or neuters it. However, I think regulation and deregulation is more complex than the simple spectrum set up in our politics from low regulation/big business love ----- heavy regulation/big business hate. There are many regulations out there that businesses specifically advocate for as a way of shutting out new entrants or otherwise punishing competitors (e.g. copyright law, occupational licensing, etc.), or regulations that just hurt everyone’s welfare (e.g. immigration restriction), not just big business. The regulatory state is to complex to be simplified.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pakistan Arrests

Today in encouraging news:
Pakistan’s top military spy agency has arrested some of the Pakistani informants who fed information to the Central Intelligence Agency in the months leading up to the raid that led tothe death of Osama bin Laden, according to American officials.

Pakistan—can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. Well, you can live without them, but only if you’re willing to contemplate big changes in the American foreign policy status quo, which apparently no one is quite ready to do. And to be fair, the doomsday scenario in Pakistan—militants with their finger on the atomic bomb trigger eying India (with its finger on its atomic bomb trigger) with suspicion—does sound appropriately bad. But if some imagined worst-case scenario is bad, is it worth tolerating an increasingly uncomfortable reality? If it weren’t for the fact that we’re already involved with Pakistan, would we be involved with Pakistan? This seems unclear.


Let’s do the accountability game:

One man shot another guy in the face.
One man slept with a prostitute.
One man was found with tens of thousands of dollars frozen in his freezer.
One guy likes to send pictures of himself to people who want to see pictures of him.

Only one is under serious pressure to resign!

Now, you can’t call this a party thing—there’s one Democrat (“Dollar Bill” Jefferson) and two Republicans. And you can’t call it a sex thing only (I mean, Vitter slept with a prostitute). So what explains the derision for Weiner and the survival for Mssrs. Cheney, Vitter, and Jefferson (well, the latter survived the elites and was finally ousted by the voters…three years after it became clear Jefferson was absurdly corrupt)? I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer, but if I had to guess, the titillation here is that Weiner had the misfortune to be into a modern form of sex. If Weiner slept with a secretary, probably no big deal—because sleeping with the secretary is an ordinary kind of a sin. At least part of the derision behind the Weiner thing is that a large proportion of people believe it’s utterly asinine to be sending pictures of your private parts over the internet (though it’s difficult to tell what proportion of the aforementioned large proportion enjoy looking at pictures of private parts on the internet). But that just explains the “titillation” part—it’s a leap to resignation, isn’t it? Maybe it’s because they believe Weiner is such an idiot to be indulging this that there’s no way he can be effective. Of course, we have a pretty good idea whether or not Weiner is an effective representative, seeing as he’s been a representative for a few years now. His record is his record.

But that’s accountability in the U.S.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mavs Win

The Mavericks did it. On one hand, this might cause glee for many fans and hope for others. I’d only recommend the first feeling if the event in itself is pleasurable and not grounds for the second—i.e. I wouldn’t necessarily expect your team to benefit from the example.

After all, if the Heat wins, what kind of example must that set to general managers? How can you imitate the Heat, exactly? “Go get two of the top five players in the NBA”—there’s some great advice there. The Mavericks seem more attainable; as a Bulls fan, you can see some of the same things in the Bulls—except the Mavericks are older, more wizened, and Dirk is awesome. (Can Rose become as good as Dirk? Plausible, right?)

If you’re not a Bulls fan (or a Thunder fan), it’s hard to take much hope from the result in terms of aspiring to the Mavericks’ example. This Mavericks team was built through a willingness to spend cash at a galactic level, and the willingness to trade for and waste money on many useless players until the right combination clicked. That’s fine, but it’s not a sustainable strategy.

Still, good for the Mavs and good for Dirk Nowitzki.

Studies in Legislative Torpor

Government at its finest:
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is threatening to use the power of his position to alter key elements of No Child Left Behind if Congress doesn't renew and upgrade the education law before the next school year begins.

Mr. Duncan is promising to waive specific requirements of the law in exchange for states agreeing to adopt other efforts he has championed, such as linking teacher evaluations to student achievement, expanding charter schools and overhauling the lowest-performing schools. Effectively, he's warning Congress that if it doesn't overhaul the nine-year-old law, he'll bypass lawmakers to get his way.

I don’t blame Duncan—NCLB is a very flawed law, and Congress has shown little desire to get things done (the article quotes Tom Harkin as saying there’s “bipartisan” support and a Republican House member as desirous of passing reforms in a piecemeal fashion, which are great sentiments, but still.) For these big reform bills, it’s fair to expect six months to a year to take in the best of times—health care reform and financial reform each took about that year, but with unified Democratic control over each branch of government—and if that best-case scenario holds, we’re looking at passing the bill by the end of the year. But that’s optimistic; any error or delay pushes the schedule into 2012, which is an election year, which means the entire political system gets even stupider than it currently is. And if that occurs, you might find education shunted aside entirely, which is an unacceptable result.

This wouldn’t be an issue if Congress were able to do the slightest thing competently, but it is an increasingly incapable institution, so this necessitates the executive branch to actually execute some plans of action. That’s a bad course of option for many reasons—the lack of accountability, the lack of public debate—but it’s preferable to nothing being done, which is what would happen if we left governance to Congress.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Does China’s gaokao college-examination test serve its youth poorly?

Should the government encourage monopolies and other big businesses?:
The heretical truth is that rapid economic growth and unionization may sometimes require markets that are deliberately made less competitive by regulation. Monopolistic and oligopolistic corporations are more likely to invest in breakthrough innovation than firms struggling to break even in highly competitive markets. And cartelized industries are far friendlier to organized labor than ultra-competitive markets. If progressives really want to promote technology-driven growth and a union-based middle class, then they need to reconsider the lessons of the New Deal’s successful experiment in utility capitalism.
(And an interesting pair of replies.)

Are wildfires getting worse?

Can we deliberately make ourselves smarter?

IBM doing some interesting work with a new graphene circuit.

Did “IP eat TFP”?

The dilemma of India’s poor state, West Bengal.

Why The Internet Isn't Like The Rest Of The World:

It's still new. Here's Groupon's founder about the seeming obviousness of the idea of social media + coupons:
"In music, which was my world before, you've got thousands and thousands of years of great ideas that have already been thought of. But the internet is basically 20 years old. So you can be way stupider and still have world-changing ideas. So yes, it is simple." He laughs. "It's ridiculously, enormously simple. It's still a gold rush. Any hick can show up and find a nugget."

This may explain part of the whole great stagnation thesis: the rest of the economy has been conquered by specialists, and specialists require a vast process of knowledge and credentialism to undergo the alchemy from generalists to specialist. That's not necessarily bad--scientists, say, need a lot of knowledge in order to get to a position in which they can actually find out about something new--but it does mean that gathering new knowledge will be a more tedious process. (Whereas, in the past, important math and science ideas could be discovered by gifted amateurs: Benjamin Franklin and Leibniz poured the foundation for much of math and science and for them math and science was kind of a hobby. The only realm where you see someone's hobby turning into vast cash these days tends to be the internet. Perhaps the lesson is that hobbies are more likely to create large sources of wealth than one's job.)

Theory Confirmed!

Jane Jacobs’s theory was that properly-designed cities should, all else being equal, have less crime per capita than suburbs—because there are always people around with eyes open, there isn’t as much room for a criminal to hide. Criminals thrive without scrutiny, is the basic theory.

That basic theory seems to be confirmed a little bit by New York’s wonderful High Line park, which has had not a single major crime reported. This almost sounds implausible or ridiculous—no one has gotten into a fight or something?—but I suppose it’s true. I have no special reason to disbelieve. There are some structural reasons inherent to the High Line that make criminality difficult (e.g.: if you’re a pickpocket, what’s your escape route? Jumping off?), but I think it comes down to the eyes theory. As one quotation puts it:
“Empty parks are dangerous,” said Joshua David, one of the founders of Friends of the High Line. “Busy parks are much less so. You’re virtually never alone on the High Line.”

Friday, June 10, 2011


Looking at lists to trace history (and confirming the “Industrious Revolution.”)

Would massive investment from Google crowd out private investment?

Are universities suppressing innovation?

More vaccines for poor could save 6.4 million lives.

After its hugely successful bike-sharing program, Paris is launching an electric car-sharing program.

LeBron James’s Jordan problem: his story isn’t as good.

Banks lose on swipe feeds.

The price of Manhattan (or: why Manhattan should get denser?)

Wanted: more Wimbledons?

Tracking talent flows in Silicon Valley.

Financial transparency not very transparent.

Iceland is crowdsourcing its new constitution.

Is This Not The Most Unfair Song?

Isn't it unfair to judge a particular American woman based on America's foreign policy? Isn't that desperately silly? (And they say rap likes to demean people...) (But they've both got nice beats.)


Pivoting off of the piece on an Indian city called Gurgaon in India, which grew from barely nothing to seemingly-thriving hub for big companies, Kevin Drum and Alex Tabarrok react. It’s Tabarrok’s reaction that’s worth thinking about and responding to. He talks about the original developer who started building there and says:
Had the original developer been responsible for both the oases and the desert it could have built the power plants, the roads and other infrastructure and made locating in Gurgaon even more desirable than it is now. It is true that a city requires public goods which local governments often do not provide. Charter cities try to get around this problem by importing wholesale a new, higher quality government. An alternative is to avoid government all together and privatize enough to make the entire city what is in effect a hotel on a grand scale.

But what to do now? The governments involved are inefficient and often corrupt. We can hope that they will get better in response to the well-educated populace and the incoming corporations but even today, the solution is not simply to hope for better government but to expand on what is working well. The firms that operate the private oases are “small cities,” the solution is to make these cities larger.

Connect enough office parks, factories, and apartments, for example, and it will make sense for a private firm to build an efficient electric plant rather than have smaller firms use inefficient and polluting diesel as is the case now.

I’m not quite sure Gurgaon in practice or Gurgaon in theory quite fulfills the libertarian vision ascribed to it. There’s a throwaway line in the article that hasn’t gotten the necessary attention:
The water supply is vastly inadequate, leaving private companies, developers and residents dependent on borewells that are draining the underground aquifer. Local activists say the water table is falling as much as 10 feet every year.

There’s just not enough water. This is a manageable problem if there’s only one or a few Gurgaons, but it is not in any way a scalable solution. The world is already running low on water as it is without the determinedly voracious appetites of mature capitalism factoring on a worldwide scale. The theoretical or actual Gurgaon would have more voracious appetites still. Obviously water is underpriced in all scenarios and therefore I suppose a monopolistic business controlling all of the water might be an adequate solution but I find monolithic business to be equal to monolithic government on the list of evils to avoid.

The article overall is reminiscent of the situation in the United States circa 1900 or so, and in that case rather than leave the country to governments, or hope for a better government, citizens organized and built a much better government for themselves. They had in many cases decidedly mixed results and bequeathed us with some permanent mistakes but overall figured out a system that worked pretty well for a pretty long time. Tabarrok later describes the problems arising from private provision of public goods as “second-order” problems of monopoly, but that’s only a way of evading that at a certain point you need an active, competent government.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


U.S. falling behind in green business:
Of the three largest operators of wind farms doing business in the United States, only one, NextEra, is American. Iberdrola is Spanish and Horizon Wind Energy is a subsidiary of Energias de Portugal. Among manufacturers making components for the industry, just one American company, General Electric, is in the top 10. The others include Suzlon (India), Vestas (Denmark), Goldwind (China) and Enercon (Germany).

Egypt’s economy is stopped.

Should personalized medicine be used for trials?

The changing nature of “confidence” in the Obama administration economic policy.

One way capitalism can make health care worse and more expensive.

More on Watson and health care.

Looking back on IBM’s history (The Economist)

Looking at antibiotics and farm animals (and the Danish example of going entirely off of antibiotics for farm animals).


This is unsurprising:
[Merritt Hawkins]’s annual report on recruiting incentives finds that 74% of the jobs they recruited for in the year ending March 31 featured a performance bonus. Of those that offered such a bonus, in 90% of the cases it was linked to “fee-for-service style volume.”

Meantime, fewer than 7% of the jobs offering bonuses rewarded physicians for meeting quality or cost goals. “Volume/production remains the standard,” the report says, despite the fact that “health reform encourages the use [of] quality or cost-based compensation metrics.”

This is, of course, the type of incentive we'd like to see go away in a better health care world.

One thing I think would be interesting to learn from this report are the geographic concentrations and to what extent doctors with such incentives are concentrated in high-cost areas. The "duh" result is yes, but always nice to see that confirmed.

Pump You Up

Via True Hoop we learn that one of the union proposals to NBA owners is extra draft picks to struggling teams. As Abbott points out, that’s a pretty goofy proposal:
…More good draft picks would be a way for the worst GMs and owners to compete without getting any better at their jobs. This is like performance-enhancing drugs for the worst front offices in the league.

As fans, we root for the great competitors, right? Those who do best at their jobs? I'd argue the league ought to encourage teams similarly. If the Clippers didn't have Blake Griffin walking through that door, as a reward for losing, wouldn't Donald Sterling have to do some soul-searching about how he runs his team, and maybe come up with a more competitive approach?

This is correct. It’s even more striking when you realize the number of teams that have been more-or-less generationally mismanaged—the Clippers, the Knicks, the Hawks, and the Warriors are probably overall the worst, though other teams flit in and out. (Strikingly, the number of highly mismanaged teams in big important markets is higher. Correlation or causation?) Obviously bailing them out with draft picks is an artificial way of increasing parity, the chop-the-best-down rather than build-them-up strategy, and it’s probably not best for the NBA in the long run—the most compelling teams (to me) have a vision and an organizing hand behind them; the pumped-up, doped teams that will emerge from this infusion of draft picks will be good but probably not organized.

At any rate, this is a funny little comment about the way the world works. I bet, of the 30 NBA owners, approximately 25 or even higher like to talk tough about capitalism most of the time but are utterly unconcerned with being whiny little socialists when it comes to their sports teams.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


On Indian private dynamism versus public dysfunction:
In this city that barely existed two decades ago, there are 26 shopping malls, seven golf courses and luxury shops selling Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs shimmer in automobile showrooms. Apartment towers are sprouting like concrete weeds, and a futuristic commercial hub called Cyber City houses many of the world’s most respected corporations.

Gurgaon, located about 15 miles south of the national capital, New Delhi, would seem to have everything, except consider what it does not have: a functioning citywide sewer or drainage system; reliable electricity or water; and public sidewalks, adequate parking, decent roads or any citywide system of public transportation. Garbage is still regularly tossed in empty lots by the side of the road.
It goes on. Fascinating read.

Russia declares “total war on drugs” and promises to treat drug dealers like “serial killers.” This will work out well for everyone, I’m sure.

A strange shortage in cancer drugs in the U.S.

Does the world need a new Marx more than a new Gladwell?

California will almost certainly miss the deadline to release prisoners from its overcrowded prisons.

How empty malls empty out the cities that rely on them.

Emerging market convergence in industrial production, but not overall productivity.

EPA targeting dirtiest coal plants for mercury.

The HBO Actor Recycling Program:
From the moment Aidan Gillen made his debut on Game of Thrones as kingdom treasurer Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, viewers had reasons to be suspicious. Sure, he swore fealty to our man Ned Stark and spoke modestly ("We are the lords of the small matters here") of his own role in the Grand Guignol political drama that is Westeros, a cesspool of backstabbing — and front-stabbing — that would make Lyndon Johnson weep like John Boehner. Baelish's mouth promised loyal assistance, but there was a glint in his eye, a weaselly vibe about him we just couldn't shake. Was it the flowing robes (call it Obi-Wan chic)? The disturbing tendency to deliver soliloquies while stage-managing live sex shows? Or the fact that Littlefinger — Littlefinger! — harbored a lifelong crush on Ned's wife? No, it was something else that left us unsurprised when Baelish's deception was revealed with a dagger held to Ned's throat: recognition. The last time we saw Aiden Gillen had also been on a Sunday night on HBO, when he was also playing a morally slippery politico who had trouble keeping his littlefinger in his pants and the truth in his words: Tommy Carcetti, the ambitious, duplicitous would-be Mayor of Baltimore from The Wire.

The article posits that it keeps on casting the same actors in the same types of roles and imprisons them forever. That said—spoiler alerts abound!—there are quite a few differences between Carcetti and Baelish. Carcetti is charismatic, but flops between idealistic and Machiavellian throughout the series. He’s also not personally a jerk. Baelish is pretty much always a jerk and always Machiavellian.