Showing posts from February, 2009

The Big Rip

Who exactly, is all that bank bailout money going to, and why? For me, that's the central mystery of the TARP. George Bush, the Republican Congress, and their market fundamentalist allies apparently enabled the greatest financial swindle in world history. What they did was to recklessly and egregiously fail to carry out their legal responsibilities to oversee and regulate American financial markets. Instead, they tolerated and cheered on a culture of dishonesty and theft. Joe Nocera , writing in the New York Times, looks at how it worked at AIG, which he calls ground zero for the mortgage backed securities scam. (Hat tip to Arun G) So far, the US government has poured $150 billion dollars into this one company, money that the taxpayers are unlikely to ever see again. AIG lost all this money by selling a type of insurance called a credit default swap, insuring banks, hedge funds, and others against the risk that the vast pile of toxic assets in mortgages would not go bad. Unlike oth

Stupidest Movie Ever

Or at least the stupidest one I can remember at the moment. If The Dark Knight doesn't manage to kill the Batman franchise it won't be for lack of trying. Despite two academy awards and a whole potful of excellent actors, this utterly incoherent piece of crap is as bad as Batman Begins was good. I suspect that some of these excellent actors did a good job, but unfortunately it was almost impossible to detect any acting through the monumentally idiotic plotting and preposterous situations presented here. This movie was seriously missing a writer and a director.

Woolly Bully

Drillbit Taylor is a completely forgetable teenage movie that taps into one of the classic school story themes: bullying. Skinny, shy and nerdish freshman and friend get crosswise with nasty senior bullies. I'm not quite sure that this is a universal experience, but is surely is common. Aside from being skinny, shy, and nerdish, I was hardly classic bully bait - I was tall and on the football, basketball, and track teams, but I did manage to attract a few, so my guess is that being bullied is more the rule than the exception. I imagine that bully and bullied are re-enacting ancient rituals of dominance competition that go back to our apelike ancestors and beyond - chimps do it, monkees do it, and quite likely birds do it. Natural though it may be, for many adolescents it makes life a living hell, promoting drug abuse, gang membership and occasionally, suicide and murder. Adults can ignore it, try to rigorously suppress it, or even channel it via rituals such as hazing. Somewh

The Devil You Say!

One of Bobby Jindal's more exotic talents is exorcism, or the casting out of devils. Joe Klein quotes an excerpt from an article on his participation in an exorcism written by Jindal about 15 years ago: Strangely, I found myself repeating the Hail Mary until it became a chant. Being a recent convert to Catholicism, I had yet to accept the Catholic doc­trines concerning Mary and considered any form of Marian devotion to be idolatry. Though I had never before prayed a Hail Mary in my life, I suddenly found myself incapable of any other form of prayer. Somehow, Mary's intercessions allowed me to find peace during that long night; I knew that I had sur­vived the worst and that I would exit with my faith intact. It terrified me to recall how close I came to turning away from Christ out of fear. The crucifix had a calming effect on Susan, and her sister was soon brave enough to bring a Bible to her face. At first, Susan responded to biblical pas­sages with curses and profanities. M

Citi Citi Gang Bang

The headline this AM says Citigroup gets a new deal from US, but not this time at Taxpayer expense. I don't believe it. I think that the principal effect of conversion of the government's loan to common stock is to put us lower on the list to be paid back.

Please Don't Feed the Zombies!

Paul Krugman is not happy with Geithner's apparent plan to keep feeding cash to the zombie banks. He has a nice quote from the guy he calls the leading expert on Japan's lost decade, Adam Posen: The guarantees that the US government has already extended to the banks in the last year, and the insufficient (though large) capital injections without government control or adequate conditionality also already given under TARP, closely mimic those given by the Japanese government in the mid-1990s to keep their major banks open without having to recognize specific failures and losses. The result then, and the emerging result now, is that the banks’ top management simply burns through that cash, socializing the losses for the taxpayer, grabbing any rare gains for management payouts or shareholder dividends, and ending up still undercapitalized. Pretending that distressed assets are worth more than they actually are today for regulatory purposes persuades no one besides the regulators,


Various wack radio wingnuts have decided that it's time to secede from the Union, presumably because it was such a rousing success last time they tried it. Last time it was about slavery, but this time it seems to be more about the rest of the world considering them to be a bunch of dope and alcohol addled racist nuts. The new nation, if anybody should join, will be known as the CSA, for "Cracker States of America." I have no idea what that means.

Nervous Krugman

Paul Krugman can't figure out what it is the Tim Geithner is really planning to do, or how it's supposed to solve the zombie bank problem. I just don’t get it. And my sinking feeling that the administration plan is to rearrange the deck chairs and hope the iceberg melts just keeps getting stronger. Sounds like a pretty good reason for us all to worry.

Winter in New Mexico

Today was another bitterly cold February day in NM. The temperature was 81 F. It's supposed to be 82 tommorow. Seems like it was 28 F just last week. Oh yeah, it was.

The Exorcist

Well I saw Bobby Jindal for the first time, and while he seemed a lot brighter than the Saracuda, I still wasn't terribly impressed - he just trotted out the same old failed Republican policies and repeated some of the same old Republican lies - like the story about the Maglev from Disneland to Las Vegas. The camera didn't do him any favors by consistently cutting off parts of his rather low hand gestures - his hands seemed to be some kind of frenetic fish trying to jump up on the screen but never quite making it. He's no orator yet, with a rather fast and uninflected delivery, but at 36 he has plenty of time to learn. On the positive side, I never got the impression I listening to a wacko like Palin or a dolt like Bush.

State of the Union

I'm unclear on why nobody is willing to call Obama's speech on the state of the union a State of the Union speech. The Constitution doesn't limit the time, number or nature of the President's reports on the state of the union. If the President so chose, he could do weekly reports on the SOTU on his blog.

More Wisdom from Coach C.

They are bigger than us. They are faster than us. Hell, even their cheerleaders are prettier. Nobody deserves that kind of luck. Let's kick their asses.

Academic Entitlements

Eli takes down Brad DeLong. But I predict DeLong has a freebe before the week is out.

The Wisdom of Coaches

Sprinting is 20% mental, 30% conditioning, and 40% form. The other 99% is talent.

Uncle Sam, Venture Capitalist?

Tom Friedman, previously famous for idiotic predictions about Iraq (something he actually knew something about) has lately concentrated oninternational economy, a subject he doesn't know about. Previously his economic researches have discovered that Erastosthenes was wrong obout that spherical Earth thing. His latest column suggests that the government should forget trying to prop up losers like GM and get into the venture capital business. G.M. has become a giant wealth- destruction machine — possibly the biggest in history — and it is time that it and Chrysler were put into bankruptcy so they can truly start over under new management with new labor agreements and new visions. When it comes to helping companies, precious public money should focus on start-ups, not bailouts. You want to spend $20 billion of taxpayer money creating jobs? Fine. Call up the top 20 venture capital firms in America, which are short of cash today because their partners — university endowments and pens

Scumbucket of the Week

Richard Shelby So many Republicans - so few weeks.

Neo Neo

Are neoconservatives really conservative? What they seem to believe in is fiscal jingoism, military adventurism, torture, and trashing the constitution. None of these is a traditional conservative value. They are more aligned with Nazi values however. Let's call these people what they are: neonazis. Just because Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Charles Krauthammer don't have prominent tatoos and shave their heads doesn't mean they aren't neonazis. Hitler didn't either.

Exes and Texas

Bryan Burrough has a witty and illuminating article on the rise and fall of political power for Texas in the Washington Post: Death and Texas A favorite quote (Wendell Wilkie): : "You know the Good Lord put all this oil into the ground, then someone comes along who hasn't been a success at anything else, and takes it out of the ground. The minute he does that he considers himself an expert on everything from politics to pettycoats What these wealthy Texas experts mostly were was very conservative, and they spent billions buying politicians by the bucketfull to protect their empires. At the very top level though, their investments didn't pay off that well. LBJ turned liberal and Murchison, one of his prime (and illegal) funders wouldnt even take his calls. HW Bush wasn't wingnut enough for them either. W was, but we all know how he turned out.

Clap Louder

What's the percentage in being a contrarian? Well, if you are pretty sure that the herd is stampeding off the cliff, it makes Darwinian sense to try to get out of the flow. Skepticism about the perceived wisdom is the intellectual equivalent of a biological mutation - the odds are very heavily against it, but when it pays off, it can win big. Contrarians don't necessarily lack the herd instinct, of course. They like to think that they are part of their own crowd. Thus the high school goths all congregate under the same tree, just as the jocks, nerds, and beautiful people each have their own territory. Thus it is also with climate skeptics. Via Brad DeLong , Ryan Avent wonders about the link with political conservatism. My question is why conservatives think it advances their purpose to continue this demonstrably wrong adherence to climate change denialism. This isn’t like, say, evolution. Scientific evidence of evolution is quite strong and will only continue to get stron

Stats - See Updates Below

Lubos is back in the climate wars , and he appears to have a point. I haven't read the paper or done the calculations, but his Mathematica principal components calculation seem to show that there is something fishy about some recent Antarctica data. The data is represented as time series of temperatures from 5509 locations. However, essentially all the variance turns out to be captured by the equivalent of just four [Karhunen-Loeve transformed virtual] meaurement locations. If you represent each time series as a vector, the 5509 measurement points produce a 5509 dimensional vector space - but all the vectors lie within a four-dimensional subspace. This is quite odd, and suggests a degree of bogosity. Of course it's not odd at all that the temperatures at different locations in Antarctica should be correlated, but the enormous differences in scale of the eigenvalues do not appear compatible with that being the full explanation. Anybody know what's really going on here? UPDAT

Doubting the Stimulus

I'm glad that the stimulus passed, because we had to try something, but I have some doubts. The usual story is that deficit spending during the depression was too small to break the cycle and that the really big stimulus of WWII was needed to drive the stake through its heart. The thing is, WW II had a couple of other effects on the economy. Since everything was going into the war, the stock of goods and capital was greatly depleted by the end of the war. Second, since everybody had a job, and savings was essentially forced, everybody's bank balance kept improving. Thus, by the end of the war everybody had money but no consumable goods. A stimulus isn't really intended to reach that state. One trouble with economics is that the classic examples used to prove a point are never precisely relevant to the current circumstances. The question is, which aspects are essential to the result. But see a really good and balanced pro-stimulus argument by Greg Clark at Brad's

Bill Gray's Jihad

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) decided to give its highest award, the Rossby Research Medal, to James Hansen this year, and emeritus Professor William Gray is not pleased. He sent a long, angry letter to the AMS denouncing the award. Much of the letter has the familiar lament of old coots everywhere about the failing of the new generation: I am appalled at the selection of James Hansen as this year’s recipient of the AMS’s highest award – the Rossby Research Medal. James Hansen has not been trained as a meteorologist. His formal education has been in astronomy . . . We AMS members have allowed a small group of AMS administrators, climate modelers, and CO2 warming sympathizers to maneuver the internal workings of our society to support AGW policies irrespective of what our rank-and-file members might think. This small organized group of AGW sympathizers has indeed hijacked our society... Gray is also angry that the the AMS has been giving its top medals to AGW believers fo

Liberals and Others

K. Anthony Appiah has a Slate article on the essence of liberalism. He was reviewing a book by Alan Wolfe, and one or both of them came up with seven qualitites that they thought characertized the liberal: Four of these dispositions will be quite familiar: "a sympathy for equality," "an inclination to deliberate," "a commitment to tolerance," and "an appreciation of openness." We're used to the portrayal: liberals as talky, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarians. It's not surprising, then, that these types are at home in the garrulous world of the academy—or that bossy preachers, convinced they have the one true story, do not care for them much. But Wolfe's sketch of the liberal adds three unfamiliar elements to the picture: "a disposition to grow," "a preference for realism," and "a taste for governance." The disposition to grow is really not the best slogan for the element of the liberal tradition that W

Friedman Quote

Sabine H found this great quote by Milton Friedman: “Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have “assumptions” that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (in this sense). The reason is simple. A hypothesis is important if it “explains” much by little, that is, if it abstracts the common and critical elements from the mass of complex and detailed circumstances surrounding the phenomena to be explained and permits valid predictions on the basis of them alone. To be important, therefore, a hypothesis must be descriptively false in its assumptions; it takes account of, and accounts for, none of the many other attendant circumstances, since its very success shows them to be irrelevant for the phenomena to be explained.” Lubos has now also weighed in . It is no exaggeration to say that the quote is paradoxical sounding, and deliberately so. It comes from Fried


The European Union expanded dramatically after the Soviet Union fell, and now they are feeling some indigestion. The current tiff between French President Sarkozy and the Czechisa Vclav Klaus is a minor symptom. The real problem is more fundamental. The Europeans can't decide whether they want to be a loose economic coalition or a "United States of Europe." Trying to occupy some middle ground is apparently impossible - there doesn't seem to be any stable state there. The United States under the Articles of Confederation faced a similar problem - as a loose confederation they had no military power and considerable problems with internal trade. Even after the Constitution was adopted, it took a civil war to establish clearly the relative roles of state and nation. Europe's problem with unification is harder, mainly because of linguistic and cultural differences, but also because of the long history warfare and division. The Eastern European countries want the

Religious Differences

Recent genetic studies make it clear that in the male line Jews are just a subgroup of the Palestinian Arabs. Plotting up a bunch of the world's Y chromosomes shows that all the Semitic Middle Eastern peoples are closely related, with Jews from various diaspora populations scattered about with Palestinian Arabs very nearly in the middle. The good news is that the genetics of Arabs and Jews have been pretty extensively researched. The classic study dates to 2000, from a team lead by Michael Hammer of University of Arizona. They looked at Y-chromosome haplotypes - this is the genetic material passed from father to son down the generations. What they revealed was that Arabs and Jews are essentially a single population, and that Palestinians are slap bang in the middle of the different Jewish populations (as shown in this figure).[see the linked article] The situation in the female line is more complex, with a wide variety of populations represented, typically characteristic of the p

What Republicans Dream

David Brooks conjures up a Republican wet dream . With their theories destroyed and the results crashing over us, the Republicans have decided to bet that the typhoon they conjured up will overwhelm Obama (and America) and give them a chance to rule the wreckage. Economists and policy makers had no way to peer into this darkness. Their methods were largely based on the assumption that people are rational, predictable and pretty much the same. Their models work best in times of equilibrium. But in this moment of disequilibrium, behavior was nonlinear, unpredictable, emergent and stubbornly resistant to Keynesian rationalism. The failure to generate a recovery led to a collapse of public confidence. President Obama’s promises of 3.5 million jobs now seemed a sham and his former certainty a delusion. The political climate grew more polarized. That meant it was impossible to tackle entitlement debt. That and the economic climate meant it was impossible to raise taxes or cut spending or do

Happy Birthday Chuck!

And Abe! I attended a birthday party for Charles Darwin at the Church of Evolution tonight. There was original music, readings from the Master, Hymns, and a nice brief lecture. The not-so-reverend bob presided. Bob Diven, minister and factotum of thechurchofbob , is a local artist, playwright, actor, musician, and composer.

The Zombie Test

Tim Geithner's bank bailout plan has engendered lots of suspicion and a fair amount of hostility. The most important element, I think, is the Zombie Test, which would force bailout recipients to show their financial hands and thus reveal whether they are in fact solvent - are they real banks or zombies. One way or the other, the taxpayers are picking up much of the tab for the blunders and excesses of the financial sector, but we really shouldn't keep pouring resources in to banks that are already bankrupt. The real zombies need to be disposed of if the merely sickly are to be saved.

25 Things You Might Not Know About Me

1. I have trouble completing tedious assign 2. 3.

DeLong on Monetarism

Catch this excellent short article by Brad DeLong on the uses and abuses of the Friedman school: End times for Milton Friedman: After World War II, laissez-faire economists had a big intellectual problem: the Great Depression. How could you argue for dismantling the post-WW II social insurance states and returning to the small-government laissez-faire of the past when that past contained the Great Depression? Some argued that the real problem was that the laissez of the past had not been faire enough: that everyone since Lord Salisbury and William McKinley had been too pinko and too interventionist, and thus the Great Depression was in no way the fault of believers in the free-market economy. This was not terribly convincing. So advocates of a smaller government sector needed another, more convincing argument. It was provided by Milton Friedman. Friedman proposed that with one minor, technocratic adjustment a largely unregulated free-market would work just fine. That adjustment? The

Mistakes . . . Will Be Made

Joe "Bigmouth" Biden mentioned the other day that the President and he discussed that whatever they did, 30% of it would be wrong. This was like a second Christmas for the Faux News guy, who jumped on it. Obama evaded the question, and moved on, but it's a simple fact. In novel and difficult situations where conflicting advice is being offered by lots of apparently qualified people, human decision makers make lots of mistakes. A look at the greatest American presidents shows tha they each made lots of mistakes. Lincoln, the greatest president, had the toughest problem and made as many mistakes as any. One of the things that made Lincoln great was his ability to recognize his mistakes and try something else. George Bush, perhaps our worst president, seemed utterly unable to recognize his errors, even though he made blunder after blunder. Despite this fact, it's not good policy for the leader to admit this in advance during times of crisis. Leaders need to look st

Climate Science

Once upon a time climatology was a quaint Victorian sort of a science dominated by rather dull statistics. A big day for a climatologist would be discovering an anti-correlation between the Summer temperature in Lisbon and the rainfall in Honolulu. That changed utterly when advances in computing made it possible for climatology to become an application of physics. Physical models of climate require vast computing power, the kind of computing power that permitted chemistry to start computing molecular structures and aerodynamics to become a predictive science. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the old time climatologists resented the new kids on the block. Is it just coincidence that all the new kind of climate scientists seem to be believers in anthropogenic global warming? I can't think of any who aren't. I can easily imagine what it must feel like to see your hard won insights and statistical tables displaced by physics and nasty old computer calculations. So why

Darwin in the NYT

Carl Safina has a singularly obtuse essay in the NYT today: Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live. As a title: cute but dumb. As an idea: huh? He seems to be under the impression that identification of evolution with Darwin is some kind of dangerous cult. He argues nonsensically, for example, that Darwin created Creationism. Into the breach: intelligent design. I am not quite saying Darwinism gave rise to creationism, though the “isms” imply equivalence. But the term “Darwinian” built a stage upon which “intelligent” could share the spotlight. He notes that the idea of evolution came before Darwin. Quite so. So did the idea of intelligent design. He trivializes Darwin's real idea, natural selection, while ignoring it's central role in explaining everything about evolution. No, Darwin didn't understand everything about biology, nor did he understand the genetic mechanism through which natural selection did its work. It was characteristic of his genius, thoug

Talking He3ads

Saw some of the Sunday yakkers today. Larry Summers was annoying enough to get me to switch channels quickly. He had clearly been given instructions not to say anything of substance, so the interview quickly got tedious. I can see why some people don't like him. If he's not going to say anything, why is he there? Couldn't he just announce that he's only going to answer questions on A and skip the tedious circumlocutions? Other channels had Republicans, which was worse. They clearly have decided to stake their politicals futures on the hope that the Bush recession/depression will still be going strong in 2010, giveing them a chance to avoid extinction. Obama, for some reason, has chosen to indulge them. I suspect that this is a mistake. Republicans have learned only the politics of fear and have jumped on the opportunity to exploit what they think of as weakness. I think he needs to bring the fire. Democrats are trying to argue policy details while the Republic

Economics Debate

I posted a version of the following to a comment on Brad DeLong's site, but he deleted my last three paragraphs and gave me pretty much a non-answer to the second, citing some source he liked without giving a hint as to whether economists generally agree. I have been reading the opinions of a variety of distinguished economists on the proposed stimulus, and I'm a lot more discouraged than edified. It seems that prominent economists from famous institutions variously think that there is no stimulus multiplier, that the multiplier is greater for spending than for tax reductions, vice-versa, or that the stimulative multiplier effect can be specified to three significant figures. I am led to wonder whether economics has anything useful to say about the world - is it a science or just mumbo-jumbo whose only connection to reality is via the credulity of the gullible? There is a lot of debate in the economic blogosphere, but an unsatisfyingly large portion of it consists of assertio

Purely Personal

My mother died last week. She was a few days short of her 98th birthday, and had had a long life of many triumphs and sorrows. She was ill and enfeebled for the last few years, but her mind was still sharp and she retained her sense of humor. She was ready to go, and had prayed to be allowed to join my father for many years, but she was the most important person in my formative years and I miss her terribly. Some of my earliest memories are of the endless questions I asked her and her remarkably patient answers. She had been trained as a microbiologist and had a lively interest in all the sciences. She had been greatly cheered by the election of President Obama. We had a very nice funeral with all of her children and many of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but that really doesn't help much.