Friday, February 29, 2008

Headline of the Day

CNN, reporting from the fiftieth state:
Homeowner: 'It's very easy to outrun lava'
Hat tip to BOTWT.

Adventures in American Presidency

As the campaign of Barack Obama gained momentum, Kenyans - embroiled in campaigns of a more dangerous nature - noted with chagrin that the United States could have a Luo president before Kenya. This raises an interesting question: would Obama's ethnic roots help or hurt him as president?

Obama, of course, does not identify himself as a Luo. He may sympathize with Raila Odinga - a Luo who believes he was elected president of Kenya on December 27 - but if so because of Odinga's similarities to Al Gore circa 2000, not Obama's similarities to Odinga. No matter: those who send their scions on to great success in America remain fiercely proud and possessive.

Hopefully, the Kenyan crisis will be resolved soon. But if it is inherited by the next president, it is difficult to imagine Kikuyu leaders accepting President Obama as a fair arbitrator. The politics of ethnicity and identity could be played out elsewhere: Indonesians think Obama is one of their own; black Sudanese will claim him as "their kind" in conflicts with white Sudanese; a few deluded Sunni Muslims might even assume that Obama pere's conversion to Sunni Islam gives them the president's ear.

America has seen shadows of this before - Germany thought Theodore Roosevelt, fluent in German and a former exchange student there - would be particularly friendly. He was not; he carried an awfully big stick to chase the Kaiser's navy away from Venezuela (src). Obama, however, has already attracted more attention from the world than a whole stable of Anglo-European candidates. As president, he would garner still more attention: most of it good, and for good reason. The words "President Obama" would speak volumes about America's opportunity and openness, and his friendly (if not knowledgable) approach to the world would repair the damage from Bush's impatient diplomacy.

Nonetheless, his perceived identity would crop up again and again, and the world would have to get an education in American politics: that our leaders do not merely govern for those who look like them or talk like them. Obama's Kenyan relatives would probably be sorely disappointed by an Obama presidency; likewise other groups that assume they can cash in on some tie they think they have. Managing those demands and disappointments would be an interesting and bemusing job for Foggy Bottom.

Needless to say, none of this ought to have any impact on voters' choices. Obama, in my opinion, would be an extremely liberal and ultimately deeply divisive president, some of whose proposals risk dragging the U.S. into recession and plunging countries who depend on commerce with us into depression. But so would Hillary Clinton - and she's apparently a Kikuyu.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Show and Tell

WaPo columnist Michael Kinsley, tongue firmly in cheek, does a masterful job of pointing out how sleazy was last week's New York Times "story" about John McCain.
I have no evidence to suggest that the New York Times suggested with no evidence that Sen. McCain was having an affair. I was merely pointing out that by running an article that goes on at great length about some meeting eight years ago, and that seems to have no point except to imply that Sen. McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist, the newspaper may have created for some people (not me, of course) an appearance of suggesting that Sen. McCain had enjoyed an affair with a lobbyist...

...the most distressing possibility of all: that in this very article I may be creating the possibility that some people might worry that other people might think that I have created the appearance of suggesting that the New York Times has created the possibility that some people might worry that other people might think that McCain has created the appearance that some people might worry that other people might think that there could be an appearance that McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

So... What Do You Do With That?

Most economists, I think, often face the question, "What do you do, exactly?" It's a fair question. And Tim Harford - who calls himself "The Undercover Economist" - implicitly offers some answers to those questions in a WaPo article.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Drudge today splashed big headlines about security being loosened at a huge Barack Obama speech in Dallas. Now, I understand that the Secret Service are professionals, and I assume they knew what they were doing.

But the location... hmm... Dallas... presidential security... what is it about Dallas?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Shocking Editorial

I don't know what's more shocking: the subject of Bob Herbert's editorial in NYTimes today, or my response to it.

The usually tangled Herbert hits hard on the tepid public response to a disgusting crime by one of New York's finest:
According to the Queens district attorney’s office, the detective, Wayne Taylor, and the girlfriend, Zalika Brown, would parade the girl at parties and other places where adult men had gathered and force her to have sex with them for money — $40 for oral sex, $80 for intercourse. The child was an investment. The couple allegedly told her that she had been purchased for $500 — purchased, like the slaves of old, only this time for use as a prostitute.

Several orders of magnitude below, it's shocking that Bob Herbert wrote a column the entirety of which I agree with. He slams the justice system for often picking on the young victims of pimps, rather than the pimps and johns themselves. It's a no-brainer that a teenage girl owned by a pimp should be cared for, not incarcerated, by the state, and the pimp should be sent to the Big House.

Of course, this is Herbert, and in his Herbertitude he manages to pick the most inapposite example to prove his point: in this case, the justice system seems to be functioning perfectly, apart from the corrupt cop who (allegedly) perpetrated the crime.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The ; Lives!

This NYTimes story scores high on unintentional humor (though I'm not really sure it's unintentional):
It was nearly hidden on a New York City Transit public service placard exhorting subway riders not to leave their newspaper behind when they get off the train. "Please put it in a trash can," riders are reminded. After which Neil Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency's marketing and service information department, inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence reads, "that's good news for everyone." ... Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, praised the "burgeoning of punctuational literacy in unlikely places."
I, for one, use semicolons frequently; the ability to juxtapose thoughts in writing as seamlessly as in speech is invaluable.

Saddam on Factions

Cory retells a telling tale from the Saddam Hussein administration. Here's a teaser:
Saddam rocks up to his ministers one day after the first gulf war and says he's going to retire... "i'm going to leave and whoever can do what i ask will inherit all my wealth and power." the ministers, suddenly interested, agreed to the challenge, after which Saddam told them that if they failed, they'd be shot. then Saddam asked his minister of war to bring a bag and some mice. "Why a bag and some mice?"
The rest is here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Most Important Issue of 2008

Thanks to reader Mr. Dough for the link to Cobb, who posts a valuable video clip about the top election issue.

In related news, I plan to lobby my Arabic professor to change our composition topic from, "The Most Important Event In Your Life" to "The Least Important Event In Your Life", which would be infinitely more creative and substantially more interesting.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Who's Asking?

Someone in my program asked me today, "Are we allowed to ask questions in this program?"

Naturally, my response was circumspect.
"I can't directly respond to that, because doing so would implicitly endorse one of the competing viewpoints."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Vote Early? Vote Again

There's a lot of trembling among Democrats hungry for a clean nomination: will Hillary sue to seat the illegitimate delegates from Florida and Michigan? Such a lawsuit, they fear would bring up shades of Bush v. Gore, and could alienate a legion of voters - blacks, if Hillary wins, or Floridians and Michiganders, if she loses.

Lost in all this shedding of putative tears is an obvious solution: hold a re-vote. The national party has always maintained that it will honor a vote held after February 5th. Since it is evident now that their delegates would in fact matter, Florida and Michigan should eat crow and schedule new primaries on May 20th or June 3rd or something. Then both candidates will have the chance to campaign, residents can make a real choice, the states become as decisive as they had hoped to be, and nobody gets alienated!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

F's for Everyone

Last semester I was a teaching assistant for Intermediate Macroeconomics, taught from a Keynesian perspective. According to Keynesian analysis, when the economy is in recession and unemployment is above a mythic "Natural Rate of Unemployment", the government should use expansionary fiscal and monetary policy.

My students loved expansionary policy. They wanted to zap the economy with deficit spending and low interest rates whether unemployment was high, low, or in the middle.

Perhaps I should have been easier in my grading: as it turns out, politicians in Washington don't know any better either. Ben Bernanke has fallen over himself cutting interest rates, and you might soon get a $600 bribe rebate from the government which will stimulate you to re-elect your congressman the economy.

This is classic Keynesian policy. And it highlights what's wrong with Keynes applied. There are no tradeoffs in Keynes: there's a short run, and a long run, and they never really meet. We always live in the short run, and in the short run, it's better to make the economy boom.

Modern macroeconomics swept Keynes out of serious academic research in the 1970's; somehow, he lingers in undergraduate textbooks and the halls of power. Modern macro makes clear that a dollar spent today is borrowed from the future, in the form of foregone savings. To Keynes, growth was magic - in the neoclassical growth model, it's the result of hard work and thrift.

Instead of investing in America, Congress' lapdance for taxpayers will add twice to the burden that young Americans will bear: once as national debt for us to repay, and again as foregone savings that would otherwise have gone into long-term growth. We'll live in a poorer country with higher debts.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Income v. Consumption Inequality

Two Federal Reserve Dallas economists explain why inequality is generally overstated - and protectionism is a bad idea - in a brief NY Times essay.

Friday, February 8, 2008

"Music Cannot Change the World, Says Neil Young"

The lede graf of a "news" story is:
Canadian folk rock legend Neil Young said he has lost all hope that music can change the world... "I know that the time when music could change the world is past. I really doubt that a single song can make a difference. It is a reality," Young told reporters.
You would be forgiven for assuming that came from The Onion. But you would be wrong: it's from AFP.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Groundhog Day, Boston Style

Looking for the first sign of spring? The Red Sox equipment truck is leaving Fenway Park on Saturday, heading to balmy Ft. Myers and baseball season!

Go down and cheer the truck all the way to the Pike, and think sunny thoughts.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Why I (Still) Support Mitt Romney

Barring a major shift in public opinion, John McCain will win the Republican nomination for president. This is probably good for the party: he's a principled man who stands for things worth standing for. He has the best chance to win in November, especially against the slimy Clinton machine. Nevertheless, I intend to vote for Mitt Romney on February 5th.

There are two levels on which my vote for Romney can be explained: why I think he would make a better president, and why I would vote for someone less likely to win in November.

The latter argument is simpler. Politics should not be about the party, it should be about the country. If everyone expresses his honest opinion, and McCain wins, I'm fine with that. If, in November, everyone expresses his honest opinion and Hillary wins, I'll be disappointed, but I won't hate my country. And when I'm given the choice to express my opinion, I'll do so as honestly as I can: of those running seriously for president, Mitt Romney would make the best president. I owe it to my fellow citizens to vote my conscience.

I'm proud of the American electorate for ignoring a lot of the media hype this year. Voters have not jumped on bandwagons (for Obama), voted for the guy they saw most on TV (Giuliani, Romney), voted for a candidate because she was "inevitable", or withdrawn their support because a campaign looked unlikely (Huckabee, McCain). The result is a loud, raucous process with lots of choices and lots of ideas.

Mitt Romney, as I stated above, is the best person for the job. He acquitted himself admirably as governor of Massachusetts and he takes a can-do approach to governing. These qualities made me an early supporter of Romney, and his awful, consultant-driven campaign has not convinced me otherwise.

What stood out about Romney when he was governor was his ability to solve government problems. Facing a Democratic majority, he did not play partisan politics (until he began his presidential run), and he did not adhere to the Republican party line. He also led as a one-term governor: he appeared to look for the best solutions to problems, rather than judging each issue by its potential political impact.

He worked with Democrats to create individual-mandate universal health care in Massachusetts. Prices for individual plans quickly dropped, and the state has worked to facilitate comparison shopping. The Massachusetts plan may not be the best one for the country, but it's a good experiment. In a few years, we'll have much better idea how much it costs and how well it works. For now, its principal virtue is fairness: it treats all employers equally, and addresses the emergency-room freeloader problem. Romney was able to sell the program to conservatives by getting away from partisan cliches and pointing out that we already have universal health care - in emergency rooms - and all he was doing was trying to allocate it more cheaply and more fairly.

In sum, my support of Romney comes not from any particular issue, but from his attitude toward governing. His consulting business earlier in life was based on solving the problems of client companies - looking for specialized solutions to a host of different industries. He brought the same attitude to Massachusetts: rather than trot out the tired tropes of zero-sum politics and zero-sum budgeting, he found ways to make government more efficient and more accountable.

If we are to have post-partisan politics, it won't take the form of Obama's inclusive liberalism. Nor will it be represented by McCain's renegade approach - he makes as many friends as enemies. If possible, it will arrive with the realization that government can work efficiently and fairly.

We can increase the effectiveness of social welfare programs by designing them with less moral hazard (remember the 1990's welfare reforms?). We can increase tax revenues without raising taxes, by making the code simpler and fairer. We can stimulate economic growth without spending more by re-routing pork money to legitimate uses. We can raise real income by cutting farm subsidies and protectionist policies. We can improve educational results without raising costs by introducing competition among public schools (a la Europe). We can solve the problem of illegal immigration by bringing more legal immigrants from all over the world, people who want to work hard and invest their labor in America.

I believe Mitt Romney is the candidate most likely to govern with an attitude of efficiency, instead of playing politics at every turn. His campaign, which stinks of political consultancy, suggests otherwise, but I believe that his attitude toward governing will overcome the electioneers if we give him the chance to be our president. Therefore, I will vote for Mitt Romney on February 5th.