August 19, 2010

Moving to Tumblr

I've decided to migrate the blog to Tumblr, for a variety of reasons. My domain name,, should automatically redirect to the new site, as well as my Feedburner link; if not, go to, where I've imported the content from this blog (thanks to this handy tool). See you there.

August 17, 2010


I was very sad to hear that Tony Judt, the historian, died recently. He was well-known, of course, for his book, Postwar, his critical statements about Israel, and, most movingly, his struggle with ALS, which ultimately killed him. What I particularly liked about him was his ability, as a good historian should, to draw a line between historical events and ideologies and their relevance to the contemporary scene. This was much in display in his last book, Ill Fares the Land, and in one of his last published pieces, a blog post in the New York Review of Books about Czeslaw Milosz' famous essay, The Captive Mind. He noted that the problem it grapples with -- namely, the temptation among left-wing intellectuals to explain away the evils of Soviet communism -- has become largely alien to younger generations:
Milosz takes for granted his readers' intuitive grasp of the believer's state of mind: the man or woman who has identified with History and enthusiastically aligned themselves with a system that denies them freedom of expression. In 1951 he could reasonably assume that this phenomenon -- whether associated with communism, fascism, or indeed any other form of political repression -- would be familiar.


Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach. When I started out my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.
Judt went on to argue that the Captive Mind that Milosz describes is not a dead concept, however, and compared the rationalizations of Marxist intellectuals to the elite cheerleading in the West for the Iraq War, even among nominal liberals, as well as the continued devotion in elite circles to laissez-faire ideology despite its manifest failures.

For me, though, what stands out about this passage is a perhaps defining feature of our era: the absence of the spirit of revolution, which inhabited the West, and much of the rest of the world too, for over 200 years. There are certainly many people, left and right, who adopt the pose of revolution -- the Tea Partiers, to take one high-profile example -- but it's difficult for me to regard hard-right conservatism, as destructive as it is to the national discourse, as an alternate modernity, as fascism and communism once were to liberal capitalism -- "liberal" being used here in the technical sense of the word. Certainly, the American right is premised on the semi-utopian belief in returning to a small government Eden unblemished by the welfare state, despite the fact that it runs aground any time it conflicts with keeping taxes on the wealthy as low as possible or with preserving entitlements for senior citizens. Still, it's recognizably liberal, in the sense used above -- notwithstanding the fact that the modern conservative movement contains much that is illiberal (again, the Tea Party is a prominent example).

Another way of putting the matter is that Francis Fukuyama had a point with his End of History argument: After the tumult and bloodshed of competing ideologies over the past two centuries, liberal capitalist democracy really has no serious competitors in terms of producing stable, prosperous societies. Dictatorships exist, obviously, but they do not pose existential challenges to liberal capitalism the way that fascism and communism once did. China may be a rising power, but you don't see many countries copying its model for governance.1 Islamism might be considered a competing system, but my read is that political Islam means different things to different Muslims -- from quasi-totalitarian systems like Iran's to religious nationalist democratic parties like the AKP in Turkey. In any case, outside of majority Muslim countries, it's not a political movement that has much traction, despite the fever dreams of the American and European right.

To return to my original point, I do think we in the developed world are in a post-revolutionary age: A rising sense of individualism has dampened enthusiasm for signing on to mass movements that privilege concepts like the volk or the proletariat over one's own sense of identity, as Judt describes above. Not that mass participation in the political process isn't possible, of course, but it's something we do as an expression of our individuality, rather than the reverse. In some respects, this is a good thing, and a natural outcome of liberal governance; but it also makes good and necessary ideas, like solidarity, harder to realize.

1 You could point to China's partnerships with, say, Sudan, but those strike me as more alliances of convenience than some kind of ideological front, in the way that NATO or the Warsaw Pact once were. China needs oil, and it'll cut deals, abet any atrocities, &c., with any country that provides it. There's about as much ideology there as when the US looks the other way at human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

July 1, 2010

Climate Change and the Ethic of Responsibility

Quote of the day, or perhaps the century?
"We believe we have compromised significantly, and we're prepared to compromise further," [Sen. John] Kerry said.
It's a statement that can be read as either an indictment of the way in which Democrats have pursued their policy agenda in the Obama era, or as a fundamental truth about the way change is made in a democracy. Here would be a good time to invoke Weber's famous lecture, "Politics as a Vocation," which turns on distinguishing between "the ethic of responsibility" and "the ethic of ultimate ends." The latter is familiar among political activists who want their preferred agenda, and only theirs, to prevail, and will not settle for less. Following the former, however, means acting with an awareness of what the likely consequences of one's actions will be, even at the expense of sacrificing one's own agenda. As Weber puts it:
[A] man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people; as Fichte has correctly said, he does not even have the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection. He does not feel in a position to burden others with the results of his own actions so far as he was able to foresee them; he will say: these results are ascribed to my action.
It seems strange to say, given how often liberals groan at Democratic efforts to find "bipartisan" solutions, but I think you have to view how Kerry, Obama, et al have been going about getting a climate and energy bill in this light. Clearly, an energy-only bill, or a utility-only climate bill that's now being considered, is inadequate -- both in terms of reducing our own carbon emissions and in terms of persuading developing countries to take steps to reduce theirs. It's also clear, though perhaps not to the Democratic leadership, that the moderate Democrats and Republicans that are critical to getting a bill past a filibuster haven't been solid and upstanding negotiating partners.1 In spite of all that, I doubt that making some valiant, but unsuccessful, stand on a tough climate bill would necessarily translate into electoral victories for Democrats this year, or a better chance at a climate bill of any sort next year. Even a marginal improvement over the status quo has to be preferred to spinning our wheels on this issue over and over again.

Activists, however, aren't wrong in wanting the President and Congress to go further, or in blasting the equivocations and cowardice of those opposed to any sort of carbon pricing. The ethic of ultimate ends, after all, is just as necessary to a well-functioning democracy as the ethic of responsibility. But the future of this planet will be better served by actual, if imperfect, legislation than perfectly good intentions.

1 Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Lindsey Graham's reversal on the climate bill -- which I feared would happen when he first got involved -- was how predictable it was. Was there anyone who was actually shocked that he bolted from the negotiations at the first sign of conflict?

June 28, 2010

The Gap Between IT and ET

For professional reasons1, I've refrained from commenting on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to say nothing of the political or policy consequences. I did, however, want to highlight this post by Gail the Actuary over at The Oil Drum in relation to the spill:
Many individuals and groups, from Scientific American magazine, to school systems, to Energy Secretary Chu would seem to be telling us that technology can solve all of our problems.

And we have seen an endless array of new fancy gadgets over the years, starting with calculators, then computers, electric copying machines, the Internet, portable phones, and all kinds of devices to play music and send messages. These all seem to suggest that technology can do marvelous things.

Now, we are confronted with what should be not too difficult a problem--cutting off the oil flow from a well--and we find it is difficult to do. Perhaps the Deepwater Horizon blowout is an event that should get us to rethink our assumptions a bit.
The important thing to note here is that all of the technological advances that Gail mentions come in the field of information technology, which has indeed seen a flurry of innovation in the last few decades, the likes of which humanity has seldom, if ever, witnessed. Now, many of the same people involved in the IT revolution are moving into the energy business in the hope of accomplishing the same thing there. Hence, for example, the astonishing level of enthusiasm a few months ago over the introduction of the Bloom Box, which is, essentially, a very fancy battery. Innovation in energy, however, is a rather different animal from innovation in manipulating data. IT may be ruled by Moore's Law, but ET (energy technology) is ruled by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is a much tougher nut to crack. IT also benefits from the fact that, as a relatively young field, there wasn't very much in the way of regulatory hurdles or path dependence to get in the way of its development -- and to the extent that there were regulatory issues, they were mostly favorable during the critical early years. (See, for example, this review (PDF) of the impact of the FCC's Computer inquiries on the Internet's development.) Energy, however, has not been a wide open field for a long time, with its recent history characterized more by regulated utilities and oil cartels than by bottom-up innovation.

The point of mentioning all this is that our mental model for how innovation works has been shaped by our recent experience with innovation in computers and the Internet, a model that may not serve us well when figuring out to how develop more sustainable sources of energy. It's great to have new-fangled approaches to producing and storing energy, of course, but there's much more to be said for getting the policy right, so that the right solutions, old or new, can arise without difficulty.

1 Email me if you want to know the details.

May 13, 2010

On the American Power Act

First, let me say, it's got a nice title: It's pithy, has a strong nationalistic tone, but with a wink and a nod to greens that it's really about saving the planet -- much like the bill itself. If the Senate can get this bill done this year, then the APA -- along with the ACA (Affordable Care Act) -- will be two of the pillars of President Obama's legacy.

But of course, that's a big if. There's about 50 different ways that progress on the bill could go awry (and has gone awry already), and only about one way it can go right: If you can get both the staunchly anti-offshore drilling Senators like Bill Nelson and the staunchly pro-drilling Senators like Mary Landrieu on the same page; and you can convince enough coal-state and farm-state Democrats not to bail; and you can convince liberals, not only in the Senate, but in the House, that this is a bill worth passing; and you can bring back Lindsey Graham and a few other Republicans to the table; then maybe you can get it out of the Senate. Then you have to merge that bill with the House bill, pass that in both chambers again, and get the President's signature -- all before the midterm elections in which Democrats are expected to get obliterated. If the Senate didn't have FinReg, immigration, and confirming Elena Kagan to the bench on its plate, getting this done wouldn't be so formidable; but it does, so it is.

May 11, 2010

The Facebook Revolt

Everyone, it seems, now has a problem with Facebook, Laura McGann's kiss-off to the site being the latest example. Besides being a sieve when it comes to personal information (and a G-rated porn site to boot), Facebook's ubiquity has, ironically, taken the luster off its value as a social network. A while back, Matt Frost wrote that he gave up on Facebook because seeing the daily online activity of people he knew long ago ruined his appreciation for them. No one is a hero to his valet, and, it seems, no one is a fondly remembered long-lost pal to his Facebook friends.

I'm not ready to give up on Facebook just yet -- although my inability to fully delete information from my profile made me almost delete it out of frustration. (Fortunately, Facebook's strategic use of emotional blackmail kept me around.) I have some friends I keep up with on Facebook that aren't on Twitter -- which with Gmail is where I spend most of my online life -- and having even a placeholder Facebook account is something of a necessity for managing your online reputation. Perhaps just as important is the fact that Facebook is quickly becoming the de facto universal login key: Unlike OpenID, which was supposed to have fulfilled this function, a Facebook ID already has value to the user, and so it's easy to move from that to using it to log in to other websites. Of course, Twitter can also serve that function, but not nearly as many websites offer login through Twitter as they do through Facebook; hopefully, that will change.

April 29, 2010

Video Games as Art

Like pretty much everyone under the age of 40, I found myself disagreeing with Roger Ebert's rather misguided polemic against the idea that video games can be art. Clearly there are a wealth of games out there now that not only include artistic accoutrements but also, like Braid or Passage, tweak the conventions of video games for artistic ends.

I think it's worth focusing on that latter aspect: To the extent that we can talk about video games as art, as opposed to mere entertainment, it's because art games typically do something that is common in modern art in particular, which is to comment on the norms that have accumulated around video games over the past 20-30 years. Braid, for example, calls into question the assumptions embedded in save-the-princess adventure games going back to Mario and Zelda. Similarly, games like Shadow of the Colossus take a common video game goal -- kill the bad guys -- and subvert it: The protagonist is told by this disembodied voice to slay these beautiful, majestic creatures, and of course we, as the player, comply -- only to find out, too late, the true harm we have caused.

It may be helpful to think of video games as being more akin to the plastic arts, like painting, sculpture, or mixed media, than to narrative art forms like film or literature. Expecting video games to have the same sort of narrative density that a book or a movie have may be setting the bar too high, making it easy to dismiss video games as an art form. I like to think of a game like Passage as being like one of those interactive art installations you might find at MoMA or the Hirshhorn: It provides a singular moment of epiphany, rather than the presentation of a whole world. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I think the comparison to modern art is apt: Compared to, say, the Lascaux cave paintings or works from the Renaissance, modern art frequently is accused of not living up to traditional standards. ("My kid could paint that!" "My kid could play that and rack up a high score!") But, of course, modern art is supposed to challenge our assumptions about art and about the world, and it seems to me that those video games that aspire to that belong in the same category.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

April 15, 2010

Putting the Kibosh on Kabuki

Jon Lackman says it's time for pundits to stop using the word Kabuki as a synonym for "posturing":
Of course, pundits don't care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word's true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:

1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.

Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally Kabuki works because:

5) It sounds Japanese.
As one who has used the word Kabuki in this way, I must say Lackman completely misses the point of what people mean by it in political contexts. It doesn't really have anything to do with Japan per se, but more to do with American distaste for artifice, whether employed for the purposes of art or the purposes of politics. Our national culture is strongly shaped by the legacy of the plainspoken Protestants who settled here -- Puritans, Quakers, and the like -- as well as our origins as a republic, when we dispensed with the artifice of monarchy and tried to develop a government more in line with natural law. As a result, we reward politicians who sound like they're being straight with us and saying what they mean, which is often the opposite of what we usually get in, for example, Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Of course, being plainspoken can be an artifice in itself -- our history is rife with men and woman of privilege, from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush, who passed themselves off as just folks. And then there's Sarah Palin, who has made ignorance about public policy into a badge of honor. Meanwhile, politicians who can't pull it off -- think George H.W. Bush at the supermarket or John Kerry windsurfing -- get hammered as elitist or out of touch.

April 9, 2010

News from the Old Country

So Greece is promoting the idea of resolving the Macedonian name dispute by calling the FYROM "Northern Macedonia," and the EU and the UN are putting pressure on both the Greeks and the Macedonians to come to some sort of resolution. The newest wrinkle is a proposal to have the Macedonians adopt a "dual use" name: They can call themselves "Northern Macedonia" for the purposes of international relations, but save "Macedonia" for internal use. Unfortunately, the Greeks aren't buying:
"We are very clear: a name with a geographical qualifier, for use in relation to everyone. A geographical qualifier that makes clear the reality of the situation, and for use in relation to everyone, so that the hide-and-seek can stop and a definitive solution can be found. 'Northern Macedonia' fits within the framework for the solution that I am describing," [Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitiris] Droutsas stated.
Meanwhile, the new rights law in Macedonia bans discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, and ethnicity, but not sexual orientation.

UPDATE: Then again, perhaps the easiest way to solve the name dispute would be for Greece to sell the rights to the name "Macedonia," which would give the Greeks a much-needed infusion of cash. But can you copyright the name of a country or a region? If so, there are a lot of places -- Lebanon, Kentucky, for example, or Newark, New Jersey -- that would be in big trouble.

April 6, 2010

Political Conflict Isn’t About Free Markets

The main difference between left and right with regard to property rights is simply that the right is invested in a lot of rhetoric about markets and property rights and the left is invested in different historical and rhetorical tropes.

The Wikileaks Iraq Video

It's horrific. And required viewing:

I don't anything to add, but I think James Fallows takes the right approach on how to react to atrocities like this:
There will be lot of those "real questions" to consider, from rules of engagement to the apparent cover up of the footage. But the threshold point I meant to start with is this: The very high likelihood of such "tragedies" occurring is a very strong reason not to get into wars of this sort.

By "of this sort" I mean: twilight-zone urban warfare, not to mention "discretionary" or "preventive" wars, and situations in which a heavily armed-and-amored occupying force of foreigners tries uneasily to mix with a population overwhelmingly of a different race and religion and language. For their own survival, the occupiers need to be hyper-suspicious and ever alert -- even though today's prevalent Counter Insurgency doctrine ("COIN") warns of the self-defeating consequences of behaving this way. (Indeed, a mounting debate about the COIN approach in Afghanistan is whether the effort not to seem distant from the local population is exposing US soldiers to too much risk.) It is a situation with enormous potential for miscalculation, misunderstanding, and tragedy. And therefore one to avoid if you have any choice at all.

Farhad Manjoo Tries Out the iPad

His comment here, I think, gets to the heart of my reservations about the iPad:
Choire Sicha says that the iPad spurns creative people, but it seems more appropriate to say that it resists "power users," people who like to customize their machines to do things better, faster, and more productively. The iPad resists customization; there is only one way to do most things on this device—Apple's way.
And of course, power users like myself are a clear minority among the computer using population. So I don't really begrudge Apple trying to do what it's always done, which is to make the computing experience more accessible to more people. But still...

March 31, 2010

D.C. bag tax collects $150,000 in January for river cleanup

And bag usage went down from 22.5 million to 3 million in a month. A good time, I think, to read Daniel Ariely on the psychological power of zero.

"This sh*t is terrible, even by the low standards of booze that gets you drunk quickly."

The AV Club taste tests Buckfast, the fortified wine that's all the rage (no pun intended) over in Knifecrime Island. Sounds like it would give Mad Dog 20-20, the king of sickly sweet cheap booze in America, a run for its money.

March 29, 2010

Compulsive eating shares addictive biochemical mechanism with cocaine, heroin abuse, study shows

The study goes significantly further than the abstract, however, demonstrating clearly that in rat models the development of obesity coincides with a progressively deteriorating chemical balance in reward brain circuitries. As these pleasure centers in the brain become less and less responsive, rats quickly develop compulsive overeating habits, consuming larger quantities of high-calorie, high-fat foods until they become obese. The very same changes occur in the brains of rats that overconsume cocaine or heroin, and are thought to play an important role in the development of compulsive drug use.

Who Killed Cap-and-Trade?

Robert Stavins:
But the most important factor—by far—which led to the change from politically correct to politically anathema was the simple fact that cap-and-trade was the approach that was receiving the most serious consideration, indeed the approach that had been passed by one of the houses of Congress. This brought not only great scrutiny of the approach, but—more important—it meant that all of the hostility to action on climate change, mainly but not exclusively from Republicans and coal-state Democrats, was targeted at the policy du jour—cap-and-trade.

The same fate would have befallen any front-running climate policy.
Unfortunately, I think he's right. There's a weird kabuki quality to policy debates in Washington, in that they must follow certain formal conventions, divorced from actual content. The health care battle was a classic example: Democrats propose A; Republicans denounce A as socialism; conservative Democrats say they'll will only support a bipartisan, watered-down version of A -- call it A* -- which the Republicans also denounce as socialism; lather, rinse, repeat. And never mind that A, A**, A***, &c., were once supported by Republicans back in the day. Things turned out well in the end, of course, (about which more later) but this is no way to discuss public policy.

March 14, 2010

Energy and the Next Big Economic Thing

Geoff Styles makes a common point that usually comes up when talking about the clean energy "race":
While we shouldn't be shocked if another country leads in some aspects of energy technology, we also shouldn't lose sight of the larger context, because energy isn't an end in itself. Even if clean technology turned out to be the computer industry of this decade--in reality and not just hype--and we didn't come in first in the cleantech race--a result I'm not prepared to concede, yet--energy remains the servant of the rest of the economy. That's where the race that matters most will be won or lost.
Megan McArdle says something similar when talking about green jobs. I've always been puzzled by this argument, though, which can be restated thus: Staking an economic boom on energy is misguided because our focus should be on lowering the proportion of our economy devoted to energy production, not raising it; we could, after all, solve our employment problems by putting people to work on farms, but that wouldn't be a net gain for our economy.

What's puzzling to me about this is, couldn't you say this about any sector or industry? The health care sector, for example, grew from being a trivial part of the economy to a massive part in the last century; and while getting health care costs under control is necessary, no one, I think, would deny that at least some of that past growth has been a good thing. You don't, of course, want growth in one sector to choke off others: Rather, you want all of your sectors to become more efficient. Thus, for example, farming used to take up the majority of the US economy, and now its share is very tiny. That's not because it was "choked off" by manufacturing or whatever, but because the US economy grew, developed new markets, and saw enormous productivity gains, along with the rest of what is now the developed world. Even farming has benefited from these changes: Modern farms yield far more crops than those in the 19th century, even though there were far fewer people and much more available land.

The question, then, with respect to building out green energy, is: Does making large-scale investments in renewables, efficiency, etc. entail putting people and capital to less productive uses? In other words, is the analogy between green energy and the computer industry that Styles mentions not valid? I have my doubts about that assertion: If there were another potential source of major economic growth in the offing, at least in the developed world, that would be reason to have some pause about the green economy as the next big thing. On the other hand, the last two economic booms in the US have turned out to be based on speculative bubbles; and unlike the tech boom, the last one didn't have much in the way of side benefits -- just a lot of exurban houses that no one can afford. So making energy the focus of our economic labors doesn't strike me as a bad idea. And that's not even considering the moral case for greening our energy supplies, which is the topic for another blog post.

The Strange Death of Emissions Trading

A few data points:
  • The EU is kicking around the idea of a carbon tax in addition to their cap-and-trade system. An earlier version had set the tax at €10 per ton of CO2, but that was nixed; the new proposal is likely to be lower.

  • The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill still isn't in writing yet, but what we do know is that there'll be some kind of cap-and-trade program for utilities, a phased-in cap for the industrial sector, and a carbon tax on transportation fuels, the latter put at the apparent request of the oil industry.

  • India is looking at a tax on coal, as well as increasing duties on transportation fuels.

  • Australia, like the US, has also gotten bogged down on passing a cap-and-trade bill, and Kevin Rudd's government could well switch to a carbon tax in order to win support from the Green Party, though that seems unlikely.
So does this mean that cap-and-trade is out, and carbon taxes are in? Eh, probably not. For one thing, the oil industry's interest in a carbon tax appears to be motivated mainly by a desire to demonize climate legislation; and so far, the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman team is walking right into their trap. And all the other carbon tax proposals I mentioned are speculative, to put it charitably.

But I wanted to mention them because it seems connected to the slow decline in the prospects of emissions trading, which for a long time was viewed as the linchpin to any global effort to combat the effects of global warming. Ever since Kyoto, emissions trading, whether the EU ETS or the Clean Development Mechanism or the voluntary carbon market, has given birth to a whole industry, from climate desks at major financial firms to all the measurement and verification companies you need in order to ensure that the carbon offsets you're selling or buying are leading to real emissions reductions. And now there's a good chance that the carbon market industry might go kaput, or at least become much smaller than many had hoped. A national cap-and-trade system isn't looking likely, either in the US, Japan, or Australia; the current functioning cap-and-trade systems -- the EU ETS and RGGI -- are underperforming, though part of that is due to the flagging economy; and the CDM, which has endured a multitude of scandals, could disappear after 2012 if no successor to the Kyoto Protocol emerges. Indeed, carbon traders on Wall Street are now afraid of losing their jobs.

So why is this happening? I doubt it's simply a matter of the problems with emissions trading: Yes, Wall Street's reputation is in the gutter, and emissions trading may be suffering by association; but it's hard to disaggregate cap-and-trade's problems from the sorry state of international climate policy today. Given how intractable the divisions between the developed and the developing world still are, and how feckless and schlerotic the US Congress has become with respect to the climate crisis, fixating on the technical problems of emissions trading seems inadequate, at best.

March 5, 2010

The Urban Hellhole Vision

Ed Glaeser's op-ed on the anti-urban bias in transportation policy is worth your time to read. In particular, I'd like to highlight this paragraph:
It is a mistake to think that spending on trains balances the scales. Cities will always benefit far less than exurbs from transportation because dense areas already have good means of getting around, like walking. Urban advocates would do better to either reduce highway subsidies or to balance that spending with more funding for urban schools.
This dovetails with the argument David Owen makes in his excellent book Green Metropolis: To fight climate change, or to make our economy more sustainable generally, it matters less what new inventions we come up with or whether we're "greening" our current consumption patterns, and more whether we can make cities -- dense, walkable cities in particular -- more attractive to the bulk of the population. And that means overcoming not only the policy biases against cities that Glaeser describes, but the social biases many Americans hold against cities as well. In other words, it means dispelling what Atrios would call the "urban hellhole" mythology.

It may not be so easy to break down that mythology, however. Part of it reflects our current political divides: It's no secret, for example, that the US leans Democratic in its urban centers, but Republican everywhere else:

Thus, trying to shift the balance of transportation spending from highways to transit, or from favoring suburbs to favoring cities, becomes a partisan struggle for existence; e.g., Michelle Bachmann's remarks about liberals wanting to force people into "tenements" so they can "take light rail to their government jobs."

But distaste for city living isn't a recent phenomenon, not in this country anyway. Owen describes in his book how generation after generation of Americans, from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Ford, has been drawn to the utopian "back to the land" vision of cityless living. So urbanists have a lot to go up against. A good place to start would be showing that raising kids without a car is not only possible, but desirable as well.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

February 4, 2010

The Magical World of the iPad

You know what the iPad reminds me of? There was a feature on older Macs, circa System 7, that restricted users to a simple panel of applications and files, preventing them from getting into the guts of the software. (It was used primarily in schools and for "kid-friendly" home computers.) The iPhone, and now the iPad, seem to be run according to the same principle.

Not that that's a bad thing: The iPhone and, by all accounts, the iPad are beautifully designed and capable of making everything from video to web browsing to reading e-books a blast. No one should expect anything less of Apple, after all. But I think a lot of the anxiety you hear in those criticizing the iPad (e.g., Mark Pilgrim) comes from a fear that Apple is leading the charge toward the infantilization of the average computer user: The iPad, among other sins, is locked down and restricts the users from adding any applications that don't have Apple's approval; nor can you access the core functions of the iPad via the command line, as you can on OS X.

But how different is this, really, from the situation for the average computer user today? From the beginning, Apple has been all about making computers and devices "for the rest of us," and the progress of computer technology over the last 30 years has been in line with that mission -- hiding the complicated and just giving us the simple. And it's been wildly successful: Whether you use a Mac, Windows, or Linux machine, a GUI is now the standard manner of interacting with a computer; moreover, most people, I'd wager, only use a few applications, mostly pre-installed, in their daily use. To be sure, Apple is being overprotective in embracing, for the iPad, the walled garden model that it has used for the iPhone. But fears that the iPad's arrival spells the end of the culture of hackers seems, at this point, overblown. Hackers and tinkers are already a minority among computer users, anyway, and I doubt the iPad will exacerbate that dynamic.

On the other hand, the folks defending tinkering aren't wrong, in the general sense that it's somewhat disturbing that so many people in our society are using devices that they neither understand nor care to understand. We're all guilty of this, in one way or another: John Gruber's comparison of the iPad to the automatic transmission may well be correct. Not knowing the intricacies of a modern car doesn't impair one's ability to function in society, any more than not hunting for or growing one's food does. But simply being aware that the things one considers conveniences are in fact the products of generations of effort, ingenuity, and expertise is, I think, salutary. At the very least, it helps one avoid the mindset of passive consumption that modern society can fall prey to. Clarke might have been right that a sufficiently advanced technology is no different than magic, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing to accept that as inevitable.

January 30, 2010

If You Don’t Slow Down, What’s the Point of Winning

Elizabeth & the Catapult: "Taller Children"

Discovered via thesixtyone, possibly the best music site to appear since Pandora.

January 29, 2010

So Much for Question Time

Lots of bloggers are cheering President Obama's impromptu debate with House Republicans in Baltimore today: Besides the thrill of seeing Obama parrying the usual GOP attacks with aplomb, the whole exchange was reminiscent of the highly entertaining Prime Minister's Questions in the UK. But it looks like that won't happening again, as the GOP is now regretting having cameras at the meeting. Even if they did allow cameras in the future, though, I doubt that the sort of unscripted debate we saw today could survive in the American media landscape. The cable news networks seem to like reducing debate to dueling talking points, and pundits and politicians for the most part oblige. And while Obama dove into the debate with enthusiasm, too many politicians, Democratic and Republican, aren't well-prepared to do what he did: It's not merely about intelligence or rhetorical skills, but about refusing to reduce things to sound bites and talking points. There's a reason most Presidential debates, for example, feel more like a press conference than an actual contest of ideas.

Friday Video

La Roux: "Bulletproof"

For comparison's sake, here's the new Tron trailer:

The Federalist and the Filibuster

When talking about the filibuster, it should be noted that the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution, were eventually thrown out in part because it had a supermajority requirement in order for Congress to do anything. Alexander Hamilton excoriated the defenders of this practice in Federalist 22:
To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. [...] The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.
Hamilton obviously had in mind war or insurrection when talking about emergencies, but one could argue that fiscal crises, from ballooning health care costs to California-style budget problems, also qualify.

Hamilton also attacked the Articles of Confederation for their undemocratic character, as members of Congress were apportioned on the basis of states, not population. But of course, the only way to get the Constitution ratified was to have a state-based legislature, along with a population-based one. So now we have a Senate that, over the years, has become increasingly captive to a supermajority requirement. It's like the Articles of Confederation had never even been repealed.

January 28, 2010

Take It to the Floor of Congress, Look into the Core of Rotten

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at the State of the Union last night. Certainly, President Obama's ability as an orator was never in doubt, but it was heartening that he didn't take the "Clinton and school uniforms" approach of abandoning his major initiatives, but instead tacked on ideas like the spending freeze to his calls for financial regulation, clean energy, and health care reform. Taking a jaunty, defiant tone also helped him recast the narrative from one of "spineless Democrats" to one of "obstructionist Republicans," which was heartening, no doubt, to many liberals.

Having said that, as Larry David might put it, the details of Obama's speech are still troubling, and no amount of great rhetoric can change that. Health care is still alive, but there was no deadline and no rejection of a watered-down version of reform. Clean energy is still alive -- Obama's call for a "comprehensive" climate and energy bill is obvious code for cap-and-trade -- but so much of the energy section of his speech was devoted to sops to nuclear, coal, and offshore oil drilling, it was clear who has the upper hand in the argument. Financial reform is still alive, but the measures Obama's proposed aren't enough, frankly to limit the corrosive influence of the banks on the rest of the economy. And all of these proposals are still hostage to the Senate filibuster.

Then there's the question of the effectiveness of the stimulus and what to do about unemployment in the next year: Obama acknowledged that the stimulus, while effective to an extent, hasn't reversed the awful jobs situation, and that more efforts are necessary. But the proposals he outlined are pretty small-bore, for the most part. Not that small-bore isn't worthwhile -- I especially liked his call to further reform student lending -- but the unemployment situation is bigger and likely more intractable than the administration seems to realize, even as the economy grows. Hence Obama's spending freeze proposal, while not the centerpiece of the agenda, still clashes with the imperative to get people back to work.

I could comment a lot more on the speech, but I'll just say that it seems to have put an end to the temporary meltdown of the Democrats after losing the Massachusetts special election. In other words, it's brought us back to the status quo ante -- which was not a great place to be to begin with.

Title fixed.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. From 2009 address to Congress (couldn't find a CC version of the 2010 SOTU).

January 27, 2010

Ceding the Argument

During the Bush years, there was a saying that went something like this: Republicans can't govern, and Democrats can't get elected. We may have to revise that second part, as it seems like Democrats can't govern either.

The Democrats' freakout over the Scott Brown win in Massachusetts last week was awful enough, and the possibility that they might yet give up on health care reform now, after having come this close making it a reality, is still a live one. Even worse than that, though, is President Obama's bizarre spending freeze proposal for non-security discretionary spending -- Paul Krugman notes that "the best thing you can say in its favor is that it’s a transparently cynical PR stunt." Now, I've tried to temper my enthusiasm for Obama with the knowledge that he's always had a strong centrist, gradualist streak to him, and that liberals hoping he would be their champion were bound to be disappointed. I've occasionally written what in retrospect were fanboy-ish posts about him, to be sure, but I don't think I've ever let it get the better of me.

So why does Obama's recent pivot to the budget deficit seem like, frankly, a betrayal of what he campaigned on -- not to trade in the type of gimmicks that he rightly lambasted John McCain for offering? In part, my frustration is less with Obama than with Congress: Before 2009, I don't think I fully understood the pathological nature of the US Senate, which seems to view assuaging the egos of its members as more important than addressing the problems of our country. But rather than accepting the setback of losing the supermajority while still holding fast to its agenda, the Obama administration has, essentially, given up -- and not just given up, but apparently bought wholesale into Republican arguments about the deficit and the economy. It's as if we're back in the bad old days of the Bush administration, when Democrats kept playing a game of "Me too!" with the GOP, a game they could only lose.

That's why this past week has turned into such a crisis for the Democrats: It's not merely the lack of progress on their agenda or continued high level of unemployment, it's the ceding of the argument to the Republicans -- which, given the one-dimensional nature of their policy agenda, is really disturbing. I've been disappointed over the size of the stimulus, the treatment of the banks, the declining prospects for clean energy legislation, &c., but recognized that Obama and the Democrats were working within tight constraints -- including members of their own party. Now I'm not even sure what the rationale for the Obama administration is anymore. Perhaps he'll turn things around tonight at the State of the Union, but I'm not optimistic.

January 19, 2010

Social Cohesion and Natural Resource Limits

It's not about the environment, but this FT column raises some important points about the ability of societies to live within limits:
Some observers blame that on Japan's obsession with maintaining cultural harmony; many Japanese point to the fact that they live in an island with constrained resources. Either way, this emphasis on sharing pain in an equitable manner is likely to shape how the government tries to impose public spending cuts in future years.


However, in the US, the government has less experience of dividing up a shrinking pool of resources. Instead, in a land built by pioneers, Americans prefer to spend time thinking about how to make the pie bigger -- or to find fresh frontiers -- than about making shared sacrifices.
The attitude described here -- unlimited entitlement to resources -- is an important one to understand, since it pervades everything from budget deficits, as discussed in the link, to energy use. If you want to touch a nerve in some people, for example, argue that high gas prices are a good thing: I once heard a radio program where Christopher Steiner, author of $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, was a guest, and it was shocking to hear the vitriol that many of the callers were directing at him. The temerity of the man, for suggesting that cheap gas isn't a God-given right!

On the other hand, it's not as if this attitude doesn't appear among liberals and enviros in America as well. Folks who think buying a hybrid or other low-carbon gadgets makes them green, while not thinking about the larger patterns of development and energy use that have driven the growth in global warming pollution, aren't doing themselves, or the planet, any favors. Not that addressing global warming requires us to adopt a hairshirt approach to the problem; but turning the question of sustainability into one of consumerism is just a cosmetic change, and leaves the deeper question of entitlement untouched.

Another thing to consider, which is also mentioned in the FT column, is not only societal attitudes, but the capability of the political system to address urgent issues and, if necessary, make "shared sacrifices." Obviously the dysfunctions of the Senate that many liberals have been lamenting lately contribute to this. As I noted on my short-lived Tumblr experiment, it's simply perverse that a political party need only 50%+1 to control a chamber and set its agenda, but require a supermajority to actually accomplish anything. And if the result of today's special election in Massachusetts is that instead of there still being solid majorities in both houses of Congress for increasing access to and controlling the costs the health care system, there's simply failure, that will only heighten the perversity of the situation in Washington.

January 14, 2010

China and Per Capita Emissions, Cont.

A while back, I blogged about the difference between China's per capita carbon emissions as a country and those of its most industrialized regions. At the time, I wondered if there was any data for comparing the per capita emissions of cities around the world, or at least between Chinese and Western cities. As it happens, some people have actually done the work on this: a NBER paper (via Richard Brubaker) by a group of Chinese and American researchers, including Ed Glaeser, aims to determine the per household carbon footprint for China's largest cities. It turns out to be fairly complicated: While there's a general relationship between income and emissions levels, it can vary widely. Beijing, for example, is ranked 72nd, but Shanghai 30th -- a difference the study attributes primarily to the use of central home heating. In other words, while some emissions growth is inevitable as a consequence of economic growth, it's by no means inevitable that growth means taking the highest-emissions path. As the authors put it toward the end:
In this paper, we find that some of the patterns of carbon emissions within China replicate findings that hold in the United States and elsewhere. If economic growth takes place in compact, public transit friendly, cool summer, warm winter cities, then the aggregate carbon emissions will increase less than if economic growth takes place in "car dependent" cities featuring hot summers and cold winters and where electricity is produced using coal fired power plants.
The paper also makes some comparison of the per household emissions in Chinese and Americans; unfortunately, Glaeser and company have yet to release the American data, though we do get the tantalizing line that "Even in the dirtiest city (Daqing), a standardized household produces only one-fifth of that in America’s greenest city (San Diego)." For now, the best information we have is Brookings' research on the per capita carbon footprints of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, though obviously the differences in the things being measured make an apples-to-apples comparison using that study and the NBER study impossible.

January 10, 2010

The Virtue of Enforced Minimalism

So last weekend, my laptop's hard drive died. I had just recently gotten an external hard drive, but didn't get around to actually backing up my data until it was too late; as a result, there's a better than even chance that about three year's worth of data has been lost. So let that be a lesson to you.1

On the other hand, starting from scratch (and upgrading to Snow Leopard to boot) has been an oddly freeing experience. For one thing, I've discovered that TextEdit (the barebones word processor that comes with every Mac) does the job for about 75% of my writing tasks. Another realization is that a lot of stuff I accumulated on my old hard drive simply wasn't that essential. It's not a terribly original insight -- in the age of the intertubes (see footnote below), possession of information matters less than access, in the form of search, social networks, webtools, etc. -- but I couldn't help but notice.

1 I should add that, between Gmail, Google Docs, and Dropbox, I actually haven't lost that much. The main thing that bites was losing all my music downloads -- but compared to the plight of the vast majority of people on this planet, I really should be counting my blessings.

January 4, 2010

Quote of the Day

Mike Konczal:
It’s worth noting that the biggest benefit of the large bank mergers for consumers as pointed out in this celebratory song is that there are more credit card logos to choose from. That’s an argument not brought up enough, and I’ll grant it to them. A political science friend pointed out to me in gchat that “you can’t get just any logo; you probably couldn’t get a card with a Tamil Tigers emblem on it.” That’s a decent point, but it doesn’t acknowledge the huge innovations in card logo technology that has occurred over the past decade while the financial system has both merged into a top-heavy systematically risky mess while massively leveraging up to keep returns high. So I give them this point entirely. But in retrospect, was it a fair tradeoff?
I have never had a credit card, but thankfully Bank of America has extended this concept to debit cards: I was able to have a Wilderness Society logo put on my card, so that BoA, I think, makes a donation to them every time I use it. Certainly makes up for wrecking the economy, doesn't it?

More seriously, my experience with BoA has been generally positive, but after reading this account of its shadier side, I'm seriously considering dropping it in favor of a credit union. Any good ones in Maryland?