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?