Archive for June 2011

Let Your Geek Flag Fly

June 11, 2011

On deadline, and don’t want to leave this place totally unwarmed, so…

…Via my polytalented colleague Nick Montfort, I learned of this absurdly cool — really mesmerizing — video made by digital artist jörg piringer:

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I now have a new item for my bucket list:  getting my own character accepted to Unicode.

By the way:  be careful.  Watching this for too long may induce long unfelt cravings for a blacklight, Robin Trower solos,* and whatever it was you put in that bong.

Enjoy

*To which I’m listening as I post this.

When the Hard Rain Comes…

June 9, 2011

…Gimme Shelter:

(h/t DeLong).

This is another one of those “songs around the world” featured in the Playing for Change documentary.  I got my first taste of this project with this little gem.

But I’m with DeLong on this one:  I never thought this was a song to cover, given how thoroughly Mick and Keef and the rest own it.  But I was wrong.  And on a day within a run of days in which the worst among us seek to deny our connections to each other…well why not a little DFH musical provocation to throw in their shriveled, joyless faces?

Only (Dis)Connect

June 9, 2011

News today of the essence of your modern GOP:  the Wisconsin legislature’s joint finance committee just passed a measure that would:

(A) force the University of Wisconsin to give back $39 million in federal funds to support the spread of high speed internet across the state…

(B) would essentially kill the nonprofit internet provider network that serves most of Wisconsin’s public schools and almost all of its libraries.  Oh, and

(C):

“Another provision in the plan would bar any University of Wisconsin campus from participating in advanced networks connecting research institutions worldwide, according to [state superintendent of public instruction] Tony Evers’s memo.”

Which is to say that the University of Wisconsin researchers would be materially hampered in conducting research in any field that involves significant amounts of data and the expertise of people more than a sneaker-net away.

The immediate stupidity of all this is, I think, obvious.

So for the rest of this, I’ll just dive into a couple of the broader implications of this latest folly.

First:  this is the Pawlenty doctrine in action.  No public action should be taken when a Google search reveals a private alternative, no matter how inadequate that substitute might be.

I’m not making that up.  This is how the those currently dominating Wisconsin — and GOP — politics framed this issue:

Republican lawmakers told the Wisconsin State Journal that the university should not be in the telecommunications business.

By this standard, of course, Wisconsin should simply shutter the University of Wisconsin, or rather, eliminate all state support for the institions; after all, the University of Phoenix provides a private sector alternative.  Hell — why should taxpayers subsidize drivers on I 94 heading to Madison from Milwaukee; why not convert the whole system to toll-supported private ownership? After all, private enterprise seeks nothing more than simple equity:

Telecommunications companies themselves cast the debate as a question of competition. Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, was quoted on Channel3000 saying that WiscNet should  be allowed to run only without financial support from the University of Wisconsin.“WiscNet can continue to offer services, but in the future they are just going to do that on a more level playing field with the private-sector options that already exist,” Mr. Esbeck said.

Because, of course, everyone knows that the unfettered free market in US telecom services has left us with bleeding edge internet access. Or not.

This is what’s at stake in the political debate right now, so starkly expressed that even the MSM should be able to figure this one out.

The Republican party and its supporters reject the idea of the commonweal.  Outside of defense (and subsidies for the most comfortable) there is nothing a modern society could need — no infrastructure, no common good — that a government should provide.

Really:  education, transportation infrastructure, knowledge-making, the weather service, parks:  you name it, and there is a private alternative, and no matter whether it costs more or does less, or puts individuals or the nation at risk, private = better.

Sadly, though, that means  the entire GOP argument about government, debt, deficits and the economy turns on a false “fact.”

That’s the “fact” that the market for all kinds of goods and services is the ideal “free market” — the economists’ spherical cow — populated by that Randian hero, the perfectly rational economic actor.  Never mind that what Ec. 10 courses define as a free market exist for a very small number of transactions in the real world, nor that buckets of Nobels have been handed out lately to economists who realized that all kinds of factors — features of economic activity and intrinsic qualities of human nature — produce a world of folks engaged in exchange who do qualify as god-like, always-reasoning beings.

Which is to say that in the best reading, our Republican friends are simply mired in fantasy…

…or else, (and more likely IMHO, that many or perhaps most of the leadership is simply bought and paid for by the usual suspects.

In any event, the distinctino doesn’t really matter.  Whatever is going on inside the heads of Walker and the Fitzgeralds, or the Boehner’s and all the rest, the end result is the same:  current GOP thinking and action both transfers public goods to private hands to the net detriment of the citizenry as a whole…

…while directly threatening the future wealth and power of Wisconsin — in this case — and the United States as a whole.

Which is my second point.  Just to focus on the seemingly minor point of crimping the University of Wisconsin’s need for speed in its internet:  cutting off these funds action  it harder for any citizen of Wisconsin to learn, to research, to advance their ideas in schools or for a business idea or whatever. That’s what it means when you maim internet access at public libraries:  over the years a less-informed, less data-practiced citizenry is no asset to a state.  In time, Wisconsin will enjoy some difficult-to-quantify — but real — loss of good jobs, of new enterprises, probably of population.  It will be a poorer place.

And that effect will be magnified by the direct damage to basic and applied research done right now by limiting the return on Wisconsin’s enormously hard-won stock of human capital at the universities.

I hope to blog later today on a couple of stories of research and researchers that have made exceptional use of big data and the connections to be forged between different bodies of knowledge and people with diverse expertise. But for now, what matters is that such work is increasingly the cutting edge of a whole range of scientific and technological research initiatives.  And the one thing required for such work is access to a robust network. This is what the Wisconsin Republican-led legislature is targeting, with a determination that extends to turning down other people’s money.

The states really are the laboratories in which the future of our nation is being tried…so look to Wisconsin to see what could happen in a wholly GOP led United States.

There we see in microcosm how it is that empires die:   first they sell themselves off to the highest bidders. Then they crumble.

The Republican party cannot be trusted with even a whiff of power.  We have a lot to do over the next year and a half.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Images:  Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century

 

A Little Post-Lunch Star P*r*o*n (Entirely SFW)

June 8, 2011

Have a look at this latest bit of cosmic eye candy to cross my desk:

What with all the wretchedness that comes from too deep an immersion in the craptastic nature of our politics these days, it is sometimes necessary (for me) just to stop, look up, and enjoy the view.

This is an image of the star-forming region Messier 17, alias the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula.  It is the first released pic from data taken by the European Southern Observatory’s new survey telescope, the VST.  It’s not large, as modern telescopes go — 2.6 meters in diameter, or roughly half the diameter of the venerable Palomar 200 inch Hale Telescope.  But it’s been designed as an instrument to make surveys of significant portions of the sky with very high resolution and optical/image quality.  The ‘scope boasts active optics, and delivers its photons to what sounds like the coolest instamatic ever made…with initial results as you see above.

Deutschland Uber…if not Alles, Then Us

June 7, 2011

David Leonhardt is sounding mighty shrill these days:

After performing worse than the American economy for years, the Germany economy has grown faster since the middle of last decade. (It did better than our economy before the crisis and has endured the crisis about equally). Just as important, most Germans have fared much better than most Americans, because the bounty of their growth has not been concentrated among a small slice of the affluent…

…Unlike what happened here, German laws and regulators have also prevented the decimation of their labor unions. The clout of German unions, at individual companies and in the political system, is one reason the middle class there has fared decently in recent decades. In fact, middle-class pay has risen at roughly the same rate as top incomes.

The top 1 percent of German households earns about 11 percent of all income, virtually unchanged relative to 1970, according to recent estimates. In the United States, the top 1 percent makes more than 20 percent of all income, up from 9 percent in 1970. That’s right: only 40 years ago, Germany was more unequal than this country.

Read the whole piece. Leonhardt points to German benefit reforms that he thinks we should pay attention to, and to the role of government in creating the conditions for economic and social success.

How about the United States?  Well, Leonhardt tries to paint a optimistic picture at the end of his column, but this penultimate thought kind of dashes any foolish hopes:

And us? Well, lobbyists for the mortgage bankers and the N.A.A.C.P. have recently started pushing for less stringent standards for down payments. Wall Street is trying to water down other financial regulation, too.

Some Democrats say Social Security and Medicare must remain unchanged. Most Republicans refuse to consider returning tax rates even to their 1990s levels. Republican leaders also want to make deep cuts in the sort of antipoverty programs that have helped Germany withstand the recession even in the absence of big new stimulus legislation.

Some days, it seems like the only thing to do is stock up on canned goods.  But I’ve got a kid, and I just can’t quite bring myself to abandon all hope. This bit of Leonhardt’s message does stick:  if the Germans can do it, we can’t be wholly without a chance.

Right?

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, The Sampling Officials, 1662.

Just One Moment to Remember…June 6, 1944.

June 6, 2011

Because there are things that happened in the world before most of us were born, a belated remembrance of the longest day:

H/t for a reminder of the date to Paul Krugman, whose pun on this I cannot top.

Images: Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard, official U.S. Coast Guard photograph, 6 June 1944.

The build-up of Omaha Beach. Reinforcements of men and equipment moving inland. SC193082 {PD-USGov-Military}

Photograph by Taylor, American assault troops of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, injured while storming Omaha Beach, wait by the Chalk Cliffs for evacuation to a field hospital for further medical treatment. Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.

Tristan Nitot, The Omaha Beach Cemetery, aka World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, near Colleville-sur-mer in Normandy, France

None Dare Call It Treason…

June 6, 2011

But, at least as I read it, that’s what the Republican party — and by that I mean, actual office holders and acknowledged leaders, not yahoos conspiring on some mountaintop — are edging ever closer to these days.

Evidence for such a serious charge?  Just the latest comes from an event Mistermix annotated earlier this morning:  the murder of Peter Diamond’s nomination to serve as a governor of the Federal Reserve.

A little backstory:  Peter Diamond is a member of the Economics Department at MIT (and hence, one of my colleagues).*  He is the author, co-author or editor of twelve books, and his CV lists 143 published papers.  He is perhaps best known recently for his work on social insurance and Social Security in particular, but his interests have ranged very widely indeed, to include among much else foundational research on what happens when buyers and sellers in a market have to look for each other, the problem of “search markets.”  Think, e.g., the problem that  employers and job seekers face to find specific matches in order for the job hunter to sell his or her labor to an employer-buyer.

That’s work that was just honored with the 2010 Nobel Prize for Economics.** [For more details, see the paper to be found at the “advanced information” tab here.]

Now every Nobel comes with a story, and I heard a couple of them at various celebrations I attended to honor Diamond.  One nice touch came at the economics department party for the prize, where department grad students and colleagues wore replica Peter Diamond Red Sox jerseys, in recognition of perhaps his most treasured honor, throwing the first pitch at a regular season game at Fenway a year or so ago.  Nobels are nice and all, but in the Athens of America, the Sox rule.

Then there was the one Diamond himself told at another reception this spring, which suggested the potential for trouble when an anonymous Swedish-accented female voice sounds at one’s home number at 0-dark-hundred, asking for the man of the house, then en route from an overseas trip — and refuses to say what it’s about to his just-awakened partner.  Hmmm.  But that’s the rule:  the laureate gets told first, no ifs/ands/buts.

But the most telling anecdote came from the current head of the MIT economics department, Ricardo Caballero, who told of contacting his immediate predecessor as head, James Poterba, who promptly handed over the brief he had prepared years earlier listing what to do when the call came from Stockholm with Peter Diamond’s name attached.  Which is to say — Diamond has long been recognized as a giant in the field.  The MIT department along with much of the profession had for a while seen the ultimate award of a Nobel as a matter less of “if” than “when.”

The signal importance of Diamond in our current predicament is that he is two creatures at once:  A mathematician by early training, he does a lot of what many academic economists do: prove theorems within models in an attempt to capture essential features of experience within the rigor of mathematical analysis.  At the same time, he is a committed observer and parser of the real world, with a direct focus on critical current policy issues.  In his own words [see entry 4: “My Research Strategy]:

I found I liked doing policy.  And I found that looking at policy questions fueled identification of good theory questions to model and analyze.  As a public finance economist, I was naturally interested in policy (rather than becoming a public finance economist because I was so interested in policy), although that has reversed.  And as a theorist more interested in constructing models to analyze questions than to getting new results in existing models, my taste ran to simplifications that seemed to preserve the important properties and so provide plausibly robust policy insights, an approach that fit with finding questions from involvement in policy discussions.

Hence work on Social Security, on pension systems around the world and so on.

So, just to recap the game so far:  we have in Peter Diamond someone recognized by everyone qualified to do so as one of the pre-eminent economists writing today. His work addresses major issues at the level of both theory and policy/application.  His questions include several that are pressing right now, notably employment and the understanding of essential social insurance programs.

And yet, because of the actions of one or a small minority of United Senators, supported by a unified Republican Senate caucus, the citizens of the United States of America will not secure the benefits of Peter Diamond’s knowledge and intellectual skills at a time when almost one in ten job-seekers are out of work, and our pension and health care systems face the prospect (threat) of enormous and individual-life-changing transformation.

So, why do Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama and the entire slate of the GOP Senators so hate the rest of us ?

Well, that would be (according to Shelby) because Diamond is unqualified to be a Fed governor.  This despite the overwhelming testimony of his profession.

But wait!  There’s an “argument” (sic) Shelby attaches to his presumptively stupid argument that a Nobel laureate economist can’t handle a Fed post.  Shelby’s rationalization?…

…Diamond, it seems, lacks specific expertise in monetary policy, the proper responsibility of the Fed.  Mistermix’s post details the duplicity of this claim:  at the time of Diamond’s nomination, three of the five sitting governors were not monetary specialists.  We’re back to the old trick of inventing criteria as needed to cover blatant political manouvering.

And anyway, Shelby’s just wrong (surprise! Dog bites man!), as Diamond himself made embarrassingly clear in a New York Times op-ed published today:

Last October, I won the Nobel Prize in economics for my work on unemployment and the labor market. But I am unqualified to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve — at least according to the Republican senators who have blocked my nomination. How can this be?

The easy answer is to point to shortcomings in our confirmation process and to partisan polarization in Washington. The more troubling answer, though, points to a fundamental misunderstanding: a failure to recognize that analysis of unemployment is crucial to conducting monetary policy….

…understanding the labor market — and the process by which workers and jobs come together and separate — is critical to devising an effective monetary policy. The financial crisis has led to continuing high unemployment. The Fed has to properly assess the nature of that unemployment to be able to lower it as much as possible while avoiding inflation. If much of the unemployment is related to the business cycle — caused by a lack of adequate demand — the Fed can act to reduce it without touching off inflation. If instead the unemployment is primarily structural — caused by mismatches between the skills that companies need and the skills that workers have — aggressive Fed action to reduce it could be misguided.

In my Nobel acceptance speech in December, I discussed in detail the patterns of hiring in the American economy, and concluded that structural unemployment and issues of mismatch were not important in the slow recovery we have been experiencing, and thus not a reason to stop an accommodative monetary policy — a policy of keeping short-term interest rates exceptionally low and buying Treasury securities to keep long-term rates down. Analysis of the labor market is in fact central to monetary policy.

Seems like this guy might be useful, just about now, doesn’t it?

Diamond’s most important point was not that Shelby’s malign influence is evidence of a poisoned political process, (though it is) nor even that the point of monetary policy is to influence things like the labor market (which it is, and is what makes direct knowledge of such spheres kind of important).  Rather, Shelby and the Republican Party are actually playing a much more dangerous game, one much more hostile to the interests of the United States and its citizens than any mere power squabble.   Here’s how Diamond wraps up his piece:

To the public, the Washington debate is often about more versus less — in both spending and regulation. There is too little public awareness of the real consequences of some of these decisions. In reality, we need more spending on some programs and less spending on others, and we need more good regulations and fewer bad ones.

Analytical expertise is needed to accomplish this, to make government more effective and efficient. Skilled analytical thinking should not be drowned out by mistaken, ideologically driven views that more is always better or less is always better.

And this is where Shelby’s — and the Republican Party’s — become guilty of what some may think is too strong a charge.

We face real, enormous problems.  Yet the Republican party has decided that its return to power by any means is more important than the interests of the United States. Why else block an obviously overqualified person to help set monetary policy, except for the fear that his policy ideas might work?  How else to describe — other than the pursuit of party advantage over Country First — the increasingly vocal murmurings that the GOP should push the US into default in order to so damage the American (and world!) economy that even as weak a candidate as any in the current GOP pool could defeat President Obama in 2012?

And so on — readers of this blog can continue the litany as needed.

Rush Limbaugh laid this out back in 2009 of course:  it was better then and it’s still the preferred option, from his point of view and from that of the Republican Party as a whole, that President Obama fail and the US suffer.  Heaven forfend that this administration to succeed and for GOP governance to be thus revealed as the disaster it is.

Oh — and one more thing.  As Diamond writes in the passage quoted above, blocking his nomination has the effect of making it more and more difficult to bring  “skilled analytical thinking” to bear on great public problems.

This despite the fact that deriding the possibility of competence as a tool of governance is both a disaster in the short term (near 10 percent unemployment, remember) and utterly corrosive of US power and influence looking to longer horizons.  If we barricade the government against even the possibility of having to act on the best disinterested advice we can get…what do you think will happen over time?  Nothing good…

I suppose there are some out there (a quotidian gossip, perhaps) who might find the use of words like “treason” to be, well, uncivil in this context.

But how else do you describe actions that harm Americans now and are likely to weaken the US relative to competitors and potential adversaries over the years and decades?  And when those deeds are in the service not only of trying to defeat a sitting President, but to deny that President the levers of government within the term for which he was duly elected?  I don’t know words strong enough to excoriate such Benedict Arnolds.

This is your modern Republican Party.  It is, IMHO, beyond salvation.  We do need an opposition, but this one does not retain any claim to the traditional epithet, “loyal.”  Time to start over.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

*I’ve met Diamond at a couple of large events.  I don’t know him though and have never had a real conversation with him — and I’ve never discussed with him or any other MIT economist what the hell was going on with his Fed nomination.  What follows is thus all mine; don’t blame him.

**Strictly speaking, the Sveriges Rijksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Honor of Alfred Nobel…but most everyone still calls it simply a Nobel Prize. #vampirepedantcrucifixfootnote

Images:  Max Liebermann, Women in a Canning Factory, 1879.

Agostino Carracci, Arrigo el peludo, Pedro el loco y el enano Amon (Hairy Arrigo, Crazy Peter, and the dwarf Amon), before 1602.