Tag Archives: U.S. politics

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

December 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The U.S. has lost ground relative to its peers on road deaths, and is now well below average. I noted that something similar has happened with respect to health care costs, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, drug addiction and infrastructure. Maybe a realistic goal would be to make America average again.
  • A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.
  • Daniel Ellsberg says we are very, very lucky to have avoided nuclear war so far. There are some tepid ideas for trimming the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and yet it is being upgraded and expanded as we speak. The North Korea situation is not getting better. Trump may be playing to religious fundamentalists who actually are looking forward to the Apocalypse.

Most hopeful stories:

  • Exercise may be even better for your brain than it is for your body, and exercising your body may be even better for your brain than exercising your brain itself.
  • Macroeconomic modeling is improving. So, just to pick a random example, it might be possible to predict the effects on a change in tax policy on the economy. Now all we need is politicians who are responsive to logic and evidence, and we could accomplish something. At least a few economists think the imperfect tax plan the U.S. Congress just passed might actually stimulate business capital investment enough to move the dial on productivity. The deliberate defunding of health care included in the bill is going to hurt people, but maybe not all that dramatically.
  • Moody’s introduced a new methodology for assessing climate risk in municipal bonds.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • There are life forms surviving in space right now, most likely of Earth origin. I wondered if maybe we should purposely contaminate other planets with them.
  • Microsoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.
  • Futuristic technologies keep coming along. Something vaguely like the “liquid metal” from Terminator 2 is being used for experimental aircraft parts. Vital signs might be monitored soon using a simple RFID device. A tiny electric shock of just the right size to just the right part of your brain might cure you of bad habits. And Magic Leap may finally release…something or other…in 2018.

the tax plan and the mandate

I assumed that the end of the “individual mandate” would seriously undermine funding for Obamacare, and in fact that is exactly what Trump is claiming. But Politifact says we all have that wrong. In fact, those penalties cover only about 3% of the cost of the Affordable Care Act. The main point of the penalty was always a psychological incentive for people to go to the exchanges and find out if they qualified for free or subsidized insurance. People wanted to avoid that penalty even if avoiding it meant they pay more for insurance than they would have paid for the penalty. Not only that, but people who qualify for Medicaid, which is free, have been more likely to find out they qualify for Medicaid because they go to the exchanges after wrongly thinking they are subject to the penalty. So it was somewhat of a psychological trick all along rather than a serious funding mechanism. This doesn’t mean that removing it will have only a 3% affect on premiums for the subsidized private plans – the effect may work in reverse, with more people never going to the exchanges and some not realizing they qualify for free Medicaid benefits. The CBO guesstimate is a 10% increase in premiums as a result of this effect. It’s still going to hurt the working class who need health insurance the most and it’s still immoral. The really immoral part is that as U.S. health care costs continue to spiral out of control in both the public and private sectors, our immoral dishonest politicians are going to point to Obamacare as the cause, and our uninformed citizens are going to believe them.

Michael Boskin and the golden rule

A few serious economists, like Michael Boskin at Stanford, are defending the Republican tax plan. Basically, the argument is that the economic growth benefits of stimulating corporate investment in “equipment” outweighs the outright bribery of wealthy campaign donors.

Summers’s own research results dramatically drive home that point. Using data from a variety of countries and time periods, some as short as five years, he and Brad DeLong of the University of California, Berkeley, (who also opposes the current tax bill) have made the strongest case I know that equipment investment can have a large impact on GDP growth. Moreover, the effect they estimate is much larger than in the conventional models used in most studies, including those relied on by government revenue scorers.

“The analysis suggests a strong and causal relationship between equipment investment and economic growth,” according to Summers and DeLong. They concluded that, “an increase of three or four percentage points in the share of GDP devoted to equipment investment is associated with an increase in GDP per worker of one percent per year.” So, to achieve the 0.3% increase in annual GDP growth that is now being debated, equipment investment would need to rise by 1% of GDP per year, sizeable to be sure, but well within the range of historical experience.

Summers and DeLong also calculate that the social returns from equipment investment are far larger than private returns. Thus, they concluded that “a strong case seems to exist for making sure economic policy does not penalize, and in fact, rewards, investors in equipment”; and that “measures that reduce the tax burden on new equipment investment are likely to be especially potent in maximizing the equipment investment engendered per dollar of government revenue forgone.” Finally, they noted that, “policies with an anti-equipment bias include tax rules that subsidize assets that can easily be levered … [and] pieces of equipment are frequently more difficult to use as collateral for debt than are investments in structures.”

This fits with the “golden rule level of capital” you learn about in economics 101, where “capital” is the “plants and equipment” mentioned above. If as a society you are investing too little in capital (and you have to invest just to hold it steady as it wears out, let alone increase it) your rate of growth is lower than it could be. Deficit spending to increase capital is a sort of free lunch in this case, because growth will offset the expenditures. It is not too hard to imagine this sort of logic extending to investments in research and development, education, and public infrastructure. (By the way, if you really care about economic growth, WHERE IS OUR TRILLION DOLLAR INFRASTRUCTURE BILL YOU LYING SONS OF BITCHES!)

Maybe reducing the corporate tax rate in the U.S. really is a good, efficient policy that will boost growth. My questions are first, how do we know the corporate tax cut will be invested in capital rather than just pocketed? Second, are the lost tax revenues hurting investments in education and infrastructure which could be equally or more beneficial? Third, how can the Republicans torpedo the health care system that was finally starting to help the working class and small business owners, and still sleep at night? It’s hypocritical and immoral. And finally, how can we just accept the rot of institutionalized corruption where politicians are elected by dollars rather than votes, when other advanced countries (a club we may not belong too much longer) don’t do that?

a radical proposal for the North Korea standoff

Philip Bobbit from Lawfare says the current strategies of the U.S. and China governments towards North Korea cannot succeed.

Our current approach to the North Korea problem is a combination of both kinetic and diplomatic threats occasionally alternating with the offer of incentives. This approach cannot succeed. There is nothing the U.S. can do to North Korea that will lead to its renunciation of its nuclear weapons program. North Korea—even before it has developed the capability to strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons—already poses an unacceptable risk of retaliation against our allies in response to an American military intervention. Moreover, there is nothing the U.S. can do for North Korea that might induce it to denuclearize because the Kim regime is convinced that, for domesticreasons, the country can only be assured of remaining in power by keeping its country on a war footing against the United States. Finally, there is nothing the international community, including China, can do to North Korea in the way of greater sanctions, or for North Korea by abating sanctions. Neither action could possibly persuade the Kim regime to give up its nuclear weapons because the regime has concluded that only its threats to others have preserved it thus far.

His solution, if I understand it correctly, is for China to agreed to repel any U.S. invasion, using any nuclear weapons if necessary. China technically has agreed to repel any invasion of North Korea already, but to use nuclear weapons only in retaliation for a nuclear attack. It sounds crazy, but I get the logic that the key to appeasing a paranoid dictator could be to address the paranoia directly.

There is, however, an available strategy that has not been considered and may promise success: a nuclear guarantee for the North Korean regime from China. If China were to give a credible nuclear guarantee to North Korea in the case of a U.S. invasion or preemptive strike against Pyongyang, there would be little point in North Korea risking the survival of its regime by developing long-range nuclear weapons. Such a policy should not be confused with the current mutual defense pact between North Korea and China, one cornerstone of which is China’s no-first-use policy. From Kim’s point of view, there is much security to be gained by such a guarantee of deterrence against the U.S. and much security to be lost if North Korea continues its present course when further technological revolutions in the U.S. render the North Korean arsenal ever more vulnerable. Our aim must be to reorient Kim Jong Un’s paranoia, making him more afraid of losing a unique opportunity for security in the eyes of his own people than he is afraid of dependence on China.

It seems like a simpler, and equally logical, approach on its face would be for the U.S. to pledge to never invade North Korea in exchange for North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. The U.S. could withdraw some weapons from Asia in return, which would be a good idea anyway. I guess the problem with this is that U.S. promises would not be credible in North Korean eyes. Or, to be more cynical, they need their population to fear imminent U.S. attack in order to keep them under control.

how to defraud the U.S. Census

From the Department of Pre-crime, a guy the Trump administration might appoint to run the 2020 Census might try to cook the books. It seems a little unfair to accuse someone of a crime they haven’t even had an opportunity to consider committing yet, but I found it interesting to consider how it could be done. This sort of thing definitely happens in some countries, for example to perpetuate minority rule in spite of demographic change.

Each census starts with a simple questionnaire sent to every household. In 1970 and 1980, over 75% of those queried sent back responses. In 2010 that figure dropped to 63.5%, and in 2020, with distrust of government at an all-time high and increasing fears of data breach, the response rate will likely be significantly worse—current estimates range from 55% to 60%. To identify the non-respondents—at least 40% of Americans—the Census Bureau will have to exert considerable energy.

Thomas Brunell will determine how vigorously to track down these unidentified people in diverse locations. In rural areas that commonly vote Republican, he could direct workers to scour the trailer parks, while in urban Democratic strongholds, he could order census takers to visit non-responding households only during working hours. He could spend his advertising budget wisely in some places and less so in others. He could dispatch non-Spanish-speaking personnel into Hispanic neighborhoods. He could feed fears of deportation in immigrant communities. He could use credit rating companies to locate non-respondents, although many of the poor will never appear on such registries.

There is a simpler route Brunell could take. He might choose to do little, a tool almost as effective as the nefarious schemes detailed above. So far, the Census Bureau’s budget has been held to its 2010 level, despite a significant increase in the population and the expected rise in the percentage of those who do not respond to the initial questionnaire. Without greater resources and dedicated will, the Census Bureau could leave tens of millions of Americans uncounted. The GAO has warned that the 2020 Census is at “high risk of failure,” but requests to add funds have not yet been granted by Congress. New coping technologies are being introduced, yet trial runs have been curtailed due to lack of financing. Plans to test a Spanish-language questionnaire have also lapsed. Such constraints raise the stakes. When resources are limited, how to allocate those resources becomes paramount.


Trump and the Apocalypse

I was joking last week that in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump might be trying to hasten the Apocalypse. I doubt Trump believes in the biblical Apocalypse, and for the record neither do I, but this Alternet author provides a “shocking” reminder that many of his supporters do. This shouldn’t be so shocking, when Christianity is the prevalent religion in the country, and a good chunk of the Bible is literally about the end times and judgment day. Jesus spent a good chunk of his time talking about them, and his followers expected them to happen immediately upon his death.  Jewish and Muslim traditions include some form of it too. So I am not saying you can’t be religious without believing in the Apocalypse, but if you do that you are choosing not to take your holy books literally, or to take some parts literally and others not. Or, if you are religious but this topic is a surprise to you, then you aren’t really educated about the typical and historical beliefs of members of your own religion. So make no mistake, there are people out there for whom this is the most important thing and the main thing they spend their time thinking about, and they are going to view the world differently than those of us who do not believe in these things. And there are a lot of them out there.

ignorance and common sense

You would think ignorance and common sense would be opposites. But the term “common sense” has been in fact ruined because of its adoption by ignorant people. I’m not going to name names, but I have one particular U.S. President and political party in mind. Having common sense has come to be defined as believing one’s opinion is the truth. If you believe your opinion is the truth, you not only don’t know the limits of your knowledge, you can take willful steps to avoid acquiring knowledge, and you are completely impervious to evidence or logic others might attempt to share with you. Here are some illuminating quotes from a 2016 Washington Post article somewhat sadly titled Donald Trump doesn’t read much. Being president probably wouldn’t change that.

He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

Trump said he is skeptical of experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees.” He believes that when he makes decisions, people see that he instinctively knows the right thing to do: “A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time…’ ”

Trump said reading long documents is a waste of time because he absorbs the gist of an issue very quickly. “I’m a very efficient guy,” he said. “Now, I could also do it verbally, which is fine. I’d always rather have — I want it short. There’s no reason to do hundreds of pages because I know exactly what it is.”

What is that old saying – he who knows not he knows not, he is a fucking idiot with control of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Hopefully his age, propensity for temper tantrums, and fast food habit will lead to him having a stroke and dropping dead relatively soon.

If the Secret Service is reading this, yes I hope he dies soon of natural causes, no I wouldn’t pull the trigger myself, but I would be happy to bring the next silver-plated platter of Big Macs.

On the lighter side, Trump is not the first President with a supposed Big Mac habit. Maybe he will join Bill Clinton’s vegan club. No word yet on whether Hillary has come up with a vegan cookie recipe.