Thursday, September 27, 2012

Carbon tax vote

Via Greg Mankiw, I see you can vote for a carbon tax. As of this writing, the carbon tax is winning. Maybe my plan is politically viable after all.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Stardust book

Review copy received: The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars, by Jacob Berkowitz. This has to do with Fred Hoyle's discovery that the elements composing life on earth were formed in stars. I reviewed a couple of books about Hoyle's life more broadly a few years ago.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Taking Sides

My October column at Research magazine is now online and focuses on how and why Wall Street is "Taking Sides" in this presidential race, and what the implications are. Opening:
In the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama had a substantial edge over John McCain in raising money from Wall Street. That advantage has not only evaporated for the president in the current race, but has reversed dramatically. 
In the 2008 cycle, Obama raised nearly $16 million from the securities and investment industry, compared to a little over $9 million for McCain, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. More broadly, Obama raised some $42 million from the finance, insurance and real estate sector, versus $31 million for McCain. 
This time around, the figures tell a very different story. As of late August, Mitt Romney’s contributions from the securities and investment industry had totaled almost $11.5 million, compared to almost $4.2 million for President Obama, according to a Center for Responsive Politics compilation of Federal Election Commission data. The numbers for the broader finance, insurance and real estate sector showed a similar disparity: about $28.6 million for Romney, against $12.2 million for Obama.
Whole thing here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Science politics review

More science and politics reading: "The Beaker and the Ballot," WSJ review by Ari Schulman of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality and Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left. My reviews of those books are here and here. I'll be discussing these books as part of my "Science vs. Politics" lecture, upcoming.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

GMO watch

Some material for my upcoming presentation on "Science vs. Politics": "Single-Study Syndrome and the G.M.O. Food Fight," by Andrew Rivkin at the Times. More: "Stenographers, anyone? GMO rat study authors engineered embargo to prevent scrutiny," by Ivan Oransky at Embargo Watch.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Right problems

Recommended reading: "Until Republicans Fix This Problem, They Can't Fix Any Problems," by Conor Friedersdorf. This problem being too much hucksterism, too little reasoned debate. I agree with the gist.

Also recommended, dealing with more immediate matters: "Noonan: Romney Needs a New CEO."

Those two links are connected in my mind. A better-run Romney campaign would be less prone to spout out the less compelling and more objectionable talking points of the conservative think tanks and talk radio. It would have more impressive things to say about the Obama record and how a Romney administration would differ. It would convince a few people who are not in the roughly 47% that each party can take for granted.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tax reform redux

Recently I put forward my own proposal for tax reform. As Romney's 47% remarks have put taxes front and center in the campaign, here it is again.

My idea, in a nutshell, is replace the income tax with the progressive consumption tax known as the X tax, and replace the payroll tax with a carbon tax. Call it the X+C plan.

Subsequent discussion at David Frum's blog underscored some of the difficulties of achieving this politically. Many commenters there were wary of the X tax as a potential windfall for the rich (though it's designed to maintain the progressivity of the income tax) and moreover the idea of an X tax is hard to understand and explain (and on that I say mea culpa, as I have had difficulty explaining it and find some of the technicalities hard going myself).

It may be that another, more comprehensible, form of progressive consumption tax would be more politically viable, but it still seems to me that the general direction I sketched out is a good one. Of course, it would need to be championed by a politician who can explain these matters well, and there aren't many of those around.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney video debacle

A quick note about the Romney video: (1) his remarks were inaccurate and misleading, ignoring taxes other than the income tax, conflating tax non-payers with entitlement recipients and then conflating both with Obama supporters; (2) it makes my prediction that Romney's going to win hard to defend; I said the polls would swing his way after the debates, but now if that's going to happen he'd better come up with some truly amazing debate performance, and the man who made these remarks probably lacks the political acumen to do so.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


This weekend in Philadelphia, I attended a lecture at PhACT, the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, in which physicist Paul Halpern, author of Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond, spoke about how cosmology has become both more precise in what it can say and more uncertain about the even-bigger picture.

I was there because that subject is fascinating but also because I'll be presenting the monthly PhACT lecture two months down the road (Nov. 17) with the rather different focus of "Politics vs. Science." I'll be discussing whether one side of the political spectrum is more prone to deny, distort and disparage science than is the other, offering some historical background on the relationship between politics and science and making a post-election assessment of where things go from there.

The lecture will be free and open to the public and I'll have more info as the date approaches.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Diplomatic mediocrity [updated]

There are times when the subsequent explanation is as bad as the gaffe. Here's what Obama said to Telemundo about Egypt:

"I don't think that we would consider them an ally but we don't consider them an enemy."

Here's the later clarification from the White House:

"We don't have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies. But as the president has said, Egypt is long-standing and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation by supporting Egypt's transition to democracy and working with the new government."

"Partner," in this context, means pretty much nothing. The U.S. can say it's a "partner" of everyone from neutral Switzerland to definite non-ally China. Here's the legal status of Egypt since 1989: "major non-NATO ally," which carries specific legal consequences such as in cooperation on counterterrorism.  If Obama wanted to signal that Egypt might lose that status, he could have chosen other words. The words he chose suggest that he didn't know what the legal status of Egypt actually is.

Also, the NPR link above wrongly cites John McCain as saying Obama's "remarks" were "fine" as if that was a reference to the "ally" comment when in fact it was not.

During this crisis there were a few hours after Romney's poorly chosen words in which I could see someone arguing the Republican is too much of a foreign-policy neophyte. Then the president spoke. This dispiriting election season continues.

UPDATE 9:50 AM: David Frum has a different view, seeing this as "Obama's Shrewdest Gaffe," as it signaled to Egypt the precariousness of its connection to the U.S. I think that's generous, but as a counterfactual exercise I'll try to construct what Obama should have said if he'd wanted to do that, something like: "Egypt, of course, is listed as what's called a major non-NATO ally. But the true nature of an alliance is that both countries have to cooperate in good faith and take account of each other's interests. We are watching this situation very closely, and we expect Egypt to fulfill all of its obligations as a U.S. ally."

UPDATE 11:42 AM: Nick Gillespie, who usually discusses public policy with some bemusement, sounds genuinely angry at the low quality of our presidential candidates' foreign policy communication and comprehension. And rightly so.

UPDATE 3 PM: It was a moving memorial ceremony. I see some people are taking issue with Hillary Clinton's mention of the video, but I thought what she said was appropriate.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Meanwhile down under

I'm pleased to see Helen Rittelmeyer, whom I knew somewhat In New York, is now blogging from Australia, one of my favorite countries and a good place to undertake a new phase of one's life and career. (Noticed via this.)

Back to the 1700s

Recommended reading, sobering edition: "The End of Growth?," by my friend and colleague Gil Weinreich, reporting on a paper by economist Robert Gordon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

And it wasn't a hoax [updated]

I am amazed by the statement put out by the U.S. embassy in Egypt after it had been attacked by an Islamist mob today. That it happened on Sept. 11 makes it worse. That it happened on the same day a U.S. official was murdered in Libya makes it much worse. I had to read the statement a couple of times to really grasp the depth of its self-abasement. The President of the United States should explain promptly whether it represents his position.

UPDATE 9/12 7:46PM: Reportedly, the embassy's statement came out before the attack happened. If so, then it's merely a flaccid statement rather than an atrocious one. I'm not clear what exactly happened thereafter, if the embassy's tweets referred back to the statement once the attack began, etc.

UPDATE 9/12 10:41 PM: More: "Inside the public relations disaster at the Cairo embassy," at Foreign Policy, which reports that an officer of the embassy did send out tweets reaffirming the statement while the attack was already under way; and that those tweets were subsequently deleted.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Election outlook update

There's a spike in confidence going on among Obama supporters, based on his upswing in the polls post-convention. Nate Silver now puts the president's chance of re-election at 79.8%. Andrew Sullivan gloats about having a "widening smile." Well, maybe they're right but I can think of various reasons why Democrats should be nervous, ranging from the fundraising figures to the October debates to the prospect that people who are confident their side will win sometimes therefore don't bother to vote. (Of course, people who are sure their side will lose may not show up either, which could hurt Romney.)

Since I've already, perhaps unwisely, gotten in the prediction business, I may as well now unveil the map I just created at Real ClearPolitics showing Romney eking out a victory with 275 electoral votes. Strikes me as plausible enough, only a mild extrapolation from the current situation. But in any case, you won't hear me talk about my "widening smile," one because it's smug, and two because it seems to me there are significant pros and cons to the outcome either way. It's fair enough to think one side's better than the other, but it requires some willful blindness not to see real weaknesses on both sides.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Book note: The God Problem

Review copy received: The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates, by Howard Bloom. Years ago, I more or less read Bloom's Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century and wasn't really sure what to make of it. Much later, I saw Bloom give what I thought was a pretty unimpressive talk at a financial-industry conference, a talk in which he seemed to be winging it and tossing out half-baked ideas off the top of his head. Now he's back with another wide-ranging, arcane, crazy-seeming book that may or may not have valuable insights, and which I probably don't have the patience to read from start to finish.

On the other hand, it's absorbing enough that I've just done some of the multidirectional skimming that Bloom's books seem to inspire in me. I'm more of a pragmatic sort of person than I was a couple decades ago. Back then, I likely would have been much more earnestly interested in the following Bloom paragraph, rather than inclined to just post it for whoever happens by to make of what they will:
There is also a good chance that we have free will, competition, dominance hierarchies, love and war because they are among the earliest outgrowths of attraction and repulsion, among the first manifestations of differentiation and integration. There is a good chance that we have free will, competition, dominance hierarchies, love and war because they are outgrowths of the starting rules of the universe. Or, to put it differently, there is a good chance that we have free will, competition, dominance hierarchies, love and war because they are among the earliest iterations of the axioms that big banged this cosmos.
Me: Somehow I am reminded of this long-ago dialogue:
SPOCK: What my instruments read is totally unbelievable, Captain. Twice, for a split second each time, everything within range of our instruments seemed on the verge of winking out. 
KIRK: I want facts, not poetry. 
SPOCK: I have given you the facts, Captain. The entire magnetic field in this solar system simply blinked. The planet below, the mass of which we're measuring, attained zero gravity. 
KIRK: That's impossible. What you're describing 
SPOCK: Is non-existence. 
UHURA: Standard General Alert signal from Starfleet Command, Captain. 
KIRK: All stations to immediate alert status. Stand by. 
SPOCK: Captain, scanners now report a life object on the planet surface below. 
KIRK: You just did a complete life survey five minutes ago. How are you just picking it up now? 
SPOCK: Inexplicable, Captain. This reading began at approximately the moment that the pulsation phenomenon began to subside. 
KIRK: Well, what is it, this object? Its physical makeup? 
SPOCK: A living being. Body temperature 98.5 Fahrenheit. Mass, electrical impulses, movement. It is apparently human, Captain.
KIRK: And its appearance coincided with this cosmic winking-out? 
SPOCK: Almost to the second. 
KIRK: Explanation. 
SPOCK: None. 
KIRK: Speculation. Could this being present any danger to the ship? 
SPOCK: Possible. Very possible.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


It's just after 11 PM ET and Obama's speech has been pretty weak. "I'm hopeful because of you." Unless there's some bonzo finale, this was Bill Clinton's convention.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Science debate

Science Debate 2012: Answers provided by the presidential candidates to questions about science policy. I don't have much time to look into it right now. The side-by-side comparison, though, does indicate that Romney's answers, on average, are longer.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"Brave thinkers"

The Atlantic has a contest that asks people to choose a "brave thinker" from a list of five. It's a dubious list, in which I count two people who have done something brave but not particularly intellectual and three people who have done something intellectual but not particularly brave. To wit, I don't see how Stan Cox and Bill McKibben risk much through their environmentalism; there is a considerable audience for writings and advocacy along such lines. Nor does it seem to me that James Shapiro's arguments about evolutionary biology needing updating fall outside the academic pale. Question: Is there anyone on this list who says anything that, say, editors at The Atlantic find uncomfortable to hear--anything that makes them wonder if that person should be fired, ostracized or punished in some way?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Climate and abortion priorities

There's an interesting review of Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain at The American Conservative by Henry Chappell. Chappell makes some good points, but this sure isn't one of them:
It doesn’t seem to occur to Mooney that dogged resistance to climate science might have something to do with loyalty and priority. If you look at an image of a 10-week-old fetus and see “human,” instead of a lump of insentient human tissue, then climate change is not humanity’s most pressing issue.
Me: (1) I have yet to hear anyone actually make such an argument, i.e. "I don't deny global anthropogenic global warming very plausiblywill have terrible effects but I don't care much because I'm focused on abortion." (2) Denying global warming's reality or importance, as many conservatives have, does absolutely zero for unborn babies. (3) What about the children who actually are born, and their children? They have to live on this planet.