Friday, June 29, 2012

Writing in a house

Busy working on my next column. More blogging to come, but not just yet.

Pictured: Herman Melville's house, Lansingburgh, NY. He wrote two of his early novels here.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Presidential race watch

My July column for Research magazine suggests some developments to look for in the presidential race: "What to Expect." Excerpt:

Elizabeth Who?
The Obama campaign is likely to forego a high-visibility association with Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts. Warren’s potential to energize the liberal Democratic base initially would have been attractive to the Obama camp. However, controversy over her past identification as a Native American diminishes the upside of featuring Warren prominently for the president’s campaign.
The Romney campaign, too, might be reluctant to engage on Warren-related matters, as Massachusetts seems to rank low in the former governor’s strategy, both as a place to devote campaign efforts this year and as an area of his record on which to focus.
The Norquist Factor
Conservative activist Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, has had broad success in getting Republican politicians to sign his group’s pledge to oppose any tax hikes (including any closing of loopholes not matched by tax rate reductions). Mitt Romney signed the pledge, as did all the other GOP primary hopefuls except Jon Huntsman. Almost all Republicans in the House, and most in the Senate, have signed it.
The pledge has received some resistance recently, with small but growing numbers of GOP legislative candidates declining to sign it, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dismissing it as a way to “outsource your principles.” Moreover, Norquist may have overreached with statements in recent months suggesting the next GOP president would not set an agenda but rather passively sign bills pushed by the Republican caucus.
Expect Romney to distance himself from Norquist to bolster his appeal to the center. Given Romney’s cautious style, this probably will not involve an overt break (or “Sister Souljah moment” as such repudiations have been known since Bill Clinton criticized a controversial activist in 1992). Rather, look for proxy criticisms of Norquist by Romney supporters; Jeb Bush’s statement may have been a trial run for this effort.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Protean conservatism

Recommended reading: "Real Conservatism," by D.R. Tucker at the Huffington Post. To a large degree, I share D.R.'s frustration with the current state of conservatism. (For both of us, reaction against right-wing dismissal of global warming was a big factor in such disillusionment.) However, I avoid calling some desired set of ideas "real conservatism" as I think there are better and worse forms of conservatism, not a readily definable authentic type versus bogus types. Conservatism long has taken various forms (often simultaneously) and changed frequently--Coolidge's was different from Goldwater's, etc. The protean nature of conservatism is well discussed in The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution, by Gregory L. Schneider, a book I read a couple of years ago.

Friday, June 22, 2012

X-tax book

Review copy received: Progressive Consumption Taxation: The X-Tax Revisited, by Robert Carroll and Alan D. Viard. The X-tax is an idea that's gotten only marginal attention in this election cycle (though Romney advisor Glenn Hubbard has spoken favorably about it). It merits attention, not least as a way to get rid of the income tax. Some more info here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Commentary on natural gas

I'm in favor of fracking (hydraulic fracturing to retrieve natural gas). I want greater use of natural gas as an alternative to oil and coal. I think "energy independence," better described as "energy security," is an important goal for our nation. Thus I largely agree with this Commentary article: "Energy Independence and Its Enemies," by Abby W. Schachter. And yet....

It has some problems. First there's some sloppy writing and/or editing at the outset:
Fracking makes possible the extraction of oil—natural gas in particular—from shale rock formations thousands of feet underground.
 If that said "fossil fuels—natural gas in particular," it's be just fine. But "natural gas" is not a type of "oil" by any reasonable definition. Now let's get deeper into the article's substance, when Schachter discusses why there isn't bipartisan enthusiasm for fracking:
The answer was recently made clear by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she said the world is suffering from a “climate crisis.” For those, like Clinton, who believe the most pressing issue facing our society is climate change, and that humans are the ones causing the problem, any effort that results in increased consumption of fossil fuels such as natural gas is anathema. Proponents of this view have been working tirelessly to move the United States toward what they call a cleaner energy future by reducing our consumption of and reliance on energies that are harmful to the environment, namely, “dirty” carbon-producing coal and oil.
Read this again: "For those, like Clinton, who believe the most pressing issue facing our society is climate change, and that humans are the ones causing the problem...." Note the casual combination of a debatable position ("the most pressing issue facing our society is climate change") with a statement that's debated only through sheer perverseness ("and that humans are the ones causing the problem"). Whether Hillary Clinton or Pres. Obama actually think climate change is "the most pressing issue" is itself questionable (if that were the administration's view, we'd probably have a controversial climate law now instead of a controversial healthcare law). But the administration's fecklessness in dealing with climate change gets overlooked as the article retreats into hand-waving skepticism that humans have anything to do with the problem. Then there's this:
The opposition to fracking stems from the belief that the method of extracting natural gas from shale formations pollutes the environment and that burning natural gas for energy isn’t as “clean” as using solar or wind power. Clean-energy proponents argue that we should be moving as fast as possible to using nonpolluting, non-carbon-producing energy sources rather than transitioning to a less-dirty alternative to coal and oil.
That natural gas isn't as clean as solar or wind is not just a belief but a fact (even taking into account that solar and wind do have environmental impacts ranging from material disposal to bird killings). Unlike the clean-energy proponents Schachter decries, I think the best is the enemy of the good, and that indeed we should be ramping up natural gas as a less-dirty alternative to coal and oil (while working on developing yet-cleaner energy sources as well). But unlike the conservatives Schachter here speaks to and for, I want more use of natural gas not just because it's an alternative to foreign oil but also because it's a way to restrain carbon emissions and reduce climate risks. The argument for natural gas is weakened, not strengthened, by excluding the climate from things worth considering.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Busy times

Blogging may be light in the near term. Pictured: African penguins, Boulders Penguin Colony, Cape Town, Dec. 2011.

Two questions that are hard to answer

1. What is the actual tax burden on different groups (different income levels, wealth levels) in U.S. society? Looking at the personal income tax gives one result (or set of results). Adding other taxes changes the pictures. The corporate income tax maybe falls largely on the wealthy, who are shareholders, except inasmuch as corporations can pass the taxes on as higher prices that are borne more widely. Property taxes, fuel taxes, sales taxes all are relatively regressive. (And how should the analysis take indirect effects into account, as when renters pay higher rents to cover property taxes that are directly incidental on the property owners?) It's quite complicated, as well as being politically highly charged.

2. What is the current condition of think tanks, in terms of the size and stability of their funding, who's funding them and the degree to which donors are able to influence or control the output of the organizations? Also, do such conditions vary greatly across the ideological spectrum? Another complicated question, and one that's hard to answer because of the lack of transparency at the think tanks and the lack of anybody who might do an analysis without having some kind of axe to grind.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A few political links

Various items of interest:

--Joel Achenbach on "The Bradbury Space Telescope?" Interesting thoughts on political support for telescopes. Don't miss the embedded NASA Venus video. For a party with a growing reputation for dislike for science, astronomy is an excellent opportunity to prove otherwise.

--Douglas Anthony Cooper on David Frum's Patriots. See my review, as framed by David, here.

--Buzzfeed: "Team Obama Drops the 'Neocon' Bomb," which includes: "The new Obama campaign line: Mitt Romney is basically John Bolton, at least for now." I begin to think left-wing harping about what a right-winger Romney is will end up shoring up his conservative base, while conservative complaints about what a centrist he is will end up reassuring the center. Can a politician be that lucky? I suspect so.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Intrade questions

What are we to make of Intrade's prediction market for "Barack Obama to be re-elected president in 2012" currently showing a 52.5% chance of that, while Intrade's market for "Mitt Romney to be elected president in 2012" currently is at 42.8%? Is there an almost 8% chance Romney won't be the nominee or that a third-party candidate will win (yeah, right)? Do people arbitrage between Intrade markets (and if not, why not)? Could it be a sign of some deeper flaw in Intrade or the whole concept of prediction markets? Perhaps my actuarial readership will weigh in.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Review: Eisenhower in War and Peace

Finished reading: Jean Edward Smith's Eisenhower in War and Peace
I would recommend it, and certainly learned a great deal from it. A couple of caveats: there's a lot of emphasis on Ike's relationship with Kay Summersby without acknowledgement of the uncertainties in what exactly that was; the book is such a broad discussion that topics sometimes seem to fly by a bit too quickly; and occasionally Smith doesn't seem greatly familiar with a topic tangential to the Eisenhower story, as when he writes that "Lebanon was nominally an Arab country" but with a large Christian population, as if "Arab" denoted a religion. Despite those minor weaknesses, this book is well worth reading, and its subject is well worth studying, not least as a role model for the next Republican president.