Thursday, January 31, 2013

Drones for rhinos

A good idea: "Drone ranger: Unmanned plane to spy on rhino poachers."

Pic from South Africa, Jan., 2012. Related post here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Inhospitable territory

John Avlon has a post: "GOP Needs More Northeast Republicans to Save the Party." Excerpt:
Let’s extend the reality check: Fifteen years ago, popular Republican leaders dominated the northeast—from Gov. Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey to New York’s George Pataki and Massachusetts’s William Weld. 
They all shared a similar centrist political profile that can be fairly described as fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Most were pro-choice and pro-immigrant, but they were seen as bulwarks against free-spending Democratic state legislatures. They did not pander to social-conservative populists, and no one would accuse them of representing the Party of Stupid. Most important, they won elections in what might have otherwise been inhospitable territory. In the same era, a third-way generation of urban Republican mayors was proliferating across the country as well, including L.A.’s Richard Riordan, and Indianapolis’s Stephen Goldsmith. 
What changed? The play-to-the-base, red state-versus-blue state strategy of Karl Rove alienated Northeast Republicans, along with the elevation of evangelicals like John Ashcroft to positions like attorney general. Northeast Republicans—who represented a distinct tradition of political reform and fiscal responsibility going back to Teddy Roosevelt—left the GOP in droves; to such an extent in fact, that registered independents (or non-affiliated) voters outnumber registered Republicans or Democrats in most seaboard states north of New Jersey. 
The cause and effect is clear. The RINO-hunting in the national Republican Party has been especially disastrous in the northeast.
I couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Business International memories

I freelanced in the late 1980s and early '90s at Business International, then being absorbed into the Economist Intelligence Unit. A few years earlier, one Barack Obama had worked there as well. I never met him. But, based on what he wrote about the place years later, it's evident he wanted to give the impression that in leaving Business International he forewent a fast-track, potentially lucrative career in order to become a community organizer--and that this was a dubious suggestion. BI, in fact, was basically a newsletter publisher (which did some consulting), had seen better days a few decades earlier and didn't offer much money or perks or seem to have much of a future.

Now, in saying that Obama put a questionable gloss on a minor phase of his early career, I do not wish to endorse any sort of conspiracy theory, let alone the madness known as "birtherism." And if a pollster were to ask me whether Obama is "hiding important information about his background and early life," I'd be inclined to reply that, based on my particular near-confluence of career paths with Obama's, I think the president is obscuring some not very important information. But of course, polls don't allow for such subtle answers, so I might have ended up saying "yes"--in which case I'd now be lumped in with the "64%" of Republicans who take a position "that would include what's often referred to as 'birtherism'." That is absurd, as Jesse Walker points out here and Justin Green earlier noted here.

Quick GOP links

A couple of links of interest, relevant to the GOP's problems and prospects:

"Upon Further Review." A discussion at the Claremont Review of Books.

"A Second GOP," by David Brooks.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Climate sensitivity

Recommended climate reading: "Climate Sensitivity Single Study Syndrome." For people who have recently read things like "Study: Global Warming Less Extreme Than Feared" and may be perplexed.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Jindal's approach

Bobby Jindal's speech (full transcript here) to the RNC has gotten a lot of attention. One effect it's had on me is to underscore the limits of Twitter, where I read various snipes that offered little substance or context. Having said that, I'm not particularly enthralled by the speech, as I think "let's be smarter but never more moderate" (my paraphrase) is an inadequate political and governing strategy. In any case, Jindal struck some of the same themes shortly after the election, as I mentioned in my latest column (excerpted below).

The last election cycle saw expanded ties between the Republican Party and financial professionals. Figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show that Mitt Romney raised $21,033,028 from donors in the securities and investment industry, more than three times President Obama’s total of $6,146,701. By a broader measure covering donations from all finance, insurance and real estate industries, Romney led by an impressive $57,414,549 to Obama’s $20,000,930. 
However, Republicans may take from Romney’s defeat a lesson that there are significant political liabilities in being perceived as too close to Wall Street. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal embraced that concern in a mid-November interview with the website Politico: “We’ve got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything,” he said. 
How such sentiments will translate into policy proposals remains to be seen. But it is plausible that there will be significant divisions among Republicans over questions of financial regulation, with some calling for tougher rules and others rejecting “overregulation.” 
UPDATE 11:28 AM: David Weigel has some cogent skepticism: "Someone Tell Bobby Jindal Where Gaffes Come From."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lautenberg discipline

It's bad enough that Sen. Frank Lautenberg thinks it's "disrespectful" for Cory Booker to contemplate contesting his Senate seat, but the way Lautenberg expressed that particular sentiment is even worse:
"I have four children, I love each one of them. I can't tell you that one of them wasn't occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK," Lautenberg said with a smile in his first public comments since Booker announced he was considering a run for Senate.
The primary is not till June 2014, but I say it's already game-over. By the way, the Secaucus transfer station should never have been named after a politician still in office.

Monetary tensions

My column for the February issue of Research magazine is now online: "Political Stand-Offs." Much of it is about monetary policy. Excerpt:
In last year’s presidential primaries, hopefuls including Mitt Romney complained monetary policy was too loose. Rick Perry warned further easing would be “almost treasonous.” Ron Paul’s push to “end the Fed” was a keynote of his campaign, and Newt Gingrich praised Paul for being “right about the Federal Reserve for 25 years.”
The politics have been shuffled somewhat by the Federal Reserve’s stance, announced in December, of continuing bond purchases as long as unemployment stays above 6.5% and inflation is projected at below 2.5%. On one hand, such easing runs contrary to Republican calls for tight money and fears of inflation. On the other hand, it jibes well with another traditional Republican priority, for monetary policy to be more rule-based and predictable.
 Whole thing here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Shermer on liberal antiscience

Michael Shermer (whose column I used to fact check at Scientific American, thus making me as I liked to say a "skeptic's skeptic") has a Sciam piece now on "The Liberals' War on Science." The persuasiveness of Shermer's piece is not, to me, bolstered by his praise for Science Left Behind, a book I reviewed negatively here, but I think he's right to raise the oft-neglected topic of left-wing antiscience. Shermer is a self-described libertarian, and it reflects well on Sciam that it publishes his politically tinged columns (given that expressed political opinion on the Sciam staff is virtually uniformly liberal).

As usual, discussing the political antiscience subject provokes heated debates about who's worse, left or right. (See the comments at Shermer's piece, as well as at Justin Green's gloss on it.) My own view, about which more here, here and here, among other places) is that there are significant problems of science denial and disparagement on both left and right--and that the right overall is even worse than the left at the moment (given widespread conservative denialism on climate science)--and that these things have changed over time and will change again, pace claims about the "Republican Brain."

Monday, January 21, 2013

Speech reactions

For reactions to Obama's inaugural speech, I recommend David Frum's take here, and that of Jennifer Rubin here. Be it noted that I've not been an entirely consistent fan of Rubin's column, but as her headline says, "Finally, agreement on Obama's speech."

On a different note, I've been plowing ahead with The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 and am struck by how negative the portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt is.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Snapshot of 2016

This article, "In Town-Hall Meeting, Christie Counters Obama on Guns," by Andrew Romano, shows two reasons why Chris Christie is plausibly going to be the next president (and one of those reasons it shows quite inadvertently). They are: (1) he knows how to take positions that veer from dogmatic and stereotypical conservatism but still are conservative to a considerable degree; and (2) liberal journalists and pundits won't be able to help themselves from obnoxiously and irrelevantly focusing on candidate Christie's weight (article's opening words: "By the time Gov. Christie waddled out the door...").

Monday, January 14, 2013

Internet drivel

David Gelernter answers the question "What *Should* We Be Worried About?" with "Worry About Internet Drivel." Excerpt:
At the Huffington Post, the future is now; the Weekly Standard has republished parts of a Huff-and-Puffington piece by the actor Sean Penn. Even assuming that Sean Penn is a lot more illiterate than most people, the Post is a respectable site and the Penn piece is eye-opening. 
The conflicted principle here, is that which all too often defines and limits our pride as Americans who, in deference to an omnipresent filter of monoculturalism, isolationism and division, are consistently prone toward behaviors and words, as insensitive and disrespectful, while at foremost counterproductive for the generation of young Americans who will follow us. 
The only problem with this passage is that it is gibberish. The average ten-year-old hasn't fallen this far yet. But the threat is real, is way under the radar and likely to stay there; prognosis: grim.
Me: I think Gelernter has a point, and it's one that inadvertently is underscored by the way the Penn quote appears, without quote marks or other visual indication that it's a quote. (I refer to the second paragraph of the three paragraphs that I have set aside as a block quote.) The Web encourages such loose copy editing standards and heedlessness as to what the reader will actually see.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Politics of science note

The January issue of Phactum, the newsletter of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, has a brief write-up about my talk there in November. Ray Haupt, Phactum's editor, has commented on several blog posts here at Quicksilber in recent months. Here's the write-up:

PhACT and Politics of Science
PhACT's speaker for November 2012, Kenneth Silber, is a journalist and blogger who describes himself as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). At the meeting, Mr. Silber discussed politics and science and how the two parties differ in their biases and are distrustful of science in differing degrees depending on the matter under consideration. For example, Republicans tend to be more skeptical in matters of climate change and Democrats more skeptical about vaccines. There are exceptions on each side, of course.
     Mr. Silber has a blog where readers may comment:

Me: Thanks to Ray for the mention and again to PhACT for having me speak. Readers looking into the topic further may be interested in my reviews of the books The Republican Brain and Science Left Behind (both of which I discussed in the talk). As for being a RINO, there's more to be said about that, but for now I'll point readers to my year-ago discussion of RINOs and rhinos.

UPDATE: I have posted my slides.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Human contribution

Recommended viewing. More here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

James M. Buchanan (1919-2013) [updated]

Economist James M. Buchanan has passed away. Twenty years ago this month I reviewed his memoir Better than Plowing in Commentary. Excerpt:
The dust jacket of Better Than Plowing, a collection of autobiographical essays, describes Buchanan’s work as “the theoretical inspiration for much of the Reagan era’s economic philosophy.” This is an overstatement. In fact, public choice was but one of several intellectual schools that influenced U.S. economic policy in the 1980′s, along with supply-side theory and monetarism. True, the perspective offered by public-choice analysis was compatible with the Reagan administration’s efforts to scale back the government’s role in the economy. But the implications of public-choice theory are that achieving such a goal would require institutional change, as opposed to mere policy adjustments.
Thus, although the Reagan administration provided tax and regulatory relief, and constrained the growth of public expenditure, the mechanisms of economic policy-making remained much the same in 1988 as they had been in 1980. There had been little change in the budgetary process, or in other institutional arrangements conducive to the expansion of government. The way was thus clear for a swift reversal of Reagan’s economic policies during the succeeding administration, which is indeed what happened.
Now: I still have respect for Buchanan, and think public choice offers important insights. But looking back at what I wrote in the passage above, I no longer fret much about the supposed "rapid reversal" of Reagan policies under Bush I, as I think it was more a course change than a reversal and not without merits. Moreover, I now have much more doubt about "institutional change" in the budget process as a way to limit government; back then I think I had in mind a constitutional balanced-budget amendment, for one thing, and I could imagine that resulting in more fiscal cliff/debt ceiling-type fiascoes.

UPDATE 1/11 3:48 PM: Matthew Yglesias at Slate expresses some puzzlement about what Buchanan's work accomplished, and asks readers to help him out. Excerpt:
Buchanan's point is that is that an actual regulator or politician is not a benevolent social planner, but instead a regular person with regular motives. So while an unregulated local utility company might be a vicious exploitative monopolist, the director of a publicly owned utility might be a viciously exploitative bureaucrat, or the chief of a public utility regulatory commission might be viciously exploitative corrupt hack. You can't just infer from the existence of a market failure that a regulatory solution will in fact emerge.
Absolutely true. But also I think a little banal. People were aware of the problem of political corruption and malfeasance before Buchanan came along.
Me: While numerous others can explain public choice better than I can, a key aspect I think is that the government official isn't necessarily corrupt or malfeasant--that the demands of getting elected and staying in office push even reasonably moral politicians to engage in behaviors that ultimately don't serve the public well. For example, politicians will spend a lot but not tax enough to pay for the spending, precisely because the voters (in effect if not with clear intent) are asking for them to do that. Remember, the school of thought is called "public choice," not "politicians' choice."

UPDATE 1/14: Tyler Cowen has a quick but wide-ranging answer to Yglesias's question.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Platinum coin and gold standard [updated]

The trillion-dollar coin is getting a lot of circulation as an idea. I think it's a stupid idea, and am somewhat surprised to find people mounting seemingly serious defenses of it. Here's Josh Barro: "Why Platinum Coin Opponents Are All Wrong." I agree with Barro that the Republican strategy of refusing to raise the debt ceiling is dangerous, irresponsible folly, but I disagree that the trillion-coin somehow makes the situation better; on the contrary, its effects would be additive, not substituting for the fears stoked by the debt ceiling debate but rather confirming that U.S. fiscal policy is in complete meltdown.

It is funny that some people are asking where the U.S. government would get all that platinum, when in fact all it would take is enough to mint a coin and inscribe $1,000,000,000,000 on it. Of course, as Barro notes, this notional coin is not a "platinum standard," but I think it does highlight a difficulty that any commodity standard does face: the equation of x amount of a commodity to y amount of dollars ultimately rests on a monetary issuer's assertion that it will uphold that value--exchanging between cash and metal on demand and not, say, deciding tomorrow that the new rate is x = 2y, or x = 2 trillion y.

As such, metal-backed money is not fundamentally different from fiat money. There's no easy way for policymakers to tie their own hands, in monetary policy or in fiscal policy (see, e.g., "debt ceiling"). At least, though, an unanticipated benefit if the U.S. government does mint a trillion-dollar coin would be to underscore the absurdity of seeking "sound money" based on a supposedly solid link to any metal.

UPDATE 1/9 2:43PM: A piece at Business Insider takes the opposite view--arguing that resistance to the platinum coin idea shows that people are stuck in a gold-standard mentality. According to the writer, there actually are no problems involved in the government vastly expanding the money supply, just print away or mint a coin with an arbitrary amount or whatever. I think that might work on a different planet, one where there's no worry that, say, foreign bond investors will ever stop buying a government's debt.

Also, Megan McArdle has a well-justified rant about not just the platinum coin but the deeper dysfunction it represents. Excerpt:
Try this exercise: name some of President Obama’s campaign pledges.  Unless you were actually covering the elecetion, I bet you can only name one: the pledge to raise taxes on people who made more than $250,000.  No new programs to solve some problem, no high-concept bargain to unite the nation . . . no, the one thing that Democrats wanted to do was raise taxes for 2% of taxpayers, and only 2% of taxpayers.  Not to pay for anything in particular, but just because the rich had too much. And why was this—rather than some actual policy program—the centerpiece of his agenda?  Because his base liked it, and because opposing it made the ultra-rich Mitt Romney look like a selfish heel.  
Me: The debate I wanted to see.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Watch NJ politics

It's an interesting time in New Jersey politics. Some Democrats are upset that Newark Mayor Cory Booker has indicated interest in running in 2014 for Sen. Frank Lautenberg's Senate seat (presumably whether Lautenberg's still in it or not). That means Booker won't be running this year against Gov. Chris Christie, who is enjoying high popularity as well as strong fundraising for reelection without even holding any fundraisers. And there's the question whether Christie will run for president in 2016.

I've been a Republican since I first registered to vote, and that was a different era. Increasingly, I've been at odds with my party in recent years. (Interestingly, Christie too has been somewhat at odds with the party lately, though how serious those tensions are is hard to gauge.) Then again, I have plenty of issues with the Democrats, too, though I am inclined to see differences among the Democrats, unlike more committed partisans who seem to see the opposite party as a more or less undifferentiated mass.

In New Jersey, an independent (or in the jargon "unaffiliated") voter can declare himself a Democrat or Republican on primary day, as long as he has been unaffiliated for at least 55 days before the primary. So you can be an independent without even giving up the ability to vote in a primary. Something to think about.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Santa Claus politics

Something I learned from The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965: likening a Democratic president to Santa Claus is not new. Excerpt:
Willkie, the Republican loser in the November election, was a big six-foot-one, 220 pound Hoosier who pronounced America "Amurica." He strongly opposed what he called Roosevelt's "alphabet soup" social programs and had campaigned against Roosevelt's relief programs on the slogan "You can't beat Santa Claus."
That was not a particularly effective tactic back then, but at least was original (presumably). New rhetoric, please.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Random & misc.

Environmental note 1: Methane leakage may mean natural gas is much more part of the problem than part of the solution on climate change, at least with current techniques.

Environmental note 2: David Biello, an excellent science writer and former colleague from my SciAm days, is writing a book on the Anthropocene, i.e. the incipient era in which human impacts dominate the environment. That is sure to be interesting.

Political note 1: David Frum writes that it's "Time to toot horn for George H.W. Bush." I agree, and with the perspective of 20 years, my vote for the Libertarian Andre Marrou seems amazingly fatuous.

Political note 2: John Avlon foresees "113th Congress May Actually Get Something Done." I am currently working on a column that similarly looks beyond the obvious polarization.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Athwart conservative history

Happy New Year. And as this is largely a political blog, let's open 2013 by citing, with approval, this post by Bret Stephens in a Commentary symposium on "What Is the Future of Conservatism?" Excerpt:
I know it’s a small thing in the scheme of the universe that Ashcroft should have been offended by a piece of statuary. It’s probably no big deal that Senator Marco Rubio professes agnosticism as to whether the Earth is thousands or billions of years old. Had Todd Akin of Missouri been elected to the Senate, his notions of reproductive biology would have had scant bearing on, say, his votes on defense. The fact that a considerable percentage of Republican voters believe Barack Obama’s college transcripts are the Da Vinci Code of his presidency is of slight consequence to the future of Western civilization. It makes little practical political difference that so many Republicans consider the theory of evolution to be a piece of quackery on par with, say, the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. The mysterious inability or unwillingness of so many Republicans to use the adjectival form when speaking of the “Democrat Party” is not an issue on which the fate of the Republic hinges. 
But it adds up. To a greater degree than some readers of this magazine may care to admit, the conservative movement has grown prudish, crotchety, God-obsessed, conspiratorial, retrograde, and insipid. Somebody needs to stand athwart and yell “stop.”
Me: Couldn't agree more.