Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dinner and a Movie

Nathan Williams and I moved away from politics and into talking tonight about this summer's big comic book and action movies.  It's worth listening to just for Nathan's story  about "Kangaroo Jack."

Listen to internet radio with jschardin on Blog Talk Radio

The Best Possible Video Game

I just wish this were real.  Via my fellow podcaster Nathan...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Cars at the 9:30 Club

Just got back from seeing The Cars perform at the 9:30 Club.  Great to see the boys, minus Benjamin Orr, who died in 2002, back together after so many years.  The set was short, only about 90 minutes, but they sounded good, partly because the new album actually is better than I expected.

I took a video of "You Might Think" with the new Droid X.  I was a little back and behind a couple tall people, but it's not bad....

Monday, May 16, 2011

High Schooler Challenges Michele Bachmann to Civics Debate

Even knowing little about the 10th grader in question, Amy Myers of Cherry Hill, NJ, I'd put my money on the kid.  The story, via Conor Friedersdorf.

Reuniting Pink Floyd

Well, probably not, but I can dream.  Via Joe Cresswell, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour made a surprise appearance on Thursday night to play "Comfortably Numb" with Roger Waters.

I've seen a fair number of concerts in my day, but Floyd in '94 (twice) was at or near the top...not because the band was so incredible, but because the songs and the show that went with them were.  Watching the band is almost incidental at a Floyd show.

That of course was without Waters, as the band had broken up in the early '80s because, well, because Roger is a godawful pain, that's why.  Here's hoping he's mellowed and I can pay much more than I should for a ticket to see 'em all together.

Here's "One of These Days" from the '94 tour.  You'll have to trust me, video doesn't do justice at all to the sheer ominousness of the light show and atmosphere.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Breaking: Focusing on the Deficit in a Recession a Bad Idea

We're not the only country having a debate about what to do with our high deficits.  In Britain, a promise to act decisively brought David Cameron and his Conservatives into office in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, along with a policy of "expansionary contraction," or attacking the deficit now to stabilize financial markets and set the stage for long-term economic growth.  How's that working out?

Not very well so far.  Britain, which had been in the midst of a decent recovery, saw retail sales drop 6 percent in March.  Of course, one month doesn't mean the argument is won, but the problem is that the vast majority of economists knew this would be the result.

Republicans are essentially making the same arguments about what the United States should do.  Bring down our deficit now, they say, and financial markets will gain more confidence in our economy, and set interest rates low enough to lead to long-term growth.

Now, there are a few things to say here, all of which should be blindingly obvious but apparently aren't:

  1. Interest rates are historically low right now.  Even in our current state the world has a lot of confidence in the U.S. economy.
  2. The thing we could do to end this confidence right away is to do something unbelievably stupid like, say, not raising the debt ceiling.  That's just what the GOP is threatening to do.
  3. When a recession is caused by a lack of consumer demand for products, the government steps in to bridge the gap until the economy starts recovering.  It's the same formula that's worked time and again since the Great Depression.
Like I said, what's happened in Britain so far doesn't absolutely prove my point.  But, where is the logic on the other side?  Where is the evidence that the policies Republican leaders are pushing for have ever worked?  The argument isn't being driven by evidence, though, it comes from ideology.

Roger Ebert Gets His Voice Back

Sort of.

If you weren't aware, film critic Roger Ebert no longer has a lower jaw, due to complications from salivary cancer and a broken carotid artery.  He'll never speak again.  But now, emerging technology has pieced together his actual recorded words from his years on television and other sources, and created a computerized voice that, more or less, sounds like him.

It's choppy, but at times you see how far this kind of tool is coming along.  This is great because he is one of the best critical writers of his generation, on film or otherwise.  Here's Roger at the TED Conference "talking" about his story and demonstrating the new voice.  It's worth a look.


XKCD had another gem a few weeks ago that I'm just now getting around the posting:

Craigslist Apartments

How Would You Eliminate the Deficit?

How would you eliminate the deficit?

People want spending cuts in the abstract, but rarely in practice, and certainly don't want any tax increases.  There are some exceptions (people generally are ok with raising taxes on the wealthy, and it's about 50-50 on cutting national security spending).  Point is, people want the deficit eliminated, but they tend to bring down the smack around politicians who come up with a plan to actually do it.

Here's your chance to show you're different.  The New York Times has a nifty little app that lets you pick your own deficit reduction plan, and it may be a lot harder than you think.

Here's my plan, which isn't exactly what I would do because the tool doesn't present anything like a complete menu of options.  But, it eliminates the deficit with about half spending cuts and half revenue increases, with a lot of room to spare, so that I have some left over to put into infrastructure and R&D investments that will greatly improve long-term growth.  Some of these are conditional...for example, capping Medicare growth at GDP + 1 percent would require a powerful Independent Payment Advisory Board like President Obama is proposing, that would have real authority to find significant cost savings.

Any plan you come up with has at least one important quality: it can't be passed by Congress.

We Don't Even Know What to Fix

Hernando de soto
No, not that Hernando de Soto!
Hernando de Soto, author of a book I read about 8 years ago called The Mystery of Capital, makes the case that the financial crisis was due mainly to the increasing ability of the financial system to hide what it's doing.

Enron hid its collapse by moving its losses "off the books" to shell companies to make itself look much more profitable than it was.  Today, the financial system seems focused more than anything on making instruments like credit default swaps and complex derivatives that are profitable largely because they are so complicated that it's easy to make money from the people who, at least temporarily, don't understand them.

These activities add almost no value to the economy, but they did do a lot to cause a gigantic recession.  Despite all that, the financial reform bill Congress passed last year was modest at best, and even those gains are the target of massive efforts to roll them back.

I don't agree with de Soto that the housing price bubble didn't contribute to the collapse, but he makes a great case that the fact that the modern world just doesn't have much of a clue what's going on in the "shadow banking" system is a huge problem that is likely going to cause another meltdown in the future.

Why We Have a Debt Problem

At the beginning of 2001, the Congressional Budget Office projected we would wipe out our federal debt by 2006.  It's certainly arguable that their projections were off, but they were not off by anywhere near enough to explain what actually took place.  Here we are with a growing mountain of debt, as they say.

To follow up on my previous two posts on what changed the equation, Pew Research is out with a short, graphic-heavy paper pinpointing exactly why we're in the mess we're in.  The verdict: Just over half was caused by tax cuts and the recession, which made revenues plummet.  The rest is a variety of spending increases, led by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and having to pay more interest on the debt because of all the other action we took.

In the graph below, the line on the bottom is what the debt was projected in 2001 to do.  The line at the top is what it actually did.  Everything in between is why it happened.

Read the piece here.

Good Ideas in Congress You've Never Heard of

Ezra had a piece about 5 bills in Congress that probably will not pass, but are great ideas that will have a relatively small but real, positive impact.  This is one I've liked for a while:

The taxpayer receipt
When I buy groceries, I get a receipt. When I buy a chair whose name I can’t pronounce from Ikea, I get a receipt. But once a year, I send a whole heap of money to the federal government and I get . . .nothing. But it would be trivial for Treasury to provide me with an itemized receipt showing how my money was spent. Then, for good or for bad, I’d know.
The White House created an online tool where you can enter your income and tax payments and see what your receipt would look like (make your own at, but there are bipartisan bills in both the House and the Senate to go even further and have Treasury send all taxpayers the receipt they deserve.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gulleson v. Berg?

Perhaps that will be the matchup in North Dakota to fill the seat of retiring Senator Kent Conrad...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Obi-Wan Kenobi Dead, Vader Says

A truly excellent parody of the New York Times:

CORUSCANT — Obi-Wan Kenobi, the mastermind of some of the most devastating attacks on the Galactic Empire and the most hunted man in the galaxy, was killed in a firefight with Imperial forces near Alderaan, Darth Vader announced on Sunday.

Check the sidebar links too.

Via Jared Keller at the Atlantic.


Today's lunchtime distraction: Vegan Black Metal Chef.  I don't quite know what to say about this, other than that there aren't many video recipes for making pad thai that have NSFW moments.


From Ezra, who knows his food pretty well...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Politics for Dinner #2

The second political show for Nathan Williams and me is in the books...hope you listen below, or here.  This time, we talk about the single thing each of us would change about the US government, calling John Boehner's bluff on raising the debt ceiling, and show off a bunch of new sound effects, one of which probably will belong to Dennis Kucinich.  Really!

Listen to internet radio with jschardin on Blog Talk Radio

The Justice League Awaits Word on Bin Laden

Someone has taken the already-iconic photo of the White House Situation Room awaiting word on the bin Laden operation and transformed them into superheroes.  Love it but, Joe Biden as the Flash?

h/t Garance Franke-Ruta and Chris Good.  Full-sized image here.

Who Knew Michael Bolton Was Funny?

Today's lunchtime distraction from Ezra Klein:

I should note that we already did know that the other Michael Bolton is funny:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Why Health Care Costs So Much in the US

A great graphic from Medical Billing and Coding, h/t to Barry Ritholtz, on why we pay twice as much as any other country for health care outcomes that are good, but not the best in the world.

Why Your Stitches Cost $1,500 - Part Two

Via: Medical Billing And Coding

I Challenge America to a Staring Contest

Tina Fey is back for SNL's Republican undeclared candidate debate:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Today's Lunchtime Distraction

This one is just waiting to go viral:  [Stuff] My Students Write.  Things like this give you a reason to worry about future generations:

Rebels and onions got no respect.

The rebel and onion armies showed grose negligence by having many of their battles right inside national parks, like Gettysburg.

h/t Andrew.

Piercing the Star Wars Mystery

A collection of 30 behind-the-scenes photos from the Star Wars shoots.  As Jonathan Chait says, "several of which involve Carrie Fisher wondering what she is doing in this movie."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Are Liberals Better Predictors?

Some students at Hamilton College published a study saying they are, at least for the sample size of pundits they tracked.  Now, much as I'd like to believe this, the data was taken from 2007-8, and a lot of the predictions are of the "you'll see, my party's presidential candidate is going to win this race!" variety.  They all say that, and 2008 was a Democratic year.  If you studied politicians' predictions in 2009-10, the results would probably be a lot different.

That analysis doesn't apply to everyone, though.  The most accurate prognosticator of the whole bunch was liberal Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who got almost all his predictions right.  These were not generally political forecasts, but economic ones, and he saw the much of what happened with the collapse of the economy earlier, and more clearly, than almost anyone else.  He deserves a lot of credit.

On the other end of the spectrum, conservative columnist Cal Thomas is rarely right about much, and that's true almost every year.  Anyone in either party who makes such partisan projections is likely to be wrong a lot, and he was.

The full study is here.

When Only Fresh Bone Marrow Will Do

From the Tinker's Handbook, page 4 (courtesy of Wondermark):

Today's Lunchtime Distraction

To my fellow nerds:

Roll a D6 from Connor Anderson on Vimeo.

I have to agree with Doctor Science here. How is this not more interesting than the video it parodies?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Lunch Break

Today's lunch break: Dinosaur Comics!  Man, I love that T-Rex.  What's he up to today?  Oh...swallowing forks.

The Deficit, Part Deux

A commenter named bilber wrote a long response to my post, 10 Things You Need to Know About the Deficit" and I felt it deserved a full response, so I'm posting it below.  His comments are in italics, mine in regular type.

I appreciate a good debate...

1). The last year that Republicans did a budget was '06 for the '07 year. The deficit in '07 was $167 Billion. The Democrats took the House and Senate in '06. They could raise taxes anytime they wanted after January 1, '09. They didn't, and they failed to do it again in the lame duck session in '10. Do they EVER take responsibility? Taxes affect behavior -- CBO does static analysis. It ALWAYS overstates the revenue from taxes and understates the revenue from cuts.

And what caused the deficit to rise so much after 2007, which was the height of the bubble economy?  The chart I posted shows it pretty clearly.  We were in a deficit all decade despite not being in a recession.  Then, several million people lost their jobs, home prices collapsed, which caused tax revenues to plummet, magnify the visibility of the tax cuts, unpaid-for wars and prescription drug benefits, etc.  

Although it is silly to imply that had the Democrats raised taxes in 2007 or 2008 that they ever would have become law, despite what many think, most of them also don't believe in raising taxes in a recession.  It's true that they tried to let the top end of the Bush tax cuts expire late last year, but I don't believe that was nearly enough.

It's interesting that you would mention ever taking responsibility, since there has been none from the Republican Party for the many disastrous policy choices and incorrect analyses of the past decade.  I used to be a Republican, and supported a number of stupid decisions at one time.  But, ultimately my loyalty is to evidence and objective data more than my party, or what I believed growing up.  There was no way to keep believing some of what I had since I had been proven so resoundingly wrong.

2). Look at that chart for one second. It is essentially flat! Therefore, taxes are NOT the problem, spending is! See any spending charts that look essentially flat? Nope!

Well, actually you'll notice that right now taxes are about 15 percent of GDP, and they perhaps average 17.5 percent since the '50s (sometimes over 20 percent).  But let's be generous and say it's only a 2.5 percent difference.  Given that GDP in 2009 was $14.12 trillion, that's about $350 billion a year difference, or $3.5 trillion over 10 years.  To put that into perspective, the House Republican plan says it would cut $4.4 trillion over 10 years.  The Fiscal Commission is at $3.9 trillion, while President Obama's is $4 trillion.  It's the same ballpark.

Even if that were not the case, the logic here doesn't follow at all.  The deficit is simply revenues minus spending.  Neither is inherently the problem.  Any real solution is going to have to include both.  Spending is a problem if it's going to waste.  Be specific, and on something that actually adds up to a significant number.

Finally, the main point I was making with point #2 is that the President has not raised taxes, but in fact lowered them.  This is not common knowledge.  Perhaps I could have been clearer.

3). Oh, be serious! The budget shot up from $2.8T to $3.8T and the deficit shot up from $167B to $1.6T. It really makes no difference at all what you want to try to label it, it is SPENDING!!! This dodge is exactly like me putting on 10lbs and trying to call it muscle mass! 

Your point here essentially boils down to, "oh, come on!"  My point is that the vast majority of the spending increases would have happened under a Republican or a Democratic president because they were automatic.  It is not because President Obama went on a binge, and you don't engage the point other than yelling, "spending bad!"

4).OK, and is this new? The US defense total budget is $800B. Cut it in half and you don't even get the current deficit under a T. Cut it all and we are still running $700-$800 B. THE PROBLEM IS ENTITLEMENTS!!! 

Cut it in half and you get to $4 trillion over 10 years, which again is what the main parties' plans are roughly trying to cut from the deficit.  If you want to contend that's nothing, be my guest.

Why do you feel the need to make this a binary debate?  The problem is not a single thing; that's true in much of life, and it is much more so with a complex subject like this.  There are many, many causes, and a reasonable solution is going to require multiple pieces.  This is both a huge piece of it, and as one of the most wasteful areas of government spending, something conservatives should want to attack with ferocity if they believe their own rhetoric.

5). Transfer payments to individuals -- FICA, Medicare, Food Stamps, Unemployment, Farm Programs, etc are $2.2 Trillion. We are buying votes with over half our budget. 80% of the people receiving those payments are not "needy". Most are better off than the youngest quartile of the population. Quit stealing from current and future children and buying votes from greedy geezers!

I agree with you that a lot of farm subsidies make no sense, and also that the interest groups who get Social Security and Medicare, etc., strongly resist any change in benefits, and that's a problem.  I am for cutting a lot of subsidies and means testing Social Security in some fashion.

However, to contend that votes are bought with food stamps and unemployment...well, if they are, it's an extraordinarily inefficient way to do it, because the voting percentages there are much lower.

Statistically, aid to poor people in a recession is one of the most economically beneficial things that can be done.  It is almost all spent, and spent quickly, which is just what a demand recession like this one needs to be stabilized and reversed.

I hope we can also agree that the worst subsidies we have are the ones that go to the richest people, such as to oil companies, and mortgage interest deductions for mansions, for example.  What is the benefit of these policies?

Here's perhaps the central problem: Americans want big spending cuts, except that they don't actually want to cut specific programs.  Also, they don't want to pay for the programs they don't want to cut.  There is a lack of leadership in Washington, true, but to a large extent, we are getting the government we deserve because we turn on politicians who try to actually solve the problem.

6). OK, and this is news??? Helloooo ... and where were you decades ago when this was clear? Expecting Boomer mass suicide or something?

Saying the same thing I am now...what that I've said gives you another idea?  Everybody knew this was coming, but it was easier to kick the can down the road.  Both parties are guilty of this.

7). Not financially. Earmarks are "leverage" in the overall corruption of using one group of people and future generations as coerced campaign donors to buy votes. They are political credit default swaps.

A separate argument that one can make.  For the purposes of this discussion, though, my point is to let people know that they are not relevant to the deficit debate.

8). Liberal "facts" are all about "projections". Look at the "actuals" .... pretty flat. Look at the big bump in "near in projections" 10-12. Look at FICA / other non-interest ... again, flat. THEREFORE, what this is about is Democrat ASSUMPTIONS / PROJECTIONS about the future. Is anyone surprised that they at least claim to believe that their policies work?

Look at their track record -- when Democrats instituted Medicare in '65, they said it would cost $9B in 1990 -- in fact it cost $67B

And conservatives opposed the Civil Rights movement in 1965 too.  How relevant is this today?  We have a lot more recent examples we can point to, such as predicting that the Iraq War would cost $50-60 billion (actual so far perhaps $1-3 trillion), that the 2001 tax cuts would create massive numbers of new jobs and still pay off the deficit (actually was one of the worst economic decades in US history and ran large deficits), or really almost any prediction the previous administration made on any controversial issue.

Second, the CBO is not "liberal".  They are non-partisan.  Their numbers are not perfect, but neither can anyone else's be, since predicting such things is incredibly complicated.  But, their predictions hold up immensely better than any conservative think tank you can point to on a regular basis.

Finally, as with Social Security, one of the main reasons Medicare cost more than expected is that the program was expanded to cover a lot more things than it originally did.  The comparison isn't apples to apples.

9). OK, so what IS it like? Infinity? It is a WHOLE lot more like your family budget than it is like infinity -- it is much larger than your family budget, but it is limited like your family budget just the same. If government spending created wealth, every nation on earth would be filthy rich. The government IS a HUGE family budget, and our US family is way bankrupt from exactly the kind of fuzzy thinking in #9.

I don't even know where to start with this.  The concept is counter-cyclicality.  We decrease our budgets when we have tougher economic times.  The government increases theirs to smooth out these conditions.  The whole point of the safety net is to run counter to consumers' budgets when there's a recession.  It's one of the main reasons we haven't had another Great Depression since we had the original.

Second, the idea that government spending doesn't create wealth is insipid.  In some cases it doesn't, such as transfer payments, buying bullets for the army, or paying interest on the debt.  In other cases there is no question that it does, such as when the Defense Department is creating the Internet, sending soldiers to college through the G.I. Bill, or building mass transit systems that drastically improve the business environment in cities.  Again, you make this into a binary...some spending is good, some is bad.  Some is wasted, some creates enormous wealth for the rest of the country, and funds things the private sector would never do on its own.  And everything in between.

Our problem is not so much spending, as that we spend on some dumb things, and we won't pay for the things that we do want.

10). Continuing to pile on more debt will certainly be catastrophic. Stopping our debt addiction will only be catastrophic if the current administration plays suicide roulette. As long as we pay the interest on the debt and any redemptions, there is no default. The interest is around $400 B, but will rocket shortly if we don't quit borrowing since we need to jack interest rates to fight inflation or simply to inscent purchasers to buy debt from a bankrupt nation. All our debt is short term -- interest doubles and the payment is $800 Billion. The BEST way to prevent that from happening is to STOP BORROWING!!! It may be the only way left to somewhat save ourselves from ourselves.

Our revenues are just north of $2T per year. That means that we could stop borrowing, pay the interest on the debt, and still have $1.6 Trillion and change to spend. Say $500B for defense and a Trillion for everything else. 

This is just not how the market works.  The reason we are able to borrow so easily now and pay such incredibly low rates on it is because nearly everyone else around the world thinks there's no way we'll default or not be able to overcome this disagreement.  They may very well be wrong.  If we don't raise the ceiling, those assumptions collapse, and exactly what you're trying to prevent - interest rates going up in the long term - go up immediately.

If you're pushing for just immediately cutting back to a balanced budget, that's one thing to argue in theory, but neither Republicans nor Democrats are going to get anywhere near passing anything that would do that (yes, even with the amendment that Republican senators have supported, some presumably because they know it has no chance to pass and so it has no downside, and others because they're economically illiterate).

I go back to the countercyclical point above.  I have been a deficit hawk for many years, long before it became the popular issue of a party looking to shift blame for its disastrous policies onto the other party.  Cutting spending with 9 percent unemployment makes no sense.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Politics for Dinner

The first "Politics for Dinner" with Nathan Williams and me is in the books, and I'm pretty pleased with it, actually.  We talked about gettin' bin Laden and the Republican presidential field for 2012.  Click on the link above or listen in below.

Listen to internet radio with jschardin on Blog Talk Radio

We're talking about making this a weekly thing, so I hope y'all like it.

Lunch Break Pets

This dog has sticktoitiveness.  (Wow, I've never written that word out...what a mess.)  Anyway, if you need a daily dose of cute pets, here it is.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sci-Fi Ideas Come Mostly From Yugoslavia

My friend Brandon sends along this collection of striking, blackening, graffiti-laden monuments commissioned by the communists back when they ran Yugoslavia.  Most of them seem like something I've seen in a sci-fi show at some point.  I swear one of them was the stupid thing all the Transformers were inexplicably fighting over.

This is where they got the idea for the Cylon Raider, right?

Check out the rest here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Francis Farewell Starlite

Yeah, that's the name of the lead singer of Francis and the Lights, and I'm kind of becoming obsessed with their first full album.  It sounds a little like a modern Peter Gabriel album, and not just because of the vocal resemblance.  The title track:

Maybe my favorite song on the album is "Tap the Phone," though.  Here's a spare, riveting version I think he just played impromptu for someone who was photographing him last year.

NFL Draft Recap Show

I just finished up a recap of the NFL draft with the estimable Stuart Schardin - nepotism is encouraged on this blog - where we mostly talk about how the Minnesota Vikings did, and whether quarterback Christian Ponder was a good pick or a highly risky reach.  Click on the widget below to listen, or go right to the show page here.

Listen to internet radio with jschardin on Blog Talk Radio