It’s the Honor of It

When I read reports like this one about Paul Ryan’s thinking about throwing his hat into the ring for Speaker of the House, it puts me in mind of a wisecrack I once heard, attributed to Mark Twain but that actually sounds more like Josh Billings to me. In reaction to the prospect of being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail he said that if it weren’t for the honor he’d just as soon have walked.


Probably Not a Sledding Year

The JPL is now predicting that the El Niño phenomenon is very likely to be quite strong this season. From the LA Times:

An El Niño that is among the strongest on record is gaining strength in the Pacific Ocean, and climate scientists say California is likely to face a wet winter.

“There’s no longer a possibility that El Niño wimps out at this point. It’s too big to fail,” said Bill Patzert, climatologist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

“And the winter over North America is definitely not going to be normal,” he said.

What that means for Chicago is that the winter of 2015-2016 is likely to be warmer and drier than usual.

I’m glad for California, of course. They’re in desperate need of the rainy winter that a strong El Niño is likely to bring to them. I hope they’re ready for it. Rain that just runs off won’t be any good to them.

But it also means that we’re unlikely to have a good sledding season here. Damn. I thought we might actually have a team to run.


Ignatius’s Wisdom

David Ignatius, the haruspex of the prevailing DC wisdom, offers President Obama some unsolicited (I presume) advice on what to do about Syria:

A prime example of the intelligence shortfall is the train-and-equip program that was derailed so quickly this summer by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, in northern Syria. The Pentagon needs to assess immediately why this overt, U.S.-backed program failed so badly, and whether it can be rebuilt. A better bet may be the CIA’s covert training program, whose fighters can make tactical battlefield deals with Jabhat al-Nusra without publicly allying with it.

What about safe zones in northern and southern Syria? That still seems like a good idea, so long as they’re established as corridors for humanitarian assistance and revived public services, rather than an armed U.S. or Turkish military intervention to help the rebels. Here, again, the United States needs better information. Scores of Syrians travel across the border from Turkey and Jordan every day to deliver basic supplies and keep water and other essential services operating. Talk to them! Maybe these zones could be the start of a managed transition to a post-Assad government.

The United States has lost its chance to make Assad’s departure a precondition for negotiations. But Washington should continue to insist that he must go eventually. Otherwise, no political deal can work. President Obama should be urging Putin right now to resume the Geneva negotiating process.

Here’s my equally unsolicited and probably much less welcome advice: identify your priorities and pursue them unflinchingly. Rather than getting lost in the weeds as Mr. Ignatius does, think of what kind of Syria we want and the policies most likely to encourage that kind of Syria.

In Syria there are the Assad government, Al Qaeda, and DAESH. There are probably hundreds of militias and various groups but they boil down to just those three alternatives. The idea that either Al Qaeda or DAESH have any interest in a liberal democratic government in Syria is fatuous. If that’s what we want there or even if we just want stability there, the road in that direction runs through the Assad government. The Russians, consummate realists, understand that.


Voting and the Technological Treadmill

My main reaction to this Washington Post editorial on the sorry state of voting machines in the United States is that I wonder where the editors think the money for this expense will come from? Speaking for my city and state, there isn’t enough money to pay for the commitments we’ve already made let alone for buying new voting machines every ten years.

For most of the history of this country written ballots were the norm. Our romance with the voting machine didn’t really catch fire until the introduction of the Votomatic in 1965. The demand for going to something other than punched card voting was sparked by the debacle of the 2000 presidential election (“dangling chads”, anyone?).

However, there’s an unforeseen problem. A Votomatic machine could be maintained indefinitely—that’s the nature of electro-mechanical devices. As long as the parts are available and you replace the part every so often, you can keep them running. Today’s fully electronic, computerized voting machines are based on what I think of as “ephemeral technology”. There’s a sort of planned obsolescence. They’re dependent on components that will stop being made sooner rather than later so their life expectancy is a lot shorter than the old electro-mechanicals. In using fully electronic, computerized voting machines, state and local boards of election have mounted the technological treadmill that’s familiar to just about any business owner.

I honestly don’t know how any jurisdiction that doesn’t print its own money can expect to stay on that technological treadmill for their voting machines.

Some states have adopted Internet voting. I’m pretty sure I know how that would work out in Chicago. Not only would the dead never leave the voting rolls, they’d all have cellphones.


Right On What?

Indefatigable in their advocacy for World War III, the editors of the Washington Post commend Hillary Clinton for disagreeing with the Obama Administration on the Syria policy she helped to craft:

What of Mr. Obama’s claim that proposals like Ms. Clinton’s are “mumbo jumbo” and “half-baked”? It’s worth considering the recent congressional testimony of retired Gen. David Petraeus, who like Ms. Clinton first advanced his ideas from inside the administration. The creation of enclaves in Syria “protected by coalition air power,” he said, was not only feasible but also essential to the political solution Mr. Obama says he is seeking for Syria.

“If there is to be any hope of a political settlement, a certain military and security context is required — and that context will not materialize on its own,” Mr. Petraeus said. “We and our partners need to facilitate it.” What’s needed is the creation of a formidable moderate Sunni force that can act as a counter both to the Islamic State and to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. That in return requires territory that is safe from aerial attacks.

Unicorns. More unicorns! We must have unicorns. The most moderate state in Syria that can reasonably be foreseen in Syria will be ruled by Bashar al-Assad and/or his Alawite regime. Why are we supporting the more extreme, anti-modern, and illiberal opposition?

Unless I’m mistaken “coalition” referred to consists of France and the U. S. with, maybe, a little tacit assistance from Turkey. France’s ability to continue operations over a protracted period is limited. IMO we should just be suitably grateful for the Russians’ help rather than working against them.

The Russians in the air and the Syria Army on the ground should be a formidable enough combination to rid Syria of jihadi extremists. And by “jihadi extremists” I mean all of them. I suspect the Russians are willing to let Allah do the sorting.


Explaining the Low Real Interest Rates

In a lengthy Washington Post op-ed Lawrence Summers gives a good college try to explaining low real interest rates:

●First, increases in inequality — the share of income going to capital and corporate retained earnings — raise the propensity to save.

●Second, an expectation that growth will slow due to a smaller labor force growth and slower productivity growth reduces investment and boosts the incentives to save.

●Third, increased friction in financial intermediation caused by more extensive regulation and increased uncertainty discourages investment.

●Fourth, reductions in the price of capital goods and in the quantity of physical capital needed to operate a business — think of Facebook having more than five times the market value of General Motors.

If there is an increased propensity to save, I wonder how it’s being manifest? The St. Louis Federal Reserve doesn’t report it:

Maybe Dr. Summers sees saving somewhere else.

I’d buy the third one. That we have more extensive regulation and increased uncertainty is obvious. I wonder how you’d go about quantifying those?

His fourth explanation is particularly interesting. Doesn’t that also militate against his proposals for infrastructure spending to spur economic growth? I.e. there just isn’t as much multiplier as there used to be.

And in this paragraph he makes an argument I’ve been making here for years:

What is needed now is something equivalent but on a global scale — a signal that the authorities recognize that secular stagnation, and its spread to the world, is the dominant risk we face. After last Friday’s dismal U.S. jobs report, the Fed must recognize what should already have been clear: that the risks to the U.S. economy are two-sided. Rates will be increased only if there are clear and direct signs of inflation or of financial euphoria breaking out. The Fed must also state its readiness to help prevent global financial fragility from leading to a global recession.

The way I have usually phrased it is that the tools that were effective in nudging the domestic economy just aren’t as effective under globalization. Here’s something “on a global scale”: how about China and Germany abandon their mercantilist policies? If the two of them started importing a couple of hundred billion more, that would probably have some real impact.

Indeed, I think we’re likely to see phlegmatic growth here as long as China, Germany, and Japan maintain mercantilist policies. “Beggar thy neighbor” policies are dandy until you’ve actually beggared your neighbor. Then they’re problematic.


She Was For It Before She Was Against It

Well, that was quick. Contrary to Ruth Marcus’s prediction which I commented on earlier, Hillary Clinton has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with alacrity:

Just days after the U.S. and 11 nations released a monumental trade deal that still faces a fight in Congress, Hillary Clinton says she does not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Speaking with Judy Woodruff Wednesday, the Democratic presidential candidate said that as of today, given what she knows of the deal, it does not meet her bar for creating jobs, raising wages for Americans and advancing national security.

Speaking at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, as part of a two-day swing through the leadoff caucus state, Clinton said that she’s worried “about currency manipulation not being part of the agreement” and that “pharmaceutical companies may have gotten more benefits and patients fewer.”

“As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it,” Clinton said, later adding, “I don’t believe it’s going to meet the high bar I have set.”

If you recall Ms. Marcus made two predictions: that Hillary Clinton would drag her decision out but that she would ultimately oppose the deal. She got the opposition to the deal right but the timing wrong.

Presumably, Sec. Clinton has a better notion of what’s in the agreement than you, I, or the average senator hanging around the street corner. Her opposition is going to make it much easier for Democrats to vote against it. Who are they going to aggravate? The sitting president or (possibly) the next president? I won’t go quite as far as to say that she’s driven a nail into the TPP’s coffin but it’s the next thing to it. I suspect that if it passes at all it will be on the basis of Republican votes. The question now is just how committed corporatist Republicans are to the deal.

What to do, what to do? Approve the deal on its merits (whatever they are) or give the president a poke in the eye? Maybe the Congressional leadership can figure out a way to do both.


The First Last Step

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has forbidden further talks with the United States. So much for the idea that the arms deal negotiated by the Obama Administration with Iran was the first of many steps that would lead to a normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic.

Maybe he’s just kidding. Playing hard to get.


What Does Harvard’s Admissions Department Select For?

Guess who beat Harvard? Members of the Bard’s Prison Initiative presently incarcerated at the New York Eastern Correctional Facility beat the Harvard College Debating Union team in an intercollegiate debating competition. The author of the article explains the victory in two ways. First, the prisoners weren’t stupid:

But it’s also worth pointing out the fallacy of our underlying assumptions about such a match-up — the first (and most pernicious) being that if a definitive link between criminality and below-average intelligence exists, nobody has found it.

and, second, the prisoners worked very hard.

I think there’s another fallacy at work here: that we can assume that Harvard’s team were smart and skilled because they’re attending Harvard. I think that we can assume that the Harvard students possess whatever qualities Harvard’s admissions department are selecting for. What are those qualities? We can’t be sure because Harvard doesn’t publicize its admission’s department’s criteria.

The Harvard students were probably smart enough and were no doubt skilled debaters. I doubt that they possessed acumen, something handy in a debate and the prisoners apparently had it. IMO the primary criteria that Harvard selects for are future potential earning power and connections, neither of which are particularly helpful in a debate.

The prisoners have beaten University of Vermont and West Point, too, although West Point won a rematch.


Not Every Award Is Deserved

With the Nobel Prize Award announcements in full swing, here’s an amusing post from RealClearScience on the awards that have been bestowed for discoveries that were later disproven.