Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Obama’s Economic Policy

Note: this post started out as a comment to a post on the Iowa politics blog Bleeding Heartland. 

Obama’s critics from the left decry his adoption of the GOP frame on deficit reduction. I join them in this critique as a matter of economic policy; the best course right now is larger deficits to stimulate the economy, combined with a longer-term fiscal policy that aims to roughly balance the budget over the course of the business cycle (run surpluses during booms, deficits during during slumps). (Though I would note that as a sovereign issuer of currency the U.S. can comfortably run annual deficits in the 2% to 3% of GDP range indefinitely.)

Still, Obama refuses to follow the standard Keynesian course prescribed by sensible liberals. Why? Why does he adopt the economic policy that he does?

Here are some possibilities that occur to me:
  • He genuinely believes that it is the right thing to do.
  • It is part of a poll-tested strategy to retain enough independent voters in battleground states to enable him to win re-election.
  • He is a blank slate on economic policy and is carrying out the views of various advisers.
  • He is in the sway of shadowy special interests, say key Wall Street figures.
  • He is basing his policies on a different set of data or assumptions than are his critics; in this case, both sides would call the other side "misinformed."
  • He has a deep psychological need to please establishment figures such as the editorial board of the Washington Post, David Brooks, and the rest of what passes for a DC class of opinion leaders.
  • He harbors resentment against liberals and wants to show them who's boss.
  • He knows that government spending in this country is tied up inextricably with issues of race and that as a Black man he cannot activate those latent prejudices among the electorate.
I think the likeliest explanation is the poll-tested strategy one, but I think the race issue has been curiously underplayed. Which ones did I leave out?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Another Inflation Hawk Argues for a Higher Inflation Target

Economist Kenneth Rogoff, no liberal, is arguing for a higher inflation target:
If the Federal Reserve raises its target inflation rate by several percentage points - up from around 2 percent, where it’s been for the past decade, to somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 to 6 percent - and injects new money into the economy until it gets there, then debtors will get some relief and the wheels of the economy will once again start to turn.
One of the biggest propaganda victories of the 20th century was convincing the middle class that inflation is the worst possible thing that can happen to them. High inflation sucks, to be sure, but people tend to forget that inflation also reduces the real value of one's debts.

We also hear a lot about the "elderly who live on a fixed income." Except that most elderly people depend on Social Security for the bulk of their income, and SS is inflation-protected via COLAs.

However, there is one class of people for whom inflation is in every and all cases an unmitigated disaster: bondholders, a.k.a. the owning class. These are the folks who make money from money. As Rogoff, an inflation hawk, notes, tolerating higher inflation will result in a transfer of income from financiers to workers, (or as he puts it in less class-war terms: from creditors to debtors). That's exactly right. All economic policy is a question of the distribution of income.

Videotaping Cops

The Globe reports:
A court ruled Friday that the 2007 arrest of a Boston lawyer for recording police officers with his cellphone violated the man’s First and Fourth Amendment rights. The ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston allows Simon Glik to continue his lawsuit against the city and the police officers who arrested him. He was charged with violating a state law that bars audio recordings without the consent of both parties. The court affirmed that Glik’s actions had been legal and denied the officers’ claim that they had “qualified immunity’’ because they were doing their jobs as public officials.
On reddit.com there are periodically posts by cops who invite readers to "Ask Me Anything" (examples here). To a person they say they are fine with being videotaped. If cops are doing their jobs correctly, they need not fear being videotaped.

We give cops an awful lot of power and discretion. In particular, they have a state-sanctioned monopoly on the use of deadly force. In return, it is reasonable that citizens have extra oversight powers over their actions.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What Is Science Fiction?

For the 1976 hardcover first edition of Man Plus by Frederik Pohl, the promotional writing on the front flap of the dust jacket says this:
Man Plus is so superbly well done that it will appeal not only to science fiction fans but to readers of such novels as The Andromeda Strain.
Does that mean The Andromeda Strain is not a science fiction novel?

Friday, August 19, 2011


When I read The Light of Day, by Eric Ambler, I had no idea that it had been made into a movie called Topkapi.

I saw the movie recently on TCM and I have to say that I liked it a lot more than I did the book. It played up the comic aspects of the caper, moved more quickly, and was changed from a first-person tale to a more omniscient point of view.

I guess Hollywood screenwriters know what they are doing.

This movie has several tricky stunts in it that are said to have inspired other filmmakers, including the makers of Mission: Impossible (see this clip). It was also filmed on location in Istanbul, which was gorgeous. The best part of the movie, by far, though, was Peter Ustinov, who plays the hapless, bumbling Arthur Simpson to the absolute hilt. (He won his second Oscar for this role.)

It also stars an enigmatic Melina Mercouri and a handsome but callous Maximilian Schell as the masterminds of the heist.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: Man Plus

Frederik Pohl
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Good story ideas come in all sizes. Some are so big they need to have trilogies (or even ennealogies) written to fully flesh them out. For others, one 200-page book is fine. And others are better off as short stories.

Frederik Pohl seems to have an instinct for writing up his original ideas (or original takes on old ideas) into appropriately sized books. He fully explores his premise but doesn’t beat it to death. This means that his books usually end up being relatively short but efficient Cool Idea Delivery Systems.

I think this is the best book by Pohl that I have read so far. Many people have written stories about the colonization of Mars by humans. Usually the premise is that we will terraform Mars to support human life. In Man Plus, instead, the U.S. has a top-secret project to physically modify a human being – a man named Roger Torraway – so that he can survive on the surface of Mars.

Scientists replace his skin with a super-tough, rhinocerous-like hide that can withstand high solar radiation and temperatures hundreds of degrees below freezing. They replace his lungs and most of his circulatory and digestive systems with machinery so that he needs hardly any oxygen or food. They give him new eyes that can see into the infrared and ultraviolet bands of the spectrum. And they put big solar panels on his back to power the parts of him that are now mechanical.

Naturally, there are forces at work conspiring to make the project difficult. One is internal; Roger’s wife Dorrie is a bit of an unsupportive whiner and is also having an affair with one of the project’s scientists. This is pretty upsetting to Roger, especially at a time when he’s being turned into an unrecognizable monster and preparing to spend two years alone in space.

The other problem is external. According to all the most reliable governmental models, the world will soon descend into nuclear war. The only thing that will turn the projections around, apparently, is a successful manned mission to Mars (to rally and inspire humanity, I presume). The pressure on the Man Plus scientists to succeed in an unrealistically short time is therefore immense, so much so that their only other Mars-altered human subject died in the lab from too much aggressive testing.

It’s a good premise and the story is suspenseful in its own subtle way. You want to find out if Roger can survive all the operations and the mental and physical stress and make it to Mars, and you really want to find out what it’s like through his eyes when he gets there. For most of the book, Pohl keeps dangling the promise of the upcoming mission just out of reach (of both you and Roger) like a tasty carrot.

There is also a quiet, almost incidental mystery running through the book about who the narrator is. Most of the time I forgot to wonder about it, as I was absorbed in the rest of the story, but it does add a nice additional piece of intrigue and allows the book to end with a bit of an extra flourish.

Friday, August 05, 2011

99 Views of Wilco

I've been having a great time going through my pictures of the Solid Sound Festival three weeks ago (June 24-26). And, since I imagine that everybody else can't get enough of my concert photography, here's a collage I put together of of 99 pictures I took at the two Wilco shows.

Actually, to be honest, it's 98 pictures of Wilco and one picture of Pajama Club.

Full-screen downloadable version here: http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/59408454

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