2009 - %3, March

The Horseshoe Crab Economy

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 5:14 PM PST
It's also a global economy that affects millions. Notably, millions of little shorebirds known as red knots, whose numbers have declined 75 percent since the horseshoe crab fishery in Delaware Bay exploded. Prior to 1992, 100,000 crabs a year were caught. In 1997, more than 2 million. The result: 90 percent fewer crab eggs for visiting shorebirds to eat.

Here's the background: A lot of migrating shorebirds depend on Delaware Bay as a feeding stop. Red knots can't live without it. Until 1992 the Bay was a dependable fuel station on their annual 18,600-mile migration between the Arctic and the southern tip of South America and back. That's right, 18,600 miles a year. Fifty percent more flying than the average American drives per year. All from a bird weighing 6 ounces.

Now a new study has found the proportion of red knots visiting Delaware Bay who manage to pack on enough weight to survive the winter in Tierra del Fuego dropped along with the crab eggs. In fact the proportion of birds who made their target weight by their target departure date declined between 50 and 75 percent between 1997 and 2007.

This despite fisheries restrictions enacted in 1997 to help red knots recover. But, tell me, what kind of restrictions allow a 2007 horseshoe crab hunt bigger than the 1990 hunt?

Idiot restrictions. I wrote about other amazing long-distance fliers in Diet for a Warm Planet: how their thriftiness equals their prosperity. We all need to learn from these extraordinary feathered economists. Especially those who practice idiot economics.

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Red States Love Porn

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 3:21 PM PST

They're red from all the chafing! In the latest installment of Irony and Hypocrisy Weekly, a study has shown that traditionally conservative states consume the most online pornography. Okay, the study (pdf link) was actually in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, and it looked at zip codes of credit cards used for "online adult entertainment" between 2006 and 2008. Researchers found that Utah led the way in sexy interweb fun times, with 5.47 subscribers per 1000 broadband users, followed by Alaska and Mississippi. Out of the top ten porn-using states, only Hawaii and Florida voted for Obama in the 2008 elections, and I think Hawaii is excused because they're so far away from, you know, actual sex with people they don't live next door to. Of course, one could also ascribe the higher online porn usage rates in red states to the simple fact that these states have often made in-person porn buying more difficult, but I prefer to think of it as another example of Larry Craig Syndrome: those who doeth protest too much are at home having a wanketh.

Researchers also found "marginally" higher porn subscription rates in the 27 states that had (at that time) passed anti-gay marriage laws, and in states where surveys show conservative positions on sexuality and gender roles. But in a boon to church-goers, there was also a slight dip in porn subscriptions on Sunday, although the oh-so-cynical researchers noted that this meant only that these people "shift their consumption of adult entertainment to other days of the week." Note to self: promote online porn company more aggressively on Saturdays and Mondays.

China Cancels Oasis Gigs Over "Free Tibet" Show

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 2:52 PM PST

Wow, China never forgets, huh. Beatlesy British combo Oasis have had their first ever shows in the People's Republic of China canceled after the Chinese government revoked their performance licenses. The band's management issued a statement saying the decision "has left both Oasis and the promoters bewildered." But, according to Billboard magazine, band member Noel Gallagher had a deep, dark secret:

According to the promoters, officials within the Chinese Ministry of Culture only recently discovered that Noel Gallagher appeared at a Free Tibet benefit concert on Randall's Island in New York City in 1997. Consequently, Oasis is considered unsuitable to perform in the People's Republic of China during its 60th anniversary year.

If only it was just their 59th, right?

After the jump, a video from the band's most recent album, the underrated Dig Out Your Soul.

Want a Second Home for the Price of a Scooter? Try Detroit

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 1:45 PM PST

In a Chicago Tribune article about the 15 (!!) people who are seeking to become Detroit's mayor, there is this little nugget:

The median price of a home sold in Detroit in December was $7,500, according to Realcomp, a listing service.

Not $75,000. Remove a zero—it's seven thousand five hundred dollars, substantially less than the lowest-price car on the new-car market

The city's bond rating is now at junk status, and when one mayoral candidate was asked to explain a 14 percent drop in the murder rate, he said, "I don't mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn't anyone left to kill." What a charming town.

The Dynamic Duo

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 12:41 PM PST
David Cho of the Washington Post reports that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner have become outsized voices on Obama's economic team. A few weeks ago, for example, they teamed up to keep Obama focused on the long-term deficit:

Meeting in January on the eighth floor of the transition team's office in downtown Washington, Geithner pressed the incoming president to commit to cutting the deficit to 3 percent of the economy over the next five years, which would keep the nation's debt roughly in line with normal economic growth. Summers quickly backed him.

Some, including economist Jared Bernstein, resisted, saying that such a strict limit would make it more difficult to confront the many challenges ahead and that the size of the government's emergency response to the economy and financial markets would make the cap tough to maintain.

In February, the entire economic team convened in the windowless Roosevelt Room in the White House. Obama abruptly ended the debate. Geithner and Summers would have their way.

Tim Fernholz says "this doesn't sound too good," but I think that's too quick a judgment.  Bernstein may have lost this battle, but he wasn't shut out of the conversation, and in any case it's a battle he probably deserved to lose.  The long-term deficit is important, both in substantive and optical terms.  Substantively it's important because it's related to the current account deficit, which eventually needs to start coming down.  We can't keep borrowing from China forever.  And optically it's important because Obama needs to appear fiscally responsible if he wants to achieve his long-term goals.  So far Republicans haven't been able to make the "wasteful spending" charge stick, but if they ever get any traction with it the public is likely to start turning against Obama's plans.  One way to keep that from happening is for him to take economic fundamentals seriously and to make sure the public knows he's taking them seriously.

If the Bernstein faction starts to lose every battle, then that's a problem.  But it's only been a few weeks so far, and I suspect that he's going to win a few on some other issues.  But Obama did the right thing this time.

Spending is Up!

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 11:08 AM PST
Surprisingly, consumer spending increased in January.  Not by much, mind you: it came to about a 0.2% rise when adjusted for inflation.  But that's still better than nothing.

Or is it?  The Wall Street Journal rounds up reaction:

Do not be fooled by the rise in incomes and consumption this month.....It would be a huge mistake to assume that the January rise in consumer spending represents anything more than statistical noise....Rising unemployment and continued economic weakness makes it unlikely that spending will improve much if any in the months immediately ahead....Consumption will remain in the doldrums for some time yet....The trend in real consumption, however, remains downwards, and the further decline in consumers’ sentiment signals continued declines....The January monthly changes in income and spending paint a completely misleading picture of economic activity at the start of the first quarter.

On the bright side, there was this from Wachovia's analyst: "While this up-tick does not likely signal the start of a string of increases, we will take any good news on the economy these days."  Me too.  But it turns out that January's increase was mostly related to automatic cost-of-living adjustments in things like Social Security checks, so it's nothing to get very excited about.

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Food Politics

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 10:34 AM PST
Ezra Klein glosses a story from Haaretz:

Israel, it seems, has been denying shipments of pasta headed for Gaza. Senator John Kerry, who'd been visiting Israel, heard about the idle trucks filled with food aid and asked around. "Israel does not define pasta as part of humanitarian aid," he was told. "Only rice shipments." A call Kerry made to Ehud Barak quickly got the pasta added to the list of acceptable humanitarian aid. Comments from Representative Brian Laird helped lentils onto the list of officially allowed foods. American politicians do not like seeing starvation used to change electoral outcomes.

Of course, there's another way we could guarantee that food gets through to Gaza: tell the Sixth Fleet to escort UN aid ships into Gaza.  It'll never happen, but it would work, wouldn't it?

Big Ideas

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 10:19 AM PST
Jon Chait defends Rush Limbaugh:

Rush Limbaugh is drawing some ridicule for saying, "One thing we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat [the Democrats] is with better policy ideas." But I think he's basically right. Good ideas are meritorious. But being meritorious isn't what wins elections. Most voters have only the faintest idea what policy ideas candidates advocate when running or implement when in office. External conditions (such as the economy, but war and scandal matter also) have much more influence over which party wins.

I agree — up to a point.  I do think that the GOP needs to moderate some of the hardcore social positions that have alienated young voters in droves, but aside from that it's not shiny new ideas that will save them.  That's not what saved Democrats, after all.  National health care?  That's been on our wish list for about a century.  Fighting global warming?  Liberals  have been environmentalists since the 60s.  Fiscal stimulus?  Can you say "New Deal"?  Pulling out of Iraq?  Not exactly a milestone in progressive thought on foreign policy.

You can take this too far, of course.  Liberals might be longtime environmentalists, but global warming is a newish issue and a market-oriented cap-and-trade program is a newish way of dealing with it.  Our healthcare plans this time around are different (and frankly, more modest) than in the past.  Obama is pulling out of Iraq but getting us ever deeper into Aghanistan.

So: not new ideas, perhaps, but certainly different takes on classic ideas.  What's more, Dems have also backed down on social issues a bit over the past decade, sometimes in fact (gun control), sometimes only rhetorically (abortion).  This is likely to eventually be the road back for Republicans too.  Cut down on the gay bashing and the hellfire preachers who are too often seen as forces of intolerance, and then come up with newish ways of selling small government and lots of overseas wars.  It'll work someday.  Not anytime soon, but someday.

Michael Jackson's Creepy Art Collection

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 10:16 AM PST
Around the corner from our office are a couple of antique stores that sell what I can only describe as the world's worst kitsch. A specialty is giant garden statuary of prepubescent children doing idyllic things that no kid has done since 1897, like playing leap-frog or fishin' with a branch. I figured the stores, which are always packed to the rafters, were some kind of money-laundering front. Now I know better. They were supplying Michael Jackson.

If you have a few minutes, go check out the auction catalogs for Jackson's Neverland Ranch. The King of Pop, in desperate need of cash, is selling off 2,000 of his possessions. What's up for sale is an awesomely horrible glimpse into the world of the man-child who blew his money on jaw droppingly bizarro figurines like this, which even Abe Lincoln seems disturbed by. More examples after the jump.

President Obama, Appoint Carl Malamud!

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 10:02 AM PST

Carl Malamud is a badass. If you are a techie or a transparency geek, you probably already know who he is. If you've never heard of him, he is an internet pioneer who has worked for decades, at times using renegade means, to make government information public. He fought to make the information in the SEC's "EDGAR" database free and public (which it now is) and is currently leading a similar fight over the court records database PACER.

Today, Malamud has another campaign. He wants to become the Public Printer of the United States, i.e. the head of the Government Printing Office (GPO). In today's world, the GPO probably ought to be renamed the Government Publishing Office, because its responsibility to print hard copies of thousands of documents is complimented by publishing just as many files in electronic formats. Malamud realizes he could do incredible things if he were the man who made government information public. He's laid out a platform at yeswescan.org. (His home on the web is here.) The coolest bit from the platform:

6. Rebooting .Gov. There is no reason why the U.S. Government should not be one of the top 10 destinations on the Internet! GPO should work with the rest of the U.S. Government to radically change how we present information on the Internet. Some of the initiatives would include installing a cloud for .gov to use, enshrining principles of bulk data distribution into legislation, and a massive upgrade in the government's video capabilities.

Remember when the Bush Administration would do things like put a guy who believed in the abolition of the Department of Energy in charge of the Department of Energy? Putting a government transparency advocate in charge of the GPO would be like that, except the exact opposite. You can read more about Malamud's plans for animating the .Gov empire here. You can read more about his broader platform here. Appointing Malamud would be one of the most progressive things President Obama could do to support open government. Let's hope it happens.