Pentagon Worried About Spending Cuts

As the economy collapses around our heads, the federal government is preparing financial bailout packages totaling an estimated $2 trillion--and that, perhaps, just to start. There's a lot of money going out the door, but one potential loser could be the Pentagon, reports UPI. A notoriously profligate spender (read this), the Defense Department, according to the Congressional Budget Office, accounts for more than half of all federal discretionary spending and about 4.5 percent of GDP. And despite what you may think, the Pentagon's budget has not declined since the end of the Cold War; it's now 20 percent greater, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1985 when President Reagan was spending the Soviets into the ground.

In short, the Pentagon is flush with cash, but could the glory days of almost limitless spending be winding down? Defense Secretary Robert Gates seems to think so. "The spigot of defense spending that opened on Sept. 11 is closing," he said at a Senate hearing last month. But the reality of a leaner fiscal climate comes at a bad time for the military services, which are straining to maintain readiness while fighting a two-front war. There's equipment to refurbish or replace, soaring personnel costs, and next-generation weapons to develop.

Nuclear Pork Axed From Stimulus

Senate and House negotiators cut a $50 billion provision from the stimulus package Wednesday that would have allocated funds for federal loans to the nuclear and coal industries.

The so-called "nuclear pork" authorized loans under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was intended to help fund alternative energy sources, but diverts the bulk of subsidies and tax breaks to nuclear reactors and "clean" coal plants.

A Dispatch from Darwin Day

Christians have Christmas. Atheists have Charles Darwin's birthday--a date that has inspired months of zealous non-worship in the lead-up to today’s fete of his 200th. Before midnight the world will have witnessed some 600 Darwin Day events, from the Darwin Day Barbecue in Melbourne, Australia, to the Darwin Day Rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to the Darwin Day Evolutionpalooza, a gathering last Sunday in the basement conference room of the San Francisco Public Library, where 100 guests of the local atheist club ate birthday cake and heard the Charles Darwin Backup Singers belt out “The Twelve Ages of Evolution,” a Christmas-inspired ditty that ended with the Pleistocene era’s shopping list of "bisons and humans, hawks and higher primates, horses and whales, conifers and mammals, bipedal dinosaurs, reptiles, trees, and insects, spiders, mites and sharks, land plants and fish!" And the list went on.

Other than taking place in America's most Godless major city, San Francisco’s D-Day was notable for the presence of the mutton-chopped Darwin himself, who took to a podium in a chiffon scarf tied like a cravat and thanked the crowd for "all your great efforts in channeling me into the 21st Century." Forthwith began the kind of autobiography that could only come from a scientist--a mostly dry, rambling affair occasionally enlivened by Far Side jokes. "I have a friend who was Unitarian," Darwin said at one point, without mentioning that he was raised as one, "and the Klu Klux Klan burned a question mark in front of his house."

Evolutionpalooza, which was advertised on Facebook with a drawing of hominids evolving into a man carrying a birthday cake, is the brainchild of atheist author David Fitzgerald, who’d shown up wearing the classic walking fish shirt. "I hesitate to venerate Darwin too highly, to make him sound like he's our prophet," he told me. "There's already so much baggage attached to that kind of thing." But, he added, Darwin was a convenient rallying point in the effort of group’s 1,000 members to counteract the Religious Right. And they certainly had cause to party: President Barack Obama had proclaimed during his inauguration speech that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.” This followed by Darwin’s bicentennial hinted at sunrise over a decade of darkness: “I have never been more optimistic about seeing Atheism being accepted in America,” Fitzgerald said. “The more we learn, the less plausible any one of those religions out there seems.” 

Joaquin Phoenix went on Letterman Wednesday night, ostensibly to promote his new movie Two Lovers, but it was his combative, monosyllabic appearance that made news. The Walk the Line actor seemed to get perturbed that the audience didn't take his hip-hop career seriously, just about got in a fight with Paul Shaffer, and stuck his gum to Dave's desk, in addition to being all shades-and-beardy. Honestly, I try to reserve my Riff postings for actual, somewhat serious arts and culture news (and French techno tunes I think are awesome), but this really must be seen to be believed. Is he doing a shoot-the-moon, Andy Kaufman bit, or is he just trying to burn up his feathers and nest so he can emerge anew? Only time, and the new J-Pho album, will tell.

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The Textbook Ripoff

THE TEXTBOOK RIPOFF....Andrew Gelman:

I received a free copy in the mail of an introductory statistics textbook; I guess the publisher wants me to adopt it for my courses....I showed the book to Yu-Sung and he said: Wow, it's pretty fancy. I bet it costs $150. I didn't believe him, but we checked on Amazon and lo! it really does retail for that much. What the....? I asked around and, indeed, it's commonplace for students to pay well over $100 for introductory textbooks.

Andrew wants to know why textbooks are so expensive. Henry Farrell too. Add me to the list. I've heard various explanations for the skyrocketing cost of textbooks. They're bigger these days. They use more color. They include CDs and multimedia bells and whistles. Etc. But here's a data point. I only have one of my college textbooks still in my possession, but I just got it off the shelf to see if it had a price in it. It did: $17.25. That was in 1976, and adjusted for inflation it comes to $64 in today's dollars. So what does it currently cost on Amazon? Answer: $132. It is, as near as I can tell, the exact same book. Same binding, same number of pages, same charming lack of color. In fact, browsing through it, it looks as if it's being printed from the same plates as it was in 1976. This, then, is obviously a book that ought to be cheaper today than it was three decades ago. The costs of production have long since been paid back, there's a ton of competition from the used book market since the book hasn't changed in 30 years, and I imagine that author royalties are the same as ever. For reference, a similar size commercial hardback would run about $40 these days. So what is the deal? Why are textbooks such a ripoff?

Chart of the Day - 2.11.2009

CHART OF THE DAY.... This is from Brad Setser. Chinese exports are down 17.5%, but imports are down a stunning 43%:

What worries me the most? The possibility that the sharp y/y fall in imports doesn’t just reflect a fall in imported components or a fall in commodity prices, but rather a major deceleration in China’s domestic economy....At a time when the world is short demand, China seems to be subtracting from global demand not adding to it. The best solution: an absolutely enormous domestic stimulus in China.

A massive stimulus in the United States is probably necessary, but it's still a dicey proposition since we're running a big trade deficit and need to curtail our domestic consumption in the long run. But China is running a big trade surplus, which makes it unproblematic for them to increase domestic consumption, and their economic growth last quarter was perilously close to zero. They're the ones who really need to stimulate their economy. If the Chinese economy tanks, the rest of the world will get dragged down even further with it.

Middle East Update

MIDDLE EAST UPDATE....It's hard to have even a shred of hope left these days for some kind of solution to the Israeli-Palestine dispute, and the combination of Hamas's rise following the Gaza war and Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu's rise in yesterday's Israeli election is just one more nail in the coffin. At this point, to have any kind of optimism at all, you would need to either have supernatural faith in Barack Obama's negotiating powers or else be the world's most fervent fan of "only Nixon can go to China" geopolitics. Aside from that, it's difficult to see even the possibility of moving forward.

For more, check out Ezra Klein here and Stephen Walt here. But don't bother if you're hoping to be reassured. That's just not in the cards right now.

During Wednesday's hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Citigroup chief executive Vikram Pandit offered a curious mea culpa in response to criticism triggered by his firm's plan to buy a new corporate jet after receiving $45 billion in bailout money:

We did not adjust quickly enough to this new world, and I take personal responsibility for that mistake. In the end, I canceled delivery. We need to do a better job of acknowledging and embracing the new realities.

Nate Silver takes one side:

I'm sorry, but somewhere between 99.9% and 99.999999% of us are severely underqualified to be making policy recommendations on [the financial industry bailout]. And I'm certainly in the majority on this one... This is neither the time nor the place for mass movements -- this is the time for expert opinion. Once the experts (and I'm not one of them) have reached some kind of a consensus about what the best course of action is (and they haven't yet), then figure out who is impeding that action for political or other disingenuous reasons and tackle them -- do whatever you can to remove them from the playing field.

And David Sirota takes the other:

The big flaw in [Silver's] rationale, of course, is the entire concept of "expert opinion." What exactly is "expert opinion?" That term usually refers to the Very Serious People the Establishment and Media Say Are Experts - that is, people like the Wall Street CEOs in front of Congress and people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner - all who had direct hands in destroying the economy. Silver - incredibly - would have us simply wait for this "expert opinion" to tell us what to do, without any regard for the fact that this "expert opinion" is exactly what got us into the situation we're in.

I think both Silver and Sirota are right, and wrong.