Kevin Drum - May 2011

Connie Willis, the Nebulas, and Me

| Sun May. 22, 2011 10:14 AM PDT

I see that the Nebula Awards are out, and Connie Willis won in the novel category for her two-part story1 Blackout/All Clear. I think this might officially mark my final estrangement from the science fiction community. I'm a big fan of Willis, and a few months ago I bought both books and dived into them pretty eagerly. And they were terrible. Over the course of a thousand pages, Willis seemed to have almost no interest in building any kind of engaging narrative at all; the characters behaved throughout like scared high school students (in the end, the exception turns out to be the only character who is a high school student); arbitrary coincidences and artificial secrecy were jammed in repeatedly to keep the plot from falling apart completely; and the resolution of the main time travel story was almost nonexistent. I repeatedly felt like throwing the book at the wall in frustration and giving up entirely on it.

In other words, it was a mess. Willis's real goal seemed less to tell a story than to exhibit her encyclopedic knowledge of British life during the Blitz. This would have been fine if her storytelling had genuinely conveyed a sense of what it was like to live during that period, but it never really did. So even that fell through.

There was, however, one rewarding aspect of making it to the end. My most common complaint with modern novels is that they're usually extremely well crafted — often elegantly so — but the authors simply can't create an ending to match the buildup. I don't know why. But Blackout/All Clear was exactly the opposite, and I can't remember the last time that happened to me. I was continuously annoyed with the novel from about page 300 on, but that annoyance stopped during the final hundred pages or so. The ending of Blackout/All Clear was terrific. It was, in the end, a story about the power of family and upbringing, and that story was both affecting and powerful.

Did that make the previous 900 pages worth it? No. But it erased some of the sting.

As for the rest of the Nebula nominees, I haven't read any of them, and four of the authors I've never read anything by. I just hardly read any science fiction these days, and I'm not sure why. I don't think there's anything wrong with sf itself, since lots of people still like the current output, but I'm disappointed almost every time I pick something up. Last year the only sf I read was a couple of books by China Miéville, both highly recommended, but neither one did anything for me. I actively disliked Perdido Street Station and was only mildly interested in The City and the City. I've morphed into an almost pure nonfiction reader these days. I don't like this much, but I'm not sure what to do about it.

1Speaking of this, what do you call a two-part novel? A diptych? A duology? There's no equivalent to trilogy or tetralogy, is there? So what's the accepted term of art?

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Publicizing the Rapture

| Sat May. 21, 2011 7:38 AM PDT

I haven't paid too much attention to rapture-mania, but I have vaguely wondered why Harold Camping is getting so much attention. Slow news week? Hollywood tie-in? What? Today the LA Times provides the answer:

The former engineer has long predicted the apocalypse, most famously in 1994, but his new date — May 21, 2011 — has received unprecedented publicity. That is thanks to a worldwide $100-million campaign of caravans and billboards, financed by the sale and swap of TV and radio stations....[Camping's longtime producer, Matt Tuter] thinks $100 million is a conservative figure for the money Camping has spent publicizing May 21.

OK then. Now I know. More details here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 May 2011

| Fri May. 20, 2011 11:57 AM PDT

Today is catnip day. On Sunday I mentioned that my research forays into quantum mechanics were halted when Inkblot got distracted by some Cosmic Catnip. That's because we keep the Cosmic Catnip on a shelf right above the stove, where he was watching our water boil. So here he is, being distracted. On the right, Domino is being distracted by one of our catnip plants. Actually, I think she pretty much uprooted the poor thing. But that's OK. Catnip plants are cheap. We can put in another one pretty easily and she'll never be the wiser.

Bibi and Barack at the White House

| Fri May. 20, 2011 11:34 AM PDT

Bibi Netanyahu and Fox News have now made it crystal clear — over and over and over — that Israel will never return to its 1967 borders. The dissimulation here is really pretty staggering. They're just hellbent on giving everyone listening to them the impression that this is what President Obama has proposed.

He hasn't, of course. No American president ever has. Full stop. It's really pretty loathsome listening to these guys doing their best to pretend otherwise.

Still, maybe it's all for the best. If Obama's utterance of the word 1967 is really so revolutionary, maybe it ought to be out on the table. Likewise, I'm fine with Netanyahu saying categorically that the right of return is a dead letter. It is, after all, and there's not a lot of point in pretending otherwise.

Still, I noticed during the press conference that we aren't entirely free of euphemisms yet. Netanyahu stammered a bit when he talked about Israel's borders and then very carefully referred to "demographic changes on the ground over the past 44 years" that made its 1967 borders unacceptable. Needless to say, there's nothing demographic at all about those changes. Israel won a war started by the other side, it occupied some of their territory, and then it decided to take some of that territory forever. We can argue endlessly about whether any of this was justified, but "demographic changes" is definitely not the usual way of referring to territory seized in a war.

Playing Musical Chairs With LinkedIn

| Fri May. 20, 2011 10:11 AM PDT

Ryan Chittum highlights an odd warning from LinkedIn management in a recent SEC filing:

It also warned investors, in its recent filing, that it expected its revenue growth to slow as costs increased. It said it did not expect to be profitable in 2011.

Huh? When costs increase your profitability might suffer, but there's no reason that rising costs should affect your sales figures. This really makes no sense. But perhaps it explains why the same folks who blew up the housing bubble are madly blowing up a LinkedIn bubble right now. They know it's all rubbish, but they're just hoping to get out before the music stops, leaving suckers like you and me holding the bag. It worked pretty well before, after all.

Chart of the Day: Where the Debt Comes From

| Fri May. 20, 2011 9:59 AM PDT

What accounts for the growing U.S. debt load? You already know the answer, but CBPP has a new chart that lays it out yet again. What we're interested in is public debt — that is, debt that the government actually owes to other people. It's this debt that can cause problems if it gets out of hand. So here's where our projected debt in 2019 comes from:

[This chart] shows that the Bush-era tax cuts and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — including their associated interest costs — account for almost half of the projected public debt in 2019 (measured as a share of the economy) if we continue current policies.

Altogether, the economic downturn, the measures enacted to combat it (including the 2009 Recovery Act), and the financial rescue legislation play a smaller role in the projected debt increase over the next decade. Public debt due to all other factors fell from over 30 percent of GDP in 2001 to 20 percent of GDP in 2019.

Put this one up on your refrigerator along with the last one. Then, if a friend comes over after watching Glenn Beck and insists that we're doomed, just point to the chart. If you want to save America from a crushing future debt burden, you need to repeal the Bush tax cuts, get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and stop pursuing austerity policies that will slow down economic recovery.

Once we've done that, then it's time to talk about Medicare. But the other stuff comes first.

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Free Parking

| Fri May. 20, 2011 8:34 AM PDT

Yesterday the LA Times ran a story about a special parking ticket service for local VIPs that it called "Gold Card" service. I didn't actually read the story and assumed that was just a catchy name the Times was using. But no. It turns out there is, literally, a Gold Card:

The service, which few outside of city government appear to know about, partly involves a plastic parking bureau "Gold Card" that is distributed to city offices. It includes a special phone number to call and on the back side notes that the holder may have an "urgent need to resolve any parking citation matter which requires special attention." It promises "you will be immediately connected to our Gold Card Specialist."

....[City controller Wendy] Greuel's audit said the Gold Card referral service is provided exclusively to the mayor's office and council district offices.

....Sarah Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Villaraigosa, said the mayor's office had periodically used the program as one of many ways to help constituents. Callers who thought they didn't deserve certain citations are referred to the Gold Card Desk, she said, adding that the program is open to anyone, not just VIPs or insiders.

"Any resident of the city who feels they received a citation in error, or who needs a sidewalk repaired or graffiti removed can call the mayor's office for assistance," Hamilton said. The Gold Card Desk is a comparable "resource for constituents."

I just love that line. As the Times story makes clear, however, virtually no one who's a non-insider even knows this program exists, let alone uses it.1 And the most common reason for tossing out tickets? Inability to pay — "a complaint Greuel's investigation portrayed as a dubious reason for dismissal." Indeed. Isn't life wonderful for the rich and famous?

1Take Danny Legans, for example. "I wish they did let us know about it," he told a Times reporter as he was paying an $88 ticket. Legans then asked officials inside about the program but was told it did not exist. "They said there is no such thing. You can't appeal. They told me: You have 30 days to pay this ticket or it will be doubled."

Obama's Middle East Speech, Take 2

| Fri May. 20, 2011 8:05 AM PDT

Yesterday I wrote that I was puzzled about the conservative meltdown over Obama's Middle East speech. Didn't he just continue the policy of pretty much every president since Carter, namely that the eventual Israeli border on the West Bank will be based on the 1967 border with some expansions to include settlements built since the war? So what was the big deal? Well, after reading a bit more and watching some TV, I discovered that, yes, pretty much everyone who actually knows anything about the subject agrees that Obama's formulation was a nothingburger. It's the same policy as always.

So why is the right in such a lather about it? A friend emailed to suggest the obvious: normally, lathers take a day or so to build up. This one happened instantly. "The lather exploded fully formed from their foreheads," she wrote. "I think that the lather was planned as soon as the word came out that Obama was going to make a speech on the Middle East." Andrew Sullivan takes it a step further:

The verbal formula that essentially repeats the standard position of every recent US administration on the two-state solution did not strike me as anything new; in fact, it struck me as a minimalist response to Israel's continued aggressive settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And yet instantly Drudge, Fox, Romney et al. blasted the "stunning" news that Israel had somehow been thrown under the bus.

None of this makes sense until you realize that Netanyahu had been given a heads-up by the administration. So it's pretty obvious that it was the Israelis who immediately got their US media mouthpieces to spin the speech as some sort of attack. So those of you who think Jeffrey Goldberg and Walter Russell Mead and Victor Davis Hanson are a foreign government's favored outlets should think again. These leftist radicals are far too unreliable a channel.

I guess that's possible. A more parsimonious explanation is that the Drudge/Rush/Fox axis was, indeed, going to go nuts no matter what, and the "1967 borders" reference was just such an obvious attack point that that's the one they chose. After all, the rest of the speech contained so much criticism of the Palestinians, including both a firm denunciation of Hamas and a warning not to seek statehood via the UN, that it was hard to find anything there that was really very detrimental to Israeli interests at all. Deliberately misconstruing Obama's border comments was pretty much their only avenue.

So: the speech was still a yawn. The American right wing is still deranged. And peace in the Middle East is still not going to happen. You may now go about your business as if nothing has happened. Because nothing has.

Taxing the Rich

| Fri May. 20, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Riffing off a Karl Smith post about whether higher taxes destroy the incentive to work (answer: probably not, and the economic literature backs him up), Ezra Klein says:

Republicans argue — and there’s some evidence to back them up — that the rich are more sensitive to tax rates than the middle class or the poor....It’s why they worry much less about extending unemployment benefits than about protecting the rich from tax increases. Both policies make people poorer. But future economic growth doesn’t depend on the poor. It depends on the rich.

The problem is that there’s not much evidence backing this view.

I got into an email conversation with a conservative blogger about this last week, and among other things he said that the research on ETI had persuaded him that raising tax rates on the rich was bad for the economy. ETI stands for elasticity of taxable income, and it's a measure of how much income goes down when tax rates go up. I didn't pursue the conversation because I'm hardly an expert in the ETI literature, but I thought it was an odd thing to hang his hat on because what little I do know suggests that higher tax rates have very little effect on the economy.

So here's what I know. Last year I read a review of ETI research written by Emmanuel Saez, Joel Slemrod, and Seth Giertz. I'm not familiar with Giertz, but both Saez and Slemrod are pretty honest guys, so I figured their paper would provide an evenhanded look at what the ETI research indicates. Their conclusions were far from rosy. First, they suggested that the ETI literature of the past two decades varies so widely that it can't really be considered very reliable yet. Second, they make clear that incomes can decline for several reasons, and most of the reported income drops in the wake of tax increases are related to tax fiddling, not actual economic deterioration. From the paper:

While there are no truly convincing estimates of the long-run elasticity, the best available estimates range from 0.12 to 0.40. At the approximate midpoint of this rate — an ETI of 0.25 — the marginal excess burden per dollar of federal income tax revenue raised of 0.195 for an across-the-board proportional tax increase, and 0.339 for a tax increase focused on the top one percent of income earners.

....While there is compelling U.S. evidence of strong behavioral responses to taxation at the upper end of the distribution around the main tax reform episodes since 1980, in all cases those responses [are related to] timing and avoidance. In contrast, there is no compelling evidence to date of real economic responses to tax rates....If behavioral responses to taxation are large in the current tax system, the best policy response would not be to lower tax rates, but instead broaden the tax base and eliminate avoidance opportunities to lower the size of behavioral responses.

In other words, when taxes go up on the rich, they do report lower incomes. But that's mostly because they're fiddling with the tax code to report lower incomes, not because they're actually earning any less. If that's the case, we can draw a few conclusions:

  • We should reduce high-end tax loopholes so that the rich have fewer options for moving income around solely to optimize their taxes.
  • If we do that, modest increases in marginal rates on the rich will have very little impact on their taxable income.
  • And even if we don't, this sort of tax avoidance presents us with nothing worse than a mechanical issue of properly estimating tax receipts. Aside from the small inefficiency of paying tax accountants for lots of useless work, raising tax rates doesn't have a negative effect on the economy and has little or no effect on the actual incomes of the rich.

This all makes sense to me. After all, we've already run a sort of destruction test on this. During the 50s, top marginal rates were around 90%, and if high tax rates on the rich harm the economy then the tax rates of the 50s should have literally brought the United States to its knees. But even with heroic efforts, you can't make the case that those tax rates were anything more than a tiny drag on the economy. And if 90% rates produced only a tiny drag, then the effect of moving from, say, 35% to 40% would be literally too small to measure. Conservatives may claim to believe that they oppose higher tax rates on the rich because they'd be a disaster for the economy, but the evidence suggests something far less: namely that it would be a minor disaster for the rich. The rest of the economy would do just fine.

Front page image: alancleaver_2000/Flickr.

Chart of the Day: Arctic Sea Ice

| Thu May. 19, 2011 8:11 PM PDT

From the Arctic Sea Ice Blog, this chart shows the extent of (what else) Arctic sea ice by month since 1979, with trend lines drawn in. On current trends, the Arctic will be entirely ice-free in September by about 2016, and will be ice-free year-round by the early 2030s. Probably nothing to worry about, though. Who needs ice, anyway?