Kevin Drum - December 2011

The Science (and Mystery) of Pickles

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 9:36 PM EST

Over at Blue Marble, the subject is pickles:

Pickles are mysterious things. You take a regular old vegetable. Just your average cucumber, carrot, bell pepper. Add some brine, maybe a few spices, and then, a few days later, presto! A pickle.

This is followed by a half-hour podcast about the science of pickle making. If you're interested in pickles, you should listen.

But it didn't answer my question about pickles. Here it is. I adore dill pickles. However, the ones I adore are (I think) just simple brined cucumbers with no further flavoring beyond the dill. But pickles in jars all have various other flavorings. Why is this? Pickle slices of the kind used for hamburgers are unflavored and easily available, and all I really want is a jar full of the pickles from which hamburger slices are made. Why does no one1 offer such a thing? This is a mystery that has been preying on my mind lately.

Naturally, I assume the answer is that nobody but me wants such a thing, or else supermarket shelves would be groaning under the weight of jars of whole hamburger pickles. But why does no one else like plain pickles? Everybody likes them on hamburgers, after all. What's the deal?

1Actually, someone does. Flanagan pickles, which come in individual packages, fit the bill. But Flanagan is a mysterious outfit. Their pickles are apparently manufactured by the Comstock Michigan Fruit Division and distributed by the Great Lakes Kraut Company, but beyond that Google is silent. I would buy a jar of Flanagan pickles if such a thing existed, but apparently it doesn't.

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Are You Smarter Than a Guardian Subeditor?

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 8:54 PM EST

The Guardian news quiz is too long, but it's worth taking just for the laughs. Even though this pair of questions refers to fairly arcane British trivia, I assume you can get the right answers. The pictures should help too.

Question 19 caught me in just the right mood and made me laugh too. Overall, though, there were too many UK-specific trifles for me to do well. Also too much random stuff I just didn't know. I only got 34 out of 55 right, so you should have little trouble beating my score.

Our Digital Financial Overlords

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 7:15 PM EST

Steve Randy Waldman:

Lisa Pollack at FT Alphaville mulls a question: “Why are we so good at creating complexity in finance?” The answer she comes up with is the “Flynn Effect“, basically the idea that there is an uptrend in human intelligence. Finance, in this view, gets more complex over time because financiers get smart enough to make it so.

That’s an interesting conjecture. But I don’t think it’s right at all.

Steve goes on to explain that finance has always been complex, and that this complexity is basically a way of collectively fooling ourselves into shoveling our money into risky investments that we probably wouldn't make if we really knew what risks we were taking. It's a pretty desolate view of things, and while there's a kernel of truth to it, I suspect it's driven more by despair over our immediate problems than by a more considered view of history. It's sort of like adopting just the bad half of Minsky and leaving it at that.

In any case, although I agree with Steve that Wall Street considers opacity in finance a feature, not a bug, I think Lisa Pollack basically has it right. Except that our increased smarts have nothing to do with either the Flynn Effect or with gray matter that's better at abstract reasoning than it used to be. Our facility for abstract reasoning has improved, but this is solely down to one thing: computers.

That's it. Take away cheap computers and cheap global communications nets, and finance today would look an awful lot like finance in the 60s. That's where our increased smarts come from.

This is, by the way, a fundamentally gloomier view than either Steve's or Lisa's. If complexity were truly just a con game, there's at least a chance that we might wise up and figure out a smarter way of running the world. Alternatively, if humans really were getting smarter, there's a chance that we might get a handle on all this complexity and harness it for good rather than evil.

Instead, we have humans of distinctly limited intelligence using digital computing power to create a financial system so complex that no one truly understands it. Like the blind man and the elephant, we get glimpses now and then of the whole, and certain individuals manage to understand small bits of the system in detail. But no one truly comprehends the entire thing. We just know that certain algorithms produce big profits for the right firms until they don't, and the trading of shiny new financial instruments creates millionaires out of the right people until everything collapses for reasons we're left to guess at. But that's OK. Who needs comprehension as long as the right firms and the right people benefit?

I don't think anybody can be said to genuinely understand global finance anymore. We understand certain large-scale features, and we understand certain minuscule details. But the middle ground, where most of the day-to-day action is? It's mostly a mystery. Financially speaking, we are all willing slaves of a capricious and uncaring master.

Virginia Continues a GOP Tradition

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 2:59 PM EST

The Virginia Republican Party decided to change its ballot access rules last month, and as a result neither Rick Perry nor Newt Gingrich has qualified for the March primary. A friend from Virginia writes in to comment:

OK, lots of schadenfreude here. Lots of windy rhetoric about how elections shouldn't be about technical rules but who gets the most votes. (Unless you're black, Hispanic, a college student or out of a job). Damnit, a freakin' Mormon is going to win Virginia!

We do tend to have a problem in Virginia with the parties monkeying with the rules when no one is looking (you ought to see our gerrymanders) and this one seems to have blown up in the GOP's face. I have no doubt that this was done to knock out the charlatan factor, esp. Cain who, with his unapologetic lack of organization, was probably the one surging when these rules were drawn up. The friendly fire aspect of taking out Perry was likely a surprise to the crafters of the rule change.

http://legalinsurrection.com/2011/12/va-ballot-madness/

This is a riot. Seriously, I wonder if the Virginia GOP hasn't already responded — Hey, we're Republicans, this is what we do!

The indignation is really something. I know it's not the same thing as de-legitimizing millions of voters through voter ID laws — but it doesn't take much scratching to draw up the comparisons.

Frankly, considering the clown show the GOP has put on so far this year, I'd be sort of disappointed if they hadn't done something like this.

Ron Paul Demonstrates He's a True GOP Trendsetter

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 2:22 PM EST

For chrissake. Ron Paul's excuse for writing lots of racist and nutball crap in his newsletters is that he didn't write the newsletters and doesn't know who did.1 Now Newt Gingrich has decided this is such a peachy excuse that he's going to use it too:

The Wall Street Journal reports today on a memo from April 2006 on the website of Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation. In the memo, filed under the "Newt Notes" column and written in the first person, Gingrich calls RomneyCare the "most exciting development of the past few weeks" and says he "agree[s] strongly" with the "principle" of the individual mandate....These days the mandate, and by extension RomneyCare, are treif2 in GOP orthodoxy. What to do, then, about this memo?

[Gingrich spokesman R.C.] Hammond said the Newt Notes essay wasn’t written by Mr. Gingrich himself.

I would like to announce for the record that I have been paying various local high school students to write most of this blog for the past ten years. I never asked for their names and paid them under the table by giving them answers to SAT questions, so I don't know who they are. I assume this brings an end to questions about some of the unfortunate posts written here, which I disavow completely. As of now, it's old news. Move along, please.

1Actually, "doesn't know" should be rendered in scare quotes. Paul is lying. He knows perfectly well who wrote this stuff.

2adj. Judaism ritually unfit to be eaten; not kosher.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Is it a Lie?

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 1:55 PM EST

In the Washington Post, David Fahrenthold writes about the Republican mantra to "repeal and replace" Obamacare. Jonathan Bernstein comments:

Fahrenthold does a good job of pointing out how little Republicans have done to carry out their “replace” promise. But he doesn’t quite nail down just how much of a betrayal it has been.

....The chairs of five House committees, in an op-ed they published right after the first House repeal vote, [were] pretty specific: “hearings in Washington and around the country” to develop the new legislation. It’s something that they had full control over (as opposed to actually passing legislation, which depended on the Senate and the president). And it’s something that just didn’t happen.

I consider this a highly metaphysical question. Is something really a lie if no one was intended to believe it in the first place?

Consider the various audiences. The Republican base certainly didn't care about "replace." They just wanted to repeal the socialist abomination that was Obamacare, full stop. The press surely never believed it either. They knew perfectly well that Republicans have never shown the slightest interest in passing healthcare legislation. Democrats knew it was a sham, of course. And independents.....

Aye, there's the rub. Did independents actually believe Republicans were serious about replacing Obamacare? Or did they see the implied wink and nudge just like everyone else? This I don't know.

Was "repeal and replace" an actual promise? Or was it merely political sloganeering best interpreted as "We hate Barack Obama, and if you do too then vote for us"? Where's Wittgenstein when you need him?

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A GOP Dilemma: Oppose Obama or Oppose Tax Cuts?

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 1:20 PM EST

The 2009 stimulus bill included a tax cut called the Making Work Pay tax credit. Bruce Bartlett writes about what happened last year, when it was set to expire:

At the end of 2010, all of the tax cuts enacted during the George W. Bush administration were scheduled to expire, as well as the Making Work Pay credit. Although President Obama wanted the tax cuts for the rich to expire on schedule, Republicans insisted on an all-or-nothing strategy. Republicans also asked that the Making Work Pay credit be replaced by a temporary two-percentage-point cut in the employees’ share of the payroll tax.

....In short, the payroll tax cut was a Republican initiative. So why did they turn against it? The answer is unclear.

Unclear? Let's roll the tape:

  • 2009: Obama favored the Making Work Pay tax credit. Republicans were opposed.
  • 2010: Obama wanted to keep the MWP and initially opposed the payroll tax cut. Republicans supported it.
  • 2011: Obama is in favor of extending the payroll tax cut. Republicans are now opposed.

Do you see the trend? Sure you do.

Also of note: Bruce includes a chart from the Tax Policy Center showing why Republicans wanted to replace the MWP with a payroll tax cut in the first place. Partly to annoy Obama, of course, but it turns out that the payroll tax cut is far friendlier to rich people than the MWP. The absolute dollar amounts are small enough to be a rounding error for the truly wealthy, but I guess it's the principle that counts.

Endings and Modern Authors

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 12:41 PM EST

Aaron Carroll writes today about Stephen King's Dark Tower series, which I haven't read. And he tells me that King did something remarkable: Just before the end of the last book, he wrote a coda telling his readers not to bother reading the final chapter. Just enjoy the journey of reading the book and let it go:

I forced myself not to finish the story. Instead, I thought about how much I had grown and changed while I enjoyed it....I’ll admit that I went back later, and finished the book. To be honest, I had sort of predicted the final bit, much as I liked it. But Stephen King succeeded. In all the times I’ve talked to others about the series, I have never discussed the ending. I don’t care. What mattered, and what people who have read the book care about, was what happened before the ending.

But still, what I think about most is the coda. He changed the way I think about books and reading. I’ve learned to slow down and think about the story. I’ve learned to appreciate the journey, and focus not so much on the ending.

Oh, Aaron. You've been snookered. Stephen King has somehow contrived to make a virtue out of the fact that modern authors are so relentlessly crappy at finishing up their stories. They can write 500 pages of wonderful, well-crafted prose — or, in King's case, probably 5,000 pages — but most of them simply have no idea how to provide a conclusion that's equally well crafted and satisfying. Why? I don't know. But it's a defect, not a virtue. I don't know if the ending to the Dark Tower series was any good, but don't listen to Stephen King. Authors should learn how to write complete narratives. That means a beginning, a middle, and an end. Anything that lets them off the hook for not getting all three parts right — for not giving the ending every bit as much love and attention as the rest of the narrative — should be treated as nothing more than the special pleading that it is.

UPDATE: I didn't make this clear, and I should have: I'm not insisting on neat and tidy endings. Be as cryptic as you please! But too often endings these days seem almost like afterthoughts, dashed off because the book was due at the publishers and the author just ran out of ideas or something. Modern authors can obviously write with immense craft and sensitivity, and I think that endings deserve exactly as much attention to craft and tone and narrative as the rest of the book. That's all.

Also: this has nothing to do with Stephen King. I have no opinion about the endings to his stories. He was just an excuse to get this off my chest.

Mr. Smith Not Going to Washington Any More

| Mon Dec. 26, 2011 6:26 PM EST

Looking for Mr. Smith? Don't look in Congress. Adjusting for inflation, and not counting home equity, members of Congress are more distant from their constituents than ever before:

The financial gap between Americans and their representatives in Congress has widened considerably since [the 70s], according to an analysis of financial disclosures by The Washington Post. Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House has risen 2½ times, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, rising from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the median sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.

It just costs too much to run for Congress today for anyone who's not fairly well off to do it. And that's no coincidence. As income inequality goes up, campaign funding from rich donors also goes up — partly because the rich have more money and partly because they're more motivated to use that money to influence the political process in order to protect their wealth. This creates an arms race that effectively precludes anyone who doesn't have either money of their own or access to wealthy donors from running. And that means that Congress has fewer and fewer members with any real connection to the working world. Is it any wonder that members of Congress these days don't really care at all about the views of the poor and the working class?

America: Still the Winner of the Auto Derby

| Mon Dec. 26, 2011 5:44 PM EST

Tyler Cowen points us to the chart on the right, from the Economist, and says he was surprised to learn that Germany has more passenger cars per capita than the United States. But there's no real surprise here. It's mostly a matter of whether a Ford Explorer counts as a "passenger car."

You see, in the non-commercial/non-truck world, the federal government distinguishes between "passenger cars" and "other 2-axle 4-tire vehicles." In 2008, there were 137 million passenger cars, which works out to about 446 cars per thousand people. However, there were also 101 million "other 2-axle 4-tire vehicles," primarily in the fast-growing category of SUVs and pickup trucks. Add that up and you get 238 million of the things that we'd ordinarily call cars, which comes to about 775 vehicles per thousand people.

In Germany, apparently, they don't make this distinction. In the non-commercial/non-truck world they put everything into one bucket and just count 44 million "cars." That comes to about 544 vehicles per thousand people.

Unsurprisingly, then, it turns out that we have more cars per capita than Germany. You just have to be careful about comparing national statistics across borders.