Kevin Drum

Prosopagnosia in Literature

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 11:37 AM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, Jessa Crispin complains about the inescapable pressure to read certain books every year:

Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader.

Wait a second. Back up. Face blindness is big in novels this year? Seriously? Are any of them any good? I have a hell of a time recognizing faces, a problem that makes movie viewing a real pain the ass. I spent the entire first half hour of The Prestige, for example, getting Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale mixed up. A different hair color makes someone a new person to me. Photograph the same person from two different angles and I have to stare hard to convince myself that it's not two different people.

(On the other hand, I had a boss once who had supervised one of my coworkers for two years. She came in one day with a different hairstyle and he passed her in the hallway without recognizing her. I don't think I'm quite that bad off.)

Anyway, combine this with my lousy memory for names1 and it makes social occasions pretty onerous affairs. But it might be fun to read a novel where this plays a key part, as long as it's not just an excuse for an extended whining session. Any recommendations?

1And voices. For God's sake, if you ever call me on the phone, identify yourself. I won't recognize your voice if you don't.

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Who Will Speak for the Rich?

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 10:58 AM EDT

Paul Krugman on the recent outbreak of arguments that America's unemployment problem is structural and can't be fixed anytime soon:

Claims that there has been a huge jump in structural unemployment — that is, unemployment that can’t be cured by increasing aggregate demand — are playing a large role in the argument that we should basically do nothing in the face of a terrible economy. No need for the Fed to do more; no need for more fiscal stimulus — hey, it’s all about defective labor markets, and we should work on structural reform, one of these days. And don’t expect improvement for years to come. Structural unemployment is invoked by Fed presidents who want to raise rates, not cut them, by economists who want austerity now now now, and in general by almost everyone in the pain caucus.

....I really don’t think there’s any way to make sense of the fuss about structural unemployment unless you posit that a lot of influential people are looking for reasons not to act. Based on everything we know, this just shouldn’t be an issue. What the economy needs is more demand; provide that, and you’ll be amazed at how many willing, productive workers there are, currently sitting idle.

Italics mine. And yes, of course lots of influential people are looking for reasons not to act. Our economic discourse of the past 30 years has been almost exclusively defined by an endless succession of shiny new arguments from conservatives that provide an intellectual superstructure for policies that favor business interests and the rich. Arguments on trade, arguments on taxes, arguments on unions, arguments on the minimum wage, arguments on financial deregulation, arguments on income inequality, and arguments on environmental rules. Lately, it's mostly been arguments on deficits and unemployment. And always couched in technical terms of capital formation, liquidity, credit allocation, globalization, comparative advantage, crowding out, multipliers, solar forcing levels, Gaussian copulas, labor market rigidities, alternative measures of inflation, deadweight losses, default premia, and hedonic adjustments.

That's for the chattering classes, of course. For the rubes it's socialism and arrogant elites and death panels.

After all, except on rare occasions when their tongues slip, they can hardly come right out and say that what they really care about is making sure that rich people continue to grab an ever bigger share of the economic pie, can they? And the fact that all of their arguments just happen to promote exactly that? Just a coincidence, my friends, just a coincidence.

Quote of the Day: John Boehner is Orange

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 10:16 AM EDT

From James Joyner, responding to complaints that photos in the Republican "Pledge To America" pamphlet are exclusively of white people:

This isn’t strictly true. First off, John Boehner is prominently featured. He’s orange.

Plus it turns out that if you look closely there's a black woman in one of the photos. Diversity!

Friday Cat Blogging - 24 September 2010

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 2:07 PM EDT

I spaced this week and forgot to take any new cat pictures. Bad blogger. So instead you get Catblogging Classic™! Hopefully these pictures are old enough that no one remembers seeing them before. (In fact, the tree on the right doesn't even exist anymore.) Anyway, these are from 2007, and they've been fully digitally restored and look better than they did when I first posted them thanks to the magic of Photoshop's sharpening filter. Bask in the nostalgia!

Inside the Blue Dog Mind

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 1:18 PM EDT

Are the Blue Dogs congenital morons? Wait. Don't answer that. First read this passage about their support for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy:

"People are very imprecise with the way they are talking about it and reporting it," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md) said in an interview last week. "The Blue Dogs have not proposed a permanent tax increase for the wealthy, just a temporary plan....They are working to identify offsets in the event that they are doing a one- or two-year extension [for the wealthy], which is totally different from the Republican plan."

In an interview with the Huffington Post on Thursday, Rep. James Cyburn (D-S.C) the House Majority Whip, confirmed that Blue Dogs are working on a plan to identify specific cuts in government spending as a means of paying for a temporary extension for tax cuts for the wealthy.

Let me get this straight. It's not just that the Blue Dogs are in favor of extending tax cuts for the rich, which is an unpopular policy. They're also in favor of cutting programs over the next two years to pay for it. This is not only a dumb idea economically, but would almost certainly make the tax cuts even more unpopular. What's going to be their next idea? Tax cuts for the rich, funded by spending cuts for everyone else, and while we're at it let's outlaw barbecuing on the 4th of July. Then people will really hate us! Jeebus.

Help for the Chesapeake?

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 12:04 PM EDT

This post is outsourced to regular reader rph3 from the great state of Virginia:

I know you're all left coast and all that, but here we have long had one of the most open festering environmental sores in existence — the Chesapeake Bay and the cleanup efforts that have failed miserably for over 30 years. This is a classic case where Republican declarations that "states should work constructively with the fed to achieve our goals and not have the fed ram down our throats" have predictably resulted in states ignoring the fed and not working at all together. And that has resulted in extreme degradation of the Bay.

Anyway, it's just in EPA blowhard stage, full of threats to maybe get angry and do something — but it's more than anyone has done in 30+ years.

I'm sure progressives will loudly promote this bold (and it is bold) action by the Obama administration and give credit where it is due.

But this also has the classic risks of progressive policy — environmental improvement will likely result in increased taxes and will cause a significant backlash. And while I'd like to think people would understand the tradeoff, I .... uh. Yeah right.

Anyway this is change. And it could be dramatic. And it could financially hurt.

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Jobs and Divorce

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 11:41 AM EDT

On the list of jobs with the highest divorce rates, physicians and surgeons clock in at 7th from the top. Optometrists rank #505, or 6th from the bottom. Explain.

POSTSCRIPT: Bloggers don't make the list, but "writers and authors" come in at #213. So I guess I'm pretty safe. Certainly much better than the #34 I used to be as a technical writer, but about the same as back when I was a retail manager (#276) or a marketing manager (#204).

Dumb Arguments

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 11:17 AM EDT

Via Megan McArdle, Derek Lowe blogs today about an entire field of pharmaceutical research revolving around PPAR ligands that pretty much went nowhere and cost drug companies a bundle:

Allow me to rant for a bit, because I saw yet another argument the other day that the big drug companies don't do any research, no, it's all done at universities with public funds, at which point Big Pharma just swoops in and makes off with the swag. You know the stuff. Well, I would absolutely love to have the people who hold that view explain the PPAR story to me. I really would. The drug industry poured a huge amount of time and money into both basic and applied research in that area, and they did it for years. No one has to take my word for it — ask any of the academic leaders in the field if GSK or Merck, to name just two companies, managed to make any contributions.

....Honestly, I don't understand where these they-don't-do-any-research folks get off. Look at the patent filings. Look at the open literature. Where on earth do you think all those molecules come from, all those research programs to fill up all those servers? There are whole scientific journals that wouldn't exist if it weren't for a steady stream of failed research projects. Where's it all coming from?

I don't doubt that Derek saw this argument somewhere, and to be honest, I don't even begrudge him the rant. We're all sensitive to dumb arguments in our own areas of expertise, especially if we're really tired of hearing them.

But I'm genuinely curious: is there anyone of any stature who's made this argument? I've never seen it. There are plenty of arguments about the relative size of the contributions of academic and commercial pharmaceutical research, and plenty of arguments about whether, for example, the current patent regime is the best way of incentivizing commercial research. But the basic story seems to be pretty broadly accepted: universities and the government do a lot of basic research and corporations then take that research and do the work necessary to produce actual commercial drugs that attack actual illnesses. It doesn't always work that way (private companies do some basic research too), but I've never seen a serious argument that commercial pharma companies do nothing at all.

Anyway, just curious. I'm not really picking on Derek here, I guess I've just spent too much time lately being annoyed by the amount of time we all spend responding to the dumbest, most extreme forms of arguments, and then this one happened to pop up. But who knows? Maybe I'm wrong and JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine are chock full of editorials telling us that commercial researchers don't actually do anything. If so, I'll stand corrected.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, in the political world lots of influential people really do make dumb, extreme arguments on a regular basis. And since they're influential, they have to be responded to. But I still wonder if maybe we respond to them too much. Or maybe in the wrong way. Or something.

Prop 19 and the Feds

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 10:17 AM EDT

The LA Times came out editorially today against Proposition 19, an initiative on the California ballot in November that would legalize marijuana cultivation and use. They don't like the "chaos" that would ensue from every city having the ability to set its own regulations, and suggest that some kind of statewide framework should have been included. But even if it did, they say, Prop 19 would still have a fatal flaw:

Californians cannot legalize marijuana. Regardless of how the vote goes on Nov. 2, under federal law marijuana will remain a Schedule I drug, whose use for any reason is proscribed by Congress. Sure, California could go it alone, but that would set up an inevitable conflict with the federal government that might not end well for the state. That experiment has been tried with medical marijuana, and the outcome has not inspired confidence. Up and down the state, an untold number of residents have faced federal prosecution for actions that were allowed under California law.

This is (one of) Mark Kleiman's beefs with Prop 19 too, but oddly enough, I find this to be one of the strongest reasons to vote for Prop 19. Frankly, I think a showdown with the federal government might be long overdue, and contra the Times, I'd say our experiment with medical marijuana, on balance, has been a good thing. (It hasn't worked out very well in Los Angeles, which might be influencing the Times here, but that's largely because LA politicians are morons who refused to draft regulations years ago when they should have.) But even if there have been abuses of the medical cannabis industry, California's deregulation has paved the way for other states to do the same; it's raised awareness (and probably tolerance for) marijuana use nationwide; and it's proven that deregulation can work if local authorities handle it properly. Think Oakland, not LA. On the whole, I think it's been a net positive.

Anyway, a showdown with the feds might not turn out well, but then again, it might produce some useful fireworks. Sometimes that's what it takes to make progress.

(So am I going to vote for Prop 19? I'm tempted. But my presumption for voting No on all propositions is pretty strong, and Prop 19 really does have some drawbacks that are probably not suitable for enshinement for all time in the state constitution. So probably not.)

UPDATE: Oops, sorry. It's not a constitutional amendment, it's an initiative statute. That means it could be overturned as unconstitutional by a court, which is unlikely, but in terms of how easily it can be modified there's not much difference between the two.

The Senate Gold Mine

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 9:32 AM EDT

A trio of researchers at CEP have done a fascinating little study of lobbyist revenue. Their conclusion:

Our main finding is that lobbyists connected to US Senators suffer an average 24% drop in generated revenue when their previous employer leaves the Senate. The decrease in revenue is out of line with pre-existing trends, it is discontinuous around the period in which the connected Senator exits Congress and it persists in the long-term....Measured in terms of median revenues per ex-staffer turned lobbyist, this estimate indicates that the exit of a Senator leads to approximately a $177,000 per year fall in revenues for each affiliated lobbyist.

So: starting around 2000, the value of ex-congressional staffers started to rise much more quickly than non-connected lobbyists. And when the connected lobbyists' patrons left Congress, either because they retired or lost reelection? Boom. Their revenue drops like a rock. This isn't really surprising, I suppose, but it's interesting to see a number put to it.

And by the way, this is only true for senators.  For lobbyists connected to House members leaving office, the loss is "a weakly statistically significant 10% of generated revenue." Moral of the story: if you want to cash in, work for a senator.