Quote of the Day: No More Whining For Sarah

From Sarah Palin, promising to turn over a new leaf:

I'm through whining about a liberal press that holds conservative women to a different standard, because it doesn't do any good to whine about it.

Well, OK. But what does she have left to talk about if whining about the media is now off her plate?

Stimulus vs. Anti-Stimulus

See update below.

Matt Yglesias reminds me of something this morning. He says:

Federal spending cuts shrink the federal budget deficit and constitute a negative shock to aggregate demand. States have to balance their budgets, so the alternative to a lower level of spending would be a higher level of taxes. In [aggregate demand] terms, it’s basically going to be a wash either way. It's the failure of congress to enact some kind of state/local bailout appropriation that’s forcing the anti-stimulative state level stuff.

This is based on the basic GDP formula: GDP = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending - Taxes + Net Exports. If state spending goes up, that represents an increase in GDP, but if it's matched dollar for dollar with increased taxes, then it's a wash. Ditto for spending cuts. It's different for the federal government, of course, because the feds can raise spending without raising taxes. States can't.

This comes up because I posted a chart a couple of days ago showing reductions in state spending over the past four years and commented that these reductions "wiped out nearly the entire effect of the federal stimulus package." A reader emailed to say this was wrong, that they were actually neutral if they were accompanied by reductions in tax revenue. I realized he had a point, though this depends a lot on details, especially on whether state spending reductions have outpaced declines in tax revenue; whether states can increase their bond issues instead of raising taxes; and whether states have been dipping into their rainy day funds sufficiently. Still, it's a good point, and I'd like to hear a response from some of the economists who have said otherwise. Is there something missing here that complicates the picture?

In any case, it's true that the real failure is the federal government's failure to bail out the states temporarily, which would have been one of the most effective stimulus measures possible. Surely states deserve a bailout at least as much as AIG and Citigroup did?

UPDATE: Robert Waldmann writes in comments that I'm wrong. Taxes don't show up in the GDP identity. He's right. So this whole post is screwed up and you should ignore it.

But.....there's still something off here. Increasing federal spending is stimulative because you can do it without raising taxes. Likewise, decreasing it is anti-stimulative if taxes stay the same. But state spending generally has to match taxes, so raising or lowering state spending has no stimulative or anti-stimulative effect except at the margins. Right?

Or not right? Somebody help! It's true that states have a certain amount of borrowing capacity (bond issues, spending down rainy-day funds, etc.), and also true that higher spending balanced by taxes on the rich might be mildly stimulative. But that's a fairly small effect.

Anyway, for now, ignore all this. If someone provides some kind of definitive answer, I'll link to it.

Libya's Thousand-Man Rebellion

The New York Times reports on what an insider says about the state of the rebellion in Libya:

After the uprising, the rebels stumbled as they tried to organize. They did a poor job of defining themselves when Libyans and the outside world tried to figure out what they stood for. And now, as they try to defeat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s armed forces and militias, they will have to rely on allied airstrikes and young men with guns because the army that rebel military leaders bragged about consists of only about 1,000 trained men.

A thousand men? If that's true, then there's virtually no chance of Qaddafi losing this war. For this and other reasons, Adam Garfinkle believes it's almost a certainty that the French and British will have to send in ground troops if they're genuinely committed to expelling Qaddafi, and this in turn could spell trouble for us:

So what happens if the French and British try but do not succeed in a reasonably expeditious way? What happens is about as obvious as it gets: not Suez happens. The Americans come and save the day, as they demurred from doing in October 1956. The French and British know in their heart of hearts that we cannot let them fail miserably at this, or that’s what they suppose. I suppose they’re right.

What this means is that the President may before very long be forced to make the most excruciating decision of his life: to send American soldiers into harm’s way to save the Western alliance—even from an operation that is not explicitly a NATO mission!—in a contingency that has no strategic rationale to begin with; or not, leaving the alliance in ruins and Qaddafi bursting with plans to exact revenge.

What's worse, even if Garfinkle is being unduly pessimistic and we manage to oust Qaddafi successfully, we still don't seem to have any idea whether the rebellious tribes are really any better for Libya or for us than the tribes currently aligned with Qaddafi. Helluva war we have going here.

How Many Birds?

OK, so how big is our bird predation problem? Did I get an answer to my question from last night?

Probably. But first a few related items that multiple people pointed out in comments. First, habitat destruction is a way bigger problem than cats, so if you want to worry about the fate of North American birds, that's #1 on your list. Second, overall numbers are only part of the story. Even if cats aren't responsible for wholesale decimation of the bird population, they might still be responsible for serious damage to specific species in specific places. Third, although it's true that it's natural for cats to kill birds, the cat population in the United States is artificially high thanks to all of us cat lovers who keep them as pets. So the total amount of feline bird hunting is higher than it would be in a state of nature. There's more in the comment thread if you're interested.

Still: how many damn birds are there in the United States? John Trapp rounds up the literature here and figures the best guess is around 10 billion birds in spring and 20 billion in the fall. Meanwhile, the aptly named book, "How Many Birds Are There?" estimates 200-400 billion birds for the entire world, which is pretty consistent with 10-20 billion in the U.S.

So, assuming once again that cats really do kill 500 million birds a year, as the American Bird Conservancy claims, it means they kill something like 3% of the total bird population of the country. The error bars are probably fairly large on this number, but at least it provides the right ballpark. So now you know.

The New Media Rules

ThinkProgress has a post up today that shows Newt Gingrich unequivocally supporting a no-fly zone over Libya two weeks ago and then equally unequivocally opposing it today. The only thing that's changed in the meantime is that two weeks ago President Obama opposed a no-fly zone and today he supports it. So Gingrich is consistently taking the anti-Obama position, whatever that happens to be.

Well, whatever. With Obama being a socialist tyrant out to destroy America and all, anti-Obamaism is pretty much the state religion of Republicans these days. But I always kind of wonder what these guys are thinking when they do such an obvious and public U-turn. Do they think no one is going to catch them? Or do they not really care because they don't think the public really cares?

I think it used to be the former, but has lately become mostly the latter. Back in the day, I remember a lot of people saying that it was getting harder for politicians to shade their positions — either over time or for different audiences — because everything was now on video and the internet made it so easy to catch inconsistencies. But that's turned out not to really be true. Unless you're in the middle of a high-profile political campaign, it turns out you just need to be really brazen about your flip-flops. Sure, sites like ThinkProgress or Politifact will catch you, and the first few times that happens maybe you're a little worried about what's going to happen. But then it dawns on you: nothing is going to happen. Your base doesn't read ThinkProgress. The media doesn't really care and is happy to accept whatever obvious nonsense you offer up in explanation. The morning chat shows will continue to book you. It just doesn't matter.

And that's got to be pretty damn liberating. You can literally say anything you want! And no one cares! That's quite a discovery.

The Latest From Karl Rove

David Corn reports that Karl Rove, that well-known champion of openness in government, has started up a new project called Wikicountability.org, which plans to collect documents about the Obama administration obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and offer them for crowd-sourcing in one, easy-to-access place. David is unimpressed:

This Crossroads GPS project, though, is built upon a profound incongruity. The conservative organization is championing accountability and openness, yet it does not disclose the well-heeled funders and special interests underwriting its own efforts to shape the political system....NBC News reported that a "substantial portion of Crossroads GPS' money came from a small circle of extremely wealthy Wall Street hedge fund and private equity moguls." Crossroads GPS is the poster-nonprofit for secret campaign mega-money....But now this secretive organization is deploying the issue of open-government to assail the Obama administration, which has a better record on openness issues than previous administrations.

I don't really see this. Rove runs a private group that's not required to release information about itself. The federal government is a public institution that is supposed to release information about itself. Even if Crossroads GPS were required to divulge its major donors (a good idea, I think), it would still be able to keep the vast majority of its inner workings confidential, and rightly so. It's just not comparable to a government agency that works for the public.

So I guess I'd absolve Rove of any serious hypocrisy here. So far, though, his new project does seem to be trafficking in both idiocy and inaccuracy, which is a little harder to defend. David has more about this at the link. Still, if Rove wants to keep an eagle eye on the Obama administration in order to gain partisan advantage, I can't complain. Who's going to keep a better watch on possible government corruption than political opponents, after all? It's the idiocy and inaccuracy, which I have no doubt are going to continue, that are harder to take.

Nukes vs. Coal

A couple of days ago George Monbiot wrote that the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant had changed his mind about nuclear energy:

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation....Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

There really is something to this. Then again, it's still early days, and today we got the news that drinking water in Tokyo is unsafe for infants:

Officials warned residents not to eat the vegetables produced in several prefectures near the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility and recommended that infants not ingest tap water in Tokyo. Tokyo officials said they would distribute three 550-milliliter bottles of water to every household in the capital where an infant was living — some 80,000 households in all.

It's true, as Seth Godin dramatizes in the illustration on the right, that oil and coal kill a whole lot more people than nuclear ever has. At the same time, radiation in our drinking water is just a helluva lot scarier than particulates in our air or periodic cave-ins at coal mines. That may be unfair, but I'm not sure what to do about it. If the situation in Japan doesn't get any worse, Godin's chart will remain accurate. But more than likely, nuke plants still won't be able to get financing.

Reporting Healthcare Wrong

CNN reports on the public's view of healthcare reform one year after passage:

CNN Poll: Time doesn't change views on health care law

Thirty-seven percent of Americans support the measure, with 59 percent opposed. That's basically unchanged from last March, when 39 percent supported the law and 59 percent opposed the measure.

I know I'm a partisan hack who wants to put the best lefty spin on healthcare stories, but this is just plain wrong. Dave Weigel looks at the internals, which show that of the 59% who "oppose" ACA, 13% wish that it went further, and rewrites CNN's headline:

Poll: One Year On, Most Favor Health Care Law or Wish It Was More Liberal

Overall, [46] percent of people oppose the law because it's "too liberal," but 13 percent oppose it because it's "not liberal enough." So 50 percent of voters are either fine with the law or want a more liberal bill, to [46] percent who want it gone because it's too socialistic.

The CNN story does acknowledge this in a weird, roundabout way a few paragraphs down, but an awful lot of people don't read more than a few paragraphs and are going to come away with the impression that 59% of the population think national healthcare reform is a bad idea. And that's wrong: only about 46% do. Half of Americans want either ACA or something more.

My take on this is that healthcare pollsters simply need to do away with their obsession with "favor" and "oppose." You just can't report poll results on ACA this way. You should report them in the very first paragraph as split between people who think ACA went too far, is about right, or doesn't go far enough. Or something similar. It's really the only way to fairly report this stuff.

Our National Cat Problem

From a New York Times article passing along the startling news that cats hunt and kill birds:

The American Bird Conservancy estimates that up to 500 million birds are killed each year by cats — about half by pets and half by feral felines. “I hope we can now stop minimizing and trivializing the impacts that outdoor cats have on the environment and start addressing the serious problem of cat predation,” said Darin Schroeder, the group’s vice president for conservation advocacy.

As it happens, I've been trivializing the impact of cats on birds my entire life. I mean, cats kill birds. Bears kill salmon. Birds kill worms. The strong survive and the adaptive fitness of the species is improved. Cycle of life and all that. Why are we supposed to be upset about this?

But despite the fact that my own cats contribute 0% toward this avian holocaust, I understand that I have biases in this area. Maybe I'm taking things too lightly. So here's my question: assuming that this 500 million number is correct, what percentage of the entire bird population does this represent? I did a bit of desultory googling but got bored before I found an answer. So I'll put my vast audience to work. How many birds are there in the United States? Do cats kill 10% of them each year? 1%? A tenth of a percent? Just how serious is this national scourge of cat predation?

The Future of Investing

Felix Salmon:

American workers are facing a double whammy here: they’re losing access to private equity at exactly the point in time where private equity is becoming a very large and important part of the international capital markets. Meanwhile, it’s the rich foreign clients of Goldman Sachs — the global rentier class — who are getting that coveted access to equity in Facebook.

The two separate whammies here are:

  • The fact that fewer companies are going public, opting instead to finance themselves through private equity and trading their shares via investment banks who set up private exchanges to match well-heeled buyers and sellers. Ordinary schmoes like you and me don't have the opportunity to invest in companies that do this.
  • The steady decline of defined-benefit pension plans, which were managed by professionals who had access to a wide variety of investment opportunities, and the accompanying rise of defined-contribution plans like 401(k)s, which are managed by ordinary schmoes like you and me who have access to a very limited range of standard investment funds.

In other words, you and I don't get to invest in Facebook. Only rich people with access to the special private exchange set up by Goldman Sachs get to do that. And if this trend continues, you and I won't be able to invest in any of the hottest companies of the future. Only rich people and big fund managers will be able to do that, which means that the returns on their retirement portfolios will be a whole lot higher than yours and mine. And that's on top of the fact that their returns are already higher than ours, thanks to their access to a wider range of hedge funds and investment vehicles.

Felix isn't happy about this: "What we don’t want is a world where most companies are owned by a small group of global plutocrats, living off the labor of the rest of us. Much better that as many Americans as possible share in the prosperity of the country as a whole by being able to invest in the stock market." Agreed — but like Felix, I don't have any bright solutions to this. And who knows? Maybe this is just the flavor of the day on Wall Street and the public stock market will make a comeback shortly. But the overall story of the past couple of decades has been the steady funneling of all the richest investment opportunities to a smaller and smaller class of the super rich, and this trend fits right in. It's a problem worth thinking about.