Kevin Drum

Physics Gifts

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 2:13 PM EST

Are you interested in cool quantum mechanical type physics stuff but don't really understand it? Do you know someone else who fits that bill? Do you like dogs? Are you looking for a last-minute Christmas gift? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, why not take a flyer on Chad Orzel's new book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog?

You probably suspect that I haven't actually read it myself and I'm only saying this because Chad's a good guy and I like his blog.  Well, you'd be right. But I'll bet it's a fun book, and I don't have any other last-minute gift ideas for you. The book website is here, complete with a PDF of Chapter One and a bunch of videos. Have fun.

POSTSCRIPT: Alternatively, how about a gift subscription to Mother Jones? Our publisher probably likes that idea better. But you can always do both!

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Quote of the Day: The Demon Pot

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 1:57 PM EST

From Mary Grabar, "conservative professor of English, commentator, fiction writer, and poet," on why alcohol is OK but marijuana isn't even though it tends to have a milder effect:

That’s exactly what the left wants: a nation of young zombies — indifferent, unengaged, and uncaring. They provide amenable subjects to indoctrination. Alcohol may fuel fights, but marijuana, as its advocates like to point out, makes the user mellow. The toker wants to make love, not war.

I guess she's nailed us, hasn't she? Back to the drawing board, boys and girls. Via Mona.

Gift Cards

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 12:53 PM EST

Barry Ritholtz doesn't like gift cards:

Nothing says “I am both thoughtless and inconveniencing” like a gift card. They let the recipient know that you couldn’t be bothered actually picking out a present, so here is a cash equivalent — only so much less convenient than the crisp paper kind of cash. And, you can only spend it in one place.

Now much do gift cards suck? Each year, $5 billion in gift cards go unclaimed, forgotten about or lost. That’s how much people value them — they throw away $5 effen billion dollars worth every year!

My heart is with Barry.  But my brain says different: I'll bet $5 billion is peanuts compared to the value of actual physical Christmas gifts that are essentially thrown away every year.  How many sweaters/books/vases/novelties/etc. have you gotten over the years that basically got tossed in a drawer never to see the light of day again?

Barry goes on to provide a couple of further pieces of advice, one sound and one not. First, the sound one: "If you must get a gift card, then get them a Gift card they will actually use. Maybe they have a favorite clothing store or gadget shop....If your daughter is a Starbucks junkie, then at least you know the gift will be used — and appreciated." I have friends and relatives who love gift cards.  And you know, if that's what they want, then why not get them a gift card? It's their gift, after all. But yes: make sure it's to someplace they like to shop at, someplace where they'd enjoy having some "free" money to go on a little binge. It's fun!

And then the unsound advice: "Even better still: Get them a prepaid credit card. All the major credit card firms (Amex, Visa, Master Card) let you buy prepaid CC as a gift card. These can be used anywhere credit cards are accepted. Its practically cash, and far more flexible than a Abercrombie or a Sears gift card." This is bad advice — for now. The Fed has proposed new rules regulating expiration dates and limiting "maintenance" and "dormancy" fees on gift cards, but they haven't gone into effect yet.  Bank gift cards tend to be riddled with these things.  They're even worse than retail gift cards. AmEx is an exception, but for now I'd avoid Visa and Mastercard gift cards.

I'd add one more thing: some people have a hard time thinking of presents to suggest to their friends and relatives. This makes it hard to shop for them, and they feel guilty about this. So they suggest a gift card instead: it's something they can use, and it relieves the pressure of desperately trying to dream up a Christmas list even though they don't have a lot of good ideas on tap. If you know someone like that, give 'em a break. Get them a gift card and stop bugging them. Life will be happier all around.

Bailouts and Justice

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 12:14 PM EST

Daniel Gross interviews Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who complains that raging populism has made his job harder:

So you don't think the bailouts were too friendly to Wall Street?
The idea that the strategy was unfair and has principally benefited a small number of institutions in New York is a mischaracterization of the design and result of the strategy. I thought people would have understood this after the failure of Lehman Brothers. But when you do too little and you leave the system with real fear that everything is going to fall apart, like any financial crisis, it hurts the poorest most. A just and fair strategy, even if it is politically hardest to explain and justify, is to use well-designed but massive force to stabilize the system.

You know, Geithner really didn't have to go that far.  It's one thing to defend the bailout as an ugly but necessary response to a crisis, but it's quite another to call it a "just and fair strategy."  Basically, the banking system held a gun to our collective heads and forced us to transfer a huge amount of wealth to them, and has spent the entire time since then working feverishly to make sure they pay no price for this and are in no way prevented from ever doing it again. Maybe we didn't have a choice, but there was nothing just about it. I wish Geithner could at least acknowledge that much.

Celebrities and Illness

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 11:13 AM EST

Via Dave Munger, an article today in USA Today about celebrity idiocy on the medical front:

Doctors and public health groups say they struggle over the best way to respond to celebrity claims.

At Every Child By Two, an immunization campaign co-founded by former first lady Rosalynn Carter, board members were initially inclined to ignore celebrities who question vaccine safety, says executive director Amy Pisani. Now, the group spends 80% of its time explaining why vaccines are still critical.

"We were poised to start working in Africa," Pisani says. "But we were forced to pull back just to re-educate people here in the United States."

I practically go into spasms these days whenever Jenny McCarthy shows up on TV. The damage she's done to millions of kids is almost incalculable. However, as the article says, celebrities can also have quite positive effects when they go public with illnesses that are underacknowledged for one reason or another. So it's not all bad.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 1:23 AM EST

I now have 999 Twitter followers.  If you're quick, you can be the 1,000th. Hurry! @kdrum.

(See? I'm taking this new media stuff seriously.  Honest.  Another 700 followers and I'll be ahead of Mickey Kaus.  You don't want me to be behind Mickey, do you?)

UPDATE: Congrats to @eugenephotoblog (Eugene from Atlanta), lucky #1,000! But keep 'em coming. I'm still trying to catch up with Mickey.

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Quote of the Day: Conservative Values

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 11:23 PM EST

From Mike Potemra, over at National Review Online:

I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era — peace, tolerance, due process, progress....

You know, conservatives don't usually confess straight up to finding peace, tolerance, due process, and progress so disagreeable.  But I guess they slip up every once in a while.

China's Diplomatic Triumph

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 6:08 PM EST

Mark Lynas writes in the Guardian today about the final chaotic day of the Copenhagen conference:

Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful "deal" so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

....Even George Monbiot, writing in yesterday's Guardian, made the mistake of singly blaming Obama. But I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying "no", over and over again....Here's what actually went on late last Friday night, as heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors....

The whole piece is worth reading. It's certainly arguable that Western leaders pursued a poor strategy at Copenhagen, but most of the evidence suggests that Lynas is right: the key stumbling block was China, which simply had no intention of agreeing to anything measurable and significant. Nothing Obama or the others did would have changed that.

By itself, that's not too surprising. What I have found surprising is that China has largely gotten away with this. There's been a bit of criticism of their obstructionism, but it's been almost completely drowned out by attacks on world leaders who were far more willing to do a deal than they were. And just to make China's victory complete, those same leaders have been largely (though not completely) unwilling to call them out on this. It's a pretty sweet deal for Beijing.

Insurance Companies and Healthcare Reform

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 3:39 PM EST

AP ran a story today noting that after Democrats proved Sunday night that they had 60 votes to pass healthcare reform, stocks in health insurance companies rose. This suggests that investors think the Senate healthcare bill is a huge boon for insurers, and Nate Silver quantifies that boon here.

Fair enough. Healthcare reform does guarantee a considerable amount of new business for the insurance industry. But be careful.  Here's a chart showing a basket of insurance company stocks over the past six months, and as you can see they've been rising pretty steadily the entire time.1 What's more, the most recent surge began on December 3rd, well before passage of healthcare reform was assured.  And Monday's spike in the first hour of trading, though impressive, was probably pretty speculative and has lost some of its steam already. Generally speaking, you should always be wary of people attributing broad-based market rises to specific events, and this seems like a pretty good example. I'm not sure I'd read all that much into a very short-term market reaction here.

1This chart includes both accident and health insurers, but if you take a look at individual health insurance companies you see pretty much the same trend.

Quote of the Day: The Conservative Temperament

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 3:02 PM EST

From Mike Konczal on the political climate in conservo-land:

Visiting home for the holidays, it’s amazing to me how certain groups of friends, who I mostly considered in the generic Republicans/conservatives camp, have been wading deeper into the Ron Paul territory. “Abolish the Fed” is one thing, but what surprised me the most was when I was at a Christmas party several people mentioned, fairly out of nowhere, how bad FDIC is for the economy....When I tried to point out how if there wasn’t FDIC and millions of savings accounts were getting wiped out in ordinary bank runs we’d almost certainly have a wave of turn-of-the-last-century style violence that is hard for us to even imagine now — think bomb throwing anarchist violence — they seemed to be ok with that.

Golly.  I wonder what could possibly account for generic conservatives increasingly being OK with bomb throwing anarchist violence? Let me think.....