Hating on Texas

Recently we learned that the "Texas Miracle" had not been so miraculous after all. Texas seemed to be doing OK over the past two years, but it was only because they had a two-year budgeting cycle and had been able to eke through it thanks to stimulus money from the federal government. When a new budget cycle started up, Texas turned out to be $25 billion in the hole. Oops.

And now comes yet another insult. Amazon has decided to close their fulfillment center in Irving and cancel their expansion plans in the state:

In an email to staff, Dave Clark, the company's operations chief for North America, said the state's "unfavorable regulatory climate" prompted the decision....In the email, Mr. Clark said Amazon's now-cancelled expansion plans would have brought more than 1,000 new jobs to Texas, as well as tens of millions of dollars in investment.

Now, it so happens that I think Texas has the right of this. Their insistence on collecting sales taxes seems perfectly reasonable to me, and I think every state should demand the same. Still, "unfavorable regulatory climate" has gotta sting. That's Texas you're talking about, Dave!

Lowest. Inflation. Ever.

Inspired by David Leonhardt, here's the graph to show any of your friends who think that inflation might be a problem thanks to Fed monetary policy or deficit spending. It shows core inflation (inflation minus food and energy) over the past 50 years, which is a good way of visualizing basic inflationary trends in the economy without getting distracted by normal swings in volatile commodity prices. Right now, core inflation has been trending down steadily for four years and is as low as it's been since the end of World War II. There's no evidence that food and energy prices are feeding through to core inflation, and no evidence that there's even a trace of broad inflationary pressure in the economy. It's just not there. Employment and growth are our problems, not inflation.

Bachmann: Democrats Want 75% of Your Money

Apparently, Michele Bachmann (R–Minn.) is a uniter, not a divider. She hates liberal fiscal policy, liberal social policy, and liberal foreign policy! Suzy Khimm reports on her pitch to the faithful today at CPAC:

That being said, Bachmann devoted the bulk of her speech to fiscal concerns, railing against Obama's "socialism" and "evil bureaucrats" and warning the college students in the crowd that the government could end up taking away "75 percent" of their income in taxes. She paid only the briefest lip service to social issues and national security, focusing instead on the political goalposts of retaking the White House and gaining control of the Senate. In line with the new tea party slant of the GOP, she roused the crowd by chanting the New Hampshire state slogan: "Live Free or Die! Live Free or Die!"

Wow. 75%. That sounds grim. And yet totally plausible! I'm sure it will end up on Fox News shortly.

Just for the record, I'm all in favor of Bachmann running for president. Basically, I'm in favor of anything that helps expose the wingnuttiest hidey-holes of the Republican Party to the gimlet eye of the American people. Besides, she's good copy.

Understanding California in One Easy Lesson

Here in California, Gov. Jerry Brown wants the legislature to put a measure on the June ballot that would give residents an up-or-down vote on a tax increase to help balance the state budget. But that takes a two-thirds vote of both houses, so Brown needs a few Republicans to sign on. So far — surprise! — they haven't.

George Skelton, longtime state political reporter for the LA Times, says Brown should give them a few more weeks to sign on. If they don't, then he should unilaterally break his word to put it to a vote and simply sign the tax increase into law himself. But wait. Doesn't that take a two-thirds vote of the legislature too? Yes it does. But Skelton thinks it might work anyway:

Why would Republican lawmakers vote for a tax bill to send the governor if they're not even willing to let the public decide the issue? Here's why, if they thought about it for half a second: It would force the Democrat into a tight spot where they could gleefully watch him squirm while breaking his solemn word.

And they could tell their anti-tax constituents: Look, voting for a special election on taxes is really the same as voting to raise them. The unions would spend enough to make sure they passed anyway. This way we save the $60 million cost of an election while squeezing some pro-business goodies out of Democrats.

I don't really have any good reason for highlighting this, except to point out how California politics can drive even normally sane reporters into dementia. If you think this is crazy, that California Republicans would never agree to this, not even for the pleasure of watching Jerry Brown squirm, you're right. California Republicans basically see our budget squeeze not as a problem, but as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to destroy as many programs that help out poor people as possible. It's remotely possible that a few of them will vote for the ballot measure — democracy is good! — but exactly zero chance that any of them will vote flat out for a tax increase. They'd be flayed alive if they did and their political careers would be over.

Here's your simple heuristic for counting noses in California: If it's good for rich people, Republicans are for it. If it's good for poor people, Republicans are against it. In other words, pretty much the same as it is at the national level, except squared or cubed. It's pretty easy to understand.

AP: Mubarak Ready To Step Down

It looks like Hosni Mubarak is about to step down:

President Hosni Mubarak will meet the demands of protesters, military and ruling party officials, the Associated Press reported Thursday, in the strongest indication yet that Egypt's longtime president may be about to give up power....The military's supreme council was meeting Thursday, without Mubarak, its commander in chief.

But then there's this:

Egypt’s armed forces on Thursday announced that they had begun to take "necessary measures to protect the nation and support the legitimate demands of the people,” a step that suggested the military intends to take a commanding role in administrating the strife-torn nation.

There was no immediate confirmation that the army intended to replace the government named by President Hosni Mubarak, but protesters gathered in Tahrir Square appeared to welcome reports that the military had replaced the civilian government they have steadfastly opposed.

I'm not dumb enough to make any predictions about how this is going to end, but historically, when a country's military announces that it's taking over in order to "support the legitimate demands of the people," that doesn't bode well for the legitimate demands of the people. It may be good for stability, but count me skeptical that this is going to turn out well for democracy.

UPDATE: Here's a quick tutorial on Egypt's military from Daniel Williams, a Human Rights Watch researcher who was recently arrested by security forces in Cairo:

What's at stake in the current struggle playing out in Tahrir Square and across Egypt is not only Mubarak's fate but also the prerogatives of the Egyptian military within a system it created. Since the 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy, military men — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak — have held Egypt's supreme lever of power: the presidency. Until 2005, presidential elections were one-candidate referendums. In 2005, when multiple candidates were permitted, the second-place finisher, Ayman Nour, was hustled into four years' imprisonment on trumped-up fraud charges shortly after the vote. All governorships in Egypt are held by current or former military officers. Omar Suleiman, the new vice president, is a general. Ahmed Shafik, the new prime minister, is a retired air marshal.

In Egypt, the military is not a profession; it's a ruling caste.

The 300% Loan

The Wall Street Journal reports today that payday lenders are increasingly incorporating not in states with lax lending laws, but with American Indian tribes:

Because of the sovereign immunity granted to tribes by the U.S. government, they are shielded from interest-rate caps and other payday-loan regulations. Tribal lenders can even lend in the 12 U.S. states where lawmakers have kicked out the rest of the payday-loan industry.

....All it takes to make a deal are a willing tribe and an eager payday lender. The lender usually incorporates on tribal land, agreeing to pay the chief a salary of a few thousand dollars a month, according to people familiar with the agreements. Such payments can balloon if the tribe has relationships with more than one lender, a common practice.

Most payday lenders have no physical presence on tribal land. To go into business with a tribe, they typically start making loans in the tribe's name from the lender's existing call center, according to industry consultants.

In October, Peg Calvird of Suffolk, Va., got a payday loan for $600 from American Web Loan Inc....The loan's interest rate was 300%, far above Virginia's legal limit of 36%.

For now, I'll assume that credit card companies can't do this, since if they could they already would have. Let's just hope that the financial reform law didn't accidentally open up a loophole that makes it possible.

But here's a serious question: if you take out a payday loan from one of these guys, and then fail to pay it back, what can they do to you? I suppose they can still wreck your credit rating, but what else? Aside from harassment, what enforcement mechanism is available to them to get their money back?

Yes, Aspirin is a Pain Reliever!

Lately I've noticed an increasing number of TV commercials that seem....off kilter. Not dumb or offensive or annoying. Just ads that seem to have a really weird underlying premise. Here's an example:

Guy on airplane: Do you have something for pain?

(Flight attendant hands him a couple of aspirin.)

Guy: Bayer aspirin. Oh, no, no, I'm not having a heart attack. It's my back.

Flight Attendant: Trust me, it works great for pain.

(Later, feeling chipper.)

Guy: Thanks for the tip.

What's the deal here? Are there really full-grown adults around who don't know that aspirin is a pain reliever? Has Bayer done such a stupendous PR job selling its product as protection against heart attacks that there are now a significant number of people who no longer realize its primary function? Or is there something else going on here? I haven't been transported to an alternate universe accidentally, have I?

(Though that would actually explain a lot. Maybe I should look into this.)

Our Coming Robot Revolution

Is the Atlantic becoming the National Enquirer? This month, the cover blares, "Why Machines Will Never Beat the Human Mind," which sounded pretty fishy to me. But potentially interesting! So I read the cover story, which turns out to be a fairly modest piece about a guy who took part in this year's Loebner Prize competition, which is designed to find a computer that can carry on a five-minute conversation so realistic that a panel of judges (or 30% of them, anyway) think they're actually talking to a human being.

OK fine. So far no computer program has ever won, and last year the computers lost yet again. But why does this mean machines will never beat the human mind? Brian Christian is the author, and after 8,000 words of saying nothing at all on this subject, he finally says this:

When the world-champion chess player Garry Kasparov defeated Deep Blue, rather convincingly, in their first encounter in 1996, he and IBM readily agreed to return the next year for a rematch. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov (rather less convincingly) in ’97, Kasparov proposed another rematch for ’98, but IBM would have none of it. The company dismantled Deep Blue, which never played chess again.

The apparent implication is that—because technological evolution seems to occur so much faster than biological evolution (measured in years rather than millennia)—once the Homo sapiens species is overtaken, it won’t be able to catch up. Simply put: the Turing Test, once passed, is passed forever. I don’t buy it.

Rather, IBM’s odd anxiousness to get out of Dodge after the ’97 match suggests a kind of insecurity on its part that I think proves my point. The fact is, the human race got to where it is by being the most adaptive, flexible, innovative, and quick-learning species on the planet. We’re not going to take defeat lying down.

No, I think that, while the first year that computers pass the Turing Test will certainly be a historic one, it will not mark the end of the story. Indeed, the next year’s Turing Test will truly be the one to watch—the one where we humans, knocked to the canvas, must pull ourselves up; the one where we learn how to be better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers; the one where we come back. More human than ever.

Seriously? That's it? That's what the cover headline is based on? Surely a better answer is that IBM built Deep Blue solely for its PR value, and once IBM won they had gotten all the PR out of it that they ever would. Win or lose, there was no point in continuing.

Plus there's the fact that computers have gotten better since 1997. Hell, there are mobile phones that play grandmaster-level chess these days.

What a letdown. I was hoping the piece would actually have something interesting to say about AI, but it didn't. This is especially disappointing because I'm so thoroughly convinced that human-level AI is not just possible, but inevitable. I figure all we need is hardware about a million times more powerful than we have now (current hardware doesn't allow us to come anywhere close to human-level AI because current hardware has about the same processing power as an earthworm) plus another few decades of software development. But I might be wrong! And I'd like to hear a good argument from anyone who thinks I am.

I often think that the reason I'm so bullish on artificial intelligence isn't because I have such a high regard for AI, but because I have such a low regard for biologic intelligence. Christian argues that computers are good at analytic, left-brain stuff, but humans will fight back with our awesomely passionate right-brain abilities (i.e., we'll "learn how to be better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers.") But you know what? I've watched The Bachelor, and it mostly proves that love can be cynically engineered just as well as any suspension bridge.1 Human emotions, as near as I can tell, are just as much the result of prosaic neurochemical reactions as anything else, and there's really no reason to think that computers won't eventually be able to emulate them just as well as they emulate anything else. Maybe better. After all, it's not emotion that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Human behavior just isn't as deep as we like to think.

But like I said, maybe I'm wrong. Christian's piece sure didn't make much of a stab at persuading me, though.

1I'm serious about this, which makes me sort of gobsmacked at the show's popularity. Don't viewers realize that the real moral of the show is that you can pretty much guarantee to produce — real! honest! heartfelt! —  love if you simply follow a fairly simple set of cookbook steps? Why would anyone want to have that lesson pounded home season after season?

Keep Spouses Out of It

Here's the latest jockeying for position on the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law:

Seventy-four House Democrats have signed a letter to Clarence Thomas asking the Supreme Court justice to recuse himself from any deliberations on the constitutionality of the national health care overhaul, arguing that his wife's work as a lobbyist creates "the appearance of a conflict of interest."

....The House Democrats' letter follows a suggestion made by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) last week that Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan should recuse herself from any consideration of the health care law's constitutionality because of her previous position as U.S. Solicitor General.

I get that this is mostly just rhetorical jousting, and I get that Democrats are mostly just responding to Hatch. Still, I think it's a bad idea to be making this argument. We really shouldn't be promoting either the idea that judges' spouses need to be apolitical creatures or that judges are responsible for what their spouses do. For starters, even in our current enlightened era it's a lot more likely for a male spouse to be politically active than a female spouse, which means this kind of argument hurts women a lot more than men. And if it's true of judges, why not members of Congress too? And legislators? And mayors?

If there's actual money involved, that's one thing. But it's pernicious to suggest that politicians or judges are acting badly if they're involved in legislation that's merely supported by their spouse. We should be beyond that by now.

Webb Bows Out

Sen. James Webb (D–Va.) has decided not to run for reelection in 2012. So what does the Democratic grass roots in Virginia think of this? Here's Virginia email pal #1:

Crap. I know he wasn't the greatest advocate for progressive causes, but Webb was still a D. Now, he will relinquish his seat to the guy he beat 6 years ago, George Allen. No Democrat can beat Allen in 2012 unless he self-immolates again. I cannot begin to tell you how much of a Republican throwback Allen truly is.

That's not very encouraging. Maybe Virginia email pal #2 will be a little more optimistic:

This really pisses me off. He could have kicked Allen's ass. He has let a lot of people down and has probably handed another Senate seat to the Republicans. What a selfish prick.

OK then! Looks like Webb has a wee bit of fence mending to do.