With Mitch Daniels out of the GOP presidential race, we've pretty much settled on a field, haven't we? Discounting the vanity candidates, we have:

  • Newt Gingrich
  • Tim Pawlenty
  • Mitt Romney
  • Jon Huntsman

I suppose we're also waiting for firm decisions from Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, but assuming they decline to run it's hard to see anyone other than Romney or Pawlenty winning. This is just a remarkably thin field.

You and Your Beliefs

Adam Ozimek on our unwillingness to truly reconsider beliefs that are integral to our self identity:

Think about beliefs that you hold and imagine yourself changing your mind. Literally imagine waking up tomorrow with a changed mind and imagine how you would or wouldn’t discuss changing your mind with people you know. Feelings will be strong for beliefs that are important to our identities or that we value for some signaling purpose, like signaling affiliation with some group. Can you actually imagine yourself with these changed beliefs, or is it unthinkable?

....Conservatives, could you imagine becoming someone believes that higher taxes and unemployment insurance don’t hurt economic growth or employment? Liberals can you imagine becoming someone who believes that that minimum wages decrease employment and fiscal stimulus doesn’t work? If the answer is no, you should think about whether it’s because holding such a belief would conflict with your identity or affiliations.

Maybe these are just bad examples, but neither one of them would cause me much angst if I had to change my mind about them. The minimum wage debate has always been balanced on a knife point, with basic theory suggesting that an increase will hurt employment but more detailed considerations suggesting there are small countervailing effects. It's hard to imagine the evidence pointing to a large effect in either direction, but if it did, I wouldn't have a lot of trouble endorsing some alternate way of helping low-income workers.1 Likewise, I didn't endorse the 2009 stimulus because I wanted to spend all that money, I endorsed it because I thought it was the best short-term way to boost an economy in big trouble. If there were indisputably a better way, I'd probably endorse that instead. (Though, as with all things, there are issues of fairness and equity that come into play too, not just pure economic considerations.)

I suppose a better example might be beliefs about taxes in general. There's an obvious tension between economic efficiency, which suggests that consumption taxes are best, and liberal attitudes toward social justice, which motivate a desire for a fair amount of progressivity. The more evidence there is that high income taxes on the rich are bad for economic growth, the bigger the tension. Luckily for me, that evidence is still fairly slim. But what if it became stronger? It's always possible to dream up progressive consumption taxes, but there are limits to what you can do with those. So there's at least the possibility of a fair amount of cognitive dissonance here.

So.....I dunno. I guess a lot of this depends not just on how liberal or conservative you are, but on how inherently pragmatic you tend to be. I have pretty concrete feelings about social justice, but I also have pretty concrete feelings about wanting policies that work well and produce minimal friction. So far this hasn't driven me to drink, but I guess there's no telling about tomorrow, is there?

1Just generally, I've always been a fan of lots of little initiatives to help the poor rather than a few big ones. This is one of the reasons why. If you put all your eggs in one basket, and that basket turns out to be problematic, you're screwed. If you have lots of little baskets, it's not too wrenching to get rid of one and simply increase the others a little bit.

Today the LA Times ran four letters about President Obama's Middle East speech. Here's how three of them started:

Howard Karlitz: In his speech explicitly stating America's friendship with Israel and our commitment to its security, President Obama urged the Israelis to return to their 1967 borders as a means of securing peace....

Kenneth L. Zimmerman: Setting the borders for a Palestinian state the way they were before the 1967 war is the only reasonable solution....

Mike Sacks: Given the logic of Obama's proposal that Israel return to the pre-1967 borders, the following should also occur....

Obama, of course, didn't propose that Israel return to its 1967 borders. I would like to repeat that for posterity while there's still a chance that someone might believe me:

In his speech on Thursday, President Obama didn't propose that Israel return to its 1967 borders.

How is it that this has seemingly become conventional wisdom in just a few short days? Obama's formulation, after all was crystal clear and only 19 words long: "We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating on those exact terms for decades.

I don't really know what's happened here. Is it the power of Fox News? The power of AIPAC? Just the age-old power of people to hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe? I dunno. But it's really pretty stunning to see this kind of historical revisionism become so widespread so fast.

Matt Yglesias on the aftermath of Bibi Netanyahu's hamhanded public lecturing of the current president of the United States last week, which largely produced bipartisan attacks on the president:

Despite Obama’s lack of desire to shift US policy, he’s subject to opportunistic political attacks from members of the opposition party, attacks which are echoed rather than rebutted by members of his own political coalition. Meanwhile, despite an overhyped trend toward younger Jewish American adopting more sympathetic views toward Palestinians, the fact of the matter is that the Palestinian cause is deeply and increasingly unpopular in the United States.

....It turns out that it’s not true that Israel needs to be willing to make tactical concessions to the Palestinians or even be polite to the White House in order to retain American support. Israel has a basically free hand to behave as it wishes, taking the pieces of the West Bank it wants....If liberal American Jews think this strategy is morally wrong (I do!) or that it’s a strategic mistake for the United States to go along with it (me too!), that it involves denying sufficient weight to the objective humanity of Palestinians, then we ought to say that. Simply assuming that it can’t work is, I think, a slightly naive read of the situation.

This is roughly correct. I happen to think Netanyahu's approach is probably disastrous for Israel in the long term, but that's certainly debatable. For better or worse, Netanyahu and his allies have very clearly decided that they can live without peace pretty much forever, occupying the land they currently occupy and keeping a stifling military presence in the rest of the West Bank. And they've also decided that their support in the United States is strong enough that they don't even have to be civil to a sitting U.S. president, let alone make actual concessions to him.

And maybe they're right. I don't see how this state of affairs can last forever, but it can probably last longer than I think. The Israeli and American right has correctly concluded that no one can stop them, after all.

Michael Grunwald, after observing that the Republican Party is increasingly untethered from reality, notes that there are now two kinds of GOP presidential candidates left, reality-based and wingnuts, and two possible outcomes for them, either beating Obama or losing to him. He then analyzes each possibility, which I've taken the liberty of converting into a sort of bastardized BCG matrix:

If Huntsman or Romney wins the nomination, and then Obama wins the election, the GOP will quickly shift from “loosely tethered to reality” to “out of its freaking mind.” Remember, after its crushing defeat in 2008, the party faithful concluded that John McCain lost the election because he wasn’t conservative enough—and that George W. Bush lost his popularity because of his big spending....A Huntsman or Romney defeat would just prove to the party that electoral salvation lies in ideological purity and rigid obstructionism, the kind of conclusion that already appeals to Tea Party activists who consider Obama some kind of tyrannical socialist usurper.

....On the other hand, if Huntsman or Romney wins the nomination and then beats Obama, the Republican Party might rediscover big-tent reality-based policies. (It’s also possible that Huntsman or especially Romney would cut reality loose.) Similarly, if a Tea Party true believer like Sarah Palin or even former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum wins the nomination, and then Obama wins the election, the Republican Party might have a Goldwater moment where it starts to reconsider its small-tent extremism. (It’s also possible—maybe likely—that it would devise some excuse why Palin or Santorum had sold out conservatism.) And if a reality-denying extremist actually beats Obama, well, then we’re in trouble, because reality-denial isn’t going to fix the double-dip recession we must have had to make a reality-denier electable.

I endorse this pretty much completely. It's not a sure thing, by any means, but these four scenarios do seem the most likely to me. If you rank the probability of each one happening and then multiply by the badness of the outcome, you can also make an informed decision about whether you hope Republicans nominate someone at least modestly reality-based.

I continue to hope that they nominate Michele Bachmann. From this, can you deduce the probabilities and badnesses I assign to each square?

I see that the Nebula Awards are out, and Connie Willis won in the novel category for her two-part story1 Blackout/All Clear. I think this might officially mark my final estrangement from the science fiction community. I'm a big fan of Willis, and a few months ago I bought both books and dived into them pretty eagerly. And they were terrible. Over the course of a thousand pages, Willis seemed to have almost no interest in building any kind of engaging narrative at all; the characters behaved throughout like scared high school students (in the end, the exception turns out to be the only character who is a high school student); arbitrary coincidences and artificial secrecy were jammed in repeatedly to keep the plot from falling apart completely; and the resolution of the main time travel story was almost nonexistent. I repeatedly felt like throwing the book at the wall in frustration and giving up entirely on it.

In other words, it was a mess. Willis's real goal seemed less to tell a story than to exhibit her encyclopedic knowledge of British life during the Blitz. This would have been fine if her storytelling had genuinely conveyed a sense of what it was like to live during that period, but it never really did. So even that fell through.

There was, however, one rewarding aspect of making it to the end. My most common complaint with modern novels is that they're usually extremely well crafted — often elegantly so — but the authors simply can't create an ending to match the buildup. I don't know why. But Blackout/All Clear was exactly the opposite, and I can't remember the last time that happened to me. I was continuously annoyed with the novel from about page 300 on, but that annoyance stopped during the final hundred pages or so. The ending of Blackout/All Clear was terrific. It was, in the end, a story about the power of family and upbringing, and that story was both affecting and powerful.

Did that make the previous 900 pages worth it? No. But it erased some of the sting.

As for the rest of the Nebula nominees, I haven't read any of them, and four of the authors I've never read anything by. I just hardly read any science fiction these days, and I'm not sure why. I don't think there's anything wrong with sf itself, since lots of people still like the current output, but I'm disappointed almost every time I pick something up. Last year the only sf I read was a couple of books by China Miéville, both highly recommended, but neither one did anything for me. I actively disliked Perdido Street Station and was only mildly interested in The City and the City. I've morphed into an almost pure nonfiction reader these days. I don't like this much, but I'm not sure what to do about it.

1Speaking of this, what do you call a two-part novel? A diptych? A duology? There's no equivalent to trilogy or tetralogy, is there? So what's the accepted term of art?

I haven't paid too much attention to rapture-mania, but I have vaguely wondered why Harold Camping is getting so much attention. Slow news week? Hollywood tie-in? What? Today the LA Times provides the answer:

The former engineer has long predicted the apocalypse, most famously in 1994, but his new date — May 21, 2011 — has received unprecedented publicity. That is thanks to a worldwide $100-million campaign of caravans and billboards, financed by the sale and swap of TV and radio stations....[Camping's longtime producer, Matt Tuter] thinks $100 million is a conservative figure for the money Camping has spent publicizing May 21.

OK then. Now I know. More details here.

Today is catnip day. On Sunday I mentioned that my research forays into quantum mechanics were halted when Inkblot got distracted by some Cosmic Catnip. That's because we keep the Cosmic Catnip on a shelf right above the stove, where he was watching our water boil. So here he is, being distracted. On the right, Domino is being distracted by one of our catnip plants. Actually, I think she pretty much uprooted the poor thing. But that's OK. Catnip plants are cheap. We can put in another one pretty easily and she'll never be the wiser.

Bibi Netanyahu and Fox News have now made it crystal clear — over and over and over — that Israel will never return to its 1967 borders. The dissimulation here is really pretty staggering. They're just hellbent on giving everyone listening to them the impression that this is what President Obama has proposed.

He hasn't, of course. No American president ever has. Full stop. It's really pretty loathsome listening to these guys doing their best to pretend otherwise.

Still, maybe it's all for the best. If Obama's utterance of the word 1967 is really so revolutionary, maybe it ought to be out on the table. Likewise, I'm fine with Netanyahu saying categorically that the right of return is a dead letter. It is, after all, and there's not a lot of point in pretending otherwise.

Still, I noticed during the press conference that we aren't entirely free of euphemisms yet. Netanyahu stammered a bit when he talked about Israel's borders and then very carefully referred to "demographic changes on the ground over the past 44 years" that made its 1967 borders unacceptable. Needless to say, there's nothing demographic at all about those changes. Israel won a war started by the other side, it occupied some of their territory, and then it decided to take some of that territory forever. We can argue endlessly about whether any of this was justified, but "demographic changes" is definitely not the usual way of referring to territory seized in a war.

Ryan Chittum highlights an odd warning from LinkedIn management in a recent SEC filing:

It also warned investors, in its recent filing, that it expected its revenue growth to slow as costs increased. It said it did not expect to be profitable in 2011.

Huh? When costs increase your profitability might suffer, but there's no reason that rising costs should affect your sales figures. This really makes no sense. But perhaps it explains why the same folks who blew up the housing bubble are madly blowing up a LinkedIn bubble right now. They know it's all rubbish, but they're just hoping to get out before the music stops, leaving suckers like you and me holding the bag. It worked pretty well before, after all.