Monday, January 30, 2012

Süßkind vs. Larry Summers

Early in Confidence Men, it looks like Ron Süßkind is auditioning Larry for a villain's role. Most interesting to me was his argument that the feminism issue was a theatrical side show on the real reason Larry got the boot as President of Harvard. Susskind says or implies that the Summers' real sin was meddling in the management of Harvard's endowment by getting it into the financial derivatives market, a venture which made a bundle at first but ultimately cost 1/3 of Harvard's ginormous endowment.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Decimal Points: Income by Percentile

Somebody noted that it's hard for Americans to get too worked up about rich guys running for President because everybody running is pretty rich compared to an average American. Determining exactly where one winds up on the income scale seems to be a bit of an inexact science, since estimates vary a bit, but to be a bare minimum one per center you need to make something like $400,000 per year. One percenters are a fairly diverse lot, but executives are the largest component by far, though large numbers of doctors, financial professionals, and some lawyers also make the cut. Add in a few actors, athletes, salesmen, lottery winners, etc.

The President qualifies, probably on the basis of salary alone, but he also makes some from his book sales. The jump is steep to the next factor of ten, the 0.1%. It takes about $2 million to qualify here, and the Obamas missed last year, though not by too much. Candidate Newt Gingrich made it easily with his $5 million dollar income, but he would need to do more than twice as well to qualify for the 0.01%, where the entry fee is $11 million. The Mittster makes the grade quite comfortably, along with about 14,000 other families.

It's easy to imagine that you aren't rich, or at least not very rich, even if you are well up in the one percent, because from almost every vantage point there are others who are a whole lot richer. Mitt has something like a quarter of a billion dollars, but there are all those other guys with a whole billion, or ten, or twenty - like Newt's $10 million financial backer, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

The one percent may be diverse, but not so the 0.01%. Membership in that club is pretty much reserved for those that sit atop financial empires, or who have inherited a big part of such an empire.

The Last NR?

Josh Marshall:

Mitt puts Newt in a crate, ties the crate to the roof of the car and starts driving the family all the way to the nomination.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Death Spirals, Alcoholic Vertigo, and D2O

I love this science video (via Andrew Sullivan) - presented at a frenetic pace that inhibits any boredom:

Crazy About You

If you happen to be science, the arts, politics, philosophy...
Via Marginal Revolution, a new paper looks at the relationship between family psychopathology and intellectual specialization. It turns out that this idea is not exactly new:

A link between intellect and temperament has long been the subject of speculation. Aristotle claimed that “those who have become eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia”, while the physician Benjamin Rush noted a link between manic episodes and “talents for eloquence, poetry, music, and painting” ... Studies of the artistically inclined report linkage with familial depression ..., while among eminent and creative scientists, a lower incidence of affective disorders is found ... In the case of developmental disorders, a heightened prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) has been found in the families of mathematicians, physicists, and engineers ... These threads of evidence suggest that intellectual interests might be broadly linked to neuropsychiatric disorders...[ellipses are the references to be found in linked paper]
The authors turn their neuroscientific smoke detectors on an incoming class of Princeton frosh and find diagnostic fire.

And yes, autism spectrum is linked to scientific, mathematical, and engineering interest.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum looks at the same paper, and has a hand dandy chart from it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Brad DeLong & Comment

Quote of the Day: January 25, 2012
"The history of enterprise in antiquity therefore falls naturally into two periods. First is the development of economic practices in Mesopotamia circa 3500-1200 BC. By the end of antiquity we find gain-seeking shifting away from productive enterprise to land acquisition, usury, profiteering from political office, and extraction of foreign tribute by force…"

--David S. Landes, Joel Mokyr, and William J. Baumol, The Invention of Enterprise

12:59 AM in Books, Economics, Economics: Growth, Economics: Health | Permalink

Gene O'Grady said...
Uh, when was this end of antiquity?


Obama hewed closely to the tradition of making the State-of-the-Union speech a sort of national soporific. Predictions that he would throw down the gauntlet to the Republicans turned out to be greatly exaggerated.

The experience of watching it was sort of like paging through the more boring sections of one those mail order catalogs that specialize in stuff I would never buy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mirror of Grubsdnal

From the comments on Landsburg's post discussed in my previous post:

Steve’s mirror world shows that Mitt pays 40% of what would have been his income in Timm’s tax free world, but it also provides a handy tool for exploring other revenue structures. Suppose the taxmen of Mitt’s world distributed the tax burden somewhat differently – instead of 35% of salary and and 15% of investment income, they might (crudely) try to maintain revenue by making the charge 50% of salary and 0 % of investment income. That would wind up costing Mitt 50% of his total income.

Hmmm? Maybe it’s not investment tax that’s hurting his bottom line. Suppose we reverse the tax rates to 0% of salary and 50% ofinvestment income. In that case he only pays 25% of his Timm world income. That makes it look like it’s tax on salaries that really hurts the saver.

Am I missing something?

I doubt it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

More Sophistry From Steve Landsburg

I have tried to swear off economics Prof Landsburg, but he been making the same flawed argument for years now, so I can't resist deconstructing it. He wants to argue that Mitt Romney is overtaxed. As usual from SL, this requires a heavily hypothetical backstory:

To understand Mitt Romney’s tax burden, you have to compare him to his doppelganger Timm Romney, who lives on a planet with no taxes. In the year (say) 2000, Mitt and Timm both earned (say) a million dollars. Timm invested his million dollars, saw it double over the past decade or so, and cashed out his investment this year, leaving him with two million dollars. Mitt, by contrast, paid 35% tax in 2000, leaving him with $650,000. He invested it, saw it double, and cashed out last year, paying 15% tax on the $650,000 capital gain. That leaves him $1,202,500, which is about 60% of what Timm’s got. In other words, the tax system costs Mitt almost 40% of his income.

That is, 40% of his imaginary income in a universe with no taxes, or 27% of his actual income in this universe.

Naturally this scenario depends on neither Mitt nor Timm needing to spend any of what they earned. Let's compare Mitt with a different cousin, Kitt, who actually needs to spend what she makes. Let's say that Kitt earns the same $1 million as Mitt, pays the same 35%, and spends all of the rest over the next ten years. Mitt and Kitt each earned $1 million, and Kitt got $650K to spend while Mitt somehow wound up with a bit less than twice that, for a net tax of minus 20.2% of his earned income.

Ok, now I've been a bit sophistical - doesn't Mitt deserve something for the ten years worth of forgone consumption. How much exactly? Well, if we believe in the efficient market, the compensation foregone was worth exactly what he earned on it, or $650,000. To make things even, let's assume that Kitt runs out of money before the ten years are over and needs to earn another $650K to keep the wolf away from the door.

At this point, according to our classical analysis, Mitt and Kitt have each produced $1650 K worth in either salaried work or forgone consumption. Mitt has payed 35% x 1 million + 15 % x $650 K, while Kitt had to pay 35% x 1650 K so she payed $130 K more.

The point is that priviledging investment income has no justification in either classical economics or common sense. The other point is that whenever Landsburg makes one of his counterintuitive arguments, whether in relativity or economics, there is likely to be some sophistry behind the curtain.

Cowen on Autism Spectrum

Tyler Cowen writes on Autism, economics, and the new DSM definition. One interesting sentence:

It’s well known that the DSM process itself is, for better or worse, heavily influenced by various interest groups, including pharmaceutical lobbies.

the first two comments form a priceless couplet.

MoDo Hits A Sentence Out Of The Park

Maureen Dowd's NYT column:

FOR eight seconds, we saw the president we had craved for three years: cool, joyous, funny, connected.

The rest of the essay may be less acute, but it's not a bad analysis of why Obama's hard core supporters are so disappointed in him.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Is Tim Maudlin An Idiot?

Well, probably not, since he has apparently just been hired by the world's top philosophy department. Physicists of my generation often have a deep distain for philosophy, especially, perhaps, for philosophy of science. I thought maybe we might have caught that from our hero, Feynman, but I remember debates and recriminations with my philosophy of science prof well before I knew much about Feynman.

Be that as it may, why does Prof Maudlin say something this stupid:

What people haven't seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It's not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that's not true. Obviously it doesn't matter that much if you're a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there's a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence. ...

This argument is foolish on many levels - especially because it is neither new nor true. Lots of clever people, notably Ernst Mayr, have made it, but it's not true that no other species have developed technology - ants, bees, termites, and beavers have, even if they haven't gotten so far as we have, probably because they aren't smart enough. By his logic, if you had landed on Earth two billion years ago, you could have concluded that cellular organelles were not useful, and one billion years ago you could have concluded that multi-cellularity was not useful, and 500 million years ago that life on land was not feasible for multicellular animals.

Even a very clever fellow like Mayr was reluctant to concede that evolution is a cumulative business, but the molecular data is unambiguous on that count. High technolgical intelligence was one of the latest inventions of evolution, and it has demonstrated its power by taking an extremely obscure species and sweeping it across the planet and beyond, driving millions of other species extinct in the process.

Arguing that high technological intelligence is not very useful because beetles didn't develop it is the same type of error as arguing that tanks (or metal body armor) aren't very useful in warfare because the Aztecs didn't have them.


Somebody asked me last night what let Gingrichwin big in South Carolina. I think Michael Tomasky nails it:

This is what conservatives want. They want someone who can stand on a stage with Obama and say, “You are our nightmare. You are the destroyer. You are the un-American and the anti-Christ, and I smite you.” For conservatives, it’s personal with Obama. He blinds them with hatred.

So they don’t really want someone who can “beat” Barack Obama, which is the question the exit polls asked. They want someone who can humiliate him in prime-time television, put him in his place, expose him to the world such that all the deluded idiots in this country who still like Obama finally and blazingly acknowledge the
truth that has so long been obvious to them. As Newt supporter Sam Pimm told me at the Gingrich victory event, “I would buy a ticket to see Gingrich debate Obama. Newt versus Obama is going to be something to see.”

If winning stems from that, so much the better. Rank-and-file conservatives like Jim Dolbow believe it’s bound to. “He knows how to defeat liberals,” Dolbow said about Gingrich at the victory event. “He did it in 1994. He’s a liberal slayer.”

An Andrew Sullivan reader makes the same point:

As much as the commentariat likes to talk about electability, the just-regular-folks I spent the holidays with talked only about how Newt would "hammer" the President during debates. "Can you imagine," my sister said, her eyes as lit-up as a child's on Christmas morning. "When Obama starts that smartest-guy-in-the-room shit, Newt'll shut him up." No one talked about policy or even politics. This is a mob storming the Bastille, cheering the guillotine, and Gingrich is their most likely Robespierre.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

One Wack Job

Arun reports:


NEW YORK - The owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, Andrew Adler, has suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu consider ordering a Mossad hit team to assassinate U.S. President Barack Obama so that his successor will defend Israel against Iran.

What an asshole. This nutcase, Andrew Adler, owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, has probably done more damage to Jews in America than anybody since the Rosenbergs. Of course his despicable nonsense is a first cousin to and natural outgrowth of the lies and slanders spewed by the right wing noise machine.

It's hard to see an upside for anybody in this. Chemi Shalev examines the entrails.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Fermi Question

The proliferation of planet discoveries now makes the question of the absence of aliens a lot more pointed. There now seem to be billions and billions of planets, many of them likely rather Earthlike, so where (as Fermi asked) are all the aliens?

I asked this question of a deep thinker I know.

His opinion: "It probably means we will destroy this place in the next few hundred years."

There is no shortage of evidence thaat we aren't smart enough to handle the power technology has given us to screw up.

Blowing Up Nuclear Scientists

Iran claims to have made arrests in the case of assassinated nuclear scientist. Not sure about the crdibility of the links of the arrested to the assassination, but if they got those responsible, it could get interesting.

So far they blame the US, the UK and Israel.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Autism and Genius: Chapter Next

A very interesting CBS Sixty Minutes program today told the story of Jake, a kid who started showing autistic symptoms at age two and began regressing in his development. His parents tried everything, and finally found that one thing he loved was numbers. His development of his love of numbers and math coincided with a return of some social skills and language. By age eight, he was a math prodigy, auditing university math classes and getting the highest scores on math tests. Now thirteen, he is a college sophomore and intends to study for a doctorate in physics. He was the youngest person to have published in Phys Rev A

By now, he has an excellent vocabulary, speaks like a very self-possessed adult, and interacts easily and naturally with his fellow college students. Allegedly he has maxed every IQ test he has taken.

One special talent he possesses is a superb, probably eiditic memory for things he is interested in. He claims to never forget any math or physics problem he has ever seen - but couldn't tell you where to find anything in his house.

The program included an interview with a psychology prof who studies autism and autistic savants. About one in ten autistic persons has a savant skill, she said, and one trait they all have in common is exceptional memory.

The story revived and reinforced my faith in the autism-genius link.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

False Flag

Iran has claimed they have evidence that the US is behind the string of assassinations of Iraqi nuclear scientists. Most consider Israel a much more likely candidate. Kevin Drum finds a story claiming that Israelis posing as Americans are the real culprits. This type of false flag operation would seem tailor made for Israel's attempts to drag us into a war with Iran.

According to Perry's sources, nothing was done about the Israeli program until Barack Obama took office, at which point he "drastically scaled back joint U.S.-Israel intelligence programs targeting Iran":

"We don't do bang and boom," a recently retired intelligence officer said. "And we don't do political assassinations." Israel regularly proposes conducting covert operations targeting Iranians, but is just as regularly shut down, according to retired and current intelligence officers. "They come into the room and spread out their plans, and we just shake our heads," one highly placed intelligence source said, "and we say to them — 'Don't even go there. The answer is no.'"

Is this true? Needless to say, there's no way to know. After all, if we weren't involved, we'd deny it. But if we were involved, we'd deny it too. Still, take this as a data point. Apparently lots of current and retired officers say that we have nothing to do with the Iranian assassinations.

Presumably Petraeus knows the truth. If the false flag bit is so, it ought not to go unpunished.

When Does a Greenhouse Run Away?

Over at Lumoville, an alleged professor of atmospheric science is claiming that a runaway greenhouse is impossible on Earth, so I thought I might try to discuss what the necessary and sufficient conditions for one are - Cliff Notes version.

The atmosphere, or rather some of the gases in the atmosphere, are fairly transparent to incoming visible radiation but opague to outgoing thermal radiation. This one way transport warms the Earth a good deal beyond what its temperature would be in their absence. The most important such gas is water vapor. Water vapor is the key, but not the only, player in runaway warming.
A tale of two feedbacks.

The blanket of water vapor around the Earth warms it. Suppose we warm the surface. That increases the amount of water vapor entering the atmosphere and consequently tends to warm it. That's a positive feedback, people, and positive feedbacks are unstable - a little bit of warming produces more warming, which in turn produces still more warming and so on to infinity. And vice-versa - cooling sets off still more cooling. If that were the whole story, we would either be condemned to chill or roast, unless we were prepared to believe in utterly improbable fine tuning.

As it turns out, there is a negative feedback which counteracts this effect. Increasing the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere increases convection, which increases rain, which removes water vapor from the atmosphere. There is a balance point between the positive and negative feedbacks which stabilizes the temperatures.
Convective Depth

What determines the balance point is mostly a matter of the depth of the convecting part of the atmosphere - that part of the atmosphere in which heat is tramsported upward more by convection than radiation. That depth depends on a few things, like the heat of the Sun, but importantly for our purposes, it depends on the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. In the absence of water vapor, such as above the watervapor rainout level, CO2 is the principal source of radiative opacity for outgoing radiation. The temperature at the top of the radiating layer will be that required to balance incoming absorbed radiation. The temperature at the bottom of the convecting layer will be sufficient to support convection to the top of that convecting layer - some approximation of an adiabatic lapse rate.


Runaway occurs when the temperature at the bottom of the atmosphere reaches the boiling point of water. At that point, the condensation feedback ceases to operate and nothing can stop the temperature increase until the temperature at the bottom becomes high enough to radiate at frequencies that penetrate the water vapor - 1400 K or so.

Once that occurs, the die is cast. Water vapor at the top of the atmosphere will be dissociated by ionizing radiation, and the hydrogen will be lost to space. The oygen will be incorporated into the crust or into CO2, with most of the carbon in the Earth's crust being converted to CO2.

As the water is lost to space, the planet will cool somewhat, but the vastly increased load of CO2 will probably still keep surface temperatures at several hundred C. We will become like Venus, to which this scenario happened perhaps billions of years ago.

Correction and clarifications from experts solicited, as are questions from the less expert. It's clear from this that we are currently a long way from the runaway point, but it's non-trivial to calculate how dramatic an impact greenhouse gases make on the set point.

UPDATE: Wikipedia notes that there are somewhat different definitions of a runaway greenhouse effect about, some of which are less drastic than the Venusian style event I describe. I'm not sure which version Hansen thinks we are faced with. The milder ones are propelled by CO2 rather than water vapor, and are reversible (in geological time spans) by feedbacks in the carbon cycle.

A Nobel Prize Isn't Just

...a pile of money and eternal glory.

Sean Carroll notes that you might also get a special parking permit and mocked on global television by Sheldon Cooper, like Sal Perlmutter.

Brian Schmidt, in the comments, complains that he didn't get either. Sean mocks Brian's deuteronope compromised fashion sense, and Bob Kirshner defends his old student. Also helpful Nobel fashion advice.

Default, Dear Brutus

The long, slow-motion train wreck of the Euro continues, picking up a bit of speed with the downgrade of a bunch of European debt and the collapse of negotiations to "voluntarily" restructure Greek debt. The point of the so-called voluntary restructuring is to avoid triggering the now notorious credit default swaps (CDS) which continually threaten to send a cascading chain reaction of bankruptcy through the financial world. Why the damnable things - which Warren Buffet called "instruments of mass financial destruction" - were not banned, abolished, and consigned to the lowest depths of financial hell after 2008 I will never understand.
Actually, I do understand, but I just don't like it. They weren't banned because international investment bankers love them - they allow them to make hugely profitable bets with other peoples' money, and stick the losses to taxpayers when they go bust.
It seems increasingly likely that the Merkozy "solution" - austerity with a dash of qualitative easing - is not going to work. Thy've tried A, they tried B - now what?

And today we read about the response:

German chancellor Angela Merkel has called on eurozone governments speedily to implement tough new fiscal rules after Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit ratings of France and Austria and seven other second-tier sovereigns.
Still barreling down the road to nowhere.


More Fire

Lumo writes on the subject of my previous post. I fear I left a somewhat intemperate comment. Nonetheless, should the great eraser strike, I repeat it here:

Ah yes, Comrade Stalin, you would fire every researcher who ever studied any question that might be dangerous to your cracked pottery. Your fear of reality suggests that there might be a hint of a scientist hiding somewhere in your fanatical mind, and that the fanatic is terrified that the scientist might wake and send your tower of lies tumbling down.

A couple of points that you might have preferred to ignore: we already have one example of a runaway greenhouse planet in the Solar system: Venus. Also, 5000 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere may or may not have occurred in the past, but if it occurred more than several hundred million years ago, that experience might be irrelevant to today's hotter Sun conditions.

Hardly anybody thinks that the runaway greenhouse is likely for Earth - but one guy who does is the one who first discovered and explained the Venusian one.

The last paragraph is not correct. Hansen played a key role in confirming the Venusian Greenhouse, but Wildt seems to have first proposed it in the 1940's, and Carl Sagan revived in in the 60's.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Fire Next TIme

...the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up...2 Peter 3-10, KJV.

Astrophysics and biblical prophecy agree - hot times are coming - really hot. At some point during the next two billion years, the gradual warming of the Sun as more and more helium "ash" accumulates in the center will cause a runaway greenhouse effect as more and more water vapor accumulates in the atmosphere until the oceans boil.

At that point, it's game over. The temperature will rise to about 1400 C and stay there until nearly all the hydrogen in the atmosphere has been lost to space, at which point old Terra will become another carbon dioxide furnace like Venus - not as hot as 1400 C but still plenty hot.

There is the question of when. Could we accidentally accelerate the day of doom into the present by dumping a heck of a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere? Jim Hansen thinks so, but others aren't so sure.

From Technology Review's Physics archive blog:

But that raises an important question: is it possible that we could trigger a runaway greenhouse effect ourselves by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere?

According to the climate scientist James Hansen, that's a distinct possibility. A couple of years ago, he wrote: "If we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there's a substantial chance that we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty."

Today, Colin Goldblatt at the University of Victoria in Canada and Andrew Watson at the University of East Anglia in the UK, publish an interesting analysis of this question and, while they are nowhere near as pessimistic as Hansen, their conclusion is not entirely re-assuring.

Here's the background. The fear is that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is warming the planet and increasing evaporation from the oceans. The extra water vapour, itself a greenhouse gas, causes more warming and more evaporation in a vicious cycle of temperature increases that eventually result in the ocean boiling away.
Goldblatt and Watson have an answer: "The good news is that almost all lines of evidence lead us to believe that it is unlikely to be possible, even in principle, to trigger full a runaway greenhouse by addition of noncondensible greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere."

But there is an important caveat. Atmospheric physics is so complex that climate scientists have only a rudimentary understanding of how it works. For example, Goldblatt and Watson admit that the above conclusion takes no account of the role that clouds might play in this process.

And scientists' ignorance of the processes at work raises a significant question mark. As Goldblatt and Watson put it: "Is there any missed physics or weak assumptions that have been made, which if corrected could mean that the runaway is a greater risk? We cannot answer this with the confidence which would make us feel comfortable."

Not that any of this will concern the religious and other crackpots.

Funny Numbers

I've been reading about IBM's new technology that stores a bit on just twelve atoms - good enough to store a whole byte on 96 atoms. I think I can follow the arithmetic so far. Next it decides to get funky. The linked story and another on CNN say that it now takes about a million atoms to store a bit. The CNN story adds that it takes half a billion to store a byte. Hmmm?

These numbers imply, say both stories, that we should now be able to achieve data densities 100 times greater than present technology. Elsewhere, the linked story thinks that it only takes 1/83,000 as much space to store a bit in the new scheme. Hmmm again?

I seem to get 1,000,000/12 = 85,000 and 500,000,000/96 = a little more than 5,208,333. No wonder we old people have so much trouble keeping up with technology.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New York Times Shocked

...shocked to find readers actually expect the Paper to check on the truthfullness of stories they report.

More On Romney the Vulture

From Andrew Sullivan, more Bain adventures:

Here's the New York Post, for Pete's sake, making the case last year against the shifty Wall Street games of Bain:

Romney's private equity firm, Bain Capital, bought companies and often increased short-term earnings so those businesses could then borrow enormous amounts of money. That borrowed money was used to pay Bain dividends. Then those businesses needed to maintain that high level of earnings to pay their debts...

* Bain in 1988 put $5 million down to buy Stage Stores, and in the mid-'90s took it public, collecting $100 million from stock offerings. Stage filed for bankruptcy in 2000.

* Bain in 1992 bought American Pad & Paper (AMPAD), investing $5 million, and collected $100 million from dividends. The business filed for bankruptcy in 2000.

* Bain in 1993 invested $60 million when buying GS Industries, and received $65 million from dividends. GS filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

* Bain in 1997 invested $46 million when buying Details, and made $93 million from stock offerings. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2003.

Romney's Bain invested 22 percent of the money it raised from 1987-95 in these five businesses, making a $578 million profit.

A capitalist Hayek could love, I guess. Romney and Bain's genius, it seems, was finding suckers to stick with the bill when they drove these companies to bankruptcy. No coincidence, I guess, that these suckers prominently included workers who lost jobs and pensions. It seems plausible that he might operate the same way in the White House.

Republicans have been declaring class war for half a decade - maybe they will finally get it.

Adventures in Vulture Capitalism

Kevin Drum and Reuters tell the story of one of Mitt's adventures in vulture capitalism. The CLiff Notes version:

Bain buys company pretty cheap. Has company borrow a potful of money, and uses the money to pay Bain a gigantic dividend. Company now owes so much it can't pay or continue in business. Bankruptcy declared, workers are laid off, creditors, including the workers pension funds, are stiffed. All made possible by that miracle of modern capitalism, the limited liability corporation.

Details at link above.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Terrorism Against Iran

Four Iranian scientists thought to be associated with its nuclear program have been assassinated in the last two years. Iran blames the US and Israel, but at least one observer points the finger at the Israeli Mossad and the MEK, an anti-regime Iranian terrorist organization. I don't know anything about the author, but this sounds plausible to me. The US, after all, is still trying to get Iran to talk, and this sort of terrorism tends to be exactly the opposite in its effects.

If Iran were determined to retaliate in kind, it would find Israel a very hard target, but the US, not so much. Just such a scenario, provoking a US war against Iran, is probably exactly what Netanyahu dreams about.

Monday, January 09, 2012


Gus is the cat at the theatre door.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a "scene workshop" based on Moliere's Tartuffe. We used as a script Richard Wilbur's translation into rhymed couplets. If, like me, you didn't know what a "scene workshop" was, in our case it consisted of eight actors learning a selection of scenes from the play, and presenting them as a play with no special costumes and only a very minimal set, with a narrator filling in the missing details.

Somewhat to my surprise, a bunch of people actually showed up, and, allegedly, payed money to see this.

I hadn't been on stage for twenty years or so, and was much older than most of the rest of the cast, so I was appropriately terrified. Fortunately, I managed to remember most of my lines and the audience didn't throw fruit or even boo.

It was a heck of a lot of fun.

Of course my head is still filled with all these rhymed couplets.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Europeans Are Not a People the title of a recent Andrew Sullivan post, and an occasional theme of his these days. They lack, it is said, a common language, common views of government or a common view of what Europe is or ought to be. All quite true, of course, and absurdly irrelevant. Exactly the same could have, or in some cases, still can be said of Canadians, Americans, Britons, Italians, Spaniards, and countless others.

Peoplehood is not something that comes out of the soil or is imposed by genetics. It's created by someone's vision the promotion of common purpose. Europe has gotten a great deal out of the fragile unity they have managed to create so far, including relatively unprecedented prosperity, freedom from internal wars, and safety from the ravening beasts on its borders.

They have gotten those advantages for going on sixty years now, just long enough that almost everyone who remembers what went before has perished. It will be sad, I think, if they tear themselves apart again and go back to interncine conflict - sad, but not particularly surprising.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

What Does IQ Measure?

I have more than once said that nobody knows what (biological substrate) IQ tests measure, only that they have high consistency, at least over short intervals.  There is another sense in which we know exactly what they measure: speed and skill in solving a wide variety of cognitive problems.  Those cognitive problems usually encompass verbal, mathematical, spatial, and pattern recognition tasks.  Skill (and speed) at each of these tasks is known to be teachable, at least in part.

Why then, should there be this prejudice that IQ is not teachable?  Mostly, I think, because those skills can't be taught quickly.  No one becomes a chess master in 1 or even 100 lessons, and no one acquires a large functional vocabulary without years of reading and writing.  So, if IQ measures one's teachability and is itself teachable, does that just mean there is nothing there but education?  Probably not.  We differ in reaction time, working memory, and our ability to convert working memory to permanent memory, and it doesn't seem that those things are greatly affected by practice.

It seems possible, or perhaps even likely, that intrinsic differences beyond the reach of education exist.  But its also likely that the usual results of IQ tests are only rather indirect measures of those intrinsics.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Krugman Counter-punching

This stupid blogger interface has a nasty habit of deleting an entire post just when I'm ready to put it up - I've never found out what provokes it.  Maybe someday I will attempt to recreate this post on Krugman's response to Cowen and Tabarrok.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Kevin Drum Unloads On Katrina vandenHeuvel

.. and other liberals who find something to like in Ron Paul.

Can we talk? Ron Paul is not a charming oddball with a few peculiar notions. He's not merely "out of the mainstream." Ron Paul is a full bore crank. In fact he's practically the dictionary definition of a crank: a person who has a single obsessive, all-encompassing idea for how the world should work and is utterly blinded to the value of any competing ideas or competing interests.

This obsessive idea has, at various times in his career, led him to: denounce the Civil Rights Act because it infringed the free-market right of a monolithic white establishment to immiserate blacks; to dabble in gold buggery and advocate the elimination of the Federal Reserve, apparently because the global economy worked so well back in the era before central banks; suggest that the border fence is being built to keep Americans from leaving the country; claim that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and should be dismantled; mount repeated warnings that hyperinflation is right around the corner; insist that global warming is a gigantic hoax; hint that maybe the CIA helped to coordinate the 9/11 attacks; oppose government-sponsored flu shots; and allege that the UN wants to confiscate our guns.

This isn't the biography of a person with one or two unusual hobbyhorses. It's not something you can pretend doesn't matter. This is Grade A crankery, and all by itself it's reason enough to want nothing to do with Ron Paul. But of course, that's not all. As we've all known for the past four years, you can layer on top of this Paul's now infamous newsletters, in which he supported a political strategy consciously designed to appeal to the worst strains of American homophobia, racial paranoia, militia hucksterism, and new-world-order fear-mongering. And on top of that, you can layer on the fact that Paul is plainly lying about these newsletters and his role in them.


Learnin' and IQ

From Tyler Cowen, one of my favourite polymaths:

Children who have more schooling may see their IQ improve, Norwegian researchers have found.

I need to dig into the details, but the effect seems improbably large.

Using data on men born between 1950 and 1958, the researchers looked at the level of schooling by age 30. They also looked at IQ scores of the men when they were 19.

“The size of the effect was quite large,” she said. Comparing IQ scores before and after the education reform, the average increased by 0.6 points, which correlated with an increase in IQ of 3.7 points for an addition year of schooling, Galloway said.

Let's see, between 1933, when Feynman's IQ was tested in school, and 1948, when his big contributions hit publication, Feynman had something like ten years of intense school and 3 years of super school at Los Alamos - could work out to an additional 48 IQ points, bringing his adult IQ up to a respectable 173;-)