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The Paleo Diet: Caveman Cure-All or Unhealthy Fad?, my latest article for The Atlantic, is online now. I was expecting to write a more balanced thing, but working through it, my conclusion sort of shifted towards the negative.

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Hey look: I get quoted all throughout this article Liz wrote about Sade in the New Times. In fairness to me, I was pretty drunk at the time that I made these statements.

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Why worry? (the debt ceiling)

Hey, did y’all catch NicFitKid’s comment on Friday?:

Why all the hand wringing over the debt? Debt can be managed, stop pitching softballs to Tea Baggers. Also, reducing government debt doesn’t increase employment, and the lack of jobs is what fuels fear and loathing in the current recession.

What you should be worried about is the brinksmanship in DC over the debt ceiling. If they fuck up that game of chicken, then we’re talking default and the downgrading of government bonds, so we end of having a harder time selling our debt on the market. Now that’s something worthy of charts and words.

In an unreleated swipe:
The Shuttle launched for the last time today. Shouldn’t you be dancing on its grave? Pissing on the NASA logo? C’mon, Alesh, gimme that old time anti-space program religion.

Haha, he’s right. I used to be such a fan of the Shuttle, and when I realized what a money sink it was, the whole thing turned sort of gross and detestable. It’d be like if the Prius turned out to have worse gas mileage than a Suburban, and also leeched some sort of chemical that made your children stupid.

But about the debt. Did you catch the Daily Show last night? John Stewart, in reference to the Republicans’ unrelentingness about reducing taxes, did the one about “well than why don’t we just reduce taxes to zero??” Old saw, but good point, right? But so then when DO we start worrying about the debt? We surely need to at SOME point, eh? Some point before we get to where Greece is? I mean, you scoff at the people protesting in the streets because they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that their government is out of money, and yeah their pay is being cut and their retirement age raised, but the only reason they still even have paychecks and retirement is because Germany is — reluctantly — writing checks.

So, not only is the US not at that point, but we’ll never get to that point. Mainly because we don’t have a Germany to bail us out if we need it. (Yes, China. But at least for now, China’s still a much smaller economy than the USA.) There comes a threshold to our debt that, if we reach it, Bad Shit will happen. And the truth is, nobody quite knows where that point is.

Now, I still agree that that point hasn’t arrived yet. That we need to keep borrowing money at least for the foreseeable future. That the Bad Shit which is in fact happening is at least marginally helped, not hurt, by our increased borrowing and spending. But at some point, yeah?, the opposite starts to be true. You would agree, wouldn’t you, that there is some amount of debt that would be too much for the USA? (Also, remember that while the government is not like a family, there are some aspects of national debt that do work exactly like credit card debt: while you’ve got it, you’ve got to pay interest on it, which interest is NOT INSIGNIFICANT (wanna take a guess? Go ahead, the answer is right here. That would buy a LOT of unmaned drones, brother). And also, you’re presumably going to at some point when the economy is all sunshine and roses going to pay off at least some of this debt, right? Yeah, your guy Clinton was the last guy to make a dent in it, but (a) it wasn’t that big of a dent, and (b) are you really so sure the whole thing wasn’t powered by a bubble?

But again, I agree that we need to be borrowing, spending, etc. I agree with friggin’ Krugman! All I’m saying is, in all this talk about the Moron Tea Baggers and Asshole Republicans, let’s remember that these people are genuinely worried (well, at least some of them are) about something that it is not THAT UNREASONABLE to worry about.

Oh right, the debt ceiling.

Whatever. They’re going to raise it. There’s a negotiation going on, and the Republicans are in a better negotiating position. (It’s like a game of chicken with two buses, but Obama’s bus has people on it that he cares about, and the Republican’s bus is empty and remote controlled?) You can be pissed off at the Republicans if you want, but all you’re pissed about is that they disagree with you and that they’re better at using their negotiating advantage when they’ve got it than your guys (MAN the Democrats are shitty at negotiations… remember when they won the Congress back towards the end of Bush’s presidency? Shameful shit). But overall, I wouldn’t worry about it. Everything’s going to be FINE.

Posted: Wednesday July 13, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]

 

I’ve been a little disappointed by the overall quality of the talks on the Ted website lately, but there are still lots of gems to be found. Here’s Dave deBonkart’s talk about the need for patients to be empowered in their own care, a nice counterpoint to the prevailing theme of the discourse we’ve had surrounding our healthcare system for the last few years:

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Yep, turntable.fm is just about the best thing ever. You need to agree to a terrifying browser warning to log in with Facebook, but it seems to work just fine afterwards.

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“The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term—‘drugs‘—and this makes it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use.”

— Sam Harris argues that experimenting with psychedelic drugs is ‘one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.’

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As I hinted would happen back when the action was going down, the Gulf of Mexico is springing back from the BP oil spill much faster than imagined. Not that I’m in support of massive oil spills in the future, mind you!

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The national debt as proportion of GDP

Came across, just this morning, Daniel Indiviglio’s article about the US debt in The Atlantic. Turns out it’s really high, which you already knew. You may not have realized, however, that it amounts to almost $46,000 for each man, woman, and child in the USA. That’s higher than it’s ever been, natch, but Indiviglio pulled numbers from the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and a couple of other places, and came up with this fairly terrifying, inflation-adujsted, graph:

The first spike is World War II, after which we gradually got our act in order, then we start to get cooking through the 1980s in Regan’s neat little yearly oscillations, turn things around under Clinton a little again, crank it up under George W. Bush, and it really starts to spike under Obama. Terrifying.

But AHA you say, what’s missing from this analysis is GDP. While inflation’s gone up during all this time, our actual production has also drastically increased, and if we factor for that, today’s debt probably seems much more historically reasonable. Exactly the thought I had. Here’s our GDP by year, at least since 1950 (from US Government Spending, a site that visualizes data from various government agencies):

Here I thought I was going to have to find all the relevant data and create a new chart that combined these two, but it turns out US Government spending has us covered on this one too:

So, yes, we have not yet reached the historical high of national debt per GDP. But we are dangerously close. Remember that during World War II, we had rationing, a draft, restrictions of civil liberties, and all sorts of things that helped the government mobilize the nation’s economic output for the war effort. What we have today, arguably, is 20+ years of an economy built on a series of bubbles, most recently a huge debt bubble. You’ll notice in the graph above that the debt levels off. But that leveling off is based on the Congressional Budget Office’s projections, which are quite a different animal from historical numbers. In fact, the peak on the graph comes in 2013, and the leveling off begins in 2014 or 15. Not encouraging.

None of which is to say that we’re doing the wrong thing by aggressively borrowing in the interest of fixing the economic mess. But I think that people like Paul Krugman, who for months has been writing a weekly screed about how idiotic our politicians are for giving lip service to prioritizing debt reduction higher relative to economic stimulus, should grapple with this reality a little bit. Acknowledge that while our debt is not technically at a historical high point, it is indeed very very high. And frame his argument for why we should be increasing it at an even steeper rate in terms that are proportional to the scope of the problem.

Posted: Monday July 4, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]