In which I buy a pair of jeans and fail to produce a podcast

I needed a new pair of 501’s because I noticed my old 501’s are developing a hole over the left pocket where my phone always settles plus they look beat up and faded because I’m not a fancy freeze your jeans type, so I went to Sears on my lunch break today. Sears has a surprisingly comprehensive selection of Levi’s, but they’re like milk at the grocery store: stocked at the far corner so you have to walk by everything else to get to them. On the way, I got distracted by the Men’s Perfume section. I’d recently developed an appreciation for perfume bottle design while buying perfume for Hillary, but boy, men’s perfume is really crazy. Did you know they totally have Ed Hardy perfume? Multiple flavors. There’s Antonio Banderas perfume. Like a half dozen rappers have perfumes that are big-time enough to be sold at Sears. And lots of this stuff is in a reasonable $15 to $30 range. I’ve got a sampler sized bottle of Incanto For Men that I got some random way and occasionally I’ll come across it while looking through my desk at work for something and sometimes I’ll put a little on for fun, and plus I’m interested in the bottle designs (and let’s face it, I enjoy buying shit) so I’m seriously considering buying one. Sears keeps sampler bottles out by most of them, so this seems like a not completely impossible thing, and right away I’m drawn to the most conservative bottles (e.g. Hugo Boss) and the most outlandish ones (the aforementioned Ed Hardy), but I’m simultaneously realizing that I need to be sophisticated with this decision, and there are so many choices and none of them seem quite right. Like, this is a decision that needs serious consideration, because I’m not picturing myself ever being a regular perfume wearer and I’m not imagining I’ll be using a large quantity when I do put some on, nothing is more annoying than dudes who walk into a room and you’re accosted by their man perfume. I swear sometimes on South Beach someone will drive by on a fucking moped and you can smell their perfume trailing behind them. But so anyway it’s a big commitment for me, and I want to give this some thought, but then the girl comes over and asks me if I need any help, and I look a little more and then go off looking for my jeans. (Of which, success.) I stop by again on the way back though, that’s how serious I am about this. And I finally decide to just jump in and try the first one I noticed walking up before. Something on the Ed Hardy end of the design spectrum but maybe a little more Gucci aesthetic. Can’t remember the name unfortunately. Anyway it turns out the sampler’s empty? So I go for the Hugo Boss and — no shit — empty again. I’m not sure, but looking at a couple more it seemed like maybe they were all empty, which is a total mystery … like, have they been sitting there so long they’ve all dried out? Does Sears believe in leaving empty unpacked bottles with TESTER written on them out on the shelves helps their sales somehow? And by the way here’s another weird thing: the shelves have the prices printed for each of the bottles, but they’re covered with a strip of plastic that’s got a little sticker that says LIFT HERE FOR PRICE, so you can see the prices but I guess the reasoning is you can’t scan the shelves and get a sense of what everything costs quite so easily?

Anyway, Steve and I totally did record a podcast this week, but we were sorry unprepared and the whole thing meandered something wicked, and the idea of trying to edit something even remotely coherent out of it has thus far been … well, let’s just say it’s not probably going to happen. Better podcast luck next week, when we WILL talk about the disappointments of the Obama administration. Tune in.

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.

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.

The case for charter cities

Directly, each charter city would allow millions of people to better their lives by integration with the world economy. While critics often belittle this achievement as mere “cream-skimming,” the sad truth is that much if not most of the world’s cream now curdles in backwards farms and dysfunctional slums. If the native entrepreneurs who built Hong Kong had been trapped in mainland China, most would have wasted their lives in dead-end jobs on Maoist communes or joined the Communist elite. Hong Kong gave them opportunities to use talents that otherwise would have gone to waste.

The case for charter cities as a effective way to fight third-world poverty (based on the example of Hong Kong). Interesting? From this list of “40 things I’ve learned” by Bryan Kaplan, which is actually mostly right-wing free-market dogma. (E.g., here is the republican strategy for reducing the size of government laid out as nakedly as you’re likely to find.)

Overthrow the banks?

Overthrow the banks? “If America can reform its banking sector, it has a fighting chance at a prosperous future. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” Umair Haque argues for the bottom-up ‘overthrow’ of the biggest banks. “Banks are highly leveraged institutions. Were a relatively small percentage of deposits to shift to, for example, community banks or credit unions, megabanks would find it very difficult indeed to sustain the profit margins or market power they currently enjoy.”

Too big to fail is Socialism, and Republicans are responsible

You might have missed it, but GM stock sale last week sealed the deal on a sea change in how our economy is going to work for huge companies going forward. When the bailouts of the financial industry were initiated, the outcry assumed that the taxpayers were “paying” to save the industry, and that the money was either mostly or totally gone. But in fact, many banks have repaid the money with interest, and while the government has not broken even on the deal, it is still possible that it will turn out to be profitable. We now see that the same may end up being true of GM, too: the sale of the government’s initial batch of GM stock went remarkably well — the company appears to have recovered, and if it continues to flourish it’s possible that the remaining stock will be sold at a sufficiently high price that we taxpayers will end up making money on the GM bailout, too.

This should make us uncomfortable. And the not unreasonable presumption that the government’s interventions in the management of GM had a role in the success should make us even less comfortable. Because these pieces of good news set an irresistible precedent for how to deal with future calamities.

Liberal and conservative economists so vary in their proposed remedies to problems that it’s it’s seldom possible to untangle economic facts their statements. But in the darkest days of the financial collapse, the one thing that all economists agreed on was that if you were going to bail out these huge companies, you had to make sure that no company was allowed to stay “too big to fail” going forward. Companies behave dangerously if they believe they have the safety net of a government bailout protecting them, but the safety net is unavoidable for huge companies. They’d have to be broken up into smaller companies, lest the whole process be repeated in the future.

But when the financial reform bill came along in July, too big to fail provisions were conspicuously absent. Why? Well, the whole bill just barely squeaked by Republican opposition. Measures to limit the sizes of companies were practically laughed out of the legislation by Senate Republicans, who instead proposed new bankruptcy procedures for large failing institutions. Republicans are fundamentally responsible for the absence of too big to fail provisions in the current legislation.

So consider these two facts: that the U.S. government now implicitly backs our largest corporations, and that when needed, government intervention may likely be good for both the taxpayer’s bottom line and for the companies involved. This, much more so than healthcare reform of anything else that has happened under the Obama administration so far, is classic Socialism. It’s richly ironic that Senate Republicans and the administration of George W. Bush, which began the whole process, are the ones fundamentally responsible.

Can you fix the budget?

Can you fix the budget? Sure, the Tea Party is full of batshit crazy and staggeringly stupid people. But the idea at its core — that the federal budget is a mess and we’ve been deficit spending like it’s crack — is pretty sound. So, ok smart guy, what would YOU cut to make it work? Don’t tell me, because your local New York Times digital department has put together a nifty little app that lets YOU play with the budget. You get all the different suggestions floating around, and you get to see the effects on the budget shortfall in 2015, and 2030. (It’d be even cooler if you could generate a unique URL to your solution for twitter, etc.)

You can worry about the environment, a little less

The Planet Earth, bitches Right now, a 7-year old girl in India is dying, and it’s because you’re buying a Toyota Prius. Read on to see why this is true, and what it has to do with the future of environmental policy for the planet.

Al Gore will go down in history as a pivotal figure in helping the human population realize that it’s wreaking havoc with the planet’s temperature, and helping set us on the path to correcting the problems. However, it is an intellectual fallacy to thing that because the man is right about the problem, he must also be correct about the proper solution. We have serious problems, and we need some major solutions. I could try to convince you that we should be glad that Al Gore isn’t setting world policy on this stuff, but that’s not really necessary, since there isn’t even a remote possibility of that happening. So I’ll instead try to convince you that you don’t need to worry quite as much as you have been about global warming.

But first a brief and semi-obvious point about politics. We don’t have a King of the World. Boy don’t we. We have a couple of hundred sovereign countries on this planet, and whatever happens has to deal with the millions of political realities that come into play as these countries try to work together. (And yes, game theory comes into play here — if China thinks the US is doing something about reducing carbon emissions, their incentive to reduce their own emissions is lessened. Etc, etc, etc.) So, sometimes it’s useful to talk about environmental policy as though you could snap your fingers and make anything World Law. But at some point in your discussion you need always to come back to political and economic reality.

Okay, so here’s the doomsday scenario that has been painted for us: the world is on the brink of massive environmental change that will cause myriad changes, both predictable and unpredictable, and be catastrophic for the human race. Furthermore, we may be on the edge of a Tipping Point™, wherein after a certain point it will be too late for us to do anything. Therefore, despite scientific uncertainty1 about the exact rate and effects of global warming, we need to Error on the Side of Caution, and take drastic steps to cut our carbon emissions and generally live in a much different way than we have been.

Now, I agree to some extent that this is all true. But increasingly, I think that it’s all going to work out. We’re going to be able to do what is necessary, which is not what Al Gore right now thinks is what is necessary. To get a whiff of what I’ve been smoking, you need to hold all of the following ideas in your head all at one time:

  1. It’s not the planet that needs saving. The world has been through major environmental upheaval over and over in its history, and generally everything comes back better than before eventually. What we’re talking about saving is the human race. Maybe. More likely, we’re talking about an outcome that would create massive problems for some percentage of the world’s population at some point in the future. Bad enough, but the distinction is worth remembering.
  2. Even the most grandiose solutions being bandied about, the ones that cost on the order of tens or hundreds of trillions of dollars, are not going to solve the problem. They reduce the rate of increase in temperatures — reversing those changes is farther off than what we’re talking about today.
  3. I love Malcolm Gladwell just like everyone else, but generally the concept of a tipping point is overstated when talking about most phenomena in the world, and this is likely the case with regard to the environment too.
  4. Scientists have a track record of overstating environmental emergencies, and overstating the extent to which these emergencies cannot be corrected once they’ve occurred. In my lifetime we’ve seen several supposedly-irreversible ecological disasters reversed after some human effort was expended towards fixing the causes. Bird populations were practically eradicated in the Everglades around 1990; today they’re restored and fine. Acid rain was a scourge on the US in the 80s; today its unheard of. Chernobyl today is a nature preserve where wild animals happily roam as they hadn’t for decades, because people have left it alone. The environment is self-correcting to a greater extent than we often realize.
  5. We are doing stuff about the environment. Political opinion worldwide is shifting (even in the US, which remember is the only nation in the world that didn’t sing the Kyoto Protocol), and “green technologies” are being developed and refined all the time. These two things feed each other — as people become more conscious of damage to the environment, they become more willing to adopt sustainable technologies. And as the demand for these technologies grows, they will become even more profitable, affordable, and ubiquitous. China is developing green tech, and it’s out of a pure profit motive — they know that they’ll be able to sell it to the Americans.
  6. In addition to this incremental improvement in pro-environment technology, there are bound to be technological sea-changes that make drastic improvements in ways we can’t envision right now. We can’t assume that they will make the problem disappear overnight (the way, for example, the horse manure problem was solved overnight), but we can expect that they’ll make significant improvements that are today unpredictable.
  7. If bad comes to worst, we have quick and dirty solutions to global warming that we can deploy. Yes people, it’s geo-engineering. The concept is simple: you pump sulfur dioxide or something into the atmosphere to shade some of the sun’s light from hitting the earth. It’s not pretty, but it works. Volcanic eruptions cause temporary global cooling, and there are things we could do to replicate those effects. It’s best not to talk about this stuff too much, because it undermines the impetus for the more substantial change that we need, but it’s good to know it’s there as an emergency brake.
  8. Yes, it’s terrible that global temperatures are rising. However, the catastrophic damage from this rise is still a pretty long way off. We’re talking something like 100 years. (Note that, even though the last decade has been .9 degrees warmer then the average temperature of the 20th century, the ocean hasn’t risen.)
  9. When it comes, the damage we’re talking about will boil down to economic damage, right? People being displaced, food shortages, etc. You can put this stuff in economic terms, and you need to put it into economic terms, so that you can compare the cost of the solution to the problem today with the cost of the solution to the problem in future money.

And this is where it gets complicated. The world is getting richer all the time, so that future money is a lot cheaper then today’s money. At least economically, a problem that can be fixed for $10 trillion today is not worth fixing if it can be fixed for $100 trillion in 100 years. The reason for that brings me back to the starving 7-year old in India and your Prius. We have massive problems in the world today. In fact, 16,000 children die every day of starvation. Millions of people die every year of easily preventable diseases like malaria. There are more slaves in the world today then at any other point in history. The list, I don’t have to tell you, goes on.

Money spent on some of these problems often goes a long way towards saving and improving the lives of real people living and dying today. So when we spend money on improving the environment of the future, we need to be aware of what we’re not using that money for right now. If you have an ounce of compassion in your body, you need to look at these opportunity costs with clear eyes. Is it better for you to buy a Prius, or to buy a Yaris and donate the difference to Oxfam? Is it better for the world to spend tens of trillions trying to reduce carbon emissions, or should we direct big chunks of that money towards fixing the very real problems that we have right now in the world today?

1 Yes, there is no scientific uncertainty about the fact that global warming exists, that it’s being caused by carbon emissions, and that human beings are causing it. Or rather, the uncertainty is among some fraction of one percent of scientists, who at this point are doing nothing but making a lavish living flying from one conservative asshole’s talk show to another and feeding the pathetic self-deception of ideological assholes. But make no mistake — there is vast uncertainty about the details, about the rate of change, and about the specific effects.

Update: In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bjorn Lomborg touches on many of these same notes (with some interesting specific figures), which makes sense, since his Ted Talk from a few years ago is what started me thinking down this path.

Invest in a human being

Here’s a bizzaro idea — Invest in a human being. You: a rich person. Them: broke but very promising. The terms: You give them a big chunk up front for a percentage of their pay for the rest of their lives, maybe with a buy-out clause. This is perfectly reasonable as a thought experiment, but it’s also a slightly creepy real thing that actually happens, with actual contracts and numbers and I guess audits. Not related, but fun anyway: how to sell a dollar for more then a dollar, and what it means for politics.