Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How We've Changed

Remember the last time you heard the "Star-Spangled Banner" at a sports event? There's a good chance it was pretty bizarre, jazzed up in some way. I can understand the motivation for this: the song is played at every such event, so it's ubiquitous in our culture. Any artist is going to want to personalize it a bit. But usually the results are, as Tom Friedman might say, suboptimal.

Think about that when you read this story from 1940: Stravinsky Arrested for Rearrangement of National Anthem.

King For a Day

Tom Friedman wants the U.S. to be "like China", but just for a day. If only we were like China, he thinks, we could dispense with that messy democracy stuff and just make it so. For some reason, Jonah Goldberg doesn't like this idea. I don't know why. Friedman's idea has much merit. For example, if we'd used it during the Reagan administration, "China Day" could have been used to eliminate the Department of Education (among other things); during the (second) Bush administration, it could have been used to (partially) privatize Social Security, or maybe to overturn Roe v. Wade.

I'm sure Friedman would be completely on board and supportive of that sort of thing, since his only concern is that our messy political system produces "suboptimal" solutions, and the whim of the philosopher-king, ahem, I mean President, would be far better.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Martin Gardner, R.I.P.

Like many math-obsessed geeks who lived in the second half of the twentieth century, I read with poignant regret of the passing of Martin Gardner this past weekend.

My introduction to him was through his regular Scientific American column "Mathematical Games". During my formative years, personal computers were shifting from rarity to ubiquity, and many of his columns were well suited to computer experimentation: Conway's game of "Life", Mandelbrot's fractals, etc. I whiled away many a rainy (and not a few sunny) days writing BASIC code to bring those beautiful structures to the screen of my very own Apple IIc.

John Derbyshire writes his own tribute on the Corner. A great man, Gardner. He will be missed.

Balancing the Budget

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has created a useful budget simulation in which you get the opportunity to make the "hard choices" necessary to stabilize total U.S. debt at 60% of GDP by 2018. It's an interesting game. Here's how I did it:


  • Reduce troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to 60,000 by 2015
  • Let Bush tax cuts expire, except that lower-rate cuts are only raised by half (this was forced; I originally tried it keeping all the tax cuts, but the numbers just didn't work out)

Defense & Diplomacy

  • Cut foreign economic aid in half

Domestic Social & Economic Spending

  • Cancel TARP
  • Freeze unemployment benefits at 2009 levels
  • Cut TANF
  • Cut federal funding of K-12 education by 25%
  • Eliminate New Markets Tax Credit
  • Cut federal funding of school breakfast programs

Social Security

  • Raise retirement age to 68
  • Reduce benefits by 30% (over next 70 years)
  • Use alternate measure of inflation for COLAs
  • Reduce spousal benefits by 33%
  • Increase Years Used to Calculate Benefits (from 35 to 40)
  • Include all New State and Local Workers

Health Care

  • Repeal ObamaCare but keep the Medicare/Medicaid Cuts
  • Raise Medicare Premiums to 35% of Costs
  • Enact Medical Malpractice Reform
  • Increase Medicare Retirement Age to 67
  • Reduce Medicaid Funding Matches to States

Other Spending

  • Cut Federal Workforce by 5%
  • Reduce Farm Subsidies
  • Cut Earmarks in Half

Tax Expenditures

  • Convert Mortgage Interest Deduction to a 20% Credit
  • Eliminate Biofuels Subsidies
  • Replace Employer Health Care Exclusion with a Flat Credit

In general, my philosophy is to cut the size of government where possible, and keep taxes low where possible. I wasn't able to cut taxes as much as I would have liked, but no doubt that's because of non-discretionary spending.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Have You Represented Mohammed Today?

In honor of Everybody Draw Mohammad Day (it's not original, but I'm no artist):


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

NY Public Unions Run the State

This has ceased to become even mildly surprising. Government running out of money? Don't touch the overpaid union jobs!

Friday, May 7, 2010

U.S. House of Reps Electoral Math

Jim Geraghty of National Review provides an invaluable breakdown of 99 Congressional seats that are in play this fall. Let's start with that and apply some math.

The current breakdown of the House is 253 Democrats, 178 Republicans, and 4 open seats. So either party needs 218 seats to secure a majority. According to Geraghty, all the Republican seats except one (Joseph Cao of Louisiana) are "safe." And 158 Democratic seats are also "safe." Let's assume that all of those safe seats remain unchanged (or at least that if one or two switch sides, they will be balanced by other switches so that the total numbers remain unchanged). What is the probability that the Republicans gain control of the House?

I assumed that a "code blue" in Geraghty's construction was an 80% chance of winning, a "code green" was 65%, a "code yellow" 50%, a "code orange" 35%, and a "code red" 20%. I also placed Joseph Cao in the "code orange" category.

The Republicans need to pick up 41 seats to get a majority. If Geraghy is right and my probabilities are reasonable, that gives them a 99.5% chance of doing so. Wow! It's worth looking at how the odds break down for some other possible splits.

Split# of GOP PickupsProbability
DEM +1 (or more)40 or les0.5%
GOP +1 (or more)41+99.5%
GOP +5 (or more)43+98.5%
GOP +11 (or more)46+93.7%
GOP +15 (or more)48+86.5%
GOP +21 (or more)51+68.0%
GOP +25 (or more)53+51.8%
GOP +31 (or more)56+27.8%

It's certainly looking very good for the GOP right now. Just to check myself, I re-ran the study with more conservative probabilities (thus reducing the likelihood of taking over any seat), and even then the GOP has an 81% chance to end up with a 15-seat (or better) majority. It's the GOP's race to lose.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Liveblogging the UK Election

Just accidentally turned on CSPAN in time to catch live coverage of the UK election. Pretty interesting, and dignified in that British way.

Thus far, the Conservatives are getting about 37% of the vote, with the balance coming from the Lib-Dems. My prediction is that the Tories will come agonizingly close to a majority, but ultimately fall short. They are at 223 seats with 227 going to competing parties, and that just-under-50% ratio has held for quite a while. Stay tuned...

Sell Your MTA Bonds

Today the MTA was scheduled to lay off about 1,000 workers in an attempt to close an $800 million budget deficit. But the layoff was cancelled by a last minute court order. So these workers will continue at their jobs.

About half these workers are "customer-service agents." If you aren't familiar with the MTA, I can assure you that getting rid of these agents should have little impact on "customer service" there.

The rationale for the restraining order is supposedly that the required hearing was completed too long ago, back in 2009. So, if I have this straight, the reward for keeping the workers on for at least an additional six months (maybe more; I'm not sure when the hearing actually took place in 2009) is to keep them on forever. Maybe the MTA will learn the lesson and lay them off more quickly next time. Is that what the union is shooting for?

Meanwhile, the public-sector unions keep their teeth firmly inserted into the veins of the public fisc. Here in New Jersey our governor is facing down our own public-sector unions, and it's a huge problem. In New York City, it's probably well-nigh hopeless.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mirandizing Terrorists

There's recently been some discussion about whether we should have (or should, full stop) Mirandize suspected terror wannabe Faisal Shahzad. Commentators on both left and right have suggested that perhaps we should not.

He should be Mirandized and accorded all other lawful treatments guaranteed under our Constitution and any applicable statutes. This man (a) is an American citizen (recently naturalized, but so what?) and (b) has been arrested on American soil as a suspect in a crime committed in America. This has no relation whatever to the Guantanamo case of a foreign terrorist breaking the Geneva Convention on foreign soil. Nor is it similar to the Abdulmutallab case in which the suspect was a Nigerian citizen who had not yet legally entered the United States (and was caught red-handed, or should we say "red-pantsed").

But there is no provision in law for a recently naturalized citizen to be treated any differently from a birthright citizen. Given that, Shahzad has exactly the same rights as any "home-grown" terrorist, such as Timothy McVeigh. If Shahzad is found to have committed an act of war against the United States, he can be stripped of his citizenship (not that I think this would actually happen). Even then, he would be a foreign citizen who had been caught in America committing a crime on American soil. Such a person is entitled to Miranda warning.

"The Constitution is not a suicide pact", as they say. But Miranda procedures account for this: there is the public safety exception. The exception is inapplicable in this case, as Shahzad was captured after the imminent threat had been eliminated.

If there is a public-safety need to create an exception to Miranda, then let the Congress do so and the Supreme Court test its Constitutionality. In nearly nine years since 9/11, such an exception has not been created. Until that time, the criminal justice system should not make ad-hoc exceptions when convenient.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The China Bubble

I distinctly remember the 1980s, during which time Japan was buying up American properties left and right, and looked poised to race past us economically. That was particularly "obvious" in the last few years of that decade, after the market crash of 1987. At some point around then, I vaguely recall reading that the total market value of properties in Tokyo exceeded that of the entire United States.

It was all an illusion, of course. Within a few years, the Nikkei had collapsed, property values had fallen, non-performing loans had skyrocketed, and Japan entered its "lost decade" (which lasted about 15 years) of stagnant growth.

Now that everyone agrees that the era of Japanese dominance is over, the next Asian tiger set to eat our lunch is China. But China has its own unique problems. A country of 1.4 billion people, only about 400 million of them live in a style we might call Western. That's a population a third larger than the United States', but it still leaves a billion people in poverty. And that population has two major demographic challenges: it is rapidly graying, and its youth is heavily skewed towards men (both are consequences of the one-child policy). Furthermore, China's economic growth has started from a much lower base than Japan's did, and the Chinese people lack political freedom. While that last point has not apparently constrained growth up to now, it seems inevitable that at some point a rising middle class will demand more political power.

Mark Steyn believes that China will get old before it gets rich. John Derbyshire basically agrees. Now I read that structural problems in the Chinese economy may finally be throwing enough sand into the gears to cause a major slowdown very soon. It's all speculation at this point, but the slowdown has to come sooner or later.