Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Daniel Gilbert on Happiness

If this is true, I'm in big trouble:
One of the things we’ve been studying the last year or two is mind-wandering - how happy people are when their minds wander away from the task they’re doing in the middle of the day. First of all, we found about half the time people’s minds are wandering. We also found we are happiest when we are thinking about what we are doing - almost regardless of what we are doing. Our studies suggest that having your mind wander is never good, never makes you more happy than you already are.
My mind is almost always wandering. One of the few times it isn't is when I'm actually performing. Then I'm thinking about only what I'm doing. Maybe that's why I like it. I should probably cultivate greater focus.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

When the US Government should get serious about budget defecits

Warning: I know almost nothing about macroeconomics. I'm kinda talking out of my ass here.

There's been a lot of harping about the budget deficit recently. A lot of it comes from Republicans who didn't seem to mind deficit spending when George W. Bush was president during relatively stable economic times. But now that Obama is president and there's a major recession, suddenly they feel that we have to tighten our belts at this very instant or the economy will explode or something.

Here's the thing: last time I checked (i.e. just now), the U. S. Government could borrow money at about 3.8% by selling 10-year T-bills. If you're willing to lock up your money for 30 years, they'll give you 4.7.%. This is pretty damn cheap. (Especially when you take into account inflation: because the future dollars the government uses to pay back the loan are worth less than the present dollars they receive, the real interest rate the government pays is actually lower.) If I want to get rates like that, I have to put up some major collateral (like my house). Uncle Sam can gets these rates just by asking for them. What this means is that there are a hell of a lot of people all over the world who are not particularly concerned about the U. S. budget deficit, and are willing to place enormous financial bets on this being the case. Would you lend someone money at 3.8% if you weren't pretty darn sure they could pay it back? No. So all this Republican (and Democratic) hysteria about the deficit seems utterly contradicted by what the treasury market is telling us with cold, hard numbers.

As long as people are willing to lend you money at such cheap rates, why on earth would you stop spending it, when there are so many things that desperately need attention? As long as the federal government can find programs that will yield a higher rate of return than the cost of borrowing money, there's really no reason to curb spending. I suspect that there's a lot of health care, infrastructure, research, social safety net and education spending that could beat the 3-5% interest rate at which Uncle Sam can borrow. (Surely there are studies about this? Is the federal government absolutely incapable of spending money in a way that yields a higher return than 3 to 5%, minus inflation? ) Of course, wasting money is always a bad idea: no amount of cheap interest rates makes bridges to nowhere or immoral wars a worthwhile use of money.

Politically, closing a budget deficit is hard: you have to cut spending or raise taxes. Both of these cause suffering. As long as the US can borrow money cheaply, I don't think there will be political will to solve the budget deficit, and furthermore I'm not sure it should even be much of a priority.

Am I missing something here?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Palin is a very unpopular figure

For those of us who are getting scared of Sarah Palin, it's important to keep the following in mind: she's not very popular, and she's getting less popular. Here's The Washington Post:
Although Palin is a tea party favorite, her potential as a presidential hopeful takes a severe hit in the survey. Fifty-five percent of Americans have unfavorable views of her, while the percentage holding favorable views has dipped to 37, a new low in Post-ABC polling.

There is a growing sense that the former Alaska governor is not qualified to serve as president, with more than seven in 10 Americans now saying she is unqualified, up from 60 percent in a November survey. Even among Republicans, a majority now say Palin lacks the qualifications necessary for the White House.

Palin has lost ground among conservative Republicans, who would be crucial to her hopes if she seeks the party's presidential nomination in 2012. Forty-five percent of conservatives now consider her as qualified for the presidency, down sharply from 66 percent who said so last fall.

Among all Republicans polled, 37 percent now hold a "strongly favorable" opinion of Palin, about half the level recorded when she burst onto the national stage in 2008 as Sen. John McCain's running mate.

Among Democrats and independents, assessments of Palin also have eroded. Six percent of Democrats now consider her qualified for the presidency, a drop from 22 percent in November; the percentage of independents who think she is qualified fell to 29 percent from 37 percent.

I am scared by the misdirection of the rage people are feeling. But let us not become hopeless. We should continue to push for reasonableness, and point out that just because you're rightly pissed off doesn't mean voting for this kind of Republican is a good idea.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Fiorina (R) accues Campell (R) of being evil robot sheep

Here's one from the not-The Onion bin: This ad, which Carly Fiorina is running against Tom Campell in her quest for the Republican nomination for US Senator from California, has to be one of the worst campaign ads ever. Chait:

The funny thing about this ad, aside from the clumsy over-the-top quality, is the metaphor. The message of the ad is that Campbell is an ideological deviant. All the other Republicans signed Grover Norquist's no-taxes-ever pledge, but Campbell refused. Campbell went off on his own and made a budget deal in order to prevent a fiscal collapse. And what's the metaphor the ad uses?

Sheep. But not in a disparaging way. The good politicians are sheep, doing what Grover Norquist tells them to do. Campbell, the ad tells us, is only pretending to be a sheep, but he's really a wolf. So vote for the sheep.

The evil robot sheep doesn't appear until 2:26. But it's worth the wait, I assure you.

UPDATE: The Fiorina campaign apparently thinks this ad was a great success, and plans to do more like it in the future. In a way it was: what other Republican US Senate primary ads does Internal Monologue post? Not many. I think their next one should use Pink Floyd's "Sheep" as background music. Then the evil robot Campbell sheep with glowing eyes should become a giant inflatable robot sheep with glowing eyes and fly out over the audience while Carly Fiorina screams the lyrics:
Bleating and babbling we fell on his neck with a scream.
Wave upon wave of demented avengers
March cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream.
UPDATE 2: This being the Internet, someone has already put the Pink Floyd song "Sheep" over the ad. It goes surprisingly well:

UPDATE 3: In a wonderful bit of cyber meta irony, Fiorina's sheep ad is now appearing on Internal Monologue via Google Ads! Check it out:

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Remember the Roki Tunnel?

Remember back when Russia was invading Georgia, and I wondered why the Georgians hadn't shut off the Roki Tunnel that connected Russia to South Ossetia? Well, apparently the Bush administration discussed (and thankfully rejected) the possibility of doing this for them:
With desperate Georgians begging for American help in closing down the key route through which Russian soldiers were pouring into the country, Bush’s national security aides outlined possible responses, including “the bombardment and sealing of the Roki Tunnel” and other “surgical strikes,” according to a new history of the conflict and independent interviews with former senior officials.
I'm very glad we did not get into a direct military conflict with a nuclear superpower over a small territorial dispute in which no vital interests were at stake. I guess I have to say kudos to the Bush administration for making the right call on this. That's one war they did manage to avoid.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Republicans generally have a different worldview than I do

DailyKos commissioned Research 2000 to do a nationwide poll of self-identified Republicans. Many of them have a very different view of things than I do. Some examples:

Do you think Barack Obama is a socialist?

Yes 63
No 21
Not Sure 16

Oh dear. I guess "socialist" is Republican for "centrist establishment Democrat quite willing to have a former Goldman Sachs executive as his treasury secretary and to re-appoint George W. Bush's selection for Chair of the Federal Reserve."

Do you believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Barack Obama?

Yes 53
No 14
Not Sure 33

Obviously, we have different ideas of what qualifies one to be president.
Do you believe your state should secede from the United States?

Yes 23
No 58
Not Sure 19

Egad. 23% of Republicans want their state to secede from the Union? 19% aren't sure? Hammering out policy compromises with representatives of these folks is going to be rather difficult.

It goes on. Now remember, this was commissioned by DailyKos, so a lot of these questions were probably chosen to draw out the wackiness in Republicans and make them look extreme. And it would be interesting to compare the answers on some of these to Democrats. But wow. Given the vast gulf in reality, is bi-partisanship even possible, much less desirable?

People vary greatly in the content of their beliefs. And these are our fellow Americans. How much greater must the gulf in worldview be between us and those in other cultures?