May 2010


Wow, I got about ten offers to go over the PCK in 24 hours.  Thank you!  I’ll get back to people individually.  I have to go over the text myself once before it goes out.  That should be enough people though.  (Well, unless you have a particular expertise in climatology or military history.)

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So why no fabulous updates?  Mostly because I’m spending most of my energy on finishing the sequel to the LCK, tentatively called the Planet Construction Kit… a guide to creating everything about a conworld but the languages.

Since the coverage is so broad, it’s much harder to judge whether it’s hitting the right level of usefulness.  So I could use a limited number of people to read the manuscript and opine on whether it’s on the right track, or what it needs.  Please note this means reading a book that’s the length of, well, a book, and giving more than a paragraph of feedback.  Also you’ll get  a free copy out of it.

The book covers some things I’m not an expert in, notably geology and military history, so it’s a bonus if you have expertise in these subjects.

While we’re at it, the best research book I’ve picked up so far is John Keegan’s A History of Warfare, a brilliant brief overview of war over the last 10,000 years.

Thinking about the the mess in Greece (and apparently now Portugal) and how the typical answers proposed involve some action by the EU (bail out, currency inflation, etc.) got me thinking about Jane Jacobs.  Since I first read about her work on your site, I thought I would toss the question to you.  What would Jane Jacobs do (WWJJD??!!) to fix Greece?

—Dave Dunn

I think her first thought would be to agree with Paul Krugman: the Greek crisis, and to a lesser extent that of Spain and Portugal, shows the failure of the euro.  The euro may be fine for the central zone (France + Benelux + Germany), but it removes a key tool— currency devaluation— from the weaker peripheral economies.  That leaves only austerity and huge bailouts as policy options; the EU is choosing both at once, which is likely to maximize resentment in both halves of the EU.

Parts of the US can suffer from the same problem— if only Detroit could value the Michigan Dollar to make its wages and products more competitive!  But the US can get away with a single currency because it has a strong central government (so weak states can be supported by the rest) and because of social mobility: people can and do move out of depressed states in a way that just isn’t available in Europe: you’re not going to see millions of Greeks or Portuguese moving to Germany.

Jacobs was a bit more conservative than me or Krugman, though; I expect she’d disapprove of the huge transfer of funds to Greece; she called such things “transactions of decline”.  She’d also want to analyze the crisis at the city level.  It’d be interesting to know how well Athens works as a city region.

Jonathan Chait lucidly explains Republican thinking on taxes– i.e. that they should always be cut– and why it’s crazy:

In the Republican view, tax cuts do not increase deficits, because they either 1) produce enough growth to increase revenue, or 2) reduce revenue and thus “starve the beast” of spending, or, somehow, both. A corollary holds that tax hikes do not reduce deficits, because they either 3) decrease economic growth and thus decrease revenue, or because 4) the added revenue will cause the government to spend more money. Grassley was expressing idea #4.

This is how discussions of tax revenue that involves any Republican or almost any member of the conservative movement has gone over the last two decades. The discussion is completely detached from reality. All four elements of the Republican tax catechism have been utterly destroyed by empirical reality. It may be theoretically possible for tax rates to be high enough that tax cuts could produce higher revenue, but we’re nowhere close to that point. Nor is there any evidence that a lack of revenue will cause the government to stop spending money. (Look around.) Indeed, evidence points in the opposite direction, with rising revenues correlating with falling expenditures, and falling revenues with rising expenditures.

Interestingly, he’s found an actual Republican who agrees– Kevin Williamson, who’s written a surprisingly angry piece in the National Review called “Goodbye Supply Side“:

The hot action is on the spending side of the ledger, and nobody wants to touch it. The problem with magical supply-siderism is that it gives Republicans a rhetorical and intellectual framework in which to ignore spending — just keep cutting taxes, the argument goes, and somebody else will eventually have to cut spending. The results speak for themselves: Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott and Bill Frist all know how to count, but, under their leadership, Republicans spent all the money the country had and then some. Deficits boomed, and Republicans’ claim to being the responsible britches-wearing adults when it comes to spending got unpantsed. Cutting taxes is easy. Cutting spending is hard.

This is one of the points I made in my piece on libertarianism— making tax cuts into a religion simply produces irresponsible government.  The Tea Party is a fake; it has no plan to reduce the spending that adds up, and indeed opposes touching any major spending item; it just wants big government for free.

Chait compares Williamson’s column to Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin.  I think Chait gets a little overexcited here.  Khrushchev’s speech was a big deal because he was in charge.  Tea Party doctrine isn’t going to change because of one honest article in a hifalutin magazine.

I’ve always been a fan of your US political pages, and was wondering if you had
any opinions on how the current UK situation is shaping up (at time of writing,
612 of 650 counts in).

Currently we have two main choices:

  • A minority Tory government, claiming they have a “moral right” to govern the UK even though almost all their seats are in England and even *there* 60% of the voters want someone else;
  • A rather shaky coalition between Labour, LibDem, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, which has been dubbed the “coalition of losers”, “denying the Tories their mandate” even though they hold 54% of the vote between them.

I am somewhat partisan on this*, as is everyone I know here, so I was wondering
if you could supply a more objective view?

[* – being Scottish and preferring LibDem, with so far 23% of the vote (up 1%)
but 8.3% of the seats (down 1%); the best I could hope for is a coalition on the
condition of forcing electoral reform through.]

—Mad Elf

I’ve always kind of had a soft spot for the LibDems, ever since they were (to American eyes) a rational middle between Thatcherism and the way-left Labourites.  It looked for awhile like Nick Clegg (such a Dickensian name!) would have his chance to revolutionize British politics.  Alas, he actually lost seats.

On policy, the Tories are so far as I know rational conservatives quite unlike our Tea Party, but they get a major black mark for opposing the spending that was needed to jump-start the economy during the 2008 crisis.  As Paul Krugman said when boggling at the Economist‘s endorsement, what makes people think this enormous error of judgment means nothing?

It also worried me that Clegg seems eager to join the euro; the crisis has also revealed what a dumb idea that is.  Britain is a little better off for having its own currency; Greece can only dream of such a thing right now.

It’d be great if a better voting system came out of this.  I don’t know that proportional representation is all that great— it often leads to political deadlock and to excessive power held by extremists (cf. Israel).  But the winner-takes-all system effectively disenfranchises anyone in a ‘safe’ constituency, and the present US system is pretty much insane.  A better reform in my view is range voting or, in fact, any of the voting systems that supply more information on voter preferences.  Instead of guessing what the voters want if they can’t get their first choice, you can just ask them.

As for who should form a government— you follow protocol.  Y’all’ve had three hundred years to work this out; there are rules.  You don’t attempt to follow morality or mandates at such a time— everyone has their own idea of morality, and this route will just lead to endless recrimination or worse.  A nation needs clear rules on what happens in the case of a disputed succession. Surely there’s a Queen’s Bedchamber Mace or someone who knows.

Besides, as a few pundits have said, everybody lost.  If the Tories wanted to be clear winners they should have clearly won.

Cheap prediction: I wouldn’t trust either party to give the LibDems what they most want— electoral reform— and Clegg would be foolish to offer full support for nothing.  So I’d expect a new election this year or next.

I saw this over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog.  What an awful chart.

First, it’s showing one parameter (total oil consumption) by resizing the area of the states.  Wtf?  Except on a very gross level, who can quickly evaluate the areas of irregular shapes?  And though we’re pretty familiar with US states, the blown-up map makes it hard to compare to the original sizes.  Quick now: is Tennessee bigger or smaller here than its normal size?

Second, total consumption is a pretty dumb thing to highlight.  Of course more people will use more oil.  So overall the chart only (poorly) communicates state  populations.

The more interesting stat, per capita consumption, is thrown in as a three-valued color coding, and then repeated in a separate bar chart whose alphabetical listing makes it impossible to look for any regional trends.

There are some stories here struggling to get out, such as why New York is the clear leader of the pack.  Population density, perhaps… or maybe it’s outsourced all its oil usage to New Jersey.