Monday, April 27, 2009

The difference between a Pandemic and an Epidemic

I don't have the source for this; probably something I wrote down from the NYT or NYRB:
Pandemic, an adjective from the Greek pandemos, "of all the people," becomes a noun to mean "the outbreak of a disease spreading over a large geographic area," now construed as "worldwide." Epidemic, disease visited on a large segment of a population, is now considered regional rather than global.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Miss California/Perez Hilton

You've all seen the video of Miss California at the Miss America competition expressing her belief that marriage should be between "a man and a woman," much to the visible chagrin of the gay judge, Perez Hilton. Many people have written in defense of Miss California, saying that she should not be "persecuted" for her views about gay marriage, views which many people in California and elsewhere also share. Fair enough. However, it seems that most people who are ready to offer their comments on the exchange between Miss California and Perez Hilton haven't paid attention to the question she was actually asked and to the answer she actually gave. Here is my transcript of the exchange:

Perez Hilton: Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage [crowd cheers]. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?

Miss California: Why I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. Um, we live in a land that you can choose -- same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And, you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that - I believe that - a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there [crowd cheers]. But that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think it should be between a man and a woman. Thank you.

First of all, and not to put too fine a point on it, Miss California was not asked whether she supports gay marriage or not. She was asked whether other states should legalize same-sex marriage. There are many ways she could have answered that question without making her own views public. She didn't want to offend anybody, and she could have done so, if she said, for example, that that question is a political question and should be left to each state to decide. Period.

Second, her answer suggests that she has no strong view about the issue. First she says that it is a "great" thing that gays can marry each other in America. Then she offers her now famous opinion that she believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Those two statements aren't necessarily contradictory. She may not support same-sex marriage, but she doesn't wish to condemn Vermont and the other three states for legalizing it either. In any case, she seemed to fail to fully register the fact that she was being asked a political question and that she should have responded accordingly. She only realized this after she had put forth her opinion, but by then it was too late. Many people "out there" were already offended and that offense wasn't remedied by the words "no offense to anybody." Her answer would have been better received if she didn't refer to her audience as people "out there" and to the source of her beliefs as "my family."

A little bit of sympathy for persons like Perez (who was after all a judge in the competition) would have gone a long way. And that's why she lost.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dear Gov. Perry:

I recently heard that you were contemplating Texas' ability to secede.  The right to secede has a storied history in the United States.  You may have heard of a thing called the Civil War, well as a fellow Southerner (though I am only one by technicality, hailing from Northern Virginia), it may have been called "the War between the States" or "the War of Northern Aggression".  Anyhow, this question was put into practice during the Civil War, that question being whether states could freely secede, and President Lincoln provided an answer: no.  Ironically, there is another gangly and inexperienced fellow from Illinois in the Oval Office just as there was then.  My suspicion is that his answer would also be no.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Political Facts of Torture in America

In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Mark Danner observers the politically convenient fact that most Americans are willing to "countenance" the use of torture against America's enemies. The pertinent passages from "The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means" are as follows:

It is because of the claim that torture protected the US that the many Americans who still nod their heads when they hear Dick Cheney's claims about the necessity for "tough, mean, dirty, nasty" tactics in the war on terror respond to its revelation not by instantly condemning it but instead by asking further questions. For example: Was it necessary? And: Did it work? To these questions the last president and vice-president, who "kept the country safe" for "seven-plus years," respond "yes," and "yes." And though as time passes the numbers of those insisting on asking those questions, and willing to accept those answers, no doubt falls, it remains significant, and would likely grow substantially after another successful attack.


It is a regrettable but undeniable fact that torture's illegality, or the political harm it may do to the country's reputation, is not sufficient to discourage the willingness of many Americans to countenance it. However one might prefer that this be an argument about legality or morality, it is also an argument about national security and, in the end, about politics. However much one agrees with President Obama that Cheney's "notion" that "somehow...we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests," the fact is that many people continue to believe the contrary, and this group includes the former president and vice-president of the United States and many senior officials who served them.
The Bush Administration knew then what is still quite true today: for many Americans, America is regarded as a privileged torturer.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Building Anew

There's a lot of truth to Ilya's post but I have to quibble with it.  It is clear that over the last decade there was significant overbuilding in housing, excessive capacity in auto manufacturing, etc. Ironically, it is now that I appreciate Galbraith's old bit about the private sector being rich and the public sector poor.  Much of our resources over the last decade or so have been misallocated due to poor tax incentives, easy credit, regulatory arbitrage, and rampant stupidity on the part of the entire finance industry.  Our schools do a piss poor job of educating the next generation, our health care system is incredibly expensive yet an ungodly amount of people are uninsured, come summer parts of the country will experience rolling blackouts (not to mention the fact that the grid could come down entirely as it did a couple of years ago), and people lose more and more of their time wasted commuting (and thus their standard of living decreasing as both their disposable income and time diminish).  We need more mass transit, a smarter grid, cleaner energy generation, etc.  That requires building and should have been built a long time ago.  Instead we built McMansions in the exurbs financed by easy credit extended on the basis of foolish models and fraud.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Why Not Hatchbacks

In Europe hatchbacks are prevalent whereas in the U.S. they are more of a niche item.  Americans opt for sedans and car manufacturers are reluctant to bring hatchbacks over here.  I don't understand this.  A hatchback is a sedan that just has a little more cargo room (significantly more really) and is easier to load.  They're quite utilitarian and perform every bit as well as their sedan platform mates on the road.  I find them more attractive personally but I am apparently in a very small minority.  I wonder how much of the American buying public's aversion to hatchbacks is rooted in a hatchback's likeness to a station wagon (considered a baby mover and a dowdy one at that- yet again, I like station wagons).  Or, maybe Americans do secretly love hatchbacks and car manufacturers marketing departments are filled with dolts.  I hope it's the latter.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

We Do Not Need to "Rebuild" Our Economy

I find Obama's vows to "rebuild" our economy misguided. Our problem is not one of building or rebuilding anything. If anything, there has been way too much building. "During a decade of easy credit and loose spending," begins this NYT article on empty restaurants, "American businesses built too many cars, houses, stores and factories. It turns out the country built too many restaurants, too." People need income, and thus jobs, not more building(s).

Friday, April 03, 2009


According to Forbes Bethesda is one of the most livable cities in America.  I couldn't agree more except for two facts: 1. Bethesda sucks; 2. Bethesda is in Montgomery County which sucks.  Other than that it rules.  Any sane person, which by definition excludes any resident of Montgomery County, knows that the commonwealth is vastly superior.

Here's my brief against Montgomery County:
1. The roads are awful
2. The drivers are the worst in the country
3. Taxes are significantly higher than neighboring jurisdicitons such as Arlington, yet the level of service is lower.
4. Car insurance is goddawful expensive in Montgomery County (my car insurance was $2k annually while it was $800 annually at its highest in Virginia)
5. The housing stock is poor, and the lots on which the houses reside are stingy.

But I come from Northern Virginia and there is simply something that is hard to explain but we from Northern Virginia find Montgomery County unappealing and the feeling is reciprocated.  Bethesda is actually a pretty nice place.  It's very expensive but it does have close proximity to a lot of cultural amenities, it has convenient access to mass transit, it is right on the border of the city and has some wonderful dining options.  It feels sterile to me but sterile is better in my view than some crime-ridden shithole.

Was the Recession Caused by an Oil Shock?

That's James Hamilton's contrarian thesis.  He thinks the economy would be showing slow GDP growth presently if it weren't for the oil shock last year.  I am not sure I buy it but still worth reading.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Pepsi Natural

April Fools! Just kidding. This product has been available for some time, but I saw it for the first time in my local grocery store last week. Seeing the word "Pepsi "followed by "natural" left me a bit puzzled. Of course, by "natural" they mean that it is composed of "all natural ingredients" as opposed to traditional Pepsi, which is composed of artificial ingredients such as fructose corn syrup, sugar, artificial colourings, phosphoric acid, caffeine, citric acid, and so on. But isn't this a distinction without a difference? Natural Pepsi is just as much a part of a large industrial process of production as traditional Pepsi. And if natural Pepsi is natural, does that make regular Pepsi unnatural? Natural Pepsi is not a new product, it is merely a new ingredient in an old, unhealthy, artificial product. It's amazing how a company can add one ingredient - sugar - and market the product as new and natural.