Must-Reads of the Week: American Power, Inequality, 1 Billion Heartbeats, Hacking Life, Anthora Cups, Structural Deficit, Financial Doomsedays and Crises, China, the Tea Party’s Views on Immigration, and Lady Gaga


By Joe Campbell
April 30th, 2010

There were a lot of good articles and posts I came across this week — so brace yourself…

1. The American Power Act. David Brooks makes the case for progressive reform — specifically the American Power Act regarding climate change:

When you read that history, you’re reminded that large efforts are generally plagued by stupidity, error and corruption. But by the sheer act of stumbling forward, it’s possible, sometimes, to achieve important things…The energy revolution is a material project that arouses moral fervor — exactly the sort of enterprise at which Americans excel.

Matt Yglesias had earlier this week critiqued Brooks (among others) for taking the exact opposite stance of the one he was adopting here:

Oftentimes in the Obama Era the difference between “reasonable” conservatives (David Brooks and Greg Mankiw often leading the charge) and reasonable liberals has been that reasonable liberals look at flawed legislation that would improve on the status quo and support it while “reasonable” conservatives look at flawed legislation that would improve on the status quo and oppose it, while claiming to support alternative flawed proposals that they don’t actually lift a finger to organize support for within their own ideological faction.

2. Inequality, social mobility, and the American Dream. The Economist had a good piece that can serve as a starting point for a post I’ll be writing soon on inequality, social mobility, and the American dream:

The evidence is that America does offer opportunity; but not nearly as much as its citizens believe.

Parental income is a better predictor of a child’s future in America than in much of Europe, implying that social mobility is less powerful.

3. The Science of Life. Jonah Lehrer for Seed magazine has a brilliant piece on how cities are like living organisms. As a side matter, he notes this beautifully poignant data point:

[A]n animal’s lifespan can be roughly calculated by raising its mass to the 1/4 power. Heartbeats scale in the opposite direction, so that bigger animals have a slower pulse. The end result is that every living creature gets about a billion heartbeats worth of life. Small animals just consume their lives faster.

4. Fine-tuning life. Gary Wolf for the New York Times Magazine explains how the accessibility of computers is creating data about every aspect of our lives — and of the efforts of some people to begin to catalog and find insights in their own data. Surprisingly, Lifehacker was never mentioned.

5. The Anthora Cup. Margalit Fox of the New York Times writes the obituary for Leslie Buck, the designer of the Anthora cup:

It was for decades the most enduring piece of ephemera in New York City and is still among the most recognizable. Trim, blue and white, it fits neatly in the hand, sized so its contents can be downed in a New York minute. It is as vivid an emblem of the city as the Statue of Liberty, beloved of property masters who need to evoke Gotham at a glance in films and on television.

6. Unified Theory of the Financial Crisis. Ezra Klein synthesizes various narratives into a unified theory of the financial crisis.

7. The Structural Deficit. Donald B. Marron provides a coherent and reality-based conservative look at America’s structural deficit. Absolutely a Must-Read.

8. The Financial Doomsday Machine. Martin Wolf dedicated his column in the Financial Times last week to describe the “financial doomsday machine“:

[T]he financial sector has become bigger and riskier. The UK case is dramatic, with banking assets jumping from 50 per cent of GDP to more than 550 per cent over the past four decades…The combination of state insurance (which protects creditors) with limited liability (which protects shareholders) creates a financial doomsday machine. What happens is best thought of as “rational carelessness”. Its most dangerous effect comes via the extremes of the credit cycle.

9. Realism on China. Stephen Walt explains his take on China’s strategic ambitions — and its inevitable rivalry with the United States and other regional powers.

10. The Tea Party & Immigration. Radley Balko explains his take on the widespread support among the Tea Party for the massive government power grab that is Arizona’s new immigration law:

It also makes a mockery of the media narrative that these are gathering of anti-government extremists. Seems like in may parts of the country they’re as pro-government as the current administration, just pro-their kind of government.

Coincidentally, I made that exact point about the Tea Party back in September 2009 entitled: These Protests Aren’t Against Big Government, But About Liberals Running the Government.

Andrew Sullivan piles on:

Worse, on the fiscal front, they’re total frauds. They have yet to propose any serious cuts in entitlements and want far more money poured into the military-imperial complex. In rallies, the largely white members in their fifties and older seem determined to get every penny of social security and Medicare. They are a kind of boomer revolt – but on the other side of that civil conflict, and no longer a silent majority. In fact, they’re now the minority that won’t shut up.

More and more, this feels to me like an essentially cultural revolt against what America is becoming: a multi-racial, multi-faith, gay-inclusive, women-friendly, majority-minority country.

11. Sovereign Debt Crisis. Felix Salmon and Paul Krugman are both very pessimistic about how Greece will get out of this crisis — and what it means for the global economy.

12. Lady Gaga’s Ambition. Brendan Sullivan for Esquire chronicles the life and ambitions of Lady Gaga:

“There is a musical government, who decides what we all get to hear and listen to. And I want to be one of those people.” The girl who said that didn’t yet have the number-one hits (although she had already written most of them).

She was not yet the creative director of the Haus of Gaga, which is what she calls the machine of more than a hundred creative people who work for her. She didn’t make that statement in an interview or from the stage. She made it in 2007, when she was a go-go dancer sewing her own outfits and I was her DJ. She wrote it in one of my notebooks…

Lady Gaga is a student of fame, and the fame she studies most is her own — being famous seems to both amuse and fascinate her.

[1st image by me; 2nd image by LarindaME licensed under Creative Commons.]

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3 Responses to “Must-Reads of the Week: American Power, Inequality, 1 Billion Heartbeats, Hacking Life, Anthora Cups, Structural Deficit, Financial Doomsedays and Crises, China, the Tea Party’s Views on Immigration, and Lady Gaga”

  1. John Rose Says:

    If you liked #2, you’ll love this paper, which breaks down what the causes of economic immobility are: (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2006/04/b1579981.html)

    “Table 4: Decomposition of the Intergenerational Correlation in Income Per Person-
    Education of Head and Spouse = 0.128
    Race of Head = 0.062
    Health Status of Head and Spouse = 0.035
    State of Residence = 0.019
    Female Headed Household = 0.013
    Inheritances = 0.002
    Unexplained = 0.172
    Total Intergenerational Correlation = 0.431

    The surprisingly small contribution of inheritances is a reflection of the fact that the adult children in the sample are only 37 years old, on average, so that most of their parents are still living; other estimates of the importance of wealth transfers put it as high as 0.12 (Bowles and Gintis 2002).”

    #6: This explanation sort of reminds me of this “worst engineering disasters” book I read once (“Inviting Disaster”). The main lesson I got from it was that disasters usually only happen when a lot of things fail simultaneously. The problem is that people tend to ignore failure when it doesn’t cause anything bad to happen, and that’s how safety mechanisms break down. If China, or the regulators, or Wall Street, or the rating agencies had done what they were supposed to do, none of this would have happened. But the longer they kept making money, the more complacent they got. It’s just human nature, I guess. But it sure would be nice if when a big disaster happens like this, we replaced more than one level of safety before letting things go back to normal.

    #7: “The explosion of borrowing in the past two years… portend the deterioration of America’s economic strength.”

    Really? It was just the past 2 years that worried him?

    “Improbable turns to impossible if policymakers seek to address our fiscal imbalance solely through tax hikes on individuals and families with high incomes…the top two marginal tax rates would have to be increased to at least 70% to bring the deficit under control through tax increases on high earners alone.”

    I agree that this is improbable and undesirable, but it isn’t as impossible as he makes it out to be. The cumulative income of the richest 10% is about $4.4 trillion. It would certainly not be impossible to raise the taxes on the richest 10% by the 16% of their income ($700 billion) it would take to balance the budget, though it would require more than adjusting the upper marginal tax rates. All in all, after going from an average 32% of their income taken out in taxes (24% federal, 8% state) to an average 48%, they would still be taxed significantly less than Italy, Germany, France, Finland, Denmark, or Belgium. (http://bit.ly/dxSA)(http://bit.ly/bMf8Ed)(http://bit.ly/p8uea)(http://bit.ly/1tGZnh) (http://bit.ly/a6HboR)

    Overall great article on the deficit, though. I just tend to find a tendency among even the most even-handed conservative deficit hounds to merely pay lip service to ideas like reducing defense spending. How can an entire article devoted to the deficit mention defense spending, which costs over $1 trillion/year and has increased ~$400 billion/year over the last 10 years, only once, alongside “agricultural subsidies” (consistently ~$30 billion/year)?

  2. John Rose Says:

    Bleh, wrote a long response to this but it appears to have been lost somehow.

    Here’s the gist of what I said:

    #2: If you like that, you will like this (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2006/04/b1579981.html).

    #6: Reminds me of a book I read about engineering disasters. They usually happen when a lot of failures happen simultaneously. People ignore it when redundant safety mechanisms fail, so they end up not providing redundant safety at all.

    #8: Great article, but 2 disagreements: He overstates the degree to which fixing the entire problem with a tax on the rich is impossible. Sure, it’s improbable and undesirable, but with a 16% tax increase on the top 10% (people making over $100k/year), we could raise $700 billion/year and solve the entire problem while still having a lower tax rate on the richest 10% than most European countries (http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/39/51/34035472.pdf)- it would just take more than an adjustment of the marginal tax rates. Also, like most conservative deficit hawks, he merely pays lip service to reductions in defense spending. I’m preaching to the choir, but the ~$1 trillion/year we waste on defense and its ~100% increase over the last 10 years is a much more attractive target for spending reductions than the $30 billion/year we spend on ag. subsidies or the relatively sustainable and beneficial $700 billion/year we spend on social security.

  3. Joe Campbell Says:

    Sorry John –

    Your first comment got flagged by my anti-spam software as possibly spam — requiring me to approve it.

    #2 – That report is awesome. I’ve been looking for data like that.

    #7 – I certainly saw a few other flaws in Marron’s piece — but if his view was taken as the conservative one, our political conversation would be in good shape.

    In my opinion, the best part of his piece was that it challenged no (or few) right wing core beliefs — but instead simply laid out the problem of the structural deficit. Most people on the right I talk to tend to simply talk about eliminating government waste or focus on the stimulus — and to refuse to acknowledge the structural deficit.

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