March 2008

2008 03 31
Drunk


Posted by in: Afghanistan

I don’t think there are enough drunken blog posts. So here you are.

I do realize this is not at all about Afghanistan.


Howls of outrage (6)

2008 03 29
Two baseball videos


Posted by in: Baseball, Videos

Pop musician John Mayer does play-by-play on a Red Sox game in Japan, with an acute sense of his own inability to do play-by-play. (hosted at the funny “awful announcing” blog)

Royals outfielder Joey Gathright avoids a collision with style.


Howls of outrage (4)

2008 03 25
A Right to Health


In both political contexts as well as academic circles, it is more common to hear talk of a right to health care than it is to hear talk of a right to health. Perhaps, however, this shows that our parlance, and the moral framework that it sometimes reflects, has not caught up with the social scientific community. For recent research on what are called the “social determinants of health” has revealed that the health of a population is determined not just by the absolute wealth that the population enjoys, but also by the nature and extent of economic inequalities found in that society. “Middle income groups in a country with high income inequality typically do worse in terms of health than comparable or even poorer groups in a society with less income inequality.” So, if we are concerned with providing access to health care because we are concerned with citizens’ health, as is clearly the case, we may have to give up the notion that health care has anything special to contribute in this regard. This suggests that if we’re interested in deriving a right to health care from some more basic moral consideration, we may be driven toward accepting talk about a right to health.

On the other hand, there are a couple of reasons to question whether there is in fact a right to health. One such reason is that it is by and large impossible to deliver full health to those who don’t have it. We may simply not have the technology to do so. And when fulfilling a right to X would require doing Y, where Y is impossible, it seems correct to say that we were wrong to recognize a right to X in the first place.

But impossibility is not the only reason for thinking there is no right to health. Suppose that unless you receive a kidney transplant soon, you will die. And suppose that I am the only perfect match around, and that I could afford to give one up (in the sense that I will not die without it, and, let’s say, believe with a reasonable degree of certainty that I will suffer no kidney-related health problems in the future). Still, I think that we would not wish to say that in this situation you have a right to my kidney, even if giving it to you—or your taking it from me—would be quite feasible.

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2008 03 24
Post hoc ergo clusterfuck


Posted by in: The Iraq War

I’m interested in selling the rights to the title of this blog post for $50, O.B.O.


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2008 03 24
Who Was Bailed Out?


Earlier today, Atrios wrote:

I don’t know know enough about what either company is/was sitting on to really know what’s going on, but we do know that the Fed/Treasury said ok to this deal based on the idea that by essentially wiping Bear’s shareholders out, it wasn’t in any sense a “bailout” of the company. They weren’t rewarding [Bear's] bad behavior (though whether they were rewarding JPMorgan for bad behavior is another question).

Here’s what (I think) he means.

Those of you who have been following along will be acquainted with familiar with the alphabet soup of RMBSs, CDOs, and CDSs. Here’s how I understand it all working. Mortgage originators made many subprime loans and then bundled these loans into the residential mortgage backed securities (RMBSs) that constituted the foundational financial elements of all that was up for sale on Wall Street. But because such securities were made up of subprime loans, they carried all the risk that those loans themselves carried. So without further financial retooling, the interest rates needed to make these securities attractive to investors would have priced them out of borrowers’ reach. Enter CDOs. Collateralized Debt Obligations are used to repackage the revenues from many different kinds of mortgage backed securities, including prime and subprime loans. Thus CDOs provide a vehicle for investment diversification. Investors can purchase a piece of a CDO that, because of the variety of sources making up its revenue stream, carries a different risk than the risk associated with any particular RMBS that partially underlies it. Because investors can moderate the risk posed by subprime loans in this way, more funds are diverted into the subprime market. Finally, Credit Default Swaps (CDSs) acted as insurance policies on CDOs, with one party receiving a premium and the other receiving an assurance that if things went wrong, a compensating payment would be forthcoming. Thus, investors assumed they could limit their exposure to risk even further through the use of CDSs.

The initial problems in the subprime sector caused investors to panic, because the complexity of CDO creation left them without a clue as to how much risk any particular CDO was exposed to when subprime mortgages started to default. But now we are hearing that the bigger (or at least a huge) problem lies in the Credit Default Swap sector. Just as the increase of CDOs based on RMBSs were considered lucrative only because of an assumption of continued increases in house prices, so too were those who were receiving CDS premiums betting on never having to pay out the maximum indemnities that would be triggered by a Supreme Subprime Default Scenario (SSDS; hey, I want in on the acronym fun too, man!).

Two articles in yesterday’s Times shed a bit of light on what might now be going on.

First, we are told that

Today, the outstanding value of the swaps stands at more than $45.5 trillion, up from $900 billion in 2001.

That is both an absolutely staggering increase, and an absolutely staggering absolute valuation.

Next, Gretchen Morgenson drops this nugget:

It’s likely that JPMorgan, the biggest bank in the credit default swap market, had a good deal of this kind of exposure to Bear Stearns on its books. Absorbing Bear Stearns for a mere $250 million allows JPMorgan to eliminate that risk at a bargain-basement price. JPMorgan declined to comment on the size of its portfolio of credit default swaps.

So, if I understand this correctly, while the Fed’s action is clearly designed to save—or, if you like, bailout—the “system,” if you want to point to any one firm in the recently brokered (but unfinished) deal that can be said to have been bailed out, it’s probably better to look at JPMorgan, rather than Bear Stearns.


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2008 03 23
Recently read


Brecht. Galileo

Brecht explores the moral difficulties in Gallileo’s decision to recant. Not bad.

Paulos, John Allen. Innumeracy

A fun little book that provides a healthy dose of motivation to the non-mathematical to get their (our!) act together. Paulos provides lots of examples of fuzzy thinking that follow from a neglect of basic mathematics. At times Paulos seems to cast his net a bit more broadly than mathematics even, commenting on various fallacies in informal reasoning. But that’s ok – those mistakes matter too.

Frank. Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class

Entertaining and reasonably well-written. Frank charts the rise of inequality in American society since WWII, and then explains why he thinks that inequality is so harmful. Some goods are absolute goods. These we care about regardless of how much other people have. Others are positional goods. These we value very differently depending on context, most importantly how others around us are doing with respect to that good. Frank argues that many more goods are positional than one might first think, and then ties this insight to his observations about rising inequality. The result is a decent critique of a lot of mainstream assumptions about inequality in American society, and more broadly of the social policies that have produced it.

Two quibbles. First, it’s ok to dumb down a bit for a popular book, but Frank’s remarks about evolutionary psychology were pretty silly at times. I’d have to read Frank’s other work on the subject to know whether I would find a more careful statement of his views silly. But anyway, I don’t really think Frank needed to introduce claims about evolutionary psychology in the first place. His motivation for doing so, if I understood it correctly, was just to point out that the psychological tendencies he’s attributing to us are fairly stubbornly entrenched. But a) you don’t need to point to evolutionary considerations to do that; and b) you shouldn’t point to evolutionary considerations to do that (just for starters, innateness and malleability are completely distinct issues).

Second quibble: Frank talks throughout about the middle class. He even put the middle class in the subtitle of his book. But the book really seems to be about how just about everyone gets screwed by rising inequality, even very well-off people. So perhaps the subtitle to his book ought to have been “How Rising Inequality Harms Us All.”

Tufte, Edward R.The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Superb. Tufte wrote the book in the last seventies and early eighties; it changed the way many people think about how to display quantitative information in a clear, engaging and helpful way. Tufte’s book is part polemic against a dumbing down of statistical charts on the grounds that no one finds them interesting, and part analysis of what considerations go into getting it right. Good stuff.


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2008 03 22
Magic


Posted by in: Anecdotal


Howls of outrage (7)

2008 03 21
Hits


Posted by in: Media criticism

I don’t get it. Why aren’t they talking more about Wallace’s drug problem (at 2:53 and 5:10)?


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2008 03 20
Spotted


Posted by in: Anecdotal

“A” told me that she saw a guy with a dreadlocks comb over the other day.


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2008 03 19
Not of Californialqaeda


Posted by in: Political issues


Howls of outrage (11)

2008 03 18
Memories of a geek childhood


Posted by in: Anecdotal

When I was a kid my favourite galaxy was M87.

That is all.


Howls of outrage (4)

2008 03 17
O Dot K


Posted by in: Odds and ends

Krugman, as seen in the Times this morning:

O.K., here it comes: The unthinkable is about to become the inevitable.

Last week, Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, and John Lipsky, a top official at the International Monetary Fund, both suggested that public funds might be needed to rescue the U.S. financial system. Mr. Lipsky insisted that he wasn’t talking about a bailout. But he was.

Krugman, as can be heard using a new beta feature of Factiva:

Krugman_B_Word

Not quite the same impact, but still neato.


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2008 03 17
Rathole


Posted by in: Odds and ends

Reading this post at TPM, I was delighted to discover what I thought was a new word. There was a time when I was what you might call a Word Whore. But in the past several years my reading has consisted mostly of blogs, news, and academic writing for which the standard vocabulary is pretty circumscribed. During these literary doldrums I always meant to start back up with the books section of The New Republic, or with the New Yorker, or some other such publication. But I never did. And I never look at my Dictionary.com Word of the Day rss feed anymore…

So I was ever so curious to figure out what an “interpretive rathole” was. “Rayth-ole.” Maybe a term from astrophysics? I thought this might be as momentous a day as when a post at Crooked Timber (by Kieran Healy, I think) sent me off in a panic to discover what “avant la lettre” means.

Alas the ending is by now obvious to all of you. Back, now, quite naturally, to the articles of Ratio.


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 03 14
Al. Johnny. WTF?????!!!!!!!


Posted by in: Political issues

Clinton:

The results of those primaries [Michigan and Florida] were fair and should be honored.

Clinton:

“We all had a choice as to whether or not to participate,” she told Inskeep. “Most people took their names off the ballot, but I didn’t. And that was a wise decision, because Michigan is key to our electoral victory in the fall.”

Morally speaking, this is request is indiscernible from what Bush was requesting, and won, from the Supreme Court in 2000.

So here’s the question: Where the fuck are Al Gore and, say, John Edwards? How in the world can they listen to this shit and still stay “neutral”? If you think it’s because they are protecting their ability to be honest brokers at the convention, you’re wrong. They don’t care about being honest. They care about being in the spotlight. And they probably care about their relationships with the Clintons. Maybe Edwards is cowering in the corner, not sure if Hillary will somehow claw her way to the nomination, and hoping that in that scenario he’ll get the VP nod. Whatever they are thinking, they certainly don’t give a shit about basic tenets of democratic governance.


Howls of outrage (7)

2008 03 13
Memories


Posted by in: The Iraq War

I see that Iraqi troops may soon be deployed to wrest the port at Um Qasr from the hands of the militias that now control it.

It seems like only yesterday that I was making my way onto John Aschcroft’s watch list by sending an email to the White House that criticized the raising of an American flag by American troops at Um Qasr during the first hours of the 2003 invasion.


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