GMO, El Nino, Obamacare’s legs and Ukraine …

GMO: this is a nice editorial, though I don’t agree with labeling laws. Mandatory label laws should be done for science reasons and not to appease the woo-woos:

GMOs are made by inserting a foreign gene into a plant or animal with the goal of conferring properties that have some agricultural benefit. At present, only GM plants have entered our food supply. In the United States, commonly used GM corn and soybean varieties contain a bacterial gene that confers resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed under the brand name Roundup. Roundup kills weeds but not the GM crop. Other GM corn, soybean and cotton varieties produce a bacterial protein called Cry with insecticide activity that lessens the need for application of toxic chemicals that pollute the soil and groundwater.

The creation of GMOs is indeed sophisticated, but in fact agriculture is a high-tech revolution in progress that began 10,000 years ago.

To put GMOs in perspective, that beautiful organically grown heirloom tomato is a biologically distorted, genetically engineered product of human innovation derived from a small, hard, poisonous fruit created by nature. Virtually everything in your garden is the result of many hundreds of years of genetic tinkering through breeding, resulting in organisms that bear little resemblance to the native species, and which would not exist without human intervention.

It is amusing that the now popular “Paleo” (or Paleolithic) diet advocates eating food that did exist in the Paleolithic area, and that would be unrecognizable by our ancestors of that time.

There is a strong consensus in the scientific community that foods derived from GMOs are safe. Reports from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that no adverse health effects attributed to GMOs have been documented in the human population. Moreover, they conclude that GMOs reduce the application of insecticides, the most dangerous herbicides and overall have fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GMO crops produced conventionally. [...]

Seriously: check out the science magazines for yourself (e. g. Nature’s GMO issue)

El Nino: Australia is now saying that we’ll have a strong El Nino; this means that we (in Illinois) are likely to have a 1998 like winter. But time will tell.

Obamacare Perhaps there is some hope on the horizon?

The good news for Obamacare just keeps coming in. Via Charles Gaba, the Rand Survey — which was the subject of a report in the LA Times, but which wasn’t publicly available — is now in. And it says that as of mid-March — that is, before the final enrollment surge — the Affordable Care Act had already produced a net gain of 9.3 million insured adults. Again, that’s a net gain; so much for claims that more people are losing insurance than gaining it.

At least some Republicans are realizing that (a) the ACA is not going to collapse and (b) they can’t simply take away insurance from millions of Americans. So they have to come up with an alternative.

And as Sahil Kapur reports, at least a few of them are coming to a terrible realization: there is no alternative. You can’t just support the popular pieces of reform, in particular coverage for preexisting conditions, and scrap the rest. As Jonathan Gruber taught me, and I and others have said many times, reform is a three-legged stool that requires community rating, the individual mandate, and subsidies; take away any leg and it collapses. And Kapur finds a GOP aide who admits to the awful truth: any workable GOP plan would look pretty much the same as Obamacare.

I don’t know how many GOP leaders, as opposed to aides, understand this. And even those who do won’t dare to admit it. The party line, literally, has been that Obamacare is an unworkable monstrosity, and the base will destroy anyone who points out, this late in the game, that it’s both workable and pretty much the only doable alternative to single-payer.

My guess: the GOP will huddle and then say that THEY “forced President Obama to the center” by pointing to tweak x, y, or z….and take credit for what is basically…a Republican idea.

Ukraine: It might not be exactly like what some bloggers say (e. g. a Nazi like “rolling over Europe) but it is looking more and more that Russia will dominate Ukraine in one way or another; this, to my amateur eyes, looks more like a return to the old cold war USSR.

April 8, 2014 Posted by | health care, republicans, republicans politics, science, social/political, world events | , , , | Leave a comment

Science, new 538, Putin and Oil….

Science here is an interesting development in life science: 1500 year old moss (that had been frozen) has returned to life upon being thawed!

Researchers have demonstrated that, after over 1,500 years frozen in Antarctic ice, moss can come back to life and continue to grow. For the first time, this vital part of the ecosystem in both polar regions has been shown to have the ability to survive century to millennial scale ice ages. This provides exciting new insight into the survival of life on Earth.

Rachel Maddow: has an interesting segment on how the large oil companies can be used to pressure Putin on Crimea.

Nate Silver’s back, up and running. Reviews are mixed:

Here is a piece on economic data. What it says is fine, but it won’t interest me. I wished this piece on hockey goalies had been longer and more analytic. The same is true for this piece on corporations hoarding cash, which also could use more context. Maybe it is I rather than they who is misjudging the market, but to me these are “tweener” pieces, too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers. I want something more like the very good Bill Simmons analytic pieces on Grantland, with jokes too, and densely packed narrative, yet applied to a much broader range of topics. Barring that, I am happy to read one very good sentence or two on a topic.
Here is a piece on whether guessing makes sense on the new SAT. It is fine but presents material already covered in places such as NYT.

I love seeing pieces on how statistics are used in real life, and his political poll analysis was spot on. But forecasting results from polls is one thing; trying to use raw data in place of understanding a nuanced discipline is quite another.

And right there you have an important lesson about what it means to take data into account. It very much does not mean changing your views all the time — if you have a model of how the world works, and the model is working, stability in what you say reflects respect for the data, not inflexibility. If I have spent the past 5+ years insisting, over and over again, that in a liquidity trap budget deficits don’t crowd out private spending and expanding the Fed’s balance sheet doesn’t cause inflation, that’s because they don’t. And if I return to those points many times, it’s because too much of the world still doesn’t get it.

Now, about FiveThirtyEight: I hope that Nate Silver understands what it actually means to be a fox. The fox, according to Archilocus, knows many things. But he does know these things — he doesn’t approach each topic as a blank slate, or imagine that there are general-purpose data-analysis tools that absolve him from any need to understand the particular subject he’s tackling. Even the most basic question — where are the data I need? — often takes a fair bit of expertise; I know my way around macro data and some (but not all) trade data, but I turn to real experts for guidance on health data, labor market data, and more.

What would be really bad is if this turns into a Freakonomics-type exercise, all contrarianism without any appreciation for the importance of actual expertise. And Michael Mann reminds me that Nate’s book already had some disturbing tendencies in that direction.

March 19, 2014 Posted by | biology, blogs, economics, economy, science, world events | | Leave a comment

US State Department Fact Check of Putin’s claims

You can find it here; it is pretty good. Here is the start:

As Russia spins a false narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine, the world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, “The formula ‘two times two equals five’ is not without its attractions.”

Below are 10 of President Vladimir Putin’s recent claims justifying Russian aggression in the Ukraine, followed by the facts that his assertions ignore or distort.

1. Mr. Putin says: Russian forces in Crimea are only acting to protect Russian military assets. It is “citizens’ defense groups,” not Russian forces, who have seized infrastructure and military facilities in Crimea.

The Facts: Strong evidence suggests that members of Russian security services are at the heart of the highly organized anti-Ukraine forces in Crimea. While these units wear uniforms without insignia, they drive vehicles with Russian military license plates and freely identify themselves as Russian security forces when asked by the international media and the Ukrainian military. Moreover, these individuals are armed with weapons not generally available to civilians.

2. Mr. Putin says: Russia’s actions fall within the scope of the 1997 Friendship Treaty between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

The Facts: The 1997 agreement requires Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, which have given them operational control of Crimea, are in clear violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. [..]

March 8, 2014 Posted by | world events | , , , | Leave a comment

Crimea and US economic inequality

This little editorial talks about what is going on with Crimea and the Ukraine/Russia crisis. I am not sure as to how this will be resolved, but I think that Russia’s economic ties to the rest of the world will have a positive influence on what happens.

I am not as alarmed as some as I see that Russia is just acting to instability on its border and in areas of interest, just as the United States would. I’m sure that our leaders understand it too.

Economic inequality There is a big difference between anger and envy, and the concerns about inequality are more about the former.

March 4, 2014 Posted by | economy, social/political, world events | , | Leave a comment

The Selfie; fake sign language, White Jesus and bad punts….

Conservatives get upset over many things. One of them is this selfie:


There isn’t much of a story here (despite Michelle Obama’s expression)

But yes I concede that Helle Thorning-Schmidt ,the PM of Denmark, is hot:

! Helle Thorning hos Dronningen 2 10 2011 Kan danne DK Regering Foto Hasse Ferrold 5

Speaking of the “celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life” event: there is the scandal of the person doing the fake sign language. Here is Colbert’s take. :-)

Conservatives are outraged about other things too. Yes, Megyn Kelly tells us, Santa IS white (I know that Santa is fictional but the character comes from Europe, ok?). But she says more:

But on Wednesday, Kelly decided that Harris had gone “off the rails” with her column.

“For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” Kelly said. “But this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa. But Santa is what he is.”

“Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change, you know?” she added. “I mean, Jesus was a white man too. He was a historical figure, that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa — I just want the kids watching to know that.”

Nordic Jesus…I love it. I would have thought that a white Jesus would have turned red like a lobster in the Middle Eastern sun, but what the heck. :-)

Bad Punts

How do you like this: a team punts and the ball goes backwards, into its own end zone thereby giving the other team an (unintentional) safety.

But I’ve seen worse at an NFL game (on TV)

December 12, 2013 Posted by | football, republicans, republicans political/social, social/political, world events, WTF | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Future of Higher Education?

Consider some issues of the day: what is the proper balance of power and diplomacy in foreign affairs?

Screen shot 2013-11-29 at 7.46.12 PM

Love President Obama, hate him….you should realize that properly analyzing issues such as these requires education and knowledge.

Then we have economic issues such as this one:

Williamson has a lot of equations running around — fearful plumbing, as Rudi Dornbusch would have put it — but the essence of this story, whether he realizes it or not, involves movements in the Wicksellian natural rate of interest — the real interest rate that would match savings and investment at full employment.

Now, one way to think about how that natural rate interacts with monetary policy to determine the rate of inflation would be a figure like this:


Here WNR is a 45-degree line representing all the combinations of inflation and the interest rate at which the real rate equals the Wicksellian natural rate, while MP is a monetary policy reaction function — basically a Taylor rule in which interest rates rise more than one-for-one with inflation, but with the downside constrained by the zero lower bound.

As you can see, I’ve drawn this so that there are two equilibria: one with a relatively high inflation rate and a positive nominal interest rate, the other with low inflation and a zero rate.

What Williamson does is observe that we’re at the zero lower bound, so he concludes that we’re at an equilibrium like B.

He then asks what happens if the liquidity premium on government debt rises — which in this setting amounts to asking what happens if the real natural rate of interest falls. And he gets a result like this:

Surf to Professor Krugman’s site to read the analysis; let’s say that one has to be comfortable with graphs and their meaning to follow the argument (mathematically speaking: it has to do with how the “slanted” curve moves with the economic conditions, and if we stay at one of the equilibria, and how stable (attracting or repelling equilibria).

So, one needs some level of education to follow this.

So what are some colleges doing?

The University of District of Columbia (the board) decided:

This isn’t a joke: The University of District of Columbia, which was desperate to cut costs, is eliminating 17 low-enrolled academic programs — including physics, history and economics — but is keeping for now an NCAA Division II athletics program that cost $3 million more last year than it generated in revenue.
That was the decision of the Board of Trustees, according to this report by my colleague Nick Anderson. The board took up a proposal to save money offered by UDC’s interim president, James E. Lyons Sr., as he tries to take the long-strugling school on a different path.

Other universities are considering doing similar things:

If you’re planning to attend either Minnesota State University Moorhead or the University of the District of Columbia, best get in your Romeo and Juliet now—and while you’re at it, you should probably learn the formulas for velocity and momentum, and study up on the Spanish-American War. Because soon, these regional public universities may have no departments of English, physics, or history—nor a host of other programs often associated with “college,” including political science (MSUM), philosophy (MSUM), computer science (MSUM), and even economics (UDC).

What is confounding about these universities’ plans to possibly obliterate nearly half of their departments is why both institutions, faced with budget crises, went straight for the academic jugular. And not just by cutting highfalutin artsy disciplines, but with an eye toward fields of study that are actually valued in today’s cruel and fickle market. Nobody seems to notice that the structure of today’s higher-ed “business” model is backwards: It’s far easier to cut academics than it is to cut anything else, so that’s what universities are doing. The irony that the very raison d’être of a university—education!—is also its most disposable aspect seems lost on everyone (perhaps because nobody studies English, philosophy, or French anymore, so nobody recognizes irony or knows what a raison d’être is).

UDC’s case is especially infuriating, given the trustees’ decision to gut departments in favor of a decidedly lackluster athletics program. However, MSUM’s situation is actually far more likely to be replicated around the country, and thus deserving of greater scrutiny. If MSUM could have made up the $5 million chasm in its budget by cutting its modest sports, it might well have gone the way of Texas’s Paul Quinn College, which turned its football field into an organic farm and now seems pretty pleased with the decision. But at MSUM, head coaches are paid about $70,000 a year and have teaching responsibilities; cutting athletics wouldn’t have come close to stanching MSUM’s gaping cash hole.

So that’s it: a strip mall with a gym. Hmmmm….

And they are also not going to reduce offices and amenities that boost enrollment. These days, no self-respecting undergraduate would think of matriculating somewhere without an indoor rock climbing wall, so MSUM has to have one of those. And without perky recruiters and extensive alumni outreach, matriculation and endowment will both crater even worse than they already have (declining enrollment is the source of the entire budget fracas in the first place). So, again, this would seem to reveal that amenities and administrators are indispensible, and thus the entire burden of the budget cuts rests squarely on the slouching, poorly clothed shoulders of the faculty, who are now to be foisted upon that dreaded “real world” they seem to hate so much.

And therein lies the rub. What is a university without departments? The MSUM and UDC decisions demonstrate something crucially important and monumentally depressing about the state of the American public university: It is an immaculately landscaped corporate park with its own apparel store, full of the sound of tuition money disappearing and the fury of a thousand feet on a rock wall, but signifying nothing.

So what is the purpose of a university?

November 30, 2013 Posted by | economics, economy, education, politics, world events | | Leave a comment

Syria, Republicans and trained animals

Thanks Obama! You say I am giving President Obama too much credit for Syria starting to destroy its chemical weapons? I think that results such as these come when one focuses less on posturing and credit seeking and more on results.

Republicans: no longer seen as the “competent party”. Hey, when you embrace the “foaming at the mouth” populists, you pay a price.

Does reading high-brow fiction make you more empathetic? The evidence is shaky, at best. It is not a crazy conjecture though.

Strangely enough: the CIA had animals trained to….spy! Really.

October 6, 2013 Posted by | Barack Obama, politics, republicans, science, world events | , , | Leave a comment

Syria …no good options…unless…

Screen shot 2013-09-10 at 9.18.39 AM

There is one hopeful option though:

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem strengthened Tuesday his nation’s backing for a Russian proposal to see his nation turn its chemical weapons stockpiles over to international control to avoid a U.S. military strike, even as his Russian allies worked to hammer out the details of the proposal.

After meeting with the speaker of the Russian parliament, al-Moallem said his government quickly “agreed to the Russian initiative,” adding that Syria did so to “uproot U.S. aggression.” His statement sounded more definitive than his remarks Monday, when he said that Damascus welcomed Russia’s initiative.

I sure hope that this works out. As far as President Obama: he has always said that he doesn’t care who gets credit so long as good things happen. That is what I voted for.

September 10, 2013 Posted by | Barack Obama, Middle East, world events | , | Leave a comment

Syria ….

The New York Times has an article. President Obama has decided to seek Congressional approval for airstrikes.

I am not sure as what to do here. Obviously the use of chemical weapons was wrong, but….if there is no way to attack the Syrian government without aiding the Al Qeada backed rebels.

The situation is indeed perplexing:


Though I back President Obama in most things, in this area he needs to explain

1. Why it is in the interests in the United States to strike.
2. What expected good will come from this strike that wouldn’t have come had we not struck.

It is a high bar, and ought to be.

September 2, 2013 Posted by | Middle East, politics, world events | , | Leave a comment

Syria: Congress? International Law?

Would intervention in Syria be legal under international law, or should it done anyway.

Should Congress, as a whole, make this decision?

I think that the latter would put President Obama on better footing at home.

August 28, 2013 Posted by | Middle East, politics/social, world events | | Leave a comment


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