Monday | 4 March 2013


Ezra Klein | Wonkblog / The Washington Post

. . . it’s unpopular for Republicans to simply say they won’t agree to any compromise and there’s no deal to be had — particularly since taxing the wealthy is more popular than cutting entitlements, and so their position is less popular than Obama’s. That’s made it important for Republicans to prove that it’s the president who is somehow holding up a deal.

This had led to a lot of Republicans fanning out to explain what the president should be offering if he was serious about making a deal. Then, when it turns out that the president did offer those items, there’s more furious hand-waving about how no, actually, this is what the president needs to offer to make a deal. Then, when it turns out he’s offered most of that, too, the hand-waving stops and the truth comes out: Republicans won’t make a deal that includes further taxes, they just want to get the White House to implement their agenda in return for nothing. Luckily for them, most of the time, the conversation doesn’t get that far, and the initial comments that the president needs to “get serious” on entitlements is met with sage nods.

Adam Gopnik | Daily Comment / The New Yorker

As sequester day dawned, with its arguments about what, how much, and how urgently we should be cutting from government spending, an odd and intellectual note rose in Arkansas. Governor Mike Beebe, of Little Rock, was at last prepared to allow the Medicare expansion that Obamacare demands, but only by way of enrolling his citizens in private exchanges, even though, as Politico reported, “enrollees with private exchange coverage may get a similar mix of benefits as they would get in Medicaid but could face higher co-pays, deductibles and other costs.” Why pay more for less? Well, the Arkansas Times reports that “Beebe said that for some legislators, subsidizing folks to buy private insurance was preferable to directly covering people through a government program for ‘philosophical’ reasons.”

The notion is that there is some inherent virtue or “philosophical” virtue in a market solution even when the market solution costs more and does less would have baffled Adam Smith as much as it will likely baffle the people of Arkansas. In cases like these, the market becomes not an instrument of prosperity but, rather, an icon of piety—an icon oddly favored by those who are otherwise rightly critical of undue utopianism and idol-worship.


Mark Mawozer | The Financial Times

. . . the Rome-based political class has lost all credibility in their eyes – they were creators of the mess, and of the corruption that accompanied it. They cannot be trusted to clear it up. Those who have made no sacrifice themselves lack the moral credibility to ask them of others.

Technocrat prime minsters, such as Italy’s Mario Monti or Greece’s Lucas Papademos, are no alternative: they may have clean hands because they remained outside party politics. But they are creatures of banking and economics. While they may understand money, that no longer recommends them to the voters who would rather have someone who understands them.

The result is dangerous. It is but a short step from writing off the political class to writing off the institutions of democracy. So far most voters have not done this in either Italy or Greece. . . The response from Brussels and the creditor north to all this has been robotically unimaginative – to insist that the debtors, like the little fish in Finding Nemo, must just keep on going.


Reihan Salam | Reuters

As it turns out, the U.S. tax code does give large incumbents an enormous advantage over start-ups by subsidizing corporate debt. When businesses want to raise money for operations, they can pour their profits back into the business, they can sell shares or they can borrow. In an ideal world, we’d want business enterprises to make these decisions on the basis of what makes the most sense based on underlying economic conditions. But in the United States, we allow companies to deduct interest expenses from their taxes but not dividends on their stocks. This makes it far cheaper for companies to raise money by borrowing than by selling shares.

One reason this debt bias is a problem is that it leads companies to take on large amounts of debt, which raises the risk that they will go bankrupt. Yet there is another problem: It is much easier for some companies to borrow than for others. Specifically, well-established firms ‑ for example, large incumbents with pricing power that have been around for years ‑ find it much easier to borrow than new, unproven firms with high-growth potential, which have little choice but to rely on selling shares to finance investment. And so the tax-deductibility of interest expenses and not dividends gives the entrenched corporate Goliaths that have the option to borrow a big boost, while doing nothing for the would-be corporate Davids eager to take them on.


Amy Davidson | Close Read / The New Yorker

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a series of bills enacted after a legislative struggle and the murder of civil-rights workers who tried to register voters. It passed the Senate 77–19, and the House 333–85. Some of its provisions, though, including Section Five, would expire unless renewed, as they have been several times—most recently in 2006, after a debate and discussion of possible amendments. It passed the Senate 98–0, and the House 390–33. Scalia thought that the widening margin spoke to a sorry situation. “But that’s—that’s a problem that I have,” he said, after the Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said that Congress had made a judgment that voting rights still needed to be protected. “This last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same.” Scalia continued:

Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

Scalia is saying, in effect, that the Voting Rights Act gave a gift—a “racial entitlement”—to black people, and the result has been that “the normal political processes” don’t work.

Here, again, is the idea that the Court has to stand in for politicians who, thanks to Section Five, have to answer to black voters.

Both sides agreed that there would be a time when the pre-clearance provisions in Section Five would not be necessary—when attempts to keep minorities away from the polls would be rare enough that other enforcement measures would suffice. One of Section 5’s best constitutional defenses, it would seem, is that it has what are referred to as “bail-in” and “bail-out” provisions, which is why some northern jurisdictions are covered, like Port Chester, New York, and some Southern ones aren’t.


Shane Parrish | Farnum Street

A look at James Gleick‘s book.

For the purposes of science, information had to mean something special. Three centuries earlier, the new discipline of physics could not proceed until Isaac Newton appropriated words that were ancient and vague — force, mass, motion, and even time — and gave them new meanings. Newton made these terms into quantities, suitable for use in mathematical formulas. Until then, motion (for example) had been just as soft and inclusive a term as information. For Aristotelians, motion covered a far-flung family of phenomena: a peach ripening, a stone falling, a child growing, a body decaying. That was too rich. Most varieties of motion had to be tossed out before Newton’s laws could apply and the Scientific Revolution could succeed. In the nineteenth century, energy began to undergo a similar transformation: natural philosophers adapted a word meaning vigor or intensity. They mathematicized it, giving energy its fundamental place in the physicists’ view of nature.

It was the same with information. A rite of purification became necessary.

We can see now that information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle. It pervades the sciences from top to bottom, transforming every branch of knowledge. Information theory began as a bridge from mathematics to electrical engineering and from there to computing. What English speakers call “computer science” Europeans have known as informatique, informatica, and Informatik. Now even biology has become an information science, a subject of messages, instructions, and code. Genes encapsulate information and enable procedures for reading it in and writing it out. Life spreads by networking. The body itself is an information processor. Memory resides not just in brains but in every cell. No wonder genetics bloomed along with information theory. DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level — an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being. “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life,’ ” declares the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. “It is information, words, instructions. . . . If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”

Tom Levenson | The Scientific American

For MIT itself the effects, Kastner says, will hurt — a lot. The hit to the annual research budget will be about $40 million — falling most heavily on the School of Science, which gets 95% of its research budget from the federal government. The effects won’t be felt equally across the board. If you run a big lab then you have some room to manouver, Kastner acknowledges. “Is ever Eric Lander going to slow down? He’ll find a way.” But, he says, “The rich survive and the poor get devastated. The real question is the next generation. ”

That is: the sequester wreaks its havoc by striking hardest at particular points in the life cycle of a university researcher. New tenure-line faculty are actually somewhat insulated from the very worst of the pressure. “Every agency has set aside money for young investigators,” he says,”some from private foundations, and a lot from the feds.” Cuts in budget strike those dependent on other people’s grants — graduate students, post docs and soft-money research scientists — but a new faculty hire has somewhat better prospects than most for the first few years.

The rubber hits the road, though, at tenure. MIT, like other leading research universities, generally tenures faculty at around the seven year mark. Researchers achieve tenure on the basis of strong performance in those first years and then after promotion are expected to advance their program through what should be the heart of their productive lives. The tricky part is that it is already enormously difficult to do so. Once tenured, the researcher competes for grants against the entire population, Nobel laureates, National Academicians and all. There’s a reason that the average age for winning your first R0-1 grant is 42 — that’s up by more than five years since 1980. Add the sequester’s cut on top of that existing semi (or more than)-crisis, and you have a circumstance where early-mid career scientists could become even more at risk to career-blasting loss of research funding.


Henrick Hertzberg | The New Yorker

Blessed relief has arrived for those of us who love British period dramas but have been unable to stomach “Downton Abbey,” with its blizzards of anachronisms, its absurd soap-operatics, and its Oprah-style oversharing between aristos and servants. We now have something to watch without rolling our eyes: “Parade’s End,” a five-part adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s great novel. It’s a co-production of the BBC, the Flemish public broadcast company VRT, and HBO, which started running it this week. The subtle, intelligent screenplay is by Tom Stoppard, the excellent cast is headed by Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall (with Rupert Everett and Miranda Richardson, among others, in supporting roles), and the visuals are lush.


Gina Kolata | The New York Times

“Nutrition research is where heart attack research was,” Dr. Lauer said. Patients in those days were advised to stay in bed for four to five weeks and take lidocaine to normalize their hearts’ rhythms and nitroglycerin to open blood vessels.

But it turned out that treatment actually hastened death. It took years to find the answers, but eventually, Dr. Lauer said, dozens if not hundreds of large clinical trials radically transformed heart attack treatment.

But when it comes to diet and heart disease, doctors — and patients — have been going on hunches.

The new study could be a start in changing all that, heart researchers said.

It involved 7,447 people in Spain, half of whom were randomly assigned to follow a Mediterranean diet and the rest to follow the sort of standard low-fat diet that cardiologists often prescribe. It was ended early after less than five years because those on the Mediterranean diet had 30 percent fewer heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease compared with people in the control group, who ate more or less the same way that they always had. They had been instructed to follow a low-fat diet but had not been able to comply.

Dr. Ramón Estruch of the University of Barcelona, the lead author of the study, said that although some had thought people would never allow their diets to be decided by a figurative toss of a coin, it was not hard to get people to switch to a Mediterranean diet.

“They wanted to eat the way their grandfathers ate,”


Tracy Clark-Flory | Slate

This hookup book is not like the others. Want to see either casual sex or committed relationships portrayed as inherently good or bad? You will be sorely disappointed. The same goes for if you expect young men or young women to be chastised for abandoning traditional values. Instead, Leslie C. Bell’s “Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom” argues that despite being the most liberated generation of women to date, today’s 20-somethings face wildly contradictory cultural messages about love and sex that can make it extremely difficult to freely and fully realize their desires.

I have two questions: Who allowed this nuanced and reasonable treatise about my generation to be published? And more important: Why has it taken so goddamned long?


Morris Dickstein | The New York Times

Lopate’s essays have taken a different course. His gods are Montaigne, the father of the essay, whose field of research was his own mind, and William Hazlitt, who, besides being an incomparable literary critic, sketched vehement novelistic impressions of what no one else thought worth noticing, from boxing matches and Indian jugglers to “the pleasure of hating.” Lopate’s three earlier collections and his book-length essays match Haz­litt’s promiscuous host of interests with Montaigne’s piercing attention to his inner life, his quicksilver thoughts and fugitive impressions. No other writer could have written books on both Susan Sontag (“Notes on Sontag,” 2009) and the Manhattan shoreline (“Waterfront,” 2004), each of them exhaustively well informed yet disarmingly subjective. Lopate’s new collection, “Portrait Inside My Head,” gives full play to an even wider range: immensely readable essays on his family, on remaining a baseball fan, on his sex life (“Duration; Or, Going Long”), on the tense romance between movies and novels, on old and new features of New York’s urban landscape, and on elusive writers like James Agee and Leonard Michaels, themselves bold essayists who blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction.


Brian Phillips | Grantland

Diego Maradona made his international debut for Argentina in a friendly against Hungary on February 27, 1977, 36 years ago this week. He was 16 and already famous; he’d played in his first professional match, for Argentinos Juniors, as a 15-year-old the previous October, and scored his first professional goal less than a month after that. In a soccer-mad country, you don’t score a top-flight goal as a teenager without everyone learning your name. But the truth is that he’d been locally famous for a long time. There’s tantalizing video of the child Maradona practicing tricks, and what’s impressive here is not so much the skill on display as the aura of total calm, even serenity, that this kid, who’s maybe 11, possesses around a soccer ball. You watch other football-prodigy videos and it looks like the little circus-genius is about to give himself a heart attack; Maradona heads the ball up and seems to be waiting for it to come back down again, I mean waiting patiently, like someone who trusts that a loved one will always come home.





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