Sunday, March 30, 2014

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Women in essential services. Two women railroad workers enjoy a moment of relaxation from their new job in the yards of the Southern Pacific Company in San Francisco. Ann Rosener, 1943.

The worst is yet to come

Kind of a "duh" headline for the NY Times article on the release of the latest IPCC report on climate change. Yeah, it's going to get a lot worse. The problem could have been fixed, and the very worst might still be avoided. But based on recent experience, we can expect an epic fail from the country that bears the greatest responsibility and is in the best position to lead, the United States. History will judge us very badly. And although there is plenty of blame to go around, reserve a special place in hell for the Republican Party. It really wasn't that long ago that John McCain was co-sponsor on a cap-and-trade bill. Now they are the party of denial, drill-baby-drill, and head-in-the-sand. Formerly the party of Teddy Roosevelt!

Back at Foothills Park

The foothills are never better than during a late-season rain. The chaparral's muted color palette comes alive:

Yerba santa (lavender), pitcher sage (white), and bush poppy (yellow)...

Ceanothus cuneatus, overlooking the Los Trancos Creek watershed...

Water beads up on those waxy "leaves of three"...

Yes, some lichen...

Nearly fully grown...

... by the time we discovered the nest.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Where is this?
Fishing village on the ocean south of San Francisco, California. Dorothea Lange, 1938.

Sir Charles

I regret that I never manage to see much of the NCAA playoffs, but I somehow lucked into yesterday's Kentucky-Louisville nailbiter. Great game. I also caught the CBS hoops guys on today's pregame show, discussing the NLRB ruling that college athletes can unionize. Frankly, it was a more substantive debate than you will ever hear from Brooks and Dionne on NPR. Kenny Smith was all for unionization, and rewarding the jocks in the big-money sports in proportion to their marginal product. Some cracks about "field hockey" were made... thinly veiled code language for double-X chromosomes. Sir Charles would have none of it. "What about Title IX?" he demanded. Revenue has to be redistributed to the less lucrative sports. The important thing is supporting the academic achievement of the 99% of college athletes who will never make a career of it. Mind you, he did not seem at all opposed to getting the jocks a bigger piece of the pie. Oh... and he also correctly called it for Kentucky at the half.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Crazy-ass paddlers

The Polynesians got around... maybe all the way across the Pacific 20,000 years ago or more. Their crazy peregrinations must count as the most astounding human achievement of all. They lived in paradise and left it... for what? There was always another island until... there wasn't. Then, the endless sea: pure adventure and discovery. And it seems that they made it across, maybe more than once. Wow.

"The Americans" and the categorical imperative

"Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only." So wrote Kant. The "in your own person" part is the stinger: morality requires personal integrity as well as other-regarding behavior-- to thine own self be true is a moral imperative, not just good therapy. "The Americans" is not quite in the same league as the classic le Carré spy novels, but it shares their moral terrain, grounded in Kant's imperative. Nobody, but nobody, lives up to its demands... but can some do a little better than others?

You FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Visiting lassies sit on rostrom. Salvation Army, San Francisco, California. Dorothea Lange, 1939.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"The Americans"

Still fine in season 2, if a little less intense... My interest has been drawn from the complex relationship between the principals (married Russian spies Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) to the secondary and equally fraught affair between FBI agent Stan (Noah Emmerich) and his Soviet mole (double or triple agent?) Nina (Annet Mahendru). Mahendru is utterly convincing, and Emmerich, with his hang-dog eyes and macho drawl barely concealing his doubts and insecurity, is the most watchable character on TV.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"First do no harm"

Greg Mankiw doesn't like Obamacare or the idea of increasing the minimum wage, and in this column he offers up a seemingly common-sense justification of his policy conservatism. Both of these policies, he suggests, entail blocking some voluntary transactions that would otherwise take place. Assuming that people act in their own best interest, these blocked transactions would have made both parties better off. Preventing such transactions, then, necessarily does harm to these parties. And in an uncertain world, he suggests, policy makers, like doctors, should first do no harm:
This principle suggests that when people have voluntarily agreed upon an economic arrangement to their mutual benefit, that arrangement should be respected. (The main exception is when there are adverse effects on third parties — what economists call “negative externalities.”) As a result, when a policy is complex, hard to evaluate and disruptive of private transactions, there is good reason to be skeptical of it.
Mankiw may be a first-rate economist, but judging by this argument he is a terrible philosopher. Consider the minimum wage. The exact consequences of raising the minimum wage are complex, uncertain, and controversial, but one thing every reasonable person can agree on is that raising the minimum wage would make at least some people better off. That is, there is the certainty of some benefit. To deprive someone of a certain benefit is to impose a certain harm. Therefore, it is in fact impossible to do no harm in deciding between raising and not raising the minimum wage once you consider the perspective of both policy regimes, which seems the only evenhanded way to go about such a decision. From the perspective of the status quo policy regime, blocking voluntary transactions does harm. From the perspective of the alternative (higher minimum wage) policy regime, reducing some workers' wages does harm. The do no harm principle favors the status quo policy only if you stack the deck in favor of the status quo!

Now maybe Mankiw has his reasons to privilege the status quo. One of those might be that the status quo equilibrium is already optimal from an efficiency or welfare point of view; I find such a claim untenable, but at any rate Mankiw eschews such grand welfare judgments in the first half of his column. Maybe he thinks the uncertainty attached to raising the minimum wage is so much greater than the uncertainty of maintaining the status quo that risk averse policy makers should not take the risk. But that's an argument from welfare economics too. Or maybe he thinks the status quo was arrived at through a just procedure and is by implication itself just, and that voluntary moves from a just distribution are always just. This is Robert Nozick's famous argument, building on Locke, and Mankiw is no doubt sympathetic to it. But to make this case for the world we live in requires a lot more heavy lifting than Mankiw has done here... don't take my word for it: read Nozick for yourself.

The world is complex, and good policy making is difficult. For most real-world policy decisions, do no harm is really not an option. Do the right thing is a better decision rule. Unfortunately there are no easy shortcuts to figuring out what the right thing is.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 41

I have a spotty education in classical music. Haydn was always that historically important but musically boring dude who led the way to Mozart and Beethoven. Ha! We heard this late Haydn string quartet (op. 77 no. 1) performed last night at a Music@Menlo benefit concert. Sublime music, esp. the interior movements: lush adagio, scherzo-like minuet. Here's a group that seems to enjoy it as much as I do:

Friday, March 21, 2014

Coates on "Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind"

I'm not sure I'm with TNC 100% here. His is the minority view, in both American meanings of the term minority. But as far as I'm concerned, the burden of proof is on those who disagree with him, including me. It's a powerful statement.

Springtime confetti drifting on the patio

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Natural selection is a hard taskmaster...

... and apparently a good bit harder than its bastard social Darwinist offspring, capitalism...

Saturday, March 15, 2014

On the Trapper's Trail

Trapper's Trail fire road is the express hiking route to the very top of Foothills Park: 1,000 feet of elevation gain in about 2 miles. Because it's a fire road, the brush has been cleared on both sides, so as you ascend the ridge you get ever-expanding views of the Bay. The brush removal also provides plenty of sun exposure for chaparral plants and encourages shrubs that seem to thrive in disturbed places. That would include our version of the bush poppy (Dendromecon rigida). This stand was adjacent to a nice patch of chaparral pea, just starting to blossom. In two weeks, if the poppies keep it up, this spot will be a riot of hot yellows and magentas...

Up a little higher, some scrappy penstemons colonizing the road:

On the way back down the delicate meadow rue are out:

And the big-leaf maple, throbbing with the humming of bees:

Friday, March 14, 2014

You damn kids get offa my lawn!

John McCain offers some useless advice to Barack.

Room with a view...

... of our Ceanothus 'Ray Hartman.' Splendid, if ephemeral. And he still looks good even after the flowers are gone...

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The bottom 99 or the bottom 20?

Sendhil Mullainathan says we should worry a lot more about the opportunities of the bottom 20% than we do about the excesses of the top 1%. Mark Thoma is not happy with this, although he doesn't say why. Sure, Sendhil pushes a few liberal buttons, for instance by mentioning envy as a main source of concern about the top 1%. But as a Rawlsian on M-W-F and a utilitarian on T-Th-Sat*, I have to side with Professor M at least six days a week. Whether you want to bring up the worst off or the average, caring about the bottom 20 is clearly the way to go. Which is not to say we shouldn't be taxing the 1% at a 70% rate to improve the life chances of the bottom 20.

* What about Sundays? I save that day for libertarianism. Or at least, Sunday mornings.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Another reason to thank Mr. Gorbachev

He created the Moscow stock exchange! Still, the notion that the prospect of financial ruin will prevent macho idiots from going to war seems a thin reed to hang our hopes on.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 40

I love American popular music. Infinite variety and beauty. But we got nothing like this.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why are state and local taxes more regressive than federal?

You might think democracy favors redistribution toward the median voter, and the smaller numbers in small jurisdictions might strengthen democratic outcomes. Not so: in most states, state and local are incredibly regressive. But I am happy to see that California is less regressive than most...

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Help me

Covers of classic Joni songs don't usually do much for me... How to improve on perfection? But this one sounds very nice indeed. Something new revealed here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

La Camel

In the 80s, it was easy for the synth to get in the way. Not so here: There is a slightly menacing sci-fi soundtrack quality that complements the funky groove and Khaled's expressive, organic vocals. Still sounds fresh.