Friday, December 14, 2012

Ecological shocker of the day

White tigers are not actually an endangered species:

[W]hite tigers are not a subspecies at all but rather the result of a mutant gene that has been artificially selected through massive inbreeding to produce oddball animals for human entertainment.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Something peculiar about the reporting of North Korea's missile launch

The major news outlets are reporting that:
Experts say the launch shows North Korea's rocket has the range to hit Hawaii and parts of the West Coast of the United States.  [Emphasis added]
This is odd because the rocket actually got its payload into orbit.  If you can get a payload into orbit, then you can get it anywhere in the U.S. (indeed anywhere on the planet) [1], not just the West Coast.  Why would a news outlet report such an obvious error?  More precisely, who are the "experts" that fed them the erroneous story, and what could possibly have been their motive?

Usually when mainstream news outlets report things that are false or misleading it is not hard to find some plausible political or economic motive behind it, but this is a mystery.  There's either something very peculiar about this orbit (in which case that should have been part of the story) or someone along the line just made up the bit about Hawaii and the West Coast out of whole cloth.  Why would anyone do that?


[1] It is not quite true that getting into orbit lets you get anywhere.  In general, an orbit constrains you to a certain range of latitudes.  The two extremes of this situation are an equatorial orbit, which constrains you to zero degrees latitude, and a polar orbit, which covers all latitudes.  Both of these orbits are harder to achieve than an orbit that is inclined at some angle between 0 and 90 degrees.

The only kind of orbit that constrains you in longitude (which is what is being claimed here) is a geosynchronous orbit, and that is very hard to achieve.  You have to get to an altitude of 35,000 km or so.  The North Korean satellite is in low-earth orbit at about 500km.  Not even close.

The actual trajectory of the North Korean satellite seems to be a polar sun-synchronous orbit, which means it could potentially deposit a payload anywhere on earth, including Santa's house.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Scalia jumps the shark

At an appearance at Princeton University, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was asked by a gay student about his support for bans on sodomy.  He answered:

It’s a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the 'reduction to the absurd'.  If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?  I’m surprised you aren’t persuaded.  [Emphasis added]

It was that last bit that left me slack-jawed despite the fact that I've gotten accustomed to the ridiculous drivel that passes for logic in Scalia's twisted worldview.  No, I am not persuaded, Justice Scalia, because your "argument" (if one can even call it that) is a straw man (something which, if you'll forgive me, I thought you would have known).  Of course you can have moral feelings about homosexuality.  But what is it that justifies reifying your moral feelings into law besides the fact that you happen to be a Supreme Court Justice?  Do you have any basis for outlawing sodomy other than "because I feel like it" (and "because I can")?  No, you don't, because there isn't any (which is probably why you have nothing to resort to but indignation when someone calls you out).

Amanda Marcotte puts it better than I could ever hope to:

We can probably come up with a better system than randomly picking a bunch of acts—same-sex relations, murder, giving coffee drinks funny names—and declaring these things immoral on the grounds that something has to be immoral.  There's got to be a more rigorous way of wading through legal questions than just throwing darts against a wall, and when the darts hit the words "murder" and "sodomy," figuring hey, let's ban both.
For instance, we have this crazy theory in the modern era that people have rights that shouldn't be infringed on without good reason. So, because you rogering your boyfriend in peace in your home doesn't actually hurt anyone, we should leave you alone to go ahead and do that. However, shooting someone in the head for cutting you off in traffic does infringe on others without good reason: In addition to the ensuing traffic jam and the taxpayer money necessary to clean your victim's guts off the road, someone unwillingly dies.
Seriously, how does someone so oblivious to his own biases ever get to be a judge?

Ladybug porn

Gotta do something to drum up traffic around here.  :-)

This photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5 on a boat in Neva Bay outside St. Petersburg, Russia.

Monday, December 10, 2012

It's the capital gains rate, stupid!

In last week's WSJ Peter Schiff has a piece debunking... well, it's actually a little hard to tell what he's trying to debunk.  The title of the piece is The Fantasy of a 91% Top Income Tax Rate, but of course it is undeniable that there once was a rate this high (actually, tax rates topped out at 94% in 1944).  But Schiff argues that this rate wasn't "real" because of the myriad tax shelters and loopholes that were available at the time.  So were the effective tax rates, net of loopholes, higher then than now?

That is a tricky question to answer (as evidenced by the labyrinth of figures in Shiff's piece, some of which he originally got wrong).  But it's also the wrong question to ask because it ignores the real elephant in the taxation living room: long term capital gains.  (Actually, the real elephant is a wealth tax [1], but that is so far off the radar in today's political climate that one risks being taken for a left-wing nutjob merely by uttering the phrase.  So I won't.)

Let's take stock of the last 100 or so years of economic history.  In 1926 the capital gains rate was 12.5% and the top marginal income tax rate dropped from 44% to 25%.  Three years later, the Great Depression began.

In 1944, the capital gains rate was back up to 25%, and the top marginal income tax rate was a staggering 94%.  That was quickly reduced to 91%, but over the next thirty years it was never lower than 70%.  Over this same thirty-year period, unemployment was 5.5% or lower for all but one year (1958, when it spiked to 6.8%).  The capital gains rate rose as high as 38% in 1979.

In 1981 the capital gains rate was reduced to 20% and the top marginal income tax rate was reduced to 50%, then to 28% in 1988.  In response to increasing deficits, the income tax rate was raised in 1992 and again in 1994 (by a Republican Congress working with a Democratic President, it is worth noting).  The deficit shrank to zero.  Unemployment shrank to 4% in 2001.

In 2003, the capital gains rate was reduced to it current 15% and top marginal income tax rates to 33%.  Five years later the Great Recession began.

Now, of course none of this proves a causal relationship between high taxes and general prosperity or low taxes and economic disaster, but the correlation really is quite remarkable.  The last hundred years have been bookended by two periods of dramatically low taxation, which just happen to correspond (with a 3-5-year delay) with economic catastrophe.  In between we had three decades of high taxation and uninterrupted prosperity.  If there isn't a causal relationship, it sure is one helluva coincidence.  But no matter how you slice it, there is only one theory that the data could conceivably debunk, and that is the one that says that rich people are job creators, and that taxing them exacerbates unemployment.

There is, of course, a very plausible model of why higher taxes can help promote prosperity: jobs are not created by wealth (it's actually the other way around: wealth is created by jobs).  Jobs are created by demand.  Enmployers don't hire people because they have money, they hire when -- and only when -- there is more demand for their product than they can meet with their existing work force.  So it is no coincidence that prosperity coincides with high marginal tax rates (and, I might add, strong labor unions).  The best way to generate demand is to, as conservatives like to say, "broaden the base" and operate under rules that benefit the middle class and poor even if this comes at the expense of the very rich.  This is because the less money you have, the more of it you spend as a percentage of your income.  A single person can only consume so much, so a million dollars in the hands of one person produces less demand (and hence fewer jobs) than the same million in the hands of, say, ten people.

Now, please don't mistake this as an endorsement of communism.  I am a proud born-again capitalist.  I do not believe in equality of outcome.  There has to be some incentive to work harder and take more risks.  But there also has to be some countervailing force to balance out the disproportionate political and economic power that comes with extreme wealth.  From 1945 to 1975 that countervailing force was high marginal tax rates and strong labor unions (and Glass-Steagal, but that is yet another story).  Today we have... Barack Obama.

God help us.

[1] Actually, the real real elephant is corporate taxes.  But that's a whole 'nuther can o' worms.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Rebooting the Ramblings

OK, I'm coming out of the closet.

Last February I announced that I was shutting down this blog.  Ten months later it's still here, and a lot has happened.  In particular, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear two gay marriage cases, an issue which has been near and dear to my heart for many years now (despite -- or perhaps because of? -- the fact that I'm straight).  This would be good news except for the very real possibility that this could easily be another Dred Scott decision.  We narrowly dodged a bullet on Obamacare, an outcome I predicted two years earlier (to much derision, I might add).

So maybe I'm Cassandra instead of Elijah, but either way I feel driven to prophecise: The Supreme Court will affirm Proposition 8 and DOMA.  Never in my life have I wished so much to be wrong.

Here's why I'm worried: there are three hard-core ideologues on the court: Thomas, Alito, and the ideologue-in-chief, Scalia, will surely vote to affirm DOMA and Prop 8.  Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan are not as reliable votes to overturn as the Three Ideologues are to affirm, but the odds are pretty good.  That leaves Kennedy and Roberts as the usual wild cards.  But there is a deeper concern than just the numbers, and that is that we cannot rely on the Supreme Court to act rationally, or even within the confines of the law.

That DOMA violates the Equal Protection Clause is absolutely clear.  There is no principled argument to be made against gay marriage.  None.  Zero.  The closest the right has been able to come is to mumble vague platitudes about children.  But "doing it for the children" requires that you bury your head in the sand about the reality that producing a baby and raising one are largely separable activities, that many heterosexual couples are childless by choice (myself and my wife among them), and that there are probably millions of gay couples raising healthy well-adjusted children throughout the globe, particularly in ten countries and nine states where gay marriage is currently legal.

But the ideologues don't care because, well, they're ideologues.  Ideologues don't reason forward from the evidence, they reason backwards from the conclusion that homosexuality is sinful, though normally they omit the bit about it warranting the death penalty (except in Uganda where they are doing their best to follow God's Word).  Scalia in particular is not at all shy about putting his ideology on display: in 2003 he dissented against Lawrence v Texas not on merits but because it would lead to gay marriage!  In other words, Scalia reasoned: if you can't regulate what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms, then there is no principled argument to prevent them from getting married.  He's right about that.  But his conclusion is perverse: therefore is must be Constitutionally permissible to regulate what people do in their bedrooms, and the Ninth Amendment be damned.

Well, it feels good to get that off my chest.  When the history of this civil rights struggle (because that's what this is) is written I don't want anyone to be able to say that I stood idly by and did nothing.


On an administrative note, Rondam Ramblings is going to be sticking around for a while.  I was always planning to start blogging again, but I was hoping to extricate myself from the Blogger platform because it is becoming more and more important to me to maintain control of the content that I produce (I actually have a lot to say about that, but that will have to wait).  But then I discovered that Blogger allows you to change the canonical URL under which your blog appears.  You may notice that the URL you are seeing is no longer "".  Since links matter more than the actual hosting (though hosting matters too) and bringing up a blogging platform turns out to be a lot more work than I had hoped, I've decided to stick with Blogger for now.

There's another reason to start writing again now, and that is that there is more to the story of why I stopped back in February than I told at the time.  Back then I wrote, "it is unwise to leave unedited thoughts publicly available on the internet."  There's a long and complicated story behind that remark, one that will take more than one entry to tell.  So that will have to wait.