Prepared

I just thought I had a few weeks left. But I was surprisingly at ease. I’ve had a wonderful life and thousands of friends, and I’ve had an exciting, adventurous, and gratifying existence. … Now I feel that it’s in the hands of God, whom I worship, and I’ll be prepared for it when it comes.

Jimmy Carter, on the prospect of dying of cancer

This week’s featured post is “The Do-Something-Else Principle“.

This week everybody is talking about the stock market

The Dow fell more than 3% on Friday and has continued falling this morning. It’s down more than 10% from its highs. This could mean one of three things:

  • A normal market correction of the type that happens periodically. The market comes back over the next six months or so with no appreciable effect on the economy. An extreme example was the Crash of 1987, which looked like the start of another Great Depression, but wasn’t. The next recession didn’t hit until 1990. AP writes: “Corrections are natural in a bull market, a pause in the market’s march higher, and this one is long overdue. They usually come about once every 18 months. The last one was four years ago.”
  • A signal that a normal recession is starting. The economy is depressed for about a year and then starts growing again. It’s a little early for a normal recession, but not that early: The business cycle has been running at around 7-9 years, and it’s only been six since the end of the last recession. Also, growth has been sluggish during the expansion, which usually would point to a longer cycle. But the economy isn’t a clock, so maybe the business cycle is running faster this time around.
  • A signal that a global economic catastrophe is beginning, like the Great Recession that began with the market collapse of 2008. A global catastrophe happens when the market realizes that everyone’s economic projections have been built on sand, and so all plans need to be re-evaluated. For example, the real estate bubble, which was based on the idea that people with no money and no prospects would make good on the mortgages they should never have been given. Financial “innovation” had over-leveraged the economy, so that once the dominoes started falling they fell faster and faster.

Everybody’s concern is focused on China: Maybe they’re having their first real recession since their economy grew large enough to affect the world economy. Maybe the long-term China growth story is an illusion; if that’s the case, that would be reason to expect a catastrophe.

Personally, while I could easily believe we’ve all mis-estimated China’s growth rate (given the opacity of its economy), I still believe the underlying story that China is growing spectacularly over the long term. So I’m picturing either a market correction or a normal recession.

The disturbing thing about the prospect of a recession is that governments around the world — not just ours — are still stuck in an austerity mindset, so they’re unlikely to do the kind of stimulus spending that would shorten the recession. Only the Chinese and Japanese governments look philosophically prepared to do the right thing.

and Jimmy Carter

People can argue about whether Carter was a good president. (I think a lot of his decisions and proposals look better in retrospect than they did at the time.) But to me it’s beyond all argument that Carter has been the best ex-president ever. Humble, caring, active for human rights and democracy, and never just cashing in on his fame and former influence … he’s consistently been out there trying to do the right thing as he saw it, without a lot of ego getting in the way.

All in all, I think Carter makes a better advertisement for Christianity than just about any of the high-profile Christian leaders I can think of. That came through once again in the press conference he gave Thursday about his cancer diagnosis. One of the selling points of Christianity is that the prospect of salvation should allow a believer to face death with equanimity. Well, here’s Jimmy Carter, facing death with equanimity.

and the Iran nuclear deal

Somebody must be putting big money behind the following ad urging Congress to reject the agreement, because I’ve been seeing it over and over.

The speaker is a former Iranian political prisoner, and he tells a story of being tortured, even though Iran has signed a treaty against torture. He draws the parallel:

Now they have signed a deal promising no nuclear weapons, but they keep their nuclear facilities and ballistic missiles. What do you think they’ll be doing?

It’s an effective ad if you don’t think about it too hard. If you do think about it, though, its argument starts to fall apart.

First, Iranians who want their government to reject the deal could make the same commercial about us. We also signed a treaty against torture and tortured people anyway. Why should they trust us to keep our side of the agreement?

The reason the United States has been so cavalier about violating the Convention Against Torture (and Iran in violating whatever treaty it is supposed to have signed; it isn’t party to the CAT, so I’m not sure what agreement the ad is referring to) is that its enforcement mechanisms are weak. The U.N.’s Committee Against Torture is supposed to monitor the agreement, but it has no power to punish violators. (That’s why members of the Bush-Cheney Gang are still at large.)

By contrast, the nuclear deal contains provisions for detecting and punishing any Iranian cheating, and insures that the economic sanctions against Iran would “snap back” into effect. You can, of course, imagine some magical way Iran could evade this detection or interfere with the snapback process, but you could similarly imagine a loophole to any agreement. If vague fears were enough to derail a treaty, there would be no treaties.

The people who do arms control for a living are satisfied with the enforcement provisions. So are numerous retired American generals and admirals, as well as former Israeli security officials. (Current military or intelligence officials in either country are usually reticent to make public statements opposing the position of their government — and may be fired if they do — so former officials play a larger role in such discussions.) However, as Josh Marshall points out

that’s only the opinion of people who actually know what they’re talking about.

When the issue is detecting hidden nuclear facilities, those people are so far from a majority that they barely matter politically.


And that brings us to the Associated Press’ “scoop” that Iran will do the inspecting itself, under a secret agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That sounds very shocking and makes the whole deal seem like a sham. But again, that’s only if you are an AP reporter who is fed a leak by an interested party and doesn’t bother to check the story with anybody who has real expertise.

Vox‘ Max Fisher consulted an actual arms control expert (Jeffrey Lewis at Middlebury College’s Monterey Institute of International Studies), who has been following the agreement as it developed. He was neither surprised nor appalled by AP’s “discovery”.

The bottom line here is that this is all over a mild and widely anticipated compromise on a single set of inspections to a single, long-dormant site. The AP, deliberately or not, has distorted that into something that sounds much worse, but actually isn’t. The whole incident is a fascinating, if disturbing, example of how misleading reporting on technical issues can play into the politics of foreign policy.


Econ blogger Noah Smith punctures the myth of Iran’s growing regional dominance. His argument for Iran’s weakness has four main points: Iran is committed to proxy wars it can’t win; it has many rivals and no allies; the outlook for its oil-dominated economy is bleak; and its low fertility rate will keep its population from growing.

and 2016

This seemed to be the week when everybody started asking “What if the Trump candidacy isn’t a joke?” It was supposed to collapse after he characterized Mexican immigrants as rapists, and again after he insulted John McCain’s war record, and again after he had to debate the professional politicians, and again when his post-debate comments insulted Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.

But none of that dented his popularity among the Republican electorate, so this week Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi wrote “Donald Trump Just Stopped Being Funny” and The Atlantic started looking seriously at why people support him. VoxLee Drutman offers the most sensible explanation of the Trump phenomenon I’ve seen yet: The Republican donor class wants to increase immigration and decrease Social Security. But rank-and-file Republicans want the opposite. Trump is speaking for them. This also makes sense of the attraction of a self-financing billionaire candidate: He seems outside the power of the donor class.


Vox points out the horrifying truth contained in a recent Fox News poll: Collectively, the crazy Republican candidates are out-polling the supposedly rational ones. If you add up the totals of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee, you get 53%. Support for the “establishment” candidates that the voters are expected to get in line behind eventually (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Chris Christie) adds up to a mere 26% — barely more than Trump polls by himself.

Simply consolidating everyone behind one of the candidates who is acceptable to elites isn’t going to get the job done. Party leaders need to find a way to actually pry support away from one of the candidates who’s unacceptable to them. So far, they have no idea how to do that.

Things look a little better (but still bad) for the establishment in the latest CNN poll: Trump-Carson-Cruz-Huckabee is at 40% and Bush-Walker-Rubio-Kasich-Christie at 36%.


Jeb Bush explained away his unexpected single-digit poll numbers by saying, “I’m the tortoise in the race.Jay Leno then quipped that the race was “between the Tortoise and the Bad Hair”.


Carly Fiorina’s recently expressed views: against mandatory vaccinations (“when in doubt, it is always the parents’ choice”), against doing anything about climate change (“All the scientists that tell us that climate change is real and man made also tell us this: a single nation acting alone will make no difference at all. So we can destroy every job in this nation, we can destroy the coal industry, we can destroy the agriculture industry … But here’s the truth, ladies and gentlemen: those livelihoods and lives are being destroyed not at the altar of science, but at the altar of ideology. … This is about ideology — it is not about science.”), and against having any federal minimum wage (“minimum wage should be a state decision, not a federal decision”).

On that “no single nation” point about climate change: A candidate who is serious about that view would push for international agreements on climate change. But in April Fiorina told the Christian Science Monitor that any international deal on greenhouse gases “would not be effective”. So in any practical sense, Fiorina wants to do nothing to cut greenhouse gas emissions.


Fiorina has never held elective office, but her claim to fame is from the business world, where she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard. However, she wasn’t a particularly good CEO. David Nir assembles the evidence; to me the most striking detail is that HP stock soared when the board announced it had forced her out, at one point getting 10.5% ahead of the previous day’s closing price.

“The stock is up a bit on the fact that nobody liked Carly’s leadership all that much,” said Robert Cihra, an analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners. “The Street had lost all faith in her and the market’s hope is that anyone will be better.”


If another Republican president (not to mention another Bush) is such a great idea, you have to wonder why the GOP has dropped the last one down the memory hole. If you only listen to the GOP presidential candidates, you might imagine that Ronald Reagan was the last Republican president.

Historian Aurin Squire observes:

This upcoming election marks the latest great GOP purge of history. … The RNC solution to a mountain of damning evidence is a campaign to erase and displace—that is, erasing Bush from the public memory and displacing as many disasters on to Obama. This is a test of the RNC propaganda machine to see how many people they can get to believe whatever they want. Case in point: Almost as many people blame President Obama for the Hurricane Katrina fiasco as the president in office at the time. Anyone with a smart phone and opposable thumbs could figure out that Obama was not president during Katrina and had nothing to do with the aftermath. But if you can alter the memories of 40 to 45 percent of Louisiana Republicans through constant propaganda, the whole country can’t be far behind. It’s a great way of being wrong, and therefore never learning from bad decisions.


Rolling Stone‘s Tim Dickinson points out a disturbing intersection of harsh policies: five Republican candidates (Cruz, Paul, Walker, Jindal, and Huckabee) are against both rape exceptions on abortion bans and against birthright citizenship. That produces the following result:

It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which an undocumented woman in America is raped by a man (perhaps a relative) who is also not a citizen. GOP politicians holding both views would force this woman to give birth to her rapist’s baby — and then deny that child citizenship.


The best version of the Republican debate comes from Bad Lip Reading.

If you want to understand how the magic of BLR works, ThinkProgress explains.

and you also might be interested in …

A touching story about end-of-life care.


OK, I admit this is kind of geeky, but I think it’s fascinating: Mathematicians have discovered a new tessellating pentagon. In other words, you could tile an infinite plane using only that one pentagonal shape, leaving no gaps. (To grasp what’s special about that, make yourself a few identical regular pentagons, and see how far you get before you start leaving gaps.)

It’s said to be only the fifteenth such pentagon ever found and the first new one to be found in 30 years. Finding one is a bit like discovering a new atomic particle, Dr. Casey Mann, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Washington in Bothell and a member of the team, said in a written statement.

Even if the sheer mathematical wonder of that escapes you, you have to admit it’s kind of pretty.

and let’s close with something I’ll never do

I’ve never written down a formal Bucket List, but if I did I’m pretty sure “jump off the Princess Tower in Dubai” would not be on it.

Not even with a zip line or a pretty girl.

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Comments

  • Sunshine  On August 24, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    you have (to) wonder why the GOP…You’re welcome. Sunshine

  • Margaret Levine Young  On August 28, 2015 at 9:12 am

    Regarding the touching story about end-of-life care, take a look at http://www.goalsofcare.org/ for a group (or maybe it’s just a single doctor) who is promoting this idea.

  • mpincus708  On August 30, 2015 at 1:06 am

    Could not agree more with you about President Jimmy Carter. I too wish him well. We seem to be approaching a new McCarthy era in American politics. This thing now with Laurence Lessig and his “represent US” super pac; That’s a riddle I’d like your comment on. Has he enlisted with the ol igarchs — or what? You are on the money also with your view on the Iran nuclear agreement. Wish we had more lights like you to get us thru this darkness. Stay well you and Jimmy Carter– sincerely Meyer Pincus

  • mysanal  On August 30, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    Reblogged this on Mysa.

  • Rocjard Drewna  On August 30, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    I was somewhat annoyed that you included “Econ blogger” Noah Smith’s opinion on Iran being “weak”, when he admits in the first line of his blog post that he’s no international relations expert.

    As an economist, his third and fourth points are of interest, but he misses too much there, too. Iran, in its former existence as Persia, was a political powerhouse before Islam existed, and then again afterwards. The expertise provided by the Persians was one reason the Islamic empire grew so fast and reached such glorious heights. Much of this was after they had “many rivals, no allies” — being the only country dominated by Shiites taught them diplomacy and subtly.

    They don’t need to “win” their proxy wars, anymore than the U.S. needed to win in its struggle against Cuba or manipulation of Latin American governments. They want to be able to veto developments that harm their interests. Assad is their “ally” no more than Hussein was an “ally” of the U.S.; there was a convergence of interests, not any form of “special relationship”.

    Today, it is the region’s most educated and tech-savvy country, and the closest thing the Islamic Middle East has to a stable democracy. If you look at the proxy wars Smith identifies, you might note that Iran is really trying the play the role of regional hegemon (against Israel and Saudi Arabia in two, and alongside Turkey in the third), not trying to export an extremist Islamic radicalism. (That is the role of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism.) It is tragic that the U.S. and U.K. started this mess in 1953, since otherwise Iran would probably be the most likely modern ally in the region.

    Personally, my hopes for the Iran deal is for those old wounds to heal enough that the U.S. and Iran can perceive this.

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