I could have walked around for miles on the lake but the wind was whipping across it. Which means a wind chill of around -12F/-25C. I'm not *that* much of a hard northern person. I would have had to cover my face better, anyway...
Hello! Just a quick reminder for everyone that for the next week or so I will be on a the Nerd Boat (i.e., the JoCo Cruise), on which a) I will be running a writing track for the amusement and edification of the seamonkeys, b) will be busy with the pleasures of various Caribbean paradises, c) will have terrible, terrible Internet connectivity in any event, so my appearances here will be pretty sparse. There will be a Big Idea on Tuesday, and I will be promoting the heck out of Midnight Star (the video game I worked on) on Thursday. Other than that, I might post a picture or two if the cruise’s terrible, terrible Internet connectivity allows it. But mostly? I’ll be on a boat, on a nice working vacation. I figure you’ll be okay with that.
Enjoy your next week! I know I will.
(P.S.: Because I’ll be on a boat with terrible, terrible Internet connectivity, I’m also trimming back commenting here for two days per article. This will close up commenting on some previous entries, obviously. When I’m back I’ll return commenting to the usual two week window.)
(TW for sexual violence in the last item)
A woman charged with murder for delivering a stillborn baby alone has been pardoned, but at least 16 other women are currently serving 30-to-40 year sentences in Salvadoran jails for similar cases. El Salvador has one of the strongest anti-abortion laws in the world, and hospital staff is required to report suspected abortions to the police.
“An Egyptian doctor has been convicted of the manslaughter of a girl who died after an illegal female genital mutilation procedure.”
“Male domination in the leadership of the Church of England is coming to an end, as the 500-year-old institution consecrates its first female bishop.”
“A Turkish court has ordered Facebook to block a number of pages deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammad, threatening to stop access to the whole social networking site if it does not comply”.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa was told by his personal astrologer to call an early election and lost. The astrologer speculates that the opponent’s horoscope was more powerful than the president’s.
“Chilean lawmakers on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill that recognizes civil unions between same-sex couples. The legislation will now go to President Michelle Bachelet next, who is expected to sign it.”
“An Indian state is trying to promote inter-caste marriages by offering a cash incentive.” “Inter-caste marriages are still considered taboo in India, and there have been cases of couples being murdered by their own families – so-called honor killings – as a result of mixed relationships.”
“A ‘celebrity’ Saudi preacher accused of raping, torturing and killing his five-year-old daughter has reportedly been released from custody after agreeing to pay ‘blood money’.”
Featured image: Buddhist statue in the former capital city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. Christophe Menebœuf
It's the first wedding I've been to with the new wording, about how in this country, marriage is "a union between two people". I was already feeling emotional but teared up at that. (And then they did the reading from Captain Corelli's Mandolin about roots growing together and I just gave in and cried.)
I forgot to pack my smart shoes so given a choice between my (bright yellow) trainers or bare feet I'm going barefoot indoors and soaked a pair of socks for the mandatory family photos outdoors. (I remembered spare socks, of course).
Nico decided to read "Room on the Broom" aloud during the ceremony and Charles couldn't sit still and had a small meltdown about taking photos (lesson identified: more effort by us required in walking through formal events in advance). So I'm a bit embarrassed all round, oh well.
Bride and groom are beautiful and look very happy, and it's lovely to see the family and especially my niblings.
As is well known the new insurgent government in Greece has plans to renegotiate the Greek bailout. Something which seems fair enough really: they are a democratically elected government and they should at least be listened to. However, their plans do also depend upon what other democratically elected governments will allow them to do. The important point being that the money involved belongs to those other governments, not the Greek one or Syriza itself. And that same idea of democracy does mean that the German government should be listened to on the subject of what should be done with German taxpayers’ money.
The basic background is this. The Greek government owes a vast sum of money which it is most unlikely they could repay. Various European governments, the ECB and the IMF have stumped up the loans necessary to keep Greece functional. At the price of Greece having to undergo a painful economic deflation. The Syriza victory is perhaps best seen as a rejection by the Greek electorate of that deflation. OK, so far so good. At which point there’s a couple of options. One is to leave the euro but despite my opinions* that this is the best solution no one wants to do that. There could be a relaxation of the austerity rules over how much the Greek government can spend and so on: the Germans and others don’t want to do that while the Greeks do. And alongside this the Greek government insists that the debt burden must be reduced and the Germans and others that it must not be.
It’s possible to achieve much the same goal by playing around with the terms of the repayment but for political reasons everyone is fixated on the size of the debt itself. So, the demands are mutually contradictory. Finally, there’s almost no private sector holding outside of Greece of this debt. So they can’t do the usual thing of rooking the foreign banks. For the reason that they’ve already done that.
So, Alexis Tsipras and his Economy Minister Yanis Varoufakis are insisting that the size of the debt must be cut:
Alexis Tsipras has also promised to renegotiate agreements with the European Commission, ECB and International Monetary Fund “troika” and write off much of Greece’s 320 billion euro ($360 billion) debt, which at more than 175 percent of gross domestic product is the world’s second-highest after Japan.
Merkel flatly rejected such a possibility.
“There was already a voluntary waiver by private creditors; Greece has already been exempt from billions by the banks. I don’t see a further debt haircut,” she told German daily Die Welt in an interview published in its Saturday edition.
So far at least she’s saying that that’s just not going to happen.
There’s a couple of months to go before this all becomes final. Except that there isn’t in another manner:
Vitor Constancio signaled that the European Central Bank stands ready to end its acceptance of Greece’s junk-rated debt for bank funding if the government drops out of an aid program.
If a nation has ratings below investment grade, “then a waiver is granted provided that the country is under a program of the European Union/International Monetary Fund,” the ECB vice president said on Saturday in Cambridge, England. “That is a rule, so there will be no surprises if we find out that a country is below that rating and there’s no longer a program that that waiver disappears.”
Greece funds itself today by issuing more government debt. This is bought by the Greek banks who take it to the ECB and get cash back for it. This is fine: except Greek government debt would not normally qualify for such an arrangement. In the jargon it does not qualify to be used as central bank collateral. There is a special arrangement that makes it so. But, if the negotiations look like going wrong then that arrangement will end. And, of course, at that point Greece is out of the euro.
Someone, somewhere, is going to have to budge in their demands. There is the possibility of a deal in that. A little relaxation of the terms over what can be spent in Greece. A few small changes to maturity of debt and so on. Enough for a face saving deal for all. But if the insistence is that the total debt amount must be substantially cut then I for one predict that the Germans and others will just say no and on yer bike matey. And Greece will then be out of the euro. And this could happen well before the final playing out of the negotiations: it’s what the ECGB does that could be the trigger.
* This shows how important my opinions are in the Chancellories of Europe of course.
One of the little shouting matches going on over the effects of the various policies tried during the Great Recession is the one about the effects of extended unemployment benefits. For those who don’t follow this sort of economic trivia in the US your unemployment benefits usually run out after 26 weeks. After that you’re pretty much on your own until you can find a new job. During this recession just past they were extended out to 99 weeks. And the shouting match is about whether this increased the unemployment rate or not. For, one might think, the prospect of having no money at all might well make someone a little more eager to take whatever job there was rather than waiting for a better fit.
On the other side the contention is twofold. Firstly, that paying extended benefits pumped more money into the economy and this extra demand created some jobs. That’s somethng that’s almost certainly true but it’s not actually a very important point. The sums involved are not large enough to have any more than a trivial effect. Secondly, that there just weren’t any jobs anyone could take and therefore having extended benefits or not just wouldn’t have made any difference to the eagerness with which people would get a job. This one is untrue. For a start it’s not what we’ve observed at other times and secondly we’ve now a paper exploring this point:
We measure the effect of unemployment benefit duration on employment. We exploit the variation induced by the decision of Congress in December 2013 not to reauthorize the unprecedented benefit extensions introduced during the Great Recession. Federal benefit extensions that ranged from 0 to 47 weeks across U.S. states at the beginning of December 2013 were abruptly cut to zero. To achieve identification we use the fact that this policy change was exogenous to cross-sectional differences across U.S. states and we exploit a policy discontinuity at state borders. We find that a 1% drop in benefit duration leads to a statistically significant increase of employment by 0.0161 log points. In levels, 1.8 million additional jobs were created in 2014 due to the benefit cut. Almost 1 million of these jobs were filled by workers from out of the labor force who would not have participated in the labor market had benefit extensions been reauthorized.
Do note that this does not answer the question of whether benefits should have been extended. All this is telling us of is one of the costs of having done so: more unemployment. To make a decision we must know both the costs and the benefits: and one obvious benefit is that a large number of unemployed people had an income. And how you weigh those two, that cost and that benefit, is entirely up to you. Just do recall that within economics there are no solutions, only trade offs. And to be able to decide we have to know what the trade off is.
There is one futher point:
This is a huge mistake. The longer you’re off the market, the harder it is to find a job. It’s an entirely understandable mistake, one I myself made during my two-year attempt to find a permanent job after grad school. But a policy that helps people make that mistake is a bad policy. And while a 0.5 percent increase in the unemployment rate may not sound like that, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people who we seem to have helped to commit this grave error.
My old professor, Richard Layard, is perhaps the doyen of the study of this question over in my native UK. And his basic theoretical structure is that once you’ve been unemployed for two years or more then it’s going to be darn near impossible to get back into the labour market. Partly because you’ve just got out of the habit but in the main because potential employers seem to have a strong aversion to employing people who have been out for two years or longer. It’s not a hard and fast rule, of course, there’s a spectrum in this as in so many other things. But, in general, two years’ unemployment leads to a large liklihood that it will be permanent unemployment.
So, we can say that extended unemployment benefits have led to the unemployment rate today being higher than it would have been without them. For it is true that a major feature of the current US labour market is the manner in which short term unemployment is now down to normal levels. That we’ve still got (slightly) elevated unemployment levels in total is because we’ve a chunk of long term unemployment that the improving labour market isn’t shifting. As Layard rather predicts will happen.
I go along with McArdle in concluding that the extension was the right decision but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have costs. Nor that a more interventionist program might not be needed to deal with the effects of that long term unemployment.
Farage has net -51% approval rating in Opinium 1st time voters poll – even worse than Clegg on -44 http://t.co/OUBxBC8ARG
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) January 31, 2015
Amongst 1st voters LAB leads by 15% according to Opinium. GRN on 19% UKIP 3% pic.twitter.com/5qhZTsekae
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) January 31, 2015
The 15% LAB lead amongst 1st time voters from Opinium compares with LAB & CON level pegging with this age group at GE10
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) January 31, 2015
First-timers are strongly pro-EU
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) January 31, 2015
The big question with this age group is whether they will actually turnout and since the new individual registration rules whether they are on the register.
This polling actually took place just before Christmas so is a bit old.
There will be the latest Opinium survey for the Observer later.
For 11 years viewing politics from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble
Joe Stiglitz has an Op/Ed in the New York Times complaining about the way in which the Trans-Pacific Partnership is going to protect Big Pharma from the effects of competition. He is of course correct that it is but he’s also missing a fairly major point. That we actually want Big Pharma to be protected from the effects of comeptition. Indeed, protecting Big Phamra from competition, protecting all sorts of intellectual property (IP) from the effects of competition, is a major point of public policy. For this whole structure of copyrights, patents and trademarks is a deliberate attempt to solve a basic economic problem with such IP. It’s just too dang easy to copy.
This isn’t to say that we’ve got our system entirely perfect and correct at the moment, we haven’t. But it does make the complaint that Stiglitz has here fairly ludicrous. Here he is:
Trade agreements are negotiated by the office of the United States Trade Representative, supposedly on behalf of the American people. Historically, though, the trade representative’s office has aligned itself with corporate interests. If big pharmaceutical companies hold sway — as the leaked documents indicate they do — the T.P.P. could block cheaper generic drugs from the market. Big Pharma’s profits would rise, at the expense of the health of patients and the budgets of consumers and governments.
Well, yes, this is entirely so. And normally that’s the clinching argument. Damn the producers, what is that is good for consumers, great, we’ll go do that then. However, this isn’t true in the case of intellectual property. Not because we particularly like the people who produce it for a living (umm, freelance authors on matters economic for example) but because we do understand that there’s a public goods problem here. Ideas, inventions, new drugs, pieces of prose, they’re simply very easy indeed to copy. And the marginal cost of copying is thus trivial relative to the original cost of creation. It’s thus terribly difficult to make money out of having created these things in a pure and unadorned free market. We then conclude that if people cannot profit from having produced these things then fewer of these new things for us to enjoy will be produced.
And we don’t think that’s a good idea. People may well be ambivalent about the quantity of supply of economic scribblings but they’re pretty sure they like new novels, new movies and music, new drugs to treat what could not be treated before and so on. Thus the network of protections offered to IP, from trademarkes though copyright to patents. And thus the strangeness of Stiglitz’s complaint here. He’s complaining that the TPP might constrain competition against Big Pharma. So? Our entire legal system constrains competition against Big Pharma. That’s the very point and purpose of the system we have in place. Those constraints making people willing to actually indulge in researching new drugs to cure those illnesses that haven’t killed us yet.
One other point:
Of course, pharmaceutical companies claim they need to charge high prices to fund their research and development. This just isn’t so. For one thing, drug companies spend more on marketing and advertising than on new ideas.
Sad to see this from a Nobel Laureate for this is just the standard unthinking whatabouttery. Marketing and advertising in Big Pharma takes up a larger portion of revenues than research and development do? So? The same is true of Apple. Their M&A budget is very much larger than their R&D one and no one at all complains about Apple being unworthy of gaining patent protection as a result. Indeed, as far as I can tell, advertising alone is a larger part of the US economy (2.9%) than R&D is (2.7%). And no, we’re not surprised when a constituent part of an economy has a similar ratio to the economy as a whole.
Bad news: they’ve forgotten that innocent until proven guilty, burden of proof thing.
Hat-tip: thanks to Brent Alexander who pointed out the document to me.
Well, this is disappointing. A team of astronomers announced last year that they thought they had strong and direct evidence for cosmic inflation in the extremely early Universe. But, after follow-up analysis, it turns out the evidence is far weaker, and it appears inconclusive one way or the other.
OK, so what’s the scoop? First, here’s the announcement from last year when it was thought that the evidence was really good. The details are there.
But here’s a summary: Right after the Universe formed, it’s thought that it underwent an extremely short (to us) period of rapid growth, way faster than the usual cosmic expansion we see today. This event is called “inflation”, and it explains a variety of conditions in the Universe today that would be pretty hard to understand without it.
The problem is, the evidence for inflation is indirect; circumstantial. It explains stuff we already see pretty well, but it also makes predictions about the Universe, too, but we haven’t seen that evidence yet. For example, inflation would have created ripples in the fabric of spacetime, called gravitational waves. These ripples would affect matter in the Universe, and that would in turn affect the light we see coming from the early Universe.
Until last year, that effect hadn’t been seen. The big announcement was that, using a telescope in Antarctica called BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), that evidence had finally been seen. It made a big splash.
The problem comes in when the astronomers looked at things that might mimic the signal they were looking for. For example, dust (long, complex carbon-molecules that are much like fireplace soot) floating in space can look very much like the signal BICEP2 was seeking. The astronomers knew this, and used data from the ESA mission Planck to investigate it. Planck measured the amount of dust lying along the direction BICEP2 was looking, and the astronomers concluded the amount of dust in their line-of-sight was low. The signal they saw, therefore, must be from inflation.
And here’s the bummer part: They were using preliminary Planck data. When better data from Planck were released, the astronomers used that, and found that the amount of galactic dust in their view was much higher than they previously thought. That weakens their case considerably.
The bottom line is that they do still see some evidence for gravitational waves affecting the light from the early Universe, but it doesn’t look like it rises to being statistically significant, and it’s certainly not as strong as they first thought.
In other words, they cannot say if they have direct evidence for inflation or not. The new results neither prove nor disprove inflation. They’re inconclusive. The observations may all be the result of dust in our galaxy, or it may be that there is some excess signal caused by inflation. Given the current data, we just can’t say.
On a personal note, I reported on this last year as straight news. I assumed that such an announcement had been vetted and the results peer-reviewed. They hadn’t been at that time. As such, I think it’s up to the scientists making the claim to make that clear, and to be more circumspect in their announcement… just as it’s up to those of us reporting on big news to be skeptical and make sure that the process of peer review has been fully respected. That’s on me, and I blew it.
Mind you, I don’t necessarily have a problem with big announcements that are made when the scientists themselves aren’t sure what they mean. Specifically, I’m remembering the faster-than-light neutrino announcement, when the scientists said, basically, “Look, we’ve investigated this as much as we can, and we know it sounds crazy, but our results seem to say that FTL particles are possible. What did we miss?” They were very skeptical, and were asking for others to pitch in and see what they found. It turns out there was a loose cable in the equipment (yes, seriously), that messed up their timing experiments.
There were missteps in that whole mess, but overall I rather like the way it went. They had weird results, they couldn’t explain them, they asked for help, and a culprit was found. Next!
In the case of BICEP2 it was tougher because the results were very esoteric. Doubt was cast relatively quickly on the results, and I watched as rumors flew. I wanted to write a follow-up and say things may not be as they seem, but it was hard to separate fact from speculation. I decided to wait until there was better evidence one way or another. And here we are.
And there’s a final irony here: This new announcement was made by the BICEP2 team, but their results aren’t yet published. They’ve been submitted to a physics journal, and the Planck data they used will be made public next week. So even these results aren’t peer-reviewed yet!
The difference, though, is that this is not a paradigm-shifting announcement, but a retraction. The bar is set lower for such things, so I feel safe enough reporting on it. If, however, someone else comes along and says the retraction needs to be retracted, well, we’ll deal with that if it comes up.
Science is messy sometimes, and it’s made messier by the need and pressure to announce results… and the need and pressure on some of us to write about them. We all need to be more careful in the future.