Author Archives: Rusty B. Schwartz

Something I learned last night


I wanted the Ang Lee 2003 Hulk to be good and it wasn’t. Everybody was right.


A list of feelings around the internet

Dear Violet,

I. You may or may not know this, but I’m not a huge Judd Apatow Fan. Or I guess I should say my admiration for his work is subject to a number of qualifications. To wit: I have no bad things to say about Freaks & Geeks, but beyond that I prefer the movies that he writes or produces (Superbad & Pineapple Express = two of the best things ever) to those he directs (The 40-Year-Old Virgin & Knocked Up = kind of stinkers, honestly). The exception is Funny People, which he directed and seems to me to be a lot like F&G insofar as it was (a) relatively poorly received and (b)hey-I-thought-this-was-gonna-be-a-comedy-but-it’s-not-exactly. Come to think of it, I suspect those two things are kind of inseparable, but that’s neither here nor there. But, Violet, since this is a round-up of what people are saying on the internet, here’s Apatow on a critic of Funny People:

There certainly are a lot of dick jokes in Funny People but there is no way to portray comedians without having them tell a lot of those types of jokes. If I was a hundred percent accurate I would have doubled the dick joke count. The only thing more troubling than making jokes about the male penis would be to be serious and honor the male penis.

Punchline? But then you would have made Zardoz!

II. Pivoting slightly, I think we can both agree for no specific reason that this line of reasoning relies on a non sequitur:

“If pictures of you naked end up on an internet site, it’s quite difficult to say you have the credibility to be a judge,” said Sébastien Grammond, a law professor. He adds that this is exactly the sort of thing they’re referring to when, as a judicial candidate, you’re asked to reveal anything incriminating about your past.

To be sure, there’s a lot of creepy in the story, and it sure does seem like the complaint of sexual harassment is legit if true. But it also seems like the credibility of the judge has kind of nothing to do with her being photographed naked, which incriminate her in… what exactly I’m not sure? But I’m not the lawyer (non-lawyer lawyer) here.

III. Crud Wizard has been making me happy for the last 24 hours. In short: 9-year-old has superb blog about metal, skateboarding & geography etc. Now, I don’t know exactly how much his dad helps him, but I’m not gonna let that ruin this:

My favorite band is Iron Maiden and I hate Reagan, and hippies, and Jesus.

Now, I’m afraid that I’m way too circumspect to instill these precise values in my own kid, but on the balance I think the more children out there indoctrinated against Reagan/hippies/Jesus the better.

In a nice bit of synergy, I have been listening to Angel Witch by Angel Witch a lot recently.

Death to false metal,

A partial defense of defense


Nothing gets me thinking about the military-industrial complex like a stroll around Santa Monica (no, seriously), which happens to be exactly what I was doing a week ago today. And of course, defense reform has been on my mind ever since spotting Fallows on Gary Hart (not to mention Bob Gates, recently).

I don’t think I have anything particularly brilliant to say on this matter, but I wonder what decreased defense spending might mean for the low-demand labor market we’re facing these days. Don’t get me wrong: defense spending is pretty clearly an area that suffers from a lot (a lot a lot) of waste that is really (really really) politically difficult to eliminate ad so trimming the defense budget is, I think, a worthwhile project. Of course, we have an all else being equal thing going on there, and given current labor market conditions, defense cuts could mean axing a lot of jobs that don’t have a really obvious replacements.

Again, I haven’t really thought about this in any kind of careful systematic way, but… yknow, it’s a concern. And what’s the internet for if not for airing nebulous, poorly-formulated concerns? I will say, however, that it’s worth noting that people often choose not to think of national defense in economic terms. The upshot of this elision is that conservatives are able to convince themselves that World War II was a magic depression-ending world-historic event somehow apart from the pretty obvious fact that it was a massive Keynesian public-works spending spree. Really really stupid demagogues say this plainly. I suspect that smarter people do this too, if a little more subtly or merely by implication, but the Sharron Angles of the world get this crap somewhere, right?


Reality & its discontents


I am with you in general on the deleterious effect of reality television. In general. I admit to having been oddly captivated by season 1 of Survivor (holy shit, what a decade ago?). But season 2 left me cold and uncomfortable (and hungry, but luckily at a time when Whoppers were still 99 cents sometimes). And so forth from there.

Toward the thesis that reality TV made us bad people, I submit this seems pretty much entirely correct take on Paris Hilton, celebrity worship & cheap populism that are all kinds of bound up in the Reality TV Phenomenon. Mostly:

The problem with Paris wasn’t Paris, it was the amount of attention the media paid to Paris. (Assuming you think Paris Hilton is a less worthy subject of attention than a Hollywood starlet, which seems questionable to me, but again, never mind.) And whether or not she encouraged the attention, the simple fact is that if you had a problem with the media, the target of your complaints should be the media.

I would like to brag about how I was ahead of the curve on this one, but my conversations-in-bars from 2005 are for some reason not archived on the internet, so i can’t prove it. But I’ve had feelings like this for a long time, most recently re Lindsay Lohan (this is what I think about when I’m supposed to be thinking about labor economics or what’s for dinner). It just bothers me when people gang up on famous people who are just kind of being idiots the way a lot of non-famous people are idiots. Sure they act more privileged than most but we don’t have cameras following us around telling us we’re awesome/pretty/ok-to-drive (yet).

Same goes, for: Ke$ha, I guess? Seriously, this makes me cringe thinking that grown people (I’m assuming, yes) care so so so much. Also the idea that Yellow Submarine is some sort of cultural Ka’aba that must not be vandalized! and not, yknow, pretty much a joke the Beatles played on everybody (but what wasn’t, right? Am I right?). I hate to quote (paraphrase?) the always-problematic High Fidelity, but: It’s all pop music!

Oh but now I’ve lost the plot, which is that my general antipathy toward reality TV breaks down in the specifics, notably & perhaps solely: PROJECT RUNWAY. And I even came to this show late, after its jump from Bravo to Lifetime during which it became (or so I am told) more or less a preview of a distopian future in which Garnier and Hewlett Packard and Piperlime are the most powerful companies in the world (Oceania has always been at war with

Anyway, I don’t know if you watch it, but last night’s episode was so good. I’m not gonna spoil it, but: unggggg [SPOILER ALERT duh]. Don’t worry: fast-talking Valerie remains Weapons-Grade Adorable.


John Fremont, Richard Nixon & me


Upon my return from the City of Tomorrow (aside: better ideas re nomenclature? I’m running on fumes here) it seems appropriate that I check in here to report any epiphanies/Scientological conversions I may or may not have undergone.

The main life-change I’ve experienced, actually, involves the fact that I’m posting this from some sort of advanced telephonic device. Frankly, it’s exhausting (I am of course pretty much less than a novice at the use of this) so I’ll keep it brief.

1. It is just terrific out there. You get to wear a jacket at night in August, which I personally enjoy quite a bit.

2. Some seriously loose morals out there. But not in the way you’d think! I am loathe to say more on this topic on the internet. Sorry to be a tease.

3. I wonder about what defense/military reform means for labor markets. This is only tangential to my travels in the CoT. Will explain further when I learn how to link on this machine.

4. Scientology, what’s up with that?

5. The  Museum of Jurassic Technology/thoughts on museum anthropology & Soviet Space Dogs.

6. Mike Teevee (of Willy Wonka’s blah blah blah) is a much more sympathetic character than I believe he was intended to be. TV is kind of a perfectly acceptable thing to be Way Into, and besides: those are probably some classic westerns he’s watching & I’d be pissed too if reporters were asking me inane questions & shoving microphones in my face while I’m trying to watch my shows (pre-DVR, natch).

7. Taco fusion trucks: yes and no.

So there you have it, Violet. a list of feelings about the City of Tomorrow. I think I’d like to know what sort of feelings you might list about same.

Tanned, fit, ready,


How can something so sweet be so wrong (more professors)

Querida V,

If you know me (and you do), you know I don’t know what to think about Greg Mankiw’s blog. I keep saying he’s so smart (I mean I guess he is, right? RIGHT?) but I’m kind of vexed because of things like this from last week (last week, right? what day is this?):

The key insight of Keynesian economics is that the problem during recessions is inadequate aggregate demand. Taken to the extreme, which some Keynesians do, it says that aggregate demand is the only thing you need to worry about during downturns. Changes in aggregate supply (due to, say, high marginal tax rates or adverse incentives associated unemployment insurance) don’t matter, they argue, because employment is being constrained by the low level of aggregate demand.

University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan offers a challenge to that view. Casey points out that there is a regular surge in teenage employment during the summer months because more teenagers are available to work (that is, the supply of their labor has increased). That is no surprise: It is normal supply and demand in action. But if aggregate demand were the main constraint on employment, this increase in supply should not translate into higher employment during deep recessions such as this one. But it does!

Most economists, Keynesians and otherwise, ignore this summer change in employment because we focus on seasonally adjusted data.
But as Casey points out, the raw unadjusted data may have something important to teach us.

[emphasis mine, of course]

And then I am deeply troubled because I mean… even l can kind of see right through that, yknow? Non-certified NOT-AN-ECONOMIST Rusty Schwartz knows that “most economists… focus on seasonally adjusted data” for a reason! And that reason is that supply and demand both fluctuate, um… seasonally… and, like… together.

Oy, how do I mean? I mean that of course the labor supply increases in the summer but so does aggregate demand, right? Those teenagers are working at things like cream stands and water parks and goat rodeos. And then there’s no demand for those things (and thus no demand for the teenage labor) when the teenagers are back in school (and there’s no more teenage labor supply). The supply and demand both fall. RIGHT?

So this was creating a crisis of confidence for my Internet Economist worldview. Because, for instance, Tyler Cowen links approvingly (I guess?) to the Mankiw post and he’s not in the business of being flat-out wrong about things (although I guess he’s not flat-out wrong here either, but just says “Casey & Greg say this…” and I like to imagine kinda looks at the camera like he’s on The Office)… but anyway, crisis averted because real live licensed smart people on the Internet made pretty quick work of it, which is nice:

Recession or expansion, the demand for labor increases in the summer and winter, following the patterns of demand. In the summer, some of this demand is satisfied by a seasonal rise in teenage labor supply. This isn’t exactly brain surgery.

Mulligan and Mankiw have not found any smoking gun that refutes Keynesianism. They do unwittingly reveal that they don’t really understand how to use nonseasonally adjusted data. But, more importantly, they reveals a remarkable ignorance of – and, presumably, lack of appreciation – for the ebb and flow of economic life in America. It is almost like not understanding basic elements of your own culture.

Needless to say, this made me feel ok about myself. And reminded me of another Mankiw post that made me go a little nuts inside a couple months ago. Now the teen labor supply thing isn’t all on him (he was tricked by Casey Mulligan maybe? but still…), but this, OH THIS (here’s the whole thing):

How to Lie Without Statistics

Today’s Parade Magazine (with a circulation of 32 million) includes its “Annual Salary Survey.” What this means is that the magazine presents about a hundred photos of various people with their names, occupations, and annual earnings.

At first, you might think this is a good way to give readers a sense of the distribution of income in society. And it would be, if the sample were at all representative. But it isn’t. Parade decides to oversample celebrities. That is understandable–after all, readers are more interested in hearing about famous actors and sport stars than about a plumber in Dubuque. But one result of this choice is that the sample is far from representative, making the whole affair misleading as a piece of journalism.

By my count, about 14 percent of the people in Parade’s sample earn more than $1 million a year. In the real world, the actual percentage is about 0.2 percent. So, in a truly representative sample of a hundred people, you would most likely have zero, or perhaps one, person with a million dollar income. Finding two would be highly unlikely. 14 would be nearly impossible.

Does this matter? I think it might. There is a common perception in some circles that we can solve all our fiscal problems if only we were willing to tax the rich some more. Yet, in reality, there are not enough rich for this to work. By presenting such a skewed cross-section of incomes, Parade inadvertently feeds an all-too-common misperception.

Whoa. I mean, first of all: can you believe he calls the thing HOW TO LIE WITHOUT STATISTICS and then tries a super-amateurish sleight-of-hand and tries to convince us that tax revenues have to do with the number of millionaires rather than the sizes of their millions. I don’t have to explain what’s wrong with that, do I? Well, no, I don’t because someone did it already:

If we are interested in thinking about the potential taxes the rich can pay, Mankiw’s 0.2 percent is incredibly misleading. The issue here isn’t how many people are rich, but rather how many dollars are earned by the rich. In the spread, each picture is shown as if each person were equally able to pay more taxes. But that surely isn’t true. If Parade were trying to give a sense of the capacity of each person to pay taxes, they would show much, much larger photos of the rich, and proportionately smaller photos of the rest of us. Relative to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the photos of most of us would barely register a couple of pixels. For obvious reasons, they didn’t choose to do this. But this inadvertently feeds an all-too-common misperception that because there aren’t a lot of rich people, they don’t earn a large share of total income. They do.

What proportion of income is earned by the rich? Let’s turn to Emmanuel Saez’s compilation of income tax statistics. The latest data are for 2007, and for simplicity’s sake we’ll examine the broadest measure of income. The richest 0.5 percent of families all earned more than $632,000, and received 19.3 percent of all income. Or alternatively, we can focus on the richest 0.1 percent of families—who all earned more than $2 million, and collectively earned an average income of $7.1 million. This sliver of the community—the folks Greg worries about—received 12.3 percent of all income.

The lesson? Families earning more than $1 million probably do represent close to 14 percent of total income, and maybe more. By arguing that only 0.2 percent of families are this rich, Mankiw risks distracting his readers from the fact that increasing the taxes paid by the rich can be a big part of the solution to our fiscal woes.

So that was easy, but I want to add something (to this to prove I’m smart or whatever, right?). The part of Mankiw’s analysis that Just Drives Me Nuts is the story he tells about the particular perception problem created by the overrepresentation of millionaires in the Parade salary survey. He seems to think this leads people to believe that “there are enough rich people” that we can solve our problems by taxing them. But I thought to myself: who on earth sees those celebrities and thinks that? See, there’s a much much simpler story you can tell about what people think when they see all those millionaires: they think they have a pretty good chance of becoming a millionaire themselves. This is kind of a well-documented phenomenon. Unfortunately for Mankiw, the simpler story would mean that the trouble with Parade is that it would make people less eager to tax the rich than they ought to be. And I don’t think that’s the conclusion he wants to come to.

On the other hand, I may be having delusions about how convincing my story is.


In which I assign gender to drinks and not to epithets

Dear Violet,

All manner of world-historical importance swirling about. By which I mean:

I hate to say this, but the professor is wrong and Starbucks is right.

Seems to me all Lynne Rosenthal had to do was say “no, thanks” the same way one might when the waiter at Not-Starbucks asks “cream and sugar?”

The Starbucks lingo is annoying, but in my experience I’ve never seen a customer required to use it. I often order lady-style drinks from them and the barista asks whether i want whipped cream. I have never been required to say “no whip” or “with whip” – “no, thanks” and “yes, please” have always sufficed.

I’m sure the barista was dick to Prof. Rosenthal, but it sure does seem like she was more of dick in the first place. And the third place.

Also, I’m so sorry no I’ve never seen Mad Men and also you’re wrong: I don’t have cable. Mysterious, I know.


The elegant paradox of the filibuster

or Why the Republicans always get their way and why it is bad for America

Xtreme Violet,

Unlike yesterday, today I have an actual serious political economy problem gnawing at me. I don’t think I’m overselling the problem when I say it’s the single most troubling dilemma in American politics. I’m talking, of course, about the problem of the filibuster and accountability.

The problem is as follows: (a) Given the filibuster rule in the Senate, the minority party may choose to allow or block majority party policy, so long as the majority does not exceed 59 seats [1]. This would be not such a problem if the following were not true: (b) the majority party is held solely responsible for policy enacted or not enacted [2].

Given (a) and (b), it follows that the minority party not only (c) controls what policy is enacted [3], but also that they (d) benefit from bad policy. Therefore it is in the interest of the minority to allow bad policy to proceed and to block good policy.

Allow me to get on my normative high-horse here and say: This is an incredibly bad institutional arrangement.

But further, consider this thought experiment. Let’s assume (as I think we both believe), that (e) Republicans favor bad policy and (f) Democrats favor good policy.

If the model is accurate and (c) and (d) are true, and if the assumptions are also accurate and (e) and (f) are true, then it follows: a Democratic minority will always allow bad policy to be enacted by a Republican majority. So too will a Republican minority always block a Democratic majority.

Does this not describe at least the last decade of American politics? If it does, then I think my assumptions about the relative merits of the parties’ policy proposals are correct.

Seriously though, am I wrong [4]? I feel like this is a good model, but I might just have a super-harsh case of confirmation bias.


[1] This partially explains the first year of the Obama administration, with the caveat that the 60th member of the caucus was often not a Democrat, but Joe Lieberman, who endorsed the Republican ticket in the 2008 election.

[2] I am assuming this to be broadly true. Certainly there is some degree to which the majority party may campaign against obstructionism, but I suspect the effects of such campaigns are negligible.

[3] This assumes a unified government (executive & legislative) and so describes part of 2001, 2003-2007 (Republican) and 2009-present (Democratic).

[4] One counter-argument I want to preemptively knock down: Bush-era Social Security reform failed not because Democrats blocked it in the Senate, but because the Republican government (executive + legislative) was not in fact united on the policy. Of course, on some issues it may be the case that bad policy will blocked because the minority party is acting in good faith and sees that policy as legitimately dangerous enough and sufficiently difficult to correct in the future (this of course is the purpose for which the filibuster was designed and has been traditionally used). There is, of course an alternative model in which this is always the case, but that model leads to the somewhat more emotionally satisfying, but I think ultimately less parsimonious conclusion that the entire Republican Senate caucus is completely fucking insane.

Neil Irwin & co. seek to repeal 20th century (lexically speaking)

Dear Violet,

I feel like I’ve dropped the proverbial ball a little (a lot) since you’ve been gone to the wilds of Big Sky Country.

Anyway, you know what’s been bothering me kind of a lot? A whole bunch of political economy questions. And naturally the question that seems to have gotten under my skin the most is easily the least consequential, namely: OH MY GOD WHY IS THE NEW BLOG AT THE WASHINGTON POST CALLED POLITICAL ECONOMY?

As you probably know, this sticks in my craw because the blog is about economic policy. To get a little too cute about it, economic policy is the politics of economics, whereas political economy is the economics of politics. Of course, I am doubly vexed because this rather inconsequential wordplay is I guess legitimate enough seeing as “political economy” has an antiquated definition that means what we means when we just say, yknow “economics.” Oh and also it’s a pretty good blog, so I dunno, I just hope no impressionable youth start talking like 19th century moral philosophers, right?

On the third hand, I do feel somewhat vindicated by the fact that wikipedia says: Not to be confused with Economic policy.

Slightly validated,

Pub rock Friday (on a Saturday)

An important part of All Internet Traditions is that they actually require some maintenance. By which I mean: If I’m gonna have Pub-rock Friday, I better be putting up a pub-rock video on Friday. And I didn’t do that this week. So here’s one that doesn’t require a ton of background. Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Rockpile. Beginner’s stuff. Enjoy: