Orthogonal Projections

Biased but consistent commentary on economics, politics, sports, and life.

I feel like a kid again

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I named this post as such not in reference to some personal feeling. Instead I’m referring to the political climate that I’ve had at least some passing interest in since I was young.

The tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has intensified the once sporadic tough talk about Russia that has been ongoing since the Russian annexation of Crimea. Coupled with discussions of potential future Russian aggression in other Soviet Republics and the spy games apparently going on in Germany, I feel like I’m being transported to the late 80′s. Remember The Cold War?  It was a scary time for a preteen.

Why should we be on edge? A quick perusal of history justifies our fear. At risk of being overly reductive, WWI began with  an assassination on the landscape of alliances and latent resentment. The US was drawn into the war despite its isolationist intentions because public opinion shifted in response to the sinking of Lusitania in which roughly 100 – 150 Americans were killed. Similarly, the stage for WWII was set when Hitler’s Germany began annexing various parts of Europe it believed belonged to them because its people lived there. In present day, we have a mix of the two situations.

Of course, the likelihood of a WWIII scenario is quite low. First, none of the major Western powers nor the Russians want to return to living under the specter of nuclear annihilation. Second, war interferes with commerce and money rules the world.  Most economies are so intertwined that the consequences would be devastating.

Nevertheless, I still worry. All it takes is one mistake and the whole world is on fire. With the recent incidents, the kindling is set.

Written by marcdcase

July 19, 2014 at 9:31 am

Posted in Foreign Affairs

A Nightmare Waiting to Happen

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Five vials of smallpox were found in a storage room at the National Institutes of Health, apparently misplaced for decades. This finding is ironic in that  earlier this year there was intense discussion concerning whether the last “known” samples of smallpox ostensibly located under heavy guard elsewhere in the US and  in Russia should be destroyed. I’m not sure what was decided then, but surely this discovery should add new color to these discussions.

As this discovery, the nuclear accident in Japan, or the historical mishaps with respect to nuclear weapons show, there is no 100 percent safety. Even if we currently have tip-top procedures, past mistakes can undermine that security.  While we may believe that we have dangerous chemical and biological agents under control, a  random misplacement could cause catastrophe. Imagine, for example, if the vials had been broken and they had not been properly labeled. We could have had a small epidemic on our hands that almost certainly would have killed thousands of people. This is even more likely as most doctors trained today, as we are learning with respect to measles, are unfamiliar with many of the diseases supposedly eradicated in the 20th century. 

More troubling, of course, is considering if these vials were discovered by someone with  more nefarious intentions. Since they are completely off the grid, there are no structures in place to ensure that such an individual could have walked off with it.

Such scenarios are plausible anywhere and much more likely in places where security is not nearly as tight as the US and could facilitate an attack that our security state, with its focus on electronic surveillance and conventional weapons detection, may not be entirely able to handle. I’m reminded of the backstory in the movie 12 Monkeys starring Bruce Willis. In this film, the virus, taken from the lab by a research scientist, was actually released during an airport security check and transported worldwide via the airline networks. 

Hopefully this episode places our security officials on notice to avoid these nightmare scenarios.

Update: The CDC has admitted its laxity with respect to security and practice at its labs. The nightmare is probably more likely than I believed.

 

 

Written by marcdcase

July 9, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Medicine, Policy, Tragedy

A Functional Addict

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Veteran Washington Post reporter Ruben Castaneda has published an excerpt of his new book “S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C.”  in today’s Politico where he details his addiction to crack and prostitute. The story is intriguing in part because the vignette he shares in this excerpt discussed his scoop of the Marion Barry crack sting by the FBI. He apparently was at the Vista Hotel when it was going down and subsequently ordered up a couple hits for himself. Wow

I would be interested to go back and read the tenor of his articles about these incidents during the crack epidemic of the late ’80s and ’90s. One might think that he might have displayed a unique insight in to what was occurring  in many major cities, though he might have suppressed adding “color”  to his articles for fear of bringing on suspicion. This book will certainly join my summer reading list.

 

 

Written by marcdcase

July 1, 2014 at 8:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Obama vs. Nixon

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The esteemed economist Glenn Loury likely sparked some controversy this weekend in a conversation with University of Chicago social scientist Harold Pollack. In this edition of the Blogginhead’s The Glenn Show, Loury responds to Pollack’s hand wringing over Obama’s congressional difficulties by suggesting that even considering the intransigence of congressional Republicans, Obama was a poor leader. When Pollack balked,   he then compared the unfavorably with Richard Nixon on a number if the key leadership metrics.

A tough  indictment.  While I have long been a critic of  President Obama, it is difficult for me to parse the credibility of Loury’s comparison.  I was not born for some years after Nixon’s presidency ended and was not able to observe his program while he was in office. While I am familiar with much of the relevant history, discussions of Nixon’s initiatives and failures/accomplishments tend to be colored by his participation in Watergate, his handling of the Vietnam War, and his overt bigotry. I do agree that President Obama has not always achieved the first best outcome ( which president ever has?), making a lot of serious policy mistake. But, in agreement with Pollack,  his hands have been tied, in some respect. Due to the preexisting political climate and the crises that the US has needed to deal with since he took office, every thing achieved has been a fight. It is inherently difficult to separate his ability from the environment.

Why such a negative indictment? Should we take this criticism with a grain of salt? I do believe that Loury has never been a fan of the president and anyone who has watched  his Bloggingheads conversations over years will know that Loury often goes out of his way to impugn the president’s ability and performance. Initially it was pure competition and contrarianism: he was a supporter of Hillary Clinton in her ’08 primary run and he was critical of the almost messianic treatment Senator Obama was receiving at the time. When she lost, however,  he actually later supported the Obama campaign,  probably for historical reasons and its more palatable politics. In addition, Loury’s criticism is in part personal; he has admitted several times that he was offended by President Obama’s appropriation of the southside Chicago biography  and his penchant to use the specter of “speaking hard truths” to young black men as a way to assure “other” constituencies. There is some merit to these criticisms, especially in the case of the latter; I’ve made them myself.

Nevertheless, it is hard to forecast how President Obama will be seen in the light of history. Nixon’s presidency ended 40 years ago and there is still new information being introduced that helps historians and political science revise his place. Such pronouncements that Obama is a “failure” and no “great man” seem a bit premature. Many historic things have occurredunder his watch: the financial and housing crises, the ending of Iraq and Afghan wars, the Affordable Care Act, allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and the appointment of the first Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice to name a few. These will surely be the acts he will ultimately be judged on.

Written by marcdcase

June 30, 2014 at 10:05 am

Posted in Policy

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A Regressive Tax Proposal

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Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has proposed raising the 911   telephone tax  $1.40 to $3.90 per month in order to free up money in the budget to satisfy an obligatory pension payment. This tax increase was intended in lieu of an additional increase in the property tax. The pushback, of course, has been that this tax is regressive: that is, the percentage of income that the tax represents increases as monthly income decreases.

Though the tax is small, the concern for its regressive nature is not trivial.  Raising cell phone costs for the poor, for whom this might be their only phone, will certainly hurt them more than me. More important, if the taxes  were to pass with little debate, there is the worry that state and local government with seek to raise  many of these small taxes. Individually this small tax increase is not much of a concern, but on aggregate, a trend in these increases will constitute a serious bite out of  poor person’s budget.

Nevertheless, I think this is a reasonable proposal. Although regressive, because it is relatively small and broad based,I believe that it is a reasonable solution in the short term. More important, it will be borne completely by the people who use city services that it is meant to help finance:  Chicago residents.

 

Written by marcdcase

June 26, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Is Lebron Leaving? (UPDATED)

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Today ESPN announced that Lebron James opted out of his contract. The talking heads, of course, are speculating that he may be leaving Miami. If so, that would be a tremendous blow to the Heat organization as they would not only lose their best player, but also the best player in the world.

I say Lebron’s exit is highly unlikely. The abysmal performance of his team in the recent NBA Finals almost ensures he will not leave. Would a player of his caliber want to leave that performance as his legacy? I think not. In addition, the organization and fans love him plus he and his family have built a life in Miami.

I suspect this move is intended to give Riley, Arison, and company proper incentive to invest in the team. Perhaps it is a money grab as well but it doesn’t seem like Lebron is particularly greedy. The real question is whether the Heat  organization want to invest properly to rebuild a dominant team as the collection of players they have now have shown they can not get it done.

Looks to be an interesting summer of free agency.

Update: Lebron is returning to Cleveland…

Written by marcdcase

June 24, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Wacko Bird or True Believer?

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Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker has written an interesting profile of  Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz apparently is a man who, depending on your beliefs, is either a “wacko bird” as stated eloquently of by his fellow Republican Senator John McCain or a true believer intent on furthering the conservative cause. One gets the sense from Toobin’s reporting that those two descriptors are not mutually exclusive.  I must say, after reading this profile, I agree. 

What is clear from the profile, however, is that Cruz  should not be underestimated. He is highly intelligent and a gifted debater. Cruz is also a winner: he has argued and won multiple cases in front of the Supreme Court and he rose from being a virtual unknown with 2 percent of the vote to win the senate primary in a runoff. For those who would prefer a somewhat moderate government, he is  and will likely continue to be a formidable foe. 

The question on most minds, of course, is can he win a presidential election? Barring another serious crisis on par with the 2007 collapse, I suspect not. He holds uniformly extreme conservative views on all of the public policy issues of the day. These views include his staunch support for  pro death penalty, anti gay marriage, and revocation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The latter episode  which  featured him filibustering for nearly a day on the Senate floor, almost led to the shutdown of the government. Given that he has not shown any inclination to soften his views in public nor back down when challenged, he will face a hard time winning many swing states where Republicans depend on moderate Republican and independent voters to carry the day.

In addition, many Republicans  see his anti-establishment views and willingness to support the ousting of his red-team colleagues as a big negative — he is not a team player. He does have support in other parts of the DC establishment. Many Democrats seem to want him to run and win the Republican nomination. They believe that, because of his extremes, he is an ideal candidate to run against. In an age, however, where many are legitimately concerned with the direction of the country, I say be careful what you wish for. 

Written by marcdcase

June 23, 2014 at 10:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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