Carnot and Stapleton

Jean StapletonBefore starting, we have to do a death of note. Jean Stapleton died yesterday at the age of 90. She was very big in musical theater from the late 1950s. She was something there has traditionally been too few of: a female character actor. Most of the time, she played rather different kinds of characters. In You’ve Got Mail, she played kind of a ball buster—a straight talking and strong woman. But we will all remember her as Edith Bunker for nine years on All in the Family.

I was pretty young when the show was on—just seven when it started. But our family never missed it, at least for the first several years. At some point we transferred our love to The Jeffersons, probably because my father associated with George Jefferson in a way that was not healthy. But to me, All in the Family was a simulacrum of the life that was going on in and around the house that I was growing up in.

The heart of the show was Edith Bunker and Stapleton’s layered and surprisingly subtle performances. As a sensitive young person, I doubt I could have dealt with the show if it weren’t for Edith’s character. She is an archetype: the conciliator who keeps everyone grounded in what matters most, as the rest of us fly at each other over what are, at any given moment, academic matters. There is great strength in those who don’t need to be the smartest or the the loudest in the room. She really did make the show, even if Archie and Michael got all the attention.

Here is the opening song, which has some very clever lyrics. You can see what Norman Lear was going after with lines like, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again!”

On this day in 1801, Mormon leader Brigham Young was born. Russian classical composer Mikhail Glinka was born in 1804. I’m all for spiritual leaders, but really, their legacies are never as thrilling as this:

And speaking of music, the great arranger Nelson Riddle was born in 1921. In 1926 on this day, both Andy Griffith and Marilyn Monroe were born. I’ve never cared that much for Griffith, but he was quite good in A Face in the Crowd. Monroe, on the other hand, was a great comedic actor. Here she is in Some Like it Hot. “See what I mean? Not very bright!” She was brilliant:

The great bluegrass musician and songwriter and social activist Hazel Dickens was born in 1935. Here she is doing “Pretty Bird“:

And actor Cleavon Little was born in 1939.

Three actors have birthdays today. Morgan Freeman is 76. Brian Cox is 67. Jonathan Pryce is 66. And chess grandmaster Nigel Short is 48.

Sadi CarnotThe day, however, belongs to the father of thermodynamics Nicolas Leonard Sadi Carnot who was born in 1796. He is primarily known for two things. The first is the Carnot Cycle of an idealized heat engine. Using this, he was able to show that the maximum efficiency of an engine was only dependent upon the the two temperature reservoirs of the engine. That’s a remarkable conclusion that I don’t think most people realize today, even as they use many different heat engines.

The other thing he did was discover the second law of thermodynamics. When I was an undergraduate, my professor for statistical mechanics, Joe Tenn, used to say that the first law of thermodynamics said that the best you could do was get as much work out of a process as you put in. The second law said you couldn’t even do that. This is the law of entropy, although no one is really clear on exactly what entropy is. It is to some extent a measure of disorder in a system. The second law says that this disorder always increases. In other words: Humpty Dumpty does not get put back together.

Tragically, Carnot died of cholera at 36. His work was hardly noticed during his lifetime. But it was critically important to later scientists such as Rudolf Clausius and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin).

Happy birthday Sadi Carnot!

Wittgenstein’s One Armed Gambit

Paul WittgensteinPaul Wittgenstein was one of the many talented Wittgenstein children, the best known being his brother Ludwig. He was a concern pianist. According to Wittgenstein in 90 Minutes, he wasn’t even the best pianist in the family. That sounds to me like family mythos; perhaps he was not the best in his teens. Regardless, he made his public debut at 26 to good reviews.

That was in 1913. The following year, World War II began. He was drafted. And in combat, he was shot in the elbow requiring his right arm to be amputated. But even while still in a Russian prison camp in Siberia, he began making plans to continue his career. At first, he had his old teacher, Romantic composer Josef Labor create piano pieces for the left hand only. After the war, he began performing again. He got “polite” reviews. People admitted that as left-handed pianists went, he was great. But that was as far as it went.

So Wittgenstein started approaching other composers to write for his special limitations. These include some of the best composers of the 20th century. The best known of these is Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. It is kind of strange, because I’m not that fond it. Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra is a lot more compelling. So is Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4, which Wittgenstein never even performed. Even Richard Strauss wrote a special version of Sinfonia Domestica for him.

Paul Wittgenstein went on to have a very successful career. But he was still a Wittgenstein, by which I mean he seems to have been something of a jerk. In 1956, Siegfried Rapp wanted to premiere the Prokofiev concerto. Wittgenstein had had the piece for 25 years without performing it. But still he would not let Rapp perform it, writing to him:

I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine… But those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that’s only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer.

That’s all very fine as the statement of a corporate CEO or a libertarian philosopher, but coming from an artist, it strikes me as pretty small minded. Similarly, the great composer Paul Hindemith wrote a piece for Wittgenstein in 1923. It was never performed and wasn’t even found until 2002, almost four decades after Hidemith had died.

Still I have great admiration for Paul Wittgenstein. He built a career despite what would have seemed to be an impossible disability. And the music world is richer for it. He was also quite a great and inventive player. If you want, you can hear him perform the Ravel concerto. But I think the performance of the great young pianist Helene Tysman is better:

Few Tax Expenditures for Poor

Mike KonczalMike Konczal is a very good economics writer who I regularly read. This morning, he was at Wonk Blog talking about, The Tax Break State. In it, he went over the main tax breaks that the federal government gives to individuals. For example, people don’t think of it as a tax break, but when a business gives health insurance to an employee, he is getting a tax break. Under normal circumstances, the worker would just get extra pay with which he would buy health insurance. That extra payment would have then been taxed. Thus, the exemption of taxes on this benefit is a tax break. And it’s big too: about one-third larger than the mortgage interest deduction.

There is one really import aspect of these programs: they are a form of welfare. There is no ultimate difference between allowing people not to pay taxes on their mortgage interest and giving people a check for purchasing a house. And this isn’t some liberal theory. This is exactly the argument made by conservative economist Milton Friedman. I think we need to remember this. There is such a stigma to programs like SNAP (food stamps), but none whatsoever to programs like the mortgage interest deduction. But they are both government handouts and the “respectable” one costs a whole lot more.

And that brings me to the problem I have with Konczal’s article. In order to show how the different kinds of tax expenditures (generally speaking, deductions) benefit different groups, he provided the following graph:

Tax Expenditures

For clarity, he presents the three types of expenditures as percentages. I’m afraid that this gives the impression that we are devoting far more money on the poor than to other income brackets. Here’s a graph from the Congressional Budget Office that shows the relative size of these categories (click to expand):

CBO Tax Expenditures

So the exclusions (50%) and deductions (30%) are by far the biggest share: 80%. The preferred tax rates are around 11%. And the tax credits are just 9%. But this understates the preferred tax rates. Capital gains are not taxed at death, so really the categories would be more appropriately: 75-16-9.

The take away from this is something I’ve been ranting about for years: welfare for the poor is cheap. All it seems we get in the mainstream is discussion of all the poor spending their whole lives in Paul Ryan’s hammock. And when it comes to tax expenditures, all of the conservative media are now and forever in a tizzy over the fact that 47% of Americans pay not federal income taxes. But on the expenditure side of this, we are doing very little for the poor and it would hurt us very little to do quite a lot more.


Two quick things. First, Konczal’s overall point is the same as mine. Second, the reason that the poor get the expenditures they do is that there has been a trend away from direct payments like welfare checks to tax expenditures like the EITC and CTC.

Newest Misleading Attack on Obamacare

Avik RoyLast night, Will sent me a link to an article and asked, “Would you like to explain this to your readers?” The article was from Thursday in Forbes, Rate Shock: In California, Obamacare To Increase Individual Health Insurance Premiums By 64-146%. After reading just a couple of paragraphs, I knew that it was a conservative hit job. Forbes is not exactly a liberal magazine. But I read on.

Finally, I came to the main point of the story. In a subheading, “Obamacare to double individual-market premiums,” it explained that a 25 year old male would pay more for healthcare on the Obamacare exchanges than he does now. That’s when I scrolled up to see who the author was: our good friend, the unethical conservative apologist Avik Roy. As you may know, Roy’s game is to talk quietly and sound reasonable while he spews out deception and lies. And since everyone is used to the more bombastic styles of people like Erick Erickson, all the centrists pat Roy on the head and say, “Who’s a good conservative?! You’re a good conservative! Yes you are!

Avik Roy’s example of a 25-year-old was telling. First, why did he pick that age? Surely there are more reasonable ages to pick. Our big healthcare problem is not that 25-year-olds can’t get insurance or that they are paying too much for it. What’s more, Roy must at least be well into his 30s, if not 40. But we know why Roy picked a young man, don’t we? He did it because that is how he could make his point.

Yesterday, Aaron Carroll published an article on The Incidental Economist, There Are Real Differences Between Us. At the time, I was baffled. He made an argument where he admitted that the purpose of Obamacare was not to keep insurance cheap for young people. He wrote:

So I’ll state this for the record: I think that some young, healthy people are getting the shaft right now. Not all, because some can still get on their parents’ plans. Some can still buy catastrophic insurance if they want. Some will get Medicaid. Some will get subsidies. But if you’re a young, healthy 28 year old male who makes 400% of the poverty line, and you currently have really cheap insurance, it’s likely your rates are going up.

OK? I freely admit that my goal in health care reform was not to protect the status quo for young, healthy males. That’s wasn’t my goal for reform.

When I first read that, I thought he was attacking a straw man. Surely no one was making that argument! How wrong I was. After reading Roy’s article I knew that this was the new conservative attack on Obamacare: a tiny fraction of the population will see their rates go up! The horror!

Note: Congress could do something about this. You can’t start a big new program like Obamacare without having to deal with problems. But of course, the House Republicans won’t tinker with Obamacare at all. It is repeal or nothing. Anyone up for a thirty-eighth repeal vote?!

This morning, Ezra Klein hit back on Avik Roy in a big way. He noted that Roy’s comparison was false. “That’s not just comparing apples to oranges. It’s comparing apples to oranges that the fruit guy may not even let you buy.” You see, those great rates for 25-year-olds are not available to all. Fully 25% of those who apply are either refused coverage at all or are offered it at a higher price. What’s more, unless this young man makes a lot of money (in which case he would almost certainly get healthcare through his employer) the coverage with Obamacare would be better than the cheap plan that Roy compares.

What’s really annoying about Roy’s new article is that just a couple of months ago, he was pushing the idea that Obamacare wasn’t that bad and that we could fix it to make it more like the Swiss system. Of course, he was disingenuous (or just ignorant) about the Swiss system, but at the time a lot of moderates applauded him as (God save me!) a reasonable Republican. And now he’s back to: “Obamacare will make us all go broke!” He ends his article with a stunning display of hypocrisy:

So, to summarize: Supporters of Obamacare justified passage of the law because one insurer in California raised rates on some people by as much as 39 percent. But Obamacare itself more than doubles the cost of insurance on the individual market. I can understand why Democrats in California would want to mislead the public on this point. But journalists have a professional responsibility to check out the facts for themselves.

Reality is almost exactly the opposite of what he wrote. In general, California rates will be lower. For some reasonably well-off 25-year-olds, prices will go up. Journalists indeed do have a responsibility to check out the facts for themselves. And that means more than cherry picking a couple of examples that prove your case and ignoring the overall picture.


I mean it: Avik Roy really is trying to kill me.

Obama’s Judicial Nominees

ObamaPaul Waldman over at The American Prospect wrote, Not Too Shabby So Far: Obama’s Judicial Legacy. It puts Obama’s judicial nominations in perspective by comparing them to other recent presidents. What it looks like is that Obama is on track to make as many appointments as Clinton and Reagan. Of course, if the Senate continues to allow the unprecedented filibuster use, his nominations may not look much better in four years than they look now. As I’ve been arguing for a while: the filibuster is important for presidential nomination almost exclusively. The House of Representatives is unlikely to allow much in the way of decent legislation get passed. But Obama can at least get some decent people on the bench if the Senate will allow it.

It is interesting to look at the number of Supreme Court nominations over the years. They have actually gone down. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy/Johnson, and Nixon all had 4+ nominations. Even Ford in his two years got one nomination. But since then, it is generally just two. I think this is because the very worst judges insist upon dying on the court. I just don’t see Scalia, for example, ever stepping down. However, it would be really helpful if one of the conservatives on the court could die suddenly. Unfortunately, the conservatives on the court are fairly young. And of course they all get Cheney-level healthcare.

In terms of the lower courts, Obama is doing pretty well. He’s nominated 50 Circuit Court and 185 district court judges. Of course, not all of those judges have been confirmed. But if we get filibuster reform and Obama keeps nominating at his current rate, he will outdo even Reagan in this regard. Of course, that isn’t likely to happen. As vacancies are filled there are fewer positions to nominate for and fewer candidates that the president feels comfortable nominating.

There is one area where Obama is head and shoulders above all other presidents in terms of judicial nominations: diversity. Here is how he stacks up with other recent presidents on the gender of the nominations:

Gender of Judicial Nominees

And here is how he looks regarding the race of his nominees:

Race of Judicial Nominees

There are a couple of things to note here. First is that our country has done a terrible job of getting past its legacy of racism and sexism. But it is nice to see that in general, the Democrats are the ones leading the way. Still, it is clear that we have a long way yet to go.

But the biggest takeaway from these graphs is that Obama really has done a remarkable job in improving diversity on the courts. What’s more, his record overall is not bad. I do hope he continues pressing to fill court vacancies. Given the current state of Congress, it is likely that his greatest second term legacy will be his court appointments.