Let’s All Laugh With Curt Clawson!

Curt ClawsonI have a soft spot for losers and comically idiotic people. That’s especially true when they are blissfully unaware of what they are doing and when what they are doing is in no way mean. And so, I do not present Representative Curt Clawson to laugh at but rather with. But laugh you should, because this is like something straight out of Monty Python.

Clawson just got into the House, having replaced Trey Radel who was forced to resign because he was arrested for cocaine possession. Now he’s a Tea Party guy, and a businessman who I’m sure will tell you, “I did build that!” And I’m sure in the future I will have many bad things to say about him because he probably does hold the vilest of opinions. But yesterday, there he was, the newest person on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And testifying before him were Nisha Biswal from the State Department and Arun Kumar from the Commerce Department. But Clawson was confused; he thought they were representatives from India.

Now, it is true that they are both Indian-Americans. Indeed Kumar clearly was not born in this country. But Biswal just as clearly was, based upon her casual American accent. But Clawson was actually very sweet. He waxed about how much he loved India. According to John Hudson of Foreign Policy, “During the hearing, he repeatedly touted his deep knowledge of the Indian subcontinent and his favorite Bollywood movies.” I just want to hug him!

The interesting thing though, is that no one contradicted him. But when the ranking Democrat, Eliot Engel, got to speak, he pointedly said to the two administration officials, “Thank you both for your service to our country, it’s very much appreciated.” But the best part is when Clawson asked Biswal if India would be as open to capital flows as the US is to capital from from them. She responded, “I think your question is to the Indian government. We certainly share your sentiment, and we certainly will advocate that on behalf of the US.” Clawson was not at all moved from his delusion. He smiled and said, “Okay, we’ll see some progress!”

There is, of course, the possibility that he’s drunk. He certainly looks it. I don’t mean really drunk, but just far enough gone that the world seems like a damned fine place. And if he was drunk, I don’t think it takes away from the beauty of the moment. (If you don’t know what I mean, watch this skit from That Mitchel and Webb Look, The Inebriati.)

More seriously, however, it does show just how clueless rich people are. They so cut themselves off from the rest of the nation, they don’t know that it isn’t 1820 anymore. It reminds me of an episode of the television show MASH where some tribunal is taking place and the judge says to the prosecuting officer who is African American, “But first: a song!” The judge is so out of it that he thinks the officer is a minstrel.

Today, Clawson released a statement apologizing, “I made a mistake in speaking before being fully briefed and I apologize. I’m a quick study, but in this case I shot an air ball.” Clawson played basketball at Purdue University from 1981 to 1984. Go Boilermakers!

H/T: Ed Kilgore

Guaranteed Minimum Income

Dylan MatthewsAs regular readers know, I idealize economist Dean Baker. But there is one issue that I have a frustrating disagreement with him. He argues that technological advances will make the economy better for everyone. This is true if you assume that the increased productivity that is brought about by these advances will be somewhat equally shared. Baker, of course, knows that they won’t. But he’s committed to making the argument that the problem is not the technology but the government policy (such as patents but also taxes and an almost endless list of other things) of taking or keeping money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

He is absolutely right about this. My frustration comes from the fact that he constantly attacks those that note that increases in technology are putting people out of work and making the lives of the poor even worse. The technology will continue to improve. Nothing is going to stop that and we can all be glad for that. But the fact remains that in the existing political-economic system, this is making things worse. And an end to patent protections won’t even begin to deal with the problem.

Another solution he’s fond of is work sharing. This is where, instead of laying people off in a recession, a company just cuts back on everyone’s hours and the government makes up the difference in pay. This seems to work rather well in Germany. In the United States, it has always been suffocated with so much red tape that companies rarely use it even when it is available. Regardless, it too isn’t going to solve our problem.

This has lead me to be in favor of something that Baker never talks about: guaranteed minimum income. And although I think Baker would be in favor of it, I think he also would consider it pie-in-the-sky and Loser Liberalism. But I was very pleased to see that Dylan Matthews over at Vox is taking the idea very seriously, A guaranteed Income for Every American Would Eliminate Poverty—and it Wouldn’t Destroy the Economy.

Pascal-Emmanuel GobryUnfortunately, the article is mostly just a response to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. And his argument is just that a negative income tax wouldn’t work because in the hand full of small tests, people didn’t work as many hours. Matthews responded with two main points. First, it wasn’t even true in all the tests. Second, the “not working as much” was basically just people staying unemployed slightly longer so they could get better jobs. Gobry seems to think that if everyone were guaranteed $5,000 per year, they would all stop working because, wow, with $5,000 per year, you’re riding high! Gobry is known for making big proclamation based upon nothing. And note what he’s actually saying here: giving workers more choices is a bad thing.

Matthews big point is that a guaranteed minimum income would not actually cost the economy that much: between 5% and 15% of GDP. Of course, it would mean that rich people would not be quite as rich and, let’s face it, they don’t need people like Gobry to stop this from ever happening. But the truth is that an end to poverty is available right now, and we don’t need any of Paul Ryan’s new bag of tricks to do it.

Matthews also made the point that people working less is not necessarily a bad thing. Let me take that further: people working less is the point of productivity growth. This idea that paid work is the only thing of value in the economy is madness. What especially makes me angry is that social conservatives should be in favor of this. Providing a guaranteed minimum income would necessarily mean that employers would have to pay people more because they could get a basic income by doing nothing. People making more money would allow, for example, one member of a marriage to stay home, manage the house, and raise the children. That’s a good thing!

Also, much of the greatest art and science ever created was done so by people who (because of the circumstances of their birth) had some kind of basic income. This is why advances in art and science have not traditionally been made by plucky youths born into poverty, even though there have always been a whole lot more of them. Gobry, like all conservatives, only ever wants to look at the down side of such policies. I think fathers and mothers being able to spend more time with there kids would be a great improvement. I think more great artists and scientists and thinkers would be a great improvement. Of course, so do conservatives. They simply aren’t willing to stop their immoral shifting of money from the vast majority of people to those who already have far more money than they can ever productively use.

Diffracting Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind FranklinOn this day in 1920, the great British physical chemist Rosalind Franklin was born. If you haven’t heard of her, it is simply because she’s a woman. Really. The sexism against her was unbelievable. Although Francis Crick said that her X-ray diffraction work was critical to his Nobel Prize winning discovery of the structure of DNA, the Nobel committee didn’t even mention her. What’s more, Crick’s partner Watson made repeated attacks on her as a scientist and generally minimized her contributions to the science—after she had died, of course.

Born to an extremely influential Jewish family in Britain, she showed academic greatness at an early age. Then she went to Cambridge where she received Second Class Honors. She did not receive a Bachelor’s degree, because at that time, Cambridge didn’t give them to women. It did allow her to go on and do more advanced work. She eventually got her PhD for work on the physical chemistry (especially porosity) of coal. This was during World War II, and the work had special military applications like coal’s use in gas masks. What’s perhaps most interesting about this, is that it had nothing much to do with her later work.

After the war, she got a job working with X-ray crystallographer Jacques Mering in France. She applied the new techniques to coal and published a number of significant papers. But the main thing was that she became an expert in the use of X-ray diffraction on complex organic compounds. So in 1951, she was brought to King’s College London where she started her work on the structure of DNA. Also working there was Maurice Wilkins, who would go on to share the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick. Wilkins and Franklin did not get along, partly because of the usual academic politics, but also because they were such different people.

I wish that I could explain to you the work these people were doing. Sadly, I can’t. To begin with, organic chemistry is still very much a mystery to me. And embarrassingly, even though I’ve done some work with X-ray crystallography, I never really understood it. Basically, you bombard an object with X-rays and look at how the object changes the X-rays’ directions. This allows you to infer the structure of the object. But really, stuff like this has always felt very much like black magic to me. So I have a great respect (and awe) for those who pioneered the work.

But about that sexism. The truth is that by all accounts, Franklin was a difficult person. But this is hardly unusual. I’ve met more than my fair share of great scientists and as a group they are arrogant and impatient—generally not the kind of people you want at cocktail parties. But had Franklin been a man, everyone would have just accepted this. But she was a woman and as a result, she wasn’t seen as just another difficult genius, but someone with “problems.” And in addition to everything else, Watson minimized her work. Still, had she lived, even Watson admitted that she should have shared the Nobel Prize with the three men.

Unfortunately, at the age of 35, she was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer. She got treatment for it and continued to work right up to two weeks before her death at the age of 37. At that point, she was working on the polio virus. She did an amazing amount of outstanding work in her short lifetime.

Happy birthday Rosalind Franklin!