Two Jokes and a Song for Scotland

Scottish FlagIn Amadeus, Mozart tells Emperor Joseph, “I’m a vulgar man…” Well, I’m not a vulgar man. At least I don’t think I am. Instead, I am a silly man. I delight in pretty much the same things I delighted in at five. And although I flatter myself that I have a sophisticated sense of humor, most of my writing is much more silly than clever. In fact, last night on the Colbert Report, the segment on Prince Hawkcat made me gasp for air because it was so funny.

This is why I bring you what many probably consider silly jokes. And given that today the Scots are voting on independence, I thought I would offer up a Scottish joke or two. But before that, let me just go on record about this vote. I really wish the independence movement had worked out their currency issue. It is certainly the case that we now know that countries need their own currencies so they can weather the various financial crises that will be brought on by the dark forces of the Power Elite. But overall, I think they ought to go for it. And they should blame it on Margaret Thatcher. And embarrassing David Cameron is a big boost.

What’s more, Roy Edroso makes a great argument for being in favor of Scottish independence: the people who are against it are such wankers like David Frum. Of course, if I had to bet, I’d say that it will not pass. I heard that in the lead up to our own Revolutionary War, only about a third of the country was in favor of independence. So it is a tough sell. But we’ll know soon enough.

In the mean time, here is a very silly joke by keta, posted over on alicublog (lightly edited for language):

This Scottish bloke goes on a skiing holiday to Canada. After a hard day on the slopes he retires to a bar at the bottom of the mountain.

Into about five or six whiskeys, he looks up and notices a stuffed animal with antlers on the wall.

He asks the barman, “What the hell is that?”

The barman says, “It’s a moose.”

The Scottish chap says, “Bloody hell! How big are the cats?”

In response, commenter Spaghetti Lee offered another good joke:

So this American is vacationing in Scotland. He goes into the local pub and says “I hear you Scots know how to hold your liquor. Well, I’ve got a hundred American dollars for the first man who can do ten shots of whisky back to back.”

No one takes him up on his offer. One man even gets up and leaves. About ten minutes later, he returns and says “Is your bet still good?”

The American says yes. The bartender sets up the shot glasses and the Scot downs them all back to back. The whole bar cheers and the American sheepishly hands over the money. “If you don’t mind me asking, where’d you go for those ten minutes?”

The Scotsman says “Ach, I went to the pub down the street to make sure I could do it, first.”

Good luck, Scotland! If it becomes independent, I think Oi Polloi’s “Don’t Burn the Witch” should be its national anthem:

I love these guys!

Put to death in flames and smoke
You were used as a scapegoat
Troubles blamed upon the witch
When they should’ve really burned the rich.

Get down on your knees in their church
You refused and worshipped the earth
They tried to stamp out all you stood for
Wise woman power and herbal lore.

Inquisition in the middle ages
Phallocentric Christian outrages
There are those who’d bring back those days
Don’t let the right-wing Christian nutters have their way.

Don’t burn the witch!

Update (18 September 2014 11:03 pm)

It went as I expected. The Los Angeles Times has reported, Scottish Voters Reject Independence From Britain. But it was closer than anyone would have predicted a few months ago. The vote went down 45-55. With that much discontent, this is not over. I hope that that the UK makes accommodation for Scotland as they have promised. But now that the pressure is off, I suspect that nothing will be done.

Chuch Norris Shockingly Argues for War

Chuck Norris Blurred to YouthfulnessI’ve never been that fond of liberal actors talking politics, because I know how crazy it makes conservatives. This is despite (or maybe because) of the fact that they are usually fairly well informed. That’s especially true of the likes of Mark Ruffalo. But these days, it seems that it is much more likely for conservative actors to talk politics. And, of course, the right eats it up. It often takes the very silly form of Coach star Craig T Nelson complaining about people getting government aid when no one helped him when he was on welfare and getting food stamps. It isn’t surprising that a political movement that mostly appeals to the dimwitted people would also appeal to the dimwitted actor.

But even I was impressed to see that Chuck Norris is a columnist over at Townhall. He is described there like this, “Chuck Norris is a columnist and impossible to kill.” It goes along with a photograph that is completely washed out to avoid showing his grizzled 74-year-old face. He’s almost unrecognizable. But he is over at the conservative website holding court on matters of foreign policy. On Tuesday, he offered up, America at the Tipping Point (Part 3). It has that oh so scary picture of the guy with the ISIS flag. Be afraid, be very afraid!

He is angry at Obama, of course. You see, in January, the government said that ISIS was about 10,000 strong. But the CIA now says it has between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. Thanks Obama! That was only nine months ago. If ISIS continues to grow at this rate, within a decade, the entire country will be members of ISIS! The only choice we have is a full-scale invasion.

And he should know because he checked with Marxist historian Vijay Prashad. Prashad noted, quite correctly, that the bombing campaign is not going to do much good to stop ISIS. Of course, Prashad is against American imperialism. And his claim is not a call to arms. But Norris will use anyone to get his preferred policy, which is now and forever to attack. And why not, after all, he is “impossible to kill.”

Next, Norris brought up the Ultimate Conservative Answer™. This is used always. We should go to war because British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler. But as I discussed earlier this year, Neville Chamberlain Was Right, Chamberlain did what his military command wanted him to do. The British were under no illusions that they were going to have to go to war with Hitler. But they weren’t prepared and the Munich Pact gave them valuable time. But Norris like pretty much all conservatives thinks otherwise because he wants a convenient way to call for war in all circumstances all the time.

Norris also goes after Ford for appeasing the communists. I don’t even know what he’s talking about. But then even better, he goes after Carter for appeasing “the ayatollahs”! Let me leave this one to Charlie Pierce:

Let’s back up the ol’ history chuck wagon and set a spell. See, what happened to Carter happened, not because he “appeased” the ayatollahs, but because he appeased (among other folks) a leaky bag of old sins named Henry Kissinger and allowed the Shah of Iran, the torturer and tyrant that we foisted on the people of Iran, into this country for medical treatment. That led to the assault on the American embassy and the taking of the hostages and the incredible boost to Ted Koppel’s career. In response, Carter froze their assets and made the Iranian economy scream. He also tried an ill-fated rescue attempt that went wrong in the desert.

You know what appeasing the ayatollahs looks like?

Promising them if they hold the hostages, they’ll get a better deal from another president. Unfreezing the assets almost as soon as you take the oath. Secretly selling them advanced weaponry because you had use for the profits of this illegal arms sale to fund an illegal war.

That’s what appeasement looks like.

And that wasn’t Carter.

That was the next guy.

The main part of his argument comes from the religious book qua history, The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points That Saved the World. In particular, he is interested in how Muslims almost took over the world in the eight century. Because all would have been lost had the Christians not have been in control of Europe while they enforced the Dark Ages. Islam was actually the more liberal religion at that time, and on the verge of its Golden Age. This says a whole lot about Chuck Norris. After quoting something he heard on The History Channel, he concluded:

As the West — particularly the US — squares off against the barbaric Islamic State, could we be facing another tipping point in the course of the world? Will we, like those in the Battle of Tours, rise to the occasion, or will we cower in retreat and isolation?

Like most modern American conservatives, this is not about politics. Norris wants a holy war. The truly vile fundamentalists of ISIS have a certain appeal to the likes of Chuck Norris. He too wants to oppress everyone with religion. The only difference is that he wants to oppress everyone with a different religion. So I say we send him over to Iraq. He should be able to win this holy war all by himself. After all, he is “impossible to kill.”

Presidential Candidates Almost Never Decide Elections

Gary Hart and Donna RiceJonathan Bernstein made a good point today, Gary Hart Was Never Going to Be President. It followed up on a Matt Bai article in The New York Times, How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics. Now I know the conventional wisdom: Gary Hart was a handsome politician in the mold of John Kennedy and if only Donna Rice hadn’t been so damned attractive, the Democrats would have gained the presidency in 1988 and today roses would smell better than they do!

The problem with this is that it is all wrong. Now I don’t know if Hart might have gotten the Democratic nomination. But I worked on Michael Dukakis’ campaign, and I can tell you something: he was a fine candidate. Sure, he wasn’t exciting. But after the “excitement” of the Reagan years, a lot of people were interested in having a competent manager in charge at the White House. And yes, there was Willie Horton, Dukakis’ emotional disconnect regarding the rape and murder of his wife, and the ill-advised photo-op in the tank. But he was a fine candidate.

And he would have won if the economy was tanking. But it wasn’t. My unemployment model of presidential elections indicates that Bush had almost twice the chance of beating Dukakis as Clinton had of beating Bush. In other words, the election was Bush’s to lose. And it didn’t matter who the Democrats nominated. The unemployment rate was low and it was getting lower. The American electorate did what it always does: rewarded the party in power.

I bring this up not to put down Gary Hart. I actually kind of like the guy. But Democrats really have to get over this idea that who they nominate to be president matters. Or at least in general that’s the case. In 2004, the Democrats could have won the election. If we had nominate Howard Dean and he had kept the election focused on the Iraq War, he might have overcome the economic fundamentals in that race. But even there, it is unlikely; the economics were really in Bush’s favor.

But what all this means takes us back to what Thomas Frank is always ranting about. It may not be true that America is just waiting for a great economic liberal (although I think they are). But in a presidential election, the Democrats should nominate the most liberal candidate they can. Remember that many liberals were thrilled that the Republicans nominated Reagan in 1980 because they knew he was such an extremist. But the American people would vote for Stalin if the economics were bad enough.

In 2016, there are basically two possibilities. Either the economy will have tanked and the next president will be Rand Paul or some other crazy Republican. Or the economy will hold and the next president will be Hillary Clinton. But if we nominated Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, it would lead to the same outcome. If Clinton wins, it means that Sanders and Warren would have won.

The lesson for the Democratic voter is simple: pick the candidate you like, not the one you think will do well in the general election. Because that will be decided by broader economic issues that you have no control over.

The Questions Economics Does Not Want to Ask

Mark ThomaMark Thoma is an interesting character. He’s an internet legend. For almost a decade, he’s been cranking out the blog Economist’s View, which is almost a clearing house of writing about economics. I get the impression he must read a thousand words per minute given the amount of information that he provides. If you are interested in economics, you read his blog every day. It’s as simple as that.

But other than the clear leftward tilt of material he highlights, we don’t get that much comment from him. That’s why I am always startled when I read an article by him, as I did yesterday at The Fiscal Times, Can New Economic Thinking Solve the Next Crisis? He isn’t the kind of guy to make a lot of noise or come off emotional the way that Paul Krugman or Brad DeLong do. Nor do you ever see that the kind of snarky satire of Dean Baker. But Thoma makes his points well, with subtlety even while being every bit as subversive as any economist.

I’m no economist, as any number of actual economists have pointed out to me over the years. But if I were to talk about rational expectations models (which I have), I would rant about how stupid they are. And I wouldn’t be wrong. As an old atmospheric modeler, I know a thing or two about models and the people who create them. And perhaps the most profound thing I know is that people model what they find easy to model. And then they try to justify ignoring what is not in their models. And when it comes to many modelers, the models become more real than the thing they are trying to model. So even though I see that real business cycle (RBC) models can provide insights into the way economies work, I scoff at them.

But Mark Thoma doesn’t. In his article he says of course these models are good. It’s a good thing to do because for many economists, these models are more dear than their children. (Fun fact: most economists raise their children in Skinner boxes.) He points out that models are just tools. (A fact that many modelers forget.) And that the real issue for the economics profession is that over the last couple of decades, it has become very limited in the kinds of questions that people are allowed to ask.

One example he provides is that by using representative agent models, economists could not model financial markets. How could you if each agent thought the same thing about a financial asset? If they both think it will go up in value, then the one who owns it isn’t going to sell it. The point here is that tools have to be developed to answer questions. It does us little good to simply apply our existing tools to problems that can be solved with them. This takes us to the old saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Of course, Thoma is too nice a guy to come right out and say the truth: the problem isn’t just that the economics profession fell in love with its tools. It has embraced a political philosophy that believes that markets are perfect. Economists missed the financial crisis because they didn’t believe it could happen. And as a result of that, they didn’t build necessary models because they didn’t believe they were necessary. It’s like building a model of the geographical distribution of unicorns. What’s the point?

The problem that I see is that even after the financial crisis and the housing bubble, much of the economics profession still seems to think that such things cannot happen. Economics has always been a field of study with an especially big problem with ideological priors. And so there will always be people on both sides of the political divide banging the drum for their ideologies. But there is a truth in the matter. And you can see it in the models of investment banks and government bureaus — places where getting the correct answer matters. And they all use models that are basically Keynesian.

As Deep Throat said, “That should tell you a lot.”

Adrien-Marie Legendre

Adrien-Marie LegendreOn this day in 1752, the great mathematician Adrien-Marie Legendre was born. He was born to a rich family, which is more or less the way it goes. You see, if you were born poor, you were lucky to get to learn to read. If you look at the history of great thinkers, they mostly came from the middle of the income scale. The rich were too busy counting their money. They didn’t have to do anything, so they didn’t. And the poor were too busy not starving. So that left the children of the artisans and shopkeepers. But Legendre was a bit different.

But when revolution came to France, Legendre lost his fortune. But he wasn’t part of the useless rich, and so he survived. He was named one of the six members on the mathematics panel of the Institut National des Sciences et des Arts. And shortly before his death, he was made officer of the Légion d’Honneur.

What he is most well known for is one of the most powerful tools of mathematical physics: the Legendre transformation. As I wrote last year, “It allows you to transform a function from one set of variables to another. There are two classic examples of this. One is to transform the Lagrangian formulation of classical mechanics into the Hamiltonian formalism. The other is the transformation of thermodynamic internal energy—which we can’t measure—into enthalpy and other variables that we can measure.” It is a beautiful thing.

Happy birthday Adrien-Marie Legendre!