Pluto Coming Into Focus

Pluto - Color - 3 July 2015By the time this is published, New Horizons will be less than 5 days and 11 hours from its closest approach to Pluto. Last weekend, the probe stopped sending data for a while. This is now referred to as the July Fourth Anomaly. Apparently, the computer tried to do two computationally difficult tasks at once, and had a bit of a meltdown. But the autonomous autopilot noticed the problem, fixed it, and resumed communication after an hour and twenty minutes. Still, this put the unit off course, and wasted about a day because of the 9-hour communications delay between us and New Horizons.

The image there is the most recent that we’ve seen of the dwarf planet. The images from 3 July onward are the first in which we’ve been able to see some surface features. And we see in the southern hemisphere a lot of texture. What’s more, there is what looks like an enormous impact crater. Or maybe it’s a volcano. Who knows? The fact that the southern hemisphere looks more beaten than the northern hemisphere makes me think that there must be some kind of erosion process going on.

But the most obvious thing in the photo is that Pluto is kind of red. Meanwhile, it’s largest moon, Charon, is grey. So is the reddish color Pluto due to its atmosphere? It has a very small atmosphere. That could have something to do with it. Or it could be that Pluto and Charon are totally different. But they could still have once been part of the same object. This has got to be a particularly wonderful time for planetary scientists. I’m sure they are going crazy over all of the ideas that are being proposed.

Just in the last week, we’ve learned far more about Pluto than Clyde Tombaugh could ever have imagined. And the next week — not to mention over the next years as the data are analyzed — are going to be amazing. To me and probably most people, Pluto has always been just this fuzzy light in photographs. Just look at this image from Tombaugh’s original discovery:

Pluto Discovery

Up to now, the dog Pluto has been more real than the planet. But now the planet is becoming real. It is coming into focus — literally. This is really going to be great.

Bernie Sanders on What Campaigns Are About

Bernie SandersI’ve had writers who have sat exactly where you’re sitting, and I’ve talked for an hour on every major issue facing the American people — gone on for an hour — and at the end, somebody asks me for a word on Hillary Clinton. And the story is “Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton.” That is the corporate media’s worldview. That is their only understanding of how a campaign can be run: when one candidate attacks the other candidate.

Now, I’ve known Hillary Clinton for many years. Let me confess: I like Hillary. I disagree with Hillary Clinton on many issues. My job is to differentiate myself from her on the issues — not by personal attacks. I’ve never run a negative ad in my life. Why not? First of all, in Vermont, they don’t work — and, frankly, I think increasingly around this country they don’t work. I really do believe that people want a candidate to come up with solutions to America’s problems rather than just attacking his or her opponent. If you look at politics as a baseball game or a football game, then I’m supposed to be telling the people that my opponents are the worst people in the world and I’m great. That’s crap; I don’t believe that for a second… I don’t need to spend my life attacking Hillary Clinton or anybody else. I want to talk about my ideas on the issues.

—Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders Speaks

The Myth of Being Paid What You’re Worth

Jared BernsteinJared Bernstein recently wrote about one of my favorite issue, People on Third Base Claiming They Hit a Triple, or Marginal Product Theory at Work… Not! The idea of marginal product theory is that everyone is paid what they are worth. It goes something like this: if I start working at a factory and as a result, it’s productivity goes up $50,000 per year, then that is more or less what I am worth and more or less what I will get paid.

There’s just one problem with the theory: it isn’t true. Bernstein offered up the case study of Jeb Bush. After leaving the governor’s mansion, Bush and his family made a whole lot of money. Now, in our cynical society, we don’t tend to blink an eye at this kind of thing. In fact, to a lot of people, it just makes sense that ex-politicians ought to be able to cash out. But here we aren’t really talking about Eric Cantor getting a lobbying job, where he most certainly is worth all the money that he is paid. (Such lobbying is ultimately bad for the economy, but that’s a different matter.)

Bernstein put it exactly right:

No question, skills and your ability to contribute to firm output often plays some role in pay setting. But here’s what else matters, and increasingly so as you go up the pay scale, and even more increasingly so in our era of heightened inequality: power, connections, your race, your gender, and vast amounts of money in politics and policy.

But I think there is an easier way to think about it. Consider the fact that in the 1950s, CEOs tended to make 30-40 times as much as the average employee at their firms. Now, they make 300-400 times as much as the average employee at their firms. If anything, the films were more profitable then. Yet they are making ten times as much now. Either the “free market” then was greatly underestimating how much they were worth or it is greatly overestimating how much they are worth now. Regardless, the “free market” is nothing like infallible.

I understand that a single example doesn’t disprove the theory. The marginal product theory is something that is used in models. Clearly, in individual cases, people will get more or less than their marginal product. But very clearly, when we are talking about a class of workers (CEOs), there is something besides their value to the company that is controlling their pay. And that thing is power. CEOs have the power now to demand more money. Similarly, when unions had any degree of power, they could demand a greater share of profits for workers.

This reminds me of a great difference of opinion that I had with the vast majority of libertarians when I was still a fellow traveler. Most libertarians are aggressively anti-union. But it was clear to me, even as a libertarian (because I wasn’t a total idiot), that the ability of workers to organize was necessary for the “libertarian utopia” to function. You couldn’t have a situation where management was able to organize itself but workers were left with “every man for himself.”

What’s ridiculous about the marginal product theory is that it constructs a world apart from everything but economics. What’s more, it assumes a “free market.” But there is no such thing. The “free market” is defined as a system that gives excessive power to the owners of capital. But even that doesn’t exist in the real world. People get extra economic benefits for things like their fathers being president. And it goes right down the line from there. People who are good looking make more money, even though there is no marginal product for looking great on the assembly line.

In general, economics is not a real science. There are certainly scientific aspects to it. And there are economists who do good work that provides insight into how the economy works. But by and large, economics is just a specialized form of apologetics for the power elite. And that’s not just sad; it is incredibly harmful to our society.

The Proper US Analogy for the Greek Crisis

Greek Borrowers and German Bankers

I was listening to a little bit of Majority Report on Monday, when Sam Sader was interviewing Georgios Giannakopoulos about Sunday’s vote in Greece. It was all quite interesting. But there were two things that Seder brought up that I thought were worth discussing a little bit.

The first thing was a common analogy that anti-Greece people in Europe say, “How would you like it if the people of New York had to bail out Texas?!” As Seder noted, we already do. That’s what a real union does. It isn’t every state for itself. California pays a lot more in taxes per capita to the federal government than it gets back in benefits. Part of that is just that we have a relatively young population, but that’s just part of our general system that money goes to where it is needed. The argument that people are making in Europe is a big part of the problem. They want a united Europe, but not if it has to cost their particular country any money.

Associated with this kind of thinking is something that has been bugging me for years about rhetoric against Greece. That is this idea that the European countries are bailing out Greece. To begin with, that isn’t even true. All that the loans from the EU have done is to cause Greece to sink slower than it normally would have. It’s kind of a slow motion torture. But regardless, almost none of the money has gone to Greece. Instead, it has gone to the reckless banks that loaned Greece money in the past. It drives me crazy that everyone focuses on borrowers, when borrowers are not expected to be conservative. The bankers are supposed to be the “adults” in a lending situation. But it is always the bankers who are portrayed as the wounded party, as if we don’t all pay more in interest to make up for precisely these kind of bad bets that the banks know they sometimes make.

That leads us to Seder’s other comment. He noted that rather than “New York bailing out Texas,” the better analogy is the bailout of the banks in 2008. In that case, the government could have bailed out homeowners. After all, if it had stopped all the foreclosures, that would have indirectly saved the banks. But instead, the banks were saved. Now I understand: from a practical standpoint, there might not have been the time to do that. But the truth is that after the banks were saved, almost nothing was done for homeowners.

The government’s position seemed to be that it could give hundreds of billions of dollars to the banks without much thought. The banks were, in other words, the “right” kind of people. But when it came to helping out homeowners, the government saw them as the “wrong” kind of people. Troubled homeowners had to go through all kinds of contortions to get relief, which meant that most of them never got any. But it wasn’t just the government. To a large extent, the people agreed. I’m constantly amazed how the people in mass identify with institutions that on an individual basis are their tormentors.

The best example of this, of course, is the Tea Party. It started, for the umpteenth time, as a reaction to the idea of bailing out troubled homeowners. The actual bailout of the banks was not what got the Tea Party started. Sure: they complained a lot about the bank bailouts. But that was long after the hundreds of billions had been given out. Where were they when that was happening? I don’t know. Partly, it was just that Fox News and the Koch brothers weren’t around to fund their outrage. But it was more that they just didn’t care when bankers were getting bailed out.

It’s the same thing in the EU now. Greek would have been best to just default on its debt. I’ve been saying that since 2010. Everyone knows that at the very least, the bankers will have to write off some of Greek’s debt. And it may end up a full default. So what have the last five years been all about other than giving hundreds of billions of euros to the bankers? The people of the EU should be angry at the Troika for wasting their money on rich German banks; Greece has only been harmed because of these bailouts.

Update (Before Publication)

Paul Krugman addressed that “New York bailing out Texas” analogy:

Ahem. As it happens, the people of Manhattan did bail out Texas, big time. I wrote about it here. The savings and loan crisis, which was very costly to taxpayers, was mainly a Texas affair:

The cleanup from that crisis cost taxpayers about $125 billion (pdf), back when that was real money. As best I can tell, around 60 percent of the losses were in Texas (pdf). So that’s around $75 billion in aid — not loans, outright transfer.

Texas GDP was about $300 billion in 1987. So this was equivalent to giving — not lending, not even taking an equity stake — Spain 25 percent of its GDP to bail out its banks.

But of course Manhattan was never asked to bail out Texas; we had a national system of deposit insurance, and the big Lone Star bailout was automatic.

Morning Music: “Fire” as It Was Meant to Be

Fire - Bruce SpringsteenI was complaining recently about Bruce Springsteen’s early work and how I didn’t like its optimism about going out and conquering the world. Well, there’s another thing I don’t like about Springsteen’s early (And later!) work: the sexual posturing. An excellent example of that is “Fire.” Now, I don’t mean to be down on Springsteen. I think he’s always known how silly this is. What I find amazing is that people who thought “Thunder Road” was meaningful when they were teens, don’t now find it at least a little embarrassing.

Anyway, here is Robin Williams doing “Fire” using Elmer Fudd’s voice. This is the way the song was meant to be done:

Anniversary Post: Arctic Voyage of USS Jeannette

USS JeannetteOn this day in 1879, the USS Jeannette set sail from San Francisco on a scientific expedition for the North Pole. I have the greatest respect for people who do fool things like this. It is so contrary to my notions of how a sane person should act that I stand in awe. The expedition was headed by Lieutenant Commander George W DeLong. In total, there were 30 Navy officers and men and 3 civilians. Things did not go well.

By September of 1879, the Jeannette was at 71°N and caught fast in ice. And they stayed in that state for 21 months — almost two years! But the ride ended on 12 June 1881, when the pressure of the ice started to cause the ship to leak. DeLong had his crew move the supplies and three lifeboats onto the ice. The ship sank the next day. But the crew managed to make its way to the open sea.

They managed to make it to some small islands way north of Siberia. This allowed them to get some food and prepare for the big trip to the continent. Again, I find all of this amazing. I would have been inclined to stayed on the ship and died there. But maybe not. The will to survive is strong and these people kept on going. It probably helped that others were yelling at those like me who are not so tenacious of life.

On their way to Siberia, a big storm came up, capsizing one of the boats, killing eight of the men. But the other two boats made it to the continent — but they did so in completely different locations. One of the groups was headed by DeLong. Things did not go well for them. Of the 14 men, only two of them survived — the rest starved to death. The other group of 11 men, was headed by Chief Engineer George W Melville. They were able to find a native village and so survived. So of the original 33 men, only 13 survived.

I tend to think of these kinds of guys as real men. But it was a matter of necessity for these guys. I have the luxury of being an agoraphobic coward. What bothers me about most of the “real men” I see in America is that it is posturing. Their lives are as easy as mine — easier, perhaps. But they go off hunting or doing whatever in the name of feeling like they belong to the tradition of DeLong and Melville. And in a sense, I suppose they do. If put the Jeannette, they would have acted like everyone else. But as I noted, so would I have. So doing things like killing deer seem to me more like little boys playing army. It isn’t the same thing.

But we mark this day 136 years ago when the USS Jeannette started its insane voyage to the North Pole.