Friday, November 5, 2010

A quick summary of Boston real estate

I discovered this illuminating comment in a Boston Globe real estate blog post:
Just yesterday my boss and a co-worker were INSISTENT that now is not only a great time to buy (my wife and I are potentially first-time buyers) but that right now we are at the ABSOLUTE bottom. Their claims were largely based upon the historically (absurdly) low interest rates and that within the next year jobs were going to come roaring back to Greater Boston and that 300K dump in Arlington that I kind of liked would then be 450K. They stopped just short of using the phrase "buy now or be priced out forever."

... I asked my boss if my salary was going to increase enough to warrant the expected increase in values/asking prices and he changed the subject.

Since housing is almost always bought with debt, prices are determined by how much one can borrow. Now that banks have lending standards again, borrowing is constrained by income and previous savings for down payments. Here's the price/income ratio for the (Greater, stretching to edge of New Hampshire) Boston area, courtesy of Boston Bubble; notice how we're still above the peak of the previous bubble in the late '80s:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It's just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right

In his victory speech last night, Rand Paul noted that "the American people want to know why we have to balance our budget and they don’t." If he actually wanted an answer, it's easy to find out: the Federal government doesn't need to balance its budget because the government can print as much money as it wants. The question is whether this is a good idea; too much extra demand without corresponding productive ability will lead to inflation. That is not a problem at the moment, with millions of workers unemployed and factories sitting idle. Government spending can also be quite wasteful, like the botched banks bailouts or our never ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan... but there are some signs that once Rand Paul is in Congress he will become a big supporter of the latter brand of government waste. Wise spending on infrastructure, on the other hand, can have a huge positive impact on future growth, and R&D spending created technologies like the computer and the Internet.

In any case, the question is whether the new Republican Congress members are actually serious about balancing the budget is an important one. Demand in the economy can come from exports, households, business or government. Instead of exports, we have imports, and households are suffering from massive debt and unemployment. So either businesses decide to start hiring and investing again, or we're reliant on government spending... and state and municipal governments must balance their budget and are constrained by massive revenue shortfalls.

Thinks to look out for:
  1. Renewal of the emergency extended unemployment benefits. There are 3.7 million people claiming unemployment benefits past the standard 26 weeks. The funding for this expires Nov 30th, and depends on a lame duck Congress for renewal. Of course, there are also many others who've hit the limit of 99 weeks and now get nothing.
  2. The Catfood Commission. Obama's Deficit Reduction Committee will be announcing its recommendations December 1st, probably with (completely irrelevant and unnecessary) suggestions for cutting Social Security. This may have no short term impact, since to appease the "we got our Social Security and Medicare, so fuck the rest of you" crowd, aka Tea Partiers, the Republicans may try for a phased implementation of cuts.
  3. War spending. Just kidding, no one who cares about balanced budgets would dream of cutting that.
Republicans were elected on the back of massive unemployment. It seems unlikely things will improve much by the next election.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Avatar: The Last Airbender and the Corruption of American Youth

I finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender last night, a TV show aimed at children much in the way an AK-47 is aimed at the heart of a patriotic American soldier.

The "heroes" of the story are members of a ragtag international terrorist conspiracy. Recruited from various corners of the developing world, they are united by an animistic witchcraft religion and an irrational hatred of their world's industrial superpower. Their goal is to impose an environmentalist world government on the unsuspecting citizens of the superpower; there's even an obvious metaphor for so-call anthropomorphic global warming, blamed on the superpower!

The head of the terrorists is the Avatar, the reincarnation of previous Avatars; Avatars are unique in that they can master all four forms of witchcraft, and are supposed to bring "balance" to the world. However, the last Avatar was frozen away in a glacier for a hundred years, and has now returned from hiding to rid the world of "tyranny." Apparently the writers couldn't be bothered to hide the fact they are inspired by the Shi'ite Islam vision of the Mahdi that is so vocally promoted by such figures as Iran's President Ahmadinejad. As Wikipedia explains:
Twelver Shia Muslims believe that the Mahdi is Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam, who was born in 869 CE and was hidden by God at the age of five (874 CE). He is still alive but has been in occultation, "awaiting the time that God has decreed for his return". ... The Twelfth Imam will return as the Mahdi with "a company of his chosen ones," and his enemies will be led by the one-eyed Antichrist and the Sufyani.
What do we know about the Sufyani?
The Sufyani's army will go to Kufa; a city in Iraq, and from there he will launch an attack against the people of Khurasan. At the Gate of Istakhr, Shuayb bin Salih and the Hashimite under the black banners, will join forces and engage the army of the Sufyani. The battle will be extremely fierce with a tremendous loss of life and the army of the Sufyani will suffer a temporary defeat. It is at this time that a yearning for the Mahdi's appearance is on the lips of everyone.
So, to recap, the hidden Mahdi (Avatar) will return and fight two enemies, one of them one-eyed and the other a defeated general. And, what do you know, the main enemies of the Avatar (Mahdi) and his company of terrorists are a prince, who has had one eye damaged, and his uncle, who used to be a general but was defeated in his attempt to conquer a large city!

I am astonished that this TV show was ever allowed to air in the United States of America, especially since it's entertaining enough that it can be enjoyed by adults, expanding its propagandistic reach even further. Thankfully, the recent movie version is not quite as good as the TV series, so perhaps no more damage will be inflicted on the fragile psyche of our nation's youth.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Changing Times

In 2006 , "Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations ... call[ed] Little Green Footballs 'a vicious, anti-Muslim hate site . . . that has unfortunately become popular.'" These days Little Green Footballs has changed its tune because of what the blog's author describes as "anti-Islamic bigotry that goes far beyond simply criticizing radical Islam, into support for fascism, violence, and genocide" and "hatred for President Obama that goes far beyond simply criticizing his policies, into racism, hate speech, and bizarre conspiracy theories."

Meanwhile the rebirth of Fascism in Hungary continues:

Things won't get that bad -- at least that was what Jewish intellectual Gaspar Miklos Tamas, 61, used to think. But he changed his mind one day last year, when a group of men in black uniforms and riding boots appeared outside his house in downtown Budapest, shouting "Heil Hitler, Professor Tamas, how are you?"

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Top 3 most popular books on Amazon:
  1. Mockingjay, some sort of popular young adult book
  2. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, great American novelist du jour
  3. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition

One last thought

To steal a line from Churchill, freedom of religion is the worst system possible, except for all the others that have been tried. But freedom of religion is a legal concept, and there's still the question of public attitudes. I think we'd all be better off if we swapped the roles of religion and sex in our society. Religion would be something you did in private, and politicians would spend their time explaining how awesome they are in bed instead of how much they love Jesus.

Wouldn't you rather the President said "Hope you get laid tonight, America" instead of "God bless America" after promising to spend billion of dollars killing random civilians in Afghanistan? At least with the former you don't have to think about how what kind of God would approve of mass murder...

Monday, August 23, 2010

An expert on money

I'm proud to be a graduate of the Harvard Extension School. I got a wonderful liberal arts education, and it wasn't even that expensive. Unfortunately, when it comes to economics the Extension School is just as bad as the rest of Harvard: worse than useless.

For example, this fall you can take ECON E-1452: "Money, Banking and Financial Institutions." According to the syllabus, "this course is an analysis of money and its role in financial markets and the economy. It considers the impact banks and other financial institutions have made in the United States and internationally, as well as the events leading up to the financial crisis of 2008." The course textbook was written by Frederic S. Mishkin.

This is the same Frederic Mishkin who was apparently paid $124,000 to write a paper which stated that "it [is] unlikely that there are serious problems with safety and soundness in the [Icelandic] banking system," and though a financial meltdown might be possible, such "self-fulfilling prophecies are unlikely to occur when fundamentals are strong, as they are in Iceland."

The Icelandic banking system subsequently collapsed. Mishkin never disclosed in the report that he was paid to write it by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce.

Apparently one Charles Ferguson is making a movie about the financial crisis, and he interviewed Mishkin on the subject:

(The CV has since been changed to include the correct title of the paper mentioned in the video.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Wider Point of View

All fiction is a reflection of its time; only rarely does it poke its head through the mirror and take an active look around. Good science fiction is more likely to do this because its writers, like anthropologists, have internalized that the present is contingent, temporary, always provincial. Travel a bit in time or space, and the world is a different place, seen through alien eyes. But since fiction is a reflection of its time, often the same critical theme crops up again and again, the product of a particular soil and climate.

The last time I noticed this, the theme was the corruption of power. In book after book published in the same couple of years, thrillers and mysteries (all in the SF or fantasy genres) came to the same revelatory climax: the government or those in power were the villains. I'll omit the names of the authors for fear of spoilers.

This time the pattern I'm seeing is antagonistic reflections on religion, although the list of books is shorter so far. Stross' "The Fuller Memorandum" isn't quite as good as his previous two Laundry novels, although it'll still appeal to Lovecraft fans, and Ken Macleod's "The Night Sessions" (still!) hasn't made it to the US yet so I've yet to read it. Ian McDonalds "Ares Express" is quite good, as is China Mieville's "The Kraken", which I just finished reading. Strangely, the novel feels like Mieville is channeling Terry Pratchett, in his guise as humanist rather than humorist. There is some of the latter though, and Mieville can wield a sharp pun, e.g. in the climax of this short story.

All of these authors are British, though I couldn't say why. Perhaps now that religious discrimination is becoming fashionable in the US maybe we'll see some American authors chiming in. I do sympathize with the claim that religions whose members have been involved in religiously-motivated bloodshed should be looked upon with suspicion. The Spanish Inquisition, all the Jews slaughtered during the Crusades, the Protestants killed by other Protestants during the Reformation for believing in the wrong method of salvation (theological disputes are easy to win if the municipal executioner works for you), the Thirty Years War... violent bunch, these Christians. As one of many contemporary examples, there are all those avid readers of "The Left Behind" series (millions of copies sold!), excited about the impending death of my siblings in the coming apocalyptic wars in Israel.

Lets ban some churches first, and then maybe we'll talk about mosques.

Here's what Schaffer the Dark Lord has to say (or rather, sing) on the subject:

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A hero for our time

I grew up in Kochav-Yair, an Israeli town named after Avraham "Yair" Stern. When an Israeli minister gives a speech extolling Stern's memory, I can't help read and wonder:

"Stern's words of eternal dedication and national Jewish pride have been contaminated in public discourse. They have been turned from words of national consensus to negative remarks seen as 'extreme' and 'uneducated.'"

In 1940 Stern founded a militant organization -- terrorist, even, to his enemies -- dedicated to fighting the British rulers of Palestine and founding a Jewish State. When Ayalon, Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs, thinks of this eternal dedication and national Jewish pride, was he thinking of Stern's attempted negotiations with the Nazis (before the Final Solution, to be true) who were after all fighting the hated British? Or Stern's organization's participation in the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the town of Deir Yassin?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What I'm Reading

"If we look at Europe with Latin American lenses, we realize that the Eurozone is ... a bunch of over-indebted countries with their currency pegged to, of all the economies of the world, Germany."

"The last thing the West wants is to help potential competitors develop in the way that it has developed itself ... The strategy is for global conglomerates to buy up property (with tax-deductible credit), while European banks extend loans to fuel debt bubbles. This policy has left the Baltics and other post-Soviet countries economically dependent beyond their ability to pay down the debts they have run up so rapidly over the past decade."

"The success of the [Jobbik] party, which has railed against “Gypsy crime” and Jews, threatens to tarnish Hungary’s international image ... Some economists fear that the growing influence of Jobbik, which wants to eliminate tax rules favoring foreign companies, could undermine the country’s economic recovery by alienating already jittery investors, spooking credit agencies and making it harder for the country’s next prime minister to shepherd the economy."

"This hostility to universal citizenship is, I submit, the main characteristic of fascism. And the rejection of even a tempered universalism is what we now see repeated under democratic circumstances."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Facing the presence of the past

There is no explanation of how each of the detainees, much less all three, could have done the following: braided a noose by tearing up his sheets and/or clothing, made a mannequin of himself so it would appear to the guards he was asleep in his cell, hung sheets to block vision into the cell—a violation of Standard Operating Procedures, tied his feet together, tied his hands together, hung the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall and/or ceiling, climbed up on to the sink, put the noose around his neck and released his weight to result in death by strangulation, hanged until dead and hung for at least two hours completely unnoticed by guards.
The Economist's Democracy in America blog has more more details:
All three men were found to have rags inserted in their throats to a point where it would have impeded breathing. The camp commander, after first ordering guards to make sworn statements, retracted his order and forbade them to make sworn statements, instead holding a group meeting that appears to have been intended to get their stories straight. And these are just some of the most glaring inconsistencies; there's much, much more in the report.
How do you deal with the aftermath of war crimes, murder, torture? In most countries, for most people, the answer is simple: pretend such things ever happened. It's even easier if you won the war, or have an enemy whose own atrocities you can focus on. McNamara describes the firebombing of Tokyo he helped plan, long before Vietnam: "In a single night we burned to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians – men, women and children." It's hard to believe that these actions have no consequences, no impact: the the people who ordered such actions don't disappear from government, the people who executed the orders eventually go home to their families.

Of course, Japan lost their war, and were both perpetrators and victims on a vast scale. So maybe it's not surprising that Japanese culture has created shows like Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood whose themes would be unimaginable in the US. It's completely horrifying... and one of the best shows on TV today (far better than the first series).