Wednesday, October 22, 2014


In his blog entry entitled "Who Killed Prolog?", Maarten van Emden suggests that the Japanese Fifth Generation project killed Prolog by overhyping it. I agree that it did Prolog no huge favors by overhyping; as someone who has benefited from overhyping of AI, and usualy paid a price later, I wish people who get hysterical about AI would just get over their Frankenstein fantasies.
However, I think Prolog also has internal problems that have stymied its development. I base this on my recent experience teaching a course on computational linguistics. The textbook is Blackburn and Bos's book Representation and Inference in Natural Language, which uses Prolog throughout. I've had a blast doing some Prolog hacking, but I've also been sharply reminded about the language's limitations:
  1. Every Prolog program is basically organized as a global nondeterministic loop. When control gets to the end without a failure, the resulting variable bindings hold the answer. This behavior makes sense for some problems, but not all. Even when it does make sense, technically, the way success and failure propagate out of one piece of a system and into another is often counterintuitive. For example, I wrote an NLP parser that was returning the same parse multiple times, often exponentially many times. The problem turned out to be that the morphology module was succeeding exponentially many times. A better programmer would have seen trouble coming, or would have been a more thorough tester than I. But really, why should multiple success in the humble morphology module be allowed to propagate to the syntax module in the first place?
    What one wants to be able to do is put some braces around a piece of search code and declare what sorts of success and failure signals it makes sense for one box to send to another. If failure in the syntax box might be due to a bad morphological analysis, one should say so; otherwise, a failure in syntax will not result in trying to find another morphological analysis at all.insulation
  2. The Prolog search engine is underneath the hood, inaccessible to the application programmer. Adding enhanced facilities such as tabling and constraint logic programming makes the search engine more complex, requiring hints and nudges to work properly, but it is still somewhere offstage. What language is the engine written in? Is it as high-level as Prolog? If so, why can't it be made visible to the Programmer, in a notation integrated with the notation of the overall program? (Perhaps a language like Oz makes this possible.) Yes, I know that in Prolog it is easy to write your own "meta-interpreter," and vary it to your heart's content, but then you are writing your own language — on top of the built-in engine. Somehow there should be a place to stand outside of all the search processes, a place from which the search can be managed.
    Recent Prologs have exception-handling mechanisms, but they are independent of the failure-handing mechanisms. Perhaps the two could be unified. Imagine a language where one way exceptions can propagate is chronologically. The possible places an exception might land could be partly declared in advance, partly settled at run-time.scheme
  3. Prolog code, especially for manipulating recursive data, has a functional feel. A Haskell programmer will feel right at home, merely needing to add an argument or two to turn functions defined by pattrn matching into relations; and to adjust to the switch from booleans to success/failure. But this happy story takes an abrupt turn for the worse when it is necessary to use side effects and suddenly we are "asserting" data into a global "database." Although the DB raises issues of namespace control (suppose two modules written by different people use the same dynamic predicates), a far uglier issue is the poor level of integration of the assert/retract system with the search engine. There is no way to specify that the lifetime of a DB is specific to a module. It is entirely the programmer's responsibility to use low-level primitives to ensure that just the right assertions are retracted at the just the right time so that failure out of a program and success back into it will work properly.
  4. Prolog is completely untyped. Although untyped ("dynamic") languages are enjoying a vogue right now among young programmers (who love Ruby and (shudder) Python), I think this just shows how poorly educated most programmers are. I am very fond of Common Lisp, but I find it hard to use without my macros for civilizing CL's clumsy type-declaration notations. Restructuring Prolog to fix the other problems in this list would benefit a lot from having types to serve as support beams. For instance, exception-propagation control requires knowing the types of exceptions.
    There are a couple of possible comebacks here: (a) Prolog terms are typed, one might argue, typed by their "functors" (their predicates and/or functions). Yes, this might be adequate for data structures that consist entirely of a globally knowable list of slot fillers, but not for a large data structures with hidden or computed parts. (b) There are OO extensions to Prolog, such as F-logic and LogTalk. Perhaps this is where Prolog is going in the future. I don't know how the OO features sit with the basic Prolog worldview. Plus, objects by themselves do not give you types.
Even if Prolog and Lisp are essentially dead, living on as embers of formerly roaring fires, there are some consolations. These languages contributed many features to languages with warmer metabolisms, such as garbage collection, functional programming, and pattern matching. (Although many programmers don't know this history.amnesia) Perhaps we should think of these old, beautiful languages as the classical music of the programming world. The community of listeners is small, but their being outnumbered by pop fans doesn't mean pop is superior to serious music; quite the opposite: only the person with wisdom and insight can appreciate the intricate complexities of classical music, Lisp, and Prolog.


Note insulation
Of course, I am not advocating being able to insulate programmers from the consequences of buggy code; the problem in the morphology analyzer needs to be caught before it leads to an exponential search for one correct answer. But sometimes the failure propagating back into a module will cause an expensive, futile (but correct) search in that module ultimately leading to its correctly signaling failure; one should be able to skip that on the grounds that even success there wouldn't help the failing module. [Back]
Note scheme
I'm sure this could be done in Scheme, using call-with-current-continuation. This is a consequence of a folk theorem that anything can be done with call/cc. [Back]
Note amnesia
Recently trained programmers seem to think the world consist of the systems they were trained on. If they were taught Ruby, they defend it to the death against critics, because it seems natural to them. (I can't claim to be an exception, having been trained on Lisp as an undergraduate.) So, in the 1980s, everyone was a C programmer, and garbage collection was attacked as being for people too stupid to know when to free a malloc'ed block of storage. Now everyone takes garbage collection for granted, simply because Java, Python, and Ruby have it, although no one knows why. It drives me crazy that from generation to generation programmers hate Lisp syntax, just because a+b isn't the way you add two numbers. They don't always know how many of the forebears have shared their disdain; the other day someone criticized Lisp's "novel and unintuitive" syntax on some message board. "Unintuitive," okay, but "novel"? One of these days Clojure or something of that sort will become a big success story, and all of a sudden Lisp's syntax will be defended as the only one possible. [Back]

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Bye-bye Romney

Whew! The ongoing catastrophe of Republican rule has been staved off for another four more years.

And perhaps even the super-deluded on the far right will decide that:
  • You can't suppress the vote enough to keep middled-aged white men running things.
  • You can't buy an election, even with hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • Or have your corporate personalities buy it.
  • Denying that climate change or government shutdown are bad things does not make them any less disastrous.
Or perhaps they will decide that craziness got them the House of Representatives in 2010, and they just weren't crazy enough this time around.

One thing's for sure: We're going to be seeing a lot more of Paul Ryan.  He's not the brainiac he thinks he is, but he's got more staying power than Sarah Palin.  Perhaps 2016 will be Paul vs. Hillary?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Modest Proposal for Ohio State University

Ohio's flagship university, Ohio State, now receives 7 percent of its budget from the state, down from … 25 percent in 1990. … [Governor] Kasich questions why all state universities need to offer every major, like journalism or engineering, instead of parceling those programs among the schools. … "It's duplication of resources. … [S]weeping change … is needed across academia." — New York Times, May 13
Since the state of Ohio is so obviously out of touch with the importance of education in the lives of its young people, and since it's spending almost nothing (4 percent of the state budget, according to the same Times article) on higher education, I believe everyone in Ohio will be made happier if the state and Ohio State come to a parting of the ways.
In other words, I propose that Ohio State take itself private. The state will get back 4 percent of its budget and State will get back self-respect and control of its own destiny. It might not even have to tighten its belt by 7 percent (a sum that the legislature is no doubt already pining to slash anyway); alumni, cheered by the prospect of a reinvigorated, private Ohio State, will probably contribute all they can to help fill the gap.
Of course, the new Ohio State will have to pay for the real estate that it occupies and that is no doubt owned by the state. But they can raise the down payment by spinning off the football team, the famed Buckeyes, who will be much happier finally admitting that they are a minor-league farm team for the National Football League. (Or perhpas they can become the football equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters.) I don't know what fraction of the 7-percent subsidy from the state supports the football team, but it's a fraction the new Ohio State won't have to worry about.
Not that sports have no place on a college campus. Perish the thought. Just as it's important for future engineers to be exposed to journalism and even comparative literature, it's important for all those eggheads to be exposed to, even required to participate in, the beauty and joy of physical activity. Imagine an Ohio State where one expects to see football players in real classes making real grades, and where any student who played football in high school can dream of making the varsity team.
Ohio State's bold move could start a trend. The fifty states that compose this brave land of ours can finally admit that their job is not to enrich the lives of their citizens, but to provide vocational training for those whose lives have settled into a steady groove that they can quietly stay in as they serve out their drab, one-dimensional lives. The high schools can sort people into bins labeled "journalist" or "engineer," and they can be efficiently slotted into the Ohio State Vocational School for Engineering, or the the Ohio State Journalism School; except that one lifetime may be a bit too long a time horizon for that last one.
The Times article mentions that the prison budget in Ohio is twice the size of the budget for higher education. I'm sure inefficient duplication would be reduced if the education system were simply merged into the prison system; in Governor Kasich's eyes, the two bear remarkable similarities.
Meanwhile, the universities, freed from the states that no longer appreciate what they are for, will find they are much happier raising money from alumni and charitable foundations than from those beady-eyed state legislators.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Advice to Someone Going In For Some Physical Rehab

I've just spent some time in Gaylord Specialty Healthcare, a physical-rehabphysical center in Wallingford, Connecticut. (A world-class facility that I would recommend to anyone.) Here are some things I wish someone had told me before I went in:

  • Be in good physical shape. You may think, "I'm just a 90-pound weakling. I only want to be the same 90-pound weakling when I'm done." Okay, but when you start rehab you will be a 45-pound weakling, and getting back to 90 is going to be tedious at best. If you get stronger, you may have the luxury of starting at roughly the level you want to finish at.
  • Get medical problems attended to. Been in denial about that mysterious pain in the ankle or left arm that comes and goes; the one that's been coming a bit more than going lately? When you start rehab, that pain is going to seem like agony that won't quit. They're going to ask you, "What is it? What needs to be done about it?"; and you're going to feel like an idiot.
  • Is there some physical task that's been getting difficult over the years? Figure out how you're going to cope with the fact that it's going to be impossible for at least a few weeks.

    For me, it was cutting my toenails. For various reasons it's been hard to get my foot into position, and hard to do the manipulation required, especially with my left hand. That task is going to be impossible when you start rehab, and guess what? No one can cut your toenails around here but the podiatrist, so you have to make an appointment. That doesn't mean your wife or brother can't cut your toenails. Or maybe you can live with uncut toenails for six weeks or twelve months or whatever it's going to take. (You probably can't.)

  • If there's some piece of equipment you've kind of wished you had for some physical task, get it. For example, do your bifocals ever make it awkward to read a computer screen, because one of the lenses is right for things much further away than a computer screen and the other is right for things much closer? In "real life" you've always just pushed your laptop a little this way or a little that way. In rehab, it's going to be impossible to read your laptop screen. Maybe you can live with that for a while.

    If you find some good toenail clippers, let me know where you got them; I'm still looking.

  • Make sure your spouse or someone else close to you knows where everything is in your house that you may need. You've always known how to find the switch that resets the furnace in your house. Now suppose the heat fails in the dead of winter with your spouse and child at home. Can they find that switch?

    This is especially true for financially relevant information, including account numbers for bank accounts, credit cards, and monthly bills. If you're the one that handles this stuff in your household, how much of it can you neglect for a month or two or twelve? You probably can neglect balancing the check account indefinitely (as apparently many people do), but paying the average bill cannot be put off more than a month or two without incurring various charges and disconnections; but you know all that. Make sure someone you trust knows the account numbers, online passwords, etc.

    If you're short on such people (as, tragically, many of us will be if we live long enough), consider getting in touch with some local religious organization that is in harmony with your background. If you've been a Buddhist for many years, but your main connection with your spiritual guide in Nepal is via regular Skype calls, consider getting in touch with that Orthodox Jewish temple near you that reminds you of the community you grew up in. A group of people committed to keeping a religious community going are probably less likely to collude to rip you off than any one person you don't know that well. (And maybe that eligible-bachelor rabbi could get interested in that unmarried granddaughter of yours.)

And finally: Anyone here for more than a day will swear religiously to exercise daily, keep their weight under control, fasten their seat belt, stop smoking, and get substance abuse under control. Some people are here because they were stricken by mysterious diseases, but many were stricken by diseases due to smoking, obesity, and other avoidable conditions. It's easy to say, Oh, I don't mind trading a few years at the end of my life for the pleasure I'm getting now; but be aware that those years at the end of your life are going to involve a lot of rehab.


Note physical
As opposed to substance-abuse rehab, as in "Robert Downey, Jr. has spent a lot of time in rehab, but seems to be past that." [Back]

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Property-Revaluation Flap — 2012 Edition

Lately there has been much emotion exerted over the issue of the property revaluation that occurred last year. People whose property increased in value since 2006 are holding meetings with the mayor, demanding that their taxes not go up. My purpose here is to explain why all this agitation is basically wasted.

I live in a neighborhood called East Rock. The name was coined by the local real-estate tsarina, who thought that the previous name for the neighborhood, "Goatville," might, if advertised, decrease property values all by itself. (Maybe we should try that!) There really is an East Rock overlooking the 'hood, a big chunk of basalt that has eroded slower than the rocks that used to encrust it. There's a pleasant park surrounding our little mountain, and also bearing its name. There is also a West Rock, with a similar origin. New Haven is squeezed between the two, which may seem improbable given how isolated they are, but the city's street network is defined by the bottlenecks created by the Rocks and the Long Island Sound.

East Rock — the neighborhood — is a pleasant place to live, with many shops and restaurants within easy walking distance. It's not the richest neighborhood in town, but most of the town is poorer.

Like many cities, New Haven collects taxes from its citizens based on the dollar value of the property they own. "Property" means houses and cars. To estimate the value of the cars, they look the values up in the same books car dealers use. To estimate the value of the houses, they send people around every five years to look at each house and estimate its market value.

The last 3 revaluations were done in 2001, 2006, and 2011. We all know what happened to real estate prices in the last ten years. Sure enough, the assessed values went way up in 2006, and then went down in 2011. Right? Not quite. Whenever property values shoot up, people get worried their taxes are going to go way up. The City agrees to do a "phase-in," where the house assessments rise gradually from their previous value to the new values. How gradually? Just fast enough so that, about the time the next evaluation is done, they will have reached their new value. This is to give people time to prepare … — Really? Prepare by putting their house on the market? Or what?

Never mind; that's not the main thing I want to make fun of. This year things are complicated by the fact that because everyone knew property values had tanked in 2009, the City agreed to freeze the ongoing phase-in from 2001 values to 2006 values. So the assessed values were stuck somewhere in 2003 when the 2011 evalution occurred. Nonetheless, property values in most of the city had gone down; most people's houses have an assessed value less than that somewhat arbitrary partially-phased-in value from the past. There are, of course, exceptions, neighborhoods where the average house value is higher now than it was in (hypothetical) 2003. One of them is East Rock. This has everyone in East Rock terrified that their tax bills are going to shoot up this year.

Confused yet? Well, don't bother to review the story so far too carefully, because

None of the stuff above has much impact on whether taxes go up.

To explain, let me simplify by portraying a simpler city than New Haven, so simple that it has just two houses. I'll call it Twoville. One house is owned by Mr. A, the other by Ms. B. Let's also assume that Twoville's entire budget is a mere $1000 per year. If the two houses have the same assessed value, then A will pay $500 in taxes and B will pay $500. For concreteness, let's assume both houses are initially assessed at $400,000.

Now suppose there's a revaluation, and because of a real-estate bubble (these have been known to happen), both A and B see their assessed house values go up by 50%, to $600,000. Oh my! Does this mean that Twoville gets a windfall 50% increase in revenue at the expense of the taxpayers? No. The town still spends $1000/year, and collects the same amount in taxes. The "mil rate," i.e., the tax expressed as a fraction of the property value, goes down by exactly the amount required to keep the revenue the same. To collect $1000 when the houses were worth $300,000 each, the rate had to be 0.00166. After they double, it must go down to 0.000083. (The decimal point is usually put somewhere else, for reasons I never quite get.) Contrariwise, if there is a real-estate crash and both Mr. A's and Ms. B's houses decline in value, the mil rate goes up. Unless the citizens can figure out how to impose massive cuts on the city budget, the taxes just gotta be collected.

Now suppose that A's house is on one side of town, B's on the other. (Twoville has a low population density.) The town bordering Twoville on A's side of town decides to put a toxic waste dump right across the street from A. His property value plummets. On B's side, the neighboring town tears down a blockful of abandoned factories and puts in a beautiful park. Her property value zooms up.

Now for the scenario we care about: In the latest revaluation, B's house appreciates in value by 40%, and A's declines in value by 30%, so that A's house is worth $420,000 and B's is worth $840,000. In other words, A's house is now worth half as much as B's (ratio: 0.7 compared to 1.4). If everything else stays the same, B will pay twice as much in taxes as A, meaning that she pays $667 and A pays $333 (rounding a bit). (We don't have to know how much their houses are actually assessed at to figure this out; all you need to know is the ratio of house values. But it helps to see concrete house prices.) Now B is politically savvy; she organizes her friends (or perhaps her many tenants) to lobby the Twoville city government to do something about her plight. A is oblivious or doesn't know how to work the levers of politics; he sits on his hands. The mayor agrees to help B by phasing in any assessment increases over 5 years. However, anyone who gets a decrease gets it immediately.

What a great compromise! It's good for A and B, right? Well, a moment's reflection will convince you that that just can't be correct. Assuming the city budget remains at $1000 next year, not everybody's taxes can go down! We have a zero-sum game here.

B's house is now assessed at a value 1.08 times last year's value instead of 1.4, because 0.08 is 20% of the distance between 1 and 1.4. A's is still assessed at 0.7 of what it was. The ratio between 1.08 and 0.7 is 1.54. (If you want real prices, it's the ratio between $648,000 and $420,000.) So we need to find two numbers in the ratio of 1.54 to 1.0 that add up to $1000. The answer is $606 and $394 (rounding a bit). Next year the ratio will be 1.16 to 0.7 (= 1.66), and so forth, until after five years the ratio gets to the ratio of actual assessed values, 2 to 1.Ratios

Is that fair? Well, it certainly may seem fair to Ms. B! Instead of her taxes going up 33%, they go up 21%. But Mr. A's taxes, instead of falling by 34%, fall by only 21%. (Over the next few years, of course, as they "prepare" for the changes, perhaps by investing in shares of a fracking company, the taxes glide to the 2-to-1 ratio.)

The case is often made by people in East Rock that, just because someone's house goes up X% in value, that doesn't mean they've actually gotten X% wealthier, or that their ability to pay has gone up that amount, or at all. True enough. But it applies just as much to people whose houses have gone down in assessed value, maybe more so. Suppose Mr. A's mortgage is large enough that the decline in his property values due to the toxic waste dump puts him "underwater"; he owes more than the house is worth. (Turns out he's not the original owner; that would be Mr. A'. This Mr. A borrowed $500,000 to buy the house from A' for $600,000; big mistake.) A is essentially bankrupt, and could do nothing to fight the bank if they decided to foreclose. He could really use a 33% decrease in taxes, which he will now have to wait years for in order to help out his friend Ms. B.

In fact, the whole idea of measuring wealth by house prices is obsolete, for two reasons:

  1. Until the late twentieth century, the only wealth that a person couldn't hide was their house. But nowadays the state government knows about every bank account you have. The banks have to transmit this information to the federal and state governments in connection with income taxes. The state could perfectly well share it with the towns. Twoville could take into account all of the assets of Mr. A and Ms. B.All
  2. Why in the world should taxes be based on wealth anyway? The original rationale was that, in many jurisdictions, you had to own property in order to vote. The idea was that the government was to be run by people with a stake in the community, people with a proven track record of wisdom and maturity. These were the people who owned property. They were wise enough to keep, manage, and grow their wealth, and they had a lot to lose if the community went downhill. In return for the privilege of running the town, they paid for the town's upkeep. It was sort of like condo fees.

    Hey, this system makes a lot of sense! Unfortunately, it hasn't been the way things actually work for a hundred years. The tide of history has been running strongly toward letting everybody over the age of 18 vote, except maybe convicted felons. And everybody pays the fees, in the form of sales and income taxes. Only the town budgets are funded in this weird anachronistic way.

The whole brouhaha over property-value assessments seems so misguided that a cynic might propose that it's meant as a distraction from the real isssue, which is keeping Twoville's budget at $1000. Note that an increase in one's assessed value can't by itself raise your taxes. But if Twoville decides to hire more police, that will raise taxes. Unless the citizens decide that the pension system obtained by the city workers' unions is just too expensive in these tough times, and they cut back on it to pay for the extra cops.

Well, that might happen in Twoville. But don't count on it happening in New Haven. The unions got all their candidates elected to the Board of Alderman last year. If you hear those new alderman wringing their hands about the plight of East Rock, perhaps it's because they figure that by solving this nonproblem at the expense of the people in poor neighborhoods, who aren't paying attention anyway, they can get the people of East Rock in such a grateful state of mind that we will agree to increasing the city budget just a tiny bit. After all, we can afford it; we got our phase-in, and time to "prepare" for higher property taxes.


Note Ratios
When thinking about phase-ins, it matters exactly what the property values are, not just their ratio. In an extreme case, suppose we reach a ratio of 2:1 between B's and A's property value by having A's house decline by 50% while B's changes in value not one bit! A phase-in will not help B at all. B would be reduced to lobbying to delay A's decline. In fact, B's assessment could fall and she could still reach that 2-to-1 ratio. Suppose A's house declines by 60% (to 0.4 of its former value) while B's declines by 20% (to 0.8 of its former value). The ratio of 0.8 to 0.4 is 2. A phase-in would hurt B, but of course under the compromise decreases take effect immediately. [Back]

Note All
In the real world, including New Haven, the people whose property values have gone down are disproportionately black, of course, and those whose values have gone up are disproportionately white. Nationally, according to this article in the current New Republic, the median wealth of white families is 18 times the median wealth of black families, the highest ratio since the Pew Research Center started keeping track thirty years ago. In 1995 the ratio was 7 to 1. (The actual median wealth numbers are $92,000 for white families and $4,900 for black families.) [Back]

Monday, December 19, 2011

Creative Deconstruction

Creative Deconstruction

The article about Steve Jobs by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (November 14, 2011) portrays him as a "tweaker," someone who perfects other people's inventions by making a series of small (and fanatically perfectionist) improvements in them. Gladwell argues that tweakers have historically been as important as visionary inventors. Without debating that point, pro or con, I'd like to call attention to an analogy that struck me when I was reading Gladwell's story about how Jobs perfected the commercials for the iPad. He wound up screaming, in his usual charming way, that he hated what he had seen so far, the screams being directed at the guy who was generating ideas about, and prototypes of, iPad commercials, James Vincent. Vincent finally shouted, "You've got to tell me what you want," and Jobs shouted back, "You've got to show me some stuff, and I'll know it when I see it." (Quotes on p.~34 of Gladwell's article; he got them from Walter Isaacson's recent, timely biography.)

What I was struck by is how closely this fits the "standard model" of how creativity works --- or doesn't quite fit. According to the standard model, attested to by introspection from geniuses of various sorts who have wondered where their great ideas came from, creativity requires a random generator of ideas, and a filter that "knows a good idea when it sees it." With all due respect to these geniuses, all smarter than me, what has always seemed ridiculous is the idea that their brains contain the equivalent of monkeys and typewriters generating essentially random stuff. If James Vincent were just a random idea generator, Jobs would have gotten nowhere. The fact is, few people in the world could have replaced him, and not just because few good ad-copy producers could tolerate a Steve Jobs as well as he apparently did. Similarly, it may seem to Henri Poincaré that the ideas he had to shoot down before coming across a genius-level insight were just stupid, but I and many other people would be thrilled to have an idea as good as the ones he rejected. So the standard model is really a homuncular theory, in the sense that it posits a little guy inside every genius who is almost a genius, who collaborates with his or her "conscious self" as Vincent did with Jobs. As such, it strikes me as worthless.

On the other hand, it suggests that many tweakers are really goaders and recognizers, who drive really smart people to produce ideas that the tweakers can put forward as their own (often, as in Jobs's case, with inadequate credit to the goadee). A homuncular theory of tweaking is not question-begging, because there are a lot of people like Mr. Vincent who can play the role of homunculus just fine, although we are as mystified as ever about what their fine minds actually do.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

I watched Obama's speech about the debt-ceiling crisis tonight, and Boehner's "response." Of course the Republican speech was misleading and not to the point. The point is that the refusal of the Republicans to accept a deal that involves any tax increases has led us to the brink of catastrophe, and Boehner never mentioned tax increases. But Obama's speech was also incredibly self-serving, shallow, and misleading. And I like Obama.
According to the New Republic, previous deals to raise the ceiling have involved about an 80–20 percent mix of spending cuts and tax increases. (Since the Reagan administration.) There have been many such deals, under both Democratic and Republican presidents. George W. Bush raised the ceiling 7 times. When the Republicans held the White House, they never made a fuss about the debt ceiling, and of course the Democrats didn't make trouble for them. The Republicans were so complaisant only to avoid political trouble for their own party, not because Bush was a frugal President; he was madly increasing the deficit any way he could think of. To be fair, the Republicans are now being dragged to extremism by their Tea Party fringe, who claim to have hated Bush's extravagance as much as Obama's. Without fear of primary challenges, the leaders of the Republican Party would have made a deal a long time ago.
Here's what I disliked about Obama's speech:
  1. He spent half the speech describing his own proposal and how reasonable it is. Well, yes, it is reasonable in the sense that to reject it the Republicans would have to be rabidly insane.insane Unfortunately, the fact is, they are. Now what, Mr. President?
  2. He mentioned almost as an aside that he would support a proposal by Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader. He did not say what this proposal was or why he would support it. He may as well have added, "I'm mentioning this because I promised Senator Reid I would, and I'm a man of my word."
  3. He used the word "default" several times to describe what will happen next Wednesday, August 3, 2011. In the middle of that string of occurrences of the word, he added qualifying phrases, so that he said things like "default on our Social Security obligations." But "default" with no qualifiers means "default on one's debts." In fact, it's quite odd to use the word "default," and hit it again and again, when talking of inability to make payments you merely promised to make.
  4. He praised Americans in our history who "put country above self, and set personal grievances aside for the greater good [;] who held this country together during its most difficult hours; who put aside pride and party to form a more perfect union." One of the problems he mentioned that had been solved by these Americans was slavery. What speechwriter knows so little about history; and does Obama read these orations before he delivers them? Because I'm pretty sure he knows that slavery required a Civil War to solve, and that we actually remember some of the people who fought it better than those who tried to avoid it.
  5. I can't think of a case where a President requested use of the public airwaves for such a blatantly partisan political speech. Perhaps my memory is just blurry. Networks lose money on these Presidential interruptions, not to mention the even-less-often-watched rejoinders from the opposition party. We missed half tonight's Closer for this crap, but a lot of people didn't. The networks no longer cover political conventions very well because they're essentially free ads for the parties. Soon they'll be saying to Presidents, "Just put the statement on your website."
The President's only idea was for people who want a compromise to tell their Congressmen they do. And I'm sure they will, right after The Closer, unless there's something good on TV. The people who write letters and e-messages are the same as those who vote in primaries, the tiny fraction of the populace who are holding us hostage.
Here's why it's so reckless to use the word "default" for partisan purposes: The United States is not going to default on its debts next week. I'm sure some in the Tea Party don't see a problem with actual default, but it would be an even bigger catastrophe than the one they've cooked up for us this time. What will happen next Tuesday is that the government won't be able to pay salaries, Social Security payments, Medicare reimbursements, and other day-to-day expenses that are normally handled by short-term borrowing. One payment it can afford to make, and surely will make, is the interest on its current debts. We don't owe Social Security payments to their recipients. We don't even owe salaries to soldiers, and so forth. It would just be very nice if we could pay them.
Nonetheless, the government will have to tighten its belt catastrophically quickly. If we could literally not borrow another nickel, the budget would be instantaneously balanced. The soldiers would be brought home from Afghanistan, and most other places the U.S. has troops stationed. Social Security would come to an end. Medicare would be tapered off. Etc. One can't predict what exactly will be cut because that's up to the executive branch, i.e., the Obama administration.
The current crisis in Europe revolves around belt-tightening by the Greeks that either will or won't happen. (If it doesn't, the Euro is toast.) The austerity the Greeks would face is nothing to what will happen here next week if we don't raise the debt ceiling. Unemployment will skyrocket if the government stops paying so many people all at once. You can fill in the rest: another Great Depression.
If the debt ceiling is not raised, and these disasters start to unfold, public opinion will swing sharply toward a demand that it be raised, even if a deal means raising taxes. But the damage might have been done. Even though the U.S. will keep paying its loans through next week, and even if the debt ceiling is raised a few days later by a chastened Congress, the world's faith in our political system's ability to function will have been shaken. Our credit rating will suffer, and U.S. debt will be sold short by speculators around the world. People who hold massive amounts of dollars and T-bills will start to unload them. The resulting positive feedback loop will run until our bonds become so cheap investors start to believe their true value has been reached. In this new world, it will become hard for the U.S. government to borrow money. When the government tries to borrow money (i.e., sell bonds) it will be competing for the same money other borrowers are, such as corporations, so the price of money will shoot up for everyone. The result: another Great Recession if we're lucky, but probably worse, since the Tea Party will make it impossible for Obama to spend any money bailing banks out or stimulating the economy. The FDIC will not be able to keep up with the number of bank failures, and will itself declare bankruptcy. Your faith that your $100K bank account is "insured" will evaporate.
Because of the way speculators' minds work, these economic processes may start before the magic date, August 3, 2011, but that date may be viewed as a convenient marker for when the U.S. economy and constitution broke down, as December 7, 1941, is a convenient marker for American entry into World War II.
I say "constitution" because our complacent assumption that our political system is infinitely resilient may turn out to be one of those beliefs that is unquestionable until it becomes false, such as that southern whites would never support the Republican Party. The political system collapsed once before; people have just forgotten how it turned to dust over a period of weeks when Abraham Lincoln was elected. Of course, that was over the issue of slavery, which the Founding Fathers tried to sweep under the rug, and which was fated to come back and destroy the Constitution. It was saved only by a war and the determination of Lincoln and the Republicans to put the Union back together and make slavery unconstitutional once and for all.
If our grandchildren ask, What issue led up to the Crash of 2011?, what will their parents say? Is there anything as momentous as "slavery" that can be blamed? Or is it all trivial: "Historians blame it on television, which made it impossible for someone as ugly, as articulate, and as competent as Lincoln to be elected."other-culprits

End Notes

Note insane The Republicans reject the current package because it includes tax increases. Here's what the "tax increases" consist of: some tax reforms that the Republicans claim to be in favor of that would close all tax loopholes; plus the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2013, which is already scheduled to take place. Refusal even to consider accepting these proposals is either incredibly stupid or a devious plot to blackmail the country into making those tax cuts permanent. Either way, it's reckless to the point of insanity.
Note other-culprits To be fair, here are some other causal agents to blame: (1) The awful automatic filibuster, in which one party only has to say the word "filibuster" in order to force the other party to find 60 votes to cut off debate. This innovation, which people speak of as if it's been around forever, dates back only to 1992! Both parties like it, because all senators like it, because it puts so much power in the hands of individual senators, who have to be stroked to the point of physical bliss to agree to be the 60th vote. (2) The alignment of the civil-rights movement with the Democratic party, which was responsible for the flipping of the South as mentioned above. As Paul Krugman and Robin Wells, and others have pointed out, the shift of southern whites to the Republicans consolidated conservative voters in a bloc and wed it to some very rich people determined to wreck the New Deal. The southern whites have never hesitated to use the threat of doing something crazy enough to destroy the Constitution to get what they want; but prior to 1970 all they wanted was what the Democrats gave them, namely mastery of the southern not-so-whites. Now they have the money to ask for a lot more. (3) Computer scientists, my colleagues, who put principle aside in order to study the fascinating computational-geometric problem of gerrymandering Congressional districts to the point of absurdity. The resulting one-party districts have done more than anything else to make incumbents invulnerable — except to primary challenges, so that they must shift to the extremes to avoid such challenges. As with derivative securities, the whole system would not work without innovative algorithms, and finding hackers to devise them is no problem at all. No one stops to think that they may be enriching themselves in the short term at the cost, taking a slightly longer view, of destroying the country. Our ethical intuitions, mine not excepted, are stunted.