Paying up

So one major credit rating agency has announced it has a bad feeling about the long-term value of U.S. government debt. Whatever could our government—which is to say, we, the U.S. public—have done to warrant that? How about refusing to collect revenue that could pay down existing debt:


Sure, government spending increases debt, and the U.S. government spends money to do lots of things I’d be happy to stop doing. But government does lots of things that any sane person agrees are necessary—paying for police and firefighters, building roads, preventing people from pissing in my drinking water—and even if we cut all those basic services to zero, we still wouldn’t have a balanced budget. (Non-defense discretionary spending for 2010 ≈ $530 billion; 2010 federal budget deficit ≈ $1,294 billion. Everyone can agree that 530 is not larger than 1,294 … right?)

When the government borrows, it borrows against tax revenue that it could, theoretically, collect to pay off the debt. Our collective decisions as U.S. citizens, expressed via elections—with admittedly varying degrees of accuracy and wisdom—have run up historically high national debt while driving the proportion of national income collected as taxes to a historical low. If you were loaning more and more money to a friend who kept working fewer and fewer hours a week, wouldn’t you start to get a bit edgy?

And if all this sounds a bit abstract, here’s a nice concrete number: the increased cost of U.S. debt associated with that credit rating agency’s bad feeling comes to about $322 per U.S. citizen. If I’m not mistaken, that’s a pretty big chunk of the refund I got back when the last round of big tax cuts took effect, ten years ago—and it’s just the start. ◼

Science online, migrating sushi edition

You must admit, it doesn’t look comfortable. Photo by Soller Photo.
  • A movable feast. The neurochemical explanation for those viral videos of dancing squid sushi.
  • Or, you know, don’t fragment the habitats. To offset the effects of habitat fragmentation and help natural populations adapt to changing climate, just add gene flow.
  • The knight’s burden is a heavy one, literally. Was medieval chivalry undone by the sheer weight of knights’ armor?
  • Coming soon: age-defying low-iodine diets. Axolotls are neotenic salamanders, meaning they become sexually mature without developing the “adult” characteristics other salamander species typically have—unless you dose them with iodine.
  • Reviving, not revived. After being fished nearly to extinction, the Atlantic cod population—and rockfish, and haddock—may finally be reviving.
  • We traded guts for brains. Compared to other mammals, humans have unusually big brains for our body size, which means that we also have rather odd bodies.
  • And we’re not talking about “Tag” body spray. The African crested rat deters predators by slathering itself in poison.
  • These congratulations will not be withdrawn later. Retraction Watch completed its first year of following up on post-publication reviews and refutations this week—well done!

Carnival of Evolution, August 2011

Grizzly bear. Photo by Alaska Dude.

The latest edition of the Carnival of Evolution, a monthly collection of online writing about evolution and all its ramifications, is online at Sandwalk. Check it out to learn why genetic testing for grizzly bears is important, what new fossil may have taken the place of Archeopteryx in the evolutionary history of birds, and what pioneer of evolutionary biology will soon be on a U.S. postage stamp.