Thursday, November 08, 2007

Carbon Offsets

Via the libertarians at Marginal Revolutions comes this website making fun of liberals who think carbon offsets are good:

At Cheatneutral, we believe that we should all try to reduce the amount we cheat on our partners, but we also realise that fidelity isn't always possible.

That's why we help you neutralise your cheating. Your actions are offset by a global network of fidelity, developed by us. By paying Cheatneutral, you're funding monogamy-boosting offset projects - we simply invest the money you give us in monogamous, faithful or just plain single people, to encourage them to stay that way.

Ha ha! Those stupid liberals! Seriously though, does anyone see the fatal flaw in this satire? Cheating is bad for the individuals involved but has little effect on society at large. Releasing carbon into the atmosphere has no immediate negative effects but hurts society. Offsets don't do anything to mitigate the immediate effects of something but could work at alleviating the cumulative evils. QED

I understand the importance of protecting the environment but I also believe in capitalism. That means that in my ideal world people would charged for the damage they do and that the rich would obviously be able to pay for more carbon than the poor. I see no problem with using offsets in a reasonably ingenious stop-gap effort while we try to set up a more market-based carbon-tax or cap-and-trade scheme.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Great minds think alike

See this at Lawyers, Guns and money. The princess bride is the ultimate political metaphor of our time.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Was the civil war was about slavery or states rights?

I got into another brief discussion about the causes of the civil war yesterday. The issue of contention seemed to be:
  • What was the civil war really about?

And as a special bonus question:

  • Was Lincoln a good guy or a bad guy?

I took the liberal position ("Slavery, duh" and "good guy") my counterpart took the conservative position ("states rights" and "bad guy"). Here’s my thinking. Let me know if I’ve missed something.

By our modern standards Lincoln was a racist, but so was just about every one else of that era. When judged by the standards of his day he seems down-right progressive. He always opposed slavery personally but when it was politically impossible to get rid of it he held that it was up to the states to decide. When getting rid of slavery became feasible he happy to force states to end it. Is this so different from what we see with modern politicians on issues like Gay Marriage?

Lincoln’s views on slavery were relevant because the US was on the verge of inducting a lot of new states and each would have to decide whether to allow slavery or not. Slave holders thought (fairly) that slavery would not last politically if Free states far outnumbered Slave states. The status of slavery in those new states – not the right of each state to choose – is was what lead the South to start the civil war.

In fact, the confederacy cared so little for states rights that under its constitution new states had no choice in the matter of slavery: “In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

Granted the majority of confederate soldiers probably believed they fought for states rights and not slavery. But I bet most Russian soldiers in WWII thought they were fighting for freedom and equality rather than extending the power of Stalin into Eastern Europe.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The danger of navel-gazing and the princess bride

Atrios asks:
...why is that conservative bloggers are perpetually writing some version of "what conservatism means..." or "what conservatives think..."
Let me suggest that when the meaning of an ideology can't be determined from the policies espoused by its proponents - or when those policies are manifestly unpopular and wrong - adherents suffer cognitive dissonance. In this particular case the belief that conservatives are good and right is conflicting with fact that the policies conservatives have favored have lead our nation into more than one cluster-f*ck. What can one do when the group you've decided you belong to turns out to be stupid?

Well, I know what you don't do. No self-respecting Homo sapiens would even think of leaving said group. Not while other options are available. Like anyone experiencing cognitive dissonance the very first thing you try is contorting logic beyond all recognition to avoid the fact that you have no idea what your doing. In this case, a lot of energy gets focused on slicing and dicing the exact meaning of "conservative".

What kind of wacky beliefs and tricks of logic are they looking for? The basic requirement is tribalism. Your new definition of conservative has to include all the people you like and exclude all the people you don't (no matter how decent your enemies may be). Plus on some abstract level it has to exclude all those stupid beliefs you and your friends supported and all your opponents fought against. Case in point.

In my many years of blogging nothing has amazed me more than the capacity of certain people to call themselves "conservative" or "liberal" while holding positions and fundamental values diametrically opposed to their stated ideology. Honestly. If you suspect that the president should be allowed to spy, imprison, and torture you, without judicial oversight of any kind and if you also call yourself a libertarian - well - I do not think that word means what you think it means.

I don't want to sound like I'm immune to cognitive dissonance. I was a fake Catholic for many years. But the point is, we should all try to be more aware of what we believe and who we claim to agree with. This time, I mean it!

Does anybody want a peanut?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Defending Reason, Attacking Faith

This video by Richard Dawkins (hat tip pharyngula) is pretty interesting and does a good job I think of bringing home just how ridiculous most faith-based/superstitious beliefs are. This isn't to say those beliefs are wrong, it's just to say that if the holy spirit descends and inspires you to believe that Jesus was the only son of God and that he was born of a virgin, well... you should be aware that your belief are going to seem silly to those who don't share them.

What struck me as really interesting was the way Dawkins frames the battle between science and unreason. He views his struggle as a defense one:
...Reason and a respect for evidence are precious commodities, the source of human progress and our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth.

Yet, today, society appears to be retreating from reason.

Apparently harmless but utterly irrational belief systems from astrology to New Age mysticism, clairvoyance to alternative health remedies are booming.
The emphasis is mine. Though I respect the project Dawkins has devoted himself too I think the idea that "New Atheism" is just a response to new attacks from unreason is pretty far-fetched. If anything it's a new offensive by atheists which overtly breaks the old truce between science and religion that gave each their own Nonoverlapping Magisteria. Dawkins refusal to politely respect religious beliefs destroy this pact just as surely as a Federation Cloaking Device.

Granted, this truce is being attacked from the other side too. The view that the revealed truth of God can over-rule testable hypotheses is not confined to the New Age faith-healers.

Here's another theory of what's happening. Most people who hold these unscientific positions aren't stupid or gullible, they've just been raised with beliefs that humans are all too prone to accepting. The religious community has always herded it's friendly non-threatening casual believers with hard-core uncompromising evangelists/bishops/imams. Could it be that the atheist community has only recently gained enough adherents to support their own version of the uncompromising take-it-to-the-logical-conclusion type leader that has been the staple of religion for thousands of years?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

On not being racist

Reviewing the post below I realized that it may sound a bit... racist. I certainly don't mean to single out any racial or ethnic group as specifically prone to being poor or not having the skills to succeed. We should always keep in mind that the majority of American poor are white. I want to be completely clear that insofar as any particular group is doing more poorly than another this is almost always due to historical circumstances. Genetics can play a role - like how the lack of disease resistance in Native American populations lead to the downfall of many civilizations* - but I have seen no evidence that it played a role by modifying cognitive ability or behavior or that it plays any role in explaining modern day inequality. Humans are all pretty much the same and if some of us digest milk easier, or lose our Epicanthic fold as we age, or are more prone to rickets than to skin cancer, well, that's no reason why some of us should be rich and some should be poor.

Liberals tend to view the solving the problem of inequality as a matter of making up for past wrongs. Conservatives tend to reject this and argue that just about every group was oppressed at some point and most of them are now doing just fine. Basically, if the Asians could become successful after all the crap they went through, certainly Blacks can too. And if they haven't that's basically their own fault.

Personally I find neither of these arguments convincing. The "making up for past wrongs" view seems dangerously close to logic "blame the son for the sins of the father". To me, if you're going to make any kind of social justice argument it has to be grounded in current modern-day consequences of past injustice. The problem with conservative view is that though you can, for each poor person, chalk up their circumstances to a lack of "personal responsibility" it makes no sense to do this for a group. Ethnic and racial groups do not make collective moral choices. So even if you want to argue that, say, Sicilians are poor because they lack personal responsibility you still have to explain why they lack it so much more often than other groups. It's either 1) a really incredible coincidence or 2) due to outside forces. But if it is outside forces than you can hardly hold them personally responsible for the consequences.

Well... now I'm rehashing old ground. I just want to make the argument that inequality is real, in many cases it's not solely attributable to a lack of personal responsibility, and it's something that society should fix.

*Obviously war-making Europeans had a hand in it too, but let's not sell the Native Americans short: they probably could have defended themselves just fine is it wasn't for the whole small-pox thing.

Update: For a really interesting take on the sticky poverty problem see Ezra Klein. He references an interesting take on poverty from blogger Tyler Cowen a libertarian.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Cultural defense mechanisms

I was talking with a friend recently about immigration and assimilation and cultures of the poor when my friend opined that one of the reasons urban poverty was so persistent was that academic achievement wasn’t valued by the culture. When we hear this argument in the media, rap music and “thug worship” are usually singled out as the identifying marks of this trend. I have two observations to make. (Beware! The second one makes the first one unnecessary.)

First, every culture has defense mechanisms: methods of persuading members to stay in that culture and be proud of it. These mechanisms can include violence like punishing intermarriage by stoning or legal force or they can be less overt like French language policy. The amount of time Lou Dobbs’ spends worrying about Univision is difficult to understand if you believe he is motivated by a simple desire that America have a common language* but in the context of defending the integrity of his culture from outside influence it makes more sense.

One way a culture can defend its integrity is by discouraging members from pursuing activities where they are in the minority. This has the double effect of insulating members from outside influence and maintaining pride by devaluing things culture members don't have. It’s conceivable that a child from the inner-city might find it more rewarding to play basketball with their neighbors after school than to study for the spelling bee with a bunch of middle-class kids that won’t want to hang out afterwards anyways (because their parents don’t want their child picking up bad cultural habits from poor kids!). It's conceivable that poor urban youth might look at his low chances of getting a college education and think "Fine! I don't want your lousy diploma anyways!"

But even if you accept this line of reasoning it's clear that though "the culture devalues academic achievement" can explain why inner city culture is stuck where it is it can't explain how it got there in the first place. For that of course, you have to turn to the legacy of slavery.

Becuase you all understood that when I said "inner city children" and "poor urban youth" that I meant "poor black kids". Right?

The second point I want to make is that I don't think inner city culture actually devalues learning and academic achievement all that much.

No one on earth is more a product of their culture than a 7th grader. Lacking any self-identity they pretty much exist as a vessel for peer pressure to act on. My girlfriend teaches 7th grade at a public school in Oakland and she reports that just like students in middle-class schools her students enthusiastically want to go to college. And like middle-class students they also generally lack the long-term vision to study hard so they can get the grades they need to get there. The difference is that their parents generally don't give them the kind of incentives they need to achieve. For some, it's easier to accuse a teacher of racism than it is to take responsibility for a child's bad behavior. It's easier to say "It's in God's hands" than to force their child to study for the test. And all the while these kids have to deal with unstable home lives, bad nutrition and high-crime neighborhoods.

It's not that the culture doesn't value academic achievement. It's that the members don't understand what they need to do to achieve it and they face a whole bunch of additional obstacles besides that.

That leaves the question of how to fix it. On that score I don't really know. As far as I can tell conservative policy circles think it can be fixed by encouraging marriage (and discouraging teenage pregnancy as long as it doesn't involve sex ed), reducing dependency on government programs, reinging in teachers unions, and instituting school vouchers. The liberal plans basically break down into two camps: help individuals to move out of the ghetto, or try to fix the whole ghetto in the first place. In the upcoming primary these two views are represented by Edwards and Obama alternate plans to fight poverty.

*All the studies (PDF) I’ve seen show Hispanics are learning English just as fast as previous immigrants did though they tend to be bilingual longer.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Will the real Partisans please stand up?

This Yglesias post got me thinking about which politicians are the most partisan. Here's Yglesias explaining who is not partisan:
Say what you will about this stuff, but none of it is partisan. Bolton was, after all, perfectly correct to say that the deal Nick Burns struck with North Korea and that Bush agreed to contradicts the basic premises of the Bush foreign policy. The partisan thing for Bolton to have done would have been to keep his qualms quiet and let the Great Leader bask in praise. Similarly, for Democrats to attack Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama isn't partisanship. What's partisanship is when people refrain from criticizing their party's leading figures.
Partisanship is when you refrain from attacking people in your own party for ideological differences or when attack people in the other party for views which you actually agree with. Too often nowadays writers and Op-Ed columnists equate honest political debate with partisanship simply because they can't imagine that people would actually disagree with them on the merits so they simply assume the opposing side is motivated by partisanship.

If you want to find the real partisans, look for politicians who have have taken strong public positions on important topics but failed to follow up that rhetoric by actually voting against the party line. If you want people who are clearly not partisan at all, see politicians willing to put their own party's senate seat at risk simply because they think that perusing the best foreign policy is more important than party orthodoxy.

Take Arlen Specter, Republican senator from Pennsylvania. He strongly suspects that Alberto Gonzales purposefully lied to congress (and him) while under oath, questioning him harshly. But when it came to actually calling for a special council to investigate suddenly Specter wasn't all that interested calling a special council "a great fundraising device for the Democratic Party."

It's interesting that he should frame his opposition to the special council in such starkly partisan terms. Specter does not oppose a special council because he thinks Gonzales is innocent. He doesn't oppose the special council because he thinks he'll be able to resolve the matter with Bush (perhaps by convincing him to dismiss Gonzales). He opposes the special council because - as much as he dislikes seeing a presidential appointee commit perjury - he hates the idea of helping the Democrats even more.

If that isn't rank partisanship I don't know what is.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Feeling Enviromental

(This is cross posted on my personal site)

A couple of times on my blog I’ve taken the position that all environmentalism can be defended on selfish grounds. Basically, screwing up the environment is bad for the long-term economic health of the world. Top-soil is good for the American economy and so is a corn belt that’s located here and not in 5 square acres of Canada. Similarly, every extinction is like a million year lab experiment thrown away before we’ve had a chance to learn from the results.

It’s pretty obvious that this argument works for short-term stuff like that affects people’s health right now and in direct ways but I’ve come to realize more and more that it’s not really a useful way of arguing for environmentalism generally. People just don’t get invested in environmentalism for selfish reasons; maybe their selfishness just doesn’t operate on long enough timescales. Instead, I’ve found that most people who favor environmentalism do so for non-selfish "emotional" reasons: a love of the unspoiled outdoors and empathy for the creatures who are killed by environmental neglect and so on. I don’t think I ever appreciated those reasons till I went hiking out by the house I grew up in with my girlfriend Lisa.

Here’s our hike.

When I was a kid I remember the trail feeling wild. This time it just looked abused. There was trash everywhere and the view from the top that used to be inspiring just looked like a view of a lot of sprawl. Developments replaced chaparral, the horse ranch is now a shopping mall, and the clearing where I saw a group of wary roadrunners in my youth now has a driveway in the middle of it. I took Lisa there a couple times but I’ve never been able to show them to her probably because they just don’t go there anymore.

Obviously my family’s complicit in all this. The house we moved into was once a new development which no doubt replaced wild country. But I’m an adult and can recognize the difference between capitulating to the realities of a housing market which doesn’t value lost wilderness and not valuing wilderness in the first place. And I can also recognize that the “realities of the housing market” don’t just appear out of nowhere: they’re the result of government policies (or lack thereof) that we can change.

See, I’m getting emotional.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence Day!

(cross-posted at my own site)

I'm generally not disposed to just sit around appreciating how great our country is in general. Rather, like liberals everywhere, I like to spend my time complaining about what we're getting wrong and how we can fix it.

There are some pretty obvious problem with the United States that pretty much everyone recognizes. Most obviously it is fundamentally unfair that 34 million Californians have to share two senators while the 14 people who live in Wyoming have the same number. This is just a fundamental injustice which was made even worse in light of the fact that Wyoming gave us Dick Cheney.

Our government is also built with too many veto points. If you prefer being oppressed by corporations and rich rather than by the government this is great. If on the other hand you like to have a responsive government that works it's not so great. If you wonder why the federal government can't pass any bills without slathering on the pork look directly to the founding father's insistence no bill could pass unless approved by the house, the senate, the president, the supreme court, one unblemished virgin, and an augur who must affirm that the bones approve.

The many veto points also serve to confound basic responsibility for politicians. I mean, I've often been told that Ronald Reagan would have passed balanced budgets if not for those damn tax-and-spend Democrats in congress. Not true of course but our system doesn't make that obvious. Similarly, Clinton didn't approve of Kyoto but was able to blame it on a Republican senate that wouldn't pass it.

Really we should drop the whole multiple veto point thing and take a look at a parliamentary form of government. Have one big house which is elected with proportional choice, instant run-off elections (like the ASUC only with voters that actually care). This will allow for more than two parties (depending on the cut-off) and the coalition that gets the majority of votes gets to pick the prime minister. This will make parties more accountable and make it easier to pass bills and repeal old ones that suck. And if some prime minister is so unpopular as to be ineffective we'll just hold another election right then and there. Don't you wish we could do that right about now?

Anyhow, those are my thoughts on this fine day of independence. We shouldn't look too harshly on the founding fathers for the shortcomings in the constitution. Democracy was still a new idea then. They were like the first guys on the block to get a satellite dish who ended up keeping the 6 foot giant in the backyard even as their neighbors bought the newer mini roof-mounted ones.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Libby walks


Worst president ever?

Or worst living organism ever?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Thoughts on the singularity

In his 1993 essay"The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era" Vernor Vinge predicted that once humans invented intelligent machines (or other super-intelligences) superior to humans we'd enter a post-human era where the key players where not man but machine. Part of his argument is that even if we wanted to prevent super-intelligences from taking over the economic incentives to creating one would be so great that sooner or later some one would build a machine capable of taking over everything.

I think the main flaw in this is the idea is that it's not necessarily the case that anything smart enough to take over man's fate would desire to do so. Presumably the super-intelligences would only desire to do what we programmed them to desire. And it's not clear that the desire to propagate and spread is something you'd accidentally end up instilling in your creation.

Though the stray death-cult might create a machine willing to multiply itself endlessly across the universe, you'd assume that most organizations would confine themselves to creating machines that focused on, you know, figuring stuff out for us. The only real danger is that a poorly configured machine would accidentally desire to propagate itself. Presumably it would be contained by all the other super intelligent computers that would probably be instilled with a desire to avoid having computers take over the universe.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Get a broom!

I hate leaf blowers as if they were little gas-powered Hitlers.

That is all.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Scientific tactics

Inspired by Paul's post below I started listening to the other Beyond Belief lectures which are actually quite good so long as you ignore the crazy quantum-consciousness people who always seem to be able to trick their way into these kinds of events.

Lawrence Krauss gives a talk in the first webisode where he articulates a common argument that in the debate between science and religion which faults scientists for being too "hoity-toity". His argument is basically that accusing people of being dumb is no way to convince them of your position.

On one level this is an intuitive argument. However, I think it's useful for scientists to observe the tactics being used by the other side. Put simply, the other side has no problem with accusing people of being dumb. Nothing is more condescending than being told that you will burn in hell for all eternity because you don't agree with me. And more specifically the argument that ties religiosity to morality is very common.

I suppose the fact that the religious side of the debate doesn't really address the question of whether they are effective, but it is instructive. More broadly, I think scientists have to take a wider view of why people take on religious beliefs (focusing specifically on how people come to believe things which impede science) and try to emulate the best parts. There's a whole lot of social programs used to sell religion that could just as easily be used to sell science.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Neil deGrasse Tyson

On these long weekends I get to sit around and take the time to work through a lot of books, movies, or TV programs I don't otherwise have the time to dedicate to. Today I've been watching sessions from last November's Beyond Belief symposium. The best speaker I've seen so far is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is much better here than he is on PBS, since he's got the room to improvise and riff on his preferred variations on the theme of the relationship between science and religion. It's more history than science or religion, and he's really very watchable.

If you don't have the patience or time for the full 40 minutes, at least watch his 5 minute tirade about "Stupid Design":

Update: Also cool - though I'll stop embedding - is Stuart Hammeroff's discussion of why he thinks we can be conscious of events as they happen even though it would seem that our brain works too slowly to process the information at the necessary speeds. Apparently quantum information can go backward in time, and if consciousness is an emergent property of quantum phenomena, it would be no trouble to be conscious of things while they happen. I'm ignorant enough that that all sounds plausible to me (it's apparently quite controversial), but I don't get why he thinks that means that Thomas Huxley was wrong to describe us as "conscious automata, helpless spectators"; it's not like we can make some claim to control the quantum phenomena. Whether the illusion of control is constructed as things happen or after the fact, it's still an illusion.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How Parents Choose Schools

Andrew Coulson thinks that this study out of Georgetown "finds that families (overwhelmingly low-income and African-American) participating in D.C.’s school voucher program are making rational, informed choices and are becoming more astute consumers the longer they participate in the program."

In reality, the results are somewhat underwhelming. Certainly, there is a high level of parent satisfaction with the program, and the program's retention rate is at 90%. But education isn't about parental satisfaction, it's about helping children. Coulson, like many libertarian and school choice types, assumes blithely that families are making well-informed decisions, an assumption for which the evidence is rather thin.

For example, in DC, what criteria are parents using to make their school placement decisions? There's a table in the report I'll summarize:

Class SizeAll families
International/Global FocusSmall number
LocationSmall number
Rigorous AcademicsMost families
Religious/Moral CurriculumSmall number
SafetyAll families
School Directory/BrochureAll families
School VisitsAll families
Student InputSmall number
Test ResultsA very small number
Word Of MouthA very small number

That's not terribly encouraging. The criteria that are probably most important - the ones that best indicate the added educational value of attending the school - are given relatively little weight. The closest parents come to looking for specific educational outcomes is with the "rigorous academics" thing, but as long as that's divorced from test results, it's not clear what the content of that requirement really is. (I think the other under-weighted criterion is word of mouth.)

At the same time, families are giving far too much consideration to things like the school brochure - essentially a commercial for the school. And then there's class size, which was important to all of the participating families. A few years ago, Coulson's Cato-buddy Dominick Armentano explained that class size isn't actually important:
Most of the public policy world is ruled by warm and fuzzy myths. Take the important issue of class size and student achievement. Florida is in the process of mandating smaller class size on the assumption, presumably, that students will learn more in smaller classes with more teacher attention. Sounds good, but is it generally true?

There have been close to 300 separate studies nation-wide on the relationship between class size and student achievement. Professor Eric Hanushek, an economist at the University of Rochester, reviewed these studies and discovered that only 15% of them suggest that reducing class size improves student learning as measured by standardized tests. Indeed, in 72% of the studies reviewed, there was no statistically significant effect on measurable student achievement associated with smaller classes. Even more surprisingly, in 13% of the studies reviewed, student test scores actually declined as class size was reduced. In sum, a full 85% of all of the studies on class size and student achievement found that reducing class size did not improve student performance.
This really points at the crux of the school choice issue for libertarians. When the government makes poor decisions about educational policy, this is viewed as a shortcoming of the system. For private schools, the libertarian standard is different: the very same poor decisions, when made by private actors, are features of the system to be applauded, rather than regrettable bugs.

It could very well be that the DC voucher program will promote improved student achievement. The folks at Cato, though, clearly do not care about student achievement in any fundamental way. What matters to them is choice as such. Unfortunately, they go so far as to conflate customer satisfaction with quality of outcome. That's a pity, because I think choice is an important element in school reform. I just try not to mistake it for an end in itself.

The big lesson that we should take away from the Georgetown report is that families are very clearly invested in finding quality educational settings for their children, and that investment should be leveraged. But families also apparently make these decisions on the basis of the information that is most readily available to them - paid advertisements, class size statistics, etc. The problem is that the most easily-observable features of a school often do not correlate strongly with school quality (measured in terms of educational outcomes.) The trick is defining standards by which schools can be measured and presenting those measurements in a way that is useful for parents as they make choices for their students.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Logic Of Welfare

Over at Free Exchange, they're speculating as to why societies that are so generous with their welfare states can also be so selfish with their immigration laws.
I diagnose the issue as a a cultural disconnect between the ostensible justification for the welfare state, and the actual operation.

The conscious justification is "We need to take care of the needy". But of course, if this were the actual logic, no Western government would spend any money on domestic poverty programmes; they would ship all the money abroad to countries where poverty is really dire, and let the people at home, who at least have things like clean water to drink, shift for themselves.

The actual pattern of thought is "We need to take care of our needy compatriots", with a much weaker "We'd like to take care of other needy people, money and time permitting".
I think this is right, but incomplete. Even if we cared about the needy without regard to their nationality or status as "compatriots", we still wouldn't "ship all money abroad" because, realistically, that wouldn't be a very effective way of helping people. Whether or not our compatriots deserve more aid, they're easier to help.

Making foreign aid effective is notoriously tricky business. Actually, the folks at the Economist themselves put it thusly:
Poor governments tend to be corrupt and inefficient; the countries do not have the complementary assets to make use of vast inflows of aid. There are some convincing papers showing that aid is negatively correlated with outcomes, even after controlling for the fact that screwed up countries tend to attract sympathetic donors. Raghuram Rajan, a professor at the University of Chicago who was, until recently, the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, has a relatively new paper with Arvind Subramaniam indicating that foriegn aid makes poor economies less competitive by raising real exchange rates, a developing-world version of dutch disease. Recent evidence also indicates that aid may undermine good governance, by giving the government a source of revenue that, unlike taxation, does not depend on the goodwill of their constituents.
That was four months ago, though, so maybe their editorial position has changed.

Part Of The Civil War In Four Minutes

Leo Casey thinks that this video is a good visual summary of the Civil War because, as he puts it,
Histories of the Civil War, especially for the high school student, tend to lose the forest of the war in the trees of particular campaigns and battles; this little video provides a context for all of those details. One can see how the first years of the war were largely a bloody stalemate, look at how the war in the West and Gettysburg broke that stalemate, understand how Sherman’s March to the Sea broke the back of the Confederacy and grasp the strategic logic of campaigns designed to split the South and the North.
Yes and no.

Yes, because it's basically true that many of the details of the Civil War - or any war, for that matter - that students are forced to learn in their history classes are essentially unimportant. There's no need to spend student time and brain power memorizing any but a few of the 10,000 or so instances of hostilities between the North and the South. What's important about the military history of the American Civil War, in a high school education, is the general phenomena that gave each side its relative advantages and the way in which those advantages were used (or underutilized) so as to lead to the result that actually occurred. Except as an indicator that he or she has spent a great deal of time studying, knowledge of the Battle of Brentwood is of no significant importance to a high school student. They call it "trivia" for a reason.

At the same time, though, the military history of the Civil War is not, in fact, "the forest of the war" at all; the military trends themselves require context. Watching this video, one has no sense as to why there was any fighting in the first place. On some level, of course, the level of violence in question is completely senseless, because in a sensible world, the war never would have happened. On another level, though, the outcome of the military conflict was going to have tremendous consequences for basically the entire world, and this video, as cool as it is, just doesn't capture that in any way.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Talk about a free ride.

Our society is full of financial and intellectual free loaders. Libertarians get to visit National Parks and send their kids to public schools. Creationists get to benefit from evolution-based medical advancements. Atheists, apparently, get to live free and happy in a country moderated by Christian values.

But America's biggest free loaders are the hordes who want to kick every undocumented worker out of the states. Can you imagine what Pat Buchanan would have to pay for a pint of strawberries if he got his way? Could Fox News still afford their fleet of custodians if Bill O'Reilly sent all those Mexicans back where they came from? Would a Minute Man be able to pay for a construction crew to pour his foundation if the prevalence of migrant labor didn't pull prices down?

Sometimes I secretly wish that these people did wake up one morning to find all the undocumented workers mysteriously vanished. All those god-fearing, Mexican-hating, Republican-voting poor folk across the country would have a rude awakening when they tried to buy food, find a babysitter, hire a construction worker, get their car repaired, or any number of other necessities.

Tonight on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Robert Rechtor of the Heritage Foundation repeatedly harped on cost illegal immigrants exact on taxpaying Americans. Specifically, he claimed that each undocumented resident takes in $20,000 more in services than she pays. For starters, how comparable is this number for other poor Americans who are also citizens? Don't tell me that someone pulling in $23,000 a year (half the household median income in the U.S.) pays more in taxes than he and his kids receive in public services. Secondly, if that $20,000 figure includes the cost of educating non-citizens' citizen children, this statistic neglects the economic return the country enjoys from investing the cost of that education into a future American worker.

But, more importantly, how much less do American citizens have to pay for their essentials in order to accommodate those undocumented workers?

Immigration, migrant labor, and path-to-citizenship policy are messy and complicated, and oddly enough I don't support unfettered illegal immigration. I can't summarize my thoughts on these issues in a single blog post. But I will posit that our current arrangement only marginally benefits illegal immigrants compared to how much consumers, employers, and the state gain.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Where The Checks Have No Name

Via Mark Kleiman, it looks like some banks will deposit checks for you whether or not they're signed. Nice.

As it happens, my experience is that banks will also accept checks for deposit regardless of who they're made out to. I encourage the people I supervise to get their paychecks deposited into their bank accounts electronically. Still, several have not signed up for direct deposit. About a year and a half ago, two of those individuals - who also happen to share a first name - ended up with each others' checks. One of them noticed the mix-up before taking the check to the bank, but the other one had already deposited the wrong check.

Banks. Do. Not. Care.

Friday, May 18, 2007

We Were This Close To Disappearing

Mark Krikorian at The Corner helpfully suggests that opponents of the new immigration compromise look to NumbersUSA to help organize the fight against foreigners who want to live here. NumbersUSA, in turn, offers this (apparently Christmas-themed) chart:

There is also this helpful explanation:
The green section of the graphic is the future that millions of Americans began to create in the early 1970s when they decided -- on average -- to have families at replacement size (about two children per family).

But the red shows the extra population Congress added through above-replacement-level immigration.

You can see that if Congress had allowed immigration at replacement-level numbers since 1970 to match the American people's replacement-level fertility, we would be living much less congested lives today...

But the green on this graphic is a future that has been forever destroyed by Congress through its decisions to dramatically increase immigration numbers to force mass U.S. population growth at an unprecedented level.
Let's just assume those numbers are all very accurate. And let's ignore the fact that it's pretty weird to suppose that people decide how many children to have on the basis of how big they want the U.S. population to be. (Do they all get together and decide as a group? Is one couple supposed to hold off of having kids if the neighbors have 4?)

What stands out for me is the apparent fact that the folks at NumbersUSA regret that the country's population is not on track to decline. It's not that population declines are necessarily a bad thing, but I don't think that the pro-decline view adequately appreciates the extent to which the America of today is funded by the Americans of tomorrow. It's all well and good to say that per-capita wealth goes up as population goes down, but government liabilities have to get divvied up on a per-person basis, too.

And since when did conservatives start longing for a world with fewer Americans in it?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

It's National Bike (and Get Hit by a Car on Your Way) to Work Day!

Beware of old ladies in brown Cadillacs who don't signal or check their mirrors. Didn't she know that it's Bike to Work Day?

Don't worry; I escaped the collision with only some bruising and scratches on my arm, for which I feel very fortunate. I was too shaken up to write down her license plate number or chew her out, but hopefully she'll be more careful in the future.

Please, folks, be aware of bicyclists when you drive. We have a legal right to share the roads with drivers, and most of us are pretty great about following the rules.

8 Weeks Vacation A Year!

Matthew Yglesias thinks that Finland "may have taken things too far" in legislating a whopping 39 days of mandatory vacation time per year for its workers. I say, by what standard? Finland's GDP grew by 5.5% last year, compared to our own modest 3.4%. They seem to be doing just fine.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The 40 Year-Old Economics Pundit

Until Beat the Press got a face lift, I didn't realize that Dean Baker was actually Steve Carell.

Like Survivor, But With More Awkward Contestants

The Democratic debate schedule is out, with 6 scheduled through the end of the calendar year. Fox is conspicuously absent as a host. I will say that I thought the moderators of the last Republican debate - the one on Fox News - did a very good job, but I somehow doubt they'd offer a fair platform for the Democratic candidates.

I see YouTube is a sponsor of the July debate; is that some kind of first?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Genetics In Everything

Apropos (sort of) of the John Rawls/Mark Kleiman/Brad DeLong discussion of reciprocity and free trade below, a few days ago R. Ford Denison discussed the evolution of babysitting behaviors, and commented:
Major transitions in evolution have often involved loss of independence, as discussed last week. Most female bees work to increase their mother’s reproduction, rather than laying eggs themselves. Less extreme examples of helping others reproduce are known in some animals. “Kin selection” favors helping relatives, if the cost of helping is less than the benefit to the one helped, times their relatedness to the helper. This is known as Hamilton’s Rule. As Haldane put it, “I would jump into a river to save two brothers or eight cousins.” “Cost” and “benefit” are measured in number of offspring and “relatedness” is relative to one’s usual competitors.
That is all.

History Is Argument Without End

At the risk of sounding like I'm making an appeal to authority, I wanted to direct people to a really good interview with presidential historian Robert Dallek on Charlie Rose's show. You can watch the video here. Dallek's got a new book out on Nixon and Kissinger, and he's a really good story teller in no small part because he just radiates enthusiasm.

Of topical interest might be some of the bits about Iraq and contemporary presidents. To some extent, Dallek's an informed guy what he has to say is worth hearing just on the strength of his knowledge of history. It's also interesting because to some extent listening to Dallek can give us a glimpse of how history will evaluate and judge the agents and events of today.

On parallels between Iraq and Vietnam:
In four years, some 23,000 additional American troops lose their lives...I think what they needed was a fig leaf, was to say, "We've been there all these years, we've invested so much blood and treasure. The Vietnamese, we've trained them. Now it's time for them to stand up."...This idea of Iraqization impresses me as being as futile as Vietnamization was...We've been there for four years now, over four years, longer than World War II, in Iraq, and if they can't get their act together at this point, when is it going to happen? Four more years? Ten more years?...That's what we had in Vietnam. Bush, this president, should have learned the lesson of Vietnam. I'm afraid he hasn't.

On the likely verdits of history on recent presidents:
Does someone have to be a great mind to be president? After all, Reagan I would hardly describe as a great mind, but in many ways he was an effective president. I doubt that he'll be seen as great. Too early to tell...This current man? Very poor. I think he's been a very poor president, and I think history will judge him very harshly. His father was somewhat better, but was not a great politician. He had a keener sense of what to do in international relations than what his son has done...I know [this is very conventional wisdom]. We'll see in thirty or fourty years...Bill Clinton is an interesting figure. I think he will be seen as certainly not a great president, but an above average president, and certainly quite intelligent, but a flawed human being...He would point to Theodore Roosevelt, who said, "I can't be a truly great president because I've never had a war to fight." And there's possibly some truth to that...But on the other hand...I think TR is the equal measure of a Woodrow Wilson. Wars don't always get you to greatness. You stumble. Harry Truman, with the Korean war, did a great deal of harm to his presidential reputation in the end.
There's a great deal more.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Your Child's Education, Sponsored By Haliburton

Andrew Coulson explains why he thinks you can make an education tax credit scheme universal, such that it includes even those individuals who have no net income tax liability, without actually issuing checks from the government:
Under a scholarship donation tax credit, it is far easier for taxpayers to avoid being compelled to fund instruction that violates their convictions. Not only is making a donation under a tax credit program optional, but in the case where a taxpayer does decide to make a donation, the taxpayer chooses the scholarship granting organization that will receive the money. Because many different SGOs arise under well designed scholarship tax credit programs, it is easy for both low income families AND taxpayers to associate with ones that comport with their own values. This element of taxpayer/donor choice does not exist under either voucher or government monopoly school programs.

Non-refundable scholarship donation tax credit programs do not eliminate compulsion entirely — anyone who chooses not to participate is still taxed to pay for the status quo monopoly system — but it dramatically reduces the likelihood that anyone will be forced to pay for schooling he or she finds morally objectionable.
Yes, because it's a well-known fact that the interests and ideologies of corporations and wealthy individuals align cleanly with those of low-income families.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Wall Of Separation Between Church And Mexico

On May 3rd, Lou Dobbs interviewed Christopher Hitchens, who has a new, anti-religion book out called God is not Great. The whole exchange, which you can watch here, was very friendly. I was kind of surprised, in fact, just how friendly it was. Since when did Dobbs, I wondered, become such a critic and opponent of religion?

Apparently, since religious people started favoring immigration.

Actually, to be fair, when you go back through Dobbs's writing on the subject of religion, he seems to take a fairly consistent position that there ought to be a fairly strong wall between church and state. You also notice one, um, peculiar element of his opposition to the role of religion in politics: it seems to have no basis in specifics beyond the tendency of religious groups to support immigration. That commentary above is from 5/9/07. On 9/28/06, he wrote a long, stirring piece about the unacceptability of politically active churches, but the only examples of impropriety he saw fit to mention were friendly overtures toward foreigners generally and Mexicans in particular:
The mixture of religion and politics is on public display throughout the country. The Mormon Church rolled out the red carpet for Mexican President Vicente Fox, embraces illegal immigrants in the state of Utah and helped pro-amnesty incumbent Congressman Chris Cannon with a get out the vote campaign.

Apparently nobody in the federal government is too concerned that the Catholic Church has repeatedly lobbied on behalf of millions of illegal aliens and their supporters for wholesale amnesty and open borders. Until the Supreme Court ordered him to, the head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, didn't think he should cooperate with the law when it came to divulging information on priests accused of pedophilia, and he believes it is entirely correct to encourage his parishioners to civil disobedience in the case of legislation that secures our borders and punishes those who cross them illegally.
No mention of stem cell research, or Terri Schiavo, or young-earth creationism in the classroom. The real problem is being too friendly with the president of Mexico.


Thinking Seriously About Coercion

Daniel Klein at CATO and Brian Doherty at Reason complain that, in Doherty's words, "You can't force economists to think seriously about coercion." Apparently you can't get libertarians to do it either. From Andrew Coulson, as part of his on-going war with Sara Mead:
The Ed Sector’s Sara Mead made a passing comment recently that, “yes, vouchers or tax expenditures in the form of tax credits are public funding.” The problem with this statement is not just that it’s wrong in general, or even that it has repeatedly been found to be wrong with specific regard to education tax credit programs, but that its wrongness has been a matter of court record for long enough that anyone working in education policy can reasonably be expected to be aware of it.

The most notable relevant case is Kotterman v. Killian, in which opponents of Arizona’s education tax credit program challenged it on the grounds that public money was being used to pay for religious instruction. Writing for the majority, Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas A. Zlaket observed that

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “public money” is “[r]evenue received from federal, state, and local governments from taxes, fees, fines, etc.” …. As respondents note, however, no money ever enters the state’s control as a result of this tax credit. Nothing is deposited in the state treasury or other accounts under the management or possession of governmental agencies or public officials. Thus, under any common understanding of the words, we are not here dealing with “public money.”
I guess he's conceding the point about vouchers, but his counter-argument on tax credits is pretty weak sauce. What's supposed to be the difference, in terms of coercion, between the government garnishing a portion of your income upfront before cutting you a check to pay for school, and the government exempting a portion of your income from garnishment, but only on the condition that you use that exempted income to pay for school? Coulson's just bringing up the narrow issue of legal semantics, but law isn't ethics and I don't see a significant ethical objection to Mead's point.

Also, let's keep in mind that if education tax credit schemes are going to be universal, they're also going to have to be plainly redistributive. In 1999 - that's just the set of data I found most quickly - income tax filers with AGIs of $20K or less represented 35% of all filers and $16.8 billion in negative income tax liability. Millions of other filers paid less in income taxes than the cost of private school tuition (on average about $4,000 for a parochial school and upwards of $10,000 for a non-sectarian private school in 1999). Providing those people with an income tax "credit" just amounts to giving them extra money, presumably from the government's coffers. So even if Coulson was right about tax credits in general not being "public money", his distinction breaks down when we look at cases where a tax break per se wouldn't actually buy anybody an education. (These are federal tax figures; the situation is obviously different at the state level, but to the extent that the quantities of money changing hands through state or local taxation is less than at the federal level, Coulson's coercion problem becomes greater still. How many people pay enough in state income taxes - or even all state and local taxes combined - to cover the cost of a private school education?)

Update: Sara Mead has more along the same lines here, including the entertaining finding that CATO's former director of fiscal policy studies considers tax credits for companies making ethanol to be "subsidies" and "blatant corporate welfare".

Blood, Water, Etc.

Mark Kleiman makes an argument against free trade that's a lot like an argument I made when applying to an undergraduate political philosophy seminar at Cal:
Economic exchange is an important means of facilitating cooperation, but it is not the only means. Kinship, norms enforced by reputational effects, and state action also organize cooperation. It is neither irrational nor morally wrong for me to be more eager to benefit, and more reluctant to harm, those with whom I cooperate more, because they are my relatives, because they are my neighbors or my co-workers or my fellow-members of other groups that embody collective social capital, or because they are my fellow-citizens.

The sovereign state has the capacity to pay for public goods by compulsory taxation, thus avoiding the free-rider problem. Wages or profits earned by people or firms that pay U.S. taxes are more important to me than wages or profits earned by those who pay taxes elsewhere, because I get a share of those wages or profits in the form of greater expenditure on public goods or reduced taxation. But even putting that aside, the feeling of community among Americans or Mexicans or Germans or Thais has all sorts of beneficial results (along, of course, with some quite horrible ones).

Does that mean that nations should be entirely selfish? No, any more than the fact that parents care more about their own children than they do about other children means that families should be entirely selfish. In particular, a big, rich country like the U.S. ought to be a generous contributor both to world-scale public goods and to the needs of the global poor.
The thing is, for my application I also had to make an opposing argument.

I agree that it seems very plausible to say that we have special, or additional, moral obligations to "those with whom [we] cooperate more", like relatives, co-workers, teammates, etc. Lumping all of those groups together, though, obscures the fact that even if that's true (and let's just assume it is), the degree of additional obligation is measured on a sliding scale. For example, however much extra weight my parents deserve in my moral calculations, odds are that the woman who lives in the apartment below mine deserves rather less, and that the clerk who checked my ID at Albertsons this evening should get less still. And the further removed an individual is from my day-to-day life, the harder it becomes to discern which features of our relationship warrant this sort of special moral attention. By the time we're talking about call center operators in Virginia, our actual relationship is pretty vague indeed and it seems to me that we've slid pretty far down that sliding scale. How much further down, really, is the Mexican factory worker?

What's more, even if interpersonal relationships create additional moral considerations, so do other factors. Most notably - as Kleiman himself mentions - we're way richer than the other people we're considering trading with. If liberalizing trade would benefit the citizens of other countries at some expense to American citizens, then surely it matters how much poorer than our own those other citizens are. Nobody thinks the rule is to promote your family's well-being at any cost to others.

Now, I think that Kleiman feels like he's accommodating that egalitarian concern by endorsing the idea that "a big, rich country like the U.S. ought to be a generous contributor both to world-scale public goods and to the needs of the global poor." But if it's OK to tax our relatively rich compatriots to help out relatively poor foreigners, why is it not OK to allow certain jobs to move across the border, instead of cash? Free trade, on this account, is just de facto foreign aid, with the additional likely benefit (in many cases) of bringing more, cheaper goods to American consumers.

P.S. - Of course, Brad DeLong's response to all of this is going to be much simpler. My understanding is that he's a pretty strict utilitarian, and so would reject from the start the suggestion that, say, family members "deserve" any special moral consideration at all. Sure, maybe as a rule of thumb it's good to make the well-being of one's family a higher priority than the well-being of strangers, because this will probably tend to create the greatest happiness overall. But it's not like your aunt, qua your aunt, is somehow more special than other peoples' aunts. After all, it's hard to imagine something more random than the fact of you being related to your aunt. As they say, you don't pick your family.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

And they spell "centre" wrong!

It turns out that our neighbors to the north don't have an LGBTQ community; Canada has a GLBT community instead! Those Canadians sure are wacky.

Yes, Ottawa tourism's "Things to Do" webpage features prominently a link to their GLBT travel tips. So does San Francisco's. So does DC's. Houston's does not.

Hat tip to the tourism board of that nation's capital for acknowledging a blotch on Canada's record:
And don’t miss the new Canadian War Museum: After the Second World War, the Canadian government paid a researcher to design a device that was supposed to help identify gays and lesbians. A version of the infamous (and notably unreliable) “fruit machine” that ruined many lives is on permanent display at the museum.
I can think of a few American presidential candidates who would love to get their hands on that fruit machine.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Wedding Bashers

Why all the misplaced invective?

Hating on weddings--not necessarily on marriage; weddings provide enough hate-worthy fodder on their own--is a cottage industry on the internets. On Slate, Megan O'Rourke takes a superficial stab at this popular topic. Each of her assertions--that lavish weddings are an extreme manipulation of existing consumerist habits, that couples' desires to have "personalized" accoutrements is an unfortunate extension of advertising culture's narcissistic demands, that parents pressure kids into having ridiculous ceremonies--is true, but she misses the point a few times.

First, as is common when smart people get mad at institutional problems, she directs her objections toward weddings themselves and doesn't instruct us to dismantle the underyling cultural issues that make wedding such a nasty manifestation of rampant consumerism. There's nothing inherent to wedding ceremonies that makes them objectionable; they're just a handy example to point to when we want to laugh about how silly capitalism is.

Second, if we want to blame deeply-seeded, misplaced cultural ideals for the ridiculousness that is the modern wedding, consumerism has to share equal weight with patriarchy. Don't try to tell me that spending $28,000 (the average cost of a ceremony these days) to make 250 guests pretend that a jewel-encrusted woman is a virgin and that her deed is happily being transfered from one man to another isn't the modern equivalent of a dowry. Mothers, fathers, and couples are willing to spend the median annual income on enlarged princess fantasies. But, again, this isn't the fault of marriage or weddings themselves; the onus belongs to couples, their families, and a social heirarchy that treats women like beautiful children. O'Rouke only briefly alludes to this dynamic, choosing instead to spend her essay blaming wedding planners for her silly preference for square invitations.

Finally, and most obnoxiously, O'Rouke refuses to accept that couples and their families choose to have outlandish weddings. Certainly we could debate the existence of free will and the role of advertising in consumer behaviors, but at some point we have to recognize that intelligent, meta-cognitive women like O'Rouke are capable of pulling the plug when a wedding gets too expensive. You can blame magical thinking and "white blindness" all you want, but I don't see a crafty, well-groomed wedding planner swiping your credit card for you. I have a hard time working up sympathy for families who can afford $130 a head on pasta salad and personalized sugar cookies. By claiming that "the wedding juggernaut can persuade us to spend so much more money than we feel we should," or saying that "you're made to feel guilty if you try to cut corners," O'Rouke shirks the resonsbility of self-control and adopts a passive voice in the face of consumerist pressures. And ladies, I don't need to tell you that passivity is the last think we want from our women.

This isn't akin to tobacco companies denying that cigarettes give you throat cancer. This isn't like the Cattleman's Association telling Americans that beef is good for them. This is simply another example of capitalist embellishment, not deception. Wedding planners tell you that this is the Most Important Day of Your Life, just like Coca Cola tells you that caffeinated sugar water makes you look sexy. Since when is Crest morally bound to reveal that having whiter teeth won't make my friends like me more, and since when were wedding planners obligated to explain that, no, having the perfect centerpieces won't guarantee delighted guests?

Ultimately, the build-up-followed-by-disillusionment O'Rouke describes rests on the shoulders of the consumers who fall for the sparkly notion that a $4,000 wedding dress is going to make them happy. She correctly notes that this over-the-top wedding epidemic is rooted in culture-wide unrealistic consumerist ideals, but she still fails to take responsibility for her own choice to give in to the Wedding Industry Machine.

Jobs In Berkeley

Ah, Berkeley:
Every teenager and young adult who lives in Berkeley would be promised a summer job under an ambitious plan the City Council is weighing.

The council will take the first steps Tuesday toward guaranteeing a summer job for every resident 14 to 23 years old.


"Berkeley over the years has developed a pretty good reputation for working with young people. We have to extend that reach," said Councilman Max Anderson, who along with Councilman Darryl Moore and Bates proposed the plan. "Certainly the needs are there."


Every summer the city gets about 400 qualifying applicants to fill 100 to 150 jobs. The jobs, which typically pay $7.50 an hour for 30-hour workweeks, are mostly in the city's parks and maintenance departments.
This from the SF Chronicle. I appreciate the sentiment, but I'm not sure the still-in-school demographic ought to be the highest priority in terms of increasing employment opportunities.

What's more, one of the city's motivating factors is the fact that crime tends to increase in the summer. It's not clear, though, that summer vacation is the major culprit. The number of hours being spent out and about, both by potential victims and potential criminals, increases in the summer. Bicycle ridership - and therefore bicycle theft - also goes up with the temperature. People leave windows open to cool off, allowing easier home or vehicle intrusion. Lots of things change in the summer, and it's not obvious to me that school vacation is one of the major contributors to crime increases.

Of course, the evidence does strongly suggest that lower unemployment is strongly correlated with lower crime, but I don't know that that observation is meant to cover 14-year-olds. In any case, I'm pretty sure that whatever employment/crime relationship does exist is likely to hold more strongly for people who aren't also in school than for those who are, since students are disproportionately dependents of others.

So maybe kids aren't the members of society most in need of jobs.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Now What?

I can't remember who posted it first -- TNR? -- but the best thought I've heard about the Republican debate was: don't any of these people see anything wrong with the Country? Isn't there anything different they'd like to do, something they'd want to change?

Excepting possibly immigration, it's startling how much of the current Republican crop hews to orthodoxy. No serious new ideas. No serious policy proposals. Simply repetition about the endless culture war and god-forsaken Iraq. Not even acknowledgement that there might BE problems.

Seems like what's going on is that Conservative Orthodoxy has gotten so severe and rigid that it's not even possible to lead it in a new direction. After all, you can't borrow from a Democrat idea because you would be automatically screwed. You can't deviate from Federalism, so new spending programs are out. Any economic proposals will be scrutinized for their tertiary effects on the god-damned culture war. You CAN offer to cut taxes, but we've heard that noise for the past thirty years.

Even on the culture war, there isn't much you can do except appoint "Strict Constructionist" judges. You're just supposed to sit there and praise the Boy Scouts, I guess.

All in all, it's pretty thin gruel. It can't last in the general election

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Below-Minimum Wages Of Religion

Ezra would "happily bargain away whatever satisfaction I supposedly derive from my bold freethinking for a sense of serenity, a perceived connection to a more permanent and grounding plane, and a steadying faith in the continuation of my consciousness." I say, none of those supposed benefits are actually of any utilitarian value unless you've actually bargained away not just your atheism, but also your faculties for critical thinking. (There's nothing about permanence or impermanence that would actually make life any more or less meaningless, for instance.) But if you've given up those critical capacities, not only is your own life likely to suffer on balance, but you're also much more likely to be a significant drag on the overall happiness of the world. So I can see the appeal of ignorant bliss from the blissfully ignorant point of view, but I don't see the sense of the trade from point of view you have to occupy to consider it in the first place.

I suppose we could stipulate that the only stuff you'd have to stop thinking critically about would be the metaphysics and the existentialism, but as long as we're tailoring our hypothetical trade-offs to suit our preferences, I'd rather just be blissfully happy in the employment of my critical thinking abilities.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Apparently none of the 4,232 black students in Tucson Unified School District was available for a photograph

Hey, notice anything funny about this picture?

It would be amusing if it weren't so true.

The New Left in the kitchen, with the candlestick

Jon Chait’s insightful but often infuriating article in TNR on the subject of Netroots has lead to a lot of great discussion on the blogs but one thing that struck me was the difference between how Chait sees Netroots and how Netroots see themselves. Both understand Netroots as a popular movement. But Chait – representing the TNR, DLC, Mickey Kaus wing of liberalism – sees popular movements in general in a very skeptical light. I think this is because for those liberals, the only popular movements they have ever known are the right-wing machine – not famous for its ability to reason logically – and the New Left – which featured the wafting scent of patchouli and ineffectual protest march thuggery.

Most bloggers don’t think of the New Left much, but to me, the New Left was a response to the failures of the old New Deal coalition and the paradigms that went with it. Where the New Deal coalition depended on passively accepting racism, the New Left sought equality for all oppressed people (not just blacks, but women, Native Americans and more). Where the New Deal paradigm viewed all foreign policy issues as Communists vs. Capitalists the New Left recognized the neglected values of democracy and self-determination. Where the New Deal descended into political corruption and backroom deals the New Left saw sought change by confronting the system from the outside.

Now, as a project aimed at fixing the shortcomings of the New Deal the New Left had it’s hits and misses. Its crowning achievement was the civil rights movement and helping to end the Vietnam war, but outside those victories the movement was pretty ineffectual and – like most movements whose paradigms no longer apply – its legacy was handed over to those too ideological and too closed-minded to think their way out of it. That’s the same process we’re seeing now in the right – where everyday intelligent conservative thinkers are cashing in their chips and leaving conservative thought to the Rush Limbaugh’s and Ann Coulter’s of the world.

So, having seen two popular movements sink into buffoonery before their eyes, you can forgive people like Chait for being cautious about accepting Netroots. However, I think another belief of theirs further heighten this caution: Chait, like many Neolibs, think the New Left killed liberalism. I’ve written too much already but let me just state that I think liberalisms fall in the 70’s and 80’s was the result of the old paradigms of the New Deal becoming irrelevant or unsustainable. The New Left didn’t kill the New Deal. The New Deal died of natural causes.

The danger of being skeptical of popular movements is that it will cripple our ability to motivate voters and defend our values. The New Deal lead to tax-and-spend excesses but it also passed Social Security and Medicare. The New Left lead to marijuana infused love-ins and Che posters but it also realized the dream of African American suffrage. What will Netroots give us before it decent into blogofascism is complete?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

hi dennis. how r u doing? LOL

MySpace is cool again! Check out their Impact page, and peruse the 2008 presidential candidates' MySpace pages. Guess who new my newest friend is?

Most candidates are going with polished pages, but Bill Richardson opts for the muted default template. It looks like we have something in common! Until he tells me about his taste in music, movies, and books, though, I don't know if I can trust him to lead the nation. His friend Charlotte is pretty cute.

Hillary Clinton claims to have over 51,000 friends. I bet she totally doesn't know that many people.

Everyone's favorite Mitt likes the Beatles, Huckleberry Finn, and serving the state of Massachusettes. According to hip Top 24, there also appears to be a gaggle of Romneys invating the internets.

Rudy Guliani has his profile set to private. What a douche!

Defining Wonkery Down

This post from the AFT's NCLBlog reminded me of something I found vaguely annoying about The Education Wonks back when I regularly read the site. My issue is this: no actual wonkery takes place there. There's just nothing wonkish about it, no evidence that the author is, in fact, a wonk of any kind. There is a lot of snide demagoguery, but I suppose "The Snide Education Demagogue" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

An illustrative contrast is with the other "eduwonk", Andrew Rotherham. He uses, like, charts and numbers and stuff.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Roberak F. Obagan

Lefties, depending on their level of Obama fandom, are either gloating or fretting at the prospect of an endorsement from neoconservative extraordinaire Robert Kagan. Sez Kagan:
America must "lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good." With those words, Barack Obama put an end to the idea that the alleged overexuberant idealism and America-centric hubris of the past six years is about to give way to a new realism, a more limited and modest view of American interests, capabilities and responsibilities.

Obama's speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last week was pure John Kennedy, without a trace of John Mearsheimer. It had a deliberate New Frontier feel, including some Kennedy-era references ("we were Berliners") and even the Cold War-era notion that the United States is the "leader of the free world." No one speaks of the "free world" these days, and Obama's insistence that we not "cede our claim of leadership in world affairs" will sound like an anachronistic conceit to many Europeans, who even in the 1990s complained about the bullying "hyperpower." In Moscow and Beijing it will confirm suspicions about America's inherent hegemonism. But Obama believes the world yearns to follow us, if only we restore our worthiness to lead. Personally, I like it.
But I think people are kind of confused about what Kagan is doing here. About 80% of the strategy is aimed at some combination of the following two goals:
  1. First, Kagan wants to create the impression that his own thoroughly-discredited world view retains significant credibility. (Look! Even prominent Democratic presidential contenders have foreign policy views much like mine! Mine's practically the consensus position!)

  2. Second, Kagan is clearly - smugly, even - aware that by approving of Obama's alleged foreign policy views, he undermines Obama among a significant number of his potential supporters. Yes, Kagan is dumb. But he also kind of isn't; he knows what the liberal Democratic reaction to his column is going to be.
The big red flag should be that in order to accomplish either of those two objectives, Kagan has to significantly overstate the evidence that Obama actually holds views that are anything like Kagan's. Obama, let's all remember, opposed the Iraq war before it was cool.

So what Kagan is doing is using his page space at the Washington Post to muddy the waters surrounding the merits of his own fairly crazy foreign policy beliefs. If he asserts blithely and confidently enough that Barak Obama and John Kennedy hold or held approximately similar views, people won't know quite what to think anymore. And mission accomplished!

Kagan sort of admits the paucity of the evidence in his favor toward the end:
Of course, it's just a speech. At the Democrats' debate on Thursday, when asked how he would respond to another terrorist attack on the United States, Obama at first did not say a word about military action. So maybe his speech only reflects what he and his advisers think Americans want to hear. But that is revealing, too. When it comes to America's role in the world, apparently they don't think there's much of an argument.
Of course, a strong majority of Americans oppose the war in Iraq. So, there you have it: like much of the rest of the contemporary Republican party platform, the best you can say of their foreign policy is that the American people enjoy the rhetoric but don't actually want to see any of the concrete policy ideas actively pursued.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Something wrong with this picture

Maybe I'm a little slow here, but shouldn't the tax rate increase or at least stay the same as you get more income?

Friday, April 27, 2007

"If They Had A Giant Centipede...

...believe me, they'd use it."

(Good until May 26th.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

On Liberty & Utilitarianism

Radley Balko marvels at the fact that Barney Frank can be both a fan of John Stuart Mill and "a big government socialist on most economic issues". The implication - or assumption - is supposed to be that Frank is being inconsistent, presumably because he hasn't thought through his beliefs very carefully.

Except that, as it turns out, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism is one of the most influential books in the history of...egalitarian liberalism! Mill was a big fan of freedom, definitely. At the same time, though, he thought that the organizing principle of society - and life generally - should be the "greatest happiness principle", which "holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." That is the fundamental ethical principle of Mill's philosophy. Note that it says not a single word about liberty.

Once you factor in the law of diminishing marginal utility, Mill's ethics offer a powerful argument that will frequently justify redistributing significant quantities of wealth from the rich to the poor - i.e., big government socialism, as defined by our right-wing friends at Reason.

And not to hassle Balko with needless details, but Mill was also an advocate, in many cases, of government intervention, provided that it was to the benefit of society's aggregate happiness. In later years he was essentially a socialist himself, but even earlier on he advocated free markets primarily because he thought they were an effective way of promoting happiness, not because they were ends in themselves. And that really gets at the central flaw of libertarian thinking, doesn't it?

Friday, April 20, 2007

What About The Victim?!?

Matthew Yglesias observes that pro-lifers "don't oppose abortion rights because they think such rights are bad for the health of pregnant women...They oppose it because they think fetuses have moral rights that ought to be instantiated as legal rights." He's right that this makes many anti-abortion arguments pretty disingenuous. I bring it up, though, because it reminds me of the only angle of the abortion debate I find interesting to discuss.

Basically, I'd go a step further than Yglesias and say that it's not just dishonest for opponents of abortion to appeal to public health arguments - that the procedures are physically dangerous, or emotionally traumatic, or whatever - but also contradictory. If you actually think that fetuses are people, with all of the ethical and legal rights that personhood entails, then there's no reason to be concerned about the health of a woman undergoing an abortion in the first place. After all, if a fetus is a person, then abortion is murder, and we don't arrange homicide laws to protect the health of murderers.

In fact, I would imagine that ordinary homicide is a pretty dangerous activity to engage in; you may be initiating an aggressive confrontation you can't win, for instance, or traumatizing yourself for life. Nevertheless, if I were to advocate stricter laws against murder on those grounds, I think people, and conservatives in particular, would be pretty uniform in their judgment that I was failing to adequately appreciate the wrongness of murder and the extent to which being a murderer costs you many of your rights.

The point is, Who cares about a murderer's health and well-being? It seems to me that to the extent that pro-lifers advocate protecting the health of would-be aborters, they don't really think abortion is all that serious of a moral infraction.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

New CNN Poll

Highlights from the survey [pdf] taken April 10-12:
  • People oppose the war in Iraq by a 2-to-1 margin.

  • It's not immediately clear to me why this question appears to have been asked twice, but about 60% favor withdrawing troops within a year or so.

  • 69% think additional troops won't help in Iraq.

On April 18th and 19th, at least 210 Iraqis were killed in bombings, with that many more again injured.

I understand the concern many people have that we may be flirting with a war against Iran. It's pretty clear that a number of people would like to see that happen, and many of them are influential out of proportion to their wisdom. Still, I have a hard time really believing that anybody thinks they could sell another war in the Middle East with so many people agreeing that the current one is going so poorly.

"Obstetrician" Is Just Hard To Spell

It looks to me suspiciously like the conservative majority on the SCOTUS consists substantially of activist judges.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Evolution Debate Post-Mortem

Out of a dangerous combination of curiosity and boredom, I got myself into an evolution/creationism debate here. It seems to have winded down, so for my own benefit I decided to go through and try to discern from where the disagreement between the parties was originating. I think I've identified the following misconceptions, each of which may or may not be held by creationists/religious sorts generally. I list them in the order they came up or became clear to me.
  • Evolution by natural selection amounts to "time plus chance plus a protein molecule" - This is, of course, a wildly reductive way of describing the relevant theories, and you can't really create this sort of caricature without misrepresenting the ideas being discussed. Certainly, the atheistic view is that evolution by natural selection proceeds without conscious control, which makes it, in some sense, a "random" process. But it also happens as the result of predictable natural processes, a feature that loose firings of the word "random" don't really seem to capture.

  • "Faith" is required to believe in naturalistic explanations - This is a confusion. It's true that science, by and large, does not consist in a priori reasoning, so its conclusions can't be known with complete certainty. However, it does not follow from the fact that we cannot know X with certainty that believing X requires "faith". Rather, appropriate scientific beliefs are held with relative certainty - as they are viewed as more probable than competing alternatives - and are subject to falsification by evidence. To the extent that a belief admits of the possibility of falsification by evidence, it cannot be described as requiring "faith" in the sense that the word is typically used. Articles of religious faith are not fundamentally probabilistic in the same way scientific beliefs are. Personally, I like to think of scientific beliefs, or a posteriori beliefs generally, as operating assumptions. (Later in the thread, I had to explain that science does most of its work through induction not deduction, so the fundamental problem seems to be a failure to distinguish different types of reasoning.)

  • We have lots of reasons to think that the Bible is a reliable historical record - Given the extent to which the Bible is internally inconsistent, it seems odd to put a lot of stock in its consistency with external reality.

  • Various complex biological phenomena are irreducibly complex, in the sense that they couldn't have evolved gradually over time according to prevailing theories - Creationists don't seem to realize that arguments appealing to supposed irreducible complexity are 1) incredibly ambitious and 2) ridiculously arrogant. Ambitious because you have to rule out every possible progression of evolution as incompatible with theories of natural selection, and arrogant because you have to assume that just because you can't think of a way something could have evolved, it must not have been possible by natural means. As I said in the comments, the poverty of a given individual's imagination says nothing about the potential of evolution by natural selection. And all of this completely puts aside the fact that, so far as I know, every single example put forward by creationists as an instance of irreducible complexity has been rebutted with a possible mechanism of evolution in which each individual step is either selectively advantageous or selectively neutral.

  • There's nothing improbable about the theory that God created everything - However improbable our scientific theories are, surely the theory that God exists and also provides all of our scientific evidence is more improbable still. The bottom line is that if you want to theorize God's existence and agency, that theory either demands explanation and justification, or it does not. If it does, then you should provide it. If it does not, then theistic theories are being held to a much lower standard than scientific theories. This is related to another misconception:

  • Supernatural theories have significant explanatory power - As I said over the course of the argument: First, why assume that a supernatural force must be involved rather than wait and see if a natural explanation can be uncovered? Second, if the force in question has all sorts of physical, material, natural influences and effects, in what sense is it supernatural at all? Why don't we just describe it as a natural force? What work is the "supernatural" part doing except letting us wave away the aspects of the question we don't understand?

  • Evolution by natural selection violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics - I didn't realize people still believed this, so it's helpful to see that the misconception persists. Anyway, the 2nd law pertains closed systems; organisms are not closed systems, so the 2nd law doesn't apply.

Also interesting, but maybe less satisfying to examine, is the peculiar combination of smugness and defensiveness on the part of my interlocutor. On the one hand, I'm told that as an atheist I get a "free ride" from my Christian countrymen and it's suggested that I must not truly understand theistic arguments. At the same time, I'm told I'm "insulting" his intelligence by suggesting that his reasoning is flawed and I'm "hectoring" him when I request examples or arguments in support of his assertions.

Then there's the troubling bigotry of not only the assertion that atheists are doomed to moral inferiority (because we must be relativists!), but also the implication that specifically Judeo-Christian theism is required for sound moral infrastructure. Besides being a (surprise!) reductive view of the history of Western civilization, it also gives short shrift to the two-thirds of the world's population that doesn't share the peculiar religious beliefs of my opponent.

For me, the point of all of this was getting more of a sense of how a great many people think about these things. I've spent the last seven years or so in the Bay Area, and four of those years I spent studying science. It's easy for me to forget that a great many people haven't had the same good fortune.