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.

Gentrification: discuss

Lisa and I were discussing gentrification and I suddenly realized I don't have a very solid basis in my opinion that gentrification is generally a good thing (or at worst and neutral thing). So What are your opinions

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Ezra Klein looks at the following comment from Fred Thompson and asks, "What the hell sense does that make?":
This issue is particularly important now because massive, unfunded entitlements are coming due as the baby-boom generation retires. We simply cannot afford higher taxes if we want an economy able to bear up under the strain of those obligations. And beyond the issue of our annual federal budget is the nearly $9 trillion national debt that we have not even begun to pay off.
Well it makes sense from the point of view of a contender for the Republican nomination for president, who very likely understands, but cannot explicitly acknowledge, that many members of his target audience would prefer that the government stop providing these entitlement benefits altogether.

Personally, I found another of Thompson's complaints even more preposterous:
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this success story is where the increased revenues are coming from. Critics claimed that across-the-board tax cuts were some sort of gift to the rich but, on the contrary, the wealthy are paying a greater percentage of the national bill than ever before.

The richest 1% of Americans now pays 35% of all income taxes. The top 10% pay more taxes than the bottom 60%.
As of 2001, the richest 1% of Americans controlled 33% of the nation's wealth. Meanwhile, the richest 10% controlled 70% of the nation's wealth. Note that that is not only more than is controlled by the bottom 60%, but also more than is controlled by the bottom 90%. So it's not clear what to make of Thompson's comment, here, except to assume he thinks that under a fair tax regime, people pay a share of the taxes identical to their share of the population, with no reference to income or wealth. I say we call that the Super-Flat Tax, and give Thompson all of the credit for it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Markets in some things but not others

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolutions is one of the libertarian bloggers on my rss feed. He has a regular feature called “Markets in Everything”. The idea being that markets are so powerful and evasive that they spring up everywhere. Though this is interesting so is the opposite: instances where markets are inefficient and non-existent. I was thinking about that today at work.

My office - like many software companies - has a department specifically devoted to development of the core product (we just call it "Dev"). We also have a computer system for tracking change requests for the core product. So, for example, if you find a bug that needs to be fixed you enter a description into a system and it gets doled out to one of the Dev programmers who fixes it. The same process works for enhancement requests. With every change request documented and cataloged the only question is how to match up programmers with tasks: i.e. how do you coordinate workers with jobs that need to be done. In our society this task is often handled by markets. At my company - like all software companies that I know of - markets are almost never used. To see why you have to try to flesh out what such a market would look like.

If the Dev management wanted to dole out tasks using markets they might select tasks for the developers to bid on. Each developer would call out the number of hours he think it will take him and (assuming the task is fixed) the lowest bidder wins. Once completed they'd get paid. Several problem present themselves immediately:
  1. Even a large company has a relatively small number of developers; They could easily collude to raise prices. A liberal like myself would call that "unionizing" and of course management doesn't want that.
  2. If a developer had special knowledge of a task that allowed her to complete it much faster than anyone else she'd seek to merely underbid the others by a small amount. That way she'd get credit for many more hours of work than she actually worked. Considering that it is much easier to fix bugs in code you wrote yourself this is not an unrealistic possibility. You could also combine this with 1 and get collusion among the few developers who know how to tackle a given task.
  3. The naive bidding system described here could easily be gamed by a developer who writes bugs into his code so he could fix them later at a profit.
More fundamentally, are markets shunned in this capacity because they're less efficient than command-economy style central planning or for some other reason?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Because rejecting arranged marriages is so 1990s.

Oh, Prudence. Good thing I wasn't enjoying a beverage when I read your column this morning, otherwise I would have spit all over my office's expensive iMac.

Dear Prudie,

I am a 30-year-old single woman who has been living in the United States for the past few years. I am considered smart, successful, and attractive and have an interesting and fulfilling life. But my family, who live in India, are worried that I'm still single, and have been trying to arrange my marriage. While I do want to be married, I've had a couple of relationships that didn't work out; I've been very independent and have lived life on my own terms—so I now find it hard to go through the arranged marriage setup. I know my parents will never force me to marry someone I don't like, but the idea of having an arranged marriage seems archaic and almost mortifying. I'd also like to believe that marriages should be based in love and there should be an element of romance involved. My mother thinks that as long as two people have a certain compatibility and mutual respect, love can happen later. What should I do?


Dear Confused,

Now that I have a daughter, I've come to see the wisdom of arranged marriages. What's she going to know about picking a mate? Right now, I have a few candidates I'm keeping my eye on—since my daughter is only 11, I have plenty of time to monitor how these boys turn out. You say you would like to find a husband, but haven't been successful at it. I understand your aversion to the idea of an arranged marriage, but as long as everyone understands you will not be pressured to wed the guy, why not see who your parents come up with? Certainly their knowledge of you, the young man, and the qualities two people need to get along has to be as good as the algorithms of Yes, there is an archaic quality to the notion of being introduced to someone you are supposed to marry, but that's the ultimate, if unstated, goal of most fix-ups. As for romance versus compatibility—you and your mother are both right. If you meet the man in question and you two fall in love, what a story of romantic destiny! And romance without compatibility and mutual respect—no matter how you two got together—is destined to be a relationship that didn't work out.


At first I thought you were being sarcastic with the line about your daughter, but after that you sound downright sincere. Am I missing something? Help!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Word You're Looking For Is "Cherry-Picked"

Thomas Toch and Kevin Carey complain that "it's an open secret that many of our colleges and universities aren't challenging their students academically or doing a good job of teaching them." I think the Education Sector folks overplay this particular canard in general, but the specific evidence offered in this editorial I find especially unimpressive:
In the latest findings from the National Survey of Student Engagement, about 30 percent of college students reported being assigned to read four or fewer books in their entire senior year, while nearly half (48 percent) of seniors were assigned to write no papers of 20 pages or more.
That report is here. I'm not sure what the big deal is about half of seniors not being required to write 20 page reports. Obviously, it's harder to sustain one's topical focus over 20 pages than over 2 pages, but it's not as though the great majority of college graduates go on to write lots of 20 page reports in the work force either. Besides, if you scroll down just one more page in that same report, you find that 91% of seniors were required to write at least one report of 5-19 pages in length.

For that matter, I don't quite get the big deal about the number of assigned books, either. I think if Toch and Carey had broken the numbers down by academic major, I think it would be somewhat clearer what was going on. So, for example, even though 27% of seniors were assigned 4 or fewer books, engineering majors were twice as likely to fit that description (38%) as social sciences majors (18%). It's not obvious to me that these numbers are evidence of some ominous scandal.

If the objection is just supposed to be that kids in college aren't being adequately challenged, that might very well be the case, but it's certainly not obvious to me that the NSSE report as a whole backs up that claim. Some results that go conspicuously unmentioned by Toch & Carey:
  • When asked to judge the extent to which their exams had "challenged you to do your best work" on a scale of 1-7, with 7 being the most challenging, 81% of seniors answered with a 5 or higher, and very nearly half (49%) responded with a 6 or a 7.

  • 66% of respondents said that over the course of their senior year they "often" or "very often" "learned something that changed the way you understand an issue or concept". Only 3% of seniors said that never happened.

  • One-third had had a "culminating senior experience" like writing a thesis, and roughly another third were planning to do so.

All in all, there's just not a lot here to suggest that seniors weren't busy and challenged. So no, I don't think that Kevin Carey and Tom Toch punk American higher ed this time around. I think they do kind of a lame job, really.

Update: And way to feed the right-wing nonsense machine, guys.

An APLE A Day Keeps The Teachers Away

Via Andrew Rotherham, I see that the Center on Teacher Quality recommends, among other things, the following:
Offer incentives to teachers who want to teach in high-needs, low-performing schools, but only if they’re qualified. Limit these incentives to teachers who can demonstrate that they are effective with high-needs students and will be able to address the school’s specific learning needs. Sending a willing but unqualified or underprepared teacher to such a school could do more harm than good.
One thing I've never understood about incentives offered to teachers to work in high-needs schools is that they're almost always aimed at brand new teachers. California's APLE program, for instance, will make payments on your student loans for you for each year you spend teaching at a high-needs school. In practice, that means many enrolled students will go straight from their credential program to a high-needs school, and then leave once they've exhausted their APLE benefits (four years later).

But this is exactly backwards. Teachers make their biggest gains in effectiveness in their first 1-5 years teaching. APLE gives them a reason to stick around the high-needs schools just long enough to work through their learning curve, and then they're off to easier gigs in the suburbs. It would make significantly more sense if APLE offered some kind of loan suspension while the new teachers taught wherever they wanted for a few years, and then offered the financial incentive of loan assumption payments to teachers who spent, say, their 3rd through 6th years at a high-needs school.

Plastic Grocery Bags

Relatives from out-of-state have been asking me about the ban on plastic grocery bags in San Francisco, so here's a little background info on what prompted the ban.

I think one of the biggest things worth noting is that even returning the plastic bags to the grocery store doesn't result in the material ultimately being recycled. Rather, the store just sells them to companies that make Trex, a wood/plastic composite, lumber-like material, which is itself not recyclable.

It's still not completely obvious to me that the bag ban is a net gain for the environment or society generally - I think that depends on what takes the place of polyethylene bags - but the thinking of the city of San Francisco seems pretty clear.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Fuck this. I'm moving to Canada.

The authors of Bajillion are riddled with ailments. Tom has heartburn, Kevin capitalizes words for no reason, Paul is irreversibly addicted to strawberry-flavored milk beverages, and I get insufferable migraines two to five times a week. Seriously, it sucks to spend half your afternoons clutching your forehead, unable to think clearly, feeling like your about to heave on your work keyboard. I look like one of those morons in the "I have a headache THIS BIG! [arms outstretched for full effect]" commercials, except I can open only one eye and every tiny sound pounds my skull with the power of a thousand hammers. I can think of just one upside to this migraine mess.

Recently my doctor gave me a free four-pack of this wonderful little pill called Imitrex. I'm not a scientist, so I can't tell you exactly how it works, but I'm fairly certain that involves neuroreceptors and magic. It treats migraines without resorting to pain killers!

So today I took my prescription for a full bottle this life-saver to Long's Drugs and discovered (a) that, though my doctor had written a prescription for 30 doses, Blue Cross would only provide me with 9 doses, and (b) that these 9 pills would cost me $170. I was speechless. Literally, I bumbled and flailed at the pharmacist, unable to generate a sentence. I went home empty-handed.

$170 for 9 pills is about $19 per headache. It would be cheaper if lapdances cured migraines.

I'm new to this PPO business (I'd had only Kaiser until last year), and apparently I have to meet a $250 deductible before I can earn the privilege of simply paying my co-pay for prescriptions. This much I understand. But couldn't they prorate my deductible expenses over the course of a few purchases rather than making me pay it outright? Who can afford $170 for three weeks of one drug? I'm meticulous with money and don't live paycheck to paycheck, so I could have gotten my prescription today had I not been too flabbergasted to talk. But what about people who don't have fancy pants jobs and have kids and mortgages and can't shell out $250 for a few months of one lousy prescription?

Ironically, before my Imitrex adventure even began, I perused the internets today and discovered that, once my partner earns his master's degree, we as a couple will qualify to apply for Canadian citizenship as skilled workers. I've heard that Canada's health care setup is plagued with inefficiencies, but I don't see how it could be worse than this. See you in hell, American health care system.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

"Nothing Positive"

The Pope's kind of a buzzkill, huh?
"How many wounds, how much suffering there is in the world," the pontiff said, delivering his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" Easter address from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica as tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists listened in the square.

Benedict read out a litany of troubling current events, saying he was thinking of the "terrorism and kidnapping of people, of the thousand faces of violence which some people attempt to justify in the name of religion, of contempt for life, of the violation of human rights and the exploitation of persons."

"Afghanistan is marked by growing unrest and instability," Benedict said. "In the Middle East, besides some signs of hope in the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees."

He singled out what he called the "catastrophic, and sad to say, underestimated, humanitarian situation" in Darfur as well as other African places of suffering, including violence and looting in Congo, fighting in Somalia -- which, he said, drove away the prospect of peace -- and the "grievous crisis" in Zimbabwe, marked by crackdowns on dissidents, a disastrous economy and severe corruption.
Whoo! Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Very Far From Respectable

It seems to me that if you know the argument you're making is "very far from scientific", and yet you still employ it in a strictly scientific debate, the only conclusion the rest of us can draw is that you just don't care about science very much:
I Know It's Very Far from Scientific... [Kathryn Jean Lopez]

...but readers keep pointing out it was snowing in Washington, D.C. and New York, among other places, this week. Makes An Inconvenient Truth on cable a tad unconvincing to the average person. So word harder, Al. Or something.
"Or something" indeed.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

From the New York Times

The New York Times is the nations premier newspaper. Theoretically, this means that they have their pick of political cartoonists. Surely, if they're looking for conservative political cartoonists, they have a whole nation's worth to choose from so you can expect that they'll choose one of the best, most witty, most persuasive conservative cartoonists.

Either conservatives positions are so weak that even their best advocates look like shrill raving madmen, or perhaps the New York Times is purposefully not choosing the best conservative cartoonists. This is best case I can make for political bias on the part of the New York Times.