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.