Thursday, July 31, 2008

Barack Obama: Too Awesome

It's enough to shake your faith in democracy, really:
But in a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is obese, could Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability? Despite his visits to waffle houses, ice-cream parlors and greasy-spoon diners around the country, his slim physique just might have some Americans wondering whether he is truly like them.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Prop. 8 Watch: Jerry Brown Edition

Ah, Jerry Brown.

Brown has apparently decided that the upcoming voter information pamphlet will officially describe proposition 8 as a measure to "eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry." The fact that this is an accurate description has not prevented proposition supporters from protesting on the grounds that it's too loaded. After all, who wants to take away people's rights? (I mean, besides supporters of proposition 8.)

The courts may very well decide that the wording in the pamphlet needs to be changed, but I think a bigger problem is that the arguments against the measure have TOO MANY CAPITAL LETTERS. Learn to use italics, people.

Bush Or Batman?

Via The Radula.

Gratuitous jab at Ron Paul at 2:10; the best scene is near the end, at 3:10.

Who Loves Prop. 7?

Reader Citizen G has been attempting, over email, to convince me that the Solar & Clean Energy Initiative on the November ballot is actually a good idea despite its organized opposition. And it's definitely true that basically all of the considerable funding against Prop. 7 has been provided by energy companies.

But here's the thing: as Ballotpedia lays out almost nobody is actually in favor of the measure. They list fewer than 10 prominent individuals supporting Prop. 7, but have a lengthy list of groups opposed. Notable opponents include:
  • 15 renewable energy companies (e.g., the American Wind Energy Association)
  • 9 environmental groups (e.g., the California League of Conservation Voters)
  • the California Democratic Party
So while it's no surprise that PG&E, the California Republican Party, and the California Chamber of Commerce oppose Proposition 7, the attribution of bad faith to all of these groups seems implausible, to say the least.

So where's the beef, here? Does any reputable group support the Solar & Clean Energy Initiative?

Update: Opponents of Prop. 7 lay out their objections here (pdf).
The Rand Institute has a study out which essentially recommends a return to the Clintonian system of treating terrorism as a criminal problem, and not a military one. Without going into various theories about the bogeyman, Israel, and oil multinationals, this seems to make rational sense.

Here's what sorts of tilts my pinball machine a bit: check the pie chart. According to the database Rand used to draw some of its conclusions, 53% of the terror groups disbanded in the last fifty years did so on the basis of either political compromise, or outright victory. 53% of the time, the terrorists walk away with at least some of what they wanted.

If terrorism 'works', that says a lot about how the nations affected by it are failing to achieve a consensus of the governed. Given that what a potential terrorist wants is not unconscionable or impossible, (ie, if you're willing to give in anyway) it seems both morally correct, and highly cost effective to make the necessary concessions quietly, and in advance of the actual terror.

Then again, 53% isn't an overwhelming margin of victory. I'd be very curious to see a table of demands, cross referenced to likelihood of victory. What got won? Was it just money? Separatism? Something a western nation might sympathize with? The implications seem critical given the last eight years of failure.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Affirmative Action

Now that McCain is flip-flopping on affirmative action, let me go ahead and make my in-principle defense of those sorts of racial preferences.

I think there's an instinctive resistance to the idea of "racial preferences" since, in this country, such preferences have tended to be horrifically unjust. Realistically, though, pointing to a long legacy of institutionalized and informal racism to show that affirmative action is, ipso facto, wrong is a "Hitler was a vegetarian" kind of an argument, a lazy non-sequitur.

The right way to think about the issue, I think, is to imagine yourself as the dean of admissions to a college or university. You have made most of your admissions decisions for the coming school year, but you have one more spot to fill, one more student you can accept. Complicating things, however, is the fact that the two best candidates left in your applicant pool are, on paper, identical in every way. That is, they have the same SAT scores, the same high school GPA, the same extra-curricular involvement, etc. Perhaps they even have the same economic background. They appear to be totally the same, except that one is white, and one is black.

Who do you admit?

It seems to me there's a very, very plausible argument to the effect that, even if your only goal is recruiting the strongest possible student body, you should prefer the black student. The reasoning is pretty simple: by stipulation, the two students have accomplished precisely the same things, but one has done it in spite of what were probably non-negligible obstacles due to his race, the subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations of racism in America.

If high school for these students was a race, they both reached the finish line at the same time, but odds are good the white student had a head start. It is therefore likely that the black student ran faster. It is therefore reasonable to prefer to admit the black applicant. Note that this is true even if you do not care about "diversity" in your student body.

Now, you might object that this argument is too probabilistic: maybe the black student faced more difficulties than the white student, but maybe not. And this is true; race, here, is serving as a proxy for factors we cannot evaluate directly. But so what? The same can be said for an SAT score or a GPA. The goal for an admissions committee is to acquire as much relevant information about the applicants as is practical. Information about race is both relevant and easy to obtain.

The upshot of all of this, I think, is that if it makes sense for a university to prefer a black student to an otherwise identical white student - and my argument is that it does make sense - then I think the case in favor of affirmative action in general is very strong. Of course, particular affirmative action policies might, say, give too much weight to race, but I do not find it plausible that race should have no weight at all.

P.S. - If information about race is, in fact, relevant, then it shouldn't surprise us that when affirmative action policies are challenged in court, selective organizations like universities, businesses, and the military rise to their defense.

P.P.S. - Note that analogous arguments can be mustered to consider other possible factors in admission. My sense is that, in addition to race, factors like SAT scores, GPA, and economic status hold up pretty well to the "hypothetical committee" test, but that things like volunteerism, extra-curricular participation, and athleticism hold up more poorly.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Crimes And Misdemeanors

My dad points out that this chart, which illustrates the key players in various Bush administration scandals, doesn't even include the Valerie Plame fiasco.

I'd add that what's really impressive is that all of those scandals are really just the criminal stuff. You can make a pretty good argument that most of the damage that Bush has done he did through totally legal means.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Self-Service In Oregon

Oregon's ban on pumping your own gas came up over drinks last night, and I was thinking that it's kind of weird that that law hasn't been overturned. I mean, presumably if lots of Oregonians really didn't want to pump their own gas, then station offering full service would dominate the market with or without a law.

Apparently, though, on November 2, 1982, voters in Oregon rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed gas stations to offer self-service fueling stations. And by a healthy 58-42 margin, no less. So the voters seem to feel pretty strongly that even letting other people pump their own gas would be bad.

A Mild Defense of McCain

Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias are dumping on John McCain for being a shameless flip-flopper. Which he is.

I think the comparisons to Barack Obama's relative consistency, however, are a little bit unfair, since Obama is currently winning. Right now there's not a lot of pressure on Obama to change his positions, but it's hard to say what kind of moves he'd be making if his situation was as desperate as McCain's.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Converting miles per gallon to cups per mile

Though I do love Paul's more philosophical posts I thought I'd change things up a little by responding to this post on one of the NYTimes blogs:

“Miles per gallon is misleading and can play tricks on our intuitions,” Prof. Soll said in a press release, which also links to an interactive quiz.

Profs. Soll and Larrick offered an alternative metric: gallons per mile. Expressed in gallons used per 100 miles, 18 m.p.g. becomes 5.5 gallons per 100 miles, and 28 m.p.g. becomes 3.6 gallons per 100 miles. And the difference is suddenly obvious: nearly two gallons every 100 miles, or a difference of more than $8.

I thought that it'd be interesting to measure gas volume more directly. Instead of using 100 miles, just use one mile and use the appropriate household measurement.

Table of US Cups of Gas used per Mile traveled

MpgUS Cups per MileExample car
10mpg1.6 Cups per MileBentley Azure Convertible
15mpg1 Cups per MileJeep Grand Cherokee
20mpg.8 Cups per MileToyota Tacoma
25mpg.6 Cups per MileModel T
30mpg.53 Cups per MileToyota Corolla
35mpg.45 Cups per MileVolkswagen Jetta
40mpg.4 Cups per MileHonda Civic Hybrid
45mpg.33 Cups per MileToyota Prius

I just threw this together pretty quickly so please forgive me if I rounded a little or compared cars across different years and features.

As you can see, the savings really happen on the far end with people switching from gas guzzlers to slightly more fuel efficient cars. Getting hippies like me to buy priuses surely doesn't hurt but it's not the main solution.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I Know What I Know

Gregg Primo Ventello, Associate Professor of English at Kansas City, Kansas Community College, has written an essay complaining that his administration's requirement that he "document how [he assesses his] teaching methods and [his] students' learning" leaves him feeling "mildly violated". It's one of the absolute worst set of arguments I have ever seen. And as a graduate student in the field of education, and as a teacher of middle school students, I've seen a lot of lousy arguments.

Ventello's essay contains precisely one correct claim, namely that "[r]equiring documentation of assessment is a failed attempt to hold educators 'accountable.'" This is basically true, since assessing learning is notoriously difficult and administrators don't like to admit that they're not holding people accountable.

So let it be said that the paperwork Ventello despises is, in fact, essentially a waste of time and energy. The rest of the reasoning offered in the piece, however, isn't just wrong, but patently absurd. Consider whether the following argument would hold water in any other professional context:
Before the mandate for documentation, we assessed ourselves and our students because we love our content, and how well we convey that content to our students deeply concerns us. Assessment, for a teacher, is an internal requirement.

The origin of this internal requirement is what the Greeks called “eros.” Socrates speaks of this in the Symposium. Eros can be defined as passion for work, any work -- whether it’s teaching calculus, playing the saxophone, or plumbing a house. It depends on the individual. Eros is the reason I fill with unabated joy when doing the work that I love. It is what causes time to fly while engaged, and what also causes time to stop when forced to do work that is, as Audre Lorde put it, “a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread” (Lorde, 1984, p. 55).


Eros is why we assess our teaching on some level at every moment of our professional day, and why we often cannot stop assessing at the “end” of our day. Teachers will do what they must to process their successes and failures. If there is a need to write it down, we will, but often the most productive plan of action emerges through a conversation with a colleague or mentor who shares your passion for the content and its pedagogy.
(Keep in mind, this horribly sophomoric argument is coming from a college-level professor.)

The confusion here is so basic that I actually had to contemplate for several minutes exactly how to articulate it. The best I can do is: We do not take it for granted that individuals are fulfilling their responsibilities on the assumption that they would not have taken on those responsibilities if they were not passionate about fulfilling them.

(But imagine how awesome it would be to be Prof. Ventello's financial planner! "No sir, we don't provide regular statements regarding the status and progress of your investments, because we are deeply passionate about maximizing your wealth. That sort of paperwork would be totally redundant.")

Not only are the empirical assumptions wildly absurd, though, there are also very serious issues of internal coherence. Remember, Ventello argues - correctly, I think! - that "what we do [as teachers] doesn’t lend itself easily to any perfect quantitative measure", and that therefore documentation of assessment in education is bound to be pointless. At the same time, however, he seems to have no doubts about his own ability to pursue "excellence" in teaching:
When we achieve eros, we settle for nothing short of excellence. We continually push ourselves to be better at what we do, and this is why we are concerned with how we use our time. In our pursuit of excellence, we know that our time is best spent engaged in the work that we love. We demand from others what we demand of ourselves. This means that we expect other people to put forth their best efforts because this is what we put forth. Incompetence, carelessness, ineptitude will not go unchecked. We know it exists; we’re not crazy. However, we expect better and will almost always ask for it. Because we care so much for how we use our time, we are forced to assess every minute and every aspect of our lives.
The question is naturally raised: if assessment in education is easily performed by close practitioners, why on earth would it be so inscrutable to a supervisor? There's a deeply unfortunate tendency among many educators to want to have this issue both ways such that they can be supremely confident of their own abilities as a teacher without conceding that other people might be able to evaluate the evidence as well. Ventello's essay illustrates that tendency almost perfectly.

Obviously, assessment in education really is hard, but that's a fact that cuts both ways. It's both the hardest part of being a teacher, and the part of the job teachers tend to deal with least seriously. I think that reality is made all too clear, here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Breaking: Girls Can Do Math!

I actually got word of this yesterday - you know, from my "sources" - but it was "embargoed" until today:
A new study comparing the math scores of 7 million students across the country shows what the five female university researchers already knew: Girls are just as good as boys at math.

The research seems to settle a long-running debate over the existence of a math gene that gives boys an edge over girls in advanced coursework and ultimately in the workforce.


The study found no difference between boys and girls in performance on math tests given in grades two through 11.

Decades ago, that wasn't the case. Girls took fewer advanced math and science courses and those who did posted lower scores.
And yes, I really do get emails about information that isn't supposed to be totally public yet. Most of them are not this interesting. I'd actually prefer not to receive any of them, but I'm not allowed to unsubscribe from the relevant list.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Now, I'm not saying God doesn't exist, but...

Researchers say they believe serotonin is at least partly responsible for what people generally term 'spiritual experiences'. Let's pretend for a moment that politicians are all scumbags, and the GOP has calculated that a political coalition based ultimately around serotonin and cheap meat can't fail. What should the Democrats do?

The only answer is to rapidly transform themselves into the party of hot sex and American Football with no TV blackouts.

"Adulthood" and Financial Independence

Jessica at ...and another thing points out this essay from Newsweek bemoaning the tendency for young adults to continue to live off of their parents' generosity post-college. The whole thing's pretty much statistic-free (although the author does cite a "majority" of her NYC-dwelling peers at one point), but for a sense of its objections an excerpt will suffice:
Higher rents and the need for deeper pockets are part of the charm associated with city living, but urban pricing aside, it is possible to live in any city regardless of your age or income; it just takes a little budgeting and prioritizing. Surrendering to lifestyle flexibility may be unattractive, but sometimes it's necessary. It's easy to "keep up with the Joneses" when financial responsibility is someone else's problem. The fact is, my peers who flood out of designer stores, arms adorned with shopping bags, wouldn't be able to afford their purchases without ringing up a massive credit-card debt. By continuing to provide for their twentysomething kids, parents hinder their children's ability to be financially responsible. If you don't learn to budget early on, what will inspire you to do so when your finances become your own prerogative?


There is something to be said for writing that rent check each month and knowing you've managed to live comfortably on your own terms. Racking up $500 shopping sprees on Mommy and Daddy's credit card may have its momentary allure, but the adult part of me believes that working for what you have is much more rewarding than being handed it on a silver platter. And I have my own mom and dad to thank for that.
I get the impression Jessica's somewhat more hard-nosed about this phenomenon than I am. It's already considered socially acceptable to have people spend some 25% of their lives with the intense support of their parents; a few more years hardly seems like a big deal to me. There's something abstractly romantic about financial independence, but I don't know that I'd wish it on anybody.

What I will say, though, is that this sort of thing highlights the absurdity of worshipping "success" the way people sometimes do in this country. As often as not, people who seem successful have, in fact, succeeded at very little beyond sustaining the momentum that they were born into. And by the same token, people who seem like "failures" tend not to have failed at anything in particular, but often have managed not to slip further down the economic ladder despite various inherited disadvantages.

To also get in a swipe at the media, here, one really gets a sense for what segments of American society the mainstream media represents when it seems to them worthwhile to run an essay complaining that parents are giving their big-city-dwelling kids too much money. While I'm sure that credit card debt is a problem for a lot of households, it's not like the problem for most people is that their credit card debt is underwritten by their parents.

Update: Because this made me laugh, I'm going to say it's related.

Monday, July 21, 2008


California's first true count of high school dropouts shows that one in four kids quit school last year - 127,292 - which is far more than state educators estimated before they began using a new student-tracking system.

The statewide 24-percent dropout rate also shows African American and Latino students leaving school at much higher rates than other ethnic groups, according to data released today by state schools chief Jack O'Connell.

The dropout rate is well above the 13 percent (67,107 students) that educators had earlier estimated using a less sophisticated counting method relied on for years.
More here. Note that the number for black students was 42%.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Probably-Awesome Parking Plan in SF

From the Chronicle:
At the first test location - the 52-space, city-owned metered parking lot on California Street just west of the tony Fillmore Street retail-and-restaurant corridor - the city covered the meter heads with red bags with instructions directing motorists to a pair of pay stations. The program will move into other neighborhoods in coming months.


Under the plan, parking prices would be adjusted according to demand. The ideal would be to have 85 percent of the parking spaces occupied. That way, parking spaces always would be available, meaning people would circle the block less in their polluting vehicles. The federal government, looking for ways to reduce congestion, awarded San Francisco an $18 million grant to help fund the $23 million pilot project. In all, 10 neighborhoods will be used in the study.
Interestingly, the article is primarily about the concerns bicyclists have about losing the existing parking meters, which they chain their bikes to, and possible ways to keep them in place. My experience with Piedmont Ave. in Oakland, though, is that you can just leave the poles in the street and nobody seems to mind. They're not any uglier with their heads taken off. If you stopped calling them "parking meter poles" and started calling them "bike poles", I think soon enough everybody would forget where they came from in the first place.

Redistributing Wealth vs. Killing People

Will Wilkinson makes a peculiar argument against the idea that wealth should be redistributed to minimize inequality now so that various sorts of injustices don't happen later:
The argument on offer here is an argument for preemptive redistribution. We have to redistribute so that injustice doesn’t occur. But this kind of argument, like arguments for preemptive war, face a high bar. You need to be pretty convincing that in the absence of preemptive action, something bad will occur. I think egalitarians almost never get over that bar.

Um, no. The way you justify taking preemptive action to avoid any problem is by evaluating the likelihood of realizing various costs and benefits. You don't go to the dentist only when you can make a "pretty convincing" argument that you will get a cavity if you don't. You should go to the dentist because you can make a pretty convincing argument that doing so is likely to help you avoid and/or stay on top of cavities. This is true even though going to the dentist is likely to impose very real costs on you now.

I don't mean to be nit-picky about this, but Wilkinson's rhetorical slight-of-hand, here, serves mostly to make the "bar" for preemptive redistribution seem bizarrely high. In reality, by any reasonable standard, the bar for preemptive redistribution is much, much lower than it is for preemptive war, mostly because the likely costs of preemptive war are much, much greater than the likely costs of preemptive redistribution.

P.S. - As an additional note, I'd point out that once you get past various naïve conceptions of property rights, the bar for justifying preemptive redistribution becomes lower still. The analogy with preemptive war obscures far more than it illuminates.

Update - Will says I'm neglecting the main point of his post (viz., that there doesn't seem to be much evidence that, in general, a high level of inequality "in fact increases the chance of exploitation or unfair procedures" by the relatively wealthy). Which is true! (Was I obligated to? Maybe I don't understand all of my bloggerly obligations.)

So to be fair, I don't have much to say on that question, although it strikes me as the kind of thing that's best looked at on a case-by-case basis.

But the portion of his argument that I quoted is either relevant or it's not, and the main point of my post was that the preemptive war analogy is really not that helpful of a way, in practice, to look at preemptive wealth distribution, or wealth redistribution generally, for that matter. I think it mostly serves as a rhetorical device to make the justificatory bar seem higher than it really is. (Which isn't to say there isn't a bar at all.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

More Energy Hijinks

Al Gore calls for a carbon-neutral grid within ten years

There is a somewhat useful attendant speculation on logistics here.

Yes, I do link to things other than the Oil Drum. Here TOD provides good data on where our power comes from, and why nameplate capacity is not the same thing as power delivered. However, his thoughts about wind power lead into the question I have about all this:

It seems fairly clear that a carbon-neutral grid is technologically possible. But where will the political will come from? Consumers buy their power from utilities, which in turn buy it from power plants. Because a utility is a natural monopoly, consumers can't individually reject the energy politics of their utility, unless they're prepared to go completely off-grid, which is not economically feasible for most.

This leaves State regulation as the best/only means of controlling where a utility buys its energy. PG&E has lately signed a number of big contracts to buy renewable power, as the State of California has a compulsory renewable portfolio standard. Which brings me finally to,

Is this really a Federal problem? What are the politics of making it into one?

I believe it is a Federal problem. The physical nature of the grid means that electricity is constantly passing between States, except in Alaska, Hawaii, and Texas. Given that your Investor-Owned Utility wants to burn coal in Kentucky, and sell the power to the Public Utility Commission in Atlanta, a National Renewable Portfolio standard makes legal sense.

But it also makes financial sense. It is all well and good to talk about "Building More Solar". But just who is going to set down and do that? Why build a plant that produces a kw/h for 5 cents, on its own schedule, when you can build one that produces power for 3 cents a kw/h, whenever you throw the switch?

With a State-level RPS, the PUC receives a mandate as part of its monopoly, and in turn stimulates the IOUs into helping the PUC achieve its goal. With a national RPS, individual IOUs would be directly required to diversify their portfolios, or be denied the right to transmit power across state lines. This would have several effects:

1) The culture of a particular state would allow for an 'opt-out'. This would not amount to seizure or nationalization.
2) The very people profiting from the externalities of carbon would be required to pay for the greening of the grid.

However, on the downside

1) There would be nothing requiring a PUC to buy the green power. Green capacity might just sit idle, if an IOU tried to charge more for its output.

Food for thought. Kudos to Gore for beginning the dialogue, and for pushing the overall discussion in the right direction.

City Guides of San Francisco

My sister was in town yesterday and discovered the San Francisco City Guides, a group of over 200 volunteer history buffs who lead over 40 different tours around the city. You just check the schedule of tours online, show up at the designated spot, and some San Francisco enthusiast shows up to walk you around town while telling you stories. It's free, although they do accept donations at the end of the tour.

We saw 2 of them yesterday ("Gold Rush City" and "Nob Hill"), and both were very good, especially "Nob Hill". Our middle-of-the-weekday tours each had about 10 people, so I don't think there's much chance of an awkward, just-you-and-the-tour-guide session.

I strongly recommend the tours, and I'm more than a little embarrassed that my sister had to discover these for me, since I've lived in the Bay Area for almost a decade and she lives in Illinois.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Energy Crisis: Red vs. Blue

The map alone will tell you something very important about the current/looming energy crisis: Republicans will be under pressure to push for short-term practical relief, but Democrats will, depending on your viewpoint, be "free" to meaningfully craft a long-term solution to the problem.

If Democrats gain the White House and a majority in both houses, one wonders what will become of those parts of the country where personal transportation costs are now pushing 20% of household income. With plug-in hybrids scheduled to debut in 2009, and a carbon-neutral grid only now becoming a long-term goal in blue states, I expect the only option Republican pundits will have will be to pound harder at the anti-environment message. How can Democrats effectively neutralize this potentially explosive source of opposition?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Posts of Recent Relevance

A couple of subjects I'd posted about way back in the day came up in conversation yesterday, so I dug said posts up out of the archive. This was an easy post to write as it consists almost entirely of me plugging things I'd already written.

First, on discriminatory marriage institutions.

Second, on (the myth of) free will. In case it's not clear from the post, the reason I don't care for saying that people "earn" things is that the whole idea of free will doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Incoherence vs "unrecognized subtlety"

This whole discussion about libertarianism and liberalism is so facinating I'm sad I missed a lot of it due to a super-long awesome wedding party. Reading the comments however I think I have bit more to add.

Though it's generally never a good idea I'd like to draw a distinction between my own views and Paul's when he writes:
...The point is that when you put pressure on thinking that is ostensibly "libertarian", you tend to find a hodge-podge of other philosophies being applied in selective ways. Sometimes it's strict constructionism, sometimes it's about negative liberty, sometimes it's about the inefficiency of government. That makes the arguments difficult to engage with and, I think, suggests that the philosophy itself is somewhat incoherent.
Paul writes that since many libertarians don't seem to be applying their claimed precepts in a regular way that those individuals probably have an incoherent philosophy. I disagree. In the same way that a native English speaker can form coherent sentences without having to memorize thousands of grammatical rules, so to can people subscribe to and practice a coherent political philosophy without being consciously aware of which values they are applying and how. Indeed, I suspect that most politically aware people have very regular system of rules and values for making political decisions that they follow even if they are mistaken about the nature of their own political philosophy.

Allow me to be the first to plead guilty to being mistaken about my own beliefs. In rereading my previous post on liberalism I realize that it does a poor job of explaining what I believe. In fact, it seems that I defined liberalism so broadly that it could probably include most of conservatism. I guess this shouldn't be surprising. Both liberals and conservatives agree that the government should be used to make people's lives better - they just differ as to the best way. Liberals want to use government to create a high-speed rail system. Conservatives want to use it to stop people from drinking too much.

The only thing my definition does manage to do is distinguish my philosophy with the rights-based constricted ones like Communism and Libertarianism where rights based arguments - not efficiency ones - are used much more more often to define the role of the state in the economy.

But back to my crappy definition of liberalism. I first recognized this shortcoming when I started trying use the "more better options" business to explain why I support the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). It turns out it's pretty difficult. The "more, better options" doesn't include any concept of fairness which is pretty important. I think I ought to think about exactly how that figures in and if that can be used to distinguish conservatism from liberalism.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Predictions - Chait - 9/18/2008

Via Matt Yglesias, Jon Chait makes the following prediction:
Anway, let me now go on the record to say that another McCain staff shake-up is, if not inevitable, very likely. McCain's staff is just too factionalized to remain stable unless McCain is consistently winning. And Schmidt is a Bush 2004 veteran who lacks the deep emotional ties to the candiate that other McCainiacs have. I predict that at some point, probably just before or just after the convention, there will be a move to "Let McCain be McCain," and new boss Steve Schmidt will be replaced with either John Weaver or Mike Murphy, to try to recreate the magic of the 2000 campaign.
Let's say that "just after the convention" could mean up to two weeks later.

Expiration Date: September 18, 2008

Saturday, July 05, 2008

America Rules. England Sucks.

Because every day's the 4th of July in my book. (NSFW)

America Rules England Sucks - Watch more free videos

Solar & Clean Energy Act of 2008

There's some weirdness around California's Proposition 7:
A November ballot measure to boost the amount of renewable energy generated by California utilities has attracted a wildly diverse group of opponents - from the Natural Resources Defense Council to the Democratic Party and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.


The measure requires all California utilities to generate at least half their power from alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal by 2025, well above the 33 percent level Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to see by 2020. Utilities currently must reach a 20 percent goal by 2010.


The groups, many of which had been working on energy legislation for years, were never really brought into the initiative effort, said Ralph Cavanaugh of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"There was very late consultation," he said. "We asked them last November to step back and take a look at the measure, but by then they already had a finished product."

The initiative sets up such a detailed plan for dealing with renewable energy and siting and building the new, greener power plants that it opens the way for many unintended consequences, Cavanaugh said. Even groups closely involved with renewable energy, such as the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology, have lined up against Prop. 7.

"If you're going to legislate at the ballot box, keep it simple, don't write 70 pages," he added. "Our objection isn't to their good intentions, but to their bad initiative."
Normally I'd defer to the relevant interest groups on an issue like this, but it's not obvious from the Chronicle article how much of the opposition is legit and how much is sour grapes from not being included in the process.

The full text of the measure can be seen here.

Note that Prop. 7 is only about 40 pages long, not 70. For comparison, Prop. 6 (changing criminal penalties) is about 30 pages long, but probably contains more words. Proposition 5 - which changes sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenders - is about 60 pages long.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Not A Flag Tattoo?

Judging which candidate to vote for can be difficult. Fortunately, there are quick and easy ways of identifying which ones are best suited for office. From a CNN poll:
Another question asked in June: How often should a U.S. presidential candidate wear a flag pin (when dressed in other than casual clothes)?

Forty-one percent of respondents said a candidate should always wear one. Another 13 percent said "frequently," 16 percent said "sometimes," 19 percent said "only occasionally," and 9 percent said "never."
Personally, I think presidential candidates should always wear a button with my face on it. That way I know they care about me and are looking out for me.

Happy 4th!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

What's liberalism

I think Bret brings up some good points in the post below and he's opened my eyes to how unclear I've been in my formulation of what liberalism is. In order to help myself think more clearly (and help give others firmer grounds upon which to attack any mistakes I might be making) let me try to restate my definition of Liberalism.

"Liberalism argues that government should give people more and better options if a mechanism can be found to reliably do so."

There are a lot of things that are left unsaid here so let me break it down into bite-sized pieces.

"...government should give people more and better options..."

The idea here is that it would be nice if we had more options, and if the options we had were better. Obviously these two desires can conflict. It would be nice if I had the option of getting good health care. In fact, I'd like it so much I'd be willing to trade my current condition (many bad options) for one in which having good health care was my only option.

Furthermore the "people" in the above phrase is important too. It would be unfair for government to expand one person's opportunities at the expense of everyone else. Taken to the extreme this would be confiscatory as Bret rightly points out. However, we should recognize that the services provided by government are a package deal. As long as the overall affect is to expand the opportunities for the vast majority (i.e. "people") I think we can excuse the odd program which is basically confiscatory if taken alone. I would put Social Security and the Civil Rights act into this group. With such programs, government can reach out to improve the options of people who are left behind by other programs.

(As a corollary to the above, people who eat pudding do not, as a class, constitute a group that has been ill-served by government so a program to help them could not be justified.)

Now the question naturally arises: Who decides what's more and better and for whom? Bret asked precisely these questions and they are good ones. If you're just trying to decide what you personally support, then use your own metric. If we're trying to decide what the government should actually do, well... this is why we have a democracy. With the proper minority protections in place (which our constitutions provides in spades) I see no problem in resolving these questions at the ballot box.

"...if a mechanism can be found to reliably do so."

Lastly, government should only act if it can do so effectively, technically and politically. On a technical level, we should only support government programs if we expect them to produce the intended effect if carried out competently (i.e. No to price-caps and wage controls). On the political level, we should only support program if we think they're going to be politically sustainable in the long term. Thus we need to be wary of regulatory capture, rent seeking, and good old fashioned unintended consequences.

This last issue is - I suspect - what Bret is getting at when he calls me a "techno-liberal". I suspect he thinks I'm only looking at the technical aspects of government programs while ignoring the very real threats posed by government failures like regulatory capture. If that is the case then I'll assure everyone that I am aware of these issues and even made a point to include them in my formulation of Liberalism and indeed, in my personal political beliefs. This is why I support a carbon tax much more strongly than cap-n-trade.

So, to sum up: There are a lot of judgment calls that this formulation leaves open. Of course there is: it's a pragmatic philosophy that doesn't pretend to give you all the answers. Still, much better no answer than a wrong one.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Predictions - DeLong - 10/4/2008

Predictions are cheap, especially on the internet. So why not keep track of them?

Hearing that President Bush extended unemployment benefits, Brad DeLong makes the following prediction:
It seems to me likely that--whatever happens to the economy--George W. Bush has just produced four bad unemployment-rate headlines on the Saturdays August 2, September 6, and October 4.

Expiration Date: October 4, 2008.