Thursday, August 26, 2010

Senate Math Update

Way back on December 16, 2009, I posted a very simplistic analysis showing that the GOP had roughly 3 chances in 5 of picking up Senate seats, about 1 in 6 of losing seats, and just a 1% chance at picking up 6 or more seats. I called this "things looking moderately up for the GOP".

Nate Silver's Predictatron, whose sophistication compared to my analysis is roughly that of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner to the Wright Flyer, shows the situation considerably stronger for the GOP: a 20% chance that the GOP picks up ten seats, and only a 3% chance of the GOP losing any net seats. Eight months ago I had the chance of the GOP picking up 10 seats at too low to be meaningful. Silver shows that a good bet would be for the Senate to be a 52-48 or 53-47 split, leaving Democrat, after the upcoming November elections. Considering how uneven the open seats are tilted toward the GOP, this is excellent news.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ayn Rand and the New Man

The desire to have Heaven on Earth is dangerous, but hardly novel. You can trace its philosophical origins back at least to Plato (who promoted, in The Republic, the ideal of philosopher-kings who would rule with perfect wisdom and magnanimity). Its social origins surely stretch as far back as human history records: the earliest governments were organized under "god-kings" who reigned with the legimitacy of literal deities.

In modern times - post-Renaissance - this strain of thought can be traced through the French Revolution, through Marx, to Communism, and still looms like a shadow over the world. In Tom Sowell's terminology, this is the "unconstrained vision": the idea that anything is possible if only human nature can be suitably molded. It is a utopian vision. It promises the moon. And with such incredible promises, equally incredible insults to dignity and humanity have been justified. After all, if one is bringing about utopia, what does it matter (say the utopians) if a few million looters are thrown in the gulag? What does it matter if thousands of opponents are guillotined? One cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.

By contrast, the "constrained vision" holds that human nature sets certain boundaries which we cannot, as a society, hope to exceed. This view of humanity is that which defined the American experiment. James Madison wrote in Federalist 51:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

Madison does not imagine, as Plato, that human nature might be molded to produce a class of philosopher-kings. Nor does he imagine, as Marx, that history's inevitable progression through capitalism, then Communism, will result in a New Man capable of exquisite anarchy. Rather, he realizes that men are not and will not be angels, and thus we must deal with them as they are, not as we wish they would be.

And this is where Ayn Rand comes in. A champion of some free-market types, Rand is, unfortunately, no less a utopian than Marx. Her chosen utopia is a bit different in style from most, filled with self-interested, omnicompetent heroes and heroines. In a sense, it is more like Homer than Plato. Galt's Gulch is a modern-day Mount Olympus. But therein lies exactly the flaw: populated by Randian demigods, it is almost literally Heaven on Earth. Rand cannot see how to attain her vision for humanity without creating New Men to her liking. And we've seen where that leads. As Whittaker Chambers writes: "To a gas chamber — go!"

Further reading on this subject: Jason Lee Steorts, Whittaker Chambers.

UPDATE: Also read Richard Reinsch's post on the subject.

Separated at birth?

Roger Sterling

Charlie Crist

Chinese Traffic Jam

This traffic jam has now lasted nine days and stretches 62 miles along the Beijing-Tibet expressway.

So much for Tom Friedman's "optimal policies", eh?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Is Modern America Like 16th-Century Spain?

Imagine for a minute that everyone on Earth just had an interesting windfall: every dollar, every euro, every peso and yen and renminbi, just cloned itself. So the total amount of money just doubled instantaneously. Here's the question: is anyone richer?

A moment's thought should convince you that the answer is no. The amount of money has doubled, but the goods that can be bought with that money are no more plentiful. So more money is chasing the same number of goods and services. What we would expect to see is the value of money falling by exactly half, just enough to offset the windfall in cash. At the end of the day, no one is actually any better off.

The situation is a little more complicated when you imagine a windfall in a single nation. There are now two effects we care about: domestic production and imports. More money means that domestic prices will likely rise, for the same reason that they would rise worldwide in the global windfall scenario. But imports would remain cheap, so we would expect an increase in imports. And because domestic prices rose, exported goods become more expensive, and hence exports should fall. As a result, the balance of trade becomes negative: our windfall begins to drain out of the country into other countries.

When you look at 16th-century Spain, that's basically what happened. Spain's New World possessions generated immense amounts of gold and silver - free money! - but did nothing to increase Spain's actual productivity. The results were just as I described: prices of Spanish goods rose, imports went up and exports fell. Spanish gold flowed to other nations. The experts of other nations traveled to Spain to work. The short-term consequences for Spain were largely positive: people were able to consume more and their lives were somewhat easier than they otherwise might have been. (Of course, 16th-century Spain had plenty of problems, too, what with the Inquisition and so on.) The long-term consequences were mostly bad, though, as Spain was left behind by its more cash-starved northern European competitors, and their American colonies, who ultimately leveraged productivity increases into wealth and power on a scale Spain never realized.

So is modern America following the same path as Spain? Obviously we have not discovered a New World filled with riches, poorly protected by feather-clad tribesmen wielding stone weaponry against our armored knights and cannons. But we have greatly increased the store of money in our nation. That volume of money has been sloshing around for over a decade, creating a stock market bubble here, a housing bubble there. Just as in Spain, our balance of trade is highly negative: that money is flowing outward. And just as in Spain, foreigners are flocking to our shores to work.

Here's another crucial link: just as Spain controlled a huge portion of the world supply of the primary currency at the time, so does the United States control the world's reserve currency, the U.S. dollar. In the 16th century, the mercantilist system prevailed, under which your national economy was considered strong if it had a lot of gold and silver in it. These days, gold is a marginal store of value (the total quantity of gold ever mined in the world is about a third of U.S. GDP), but the U.S. dollar can be created in as great a quantity as the U.S. Treasury decides.

It's a common worry that China will stop buying Treasury bonds at some point, and that this will starve us of easy credit. That's a legitimate concern. But the comparison with Spain illustrates an additional long-term danger: that our productivity will be hindered by easy access to cash. The United States is still a far more innovative, flexible economy than Inquisition-era Spain. But why risk it? We need to drain the sloshing overage of cash out of our economy, take the painful lumps that will ensue, and get back to what we do best: producing goods and services for the world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thinking of Iran

Reading this account of the first post-Communist Rolling Stones concert in Prague, I couldn't help but think of Iran. Will they ever be able to look back at the first post-Islamist concert, maybe by Blurred Vision? My vision gets a blurry thinking about it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

DNA Sequencing: Useless?

Adam Keiper, editor of the excellent journal of science and society The New Atlantis, posts to the Corner about an interview by Craig Venter in which he states that the Human Genome Project has yielded "zero" fruit.

Specific DNA sequencing efforts certainly have yielded fruit. Venter points out that finding a gene that adds only 1-3% to the likelihood of getting some disease is of no clinical value: also true. Keiper takes this further:

For better or for worse, our limited genomic knowledge is already influencing people's decisions about important matters. Some women who learn from DNA tests that they have a genetic susceptibility to breast cancer are electing to undergo mastectomies even though they don’t yet have, and might never develop, the disease.

It's not clear Keiper is applying Venter's numbers to his own conclusions, but if so he's trying to take his argument a bridge too far. The BRCA mutations that have been shown to correlate highly with breast cancer change a woman's likelihood from a baseline of about 6-8% by age 70, to a hefty 85%. That is, if you have the BRCA mutation, you have an 85% chance (better than 5 in 6) of getting breast cancer by age 70. That's a huge result, and it's not surprising that some women found to have the mutation would choose to circumvent the disease by having double mastectomies.

Before women reading this rush off to get genetic testing, I should point out that the BRCA mutation is quite rare - well under 1% of the population - and only a small percentage of breast cancer cases involve it. So in that sense, its clinical value may be small since the test is relatively expensive. But wouldn't a cheap BRCA test be of enormous value to, say, a woman of 30 who was considering starting a family?

The larger point Venter and Keiper make is quite right: the HGP was overhyped. But they go a bit too far to deflate the hype. It did have some value.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Tea Parties and Racism

This is excellent. Watch the whole thing.

Race relations in the U.S. have significantly diverged from the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. It's people like this who can restore us to sanity - if that's even possible. Perhaps the single most disappointing thing about Obama's Presidency has been his inability to improve race relations. Videos like this help restore my optimism.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Remember the Oil Spill?

That unprecedented environmental disaster seems to have faded a bit.

Just goes to show what Calvin Coolidge once said: if you see ten problems coming down the road, nine of them will roll into a ditch before they get to you.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Banning the Burqa

Claire Berlinski writes a thoughtful and convincing essay on why we should ban the burqa, and now.

Parents in these neighborhoods ask gynecologists to testify to their daughters’ virginity. Polygamy and forced marriages are commonplace. Many girls are banned from leaving the house at all. According to French-government statistics, rapes in the housing projects have risen between 15 and 20 percent every year since 1999. In these neighborhoods, women have indeed begun veiling only to escape harassment and violence. In the suburb of La Courneuve, 77 percent of veiled women report that they wear the veil to avoid the wrath of Islamic morality patrols. We are talking about France, not Iran.

A clothing ban is highly distasteful. It's possible that one has to live through the consequences of widespread veiling, as Berlinski has (and I haven't), to gain an emotional, not merely intellectual, understanding of the necessity of banning it. I don't think I'm quite there yet, but Berlinski supplies the best argument I've read to date.