Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Modest Proposal

They say that if you tax something, you get less of it. So maybe that's the real benefit of a death tax: less death!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why Have Kids?

The radio today reminded me about happiness studies that consistently show that having kids reduces your happiness. This raises an important question: why bother having kids? It's expensive, for starters. It's inconvenient. If it also, to top it off, makes you less happy, then why do it at all?

I think the answer most parents - myself included - would give is that having kids fulfills a need that can't be met by any other means. There's probably some neurological trigger at work here; there's no need to mysticize it. But that makes it no less real. And it raises another important question: is life really about maximizing happiness?

Most religious people would easily answer no to this question. So let's address it to the non-religious, again like myself. I do not believe that maximizing happiness is the goal of life (as evidence of my belief I offer the fact that I consciously chose to have children). The goal seems to be to have a posterity, to leave something behind after we die. For all of us do at some point come to a realization that we are going to die. That fact is difficult to grasp, but the tragedy is eased by the knowledge that something will succeed us, that we are a part of some larger tapestry. Otherwise, we are simply here for a brief few moments of time and then are gone forever.

There are, of course, other ways to join the tapestry of the world than having children: one can become famous, one can make great friends who will carry our memories, etc. But children are the most reliable route, and the one most accessible to the average person. After all, if everyone were famous, no one would be; by definition this route is accessible only to a very few (particularly when we restrict our view to those who are famous enough to be truly remembered a generation after their deaths; this is a very exclusive club indeed).

Consider two people: One, the pure individual, not necessarily nihilistic, but one focused purely on happiness. He is not necessarily a bad person, or selfish, but by definition is self-centered. Two, the family member, one who has a tightly-knit family, with all its trials and tribulations. Picture in your mind's eye both of their lives at the age of, say, 40 years old. The individual is traveling in Europe with his girlfriend, sampling the best that life has to offer. The family man is rushing home after work because his wife has an outing planned that evening and it is his night to prepare dinner for the kids and put them to bed. Which is happier? We can't see into their heads, of course, but it's easy to imagine that the individual is.

Let us cast our view forward twenty years. Now both men are near retirement. The individual has mastered his golf game and has toured all the major courses. He regales his friends with stories of his travels and adventures. He is the life of every party. The family man's children have grown up and left the house; he has paid a heavy price to put them through college, foregoing many of life's pleasures for this. His kids have developed in different ways: perhaps one is a real success, with many friends and a career. Perhaps another is not on such a positive track. But they remain family nonetheless. Again, the individual appears to have had the happier life.

But now let us move another twenty years into the future. Both men are on their deathbeds. The individual has a few friends who visit him, but most of them are preoccupied with their own families, and many are uncomfortable at the sight of the old man so broken down. The family man, though, has his family: his kids have had kids of their own, so there are grandkids. They come to visit out of love and affection. The old man dies knowing that his life had a purpose, however small in the grand scheme of things. Does the individual?

That is not so clear. He might. It's not my intention to disparage or denigrate this lifestyle choice. But odds are good that this man will realize at some point that his life will end entirely unnoticed. The family man's position is not so much better: his life will end mostly unnoticed: his family is but a tiny drop in an ocean both of time and of space. But the difference between nothing and something can be a vast chasm.

So is the goal of life, then, merely its extension, even if only in memories and deeds? Not quite. The truly fulfilled man does not just seek to be remembered, but to have had an impact. We don't just wants our kids to remember us, but for us to have set them on a certain path, to have prepared them for life and, ultimately, for their own struggle with its meaning. That, perhaps, is the greatest blessing of grandchildren: evidence that the torch has been passed one more generation, that the lessons we taught and the pleasures we forewent were not in vain

Thursday, November 11, 2010

U.S.: Manufacturing Powerhouse

Kevin Williamson has a great article on why we shouldn't scapegoat a low renminbi for our economics troubles. Embedded in his article is a great point, often overlooked, about American manufacturing. You hear people from time to time saying things like: We don't build things in this country any more. Poppycock. Here's Williamson:

Despite all the new competition, the United States remains a manufacturing powerhouse — in fact, the total value of manufacturing output in the United States today is far, far higher than it was in the 1950s. Measured by revenue, profit, or return on investment, U.S. manufacturing is unparalleled, and our factories' output is more than twice China’s. But it is true that many manufacturing jobs have been "lost." They were lost not because U.S. manufacturing can't compete with that of feckless Third World rivals, but because U.S. manufacturing is, to use the technical economics term, awesome. The real productivity of U.S. businesses overall grew at an average rate of 1.5 percent a year from 1973 to 1995, which is a really robust number. But the productivity of U.S. manufacturing businesses grew by 2.5 percent in those same years, which is enormous. As Martin Wolf puts it in Why Globalization Works, that growth in productivity alone would have reduced significantly the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Add in the fact that people in affluent societies spend relatively less of their disposable income on manufactured goods and relatively more on services, and that reduction becomes even more dramatic. And so it was. There is an obvious parallel: In very poor societies, large numbers of people are employed in agriculture, and people spend most of their money on food. As they get richer, relatively few work in agriculture, and they spend proportionally little on food. Manufacturing, as Wolf sees it, is the new agriculture. In historical terms, it was not that long ago that 75 percent of the U.S. work force was engaged in farming. Now it's less than 1 percent. But who laments the loss of good farming jobs? (Mostly people who have never worked on a farm, that's who.)

I often ask people to name the country with the largest manufacturing output. China? Japan? Nope. It's the U.S.A. It's worthwhile remembering this.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In Defense of Keith Olbermann

It's hard to avoid a whiff of schadenfreude when hearing about Keith Olbermann's suspension by MSNBC in the wake of the revelation that he donated to three Democratic candidates in contravention of MSNBC policies. But that would be too easy.

What's so wrong about political donations from opinion journalists, really? Is anyone surprised to find that Olbermann favors Democrats? Does anyone think: Hey, maybe this means Olbermann might be less than fair when talking about politics. It's one thing when supposedly objective journalists are caught donating. (Although is any journalist really objective? Question for another day.) But Olbermann, Hannity, Maddow, Huckabee: they are not objective. They are not hired to be objective, they are hired to give opinions.

Opinion journalists, pretty much by definition, operate in the open. They have to talk in order to do their work. They give their opinions as part of the job. So their opinions are already a matter of public record. There would seem to be nothing whatsoever lost by allowing them to donate or otherwise exercise their freedom of political speech.

Unless, of course, their employers want to maintain the fig leaf that they are actually objective journalists. But surely MSNBC doesn't think anyone believes that about Keith Olbermann. Right? Free Olbermann!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Welcome to Gridlock

My predictions were fairly accurate. I said +7 in the Senate and +61 in the House. So far it's +5 in the Senate, with Colorado, Washington and Alaska left. Alaska will be a Republican or Independent who caucuses with Republicans. If the other two split evenly, there's your +7. In the House, RealClearPolitics has it +61 with 423 races called. However, here's the bad news for the Democrats: in the remaining 12 races, every one is currently held by a Democrat. So if they split evenly, expect a final pickup of 67 seats in the House. Wow.

But the exact numbers don't really matter at this point. We know that the House will be GOP-controlled, the Senate Democrat-controlled, and of course the White House run by a Democrat. So unless the President tacks sharply to the middle, we can expect gridlock city. The GOP should try to pass useful bills, but will probably serve more of a pressure-generating role: they will need to put some ideas on the table that have not had an airing over the past two years. Ideally, some of these ideas might get passed. But if not, the second-best thing is to win the battle of ideas so that after 2012 conservatism can make some legislative progress.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Reid Wins

I was hoping to oust Reid, but this could have a silver lining. Reid is still very unpopular nationwide. Angle would've been problematic at best. And it really doesn't matter much whether the GOP has 47 Senators or 48 or even 49. Frankly, I think if the Democrats were smart, they'd replace Reid after this debacle. Remember after the 2008 elections when people were expecting the GOP to lose seats in 2010 because of all the seats they'd have to defend? We're a long way from there, and Reid is being blamed.


And it's Toomey in Pennsylvania. Fantastic news.

Also looks like Kirk wins in Illinois!

Fiorina couldn't pull it off in California. Too bad, but not unexpected.

6 Left in the Senate

It's 49-45 in the Senate, with 6 left uncalled: Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Washington, Illinois and California. Republicans would have to win them all to have a clear 51-seat majority: don't count on that. Currently the GOP leads in PA (Toomey's up 52-48 now!), WA and IL (go Kirk!), but losing everywhere else. If that holds, it'll just match my prediction: a 7-seat pickup.

Early Returns Are In...

Toomey and Sestak separated by 2,000 votes. That one could go late into the night.

CNN just called it for Ron Johnson over Russ Feingold. Yea!!! Earlier today I was cleaning up some old email and realized that I was on a Feingold email list back into 2009. Reading over some of the emails I didn't even see Johnson's name mentioned six or eight months ago. Came out of nowhere and knocked off a Democratic stalwart. That one's got to sting.

Manchin winning in WV - too bad, but we saw that coming. He's been leading consistently in polls the last couple of weeks.

Buck losing in Colorado by 5%. Not good.

Exit polls just coming in from California and Washington - Fiorina down 53-43 and Rossi down 52-46.

And just saw Kirk up 48-47 in Illinois!

Early Election-Day Observations

Concerning the election today, a few early observations:

1. My polling location was nearly empty. I walked in, gave my name, got my card, and voted. No lines whatsoever. Here in blue-state New Jersey, where the biggest race is Little-Pallone, that's no big surprise. But perhaps is reason to hope for Little, a major underdog whose only hope is that her voters are much more enthusiastic than Pallone's.

2. Pallone has been running attack ads over the past week. This must indicate that he's at least a bit worried. If he was running a 30-point lead, he could safely run soft-focus ads talking about how great he is, and not worry about the tiny gnat buzzing around. But he's been forced to go after Little by name. It's probably not fair to say that he's running scared, but he's hearing footsteps.

3. WNYC (my local NPR affiliate) is talking about Christine O'Donnell and her gaffes this election season. A less relevant discussion it would be hard to imagine. Look, Democrats: she's going to lose, and deservedly so. How about talking about some close races?

The Election, Finally

I am going off today to vote for Anna Little in her insurgent campaign against Congressman Frank Pallone. She's an unabashed Tea Partier - here in New Jersey! - and seems like a decent enough sort. I'm no knee-jerk Tea Party supporter. I generally support their ideas, but they've put forth a few really poor candidates. Still, that's partially just because they're inexperienced in the world of politics, and that's not a bad thing. In fact, I'd say it's a good thing, net-net.

Little can't be any worse than Pallone, who - unlike many of his Democrat colleagues - has been campaigning fully in support of Obamacare, the Stimulus, and all the other boondoggles of the 111th Congress. The polling is unclear, but Little might just have a shot. In many ways, while this individual race isn't all that important, it can be a bellwether for the hoped-for Republican surge. For if Little wins, or even is within a point or two, then it's going to be a huge night.

More blogging tonight as polls come in. For now, this is my emblem:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Prediction Time

In the Senate, I'm predicting a 7-seat gain for the GOP. Ignoring the seats with 10-point leads one way or the other, there are 8 seats in play, with 2 locked up for the GOP. Those 8 seats are: California (DEM+3), Colorado (GOP+4), Illinois (GOP+2), Nevada (GOP+4), Pennsylvania (GOP+5), Washington (GOP+1), West Virginia (DEM+3), and Wisconsin (GOP+7), where I'm giving the latest poll results in each case. Many of these polls are within the margin of error, but we can still calculate probabilities for each. Based on these numbers, we can find a joint probability distribution for various levels of GOP pickup.

GOP GainProbability

The median of the distribution is at the high end of a 7-seat GOP pickup. It's certainly pretty likely that we'll have an 8-seat pickup, but playing the odds I'll predict +7.

In the House, it's more complicated since there are a lot more races. Also, polls are sketchier. But let's use the latest Real Clear Politics map to make some estimates. If we plug in some reasonable probabilities corresponding to "likely GOP", "leaning GOP" and "tossup", we get this distribution for GOP seats (here I'm ignoring insignificant tails):

GOP SeatsGOP LeadProbability
Under 2230.07%
Over 2560.08%

The median of the distribution is for the GOP to have 240 seats, representing a 61-seat GOP pickup. There is a 96% chance the GOP will pick up between 50 and 76 seats, and a 90% chance they pick up between 52 and 69 seats. So I think we can count on the GOP having at least a 26-seat majority and it's not impossible for them to attain a 60-seat majority.

Of course, this will do them little good without the Senate or the White House. Those will have to wait until 2012.

Menendez Wants to Allocate Your Collective Wealth

Bob Menendez (D-Cuba) makes the following assertion about tax cuts on ABC's This Week:

You can't talk about spending and being responsible about spending and then spend $4 trillion that you don't have of our collective wealth to the individuals who have the greatest wealth in the country.

I see. According to Sen. Menendez, your money, my money, and your neighbor's money is all collective wealth to be allocated to the poor, the middle-class, or the wealthy as Sen. Menendez and Barack Obama decide. This is the face of the Democratic Party, folks. We've got to eject these clowns posthaste.

Here's the video. The interesting part starts around 9:15: