Friday, December 7, 2012

Post Office: Shrink It!

The US Postal Service recently announced a $15.9 billion loss for fiscal year 2012. Meanwhile, FedEx had an operating income of just over $3 billion and net income of about $2 billion, and UPS is on track to be slightly more profitable.

I'm constantly seeing ads on TV and elsewhere for shipping services via USPS. But clearly they're losing in the marketplace for shipping. And that's fine, in a way. We don't really need the USPS to make money. But it would be nice if it lost less, and there's a really simple way to do this: cut it down to size.

Do we need a government-run postal service that ships packages of all shapes and sizes to every zip code in the country? We already have privately-run companies that do this just fine and do it profitably. I get that for social cohesion it's useful to have a postal service for letters (although that's less and less obvious given the fact that even email, which has been killing postal mail for years now, seems antiquated in these days of Facebook and Twitter).

The USPS needs to do what any company deep in the red does: cut back to its core competency. This is going to be very hard to do, though, because it can be endlessly subsidized by the taxpayers. It won't have to go through bankruptcy reorganization. It's not even a "public-private partnership", a la FNMA.

This would be a perfect time to shrink the USPS, though: its raison d'etre is going away, it's losing money, and we as a nation are going broke. But I don't imagine for a second that it'll happen, for all the usual reasons: too few people care too little about shrinking it, and the few who really don't care a lot. Repeat this a few hundred times and you have a trillion dollars in annual deficit.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Posts reports that New York attorney general is going after Craigslist listings for "price gougers" who are offering, e.g. $20/gallon gasoline.

Robert Nozick once said that "the socialist society would have to prevent capitalist acts between consenting adults." Well, here you go. I'm trying to understand the A.G.'s theory here: if someone needs, say, 5 gallons of gasoline, they usually have a range of quick, relatively equally-priced options, i.e. gas stations. It only takes a few minutes, and the range of prices for the equivalent grade of gas is only a few percent.

During the shortage conditions that obtains following Sandy, those options were curtailed. You could go to a gas station, but would wait in line for hours to buy gas at the normal, low price. Or you could go to a "price gouger", offering to sell you gas with no wait at a considerable mark-up. This gives the consumer a choice.

If the "gouger" did not exist, only the first option would be available. Of course, the approximate equivalent could be accomplished: the person who needed gas but didn't want to wait in line could hire someone to wait in the gas line. That, presumably, would not be gouging. But waiting in line and then trying to sell the product is. The "gouger", we see, is really a small-time entrepreneur.

There are many economic stories in which there are two sides, and one could easily understand the opposite position. (For example, economic nationalists who want certain barriers to trade may be willing to accept the costs of those barriers - higher prices, lower productivity - in exchange for protecting domestic jobs. One may see that there is a tradeoff, even if one has strong opinions about which side of the trade is the more desirable.) But this is a case in which the existence of the "gouger" is a pure good.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Stock Market Effect

This is necessarily a very approximate, first-order view of things, but consider the following facts:

  1. The day of the election, InTrade estimated that President Obama had a 70% chance of winning re-election.
  2. The day after the election, the Dow Jones fell about 300 points.

Suppose that all other election-day news had an effect worth a drop of N points on the DJIA. Then the Obama effect was worth a drop of 300-N points. That result had a 70% chance of occurring (assuming efficient markets and sufficient arbitrage). That implies that had Mitt Romney won, the DJIA would have risen by approximately 7/3 × (300-N) = 700-(7/3)N points.

It's probably not fair to assume N=0, in which case the Romney effect would have been +700 points. But even if N=150, a Romney election would have worth +350 points. Instead, it dropped 150 points (due to Obama, plus another 150 due to other news). That's a 500-point swing, or about 4%.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Post-Election Wrap-Up

Well, Tuesday was unpleasant. We were standing athwart history, and history rolled over us like a freight train. We really can't deny that.

At the moment, at least, this is not a center-right country: it's center-left. Some would have us believe that this is due to demographics, and thus has an unstoppable momentum behind it. But I don't think that has to be the case.

In the near future, some predictions:

  1. There won't be any conciliation between the parties, unless the GOP chooses to roll over. Obama won narrowly, but he's going to view this as a mandate and push his agenda as aggressively as ever.
  2. We will see even more abuses of executive power over the next two, and possibly four, years. (My biggest fear is that this won't end with Obama's second term, but may become a permanent fixture of American politics. If I'm right about that, then we'd better hope we never elect an ambitious power-monger President.)
  3. Taxes are going up for most people. The most obvious top-line effects will be on "the rich", but if business taxes are raised, that affects everyone. If gas is taxed more heavily, that affects everyone. And so on.
  4. Health care coverage will get worse as more companies opt not to provide it to their employees. We're going to start the long march towards universal care. I predicted this two years ago and so far have seen no reason to doubt it.
  5. Iran will get a nuclear weapon.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Lightweight Veep Debate Roundup

Ryan: centered, factual, wonkish. Kept his cool. Looked like the smartest kid in the class. Slight downside: looked like the smartest kid in the class.

Biden: disrespectful, crazy, rude. Drunk uncle at Thanksgiving who can't quite keep his millions and billions straight.

Biden's pre-debate email was very Biden-esque. It began: "I told Barack I have one mission tonight: tell the truth and stand up for what we believe in." Perfect.

The polls will probably not reflect much movement from this, but I can't see that it helped the Democrats much. Think any swing voters watched that debate and thought: "Gee, that Biden guy is the one I want one heartbeat away from the nuclear launch codes." I don't.

Intrade has Obama/Biden down 3.5% today thus far. But still well over 50%.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Law: No Place For Genetics

Just read an interesting article on "defense of marriage" laws, originally written four years but recently updated. Here's the gist:

The biggest problem is that laws like the California initiative will make the courts decide who is male and who is female — and all available decision criteria create unavoidable miscarriages of justice that will, or should, dismay initiative proponents.
That is, it's impossible, says Rick Moen, the author of the article, to give a biological definition of "man" or "woman", and therefore, impossible to define marriage as between a man and a woman. It's a cute idea, and I get why it would come from a site called LinuxMafia because it no doubt appeals to engineers who like precise definitions, but doesn't really work for a variety of reasons.

First of all, legal definitions are not the same as biological ones. I don't see why it's necessarily the case that, as Moen asserts, someone who has been a woman all her life, but is at some point tested and found to have XY chromosomes, must immediately have her marriage annulled and be permitted to marry a woman. The law is not, in fact, biology, and it has some give in it. It seems eminently reasonable that in a case like this, this person would (or could) still be legally considered a man. That may sound absurd, but it certainly doesn't to transsexuals, who may have some external anatomy changed but retain the same chromosomes.

Second, and even more problematic for Moen's argument, if this sort of test were that problematic, we'd already be drowning in "kudzu" (the article's basic metaphor is that marriage laws have unintended side effects like the introduction of kudzu to the American South has had). There are already all sorts of laws, regulations, rulings, etc. that differentiate between sexes and races. Questionable sexual identity is pretty rare. Questionable racial identity is extremely common, because it's almost impossible to test. And yet we have federal regulations mandating, e.g., that a certain percentage of contracts be awarded to businesses run by minorities. How can this possibly work, given that there is no feasible test that could be given that would verify the minority status of a given person?

So while marriage laws may and do have other pros and cons, we don't really need to worry ourselves about Moen's points. There's no kudzu about to overwhelm our legal system.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Debate Thoughts

A good night for Romney, as everyone seems to agree. The post-debate CNN poll was 67%-25% pro-Romney, a margin of victory rarely seen. Surely that 25% is only the hardest of hard-core Obama supporters, which means the independents must have sided with Romney in truly overwhelming numbers.

Still, a few tricks were left on the table. I wish Romney had held Obama's feet to the fire more on his record. For example, all those times Obama talked about how Romney would horribly cut the budget and throw grandma out on the street, all Romney had to say was: "For the sake of argument let's say we went back to the spending levels of 2000. Did Clinton throw grandma out on the street? No. But we had a balanced budget and spending was far below its current level. Obama's spending far more, and are you any better for it?" But he continually argued that he wouldn't cut X, wouldn't cut Y. It's OK, Mitt! Cut some stuff!

Also, Romney threw out some talking points without really explaining them. That's something that McCain did four years ago, and it's infuriating. In response to Obama's absurd claim that domestic oil and gas production is up due to his administration, Romney scored a telling blow by explaining that production is up on private lands, but not public lands, but then he just said Romney would (in contrast) "build that pipeline". I know he's talking about the Keystone Pipeline, of course, but it would have made sense to spend 20 seconds explaining this, because many people out there don't know about it.

I'll take it, though. Good performance out there. Next up is the VP debate on October 11, and that should be a joy to watch, kind of like watching your favorite NFL team face your worst football rivals... from high school.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Review: The Good Earth

When reading The Good Earth it's important to keep in mind two things: it was written by an American, Pearl Buck; and it was written in 1931, years before the Communists took over the country. At the time the novel was written, China was largely unknown to Americans, but that would soon change with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and China's alliance with the U.S. in World War II. The Good Earth helped bring Chinese peasant life to Americans at a time when there was little other exposure.

Buck, though not Chinese, had lived much of her life in China. Born in the U.S. to missionaries working in China, she was raised in China from the age of three months until she returned to the U.S. to attend college in 1911. She moved back to China in 1914 after graduating, married an American missionary, and lived until 1933 in a small town in rural China.

The novel itself (the first of a trilogy, but it easily stands on its own) covers the life of Wang Lung, a hard-working peasant. As the story opens, Wang is about to marry the woman his father has found for him, a former kitchen slave from the wealthy House of Hwang named O-Lan. The selection of the wife is purely practical: "We must have a woman who will tend the house and bear children as she works in the fields, and will a pretty woman do these things? She will be forever thinking about clothes to go with her face!" (Wang is not too happy about this, but he goes along with it.) Wang and his father are very poor, so much so that when Wang adds some tea to the hot water he brings his father in the morning, he gets rebuked for his wastefulness.

The marriage, however, works well: Wang Lung and O-Lan work hard; she is an export home economist, saving money in countless small ways; she bears him several children; and after a few years the family has managed to save some money. Wang uses this money to buy land: land that the House of Hwang is selling to cover expenses. The Hwangs have more expenses than income and are clearly on the decline, and Wang is determined to take advantage of this to the degree that he can. At first, it isn't much, but he is at least able to expand his farm.

Eventually a terrible famine comes, and Wang and his family are forced to move to the city to survive. The city is a corrupting influence on his sons (who learn to beg and engage in petty theft), and Wang is impatient to return to his farm, but money is tight and they remain in the city for months. Wang, notably, finds honest work running a rickshaw and resists the city's invidious allure. Until one day, when warlords invade and the rich folk run away, the city's poor take refuge in — and ransack — their houses. Wang and O-Lan join the mob, and O-Lan finds and steals a bag of jewels that had been secreted in the house. Finally free of money troubles, Wang uses the jewels to buy railroad passage back to the farm.

It is an ironic twist: Wang, previously incorruptible, succumbs briefly in order to save his family from their own corruption. This is a major turning point for Wang. He is a wise and careful investor, putting the stolen money to work buying yet more land, and he quickly is making enough money, and has enough land, that he must hire help on the farm. His little empire continues to grow, and Wang becomes wealthy, at least for a peasant.

But he is still viewed disdainfully as a farmer, and this rankles. One summer when the river has flooded and there is no work to do, Wang starts to patronize a certain tea shop in town. This tea shop is also a brothel, and Wang falls for a young whore there named Lotus Flower. This is Wang's first positive act contrary to the morality he was raised to respect, and it is the top of the arc of Wang's life: it is essentially all downhill from here. Prior to this summer, Wang was satisfied, despite minor irritants, with his life as a farmer. But after he meets Lotus Flower, he lives in a constant state of dissatisfaction. His patience leaves him. He cannot abide sharing Lotus Flower with any others. In the end he buys her and brings her to his house as a second wife.

O-Lan suffers this insult silently, as is her wont, but she is clearly hurt by it. To add injury to insult, it also comes to pass that she has cancer and will not live much longer. A few years later she dies, leaving behind three sons and two daughters, and Wang Lung with Lotus Flower. Wang's sons have, by this point, become old enough to marry, and they start families of their own. They do not have any interest in farming, however, despite Wang's insistence that the earth, the land, is the most important thing, the central unalterable factor in their lives. Famine may come and go, the land may be flooded, disease may stalk the land, but the land will always be there. Wang's sons, though, do not see this: they are educated, and prefer a softer life. If Wang were not so wealthy, they would have no choice: it would be work the land or starve. But he is able to hire workers, so his sons do as they please.

As Wang's extended family grows and his own abilities to work on the farm wane, he buys the town property of the House of Hwang. This completes the replacement of the wealthy Hwang family by Wang's family: he is now the most important man in the town, with vast land holdings and wealth, but the seeds of decline have long since germinated and are sprouting seedlings. His expenses have grown along with his income, and possibly exceed them. His sons are as profligate as Hwang's were, and do not care any more about his land. At the end of Wang's life, he implores his sons to keep the land, no matter what else they may do. And they promise to do so, but "over the old man's head they looked at each other and smiled." We know what will happen.

The arc of wealth is a central theme to the plot: Wang begins poor but hard-working. He tries to economize wherever possible, and his wife helps out. He invests wisely and his wealth grows. But at some point he becomes consumed by his wealth. He is no longer wise with money; he sees it as the solution to all his problems. Ultimately this makes it difficult for him to keep his wealth, and infects his sons with his carefree attitude. We know they will not emulate their father's work ethic.

The treatment of women is also an important theme: throughout the book they are referred to as mere "slaves". When O-Lan bears Wang three sons, he is thrilled and considers himself blessed. But the fourth child is a girl, and he is immediately anxious that fate has turned and he will thereafter be cursed. (There is some practical reasoning behind this, to be sure, since a daughter would need to be married off at some point, costing the family a dowry. Still, the economic facts don't seem to justify the vast differences in social status between the sexes.)

Ironically, though, women play a large role in the plot. O-Lan is a critical factor in Wang's success: her home economics expertise gives him an advantage when they are first starting out. She even refuses a midwife when bearing children, preferring to do everything, including cleaning up, on her own. (It is even possible to imagine such a thing today?) And of course her knowledge of rich people's homes and willingness to steal provides him with the seed capital he uses to convert a modest farm into an wealthy one. O-Lan stands in sharp contrast to Lotus Flower, a beauty with no practical skills or interest in working.

When reading the stories of the women in the novel, it's hard to forget that the author is a woman herself. Surely she identified with the local Chinese women she came into contact with daily, and she must have empathized with their oppressed status.

Post-WWII criticism of The Good Earth has often pointed out that Buck's not being Chinese would have prevented her from truly understanding Chinese culture, and that it is therefore better to read actual Chinese literature. But I am not so sure. Buck was immersed in Chinese culture for forty years. She wrote for an American audience, and therefore used metaphors and terms that would be familiar to them. Translations of Chinese literature have their own limitations: they are written for Chinese audiences (and thus may be more difficult for Americans to understand) and are usually read through the intermediary of a translator.

Regardless of its limitations as a description of Chinese culture, The Good Earth is a very good, possibly great, novel. The archaic writing style, which could easily have become stilted or silly, is used delicately and well: it brings the reader into a foreign place without shouting about it. The plot is simple and linear, but nonetheless elucidates important themes. The characters do not talk about philosophies of life, but their philosophies are clarified by their actions. It's an interesting question, one I am unqualified to answer, whether The Good Earth illuminates modern China. But whether it does or not, the novel is well worth reading today for its observations on the unchanging aspects of all humanity.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Demoralization of Liberals

I listened to an interview with Michael Chabon on NPR a few days ago. Most of it, of course, was about the book, but one segment had political interest. Chabon was a big Obama supporter in 2008, to the point of hosting fundraisers for him.

NPR host Michael Krasny asks him (around the 10:00 mark) whether he's still as enthusiastic about Obama. The answer, pretty obviously, is no, but Chabon doesn't want to say so outright. His careful response is: "All we wanted by working so hard for him was to have the chance to be disappointed by him." I'm not naive enough to think we're supposed to take this literally. If Obama's first acts as President had been to eliminate income taxes, private Social Security, increase the size of the military, and bomb Iran, I don't think Chabon would just say: Oh, well, all we wanted was the chance to be disappointed... and now we are! No. Obviously he means that all politicians disappoint you to some degree or another, and so getting him elected would simply provide the opportunity to be disappointed.

But I find the response revealing in another way: it shows that the person Chabon (and by extension, many other highly motivated liberals) supported was important as a personality, not as a policy figurehead. Obviously Obama's policies were important as well, but the idea of electing the first black President was foremost in their minds. I don't think, for example, that too many people think back on the Carter Presidency with the same wistfulness: no one was just hoping for the chance for him to disappoint them. No, they voted for a set of policies, of which he was their driver. In 1980, Reagan was elected as the driver of a set of opposing policies when Carter's had been shown to be a bust.

If someone as motivated as Chabon can't muster up any more spirited a defense of Obama than that, on as friendly territory as he's ever likely to find (a public radio station based out of San Francisco!), liberals must be quite demoralized this year. That can only redound to the advantage of Mitt Romney. If only he can capitalize on it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Post-Convention Thoughts

  • The Republicans have some terrific young talent. Both Ryan and Rubio gave great speeches. Condoleeza Rice continues to make a case for running for some sort of office: I have to think she'd be a serious contender if she ever wanted it.
  • Romney's speech was solid. Not a home run, maybe, but it made the case for competency. It would be hard to watch his bio and not see him as an executive who can get things done.
  • Then again, I'm usually OK with the government NOT getting things done.
  • Then again, this one time we need to get a few things done, like repealing Obamacare. So if we must have an effective executive, let's have it be a Republican who's repeatedly promised to do just that.
  • The mendacity of the Democrats was stunning. You could visualize a mountain of straw men building up around the convention center.
  • We were repeatedly told that Republicans will privatize Social Security, end abortion, take away your contraceptives, put blacks back in chains, throw grandma off a cliff, and let your children starve. It's notable that these attacks don't come from minor, fringe party elements: they were mentioned in speeches by President Obama, Vice President Biden, and former President Clinton.
  • Consider the following facts: Obama was elected promising to "transform this country." He said if he hadn't turned around the economy in four years his would be a "one term proposition." He did not, in fact, defend the current state of the economy at all, so he has by his own admission not turned it around. His signature achievement (Obamacare) is unpopular and was not mentioned at the convention, and he suffered a massive electoral defeat in 2010. And yet, with all that, he's polling at nearly 50%. I'm an optimist by temperament, but when I reflect a bit I can't help but feel that, just maybe, we're doomed.
  • By contrast with the Republicans, the Democratic young talent is pathetic. Antonio Villaraigosa's Soviet-style vote on an amended Party platform was a thing to behold, and he's a guy they're grooming for national office. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz's attempt to explain the vote were described by Anderson Cooper as "from an alternate universe." It would be sad if it weren't so important.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The OpSec Attack

This is pretty interesting, not to mention damning, if true:

The day after this video went public, I (and millions of my closest friends) received an email from Jim Messina at Obama Campaign HQ, directing me to a blog post defending the President.

I invite you to look it over, bearing in mind a dog not barking. You will note that the blog post contains no actual defense. Rather, it is nothing but ad hominem attacks on OPSEC and the various people involved in making this video.

It's possible, of course, that the video is a lie. But the Administration would mount a more credible defense by explaining that, rather than just telling us we can't trust the video producers.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Differently Abled

The story of Oscar Pistorius is inspiring. Born with a limb development defect, Pistorius had his lower legs amputated at the age of six months. He grew up wearing prostheses, and played rugby in high school. His coach noticed how fast he was, and got him into track and field, where he became a sprinter. Pistorius competed in the 2008 Paralympics and won gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 400m dashes.

This year, he competed in the London Olympics, not the Paralympics, and this brings up the interesting question of whether he should have been allowed to. Because of his double amputation, Pistorius requires prostheses to run. He uses a carbon-fiber "spring" type of prosthetic when competing. Some have complained that these springs may provide an unfair advantage.

His defenders point out that the prosthetic has no computing or power source: it's just a piece of metal. Therefore, they say, he must have no advantage, since he provides all the power. This argument falls flat instantly, though: a bicycle rider provides all the power as well, but the mechanical advantage is so great that he would leave runners well behind. (The world record in the 250m cycling time trial from a standing start is 17.1s; the world record in the 200m dash is 19.2s. It's pretty clear from these times that at 400m a cyclist would be several seconds ahead.)

Scientific study showed that Pistorius actually does enjoy considerable advantage due to his prosthetic, but the study was later found to be wanting by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and he was ruled eligible for the Olympics. While we can all appreciate Pistorius' will and determination to compete with able-bodied athletes, the ruling sets a bad precedent. At this level of competition, the difference between the best runners and those not even qualifying for the Olympics is minuscule. So what happens when the next double-amputee has improved prostheses and wants to compete? If a gold medal were to be won by an athlete using a prosthetic, the whole sport would be overturned. Where could the line be drawn? Would every such athlete have to be tested beforehand to determine whether their particular prosthetic brought a mechanical advantage? The very uncertainty of such testing makes this an unlikely scenario, but the precedent set in this case is to do just that.

It may seem unlikely now, but one can certainly imagine a future in which one cannot compete for the top spots in running events without prostheses. That would be a terrible result for the sport of track and field, equivalent to rampant doping. So let's appreciate Pistorius' achievement, but hope future cases are handled differently.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The 1% Ate Our Taxes

It's a little lame to write a post that just quotes someone else, but this is so important that I'm going to risk lameness:

...the government’s own Congressional Budget Office has just published a report whose statistics flatly contradict this claim. The CBO report shows that, while the average household income fell 12 percent between 2007 and 2009, the average for the lower four-fifths fell by 5 percent or less, while the average income for households in the top fifth fell 18 percent. For households in the "top 1 percent" that seems to fascinate so many people, income fell by 36 percent in those same years.

(This is from a recent Thomas Sowell article on NRO.)

Now look, there's no need to cry for the 1 percent. They're doing fine. But if we're going to have a national conversation about taxes, we need to know what we're talking about. The meme that the 1 percent are doing so much better than everyone else is simply wrong, and that fact needs to be known more widely.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gun Control

Inevitably, the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado, has rekindled the debate about gun control. I have my opinions on this, but they're not especially interesting or unique and I'm not going to detail them here.

What I do want to address is a particular argument that's been making the rounds on the Right: that no conceivable gun-control law would have stopped this shooting, and that putting in place gun sales bans now would do little good considering the 200 million guns already in private hands in the United States.

This logic is faulty, and the Right would see this if they applied similar arguments they have made in the past. Here's an argument from the other side: we shouldn't open up new areas for offshore drilling because it won't make a difference in the high price of oil now; it'll take ten years before that new production is online. The counter, of course, is that if we'd opened up those areas ten years ago, we'd have the production now. If something should be done, then actually doing it should not depend on whether it will have an immediate impact.

Or consider this one: there's no point to tighter immigration controls because we already have 10 million illegals (or whatever you favorite number). Again, the counter is that illegals move across the border both ways, so if we stopped the flow coming in, eventually their numbers would diminish.

The argument that gun control is pointless because of the large number of guns already extant has a similar counter. Suppose we banned all private gun sales tomorrow. This would still leave a huge number of guns in private hands. But those guns are already aging. Over time - it will be decades, because guns are durable - those guns will wear out, and their numbers will dwindle.

Whether this is the right thing to do is an entirely separate issue. But the argument itself is specious: if we want to control guns, the fact that it's going to take a long time shouldn't stand in our way.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sowell on Baseball

It's a little scary to disagree with Thomas Sowell about anything. In the economic realm, I'd never dare. But in a couple of columns recently written for National Review Online, he's tread into an area that I fear he hasn't done the research: baseball.

Sowell tries to determine who are the greatest hitters and pitchers of all time. In the hitting department, he doesn't give a single answer, but narrows the list to five: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig. All worthy choices, certainly, and I'd be willing to agree that he's ended up with sound selections. But his methodology is seriously flawed. The problem is when he writes this: "But it would be hard to consider someone for the title of the all-time greatest hitter if someone else had both a higher lifetime batting average and a higher lifetime slugging average."

That's just not true. Suppose player X hit .300, slugged .600, and rarely walked (a factor Sowell entirely ignores), so that his on-base percentage (OBP) is .330. Meanwhile player Y hit .298, slugged .595 and walked often for an OBP of .400. Before you reply that, walks notwithstanding, X is clearly, if narrowly, better than Y, let's add one more piece of information: X's career took place mostly from 1990-2005, and Y's from 1960-1975. It's pretty well established that X would have been playing at a time when, for whatever reason, hitters flourished, while Y played when pitchers did. Can you clearly say that X is better than Y?

Ignoring walks is another problem. You might say it's the job of a hitter to hit, not to walk, but that doesn't really make sense. The game is won by scoring more runs than your opponent. Since only hitters (and, subsequently, runners) can score, ultimately games are won by hitters somehow scoring. If you walk and score, that counts exactly the same as if you'd singled and scored. (Singles are still more valuable since they advance other runners more reliably than walks.) Furthermore, it's clear that hitters have a lot to do with drawing walks: they aren't just randomly handed out by opposing pitchers. There are hitters who regularly draw 100 walks a season, and others who struggle to draw 20. These numbers are fairly stable season to season, indicating that walking has something to do with the hitter's ability.

People who've really studied baseball statistics, a field known as "sabermetrics" (so named because of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR), generally start by looking at a combined hitting metric called "OPS", which stands for on-base percentage plus slugging. To calculate it you simply add the OBP to the slugging. In the previous example, player X has an OPS of .330 + .600 = .930 and player Y .400 + .595 = .995. This number correlates pretty well (better than batting average or slugging average taken separately) with the run-generating ability that we really care about.

Of course, if we really care about run-generating ability, and we have some way to tease that out, why not use it directly? We can do that: it's called "runs above replacement" and measures how many runs the hitter generated above some generic "replacement" player. But even that doesn't really help us compare players across generations, because fewer runs were score in some eras than others. So it's really "wins above replacement" (WAR) that gives us the best single metric of a hitter's value.

Here are the top five players in career WAR according to Baseball Reference: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron. Sowell's other three are farther down the list: Williams (6th), Hornsby (8th) and Gehrig (13th).

There's plenty to argue with here. That's part of the fun of this sort of thing. But Sowell wants us to think that he's narrowed the list of hitting greats to a definitive five, and that's just not supportable. It's particularly galling to see him buy into the use of the RBI as a meaningful hitting stat (which is how he squeezes Gehrig into his top five). Sowell says the RBI measures clutch hitting, which may be true, but it also measures how often you were put in clutch situations. Gehrig may have hit a lot of homers with the bases loaded, but he also came to bat a lot with the bases loaded: he player on a team packed with other great hitters. Put Gehrig on the '61 Mets and his RBI total drops considerably.

I suspect, cliched as it is, that the fact that Babe Ruth tops the career list for WAR, OPS+, OPS, and just about any other comprehensive hitting statistic you wish to measure tells us something: that he's simply the single greatest hitter ever. It may be boring, but there's just no other player who dominated like he did. So while I think Sowell's not accurately narrowing the field to five, I do think it's possible to essentially narrow it to one: the Babe.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Thoughts on Immigration

President Obama's recent decision to use executive order to bypass immigration laws is a lawless act, but it may end up being politically successful because it does raise uncomfortable questions for his opponents.

First, let's quickly dispense with any doubt about its lawlessness. The order was defended as "prosecutorial discretion" by Janet Napolitano, but discretion cannot meaningfully apply in this case. Suppose a Republican president issued an executive order directing federal authorities to stop enforcing penalties on capital gains tax collection (as John Yoo suggested) or federal assault weapon laws. Would there be any doubt that such an order would be interpreted (correctly) as an attempt to bypass Congress? The Obama order should be viewed identically. Prosecutorial discretion is when a prosecutor uses discretion in an individual case. The executive order applies to an entire class of people.

The problem for Republicans, though, is that many of the people who would be helped by the executive order are sympathetic figures. The media has predictably singled out the straight-A students and success stories among them, but one can easily sympathize with any kid brought to the U.S. at a young age and now facing deportation through no fault of his or her own. However, it's for just such stories that prosecutorial discretion was invented. If the DHS chose - on an individual basis - not to deport in such cases, only the most hard-hearted would balk. Republicans need to emphasize this: that the problem isn't one of sympathy, but of Obama's naked politicization of the problem by ignoring the law and issuing the order.

On a larger scale, the reason for the problem in the first place is the ease with which illegal immigration has occurred. It's because there are 800,000 such sympathetic cases that this is such a massive problem. If it were 800 it would never even be noticed. And the reason there are so many is that we have a major illegal immigration problem. It's temporarily been reversed by a stagnant economy, but that will change. Unless reform is implemented to stop future illegal immigration, eventually the problem will recur. One reason it's been difficult to create reform is that neither the left nor the right is willing to make many concessions: the left views illegal immigration as, frankly, good politics (immigrants in general trending leftwards) and the right wishes to avoid the aftermath of the Reagan Amnesty, which promised to legalize many immigrants with the quid pro quo that future illegal immigration would be enforced. The actual result of the amnesty was even more illegal immigration.

Romney has taken a pretty good line in his responses, avoiding fire-breathing while pointing out the legal problems with the President's order. That needs to continue. The best way to avoid this in the future is to make sure the current President is no longer in office come January 20, 2013.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Student Loans Make College More Expensive

And here's a good article explaining why. Basically what it boils down to is that as more money is made available for student loans, universities expand their spending, but not necessarily by expanding their student base. Rather, spending per student goes up. Which means tuition goes up. Which leads to calls for more student loan funding, and so on.

From the article:

Was college worth it? A huge part of the problem relates to federal financial-aid programs. Annual student loans, Pell Grants, tax credits and other federal assistance totaled some $169 billion a year in 2010-11 - more than 1 percent of national output. These programs are based on two erroneous premises: that almost everyone needs higher education for vocational success, and that they reduce student costs.

More than 25 years ago, Education Secretary William Bennett argued that federal aid programs benefited colleges more than students. Recent studies by Stephanie Riegg Cellini of George Washington University and Claudia Goldin of Harvard University, as well as by Andrew Gillen for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, support that hypothesis.

A new study by Nicholas Turner of the Office of Tax Analysis in the U.S. Treasury Department argues that when tax-based aid goes up, institutional scholarships go down, dollar for dollar.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Liberal Disingenuousness

Yes, yes, conservatives can be disingenuous, too. But hear me out on this.

Here's two example over the past two days, and these are mere examples of a very widespread phenomenon, in which liberals get away with making unchallenged claims about conservatives that simply would not stand if made from the other direction.

The first was Daniel Klaidman, author of the book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, about drone strikes. The NPR show was about the contradiction that under President Obama drone attacks have increased enormously, even to the point of taking out U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, even though attacks of that nature were deplored under Bush. Klaidman went on and on about how carefully Obama, and his legal adviser Harold Koh, had thought through the question of drone strikes, whether they were legal, etc. And he admitted that even though Koh had vehemently opposed U.S. military action prior to 2009, his opinion changed when his perspective did.

At no point did the NPR interviewer ask where this perspective was during the Bush years. Did he not imagine that the people making the tough decisions then might have had similar quandaries? If Koh felt so strongly, he should have not taken the appointment, or resigned when he found that Obama would be overriding him constantly. Instead, he "thoughtfully" came down on the side of strikes and defended their use. But doesn't this entirely exonerate the Bush strategy of using them and other targeted methods of going after terrorists?

Not for Klaidman. His parting shot was to mention that he was glad, with all the power drone strikes bring to the table, that the person in the White House making the calls was "so thoughful and deliberative", unlike, it did not need saying, its previous occupant. How convenient. So we are to judge a policy by the thoughtfulness of its executive? To Klaidman, the same policy can be deplored in one case and celebrated in another, because the amount or type of thought behind it came from a different man.

The second case comes from an old standby, Howard Dean. On MSNBC recently he said: "People fundamentally don't trust Mitt Romney; they believe he only cares about people who have great wealth, which is probably true." (My emphasis.) Which is probably true! I'm trying to imagine the titanic backlash that would come from a conservative saying that people believe that Obama only cares about people of color, "which is probably true." We'd never stop hearing about it.

And liberals tell me that their problem is they're too nice. Pshaw.

Monday, June 11, 2012

You Are Not Special

Terrific commencement address:

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Life of Julia (Real World Edition)

(UPDATE: Here's a nice video rebuttal to the Life of Julia.

(The original Life of Julia is an Obama fantasy about how a hypothetical baby girl born this year might live out her life under Obama's policies. Here's what I think would actually happen...)

3 Years Old: Julia is enrolled in a Head Start program to help get her ready for school. Approximately $14,000 is spent providing her with a "leg up", but any apparent gains have evaporated by the time Julia enters second grade.

18 Years Old: As she prepares for her first semester of college, Julia and her family qualify for President Obama's American Opportunity Tax Credit—worth up to $10,000 over four years. Julia is also one of millions of students who receive a Pell Grant to help put a college education within reach. But because such grants and handouts have continued to push the cost of college education ever higher, college is actually even less affordable when Julia starts that when she was born. She is forced to take out a student loan to cover the difference.

22 Years Old: During college, Julia undergoes surgery. It is thankfully covered by her insurance due to a provision in health care reform that lets her stay on her parents' coverage until she turns 26. Otherwise, she would have had to use the low-cost insurance most colleges offer to their students.

23 Years Old: Because of steps like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Julia is one of millions of women across the country who knows she'll always be able to stand up for her right to equal pay. She starts her career as a web designer. She was lucky to get a job at all, though; millions of her peers are unable to because of continued high unemployment.

25 Years Old: After graduation, Julia's federal student loans are more manageable since President Obama capped income-based federal student loan payments and kept interest rates low. These low rates, coupled with skyrocketing college costs, have led to an explosion in student loans. Julia has a job and is responsible about paying back her loans, but millions of her peers don't or can't, and the system loses billions of taxpayer dollars.

27 Years Old: For the past four years, Julia has worked full-time as a web designer. Thanks to Obamacare, her health insurance is required to cover birth control and preventive care. Of course, her employer no longer provides health insurance, because requirements like that have made it cheaper just to pay the Obamacare penalty. Julia has health care, but little choice over her care.

31 Years Old: Julia decides to have a child. Throughout her pregnancy, she benefits from maternal checkups, prenatal care, and free screenings under health care reform. Prior to reform, she would have been required to pay a $25 co-pay for the entire pregnancy. Julia tries to be grateful that changing America's system of health insurance saved her $25.

37 Years Old: Julia's son Zachary starts kindergarten. The public schools in their neighborhood have better facilities and great teachers because of President Obama's investments in education and programs like Race to the Top. Of course, Julia and her husband had to take out a massive mortgage to afford a house in that neighborhood.

42 Years Old: Julia decides to start her own web business. She qualifies for a Small Business Administration loan, giving her the money she needs to invest in her business. But she quickly realizes that bureaucratic red tape involved with starting a business is so costly and time-consuming that it's more worthwhile to just stay with her existing job.

65 Years Old: Julia would have enrolled in Medicare. But the system, drowning in debt, was drastically cut decades before Julia was eligible. It now covers such a minimal amount of care that Julia is forced to dig into savings to afford private health insurance.

67 Years Old: Julia retires. After years of contributing to Social Security, that system, too, has been drastically cut for budgetary reasons. Julia gets back much less than she paid in.

I hope Julia contributed to her 401(k).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Universe is Weird

And now for a change from our usual politics- and economics-heavy talk to something weirder: physics.

Quantum mechanics is weird. Richard Feynman, one of its most important discoverers, said, "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." Well, it just got weirder.

This article says that effects can occur before their causes. Don't ask me how that can possibly work; I have no idea. But the experiment seems to show that it's possible.

As always with entanglement, it's important to note that no information is passing between Alice, Bob, and Victor: the settings on the detectors and the BiSA are set independently, and there's no way to communicate faster than the speed of light. Nevertheless, this experiment provides a realization of one of the fundamental paradoxes of quantum mechanics: that measurements taken at different points in space and time appear to affect each other, even though there is no mechanism that allows information to travel between them.

I wonder if it's possible to change the experimental setup a bit: can Alice and Bob take their measurements and then tell Victor what to do? If Alice and Bob measure that Victor didn't entangle, but tell him to entangle and he does, something has to give. It's a little unsatisfying to say they must not have been able to communicate because of speed-of-light issues. Let them communicate and see if we can violate causality on the macro level.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Bully Pulpit

In America's system of separated powers, the executive power is more limited that in most systems. The President cannot, for example, propose a budget. (In the parliamentary model, the government generally proposes budgets which are then debated and usually passed by the legislature. It's usually a smooth process because the government is usually the party of the majority. Not so in America, where we often find the executive and legislative branches controlled by different parties.)

However, one great advantage of the Presidency is the so-called "bully pulpit", a term coined by Teddy Roosevelt, who meant "bully" in the sense of "great" or "terrific". My generation might called it an "awesome platform", a great place from which to advocate for an agenda or position.

President Obama seems to have taken "bully" to mean something else: to harass or coerce. His preemptive attack on the Supreme Court over Florida v. HHS cannot possibly have any populist effect: the legislative work, after all, is done. The only effect it can possibly have is to try to cow the Supreme Court justices to decide in favor of the government. That is the other form of bullying.

Whether he'll get away with it is another matter. I would hope not. Everyone expects the case to be decided 5-4, with Justice Kennedy, as usual, the swing vote.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Single Life

This is heartbreakingly difficult to read.

And tried to remind myself that when we first met I thought he was an arrogant, presumptuous little man. I tried to think about my conversation with Steven. I tried to remember that I was actively seeking to practice some Zenlike form of nonattachment. I tried to remember that no one is my property and neither am I theirs, and so I should just enjoy the time we spend together, because in the end it's our collected experiences that add up to a rich and fulfilling life. I tried to tell myself that I’m young, that this is the time to be casual, careless, lighthearted and fun; don’t ruin it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Drilling and the Price of Oil

Should United States policy tilt toward more drilling? It's a complicated question that touches on many of today's issues: jobs, foreign relations, environmental protection, and gas prices, to name a few.

A recent Associated Press report claimed that at least one claim made by the "drill, baby, drill" crowd - that increased oil production would lead to cheaper gas - is incorrect. Here are the statistics and analysis that resulted in the report. As reported, the statistical conclusion is unmistakable: there is no correlation between domestic oil production and gas prices.

Some objections, though. First, there's a pretty major flaw in the reasoning behind the report. Oil is a fungible good, which means that its price tends to converge to a stable number worldwide. (This is unlike, for example, natural gas, which has transportation issues that make it more valuable closer to its point of production.) Since gas prices are rooted in the price of oil (plus the cost of refining oil into gasoline, plus taxes, plus profits), they vary with the worldwide price of oil. Domestic production affects a small (and over the period covered, decreasing) percentage of worldwide production, so we wouldn't necessarily expect the effect on prices to be very large.

Second, the law of supply and demand is a bit more complex than a simplistic analysis like this can capture. If the price of a good rises, absent non-market factors such as taxes or regulations (more on this in a moment), this could be because demand has increased, supply has decreased, or both have increased or decreased but in such a way that the clearing price goes up rather than down. All we really know for sure when prices are rising is what did not happen: decreasing demand combined with increasing supply. Since the regression did not look at demand at all, it ignores half of the input to price.

Finally, those non-market factors are important. They do not greatly affect the worldwide price of oil, but local regulations and taxes can affect pump prices greatly. Furthermore, those regulations have changed over the period of time under study. Failing to remove those effects is a problem, and not an easily-solvable one either. (To see why it's not a simple matter, imagine there is a $0.25/gal tax on gasoline. Does this raise the pump price by $0.25? No, because the increased price decreases demand, which lowers the price, which may result in reduced supply, which raises the price, and so on. It would take a detailed and deep analysis to estimate how much effect the tax actually had on prices, and this effect would not be stable from month to month.)

But the important thing about domestic drilling, to me at least, is not the direct result on pump prices. Expanding production of oil certainly won't increase gas prices, so at least we know no harm would be done there. Where we know it would help would be in our balance of trade: since we currently import (net) about 8-9 million barrels of oil per day at a price of over $100/barrel, that's a daily trade deficit of close to $1 billion. Much has been made of the fact that we have become net exporters of gasoline, but that's only because we have excellent refineries. We still import lots of crude and export some of the refining products, for a huge net trade deficit. If we expanded domestic drilling to, say, halve our imports, we could potentially eliminate the deficit, to the economic advantage of the country as a whole.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Predictable Beats Perfect

Friedrich Hayek observed decades ago that predictability of laws and regulations was more important than their perfection. The way this is often interpreted (by conservatives and libertarians) is that part of the evaluation process of any new law or regulation should be to test how much it improves predictability versus how much absolute improvement it is expected to make. (Since a new law by definition introduces at least some element of unpredictability, it starts out in the hole at least on this metric.) While this is a fair interpretation, there are others.

In some cases, laws themselves balance predictability and perfection, and then, too, the former exceeds the latter in importance. A recent article from the Hoover Institute is illustrative. Lueck and Libecap examine different ways of defining property: the old but common way by "metes and bounds" (in which natural landmarks and neighboring property lines are used to define boundaries) and the new one promulgated by the U.S. Congress when setting up rules for development in the West (in which boundaries were defined by strict square grids aligned with lines of latitude and longitude).

A natural experiment turns out to be possible by looking at bordering lands, one area using the rectangular system and the other using metes and bounds, and the results are startling:

We found that, controlling for land and owner characteristics, land values were around 25 percent higher under the rectangular system than under metes and bounds in 1850 and 1860. Further, extending the analysis for 100 years revealed that these land value differences persisted!

To learn why that might be so, we turned first to data on land disputes from Ohio court records. Over the entire nineteenth century, we found that parcels in the VMD had 18 times more land boundary disputes than the rest of Ohio combined. Indeed, the history of the VMD is one of ongoing land conflicts. We then turned to land market activity. Land transactions in the middle of the nineteenth century were about 75 percent greater in the counties adjacent to the VMD than within it.

Something to think about when someone proposes a new rule to take care of some tiny edge case in the law. Before deciding whether it's worth it, we might consider the harm to predictability being done.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Poor Strategy

I'm generally sympathetic to the notion that Christian tradition is under attack in America. There are many places where this is evident, not least the spread of "holiday parties" (held a week or two before Christmas), "spring picnics" (held on Easter weekend) and the like. I suspect I will find much to dislike in this vein in the public school system.

But there are good ways to fight this, and not so good ways. One of the latter is "engag[ing]... co-workers in conversations about intelligent design and hand[ing] out DVDs on the idea while at work." (Source. An irrelevant tidbit from the article is that the guy who did this was a team lead at NASA. So what? Engineers can be religious. Many are.)

The gentleman who was proselytizing his co-workers was laid off, and now he's suing.

"It's part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we've seen that for several years," said John West, associate director of Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. "This is free speech, freedom of conscience 101."

No, it isn't, and we shouldn't adopt the tactics and speech modes of the Left, even when we're fighting the Left. Free speech is the freedom to publish, to make your speech available, to avoid public censorship. It is not the freedom to say whatever you want at your place of employment. Employers can fire you for annoying other employees, and that's what happened here. (Heck, employers can fire you for nothing at all in most cases. Just as you can quit any time.)

I'm sure there are many other NASA employees who believe in intelligent design. If they are fired merely for believing it, that's a mistake by NASA (and closer to a violation of "freedom of conscience" ideals). But being fired for badgering your co-workers violates no right, and in the wider culture wars this is not a hill worth defending.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

I didn't watch the HBO movie Game Change Sunday night - largely because I don't get HBO - but I've read a bit about it. To me, really, the questions surrounding its accuracy are irrelevant. How many movies have been made about losing Presidential campaigns? They lost; it's over; let's move on.

There are many movies made about the winning team, and rightly so. Supporters often make sycophantic documentaries, opponents often make vicious fantasies, but in either case they're about the winning side, not the losers.

So "Game Change" is an oddity. It's worth pointing out that, while this is an HBO film, it was made with an all-star cast: Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson. Why was it made? Possibly the film-makers thought Sarah Palin would be in the midst of a Presidential run at this point and this movie would be relevant (and *cough* hurtful). Possibly they really thought the story was interesting and worth telling - although the events portrayed happened just three years ago and there are no new revelations in the film (from what I hear).

What I think motivated the filmmakers was simply schadenfreude. The election of 2008 was so cathartic that they needed to relive it in just one more way. Well, good for them.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Scientists Aren't Smart Enough to Understand Democracy, Blogger Says

Some scientists have apparently concluded that people are too stupid to run a democracy. One would think the roughly 400-year history of democracy on the North American continent would have humbled the researchers at least a bit. But apparently not. Here's the first sentence from Yahoo! News:

The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it.

Already we're into some thorny problems. What's the "best" candidate or idea? Do the scientists know? If not, how can they test their theory? Also, what does "best" mean in this context? Saying that there is a best candidate implies that there is some ordering of candidates from best to worst, and that a sufficiently knowledgeable person could choose the best among them. Does that seem remotely likely?

Speaking of testing the theory, here's what the scientist actually did:

Mato Nagel, a sociologist in Germany, recently implemented Dunning and Kruger's theories by computer-simulating a democratic election. In his mathematical model of the election, he assumed that voters' own leadership skills were distributed on a bell curve — some were really good leaders, some, really bad, but most were mediocre — and that each voter was incapable of recognizing the leadership skills of a political candidate as being better than his or her own. When such an election was simulated, candidates whose leadership skills were only slightly better than average always won.

Is it beyond the pale for me to point out the irony in a German researcher building in the assumption that the candidate with the best leadership skills is the best one? I seem to recall one inter-war German Chancellor who was widely hailed as a great leader. But I risk Godwinning my own post.

More to the point, was it necessary to test this by computer simulation? Garbage in, garbage out: once the various, and highly dubious, assumptions have been made, the conclusion is inevitable, but meaningless.

Nagel concluded that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders. Their advantage over dictatorships or other forms of government is merely that they "effectively prevent lower-than-average candidates from becoming leaders."

This is perhaps the most tendentious part of the entire story. It may be the case that democracies rarely elect the "best" leaders. Heck, I'm willing to stipulate that it never happens. Maybe there's some mayor of Podunk who could this country like a finely oiled machine, and we'll never know. But so what?

Democratic governments are not run by a solitary individual. In the U.S., the President has lots of power, but he is checked by other power centers. Our democracy does not elect a dictator who rules over us without limit. Rather, many leaders are elected who each control some threads in a web of power. We individuals doing the electing have many outlets available to us: local school board members, city council members and mayors, state legislators, state governors, U.S. congressional representatives, U.S. Senators, and finally Presidents.

Taking the contention of the researcher to heart, we understand our neighborhood better than our whole town, our town better than our whole state, and our state better than the whole country. So it's probably true that we do a poorer job evaluating Presidents than school boards. But that's no reason to trash democracy. Rather, it's a good rationale for federalism: local decisions made at a local level.

Finally, the notion that the election of ideal leaders is the primary goal of any system of government is at best incomplete. Democracies, for instance, shine in at least two other areas. First, they provide an orderly means for one government to be replaced by another one. When a dictator dies (or is deposed), succession is often a problem. Perhaps there are multiple children who squabble over who gets to rule. Perhaps a military strongman grabs at the brass ring. One simple advantage of a democracy is that the new leader knows he at least has a majority behind him, and that support helps stabilize the transition. (It's notable that the least stable democracies, e.g. Italy, are parliamentary ones that are usually run by a coalition. Thus the leader does not have the unequivocal support of a majority.)

Second, democracy, unlike other forms of government, helps to promote civic responsibility. The subject of a dictator may need to be clever and know how to navigate the halls of power, but he has no stake in the process. The citizen of a democracy does, and can, at least theoretically, make a change. That mere fact can make an enormous difference, but again we return to the need for federalism, since change is easier at the local level than the national.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Administrative State Strikes Home

One of Tocqueville's most penetrating predictions was that democracy may become despotism as

the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

For several years I've looked forward anxiously to the day when my family would collide with the public education system in America. That day arrived yesterday, and my anxiety has been confirmed.

The school sign-up system in our California town is as follows: you can go to the school assigned to you by your address, or request a transfer. You may select only one school to transfer to, and it is a lottery system. If you pick a school and then lose the lottery, you are out of luck and must attend the assigned school. Our assigned school is not very good, so of course we've selected a transfer.

The system for transfers is that you bring paperwork to the district office — this must be handed in in person — which gives you a code. Using that code you complete registration online. Seemed roundabout, but okay. Last night I used the code and registered my son.

That was when I figured out the twisted logic behind the system. Registration requires filling out an enormous and highly intrusive form in which detailed questions are asked about your child's background. Did he grow up in the city, a town, or the country? What's his race? What languages are spoken in the home? Do both parents live with him? And on, and on. These questions are not optional, and the only way to complete registration is to answer them. All of them.

If I were given this form in person, I could take it back, complain, and try to get them to sign him up anyway. But what's my recourse online? I could still go in and complain, but they have a "process", which no doubt is out of the hands of the district functionaries. So I'm forced to give in to this grilling. (I could also lie, which I considered, but I have a tough time with that. I'd also probably be breaking some sort of law.)

It strikes me that this system was designed to make it difficult to circumvent. And that's where Tocqueville comes in. "Network of small complicated rules"? The school system has that, in spades! "Energetic characters cannot penetrate"? Sorry, you can't complain, it's online. "The will of man is not shattered, but softened"? Of course. The lottery gives you hope of bettering your situation, but no certainty, thus the responsible parent cannot properly plan while staying in the public education system.

I suppose I should get used to this, since thirteen more years of it lie ahead. But I don't have to like it.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Complexities of Freedom

I was listening to the radio a few days ago and heard Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee", which contains the famous line: Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose. It got me thinking.

Basically, I think she's right. Taking an overly-analytical approach, suppose you did have something to lose. Then you could be threatened by its loss, and such threats might cause you to change your behavior. If someone else can force a change in your behavior, then you are not free. You might be mostly free, but not completely free.

You might object that the things you could lose might be of very small value, but this doesn't save your freedom. While you might not change your behavior on something big when threatened by the loss of something of small value, some small behavior change could still be forced as long as you had something to lose. Indeed, I would argue that these conditions are identical: if you would not change your behavior in any way, however slight, to protect a thing, then that thing must have no value to you.

There is still, though, a possible escape. Suppose you had things to lose, but they were so arranged that the loss of any of them would result in a larger gain elsewhere. I can't imagine in practice how this would work, but if it did, you could theoretically have something to lose but would be willing to lose it. Still, in practice if you could exchange something of smaller value for something of larger, wouldn't you do it before the appearance of a threat? So I won't worry about this theoretical case.

However, imagine that you truly have nothing to lose. Is such an existence desirable? As I have argued above, having nothing to lose implies valuing nothing. You would not be able to have friends. Possessions, of course, would be out. You could not make a stand "on principle". This seems highly undesirable. In a sense it's akin to Nirvana, but the Buddhist ideal is more extinguishing the "negative" emotions of greed, anger, and so on. One who valued absolutely nothing would also have to extinguish positive emotions like love and compassion.

There is a logical problem that appears here as well: complete freedom should mean having the freedom to acquire things, or make friends. But then you would not be free, or at least would risk starting to value something and thus losing your perfectly free state. So it is questionable whether the sort of complete freedom we contemplate here is even achievable.

Putting that aside for the moment and stipulating that the logical paradox does not arise, it seems clear that almost no one would be happy being entirely free in the sense I have described. We "voluntarily" accept chains to the things we value. I added the scare quotes because it's a bit slippery what we mean by "voluntary" here. It's clearly not entirely voluntary: having valued something, we open ourselves to its possible loss, and thus to a possible loss of freedom. But the actual curtailment of our freedom might never occur; it might only be imposed from the outside in the form of threats, which may never materialize. (In practice, many of the threatened losses are inevitable conflicts between things we already value, and thus are not imposed by an outside party.)

In a sense, then, freedom is the freedom to choose our chains.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ron Paul and the Possibility of a Brokered Convention

Ron Paul is apparently executing an end-around strategy to win the GOP nomination: delegate targeting. The idea is that, even in states he does not win, by careful management of the delegate-selection process, he could manage to control a majority of actual delegates to the convention.

In states that do not bind their delegates (to vote for the nominee selected by the state's primary), these delegates could theoretically vote for Paul regardless of the popular vote total. In states that do bind their delegates, Paul's strategy is even more long-game: in the event of a brokered convention, the delegates could become unbound and then Paul could have a majority.

During the tumult of early primary season, the possibility of a brokered convention is often bandied about. There hasn't been one since 1952, but there certainly could be again. This year, Intrade estimates the odds at 26%, up from 5% two weeks ago. No doubt this is due to the rise of Rick Santorum. Super Tuesday will sort much of this out; if the Intrade odds remain this high after those primaries, I'll be really interested in this scenario.

However, even if one candidate locks up the nomination, there's another upside for Paul: "[T]he more delegates Paul controls, the more of an impact he can have on determining the GOP platform at the convention." True. Unnerving, but true.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Catholics and Contraceptives

At first blush, the Obama administration's heels-dug-in posture of not allowing a religious exemption to the requirement for insurance to cover contraceptives and abortifacients seems like a political mistake. But I wonder if there's a grand plan here?

First, a quick overview of the arguments on both sides. Catholics and conservatives say that this is an attack on religious freedom. Liberals say that Catholics are hypocritical to object since some large percent of them use contraceptives anyway (I've heard 50% and I've heard 98%, but I will argue that the actual number makes no difference). The liberal argument is incorrect on two grounds. First, it isn't hypocritical. Many Catholics drink alcohol. That doesn't mean the State should force the Catholic Church to buy it for them. Second, even if it were hypocritical, that wouldn't argue in favor of the requirement. Liberals often use "hypocrisy" as a brickbat to attack principled arguments. But merely because a person has a gambling problem doesn't mean he's wrong to oppose gambling.

Conservatives are, I think, in the right here. It gets worse when you consider that the Obama administration has already granted over a thousand waivers to other PPACA requirements. They are meant to show that the law is "flexible". Not, apparently, in this case.

There may be method to the madness, though. If the administration continues to be uncompromising, the result will probably be that the Catholic Church will cease to provide health insurance to its employees, and will pay a fine instead. Fast forward a few years. The next step the liberals will take is to continue the push to a single-payer system, and then they will tout the current crisis as a point in their favor! Look, they'll say, this whole thing could have been avoided if we had a single-payer system. The Church wouldn't have any objection, no one would have lost insurance coverage, and everyone would have been happy.

Of course, there still would be a loss of religious liberty. Catholics would still be paying for contraceptives and abortions, via their tax dollars instead of their tithes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gingrich: Then Again...

Having accused Newt of desperation just a few days ago, I have to eat my words today:

Gingrich now has 31% support from registered Republican voters in the Gallup daily tracking poll, compared with 27% for the former Massachusetts governor.

The former House speaker now has completely erased a 23-point advantage Romney enjoyed earlier this month.

For myself, I'm still undecided. Mitt is just so, so dull. I'd love to see Newt mixing it up with Obama in the debates. But Obama is nothing if not a disciplined campaigner, and Newt is anything but that. I'd hate for Newt to win the nomination and then make some October unforced error that sank his campaign.

This is about where I was in 2008. As the NJ primary approached, Mitt and McCain were both still in the running. Holding my nose, I pulled the lever for McCain, primarily because of Mitt's blandness. I didn't expect McCain to pull his punches in the general election and thought he'd have a better chance of winning. Of course, I was wrong.

This time around, once again it's all about winning. Policy-wise, there's not much to choose between the three front-runners (Paul not included: he's the outlier and frankly unacceptable, not to mention unelectable). I suspect Mitt is more electable than Newt or Rick Santorum; he'll be more likely to appeal to moderates. But Newt, despite what some people say, actually does have a record of reaching across the aisle, and he might prove capable of winning them over. And there's no question Newt will fire up the base more than Mitt. Then again, this year, do we need our candidate to fire up the base? The other candidate should be doing this for us.

Next Tuesday will be a watershed, that much is certain.

This is Brilliant

What I can I say but: Wow.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Desperation is...

...Newt Gingrich's pride in Todd Palin's endorsement. My favorite part is where he "hopes" that Sarah's endorsement is coming soon.