Monthly Archives: May 2009

A Couple Worthwhile Reads

1. An old teacher, Michael Dulick, retired several years ago and went to Honduras to live amongst the poor and teach. It is rare to meet a man of such great compassion and intelligence. Thanks to the wonders of modern communications technology you can read his blog here.

2. If you need to escape from a cougar UC Davis scientists recommend running away. Other apparently valid responses include staring it down, buying another shot.

3. The ever popular Nicholas Kristof discusses behavioral differences amongst liberal and conservatively minded people. Liberals are far less likely to respect authority and conservatives are more likely to evince disgust.

4. George Bush defends his record, reveals topics covered in his upcoming book. Money quote:

Bush also revealed the topic of the first chapter in his forthcoming book, which he said will be about “the stories of my administration as I saw them.” That first chapter, he said, will be answer the question: “Why did I run for president?”

5. Nate Silver at FiveThirthyEight debunks the idea that political affliation was used to choose which Chrysler dealerships to close.  Jonathan Adler at the Volokh Conspiracy does a similar, less technical analysis and comes to the same conclusion. It turns out that people who own car dealerships are far more likely to vote/donate to Republicans as a whole so the observation that dealerships that are scheduled to close tended to donate disporportionately to Republicans means nothing of substance.

6. The illusion of sex (from RealityCarnival). Also, sex in the Middle Ages and you don’t even have to read any Foucault.

Glossing Over the Unpleasant Stuff in Church OR Will the Anti-Christ be Homosexual?

I’ll be honest with you, I think my argument about how the gay marriage debate is really a much simpler debate over the nature and purpose of contracts is pretty smart. In the 5 years I’ve been making it, I don’t think I’ve found anyone who can sensibly answer it. Someone did make a comment, specifically claiming that gay marriage hurts liberty, and linked to their blog post making a bunch of rather incoherent arguments that have that tinge of absurdity to them. But this post isn’t about any of those arguments; rather, it was prompted by a mention of the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah in an article written by a pastor from Sarah Palin’s hometown. The article is worth a read, or at least the headline is: Will the Antichrist be a homosexual?

By and large, this is what passes for serious intellectual exercise in the nation’s churches. Or at least every church I’ve been to. I stopped attending church because I couldn’t deal with the blatant hypocrisy and anti-intellectual tone of the discussions regarding everything from gays to Iraq.

I think this is going to be my last post on the subject. I think for the next few days I’m going to be talking about more micro-economic stuff, like Cournot theory or auction theory (Google seems to have designed the perfect auction!).

In any case, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is an enlightening one, not because of what happens (Sodom and Gomorrah have the bad fortune to have a couple days of extremely bad weather, with sulphur and brimstone raining down and destroying everything).  The really interesting part is what happens before; specifically, God sends two angels to the house of a man named Lot. They stay the night with him, during which time the inhabitants of the town surround the house, demanding that the two angels (in human form) be sent out to them, ostensibly to be raped. There is some debate over the meaning of the ancient texts; you can find the wiki here. But what is most interesting (and least discussed) is this line:

Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing…

Genesis 19:8

That’s right, instead of sending out the angels (who can presumably fend for themselves, being divine beings) Lot offers the mob his virgin daughters for their pleasure. Later, Lot leaves with his family and escapes the destruction of the twin cities. The wiki on Lot is here. Lot is later described in 2nd Peter (a book written by Paul the Apostle in the New Testament) as a righteous man surrounded by evildoers.

There is really nothing about this story that is appealing to me. But as someone who’s very familiar with Biblical text and religious interpretations, there is a bit of cognitive dissonance in this story because it appears that there is no one in the entire story who does anything that I can call righteous. The angels don’t intervene to protect themselves and they reward Lot with the information that he needs to survive, presumably with God’s divine sanction. Lot bargains for the lives and integrity of the angels using his virgin (and presumably very young) daughters. And the mob, whether or not they were trying to rape anyone, is obviously not on the right side of the moral equation. Yet this story (and the explicit belief in Lot’s righteousness) is a major part of the narrative that is used to justify discrimination and hate. You understand why I have trouble assigning credibility to the pastors and churchgoers who refuse to engage this story in its totality and instead cherrypick the parts of it that fit their narrative of intolerance.

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On Humanity

Ralph Peters in the New York Post writes:

WE made one great mistake regarding Guantanamo: No terrorist should have made it that far. All but a handful of those grotesquely romanticized prisoners should have been killed on the battlefield.

The few kept alive for their intelligence value should have been interrogated secretly, then executed.

Terrorists don’t have legal rights or human rights. By committing or abetting acts of terror against the innocent, they place themselves outside of humanity’s borders. They must be hunted as man-killing animals.

I would say that the reverse is true. It is precisely because we show mercy to prisoners and dispense justice fairly that the concept of humanity means anything.  That is why not torturing people means so much. And why we should call extra-legal execution of a prisoner without a fair trial what it is: murder. This outcome might be unpalatable: it is offensive that prisoners can enjoy all life, even in prison, while their victims molder in the ground. But it is none the less important because laws are designed precisely to ensure that punishment is meted justly. Because shooting first and asking questions later is a good way to kill a whole lot of innocent people.

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Controlling the Debate

Every good debater knows the importance of controlling the argumentative ground. The basic theory is that if you’re able to control the framework and parameters that the debate happens in, you’re in pretty good shape. Part of that is not just having the right argument but controlling the semantic ground available. Take for instance the ridiculous debate over gay marriage. Social conservatives spin this debate in profoundly anti-intellectual and discriminatory ways, linking the advent of gay marriage to everything from pedophilia to the end of civilization as we know it.

I choose to reframe this debate. Because the debate over gay marriage is really not a debate over gay marriage. It’s an argument about basic human freedoms: the right to enter into private, legally binding contracts. And this is a powerful argument against conservatives, because it exposes the fundamental flaw in their mindless opposition to gay marriage. Conservatives, after all, draw a large chunk of their ideology from legitimate libertarian ideas about property rights and the freedom to enter into fundamental contractual relationships, like the freedom to trade with other people. Framed this way, opposition to gay marriage is really an authoritarian viewpoint because it says government can exclude people from entering into specific contracts. And you get to access powerful arguments about the role and nature of government itself as additional offense; for instance, instead of debating over whether homosexuality is “natural” or not you get to talk about why we have government at all and what liberty means. Essentially, you get to out-right the right-wingers by taking powerful affirmative stances on property rights and the role of government as the enforcer of basic rights.

It’s a well known fact that the GOP is losing market share and my thesis is essentially that a large part of it is the irrelevant focus on social issues. Young people in particular are very sensitive to these issues: we understand that there are far more important things that government should be doing (ending genocide in Darfur, restructuring the nation’s economic architecture, etc) and don’t understand why Republicans seem to care more about protecting the sanctity of marriage in a world where close to half of marriages end in divorce anyway.

So. Control the semantics, you control the debate. Easy win.

EDIT: Just came across this sound byte on Kelo vs. New London from the indomitable head of the Republican Party, thrice divorced Rush Limbaugh:

“There’s an added element to it, and that is the importance — maybe even of more importance than the right to free speech — of the right to own property in a free country,” Rush said. “Without the right to own property, even with the right of free speech, you don’t have a free country — not when the government can come in and take whatever they want whenever they want it, not pay you anything for it or very little for it, and give it to somebody else or use it themselves.”

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This is Fantastic

From former co-blogger and distance runner Jason Rosenbaum, Kanye and the indomitable T-Pain remind us of the existential anti-heroics of those who spend their lives as gummi bears.

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Some Quick Links

What I’m reading/seeing lately:

1. The National Spelling Bee is on Twitter! This is Bee Week in DC and they’re live tweeting the competition. My brother, George, won the National Spelling Bee in 2000 and I have several other siblings who have placed highly at Nationals. As an aside, why don’t I have a wikipedia entry?

2. A friend and budding viticulturist, Tammy Jones, is visiting wine country in the Rhone Valley. You can read her blog here. Of particular note is her visit to the Barruol estate in Gigondas; Louis and Cherry Barruol are well respected negotiants and made a phenomal 2007 Cotes-du-Rhone rouge from 100% syrah that is one of the best wines I’ve tasted in the past year.

3. Sotomayor’s legal history reviewed in the NYT. Of particular note is the discussion about how female judges are “more sensitive to claims that strip searches of young girls are unduly intrusive”. It is an implicit argument that diversity in the judiciary is good. It also provides a good paradigm for thinking about Obama’s comments on how a good judge displays traits like ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’ and when it matters.

4. On a related note, the Republican party is scrambling to attract women and minorities. I have long argued that though it’s not the case that the Republican party hates women (or for that matter, black people), it is the case that they are really indifferent to the concerns of people who don’t have money.

5. From Paul Krugman, why the military wasn’t involved in Katrina rescue efforts (turns out Rumsfeld didn’t think it was necessary). Money quote from Bush: “Rumsfeld, what the hell is going on there? Are you watching what’s on television? Is that the United States of America or some Third World nation I’m watching? What the hell are you doing?”

6. From Tyler Cowen, the relative value of health care. Key line (from Ralph Sisson): “Two economists working at Dartmouth, Katherine Baicker and Amitabh Chandra, found that the more money Medicare spent per person in a given state the lower that state’s quality ranking tended to be. In fact, the four states with the highest levels of spending—Louisiana, Texas, California, and Florida—were near the bottom of the national rankings on the quality of patient care.” Perhaps the best way to control healthcare spending is to stop spending money on healthcare?

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Quick Thoughts on the Nomination/Talking Points

The Hill posts Republican National Committee talking points that were inadvertently released to everyone on the RNC mailing list in response to President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Included are these points:

Justice Souter’s retirement could move the Court to the left and provide a critical fifth vote for:

o Further eroding the rights of the unborn and property owners;

o Imposing a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage;

o Stripping “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance and completely secularizing the public square;

o Abolishing the death penalty;

o Judicial micromanagement of the government’s war powers.

Besides the RNC concerns over property rights, can anyone think of why the others are bad from a public policy perspective? The abortion debate is as far as I can tell, moot; same sex marriage looks like an inevitability as state courts, legislatures, and ballot initiatives slowly but surely reaffirm the rights of private citizens to make consensual, legally enforced contracts; returning the Pledge to its pre-1950’s state means little to nothing to me as a citizen; abolishing the death penalty makes sense to me as incarceration is often cheaper and terminates the risk of executing innocents; and I think it is absolutely part of the core mission of the judiciary to oversee the government’s war powers.

In other words, is there anything of substance here besides the (apparently) knee-jerk reference to property rights (presumably a knee-jerk nod to 2nd Amendment rights and an implicit criticism of Kelo vs. New London)? I’ve claimed for a while that the RNC represents the hollow shell of a conservative movement that is intellectually bankrupt and these talking points seem to belie the truth of that claim.

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Policy Debate in Missouri

I was a 4 year policy debater for Parkway North High School in St. Louis. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, I debated for 2.5 years on the NDT/CEDA policy debate circuit, achieving some competive success (though constrained by lack of institutional funding). I have coached and assisted high school teams to 2 state tournaments and 2 national tournaments and donate my time on request to teams looking for advice, coaching, or help. I also donate time to judging debate tournaments when I can.

I have a discussion on the state of debate in Missouri as well as some arguments on why the circuit has been less than smart about maintaining interest and integrity here at the Missouri forum on www.cross-x.com, the premier high school debate website. If you’re interested in the subject it is a good read.

If you don’t know much about the activity, I can assure you that debate is one of the best things for high schoolers to engage in. It was one of the most intellectually stimulating activities I’ve ever engaged in and provided me with a solid intellectual foundation for approaching knowledge and advocacy. If you can ever advocate for something germane to secondary education, advocate for the institution and support of debate activities in high schools. The benefits are profound.
Full disclosure: I was affliated with Cross-x for many years have great respect for Phil Kerpen, the guy who owns the site. Phil’s politics are a little different from mine (he’s a right-leaning libertarian and I’m a left-leaning libertarian but he has a mind of tremendous precision and I’ve learned tons from his work.

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Cities and the Efficiencies of Urbanity

The indomitable Paul Krugman has been discussing cities and geography lately in his NYT blog (a fitting subject for an economist who was awarded the Nobel for his work in economic geography, particularly what we call “New Trade Theory”; wiki here, Alex Tabarrok here). Some particularly interesting lines from different posts. First, the aesthetics of urban development in Hong Kong:

Hong Kong, with its incredible cluster of tall buildings stacked up the slope of a mountain, is the way the future was supposed to look. The future — the way I learned it from science-fiction movies — was supposed to be Manhattan squared: vertical, modernistic, art decoish.

What the future mainly ended up looking like instead was Atlanta — sprawl, sprawl, and even more sprawl, a landscape of boxy malls and McMansions. Bo-ring.

And some commentary on conservative attitudes about evironmentalism:

As I noted a while back, a lot of anti-environmentalism in America these days is about symbolism. And I think the same thing is true about pro-sprawl commentary. Consider the case of Portland, Oregon. Conservatives really, really hate on Portland; examples here and here. Aside from the tendency to engage in factual errors, the hate seems disproportionate to the cause. But it’s an aesthetic thing: conservatives seem deeply offended by anything that challenges the image of Americans as big men driving big cars.

My basic commentary is that I really really like cities. I like the idea of being able to walk most of the places I really need to go, I like the freedom from the responsibilities of suburbia and its trappings, I like the intellectual and cultural diversity that comes with putting lots of people close together. And from a sustainability standpoint, the basic premise of a city is that humans can gain much from exploiting the efficiencies of scale and synergies that close spatial organization allows. Specifically, I’d point you to this op-ed by mathematician Stephen Strogatz in the NYT; Strogatz is a very important mathematician for those following the fields of dynamical systems and non-linear analysis, among others. He wrote my introductory textbook on the subject, which is easily accessible for anyone with a working knowledge of differential theory. Some particularly good insights:

For instance, if one city is 10 times as populous as another one, does it need 10 times as many gas stations? No. Bigger cities have more gas stations than smaller ones (of course), but not nearly in direct proportion to their size. The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population. The crucial thing is that 0.77 is less than 1. This implies that the bigger a city is, the fewer gas stations it has per person. Put simply, bigger cities enjoy economies of scale. In this sense, bigger is greener.

The same pattern holds for other measures of infrastructure. Whether you measure miles of roadway or length of electrical cables, you find that all of these also decrease, per person, as city size increases. And all show an exponent between 0.7 and 0.9.

Now comes the spooky part. The same law is true for living things. That is, if you mentally replace cities by organisms and city size by body weight, the mathematical pattern remains the same.

For example, suppose you measure how many calories a mouse burns per day, compared to an elephant. Both are mammals, so at the cellular level you might expect they shouldn’t be too different. And indeed, when the cells of 10 different mammalian species were grown outside their host organisms, in a laboratory tissue culture, they all displayed the same metabolic rate. It was as if they didn’t know where they’d come from; they had no genetic memory of how big their donor was.

Freaky cool, innit? More later.

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Former NDT/CEDA Debater Hired to Read Climate Bill

Republicans on the committee have said they may force the reading of the entire 946-page bill — as well as major amendments that measure several hundred pages — all aloud. This is a procedure lawmakers have a right to invoke. Republicans are largely against the bill, which aims to cut emissions of so-called greenhouse gases by more than 80% over the next half-century but would be costly.

Republicans haven’t tried the tactic, but Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) is prepared.

A committee spokeswoman said the speed reader — a young man who was on door duty at the hearing as he awaited a call to the microphone — was hired to help staffers. After years of practice, the panel’s clerks can read at a good clip. But the speed reader is a lot faster, she said.

“Judging by the size of the amendments, I can read a page about every 34 seconds,” said the newly hired staff assistant, who declined to give his name. Based on that estimate, it would take him about nine hours.

From the WSJ. Link here.

Edit 4/14: I just noticed I was getting a lot of traffic from debaters on this point, and want to note that I don’t actually know that the staff assistant was a former debater. But without commenting on the specific size of the bill, I think it would be very strange if a speed reader were not at least a former debater on the high school policy circuit or the college NDT/CEDA circuit. I can think of no other activity that trains for such a skill.

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Great Lines, Tarantino-Pitt Edition

Tarantino said he and Pitt had wanted to work together on a movie for some time.

“Artistically, me and Brad have been sniffing around each other for a while, the longing looks across the room and everything, the little notes: ‘I like you, do you like me?'”

Pitt said he agreed to play Raine after discussing the part with the director long into the night.

“I got up the next morning and I saw five empty bottles of wine laying on the floor … and something that resembled a smoking apparatus, I don’t know what that was about,” Pitt said.

“And apparently I agreed to do the movie because six weeks later I was in uniform and I was Lieutenant Aldo Raine.”

That works out to 2.5 bottles of wine per person along with an undefined quality of an undefined smokable inhalant. Here at the University of Missouri-Columbia, we call that a good start.

Link here (Reuters).

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Regulatory Arbitrage and Mom and Dad

As I was just walking to the library I had the quick thought that I could analogize part of what happened in this financial crisis through the dynamics of a typical family. Bear with me here (and also note that since my family is something I am particularly familiar with I will use my family as the example, which is sure to be funny). Of course the story is a stylized one and bears only a loose relationship to reality.

So I’m the oldest of 7, which means that my family is fairly large. So let’s adopt this conceptual schema: Imagine us children as citizens/market participants and our parents as government. During the early years, government passes prohibition on candies and other sweet things to protect the public health and maintain an orderly populace. But as in any market, prohibition of a substance like candy isn’t always effective: in this case, the market for candy becomes a black market, with candy being obtained from illicit sources (Sunday School, neighborhood friends, etc). Government sees the candy ban hasn’t resulted in the desired outcome and implements further regulation, specifically regulations detailing how external interactions may happen so as to preserve the benefit of external contacts without allowing the trade in black market candy.

Of course, this isn’t effective because kids are sneaky and good at getting what they want. Government eventually adopts a rather nasty and prickly web of regulations that ends up being functionally unenforceable because of their size and complexity while the market develops cavities. Also, since everyone’s strung out on sugar all the time, public order suffers. Private cartels (shifting alliances of siblings) emerge to internally regulate the access and trade in illicit candy, creating a situation where fights break out over the control and allocations of a scarce resource. Eventually, government had no alternative to imposing martial law and borrowing against the future because a dental bailout of the market was urgently necessary.

What are the lessons to be learned here? Well, first, it’s that markets innovate and arbitrage around undesired regulations. If you have difficulty understanding what I mean by that, it may help to think about regulations as goods in a market: people desire good regulations and flock to the best suppliers. Second, it’s that government is bad about thinking in incentive-compatible terms. Solutions like bans rarely work and end up being prohibitively costly to enforce. Other solutions that might be more incentive compatible are ignored because of the incentive structures government faces, that is to say, government likes to maintain the illusion that it is really in control and refuses to lose face through the perception that laxer regulatory structures imply a loss of control and legitimacy. Of course, governments that look past that illusion are usually the ones that do the best.

Instead of banning candy, government could have tied comsumption to the performance of some other activity, like doing homework or chores (of course, this doesn’t work in markets where participants think they can arbitrage around doing homework or chores). But an outcome where government can monitor consumption is preferable to a situation where it can’t since crises are more predictable instead of less and also because you leverage some control over the incentive structures that market participants face, so markets don’t reach dangerous and unsustainable levels.

Think about the war on drugs or the financial meltdown in this way. It’s clear to me that the politicized debates over regulations typically miss the point: the debate is not over more vs. less regulation but about what is good regulation.

Any thoughts?

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