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Friday, July 9, 2010

The Wisdom of Crowds

I had an interesting discussion with one of my (many) liberal friends recently, and there's a couple of points that came out of our prolonged exploration of every idea we could think of in the span of an evening. The first point worth sharing, I think, is as follows. The barnes and noble science section is packed with books explaining that we can't predict the future in systems that aren't governed by so-called normal distributions (though we think we can, a kind of persistent overconfidence in our epistemic abilities). The point here is that there's all of this complexity in everyday life and social life (think economics), and we're under the illusion that having a Ph.D. in economics and pointing to charts renders all of this moot. I'm talking about Taleb's "Black Swan", books like "The Drunkards Walk", everything that Malcom Gladwell has every written, et cetera. So the point is, it turns out that huge parts of the world--and interestingly, ordinary parts of the world, like society and culture, politics, economics--are effectively black boxes with respect to prediction. We really just don't know what tomorrow will bring. This has implications--huge implications--for the role of government or in general the role of experts in advising the rest of us on what courses of action should be undertaken. Much of this advice should properly be seen as speculation (there's even research that suggests that experts are actually worse at predicting outcomes in complex "human" systems than non-experts).

So that's point one. The other point is the "wisdom of crowds" notion, another concept that accounts for dozens of books in the BN science section (you know, where the smart-people-wanna-bes congregate). So this idea that many problems are solved by aggregating viewpoints, explored in books like, ah hum, The Wisdom of Crowds, Infotopia, Jeff Howe's Crowdsourcing, et cetera, sugggests that having some expert decide things can be really stupid. In fact it turns out that groups--crowds--can often arrive at more optimal solutions to problems then even some one person who is educated and expert on solving problems of that type. It turns out, for instance, that allowing people to "bet" on some future outcome often produces the best prediction of that outcome. Asking an expert to figure out the outcome would result in a worse prediction. Just ordinary Joes (and of course experts too), if there's enough of them, throwing down their money on which horse will win, or which companies to buy stock in, or which presidential candidate will win the election, often produces a better prediction on aggregate than the most expert horse person, or stock picker, or election pundit.

So this cutting edge research makes everyone feel all enlightened and egalitarian and up to date with the latest tidbits of "didn't you know?" science. Only thing is, this is the best, greatest empirical argument for free markets ever. Let ordinary people figure out what to buy, where to shop, how the economy should go, from the ground up, so to speak. Science suggests that this libertarian technique often results in more optimal solutions then central planners sitting in government offices. This really amuses me, because the folks feeling all educated reading wisdom of the crowds literature-- folks interested in social networking technology, reading Marx, sniffling about how republicans are idiots, eating tofu-- yes these folks are in fact reading powerful arguments for individual liberty, limited government, the wisdom in crowds, not government planners trying to engineer the Good Society for everyone else. (And they seem not to know it. Ha!) The latter just isn't optimal, if you believe the latest Gladwellesque arguments coming out of research on decision making.

Which brings me to my little wrap up. When I'm not sitting in cafes and I'm actually doing serious work, I'm reading Hayek, the Nobel economist who is widely credited as an intellectual precursor to libertarianism, particularly with regard to government involvement in the economy. Hayek, that Ph.D. egghead himself, who nonetheless argued (in my view persuasively) in the 1950s that because no one person can possibly know everything, the best strategy for a society is to vest more and more power in individuals. Hence individual liberty is a strategy that is most likely, over time, to result in more optimal solutions. Makes sense. The wisdom in crowds.

So the point is, again, that all of these insights emerging from the latest research in the social sciences are pointing back to non-government-controlled solutions to our most pressing problems. It's pointing to a model where government's most important job is to structure society in such a way that its citizens--all of us--can choose how best to live, what to buy, who to give money to, how to use our own money, and on and on. The aggregation of all of these individual voices makes things work better (right comrades?). But of course people who are free to choose and to decide much of their lives on their own means that disparities in wealth and natural talents will result in disparities in society. And that bothers all of my liberal friends. "Can't we just control people and liberate them too?" perhaps I heard (didn't they tell us in school? you have to control people to try to make them equal, since we're not naturally that way). But no I think unfortunately, on the aggregate, there's a better and worse way to do things. And on the aggregate, their will always be winners and losers in the crowd.

On Lawhatever James and Passion for World Cup

Labron James makes much ballyhooed anouncement on which organization he will work for, continuing to bounce a ball on a wood floor and throw it through a metal hoop to the adoration of millions. Don't Care. Not that I'm bothered by fame per se. I love Lady Gaga and she's a fame monster.

What other grumbly points can I make. Oh yes, I almost forgot. In the ongoing attempt for all enlightened Americans to outdo each other in showing the most self-deprecation, the Bay area is aflame with passion for the World Cup. Who gives a damn? Uruguay? I don't even know if I pronounced it right, and you know what, who cares? Uruguay? Yes it's vitally important that we all hang on the edge of our seats to see this world power at their finest hour (actually I think they lost). Interestingly, when I show a little American nationalism amongst my European friends here in Palo Alto, they seem strangely, ironically, to appreciate it. It's almost like everyone is thinking: "Americans, get some cojones! The world's superpower and your educated elite are tripping over themselves to appear embarrased by your success, and desperately trying to convince us that you're okay because you love watching Uruguay kick a ball around, clapping so loudly you make yourself look silly. We wouldn't do that, says the French man, smiling. We love France. Suckers!")

Friday, July 2, 2010

US Nonplussed as Iran Threatens Ban

Iran's Ahmadinejad threatened to ban Coca Cola and other American products Thursday, after President Obama announced new sanctions on the regime in further efforts to curtail its nuclear ambitions. Insiders in Washington remarked privately early Friday that Iran has in fact been receiving shipments of New Coke, tons of which were inventoried shortly after its introduction in 1985, in response to lackluster public interest. "We're not worried about its [the ban's] impact on the economy", remarked a White House official who chose to remain anonymous, adding that a deal struck with Coca-Cola currently gives a percentage of the profits from sale of the now-defunct New Coke to the State department to help offset the cost of "dealing with Iran". "We may feel the heat in terms of a loss of funding if Iran follows through", he admitted, noting that sales of parachute pants and Vanilla Ice albums could also suffer.

Computer giant IBM and Intel were also mentioned by Ahmadinejad in his defiant response to news of further sanctions. And a spokesperson for Iran told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Friday that "further bans on U.S. auto imports", could "bring the U.S. economy to its knees", insisting that the thousands of Pintos Iran currently imports could easily be replaced with "less expensive models from China", and "other countries", insisting that such non-Western alternatives were competitively priced and would be increasingly sought after as relations between Washington and the beleaguered Iranian regime further chilled in the wake of Thursday's announcement.

Obama declined to comment on Ahmadinejad's retaliatory remarks, and privately the mood in Washington appeared upbeat. "We tried to sell them MC Hammer shirts", said a State department official familiar with the matter, "but they told us to go packing". "We were definitely the Great Satan after that one", he mused, confessing that the once bestselling single "Hammer Time" remained a solid, if seldom admitted, favorite of his. "Don't diss The Hammer", he chuckled, jerking a thumb towards the wall behind him, where a photo of several men standing around crates of Coca-Cola was visible. "Drink up, boys."

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bear Fitting Description of Bear Spotted

Bear mauls hiker in Kentucky. Says wildlife spokeswoman Barbara Atwood "They had a bear sighting yesterday. However, they could not confirm that it was the bear in question", adding hopefully that "...they feel confident the bear is still in the area." Hats off to anyone who can catch a bear without killing it. But this whole issue of catching a reprobate animal is a perpetual puzzle to me: how exactly does one confirm that a particular black bear is the bear? Every black bear I've seen looks exactly the same as any other. Sighting one amounts to sighting any one. (How might it fit some description? Rumbles about the woods? Wearing all black?)

So anyway this dubiously perspicacious observation exposes only my complete ignorance compared to wildlife experts who appear, from the ignorant outside of things, to be pulling off some sort of nature magic trick. On a related point, I'm confident that the perp is still in the area, too.


I moved to Northern California in late May, and have been swamped with innumerable petty and thoroughly annoying details involved with opening a branch of the business, getting an apartment, finding my way around, and so on. So apologies to whomever has enjoyed this blog in the past. I'd like to promise that I'll be writing every day, but it's probably more prudent to say only that I've started blogging again, and the frequency and amount is still to be determined as I get further settled in.

The Climate Change Issue: Finally, We're Growing Up

I have some material I'll develop in an upcoming blog on (broadly speaking) rationality given uncertainty. This got kick-started from an interesting article from The New Republic about developing rational strategies to tackle climate change given the uncertainty of our predictions and the very many other risks (and their uncertainties) that we all face. It's a good read, and strikes a rare reasonable, non-partisan tone on the topic of climate change.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Prediction Markets

[This is a draft from a few months ago, but I'm posting it in hopes that it'll prompt me to finish it. Maybe it will stimulate someone to want to hear more (or, do YOU want to finish it? If so, get a copy of "Infotopia" by Harvard Law prof Cass Sunstein, if you haven't already. I started writing this up after reading this book.).]

Prediction Markets are a fancy name for the age-old idea of betting on future events or outcomes, or "putting your money where your mouth is", in other words. In a prediction market, participants can place bets on whether, say, health care will pass, or whether Obama will get re-elected (if he runs), or (more controversially) when the next major terrorist incident will occur on American soil, and so on. Researchers have found in recent years that Prediction Markets are remarkably accurate. In many cases, they outperform the predictions of subject matter experts, and other types of group-aggregation predictors like polls, or deliberative groups. For example, the Iowa Electronic Markets, run by the University of Iowa since 1998, is a popular prediction market that has psroven effective in guessing election outcomes. The IEM results had Bush with 50.45% of the vote, and Kerry with 49.55%, compared to the actual 51.56% for Bush and 48.44% for Kerry. The result, based simply on people placing bets on the final outcome of the election, outperformed professional polling results.

The question is, why? Why is betting such a powerful tool for predicting the future? Participants in Prediction Markets--bettors--don't have to have a Ph.D. in the electoral process; they don't have to have access to special information; they don't really need any credentials at all, short of agreeing to partipate by putting up some initial money and hoping to get more by guessing correctly. And yet, collectively, the Prediction Markets often outperform the experts.

The story of why Prediction Markets (hereafter PMs) work so well is best told by telling another story, one of how deliberative groups often don't work well. In a deliberative group, members, well, deliberate: they discuss and analyze some topic or set of possible outcomes and decide on a course of action, or a most likely outcome, or a best policy, depending on what is getting deliberated. Deliberative groups often do produce good outcomes (perhaps the most famous example of the success of deliberation is the ratification of the American Constitution, where sustained discussion about the details of the Constitution resulted in the document we have today).

Monday, May 3, 2010

BP Mystery

The BP oil spill mystery: why did the blowout preventer fail? No one seems to know. BP experts inform us that there are multiple safety mechanism in place, and they all failed. Huh? I'm certainly not qualified to comment on the technical merits of oil rig safety devices, but the case is interesting because of its complexity and because of the unlikelihood of multiple safety procedures collectively failing. This is the sort of complex, high energy accident I was talking abou in Systems Accidents. I'll be following this story to see how it unfolds. For starters here's a good discussion in a blog.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Not Equal As In Math (and also not really equal at all)

Senator Lindsey Graham assures us that he cares equally for the immigration and climate change issues. This is manifestly an odd statement, even allowing for the colloquial quality and inexactness of much natural language. There are all sorts of reasons one should try harder to be more worried about one of these than the other: if you were a catastrophe type of the Gore stripe, for instance, you'd presumably care a helluva lot more about failing to address the warming planet than you would a political issue like immigration reform. (Global catastrophic disaster versus an ongoing issue with undocumented immigrants, I mean.)

If, on the other hand, you were skeptical--like the majority of Americans--about the veracity of the Global Warming notion in the first place(the hypothesis that the warming of the Earth is or will become destructive, and that it is human-caused), you'd likely care more about the socio-economic-political consequences of the immigration issue than speculative scientific views about possible outcomes driven by folks with one foot in atmospheric science and the other in politics. Not much use getting worked up about catastrophes that aren't really going to happen.

And so the issue here is not Graham's implausible ceteris paribus exhortation to curry favor with voters (which means: everyone who was listening to him), but rather a somewhat deeper issue about science, that it's still and I suppose necessarily, and essentially, about what's true, and so our degree of belief in scientific claims is largely still what matters when determining how much we care. Senator Graham, for his part, just cares a damn lot, and equally so. But for the rest of us, whether we believe, in some robust apolitical sense, that a claim is factual or not, weighs heavily on how much value we give issues that rely on these claims for their moral or ethical force. It determines, in other words, how much we'll care about them.


Fair readers of this blog, you've now been armed with the tools of reason. The next time a Global Warming Alarmist accuses you of not caring, cheerfully agree that, yes, in fact you don't care much. And the reason of course is that you don't have a strong belief in the factual claims, and hence the issue itself is a dubious recipient of your care. (When this elicits howls of protest about taking care of the planet, tell them that you DO care about THIS issue. Then you'll have owned the part that matters--the environment does require our care--and jettisoned the stupid politics of alarmist science, pushing the speculative theory part back to the controlling alarmist, keeping the General Environment issue that she wanted to invoke, shiftily, as proof of your moral turpitude. If she then counters with something about "leaving it to the scientific experts", point out that many experts actually disagree on this issue (which is quite true), and ask which experts we should "leave it to". This will likely elicit a pathetic response about "many more think it's true than not", to which you inquire about whether scientific facts are properly established by popular vote. If this leads into the weeds, just ask the alarmist to name another scientific theory that is considered established in the same sense as the Global Warming Catastrophe theory. This is a devastating question, because if she's honest, she'll have to abandon hard science completely, and the discussion will end up with something squishy like economic theory. At this point you've won, though the Alarmist may hang on for a while if only out of stubbornness. Don't worry about this, though, because you're a wascally wabbit for the control-minded alarmist at this point, and even if she grumbles or blusters a bit, she'll soon sulk away to find some easier target. But it won't be you, not anymore. Because you're armed. You're ready. Really.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Making Waves

The long standing theory among military brass that submarines are vehicles whose operation undersea is best left to men comes to an end, apparently. One can only guess at the unintended consequences of this bold, fresh move. (Seriously, though, 90 days in a cramped metal tube, undersea, with a bunch of smelly dudes?)

We're Texas

Texas is in the national news! Look, ma! Look!:

Texan decapitates wife with chainsaw (AP)
Texas Governor Rick Perry shoots coyote with laser sighted pistol while jogging (WaPo)

Oh, well.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Piper Says "Pay"

Conservative pundits weigh in on the Value Added Tax (VAT): WaPo rock stars George Will and Krauthammer, the WSJ, the CATO Institute for starters. All of this in spite of Press Secretary Gibbs' denial Monday.

What's the issue? Oh, the VAT is just that consumer tax that social democracies like those in Western Europe have adopted to finance entitlements (aka their "welfare states"). In theory, VATs are fairer than income taxes, because income taxes shift the burden to specific income classes: in America the top 1% of earners provide 40% of the income tax receipts, the top 5% provide 61%, while the bottom 50% provide a mere 3%. This distribution stretches the limits of the reasonableness of the "if you have more, you should pay more" idea, and as Will points out, it creates a perverse incentive for a very large number of people to remain phlegmatic about the expansion of government: "...the tax makes a substantial majority complacent about government's growth.".

But the problem with the VAT, in practice, is that it's not intended to replace or reduce income tax burdens, or to reduce income tax disparity between lower, middle and upper incomes. Basically, the VAT would be JAT ("Just Another Tax") for everyone--not just the rich folks--raising the cost of goods for consumers rich and poor (exemptions like food etc.). It's just more taxes for everyone, on top of the income taxes already owed.

Unfortunately, JAT may make sense today. The Europeans aren't stupid; eventually, taxing just the rich isn't adequate to pay for the benefits and entitlements given to all. Things just get more expensive, a kind of economic axiom that governments make their peace with (and try to disguise in election years) in order to provide entitlements and programs for everyone. Obama, and the rest of us, must soon make our peace with the cost of our own government.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Not the Joads

Turns out, the tea party folks are wealthy egg heads. Huh? I was thinking poor, uneducated rowdy Southern types with provincial politics: the Tom Joad response to Obama's fancy talk from the big city. But, alas, they're not so easy to dismiss, it seems ("Hey Ma! Can't we still play the racist card, can't we play the race card!" True, they can still be racist. They can still be evil. says a voice, from nowhere in particular. "No one thought that Hitler was missing teeth, but he's still universally despised", offers Whitfield, a twinkle in his eye. Ma smiles knowingly, nodding, her stout body stirring the great cauldron of stew.).

I have a hunch--just a hunch--that intellectual right-of-center types like David Brooks, who've been dismissive of the Tea Party movement heretofore, will take them a bit more seriously after these polls recast the movement in a more-acceptable light, more acceptable to those (like me) who knee-jerked the connection between an anti-big government message and white red necks with farmer's tans and bad attitudes about them folks talkin' change in the big city. Just a hunch.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Obama Jumps Shark on Mars

President Obama re-iterated his commitment to the space program today, announcing that he expects Earthlings to reach Mars within his lifetime. Speaking at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Obama sought to dispel any skepticism of his support for NASA, and added that not just astronauts but ordinary Americans, "like tea partiers", could soon be shipped to Mars as part of his new space exploration program.

Gotcha. Really, though. I'm ambivalent about getting crabby about this latest salvo from Big Idea Obama (because in general I like the space program, and I like Big Ideas), but nonetheless it seems that we would all do well to observe some hard to define yet common sense interval between Big Ideas, wouldn't we? From historical revamping of health care, to reduce the nukes (an issue we've become accustomed to ignoring, true), to humans on mars, what's next? They're all darn worthy proposals for discussion, debate, analysis, action. But it'd feel more grounded, more deliberative and thought through and, well, presidential, if we had some time to close out discussion on one Big Idea--it's benefits, consequences, downsides--before launching into the next. But, alas, fat chance for quiet time with Big Ideas, it seems. The presidency these days is all 'bout hittin' the turbo thrusters (think: the Iraq War and former President Bush).

Well, anyway. If my political compass is in working order, at least we won't hear much more than a whimper about "cap and trade" or "global warming" from the White House. The dire warnings of impending disaster emanating from Gore and other catastrophe types have quite clearly fallen out of favor these days (ever notice how, once the hysteria goes away, you can't get people to defend the original thesis anymore? They defend milk toast versions of it, the kind of discussion that you wanted to have back when everyone was screeching, but they thought too moderate. Ask a Global Warming proponent to talk about Global Warming now, and you'll get discussions about pollution, and reasonable-sounding stuff about how we should get rid of carbon fuels anyway, et cetera. What happened to Catastrophe!? It all just kind of gets forgotten, as if there really wasn't a hysteria in the first place, and we all just move on in a state of collective amnesia about our cries of imminent doom just two or three years prior. Ugh.).

Anywho. Mars! Cool. Next?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Systems Accidents

Laurence Gonzales, in his best-selling Deep Survival, discusses a class of accidents that happen in complex, real-world systems, called systems accidents. The term was first introduced by John Perrow in his now famous work on accidents, Normal Accidents, published in 1984. Perrow argued that in certain kinds of systems, catastrophic accidents, while rare, are inevitable. What's worse, and what made Perrow's work so controversial, attempts to avoid such accidents only make them more inevitable, because the safety measures put in place to expunge them also make the systems where they occur more complex. It is precisely the complexity of such systems which make them prone, one way or the other, to rare but catastrophic failure.

Gonzalez (citing Perrow) points to two features of complex systems that make them prone to systems accidents. One, the systems must support "unintended complex interactions among components and forces". Two, they must be "tightly coupled", or constructed in such a way that forces, even if initially small, can magnify as they propagate from component to component. In systems with such features, the result of forces acting on or in the system cannot be exactly known: seemingly insignificant events can chain together in unexpected ways, leading to unintended results (feature one), and some of these interactions can have global effects: the system itself can be "blown apart" by ostensibly innocuous forces that, by cause and effect, release the energy in the whole system destructively (feature two). Given these features, systems accidents will occur; they are a natural result of the complexity of such systems.

Gonzalez mentions a few examples of Perrow's complex systems, like the modern airline, a "large mass containing explosive fuel, flying at high speeds, and operating along a fine boundary between stability and instability". Something seemingly insignificant happens (say, the onboard toilet malfunctions), and it leads to a catastrophic failure, one that is nearly impossible to predict in advance and, as Perrow argued, cannot be eliminated in kind, because the safety components one might introduce to solve some problems will themselves create complexities that lead to other problems that won't be understood until an accident occurs, too. (The toilet leading to a catastrophic crash is a real example.)

Gonzalez connects Perrow's work on systems accidents with branches of mathematics and science concerned with so-called nonlinear systems, like chaos theory. Chaos theory has entered into the popular or "pop" science vocabulary (it was mentioned in the movie Jurassic Park, for instance) as a catch-all phrase for systems with states that are difficult or impossible to predict because they have a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions", as science writer James Gleick put it in his 1987 book Chaos. Turbulence is a classic example of a chaotic system: applying physics equations to predict where a cubic inch of water in a turbulent stream will be in, say, 10 seconds is effectively impossible, because the initial conditions of the cube of water--including all of the factors that can act on it--have to be specified so exactly, and again and again as the cube propagates in the turbulent stream, that no amount of computation can possibly determine its later position. True, the prediction is possible in principle, since the laws governing dynamic systems like flowing water are known, but not in practice, because the calculations we need for prediction require such an exactitude and are so complex that not even fantastically powerful computers (say, composed of all of the matter in the universe) could compute predictions of the position of the cube after some (relatively small) window of time. It's effectively impossible to predict the downstream position of the cube of water, in other words. This realization, that chaotic systems give rise to unpredictable behavior, led to notions about unpredictability like the "butterfly effect", where it's quipped that the air displaced by a butterfly's wings in Tokyo might, a month later, create a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chaos theory applies to Perrow's complex systems because, just like with the butterfly effect, such systems have a sensitive dependence on the initial conditions that might lead, ultimately, to systems accidents. No one thought about the toilet malfunction beginning a chain that led to the crash; similarly, the sensitivity of O-rings (remember them?) to cold weather was known before the Challenger explosion, but no one put together that the particular O-rings installed, along with the exact temperature in Cape Canaveral the morning of the fateful 1986 launch, would by cause and effect result in the explosion. But it happened, and if Perrow is right, such systems accidents will always happen, one way or the other. Some types of systems accidents will be analyzed and fixed, but others will emerge, and while they will remain rare, they will remain inevitable, too.

What's interesting about Gonzalez's treatment of systems accidents via Perrow is his application of them to human hobbies and activities. He tells stories of experienced mountain climbers who are killed precisely because they applied their experience to situations, and put in place safety measures based on what worked in past attempts. By and large, the safety measures climbers employ do work: teams of climbers roped together help reduce the likelihood that a particular climber will fall, because when someone slips, the other climbers can "self-arrest", which means they plant their ice axes in the snow and help break the fall of the climber who slipped. But sometimes, they don't.

They key to understanding Gonzalez's examples is to get his distinction between general trends and specific situations. Safety systems address general risk: mountain climbing is in general more safe today than, say, a hundred years ago. Like a seatbelt worn in a car, the safety procedures climbers employ on mountains function to lessen the number of accidents and the damaging consequences of them when they do occur. But, as Gonzalez points out, sometimes the safety system itself causes or exacerbates an accident in a specific (unpredictable) situation, just as Perrow argued it will. The safety system introduces massive amounts of energy into systems of climbers, making them tightly coupled, and it introduces the possibility that some situations will lead, by cause and effect, to the "blowing apart" of the constructed system, as all of that energy put into the system (for safety), suddenly becomes the energy that magnifies the accident. As Gonzalez describes so well in Deep Survival, this is exactly what happened to a group of experienced climbers who self-arrested on Mount Hood to save a member of their team from falling. Several people died in the accident; had the safety measures not been used, one person would have fallen, and though this is of course tragic, it's not worse than what did happen, which became one of the worst mountain climbing disasters ever.

The point of Deep Survival is not that we should throw out safety measures, or give up on making them better. The point is that systems create complexities--whether in nature, or by our own design--that limit prediction and make deterministic solutions impossible. Chaos and complexity gaurantee that life will remain messy, incomplete, and in large part unpredictable. They gaurantee that, try as we might, we'll never, as Dostoevsky once remarked, erect a "crystal palace of reason", where everything is in place, and understood, and predictable. Systems accidents are here to stay, and though our best efforts help reduce the inherent risk of living and acting in the world, they can't eliminate it, and in many cases they succeed in making the risk that remains even graver, and the accidents we occasionally do have even more catastrophic.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Comcast Wins (for now)

Comcast, the largest provider of broadband, won an important court case today against the FCC. At issue was Comcast's practice of limiting its users' access to file sharing sites like BitTorrent, in an effort to prevent broadband service slowdown for its other users when large amounts of data are downloaded from such sites. The ruling challenges the FCC's policy of net neutrality, preventing companies from limiting use of the Internet based on types of data downloaded (videos, pictures, et cetera). Proponents of net neutrality argue that allowing content providers like Comcast discretion in limiting access to sites threatens innovation and customer choice on the Internet. Comcast and other opponents of net neutrality argue that the FCC policy prevents them from addressing service issues like network slowdown for their users, and unfairly restricts options for offering premium services for segments of its users with larger bandwidth requirements. (Not surprisingly, Web content providers like Google and Microsoft have been vocal in their support for net neutrality.)

The ruling is ostensibly a blow to net neutrality, but some feel that the Comcast ruling will ultimately hasten the establishment of net neutrality by the FCC, however. Comcast argued that the FCC does not have authority to impose policy-level decisions such as net neutrality on it as a broadband provider. Given that broadband is currently classified by the FCC as a "lightly regulated" information service, it does not have "common carrier" obligations as traditional telecommunications services do under law. Thus, the court found that the FCC could not simply impose its favored "policy" of net neutrality on Comcast and other lightly regulated information services. But a plausible outcome of the ruling, however, is that the FCC simply reclassifies broadband as "a more heavily regulated telecommunications service", according to Ben Scott, director of public interest group Free Press, one of the organizations that initially tipped off the FCC to Comcast's practice with regard to BitTorrent. In this case, Comcast would presumably fall under the purview of common carrier obligations, and the policy of net neutrality would become law. Nice going, Comcast. To paraphrase the inimitable Johnny Cougar, you "fight authority, authority always wins."

Friday, April 2, 2010

Obama! Obama?

Even government-mandated health care enthusiasts probably can agree that, whatever the arguments in favor of universal coverage, it's a stretch to sell ObamaCare as a program that helps restore fiscal responsibility, and it's downright loony to claim that ObamaCare will stave off U.S. bankruptcy. (What's next, it'll help capture Osama Bin Laden, too?). I voted for Obama, but his shameless campaign-mode rhetoric has started to wear thin. Another reason he's starting to wear thin: in 2008 when he needed to attract voters like me, he took positions that placed himself in the reasonable-sounding center on issues, like opposing government mandated health insurance. I'm sure his about face on this issue makes the left happy, but making the left happy is like making the right happy, we get the same old stale politics, with the same old problems. This is why, in 2008, it sounded like change we could believe in for Obama to support health care reform while resisting shoving it down our throats.

Fast forward to 2010, and now it's Big Government Obama (which is change that's hard for over half of the country to believe in, if we believe the polls). But Big Government Obama makes Obama a Big Idea guy (even if ObamaCare is a bad idea, it's a Big Idea). Smart, effective government puts him in the nitty-gritty weeds month and month, year after year. Big Government Obama grabs the headlines, and creates a legacy that gets the historians' ink flowing. Oh well.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sam Harris Talk

An interesting talk by Sam Harris, of "The End of Faith" fame, at TED. This is worth listening to, about 18 minutes. His idea is that there are scientific facts that tell us a lot about what we should value, which begins to bridge the gap between science and morality, ultimately making it possible to have a "science of morality".

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Healthcare Humbug from Mathews

Chris Mathews slipped in a puzzling comment on Hard Ball last night, that he's in favor of "ObamaCare" because he thinks people should "take responsibility" for their health care. This is an odd invocation of the concept of responsibility. Why should being forced to purchase something be thought of as "taking responsibility"? I have a friend, for example, who's in his mid-twenties and hasn't been to the doctor in years. He's not happy about adding another line item for expenditures each month, because frankly put, he's not worried about getting sick. If he did get sick I suppose he'd pay out of pocket if it wasn't too serious, or go to the emergency room if it was (I didn't ask, but I suspect I'd receive these types of responses). In short, he doesn't want to purchase health care, because he's healthy. He wants to spend his money on other things (say, giving to the Red Cross for disaster relief, or, okay, buying nice stuff). He wants to take responsibility for his own purchasing decisions, you might say.

So this is the point: Mathews' line about purchasers of mandatory insurance "taking responsibility" is humbug, because the concepts of "responsibility" and of "coercion" are naturally at odds with each other. When we tell our children to "take responsibility" say, for cleaning their rooms, we typically mean that we are tired of reminding them, and that we want them to internalize the value of it without us threatening them with punishment. Likewise, when my friend resists spending money on a health plan for himself, on grounds that he's healthy and wishes his money to be put to other uses, he is taking responsibility for his health care; he's saying "I'm not interested in making the purchase at this time", which is making a decision based on his circumstances and his judgement about his needs. It's therefore silly to claim that he'll be "taking responsibility" for his healthcare, just as soon as it's made compulsory. Downright humbug.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

That $%#@$ Stupak!

WSJ reports that Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, who has been targeted by antiabortion folks after voting for the health care bill, is now in the crosshairs of the prochoice camp, furious because he voiced concerns about abortion funding in the legislation in the first place (translation: even if you voted for it, Stupak, you talked about not voting for it first, damn you). Says Elizabeth Shipp, political director of NARAL Pro-choice America:

"This one's personal. For us and a lot of our members in his district, we're going to do what we can to make that man leave office and retire."

Love the "that man" thing. But Shipp's threat is worlds better than the messages Mr. Stupak has been receiving from the antiabortionists, who've expressed their displeasure with his vote with suggestions that he get diseases, bleed out of orifices, and die (really).

Oh, well. Sucks to be you, Mr. Stupak. Perhaps we should modify Lincoln's famous aphorism about only pleasing some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time, to something about pleasing no one, ever.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Boring Numbers

The Associated Press is reporting that economists believe the economy will not continue to pick up steam:

"Many economists, however, think the economy has slowed in the current quarter to about half the pace seen at the end of last year."

Why? Last year's growth came from manufacturing, not consumer demand (which weakened), restocking dwindling inventories from businesses who had let them lapse in the face of weakened demand for goods.

Like this:

Consumers stop spending --> businesses stop buying goods --> inventories go down --> factories occasionally get orders to restock the shelves --> small blips in production show up, but don't last (because consumers haven't started spending yet)

So? Sooo? So the unemployment is at 9.7%, not likely to change much, because the economy is forecasted to grow at only 2.5 - 3% next year, which isn't enough to pull us out of the bad effects of the recession. (I suppose the bad news will breathe new life into Super-Keynesian Paul "Spend, Baby, Spend" Krugman, who will argue afresh that this proves that the first stimulus wasn't enough.)

Oh well, on the economic debate goes. As actress Kate Beckinsale once quipped, "numbers are boring". Well, they are. And scary sometimes, too.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

ACORN Packs It Up

This isn't breaking news anymore, but I'm still bitin':

Community activist group ACORN is disbanding, blaming failure on partisan attacks from the right. This ignores, of course, an obvious explanation, regarding getting caught on camera giving tax advice to pimps and prostitutes. Still, where are our priorities? And how prude have we become? Members of the oldest profession can now expect greater difficulty getting quality tax tips. Nice job, catchers-of-ACORN-giving-tax-tips-to-pimps-and-prostitutes. I hope your high-minded caught on camera antics were worth it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Health Care's Many Voices

Katrina vanden Heuvel writing for the Washington Post assures us that the Health Care bill--now law--is a good start, but does not go nearly far enough on the road to government-managed medicine. Holman W. Jenkins writing for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) explains why insurance companies--supposedly the "evil" players in health care--are quite happy about ObamaCare (hint: if everyone has to have coverage, there are lots more people to stick with skyrocketing costs).

David Brooks writing for the New York Times (NYT) observes, convincingly, that we're not really wrestling (yet) with the enormous costs we're incurring as a country, health care the latest charge on the card:

"This country is in the position of a free-spending family careening toward bankruptcy that at the last moment announced that it was giving a gigantic new gift to charity. You admire the act of generosity, but you wish they had sold a few of the Mercedes to pay for it."

One of my favorites, moderate Tom Friedman, also writing in NYT brushes aside the partisan "yes we did" (Democrats) and the "OMG, they did?" (Republicans) on the health care debate in favor of an interesting discussion about fixing government, making it work better for all of us. As he puts it, we need a "tea party" for the middle of the country.

And my opinion? Oh, who knows? It's too early to tell. Punt.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Those Polarizing Bloggers

Law professor Cass R. Sunstein argues in Infotopia that blogs tend to create group polarization, where political views become more radical (so, if you're conservative and read conservative blogs, you become more so, and so too with liberal views and liberal blogs). Of course everyone wants to pretend that their view is just "the reasonable one", but the truth is that having a point of view will tend to put you somewhere on the political spectrum. Case in point: if you believe abortion should be legal--if you support the Roe ruling, for instance--you're almost ipso facto socially liberal, as few if any social conservatives are pro choice. On the other hand, what makes people so interesting is that many of us have strange amalgums of liberal and conservative views. One might, for instance, be pro choice and "pro military", in the sense that one doesn't support spending reductions in the military, supports the war in Afghanistan (I guess the war in Iraq was "won", by the standard that the media doesn't talk about it anymore, leaving it to historians), tough foreign policy on Iran, and so on.

Anyway, following Sunstein, we would do well to read a range of blogs to avoid polarization (which he argues is bad, as one might have guessed, since it tends to reduce the amount of available information in groups, which means there's less chance of making an informed decision).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Stamp Act

Today is the 245th anniversary of the Stamp Act, apparently. Which reminds me, I've been meaning to comment on how, well, American it is to hate taxes. I'm sure most people "hate taxes" to the extent that folks don't much like money going out, rather than coming in. But Americans have a rich history of really hatin' on taxes, from the colonial era onward. George Washington himself wasn't having the ole' "pay your taxes" spiel by Mother England, and of course the Stamp Act gave rise to a mob. After ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton tried an excise tax on frontiersman, taxing mainly their whiskey, which was used almost as currency at the time. This resulted in armed rebellion, squelched only by the amassing of some twelve thousand soldiers in response. In short, Britain found from the get go, sustained and determined resistance to the paying of taxes. Now, we can debate about whether Americans should rethink this kneejerk resistance to paying Uncle Sam, but it's no argument that it's as American as Apple Pie.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Like, Whatever

This certainly qualifies as petty itself, but I'm in "gonzo blogger" mode right now, typing away at my suddenly indispensible 12" Netbook (it sat unused for several months while I shunned it in favor of a laptop) in the caffeine-frenzy of Saturday night at the Barnes and Noble. Free Wi-Fi! The petty part is this. A couple of young, high school aged girls have plopped down next to me, and within seconds they have launched into this string of "ya knows" and "I'm likes", and "and then he was like", and the obligatory "whaateverrr" (with that strange California surfer tone that somehow is emitted by all young people, no matter where they grew up. I'm convinced that there are sixteen year old girls in Iran right now munching on Persian bran muffins in bookstores and coffee shops, like-whatevering-it in the exact same prosodic rhythms as their sisters in the Barnes and Nobles and Starbucks of America's towns and cities).

So I'm finished. Forget plowing through another chapter of "Proust was a Neuroscientist" for now. There's really no where else to sit, and its impossible to read with the jackhammer of dunderheaded comments rattling away beside me. Anyway, in gonzo mode it's fun to people-listen, I tell myself. Let's listen! And what do you know, before long my initial despair has transmogrified into this kind of purient curiosity: how vapid can they get? Can Jamie actually manage something so trivial and stupid, that Bergen--who is herself dedicated to the trivial and stupid--actually becomes self-conscious? Is it possible for the weight of the triviality to collapse on them both? Or can they really keep what-evering it, indefinitely, cheerfully oblivious that they are in fact the unwitting subjects of the middle aged gonzo blogger next to them? How will our story end?

I'm on the case now. Surreptitiously absorbing the latest tale of "and-then-he-said, and-I-was-like, and-so-he-goes, but-I'm-like". There's a kind of internal logic to it, really, because exactly why did Heath text Bergen in class, telling her that he made out with what's-her-name? No kidding she was like "no", I'm now thinking, because I'm suspecting--as they are, I take it--that Heath's like, you know, he's like, a jerk.

So, I'm in it to win it, now. I hit upon the idea of transitioning from mere passive observation to posing a question to them. What will they do? Will they smile? Or laugh? Or look at me in horror? I figure I'll turn to them, and, in the best older-professional, respectable face I can muster, hit them with something like: "Hi, excuse me, but I'm writing a book on the decline of intellectual conversation among America's youth, and I was wondering if you could just continue in the vein that you've begun, and if you don't mind I'd like to write about some of your conversation. The chapter that's relevant is called "The Intolerable Vapidity of Carmen and Laney", a kind of catchy title (I hope) about how highschool kids drone on and on about the pettiest, most trivial desiderata...".

(But, alas, I can't muster it. And it's just as well, I think, because as quickly as they erased any possibility of reading and thinking, they've wrapped up about Heath, met up with two more friends, and are up and on to somewhere else. This leaves me in a comic state of affairs, contemplating the near total disappearance of my initial bemused aggravation twenty minutes ago, left now with a slight disappointment in their departure. Me, abandoned to my reading on Proust and neuroscience, which now seems more effort than fun.)

So our story nears its end. It suffices to close with a few admittedly cursory thoughts on "kids today". Kids today, they seem so adroit at juxtaposing this manifest silliness with busy-body success, achievement. They're like, studying all the time, and, like, aceing their SATs, too. It's entirely possible that the Trivial Two who sat next to me will go on to study law or medicine or English at a respectable college, and end up a few years from now in graduate school, and land white collar, well-paying jobs, and on and on the American dream goes. Kids can, like, talk like this, for, like, a long time, and still end up getting taken seriously later. Onward and upward, for most of them. The "Achievatron", as David Brooks calls it, just keeps going and going. Many of these kids, seemingly so vapid, are in fact wired for success. (It's notable that they were, like, at a bookstore on a Saturday night, after all.) The Achievatron is much more difficult to stop then anything Heath can muster, and Heath himself may end up Harvard law. Smart money is: that paper will get written before class on Monday. And as far as Heath goes, you go girl. Like, whateverrr about him.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Joe versus The Liberal

Put this in the "off the cuff observation" bucket:

Like many of us, I discuss politics fairly frequently with friends and colleagues, many of whom are left-leaning or liberal (they are pro-choice, for universal health care, worried about global warming, sceptical about corporate America, and so on).

Over the years I've noticed a pattern of subtle (sometimes not so subtle) snickering with regard to "Tea Party" types, or what we used to call the "Nascar crowd". I'll admit to enjoying a little snickering about "them" myself. Why? Because--so the stereotype goes--they're the types that forward stupid chain emails about how Obama's not a U.S. Citizen, who have goofy bumper stickers about the inferiority of Ford on the back of their Chevy pickup, who work the blue collar jobs and get WAY too excited about football games, beer drinking, and BBQ. They think Palin would be a good President. They're all about patriotism (defined mostly as America the Strong Military, the "Ass Kickin'" America), plain speaking folks, SUVs, baseball games on the weekends for the kids, and country music. They distrust egghead intellectuals ("He can talk, but can he change a tire?"), government bureaucrats who want to raise their taxes, and, above all, anything that smacks of what "liberals" might say or do.

So, The Liberal tends to snicker at these types (which makes a certain sense, since these types don't like him much, and The Liberal knows it). But what is the meaning of the snicker? The snickering--and scoffing, harumphing, and guffawing--is damn peculiar, actually, because if we remove the political differences, many of the Tea Party/Nascar folks are not rich, well-to-do types who might feel targeted by liberal social or economic policy changes. They're Joe the Plumber types, making a modest income, having less than the best health care, and less than the best opportunities for higher education, and on and on. Many of them would stand to gain, in fact, from the very policies that The Liberal espouses: less taxes on working folks, more on rich folk. Health care for little Johnny. Tax credits for education, and so on. Somehow, though, Average Joe American doesn't seem to want any of it, and he receives a snicker from The Liberal as his reward.

So, the situation is peculiar, on its face, because Average Joe American seems to despise policy that, ostensibly at least, would seem beneficial to him, and The Liberal is caught snickering at the very common folk type about which he professes such concern. The Liberal in fact talks incessantly about Americans who are not rich, and who don't have all of the opportunities that well-to-do Americans have. The Liberal seems worried half to death that CEOs are getting all the attention, not the common worker. But who is Average Joe American, the object of his snickering? He's a plumber, or a truck driver, or he works down the road at the Walmart. He's not a CEO. He doesn't know squat about Wall Street. He owns a pickup truck with 150 thousand miles on it. He has no 401K, lives in a modest four bedroom house, and has two kids in the public school system because he and his wife, a manager at Target, couldn't even begin to afford private school. So, why does The Liberal snicker (and why doesn't Joe like The Liberal)? It's damn peculiar.

One explanation we can reject is: The Liberal snickers because Average Joe American is conservative (he's pro-life, for low taxes, hawkish on defense, thinks global warming is "fishy", and so on). We can reject this idea, because The Liberal does not snicker at educated conservatives; he just disagrees with them. He might even get mad and flustered at them. But he doesn't snicker.

And so the plot thickens. If it's not the substance of the ideas, the difference in the ideas between The Liberal and Average Joe, what is it? A possible--if painful--explanation is that The Liberal snickers because, deep down, he doesn't think Average Joe American is in his league. He's not as educated, he's probably not as smart, and he shouldn't be in charge of anything--except perhaps the weekend little league tournament. This is, of course, a very strange posture for The Liberal, because it's flatly in tension with the self-absorbed, perpetual concern he has for those-who-have-less. It's the plight of the working stiff that infuses The Liberal with her energy, her sense of moral indignation. The Liberal is "all about" those that are less fortunate, whether in monetary or educational or other terms. "She didn't have an opportunity to go to college", "He can't afford health care for his children", "Why doesn't the CEO give his bonus to his share holders?", and on and on. The Liberal is talking about Average (or below average) Joe American on the one hand all the time, while snickering at him on the other.

So, to return, what is the meaning of the snicker? As I've explained, it can't be that Average Joe American has conservative views. Many people have conservative views, and those with liberal views are happy to engage them in endless intellectual debates, with nary a snicker, or guffaw, or scoff. It must be something about Joe. But what is it? Joe's a guy: are men to be snickered at? Not really (The Liberal might be a "guy", too). Joe's white: are white people properly snickerable? Well, no, it's more complicated, we hear. He's not so rich: So? He's one of the have-nots, a "damn shame", in a country with such wealth. So that's not it. But wait, Joe didn't go to college! Ha! That must be it! He's uneducated! Snicker away! But not so fast again. We don't ridicule people for their lack of education; we expand access. We make college more affordable. We educate people about its benefits, and so on.

And on and on. We're still nowhere explaining the snicker. What could it mean? I don't know, really. But I'll be mischievous and offer up the maarvelously scaaandalous possibility I suggested earlier. Suppose that The Liberal--so publically concerned about those with less education, and less money, and less opportunity--really thinks, deep down, privately, that those kinds of folks suck? In this case, is the meaning of the snicker: don't you realize, you idiot, that you're an uneducated working class stiff? Why don't you shut up, and let us help you and your kind? (They are, you know, so fragile, but so noble, in their plight. Didn't you read Rousseau? Oh no, of course you didn't.) This view, so cynical of course, would have the virtue of "making sense of the data", as some scientifically-minded chap might say, receiving no doubt a suspicious look from our Joe (who would never call anyone a "chap"). Mmmm, dataaa, muses Joe, moments later. Ha!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Speak Up, Prius

Does the damn Prius have a sticky gas pedal, or not? And, if not, how lame is it to pick on the feel-good Prius? People are driving around, thinking in self-interested terms about how much money they're saving at the pump, and in global terms about making the world a better place with smart technology, and some jerk in San Diego falsely claims that his Prius stormed off at 94 mph (this seems like good PR, actually: the Prius can do 94 mph?), conjuring images of a horrific crash, blood smeared across the once-sexy "Hybrid" decal, its battery hurled into the street, maiming pedestrians caught unawares, jarred out of their pleasant stroll by the smell of burning tires, fire, and death. Death! Death by Prius!

Okay, maybe a bit too far. But, again, does the Prius have a sticky gas pedal, or what? Those hapless execs at Toyota must be close to seppuku.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Big Idea Guys

I shelled out 10 bucks this Sunday before it was even noon (though the morning was further along than I realized, due to daylight savings time). Four bucks for a triple grande latte, and six bucks for the print edition of the Sunday New York Times. Swell.

So, failure to blog is not an option. Here goes.

The New York Times (NYT) today, in Week in Review, wonders "Is Failure Forgivable?", referring to Obama's "all-in" strategy on health care. A more interesting question, to me, is why modern American presidents seem almost irresistibly drawn to the Big Idea (or "Big Agenda"), which, if it fails, tends to fail "big", too. It's "all-in" these days for our President, whomever he is, whatever the party, it seems. Reagan served two terms on the idea of winning the Cold War (is that big enough?), Bush Sr.--the exception that proves the rule--left out Big Ideas and managed to lose to an unknown former Southern State governor (didn't we try this with Carter?), who himself devised a Big Idea strategy, including health care reform, in his first term. (Of course we all know Clinton decided the middle of the country was safer after the "HillaryCare" debacle, and ran as a centrist for his second term).

Bush Jr. took office as a "don't rock the boat" Compassionate Conservative early in 2001, and seemed a bit at sea, until September 11 galvanized his Presidency and gave him his Really Big Idea, democratizing the Middle East, aka his "Freedom Agenda".

Obama, of course, wants universal health care, ideally, or at least some sweeping changes to status quo health care if the former proves unattainable. He wants bold action on cap and trade, a revamping of No Child Left Behind, a troop surge in Afghanistan (this is a Big Idea if you're a Democrat), an overhaul of immigration policy, and on and on. And his words these days do nothing to dispel the Big Idea label. Speaking to an audience in Pennsylvania last week, he pointedly noted that the issue about health care reform "should be what's right, not the politics" (quote from NYT). Translation: "I don't care what the polls say, this is my Big Idea, and I think it's right, so we're doing it." Sound familiar, anyone?

And so it goes. All the way back to those Big Idea Presidents who wanted to fight a war with England for independence, who fought a civil war to preserve the Union, who plunged the U.S. into the fight against Nazi Germany, who gave us the New Deal, a man on the Moon, the Great Society, and a botched, anemic rescue attempt of hostages in Iran (oh, wait, skip that one). And of course into the modern era we go with "Tear Down That Wall", "Saddam and His Brothers Must Get Out" (of their own country), and Health Care for Everyone (this really is a Big Idea in America, because unlike in Western Europe, the notion that health care is a fundamental right is still very much debated here).

Well, good then. That's the job, apparently. Win the Presidency, and win the right to set the agenda with your very own Big Ideas. If you're a President worth a historian's ink, you'll have only one agenda, the Big Agenda. You'll have an agenda that makes everyone take notice. Your agenda will make everyone talk about your Big Ideas. No room for wimps in the White House. The most powerful American must also have the biggest ideas (if not in substance, in their consequences for the rest of the world, at least). Why? Because it's America, that's why. The American President embodies America itself: he's larger than life, he has an implacable optimism for the future, and dammit he has SUV-sized ideas. He's a Big Idea Guy.

If this sounds a bit scary to psychologically conservative types, remember: for small idea, petty politics, we still have the Congress, after all. Just ask our Big Idea Guy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Profiling Non-Blondes

I've gotten comments and been in discussions with people who seem to think that my "Blonde Jihadist" post argues that profiling is effective. I'd like to clarify that what I'm arguing is that the case of LaRose does not establish that it is ineffective (or that it is effective) to profile. It says nothing useful about the debate at all, in fact, contra Rachell Maddow's claim that LaRose shows that profiling is "stupid". It does not, and Maddow should know better.

That said, profiling might still be stupid. In fact, there's good reason to believe that ethnic profiling, by itself, is stupid. See for instance this 2002 article from CNN's Fareed Zakaria for more discussion.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Blonde Jihadist

The indictment of Colleen LaRose, a 46 year old white woman who was charged with providing material support to terrorists has raised, once again, some interesting questions about racial or ethnic profiling. LaRose, aka "Jihad Jane", converted to Islam "several years ago" according to law enforcement officials and was involved in trying to recruit jihadists to kill Lars Vilks, a cartoonist whose "depictions of the Prophet Muhammad incited protests by Muslims".

Rachel Maddow at MSNBC has pointed to the case of LaRose as a clear example of why racial profiling for law enforcement purposes is pointless and "stupid". Maddow's point, presumably, is that profiling doesn't work, because when a 46 year old white woman with blonde hair can end up "Jihad Jane", it's clear that not just young men of Arab descent are engaged in terrorist planning and activities. Maddow, in other words, makes what I'll call the Effectiveness Claim: profiling doesn't work because people outside the profile engage in criminal or terrorist activities. This makes the profiling strategy bad, because when looking for people who fit the profile, actual criminals or terrorists could slip right by. Fair enough.

Whatever the merits of the Effectiveness Claim, however, it's doubtful that Jihad Jane provides much confirmation of it. For one, LaRose is an outlier, an abnormality, which is why she ended up on the Rachel Maddow in the first place (if "she" had been a "he", from Saudi Arabia, say goodbye to MSNBC coverage). Outliers do not disprove statistical norms. Not every person who is a terrorist will fit the profile, as even profilers agree. The rationale behind profiling is that most of the people who engage in some behavior will fit a profile, or even that many will. The point is that the distribution of factors like ethnicity, age, and gender in the population of terrorists are not simply random. So, given the Effectiveness Claim, the LaRose case says nothing, since we would expect outliers in any realistic sample of terrorists.

Second, the LaRose case is troubling for the Effectiveness Claim because, recall, LaRose is a self-admitted Muslim. In this sense, then, she fits a profile of jihadist terrorist types rather than helps disconfirm one. She is, in other words, another example of a Muslim engaging in jihadist terrorist planning or activities. This of course doesn't show that all Muslims are terrorists (certainly not true), or even that most or many Muslims are terrorists. But it does show that one more Muslim is a terrorist, and it does not show that non-Muslims are terrorists, too.

So, the LaRose case does little, actually, for proponents of the Effectiveness Claim, like (apparently) Maddow. What Maddow and others who oppose profiling might want to argue instead is something I'll call the Moral Claim, which says that because not all terrorists are members of a particular religion or ethnicity or gender, even if many are, it is morally unacceptable to profile people based on those factors. It's much harder to argue with the Moral Claim, particularly when one recognizes the frustration and humiliation that wrongly targeted people must feel when they find themselves victims of profiling.

Read story here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What Obama Inherited

Pollster Scott Rasmussen writing in the WSJ breaks down the problem with ObamaCare, as only a pollster can: 15 consecutive Rasmussen Reports polls over the last four months show that 52-58% of Americans continue to oppose the plan, while only 38-44% are in favor.

Deflating results for Mr. Obama, particularly in light of "repeated and intense sales efforts" by him and by his supporters on the Hill.

But why the negative numbers? Mr. Rasmussen points out that pitching the plan as deficit neutral garners little traction among Americans, who think spending cuts are more important today than deficit reduction. However, the "bigger problem" is that Americans no longer trust official projections, from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) or anywhere else in government. 81% of voters say "it's likely the plan will end up costing more than projected." Only 10% report that the official numbers from CBO are "on target."

So, people are either becoming wise to the farce of "expert" financial predictions, or they've become sceptical that politicians who invoke such experts for political purposes are giving them the straight scoop(or the brow-crinkling is shared to some proportion between the two). Either way, it bodes poorly for ObamaCare, and for new program creation tied to spending generally.

This point is worth fleshing out more. Opposition to the health care plan is frequently explained in terms of right of center Americans who are distrustful of big government and "socialized" medicine. But this analysis does not account for the lackluster support from independent voters, who have not aligned with any party, and who presumably try to vote "on the issues" rather than on Republican talking points about the dangers of socialism, and so on. These independents comprise a new kind of voter who, like Republicans and Democrats, tend more and more to be distrustful of the effectiveness of government generally, apparently including the CBO.

It would strain credulity to claim that Mr. Obama, in the span of a few short months in his first term (and in diametric opposition to his "yes we can" campaign message), managed such a wholesale change in our perception of government. This phenomenon must have, in other words, started long before Mr. Obama took office. It's fair to speculate whether, in fact, it has its roots in the projections and prognostications of prior administrations, notably the Iraq War WMD fiasco in the Bush years, and other glib notions about Republican administrations and fiscal responsibility.

At any rate, the "lies they tell us" brand of cynicism about government is clearly a factor in Mr. Obama's health care woes, and suggests that selling other Big Ideas to a weary American public in the face of historic deficits and unemployment will be an uphill battle. Perhaps 9-11 "changed everything", as has been said. One of the things it's appeared to change, at least for our current political age, is the notion that what government says and does is true and good.

Monday, March 8, 2010

That Bedfellows Thing

David Brooks of NYT compares the Tea Partiers to the 1960s anti-establishment "New Left". His argument is that the most salient aspect of the Tea Party movement is its relation to institutional power, to The Man, and in this sense it resembles the New Left. Common to both movements, he writes, is the assumption that the common folk are the good guys and that our leaders and institutions are corrupt. The solution? Start over, tear it down, get the power back to the people.

Brooks' analysis is certainly not anything approaching comprehensive, but it seems right to me as far as it goes.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

City of Angels

Timothy Egan writes in the NYT about the perplexing reduction in crime in L.A., with homicides down 80%. Apparently Omaha, Nebraska has a higher murder rate (I guess this is noteworthy because places like Omaha or Nebraska in general are supposed to be full of rock solid heartland types driving pickup trucks, giving strangers stranded on the Interstate a lift to the local diner).

Egan is a bit short on explanation -- he cites several, none of which seem much more than anecdotes -- but the general idea, it seems, is that the drug wars are cooling down, and people like the police, and they do a pretty good job. Well, okay.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Due Process in McDonald

Expectations are that the Supreme Court will find in favor of plaintiff in McDonald v. Chicago, which will effectively apply the Heller decision-- that the individual has a right to bear arms in relation to the Federal government-- to the states. In this case, the individual has this right in relation to his or her state. Proponents of gun rights rightly point out that this effectively makes gun bans unconstitutional (it does not prohibit, of course, reasonable restrictions on the sale and use of guns, including certain types of guns, like so-called "assault weapons").

The Court will likely argue its case using the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, the clause responsible for transporting much of the Bill of Rights to the states (also, famously, the non-enumerated "right to privacy", which played a pivotal rule in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.)

Likely absent in the upcoming gun rights ruling will be any invocation of another 14th Amendment clause, prohibiting states from abridging any "priviledges or immunities" of US citizens, which was argued away from application to anything but protection of rights when citizens are "on the high seas" (no joke) by the 1873 Slaughter House rulings, widely thought to be flawed by liberal and conservative Constitutional scholars alike.

Anyway, it looks like Mr. McDonald will get his handgun for self-defense (he does live in the South Side of Chicago, after all). For those chagrined about the ruling, try to remember that the right to keep and bear arms is "right there in the text", as Justice Scalia pointed out. For those worried that the Constitution has been getting trampled on in recent years, it would be a strange state of affairs if this didn't provide some solace, however small.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

McDonald vs. Chicago

The Supreme Court today considers whether a ban on handguns in Chicago is Constitutional. McDonald v. Chicago promises to be a significant ruling on the right to bear arms, as the conservative Court will decide whether to extend the Heller decision to states.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Hypocritic Oaf

Politicians talk a lot, and it's fair to say that most of their verbiage has the overarching purpose of getting us-- the American people, that is-- to agree with them; with the rightness of their actions and agendas. Securing our agreement is important, of course, because in democracies the collective approval or disapproval of the citizenry gets politicians hired or fired. As Senate Republican newcomer Scott Brown pointed out in a debate in his now successful Massachussetts Senatorial bid: "With all due respect, it's not the Kennedy's seat, it's not the Democrats' seat, it's the people's seat". And so it is.

One unfortunate consequence of talking so much, of convincing so much, of arguing so much, however, is that politicians tend to fall in and out of tensions and contradictions, almost daily. This has the unfortunate consequence of pulling the rest of us into this sorry state of affairs, so that pundits and media people and ordinary political junkies sympathetic with the latest views espoused by Democrats or Republicans routinely end up arguing points that we ourselves denounced weeks or months ago. The contours and lines of our political debates keep forming and reforming around the different things the politicians say.

Take Chris Matthews, of "Hardball" fame on MSNBC, for instance, who has recently been warming up to supporting Senate Democrats' apparent intention to use reconciliation--the budget procedure that relies on simple majority vote (51%) to pass legislation in the Senate--to pass health care reform. On January 25, Matthews excoriated Congressman Alan "keep Florida weird" Grayson for proposing reconciliation for health reform. Said Matthews, with all of the loud confidence of someone absolutely convinced of their own rectitude: "You can't create a program through reconciliation" (he might have added, given his tone, "and everyone knows that!"). Matthews then further clarified for the Democratic Congressman the proper application of reconciliation, that it allows one to change only "fiscal numbers", by using it either to "raise taxes", or "to cut program spending".

Matthews, circa January 25, put forward a view that many lawmakers have agreed with, at one time or other anyway, and that seemed to provide a simple heuristic for determining when reconciliation might be acceptable. Former Senate leader Bill Frist, for instance, writes in the WSJ that he supported use of reconciliation for tax refunds in 2001 (he points out that there was a budgetary surplus at the time), yet opposed it when Republicans tried to use it to extend prescription drug coverage in Medicare, presumably because program expansion is not the proper application of budget reconciliation. (The Medicare Modernization Act, which Frist supported, passed "through the normal legislative procedure" in 2003.) So it seems that there is, in fact, a reasonable criterion for determining when to use reconciliation. It's for budgetary adjustments (including, it seems, tax rates); it's not for programs, new or expanded, like health care.

Yet, almost amazingly, as if one needs to first rub one's eyes to make sure it's the same person, Matthews returns to reconciliation when talking to Andrea Mitchell (MSNBC), on the day of the Health Care Summit, February 25, 2010. Now, just one month later, Matthews is confident that health care reform is "not a program". He assures us that "it is basically a financial question, it's not a health question. How do we finance, at the federal level, health care?". So this is New Matthews. It's not that reconciliation would be used for program expansion (which we all know, courtesy of Matthews last month, that this is not what reconciliation is intended for, and everyone knows that), it's that the Health Care bill currently debated in Congress is not a program-level discussion at all, according to New Matthews. Presto! It's now some obscure budgetary concern, and we ought therefore to use reconciliation after all.

Now, if this magic trick was played only by Chris Matthews--who sometimes exudes a school boy eagerness to prove to his guests and viewers that he knows how politics works, and other times seems interested only in generating the sort of heat that increases ratings--and maybe a few desparate Democrats in Congress, we might hold out hope for some fact, some objective Truth about Reconciliation we could use to decide between Old Matthews and New Matthews. We might hold out hope for a way to move forward. But, depressingly, digging further one discovers that statements about the proper use of reconciliation over the years are even more contorted than Matthews, and likely to encourage yet more cynicism.

For instance, in April 2005, Democrats in Congress, discussing tax cuts proposed by the Bush administration, seemed almost enraged by the suggestion that reconciliation might be used at all, for tax cutting or anything else. Then Senator Obama, for example, warned ominously that use of reconciliation might "change the character of the Senate forever", resulting in "majoritarian absolute power on either side", which is "not what the Founders intended". And Hillary Clinton castigated President Bush about his reconciliation plans, warning against his foolish, childish, and sure to be destructive desire to just "change the rules, do it the way I want it done". It's a "bridge too far", she fulminates. "Restrain yourself". New York Senator Charles Schumer joins in, taking up the dire "our Union is at stake" tone struck by Senator Obama: "We are on the precipice of a crisis, a Constitutional Crisis. The checks and balances which have been at the core of this Republic, are about to be evaporated, by the Nuclear Option". And, interestingly, no less than current Senate leader Harry Reid weighed in on this dangerous technique, arguing against reconciliation (again on deep Consitutional grounds), pointing out that the "filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government".

Okay, history lesson over; back to our present concern, health care. On this issue Mr. Reid says flatly, as early as November last year, that "I’m not using reconciliation", which squares with his zeal for supermajorities and filibusters back in 2005, but fast forward a few months, and his office now announces that it's a "real possibility". And it seems President Obama has recovered from his grave concerns about majoritarian government thwarting what the Founders intended, and is now apparently preparing for the reconciliation process with House leader Pelosi and Reid. Of course, Left-leaning Schumer now supports reconciliation (again, he's recovered from all that "Constitutional crisis" business that had him apoplectic in 2005), and while Ms. Clinton is out of the line of fire on domestic issues as Secretary of State, it's reasonable to assume that she's much more sanguine about the Congress, and the Administration, controlling itself and resisting the stupid "my way or the highway" urge to improperly use reconciliation that she had to endure in the Bush years as Senator of New York. My, how times do change.

At any rate, my central thesis here is that politicians say a lot, and much of what they say is contradictory, and that if we're not careful, the rest of us will get sucked into cheerleading for them (and so the rest of us will end up promulgating contradictory views, like Old and New Matthews, which is bad). Exactly how all of this happens, again and again, is somewhat of a mystery to me. For instance, how is it that partisan politicians and their supporters seem always to believe that only the Other Side has these embarrassing problems with consistency and hypocrisy, never them? How is it, for example, that liberal blogs like Think Progress can finger point at Republicans who used reconciliation in years past, but who now oppose it with health care (as if Think Progress had ferreted out the one true case of inconsistency in the current debate). Such analysis of course blithely disregards the reasonable-sounding distinction between past uses of reconciliation for budgetary matters (including taxation rates) and the current interest in its use for social program expansion. It ignores moderate Democrats who express concern about the use of reconciliation for health care. It ignores the dire concern of Democrats, including Obama himself, when discussing reconciliation not five years ago. Think Progress doesn't seem concerned about any of this, because the hypocrisy is all over there, with the Republicans, you see. There's no need to think about it any further.

So, it's hard not to get cynical. Who cares what they say? The debate just keeps moving along, contradictions, hypocrisy, and all. As Left Wing comedian Bill Mahrer recently asked on his "Real Time" show on HBO, revealing marvelous ignorance of the history of reconciliation: "what's wrong with a simple vote?". What is wrong with a simple vote, anyway? Perhaps he might have asked Mr. Obama that in 2005.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Going Green with Green

In Austin, TX, the City Council is set to vote on a "going green" initiative that would increase use of renewable energy sources from the current 11% to 30% by 2020. Average energy bill for residents would increase by an estimated 20%, or to about $120/month from $100/month. Some Austinites have complained that Austin Energy's proposal does not go far enough, while others wonder about the effect on lower income residents (aka "the poor"). Even so, proponents of the plan argue that cap and trade type measures are inevitable, and that in the long run coal burning will prove costlier than switching to renewable sources.

For Austinites weighing these outcomes, the case of Boulder, Co.--another hipster city with green ambitions--suggests that the hard-nosed "just get on with it" proposal from Austin Energy may be right-headed. In "kooky" Boulder, residents bike to work at 20 times the national average, and the city in 2006 approved the nation's first "carbon tax" at $21 a year per household, to help pay for energy conservation programs. But Boulder is at present more of a cautionary tale than a model for going green. In spite of aggressive measures to encourage (and perhaps soon to force) residents to adopt conservation technologies like energy efficient light bulbs, low flow showerheads, and programmable thermostats, carbon emissions reduced by barely 1% between 2006 and 2008, and are 27% higher than 1990 levels, worse than the U.S. average of 15%. What gives?

Perhaps ironic, given the Bobo-esque marriage of Bohemian lifestyle and high-tech gadgetry in Boulder--mountain bikes, hiking boots, and iPods are not a strange trio--is the fact that the near ubiquitious use of tech gadgets is part of Boulder's problem. Conservation measures such as motion detector lights in classrooms at the University of Colorado, for instance, are negated by the proliferation of iPods, cellphones, and laptops by students and faculty. Add to this, sales of high tech recreational devices like big screen TVs continue to skyrocket in Boulder (and elsewhere), and the energy savings of buying powerstrips and other peripherals for such power-hungry devices pales in comparison. In short, going green and going high tech are, at present, in tension, as the situation in Boulder is making clear (see full story here).

Two observations emerge from this survey of Boulder's Green Dreams. One, energy conservation is too often viewed as a "feel good" lifestyle choice, when in fact true conservation steps require the kind of sacrifices that few are willing to make. Giving up a gas guzzling Buick or pickup truck in favor of a popular, sexy hybrid model is one thing; using the computer at the public library instead of carrying a laptop around is another. Likewise, installing an energy saving power strip for the 65 inch Plasma is one thing; going with a 25 inch "low tech" TV (or foregoing use of recreational devices like TVs altogether) is another. And so on.

Two, the real problem with Boulder, coming to light even as the city contemplates increasingly Draconian measures to make better headway on carbon emissions, is the fact that coal is still the primary energy source there. The lesson is: it's very difficult to reduce emissions without switching to renewable sources and chucking the coal. One can't just "phase in" conservation on the consumer side, with feel good measures like using recyclable plastics, and so on. It doesn't have much of an effect, and the measures consumers could adopt that might actually help, many simply aren't willing to do. We aren't about to give up our cell phone, laptops, and TVs, in Boulder or anywhere else. In consequence, energy consumption in American cities like Boulder is a case of, as they say, "robbing Peter to pay Paul", as the consumer economy jettisons older technologies in favor of new ones, all the while consuming, consuming, consuming.

The point is, the logical consequence of taking energy conservation seriously--sitting in the dark with one's laptop turned off, perhaps--is hardly the "feel good" vision of Going Green we envision. It should be fun to Go Green, shouldn't it? On the other hand, the case of Boulder suggests that the "feel good" green measures are, really, largely ineffective (and hence a bit silly). If we want to really Go Green, we can start with accepting higher energy costs. But, in this case, we can keep the laptop and just pull out the wallet. Go Green with Green, you know what I mean? Sounds like a new slogan for Austin.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Freedom Agenda

Fukuyama argues in the WSJ today that the Obama administration has erred in rejecting the Bush "freedom agenda" of promoting democracy in the Middle East in favor of a Realpolitik approach that provides support to existing regimes, as a quid pro quo for information about terrorists. We've gone back to dealing with "Arab strongmen", as Fukuyama puts it. Case in point, the $70 million in security aid the U.S. gave to Yemen, a country ruled by the corrupt regime of President Saleh, who has squelched democratic reform and installed family members into his government, which functions in the all-too-familiar illegitimate authoritarian fashion of many Arab countries in the region.

Though the Bush "freedom agenda" became associated with the unpopular Iraq War, and sustained further damaged by tying it too closely to the military objectives of the War on Terror (think: the conspicuous refusal of the Bush administration to recognize the apparently legitimate Palestinian election of Hamas in 2005), Fukuyama argues that "the core premises of the Freedom Agenda remain essentially correct". What the Bush administration sought to accomplish, ultimately, was a more democratic Middle East, dragged (kicking and screaming, if necessary) into an embrace of political democracy and individual liberties by a foreign policy that tied support in the region to verifiable democratic reforms, not just to information from "Arab strongmen" that may prove helpful for our own short-term national security interests. The Bush administration got it essentially right, in other words, because they saw that the threat to the West from the Middle East cannot be expurgated, and may well fester and grow, as long as the authoritarian, anti-democracy regimes dominate the region, unchallenged by our dollars or our ideas.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

But Bush Did It

"But Bush did it, too." This is effectively Obama's defense of his Administration's treatment of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (to Katie Couric, in an interview he did just before the Super Bowl) after Abdulmutallab's detainment following the failed Northwest airlines terror plot. His "defense", of course, is perfectly reasonable only if the Bush administration policies he referred to were substantively right. Hmm.

At issue was the "Mirandizing" of Abdulmutallab 50 minutes after his detainment; reading him his Miranda rights meant then that he had a right to remain silent. For obvious reasons this hasn't gone unnoticed by the rest of us. But Obama's recent strategem of pointing out that "Hey, Bush did it with Richard Reid (the "Shoe Bomber")" perhaps salvages the battle at the expense of jeopardizing the Left's War: Bush was supposed to be dead wrong on the merits of homeland security policy and terrorism (and stupid and incompetent when explaining his policies and carrying them out).

Obama, for his part, is in effect vindicating the Bush years by defending his actions on terrorism in terms of their fit with the former Administration. This is evident also in the recent "walk back" of Holder's decision to try KSM in New York City, a decision that now mayor Bloomberg has openly challenged. The decidedly non-Bush-like suggestion to give KSM a public, civilian trial with all its trappings (lawyers, media spotlight, et cetera) is now in the midst of dying the death of a thousand qualifications, the most onerous perhaps Obama's own suggestion that the trial would guarantee a guilty verdict. This assertion, while ostensibly aimed at making a nervous public feel better about the whole business, is in fact most damaging of all: not only does a guaranteed guilty verdict make a mockery of the notion of a "fair trial", it highlights the fact that, even were KSM to be found innocent by the machinations of his legal team, the Administration would be forced if by nothing else than public outrage to promptly throw him back in military confinement. In which case, why bother with the trial?

Ah yes, military confinement. AKA Guantanamo Bay, AKA the place that will never close. Which brings us to our last bit of Bush-had-it-right-on-terror. Obama's deadline to close Gitmo is long past, and it's becoming increasingly apparent that its existence, while perhaps "grotesque" to the Left (apologies to A Few Good Men fans), is perhaps necessary. Begin with the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) attitude that has settled on members of Congress(including among Democrats, ostensibly in favor of atoning for these sins of the Bush administration). Add to it the sudden reticence of the European Left to embrace sending them over the Atlantic. End with the observation that, again, the Gitmo solution, while certainly not perfect, has a certain logic to it that becomes apparent to all but the most Chomskian of critics in proportion to the serious consideration of alternatives.

So, we now see that Bush wasn't so dumb after all. Or maybe Cheney wasn't so evil. They can't be, you see. They're now Obama's defense, and as the Gitmo and other issues persist, they're now his policies.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dig Up the Martin Act

Let's see if NY AG Cuomo, of former Fannie and Freddie fame, can ride the populist "we need a boogey man!" sentiment long enough to get something to stick against BoA. He's starting with the 1921 Martin Act, along with a bunch of charged rhetoric about disclosure and irresponsibility that seems to generate more heat than light on how and why the 2007-8 Credit Crisis happened. Oh well, it's politics, after all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bureaucracy Eats its Own

Leave it up to Philip K. Howard, irrepressible lawyer who wrote the book "Life Without Lawyers", to cut to the chase on the problem with too much bureacracy. Here's his response, in WSJ today, to Obama's "We can put America to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow" claim in the State of Union speech:

"But America can't build new infrastructure because no one has the authority to say "go." Nearly endless environmental review, followed by years of litigation by anyone who doesn't want the project, will make it impossible to put a shovel in the ground for a new project for years.

Too much law always causes paralysis. Environmentalists wanted legal power to stop bad projects, and now find themselves unable to build good projects. Real people must have responsibility to make these decisions—that's what government is for. Cut the environmental review process to a year or two at most."

Right on Phil.

Check out his Common Good project at www.commongood.org. The full WSJ editorial is here.