Monday, July 31, 2006

How many camels can you fit through a needle?

Of course, with all the focus on Mel Gibson, we should realize that it gets much, much worse.

Case in point: Pat Robertson. You know, the guy who leg pressed 2000 pounds, breaking the record of 1335 set by a measly Navy SEAL? And credits that astonishing athletic success to his protein shake—which is, conveniently, on sale to the faithful? Who inked a joint gold-mining venture with genocidal Liberian dictator Charles Taylor? Who, in stupefyingly Pharisaical fashion, promotes his fake charity while comfortably ensconced in a Virginia Beach mansion?

Yeah. It gets much worse.

How is he not an anti-Semite?

Seriously. From Slate:

"The best case that can be made for Gibson's belief system now is that he's only anti-Semitic when he's three sheets to the wind. And really, now. Are you in the habit of declaring, "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" when you get pie-eyed? Or simply of muttering, "Fucking Jews"? Or of asking your arresting officer, "Are you a Jew?" (Here Gibson revealed an anti-Jewish bigotry so all-consuming that he couldn't even get his ethnic stereotypes straight. The Jews control international banking, Mel. It's the Irish who control the police.)"

This reminds me of how utterly perverse Gibson's movie was. How he managed to take the story of Jesus and turn it into a film marked by cruelty, torture and relentless vilification of Jews is sick and altogether depressing.

Hope this works

Let's hope this works. At the very least, it may temporarily stop the sickening escalation of hostilities that literally threatens to destroy the Middle East.

But look at this:

"Yet [Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns] endorsed Israel's military objectives, saying 'This has not been a good 2 1/2 weeks for Hezbollah from a military point of view, and they've got to be worried about continued Israeli offensive operations.'"

Now look at another Haaretz headline:

"Eight hurt as record number of rockets hits northern Israel"

Consider these facts together. Hezbollah is suffering from "a military point of view," but somehow has managed to fire more rockets than ever before.

This underscores the strategic vacancy of the Israelis' approach. Unless it literally destroys southern Lebanon, the IDF cannot weaken Hezbollah in any substantive way. It spend almost two decades occupying Lebanon and couldn't manage. How exactly is this supposed to work?

It's a conspiracy!

Conservative conspiracy theorists—what strange beasts! Take a look:

"I have a crazy hunch that the people who believe a controlled demolition took down the Towers on 9/11 will be decidedly more skeptical about this one"

Right-wing blogistan is abuzz with speculation about the Israeli bombing in Qana. Dozens of Lebanese civilians died in a building collapse following aerial bombardment, and now the compulsively pro-war crowd has a new tibdit to engage its fancies. Apparently, the building collapsed several hours after bombs stopped falling. You can just see the gears grinding in their neocon rat brains:

Civilians died in an Israeli assault? Ah, but innocent death is an inevitable part of war. It isn't Israel's fault. Only an organization as evil as Hezbollah could be the cause. In fact, Hezbollah actively seeks civilian death in Lebanon as part of its strategy. Wait, what do you say? The building fell hours after it was bombed? Well, there! This time discrepancy must clearly be the result of a Hezbollah plot—a controlled demolition hours later to cause innocent casualties and further galvanize world opinion. But wait, doesn't this sound like the musings of extremist 9/11 hacks? Ah, nah, the liberals are hypocrites for not accepting our theory. Liberals are hypocrites. Liberals are hypocrites.

Um, guys? I consider my memory to be fairly poor, but my strong recollection is that a structure named World Trade Center 7 collapsed hours after the two towers fell. And the reason for this collapse? Simple structural failure. No hidden bombs, no controlled demolition.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Oh no...

I hate it when the party I try to support does something this dumb.

Can no one grasp that if Al-Maliki is to have any chance of success, he must be perceived by his constituents as an independent agent, outside American control?

More fundamentally, why are we even having him visit the United States? How could this conceivably deliver any benefit? Does anyone have an answer?

Bush's surprise visit to Iraq a few months ago decimated Al-Maliki's credibility on the Arab street. The consequences should have been blindingly obvious: when an American president decides to visit Iraqi soil without even notifying the Iraqi leader, he mocks the nation's claim to sovereignty and provides support to insurgents claiming a struggle against American "occupation." And for what purpose? To show "support" for the new Iraqi regime? If this Administration had any brains, it would realize that visible association with the American government is the last thing Al-Maliki needs.

But back to Congresswoman DeLauro's transparently political machinations. She apparently feels the need to out-Israel the Republicans, or to take any shot possible at the Administration... or something. It doesn't really matter what - she's demonstrated a fundamental incapacity to deal appropriately with the most pressing issues of foreign policy.

Attack the Administration on the countless substantive points where it is wrong; criticize its shocking ineptitude and lack of perspective; but don't attempt to ruin the one exceptionally unusual situation where (if solely through inaction) the President is right.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What's in a word?

Israel's bombardment of Lebanon is most often criticized for being "disproportionate." Is this a legitimate complaint? Partly. Although the idea of proper "proportion" is simplistic, it can be valuable.

On strictly ideological grounds, the basis for proportionate response is flimsy. Crack it open: what's the underlying ethical principle, if not an archaic "eye for an eye" belief in just retaliation?

But despite the idea's lack of any cogent moral basis, it remains valuable in strategic terms. Proportionate reponse happens to be the optimal method of deterrence in many situations that lack an ideal resolution. For instance, Israel's broad assault on Lebanon in response to Hezbollah's aggression has weakened the nation's nascent democracy and fomented wider hatred. Israel is clearly incapable of destroying Hezbollah. Why not, then, a more measured retaliation to weaken the organization and demonstrate consequences for unacceptable behavior?

Awful luck

Team USA's most serious problem in the 2004 Olympics was a lack of outside shooting. Opposing teams would play zone, our guards would become frustrated, and Iverson and Marbury would blindly attempt jumpshots.

Now, I am somewhat optimistic about our chances in the 2006 world championship, if only because we won't have black holes/terrible defenders like Marbury and Iverson. But I can't escape the fact that neither Redd nor Billups, who would have been our best outside shooters, will be able to attend this year's tournament. That might be a serious problem.

Not like that would be simpleminded or anything

Title of an article in the latest Weekly Standard:

"When Will They Ever Learn... Why do so many American Jews hate the president who stands by Israel?"

Exactly. Because Jewish people are supposed to act as one-issue automatons. They're supposed to ignore incompetence, mendacity, corruption, idiocy and quasi-messianic hubris. If you support Israel, you deserve their vote. Right?

Welcome to Electoral Politics: the Weekly Standard edition.

Blasted big government

I'm afraid that I must continue my various love affairs with Washington Post columnists by posting an excerpt from E.J. Dionne's hilarious new piece on Republican pork:

"Okay, all incumbents brag. But from Craney Island, Va., to Cedarville, Ohio, to Pompey's Pillar in Montana, most Republican senators in tight races want to get your mind off that irrelevant stuff -- you know, President Bush, Iraq, the deficit, oil prices -- and on to those nice little things they've gotten that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad big government to do for you."

This makes me wonder. Do Republicans today even bother to campaign as the party of small government? If so, I haven't seen it. Sure, they still try at the state level, where legislatures are populated by marginal ideologues with the analytical power of fleas. But perhaps even the Republican party isn't shameless enough to rail at big government while leading the most frivolous federal spending binge in years?

Amen

Notice any eerie parallels between Israel's strategy in Lebanon and America's initial plan for Iraq? It's been my position for more than a week, and Philip Gordon more eloquently elaborates in tomorrow's Washington Post:

"What is striking about all this wishful thinking on Lebanon is that it is being promoted by many of the same people most closely associated with the wildly misplaced optimism about the effects of the use of force in Iraq. The theory behind that invasion was that an American show of force to remove Saddam Hussein would so impress the region's populations (and frighten its dictators) that it would produce a chain reaction of democratization all the way to Palestine. Critics who worried that Iraqis would quickly come to resent and challenge the seemingly all-powerful American occupiers -- or that outside actors such as Iran or Syria would seek to undermine Iraq's stability -- were accused of an almost un-American historical pessimism. That Iraq is now plagued with a violent insurgency and putative civil war suggests that the pessimists' arguments might have deserved a greater hearing."

Hmmm... so his argument is that Israel's bombing of Lebanese infrastructure won't neatly induce the nation to eliminate Hezbollah, but will instead engender widespread hatred of Israel while accentuating Lebanon's ethnic divides? I wonder why he'd think that.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Who writes these questions?

This is stupid.

"Based on what you have read or heard about the conflict in the Middle East, are your sympathies MORE with Israel or MORE with Hezbollah?"

What kind of poll question is that? Obviously very few are going to side with Hezbollah: it's a terrorist organization that sparked the current crisis. How about having sympathies with the Lebanese people?

How to really fight crime

When they're thinking straight, microeconomists possess virtually godlike powers. John Donohue, professor of law and economics at Yale, wrote an astounding piece on crime policy for the winter 2005 Milken Review.

Despite its presence in a journal named for a junk bond crook, Donohue's article is easily the best outline of research in the field I've ever seen. His main points, with my summary and commentary:

1. Stop the Building Boom in Prisons

The pro-prison view is a case study in the vacuity of conservative rhetoric. Politicians like to make claims that are intuitively sound but logically lacking: "taking offenders off the streets will reduce crime and help our inner cities."

Yes, increased incarceration undoubtedly reduces crime, but it costs an incredible amount of money. The question shouldn't be whether the policy has any effect, but whether the effect justifies the cost. According to Donohue, it doesn't.

2. Abolish the Death Penalty

Thanks to the legal system, death penalty cases cost far more than conventional ones. There's no consistent evidence of a deterrent value, and the additional legal expense actually outweighs the cost of incarceration. So why, primitive vengeance aside, should we have capital punishment?

3. Expand the Police Force

I completely agree. But one idle thought: ideally, shouldn't a cost/benefit analysis incorporate the dynamic costs incurred by our means of raising revenue? The effects are difficult to pinpoint, but debt saps capital markets and taxes discourage work. It's possible that a few programs may be less worthwhile than they appear.

4. Adopt Sensible Gun Control

Absolutely. Donohue highlights several particular policy steps:

• preventing police from selling confiscated guns.
• instituting one-gun-purchase-per-month laws.
• plugging secondary-market loopholes.
• tracing all guns used in crime.
• producing guns that can be fired only by their owners.
• registering all handguns.

I can't see any realistic downside to any of these measures.

5. Legalize Drugs

This is debatable territory. Arguably, the optimum policy is legalization, with high taxes to maintain a deterrent. But we'd have to see how implementation really played out—I wholeheartedly agree that we should make marijuana a "trial run."

6. Expand Successful Social Programs

Yes! If you'll pardon the descent into political cliché, we need a more entrepreneurial approach to social policy. Implement what works; cut or reform what doesn't.

7. Defend Roe v. Wade

...or so Donohue argues. This is one area where I disagree. First there's simple jurisprudence: I don't think that Roe v. Wade was a well-crafted or tenable decision. But beyond that, I don't see how crime research makes a contribution to the debate: if abortion is murder, then our country is mired in a moral crisis dwarfing the effects of street crime.

8. Reduce Teen Pregnancy

Several pilot programs promise to do just this. This is an issue where the benefits appear to dramatically outweigh the costs of well-targeted policies.

9. Expand the DNA Database

I can't see any terribly alarming civil-liberties consequences of expanded DNA coverage. Donohue completely overlooks, however, what I think to be a salient issue: wouldn't it be possible to frame someone using DNA? If criminals know that "even a single hair at the scene of a crime is likely to lead to their arrest and conviction," what's preventing them from planting someone else's hair?

And that's it. All in all, I'm very fond of this article. Although it makes a few questionable propositions, with occasionally clumsy attempts at quantification (the average social cost at rape is just $90,000?), it's a tremendous compendium of research in the area.

Talk about gluttony

The Washington Post came Friday with an excellent editorial on the reckless orgy of farm subsidies:

"It's long been clear that the lion's share of the $20 billion-plus in annual farm payments has gone to rich farmers who don't need the cash; that the payments promote environmental damage; and that they harm farmers in poor countries. But even with the most cynical view of politics, in which you assume that these substantive problems with farm programs don't count, there's still something of a mystery. Sure, the farmers who pocket the cash will vote for whoever provides it. But farmers are a tiny minority of the electorate. Why doesn't the majority, which pays for all this waste, rise up in revolt against the sheer gluttony of it?"

Partly a lack of awareness. The public tolerates egregious pork projects and energy subsidies too, mainly thanks to the opposition's political ineptitude. But I think that farm subsidies have an aura that offers them an additional degree of protection. Language plays the chief role: the word "farm" evokes halcyon images of families settling the Midwestern prairie, migrants revelling in the dream of landownership. My entire family hails from North Dakota—this isn't distant for me.

Today, alas, most farms are massive corporate enterprises, bilking billions from unsuspecting taxpayers. It's difficult to see how subsidies actually preserve family farms: to my knowledge, they're not designed to provide comparative advantage to the little guy. The benefits they offer American agriculture are, in fact, much smaller than the price tag indicates.

This is Economics 101. A subsidy will increase production beyond what is economical, inflating supply and pushing down prices. Once the market reaches equilibrium, farmers do earn more—taxpayers are, after all, writing huge checks—but their benefit isn't nearly as sizable as the checks' size would imply. Where does the rest of the money go? Into the recesses of the market. Artificial misallocation of resources creates what Econ 101 professors like to call a "deadweight loss."

Not convinced that a deadweight loss is bad? Take a sip of soda. Our government has two blatantly protectionist policies—sugar quotas and corn subsidies—that have made "high-fructose corn syrup" practically omnipresent. Without government interference, real sugar actually costs less than corn syrup. So your soda is:

1. Less tasty
2. More expensive (those subsidy checks come from your pockets)
3. Making you even fatter than it otherwise would.

I call this bad policy.

Just sayin'

Write this one down: Adam Morrison will be a terrific bust. He simply doesn't have the athleticism necessary to complement his skill set and make it in the NBA. Can you think of any current star who's remotely similar? Sure, people throw around Bird comparisons, but Bird was spectacularly talented and multidimensional in a way that Morrison isn't. It's just not going to happen.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

"Rights"

In discussions about the Middle East, pundits tend to talk about rights, specifically Israel's "right" to defend itself from Hezbollah aggression. Fair enough. But don't innocent Lebanese also have the "right" to stay alive? And how can you decide which "right" is more important?

In this context, talk about "rights" is faux-moralist flimflam. There's arguably a right to retaliate, but there's also the right of innocents not to die in this retaliation.

Foreign policy should be about outcomes, not outraged calls to justice. This point has obviously been lost on anti-Israel forces. But it also applies to Israel, whose right to defend itself will mean very little if the defense begets a wider disaster.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bring on George Allen

The President's heroic efforts to improve his party's standing with African-Americans will seem a bit quaint if Mr. Confederate History Month is the party's candidate in 2008.

Oh, they're all the same

I learn exciting new facts from conservative pundits on a rather regular basis. Today, I'm privileged to learn from Hugh Hewitt that Saddam commanded an Islamist regime with weapons of mass destruction:

"Some pretend that lousy tactical choices motivate their dismay, but fantasies of better tactics can't obscure the fact that the strategic ends of the war haven't changed: The overthrow of Islamist totalitarian regimes and the denial to Islamist terrorists of WMD."

Did anyone really think that someone as simpleminded as Hewitt would internalize the difference between Saddam's secular Baathism and fanatical Islam? Nah. They're all the same.

Ah, and now we're treated to a shot of smug intellectual elitism from the radio talk-show host:

"Jonathan Chait, the superbly undereducated BA from the University of Michigan was back at it Sunday in the pages of the rapidly collapsing Los Angeles Times, telling no truths about Bush, but banging his only, self-revealing drum again: 'Is Bush Still Too Dumb to Be President?'"

You know, Hugh, you're right. I'm disgusted by the radical notion that we should judge intelligence by words and actions, callously disregarding those ironclad Harvard and Yale diplomas. And hey, the University of Michigan is a pretty low-caliber school—after all, it awarded you a J.D.

What to do?

I had been working on a project post about the Iraq war, but the urgency of the Lebanon situation demands that I post more comprehensively my thoughts on its resolution.

Both Hezbollah and the Israeli government must please the hysterical constituencies on their respective sides. Neither party will agree to a settlement that resembles plain defeat: Israel will not unilaterally disengage, and Hezbollah will not accept a retreat or peacekeeping force without some tangible gain.

Frankly, Israel must be willing to accept a prisoner exchange. I freely admit that this would damage its efforts at deterrence. But refusing to consider a policy because of one negative consequence is little short of juvenile. At what price must Israel buy "deterrence"? The wholesale destruction of Lebanon, the radicalization of its people, chaos throughout the region?

The international community must call for the establishment of a peacekeeping force to patrol Lebanon's southern extreme, one with powers beyond those of today's feeble UN presence. Hezbollah could have its freed prisoners, its token to demonstrate to the Arab street that it did not completely surrender. It would reconstitute itself as an enervated guerilla army outside the international force's territory. But the important results would stand: Hezbollah's earlier power would dissipate, the situation would stabilize and the bloodshed would stop.

Of course, even with the prisoner exchange "carrot," Hezbollah might not agree to the proposal. I cannot, however, see any alternative.

Perhaps, paradoxically, an Israeli incursion into a sliver of Lebanon would make negotiation easier. Hezbollah would then be able to claim two "concessions" from Israel: release of prisoners and withdrawal from southern Lebanon. But Israel must simultaenously halt bombings in Beruit and the north of the country. If the aim is to expel Hezbollah from its immediately threatening position in the south, the actions must match.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Already tragic

Since I'm now in the habit of quoting others, here is a smart and eloquent passage from Michael Totten, buried deep in the comments thread of his recent post:

"What should Israel have done instead? They should have treated Hezbollahland as a country, which it basically is, and attacked it. They should have treated Lebanon as a separate country, which it basically is, and left it alone.

They should not have bombed Central Beirut, which was monolithically anti-Hezbollah. They should not have bombed my old neighborhood, which was monolithically anti-Hezbollah. They should not have bombed the Maronite city of Jounieh, which was not merely anti-Hezbollah but also pro-Israel.

Jounieh is no longer pro-Israel.

Israel thinks everyone hates them, and it's not true. But they will make it so if they do not pay more attention to the internal characteristics of neighboring countries. 'The Arabs' do not exist as a bloc except in the feverish dreams of the Nasserists and the Baath.

Bombing neutrals, persuadables, and friends is strategically stupid. And cruel."

It's already tragic.

More on Lebanon

I shouldn't just ridicule The New Republic without offering my own perspective on the crisis, but right now I'm growing weary. It happens that a Sebastian Mallaby column in the Washington Post makes precisely the same arguments I was planning, so for now I'll defer to him.

I also defer to the excellent pieces in the Post by Richard Cohen, E.J. Dionne and George Will.

Wait... did I just defer to George Will? What's happening? What kind of freakish spectacle is today's foreign policy?

A line for the ages

The header for a piece at TNR by Michael Oren:

"To prevent a regional conflagration, Israel should attack Syria"

Um...

Most striking is Oren's failure to suggest any way that a regional war could occur, besides attacking Syria. Who's going to fight? Jordan? No. Egypt? No. Saudi Arabia? To protect Shiite extremists? I don't think so.

I'm really having trouble justifying my outgoing link to TNR. For every sensible article on domestic policy, there's a fantastically stupid garbage heap like this.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Quite the tough issue

A recent Education Department report has become cause for triumphialism across a wide swath of liberal opinion. While I was initially inclined to join in, the actual content of the report makes me leery.

After adjusting for well-known confounding factors, the study found that public school students actually have slightly higher fourth grade reading scores, and much higher fourth grade math scores. But by eighth grade, the situation changes dramatically: public school students have slightly higher math scores but much lower reading scores.

For obvious reasons, I think that the eighth grade results are more important. Performance in elementary school means little if it isn't solidly supported by later achievement. The gap between private and public schools in eighth grade reading is enormous: 5.7 points, nearly half a grade level. And if the decline in public schools' fortunes from fourth to eighth grades continues apace through high school, comprehensive studies will have a much gloomier view of public education.

But the regression models are also complicated and a little troubling. The school-level variables used in the analysis include "years of teaching experience" and "teacher certification." Question: aren't these variables, particularly teacher certification, a big part of the perceived difference between public and private schools? Why, then, attempt to remove them through statistical adjustment?

And finally, although it makes a few attempts, the study can't account for the most significant hidden variable: parents' enthusiasm for their kids' education. Tuition payments for private schools indicate a very serious commitment. Even if some statistics seem to favor private schools, we can't rule out the possibility that the difference depends more on parenting than schooling.

Do supply side economists need a refresher course in arithmetic?

I was just reading a piece by supply side economist Alan Reynolds from a month ago. It contained some rather entertaining quantitative reasoning:

"If so, cutting someone's marginal tax from 40 percent to 30 percent would typically result in about 16 percent more income being reported. With 16 percent more income and a 10 percent lower tax rates, revenues would certainly not go down."

I think it's safe to let that one speak for itself.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Ugh

Ugh. The Israeli military is in the process of ignoring the plain and obvious lesson of America's Iraq debacle. Lebanon's Christian, Druze and Sunni population may be frustrated with Hezbollah's provocations (although the Shiites certainly aren't), but as collateral damage from Israel's attacks continues, Israel will quickly become the undisputed enemy. And the United States, as Israel's military supplier and paymaster, won't be ignored.

In fact, this has the potential to deteriorate for Israel even more quickly than the Iraq war did for America. At least our deposal of Saddam Hussein earned some temporary goodwill. Israel will have no such luck, unless it somehow manages to quickly destroy Hezbollah, have Lebanon's government fill the security vacuum, and get the hell out. I really hope that does happen, but the chances are devastatingly small.

Fun in 2008

My takes on the major candidates for president in 2008.

Hillary Clinton
Nominally the "front runner," she possesses weak political fundamentals. The myths establishing her supposed electability have been convincingly refuted: for instance, she actually performed worse than Al Gore in upstate New York in 2000. Clinton has stratospheric negative ratings for a potential candidate, and her supposedly wide support in the Democratic Party owes more to the lack of a preeminent challenger than anything else.

John Edwards
His sunny composure and uncontested eloquence make him a political natural, but his apparent youth will lead to a "lightweight" vibe if he faces a candidate like John McCain or Rudy Giuliani. Sure, Bush supporters couldn't make a very coherent attack on these grounds, since their candidate ran for president with an equal amount of experience (6 years) in major office. But my guess is that there won't be many Bush supporters left by 2008; his utter failure as president will only illustrate why candidates should have experience. Edwards' past maneuverings to avoid Medicare taxes also constitute a serious liability. Even if his actions were legitimate, this kind of issue can frame an entire campaign. I like his recent rhetoric about poverty but remain skeptical of his ability to effectively confront the problem.

John Kerry
No chance whatsoever.

Mark Warner
His success in Virginia gave him a strong buzz, but he is an unimpressive speaker with little else to recommend him. I think that the media narrative will make an enormous difference in the race for nominee: someone will emerge as the "anti-Hillary." Warner has a shot, but thanks only to process of elimination.

Russ Feingold
His two divorces will raise eyebrows, although depending on the Republican nominee they may damage his perceived electability more than his actual potential. He's a champion of the left with a maverick record and solid home-state support. Although this makes him a possibility for the nomination (and even the presidency), he has two obstacles: first, he must pierce the media haze to become a well-known contender. Second, Feingold needs to stifle any attempts at caricature—he can't be another Dean. I think he's in better shape than Dean on that point, although I might be wrong. It's still a long shot.

Evan Bayh
Completely unexciting but completely electable. Who knows?

Al Gore
Sadly, I don't think he has a good shot. There would be high drama, of course, in a Gore run to avenge the loss in 2000 and the unspeakable disaster of Bush's term. But we tend to remember caricatures better than actual policies—it's the reason why the election was even close in 2000, and the effect only grows with time.

Joseph Biden
Annoying and implausible.

Now to the Republicans...

John McCain
An obvious frontrunner. I'll echo the mainstream view: if McCain manages to win the nomination, he'll have an excellent shot at the presidency. The wildcard here is the nature of the religious right's challenge. Barring any significant change in party dynamics, it could come from Allen, Huckabee, Brownback, or Owens (who might surprise us).

Rudy Giuliani
If he runs, he certainly has potential. His strength with the base seems to be stronger than McCain's, despite his substantially more liberal positions on social issues. I suspect that these weaknesses will become clearer when brought into public view. Both Giuliani and McCain are past adulterers, but Giuliani's two divorces and far more egregious behavior contrast unfavorably with McCain's single divorce. Rudy's only asset is really the semi-mythical train of events after 9/11, and with his weaknesses I don't think that will be enough. Even if he wins the nomination, he'll have serious trouble with the presidency.

Condoleeza Rice
At the moment she's not even running. I doubt she will, and I very much doubt that she would win.

George Allen
He's pathetic but has a chance for the nomination. Allen has emerged as the consensus right flank challenger to McCain, but a smiling countenance and football star father can't overcome his essential vapidity. It's certainly possible that he'll be the Republican nominee, but his past remains an overwhelming liability for any general election. What kind of blowhard proclaims "Confederate History and Heritage Month," citing a ''four-year struggle for independence and sovereign rights" while ignoring slavery?

Newt Gingrich
It would be a hoot, but a Gingrich victory isn't going to happen.

Mike Huckabee
His main accomplishment: a hundred-pound weight loss. No joke. Unless there's some serious upheaval, I can't see a scenario where Huckabee would gain support and Allen wouldn't. He's a mile-long shot and isn't general election material.

Mitt Romney
He's a lot like McCain, and that doesn't bode well for his chances. Why would Republicans choose McCain junior when the real deal's running? The Mormon question also lingers.

Sam Brownback
He's the religious right's ideal candidate but doesn't have any broad appeal.

Bill Frist
Brownback may not have broad appeal, but Frist has no appeal.

Bill Owens
Why not? Although a lack of exposure makes him a default dark horse, his blend of attributes is as favorable as any candidate's. He is both solidly conservative and articulate, possessing a solid gubernatorial record and no apparent negatives. If Owens can manage to insert himself into contention, he just might pull an upset.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Doesn't the word "amendment" mean something?

Orin Kerr just read the new "clarification" of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act. He remarks:

"Interestingly, the Section is a 'clarification' only if you assume the correctness of the President’s more controversial claims to Article II authority. If you accept the more traditional understanding of the separation-of-powers seen recently in the Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in that case, then this “clarification” is actually a major reorientation of the role of Congress in foreign intelligence monitoring away from the 1978 framework of FISA."

Apparently the "clarification" states:

"Nothing in this Act [FISA] shall be construed to limit the constitutional authority of the President to collect intelligence with respect to foreign powers and agents of foreign powers."

Maybe this will sound naive, but isn't the Fourth Amendment an amendment to the Constitution? Even if you accept the extremely questionable notion that Article II gives the President such boundless power, Article II isn't constitutionally on the same footing as the Bill of Rights.

If the original text of the Constitution grants the President a power deemed invalid by later amendments, that power no longer exists in the same form. What's the point of an amendment if it isn't allowed to actually amend anything?

//Edit:

Returning to this post, I realize that I should "amend" it. While I certainly believe that many of the president's surveillance programs violate the Fourth Amendment, that's not a very common position in debates on the subject. Instead, the consensus is that while the programs are constitutional, they violate FISA; the debate is about whether FISA is constitutional or not. My view is that this is also pretty ridiculous. The Constitution explicitly gives Congress the powers to:

Clause 10: To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

Clause 11: To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

Clause 12: To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

Clause 13: To provide and maintain a Navy;

Clause 14: To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

Clause 15: To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

Clause 16: To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

Apparently the president's constitutional position is that one line about "commander-in-chief" status in Article II outweighs every oversight power given to Congress in Article I. I'm not a constitutional scholar, but this is clearly BS.

What? Democracy doesn't come with free beer?

Wow. Andy McCarthy at the Corner actually just made a reality-based point. How often do you see that happen?

"We've been told for some time now — against common sense and the weight of our own national experience — that the way to defeat international jihadism is to spread democracy.

So now the Lebanese democracy can't control Hezbollah (which has been freely elected and controls about a fifth of its legislature), while the Palestinian Authority IS Hamas (the Palestinian people having democratically put them in power).

How much do we figure that Israel is hoping democracy breaks out in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad waiting in the wings? All it needs right about now is yet another democratic neighbor.

Democracy has many enduring benefits, but it doesn't stop terrorists from operating — and in many ways, it makes life easier for them. When are we going to stop talking about it as a national security cure-all?"

Curse the evil speculators!

Um... does this analysis make any economic sense at all?

"Some analysts say speculators are using the fear of possible disruptions to game the system and push prices beyond where they should be, even assuming some disruption.

The Bush administration's high-profile stance that it will not use its emergency government oil reserves has made it easier for oil speculators to drive up prices, contends Amy Myers Jaffe, a director of energy programs at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

'He is giving them [speculators] a security blanket,' agrees Fadel Gheit, an energy strategist for Oppenheimer and Co. in New York, explaining that traders have been able to push up prices for oil deliveries at a future date without fearing they may be caught in a price squeeze if the government should release oil from its emergency stocks."

This sounds like a correctly functioning market to me. And what exactly does "where they should be" mean? Last time I checked, the market set price values. It's possible that irrational speculators are driving the price of oil over a reasonable valuation, but if so they will be harshly punished by the market when the price sinks. The faintly conspiratorial "game the system" language ignores the very point of market economics.

And then there's the "security blanket" stuff. The article makes it sound pernicious and artificial when it's actually a refusal to tamper with the market. It's what sensible policy should look like: don't use your emergency stocks of oil unless there's an actual emergency.

Given its consistent lack of economic literacy, I'm sure that the Administration is pursuing this policy for the wrong reasons. That doesn't, however, make it inherently incorrect.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The tooth fairy theory of Medicare

There's always plenty of discussion about Social Security's funding problems, but very little about the program with truly abysmal long-term prospects: Medicare.

This illustrates a dangerous quirk in human nature. If a problem is too big, you simply must ignore it. It will solve itself. Attempting to address the issue will only emphasize your failure to fix it—the politically savvy path is acting oblivious.

Take a look at the CBO's current Long Term Outlook for the budget. Under the intermediate spending path, Medicare's costs will rise from 2.7% of GDP today to 8.6% of GDP in 2050, and the combined costs of Medicare and Medicaid will go from 4.2% to 12.6%. Without major reform, this sort of spending will be so vastly removed from our government's capacity to address it that the only plausible solution is magic. This is the tooth fairy theory of Medicare.

(Not dissimilar to the "we'll be getting all our power in 50 years from nuclear fusion" theory of energy policy.)

And that, as you probably noticed, is only the intermediate projection. The upper-spending path assumes that spending per enrollee grows 2.5% in excess of per capita GDP per year, which is slightly lower than the average 2.9% rate since 1970. Yes, you heard that right—our most pessimistic prediction actually assumes a growth rate lower than the historical average. I liked the report's evaluation:

"Federal costs for Medicare and Medicaid as a percentage of GDP would nearly double—to 8.1 percent—in 2001 and reach 21.9 percent in 2050. To put these estimates in perspective, the entire federal budget currently consumes about 20 percent of GDP."

Ladies and gentlemen: the magic of exponential growth!

Of course, this isn't very likely to actually happen. Spending on Medicare and Medicaid would still only be a fraction of total health care spending. The high-cost estimates imply over half of GDP ultimately being dedicated to medicine. I suppose that's possible, but it seems unlikely.

But even the intermediate rate of growth would force a crisis. Think about it: if Social Security is headed for disaster because it's projected to swallow 6.4% of GDP, how can we possibly handle 12.6% dedicated to Medicare and Medicaid?

The CBO report notes several possible solutions. I don't like the "increased premiums" option: it makes life much more difficult for the poor without changing the incentive structure in a way that actually lowers costs. Cost-sharing, which would change incentives, may have some upside, but color me a skeptic. After all, health expenditures in general are skyrocketing, not just government-administered ones. The pernicious socialist health care systems in Europe and Canada consume a far lower percentage of GDP than we do. If politically induced uncompetitiveness is to blame, there's precious little evidence.

(Note: I think that inefficiency and uncompetitiveness may be to blame, but they seem to exist in health care markets regardless of governmental presence. Obviously, radical cost-sharing would lower expenditures: if you had to pay $1 million for the experimental operation to save your life, you might fall short and just give up. But that's not moral, and in general it's sadly difficult to imagine a system that manages to be both moral and economically efficient)

So what the hell do we do? Well, first we should address the current budget crisis (more on that soon). We're in an awful position to address the massive holes in our entitlement programs when we can't even control a deficit driven by discretionary spending.

But I also want to see a breakdown of where in the world all this money is going. Spending increases that so dramatically exceed GDP growth are rare: what exactly is happening? I've never seen any analysis that really answers the question. Maybe if we know more, we'll determine that my skepticism about policies like cost-sharing is unwarranted—maybe we can restructure the system so that the incentives actually lead to efficiency. Or maybe we'll find some wacky fix that doesn't even occur to us now.

Let's hope.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The dumbest person alive

...is an SEC commissioner. His views on backdating stock options will blow your mind.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

While I'm at it

While I'm staring mystified into the recesses of Supreme Court opinions, I'll mention Grutter v. Bollinger, the relatively recent affirmative action case. My sympathies in the case lie mainly with the dissent by Rehnquist, which declines to mount a frontal attack on affirmative action but finds that the University of Michigan's policy fails strict scrutiny. It makes a brilliant and incisive point:

"From 1995 through 2000, the Law School admitted between 1,130 and 1,310 students. Of those, between 13 and 19 were Native American, between 91 and 108 were African-Americans, and between 47 and 56 were Hispanic. If the Law School is admitting between 91 and 108 African-Americans in order to achieve 'critical mass,' thereby preventing African-American students from feeling 'isolated or like spokespersons for their race,' one would think that a number of the same order of magnitude would be necessary to accomplish the same purpose for Hispanics and Native Americans. Similarly, even if all of the Native American applicants admitted in a given year matriculate, which the record demonstrates is not at all the case,* how can this possibly constitute a 'critical mass' of Native Americans in a class of over 350 students? In order for this pattern of admission to be consistent with the Law School's explanation of 'critical mass,' one would have to believe that the objectives of 'critical mass' offered by respondents are achieved with only half the number of Hispanics and one-sixth the number of Native Americans as compared to African-Americans. But respondents offer no race-specific reasons for such disparities. Instead, they simply emphasize the importance of achieving 'critical mass,' without any explanation of why that concept is applied differently among the three underrepresented minority groups."

Rehnquist proceeds to note that according to available data, the University of Michigan's admissions standards are far, far gentler for African-Americans than for Hispanics. Given the substantially higher numbers of African-Americans at the law school, this policy has no "critical mass" justification whatsoever. The Native American case is arguably different, since Native Americans may form a small enough percentage of the population that a law school cannot plausibly achieve "critical mass." After all, you can't guarantee sizable representation to every minority (although then the University should articulate a separate justification for favored admissions policies to minorities too tiny for "critical mass"). But surely it is possible to achieve this mass for Hispanics, and accordingly there is no rationale for providing further breaks to African-American applicants to raise their numbers above Hispanics'.

It's the most cogent argument in the case.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Hmm...

Recently I've spent time reading the full text of several Supreme Court cases. It's a fascinating exercise in logic and rhetoric. In the past, I've known only the vaguest generalities about these cases. I sensed that Griswold v. Connecticut was somehow related to "privacy," but I had little clue about what actual legal reasoning supported it.

Now I'm more aware. And wading through the mass of opinions, I'm alternately impressed and dismayed by the Court's logic. Overall, Griswold v. Connecticut rates on the "impressive" side—but check out these apparently contradictory statements from Justice Goldberg in his concurring opinion:

"I do not take the position of my Brother BLACK in his dissent in Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 68 , that the entire Bill of Rights is incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment, and I do not mean to imply that the Ninth Amendment is applied against the States by the Fourteenth."

"Nor am I turning somersaults with history in arguing that the Ninth Amendment is relevant in a case dealing with a State's infringement of a fundamental right. While the Ninth Amendment - and indeed the entire Bill of Rights - originally concerned restrictions upon federal power, the subsequently enacted Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the States as well from abridging fundamental personal liberties. And, the Ninth Amendment, in indicating that not all such liberties are specifically mentioned in the first eight amendments, is surely relevant in showing the existence of other fundamental personal rights, now protected from state, as well as federal, infringement."

My sense is that Goldberg doesn't think that his statements contradict each other, as the latter doesn't explicitly state that the Fourteenth Amendment applies the Ninth Amendment to the states.

But if you think about it, that's essentially what his argument does. It is at root a simple syllogism:

1) The Ninth Amendment, simply by existing, implies the existence of certain inalienable personal liberties not specifically enumerated in the first eight amendments.

2) The Fourteenth Amendment extends the protection of fundamental personal liberties to include protection from state intrusion upon them.

And thus the conclusion:

3) Individuals are protected from state encroachment upon fundamental but unstated rights like the right to privacy in marriage.

Isn't this basically applying the Ninth Amendment to the states? If not, what would be? And why is Goldberg tying himself in rhetorical knots?

Liberal hawks' poor excuse

As Iraq descends into chaos, many previously pro-war liberals fall upon a convenient excuse: the problem was not the idea of the war but the Administration's miserable execution of it.

Matthew Yglesias discusses the issue today, linking to his previous piece in The American Prospect. The latter is easily the best treatment I've ever seen—every TNR-style hawk should read it.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Richard Lindzen: incoherent buffoon

For an entire week I'm been flush with anger at the incoherent idiocy that global warming skeptic Richard Lindzen displayed in last Sunday's Wall Street Journal. It's really hard to know where to begin.

Lindzen's only substantive attempt to reject the existence of a scientific consensus, the citation of Benny Peiser's "debunking" of a study done on the subject, is worthless. Thinkprogress has the details.

More fundamentally, Lindzen has a bizarre obsession with attribution: the "problem" here, apparently, is that we cannot categorically say what portion of climate change is natural versus man-made.

Of course we can't! Heat is diffuse and untraceable: if we demand an absolute standard for proof of "attribution," we will never reach a conclusion. There's simply no statistically bulletproof measure. We can't run a controlled experiment with the atmosphere! Lindzen, who apparently will complain so long as attribution is not completely precise, will thus be complaining forever. He should save his lungs and shut up.

Why the aggressive language? As I've noted before, this kind of point doesn't just contradict the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists. It massacres common sense. Take Lindzen's own statement:

"Finally, there has been no question whatever that carbon dioxide is an infrared absorber (i.e., a greenhouse gas--albeit a minor one), and its increase should theoretically contribute to warming."

Precisely. Carbon dioxide, in the absence of some negative feedback mechanism that cancels its effects, will increase temperatures. So when Lindzen says that recent warming may be due to natural variation, it's important to realize what he's really saying:

1) Over the past several decades, increased cloud cover due to warming temperatures has completely cancelled any further effects of man-made global warming, even though consensus climate science has found that clouds' positive feedback (trapping heat) likely outweighs their negative feedback (blocking sunlight).

2) At the same time (and here's the kicker), we just happen to have experienced an unprecedentedly rapid onset of natural warming.

Point #1, in isolation, would be somewhat debatable. Lindzen has written a few papers on the "Iris Effect," the tendency of high cirrus clouds to reduce incoming solar energy. I should note that his claims in these papers are incredibly tentative, hardly jiving with his buffoonery in the public sphere. They don't come close to showing how this negative feedback would actually halt global warming (or even how it would outmatch positive feedback).

But regardless, points #1 and #2 in conjunction are absurdly improbable. Just look at them. It's ridiculous. I'm not a fervent fan of Occam's Razor, but this is an appropriate use if there ever was one.

Since I like analogies, I'll make an extended one here, just to illustrate how braindead this reasoning is. (can you tell I'm frustrated?)

Analogy: what if Lindzen was an economist?

Say that our nation suddenly increased all individual income taxes to 70%. In the absence of any additional feedback, basically anyone would tell you that this would hurt the economy: it decreases the marginal benefit from working. And say that then, lo and behold, our GDP contracted by 15% in the next five years. Wouldn't you conclude that the gargantuan tax increase - which you would expect to damage production - was probably the cause?

Lindzen, if he employed his current style of logic, would be the one guy to disagree. He'd say "we can't be certain whether the GDP decline was caused by the tax policy or by a normal cyclical downturn." This would neglect, of course, the fact that 1) this was much bigger than normal cyclical declines and 2) this is precisely what we would expect to happen.

Then he would publish research similar to his "Iris Effect" papers. It might show that increased money for education, policing and defense benefits the economy, thus increasing GDP. It would, however, make no rigorous attempt to compare this gain to the enormous drain caused by the tax increase - in fact, the overwhelming majority of economists would say that the bad effects considerably outweighed the good. Yet Lindzen would persist, incoherently screaming on the pages of American newspapers that there was no consensus, that most people disagreeing with him just didn't understand economics, etc., etc.

I think it's a pretty good analogy. Lindzen's logic really is that flimsy.

Friday, July 07, 2006

My ramble about standardized testing

I recently came across a commentary on the SAT written several years ago by a Rutgers English professor. His thesis is plain: the SAT, or at least the SAT verbal section, is not the meaningless "test on test-taking" that its opponents caricature. Instead, Professor Dowling claims, the exam effectively identifies the verbal competency that is so important for successful college work.

First, I should note that I'm not an entirely unbiased observer here. I placed the stamp on my last college application just over six months ago, and I took the SAT six months before that. It's fresh in my memory. My egoistic subconscious will want to claim, since I scored a 2400, that the SAT is indeed a glorious, inerrant measure of intellectual promise. It isn't.

As I mentioned, Dowling focused on the old verbal section of the SAT. This was fortunate. The verbal section, and the "critical reading" that replaced it, is probably the most effective part of the SAT. It resists attempts at simplification. While on the math or writing sections, a prospective examinee can theoretically prepare for almost any problem "type," the variety of passages and vocabulary on the verbal section makes such fake mastery close to impossible. I'll admit that I don't have any hard data to support this, but my experience with helping others plan for the test leaves me with the impression.

Yet as I just indicated, the math and writing sections are quite different from the verbal. For instance, the SAT is fine for students without strong interest (or talent) in mathematics. It takes a reasonably accurate snapshot of their ability, which admission officers may find useful. But these students, in general, are not those who are applying to the most selective universities, for whom the SAT is most important. Indeed, at the high end of the math SAT scale, predictive power is hazy at best.

For high-scoring students, the questions become so easy that the main challenge isn't solving them. It's avoiding trivial arithmetic errors. Since so many students find the math questions so easy, the "scaling" process has been made brutal and turns these trivial arithmetic errors into apparently meaningful differences in score. Make 3 little miscalculations on an endless exam? You would have scored 800; now you're lucky to have a 730.

The writing section posesses its own set of flaws. Just as many academics proclaim, the SAT essay is a farce that reinforces formulaic writing with claims to a "standardized" scoring process. I suspect that the five-paragraph essay has destroyed more writing talent than any other scholastic artifice—as you can probably tell, I still haven't recovered (a double tragedy since I never had much talent). In tenth grade, I tried to write a essay for history class in a different style. It sought to imitate the clever organization I saw in real essays—bits from the Atlantic and Harper's and the New Republic. What happened?

Smack! B-minus. Back to the five-paragraph shell.

I should mention that the essay is only one-third of the writing score. The rest consists of multiple-choice questions. This seems paradoxical, reflecting some absurd attempt to impose the SAT philosophy: "How will we measure writing? Well, isn't it obvious? Bubble sheets!"

But I suspect that it's actually more effective than the essay. My gripe with the multiple choice section actually stems from a particular variety of question: "identifying the sentence error." Each problem is a sentence: four parts of the sentence are underlined, labeled "A," "B," "C" and "D". A "no error" option follows, corresponding to "E." If an underlined portion contains a grammatical error, students must bubble the corresponding letter. If none do, they bubble "E."

Maybe it's a bit pedantic, but it sounds innocuous, right? Not really. The other parts of the writing section call upon students to improve sentences or paragraphs. They must consider both style and grammar to find the best option, and usually it's not very difficult. But the work of "identifying sentence errors" requires that students set aside any sense of fluid writing and focus simply on identifying technical errors. Now for the obvious question: is there any circumstance, outside of testing, where this is actually useful? Where the fantastically bad phrasing in a sentence doesn't matter but the exact use of pronouns does?

The SAT, needless to say, is not a perfect test. It's probably a decent one—I'll leave that to argument. But as the established test, it plays a vital role in contemporary education. I want to make several additional points.

First, there is precious little evidence that the SAT makes admission to the most elite schools (Ivy Leagues, MIT, Stanford, etc.) more difficult for disadvantaged students. It might even help them. Consider: according to a report by the Century Foundation, 15.3% of Caltech's students are Pell Grant recipients, versus 6.8% for Harvard, 7.4% for Princeton, and 11.7% for Stanford. Caltech also happens to have the most test-focused admissions policy in the country, which results in an average SAT that is usually around 1510. That's higher than Harvard—in fact, higher than any school. How, then, does Caltech admit so many more disadvantaged students?

There are several possible explanations, but my best guess is that the "other factors" considered by elite schools are often quite discriminatory. Harvard, for instance, seeks out high-level involvement in extracurricular activities: the state champion violinists, the debaters who win regional contests, etc. But just who are these students? How does a violin virtuoso start? Private lessons—and does anything scream "affluent middle class" more than expensive lessons at a very early age? How do debaters become so successful? Well, to start, they usually have strong programs at their high schools. These aren't found at your inner-city schools, but they're in strong supply at private academies.

Let's be honest: SAT tutoring isn't the only advantage possessed by rich students. And as someone who never received any help for the test, I'm frankly annoyed at how it's fingered as a mere pawn of wealthy elites. Yes, the SAT can be "gamed" to some extent, but I suspect the system would be far more vulnerable to free-spending parents without it. I want better testing, not conspiratorial neo-Marxist rhetoric about testing in general.

My second point is directed toward the ludicrous use of "score ranges," which plague standardized testing in general. The initial idea isn't so bad: a test will inevitably be imprecise in its measurements, and a "score range" provided by the testing agency can illustrate the degree of this variance.

But many universities then decide to incorporate "score ranges" into their admissions procedures. I've heard about this with MIT: they have a "750-800" range, a "700-740" range, and so on. Supposedly, this recognizes that minor differences in score don't mean much. But in effect it arbitrarily ignores all incremental differences in score except one (740 to 750), which is blown beyond reasonable proportion. This doesn't actually solve anything; it just sets inefficient cutoff points that distort results and preserve the very weakness they seek to eliminate.

Third, this discussion shouldn't just be about the SAT. We already have tests that are arguably more effective, and we should work to create tests that are even better. Fairtest.org, the leading opponent of standardized tests, has a fact sheet comparing the SAT I, SAT II, and ACT. You would expect the sheet, entitled "Different Tests, Same Flaws," to provide evidence selected for its damning rejection of all three tests. Yet a validity study cited in the SAT II section, from the University of California system—an ideal environment thanks to its relatively wide range of students—actually shows that SAT II results had more predictive power than high school GPA. That's pretty remarkable, given Fairtest's blithe assertions that all standardized tests are worthless, soul-destroying shells.

Soul-destroying? Somewhat. Worthless? No. Further evidence of an elite conspiracy to keep poor students out of top colleges? I don't think so.

The main problem with SAT IIs (and AP exams) is that their subject-oriented character leads to potential unfairness. Students at stronger schools, the argument asserts, are far better prepared to handle the tests. This is probably true, but we can work to alleviate this with some imaginative thinking: create a system that automatically informs colleges of the average scores on each test at a particular high school. Why not?

Finally, I want to emphasize the inability of these tests to deal with truly extraordinary talent in a particular area. Even if the SAT perfectly measured ability in each section, we would still have 2200s with far more promise than 2400s. Why? The 2200 might be an extraordinary writer with middling math skills; 800s on the critical reading and writing sections wouldn't begin to describe her brilliance. And the SAT certainly doesn't perfectly measure ability—there are enormous inherent limitations.

I realize that all this writing may sound incoherent: one minute I'm defending standardized tests and the next I'm ridiculing them. But I do have a consistent philosophy, which I'd describe as "realist". Yes, the SAT has flaws; yes, it can and should be better. Yes, there are broad problems with testing in general. My point is that we can't view these issues in isolation. It's not enough to criticize the system—you have to look at the alternatives. The SAT came about as a way to loosen ignorant WASPs' stranglehold on the Ivy League. It hasn't succeeded fully, but we can't just dismiss it.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Location Change

I've moved the address of this blog from the somehow slightly boorish mattspov.blogspot.com to the far more generic and comforting mattrognlie.blogspot.com.

Of course, since you're here and therefore know the new address already, this post is completely unnecessary. I'm in the process of telling everyone who I know comes here (all 2 or 3 of you; I love you!) about the change.

Different strains of progressivism

Now that it appears to be over, I'd like to point to this email exchange in Slate between Jason Furman and Barbara Ehrenreich as a classic demonstration of the conflict between the economically proficient left and the "raw emotion" left.

Ehrenreich's heart is certainly in the right place. But she equally clearly lacks all economic intuition. Take one of her statements:

"So, I would have to advise H. Lee that the Wal-Mart plan may not be sustainable: If you underpay people enough, in the absence of adequate and reliable government subsidies to compensate for their meager wages, they're not going to be able to buy your stuff."

This sounds plausible only 1) in the absence of all rational thought and 2) disregarding all mathematics. Furman offers an impeccably well-delivered takedown:

"Part of you wants to believe that your solutions would benefit everyone. In your last post, you suggested that if Wal-Mart raised its wages, it would get more customers. I don't have any great business advice for Lee Scott, but he's probably already figured out that if he pays his workers another $1,000, they'll spend at most $250 of it at Wal-Mart—of which only $10 will be profit for Wal-Mart. Hardly a way to grow your business."

As Furman points out, there are no costless measures. If we mandated that Walmart pay its workers a living wage (estimated around $12-14 per hour), the costs would be passed to consumers. Those consumers have predominantly lower incomes, and thus the policy's transfer effects wouldn't help the poor nearly as much as Ehrenreich assumes.

Then there are the massive efficiency and employment problems that would accompany such a sizeable increase in the minimum wage. To use economic lingo, any increase beyond the "marginal product of labor" inevitably leads to unemployment. This is a reasonable principle: if companies are forced to pay workers more than the workers produce, they simply won't hire the workers at all. The difficulty, of course, is in determining this elusive "MPL." For instance, evidence suggests that it probably isn't below $7 an hour in very many cases. If so, raising the minimum wage to $7 an hour wouldn't have serious adverse effects. But $12 or $14 an hour is a very different story. Minimum wages at those levels could lead to serious unemployment among the very people the policy seeks to help.

As Furman also mentions, there is a better device to help the poor: expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. As a wage subsidy, it can be targeted to help those who need it most. The incentives it creates are all economically positive—by increasing the reward for work, it increases the amount of productive work. And it is funded, for the most part, by the wealthy, who pay the majority of income taxes.

In sum:

Effects of the Earned Income Tax Credit: More money in workers' pockets, increased employment, and costs that fall mainly on the wealthy

Effects of a dramatic minimum wage increase: More money in workers' pockets, but increased unemployment. Costs that fall on all parts of the income spectrum, perhaps even disproportionately on the poor.

Monday, July 03, 2006

"Humanitarian"

Humanitarian.

I hate that word.

It takes what should be the most fundamental human responsibility—helping others—and turns it into a buzzword, an absurdly specific term that sounds like a religion.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Wait, that's not really libertarianism

I just wrote "libertarianism at its most logical" in response to the observation that legalization and regulation of prostitution would result in a better situation for the women involved. My mind wasn't thinking straight: any proposal involving regulation probably doesn't qualify as "libertarianism," at least by the extreme standards of the Libertarian Party (whose convention is right here in Portland this weekend). My apologies.

The pimp tax

It's pure politicking: Apparently, Senator Grassley thinks that the IRS can and should effectively crack down on prostitution.

I completely agree with this:

"If governments actually cared about the victims of sex trafficking, the logical thing to do would be to legalize and regulate prostitution. A legal, transparent system would make it much easier to ensure both the age and ability to consent of prostitutes. Abuse would go down, disease incidences would go down, and child trafficking would go down. Prostitution will always be with us, so why not ensure that any acts of prostitution occur solely between consenting adults?"

Libertarianism at its most logical.

(trust me—I don't get many chances to say that)

The Duke lacrosse case is a joke

Steven Levitt makes a very good point that would be lost on most people without his fine statistical eye.

Neither can wait

In response to Bjorn Lomborg's most recent piece: neither global health nor climate change can wait.

Wackos

These congressmen sure make me confident in our leadership.

"These were not the facts Weldon wanted to hear. The House member quickly lost his cool. "There is nothing under my sink that could be classified as a weapon of mass destruction or violate the Chemical Weapons Convention," he thundered. 'I think that is the kind of irresponsible statement that causes these kind of misperceptions out there. It's the kind of generalization that, in my opinion, is just plain stupid.' "

Right. Because Congressman Curt Weldon, a whack-job who recently planned a mission to head to Iraq and personally dig up those pesky weapons of mass destruction, knows more about chemical agents than David Kay. Smart guy.

Blowhard skeptics and global warming

Check out this choice example of substanceless skepticism on the global warming issue. Money quote:

"Gore's quote also relies on the shock value of the "70 million tons" of carbon dioxide emissions produced by humanity every day. That way of phrasing it sounds much more threatening than what it really represents: about 0.00000083% of the atmosphere. Just by breathing, humans produce about 6 million tons of CO2 each day. The natural transfer of CO2 back and forth between the Earth's surface and the atmosphere is estimated to be closer to 7,000 million tons every day."

What does that mean? Absolutely nothing. The writer enjoys playing a braindead game, pitting incomparable numbers against each other and pretending that the difference in magnitude is somehow consequential.

He resorts to games like these when he can't win on substantive grounds. The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased dramatically in the last few decades: in fact, it has increased almost 20% since 1959. Consider that: carbon dioxide is an integral contributor to life an earth, a fundamental part of our enormous ecosystem, and in a geologically short time it has increased by twenty percent. We're talking about billions upon billions of tons. Isn't that a big deal? In fact, shouldn't it have some shock value?

Say that you are a climate scientist in 1980. As a climate scientist, you know in a theoretical sense that carbon dioxide will trap heat and increase the temperature. You don't know, however, whether this will be offset by some negative feedback (the only likely negative feedback is cloud formation that reduces incoming sunlight). You thus resolve to wait for 25 years and see what happens.

You return in the present day. Whoa - temperatures have increased really rapidly! What's a rational analysis? That no negative feedback mechanism substantial enough to offset the warming appears to exist yet, and that the problem is becoming serious enough that we need to do something about it? (it is!)

Or, do you assert that both 1) There is some negative feedback mechanism that has been holding down man-made warming and 2) At the same time, we just happened to have an extremely unusual, rapid spate of natural cyclical warming?

Come on.

Yes, the writer of this article is a climate scientist where I am not. I still don't feel any qualms about calling him an idiot.

And why might he be so stupid? Perhaps he's become addicted to the sublime thrill and financial comfort of being a global warming skeptic. After all, to recall this hopelessly overquoted pearl of wisdom from Upton Sinclair:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Paying people to... um... not farm

This is probably the ultimate illustration of what's wrong with agricultural subsidies. They have no tangible agenda. Cash handouts do not preserve the halcyon days of family farming any more than cutting sales taxes would magically resurrect mom-and-pop corner stores.

And so, without any rigorous justification underlying our massive subsidies, we're left with absurdity: paying money to residents of land that was once, but no longer is, used for farming.