Friday, April 29, 2005

The power of magick

Via Amanda Marcotte and DED space comes interesting news:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has filed a petition on behalf of Cynthia Simpson, a witch of the Wiccan faith, seeking to reverse a ruling that upheld Chesterfield County's decision to bar her from giving the invocation at Board of Supervisors meetings.

In its petition yesterday to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the ACLU said it has asked the full court to reverse a three-judge panel ruling that allowed government officials to discriminate on the basis of religion when choosing people to pray at their meetings.

If religious officials are brought in to perform functions closely tied to government -- whether it be with regard to invocations, faith-based charities, or funding for religious schools -- it'd be neat if some Wiccans, Pagans, Hindus, Muslims, Ba'hai, and other minority faiths would assert themselves and claim the benefits and positions involved. I'd say Jews too, but they're probably mainstream enough that it wouldn't have such a pointed effect. Showing that church-state separation is the only way to maintain coven-state separation would increase many moderate voters' enthusiasm for the former. (And if not, we get to see more fun pagan stuff. Maybe it's a throwback from my Hindu upbringing, but I still like idol-worship.) Of course, this requires that the ACLU defend equal treatment of all religions, but I'm guessing they can get that.

There's a strange dark side to this strategy -- it involves using people's anti-Wiccan prejudices to defend church-state separation. But it's better if those prejudices get employed that way than in asserting the hegemony of the Christian religion over others. Besides, we utilitarians feel mischevous pleasure when we can use people's vicious motivations for virtuous ends.

School mistakes huge burrito for weapon

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Vote location

While I'm linking to other good Democratic bloggers, let me recommend Mark Schmitt's illuminating piece on why Harry Reid is outflanking Bill Frist.

Josh Marshall, Democratic hero

It's more for stuff he did earlier in the game than anything he's doing now, but someday when Social Security privatization is defeated, I'd like to see Howard Dean hang a medal on Josh Marshall's neck. The old "Fainthearted Faction" vs. "Conscience Caucus" lists were really valuable in directing our pressure exactly where it needed to go, and Marshall was tireless in pointing out all the trickery by which Bush was trying to sell his plan. Congressmen were referring to him in letters to constituents, and any media people who read his blog knew what the score was. Most likely this is just blogosphere myopia, but I don't know of anybody outside Congress who's fought this thing as effectively as he has.

Serial liar becomes oil minister

Ahmed Chalabi committed bank fraud in Jordan, misled us about WMD in the hope that we'd make him ruler of Iraq, and gave US intelligence secrets to the Iranians while pretending he was our friend. Now he's been made head of the Iraqi Oil Ministry. Be ready for Third World corruption like you've never witnessed before.

Who wants a Sceert eobok?

I'm often amazed at the inability of spammers to spell. The latest wonder in my inbox was titled "RE: Sceert eobok on how to have a great sex instantly." It took me a moment to realize that this was spammerese for "Secret e-book." The spammers had created a flashy graphic depicting 6 pornstar-looking women who were either having a great sex instantly or yelling for someone to bring back their clothes. But despite the skill and effort put into the graphics, they couldn't be bothered to spell the title of their email properly.

The RE:, of course, is deceptive. I have never requested a Sceert eobok on this or any other topic.

Flight of the butterfly

Some of the most interesting evidence for global warming involves animals doing unusual things because of the change in their environment. Texas biologist Camille Parmesan has done some work on this:

Her study found that the butterfly had abandoned habitats in Mexico and southern California and was moving farther north and to higher altitudes.

That led to other climate change studies, culminating in the 2003 paper published in Nature that showed climate change is altering how and where hundreds of species of plants and animals across the globe are living.

She and co-author Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University, analyzed data from studies of almost 1,700 species around the world.

They found that more than 50 percent of wild species have been affected by climate change. Habitats have moved farther north and to higher elevations. Some species were breeding earlier and plants were blooming earlier.

“That’s a huge number, to think that half the wild species are showing a response to 20th century climate change is just a much bigger number that I think any biologist expected,” Parmesan says.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

These distinctions matter

My recent post detailing two anti-realist options better than relativism has attracted much discussion.

The metaethical theory you accept -- whether it be error theory, noncognitivism, relativism, or objective realism -- has enormous implications for what you can say is right and wrong. I'm thinking now that I haven't yet presented the argument against relativism that would appeal most to liberals. This is going to be similar to my argument against speaker-relativism.

Consider the situation of the moral reformer -- the person who thinks her culture is accepting the wrong set of moral norms. Maybe this person is in the society prescribed by Deuteronomy 22:21. She says, "People here think it's okay to stone women to death for having had premarital sex, but it's actually horribly wrong." If you go relativist and consider moral claims to be about what the speaker or agent's culture regards as moral, you get this translation of her utterance: "People around here think it's okay to stone women to death for having had premarital sex, but actually people think it's completely forbidden." This is a straight-out contradiction. If you take the moral facts to be, by definition, facts about what society permits or forbids, the moral reformer is screwed the moment she opens her mouth. In espousing a moral system that isn't that of her culture, she's doomed to be wrong. Please, please don't go relativist. It changes the rules of moral argument into something that can be utterly vicious.

Perhaps most people who identify as "relativists" don't want this outcome. As Angelica and Tony pointed out in comments, the term "relativism" broke its cage in the philosophy lab a long time ago and is running wild in the culture. Etymology probably doesn't have control over the term at this point, but it gets its meaning from the idea that moral demands are only true relative to a particular speaker or agent, or her cultural surroundings. And I'd say that in the broader culture, its connection to cultural norms as the truth-makers for moral claims remains intact. Insofar as this is the case, it's something that must be resisted if moral progress is even to be regarded as conceptually possible.

Error theory and noncognitivism, respectively, are two ways of capturing what often motivates relativism without giving a weird theory of moral terms that puts the reformer into this position. Now, error theory isn't good from the perspective of anyone who's rooting for moral improvement -- since all moral claims are false, it's hard to see how an error theorist can be consistent in morally evaluating others' behavior as right or wrong. Perhaps the error theorist can have something else that it's right to promote (happiness? desire-satisfaction?) which she doesn't identify as what morality is about. And error theory doesn't make the moral reformer necessarily immoral, since it holds that there isn't any real morality or immorality. While I think noncognitivism is implausible because of its inability to successfully translate some more complicated moral utterances, its more recent and sophisticated versions survive many tests that relativism does not. If people are interested and I'm sober sometime, I'll post on varieties of objective realism. There are ways of running realism that don't commit you to anything beyond the scientific world-view, and don't require you to mangle moral concepts nearly as much as relativism does.

The broader point here is that our views on morality, or something like it, are going to inform a whole lot of how we act, vote, talk about politics, and operate in the world. We care about morality a lot, and it matters that we understand what it is. Our views on the nature of moral concepts have big consequences for the theory of what's right and wrong. So we'd do well to clarify them and make sure they're what they ought to be.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Expanding Medicare

After reading the excellent Ezra Klein health care series, I want to second the major rhetorical proposal Ezra offers: pitching universal health care as "giving more people Medicare."

What really leapt out at me during this series was how normal government provided health care is... Americans have somehow fooled themselves -- or been fooled -- into believing that government-run health care is somehow different from what they enjoy now. I genuinely believe they carry some sort of dystopian vision around with them, of gray waiting rooms and faceless bureaucrats and bread lines with stethoscopes, rather than grain, at the front.

Americans need to be assured that government run health care is not, in some weird way, a wholly different state of affairs. They need to know that it's the health care they enjoy now, just better, cheaper, and guaranteed. Medicare, because it's already used and liked, comes with those benefits.

I love Harry and Nancy

Remember when Republicans called Daschle an obstructionist, despite the fact that he let them pass pretty much their entire agenda? I'm sure their memories are more fond these days.

The anti-objectivist menu

Battlepanda thinks there aren't any objective moral facts, and so she's defying Dr. Velleman and calling herself a relativist. This reminds me of one of the big reasons why people think they're relativists -- they're unaware of the broad set of options besides objective realism and relativism. Judging from panda's post, I think she's an error theorist rather than a relativist. Let me go through two anti-objective-realist options other than relativism:

Error theory: Panda likens moral properties to Santa Claus and God, and this makes me think she's an error theorist rather than a relativist. The error theorist usually thinks our concept of a moral property is the concept of something objective. In other words, if there were moral properties, they'd be objective entities. Santa Claus, if he existed, would be an objective entity. If he existed, everyone would be speaking a truth if they said "Santa Claus delivers gifts" in their language. But the error theorist also thinks that the property of being morally right is absent from our world, just as the property of being Santa Claus is absent. This is why it's called error theory -- you hold that everyone who makes positive moral claims is in error. Battlepanda is an error theorist about Santa Claus and God, and maybe she should call herself an error theorist about morality as well.

I think many people who call themselves relativists are actually error theorists. They aren't saying that the truth-conditions of moral judgments depend on the speaker or the agent. They're trying to say that there aren't facts out there which can make moral judgments true. There are several motivations for this view. You might be perplexed about what sort of thing a moral property could be, or you might think the irresolvability of moral disagreement is a sign that we aren't latching onto any real properties in the world.

Non-cognitivism: Most people are cognitivists about morality -- they think that moral judgments express beliefs. Beliefs are truth-evaluable states -- it makes sense to talk about them being true or false. Other mental states of ours, like desires, are non-truth-evaluable. While a desire can be satisfied or unsatisfied, that's a whole different matter from being true or false. The non-cognitivist thinks that moral judgments express non-truth-evaluable mental states. These might be emotions, desires, or norm-acceptances (this last one was invented by Michigan ethics superstar Allan Gibbard). Non-cognitivism often has the benefit of making it easier to explain how our moral judgments motivate us to act. It can also allow you to retain talk of morality without requiring you to say there are any moral properties out there.

So if you're trying to figure out what your metaethical views are, the decision tree goes like this:
-First, decide if you think moral judgments express truth-evaluable mental states. If so, you're a cognitivist. If not, you're a non-cognitivist.
-Second, if you're a cognitivist, decide if you think relativism is part of our moral concepts. If not, you're an objectivist*. If you think moral judgments refer back to the speaker or the agent or their culture in the way Velleman talked about, you're a relativist.
-Third, if you're a cognitivist, figure out if the world includes the stuff that moral judgments are about. If so, you're a realist. If not, you're an error theorist.

Personally, I'm an objective realist. I take error theory more seriously than just about any objective realist that I've met, and I'm sensitive to the arguments in its favor. I just think we have a special way of knowing that pleasure is good and pain is bad, which gets us around problems in moral epistemology that trouble other ethical theories. Were it not for this, I'd be one of the few error theorists in today's philosophy world. As things stand, I'm one of the few Benthamite utilitarians.

*By objectivism I mean the view that our moral concepts are about something objective (non-relative). I don't mean the Ayn Rand junk. Stay away from the Ayn Rand junk.

Update: I've fixed the post so that "objectivist" is consistently used to refer to a view about moral concepts. Error theorists count as objectivists now. This makes the title not so apt, but oh well.

Update2: Attention Battlepanda scholars: I have since recanted the view that Panda is an error theorist. I still don't think she's a relativist in the sense that Velleman and I were talking about. Most likely, her talk of being a relativist shouldn't be read as a commitment to that position.

This hurts to read

"During the days of Saddam (Hussein), I used to make one coffin a day. Now, I make scores of them and the demand increases with every suicide car bomb that explodes," said the 67-year-old Baghdadi.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Why speaker-relativism is all screwed up

David Velleman, whose excellent seminar on practical rationality I took in the fall, explains what moral relativism is. He concludes, rightly, that moral relativism is a wildly implausible position that denies the universality of morality. Since morality has to be universal, speaker-relativism fails to give us the meaning of moral terms. If you're up for more relativism-bashing, take a look at this argument for why speaker-relativism is a totally disastrous theory of what moral terms mean. If you accept speaker-relativism, you end up having to say that people from different cultures can't even disagree with each other.

First, so we're all on the same page, let me quote the good professor:

In its most extreme form, speaker-relativism amounts to the view that right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder, since it says that each person is correct in making moral judgments according to what seems right or wrong to him. But speaker-relativism also has less extreme forms, according to which the correct moral standard is determined by the speaker's culture, for example. On this version of the view, each person is correct in making moral judgments according to what his own culture deems right or wrong. Thus, a speaker-relativist might say that whereas we are correct to judge slavery wrong, the ancient Romans were correct to judge it differently, because their cultural standards were different.

Imagine the following short conversation between present-day Bob and an ancient Roman:

Bob: "Slavery is wrong!"
Roman: "Slavery is okay!"

These guys are disagreeing, right? I certainly think so. Slavery can't be wrong and okay at the same time, at least if we're talking about the same instance of slavery. But look what happens when we apply the speaker-relativist's translation of moral terms:

Bob: "Slavery is forbidden by 21st Century Western culture!"
Roman: "Slavery is permitted by ancient Roman culture!"

Here we don't have a disagreement anymore. These guys are talking about two different things, and it's possible for both of them to be right. (In fact, both of them are right.) Let me make clear that the problem here isn't that we can't determine who is right, or that we can't resolve this disagreement. The problem is that speaker-relativism presents people as making compatible claims when they're actually disagreeing. As a result, it's a bad theory of what moral terms mean.

Bribery Airlines

Remember those nice cartoony diagrams that they showed us in elementary school about how a bill becomes a law? I don't seem to recall "lobbyists buy stuff for Congressmen" being there. Maybe it's because I wasn't educated in Tom DeLay's district.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Coal mining

In the course of a long and interesting DailyKos post on coal mining, Devilstower reminds us why we love federal regulations:

That "forbidden zone" around my childhood home? That's the "pre-law" land. As in the "before the surface mine reclamation act made us put down a huge cash bond that that we can't get back until we fix everything" land. Before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. If mining companies had not been required to essentially put themselves deep in debt every time they mined, and only get their money back when things meet the standards, they would have happily left more open pits and acid pools.

Those nice statistics on reduction in pollution? That's the Clean Air Act at work. If the government hadn't stepped in to tell them to stop, they would have never even heard the word "scrubber." Every move they made - from mining lower sulfur coal to the sophisticated steps put in place to cut down on particulate emissions - was done directly to meet the mandates of the Act. If the numbers on that graph look good to you, note that on average the industry has done exactly as it was required to, and not one bit more.

Weak nuclear force

Matt argues in favor of the nuclear option, pointing out that the Republicans can't pass their legislative agenda after Harry Reid shuts down the Senate in retaliation for the elimination of the filibuster. Longer-term arguments are available too -- eliminating the filibuster might help us get universal health care some day. Meanwhile, the Kossacks are marching to get GOP senators to vote against eliminating the filibuster. I really don't know what the right answer is here, but there seems a high probability that Democratic activists are acting contrary to their own interests, and that has me nervous.

Join us at the poker table

There's an obvious reason for Wall Street to support Social Security privatization: if everybody puts money into mutual funds, investment firms stand to pick up more money in management fees.

There's a smaller reason, which has attracted some notice: if more Americans have money in the stock market, they might be motivated to support pro-Wall-Street policies.

And then there's a subtle and devious reason which hasn't attracted much notice at all: the crafty folk of Wall Street want more patsies at the poker table. They want a huge crowd of bad investors who'll buy aggressive-growth mutual funds at the top and sell them at the bottom. That's because they want some beginners to whom they can sell high and from whom they can buy low. Most Americans, like dear old Bob, fit this description. Scams like the one that caught Bob aren't even the issue here. But if he was tricked so crudely, you can guess that his intuitions about market timing aren't likely to be reliable, and may even be a contrary indicator.

As the research director of a dorm-room hedge fund back in my college days, as someone who made and lost a fortune in the Nasdaq bubble, and as someone who's been doing reasonably well in the market over the last couple years, let me point out that there's an emotional side of investing that takes time and pain to learn. It's natural for beginners to buy stocks without seriously imagining how it'll be if, despite their best-laid plans, the stock drops 50% and stays there for a few months. Sure, you say you believe in the company and you'll hold on, but you don't know the emotions that'll be working on you unless it's happened a few times before. Vividly imagining all possible futures is key here. Having a reliable and tested method of investing that you trust, come hell or high water, is also very important.

People who can fully visualize the future possibilities, and who've developed time-testing methods for investing, are going to be taking money from those who haven't. Put simply, the hedge fund managers are going to take the money of hard-working poor folks and feel good about doing it. As the old line goes, when a guy with money meets a guy with experience, the guy with experience gets the money and the guy with money gets the experience. So there's reason to be suspicious when the privateers point to the high historical returns of stocks. On average, people break even playing poker, but that doesn't mean I'll be safe taking my fellowship check to an online poker website.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

So well my paper went

I just delivered Possible Girls at the conference. It went beautifully. There was amused laughter throughout, and with the exception of a minor point on the "immorality of modal realism" coming from Ted Sider, I was able to give (at least) plausible defenses of everything I say in the paper. George Bealer, who I hadn't known very well before, came up to me afterwards with big praise, which made me really happy.

Now I'm off to the post-conference party. Can't dress up as the recently tenured Josh Dever like I'd hoped to, but said imitation is in my future and Josh's.

Update:And now I see that I'm blogrolled by Ezra Klein! This day is going so well!

So wrong my loving goes

I don't clearly remember what it's like for a normal guy to accept that the girl he likes is uninterested or married or otherwise out of reach. I only know how it feels for me, and I'm pretty sure that's not the way it is for other men. For me, a huge part of it is the feeling that I'm staring down the barrel of a fundamental law of nature -- the law that Things Shall Not Work Out For Neil. There's a cold feeling of awe, and I feel myself getting goosebumps at the awesome sublimity of the law I'm witnessing in action. There's sometimes a little amusement at how silly I've been in thinking I had a chance, how silly to forget a fundamental fact that characterizes the world. Thoughts of the girl make me sadly wistful, which I guess is normal, but I'm pretty sure that the other feelings take time and misfortune to develop. I imagine that the experience of disappointment is less painful for me than for others, but the reason for this is probably unhealthy. Deep inside I'm so confident of failure that nothing can hurt me.

I'm presenting my paper, "Possible Girls," at our conference on possible worlds tomorrow. The paper argues that if David Lewis' modal realism is true, lonely boys like me can enter into romantic relationships with girls in other possible worlds. I suppose my current state is the mental state with which to go forward and present this paper. Even if I'm unloved by actual girls, the hope of being loved by a merely possible (but real) person will make me read and defend it with the heart it deserves.

Please don't pity me -- my life is going really well overall. I enjoy my work and I have lots of good friends. There's just one area in which nothing ever works out.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Matt-tinged thoughts on corporate incentives

If you haven't been following the sad story of America's biggest automaker, take a look at GM's stock chart over the past 5 years. In addition to economic decline and high oil prices, one of the main causes of GM's 90-to-26 decline has been rising health care costs for employees covered by the company. A whopping 14% of America's GDP goes to health care costs, and these are a huge drag on the business of a high-benefits employer like GM. Now look at Matt's post on TAPPED, which argues that the GM managers of old had only small incentives to prevent this from happening by supporting health care reform:

GM's managers probably didn't side against their own interests when they decided to sink the Clinton health care plan and, with it, their own company. As we've increasingly seen over the past several years, top executives are remarkably insulated against poor corporate performance. If their company's stock shoots up, they make huge sums of money in stock options and other incentive-based forms of compensation. But if their company does badly, they don't lose money the way shareholders do; they just make somewhat less money than they otherwise would have. GM going bankrupt will likely be no real skin off their backs.

Meanwhile, the executives have been paying much less in taxes than they would have had the Democratic Party been seeing more political success over the past 10 years. They used GM's resources in a way that was almost surely contrary to the interests of General Motors, but probably made the right call from an individual perspective. And as long as corporate America is governed in such a way as to create incentives for this sort of irresponsible political behavior on the part of corporate managers, it will be very hard to cope with serious national problems.

One might think that option compensation would give the managers proper incentives to look out for GM's long-term interests here. But that's not the nature of options. Usually your options vest (meaning you're allowed to cash them in) in 3 to 5 years, and the 1994 managers really don't have any incentive to protect the company from a crisis in 2005 -- especially one that's not sexy enough to grab shareholder attention until it's actually killing the company. And as Matt points out, at-the-money options don't expose you to any downside risk. If you get an option grant when the stock's at 50, it makes no difference to your options whether the stock goes to zero or stays put at 50. So wild gambles that aren't in the shareholders' interests are very much in the interests of management.

I remember when Matt considered the way that corporate attitudes towards public policy have changed over the past decades:

But in the 1950s and '60s business groups also spent a reasonable amount of time worrying about issues of broad national concern that also happen to be issues of concern to corporate America writ large. Progressive concern with creating a healthy, well-educated population is pretty well-aligned with the generic business interest in creating a healthy, well-educated workforce. Business interest in, say, lower taxes used to be tempered by this sort of interest in things that require public expenditures and an interest in not wrecking the general economy through out-of-control budgeting.

Somewhere along the way, this kind of thinking has basically vanished in favor of preoccupation with extremely narrow sorts of concerns.

I wonder if changes in the form of executive compensation -- and more broadly, in the ways executives see their jobs and their relations to their companies -- have had a role in diminishing their involvement in issues of broad national concern, like the health care example above.

(And in case you're wondering "How could government-run health care control costs better than the current system?" Matt can start you down the path to knowledge.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mammals for Better Economics

Fellow big mammal battlepanda has some reflections on the discipline of economics.

1. Economics is not like the other sciences. Acknowledge that.
Battlepanda points out that you really can't do the lab thing in many areas of economics (though there are experimental economists busy at work in some areas), and mostly she's right. It's certainly not like physics. But one might be able to successfully liken it to epidemiology. Epidemiologists don't go out and start epidemics to test their theories about how disease progresses. They learn from past cases of epidemics (and a whole bunch of other biological information) and use this information to give advice about how to deal with future cases. People who do macroeconomics are in a similar position.

We make broad stroke assumptions such as "each individual will act to maximize his utility" or "if the price is driven down to zero, demand is infinite" not because we are intellectually lazy, but because making those assumptions allow us to simplify a real-life situation the point where we can apply logic.
Enormous danger lurks here. Being able to "apply logic" -- or more precisely, being able to use sophisticated mathematical techniques -- on top of false simplifying assumptions can be worse than trading your Econ textbooks for whiskey and never thinking about demand curves again. When you confidently apply fancy math to screwed-up empirical assumptions, you come out with full-fledged false beliefs about how the world works. Then you walk zombie-like through the world, using your math-derived cred to impress and terrify people until they embrace your false and destructive beliefs. Ye Gods, let this not happen unto me! Give me rather the honest second-order knowledge that I have no first-order knowledge! (Or even better, some genuine first-order knowledge. And yes, this preference ordering is transitive.)

No doubt, simplifying assumptions that make the calculations easier are needed in lots of fields. If they don't change the results, it's all cool. But I'm worried that economists have a tendency to accept false conclusions derived false premises because the structure of the argument is so mathalicious. This tendency must be overcome. It's the same kind of tendency one sees in lots of other fields (evolutionary psychology, anyone?). Somebody falls in love with a cool mode of argument and suddenly they're applying it in the most dubious places.

The government has put a ceiling on the rent of properties in Jenny's town. Is Jenny better off? Do you even need to look at the graph? That would be a bit of a waste of time, wouldn't it, since this is blatently a "government-actions-have-unintended-consequences-that-end up-hurting-the-very-people-they-are-trying-to-help" question.
Somebody falls in love with a cool mode of argument...

As I've told libertarians before, ours is a messy world. We've got collective-action problems, the diminishing marginal utility of money, asymmetric information, monopolies, monopsonies, differences in bargaining power, and all sorts of wacky things that require massive empirical investigation before you can even think about how theory should be applied. Be careful out there.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Some redesign

Things may look a little different around here than they used to. I have a pair of my post-LASIK pictures up in the top left and a remodeled sidebar. Any further suggestions, or criticisms of what I've done? By the way, if you have the misfortune of viewing this site in IE for Mac, there's really nothing I can do to help you. Switch to Firefox as soon as you can!

The blogroll's been in a bit of flux for a while -- The Conservative Philosopher went on, off, and was replaced by Right Reason once Keith Burgess-Jackson went bonkers and drove all his people away. Pandagon went off when they lost Ezra Klein and came back when they picked up the wonderful Amanda Marcotte. Other semi-recent additions include ancient-philosopher-turning-journalist Dave Johnson, liberal berserker dadahead, the crisp writing of Daryl Sng, and the always-delicious Bunny McIntosh.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

We done sold it

Your Linguistic Profile:

50% General American English

35% Yankee

10% Dixie

5% Upper Midwestern

0% Midwestern

Despite spending my first 8 years in Kansas and the next 10 in North Carolina, I've got zero Midwest and half as much Dixie as New Yorker Yglesias! Maybe that's just how it's going to be for an Indian boy growing up in college towns. I do sometimes lapse into a Southern accent, especially when I want to be both polite and informal.

Strangely enough, the paradigm case of Dixie talk I have in my mind came from David Rusnak, one of the scientists at Glaxo where I did a summer internship. When an IT guy came by to ask him where a certain computer was, David gave the deadpan reply: "We don't got it. We done sold it. Spent the money, bought beer."

Buying a House

As I looked over the wonderful Tom DeLay's House of Scandal graphic, it hit me: Democrats are dealing with DeLay in exactly the wrong way. Sure, there'll be lots of benefits for Democrats in his fall, especially if he takes many GOP Congressmen with him. But if we're interested in regaining control of the House, there's a much better way to do it.

What worked for Enron, Westar Energy, pharmaceutical companies, and shadowy Russian security companies can work for us! We just need to give millions of dollars to DeLay (or perhaps to his wife and daughter, who raked in about half a million in PAC money since 2001), and soon we'll have a pro-choice, pro-gay, budget-balancing Republican Party that will repeal the bankruptcy bill and raise the minimum wage! Some finance rules might have to be bent in order to shovel all this money to him, but that's never stopped Tom DeLay before.

If somebody wants to start a 527 that'll get all this money together, I'll be happy to contribute. When you're out in the cold, it's time to buy a House.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Flat taxes don't simplify

I'd better get this post out quick, before everyone forgets what it was like to do their taxes. Now is the best time to point out that a flat tax (one without a progressive rate structure in which lower income levels are taxed at lower rates) won't actually make your taxes any simpler.

What did you spend most of your time on as you did your taxes? If you're an investor, maybe you spent it on totalling up all your stock gains and losses. If you get lots of income from different sources, maybe you spent it getting your motley assembly of W-2s and 1099-whatevers together. If you apply for a bunch of deductions, maybe it was getting deduction-related paperwork together and figuring out whether to take your standard deduction or to itemize.

Chances are, it wasn't figuring out how to work the progressive rate structure. If you used some software program to do your taxes, this took you no time at all -- the computer did it all by itself. If you did your taxes by hand, it was pretty easy to use the tax table in the book the IRS gives you, wasn't it? Just look up your taxable income, and it tells you how much you owe. (I've done it both ways, and I've never had any trouble with the progressive bracket system.)

So if you want to make things easier for tax filers, there's no need to mess with the progressive rate structure.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Still too young to care

After a wonderful farewell from Michigan, I'm back in Austin, and I want to share a nice line from ex-roommate Justin Tiehen on how polling literalism might have led the privatizers into error: "Seventy percent of people under 35 support private accounts. Two percent of them actually give a shit." A recent poll said that support for privatization has recently fallen to 51% among the under-35 set; I don't know if it asked whether they gave a shit. Justin's point, in any case, has some role in explaining why even a successful attempt to mislead young people about the virtues of their plan wouldn't seriously help the Bush Administration. Nobody at our age is really motivated to worry about retirement, and even if some option seems to improve our retirement security, we're not going to take to the streets for it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

All you need is Edwards

Matt's been dissing on Johnny, and though he's got some good words coming up, I have to answer him here. I take his comment that "In a lot of ways, the idea that John Edwards should be President of the United States was always a little ridiculous" as a criticism of Edwards as President rather than nominee. So let me explain why he'd make an excellent President.

The major knock on Edwards, from Matt and others, is inexperience. Sure, I'd love to have a President with the amazing wonkery powers that come from decades in politics. You definitely can't have a Bush sitting there, as his former Treasury Secretary put it, like "a blind man in a room full of deaf people." But policy stuff can be outsourced or learned without too much difficulty. What a President needs intellectually is the capacity to learn about important policy stuff quickly, and the capacity to pick out good advisors. I love the story of what Bill Clinton said after Robert Rubin and other aides explained the economy to him: "You mean to tell me that the success of my program and my reelection hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?" But Clinton listened to them, and the rest is history. My judgment is that John Edwards will pass this minimal test of intelligence. Even if he doesn't know everything he should, you just put some smart Democratic wonks around him, and we'll be doing almost as well as with anybody else.

The things you can't make up for are a candidate's basic motivational dispositions. If considerations other than helping others play an excessive role in his decision-making, he'll be motivated to pick the wrong policies, no matter how much he knows. Furthermore, sheer desire to help people aids one in learning the basic descriptive facts about policy. Take it from an up-and-coming action theorist: If someone intensely desires to help the poor, believes that learning will make him more able to help the poor, and has the ability to learn, he'll do a good job of learning.

Perhaps I'm just a sucker who's fallen for Edwards' acting (and I do think he's got a lot of the actor in him), but I believe that he's intensely interested in making things better for everyone in America, especially the people who need help the most.

Monday, April 11, 2005

If you can't kill them, give them jobs

Programs where people trade in their guns to get something nifty usually strike me as more symbolic than practical. But when it's longtime Palestinian militants trading in their guns for jobs, the symbolism may be strong enough to have genuine practical value. I'm sure that these guys have plenty of cred in their world, and it'll be a sign to everybody that it's time to build Palestine through peace rather than war.

So you might be thinking: What's going to happen if a bunch of crazy militants are running the Palestinian government? Is this really a good thing? Well, one of the coolest terrorism-related stories I've ever read involves how the PLO shut down its own Black September terrorist movement in the 1970s by setting up all the terrorists with wives, children, and jobs. (I had it linked here on some kind of now-vanished hippie site, but it originally was in the Atlantic Monthly.) Eventually the terrorists stopped being bloodthirsty killers and started being boring dads. I see Abbas' proposal as an attempt to further boring-dadification in Palestine, and that's definitely a good thing.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

California ballots

Matt's piece on polling literalism reminds me about something that sucks about California-style ballot initiatives. When you poll people about what policies they want, you're likely to hear wacky inconsistent preferences. They want low taxes, full funding of social programs, and no deficits. They want a flat tax, but think taxes on the rich should be higher. Matt's bit about John Kerry's "respected in the world" line is good too.

What happens when these people go into the voting booth for a poll that will actually decide policy? Well, they're going to step right up and express those wacky inconsistent preferences. They're likely to box their government into a situation where it really can't do anything. Representatives, at least, have to live with the consequences of their actions. If they cut taxes, they've increased the deficit, and a canny opponent may be able to make something out of that.

This problem is ameliorated a bit by the fact that the electorate thinks more about the issues before an election than they do before a poll. But I doubt that they think enough for these perceptions to be washed away.

Support Afghan love!

You know I'm going to be totally supportive of smart people in decreasingly repressed Afghan cities, doing it like they do on the WB!

Particularly amusing is what one dude said about the happy new era of cell phones:

"Before that, if you wanted to meet a girl and to send her a message, you had to give it to her little brother, with a candy for him."

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Bribery? Boo!

Mok wonders why it's a big deal that Tom Delay's wife and daughter got half a million dollars from PACs that he controlled.

Let's remember that it's okay for a business to contribute to a politician's re-election fund. It's not okay for a business to bribe the politician. Giving money to the politician's family members is culpably close to bribery.

This scandal suggests that contributions to DeLay's PAC aren't just for the acceptable purpose of running a re-election campaign. They're a way of giving huge gifts to his family members. This is the kind of thing that corrupt politicians set up, and it's not okay.

Logic of motivation

One interesting thing about desires (and motivational states in general, I think) is that they don't enter into the truth-functional relations that beliefs do.

Suppose I've been kidnapped, and I'm watching hungrily as my kidnapper sits down to dinner. Being hungry, I desire to eat the food that's on the table in front of the kidnapper. And hoping for an opportunity to escape, I desire that the food is poisoned. But I don't desire the conjunction of these states -- I don't desire that the food is poisoned and that I eat it.

Intending works this way too. Suppose I have a dart in each hand, and I'm throwing them simultaneously at a pair of small targets. If just one dart hits, I'll make $50. If zero or two darts hit, I don't get any money. Given how unlikely it is that I'll hit both targets, and how hard it is to hit even one, I may try to aim with each hand so as to maximize the probability of succeeding with that dart. I intend to hit the target on the left. I also intend to hit the target on the right. But I don't intend the conjunction -- I don't intend to hit both targets.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Democracy-promotion advice

Matt ends a post on the Pope like this:

His work in the Soviet Empire, along with more recent developments in Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, and with luck Egypt and Kyrgsztan seem to me to clearly demonstrate that violent overthrow of regimes by external military forces is by no means necessary to the efficacious promotion of freedom.

This is something that I would've loved to see more mention of in news analysis of Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, and with luck Egypt and Kyrgyzstan. The advancement of democracy rarely requires the invasive overthrow of dictators, and it remains to be seen how much it helps. Even if Iraq stays democratic, there's no way that spending hundreds of billions of dollars (and all those lives, and much of our credibility, and our relationships with allies) on that project was the most cost-effective way to promote democracy. Big foreign-aid packages tied to democracy-promotion, funds for liberal education in the Moslem world, and soft-power-increasing global antipoverty programs would take us way further.

Crazy people on the right will probably claim that Bush's invasion of Iraq advanced the dialectical progress of Absolute Spirit so that Freedom could march into these other lands. But will non-crazy people believe that, or are they smart enough to notice that there's really no good mechanism for connecting these and that foreigners don't even think we're serious about democracy-promotion anyway? I really don't know.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Political philosophy is weird. No, I am.

Political philosophy isn't really my area. But I sat through a grad student talk on Rawls today and it brought home to me something I never really understood about the field.

What's weird is the way evaluative claims and descriptive claims are mixed. For a standard-issue consequentialist like me, figuring out what to do occurs in two distinct phases. First, you do the evaluative stuff and figure out what makes a state of affairs good. Then you do the descriptive stuff and determine what actions will bring about such a state of affairs. If political philosophers followed this model, they'd first figure out what makes a system of government good, and then figure out how to pack the maximum goodness into a system of government, perhaps given some constraints about the particular practices and behavior of the citizens.

Instead what I see is a strangely mixed process. First one generates evaluative claims ("what matters is whether people have enough, not whether they have as much as others do"), then one considers a few very general descriptive claims ("if you expend enough resources to give the poor more than a certain level of well-being, the rich will be pissed and bail on the system"), then one goes evaluative again ("people who buy into the social contract should be rewarded for their contributions") and descriptive ("If we remind the wealthy of the equality of all citizens, they'll be cool with lifting poor people out of really intense poverty that prevents them from acting as proper moral/political agents.")

Maybe the reason this seems so weird to my Benthamite self is that I'm bringing a very simple theory of value into a very complex world. So it's perfectly reasonable for me to do the value theory in one neat step and never bother with it again. But normal people with normal theories accept a motley horde of values and obligations. They can't easily construct some general function that will map possible systems of government onto levels of goodness, with full consideration of everything good and bad. They've got to do political philosophy piecemeal, considering various ways to solve problems and figuring out their evaluative significance.