30 November 2012

Loopholes aren't

Politico | Lauren French | Tax loopholes alone can't solve fiscal cliff

Raise revenues and reform the Tax Code? Easy — just eliminate all the tax loopholes, right? Good luck with that.

“Eliminating loopholes” sounds a lot better than “raising rates”: The tax rate is what I pay, and a loophole is what the other guy gets.

But the biggest loopholes in the U.S. Tax Code — generally referred to as tax expenditures — aren’t just the tricks of the trade for millionaires with offshore bank accounts. For the vast majority of Americans, they’re just how things work: You don’t pay taxes on your health insurance or Medicare benefits; you contribute tax-free to your 401(k); and your mortgage interest pushes down your tax bill each year.
(1) "Loopholes" is a red-flag word. When I hear it I immediately raise my estimation that the person talking is either confused or deceitful. Most of the time when people say "loopholes" they're really describing an intentional feature of the system. This is what "loophole" actually means:
"A way of escaping a difficulty, especially an omission or ambiguity in the wording of a contract or law that provides a means of evading compliance."
The mortgage interest deduction, as much as a dislike it, it not an omission, and it's not ambiguous. It's very, very explicit. It's no more of a "loophole" than the income tax itself.

(2) Yes, you do pay taxes on 401k contributions. You just pay them later. The timing is irrelevant; they're still taxed. Maybe we should tax retirement savings now, maybe we should tax them later. But it's not a "give-away" and it's not "costing the government money." It's certainly not an "upper class entitlement." Sure, high earners avoid more taxes now. Then they pay more taxes later.

(3) You don't pay taxes on health insurance if your employer buys it for you. This is terrible way to do things. Unfortunately ObamaCare doubled down on the link between employment and insurance instead of fixing this illogical, historical accident.

(4) Paying taxes on Medicare benefits seems a little silly to me. Why do we want the treasury to write people checks with their right hand then snatch back a portion with their left? Am I missing something? Sure, doing so would technically "raise revenue" but only in the most facile, myopic way. Is this just because we're incapable of admitting that we ought to be writing smaller checks in the first place? (5) The mortgage interest deduction is flat out dumb. I have a hard time imagining a worse way to structure that system. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Why are we rewarding this particular form of indebtedness? There are a thousand ways we could do this better.

(5) Capital gains rates are not a "loophole" either. They're there on purpose.* Investment income has already been taxed, back before the money was invested. It's being taxed a second time (or more, when you consider corporate taxes as well.) The fact that you pay 15% on your gains instead of 35% or whatever doesn't mean the treasury is being cheated out of 20% because of some "loophole." There's no reason to think that when the IRS takes a second bite that it needs to be the same size as the first bite.

(* Some of the stuff with sweat equity and the way financial workers are compensated is a little dodgy. There are some loopholes there. But as a general rule, no. Capital gains taxes are just The Rules of the Game, just like income taxes and property taxes and sales taxes.)

PS French actually does mention some of this stuff later in her piece, like the tax benefit of health insurance only coming into play when your boss buys it for you. But I'm too wound up to go through and excerpt from all over her article and respond.

PPS No, I take that back. I can't resist commenting on two things later in the article.
• The earned income tax credit — $58.4 billion

[...] But recently, deficit hawks have balked at the $4.2 billion the [EITC] has paid out to ineligible illegal immigrants as a reason it should be taken off the books.
Here's a bright idea: how about you don't pay it out to illegal immigrants? (Or any non-citizens, for that matter.) Far be it from me to expect the IRS to run a tight ship, but you know, just maybe, maybe... it might be possible to operate this program correctly rather than just scuttling the whole thing?
• Exclusion of gains at death and the gift carryover exclusion — $51.9 billion

These exclusions allow hundreds of billions of dollars to transfer hands tax-free through gifts and inheritances, a huge revenue loss for the government.
You ever read Pillars of the Earth? I feel like I'm living in that medieval morality, tax-wise. "Oh, you want to ford this river? Well starting today you have to pay a tax to the king for doing that. You want to hold a flea market? The bishop demands a cut for granting you the privilege. You're gonna shear a sheep? Can't do that until you pay the baron his fee." It all seems to boil down to: we need money; a thing is happening; let's make anyone doing that thing pay us. No rhyme or reason.

That's how I feel when people talk about gift and estate taxes. As if every time money changes hands the fisc has some natural right to step in between the two people and demand a rake. The current gift-and-estate tax regime is screwed up in a lot of ways. But I can't abide this idea that whenever money changes hands the state has the right to siphon some off. What's worse is thinking that not only do they have the right to, but that whenever they don't do that they're somehow being cheated.

You know grad school was a good decision...

... when you laugh harder at Chomsky gag than anything else all week.

(Although this is a close second. Mrs SB7 laughed even harder at it than I did. That's how I know she's a keeper.)

Someone came along and cleaned tore down the carefully curated webcomics that we had taped to the lab door. This might go up as the seed of a new collection.


Modern American Trade Unionism

Asymmetric Information | Megan McArdle | Unions Organize Walmart Protests; Rest of the Nation Goes Shopping

But the Black Friday bargain hunters apparently simply pushed past the scattered protests in search of cheap flat-screen televisions—and the progressives who seem most on fire about this campaign are not really very likely to be Walmart shoppers. Which could be a metaphor for the whole US labor movement.
Modern American trade unionism: people who don't shop at, work for, or own shares in companies telling those who do how to run their lives.

28 November 2012

Does complaining about inequality harm people by making them feel more unequal?

EconLog | Garett Jones | How do you Sustain the Second Freest Economy in the World?

In an excellent Singapore econ-travelogue, Scott Sumner writes:
My theory is that leftists don't really mind a place where income is unequal, they don't like places where income looks unequal.
If this is a good theory, then leftists should spend much more time praising the pro-consumer side of capitalism. I wish I saw more pieces like Sebastian Mallaby's recent WaPo column "Progressive Walmart. Really."*

(* One very, very minor criticism of Mallaby's piece. His conclusion begins "Companies like Wal-Mart are not run by saints." He is right. But I wish he would have mentioned that no organization is run by saints. Not Walmart, not PIRG, not the AFL-CIO, not the USPS, not your local school board, not the Red Cross, not the the Boy Scouts, not the Church. None of them.)

If Sumner's theory is correct, we should also see leftists embracing studies which show inflation measures overestimate prices paid by low income people. Instead I tend to see the mood affiliation running the opposite direction.

They may in fact prefer societies in which income is unequal but looks equal, but in my experience they wish to talk about society as if it were even more unequal than it is. Doing so gives them more political ammunition for their favored reforms.

Jones links Sumner to Mickey Kaus:
This is close to what pioneering blogger Mickey Kaus has been pushing for since, oh, the invention of the New Democrats. I've never read his 1992 book The End of Equality, but after 13 years of reading Kausfiles I think I've got the main idea: Higher income inequality is inevitable, let's get used to it and let's respond by increasing civic equality, social equality. His idea is to tinker with the state so that people feel equal in civic life even if money inequality is high.
If we wanted to pursue this, it should be people most concerned about inequality who push all the statistics about money not mattering much in elections. Instead we see the opposite. A leftist following Kaus' playbook should be downplaying the effects of Citizens United, not screaming about the "end of democracy."

I think it also agitates for de-coupling housing purchases from education spending, (ie school choice) since doing so would increase social equality without affecting income equality. (At least not for a generation or more, and even then would do it without redistribution.) Again, we see the opposite from most of the Left. Is this because they disagree with Kaus, or because they are more concerned with the minor inequality experienced by unionized school employees than the major inequality experienced by poor students?

Returning to Jones:
Here's a sentence Kaus likes from Reagan's 1992 GOP convention address:
Whether we come from poverty or wealth... we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans that is not enough — we must be equal in the eyes of each other.
This is an essentially meaningless quote, because it can mean completely contradictory things based on how we choose to define "equal."

I suspect this is precisely why it appealed to Reagan. If you read what follows in his speech, it's all inspirational pablum. 'Crime is bad! Education is good!' The only actual policies he calls for are a balanced budget amendment and a line item veto. Otherwise it's just 'Hooray for Freedom! Hooray for Prosperity! Hooray for America!'

It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elisabeth owed silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consists in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.
— Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1950)

What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
— Andy Warhol
I'd like to see much more emphasis on consumption inequality than on income inequality. Warhol was no reactionary. Neither was Schumpeter, for that matter. They both managed to recognize how markets can help everyone, not just the rich. I wish more people recognized that, not just because it's the truth, but because like Sumner and Kaus say, it would make for a healthier, less envious society.

27 November 2012


The Economist | Fine art: Collectors, artists and lawyers

Alas, plenty of other experts are now too scared of lawsuits to authenticate pictures, says Clare McAndrew, the founder of Arts Economics, a consultancy. Early this year the Andy Warhol Foundation dissolved its authentication board after spending $7m to fight a lawsuit from a disgruntled London collector. In September the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Keith Haring Foundation stopped authenticating works by the two late artists. Last year the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation dissolved its authentication committee rather than “jeopardise our health and well-being”, says Jack Cowart, its director. In the past five years insurance policies taken out by art authenticators have more than doubled at Hiscox, an insurer.
Can we all agree this is bad litigation? It's a sad state of affairs if society can't enforce a contract that says "Party A agrees to tell Party B whether they believe artwork X is authentic, and party B agrees not to sue Party A if they don't like the answer."
How will the art market adapt? China offers a clue. Art expertise in China often carries little weight because authenticators are thought to be in cahoots with a dealer or seller, says Shin-Yi Yang, a curator in Beijing. So living artists make more money, since they can personally assure buyers that a picture is not a fake, he says.
Interesting. Can I propose another possible adaptation? Increased demand for digital works which can be signed using public-key cryptosystems.

Digital signatures aren't really my thing. (Hell, crypto isn't really my thing, but I'm trying to remedy that now.) But I think as long as an artist/their estate keeps their private key secret this should work well. It should even allow authentication of limited additions, which I'd guess is a problem with digital works currently. IIRC they're usually packaged with a physical certificate of authenticity from the artist, which is bound to be orders of magnitude easier to forge than either a traditional painting or a digitally-signed file.

the inverse of "pics or it didn't happen"

Run Free 2013 by Ridiculo.us

So on February 2, 2013, we are faking a marathon. We’ll have all the trappings of a real marathon - race banners, race t-shirts, race medals, race sponsors, race bibs, a race program... you get the idea. We just won’t have any actual... racing. We’re calling it Run Free 2013. Because, well, it’s run-free. It’s free of running.
The fact that this exists: I like it.

PS I want to take this opportunity to tell the Internet that I am proud of Mrs SB7 for finishing her second half marathon recently. Way to go, Lady Friend.

Wrinkly Tax Codes

Asymmetric Information | Megan McArdle | More On That Wrinkly Tax Code

Reader Mark writes in to highlight some of those EITC problems I spoke of earlier:
Now, if the GOP would like to cement a generation of voters that would keep them in office and make them competitive in places like OH, NY and PA, end the injustice of the current tax code and make it easy to be a citizen instead of having that sinking feeling that you are both getting hosed and probably a felon at the same time.And guess what, it’s the right thing to do. Too bad the donor base is addicted to tax breaks and crony capitalism instead of the good of the nation.
If given the choice between the current tax code and one where I would pay more dollars but not simultaneously feel like I'm being cheated and being forced to worry about the IRS claiming I'm a felon, I would take the latter.

I don't care if the Red Team or the Blue Team does this. I'll consider backing whoever allows me out of a tax system that makes me feel simultaneously afraid of being a sucker and of being caught breaking laws I didn't know existed.

PS McArdle concludes with:
This is an enormously tough problem with the EITC. I support the idea that our tax code should support low-wage work. But the phase-outs create large income ranges where raising your salary doesn't make you noticeably better off--may even make you worse off.
In a later post she says the following:
This is a basic problem wtih means testing. But it's not necessarily an argument against means testing so much as it is an argument for very long phaseout periods--and especially, for staggering the phaseouts so that they don't all hit in the same income range. This is why the poor can face marginal tax rates that exceed 100%: hit a certain income range, and your EITC, Medicaid, food stamps, and other forms of assistance all start to phase out at once.
We can try to smooth out these cutoffs, stop using step functions, distribute them across a range of incomes rather than stacking them all together, make phase-outs more gradual, make rates differentiable, but at the end of the day there's no way to have both generous benefits and low marginal rates for low income people. There are plenty of ways to make this system a little more reasonable — and we should take them — but when all is said and done that's a circle that can't be squared. Every time you raise benefits for the $0 income person you make the marginal rates of low income people higher as well.

26 November 2012

In which I piggy back on another blogger's advice column

Asymmetric Info | Megan McArdle | Ask the Blogger

Dear Blogger:

Which leaves me with something of a middle choice: masters programs. I'm very interested in pursuing an MPP--it seems most of those policy-related jobs that used to be available to smart BAs now require a law degree or an MPP.
I've heard statements like "I'm really interested in public policy" way too often in the last year.  I'm trying my best to take off my libertarian hat here, and I still can't find any way of translating such statements into anything other than "I'm really interested in figuring out how to tell other people how to live their lives." Seriously, non-wookies, fill me in here. I'm sure most of the people who say "I want to do public policy" do have pure intentions, but how is this different from wanting to order other peoples' lives?
[From McArdle's response.] And second, to pay very close attention to the ranking of your school within your field of graduate study. Yale has the number one law school, and an MBA program with a so-so reputation. People often erroneously assume that a top-ranked school in a field they know well must mean that all the programs are good. But even a school like Yale has some notso-hotso graduate programs.
This is very, very important.

People have pretty good background knowledge of how undergrad programs stack up. Those rankings are only loosely correlated with grad schools rankings. In turn, those are only loosly corrleated with the rankings of departments in particular fields. And then those are only loosely aligned with sub-specialties within fields. Without even considering which lab you work in or who your advisor is, either of which have their own rankings and prestige, we're already pretty much entirely uncoupled from what you read in USN&WR or Princeton Review a few years ago.
Those of us who have been working for longer have noticed that shockingly few of our acquaintances are still doing data entry or driving a fork lift twenty years later. As long as you're actively looking for the next thing, and talking to employers about how you might become the worker they want, you will eventually figure out what you're good at, and find a better job.
I know too many people who are terrified of sitting down with their boss and asking what they need to do to take the next step up the ladder. They're scared enough of that confrontation (or scared that the boss will tell them to work harder/longer than they want to?) that they decide to take huge gambles on multi-year graduate programs or fliers on total career shifts instead.

"Making assistant manager is hard." Okay, sure. "So I'm quitting and going to law school." Right. Because that isn't hard. Or time consuming. Or expensive.

"I don't see there being much a career path for me at IniTech." Alright. "So I'm quitting to take an internship with an event planner in Denver." I think what you meant to say was "I like reading wedding magazines and it would give me an excuse to be on the bottom rung of the ladder for a few more years."

This poor guy must think he's in Snow Crash

Not Always right | Leaving The Country Is Fined By Us

(I work at the Dutch version of the DMV. We get a lot of calls by people trying to get a fine waived. In most cases we can’t, and in some cases we can give the customer some slack.)

Me: “This is [name]. How can I be of service?”

Customer: “Yes, I want to complain about your service, and I want you to remove me out of your system!”

(I’m a bit confused; since we are a government-controlled agency, it is a bit strange for someone to ‘cancel their subscription’ with us.)

Me: “What issue are you having with us?

Customer: “I got fined because I didn’t get my car inspected in time for my MOT!”

(Note: Translated into English, ‘MOT’ is our Periodic Vehicle Inspection. Normally, we send out reminders as a courtesy, but we cannot be held responsible if a customer forgets to get their MOT done. This customer in particular did not have an MOT for about 9 months.)

Me: “Ma’am, I am going to try to repeat what you are saying so I know that I understand correctly. You want us to ‘cancel’ your ‘subscription’ to us, a government-controlled agency to which you, as a person living inside the country itself, are responsible to abide the laws on which owning a car are set?”

Customer: “Yes, I want you to remove me from your system! I wish to go to your competitor!”

Me: “Miss, with all due respect. I first of all do understand the discomfort of getting a fine for these kinds of laws. But don’t you agree that moving to a different country is a bit drastic, just because you do not want to get fined for your car?”

Customer: *continues ranting*

Me: “Miss, again, with all due respect, I do apologize for letting you feel like this. However, we have laws to which you, me and everyone needs to abide to. How unfair the fine may seem, I cannot undo it and I cannot take you out of our system.”

Customer: “Why not?!”

Me: “Because that would be considered a criminal offense. It would also involve you, leaving our country and living abroad. We do not have a competitor. I wish I had other news for you, so I’m truly sorry.”

Customer: “F*** you!”
"We do not have a competitor." Yeah. That's the problem right there.

My fondest wish is that I can show this story to my grandkids in 50 years and they'll think the DMV worker is the crazy one for supporting a state that doesn't contract this kind of thing out to multiple providers.

I call shenanigans on David Brooks again

NYTimes | David Brooks | Why We Love Politics

I hope everybody who shares this anti-political mood will go out to see “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere.
(1) You can also do more evil in politics than any other sphere. Seriously, name me ten people who have done as much evil without politics as Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, Hirohito, Caracalla, Napoleon, Temujin, Robespierre, ... Do I have to go on?

(2) Tell that to Norman Borlaug, or Joseph Lister, or John MacAdam, or Henry Bessemer, or Johannes Gutenberg, or Luca Pacioli, or Vint Cerf, or ... Again, do I have to go on?
The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.
"You know what's great about politicians? That they're so good at lying and cheating and arm-twisting and back-stabbing in order to achieve the goals they've personally decided are right." Wow. How noble. Brooks' entire argument boils down to the ends justify the means.

No, actually it's worse than that. He's claiming that dirty means make the ends even more glorious.

Can you imagine the NYTimes opinion page publishing this blather about someone in any other profession? "Oh, I'm ever so thankful that the CEO of ADM lied and cheated in order to get draught resistant GM potatoes in the hands of peasant farmers. Isn't it great that he ignored courts, doled out patronage, played legalistic games and deceived friend and foe alike, all to achieve a good end?"

If you weren't convinced that Brooks had a tremendous hard-on for the State I hope this column has cleared things up for you.

25 November 2012

"High Virtue and Low Cunning"

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Modelling the Marriage of High Virtue and Low Cunning

Suppose Brooks' claims are factually correct. What economic, psychological, and/or sociological model(s) would explain them? Why precisely would good political ideas need to be shrouded in deception?
Wait a sec. Perhaps this is my ND-going-to-the-big-game beer induced haze talking. But in what universe are we starting from the assumption that political ideas are not shrouded in deception?

At this point I'm incapable of enough metacognition to know if this is the High Life or my own misanthropic anarcho-libertarianism talking, but why wouldn't deception be the baseline? If we could simulate a billion human civilizations I'd expect good ideas and deception to be going hand-in-hand in a vast majority of them. Maybe that's just my priors talking but... But nothing. I'm going to go finish this pint, wipe down the kitchen, and turn in.

PS I'm beginning to realize that I need a list of "just barely smart enough to be dangerously wrong" list, and that Brooks needs to be highly placed on it. But that's a thought for another evening. G'Irish. I'm out.

21 November 2012

Receiver Operating Characteristics

Cafe Hayek | Don Boudreaux | Testing Jonathan Haidt

I happened across this paragraph from the site breastcancer.org – not a political or ideological site:
Biopsy is usually a simple procedure. In the United States, only about 20% of women who have biopsies turn out to have cancer. By contrast, in Sweden, where cost accounting is much stricter and only the most suspicious lesions are biopsied, 80% of biopsies turn out to be cancerous (malignant).
Notice how this account can easily be read as evidence (1) against the alleged superiority of heavy government involvement in financing health care, and (2) for the alleged superiority of heavy government involvement in financing health care.
Sweden and the US sit on different points along the biopsy ROC curve. That is all you can conclude from this extract.

File under: "benefits to studying Machine Learning that have nothing to do with technology."

17 November 2012

"The learning pill"

Daniel Lemire's Blog | The learning pill

Given a choice between a college graduate in Computer Science and someone who has a leading reputation on stackoverflow, which corporation would pass on the college graduate?
Answer: probably the corporation that built StackOverflow.

Draw your own conclusions.

PS I don't mean StackExchange will hire people with a good reputation on their own system. I mean StackOverflow was built by a team of people who valued ability over credentials. You'll notice Jeff Atwood, one of StackExchange's two co-founders, does not list "look at their college transcript" on this list of "how to hire a programmer." Joel Spolsky, the other co-founder, puts more emphasis on college than Atwood, but he's said that's for the pre-selection effect. He's as happy to see McKinsey or the Marines on a resume as Harvard because what he's interested in is outsourcing the effort of screening candidates to other selective organizations. They probably discussed their hiring process half a dozen times on their podcast, which was extremely educational about how good software companies actually operate.

PPS Spolsky has repeatedly written that he's a big, big fan of hiring directly from his internship program. He recruits sophomores more than seniors, IIRC. So while he places import on college, he doesn't seem to place much on having finished college.

12 November 2012

There's bias and then there's bias

Rhymes With Cars & Girls | Sonic Charmer | Nate Silver finds and quantifies evidence of (D)-favoring voter fraud

I wish this was true. I really do. But Charmer said people should call him out more often, so that's exactly what I'm going to do.

As much as I wish I could embrace this thesis, I think Charmer is making a big mistake, and that's conflating bias and variance.
Nate Silver has an interesting post summarizing how the various polling firms did in their state polls. Generally it looks like he finds most of them had consistently overestimated the (R) vote. He throws out the usual cuffed explanation for this (not enough cell phones, younger people have cell phones, younger people are more (D), bla bla).

But he appears to miss the elephant in the room, which is cheating. But surely no serious, scientific, quantitative genius person such as Nate Silver can possibly forget or just un-scientifically ignore the fact that the final vote contains some nonzero amount of cheating.
So far, so good. Cheating accounts for some fraction of the discrepancy. A non-zero fraction, but also a non-one fraction. Even if all the polls are perfectly done, there will be some tiny, tiny correlation between them. Just like it's safe to assume at least one ballot was fraudulent, it's safe to assume at least the estimate of one vote did not cancel out when all the different polls were conducting and aggregated.
Now – to echo a bunch of arguments I made against Silverbating righties – the fact that almost all these polls from all these different polling companies with all different sorts of methodologies find a consistent, systematic “(R) bias” just beggars belief. No quantitative-minded person can just accept that as the result of random chance. Sure, there will be errors and biases but wouldn’t the errors and biases cancel each other out? How likely is it that virtually all polls would come out with an (R) bias? That is an extraordinary claim which requires extraordinary evidence, which Nate Silver does not have.
Here's where things get semantically tricky, because "bias" has a particular meaning which is different from the one we use when we talk about politics. At least it does according to the quantitatively-minded persons who taught me quantitative things.

If a system has bias, it will make errors on a particular prediction regardless of the training set (or in the case of polling, sample set) used. Variance, OTOH, are errors that will change for that particular prediction based on which training set/polling sample is selected. Bias is, roughly, a systematic error, while variance is a result of "noise."

For example, the C4.5 decision tree learning algorithm has a bias towards orthogonal classes. If the true decision surface isn't orthogonal in a particular dimension then it will always make some errors because of that. If the true decision surface is orthogonal but slightly amorphous, those will cause variance errors.

(The left is variance. If you're predicting blue o's will be on the left of x=0.5 and red x's on the right, you'll have gotten some wrong just based on the random noise. The right is bias. If you still thought x=0.5 was the dividing line between classes but it turns the true dividing line is the solid purple diagonal line then you're going to make consistent and correlated errors no matter what random sample of x's and o's you select.)

The errors of every predictive system are a combination of bias and variance. In order to avoid bias you need flexibility, but increased flexibility makes you subject to over-fitting. As a result you'll always have some of each kind of each error.

So it's totally possible, in fact likely, that each poll could have correlated bias. It's implausible they'll have correlated variance, but bias is extremely likely. If there is in fact problem with getting Dems on the phone, etc. and every poll is based on randomly phoning people, then yes, you would expect all those phone polls to make correlated errors.
The more parsimonious and scientific inference is that the “(R) bias” Nate Silver has found is, of course, nothing other than an estimate of the (D) cheating advantage. What else could it be, after all? Yes, it could theoretically be something else – but that would require an explanation, and evidence. Surely the null hypothesis is that the “bias” showing up from these polls is just the result of voter fraud.
Can we assume that both parties cheat to some extent? There is at least one pro-GOP and one pro-Dem ballot that has been cast fraudulently. In any set of elections, some of them will receive more fraudulent R than D votes. If each party were to cheat the same amount we would see these canceling each other out; there would be no correlation between the cheating levels.

Okay. In order for Charmer's hypothesis to be the most parsimonious, we must conclude that the correlation of cheating exceeds the correlation of poll errors.

I'm totally willing to believe one party cheats more than the other. Fine. But I also have good reason to believe that the poll errors are highly correlated. What I don't have is reason to believe ballot fraud is more highly skewed Dem than is polling error. We're right back where we started: some of the polls' overestimation of GOP votes is due to bias in the polls, and some is due to fraud. Still no reason to conclude the fraction is 100% fraud and 0% polling bias.
In other words, we now have scientific, quant-friendly evidence here that the (D)s get something like a ~1.2% advantage from fucking cheating.
This is true only if you assume all the differential is due to cheating. This is the ceiling of that the Dem advantage to cheating is; the true value is lower.

In order to figure that out we would need to know not only that one party cheats more than the other, but the degree to which they do so.
Again, if you have a better explanation why all these polls would come out with a R+1.2 bias on average, you are welcome to advance your argument, along with your evidence. But fair warning, if you mumble some facile BS about ‘cell phones’ or ‘hurricane Sandy’ I’m going to fucking make just as much fun of you as I made of righties who BS’ed stuff about lefties more likely to lie about being likely voters or pollsters ‘using a 2008 turnout model even though (R) enthusiasm is really high’.
Cell phones? Sandy? I don't know what the underlying cause is, if indeed there is a single one. But you don't have to be able to solve that responsibility assignment problem in order to know if there is bias.

If every poll is making the same assumption about the distribution of the electorate, for example, assuming there is no correlation between being willing to take 5 minutes to talk to a pollster and supporting Romeny, and that assumption is wrong then they could all very easily make correlated errors because they would have the same bias. Not the same variance, but the same bias. Since all predictive systems will make both bias and variance-derived errors, if the bias terms are correlated, the error terms will be correlated. (Less strongly, due to canceling variances, but still somewhat correlated.)
I think I’ve earned the right to say this because I have been and continue to be consistently on the side of the quants: if you don’t see Nate Silver’s table as, absent other quantified and supported explanations, prima facie evidence of the size of the (D) cheating advantage, then guess what? You’re not on the side of the quants, and you must hate math.
I think I've also earned the right to say this, because I have also consistently been on the same side of this issue. So... ummm... there. Take that?

PS If every poll's errors were uncorrelated, why would we see this?

If Charmer's story is correct, and polls are wrong only because of cheating, then it shouldn't matter what kind of poll was conducted. They'd all accurately reflect how people intended to vote, people would go out and vote that way, then the results would be skewed by fraud. All the poll types would show the same GOP overestimation/Dem cheating advantage.

This seems to be pretty clear evidence that the polling process itself introduces correlated errors.

PPS Internet polls most accurate? Interesting. Contradicts conventional wisdom. Would like to know more.

I'm editing the above to reflect a point Charmer (aka RWCG, which I'll call him (?) from now on) made in the comments.

Internet polls more closely reflect the observed outcome? (* Where the observations include effects of fraud.) Interesting. I would like to know more about their process.

08 November 2012

Micromorts & Microlives

Schneier on Security | Bruce Schneier | Micromorts

Here's a great concept: a micromort:
Shopping for coffee you would not ask for 0.00025 tons (unless you were naturally irritating), you would ask for 250 grams. In the same way, talking about a 1/125,000 or 0.000008 risk of death associated with a hang-gliding flight is rather awkward. With that in mind. Howard coined the term "microprobability" (μp) to refer to an event with a chance of 1 in 1 million and a 1 in 1 million chance of death he calls a "micromort" (μmt). We can now describe the risk of hang-gliding as 8 micromorts and you would have to drive around 3,000km in a car before accumulating a risk of 8 mt, which helps compare these two remote risks.
There's a related term, microlife, for things that reduce your lifespan. A microlife is 30 minutes off your life expectancy. So smoking two cigarettes has a cost of one microlife.
(1) Yes, this is a neat idea. The analogy to using grams (or pounds) rather than tons makes a lot of sense.

(2) People are tremendously bad at reasoning numerically about fractions. For instance, people tend to see the difference between 1/50,000 and 1/100,000 as the same as that between 1/200,000 and 1/250,000. This may help alleviate that problem since it holds the denominator constant and presents the numerator to people to reason about.

(3) Perhaps we need a unit like the horsepower: some sort of real world baseline for risk to which we can refer. Maybe everything can be compared to lightening strikes, so the chance of dying in a helicopter crash might be 0.25 L-strikes if four times as many deaths are caused by lightening as helicopter crashes. (I'm totally guessing about those values.)

My first thought was deaths-for-falling-down-stairs, but that is not nearly constant over time or across cultures. Plus I can't think of an easy abbreviation like "L-strike".

(4) I think micromorts and microlives may give more ammunition to scaremongers. It's already easy enough to scare people about tiny risks. I sure don't want to make it any easier. We would have to do some surveys to find out, but I suspect 8.6 micromorts sounds scarier than a 1 in 116,000 chance of dying.

(5) You can gather pretty good statistics for the chance of dying from hang gliding accidents, and get a pretty precise measure of the micromorts involved. Determining microlives involves much more sophisticated actuarial calculations, and I'm pretty certain it will end up being much less accurate. I would be very skeptical of someone who could tell me with any precision at all how many microlives eating a sunny side up egg or medium rare steak will cost me.

I'm all for doing things scientifically and quantitatively, but I am wary of pseduo-science and false precision. "All large calculations are wrong," as a wise man once said. I do not want to give technocrats and professors hungry for grants any more reason to go in front of Congressional hearings to talk about how they've calculated that allowing Americans to smoke weed/drink wine/drive Toyotas/use Sidecar for ride-sharing/eat imported haggis/etc is costing them 59.463271 microlives each.

Yeah, this is a bit immaterial. Micromorts/microlives are still a good idea. I'm just pointing out that they may be used for Evil as well as Good.

07 November 2012

Permanent majorities are as permanent as high tides and hemlines

Let me just call bullshit on any "permanent Democratic majority" ideas right now.

It seems inevitable that the hacks of whichever party wins right these after nearly every election. They're always wrong. Always. I must have lived through a ten "permanent majorities" in my lifetime already, including all of the last three elections. The fashionable width of men's ties is more constant than the American "permanent majority" is.

I'm not going to bother arguing why they're wrong this time. (Go read this if you're interested.) In fact I'm not wasting another cognitive cycle on this.

I just want this post to exist so that 2n years from now, when stuffed shirts start talking about "permanent GOP majorities," as they inevitably will, I can link back to this to use as my i told you so.

06 November 2012

Silver Models

Nate Silver. Where to even start with this whole brouhaha about his election forecasting?

How about here: Conservatives, a lot of you made yourself look like real clowns with your bullshit criticisms. We're talking about some real hackery going on.

I could probably give an hour long lecture on modeling using spurious critiques from National Review Online as the framing structure.

All the criticisms I've seen (at least the ones that rise above "not even wrong" levels) boil down to this: if the state-level polling is wrong, Silver's projections will be wrong. Yes. Thank you. Also good to know: if every thermometer in the state is wrong today then your meteorologist will do a bad job at predicting tomorrow's weather. And maybe state-wide polls do have a consistent bias (in either the technical or colloquial sense), maybe there is some big Bradley effect going on, maybe their sampling technique is off. Who knows? But if every poll is wrong, all in the same direction, then the problem is that every poll is wrong in the same direction, not that Nate Silver is pulling numerical trickeries.

I don't have the patience to wade through all of this stuff with Silver. Besides, Sonic did it better over at RWCG. Go scroll through his posts over the last couple of weeks, or maybe search for "Silverbating."

This was a good piece at HBR:
HBR Blog Network | Justin Fox | What Does Nate Silver's '80.9% Chance of Winning' Mean, Anyway?

Nate Silver, the KPMG-consultant-turned-poker-player-turned-sabermetrician-turned-prescient-forecaster-of-the-2008-election, has suddenly become the Most Controversial Man in America. [...]

In fact, Silver acknowledges pretty much every reasonable criticism of his approach — his writing is a model of intellectual honesty. If Romney crushes Obama on Nov. 6, Silver can be expected to react not with denial, excuses, or silence (the standard responses of the political pundit who gets it wrong) but with a straightforward, fact-filled analysis of where he messed up. If all we were talking about was Silver's writing, in fact, I could stop right here.

But the writing isn't the only thing that draws people to Silver's blog. In fact, I would venture to guess that, say, 80.9% of the visitors to fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com are there simply to look at his percentage forecast of the election (which as I write this gives Obama an 80.9% chance of winning). I know I check it several times a day to see if the number has changed. I also know that, in many ways, a percentage forecast is the most honest way of calibrating one's balance between confidence and uncertainty. But as a way of communicating uncertainty, the percentage forecast is also deeply flawed.
I get the sense from reading Silver, and from interacting with a lot of quantitative types like him, that he sees this as his readers' problem and not his. And he's right, frankly. Yes, he takes pains to explain what he means, but at a certain point innumeracy is the reader's fault, not his. He doesn't — and shouldn't — run a remedial math blog.
We see more certainty than is actually there. Or, as Steven Alexander jokingly tweeted about Silver's forecasts:
2:1 odds are basically a lock. The probability of losing is like 1 in a million.
I'm really glad he's joking. I bet most people would read this and think "yeah, that sounds about right" not "ummm, that's off by several hundred thousand."
Silver has repeatedly, and not very convincingly, tried to explain his percentage forecasts in the context of a football game: Romney is behind, but could still win with a last-minute touchdown. The problem with this metaphor — as, of course, Silver has acknowledged — is that we don't actually know the score of the game. We're standing outside the stadium and guessing the score based on crowd noise. So the source of uncertainty resides at least as much in the potential for mismeasurement as in the potential for last-minute game changers.
This metaphor is just spot on for me, mostly because I spent some time last week building a Monte Carlo model in Matlab to help me make fantasy football roster decisions. Yes, I am that big of a geek. But I'm also tied for first in my league, so I'm doing something right.

It's actually a great exercise. So please, journalists, before you spend an afternoon writing a critique of Nate Silver or some other modeler, please try to model something. Anything. Open up a spreadsheet or Octave or NetLogo or any of several other free software systems and muck around a little.
What Silver's 80.9% forecast technically means is that, if the Obama-Romney 2012 election were contested 1000 times, he thinks Obama would win 809 of them.
That's not what it "technically" means, that's just what it means. Full stop.

I see a lot of people who get upset and say things like "Damn it, weatherman, you said there was a 30% chance of rain and it didn't rain!" If the weatherman says there's a 30% chance of rain ten times, it shouldn't rain seven of those days. Not that complicated.
I happen to find Silver's reasoning pretty convincing. But I still don't know quite what to make of his 80.9%. Maybe we'd be better off if he just expressed it as a scatter graph of the results of his thousands of Monte Carlo simulations. [...]

Update: Economist Richard Thaler points out that if you scroll down the page a bit at fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com, there's a chart showing the distribution of potential outcomes generated by Silver's model. Let's have a show of hands of how many of you have ever actually looked at that.
Me. I'm raising my hand right now. I do that. It's a much better way to get the look of a distribution than a single scalar value, as anyone who has read Tufte should know.

Here's a distribution plot I generated to help me decide which of two kickers I should pick up as a back-up.

One player is red, the other blue. The solid and dashed lines use different assumptions for the distributions that are irrelevant to the present discussion. Just looking at the means of Red and Blue isn't very helpful, as they only differ by a quarter of a point. Knowing that the red player will score more points in 422 out of 1000 match ups (according to the model, of course) is better. Seeing the shapes of the curves gives me extra info that scalars alone do not.

And even if you're good at interpreting mu and sigma for a normal distributions, very, very few people are good at interpreting the parameters of other distributions. But it's not hard to interpret those same distributions when you plot out the pdf. So yes, look at graphs.
[This histogram is] one more example of Silver's intellectual honesty; it also doesn't have much chance of affecting our probability beliefs as much as the percentage does.
Asserted without evidence.
Or [Silver] could follow the lead of conservative pundit Timothy P. Carney, who made an election forecast this week that paralleled Silver's in most aspects but did without a percentage. Instead, Carney — after going through an if/then analysis on all the swing states — concluded with a range of potential Electoral College outcomes:
The 292-246 Obama victory is most likely, but I wouldn't be surprised at all by anything up to 331 for Obama, or up to 269 (a tie) for Romney.
I really like Carney, and ranges are fine, but they're no substitute for plots. They give you more information (they are more numbers than a scalar value, after all, so they ought to) but they still don't capture scale, skew, etc. while the histogram does.
And if you're a business executive or money manager trying to make investment decisions contingent on the election outcome, there are so many other complications that the difference between 80.9% odds and 70.9% or 60.9% may not be all that significant.

That's the way it goes with decision-making under uncertainty. Sometimes, by summing all that uncertainty up in a single number, it can feel as if you've made it go away. You haven't.
*AHEM* Value At Risk calculations *AHEM*.

Somebody take those last two sentences, travel back in time to 2007, and tattoo them on foreheads all around Wall Street.
Mathematician John Allen Paulos tweeted, regarding the trouble that so many seem to have election probabilities, that:
Many people's notion of probability is so impoverished that it admits of only two values: 50-50 and 99%, tossup or essentially certain.
He meant this as an insult, I think, but it's actually a good description of how humans naturally think about probability.
It can't be both an insult and an accurate description?

See also: Popehat | Life is Not a Coin Flip
I'm not blaming Silver for anything here [...] but those who wish to communicate risk and uncertainty do need to be aware that most of their audience has a problem with probability.
I'd be surprised if anyone capable of decent quantitative analysis wasn't acutely aware of how innumerate most people are.

Election Stuff

∞ I've sent my ballot in for Gary Johnson. I'm not going to bother explaining why. Here are two endorsements I saw recently in my feed reader:
  1. Scott Sumner: Don't Waste Your Vote
  2. Glenn Whitman: To My Fellow Libertarian Voters

∞ I live in Maryland. Clearly my vote will not affect who sits in the Oval Office. But let me give you one reason to bother voting for a third-part candidate or a write-in of your favorite dead philosopher or current minor TV personality.

(Sidenote: w.r.t. the latter, mine is Phil Robertson. What a dude. I think I wrote him in for one of the judge slots, for all that it matters. His name was alongside SB7 write-in regulars such as F.Hayek, F.Bastiast, I.K.Brunel and D.Knuth.)

I loathe the way rights have been ignored in America while popularity continues to matter. I'm tired of seeing an opinion poll that says over half of the country supports a thing being treated as evidence. A government should not be able to do whatever it wants merely because 50.000000000001% of the citizens think it's a good idea.

So all things being equal, I would prefer to live in a country in which neither president received a majority of the vote. It's a lot easier to undermine Majoritarianism if the president gets <50% of the vote year after year. Plus then I wouldn't need to spend four years hearing about some bogus "mandate."

I don't have any ability to choose which of the two major-party bozos is elected, but I do at least have some infinitesimal ability to make sure neither bozo can claim to represent the majority of Americans.

(Yes, yes, not voting sort of sends that message, but it's very difficult to tease that message out of background apathy. A spoiled ballot says what I want to say without ambiguity.)

∞ One of the big referenda in MD this year is Question 7. Currently there are five casinos authorized in Maryland, all of which are limited to video poker only. Q7 would expand this to six casinos and allow table games at all of them.

Somehow I want both these sides to loose, if for no other reason than their ads are so completely obnoxious.

The arguments for it seems to be (1) "keep maryland money in maryland," (2) "create jobs," and (3) education funding. I am swayed by neither neo-mercantilism nor folk-Keynesianism, and I see no reason to believe education spending is the best ROI for extra state spending, so I am completely unconvinced by these ads. The ignorance they display makes me dislike them acutely.

At no point has anyone bothered to say that people ought to be able to go play poker in their own home state if they want to. I would have really responded to an add that has a guy saying "Vote for Question 7. I should be allowed to go down the street and play some cards because — BECAUSE MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS, A$$HAT! I'm and adult and I'll play some cards if I see fit."

The argument against Question 7 seems to consist entirely of "there's no guarantee the gambling revenue will be used for education!" Yeah, no kidding. Money is fungible. So what? What if the state uses it to patch pot holes instead? There's precious little link between the money you put into an educational system and the education you get out of it anyway, so why should I care? Why is people playing black jack only okay if NEA & NFSA unionists get raises?

I'm also concerned that this doesn't legalize gambling, it leagalizes gambling in a very specific place. Literally, it's limited to a few hundred foot radius around a particular intersection. It's a handout to a particular developer. If the quesiton was "Should there be casinos in Maryland?" then I'd pull the lever for "yes" in a second. But "Should this one particular well-connected party get to open a casino in Maryland?" is a totally different matter.

I did end up voting for it, but only because Maryland has gone from no gambling at all in 2008 to table games four years later, so even though this is a very, very marginal improvement that seems to mostly benefit one well-connected group, I'd like to keep the momentum moving in the right direction.

04 November 2012

Colonies of termites nesting in typewriters have produced more cogent op-eds than EJ Dionne

WaPo | EJ Dionne | How the right wing lost in 2012

The right wing has lost the election of 2012.

The evidence for this is overwhelming, yet it is the year’s best-kept secret. Mitt Romney would not be throwing virtually all of his past positions overboard if he thought the nation were ready to endorse the full-throated conservatism he embraced to win the Republican nomination. [...]

The right is going along because its partisans know Romney has no other option. This, too, is an acknowledgment of defeat, a recognition that the grand ideological experiment heralded by the rise of the tea party has gained no traction.
Does Obama caving in on his former positions vis-a-vis detention, domestic espionage, air strikes, executive authority, whistle blowers, marijuana, just causes of war, the proper role of lobbyists, etc. show that the Left "lost" in 2008? Because I don't remember seeing that Dionne column. Maybe I missed it?

Occupy Wall Street has not even succeeded in electing a congressman, have they? There's a movement that was pretty much stamped out by cold weather, right? Where is Dionne's "the grand ideological experiment heralded by the rise of the 99% has gained no traction" piece?

Dionne's entire column boils down to this: "The Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates agree on most issues. Therefore Conservatism is bankrupt." No, I'm not leaving out any of the logic connecting A & B. The observation that both parties are offering voters a dishearteningly similar proposition is not evidence that one of them has lost, unless you're as brick-witted as EJ Dionne. It's just evidence they're both arrogant statist mini-despots.

This is how I see GOP/Dem politics in my lifetime:
  • Dems: Hey voters, you can have free cake and cookies and brownies and sundaes and candy and pie with ice cream on top!
  • GOP: That is so irresponsible! You can have free cake and cookies and brownies and sundaes and candy and pie but no ice cream on top! That's too much!
No wonder voters go for the former offer. There's almost nothing to distinguish them and neither has any grounding in reality, so you might as well go for the guy who's offering you a year of free lunches instead of fifty ones weeks of free lunches.
Almost all of the analysis of Romney’s highly public burning of the right’s catechism focuses on such tactical issues as whether his betrayal of principle will help him win over middle-of-the-road women and carry Ohio. What should engage us more is that a movement that won the 2010 elections with a bang is trying to triumph just two years later on the basis of a whimper.
Before we go any further, can we all take a sec and recall that Median Voter Theorem is a real thing? More moderate rhetoric later in a campaign, especially when transitioning from primaries to the general isn't evidence for any proposition besides "politicians want to get elected." All politicians do this.

I've had it up to here with pundits jumping up and down shouting "Perfidy! Knavery! Flip-floppery!" whenever someone on the other team does this totally predictable tack-toward-the-middle thing they all do. Look, I don't respect it either, but at least I'm not clutching my pearls every time it happens and assigning to it some great metaphysical significance w.r.t. the eternal struggle between ideologies. It's just treacherous people in a treacherous business being treacherous.

Does Dionne not understand that a national election will have a different tone than a local one? Can he really be surprised that a handful of firebrand congressional candidates were able to win pluralities in their districts (and of course, a handful were not) while a national level candidate who needs to win over the median voter in several dozen states will try a more centrist approach?
It turns out that there was no profound ideological conversion of the country two years ago. We remain the same moderate and practical country we have long been.
Yeah, no shit. But for some reason I don't remember Dionne spilling a lot of ink about America being perpetually moderate back in 2008 when seemingly every pundit on Team Blue was talking about Obama's "overwhelming mandate" and the "Death of the Republican Party." Good lord. Dionne has three decades experience on me, and he's the one who's surprised that political currents ebb and flow in minor ways rather than moving in generations-long secular shifts? Come on, guy. Get with it.
The total rout of the right’s ideology, particularly its neoconservative brand, was visible in Monday’s debate, in which Romney praised one Obama foreign policy initiative after another.
Romney is satisfied with Obama foreign policy. Obama foreign policy is pretty damn similar to Bush foreign policy in substance, if not in syntax. Obama campaigned in 2008 on international modesty, but delivered adventurism. Bush did the same thing in 2000. How is this evidence that the Right has surrendered to the Left any more than vice versa?

I like pizza. My wife likes pizza. Us ordering pizza can not be evidence that either one of us has caved in to the other's demands, since there is nothing to distinguish our preferences.
Then there’s budget policy. If the Romney/Paul Ryan budget and tax ideas were so popular, why would the candidate and his sidekick, the one-time devotee of Ayn Rand, be investing so much energy in hiding the most important details of their plans?
Really, Dionne? When did you roll into this town? Haven't you been doing this pundit thing for, I dunno, more than a fortnight? Shouldn't you have figured this one out?

If ObamaCare is so popular, why did Obama, Pelosi, et al. try so hard to hide so many details? Why did we do the "we have to pass it to find out what's in it" thing? Why do politicians ever hide the costs of their proposals while playing up the benefits? BECAUSE THAT'S MARKETING! You don't tell the rubes how many brussels sprouts they're going to have to choke down, you just show them the big platters of cake and pie waiting for them at the end. Yeah, it's dishonest, but it's also the way politics is played. Which is one reason I want politicians to have as little as possible to do with as much of my life as possible.
Romney knows that, by substantial margins, the country favors raising taxes on the rich and opposes slashing many government programs, including Medicare and Social Security.
The country also favors free ponies for everyone. People always favor lower taxes and more spending. When you point out that someone has to pay for that stuff they always, always, always will opt for "make someone else do it," even if there is no arithmetic way that "The Rich" can be stuck with the whole tab. (Even if that were an okay thing to attempt.)

Yeah, people want free stuff, and Romney isn't leveling with them about that being head-in-the-sand naive fairygodmotherist bullshit. Guess who else isn't leveling with voters? EVERY POLITICIAN WHO'LL GET ELECTED ON TUESDAY.

Does Dionne even realize that sometimes things are necessary but unpopular? "Opinion polls show people oppose having to buy their own shit!" Yeah, no kidding. So what? We can't all live at everyone else's expense indefinitely. Popularity has no bearing on whether a proposal is a good or bad idea.
Where is the conviction?
I wish Romney had more conviction. I wish he had the conviction to tell people that trade wars and tariffs are self-destructive, that creative destruction is painful but necessary, that the seen can not trump the unseen, that corporatism is foolish and arrogant, that profit-and-loss requires loss, that manufacturing output is up but manufacturing employment is down and that's both good and permanent, that cranking out heavily subsidized solar panels and even more heavily subsidized BA degrees will not magically restore prosperity since there's no demand for them, that the Chinese government picking the pockets of its own taxpayers to subsidize exports is good for us, and generally that no one will be getting a free lunch ever. Hell, I wish any politician had the conviction to explain that to voters. Romney doesn't. But who does? Romney isn't doing what any Big Two candidate has ever done in my lifetime. How does that translate to "Conservatism Has Been Defeated"?
The bailout was the least popular policy Obama pursued — and, I’d argue, one of the most successful.
Successful? What planet does this guy... never mind. I give up.
If the bailout is now good politics, and it is, then free-market fundamentalism has collapsed in a heap.
When it comes to buying votes, concentrated benefits and diffuse costs is always good politics. It's terrible economics, terrible policy, terrible morality, but it's great for popularity. How do you get from there to the validity of free markets?

And for **** sake, Bush started the auto bailouts! Even Obama says he was following Bush's lead. I'm getting tired of saying this: if the GOP does something, then the Democrats do that same thing, then Romney says he approves of it, how do you conclude the GOP has surrendered? "A pox on both their houses" — now that's a fine and valid conclusion. But how does one team win and one lose when both teams do the same thing?

And can Dionne really not understand that the GOP talks a big game about free markets but that both parties offer up the same folk Keynesian, pseudo-mercantilist, nannyist, fairygodmotherist, populist, statist bullshit? Or does he realize that but simply find it convenient to ignore?

I don't think there's a single paragraph in this column with a valid chain of inference connecting its first and last sentences.

I need this election to be over, now.

Via Tyler Cowen, who endorses Dionne's message. I can not remember ever disagreeing with Cowen this much.

PS For extra credit, try to reconcile this column with one Dionne wrote last year entitled "The End of Progressive Government?"

02 November 2012

Past & Future; Free Campaign Advice

Twitter | @BarackObama

RT if you agree: We can’t afford Mitt Romney’s failed policies of the past. We need to keep moving forward.
I don't like to get into the horse race politics stuff, but this strikes me as an odd thing for the incumbent to say. I continually get the feeling that Obama would prefer if everyone forgot he was president for the past four years and spent their time imagining what he could potentially, maybe, perhaps do in the future four years.

If you're the incumbent, you are the past. You can't dodge that responsibility easily.

I'm reminded of Megan McArdle's (?) recent observation that lot's of challengers have run predominately on an "I'm not the incumbent" message, but Obama is probably the first incumbent to campaign mostly with an "I'm not the challenger" message.

PS "Keep moving forward" implies forward motion is already in progress. Put politely, I find that claim to be... ambitious.

PPS Since I'm on the topic of campaign messages, I'm going to mention one other things. I saw some Romeny ad (or pro-Romney PAC ad) that began with a woman watching TV, and the TV was playing a recording of Obama in the Rose Garden saying something like "If I could sit down at your kitchen table and say one thing to you...". Then the woman turns to the camera and says "Here's what I would say to you, Mr Obama..." and proceeds to talk about how bad the economy is and... well I don't know what because I tuned out because her monolog was boring.

They almost got it, but missed the mark. Here's how it should have gone:

Footage of Obama at the White House plays on the kitchen TV. Obama says "If I could sit down at your kitchen table and say one thing to you..." The camera pans to the woman. "Enough about what you say, Mr President. You've said plenty. What have you done?" The woman looks directly into the camera, holding the stare just long enough to make the viewer squirm slightly. Fade to black. And... scene.

Campaign managers across America: I am available for consulting. My fees are reasonable, as they consist partially of cash and partially of you getting your candidate to do things for my amusement.

The nature of these amusements are in proportion to how odious I find the candidate to be. Chris Christie would only have to dress up like Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade and serve me Pimm's Cups for an afternoon. Harry Reid would have to... well, this is a family blog so I'm not going to say what I need him to do, but it involves a potted cactus, a three-legged donkey, and vintage women's undergarments.


Space For Commerce | Brian Dunbar | OS X is a supeior shell for running Linux

How 'bout that: X11 applications running on my Mac all nice and handy.

Theory: OS X is a superior platform for running 'linux' applications.
I just had a similar conversation with Mrs SB7 because I'm looking to replace my aging aged MacBook. I need something that will play nicely with the various Linux machines in my lab(s) at school, which mostly rules out the (affordable) Windows options.

I have enough headaches getting the aforementioned boxes in my lab to run, so I don't want the hassle of maintaining a Linux laptop. Nor am I in a position to get a whole new workflow set up, so I think I need to stick with MacOS X.

Because this leaves me spending an unfortunate amount of money, I want to be sure.

I have two main problems with my current machine. Well, problems that are unrelated to its age, anemic processing power, lost ability to handle i/o interrupts and general wear-and-tear hardware issues. If anyone has experience recent vintage MacBook Pros, I'd like to hear about them.

(1) Disk operations seem *very* slow. Even when it was new and free disk space was plentiful this was a problem. Paging now is brutally, crippling slow. People I know who have Mac laptops either (a) haven't had this problem, or (b) don't know enough about computers to know what I'm talking about. Maybe I'm just crazy/fooling myself. Has anyone experienced this with newer machines?

(2) When I run with a second monitor plugged in, which is 90% of the time, WindowServer absolutely gobbles up CPU. It will spike to around 30% of one processing core for three or four minutes, even when I'm not doing anything more intensive than browsing Wikipedia. I haven't done any rigorous testing of this, but I've only noticed it happening when the second monitor is present.

Does anyone else have experience running a modern Macbook Pro w/ the standard graphics card ("Intel HD Graphics 4000") with a second monitor? Square inches of screen real estate is a big deal for me, so if I can't use a dual monitor set-up without crippling the CPU, this is a no-go.

(2b) Related-but-trivial: has anyone run Civ 5 on a MacBook Pro with the basic graphics set-up? (The Intel HD 4000, that is.) This is not even a tertiary concern, but it would be nice to be able to do.

01 November 2012

"Hacking TSA PreCheck"

Schneier on Security | Bruce Schneier | Hacking TSA PreCheck

I have a hard time getting worked up about this story:
I have X'd out any information that you could use to change my reservation. But it's all there, PNR, seat assignment, flight number, name, ect. But what is interesting is the bolded three on the end. This is the TSA Pre-Check information. The number means the number of beeps. 1 beep no Pre-Check, 3 beeps yes Pre-Check. On this trip as you can see I am eligible for Pre-Check. Also this information is not encrypted in any way.

What terrorists or really anyone can do is use a website to decode the barcode and get the flight information, put it into a text file, change the 1 to a 3, then use another website to re-encode it into a barcode. Finally, using a commercial photo-editing program or any program that can edit graphics replace the barcode in their boarding pass with the new one they created. Even more scary is that people can do this to change names. So if they have a fake ID they can use this method to make a valid boarding pass that matches their fake ID. The really scary part is this will get past both the TSA document checker, because the scanners the TSA use are just barcode decoders, they don't check against the real time information. So the TSA document checker will not pick up on the alterations. This means, as long as they sub in 3 they can always use the Pre-Check line.
What a dumb way to design the system. It would be easier — and far more secure — if the boarding pass checker just randomly chose 10%, or whatever percentage they want, of PreCheck passengers to send through regular screening. Why go through the trouble of encoding it in the barcode and then reading it?

And — of course — this means that you can still print your own boarding pass.

On the other hand, I think the PreCheck level of airport screening is what everyone should get, and that the no-fly list and the photo ID check add nothing to security. So I don't feel any less safe because of this vulnerability.
This vulnerability does not actually make me less safe. Agreed. But it does (and should!) make me feel less safe. It is a signal of how poorly the TSA, and the rest of the Federal government, does their jobs, which does change my opinion about how safe I am.

(Or it would, if it was possible for my opinion of our security apparatchiks to drop any further.)

If something this blindingly foolish could be implemented (at staggering cost!) how many other bullshit mistakes have they made? If this passed muster until Some Random Blogger publicized it, what else has escaped government oversight? What other knuckle-headed systems have they implemented? Why do we continue giving these people more power if this is the quality of their actions?

I'll take this opportunity to once again say it's foolish to print "SSSS" on the boarding passes of people who have been selected for extra screening at the gate. If you see this on your boarding pass, just pass your carry ons to your wife. It always works for me. If you're a Bad Guy, either swap out any contraband into the bag of a fellow Baddie who doesn't have the "SSSS" brand, or upon getting your boarding pass, abort the mission and try again next month. The "SSSS" system does not protect anyone from terrorists; it just protects us from the monumentally stupid terrorists.

Heterogenous Tuition

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | A Bunch of Arguments in Favor of Regressive Tuition

I am very uneasy about committees in state houses setting the price levels of various educations, as Florida is considering. That kind of top-down pricing, especially by politicians, does not have a good track record.

However, note that setting the price of every course of study to the same level is still a top-down decision of the type I am uneasy about. The decision not to set each major's price is still a decision to set each major's price.

If you want differing prices for different subjects, allow loan companies to consider a student's major when setting the terms of their loans. Of course this assumes that student loans haven't all been centralized and semi-nationalized, as they have been in recent years.

Do bans on texting while driving actually increase accidents? | ksl.com

KSL Utah | Andrew Adams | Do bans on texting while driving actually increase accidents?

It's perplexing for both police and lawmakers throughout the U.S.: They want to do something about the danger of texting while driving, a major road hazard, but banning the practice seems to make it even more dangerous.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that 3 of every 4 states that have enacted a ban on texting while driving have seen crashes actually go up rather than down.

It's hard to pin down exactly why this is the case, but experts believe it is a result of people trying to avoid getting caught in states with stiff penalties. Folks trying to keep their phones out of view will often hold the phone much lower, below the wheel perhaps, in order to keep it out of view. That means the driver's eyes are looking down and away from the road.
This is another example of policy which multiple states have adopted without waiting to see what the effects have been in other states. If I was a PoliSci grad student I think it would be interesting to dig into state house records to see if anyone ever bothers to pay attention to and benefit from the experiments that other states have run.

Via Marginal Revolution

PS Is it really that perplexing for police and lawmakers. Do they have so much hubris, not to mention historical ignorance, that they can't think of a single example of when banning something has made the problem worse?