28 February 2013

Sequester Stuff

Reason #1 to support the sequester: everyone in DC who's opposed to it is being a dishonest, whiny bitch about it.

Do you really need more reasons than that? Fine.

I heard someone oppose the sequester on the grounds that "The value of the sword is not that it falls, but rather, that it hangs." This is true. But the Sword of Damocles has no value at all if every time you get uncomfortable with it hanging over your throne you take it down and put it on the floor.

Congress and the White House hung the sword over their heads because no one trusted them to fulfill their perennial promises of being profligate now but responsible later. Now they're all running around in a tizzy, pointing fingers at each other and trying to assign blame for dangling this sword from the rafters and screaming about how dangerous it is. (And it is: I wouldn't trust a congresscritter with a pair of kindergarten scissors, to say nothing of a xyphos.)

The whole damn point of this thing is that it's dangerous and it has non-trivial consequences for the budget. That was supposed to be the incentive to get them to knuckle down and take their medicine. Instead they end up bellowing about how dangerous it is and how they can't honestly be expected to
cut spending increase spending less than they had planned now.

The entire reason the sequester exists is because Washington responds to every budget problem by kicking the can down the road. Now that their own self-imposed restraint is coming due the only response they can muster is to pitch a fit about the guys in the other party not cooperating in kicking the can again. If we didn't trust them to make the hard decisions before (and we didn't — which is why we have the sequester in the first place!) why the hell would we trust them now, seeing how they've responded in the last few months?

Via @radleybalko:

Would you prefer that in tabular form? I am nothing if not accommodating!

KPC | Mike Munger | Sequester This
The sequester doesn't actually cut federal spending, episode 113. This one comes from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Outlays/Spending are recorded in the second line of the table, and yes this includes the sequester! [...] If this level of "cutting" is not politically possible, then we are all doomed.

KPC | Mike Munger | défenestrer le sequester?

I had to link to this one too, for two simple reasons.

(1) I can't not think of the word "defenstration" whenever I heard "sequestration." I'm glad I'm not the only one.

(2) "Federal spending is over 3 trillion dollars. We are talking about cutting 85 billion from its growth. That's like a pimple on your pimple." That's the single best simile.

The Big Questions | Steve Landsburg | Deficit Attention Disorder


I am totally on board with the Shave Krugman's Beard plan. Count me in.

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Sequester Fear-Mongering, State Version
The extent to which the media is aiding and abetting, with absolutely no skepticism, the sky-is-falling sequester reaction of pro-big-government forces is just sickening. I have never seen so many absurd numbers published so credulously by so much of the media. Reporters who are often completely unwilling to accept any complaints from corporations as valid when it comes to over-taxation or over-regulation are willing to print their sequester complaints without a whiff of challenge.
I hadn't even considered this angle, but he's totally right.

Uncredulously accepting doom-and-gloom numbers here plays on a trifecta of journalist biases: the liberal/statist political bias, the laziness bias, and the "Apocalypse Sells" or "You Can Panic Now" bias.

Meyer also makes a second good point:
The ugliness of this process is made worse by the hypocrisy of Republicans, who suddenly become hard core Keynesians when it comes to spending on the military.
More people need to call the GOP out on this.

HBR | Francesca Gino | The Strange Behavioral Logic of the Sequester Stalemate

I'm all for looking into the psychology of law-makers. I think things like behavioral economics and choice architecture are interesting, but they too often treat customers/citizens as psychologically complex, lacking in perfect information or rationaility, but simultaneously assume the law-makers have that that very same rationality and information.

This is a good post, and I don't want to come down too hard on it. Never the less...
One example [of using deadline to motivate], ironically, comes from government: In 1961, president John F. Kennedy gave a speech that set the goal of getting people to the moon and safely back within a decade. At the time, the U.S. had only launched an astronaut 115 miles above the earth. Going to the moon was a much more difficult goal: astronauts would travel 270,000 miles from home.
I have had it up to here with this example. First of all, the Apollo Program took a massive chunk of America's economic output to achieve, and an even bigger chunk of our intellectual output. Secondly, this was a straight-up engineering challenge. Not a scientific one (there's a difference!) and definitely not a social one. It's a complete non sequitur to say "we put a man on the Moon in a decade, therefore we can get Congress and the President to agree to voluntarily reduce their own power."

Strapping a trio of zoomies onto a Saturn V and tossing them a quarter of a million miles away is hard, but it's not nearly as hard as getting stationary bandits to cut back on the brigandry.
With this in mind, it is likely that the March 1 deadline may have been demotivating rather than motivating. Knowing that avoiding the sequester is nearly inevitable, or is going to include a lot of work, may have led to resignation rather than high motivation. And such resignation led us to the current stalemate in negotiations.
Totally possible. But if congressmen can't be relied to set useful deadlines, why can they be trusted to spend several trillions of other people's dollars?

Even if this deadline was a mistake once it's made it needs to be treated seriously. Cognitive failings of politicians not withstanding, there's no do-overs or take-backs when this much is at stake.

EconLog | David Henderson | Sequester: This is Supposed to be Scary?

Hit & Run | Matt Welch | Sequester Cuts Will Steal Your Meat, Ground Your Air Force, Make Women Shut Down Their Small Businesses
The Senate Appropriations Committee has helpfully collated all of the executive branch's official Sequester Hysteria into one hilarious document of bureaucratic pants-wetting. Let's watch how politicians and bureaucrats are spending your tax money to scare the bejeebus out of you about the consequences of not spending more of your tax money for this one year!

Hit & Run | Matt Welch | Sequester Desperation: The Gold Watch Trick vs. Washington Monument Syndrome vs. Firemen First

Hit & Run | Peter Suderman | What Scares Sequester Opponents the Most? That Spending Reductions Won’t Hurt At All

The Onion | Obama, Congress Must Reach Deal On Budget By March 1, And Then April 1, And Then April 20, And Then April 28, And Then May 1
Other experts noted that even in the event of a deal, a clause in the Budget Control Act would inevitably lead to a total of 64 additional meetings between June and July, as well as a potential deadline creation deadline that would automatically kick in on Oct. 4 and would create 20 more deadlines that must be agreed upon by a Nov. 5 deadline.

27 February 2013

Spending: Less is More

FT | Jeffrey Sachs | Obama has always planned to slash spending
Really? News to me! Let's find out what I've been missing.
Each year he has put a budget on the table. Each year that budget has called for a sharp decline in discretionary spending as a share of gross domestic product in 2012 and later years.
Oh. Sachs left out the very important "...relative to total measured economic production, once you ignore the 'welfare' side of our 'welfare & warfare' system" caveat from his title. Not as snappy with that in there, but far more accurate.

Moving on...
The administration is now vigorously blaming the Republicans for the pending cuts. Yet the level of spending for fiscal year 2013 under the sequestration will be nearly the same as Mr Obama called for in the draft budget he presented in mid-2012.
Very interesting.
In [Obama's 2009 budget] plan, discretionary outlays (both defence and non-defence) would rise temporarily from 7.9 per cent of GDP in 2008, the final full year of George W. Bush’s presidency, to 8.8 per cent in 2009 and 9.8 per cent in 2010, mainly because of the stimulus spending and the surge in Afghanistan. But then discretionary outlays would decline to 8.7 per cent in 2011, 7.8 per cent in 2012, 7.4 per cent in 2013 and to just 6.3 per cent in 2019, the final year of the 2009 10-year budget framework.

So what "Obama has always planned to slash spending" really means is "Obama has always promised to slash spending later, especially once he was out of office, but proposed spending more right now, and even then to get to lower levels in the future you need to assume a fast-growing economy and ignore the plurality of spending which is labeled 'mandatory'."

These words are tricky things. When I say something like "I'm going to eat less tonight" what I mean is "I'm going to eat less tonight." When a politicians says "I'm going to eat less tonight" what he apparently means is "I'm going to eat more than I did last night, but less as a proportion of all the food in the pantry, plus I'm not going to count any of the meat or cheese or bread I eat, and also I'm going to have a gigantic lunch and snack before dinner."

C. Everett Koop was just Emperor Norton with worse whiskers

And also more ego. Yes, more ego than a man who unilaterally decalred himself ruler of the US and of Mexico.
Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | C. Everett Koop: Paragon of Public-Health Paternalism

C. Everett Koop, who died yesterday at the age of 96, embodied a vision of the U.S. surgeon general as "America's family doctor." That is what Koop, who served throughout the Reagan administration, called himself in the title of his memoirs, where he explained why he decided to wear the gold-braided, dark blue uniform of a vice admiral, corresponding to his honorary military rank as head of the U.S. Public Health Service:
I put it on immediately, because I felt it would help reestablish the languishing authority of the Surgeon General and revive the morale of the Commissioned Corps of the United States Public Health Service. There is something about a uniform.
Indeed there is, but whether you view that something as inspiring or ridiculous in this context probably depends on whether you think the country needs a paramilitary nag in chief to tell us how we should be behave so as to minimize morbidity and mortality.
Indeed there is, as Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I could have told you. Nothing screams "Respect My Authoritah!" like putting on a uniform no one asked you to wear.

Is it really even a "uniform" if you're the only one who wears it? What is it uniform to?

See also:

Rule of thumb — anyone who puts gold braids on their sleeves of their own initiative is not to be trusted with power. Or a sewing machines.

26 February 2013


Lion of the Blogosphere | The importance of self-actualizing careers, and the sad plight of women

1943 was a very important year. And no, the reason for its importance had nothing to do with the Allied invasion of Italy.

1943 was the year when Abraham Maslow published his famous paper A Theory of Human Motivation in which he wrote about self-actualization.
The need for self-actualization — Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization. [...]

The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions.
The idea behind [self-actualization] has become the very essence of the beliefs of the modern-day elites. But they’ve ignored or forgotten the part about self-actualization maybe taking “the form of the desire to be an ideal mother.” If anyone reads that today, it’s just assumed to be an example of archaic and obsolete attitudes towards women that even a genius like Maslow was unable to rise above. Today, the elites understand that the whole purpose of life is to achieve self-actualization through one’s career.
LotB goes on to describe Bobos seeking self-actualization only though their careers and not through family.

I think there's a parallel but separate phenomenon going on. Not only do people increasingly look only to their work to gain self-actualization, they implicitly assume that anything which might give them self-actualization therefor must be their career.

Many believe not only that your career must be self-actualizing. There's also a belief in the converse: if a thing is self-actualizing that thing must be your career.

Hence all of the out of work puppetry MAs, and artists, and film-makers, and failing micro-brewers, and coffee shops, and restauranteurs, and the hordes of doctorates chasing dozens of faculty jobs.

You're fascinated by pre-Industrial Revolution textiles? Great! That doesn't mean you can't appraise real estate for a living and seek self-actualization in textiles during the other 128 hours every week.

There's a reason hobbies exist as a thing, after all.

PS Complete digression:
There was a reason why it was called “work” and not “fun.” (Today, the better classes of people don’t call it work, they call it a “career,” and you don’t say “I’m going to work,” you say “I’m going to the office.”)
For whatever reason, I can't stand it when people use "work" as a spatial noun. "I'm going to work" is perfectly fine. "I left that at my work" or "I'm meeting him at his work" makes me grind my molars hard enough to chew through boot leather. There's a reason we have the word "workplace."

Why will robots be expensive?

Lion of the Blogosphere | Why robots will be expensive

Several commenters have asked the rather dumb question, “Why would robots be unaffordable to anyone if robots are manufacturing other robots? They should be practically free!” Why does Adobe Photoshop cost $699 when it costs Adobe absolutely nothing for you to download it?
Counter example: The GIMP.

See also: OpenOffice, Blender, Octave, Firefox, GoogleDocs, ...

We have never had more access to free technology, both productive and entertaining, before. I do not see evidence that trend will reverse itself.

I do not think robotics will be free, at least not before a very long-term time horizon. But I also strongly doubt access to them will be as unevenly distributed as was access to either land (the limiting factor before the industrial revolution) or capital (the limiting factor afterwards). Knowledge will be the limitation more than ever before.

Luckily for everyone knowledge can be manufactured endlessly in ways that land, capital, and technology can not be. Furthermore, there is less standing between people and knowledge than ever before.

22 February 2013

Minimum Wage Follow Up: Exploitation

Also from yesterday's post:
I find supporters of the minimum wage selfish. Yes, selfish. Minimum wage proponents want to help low-wage workers but they aren't interested in doing it themselves. They're being generous with other people's money which isn't generosity at all. The employer paying someone $7 is at least giving him $7. Obama wants him to have $9. But what is Obama paying him? Nothing. Why is it the responsibility of the guy who's already paying him something to pitch in even more?

There are millions of people who want Mr. Low Productivity Worker to have $9, but they sure as shit don't want it to be their $9 he gets.

Not only do they want to shift the responsibility of getting Mr. LPW $9 away from themselves, they aren't even content to shift that responsibility onto society as a whole. No, they want to shift the responsibility onto the one entity who is already doing more to help Mr. LPW than anyone else.
I'm getting dizzy from the cognitive dissonance required to make sense of this. The best I can figure is that Mr LPW's employer should be responsible for providing the extra money because he is the one "exploiting" Mr LPW.

But surely Mr Obama wants Mr LPW to have a job, right? Obama is a politician, and I don't think I've heard a politician open their mouth since 2008 without hearing about how important — and imminent — "more jobs" are. So who's exploiting Mr LPW more: the guy who's paying him $7.50 an hour to do a job, or the guy who isn't paying him anything at all? Shouldn't we be going around to everyone in the country who's not employing people and excoriating them for exploiting workers by only offering to pay them the scandalously low wage of $0/hr?

Maybe the guy who owns the Auntie Anne's franchise is only paying his pretzel twister $7.50, but I'm not paying the pretzel guy anything at all! When should I be expecting the pitchfork-and-torch-wielding proletariat mob to come knocking on my door for exploiting the poor pretzel maker?

How is it that we're supposed to skip from "no job" — which everyone agrees is bad — to "good job" with no stops in between? What fairy dust is going to make this possible? Or is this one of those petulant things where if you can't have exactly what you want you'd rather have nothing?

That's what this is about, isn't it? It's better to have no job at all than one which doesn't pay what Mr Obama wants it to pay? I didn't think that would be the answer, because that opens up a whole bunch of doors which lead to very sticky wages and voluntary unemployment and so forth, and I didn't think Obama wanted me peaking down those corridors.

Minimum Wage Follow Up: "Family"

From yesterday's post:
Merely mentioning the word "family" is a pathos missile that politicians fire indiscriminately at us, since they know it will bypass our prefrontal cortices to explode directly in our amygdalae in a shower of warm-and-fuzzy feelings. People have got to start seeing through this.
This applies to both Red Team and Blue Team.

Russ Roberts links to an excellent older post by Keith Hennessey that gives a great example of this.
Keith Hennessey | Why do so many Americans pay no income taxes?

Many Republicans and conservatives argue it is both unfair and politically dangerous to have (almost half / more than one-third, depending on who’s measuring) of Americans not owing any income taxes. [...] I wonder how many Republican Members of Congress remember that they are, in large part, responsible for this outcome? [...]

But most of the increase since the mid-1990s in the number of people who owe no income taxes is the result of the child tax credit. This policy was created by Congressional Republicans and expanded with Republicans in the lead.

The nonpartisan Tax Foundation has measured the top nonpayer threshold. This is the highest income taxpayer that owes no income taxes, setting aside unusual tax situations. They looked at how the top nonpayer threshold changed from 1993 to today for a married couple with two kids.

In 1997 every “normal” married couple with two children that earned $24,000 or more (in today’s dollars) had to pay at least some income taxes. The top nonpayer threshold for a family of this size was just under $24,000. This means there were some four-person families with income just below $24,000 that owed no income taxes. [...]

In 1997 every “normal” married couple with two children that earned $24,000 or more (in today’s dollars) had to pay at least some income taxes. The top nonpayer threshold for a family of this size was just under $24,000. This means there were some four-person families with income just below $24,000 that owed no income taxes.
Do you see what happens, GOP? Do you see what happens when you run around DC justifying absolutely anything because of "The Children!"? Nothing Good!!

20 February 2013

In Which I Finally Break Down and Talk about the Minimum Wage

[0] We accept that increasing the price of (almost*)
Not certain luxuries or Giffen goods.
everything else results in less of it being bought. People on both sides accept this, else why would Obama want to raise tariffs on imported tires or institute a carbon tax? The weight of proving low-productivity labor is an exception to this rule is a big one, and thus requires big evidence.

[1] Despite what the Krugmans of the world claim, both sides of this debate can point to large bodies of numerical evidence to support their positions. This statistical draw does not meet my standards for extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence.

[2] The study most pointed to on the Left is Card & Krueger, which has several flaws. I am not the best one to explicate them, but they include survivor bias, limited samples, an unknown counterfactual, high causal density, and a focus solely on the amount of employment rather than employment conditions. Some of these factors are peculiar to their work, others are the inevitable result of studying a system as complex as a modern market economy, and others apply generally to any understanding of the physical world, which is a problem we've been wrestling with since 1689.

[3] Re: working conditions — an employer could respond to a rising minimum wage by hiring fewer people, or he could work existing employees harder. Fewer breaks, fewer people scheduled each shift, no employee discounts, etc. This is very difficult to represent numerically in such studies, but it is also very real. I am skeptical of people who brush this aside lightly.

[4] Let's assume arguendo that the negative effects of a minimum wage are, ceteris paribus, very small. This is good, but we know ceteris is not paribus. We have many, many regulations each of which may suppress employment. Even assuming the effect of any one of them is small, the effect of all of them together might be quite large. In order to conclude that the small negative effect of increasing the wage floor is not a problem you must still make a much larger assumption: that the effects of regulations sum linearly. I doubt they do.

A little higher wages here, some extra corporate taxes there, plus some tariffs on inputs, plus some higher medical insurance "insurance" costs, plus a bit more for worker's comp,*
plus some extended unemployment, plus some "consumer protections" that no consumers wanted, etc., etc., etc. We're sold all of these things one at a time, and are assured that the negative consequences of that particular program are hardly noticeable. But add them all up and pretty soon you've got a boiling frog.

[5] Many minimum wage opponents have been trotting out "If $9/hr is good, why not $90? Or $900???" This has gotten condemned by many of the more sophisticated commenters on both sides of this issue as being fatuous. And it is. But there's a good point concealed in there anyway

Everyone agrees that a minimum wage of $0.00001/hr would have no noticeable effect. We also agree that $90/hr would have a huge adverse effect. So somewhere in the middle we need to go from "no effect" to "big effect." I see no reason to believe this doesn't follow a typical dose-response relationship: as we increase the dose, the harm will also increase monotonically.

It's possible the relationship looks like the blue curve below and going from $7.25 to $9.00 won't matter. But it's also possible it looks like the red curve, and in that case it matters very much. We don't know how the response curve is shaped, so we don't know if we're safely on that flat part at the left or not.

What the "why not $90?!" people are doing is getting their opponents to concede that sooner or later wage floors are very bad. Whether they know it or not, this is a necessary set-up for the rest of the argument: "what gives you confidence that the pain is later and not sooner?" It moves the debate from "what kind of a lady do you think I am?" to "we've already established that; now we're haggling over price."

[6] Even accepting for the sake of argument that a $9 minimum wage has no ill effects on employment, I object on moral grounds. If I said in the context of an immigration debate "If Person A wants to work for Person B, and B wants to hire A, what business of it is mine?" a Leftist would pat me on the back. If I say that in this context I'd get a tirade about exploitation of the workers. I don't think we have the right to tell someone willing to work for $7 that they can't do that. It's simply not my place to interject myself between two consenting adults like that.

[7] I find minimum wages not only intrusive but magnificently arrogant intellectually. A worker can produce some amount of product. This makes their labor worth some number of dollars. Redefining wages by fiat doesn't change that. It's the economic equivalent of thinking you can make your house warmer by scratching out the numbers on your thermostat and writing in higher ones.

Prices are just signals. You can't change reality by imposing your will on a map of that reality.

[8] I find supporters of the minimum wage selfish. Yes, selfish. Minimum wage proponents want to help low-wage workers but they aren't interested in doing it themselves. They're being generous with other people's money which isn't generosity at all. The employer paying someone $7 is at least giving him $7. Obama wants him to have $9. But what is Obama paying him? Nothing. Why is it the responsibility of the guy who's already paying him something to pitch in even more?

There are millions of people who want Mr. Low Productivity Worker to have $9, but they sure as shit don't want it to be their $9 he gets.

Not only do they want to shift the responsibility of getting Mr. LPW $9 away from themselves, they aren't even content to shift that responsibility onto society as a whole. No, they want to shift the responsibility onto the one entity who is already doing more to help Mr. LPW than anyone else.

[9] Obama has called numerous times for more people, especially young people, to volunteer, even proposing that they be required to do so. In what way is a wage of $0/hr acceptable, and a wage greater than $9 is acceptable, but anything in between is an affront to human decency? You need a world view very different from my own to square that circle.

[10] One final thing that bothers me is Obama asserting in the SotU that a $7.50 wage is unacceptable because you can't raise a family of four on that income. Are the only jobs that are supposed to exist ones where you can raise a family of four? What if you don't have two kids? What if you're a kid yourself? Are we going to start re-writing every law so that it best suites a couple with two kids, or just the ones Mr Obama wants to change anyway?

Merely mentioning the word "family" is a pathos missile that politicians fire indiscriminately at us, since they know it will bypass our prefrontal cortices to explode directly in our amygdalae in a shower of warm-and-fuzzy feelings. People have got to start seeing through this.

15 February 2013

Bagpipe Soul

Is your Friday morning distinctly lacking in weirdness? Are you in desperate need of a large dose of WTF?

You're reading the right post. Here, this is for you:

I've heard a lot of weird bagpipe music before. On the scale of "music that isn't supposed to be played with bagpipes but is being played with bagpipes" this is about a three and a half. No, the bagpipe soul music is not the weirdness. Don't let Honey Blo and his doodlesack distract you from the treasure trove of weirdness that is dancing behind him.

Druids in goat masks? Santa Clause? I'm pretty sure there's a McPoyle in the back. If this WTF isn't high octane enough for you, I can't help. You probably need to cut back on your 4chan browsing though.

(Via The World's Best Ever.)

12 February 2013


This will be immediately obvious to all repeat readers (hi guys!) but I've changed templates. My design tastes have changed far too much in the last five years (!!) to keep plugging away with the old theme.

As necessary as it may be I have a deep and abiding hatred of cross-browser testing born during the dark days of the IE/NN Browser War. I've only given my customizations a cursory once-over, so if you see something that looks out of whack (I'm thinking especially of the footnotes I've floated to the right*)
Like this one.
please let me know.

Links: 12 Feb 2013

David Thompson | I Demand You Demand My Art
It’s like complaining because you didn’t get paid for a job nobody asked you to do.
This right here is an excellent example of what I mentioned last week of Leftist artists and others hating markets because the values a market assigns to things conflict with their own narcissism.

Ideas | David Friedman | Blowing Second-Hand Smoke
A 2009 NBER study analyzed all of the data and concluded that there was no effect from smoking bans—cities where the ban was followed by a decline in heart attack deaths were about as common as cities where it was followed by a rise. If that result is correct, it strongly suggests that the conventional view is the result of cherry picking the data.

Which fits my suspicion of scientific "facts" asserted in political controversies, especially ones supported mostly by the fact that authorities such as the Surgeon General's Report and the CA EPA say they are true. It also fits my more general suspicion of the too popular idea of Official Scientific Truth, to be established by consulting the Official Scientific Authorities rather than by looking at arguments and evidence.

Of course, I too have my biases—not with regard to smoking, since I'm a non-smoker, but with regard to Official Scientific Truth.
I am this damn close to Walter Sobchaking all over the next person I see on UMD's campus or my twee, LEED-certified enviro-apartment complex who tells me second hand smoke needs to be eliminated "because Science." They are going to get a face absolutely full of "am I the only one who gives a shit about the rules anymore?!"

Light Blue Touch Paper | Ross Anderson | Hard questions about quantum crypto and quantum computing
We’ve been assured for 29 years that quantum crypto is secure, and for 19 years that quantum computing is set to make public-key cryptography obsolete. Yet despite immense research funding, attempts to build a quantum computer that scales beyond a few qubits have failed. What’s going on?
Is it possible that this is largely a social problem? I don't know how things look from the ECE side of things, but is it possible that we're not making sufficient progress on quantum computers because people don't want to have the label "quantum computer researcher" pinned to their CVs? Once you go down that road, are you eliminating the chance of funding opportunities/conference placements/etc. for more traditional research? If you write your dissertation on quantum crypto are you going to have trouble finding faculty appointments with departments who might want an expert in more traditional specialties?

Popehat | Clark | X → Y ; I don't like Y; therefore ! X
When I was a kid I had a family member who – with out realizing what he was doing – lived like Merlin.

Except that where Merlin lived backwards in time, this family member just lived backwards in logic.

Instead of starting with the facts on the ground and then reasoning forward towards conclusions, he would start with conclusions and then reason backwards to what the facts on the ground must be.
Hear, hear! Definitely read the rest of this.

ExcessiveBail.com | Matt Haiduk | Even Mother Teresa Might Confess
I’m not guilty. I have nothing to hide. I’m going to talk to the police because I don’t want to look guilty.
You know who looks most guilty? People who aren’t guilty, but whom the police say admit to crimes. In fact, they look so guilty that they’re almost always convicted. The reality is that by the time the cops want you to come down to the station you already look guilty to somebody. And, why are you worried about whether or not you look guilty to the cops, anyway? They don’t determine your guilt. A judge or jury do — and they can’t use your silence against you.
If I hadn't already learned not to say anything to cops,* what Haiduk says about the Reid Technique would be more than enough to convince me.

(* Excuse me. I didn't learn this. Between my father growing up in Somerville and my Sicilian maternal grandfather, I just absorbed it from the ether.)

Bit Player | Joshua Hayes | Joshua Trees and Toothpicks

I love digital/algorithmic/functional art. But I get very tired of seeing the same techniques over and over. Oh great, you can make a tree with an L-system or render a Mandlebrot set in psychedelic colors. (Or more likely, use a library you found.) Good for you. That stuff is fun to explore and good practice, but it's the digital equivalent of sketching a vase of fruit. Show me something different. Pick up a computational geometry or topology text, explore the OEIS (like Hayes does here), trawl Wikipedia at least.

WaPo | David A Fahrenthold | Many 2011 federal budget cuts had little real-world effect

By "little effect" they mean "'cuts' that didn't reduce spending." I'll save you the trouble of reading the article and summarize: there is no such thing as a budget gimmick in Washington, because the entire budget is nothing but gimmicks.

This is some real banana republic bullshit right here. Even the Italians &mdash the Italians! — have begun to embrace honest government accounting.

Self-appointed Reality-Based Community: where are you on this?

Forbes | Bruce Upbin | IBM's Watson Gets Its First Piece Of Business In Healthcare
Over the past two years, IBM’s researchers have shrunk Watson from the size of a master bedroom to a pizza-box-sized server that can fit in any data center. And they improved its processing speed by 240%.
I thought I was jaded to factoids like this, but... wow. Just... wow. In two years?!
Now what was once was a fun computer-science experiment in natural language processing is becoming a real business for IBM and Wellpoint.
CS experimenters everywhere: "no shit!"

BTW was I the only one paying attention to their marketing two years ago? They had their eyes on the health care industry the whole time. Of course that's what every other researcher has their eyes on too (the ones who don't have their eyes on the TLAs). Why? Ask Willie Sutton.

Rhymes with Cars and Girls | Can anyone on the left explain Obama’s ‘future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam’ post-Benghazi speech?
But look, here’s what I’m mad about – or more precisely, it’s a thing that annoyed me and which is symptomatic of the underlying Benghazi complaint – Obama, at the time, used the ‘youtube video’ to lecture us all on tolerance. He not only lectured us all, he went before the world stage and threw us under the bus by telling foreigners that (implicitly) we were intolerant and brought the attack on ourselves. What the heck, Obama?

More importantly, how to square that with the current prevailing lefty defense of ‘Oh stop being so picky, everyone knows intelligence is fuzzy in the first days after an event like this’? If intelligence was so fuzzy, why did President Obama use it to go off half-cocked on his stupid-ass ‘the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam’ campaign? Seriously, now that (everyone concedes) that event had nothing to do with anyone ‘slandering the prophet of Islam’, then please tell me what in the heck that stupid speechifying and posturing was all about?
I'll actually take this one further. Obama didn't simply throw us under the bus, his fellow travelers upped the ante by throwing Free Speach under the bus with us.

I'm sympathetic to the fog-of-war stuff. Really. But people who can't make out what they're seeing in the fog see what they most fear. Immediately jumping to a reaction of "not butthurting the angry religious militants is more important than free speech" and/or "people [i like] have a sacrosanct right not to be offended" is a very telling response.

Popehat | Clark | A Comparison

Enemies killed (Americans):5minimum 3, perhaps more
Nominal process followed:extra-judicial kill list with no checks and balances or due process"Department of Justice White Paper: Lawfullness of a lethal operation directed against a US Citizen"
Actual process followed:extra-judicial kill list with no checks and balances or due processextra-judicial kill list with no checks and balances or due process
Source of legal authority:nonenone
Thoughts on killing family members of political targets:full throated approvaltacit approval
Thoughts on killing dogs, farm animals of political targets:unknowntacit approval
Name:Christopher DornerBarack Obama

Check out the rest of the table. Clark is on a roll lately.

CNN | Brad Lendon | Iran's newest warplane something from 'GI Joe?'

Some of the aviation experts' comments in this slideshow are priceless. I like the one about the sailboat.

Popehat | Clark | One Wave Behind
Those who still think that there's a second wave shortage of capital want us to adopt redistributive socialism. You know what happens if we take away Elon Musk's money and hand it out to every American? Ten years later Elon Musk is a billionaire (again) and you're carrying a balance on your credit card (again).
My only complaint: Clark is being way too optimistic about people's ability to stay out of credit card debt. Other than that, bravo times ten.

Like I said, Clark is throwing rocks lately.

11 February 2013

Bare Bones JD

Ideas | David Friedman | Could a Bare Bones Law School Succeed?

The [new bare bones] school faces a problem that it shares with any school that wants to improve its reputation. It will be judged by the performance of its graduates, most immediately their bar passage rate. That depends partly on the school and partly on the graduates, and until it gets a good reputation good students will go elsewhere.

The problem might be insoluble if BBLS had to start out by competing with relatively good schools, say the top hundred in the USNWR ranking, but it doesn't. It starts out competing with other unaccredited schools. Compared to them, it has one large and obvious advantage—a savings of close to a hundred thousand dollars. That should give it its pick of students who can't get into an accredited school, or can get into one but can't afford it, as well as some who can afford it but choose not to. With better students than other unaccredited schools and at least equally good instruction—what it's saving money on isn't the education but the gold plating—it ought to get better bar passage rates. Which will bring better students. Which will ... .
I would hope that people are logical/honest enough to evaluate Bare Bones Law by comparing it along the proper margins, ie to the students of other uncredited schools. Judging from the rhetoric deployed against for-profit higher ed, charter schools, and other reformers/boat-rockers, I am not optimistic that will be the case.

Either way, I think it would be very important to attract a better-than-average student, because people are going to be judging the final state of Bare Bones' graduates, not Bare Bones' treatment effect.

One potential route would be to heavily recruit people from other professions rather than undergrads and 20-somethings. There are plenty of people who have success in one career and go back to professional school. I think the idea of not laying out six figures for gold-plated schools*
mahogany-paneled libraries, PhD law profs with more journal articles than teaching ability, etc.
would appeal especially to these people, compared to the average undergrad. (Who tends to be dumb enough to think act as if anything you're buying on credit is free.)

Property Rights & Containment

Asymmetric Information | Megan McArdle | Should Cities Ban Invasive Plants?

[My mother] just bought a house next to a fellow who loves to grow bamboo. It's about 10-12 feet high, maybe more, shading her windows and dropping leaves into her yard. More problematically, it seems to be sending roots over to her yard. Unfortunately, she didn't know when she bought the house that bamboo is a highly invasive plant that can wreak havoc with things like sidewalks and foundations. Yeah, I know; this is what comes of living in Manhattan for forty years.

DC, alas, does not have an ordinance against such plants, though local laws against bamboo are apparently rising in popularity.

But should it? If you libertarians wonder why I say that not all questions can be solved by resort to first principles and property rights, this is why. The plants are on his property, but they're invading hers.
I don't see how this is a problem for property-rights libertarians. What did Oliver Wendell Holmes say? Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose? Your right to plant things in your yard ends at... my yard. And since there's no way*
There are ways, actually. You just have to be extremely diligent about planting the bamboo in certain types of buried containers, typically having many layers as back-ups. A more interesting question that "should a city ban bamboo?" would be "what sorts of oversight should cities impose on bamboo-containment devices?"
to keep the bamboo you plant in your yard and out of mine, sorry, no bamboo.

You can do what you want on your property, but that is only relevant if what you're doing can be reasonably expected to stay on your property. Even the hardline property-rights libertarians I know would admit that "I can do what I want in my yard!" is not a good reason to let people build two hundred foot tall bonfires in their quarter acre residential lots.

As much as I would love to solve everything with first principles and property rights, McArdle is right that not every situation lends itself to that analysis. But this is not one of the situations.

USPS, inflation & innovation: a low bar

Reason: Hit & Run | John J Walters | Postal Service Ends Saturday Delivery, Still Has Big Problems

Largely as a response to the exorbitant cost of postage in the early 1800s, Congress standardized stamp prices in 1845 at 5 cents for a local letter and 10 cents for one addressed more than 300 miles away.

If we had allowed prices to increase with inflation, it would cost $1.19 to send a first-class letter; $2.38 if it were traveling more than 300 miles. Instead, it costs 46 cents flat.
Why should we assume postage increases at the same rate as an arbitrary basket of goods?

Check out these maps and tell me that transportation hasn't gotten far, far easier over two centuries. If anything, I would expect the costs of moving letters and parcels to grow significantly slower than general goods and services since 1800.

(Sourced from Ptak Science Books, "Travel Time in the Young Republic, 1800-1857").

PS This is a coincidence, but if you divide the USPS FY2012 operating expenses ($78.1 billion) by the number of pieces they delivered (177 billion) you get ... 44 cents, just under the cost of a stamp. (Figures here.)

KFC goes to Africa

WSJ | Drew Hinshaw | As KFC Goes to Africa it Lacks Only One Thing: Chickens

Accra, Ghana — To make American fried chicken daily fare in Africa, Ashok Mohinani wants to bring this West African country nearly two dozen KFCs over the next couple of years. First, he needs a chicken farm.

The plastics-mogul-turned-restaurateur opened four KFCs last year, two short of what he planned when he opened his first franchise in 2011. The problem: Ghana's chicken farmers aren't professional enough to satisfy the chain's requirements so Mr. Mohinani has been forced to import chicken.
I was a little confused by poultry farmers not being "professional" enough to satisfy demand. What does that mean? Turns out they don't do the little things like refrigerating butchered meat. Wow.
For starters, chicken feed also is imported, raising costs, because Ghana's cornfields have suffered from foreign competition.
I don't understand how both of these things can be true. If imported corn is more expensive, how can it be hurting domestic corn growers? If imported corn is less expensive it could hurt the corn growers, but not poultry farmers. Are domestic corn growers comparatively better or worse than foreign ones?

08 February 2013

Krugman the Fiscal Alcoholic

"Screw you man! I can quit drinking spending any time I want. Just not today. Next week. I'll put the bottle down next week. Or maybe, you know, soon. Not now. But soon! I promise."
The Conscience of a Liberal | Paul Krugman | Spending Cuts and Monetary Policy

Austerity right now is a really, really bad idea.
The problem is that Krugman seems to believe this is true irrespective of the value of "now." Can someone point me to Krugman ever asserting "now is a great time for austerity"? In the land of the Krug, austerity is never the right decision.

This is, in a nutshell, my problem with those who've found that good old fashioned Keynesian religion in the last five years. They tell me cutting government spending in a bust is a bad idea. Okay, fine. But where were they in the boom? Where were all the Keynesians saying "hey fellas, let's cut spending now and run some surpluses so we can keep our powder dry for the downturn"? I don't remember hearing that a single time.

Instead when times are good it's "everything's great! let's make sure the government writes lots of checks to spread the lucre around" and when times are bad it's "everything's screwed! let's make sure the government writes lots of checks to keep AD up."

Putting that aside, whether austerity now is a good or bad idea is irrelevant. The important question is whether austerity now is a better idea now than it will be in near future.

All things being equal, I'd much rather a little austerity every year for a while than a whole big whack of austerity all at once, so I vote now is better. Of course, all is not equal. I think austerity in the future is going to be more painful than now, for any number of reasons (e.g. "The Coming Retirement Burden", "continuing the bad news string for ACA"). So it doesn't matter to me how bad Krugman thinks austerity now is going to be until he can demonstrate now is worse than soon.

And even that ignores the fact that Krugman, and virtually everyone else inside the Beltway, has been making "not now, but soon" promises for half a decade. We don't even seem able to get back to the pre "stimulus" levels that Obama was so insistent would be "timely, targeted and temporary," to say nothing of repeatedly delaying the sequester, a device who's entire raison d'etre was to stop Washington from breaking its perennial dessert-now-but-veggies-later-we-swear addiction.

07 February 2013

Since I'm calling Shenanigans on things...

Let me add the USPS to the list.
NPR | Mark Memmott | Postal Service Moves To Halt Saturday Mail

"Beginning the week of Aug. 5 this year," [Postmaster General Patrick] Donahoe said, USPS will provide "six days of package delivery and five days of mail delivery. ... We will not deliver or collect mail on Saturdays."

Its decision could, however, run into challenges from Congress and from unions that represent the Postal Service's employees. Donahoe made the case, though, that USPS has no choice. The Postal Service, which lost nearly $16 billion last year, will save about $2 billion a year with this change, Donahoe said.
[0] Every other cost saving reform and capital investment they've launched has failed to cut labor costs. They've never been able to get their union to accept lower labor costs before, and I'd wager this time is no different. I bet their estimated cost savings are off by a binary magnitude.

[1] If they were serious about cutting costs wouldn't they cut out delivery on their lowest volume day? (Which, IIRC, is Wednesday.) Choosing Saturday already makes me think they don't have the cards for a real showdown with their union.

[2] Out of curiosity, what's the plan for the other $14 billion dollar in losses?

"Maryland Needs More Money to Design Purple Line"

DCist | Benjamin Freed | Maryland Needs More Money to Design Purple Line

The design work on the planned Purple Line through suburban Maryland could roll to a stop later this year unless state legislators raise transportation taxes, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation's capital budget.
Quick question from someone who is admittedly not too familiar with his state transpo budget:

If they don't have enough money to design this project, how are they possibly going to have enough money to operate this project?

Assuming the projects don't get derailed in their preliminary stages, both are still a long time coming. The Purple Line is expected to cost $2.15 billion by its scheduled rolling date of 2020, while construction on the Corridor Cities Transitway would not begin until 2018.
I'm calling BS on this too. I remember people posting signs in their yards supprting and opposing the Purple Line back when I was taking the school bus through the area this is supposed to run in. That was 1997. I'll bet dollars to donuts that there's no Purple Line in 2020, and if is is completed it'll cost $3B+.

"Average earnings of young college graduates are still falling"

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Average earnings of young college graduates are still falling
Diana G. Carew, who works with Michael Mandel, reports:
The latest Census figures show real earnings for young college grads fell again in 2011. This makes the sixth straight year of declining real earnings for young college grads, defined as full-time workers aged 25-34 with a bachelor’s only. All told, real average earnings for young grads have fallen by over 15% since 2000.
I wonder how many high school guidance counselors would be familiar with this graph. To a first approximation, I'd guess zero.

PS Images like this should be stapled onto every FAFSA application. Where are Obama, Sunstein, Kahneman, etc. on this? Surely they don't object to clearer disclosure, right? Right, guys? What, are you trying to trick people into borrowing money by exploiting the cognitive weaknesses of "System 1"?

06 February 2013

Ai Weiwei: Creare & Fecere -or- Political Art: Political or Artistic?

New Republic | Jed Pearl | Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist

For Ai, there is not even a question as to whether the artist can simultaneously be a social activist, because art is not a separate arena with its own laws and logic. All actions, whether compiling a list of children killed in an earthquake or dipping Han dynasty vases in industrial paint, are related in that they are expressions of "creativity." Creativity, Ai explained in a blog post in 2008, "is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one's imagination—perhaps more importantly—creativity is the power to act."
Don't over complicate things. Creativity is exactly what is says on the tin: creating things. Did you just cause something to exist that did not exist before? Congratulations, you just did something creative.

("Creative" is another situation where our language hobbles our thinking, leading to ridiculous-but-not-incorrect constructions like "creative creatives creating creative creative.")
What is lost in this talk about creativity and action is the ancient requirement that a work of art be realized in a particular medium. That does not seem to matter to Ai. Asked by an interviewer whether the millions of porcelain sunflower seeds at Tate Modern "relate[d] back to China," he argued that "mass production is nothing new. Weren't cathedrals built through mass production? The pyramids? ... Paintings can be painted with the left hand, the right hand, someone else's hand, or many people's hands. The scale of production is irrelevant to its content."
In this, I agree with completely with Ai. If you reject things like algorithmic art and insist that works be made by the artist's own hand, then you rule out all of architecture and most of design, not to mention creating vast fuzzy question marks over most bronze sculpture, most Renaissance paintings and carvings, etc.
The trouble with most critiques of political art is that they pay too much attention to the politics.
This is definitely true, whether the critique is positive or negative. I'm so borred seeing things in galleries or museums more because of the artist statements than because of the work.

If I'm ever talking about something I created and I use a construction like "my work questions the nature of..." or "this piece challenges what it means to be a..." direct a good strong footslap my way immediately.

All in all, I'm in agreement with Pearl and the title of this review. (Okay, Ai's not terrible. But "lackluster" would fit the bill.) If you want a good combination of Chinese dissidence and artistic achievement, check out the Gao Brothers.

B&N on the ropes. So what?

Lion of the Blogosphere | Barnes and Noble not doing well

Regarding their e-business, it will ultimately be unfortunate if Amazon gets a monopoly on book sales (both physical and ebook) because in the long run, that means higher prices for consumers when Amazon uses its monopoly power to jack up prices and increase profits.
Can anyone point out to me when this has actually happened? This is a serious question. I totally understand how it happens in theory, but has that theory ever been observed in the wild? I don't remember one single item in my life in which I was merrily buying from the low-cost provider only to see them jack up their prices as soon as they achieved market dominance. Nor do I ever remember being saved from that fate by the heroic actions of the FTC.

Can some one give me some examples of a company gaining market dominance, driving competitors out of business, and then jacking up prices? Sustainably? Without using government coercion to maintain its position?* If not, I'll settle for an example of when it was about to happen, but didn't because of decisive government anti-trust actions.

(* "Except where generated by government regulation, sustainable competitive advantage simply doesn’t exist.")

The only example** I can think of is Diamond, the only large-scale comics distributor, but the problem seems to be as much due to the dominance of DC and Marvel as the "Big Two" producders as it does to their solitariness as a middleman.

(** Putting aside "natural monopolies" like utility grid operators, which is different kettle of fish, and which despite their supposed natural-ness could still be potentially de-monopolized in various ways.)

In contrast, even in the deep dark days of Standard Oil, the prices of kerosene & other petroleum products actually fell. Dramatically. Either monopolists don't have as much power as theory suggests, or they're really bad at being monopolists, or they're insufficiently greedy to maximize their revenue.
But at present, Amazon is clearly the better website.
That "at present" is the catch. They're presently set up to become the only bookmonger because they're presently the best. If they jack up prices, they cease being the best, at which point they cease being the only.

See also:
Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Anti-Trust Law and the Corporate State

[Kevin Drum] seems to be arguing that we consider returning to a pure bigness standard without reference to consumer harm. I am not sure that we ever followed such a standard, but certainly today the alternative to a consumer harm standard is not a bigness standard but a competitor harm standard. Whether he knows it or now, this is essentially what Drum is advocating. ... I am not sure what Drum really wants, but the result of eliminating the consumer-harm standard would be an environment where every failed company can haul its more successful competitors in front of the government and then duke it out based on relative political pull rather than product quality.

Bloomberg: Arrogant & Ignorant

Asymmetric Information | Megan McArdle | Bloomberg’s Latest Crackdown: Prescription Drugs

ERs will face stiff limits on prescribing pain medication.

Prescription drug abuse is growing, and it's getting expensive. New York's Mayor Bloomberg has announced a new initiative to crack down:

Under the new city policy, most public hospital patients will no longer be able to get more than three days’ worth of narcotic painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet. Long-acting painkillers, including OxyContin, a familiar remedy for chronic backache and arthritis, as well as Fentanyl patches and methadone, will not be dispensed at all. And lost, stolen, or destroyed prescriptions will not be refilled. [...]

The administration says that "There will be no chance that the patients who need pain relief will not get pain relief." I'm not so sure.
McArdle is being way too generous. There is no possible way, mathematically, that zero legitimate patients will be harmed.

This is the essence of the No Free Lunch Theorem. You can not change your decision rule and guarantee that you will only decrease false positives without also increasing false negatives. There is simply no way to guarantee a priori that your policy will only makes the correct decisions regarding who should and who should not be given drugs.

This isn't a matter of politics or even of policy. It's scientifically impossible to that there is "no chance" this system doesn't increase false negatives — i.e. result in some people who should get drugs not getting them.

Links: 6 Feb 2013

Ideas | David Friedman | Overcharging: The Aaron Swartz Case

An interesting idea here for dealing with a big problem. Lots of governmental abuses are checked in theory, some in practice. I'm not sure prosecutorial over-reach is checked even in theory.

I especially like the part at the end dealing with Socrates. (Incidentally, I had never heard that part of the story. His initial offer took epic balls.)

I wish Friedman would write a book based on his Legal Systems Very Different from our Own courses.

KPC | Munger | An Insult to "Corrupt"

Asset forfeiture is one of the most batshit insane policies in America. (Not the most wrong or most damaging, the most WTF are they thinking?.) It is balls-to-the-wall bonkers that our society, and both major parties, accept such a farcical system. On the list of hang-my-head-in-shame, "how did America ever consider this as a good idea?" policies this is somewhere between Indian Reservations and the horse shit way we run immigration.

Smithsonian | Mike Dash | For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II

As sad as this family's state of affairs is they were still better off than the people who stayed under Stalin's thumb. I'd gladly take their meager "edge of starvation" life to the actual — and intentional — starvation suffered by millions in the USSR.

Armded & Dangerous | Eric S Raymond | Coding Freedom: a review
I still want the book this should have been.
Me too.

io9 | Robert T Gonzalez | NFL fans by U.S. county, according to Facebook
I find it interesting that some fandoms strictly follow political boundaries (Packers, Patriots) while others don't at all (Steelers, Seahawks).

The World Champion Ravens also appear to have the smallest geographic territory of any team.

askblog | Arnold Kling | A Correct Prediction

If I was on the Left I would look at these figures and then begin to think long and hard about whether knee-jerk opposition to things like Medicare block grants or defined-contribution public pensions is such a good idea. The biggest threat to redistribution to the poor is existing redistribution to the old.

(And the biggest threat to anyone my age is also redistribution to the old, but that's a whole other ball of wax. Let's just try and keep that in mind a little tiny bit, okay 18-to-35s?)

Cafe Hayek | Russ Roberts | Look at the data (and make sure it’s the right data). Then put it in perspective

On the one hand, at least Kristof is using data. Better that than anecdotes and hand-waving.

On the other hand, it's categorically the wrong data. It's only serving to add a veneer of respectability to falsehood.

Conclusion: I prefer arguments with numbers to those without, but I prefer lies without numbers to those with.

The Reference Frame | Lumo | Steven Chu quits, misunderstands the end of Stone Age

Often enough I think "you know, we need more scientists in charge of things." Then I remember that the scientists we get are Steven Chu and I think "yeah, maybe not so much."

Then I think about all the abominable committee meetings and discussion sessions I've been in with scientists and I think "perhaps best not to put scientists in charge."

Then I look over at my bookshelf, notice my copy of The Machinery of Freedom, and think "why are we putting anybody in charge at all?"

Restricted Data | Alex Wellerstein | Trinity test press releases (May 1945)

The FBI photo at the top of the post has a really misleading Google LIFE caption, which makes it sound like it’s just another fileroom. It’s not. It’s an overflow facility that the FBI’s Identification Division started using during World War II for the purposes of clearance needs of the armed services. The building is the DC Armory, a multi-use arena facility — and sometimes ice rink! — which is still in existence. By 1942 the FBI was adding 400,000 file cards a month to its archives, and were receiving 110,000 requests for “name checks” per month. By 1944 the agency contained some 23 million card records, as well as 10 million fingerprint records.
File under: bureaucracy, frightening images of.

Popehat | Charles | Did someone mention consistency?
On that thought, as the resident liberal around here and a generally pro-Obama guy as these things go, I am outraged and disgusted by the legal analysis in the Justice Department white paper that is believed to be close to, if not the actual analysis, the Obama administration uses to justify extrajudicial killing of American citizens believed to be enemy combatants [pdf]. ...

One ambiguous phrase is stacked on top of another until the inescapable conclusion is that extrajudicial killing is justified whenever the United States wants to use it. The threat matrix is basically an Excel spreadsheet where every cell says "Well, what do you WANT to do?"
I have a feeling that when our esteemed President and former lecturer in Con Law reads Article Two, all he sees are the words "Well, what you WANT to do?"

Newsweek | David Mamet | Gun Laws and the Fools of Chelm

Healthy government, as that based upon our Constitution, is strife. It awakens anxiety, passion, fervor, and, indeed, hatred and chicanery, both in pursuit of private gain and of public good. Those who promise to relieve us of the burden through their personal or ideological excellence, those who claim to hold the Magic Beans, are simply confidence men. Their emergence is inevitable, and our individual opposition to and rejection of them, as they emerge, must be blunt and sure; if they are arrogant, willful, duplicitous, or simply wrong, they must be replaced, else they will consolidate power, and use the treasury to buy votes, and deprive us of our liberties. It was to guard us against this inevitable decay of government that the Constitution was written. Its purpose was and is not to enthrone a Government superior to an imperfect and confused electorate, but to protect us from such a government.
The Left adduces arguments against armed presence in the school but not in the wristwatch stores. Q. How many accidental shootings occurred last year in jewelry stores, or on any premises with armed security guards? [...]

President Obama seems to understand the Constitution as a “set of suggestions.”
"Well Mr. President, what do you want to do?"

Asymmetric Information | Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry | Is Obama Turning America Into France?

Executive summary: there's no reason to believe that the vector is pointing away from France. You can argue the magnitude is small, but the direction is certainly Francophilic.

04 February 2013

In politics it doesn't matter what you do, it matters what you can get people to repeatedly say about it

Reason: Hit & Run | Ronald Bailey | Obama "Compromises" on Contraception Requirement for Religious Institutions. Really?

The Washington Post is reporting that the Obama administration has compromised on the thorny issue of requiring under ObamaCare that religious institutions buy insurance that covers contraception for their employees. Really? The Post Wonkblog notes:
Under this proposal, objecting nonprofits will be allowed to offer employees a plan that does not cover contraceptives. Their health insurer will then automatically enroll employees in a separate individual policy, which only covers contraceptives, at no cost. This policy would stand apart from the employer’s larger benefit package.

The faith-based employer would not “have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds.”
Say what? Is it really credible that health insurers won't simply boost the prices of their non-contraceptive policies to cover the "no-cost" contraception coverage? Does the Obama administration really think that believers can be that easily duped?
No, they do not think that believers will be duped.

But they probably do think that there are several million voters who don't really care that much who can be duped. And they're right.

They're counting on those people hearing the words "Obama compromised so that churches do not 'have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds'" several dozen times. And people will hear those words, and they'll accept them at face value, because we're cognitively lazy and do not take a whole helluva lot of wool pulled over our eyes before we just give up and agree that it's dark out.

In politics, if you tell people often enough and fervently enough that you're not picking their pocket with your right hand they won't bother to object when you pick it with your left.

So I guess the moral or the story is that (a) you don't need to outsmart your ideological opponents, you just need to outsmart the laziest voters, and (b) politicians are contemptuous jerkholes.

01 February 2013

Statistics do not care about propriety

The Consumerist | Mary Beth Quirk | Consumer Group: The Rich May Pay Less For Car Insurance Even If They’re Not Safe Drivers –

Driving safely and avoiding accidents isn’t just common sense — injuries hurt, car wrecks are bad — but also a way to make sure drivers keep their auto insurance premiums down. But according to figures released by a consumer group recently, insurance companies are in the habit of charging higher premium to safe, low- or moderate-income drivers than to richer people who were at fault for an accident. The review by the Consumer Federation of America (via Bloomberg News) says that out of 60 cases it studied, the good drivers were hit with higher prices two-thirds of the time, because of factors like education and occupation. [...]

Using two hypothetical characters the group compared premiums offered to two 30-year-old women. Both had driven for 10 years, lived on the same street in a middle-income Zip code and both wanted the minimum insurance required by whichever state the group was researching.

The imaginary woman who wasn’t married, rented a home, didn’t have coverage for 45 days but has never been in an accident or ticketed with a moving violation was compared to a married executive with a master’s degree who owns her home and has always had continuous insurance coverage. But she’d been in an accident (again, hypothetically) that was her fault and caused $800 in damage within the last three years.
The difference between the "safe driver" and "reckless driver" was $266.67 in damages annually. We're not talking about totalling your car by plowing into someone's living room. We're talking about the difference between a single, very minor, fender bender and nothing. It's a lot easier to see how other factors trump that difference in driving history than the way I've seen it presented in most of the press, which is a simple, categorical distinction between a "safe" and "unsafe" driver.

Many actuaries are saying that the features {income, rent-vs-buy home, marital status, education, ...} are a better predictor of outcome than the feature {history of fender-benders}. Our intuition is that fender-benders should be the best predictor. There are several possibilities:
  1. The actuaries are biased or vengeful or irrational, and are using their power to exploit people they don't like. If this is the case I would expect other insurance companies (State Farm, who regularly offered lower rates to the "safe" driver) to gobble up market share from them. As long as someone in the industry is greedy enough to prefer increased market share over punishing poor people, this problem should sort itself.
  2. The actuaries have made a mistake. This is possible, but we're seeing the same patterns across multiple companies. Perhaps they all have some theory induced blindess, but that they independently reached the same conclusions gives me confidence they aren't wrong. Insurance may also be the situation in which I have most confidence in Large Calculations: the sorts of models they're building for car insurance can make concrete predictions which can be tested rigorously and often.
  3. The actuaries are right. In which case... deal with it. If you really think your intuitions can make better predictions about a complex, high causal density system like socially-derived driving habits than the boffins with their numbers and data and computers and regressions then go for. Start an insurance company and get rich. Just do me a favor and don't call yourself a supporter of Science while you're doing it.
A couple of years ago I was at a conference and the speaker had presented a mildly controversial paper claiming that X was correlated with Y. Members of the audience kept objecting. Finally he got exasperated, threw up his hands, and declaimed "Look, you can keep giving theories about why X and Y shouldn't be correlated until you're blue in the face. But they are. Either give me an actual criticism of what I did wrong in the measurements or calculations, or accept my conclusions. Simply repeated 'but it shouldn't be that way' isn't getting us anywhere." That's what someone needs to tell the CFA.
“State insurance regulators should require auto insurers to explain why they believe factors such as education and income are better predictors of losses than are at-fault accidents,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s director of insurance and former Texas insurance commissioner.
This is not how math works. It doesn't matter why. You don't have to tell ex post stories about why correlations exist; you just have to know that they do.

The fact is that income etc. are better predictors. You can attack the way the insurance companies actually calculated that, and demonstrate that they made a mistake. But you can't attack them for not having a sufficiently convincing story to tell you about why.

(Speaking of which, let's make some stories. People with low incomes are more likely to be one-marshmallow people. People with low incomes are less likely to pay their bills on time. People who didn't finish school are less responsible in their education, and thus may be less responsible on the road. People who are unmarried are more likely to drive home from a night of drinking. People with lower incomes have lower job satisfaction, causing them more stress, causing them to drive more erratically when commuting. I don't know if any of these are true. But that's my point: I don't need to know if these stories are true, because they're just the stories. What I need to know is if the numbers are accurate.)
“Policymakers should ask why auto insurers are permitted to discriminate on the basis of nondriving-related factors such as occupation or education,” he added.
The English language seriously needs two different words to distinguish "discrimination" in the sense that Hunter is attempting to use it from statistical discrimination. Because people would be straight-up horrified if insurance companies stopped practicing statistical discrimination, not to mention the shenanigans that resulted from people conflating the two forms of discrimination during the ObamaCare debates.
[Consumerist is] of the same mind. Rewarding good drivers with higher premiums seems like a backwards way to do it.
This. This right here is the crux of the issue. Prices are not rewards or punishments. Geico, Nationwide, et al. are not passing moral judgement on people by offering them higher rates. It's not about how much they like you or whether they think you're a good person or if you give them warm-and-fuzzies in the cockles of the hearts. They're attempting to predict how expensive you will be as a customer and add a few percent for profit. That's it. Stop treating prices like a popularity contest.
If they’re going to get charged more anyway, where’s the motivation to be a safe driver, beyond insuring your own personal safety?
Wait, what? Does Quirk understand what happened at all? It's not like if you get in a few accidents but leave everything else the same you'll get a discount. The options studied were not "Person A, with no accidents" and "Identical Person A, with one accident." This is just... I'm not even going to bother with this not-even-wrong foolishness.