Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Other Side's Partisans

It took religious conservatives quite a while to get serious about screening and installing judges who were part of their movement. Up until then, there were plenty of judges appointed by Republican presidents, even while the liberal wing of the Republican Party was well in decline, who ended up infuriating the religious right. The important point was to assert control over the GOP judge-producing process so that they'd stop getting judicial technocrats and start getting their own ideologues. Now they've done that, and they're getting judges like Roberts and Alito instead of O'Connor and Souter.

I'm reading Matt's comment that "A party whose leaders realized that economic results were the most important driver of public opinion wouldn't have renominated a conservative Republican to head the Federal Reserve" and hoping we can at least stop appointing the other side's partisans and ideologues. Bernanke isn't as total a disaster as the Ayn-Rand-loving Greenspan, but I'd prefer somebody who won't see it as a minus if economic stimulus helps a Democratic president. I hope Democrats are waking up to what a problem this is.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Lee Fisher

In the wake of near-certain defeat, Lee Fisher, Democratic Senate nominee in Ohio, has turned over $100,000 of his money to the state Democratic Party. He ought to be thanked for making sure that the ship wouldn't go down with him. Current polling can be seen at right. If only Kendrick Meek could learn by example.

I haven't been following this race very closely. What exactly happened here? Some kind of huge divergence opened up in August and just kept getting wider. Was there some major news event, or did Fisher's campaign do something dumb, or what?

Coins Of Singapore

I'll support Nick's call for penny elimination below. Here in Singapore we're transitioning through the elimination of the 5-cent coin. (The penny, depicted at top right, was abolished well before my time.) Merchants will accept the 5-cent coin, but prices for lots of things are in 10-cent increments and it's slowly receding from circulation. At current exchange rates, the Singaporean dollar is worth 77 US cents, so we're basically moving into a system where the smallest coin is worth 7.7 US cents. We're enjoying the benefit of not fiddling around with insignificant coins, with no obvious drawbacks.

One of the nice things about the Singaporean system is that it's pretty well suited for transitioning through nickel elimination. Any value difference between any quantity our remaining existent coins can be bridged by some number of ten-cent coins. This works fine in the US system as far as penny elimination is concerned, because you can bridge any gap with some number of nickels. But in the future we're going to have trouble getting rid of the nickel, there's going to be trouble because if something costs 20 cents and you've got a quarter, there'll be no way to make change. Going straight decimal instead of messing with quarters would've had its advantages.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pennied and Nickeled and Dimed.

In re: Ezra Klein's new discussion of the penny,

I believe that not only does a penny cost more to make than a penny, but a nickel now costs more to make than a nickel. So, I propose that we drop the penny and make a zinc-based nickel. When I say, "I propose", what I'm really saying is "I mostly agree with James Poulos". There are some transition concerns, and questions of which President gets bumped and such, but overall this plan makes sense.

This plan at least mitigates the problem of Big Zinc, but it doesn't do anything about Big Vending Machine, which has to figure out how to deal with the new currency.

A World Of Surprises

I can understand why Founders worried about uneducated popular sentiment driving a democracy to foolish decisions might set up a bicameral structure in which it's harder to pass legislation. That's the cooling-saucer idea of the Senate (though as far as I can tell, the cooling saucer metaphor is based on an apocryphal story). Under such conditions, it makes sense to make the upper house have six-year terms so it doesn't suddenly turn over. If you're going overboard, you might also have other elites at the state level choose the Senators, as was originally done.

But if you assume a world of sudden and surprising challenges which technocrats can solve, but which the people are generally confused about, creating barriers to passing legislation ends up making popular sentiment win at the expense of the technocrats. Rather than having the barriers to passing legislation keep uneducated popular sentiment in check, it keeps technocrats from implementing any of their solutions. For example, you might have a financial crisis or a climate crisis, and the solutions are kind of funny-looking, but they'll work with minimal pain. In a unicameral system existing policymakers could just push them through, but with bicameralism it's easier for them to get stuck, which popular sentiment supports.

I remember Yglesias and Bernstein going on a while ago about how the Constitution is actually structured to protect a bunch of interest groups at the expense of technocratic policy proposals. That's certainly going on here. I guess what I find interesting is that if you're in a rapidly changing world where new challenges come at you from every direction, rather than a steady and stable world, political structures designed to keep popular sentiment from exerting too much force actually help that sentiment attain its ends.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Harry Reid And The Chamber Of Secrets

I haven't thought a whole lot about who becomes Senate Democratic Leader and how the rest of the hierarchy shifts if Harry Reid loses to Sharron Angle. Do we have a heir apparent? Does Dick Durbin move up? Here's the leadership list.

On balance, I'm happy with Harry Reid, mostly for the titanic achievement of passing health care reform. A lot of the things people blame him for are the result of (1) the Senate being a ridiculous body with ridiculous rules, and (2) members like Chris Dodd who want it to stay impossibly ridiculous. As far as I can tell, Reid was doing as much as he could to get progressive legislation through given these constraints. I hope he wins and we get to keep him.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama does last-minute edits on his remarks at the desk of Personal Secretary Katie Johnson in the Outer Oval Office, Oct. 8, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)"
Today's Kitsch Cover comes is Paul Simon, Chris Rock, and Tracy Morgan, performing "Scarborough Fair", followed by ... something else.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Language Of Rohan Is Not The Language Of Mordor

I'm glad Ta-Nehisi didn't punch the dude. If he did, we probably wouldn't have this great blog post.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Here's a picture of the smoky haze that occasionally covers Singapore, coming from Indonesia where rainforest is being chopped down for more agricultural land. The culprits include major palm oil distributors. When this happens, people with respiratory problems (including an older colleague of mine who's kind of stuffed up with a sinus headache) are miserable.
This was taken in the late afternoon yesterday, and we're looking west, so the sun would usually be about at the top of the picture. It would also usually be a seascape including a lovely view of the harbor. (If you click to enlarge and look very closely you can barely see tall crane structures in the distance, above the corner of the balcony.) This wasn't a rainy day or anything -- it's all rainforest destruction smoke.

Thanks to philosophy colleague Weng Hong Tang for taking this photo for me.

Gay Purple Blog Today

Today has been declared a day for wearing purple in support of gay people. We support you, gay people! (And, obviously, bi and transgender people too.) Go get married and join the army and have gay sex, if that's what you'd like to do. So! Purple blog.

Or at least, I think this is purple, though I have bad color vision and I could've accidentally made the icon at the top blue-green instead. But I know the links are purple because I know how hexadecimal codes work.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Blog Post Consisting Almost Entirely of Titles of Other Blog Posts, Cleverly Juxtaposed

Calculated Risk: Fed's Lockhart: QE2 is an "insurance policy" against further disinflation.

Matt Yglesias: Godot never shows up.

Apparently it's okay to take policy action that will prevent things from getting worse, but not to try so hard as to actually make things better.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Barack Obama is going to appear on Mythbusters, in order to promote science and explosions. But really, he should be busting myths:

Via Wil Wheaton (yes, that's Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Let me also use this as a chance to lodge my regular complaint that Barack Obama has had various sorts of nerds as guests at the White House, most notably the MATHCOUNTS winners, and he at least called American IMO medalist Evan O'Dorney, but he has yet to have the ARML winners show up. Lehigh Valley won again this year, so it's time that the President showed them some love.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Check Your Spelling, People

Here's Illinois Green Party gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney.

He recently discovered that on voting machines in over two dozen Chicago wards, including many with African-American voters, his name has been misspelled as "Rich Whitey." Apparently they can't change the way his name is spelled for voting purposes between now and election day, so that's how it'll have to be.

If the world keeps serving up typos of this quality, we're going to have to make typo-blogging a regular feature around here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fight Idiocy With Mockery

In the halcyon days of 2008, people did a pretty good job of pointing out that a lot of out-there, right-leaning views on both foreign and domestic policy sound good, but when you pause to think about what they're really saying, it's just batshit insane. I'm not talking about making fun of Christine O'Donnell's wacky days in the '90s, or Rand Paul's hijinks, or Carl Paladino's latest wackiness; I'm talking about the "sensible"-sounding Republican candidates who are often anything but. In that spirit, I bring you John Raese, West Virginia GOP Senate candidate, and frequent campaign loser John Raese, is breathlessly warning people about the danger of a "rogue missile aimad at our country", which would give us "33 minutes to figure out what we're going to do". To combat this menace, Raese claims, "we need 1000 laser systems put in the sky and we need it right now."

Let's think about this for a moment.

Who, exactly, is going to fire a "rogue missile" at America? Are we to imagine that Al-Qaeda is going to build an ICBM somewhere in the middle of Afghanistan or Pakistan without us knowing about it? Once you phrase the question this way, it's hard to see any stateless group developing the capacity to threaten the U.S. in the way Raese is talking about. That leaves actual countries, which is to say, Iran, or possibly a destabilized Pakistan. But the calculation for these nations is simple. A nuclear attack on the United States would not result in mutually assured destruction, a la the Soviets in the Cold War, but assured destruction for the opposing nation. There's no way for any middle-population, middle-income country to develop enough firepower to take on America's current nuclear arsenal. And having been the victims of a nuclear attack, the rest of the world isn't going to stand in our way.

Second, as MSNBC points out, getting these thousand 'laser systems' into low earth orbit would be a combination of hideously expensive, technically challenging, and a diplomatic nightmare.

Lastly, this sort of thing doesn't do anything for Raese's constituents, unless West Virginia has suddenly become a nexus for manufacturing 'laser systems'. I suppose they might require a lot of coal-fired electricity, but surely there are better ways to drum up power demand.

It would be nice if MSNBC would more clearly headline the piece, perhaps by saying "Raese wets his pants and makes up crazy shit to justify it", but for now that job will have to fall to bloggers

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Can Yglesias Top This?

I've liked Amanda Hess' blogging a lot in the past, but now I like her typos too: "Correction: This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men."

Overrepresentation of Small States In The Electoral College, Again

Highlighting yet another way in which small states have an outsized influence on American politics, each individual voter in a handful of small states with only one or two Representatives carries far more weight, as measured by the share of each electoral vote per voter, than the voters of a mid-sized state like Minnesota or Wisconsin. Here's the infoporn from the New York Times:

There are two obvious but totally politically unfeasible solutions to this problem is to either re-jigger the Senate to give any state with at least three Representatives a third Senator, and then any state with at least, say, seven or eight Representatives a fourth Senator. The structure of constitutional reform makes this more or less impossible unless the residents of small states collectively lose their minds.

The other solution would be to start eliminating states. You could make Wyoming into part of Montana, Colorado, or Utah; collapse the Dakotas into one state; collapse New Hampshire and Vermont into one state; and give the portions of DC where people live back to Maryland (leaving a handful of government buildings under Federal control). At that point, Alaska and Rhode Island would have the lowest number of voters per electoral vote at 180K and 192K, respectively. I have no clue what the procedure is for eliminating a state, but I'm sure this is a total non-starter.

Update: Astute and long-time reader Colin recalls that I once suggested tripling the size of the House of Representatives, which would, among other things, solve the quantization problem that gives Wyoming et al. additional voting power in the Electoral College. And indeed, this may be the least unfeasible solution to the problem.

Chevy Volt's Fuel Economy: It's Good!

People who are reading the write-ups (see here and here) on the worthlessness of Volt's plug-in hybrid concept needs to take a deep, deep breath. The complaints seem to come in two flavors:
  • Chevrolet promised that the Volt was "all electric", in that the once the battery reached zero or close to it, the gas motor would charge the battery, which would in turn drive the car. But in practice, at high speeds, the motor drives the wheels directly. Well, okay, that's interesting, but really, we all knew that the Volt would burn gasoline one way or another, so I'm not sure why this technical detail should get anyone's knickers in a twist. Connecting the gas motor directly at high speeds yields more efficiency, not less.
  • GM also made some very high "MPG" claims about the Volt, but went to great lengths to point out that MPG isn't a useful metric for plug-in-hybrids. And Popular Mechanics' and Motor Trend's tests aren't testing the types of driving where the Volt delivers the most benefit. Popular Mechanics put the car on the road for 600 miles on a single charge—that's a full day of highway driving. Not exactly your typical commute for most people.
The whole point of the Volt is that for most drivers, commuting is the dominant form of driving. And the Volt excels at fuel economy when it comes to commuting. Popular Mechanics found that the car ran on battery alone for the first 33 miles. If your commute to work is only fifteen miles, you won't fire up the gas motor at all. The average working-age driver, putting in 15,000 miles per year, will get an effective fuel economy somewhere between 100 MPG and 125 MPG, depending how much driving happens on weekends versus commuting days.

I don't know about you, but that sounds like a damn fuel-efficient car to me.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Congratulations, Peter Diamond. Go To Hell, Richard Shelby.

Peter Diamond just won the Nobel in economics for research explaining why, among other things, job vacancies can persist even when there are qualified applicants available. One way this can happen is that the vacancy is on the Federal Reserve and politically motivated Senators block Peter Diamond's nomination.

Ezra Klein has more.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Failure Has A Thousand Fathers

Gwinnett Braves game
Where to begin distributing responsibility for tonight's loss? Does it start and end with Brooks Conrad, who's errors directly contributed to two of the Giants' three runs? How much blame should go to Bobby Cox, who could have replaced Conrad with Diory Hernandez to start the 9th inning, and at least preserved a tie? And how much can be chalked up to simple bad luck? If the second base umpire had been two feet to the right or left, it's an easy play.

I always feel especially bad for young players who have problems in the postseason. Hopefully Conrad recovers for games four and five. And hopefully Cox won't be such an idiot tomorrow.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Resnikoff And Persons

Recent philosophy student Ned Resnikoff has a nice article in Salon about what makes something count as being a person and having rights, in which I present a hedonic utilitarian view of what constitutes a person. Joshua Knobe, an excellent philosopher whom I've had the pleasure of meeting, articulates an opposing position (which I don't know if he accepts).

I think the problem he points out at the end of the article -- that some entities might exhibit all the outward behavior associated with personhood without being persons -- isn't entirely intractable. We've got some kind of handle on which regions of the brain are responsible for pain experience, enough that we can cut them out as a therapy for crippling chronic pain problems. If we can find these parts or something neurologically wired up like them in another creature, that gives us some reason to think it can experience pain. Of course, this isn't going to be much help if we ever encounter aliens and want to figure out whether they're conscious. Hopefully consciousness research will have advanced further by then. But for creatures not too far from us, it gives us some handle on whether they can experience pain, which on the utilitarian view I offer is the important thing.

Friday, October 8, 2010

It's Hard Out There For A High School Grad

This is small comfort for the unemployed I know who have college degrees (and even law school degrees!), but things are much, much worse out there for eevryone else. Part of this is possibly because unemployed college grads don't always report as unemployed, but mostly it's simply because the current long-running recession is unpleasant but bearable for those with college degrees. Things get dramatically worse the further down the education totem pole you gon.

Via Felix Salmon, it's also worth noting that the number of discouraged workers has increased 71% in the past year, so while the headline unemployment number remains below 10%, in practice we're looking at something much closer to an effective unemployment rate of 11% or higher.


The latest hotness on Facebook is Groups. What you use these for, I'm not sure. But in a stroke of genius, Facebook has decided that anyone—including people with public profiles—can add you to any group, public or private. To spell out how dumb this is, suppose that the Boy Who Likes Pink is on Facebook, but he carefully keeps his profile private. His friend, however, doesn't keep his profile private, and adds BWLP to the group "people at my high school who like pink". And then badness ensues.

Thankfully, some merry pranksters have started pointing out the folly of this arrangement, so my guess is that Facebook will fix it in relatively short order. But this is at least the third time they've made the same mistake. Between tagging in posts & photos, checking other people into places, and now groups, Facebook seems to be almost willfully ignorant of the potential for really terrible misuse of public associations.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

MLB Playoffs 2010: NLDS Preview

Braves-Giants: It feels good to be back in the postseason after a long, hard four years in the wilderness (okay, that's a little cruel to Royals and Pirates fans). Anyway, the Giants were the superior team over the 162-game season as measured by third-order wins, and they won't have the benefit of Chipper Jones, Kris Medlen, Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado, or Troy Glaus operating at full strength. Tommy Hanson is a plus pitcher, but he's not the ace we saw for the second half of last season or the first half of this one. Lord knows I want the Braves to win, but I can't see this ragtag bunch getting it done against Lincecum, Cain, and Sanchez, especially given that all games will be played in pitchers' parks.

Totally meaningless prediction: Giants in 3.

Phillies-Reds: In contrast to the Braves, the Phillies endured several injuries over the course of the season, but are now firing on all cylinders. In addition, they made the biggest impact trade of any playoff team, adding Roy Oswalt to their rotation. The Reds are a great story, but again a team that was built on depth, which matters less in the playoffs. They're clearly the best team in the NL at the moment, even if that wasn't true at several points during the season.

Totally meaningless prediction: Phillies in 3.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

MLB Playoffs 2010: ALDS Preview

Rangers-Rays: Looking strictly at third-order wins, the Tampa Bay Rays have outperformed their talent level by a nose. The Rangers, on the other hand, are right where they should be. Tampa faces two main problems in this series:
  1. Depth vs. top talent. The Rays' success in the regular season is largely built on their tremendous depth, particularly in the starting rotation. The Rangers, on the other hand, spent much of the season with weak starters in the 4th and 5th slots in their rotation. But in the playoffs, there is no 5th starter, and with the proliferation of off days, the 4th starter is becoming rarer and rarer. That's a disadvantage Texas won't face in a short series.
  2. Injuries. Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, and Ian Kinsler missed a combined 142 games during the regular season. If they're firing on all cylinders, I'd expect Texas to have superior run-scoring potential, especially their hitter-friendly park.
 Totally meaningless prediction: Rangers in 4.

Yankee-Twins: On paper the Yankees are the superior team, even if Justin Morneau were to play. That said, Joe Girardi hasn't shown himself to be the greatest of postseason tacticians. So while Minnesota's lineup is an improvement over last years scrub-tastic wonders, I don't think it will be enough to overcome the new-look Bronx Bombers.

Totally meaningless prediction: Yankees in 4.

Public Fire Departments Are Better

By now you're probably heard the story of Gene Cranick, whose house burned down while firemen watched because he didn't pay the $75 fire protection fee. I get the economic reason why the firemen wouldn't save his house -- if they do the work for free, they don't give anybody else an incentive to pay. Matt's idea that the fire service should've just charged $10,000 an hour or something for firefighting seems right to me. I wonder why they didn't do that.

But what really needs to be criticized here is the whole idea of a private fire department. The fire protection business, especially in a sparsely populated rural area, isn't something where you're going to get multiple businesses competing. So the usual arguments for a free-market system -- businesses are going to compete to offer a consumer the best price, the best businesses will survive, and consumers will end up better off -- don't apply. When you're stuck with a monopoly, you aren't going to get the benefits of free markets, so you might as well make it a government monopoly and give the citizens the ability to control it through voting.

I remember an old hilzoy post about how back in the 70s the battles were between free-market fundamentalists and socialists who thought the government should run everything. People who thought that these decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, with focus on the particular circumstances involved, were in the middle. Over the next couple decades, the socialists all more or less disappeared and now it's free-market fundamentalists versus case-by-case types like me and most of the Democratic Party. Even if I'd disagree with the socialists on lots of stuff, I wish they were still a major force, because then the case-by-case types would have decisive influence.

Ezra Is On The Map!

XKCD's new map of internet communities, that is. On the large version of the map, look at the zoomed-in blogosphere segment, and you'll see him in small type.

Counting Yglesias in under 'ThinkProgress' and TPM, you've got a good chunk of my daily reading, and then Krugman whom I look at every couple days because he doesn't post at such a torrid pace.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Me On PhilosophyTV

Here's me doing a video philosophy discussion with political philosopher Jason Brennan. It went pretty well, except that I was trying to compensate for tiredness with caffeine and it made me say "um" and "you know" every fifth word.

The first 35 minutes or so are on Jason's argument that the right to vote and the right to hold office don't usually benefit the individuals who have them. It actually strikes me as a pretty reasonable position once you get clear on exactly what Jason is saying. Since your vote is really unlikely to be decisive in winning the election and generating more policies that help you personally, it doesn't do a lot to improve your life. However, Jason is willing to say that others in your (racial, gender, religious, etc.) group having the vote helps you, because that's really what protects your interests. The point is just that the incremental addition to your personal welfare from your personally having the vote ends up being really small. The right to hold office, meanwhile, is a big thing for a few people who actually are professional politicians, but it doesn't play a big role in the rest of our lives. I think he's thought through a lot of these issues clearly, and as long as his conclusions don't get blown up into something bigger than his arguments can support, they're right.

The second half is my big defense of hedonism about value (the view that pleasure is the only good, which is part of my hedonic utilitarianism). Jason's basically interviewing me about my paper on that. There's also something funny that I'm doing every now and then during the second half of the video, but I'll let you discover that for yourself. Thanks to the nice people at PhilosophyTV for thinking it was amusing.

More philosophy content coming soon -- I'm on a philosophy podcast tomorrow night and the guy has written up some nice questions (including one involving Possible Girls).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Old People

Here's a chart Ezra posted about how different age groups have moved around this year in terms of their Congressional vote.

It brings to mind Matt Taibbi's awesome description from a Tea Party rally of "A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries." Of course, the old people who abandoned Democrats and generated the downward motion at the bottom of the chart are by definition a swing-voting group and not hardened Republican base voters who likely are showing up at the rally. But the contradiction in an elderly group pushing an antigovernment ideology -- well, that's real.

If Republicans win power and limit their attacks to the Affordable Care Act (which, after all, leaves people over 65 in the same condition they were in before) they may not alienate these voters. But there are elements in their party that want to go after Medicare and Social Security. They can't do that and hold on to power, as Newt Gingrich and the Social Security privatizers learned.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Better Than Your Average Ficus

The quality of regulatory oversight provided by some holdover Bush appointees would have been improved had they been replaced by ficus trees.
Readers may dimly recall that the Neil's chart-tastic sidekick does on occasion post here, sometimes on topics that don't even involve charts! One of those was the total awfulness of the former chair of the Office of the Comptroller of Currency, which, while nominally one of the many agencies regulating banking activity, had morphned into an oasis of bankster apologism. Thankfully, the rather odious head of the OCC resigned on August 14th, and even if his replacement had been a ficus, the ficus would probably have been more useful. Happily, John Walsh, the acting head of the OCC, seems to be better than a ficus, and has begun cracking down on the "foreclosure mills" that seem to be popping up to deal with the current wave of distressed mortgages.

Why Atheists Know More About Religion

I've seen a lot of my friends expressing surprise (or pride) at the recent survey result that atheists are more knowledgeable about religion than believers. This result held, as far as Pew could tell, even after controlling for levels of eduction.

A lot of factors go into this, of course. But I'd bet on one of the larger and more boring ones being that self-described atheists tend to think more about religion, on average, than believers. Plenty of people are just Catholic or Baptist or whatever by birth, go through the cultural motions, and don't really think about it. (My mom is this kind of Hindu.) As a mass cultural phenomenon, atheism is new enough that many percentage of its adherents embraced it themselves after personally exploring the issues. There's got to be a much lower percentage of first-generation Baptists than first-generation atheists, and the first generation is the one that cares.

I think this demographic explanation still leaves room for atheist triumphalism in the wake of the survey results.

I Take Credit For TARP

I'm proud of my early support for banking industry bailouts. One of my hopes was that we could buy cheap distressed assets and sell them for a profit while rescuing the economy. That may have happened, and if it didn't, we just about broke even.

Financial industry buddy Ó Coileáin tells me that we could've made even more money if we didn't let AIG renegotiate deals to its benefit and our detriment after we made them.