Saturday, April 30, 2011

90s Party

I'm glad that Ezra got so much discussion going with this observation:

President Obama, if you look closely at his positions, is a moderate Republican of the early 1990s. And the Republican Party he’s facing has abandoned many of its best ideas in its effort to oppose him.

If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis, three major policy ideas have dominated American politics in recent years: a plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal health care; a cap-and-trade plan that tries to raise the prices of environmental pollutants to better account for their costs; and bringing tax rates up from their Bush-era lows as part of a bid to reduce the deficit. In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans have staked out before.

I thought it was kind of nifty how Ezra supported the left-wing critique of Obama's positions in a way that mostly didn't feel very left-wing at all -- just neutral and historical. I was excited to see that Nate Silver had a post on it, but I kind of choked on this:
I’m a big fan of Mr. Klein’s work, but I don’t find his thesis persuasive in this case. Instead, I’d suggest that the evidence points toward a considerably less exciting conclusion. Rather than being an early 1990s moderate Republican, Mr. Obama is a prototypical, early 2010s Democrat.
And here we miss the point by taking things too literally. I think Nate's argument would've been complete with some kind of mathematical evidence to show that it's the early 2010s, so obviously Obama can't be an early 1990s moderate Republican. In any event, it's no surprise that Obama and current Democrats line up so closely. These two things aren't independent variables. Obama's the leader of the Democratic Party and he sets its agenda. I don't know how you use data like Nate's to evaluate agenda-setting choices, when each of several choices would leave a large number of Congressional Democrats with no real option but following along.

I like Nate's chart, though. Maybe I've seen data using this technique before where you assume that incumbents have constant ideological positions and use that to help you determine whether new legislators are moving a party left or right, but this is the first time it's been explained to me. And here's what you get:
Three lines, and it tells you a lot. Unrelated to the current discussion, I like how it supports the Civil Rights Act theory of why bipartisanship died. Basically, you go from having 3 groups -- segregationist Dixiecrats, pro-labor Northern Democrats, and pro-business Republicans -- to the current 2 groups that fit better in ideologically coherent parties. The Dixiecrats form the core of the new Republican Party and the more moderate Republicans become Democrats. On this chart, the closest things get is in the mid-1960s when the Civil Rights Act passes, and the parties separate from there.

Friday, April 29, 2011

It's The Future And We Can Help People Know Stuff

I remember Ezra and others complaining, back during the effort to pass health care reform, that the news focused too much on process stories about whether the bill would pass the next legislative hurdle, when lots of people still didn't know what the legislation was actually doing. That this would happen was understandable -- process stories change and you have something new to report every day, while the basic structure of the legislation was roughly constant. Even if the really important thing to tell people is old news, it doesn't get covered as much as the shiny new news of the day.

This kind of problem should be easier to solve in the internet era, when you can just put together some kind of infographic explaining the legislation (sort of like the one Nick made, which has been the most-linked thing ever on our blog) and put a small link to it in every story on the legislation. Back when there were just newspapers, I can see why people didn't want to take up precious space with the same story over and over again. But now it's the future and we shouldn't have this problem.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Birther Wedge

More attention to the question of whether Obama was born in the United States probably helps Democrats and hurts Republicans. This is an issue where you've got controversy within the Republican Party, but everybody else knows what's going on, and elite media opinion is firmly on the right side. So Republican politicians have a choice: either reject the conspiracy theory, alienating some of their primary voters, or treat it as credible and look crazy to everyone else.

The effect of Obama's request for a birth certificate is to raise the salience of the issue nice and early in the Republican primary. I don't think it'll put any dent in the number of Birthers. The people who remain unconvinced right now are deep enough in a conspiracy theory (as Nick notes below in linking to my earlier post -- one they may accept for reasons that have little to do with evidence) that there's no way evidence is going to pull them out.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nomination Ruminations

I'm starting to think that I counted Mitt Romney out a bit too quickly. Not because of anything about him, but just because the field is so thin. I'll stick to my old claim that the nomination was Jim DeMint's for the taking, because he has the most Tea Party cred without being a gaffe-a-day freak show. But he's apparently not running, and neither are Haley Barbour or Rick Perry or John Thune. I still think that Romney's going to lose to somebody more crazy than him, but there are fewer potential Romney-beaters out there than I thought.

Amanda Marcotte's case for Tim Pawlenty -- that he's the candidate nobody in the GOP strongly objects to -- seems right to me. That's especially valuable in the late stages of the campaign where there are fewer options and broad acceptability matters, so I'll put him at number 1 for now.

You Cannot Stop Scott Brown, You Can Only Hope To Contain Him

As of yet, no one of any consequence has yet to their neck out and challenge Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

The dynamics here are rather frustrating. A number of current and former Representatives in the state -- most notably Michael Capuano -- could give Brown a run for his money, if not win outright. But since Massachusetts is such a solid Democratic state, they seem to prefer to wait until Brown either gets bored or the political climate reaches a point where a Senate run would be almost 100% risk free. This sort of undue caution is a bit silly; no campaign is an absolute shoe-in, and high-quality candidates elsewhere in the country seem willing to take on significantly more risk when running for office. Why should Bay State Dems get a free shot at the seat?

Proposition 8 And Animal Judges

Defenders of Proposition 8 (the California gay marriage ban) are arguing that the ban should be reinstated because the judge who overturned it is a gay man in a long-term relationship. Their argument is that his relationship gave him an interest in the outcome.

I've gone from seeing this as an offensive argument grounded in thinly disguised antigay prejudice to appreciating the awesome consequences it would have for jurisprudence. The US Supreme Court regularly decides cases that address the rights that all Americans have. So in order to make sure that those decisions were made by impartial justices, we'd have to put foreigners whose rights wouldn't be affected on the Supreme Court. But that might not be enough. Since some Supreme Court decisions address the human rights of both Americans and foreigners, impartiality requires that we assign those decisions to animal judges.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Dollar Is Dropping, All Is Well

It's good for some Americans when the dollar falls in value relative to other currencies. Most importantly, US businesses find it easier to sell their products abroad, since American goods become cheap. Since I get paid in foreign currency, I'm an unusual case, but it's great for me. The number of Singapore dollars that make a US dollar has fallen nicely over the past year, as the chart shows. Recent debt ceiling worries have accelerated the process. I have some nifty plans for all my riches of the Orient that I'll share with you guys soon.

Unfortunately, I don't expect that the economy will get the benefits of monetary easing out of debt ceiling-related declines in the value of the dollar, just because these declines will be so temporary. I'm pretty sure that the debt ceiling will get raised without too much trouble, and the current dip will be quickly undone.

Why do I think we'll get a debt ceiling increase? Well, we avoided a government shutdown over the budget, and a debt ceiling failure would be a bigger deal. Also, Obama has more cards to play in this one since he gets to decide who gets paid in IOUs first. I'm feeling pretty good about him playing it right, since the budget deal turned out to be pretty good once it became apparent that a lot of the budget cuts weren't as severe as they seemed to be.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

This Post Has Good Advice, In All Caps

I hadn't been reading Feministe in a while, for whatever reason, but I need to start again after laughing out loud at this post.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Obama Caption Contest and Kitsch Lip Syncing

Obvious choice this week:

Today's Kitsch Lip Syncing features Giant's pitcher Brian Wilson, outfielder Cody Ross, and a little kid getting down to dance-pop craze "Dynamite".

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cut Afghan War Spending

With the budget having been the major topic of discussion over the past few weeks, I'm sad to say that I've hardly heard any discussion of withdrawal from Afghanistan as a good way to cut spending. Maybe this isn't the absolute worst time in the economic cycle to keep deficit-spending for a pointless war. But really, if we're going to cut spending, can we put the least beneficial spending on the table?

I know that the ludicrous conventions of DC budget talk forbid us from proposing cuts to spending on wars currently in progress. But there's a fair amount of money allocated here, and no serious electoral disadvantage to cutting it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How To Tell If Space Aliens Are Visiting Earth

Some people are getting excited about the dead body of a supposed alien which has been found in Siberia. I was hoping that after the story we'd see the off-topic brutal anti-immigrant sentiment common among Yahoo! commenters -- "Deport the aliens!" But instead you get a mix of UFO people getting all excited and rational people pointing out that it's pretty threadbare.

What would be good evidence of aliens having crash-landed on Earth? I'd be impressed by some awesome new alien technologies being discovered among the wreckage. Any species that could get over here should be toting stuff that would look like an iPad in 1970. Obviously if there's a dead alien, we should be able to examine its internal alien parts too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Who's The Next Pelosi?

While I'd love to have Nancy Pelosi in charge of the House Democrats for the next several decades, I understand that this may not be technologically feasible. So if anyone has any thoughts, I'd like to re-ask a version of Jonathan Bernstein's question: who would be the best House Democratic Leader -- Speaker when we're in power, Minority Leader when we're not in power -- for after Pelosi retires?

Taxi Prices

It's good for both taxi drivers and riders if everyone follows some kind of convention for how much going somewhere will cost. I've never seen a place where each taxi can have its own different complex fare schedule, probably because some taxis would hit unsuspecting or unmathy customers with a surprising fare (many people wouldn't understand what it meant if a taxi charged $2 to the power of the number of miles traveled).

For the viability of the taxi business, it doesn't matter exactly what the conventional fare is, as long as plenty of people are willing to charge / pay it and everybody follows it. Singapore has a nice taxi system with a complicated fare structure. Right now I'm visiting Chiang Mai, a laid-back town in Northern Thailand full of cheap delicious food and friendly people. Among the major means of transportation are songthaews -- pickup trucks with two benches in the covered bed, from the Thai word song (2) and thaew (row) -- which will take you and some other customers a short distance for a flat fare of 20 baht / person.

The free market system one does see in some places, either as a legally established option or as the way things run de facto because price regulations aren't enforced, is one where you have to haggle with the taxi driver about the price of going to your destination. I've done it in other parts of Thailand, and I hear it's common in Malaysia. People's sentiments will vary, but I don't like this system. Haggling takes time, is unpleasant, and can result in no deal happening because somebody presented an overly ambitious ultimatum when both parties were actually willing to settle for a middle price. It also can lead to visitors who aren't familiar with the local haggling economy getting ripped off.

It's not that having convention or the government set a fixed price is a perfect solution. Maybe government will set the wrong price and lots of good business will never happen, either because the price was too low to interest a lot of drivers or too high to interest a lot of riders. And maybe our conventions will get outmoded and be difficult to change, leading to a similar result. But if you want to avoid haggling for everything, it's important to have fixed prices come about in some way or another.

Actual Very Serious People

The NYT does a long profile on the "Gang of Six" that seems to be trying to put together some sort of budget compromise. The group consists of three very conservative Republicans—Mike Crapo (R-ID), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)—two moderate Democrats—Mark Warner (D-VA) and Kent Conrad (D-ND)—and one very liberal Democrat—Dick Durbin (D-IL).

That sort of coalition is unlikely to support anything I'm going to be wild about (Chambliss, in particular, has a special place in hell reserved for him thanks to his 2002 campaign). But at least the conservative members of the group are willing to try to face budget realities while they hold office. For that, they deserve way more credit than out-of-power truth tellers like Alan Simpson or Bruce Bartlett.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What's The Point of Holding Onto Power ...

... if it requires making peace with generals who oversaw torture? Complete with a set of fantastic non-denial denials ... he was never directly linked to the wrong doing! He maintains that he had no knowledge of the events at Abu Ghraib! So he's not evil, just completely out of touch with his chain of command.

I'm all for recognizing that civil libertarians aren't an appreciable size of the Democratic base, especially in a place like Texas, but there's hippie punching and then there's hippie punching. Jeez Louise.

Classical Music on the Radio

Looks like it's making a comeback, after a decade wherein many classical stations either retreated into non-threatening baroque/early romantic music, or converted to 24/7 talk format.

Seattle has one commercial classical station, but it will be going listener supported in May. The playlist seems to be all over the map.

Tax Complexity Has Nothing To Do With The Number of Brackets

If you've never filled out taxes directly (either you've used software like TurboTax, or someone else does your taxes), go look at a 1040. You'll note that the complexity of the tax code has nothing to do with the tax rate. To calculate the tax you owe, you just take your taxable income and look up the amount owned in the tax table. That's it!

The hard thing about taxes is the myriad deductions and credits we've grafted onto the tax code. Some of these credits depend on your adjusted gross income. Some depend on your Modified AGI. Some depend on your taxable income. Some are refundable, some are not. Some phase out after certain income levels. In addition, we tax different forms of income (capital gains vs wages) at different rates. If we replaced lots of those credits with direct government spending, tax day would suddenly get a lot simpler.

But somehow our discourse has managed to equate "having more tax brackets" with "complexity". This has resulted in a tremendous collapse of the top marginal rates, to the point where people earning seven figures per year pay almost the same marginal rate as the upper-middle class. Kevin Drum flags a very illuminating chart on this matter , looking at effective income tax rates:

There's no reason for the tax code to flatten out once you are in the 40th percentile of American income earners (which is roughly $60,000/year). Given the general level of underfunding of the government, we could do a lot more to push the tax rate for the top 20% and top 1% somewhat higher. Putting a cap on the mortgage interest deduction, charitable giving deduction, and tacking on a 45% top marginal rate at $500,000 or $1,000,000 would be a good start.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Evil Magic Fails In India

I like this story from India, in which an atheist challenges a supposed magician to kill him. There is video -- I think the second video is best for taking a quick glance.

The Optimal Distribution Of Lust

Kay Steiger writes that "Women who discount men because they are short are, well, kind of bigots." If that's bigotry, we're all bigots in some way or another. We're all turned on and off by a wide range of things that look completely arbitrary from any objective point of view. Is the only non-prejudiced sexual taste a kind of omnivorous bisexuality? Are we supposed to all converge on a set of specific and objective norms for hotness? These ideas sound crazy, but I'm not making fun of Kay here -- these issues are hard, and it can seem like any principled answer commits you to absurdities.

I don't think that considering the evolutionary fitness of various traits is going to help here. Even if it promoted reproductive fitness back in the Pleistocene to love only tall or skinny or wealthy or strong people, looking at whatever promoted reproductive fitness back then is just a terrible way to determine norms for modern-day conduct. (I'm pretty sure that the amount of murdering I want to see in contemporary society is less than the amount that promoted individual fitness back then.) It's fine to accept that stuff from back then shapes our instinctual preferences. But it's silly to actively promote Pleistocene-era standards as the right ones. A better approach would be to look directly at which norms for attraction help everyone live happier lives. So let's do that.

First, it's good for people if their romantic tastes can be more easily satisfied. If you're a man who doesn't like heavier-than-average women or a woman who doesn't like shorter-than average men, you're missing out on romantic opportunities with a half of the population that's more likely to be available, and that raises your risk of being sad and lonely. It's bad in general if you like a very narrow range of people whom everybody else likes, because then everyone you like might already be taken. So it helps you to have broad tastes. Or failing that, to not have the same narrow tastes as others.

Second, it's also good for everybody if more people like them. Being liked by one person is way way better than nobody, but having people be attracted to you has a diminishing marginal utility -- beyond a certain number, it doesn't add to your life that much. So making sure attraction is fairly well-distributed doesn't require everybody to be attracted to everybody. It just requires that some people like those whom others don't like. Again, broad tastes are great, and we really want to avoid everybody having the same narrow tastes.

Obviously there are some unhealthy traits that we wouldn't want people to be attracted to, because those would lead to unhappy relationships and/or encourage destructive behavior. But setting aside those things, it's best for people to have broad preferences, and for everyone to be wanted. All these problems are solved by having an even social distribution of attraction, where people don't all like the same things.

So does that mean there's something wrong with you if you're attracted to the people whom everyone else likes? I don't know if moral criticism involving the language of bigotry is helpful here -- for people who are already set in their ways, no amount of thinking "gosh it'd be so much better for me and others if I liked short men / women who share my swarthy skin tone* / humans who have penises" is going to change things. (I've starred my notable failing.) This is unlike usual cases of moral action, where conscientious people who have been morally persuaded towards the right view can do the right thing. Knowing that it would've been better for everyone if I felt lust for a particular woman doesn't make the lust actually go.

Unfortunately, social forces in mass culture are organized so as to push on everybody in roughly similar directions, causing them to like the same narrow set of traits. Our instincts, with their common evolutionary history, do a similar thing. We need to keep these forces from leaving lots of people lonely and unloved. But how?

There are some cases where you can strengthen or weaken someone's feelings about something by commendation or criticism. So if one of your female friends confesses an attraction to short men, express your admiration and tell her that more women like her would make the world a better place! And if one of your male friends expresses his desire for a heavier-than-average woman, for goodness' sake don't make fun of him! And I literally mean for goodness' sake -- for more good things to happen, we need currently unusual preferences to be more widespread in people.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Big Government Liberalism In The Weird Awesome Future

While I'm arguing with Ygz, I'll criticize his old post about the end of big government liberalism that he's just referenced.

If there's one thing I'm convinced of about the future, it's that it's going to be really weird in ways we can't imagine right now. There's going to be all sorts of crazy new technologies. Some of them are going to transform human social relations in ways we can't predict in advance. Others might make life utterly awesome for those who have them, making it an important big government liberal cause to provide them to everybody. The government is violating people's right to pleasure if it doesn't fund the writing of the program that allows people to set themselves up with whatever awesome sex dreams they want once they download it into their brains through the USB slot in the back of their necks! We need to discover the minimal physical unit that can have the experience of intense pleasure, and devote huge resources to manufacturing them by the quintillions!

Or so I want future progressives to argue. You guys know I'm a hedonic utilitarian and I'm not kidding.

Why McCain Could Win And Romney Probably Can't

In response to my skepticism about Romney's chances of winning the GOP primary, Matt Yglesias tweets: "Folks who think Romney can't win a GOP primary need to explain how the heretical McCain won."

First, the extreme wing of the GOP wasn't as energized during the 2008 primary as it is now. 2008 sees GOP moderate Susan Collins running unopposed in the Maine GOP primary. I don't think that would happen now. Something happened between then and now to turn the GOP base into a much stronger political force. I think it's paranoia based on bizarre ideas about what President Obama is up to, fed by right-wing entertainers like Limbaugh and Beck. In any event, the 2010 Senate primaries lead me to think that the GOP base will be a much bigger force in the 2012 primary than it was in 2008.

Second, while McCain wasn't trusted by the GOP base, he had a better record on their issues than most alternatives, making him an acceptable option. He supported invading everything and had a zero rating from both NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Obviously, I'm not the person who movement conservatives should be turning to for strategic advice, but Ramesh Ponnuru is, and he was telling people that McCain was a good choice. Who else were you going to vote for? Pro-choice Rudy Giuliani? Antiwar Ron Paul? Tax-raising Mike Huckabee? Flip-flopping Mitt Romney?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Panic! At the Republican Budget Committee Meeting

Apparently, Paul Ryan got his feelings hurt when the President had the temerity to point out that the numbers in the Ryan budget proposal don't really add up.

Hey, Paul, 2005 called, and they want their guyliner back.

If Paul Ryan doesn't want people to call his budget proposals unserious, he should ... come up with a proposal that doesn't assume the creation of high demand for unicorn spotters and snipe hunters to reach 2.8% unemployment.

How Does Romney Win?

I've been perplexed by Mitt Romney's supposed GOP frontrunner status for a while now.

Didn't we see this scenario play out in GOP Senate primaries all across the nation last year? Well-funded mainstream Republican runs against Tea Party extremist. Tea Party extremist wins.

Poor candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell as well as mediocre candidate Ken Buck won their primaries in extremist roles before losing general elections. And then there's the strange case of Alaska, where the Tea Party won the primary and got Liebermanned by the defeated Murkowski in the general election. The Tea Party did defeat a few mainstream Republicans and win Senate seats too -- that's what we saw in Utah, Kentucky, and Florida. But the number of cases where the mainstream Republican faces any kind of contested primary and triumphs is pretty small.

True believers win Republican primaries, not technocratic chameleons. Which is unfortunate, as I think Romney is probably the best potential president in the GOP field. I'd rather have a unprincipled poll-driven Republican than a principled one, since Republican principles are terrible. But barring some kind of unlikely scenario where the extremists can't unite effectively around a single candidate, I don't think all his money can buy him the nomination.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This Year In Cuts

Apparently the easiest stuff in the budget to cut is education, environmental protection, and scientific research. So much for America's Sputnik moment!

Perhaps my favorite reduction is the $1 billion to the prevention of HIV/AIDS, TB, and other diseases.

Feeling better about the world today?

Monday, April 11, 2011

More on Obama, Lucy, and the Football

Former Clinton speechwriter points out that Bill Clinton unabashedly defended a positive role for government, especially as it pertained to Medicare. I hope someone important out there is reading this.

Debt Ceiling Hardball: Do It By District

Boehner is staking out an extreme position:
The president says I want you to send me a clean bill. Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you’re going to get a clean bill. There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it.
This is where executive power comes in handy. A good response would be to announce that anything but a clean bill will be vetoed, and the resulting inability to issue new debt will result in nothing but IOUs being issued to those in the districts of Congresspeople who opposed a clean bill. Or you could do it Matt's way, selectively defunding Republican interests rather than clean bill opposing districts.

Hirono For Hawaii, Or At Least Not Ed Case

Hawaii may have a competitive Democratic primary for Senate in 2012, with Ed Case and some progressive Democrat like Congresswoman Mazie Hirono facing off to replace the retiring Daniel Akaka. (Case has declared his candidacy, Hirono hasn't yet.) As DavidNYC from the Project points out, Case is a bad Democrat:
Case is truly a Dem in the DLC mold. Most notoriously, when he was running for Congress in 2002, he said he would have voted for the Iraq war resolution - and as late as 2006, he voted (and spoke) in favor of an open-ended military commitment in that country. He's also been a regular supporter of anti-progressive legislation like the bankruptcy bill and the PATRIOT Act.
Meanwhile, you can look at Hirono's issue positions here. Basically everything is as good as you'd expect from a Hawaii Democrat. She's always been an opponent of the Iraq War (though she got elected to Congress too late to vote on it).

Winning the general election shouldn't be too difficult, especially with native son Barack Obama at the top of the ticket in liberal Hawaii. And Hirono has lately been winning her congressional district by margins of over 40%, so she should win a general election.

This Will Bring Peace To The Galaxy

Turn on the sound on your computer and play with it!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unlearning the lessons of 1995

Fresh off roughly $40 billion in cuts to unspecified bits of spending, the Obama administration, the White House is floating trial balloons that it will come back for more, particularly in defense, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Because that was such a political winner the first time.

Considering that a person born at the election of the Gingrich congress will be eligible to vote in 2012, it's worth recalling what actually happened in the first few years of the Gingrich-Clinton era. First of all, in 1995 "Gangsta's Paradise" was the #1 single of the year. Good times.

Second of all, the budget showdown. The Republicans ran on a promise to balance the budget. After taking office, they spent months and months trying to come up with a budget that wasn't political suicide. This turns out to be ... difficult, as Paul Ryan is discovering, even if you assume the existence of a huge market for unicorn spotters and snipe hunters to get the unemployment rate down. Rather than offer a balanced budget alternative, Clinton followed Sun-Tzu's maxim not to get in one's opponent's way while he's destroying himself. After the Gingrich budget offered draconian cuts in Medicare, Clinton finally stepped in and offered his own alternative that took more years to balance the budget, but made smaller cuts in vital spending initiatives like Medicare.

This is a long way of saying that until there's an official budget from House Republicans, there's no reason for Obama to meet them half way. Because if they want to hit their tax & spending pledges, they'll end up immolating every piece of the domestic budget, including the popular ones. We've been making fun of the Ryan roadmap, but it's not yet yoked around every Republican. Let's give them more time to try to square the circle.

Ethics Today Is Where Physics Was In The 1600s

There's plenty of fodder for discussion in this Will Wilkinson / Adam Ozimek / Julian Sanchez conversation, but let me just chew on this from Adam:
Another reason I’m skeptical, at least of moral objectivism, is the following thought experiment. Say you had an unlimited amount of money and time to persuade the chief of some Amazonian tribe of an objective scientific claim that the best evidence suggests is true. Say, that the earth revolves around the sun, or some other basic scientific claim. You can conduct scientific experiments, sit with him in the library going over the literature, and argue with him for 1,000 years. No matter what the starting point of his knowledge and beliefs, you should eventually be able to convince him of the truth as best as the evidence indicates, after all, its demonstratable knowledge.

Now say this tribesman believes that murdering an enemy and eating his heart pleases the Gods. With unlimited money and time, is there any way you could demonstrate to him the falseness of his beliefs? Well, you could try some Ghost of Christmas past shit and take them to see their victims mourning families and such, but in many cases this would not be successful. Those with horrifying moral beliefs are often quite aware of, and even relish in, the suffering that is caused. I also think this thought experiment would hold true for many moral beliefs that we find horrendous and those who hold them. To me this to me is an important distinction. There is simply no way to demonstrate the truth of the claim to people who disagree.

I don't think Adam's point of view is at all unreasonable, given where we are today. But I'd liken his view of moral questions to the ones a thoughtful and well-traveled observer might have had about cosmological questions in the early 1600s: There are all these different beliefs around the world about the nature of the universe, and there doesn't seem to be a way to demonstrate to mistaken people the falsity of their beliefs using rational argument and evidence!

Then the awesome happened: people like Galileo and Newton came along and developed a scientific methodology that would enable us to actually get the right answers to these questions. Nowadays we call these people physicists and not philosophers, but it's not an accident that Newton's great work was titled the PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy." In addition to their specific results about what orbited what and so on, they put forward a way of understanding how to investigate the natural world that has proved tremendously fruitful. Adam can say what he can about the "basic scientific claim" of which he tries to convince the chief in the first half of his thought-experiment because of what they gave him and all of us.

In metaethics, the area of philosophy that I primarily work in, many of us are trying to accomplish something roughly similar to what happened in the 1600s, but in ethics. As a naturalistic realist about ethics, I'm thinking that things will go very broadly like they did in physics -- we work to discover what counts as evidence for and against moral claims, and when we put the resulting methodology of ethics to work, we find solid evidence that goodness is actually something objective in the natural world. I'm a hedonic utilitarian, and I think the correct methodology shows us that goodness is pleasure, but lots of naturalistic realists would disagree with me on details like that. And lots of people in metaethics disagree with naturalistic realists, thinking that there might be no objective moral facts, or that they might exist outside the natural world (maybe in Plato's heaven with the numbers and all the other Platonic Forms).

But anyway, that's the quest I and my naturalistic realist buddies are on -- trying to set up the foundations for ethics so that it becomes a proper science. If we're successful, people in future centuries might forget that ethicists ever were considered philosophers, much as they don't think of physicists as philosophers anymore.

Friday, April 8, 2011

When You Accidentally Kill People, Say You're Sorry

I was a supporter of NATO airstrikes in Libya before this, and I'll continue to be one (I'm still thinking that lives saved because of intervention >> lives lost because of it). But bombing rebel-controlled tanks is a awful awful mistake, especially since they're a military resource in very short supply for the good guys, and our people should do better. I don't know a whole lot about the underlying situation, and how much NATO knew and could've known, so let me just turn this into a point about apologies, which I know something about. The following is completely wrong:
“I am not apologizing,” [British Rear Adm. Russell Harding] said. “The situation on the ground was and remains extremely fluid, and until yesterday we did not have information that (rebel) forces are using tanks.”
So. When I accidentally step on someone's foot, I apologize. When I'm on a subway car and it unpredictably shakes and I bump against somebody hard, I apologize. If I had false information and I acted on it and people I liked got bombed to death, I damn well would apologize.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The House GOP Leadership Emissaries

Josh Marshall notices something about the Obama/Boehner/Reid neogitations that I was picking up on. Boehner seems unable to speak for the Tea Party wing of his caucus, resulting in "negotiations" wherein the Democrats in the room try to get Boehner to agree to concessions, but he doesn't have enough confidence that he can get the rest of his party to go along. The result is that Boehner keeps shuttling back and forth between White House huddles and chats with House Republicans. Even if he personally is willing to go to great lengths to avoid a shutdown, he seems unable to convince them of the political peril involved in going through with one.

Maybe he should try crying in front of them. I hear that works.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I Am Enjoying Myths Retold

They've got all kinds of myths. From Beowulf:
see at the start of this story
basically what Grendel is doing
is every night
when Hrothgar settles down to have himself a sweet party
in his meadhall
Grendel comes charging out of the swamp
humps the door down
and proceeds to play cockhockey with the internal organs
of all the people who are trying to get their booze on
he does this FOR TWELVE YEARS
there are several shocking things about this
one is that these are twelve years of solid murder we are talking about
but more importantly
where do they keep getting dudes
to come to these parties
after say
the first SIX YEARS of unstoppable death
you would think word would get around
like hey
party at Hrothgar's crib tonight
are you coming

Delegitimize the Vote

Scott Walker doubles down on us-versus-them:
Gov. Scott Walker said this afternoon that the spring election results show there are "two very different worlds in this state."

"You've got a world driven by Madison, and a world driven by everybody else out across the majority of the rest of the state of Wisconsin," Walker said at a press conference in the Capitol.
I think someone should tell him that Chris Christie, "swagger" and all, is actually hugely unpopular, and that's in a state where that sort of persona is supposed to work.

The Difference

Conservative-I-can-reason-with Noah Millman observes that "Leaving the specific details aside, Ryan’s and Obama’s health care initiatives are complementary, not competitive with each other", Now, "leaving the specific details aside" assume a bit of a crowbar, he's at least headed in the right direction. While the expansion of Medicaid and Federerally Qualified Health Centers represents a significant expansion of government-provisioned health care, the bulk of the Affordable Care Act's goals are accomplished by making the dysfunctional individual health insurance market somewhat functional. Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal is to essentialy put senior citizens out onto the individual market.

The primary difference between the two, then, is what happens if costs continue to grow as they have over the past half-century. The Ryan plan pushes that cost growth onto individuals, and expects that seniors will be able to make rational cost-benefit decisions about their health in order to keep costs down. But this approach has its limits. In order to meet his budget targets, Paul Ryan had to both assume the creation of a large market for unicorn spotters to bring employment down to 2.8% and make the used-to-be-Medicare voucher quite stingy. The CBO estimates that the voucher will cover a mere 32% of health care costs. By comparison, Medicare currently has an actuarial value of 47.5%, and a Bronze plan under the ACA must have an actuarial of at least 60%. The results for individual seniors will be predictable. As Brad DeLong points out, under the Ryan Plan the vast majority of senior citizens will spend the majority of their income on health care.

The Obama alternative, rather than rely on individuals in their twilight years to make tradeoffs that result in lower cost at the risk of a shorter lifespan, is to push the cost growth onto the government books, and rely on the fact that once "health care" is universal, there will be more political buy in to make changes to the basket of goods and services that one can buy with your "health care", or to push providers to engage in delivery system reforms that will emphasize wellness over acute care. It's much easier for the government to make small tweaks -- reduce payments for this procedure by a few percentage points, stop paying for that test, reduce cancer screening from once a year to once per 18 months, etc. -- than it is for individuals to hunt for a plan that exactly fits their health care needs.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Worth Repeating

What Sir Charles said:
The Republican Party won its 2010 victory in large part because voters over 65 voted against what they perceived, erroneously, to be an attack on Medicare by health care reform. I cannot imagine that this same constituency and those who will follow shortly into it will feel at all good about the idea of abolishing traditional Medicare coverage (even if there are pledges made to "grandfather" as it were existing participants).

Keynes And Libya

There seems to be a pretty strong consensus among people I agree with on stuff that now is a good time for doing fiscal stimulus. Those considerations push in favor of spending money on munitions and manpower for the intervention in Libya, right?

If this were a situation in which the economy were running at full tilt and military spending distracted workers from doing something else that was useful, that would make things a lot more complicated. But it's not! It's time to borrow money at really low rates and spend on everything useful, including hiring more teachers and building more trains and blowing up Gadhafi's tanks.

This is, of course, assuming that you think the war in Libya is a good idea on non-fiscal grounds. But if you do, you shouldn't be worried about the fiscal consequences in this particular economic climate.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

America And Free Libya

Like Freddie, I'm happy to see the high-profile defections from the Gadhafi government. The Gadhafi-crumbles-from-within rebel victory scenario is probably the one that results in minimum bloodshed.

But I don't see why he wants such a hard line on this:
If the Qaddafi government does somehow come to fall out of power, all people of conscience-- realists, liberal hawks, non-interventionists, neoconservatives, and all flavors in between-- have to be adamant: no American "influence" of the new government. No installation of friendly leadership, no de facto choosing sides with providing arms or money to favored actors within Libya, none of the endless machinations by our intelligence service of internal Libyan affairs. It's precisely that kind of flagrantly anti-democratic action that has so poisoned our reputation in that part of the world.
If you wanted America to not influence events in Libya, you're already doomed to not get what you wanted. We and our allies just blew up a bunch of government artillery with aerial bombing and saved a rebel movement from annihilation. I think the Obama administration is going to be able to present a pretty good account of its actions when all is done -- I support this intervention for basically Juan Cole reasons. But "We didn't influence events in Libya" is not going to be one of the things we can boast of, no matter how we interact with the new government, and people whose admiration of America is based on our being able to say it are people we've already lost. While there's something to be gained from not choosing sides in their internal disputes, it's the kind of thing that gets figured into the cost/benefit analysis once we figure out what the eventual sides are, and which I wouldn't take any absolute stand on in advance.

I also wonder why Freddie thinks outside meddling would necessarily be anti-democratic. Suppose there's a decision point where the new government could either be a democracy or a new dictatorship. Whatever the total cost/benefit analysis would come out to, I'm pretty sure that democratic considerations would weigh pretty heavily in favor of supporting democracy.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Copyright And The Distribution Of Wealth

I agree with the principle Julian Sanchez forcefully expresses about copyright:
We are all the massive beneficiaries of millennia of accumulated human scientific knowledge and cultural output, and not one of us did anything do deserve a jot of it. We’re all just extremely lucky not to have been born cavemen. The greatest creative genius alive would be hard pressed to create a smiley faced smeared in dung on a tree trunk without that huge and completely undeserved inheritance.

So banish the word “deserve” from your mind when you think about copyright. Nobody “deserves” a goddamn thing. (I say this, for what it’s worth, as someone who makes his living entirely through the production of “intellectual property.”) The only—the only—relevant question is whether a marginal restriction on the general ability to use information incentivizes enough additional information production over the long run to justify denying that marginal use to every other human being on the planet, whether for simple consumption or further creation. That’s an empirical question, and while I strongly suspect the answer will generally be “not by a longshot” beyond a whole lot more limited level of protection than we currently provide, I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise along any particular dimension.
Much of Julian's post deals with the fact that sometimes corporations hold copyright, and sometimes original creators do. He wants you not to care whether the copyright is in the hands of the big faceless corporation or the clever artist with good fashion sense.

Usually this is where I'd start having distributional concerns. I'm in favor of doing various things to disadvantage corporations and help ordinary people. This is for the standard progressive reasons. Poorer people can get more fun out of a fixed amount of money than rich people who own corporations, and the rich are good at using their wealth to tilt systems in their favor beyond what would be optimal for society. So usually if you're doing something tricky to shift power away from corporations and towards ordinary people, I'm with you. (I don't know what in particular Julian is arguing against in the post.)

But I'd be surprised if expanded copyright protections are ever any kind of effective way to help the poor at the expense of the rich. Especially in a global market, commercial success in creative endeavors will be a winner-take all game where a few get incredibly rich and most people don't make any serious amount of money. Expanded copyright protections are just going to promote the concentration of wealth in a small number of hands. It'll be best for most people if they're allowed to use stuff without having to pay anyone for it. We just have to make sure we don't stop people from creating new stuff by ruining the incentives, and I agree with Julian that copyright protections could be weakened quite a bit without any problems along those lines.