Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Made In The USA

I don't think Barack Obama's re-election campaign is the absolute best place to make large contributions, but I liked this t-shirt, and you can get it for a donation of $25, so I sent them some money. One reason I want to wear it is that there could be confusion about whether I'm made in the USA too, and the shirt correctly describes my location of manufacture.

It appears that Obama really did convince some previously unconvinced people that he was born in the USA with the release of his birth certificate. Polls show the percentage of birthers falling from 20% to 10%. I didn't expect that, because I had thought they were too far gone to be swayed by rational evidence. My guess about what happened is that it gave non-birther elites in the GOP an opportunity to tell followers that this really wasn't the anti-Obama argument to make. I don't think any substantial fraction of the former birthers will actually vote for Obama, because they probably don't like Obama for other reasons as well, but it's nice to at least convince confused people of one true thing.

Hawaii Is Important, Hirono Is In, Hanabusa Should Help Her

Two weeks ago, Rep. Mazie Hirono entered the Hawaii Democratic Senate primary. She provides a solid progressive alternative to Ed Case, who voted for the bankruptcy bill and was supporting the Iraq War even in 2006. While there are quite a few Democratic Senate primaries where I'm not sure whom to support (New Mexico, for example), the choice here is clear. Electability shouldn't be a worry in blue Hawaii, especially with a native son at the top of the ticket at 2012.

It's an important primary, because once a Democrat gets into the Senate from Hawaii, they're likely to stay there for a good long time. They're unlikely to get beaten by Republicans in a strong Democratic state. There's the possibility of a primary challenge if they do something really annoying, but who knows if that will work out. So the consequences of this small-state Senate primary could stick with us for decades, in whether we have an excellent Senator or an infuriating one.

It's important that other progressive candidates stay out of the race and not give Case the victory by splitting the progressive vote. If you're Colleen Hanabusa, Hawaii's other Democratic representative (and a fine progressive) your best chance of becoming a Senator is to endorse Hirono and not run this time. If you jump into the race, take votes from Hirono, and throw the election to Case, Hirono is probably going to be around to run against you for the open seat when Daniel Inouye retires. But if you endorse her and she wins, she'll be out of your way. And assuming that the favor-trading economy works properly, she'll help you in the election to replace Inouye. Maybe you'll have to deal with Case or some similar moderate, but it's a Democratic primary in a liberal state and you can take him in a one-on-one fight.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Joe Biden Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Yesterday was Thursday, tomorrow is Saturday. And here's Joe Biden at a car dealership!

Also, here's Katy Perry covering Rebecca Black's "Friday":

Numbers Lie All The Time

To repeat myself again, there is very little point in paying attention to general election polls, or even primary election polls, at this stage of the Presidential race. The Republican candidates all have drastically lower name recognition than President Obama. Based on that alone, Obama is going to be ahead in some states by margins we're unlikely to see in the actual results. So I don't think we should think much of Obama's lead over all comers in Wisconsin. If today were the day after the New Hampshire primary or Mitt Romney clinching the nomination, that would be one thing. But it isn't, so we should go back to trying to figure out more pressing issues, like how the White House will ever again be able to appoint anyone to anything.

Help Me Help People Help People Help People With Helping People

Giving What We Can is encouraging people to pledge 10% of their lifetime income to the most effective charities they can find. Two weeks ago, I signed and sent back their pledge form, and as soon as it's processed, I'll be on the list of people who have done so.

It was GWWC who turned me on to Deworm the World, the group to which I recently gave $8,000. (That amount would more than do it for this year.) GWWC doesn't actually take my money, though they do evaluate charities and make recommendations. I'm supposed to donate money to whatever charities I think will be the most effective and send them the receipts so they can make sure I'm fulfilling the pledge.

When I got the pledge, I emailed them to ask about whether political contributions could count. I laid out a strategy for using political donations to increase one's influence with good policymakers, and using the influence to support funding for highly effective humanitarian causes like deworming. They liked it! And they asked me to help them research how to donate money to political causes in way that has the most beneficial effects. I was eager to do that, and recently I've been talking with their staff about it. At present they've got a bunch of useful stuff to say about charities dealing with health issues (like Deworm the World). But their advice on political change is comparatively underdeveloped, and I'm hoping I can help with that.

If anybody has advice that could further my research, I'd be really appreciative. There's basically three different things I'm thinking of, though if something else occurs to you, comment or email me as you please.

First, if you know of political organizations that are focused on global poverty issues -- especially ones that accept contributions and could function as effective lobbying organizations -- do tell me about them! I'm thinking of something like the ONE campaign, but they don't take donations and they focus mainly on grassroots advocacy.

Second, if you know of any good quantitative research on the returns from money spent on political activity, that would be very useful too. The study which described how a bunch of corporations put $x into lobbying for tax changes that saved them $221x in taxes is the best thing I know of at this time. (That study suggested to me that one could get absolutely awesome leverage on global health problems through political donations. The sheer amount of human suffering we could prevent by using money in the political system is awesome. It's horrifying that those corporations managed to avoid $62 billion in taxes through lobbying, but if we could get that kind of leverage on curing parasitic worm infections, we would be as gods.) And I've got to get this paper soon. Definitely if there's something that deals with humanitarian lobbying specifically, that'd be great, but I don't know if there's really any of that going on or if anybody has studied it. The more rigorous and quantitative the research is, the better.

Third, if you know of something helpful about how donors can be most effective in influencing politicians to attend to their areas of interest, please tell me about that too. I don't know a lot about how that stuff works in practice. Even if I can't find any appropriate organizations to donate to, I'm hoping that I can put up some general advice on how to use money in politics to create the greatest good, and advice of this sort would be a big part of it.

Thanks in advance! I also reserve the right to thank you afterwards too if you give helpful suggestions.

(If you're confused by the title of this post, here's some help: Help Me Help (Giving What We Can) Help (donors) Help (charities) With Helping (those with parasitic worm infections, TB, malaria, etc). You could probably put in a couple more help-steps if you really wanted, but I thought that was enough.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

NBA Thoughts

It looks like an exciting NBA finals.

I don't know whom to root for. I'm sympathetic to the least-liked figures on both teams. I've been rooting for Miami throughout the playoffs, just because I feel that the anti-LeBron rage got excessive. The guy mishandled the PR for a smart career decision in a way that hurt people's feelings. It's not like he's Ben Roethlisberger. On the other side, I've always liked Mark Cuban. Sure, he's kind of a jackass, but it all fits with being a fan who totally loves his team. And it'd be nice to see (non-disliked) Dirk Nowitzki win one after so many years of trying.

The Conference finals really brought out the common flaw of the losing point guards: taking too many shots. Yglesian skepticism about Derrick Rose's shooting found some confirmation as his three awful shooting performances doomed the Bulls. Over games 2, 4, and 5 he shot 24 for 79, always putting up more shots than points. His other two games weren't great either. I know that the Bulls are a good rebounding team, and scoring on putbacks from Rose misses is part of their game, but this really got out of control. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook was going 36 for 100 out West. I know it's hard to see where James Harden is behind the beard, but he's a pretty efficient scorer and when opposing defenses are focusing on Kevin Durant, he's a better option than trying to do it yourself.

I don't think Rose was the best choice
for the MVP award, but one of the things that complicated the issue was that he got better this year while all the usual MVP candidates got statistically a bit worse. Kobe, Durant, and LeBron all had slightly weaker scoring years than previously. Really, if you asked me who the most valuable player in the NBA was this year, I'd say LeBron, but of course they weren't going to give him the award again after he left Cleveland and his numbers turned slightly downward. Giving the award to Dwight Howard would've been plausible as he got 23 points and 14 rebounds per game while playing good defense. But instead they decided to give it to the most exciting player on the winningest team, which is kind of how MVP awards go.

Mexican Drug Cartel Tank

This is a DIY tank. It can fit 20 men. The thing at the top appears to be the machine gun turret. It was the property of a Mexican drug gang, until government forces managed to seize it.This by way of pointing out how utterly insane the drug violence situation in Mexico has gotten. In America, criminals don't try to top the government in terms of weaponry. They know they can't. But in Mexico, that's become a real option.

As they say, "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!"

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


The Affordable Care Act and the Paul Ryan budget illustrate the difference between Democratic and Republican approaches to Medicare spending. Democrats want to keep offering people good care and save money by driving harder bargains with the corporations who sell it. Republicans want to keep offering corporations sweet deals and save money by giving people less care.

This is the basic way that the parties' approaches to spending differ. It's not so much a matter of how much they'll spend, but which class of recipients will get the money.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Crazy Tea Party Rally Picture

Paul Waldman at Tapped passes on this photo of a Tea Party rally in South Carolina. Donald Trump was expected to speak, but he cancelled. They still had Governor Nikki Haley, who appears to be at the podium. She attracted a crowd of about 30.

This kind of thing makes me feel pretty good about Democratic chances in 2012. We're going from a midterm election where young Obama fans didn't turn out in large numbers and the GOP base did to a presidential election with a very different electorate.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ireland And Palestine

Ever since I started to see how much of it there was, I've admired Irish sympathy for Palestine. It comes out of the fact that foreign occupation, a central part of Irish cultural memory, is a reality in Palestine today.

In the last few years, we've had Irish Nobel Prize winner Mairead Maguire on Gaza relief flotillas. And in our country, there's Pat Leahy likening the Palestinians to his Irish ancestors. As far as (minor, symbolic) official action goes, the Irish government upgraded the Palestinian delegation to embassy status earlier this year.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

It's not like he's an idiot or a brutal medieval warlord. He's smart enough to be a likely head of state in a modern nation where everyone accepts the idea that all humans have basic rights. He's experienced in dealing with other people in the exaggeratedly civilized ways that statesmen interact with each other. And then -- assuming that the allegations are true -- he tries to rape a stranger who's cleaning his room.

This isn't an isolated event. Rumors are that he's been this way with women for a long time: "Thierry Ardisson, a French talk show host, tells the Mail that she had 14 female friends who spoke of instances when Strauss-Kahn attempted to "jump" them." (John Hudson, could we make this a separate item than his consensual relationships? It's no problem if he's having a promiscuous consensual sex life. That's something intelligent, civilized humans can do. Rape is not like that.)

I understand the race, gender, and class dynamics that go into the explanation, but only from the outside. They don't take me any further in putting together a coherent picture of what it's like to be Dominique Strauss-Kahn, see someone cleaning the room, and decide to rape her.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Wisconsin Senate: Baldwin > Kind > Feingold, Barrett?

David Nir lays out the contenders in the race for the retiring Herb Kohl's Senate seat in Wisconsin. The two big contenders on the Democratic side seem to be Rep. Tammy Baldwin and former Senator Russ Feingold. There's also Rep. Ron Kind and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Overall, it seems that Democrats have a pretty deep bench in the state. I'll present the initial impressions about the situation I've formed after doing some Googling.

I don't have a great idea of how the various candidates stack up as far as their likelihood to win the general election is concerned. Feingold, obviously, won statewide elections three times, despite losing his most recent one by 5%. Baldwin represents the liberal district that includes Madison (PVI=D+15) and wins it by the large margins you'd expect. She got 69% of the vote there in 2008, the same as Obama, and won 62-38 even in 2010. Ron Kind might be the most electable candidate, as he outperformed Obama by 5% in his mildly Democratic district back in 2008. It's harder to evaluate Barrett, who lost the governors' race to Scott Walker 52-47 in the 2010 GOP wave, the same score by which Feingold lost his Senate seat. My guess is that electability considerations favor Ron Kind, and everybody else is bunched together. All in all, I'm pretty optimistic about Democratic chances in the state, especially with how mobilized Democrats are after all of Scott Walker's union-bashing, and with Obama at the top of the ticket.

Who would I be happiest to have in the Senate? Tammy Baldwin. National Journal had her as the most progressive Democrat in the House in 2011. She'd also be the first openly homosexual Senator. While Russ Feingold is a hero to many progressives for being loudly on the right side of important issues, he's a fairly ineffective legislative tactician. I give a lot more points for actually moving policy outcomes leftward than I do for being eloquent and right in defense of a losing position. As far as I can tell, New Democrat Coalition member Ron Kind is more moderate than either of those two. And since Barrett hasn't been a federal legislator for a while, it's hard to tell how he stacks up. As a random guess I'd put him between Kind and the two solid progressives.

Given that I'm optimistic about Wisconsin in 2012, I'd be inclined to take a risk and express a preference for Baldwin. But I can definitely understand if people who are willing to sacrifice some Senator quality for a greater likelihood of beating the Republican want Kind.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hotel-Sex Is Good, Rape Is Bad

I don't like the custom of having editors, rather than authors of stories, write headlines. As far as I know that's what happened here, so I'm not going to blame Jennifer Peltz, who calls it a rape case in the first line of her article.

In any event, this is just a ridiculous headline. "Hotel-sex" can be a fine activity, provided that you have an eager hotel-sex partner. What Dominique Strauss-Kahn is accused of is rape, which is an actual serious crime. People shouldn't think rape is wrong only because it's a departure from conventional sexual behavior, in the same way that homosexuality is. That's like criticizing Jeffrey Dahmer on the grounds that he should have cooked his meat properly.

Psychology Today, Printing Silly Stuff As Usual

The name "Psychology Today" might give you the impression that you're going to get rigorous, cutting-edge research from academic psychology. Similarly, the name "Fox News" might give you the impression that you're going to get news about foxes. In both cases, you would be mistaken.

This is by way of introducing Satoshi Kanazawa's comment in Psychology Today that "The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone." As Jamelle writes: "Yep, it must be the testosterone! It can't possibly be that we live in a culture where black beauty was demonized and dehumanized for hundreds of years. Nope, black women are just too much like men! Exactly."

(Evolutionary biologist PZ Myers on Kanazawa: "He's like the poster boy for the stupidity and groundlessness of freakishly fact-free evolutionary psychology. Just ignore anything with Kanazawa's name on it." Generally when I've talked to actual evolutionary biologists about evolutionary psychology, they've said things roughly along these lines.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Flatten The Payroll Tax

Income taxes, which everyone knows about, are progressive, while payroll taxes, which lots of people aren't even aware of, are regressive. This makes the tax system look a lot more progressive than it actually is. For some numbers, here's Wikipedia:
For 2008, the employee's share of the Social Security portion of the tax is 6.2% of gross compensation up to a limit of $102,000 of compensation (resulting in a maximum of $6,324.00 in tax). For 2009 and 2010, the employee's share is 6.2% of gross compensation up to a limit of $106,800 of compensation (resulting in a maximum Social Security tax of $6,621.60).
The justification for setting up the taxes this way is that wealthy people would complain and try to get rid of progressive programs like Medicare and Social Security if big chunks of their money were being taxed in order to finance other people's retirement. So basically if we flattened the payroll tax, we'd have the problems we have now, but we'd also have a progressive tax rate structure.

This graphic via Ezra Klein bolsters the case:
Ezra is arguing against raising the retirement age, making the powerful point that "raising the retirement age inflicts a double-blow on lower-income Americans: They already work more physically demanding jobs and die younger than the rich, but now they’re being told to work those jobs longer because people who aren’t them have seen large increases in life expectancy." The way this point for flattening the payroll tax is that wealthy people are getting more out of the system by living longer. There's no need to fund the system with a regressive tax on top of that. I'm guessing that the current system still ends up being fairly progressive. The point is just that it isn't nearly as progressive as proper consideration of money's diminishing marginal utility ought to make it.

[edited to add mildly smartass comment]

Lee Kuan Yew And Goh Chok Tong Step Down From Cabinet

Big news in Singapore, as 45 years' worth of past Prime Ministers -- Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong -- step down from the Cabinet in the wake of the opposition's best election showing ever. (They're still in Parliament.) It's a good thing for Singapore. The older generation of leaders are stepping aside, making room for new people with new ideas.

The older generation accomplished amazing things. Lee Kuan Yew's biography is titled From Third World to First, and it's not an empty boast. He may have been a quasi-authoritarian ruler, but as far as I'm aware he was the best authoritarian of modern times. Thanks to him and the rulers of his generation, Singapore is a clean, wealthy, crime-free, non-corrupt, glittering metropolis rather than just another dingy Southeast Asian capital.

But it's time for Singapore to move beyond them. Lee's remarks that voters in Aljunied would have five years to repent if they voted for the opposition fit Singapore's authoritarian past better than its democratic future. I think that's part of the reason he had to take his demotion right now -- the PAP will have a hard time winning Aljunied in five years if voters think they were doing the Minister Mentor's bidding and delivering five years of punishment.

There are lots of smart younger people with good ideas on this island, and my hope is that power vacuums at the top will suck them upwards.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Facebook Hires Mark Penn('s PR Firm), Faces PR Disaster

If you've heard the story about Facebook getting in trouble for trying to plant anti-Google stories in the news, you might not be surprised to learn that the PR firm they hired was none other than Burson-Marsteller, which has disastrous Hillary Clinton adviser Mark Penn as CEO. If you weren't in the game three years ago and you missed it, here's the classic story:
Clinton picked people for her team primarily for their loyalty to her, instead of their mastery of the game. That became abundantly clear in a strategy session last year, according to two people who were there. As aides looked over the campaign calendar, chief strategist Mark Penn confidently predicted that an early win in California would put her over the top because she would pick up all the state's 370 delegates. It sounded smart, but as every high school civics student now knows, Penn was wrong: Democrats, unlike the Republicans, apportion their delegates according to vote totals, rather than allowing any state to award them winner-take-all. Sitting nearby, veteran Democratic insider Harold M. Ickes, who had helped write those rules, was horrified — and let Penn know it. "How can it possibly be," Ickes asked, "that the much vaunted chief strategist doesn't understand proportional allocation?" And yet the strategy remained the same, with the campaign making its bet on big-state victories.
I prefer Google to Facebook, just as I preferred Obama to Hillary (though in the non-Penn-involving phases of her career, Hillary has been pretty awesome.) So I guess I'm happy to see Mark Penn backfire again.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

We Can Solve It!

This Newt Gingrich guy had some interesting things to say about climate change:

More here. Kevin Drum theorizes that Newt wants to get all of this stuff out of the way, so that it's "old news" by the time the primaries come around. But Newt's 30 year career in politics is basically a bottomless pit of this stuff, and his style of brazenly asserting that whatever he thinks to day is 100% correct will lead to an awful lot of "did he really just say that?" stories.

Koch Brothers Buy Florida State Economics Program

People who donate money to reputable universities don't get this kind of power:

A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University's economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise.

$1.5 million isn't a whole lot when it comes to endowing permanent academic positions, so it looks like they got a really good deal.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Newt Gingrich's "Traditional Moral Values"

I'm wondering if Ross Douthat thinks that thrice-married, twice-divorced, adulterous Newt Gingrich is fit to hold the highest office in the land? And if that tune will change should Gingrich win the nomination (hey, stranger things have happened)?

The last time I went on a quest to square this particular conservative circle, the answer I got came awfully close to "but Democrats will be so much worse for social conservatism", though the counterargument was formulated in a way suitable for New York Times op-ed readers. Considering that all either party has managed to do on abortion issues over the past two decades is nibble around the edges, and that gay rights seems to be largely driven by social dynamics outside the control of Washington, social conservatives are unlikely to get anything substantial out of a Republican Presidency under any circumstance.

Singapore Election Recap

Singapore has had its election, and I've handed in my semester's grading, so it's time for a little recap on the elections.

The opposition did what they came to do -- win the five seats of Aljunied GRC. It's the first time the opposition has won a GRC, and it propels them to 6 out of 87 elected seats in Parliament, their highest total ever. The thing of real historical significance is that they did it over Lee Kuan Yew's threat that the PAP would use its power against Aljunied if the opposition won. (It was a healthy margin too -- 72,165 to 59,732.) In a properly functioning democracy, parties don't win elections by threatening to harm the voters if they lose. I'm very happy to see a precedent that tactics like that will backfire. Opposition supporters seem genuinely unhappy that the PAP's George Yeo had to lose in Aljunied, and there's been a lot of talk about what a shame it is that Tan Pei Ling is going to be in Parliament while Yeo isn't.

Outside of Aljunied, all the opposition won was the Hougang SMC seat they had before. In the other opposition seat, Potong Pasir, their incumbent had been disabled by a stroke and his wife lost by less than 1%. All opposition victories were Workers' Party. My Australian colleague was saying today that he thinks the Workers' Party would be the best current opposition party to run a government, because they're more capable, but he'd like the Singapore Democratic Party better as long as they're in the minority because their idealism would provide the best alternative vision for Singapore.

My favorite opposition candidate was gay migrant worker activist Vincent Wijeysingha, whose GRC slate lost by a 60-40 margin. All indications from the TV news and my girlfriend are that he was pretty happy to have gotten 40% of the vote in a district where the opposition didn't even run last time.

The surprise star of Election Night, however, was Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee, the election-office bureaucrat in charge of announcing final results. His dull, high-pitched monotone got people laughing that night, and now has spawned over a dozen wacky remixes on YouTube.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Singapore Election Liveblogging!

I'm going to be doing it from the comment thread of my crossposted diary at Daily Kos, incorporating a suggestion from commenter mccn. People without DK accounts, feel free to just post questions or thoughts here and I'll answer them.

Friday, May 6, 2011

May 7 Singapore Elections: Exciting Districts

I appreciate the interest from many people on Twitter in yesterday's Singapore elections post! So today I'll put up something discussing the dynamics of the current election, including contested districts and interesting candidates, in more detail.

One big thing to keep in mind: We don't have pre-election polls of anything around here. One of my Singaporean colleagues was explaining to me today that this country is still in the early stages of building the kind of election-related media infrastructure that exists in the States. I think he liked my idea that this might be the time for an ambitious media entrepreneur to become Singapore's first political opinion pollster. In any case, we don't have anywhere near the kind of data that we'd have for an American election. The signs I have that the opposition is stronger than in the past -- first, that they're contesting many more seats, and second, that (according to my colleagues) there's more opposition mobilization and more worried noises coming from the ruling party -- could be totally misleading, or be the early signs of a huge opposition victory. And again, the opposition only has 2 out of 82 elected seats. If they get to 7, I think they'll be quite happy.

Here's a map of Singapore's districts. (Singapore is an island city-state of about 5 million people, with about the land area of New York City.) As described yesterday, they're mostly GRCs, where you vote for an ethnically balanced party slate of 4-6 candidates. In the smaller SMCs, you vote for a single candidate.

The most exciting district this election is Aljunied GRC, inland on the east side of the island. The Workers' Party is fielding their all-star team there, in hopes of winning the first opposition GRC ever. Their 5 candidates include their one current MP, Low Thia Kang, who made a bold move in shifting out of his Hougang SMC seat to run on the Aljunied slate. They've also got Harvard-Stanford-and-Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar Chen Show Mao and Workers' Party Chairman Sylvia Lim (could somebody get the lady a Chair?). The PAP is fielding a pretty good team too, led by respected minister George Yeo and including several of that district's incumbents. The PAP won the GRC by only a 56-44 margin in 2006 when Low and Chen weren't on the ballot, so it's possible that their addition will be enough to put the Workers over the top.

The big media story about Aljunied concerns some remarks from Lee Kuan Yew, who built Singapore with his iron hand as Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, and who is the father of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. (He's depicted at right, with the PAP's circle and lightning bolt symbols in the background.)
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has warned Singaporeans, especially those in Aljunied GRC, they will "pay a price, the hard way" if they vote for the Opposition.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Tampines on Friday night, MM Lee said, "If Aljunied decides to go that way, well Aljunied has five years to live and repent." The 87-year-old warned voters they would have to live with the choice they make come Polling Day on Saturday.

"It may well happen that they win, in which case the people of Aljunied live with the results," he was quoted as saying on The Straits Times.

"The only way people learn is when they have to pay a price. From time to time we may lose, and the voters pay the price, " he said.
You might read him as making the point that the Workers' Party representatives just won't be as good. But later he even made the threat a bit clearer: "We accept the verdict of the people, but they must also accept the consequences of their actions. You must expect the PAP to look after PAP constituencies first." The PAP is virtually certain to control Parliament no matter what happens in Aljunied, and the threat is that they'll ignore Aljunied's interests if the Workers' Party wins. Whether this will intimidate voters in Aljunied (and the rest of Singapore) into voting for the PAP or enrage them into voting for the opposition is something I'd be able to guess at a lot better if we had public opinion polls. George Yeo has been trying to apologize for LKY's threats and look like a good guy.

One of my colleagues speculates that the opposition will hold onto Hougang SMC (basically enclosed within the Aljunied area) even with Low leaving for the GRC, since they carried the seat by a large vote in the past and the current candidate is likely to appeal to Low's voters. I don't know about the other opposition-held SMC seat, where a similar thing is going on with the MP leaving for a GRC slate. I guess this raises the worst-case scenario that the opposition gets wiped out of Parliament. Again, without polls, it's hard to predict, but I don't regard that as especially likely.

Two other GRCs are worthy of mention, just because PAP incumbents may be vulnerable. Both of these districts were won in "walkovers" in the 2006 elections, meaning that the opposition didn't even put up a slate of candidates. The only walkover district in this election is Tanjong Pagar, hence the satirical image at right, with Lee Kuan Yew saying the Gandalf lines. (The opposition is especially popular among younger, internet-savvy voters who like to Photoshop things and post satirical YouTube videos. Many students I've Facebook friended are posting tons of pro-opposition stuff. I don't think I have any outspoken pro-PAP Facebook friends.)

First, there's the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, where the Singapore Democratic Party slate includes Vincent Wijeysingha. He's the Executive Director of the migrant worker activist group Transient Workers Count Too, where my girlfriend is an active volunteer. He's also rumored to be gay, which was used in a whisper campaign against him by PAP incumbent Vivian Balakrishnan. Balakrishnan has also been criticized for his management of the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. Opposition supporter Hun Boon has a concise run-through of all that on his blog.

The other race that's gotten a lot of attention is Marine Parade GRC, featuring two young women, Tin Pei Ling for the PAP and Nicole Seah for the National Solidarity Party. Even if the wikipedia article on Tin Pei Ling reflects the pro-opposition lean of the Singaporean internet community, it tells the story pretty well:

She faced widespread ridicule due to various incidents with the press. After being asked if there was a PAP policy she would change, she faced widespread ridicule for replying that there were no PAP policies she felt strongly against.[5] When asked what her "greatest regret" was, she said it was not having brought her parents to Universal Studios.[6] As the PAP Marine Parade GRC team made their post-nomination speeches to the crowd on Nomination Day on April 27, Tin Pei Ling was greeted with cries of "Kate Spade!" and "Universal Studios" as she made her speech. The "Kate Spade" cry was a reference to a widely-circulated facebook photo of her "act cute" pose with her Kate Spade purchases, which led to widespread accusations online of ignorance, materialism and privilege. [7]

The PAP seems to have thought that Tin Pei Ling would appeal to young voters. It turned out like Republicans thinking that Sarah Palin would appeal to Hillary supporters. The target audience ended up being alienated and offended by the comparison. Nicole Seah ended up becoming the real youth icon, simply for being a competent candidate who expressed opposition views clearly, and because of the contrast with her opponent. It's still unlikely that the opposition will win this GRC, with a heavyweight like former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on the PAP slate. (He's the Prime Minister who served between LKY and his son -- you can remember them as the father, the son, and the holy Goh.) But if Nicole Seah can pull the opposition up enough and Tin Pei Ling can pull the PAP down enough, the GRC system could have come back to bite the PAP.

Well, that's all I've got for you until tomorrow when I liveblog the results from a friend's election party. I guess I'll put the over/under on the number of seats the opposition wins at 5, with the note that the GRC system is designed to make the results extra chunky.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

On A Lighter Note: Baby Names

The SSA released the top baby names of 2010. Among boys names, the "two syllable names where the last syllable is '-en'" continues to be a popular trend. For more, hit the link on the Baby Name Wizard blog.

Elections In Singapore: May 7!

It's an exciting time in Singapore, where we're gearing up for our most-contested election in many years on May 7. As the chart at right shows, that's not saying a whole lot -- the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) controls 82 of the 84 elected seats in Parliament. Last election, they won 66.6% of the vote, with three opposition parties splitting the rest. The 66.6% figure understates how well they did, as the opposition didn't even contest a large number of the seats, and Singapore doesn't even go through the motions of having elections when there's only one candidate on the ballot.

There are a variety of reasons for PAP dominance. The Singaporean economy has been doing beautifully over the last several decades, averaging 8% annual growth from 1960 to 1999 even after adjusting for inflation. The average Singaporean makes 82% as much as the average American (up from 40% in 1980). Lots of people are content with the progress, and are happy to keep supporting the generally competent technocrats who have delivered these results.

Of course, power can be used to ensure that you'll be in power in the future. The PAP has thrown its weight around in these ways. Among the more benevolent-looking ways in which it's given itself some impressive electoral advantages is the GRC system. Only 9 of the 82 elected MP's are in single-member constituencies. The rest are voted in as a slate of 3 to 6 candidates in "Group Representation Constituencies." To make sure that there are ethnic minorities in Parliament, there's a quota system where a party has to include a certain number of minority members in the slate it puts on the ballot for the GRC. (Singapore is mostly Chinese, but there are large Malay and Indian minorities.) A large and well-organized party like the PAP is always able to make sure they've got enough minorities of the right kind, but a small opposition party might have trouble finding a proper mix of credible candidates.

Among the biggest problems opposition parties face, however, is just the difficulty of operating in a system where historical PAP domination gives everybody the expectation that they'll be in trouble if they take sides against the ruling party. To tell you a story -- some of my students told me that they had a friend in high school who was into opposition politics, and they were all worried about him and warning him that this would keep him from getting scholarships. I have no idea whether this guy really got in any trouble or anything, but the fact that people are worried about stuff like that makes it hard for an opposition party to get a group of talented and ambitious people together to stand for election against the powers that be. The government controls a lot of the Singaporean economy, and people don't want to get on the wrong side of it.

This year's election promises to be more eventful than most. The opposition parties got together to coordinate and avoid three-way fights where they'd be splitting the anti-PAP vote (do this, Canadian lefties) and it looks like 82 out of 87 seats will be contested. I haven't been in town for the other elections, but my colleagues tell me that there's a lot more excitement around this election than there has been in the past. It's unthinkable that the opposition would actually win control of Parliament, given what they're starting from, but just winning a few more seats would be counted as a success. If they got, say, 20% of Parliament, people would be extremely impressed.

Two of the opposition parties (which are somewhat representative of the place as a whole) are the Workers' Party and the Singapore Democratic Party. I've linked their manifestos, which have pretty clear descriptions of their major proposals, and which agree with each other significantly. (The SDP has a better website, so I'll be linking to that one below.) The PAP's manifesto is here [pdf], and as befits a status quo-oriented ruling party it's more about small-bore improvements to infrastructure than about dramatic new policy initiatives.

A lot of opposition proposals look pretty good. For example, the reduction in national service. Singapore currently requires all of its young men to spend 2 years in the armed services, and then to report regularly for reservist training until they're 40. This just seems to me like a terrible waste of talent, especially as Singapore (unlike Israel and South Korea, which have similar policies) isn't in a state of conflict with its neighbors. There's always a risk that instability in Malaysia could lead to something bad happening, but even then, it's not clear that a huge number of ordinary Singaporeans is the kind of army you want. Better to let the young folks go out into the economy, make money, contribute to tax revenue, and then hire a professional military that uses high-tech weaponry. Singapore is buying the technology, but they haven't yet done the thing the SDP proposes -- cutting national service duties from 2 years to 1. I hope that the government will eventually do that and more.

There are a lot of economic proposals that I think pretty highly of too -- minimum wage laws and cuts in the regressive General Sales Tax, and cuts in housing prices. (80% of the population lives in government-owned housing developments called HDBs.) The big thing that I worry about with the opposition is its anti-immigrant sentiment, which now takes the shape of a Singaporeans First policy which would create bureaucratic barriers to keep businesses from hiring foreign workers. Partly, this is my self-interest speaking, but since I'm an opponent of anti-immigrant measures in the US too, I don't feel that I'm doing anything hypocritical.

I'd say more nice things about the opposition's support for civil liberties measures (which is exactly what you'd expect in a one-party state like Singapore) but the department secretary is knocking on my door and telling me I've got to go administer an exam now. More later...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number

There's a lot of sturmunddrang about the fact that teenagers are searching yahoo and tweeting, asking who this Osama bin Laden guy is. Before you start casting aspersions, I want you to engage in a little thought experiment.

Think of someone who did something that dominated the headlines when you were about six years old. They showed up again on the news when you were about nine years old. Now think about how much you would remember about them if they popped back up when you were sixteen.

Obviously, it's tough to find direct analogues to Osama bin Laden. The best I could do on short notice was Manuel Noriega. If in, say, the late '90s, Noriega had escaped from prison, I'm pretty sure my reaction would have fallen somewhere between "oh I remember seeing him on the front page of the newspaper once" to "who the f*** is Manuel Noreiega?" So, no, I'm not surprised that a decent number of teenagers have little no idea who Osama bin Laden is. Most kids don't pay much attention to the news at all, and certainly not before they hit their teens, and bin Laden just hasn't been much of a force in the U.S. news since the 2004 election. Remember, Nirvana is on classic rock stations these days, so don't go griping about how the kids don't have the same frame of reference for the world as you do.

Wanted: More House Members. Must Be Willing To Feel Less Important Than Current House Members

Watching interviews with MP-elects in the Canadian elections, it's striking how normal most of the winners looked. Partly this was a function of the NDP's motley crew of candidates, including four McGill students, a woman who barely speaks French but represents francophone portions of Quebec, and so forth. But another reason for the plainness of Canadian legislators is that being an member of parliament is a much less important job than being a member of the House of Representatives. And the United States is the real outlier here. Let's just take a look at how.many constituents a member of Congress answers to, and compare that to their counterparts in Canada, as well as some other large democratic nations

If Congressional districts were roughly the size of constituencies even in Japan, primary elections would be sized such that a challenger could personally meet every likely voter in a six month time span. House members would be roughly important as your State Senator is today. Large legislative bodies tend to strengthen the hand of the leadership, so we would likely have more cohesive parties. It's win-win all the way around!

Tripling the size of the House would put our districts at a size somewhere between those in Germany and Japan. Capitol Hill architects would have some trouble finding space for 870 new members, but I'm sure there's a way to work it out. Update: as people commenting my twitter feed point out, such a change would likely have salutary effects on D.C. urban planning issues.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

This Headline Ought to Inolve Hockey, or "Eh", or Tim Horton's Donuts, etc.

So, the Conservative party's share of the popular vote rocketed from 36.27% to 37.65, with all other parties and somehow Canada goes from a Conservative minority government to a Conservative majority government? That makes Bush v. Gore look like a triumph of democracy.

Anyway, I think the major lesson from yesterday's Candian election is that choosing an ex-pat as your party leader is a really bad move, something that I don't think applies in many cases. I'm not exactly sure how Michael Ignatieff managed to works is way to the top of the Liberal party, but whoever thought it was a bright idea to let him stay there ought to do themselves a favor quit politics altogether.

1.Kill Bin Laden 2.Cut Defense Budget

It's good to see that Leon Panetta, as CIA director, is getting some recognition from the success of the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. While I can't tell if this came before or after Bin Laden's death, former Panetta skeptic Dianne Feinstein is now calling him "the most skilled person in government."

Panetta is Obama's pick for the next Secretary of Defense, and he's the sort of guy who will want to cut the military budget. I'm hoping that cred gained here can be used to eliminate funding for unnecessary weapons systems. Or even better, promote a cheaper and less aggressive global defense posture.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Generation That Has Only Known War" (on television)

I think it's a little off to refer to late-gen X & gen Y as a "Generation That Has Only Known War". The U.S. military is smaller and more culturally distinct from the rest of the country than it has been at almost any point in the past century. Most of us have experienced the "war on terror" only through news channels, political rallies, taking our shoes off at the airport, and perhaps a friend or friend of a friend who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is part of what makes the national catharsis at the death of Osama bin Laden a bit more bizarre. If you lived through it on the Eastern seaboard, especially New York or DC, I think I get it. But for the rest of the country I'm not sure it has quite the same resonance.

How Close Are We To "Done?

The United States is withdrawing from Iraq. American operatives killed Osama bin Laden. Something faintly resembling universal health care will arrive in the next five years. Is it me, or is the big picture project of getting United States policy to suck less more complete than incomplete at this point?

Don't get me wrong; we're still doing a lot of awful, stupid things. Guantanamo Bay is still open. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed won't face a proper trial. We still have to take our shoes off at airports and can't put full-size bottles of shampoo in our carry-on equipment. We spend an awful lot of money on defense and homeland security spending that is of dubious value. Medicare part D is probably more expensive than it ought to be. The people who run Congress and the Fed seem more concerned about invisible bond vigilantes than they are about actual 9.5% unemployment. We haven't done bupkis about climate change. But if you look at where the USA was in, say, May of 2003, and compare it to where we are today, you'd have to feel pretty good about all that's been accomplished.

Osama Is Gone, Competence Has Returned

This is a strange emotion to feel at someone's death, but my overriding feeling about killing Osama Bin Laden is satisfaction at the return of operational competence to US foreign policy. I can't feel any sadness for Osama, especially when so many good people throughout the world die needless and tragic deaths, and when he planned and celebrated thousands of these deaths.

I'm really struck by the contrast with the clown show that was Bush administration foreign policy. We failed to get Osama when we had him pinned down at Tora Bora, and then we started a costly and bloody war with an irrelevant country. Years passed. Now, after 28 months of Obama as president, US intelligence sniffs out the cold trail of Osama Bin Laden and a Navy SEAL team kills him with no US casualties. I've created an image to represent one aspect of this situation visually:
If somebody kills thousands of American citizens, a Democratic president will kill him. A Republican president will kill thousands of unrelated people.

A lot of what matters for competent management of foreign policy, especially as far as intelligence issues are concerned, is just setting the right priorities from the top and caring about getting things right. If you let it be known to your intelligence services that you really just want to go to war and you're looking for some kind of justifying evidence, they're going to serve up evidence that supports your case whether it's misleading or false. But if you let them know that you really want accurate information that will help you make the right decision on some important issue, you have a decent chance of getting it.

Of course, what we're all hoping for now is a break with disastrous Bush administration strategies to go along with the increase in competence. Like everybody is saying, this would be a great time to get out of Afghanistan. Bernstein pointed me to this article in Slate, which suggests that Iraq withdrawal is moving forward pretty well, but it needs to be accelerated, and removing the last group of troops may require some pushing. Now and in the long run, I hope having Osama's head on their pike will help Democrats be a bit more assertive about ending pointless military endeavors.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Go Humans! Beat The Worms

I should begin by saying happy birthday to my former student Maia, who's turning 22 and asked her friends to celebrate the occasion by giving money to charitable causes. Happy birthday Maia! I just gave $8000 USD (a bit over $10K SGD under current exchange rates) to Deworm the World, which is tied for being the #1 most efficient charity in the world according to Giving What We Can.

What's so special about Deworm the World? The big thing is that they focus exclusively on treating neglected tropical diseases. These are tropical parasite infections that can be treated if you just give a kid one or two cheap worm pills a year. Not much money is going towards treating these diseases, so there are opportunities for a small amount of money to have a tremendous impact. Deworm the World works primarily in India and Kenya. In India they've managed to get costs really low by just distributing pills through the school system. While their initial goal was to get total costs of giving a kid a pill below 50 cents (and they've achieved it in lots of Africa), India's going at 12 cents each.

In addition to being disgusting, parasitic worms are a major economic problem. If a child has severe worm problems, the worms can basically eat up to 20% of the child's nutritional intake. So you're very cheaply feeding the hungry by doing this, by making sure that they get to actually digest their food. The educational benefits of deworming are pretty awesome too:

treating children for parasitic worm infections (also known as neglected tropical diseases) is the most cost-effective way of improving school attendance rates. Children are so often ill because of their infection with parasitic worms that treating this dramatically improves school attendance. Treatment costs only $0.02 per school day per person, or $3.27 per aggregate school year per person and in addition, it is one of the most cost-effective health interventions.
The people at Giving What We Can have a nifty chart to represent the impact of donating money to deal with neglected tropical diseases and other things. They count the impact of charitable contributions in terms of the Disability-Adjusted Life Years (basically, how many years of someone's life did you save? plus you get fractions of years for making people not go blind or something) per $1000 donated. By their calculations, $1000 donated towards giving people cheap worm-killing pills scores 200-300 DALYs. So I guess for $8000 I saved 2000 of those? Which if you break it down into individual lives to get a better handle on it -- let's assume that the people would've lived 50 more years each -- is basically saving 40 people's lives. I've been staying up late today sending off paper abstracts to four different conferences I want to go to after procrastinating way too much earlier in the weekend, and I'm kind of exhausted right now, so I can't mentally get a good grip on that. But it's kind of incredible.

I've been trying to put pictures of related stuff on the blog lately, but I really don't want to put up horrible parasitic worm pictures, so instead I'll go the opposite route and illustrate this post with sweet Canadian activist girls. Anyway, you can read more about Deworm the World here, and maybe send them money super-conveniently on Paypal if you like.

How We Made $6.3 Billion Off The 50 State Quarters

Your fact of the day, from the "seigniorage" article on Wikipedia:
The "50 State" series of quarters (25-cent coins) was launched in the U.S. in 1999. The U.S. government planned on a large number of people collecting each new quarter as it rolled out of the U.S. Mint, thus taking the pieces out of circulation. Each set of 50 quarters is worth $12.50. Since it costs the Mint about five cents for each 25-cent piece it produces, the government made a profit whenever someone "bought" a coin and chose not to spend it. The U.S. Treasury estimates that it has earned about US$6.3 billion in seigniorage from the quarters over the course of the entire program.