Thursday, September 29, 2011

What Philosophy Can Save You From

Jonathan Chait on how Romney is playing things right:
I believe few conservative Republicans feel visceral hostility toward sick, uninsured people or gay soldiers. Rather, their booing is an expression of tribal partisan solidarity. These people are presenting challenges to the Republican dogma — living, breathing examples of the failures of their stance. They represent a challenge to the tribe, and the crowd is booing them for this, but not necessarily thinking through the substantive merits of their position.

This is essentially the way Romney is treating the conservative mood. Yes, conservatives have developed a series of policy stances — say, that subsidizing and regulating private health insurance is the greatest threat to freedom in American history. Rather than treat this as a principled view, Romney simply treats it as an atavistic expression of hostility toward Obama.
There are a bunch of different ways to get excited about politics. You can love or hate some politician, some cause, or some principle. Lots of people in politics want to get you excited in a way that'll get you doing what they want, so they'll work to create the right emotions in you. Given your psychology and their interests, it may be most effective for them to develop or manipulate your emotional attachments with a particular tribe or politician, either loving them or hating them.

What's of fundamental importance in the world, and what good people are really trying to advance through involvement in public life, doesn't have a proper name like "Obama", "Bush", "Reagan", or "the Republican Party." It's described by more general terms like "the greatest happiness for all" or "helping people" or (according to views I think are wrong) "obeying God" or "property rights" or "the revolution." If you don't try to sort out what you care about at this level, the emotions that tie you to politics may attach to politicians and tribes and not the things that are described in well-reasoned principles. And then the things that motivate you won't be the things of real value. Maybe you'll do the right thing accidentally -- that happens often enough. But you'll be very easy to lead astray.

I've been known to get very excited about particular politicians. But if I'm doing it right, I'll be able to subordinate my feelings about them to the thing my utilitarian views tell me is most important -- the greatest happiness for all.

Monday, September 26, 2011

How To Donate Money For Maximum Effect

Jonathan Bernstein has a very good discussion of how to donate money to candidates for maximum effect. Campaign money has diminishing returns, and has more of an effect people aren't already persuaded or don't have much information from the news. So "in terms of affecting the election outcome, as a donor you should prefer primaries to general elections, low-press-coverage elections over high-press-coverage elections, and underfunded candidates over well-funded candidates." There's a lot more there, though, and I'd encourage people to take a look.

I want to add one thing to his general rules: It's extra good if there's a way to use your donation to make the recipient aware of what you want them to do. Showing up at fundraisers seems like a way to do this. Or if you're interested in races at the House or Senate level, you might consider contributing to the Leadership PAC of a Congressman or Senator you especially admire, since that's money they can pass on to other people, winning favors. I've been donating to Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC for that reason. To quote myself, "The point of doing it through Merkley is that he can show up in the offices of people who took his money and persuade them to help out with the awesome stuff he's trying to do. As a random out-of-state contributor, I'm not really equipped to tell Senators to go support Jeff's stuff. Giving to a progressive legislator's leadership PAC seems to be the best way to both help Democrats retain the Senate and ensure that they vote for the right things."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

All Options

Lindsay Graham on Pakistan: "They're killing American soldiers... If they continue to embrace terrorism as a part of their national strategy, we're going to have to put all options on the table, including defending our troops."

"Defending our troops" presumably is a euphemism for "endangering more of our troops' lives by expanding the war to another country." In any event, I too think all options should be put on the table. The best option, which apparently is not on the table despite the official support of 27 Senators, is bringing our troops home. It's unfortunate how Lindsay Graham can make his crazy idea a well-covered proposal all by himself, while all the Senate support for withdrawal isn't able to change anything.

Saudi Women Gain Right To Vote In 2015

It's a happy day for humans, as Saudi King Abdullah has granted women the right to run for office and vote in the 2015 local elections. I don't know exactly how much power over the political system voting gives people in Saudi Arabia -- obviously when a King is just going ahead and doing this, you don't have a full democracy -- but he deserves praise for taking this step.

It's always struck me as kind of crazy that a hundred years ago, women couldn't vote in America. Some bad policies are foolish blunders or miscalculations, but others seem to come out of an utterly foreign way of experiencing the world. Denying women the vote is a thing of the latter kind. The way men felt about the women they interacted with on a day-to-day basis must've been really bizarre for denying them the vote to feel like it made any sense.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Utilitarian Argument Against Polygamy

One reason to oppose polygamy is that spouses have a declining marginal utility, and it's best to set up a roughly egalitarian distribution. Your first spouse adds the most happiness to your life, but each additional spouse isn't going to add much more. Better for them to find other people. It's kind of like progressive income taxation, except that you do it pre-emptively instead of occasionally redistributing existing spouses, since that wouldn't work out very well.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play

As Neil observes below, roughly 10-15 percent of the Massachusetts electorate seems to have remembered that they're Democrats, love affair with Scott Brown notwithstanding.

Now, the only poll that matters is the one on election day, but you'd obviously rather be in Warren's current position than 10 or 20 points behind. I placed a bet that Brown would not just win reelection, but win in a walk, and that's money that (happily) appears like it might belong to the counterparty to this particular wager.

These circumstances may appear to be a bit of poetic justice for Chris Capuano and other high-profile Democrats who sat out the race, presumably because Scott Brown looked "invincible" based on extremely early polling, and hey it's Massachusetts so if I just wait my turn I get a free Senate seat, right? Had Capuano run, he would have clearly been able to leverage the state's Democratic machinery, raised enough money to produce a competitive campaign, and generally done the things you'd need to do to make a run at the race. Indeed, Massachusetts Democrats already have a template for winning come-from-behind races against personally popular Republicans. But only Warren was crazy enough to think that in politics, sometimes you have to engage in a challenging general election contest against someone you disagree with, instead of waiting for a primary that you hope you can squeak through and then coast in the general. And now she seems to be reaping the rewards of that particular bout of craziness.

Japan Replaces Yen With Beef

Over ten years ago when I was finishing college, I started a short-lived financial news parody website called Donkeybusiness, now gone from the web. The first article I put up on the site back then has become relevant to global monetary policy today, especially in light of the fourth paragraph, and I thought I'd share it with you.

Japan replaces Yen with Beef

Attempting to propel the country out of a decade-long economic decline, Japan’s government announced that the national currency would be changed from Yen to Beef. The target date for the switch is New Year’s Day, 2002.

As our economy recovers, it is important that we support this recovery to the fullest extent possible,” said Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. “A Beef-based economy will hasten its growth.”

Beef is not only a tasty meat,” said Taichi Sakaiya, Chef of Japan’s Economic Planning Agency. “It will be the secret ingredient of Japan’s future prosperity.”

Masako Shiganaba, head of currency trading at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, explained the decision. “For many years, Japan has been caught in what economists refer to as a ‘liquidity trap.’ Seeing economic weakness and fearful of weakness to come, Japanese consumers delay purchases, saving their money. Their lack of spending, in turn, prolongs the recession. But unlike other currencies, Beef only lasts a couple of days in the refrigerator or a few months if frozen immediately. So consumers will have to spend it as fast as they can.”

Alexander Kaufman, Global Equity Strategist at Deutsche Bank, applauded the move. “While Western governments use pork to stimulate their economies in times of adversity, Japan uses Beef. It’s an innovative strategy, and I have high hopes for it. In addition, there is now no danger that coins will set off airport metal detectors.”

If paper currency catches fire, it’s lost,” said Satoru Osako, trader at Commerz Securities. “But if Beef catches fire, you can eat it.”

At first, I hoped they’d use a distinctively Japanese meat – perhaps sashimi-grade tuna,” said Kenji Yamura of Shinko Securities. “But an globally recognized meat like Beef will more easily gain international acceptance.”

Others were skeptical. “While other governments work hard to prepare their economies for the 21st century, Japan adopts a medium of exchange straight out of the 21st century BC,” said Annette Walsh, Asian Markets Analyst at Lehman Brothers. “The transition we need to see is from industrial Old Japan to technological New Japan, not back to agricultural Ancient Japan.”

I worry about the new currency,” said Shimoru Nakayama, strategist at Bank of Yokohama. “Looking at the euro does not make me optimistic about the future of Beef.”

Efforts to ready the economy for the new currency are under way. Vending machines and arcade games are being refitted with new slots and freezer compartments so that they can be changed from coin-operated to Beef-operated. Electronic security measures are being devised to prevent counterfeiters from using beef substitutes.

I like to tell people about this article when I'm explaining the phenomenon of a liquidity trap and why I support for inflationary monetary policy at the present. If you replace your currency with a meat, people have to spend it before it goes bad. So it gets more spending going. Inflation basically makes your currency perishable, like a meat, so it has the same stimulative effect.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Oh, I Forgot! I'm A Democrat."

I'm wondering how many people in Massachusetts said that to themselves in the past week. It seems to have been many, with Elizabeth Warren suddenly springing to a 46-44 lead over Scott Brown in the latest PPP poll. I'd like to see more confirmation of that result -- it's better than I'd hoped for so early on.

Now we'll see if she's a good enough campaigner to hold onto a lead. Brown's good at that, so she'll have to do a pretty good job.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Merkley And The Debt Ceiling

I got to meet Jeff Merkley in Portland this weekend! He told us a cute story.

A Western GOP Senator was giving a speech on the Senate floor bashing Obama for wanting to raise the debt ceiling. Merkley was talking to him afterwards and asked him which president had increased the debt ceiling the most. The Republican could see which way this was going. “Was it... Reagan?” he asked. And of course it was.

Merkley then brightly suggested that the two of them could write a bipartisan bill allowing Obama to raise the debt ceiling one quarter as much as Reagan did. I don't know exactly what sarcastic facial expression the Republican had as he said “Yeah, Jeff.” But from the way Merkley told it to us, it probably was a pretty good one.

Today in "Pop Culture Reference Other Bloggers Missed": Epistimology of Reading Edition

Spencer Ackerman and Wired's Danger Room recently broke the story of some rather jingoistic training material at the FBI, which the Agency has since claimed is no longer in active circulation. Naturally, reporting this sort of story brought out the unreconstructed id of the Internet, admonishing Spencer to "Read the Koran". Spencer posted a fantastic rejoinder, which everyone should read. he ends with this bit:
Those who tell you, in an accusatory tone, to "read the Koran," will never have read the Koran. They will perhaps have scanned words that the Koran contains. But they will never have read it. What a shame that they don't understand the difference.
Perhaps Spencer's interlocutors might understand the difference if they watched White Men Can't Jump.

(For those who haven't seen the movie, by the end, Snipes thinks that Harrelson can "hear Jimmy", perhaps through Harrelson's growth as a person).

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Will Intellectual Property Protections Kill Millions?

That appears to depend on which way the Indian Supreme Court rules. Novartis has taken the Indian government to court about the generic production of a drug that has efficacy against AIDS and cancer. It appears that they tweaked an old drug so that 30% more of it would get into the bloodstream, and want their old patent evergreened. The Indian patent office ruled that the new version didn't have enough increased efficacy, and refused to evergreen the old patent. So Novartis sued.

This is a pretty tremendous issue for people with AIDS in the Third World. The generic version of the drug costs $170 per month, while Novartis' branded version costs about $2500 per month. Indian generic manufacturers are the primary source of the drugs for many poor countries.
“About 80 per cent of anti-AIDS drugs and 92 per cent of drugs to treat children with AIDS across the developing world comes from the Indian generic manufacturers,” says Leena Menghaney of Medecins Sans Frontieres (translated from French as Doctors Without Borders). “India is literally the lifeline of patients in the developing world, especially in the poorest parts of Africa…If Sec. 3(d) is overturned, it means any meaningful effort to make these vital medicines available will be put in jeopardy.”
As far as I can tell, there's no need for-profit pharmaceutical companies. A lot of what they do starts from publicly available basic research done by academics and government scientists. They then carry the ball across the goal line and get patents that allow them to make tremendous money. Instead, we could turn research and development over to academic researchers funded by government grants, and set up a Fed-like body of scientists that would pick the best projects and farm clinical trials out to contract labs. The creative work can be done by smart people seeking glory and tenure, and the grunt work can be contracted out. The resulting knowledge would be open to all, and generic manufacturers could crank out cheap pills for everyone in the world.

CBO Jobs Scoring Redux

I'm at the Merkley donor event in Portland, which has been great fun so far.

I've been emailing with some friends about Merkley's proposal to have the CBO score supercommittee proposals for jobs impact. One concern was that having the CBO regularly do such things might make it harder for big proposals like health care reform to pass, as they'd have to not only pass a deficit test but a jobs test. I don't think this is a problem. If the CBO was out there scoring it on jobs impact, health care reform would've probably been written differently in a more pro-jobs way. The money for jobs probably would've detracted from the deficit-cutting power of the proposal, but isn't that what we want to do these days?

The only people who have reason to oppose CBO jobs scoring are monomaniacal deficit reduction fans. They've enjoyed the advantage that only the thing they're interested in gets an official score that has a big role in guiding policy. Give an official score to something else as well, and people proposing things will trade off one against the other.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I Get To Meet This Senator Tomorrow!

Yglesias notes that Merkley supports getting CBO scores on jobs impact for the proposals that the supercommittee considers. It's one of those things that makes you think, "Why weren't we doing this all along?"

Anyway, I'm in Portland right now where I'm going to be attending a Merkley donor event tomorrow and Saturday. Really looking forward to it.

Joe Crowley Fail

It's hard to look at David Weprin's defeat in the NY-09 special election without getting pretty upset at local party boss Rep. Joe Crowley, who picked Weprin to run in the district. It doesn't help that Crowley's response to defeat was to make a bunch of obnoxious comments about how his candidate won by 4% in Queens.

As Dana Goldstein points out on Twitter, there were some highly qualified female candidates in the district. I didn't even know that Elizabeth Holtzman was in that district, but apparently she was interested in running. (She might've been starting her sixth term as Senator from New York right now if the 1980 Senate election hadn't been a three-party race.) If your tastes run more towards the young up-and-coming star than the old legend, City Councilwoman Melinda Katz was also a possible choice.

Would Holtzman or Katz have won? My initial guess is no, as Weprin lost by 8% and I don't know if a better candidate could've made up that big a difference. Bad economy, etc. But that doesn't get Crowley off the hook -- a fair amount has to go wrong for you to lose a longtime Democratic district by 8%, and dubious candidate selection was part of the deal.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Teenage Driving Policy

Having lived in an era and state where getting your license the day you turn sixteen, then getting lost on your way home, was a rite of passage, I'm a little heartened by the news that recent efforts to curb teen driving have merely shifted fatalities from 16- & 17- to 18- and 19- year olds. So let the 16-year old's drive!

If the real cause of teen traffic fatalities isn't age so much as experience, perhaps the thing to do is begin the learning process earlier, perhaps in some sort of driving simulator. Forza Motorsports and Need for Speed probably won't teach the best driving habits, so maybe the DOT should make it's own not-racing driving game.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Thousand Words That I Never Spoke

Scientific proof: facts are better with graphs!

For a time, the non-philosophy portion of Donkeylicious made a concerted effort to present data with visual aids. It looks like returning to those roots would be a valuable service to provide...

Not An Onion Headline

"Controversial Anti-Gay Preacher Writes Letter To Obama, For Some Reason"

It may be the lack of sleep, but "for some reason" cracked me up. But props to the guy for exercising his right to petition the government!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bush Looked Moderate To Moderates, Perry Won't

Today (and I guess that can mean literally on this date) it's hard to remember the time when "compassionate conservative" was the buzzword associated with George W. Bush. But that was his branding in 2000 when he ran for president, and it points to a difference between him and Rick Perry.

Calling yourself a compassionate conservative was a pretty good move in 2000, and something like that would probably work today. Even if lots of people on the left didn't trust it, people on the center found it relatively easy to regard Bush as a moderate. But nothing like it is going to be available to Rick Perry if he wins the GOP nomination. The kind of things he'll have to say to get there, and that he's already said in his book and on the stage, don't leave him much of a chance to look like a moderate.

I agree with the general idea that economic factors determine election outcomes, but there are times when political positioning makes a difference. If Harry Reid could beat Sharron Angle by 7 points in a state with 14% unemployment, this kind of thing has to matter at least a little.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Rick Perry and the Banality of the Electorate

The post-debate commentary seems to think that Rick Perry screwed up by pushing the "Social Security sucks" meme. However all of the arguments seem to focus electability questions. Either, the argument goes, Perry may have erred in such a way that endears him to the primary electorate, but hurts him in the general; or he actually hurt himself in the primary because primary voters care about electability.

Both these arguments ignore the possibility that saying bad things about Social Security may be unpopular with Republican primary voters. Raising the payroll tax cap has something close to 70% support, while the idea of cutting benefits is actually less popular than Barack Obama. What's more, Tea Partiers, who skew way older than the primary or general electorate, are largely supportive of Social Security. It's perfectly possible for Romney to leverage this attack into a genuine, policy-based critique of Perry, rather than focus on electability arguments. "You, Mr. GOP voter, you like Social Security. So do I! Perry doesn't. Sure, you may think it's awesome how he doesn't feel bad about executing people, and he has a Southern accent and I don't, but, you want that social security check, right? Then vote for me!"

Why no one is mentioning this is a mystery, in the same way that the fact that the major policy attack in the 2010 campaign—attacking ObamaCare's attempts to reign in health care costs as "$500 billion in Medicare cuts"—received very little news coverage. The people who show up to GOP debates in the fall may dig Rick Perry, but the people showing up to GOP priamries in the spring will probably be less enthusiastic.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sanity Returns: We Hope

The headline oversells the actual quote from Secretary Napolitano, but it looks like we may see an end to removing your shoes at the metal detector at some forseeable point in the future.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Why Huntsman? (And Why Lieberman, Etc)

Steve Benen wonders why Jon Huntsman gets so much media attention despite being at about 1% in a GOP primary. The reason that jumps out at me is that major media outlets tend to take great interest in people who loudly criticize their own parties from the center.

I see the reasons for doing this as arising from the old business justification for being in the center. People on the left may prefer left-wing media outlets to centrist outlets, but they're still an audience for the major centrist ones. Something like that is true on the right, even if it might not be as strong nowadays, since they have a dedicated cable news channel to serve all their needs. Go far enough to one side or the other, though, and the other side will just stop watching you. And of course, people in the middle will go first to the media outlets in the middle. So if your business model is one where you want to compete for as big an audience as possible, you need to be in the middle.

This gives the media two reasons for paying disproportionate attention to Huntsman and people like him. First, he fits the ideology that their business model suggests they adopt -- one that's in the middle. Second, his ability to attract interest from viewers from all parts of the political spectrum far outstrips his poll numbers. I don't find Newt Gingrich particularly interesting, and I wouldn't find Rick Perry especially interesting if he weren't leading the polls, but I found Huntsman's belief in science refreshing enough to be worth a blog post. (As Jamelle points out, Huntsman is not a moderate on other stuff and thinks, for example, that we should repeal health care reform.) So if I actually watched TV news rather than just reading text all the time, I'd be more of a potential Huntsman viewer than a Gingrich viewer.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tomorrow's Pre-Compromise Today

HuffPo has some AFL-CIO saber rattling trying to get the Administration to back off the idea of taking the Georgia Works program national. Georgia Works, a program that began during the recession and backed by the state's Republican Governor and Democratic Labor Commissioner, tries to set up unemployment benefit recipients with on-the-job training for up to 8 weeks of their benefit period. This is "win-win" insofar as it gives someone who is unemployed a bit of training/experience, and gives firms a free 8-week trial period for new employees.

The Georgia Works program may be a fine idea. It may be a total waste of time. But either way, it's yet another sort of thing that the White House should be offering to Republicans during the course of negotiations, not basing as the national model. The first revision of the Obama Jobs Plan isn't going to attract any Republican votes under any circumstances. So why include any ideas that are attractive to Republicans at all? Why not let them come up with a list of things they dislike, and propose Georgia Works as a compromise? Clearly the strategy of pre-emptive compromise hasn't worked so far, why does the White House think it's going to work this time?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Shrimp On A Treadmill

When I hear people ridiculing some scientific study like the one where the scientists put shrimp on a treadmill to see how fast they run, I usually expect that the scientists are investigating something genuinely useful and the critics are misrepresenting what is going on. The point of the shrimp on a treadmill study was to figure out how changes in water quality affect the health of shrimp, which is the kind of thing you'd want to know about if shrimp were an economically important species in your country, as they are in ours.

My confidence that scientists are doing worthwhile things far exceeds my confidence that Republicans are representing scientific research accurately.

A Breath of Fresh Air

I can't comment on the T-Mobile/AT&T saga, but elsewhere, the concept of actually enforcing antitrust law is a refreshing change from the Bush years.