Thursday, August 30, 2012

No Easy Day

Apparently the Pentagon has threatened legal action against the Navy SEAL who came out with the book on the Bin Laden raid, citing violation of nondisclosure agreements.  When I first heard about the book, I was thinking "Wow, they let people involved in highly sensitive military operations just come out with books like that?" Well, maybe not.  

Philosophy And Physics Are The Highest-GRE-Scoring Majors

Via Physics Central, I'm proud to link to the new pdfs laying out the best majors in terms of GRE scores: philosophy and physics.  Of the four dozen majors surveyed, the physicists tied with the mathematicians and mechanical engineers for being the best at quantitative reasoning, while the philosophers are the best at verbal reasoning and analytical writing.  Both philosophers and physicists perform very well at the other field's specialty as well.  This is basically how the results have turned out for the last several years.

I don't know whether we philosophy professors are actually making our students better at verbal reasoning and analytical writing, or whether we simply attract the students who are best at those things. My guess is that both factors play a role.  I don't know which one is bigger.

But the next time you hear people talking about how we should promote the STEM fields -- I think it's science, technology, engineering and math -- you might want to suggest modifying it to the STEMP fields.  Uh, I guess that's not as good an acronym.  I guess you could do TEMPS, but that's not exactly the career that our top college graduates are aiming for.  Clearly this is what's holding philosophy back.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bidding In NFL Overtimes

Football season is beginning, which gives me a nice time for me to agree with all of those who regard NFL overtimes as a mess, and propose my own solution.

According to the bad old system, everything started with a coin flip, with the lucky winner getting to determine whether they'd kick off or receive the kick.  The first team to score would win, which meant there was a nontrivial advantage in choosing to receive.  So coin flips were playing an unduly large role in determining the outcome of the game.  Candyland is a fine game for people who want chance to determine outcomes, but I don't want that in pro football.  Victory should go to the best athletes with the smartest strategy, not to those who make lucky guesses about gyrating bits of metal.  

There's a new, more complicated, and probably better system now where you do the coin flip as before and have the lucky winner choose, but each team is guaranteed to be on offense, unless the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown.  I'm not totally sure which team this favors, but I'm sure it'll be figured out in due course.  Chris Chase thinks it'll help the team that kicks off and gets the ball second, which seems about right to me.  And in any case, we're still in Candyland.  Random chance is playing too big a role in determining the outcome.   

So here's my solution: Determine who gets the ball first by bidding.  Have the home team's coach name an even number, and the visiting team's coach name an odd number.  The team whose coach bids the lower number gets the ball at their yard line corresponding to that number.  So if the home team's coach says 8, and the visitors' coach says 5, the visiting team gets the ball at their own 5.  And from there, it's sudden-death overtime, with the first scorer winning.  No Candyland, just coaches playing head games against each other, and players taking over from there.  

Added bonus: I've heard that the league is interested in reducing the number of kickoffs that happen during the game, for the good reason that kickoffs present a lot of injury risk.  This solution eliminates overtime kickoffs, and is to be preferred for that reason.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Today in "Shit Local Elected Officials Say"

A County Judge (which I believe is a bit like being a County Councilman in other states) in Lubbock Texas is warning of the need to prepare for civil war in the event of Barack Obama's re-election.

The best part of this story is that the impending struggle is being used as justification for ...

... wait for it ...

a tax increase.

You seriously cannot make this s*** up. I'm hoping Neil has a philosophical point he can make about what might cause human beings to maintain a level of cognitive dissonance so high.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Playing to Win

Joe Biden is going to campaign in Florida during the GOP convention. I'm going to have to dig up the history, but I believe this is new. The custom as recently as 2004 was for one party to go mostly or entirely dark during their opponent's convention. Or perhaps to run ads but not schedule events. So I think having Biden campaign during this time is fairly new.

I think people have tended to underestimate the degree to which Team Obama has fairly cutthroat campaigners. As a policy negotiator, he's been a total sap at times and/or read the situation poorly, but as a matter of winning elections they don't play with one hand tied behind their back.

Large Man Helps Large Animals

Dan Devine at Ball Don't Lie informs us that Yao Ming is filming an anti-poaching documentary in Kenya.  As traditional Chinese medicine puts great value on ground-up endangered animal parts, speaking to his countrymen could do a lot of good to save species from poaching.  A lot of the medical ideas involved aren't based on any real evidence -- just on the feeling that parts of awesome creatures could do awesome things for you.  It seems like the kind of situation where having an admired celebrity discredit the practice could get people not to do it.

The gruesome image at right has Yao Ming standing over the body of an elephant poached for tusks.  More pleasant is his comment on rhinos:
These are immense and powerful creatures. As one of them pushes me, I'm reminded of the immense pressure I used to feel when I had to guard Shaquille O'Neal. You knew that pressure while guarding Shaq, and you know it when a rhino leans on you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Pussy Riot

With the new semester, there's been some stuff to do lately, so I'll just try to amuse you with silly internet graphics

I don't know the details of the actual issue well enough to have a useful analysis of civil liberties in Russia.  But I think that "Pussy Riot" is an awesome name for a feminist punk rock collective, hearkening back to the whole Riot Grrrl thing.  I tend to roll my eyes at punk rock by middle-class white guys, but Russian feminists score a lot higher as far as keeping it real goes.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Baldwin Vs. Thompson In Wisconsin

I'll be following the subsequent polling with some interest here to see if I should donate money, because I'd really like to have Tammy Baldwin in the Senate.  But the result in the Republican primary isn't what I was hoping for.  Tea Party favorite Mark Neumann and self-financing neophyte Eric Hovde would've probably been easier to beat.  Not all the votes have been counted, but it looks like ex-Governor Tommy Thompson got 35% of the vote to 30% for Hovde to 23% for Neumann to 12% for Jeff Fitzgerald.

It's going to be a close race.  Baldwin and Thompson are currently running about even, but earlier polling has been favorable to Thompson, and this is the point when I'd expect Thompson's numbers to go up a little bit as the rest of the Republican Party rallies around their nominee.  We'll see what happens.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hirono Defeats Iraq War Supporter Case 58-41 For Senate Nomination

It's a good weekend for people who want the Democratic Party to oppose tax cuts for the rich and foolish wars, as Mazie Hirono has defeated Ed Case in the primary for the Democratic nomination in Hawaii 58-41.  That's at the high end of expectations -- the polling weirdly alternated between statistical ties and polls showing Mazie with a lead close to this outcome.  Hirono seems to have a good lead against ex-Governor and Republican nominee Linda Lingle in the general election.  

I'm happy to have helped make this a big win, with a $1000 contribution to Hirono and some minor internet volunteer work.  When he was in Congress, Ed Case supported the Iraq War all the way through 2006, voted to cut taxes on inheritances and investment income, and was the only Democrat to vote for Jeb Hensarling's amendment eliminating funding for PBS, NPR, and Title IX family planning in 2005.  I hope the large margin will make clear that people with that kind of record don't get to be Democratic nominees for Senate seats.  The first person who needs to hear that message is Ed Case himself, who ought to give up hopes of a political career with this third consecutive Democratic primary defeat.  

I'd also like Democrats far and wide who might have a Senate primary in their futures to keep this result in mind.  The way that conservative Republicans, who today call themselves the Tea Party, took control of their party was by winning elections like this.  Not only did they keep some moderates out of office, but they scared others into voting like conservatives.  The left wing of the Democratic Party hasn't accumulated that awesome a record of victory -- if they did, it'd have a similar effect on moderate Democratic officeholders.  One can hope that this is the beginning of similarly awesome things.
In other good Hawaii news, Tulsi Gabbard defeated Mufi Hanneman 55-34 for the Democratic nomination to the open Congressional seat left by Hirono.  (It's Hawaii; people have unusual first names.)  There was some concern that Hanneman might be the most conservative Congresscritter in a solidly Democratic seat.  Tulsi's views on a lot of issues are unclear, but she took stronger positions in favor of gay marriage and abortion rights this election than Hanneman did.  

An interesting result of this weekend's primary is that it gives everyone in Hawaii's 2nd district a chance to vote for a Buddhist for the Senate and a Hindu for the House.  This is the seat to which Patsy Mink was re-elected in November 2002 after having died that September.  I imagine that voters in the district will have no problem with putting believers in reincarnation in both federal legislative seats.  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Damning Paul Ryan with Faint Praise

To be extremely charitable to Will Saletan, it is, in fact, true that Paul Ryan is a DC Republicans who makes one of the more serious efforts to grapple with the policy problems facing the federal government.

It's also true that this is like saying he's one of the world's tallest midgets*.

As Ryan discovered when he was tasked with being the public face of the House GOP's 2011 budget plan, it's extremely difficult to balance the federal budget given current revenue levels. You have to assume that new job markets will crop up over the next decade. Paul Krugman thinks Ryan is bullish on unicorn spotting, but I'm personally partial to snipe hunting. Considering the trend in all industries except education and health care is to do more work with fewer employees, the assumptions built into Ryan's budget seem highly fanciful.

What's more, even with such optimistic employment assumptions, Ryan is forced to slowly abandon the federal government's commitment to Medicare. The Ryan budget limits government spending on "Medicare" -- which is abandoned in favor of vouchers, eliminating the state's monopsony buying power -- to overall inflation, even though health care costs have grown faster than either GDP growth or inflation for generations. The end result will be that seniors will either consume fewer health care services, dig themselves further into poverty and debt in an effort to stay alive, or both.

Now, Ryan is more honest about all of this than most Republicans, in that he's willing to put some of these ideas on paper in a form that you can argue with rather than just spout platitudes about low taxes and deregulation. So, that is to his credit, even if he he still had to elide lots of details. But the Ryan budget is not a centrist, technocratic, neoliberal effort to maintain the government's commitments to. It is a right-wing effort to maintain right-wing commitments to keeping taxes -- especially taxes on business income and capital, which are primarily forms of income that flow to the rich -- as low as possible for as long as possible. Don't be fooled.

* I have been looking for a more politically correct version of this quip but can't come up with any. I could go with "... like saying he's one of the more attractive girls at MIT", but that's highly problematic. So, if you have ideas on a more sensitive version of this schtick I'm all ears.

Ryan Helps Democrats Downticket

I'm focusing more on Congress (especially the Senate) than on the Presidency this year. Along those lines, the apparent Paul Ryan VP selection gives me a lot to be happy about.  

If there's one kind of campaign that Democrats feel confident about aggressively running, it's one where they attack Republicans as a bunch of Scrooges who will fire you and starve your grandma.  Paul Ryan's budget and his support for Social Security privatization provide a perfect target of that kind.  By elevating Ryan to the VP slot, Romney has made questions about these topics relevant to every race everywhere.  The downticket effects of bringing out Republican House and Senate candidates' unpopular positions on these issues are, for Democrats, a nice side effect of Romney's choice.  

Friday, August 10, 2012

Big Hawaii Primary Weekend

Big events are coming up the Hawaii Democratic primary on August 11, with a Senate race and maybe a House race each pitting a liberal Democrat against a conservative Democrat.

On the Senate side we have Mazie Hirono versus Ed Case.  It's a pretty serious liberal vs. conservative  showdown, with solidly liberal Hirono against longtime Iraq War and estate tax cut supporter Case.  The polling looks weird.  Everything either shows Ed Case with a tiny lead or Mazie Hirono with a gigantic lead.  I guess that's good news for Hirono, but I'm going to be a bit nervous about this one until I see the results.  I've given $1000 to Hirono and helped her campaign in minor internet ways.  If you're curious to learn more about why Hirono is a much better candidate than Case, here you go!

On the House side, there's Tulsi Gabbard versus Mufi Hanneman.  Gabbard is a 30-year-old military veteran recently returned from Afghanistan.  Her views on abortion and gay rights are solidly left-wing, though it's unclear how long she's held these positions.  Hanneman has consistently been a mealy-mouthed Democrat on abortion and supports the Defense of Marriage Act.  Gabbard has suddenly jumped to a 20 point lead in recent polls after trailing for a while.  This is a bit of a tougher race to judge, because Gabbard is kind of an unknown, but I think she's the one to root for here.

I'm especially interested in the Senate race, because a victory here will send a clear message that supporting bad wars and tax cuts for the rich isn't welcome in the Democratic Party.  Primaries are how you reorient your entire party towards the views you care about.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Protecting Against Online Identity Theft with Lastpass

Sup, dawg. I heard you like passwords, so I put a password on your password so you can protect yourself while you protect yourself.

It sounds like something that belongs in an XZibit imagemacro, but it turns out that having One Password To Rule Them All is a pretty good idea. There are many tools out there to track your passwords -- browsers have been saving passwords for years, and recently Chrome has started storing passwords in your google profile so that you can use them from any computer as long as you're both using Chrome and logged in to Google -- but there are several third-party apps that help you remember passwords. Some of them provide extras like the ability to automatically log in (not just fill in the username & password, but go the additional step of hitting "Sign in"), and automatically generating random passwords for each site. I had been meaning to do this last step, but hadn't gotten around to it until that Wired article hammered the point home. Every site needs its own password, but no one can realistically remember that many passwords. I had already been using Lastpass to store passwords, so I just took about half an hour to change my password at every site I could think of.

Lastpass is free on the desktop and costs $12/year for the mobile version. It's worth every penny in my book.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Immigration And Labor Market Complementarity

I've seen this picture being posted on Facebook, and it has some mild personal relevance to things that happened in my family.  Liang Chow took a job as a gymnastics coach at the University of Iowa in 1990, and became a US citizen twelve years later.  My dad came to the University of Iowa in the 1970s to do a Ph.D in chemistry, brought my mom along, and now both of them are US citizens.

Our immigration system is set up in a way that lets us legally get Liang Chow and my parents into the country -- he's a high-profile athlete and coach, and my dad had a scholarship.  But there's basically no legal path into the country for lots of poor hard-working folks whose talents we could really use.  They aren't going to take glamorous jobs in Olympic gymnastics that give rise to inspirational photos -- they're just going to pick fruit, wash your dishes at the restaurant, and send some money home so their kids will have enough to eat when things get tough.  But their talents may be complementary to those of native-born Americans just as the talents of the two people in the picture are.  If you're able to pick more fruit and wash more dishes, you can start more restaurants and that means hiring more waiters. That's labor market complementarity, and it's a good thing for native-born workers as well as the incoming immigrants.

Why Small Countries Do Monetary Policy Better

Matt Yglesias and Ryan Cooper are discussing why small countries are making better monetary policy decisions than big countries.

Matt thinks big countries are more likely to do silly national greatness spending on things like the Olympics and the space program, and he sees bad monetary policy in a similar light.  I guess one of my qualms that explanation is that medium-sized and small countries do silly national greatness projects too.  Over in Dubai they're using their money to build all kinds of weird stuff like manmade islands in the shape of palm trees.  And the ultimate badly run small country, North Korea, has four Olympic gold medals so far.  Obviously these are extreme cases, but I really have no idea whether a greater percentage of large country or small country budgets goes to prestige projects.  I suspect that it's about the same, and large country prestige projects just end up being more noticeable because of the greater raw amount of money concentrated in one place, not the percentages of the total budget.

If I had to guess as to what's going on here, I'd point to whether monetary policymakers' interests were aligned with those of most citizens.  In the EU, monetary policy has been heavily German-influenced, so you get the kind of policy Germany wants rather than the kind the rest of Europe needs.  In the US, monetary policy is heavily influenced by the interests of banks and the obscenely rich, so you get monetary policy that maintains the real value of Sheldon Adelson's assets and delivers him an employer-friendly labor market while leaving ordinary Americans unemployed.  (Cooper's post is good on laying out how well Bernanke knows how to fix things, and how he suddenly isn't interested in doing the fixing.  This is a sign that the problem is political support and not knowledge.)

With small countries that are broken down into more homogenous units, you have a somewhat better shot at aligning the interests of policymakers and people.  It's not perfect -- you could still end up in North Korea.  But it avoids the EU situation where one part of the monetary unit has control and doesn't care about anyone else.

It's an old story, and you should get Amartya Sen to tell it to you.  Put India in the hands of the British, and Churchill starves millions of Indians to death between fantasies of having Gandhi stomped to death by elephants.  Put India in the hands of the Indians, and massive death by starvation becomes a thing of the past.  Aligning the interests of people and policymakers is a big part of how good policy is made and bad policy is avoided.  Democracy is a really important way to do this.  But being small helps in some respects too.

Friday, August 3, 2012

How To Tuck Your Vast Fortune Into An IRA

Jed Lewison tells us that Mitt Romney built a $100 million IRA account and lawmakers are wondering how.  I don't know how he did it, but something occurred to me a few years ago about how one could funnel arbitrarily large amounts of one's fully taxable money into an IRA.  It involves setting up a taxable account as well as an IRA, and trading some tiny little under-the-radar stock between the IRA and the taxable account on a special exchange, so that the IRA wins and the taxable account loses.  I'll explain.

So let's say you've got your IRA, with $2000 cash in it.  And you've got your taxable account, worth $100,000.  And let's say they're both hooked up to some ECN where you can buy and sell stocks after hours if you like.  Nobody else on the ECN is trading shares of Pastry Innovation Enterprises of Snohomish (PIES) after hours, as it's a tiny company that hardly anybody invests in.  The stock is trading at $50 per share during the daytime, though, and you've just filled your taxable account with 2000 shares of PIES.  So one night you go on the ECN under your IRA account and put up a bid for 2000 shares of PIES at $1 each.  So who's going to sell you 2000 shares of PIES for $1 each?  You are!  You go on with your taxable account and sell your 2000 shares into the IRA account at $1.  (It's important that nobody else be on the exchange, or else you might sell to them at a really low price and lose tons of money.)  Now your taxable account is worth $2000 and your IRA is worth $100,000.  If you want to turn your PIES in the IRA into cash, just wait for daytime and sell them on the open market.

I have no idea if this is legal, and I didn't actually try to do it.  But in theory it's something you could do.  And I have no idea if Mitt Romney did it, but if we're trying to explain a $100 million IRA, one possibility would be something like that.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Contraception And Rebates

I don't link to Scott Lemieux that much even though he posts all kinds of good stuff because usually I don't have anything to add.  But it's worthwhile to copy his short post about these benefits of health care reform that just went into effect:
Contraception for women will now be covered, and free. A number of other crucial elements of health care for women are covered as of August 1 as well. 
If you get an envelope from your health insurance company this week, don’t throw it out. It could be the rebate check that insurance companies have to issue if they spend more than 20% of premium revenues on overhead. In the first year, this will result in $1.1 billion being returned by the rentiers to consumers.
Links at the source. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why Rawls And Utilitarians Like "You Didn't Build That"

Julian Sanchez has a nice post on the whole business surrounding Obama's "you didn't build that" comment.  He explores the consequences of our interdependence for political philosophy:
Either way, it seems undeniable as a self-contained descriptive point: No man is an island, and the wealth and success we enjoy are all profoundly dependent on a context of social cooperation that makes it possible. In 15,000 B.C., you’d have been dirt poor however smart and hardworking you were. 
Indeed, arguably it doesn’t go far enough, as it suggests some sharp distinction between things that involve help from “somebody else,” on the one hand, and on the other traits like being “so smart” or “hardworking,” which presumably each individual really is responsible for. But as John Rawls would argue, that’s hardly true either: If you’re “so smart,” well, “you didn’t build that,” ultimately. You aren’t responsible for the genetic endowment that enables high-level cognitive processing, the nutrition that fed your developing infant brain, or for the vast store of inherited knowledge that allowed you to take calculus for granted, rather than re-deriving it from scratch (once you’d invented “writing” and “numbers”). If you’re hardworking, then it’s a good thing that your upbringing and education imbued you with a work ethic, and that your brain chemistry (with or without aid from modern pharmaceuticals) is well-calibrated for sustained focus and impulse control. 

I like the argument from Rawls that Julian nicely lays out.  Where Rawls goes from there is that we need a different way to understand desert.  Rather than deserving things because you had them at the end of the free market round of the game, you can deserve things because they came to you through the kind of system that would be built by people who were trying to get the best deal for themselves, but didn't know which social position they'd end up in.  That's Rawls' nifty idea about how a fair system would be one designed by people behind a "veil of ignorance" as to where they'd end up.  Rawls thinks these people would be afraid of getting totally screwed and design a system oriented around the maximin principle -- very roughly, one primarily oriented towards alleviating the poverty of the worst-off.  I think that's pretty close to right, though I think the reason for distributing goods that way really comes out of considerations about diminishing marginal utility rather than the weird arguments Rawls gives.  

That's why I'm not so hot on the part of the post where Julian asks, "All that’s true enough, but what is the point supposed to be?"  Here's how he concludes:
As it turns out, we generally think we are entitled to control, or have rights over, a whole lot of things that are not (as Robert Nozick put it) “deserved all the way down” in the sense that we’re completely responsible for them—since, at the end of the day, nothing is “deserved all the way down” in that sense. It’s not that the “you didn’t build that” argument is wrong as a factual matter—it’s that it’s true about everything, and therefore doesn’t get you much of anything.
This isn't right.  Sure enough, the argument takes you to a place where you lose a big chunk of what you believe about how you deserve stuff.  But there are alternative ideas about how to deserve things that aren't touched by that criticism.  Rawls had one, as I've described above.  Obviously, one shouldn't get too upset at someone for failing to engage with Rawls' positive proposals in a blog post.  But the fact that there are alternative ways of understanding desert that aren't defeated by the "you didn't build that" argument makes the argument significant for political philosophy.

As a utilitarian, I've got a way to go too.  Just focus on setting things up to create as much pleasure and prevent as much displeasure as possible.  Don't worry about who deserves what, except insofar as it provides a useful heuristic for how to generate more pleasure and alleviate displeasure (as a fair amount of our desert-related thinking actually does -- it's good to give people incentives to do useful stuff).  Even if there's no way to deserve anything, pleasure is good.  And good people try to make good things happen.