Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Marginal Democrat is Still Marginal

Norm Coleman's gracious decision not to make yet another round of fruitless legal challenges to Al Franken's victory gives the Dems a "magical" 60th vote in the Senate. But of course, the day after Joe Biden swears in the former SNL writer, very little will be different from the day before. The 60th vote in the Senate will have moved from being Olympia Snowe to either Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, or Arlen Specter. The Republican party will require another drubbing in order to put the relevant Senate vote at someone reasonable; if Voinovich, Gregg, Bond, Martinez, Burr, and Bunning are all replaced by Dems, while Dodd, Bennett, and Lincoln all hold on, the sixtieth vote will still be Blanche Lincoln. Byron Dorgan, probably the most populist red-state Senator, would still be five votes away from sixty. Dems would have to (a) defeat David Vitter, (b) invent a Time Machine to let them go back and pick different HHS and DHS Secretaries, (c) hope that Chuck Grassley decides he's tired of feeling like a NAIL and retires, (d) hope to defeat one of the remaining incumbents in Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, or Utah, and (e) hope all of the winning Democrats are more liberal than Byron Dorgan just to get a sixtieth Senator who's more liberal than Claire "I hope we can fix the [already solicitous of coal interests] cap and trade so it doesn't unfairly punish businesses and families in coal dependent states" McCaskill. There's just not that much that's going to change with Al Franken's victory.

All of which is to say that the fact that sixty votes has become the norm to do anything in the Senate—appoint FEC nominees, pass basically any legislation, confirm judges—is highly unusual and ought to be done away with. If it's not possible to have a filibuster without seeing it abused, then abolish the filibuster or the Senate. The fiftieth Democratic Senator at the moment is probably the aforementioned McCaskill, who for all my carping is decent for a red-state Senator, and after 2011 it would probably be someone like Jim Webb in the worst case and Barbara Mikulski in the best case. That would be change we could believe in.

You Read More Novels Than Me

A couple years ago, I realized that my friends outside academia were reading many more books than I was. A former grad school classmate who had gone off to work some boring job in New York was reading a novel a week. I look over at Pandagon and Amanda is tossing up book reviews at a steady clip. This post was occasioned by the many bloggers I know who are reading Infinite Jest this summer. I am not.

There are still things I read. Like David Lewis' "New Work For A Theory Of Universals", which I finished while staying overnight at Heathrow two weeks ago. And Tom Kelly's paper on epistemic disagreement. And a bunch of other stuff that's important for my job, like this collection of essays on Thus Spoke Zarathustra that I reviewed for NDPR. (For the most part, it wasn't very good.)

Please don't feel sneered at! I admire and envy your interest and ability to read all the amazing and wonderful things you do. I read all this contemporary metaphysics and epistemology mostly because it helps me build myself into a more effective machine for turning hard liquor into journal articles. And I enjoy it, because I enjoy philosophy. My job suits me very well. But I'm kind of impressed by all you people who read novels and short story collections and essays written by people from worlds without tenure. I just read work-related stuff, and then I drink and dance and do things that allow me to make animal noises. Or blog.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Final Vote Count

I'm not very worried about the roll call on Waxman-Markey. As with trade agreements, this is one of those votes that's incredibly tough for Members in competitive districts. Everyone is terrified that by next summer, the economy will be doing slightly better, but not better enough that people feel it, and that the improved economy will drive up gas prices again (which are already getting close to $3/gallon where I live). This leads to the 30 second add about how Jane Q. Congressmen voted to raise gas prices, force neighborhoods to put up solar panels, make traffic worse, take away your foot massager, and so on. No one wants to face that. So the White House probably wanted a final vote that was as close to 218-217 as they could get. Considering there are at least two nay votes from the left—DeFazio and Kucinich—Dems will probably have a 5-10 vote cushion once the bill comes out of conference.

Why Ricci Means Liberals Shouldn't Feel Bad About Waxman-Markey

It's worth noting that the original Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not cover state and local governments, and required amendment in 1972 after Congress found that police and fire departments remained highly segregated. Likewise, the law signed by Lyndon Johnson did not mention "disparate impact", and it was not until the mid-70s that Congress followed the Warren Court's innovations on this front. If employment discrimination laws from the 1960s still existed today, the city New Haven wouldn't have thrown out the results of theor promotion exam, since there would have been no grounds for a lawsuit to dispute an exam that was in theory race-neutral but discriminatory in practice.

This is the sort of story that makes me think Ezra is right to critique the Big Bang Theory of Legislation. Once the political establishment agrees that something is a problem, the tendency is improve on existing legislation rather than unroll it entirely. To wit, while George W. Bush engaged in some rollback of environmental regulation, he was unable to fully unwind everything accomplished by Bill Clinton, meaning that the current state of environmental regulation is somewhat to the left of where they were when Ronald Reagan took office (and, it should be noted, George H.W. Bush signed amendments to strengthen the Clean Air and Clear Water Acts). And under Obama they will probably shift leftward again. Sure, Waxman-Markey has lots of problems, but once it's passed, Congress will take another bite at the apple, probably within a decade.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Height Taxes: In Which The Utilitarian Eats Mankiw's Counterexample With Rawlsian Mustard

I was traveling when Matt linked Greg Mankiw and Matthew Weinzierl's paper on why utilitarians should support a height tax, so I didn't get a chance to dig into the whole thing at that time. But now I have, and it's looking to me like a height tax would be a good thing, when considered on its own as a piece of fiscal and social policy. I'm less impressed with Mankiw's attempt to use this as a counterexample to utilitarianism. Supporting a height tax might seem like a bitter pill to swallow, but the empirical considerations in Mankiw's paper end up making it quite tasty.

Here's how Mankiw's argument goes: Utilitarians want to use taxation to push incomes towards equality, because of the diminishing marginal utility of money. (Mankiw is right that we utilitarians generally like this -- extra money does much more for a poor person's happiness than a rich person's, so moving money down the income scale by progressive taxation will generate more happiness, and that's what utilitarians are all about.) However, insofar as income levels are correlated with effort, this sort of taxation will have negative effects on people's effort, and you don't want that because people expending less effort results in the creation of less awesome. So if you can find something that's correlated with income, but which is disconnected from effort, you have a reason to tax it. And it turns out that height is like that. So on a utilitarian view, height should be taxed. But taxing height? That's crazy! And in the view of one of the authors, this is a reductio ad absurdum of utilitarianism.

I was struck with the weirdness of a height tax the first time I heard about it. But I was also quite struck by these numbers from early in Mankiw and Weinzierl's paper:
Judge and Cable (2004) report that “an individual who is 72 in. tall could be expected to earn $5,525 [in 2002 dollars] more per year than someone who is 65 in. tall, even after controlling for gender, weight, and age.” Persico, Postlewaite, and Silverman (2004) find similar results and report that "among adult white men in the United States, every additional inch of height as an adult is associated with a 1.8 percent increase in wages." Case and Paxson (2006) write that "For both men and women...an additional inch of height [is] associated with a one to two percent increase in earnings."
Updating the Judge and Cable result to 2009 money, the difference between being 5'5" and 6 feet adds up to $6,568 per year, even with the gender, weight, and age controls in place. One study explains this in terms of beneficial self-esteem effects coming from being the tall kid in adolescence, while another explains it in terms of childhood nutrition that affects a bunch of useful abilities like cognitive ability that actually cause the salary difference. Either way, taxing height would seem like a good idea to a utilitarian social planner. Taxing height wouldn't reduce anyone's effort, and unless parents decided to feed their children less to make them shorter or something ridiculous like that it wouldn't reduce total productive capacity in any significant way.

Even if height ends up being correlated with something particularly useful like cognitive ability, explaining both of these things in terms of childhood nutrition starts making a height tax look benign. Let's run an argument kinda like one Rawls uses in A Theory of Justice. Does any one child deserve to be fed and cared for better than another child? Of course not! All children equally deserve good nutrition and care from their parents. If the differences between the rich and poor come from the fact that the rich were well-fed as children while the poor were ill-fed, we have no reason to leave income levels where they are. "You deserve to make less money than him, because of differences resulting from how you were fed poorly as a child while he was fed well" is just madness.

Some people might want to push this argument further and say that we have positive reasons to undo differences that come from factors like childhood nutrition. Being a utilitarian, I'm not quite going to go there. But I'm going to ride the Rawlsian point far enough to say that there's no reason to maintain these income disparities. When you think about how much extra money tall people make, and the causes of the salary differences, the reasons for opposing a height tax lose their force. The Rawlsian point undercuts our anti-height-tax intuitions, so we have no reason to oppose a height tax. And then it's time for utilitarian considerations regarding the diminishing marginal utility of money to do the positive work, and push us to a height tax.

(Lots of people are probably freaked out by a height tax because we're generally freaked out when the government treats people differently because of uncontrollable bodily attributes like skin color and gender. It's interesting to look at affirmative action policies in this light. It's definitely wrong for the government to entrench unfair systems by treating different bodies differently. But is it okay for the government to treat different bodies differently to overturn unfair systems? Well, people disagree. But make no mistake -- when you look at the empirical data, that's what a height tax would be doing, and there's at least some support for that sort of thing.)

In the end, I'm unimpressed by the height tax argument against utilitarianism. Sure, height taxes are counterintuitive before you think about the relevant empirical data. But I feel like the content of Mankiw and Weinzierl's study undermines the anti-utilitarian punchline.

And it's not that utilitarianism is the most intuitive ethical theory. There's plenty of places where it looks counterintuitive -- 90% of people go against it in the fat man version of the trolley problem. One of the papers I'm presenting in my current tour around the country is on how to defend utilitarianism despite its counterintuitiveness. But if Mankiw was trying to throw a counterexample at utilitarianism, well, it's among the easier ones to outsmart.

Good Times

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) seems determined to read out loud the 300 pages of amendments added to Waxman-Markey late last night, in an effort to stall until. Apparently no parliamentary rule exists to get the Leadership to shut up at the very end of debates.

Awesome. You can watch it all on C-Span.

Friday Kitsch Cover (Michael Jackson Edition)

The King of Pop managed to inspire covers across genres. Here's Alien Ant Farm paying tribute with "Smooth Criminal", which includes visual references to almost everything Michael.

There's another version here with embedding disabled.

Leave your nominations for next week's Kitsch Cover in the comments.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Scalia Finds an Acorn

In other War on (Certain Classes of People Who Use Certain) Drugs news, the Supreme Court ruled that drug lab analysts must testify in person, and not merely submit signed and notarized documents to the court as evidence. This is one of those cases where Scalia, who takes a rather bright-line view of the Confrontation Clause, ends up on the side of the civil libertarians, while Breyer, who frequently seems to view his job as a Supreme Court Justice to play technocrat-in-chief, joined Kennedy's dissent which points out significant policy impact this decision will have. I haven't really thought too long about the legal or policy merits of forcing analysts to testify yet. Still, if you take the view that the police state has gone too far in enforcing drug laws and that any reduction in police powers or complications in prosecuting drug crimes is a good thing, today was a good day.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Deep Thought

This Village snickering isn't any more entertaining now that the target is a Republican. There are two wars, a civil uprising in Iran, and Congress is trying to move major legislation on health care and energy. Can we, you know, not run the emails now that the deed is done, and just do something else?

I'm looking at you, Talking Points Memo, among others.

Nice Work, White House Press Corps

The junior high school-level behavior of the DC press wasn't limited to being upset that Nico Pitney got to ask a question. In proof that the U.S. does not have a monopoly on thin-skinned journalists, the pearl-clutching that followed yesterday's press conference managed to generate negative press abroad. The headline to this article in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, the second-largest newspaper in Chile, reads "U.S. Press criticizes photograph of Chilean journalists with Obama". The first paragraph translates as follows:
The American press reacted with surprise and a critical tone to a single photo-op Chilean journalists, accompanying [Chilean] President Michele Bachelet on her trip to the United States and Mexico, staged yesterday in the White House.
CNN, Fox News, and the WSJ are called out specifically. Many thanks to those august news organizations for giving our country a good name around the globe. Thankfully, Obama managed to say some nice things about our guests' fiscal management of their copper-generated surpluses, so at least someone was a gracious host.

(Photo of teenagers dancing "La Cueca", the official national dance of Chile, by yours truly)

Where In The World Is Mark Sanfordiego?

Now he's saying he was in... Argentina? This is rapidly becoming a total freak show.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Simplest Explanation is Usually Correct

Occam's Razor suggests that you don't need to come up with complicated narratives to explain the slow decline of Barack Obama's approval rating from the low-mid 60s to the high 50s. Over time, it will become more and more difficult to claim that George W. Bush's presidency is the reason things are still bad today. In addition, while we seem to be out of the catastrophic moment between September 2008 and March 2009, the number of people who say the economy is doing poorly is on the rise again. And no one else believes it's getting better. Because, let's face it, it's not. It's not immediately clear that if economy were doing worse, Obama would be doing better; economic determinism isn't always the way to go, but it's frequently a decent description of the state of the world.

Pressing The Advantage

New polling shows really intense dislike of the Republican Party among Latinos, with 8% holding a positive opinion of the GOP while 86% have an unfavorable opinion. With Democrats, the numbers are 59% favorable, 28% unfavorable. This is, of course, a subsample which probably has a big margin of error, but even so the results are striking. I'm sure that the ridiculous attacks on Sotomayor from right-wing talk show host types are a big contributor to these sweet numbers.

This shouldn't make Democrats any less aggressive in pursuing Latino support in the short-term. If these numbers are right, lots of Latinos are listening to Democratic voices (or at least, voices critical of Republicans) with a newly sympathetic ear. They'll be more ready to absorb new criticisms of the Republican Party now in a way they weren't before, and it's a window of opportunity that can be used to deepen Democratic support and spread the good word about core Democratic positions.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pitch Counts

Scott Lemieux directs us to the James/Posnanski colloquy, and Rob Neyer's response. Some thoughts:
  • It's almost certainly true that there is nothing special about the 100-pitch limit. The most exhaustive analysis I can recall is Keith Woolner's 2002 articles (Part I, Part II). The punchlines of Woolner's study are (a) the real danger zone starts at around 110 pitches for low-workload pitchers and 130 pitches for high workload pitchers, and (b) yes, Virginia, longer outings do lead to more injuries.
  • That said, Nate Silver (there's that name again) has done some analysis which shows the age at which pitchers mature is younger than previously thought. Once a starter makes it through age 23, he's probably as healthy as he's ever going to be. Almost every pitcher carries the risk of having their elbow or shoulder fall apart, but it's no greater for a 24 year-old than a 28-year old. If Nolan Ryan and the Rangers are trying to teach 20-year old prospects to throw 130 pitches, that's probably a bad idea, but teaching a 27-year old journeyman to go one more inning is worth doing.
  • In a semi-related vein, there is no evidence that the five-man rotation improves pitcher effectiveness. This is separate from the question of whether or not the five-man rotation reduces injury risk, for which I have yet to see a rigorous study.
  • In addition to the decline in innings pitched by starters, we've also seen a decline in multi-inning relief outings. The long-reliever is basically extinct; instead, managers seem to prefer having a seven-man or eight-man bullpen and let each pitcher throw at full speed for only an inning at a time. While this may allow marginal relievers to be more effective, it forces teams to carry more substitutes who can play multiple defensive positions, which probably reduces offensive potential.
If I were an American League GM, here's how I'd use this information:
  • Set a pitch count limit of 95 for any pitcher age 23 and under.
  • Return to the four-man rotation throughout the majors and minors. This replaces the thirty or so starts by the fifth starter with eight stars from each of the teams' front four pitchers—a significant improvement.
  • In the low minors, use "paired starters"—two pitchers scheduled for the same day, each of which will throw 85-100 pitches. In the high minors, relax the pitch count limits for older prospects and journeymen, up to 110-115 pitches, or higher for pitchers who can maintain velocity and effectiveness, up to 125-130 pitches.
  • Any phenom who makes the major leagues before age 23 has to keep to the pitch limit, perhaps being the "paired starter" with a veteran on his last legs who has to keep to a lower pitch count (think John Smoltz).
  • Use the reduction in pitching staff size to bring on a full-time DH. At present, almost every team uses a DH who could play in the field, and on occasion does. Only the Red Sox (Ortiz), White Sox (Thome), and Indians (Hafner) have yet to see their DH take the field, though several teams have near-full time hitters. This should result in a significant offensive boost.
  • Replace three one-inning relievers with two long relief men. These pitchers would almost always be called on to pitch in games where one team is significantly ahead or behind, so while they may be less effective because they expect to pitch two or three innings, those innings would likely be in low-leverage situations.
  • Keep three or four one-inning fireballers to pitch in close games. Use these pitchers only when one team is ahead by two runs or fewer.
Even if this hypothetical pitching staff had a veteran/phenom pair, it would only have ten or eleven pitchers. That would free up two or three roster slots for more niche position players—a slick fielding shortstop to help preserve a small lead at the end of the game, a speedster to come in as a pinch runner in the late innings, a backup middle infielder who can take some of the stress of the shortstop and second basemen, etc.

Friday, June 19, 2009

My Thoughts On Health Care Reform

We're going to look back at this week as the moment everyone freaked out needlessly, as the Senate Finance Committee—the rightmost pole in the health care debate—moved its plan further rightward, scaling back coverage and public intervention. Meanwhile, the House hasn't budged and expects to produce a bill with a public option. The final bill will be something in between; my guess, it will be the Senate bill plussed up a tiny bit, perhaps with a somewhat hobbled public plan, or one limited to individuals under a certain income threshold. A half dozen house liberals and a similar number of Blue Dogs will vote against it. In the Senate, no Republican will vote for it except Olympia Snowe. Every Democrat, including Ted Kennedy, Arlen Specter, and the newly-seated Al Franken, will vote for the bill.

In between now and then, it's going to be a long, hot summer in Washington DC.

Friday Kitsch Cover

The PS 22 Chorus covers Journey's "Don't Stop Believing":

Leave your nominations for next week's Kitsch Cover in the comments.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Collin Peterson: A Democrat Worth Losing?

Conditions where I'd like to see a Republican defeat a Democrat in the US House are pretty rare. But looking at Matt's post on Minnesota's Collin Peterson, the chairman of the House Agricultural Committee who is blocking climate change legislation, I'm thinking that he's the sort of Democrat whom I'd like to see beaten by a Republican in the next election. Sure, the Republican would probably be insane, but the Agricultural Committee chair would then pass over to someone who doesn't think, in direct contradiction to the NOAA's estimates, that climate change is a good thing that will help farmers achieve greater crop yields.

The next chair might be Ag Committee Vice Chair Tim Holden of Pennsylvania, who isn't anybody's lefty dream, but who at least supports the Kyoto protocols (which Peterson opposes.) There's also the off chance that some kind of Waxmania goes off and we get a surprise lefty chairman, but I have no idea whether that's possible. Especially on a relatively conservative committee like Agriculture, it would probably be harder to get.

Peterson is a pretty terrible Democrat down the line. He has a 0% NARAL rating, was one of the seven who voted against Obama's stimulus plan, and was one of the founding Blue Dogs. Guys like this are far enough to the right that they only vote with us when we don't need them. If the House were in jeopardy, we'd need him for a variety of purposes, but that's not our current situation.

Unfortunately, Peterson has won re-election in his last several contests by pretty huge margins, even in the conservative 7th district. If there's an available primary challenger from the area, I'd love to have someone to give money to.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Deep Thought

Does Pedro Espada think his political career will last beyond 2010? If so, what is he smoking, and where can I get some?

[sorry for the lack of posting. But seriously, do we look like people who have a lot to say about Iran? No. Now go read Juan Cole or American Footprints or Attackerman]

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Who Lobbies The Lobbyists?

I was intrigued by this petition from the health care public option supporters at Americans United for Change. The target of the petition isn't an elected official -- it's the American Medical Association. I sent it in, and it's the first time I've ever sent an email lobbying one lobbying group at the behest of another.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Texas 2010 Senate Action

Kay Bailey Hutchison is vacating her Senate seat and running for Governor in Texas. This is good news, as she would've been really tough to beat. She'll be presenting a primary challenge to Gov. Rick Perry.

The top Democrats running for Senate include Bill White, the Mayor of Houston, who intrigues me because of his amazing support in the city. He's won reelection with over 80% of the vote in the past two elections, and faced only token opposition. It looks like no major Republicans even stepped up to challenge him -- last time he was against a socialist and a guy who changed his name to 'Outlaw Josey Wales." I don't know how he's perceived in the GOP-leaning exurbs, though, and it appears that the city itself has 2.2 million people while the metro area has 5.7 million. So it's possible that we shouldn't read too much into his big numbers. This may be a case where Beaudrot's law kicks in -- don't run the big city mayor for statewide office unless he has a good relationship with suburban/rural voters.

The other person who's raising big money is former Texas comptroller (1991-1998) John Sharp. He has the virtue of having been elected statewide, but has also lost statewide when running for lieutenant governor in 1998 and 2002.

Both guys have relatively low name recognition but decent favorability numbers. They actually win against some lower-tier Republican candidates, but lose against more likely opponents like David Dewhurst, who beat Sharp in 2002. According to this, Dewhurst seems to want to join the Republican Governor traffic jam in 2010. That's from earlier, so maybe he didn't know what Hutchison was doing at the time. (Why don't Republicans want to be in the Senate? Even if you're in the minority, it can't be that bad a job. Do they think the Bush path to the presidency will work again?)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

In Defense Of Fun

I was looking over Amanda's posts on the way Date Night sometimes gets viewed as part of the work that married people do to maintain their marriages, rather than a fun thing to do with somebody you like. She cites Laura Kipnis, who "talks about the Protestant work ethic and the American fear that there’s something immoral about having too much fun."

This is a big problem. A society where fun was regarded as a genuine social good worth promoting would be, well, a lot more fun. The issue of recreational drug use is a biggie here. And it's not just in terms of fun and relatively harmless currently prohibited drugs like marijuana. (If marijuana is legalized, I want to have potlucks where all the guests get high first and then eat each other's food, which will taste extra super great in the way food does when you're high. At the last party I went to in Austin, I was watching the ceiling fan spin as I ate my friend Jenn's raspberry lemon cake, and it was like my mouth was full of sunshine.)

To my knowledge, pharmaceutical companies aren't currently researching any new, purely recreational drugs. Of course, there's all those drugs that help dudes get erections, but they get away with those because they can be justified on the basis of fixing a medical problem, not on grounds of fun sex. This is a big loss. I'm sure that the American pharmaceutical industry could come up with a bunch of fun-causing psychoactive drugs that would have minimal side effects. There's definitely a market for them, and if the FDA screened them properly, we could get all kinds of good and harmless stuff. But the fact that people would enjoy these drugs isn't taken as any sort of point in their favor, and I'm sure Big Pharma avoids working on them because of the certainty that the sweet fruits of their labors would immediately be banned.

There's a pretty good misery-preventing justification for this sort of research too -- if Big Pharma was allowed to sell well-tested, safe, non-addictive euphoriants, they'd cut into the market share of more harmful illegal drugs. But the biggest reason to allow these drugs is disabled when you don't let people give fun-based arguments for things.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Naming Fail

It would be hard to forget, so I guess that's something in favor. But I giving your accounting firm a name that lots of people has to be uncomfortable with saying is a decisive point against.
Nigro, Nigro & White is a regional Southern California CPA firm with office locations in Murrieta and San Diego. NNW is committed to providing the highest quality financial statement audit, tax, accounting and management consulting support to private and public agencies. Our commitment to provide individualized service means that you can expect a responsive, cost-conscious approach with an understanding of your business needs and expectations.
Via Tigerhawk.

Friday Kitsch Cover

Cake covers Black Sabbath's "War Pigs".

Cake seems to have done a "make a video for us and put it on Youtube" contest, as there many videos for this song. Leave your nominations for next week's kitsch cover in the comments.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Halimah Abdullah: Awesome Journalist

I'm enjoying this Halimah Abdullah piece from McClatchy, which lays out the substantial amounts of money that Big Tobacco spent on buying the 17 Senators who voted against letting the FDA regulate their product. There's this strong air of "Okay, look, I'll tell it how it is. Here are the bad people who are letting bad people buy bad public policy." Except that the buying didn't succeed, since the bill passed 79-17.

Guantanamo Bedwetting: Not Just for Americans!

Via Politico, It looks like the British Government is displeased with Bermuda's decision to take some of the Guantanamo Uighurs. To reiterate, the U.S. Government has cleared the Uighurs of any wrong doing, but we have no interest in handing them over to China because we believe (correctly!) that they will be mistreated by the Chinese government.

From across the Atlantic it's hard for me to see precisely why the UK Foreign Office is upset. Once possibility is that they want to avoid a diplomatic row with China. Another is that the Labour Government is incredibly risk averse and just wants to avoid anything that might give David Cameron something to complain about. No matter the cause, it's certainly disheartening; you would think that, after dealing with the IRA and running an Empire, Britain can handle four Chinese Muslims living on an Island thousands of miles away.

Primaries Are Expensive ... But They Raise Name Recognition!

Rasmussen's snap poll shows Creigh Deeds ahead of Bob McDonnell. Now, Deeds had a contested primary, while McDonnell didn't, so that's certainly a factor. But people need to realize that while a contested primary forces candidates to spend money, the early election does generate name recognition and news interest. In fact, the amount of free media coverage in the primary is probably higher than the amount of paid media you would otherwise be able to buy with the extra campaign funds. There may not be enough elections to make a rigorous empirical claim, but it certainly seems that winners of contested primaries do well in November.

The Eastern Blogosphere

After a few days in Singapore, I got used to the idea that the American blogging day began well after sunset. Now I'm in London, and it's kind of disconcerting that I'm a few hours ahead of the American blogging day.

The significance of this, of course, is that reading blogs is way too big a part of my life.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Making CNBC Suck Less

Check out Barry Ritholtz's prescription. I mostly agree but I'm skeptical it can work. As long as there are more people who think they can beat the system picking stocks based on watching CNBC it's going to gear its programming towards twitchy speculators. Yes, there will be a niche market for contemplative content, but it will almost certainly be dwarfed in size by daytraders for the forseable future.

Friends of mine who work in the financial sector say CNBC is on all the time in the office, but (a) the sound is almost always off, and (b) the main reason it's on is because the ticker is actually useful. So perhaps Bloomberg TV should get a better ticker and at least eat into that portion these jokers' market share.

2009 Virginia Democratic Primary Results Map (not mine)!

Somehow Green and Purple seem to have become the de facto color choices for maps of primary election. Excellent! Via The Electoral Map, here are the results from the T-Mac/Deeds/Moran contest last night:
I have to say I'm pleased to see Deeds when, since T-Mac's shtick has definitely worn thin and Brian Moran decided to give in to the stupidity on Guantanamo prisoners. Considering the Republican candidate has already begun playing up his ability to work with Tim Kaine, it appears the Virginia Republican party has at least started to get the message that they need to stop nominating wackjobs for statewide office.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect

To follow up on the discussion at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, there is exactly zero sense in projecting Stephen Strasburg's performance beyond the next three to four years. The history of baseball is filled with top pitching prospects whose careers end early (Mark Prior), never materialize (Todd Van Poppel) or who take years to develop (Adam Wainwright, Josh Beckett, etc). So there's no reason to put "future Hall of Famer" next to Strasburg's name; the odds of pitchers getting hurt is just too overwhelming.

That said, the case can be made that polished college pitchers can make it to the major leagues with less than a year in the minors and immediately become incredibly valuable pitchers. Mark Prior gave the Cubs three seasons of ace pitching within five years of leaving USC. So far this year, Tim Lincecum is pitching better than he was when winning the Cy Young. Considering the going rate for a staff ace is about $16M/year, signing Strasburg to a $20m contract almost makes sense. He may not last long enough to win 300 games, but he is likely to be highly effective big leagues for the next half-decade.

(Photo by Flickr user samballew)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Toyotaization of Health Care

It's hard to understate the degree to which business managers in almost every field all worship at the altar of Toyota. Their supply chain and assembly processes are viewed as vastly superior not just to other automakers, but to almost all other manufacturers. The Andon cord is the stuff of legends. Kaizen has been taking American upper management by storm. And the story of the company's attempt to break the Ford/Chevy/Dodge lock on the large truck market just further cement's their reputation. So it's no surprise to see an article on Virginia Mason's attempt to bring Toyota's practices to their hospital. The punchline is that lots of hospital processes receive very little management attention, and therefore there's a large amount of low-hanging fruit when it comes to cost and quality imrpovements. This stuff isn't rocket science.

It should be noted that VM is in the Seattle area, which, according to Atul Gawande's piece on health care costs, has relatively low costs, so the culture of local medical professionals is already focused on cost control more than most of the country.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The National Review's Sotomayor Incongruity Joke

A lot of people -- Cara at Feministe, Jesse Taylor at Pandagon, Ann Friedman at Feministing, Matthew Yglesias at, um, Matthew Yglesias, and I guess Brad DeLong at Brad DeLong, -- have interesting comments on the racial aspects of the National Review's Sotomayor cover. What struck many of them, in different ways, was the portrayal of Sotomayor as Asian, just another one of those funny-colored people who all look the same.

Something like that is certainly in there, but the way I see the joke actually depends on incongruities between the stereotypes of the nonwhite ethnicities involved. The Buddha-like pose and Asian features are tied to lofty pretensions of sagelike wisdom. And what sort of person is it who's pretending to be some kind of sage? A Hispanic woman! As if.

The in-joke in this cover is for people who have already internalized a stereotype of Hispanic women as hotheaded and not that bright. Put one of them in the Buddha suit, and if you've absorbed the right racist stereotypes, the incongruity is hilarious.

The Public Option Overton Window

On one side, Ted Kennedy's HELP committee puts out a health care bill with an extremely robust public option. On the other side, the insurance and drug companies are trying to find a public-option-in-name only that will leave incumbent firms with all the bargaining power. In the middle we've got ideas Chuck Schumer's public-but-self-sustaining plan, and Olympia Snowe's "trigger" proposal. As Robert Reich points out, any sort of "trigger" mechanism will be met with endless delays as the insurance industry extracts additional concessions or begs for more time to meet coverage goals—just look at the digital TV transition to see how this will play out. Thus, unless Ben Nelson, Arlen Specter, and their fellow travelers suddely warm to the Kennedy approach, the goal of the next few months should be to make sure the final bill looks more like Schumer's proposal and less like Snowe's.

It's also somewhat ironic that Olympia Snowe (R-ME) is concerned about the prospects of a public health care plan introducing unhealthy competition. Currently Maine has exactly one major private health insurance provider: the state's Blue Cross/Blue Shield affiliate. It's also a state with relatively high health care costs. Under those circumstances, you would expect politicians from such a state to be eager to introduce alternative health insurers into their market.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Deep Thought

Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman have managed to keep relatively quiet for the last few months.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Obama Health Care Plan

Barack Obama is starting to unveil his health care plan. It's essentially the plan that those of us on Team Edwards were arguing for back in 2007, with individual mandates and a public option. I'm really happy about how this has gone.

Of course, the final battle still looms before us.

The Fleecing of Pittsburgh

The Pirates just traded Nate McLouth to the Atlanta Braves for some somewhat shiny minor leaguers. This is an insanely good deal if you're a Braves fan. McLouth is signed at $5.25m/year through 2011 with a $10M+ club option for 2012. That's well below market for an above-average outfielder. Charlie Morton was the fourth best pitching prospect in the Braves organization, behind Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, and the ever-frustrating Jo-Jo Reyes. Considering Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami are signed to long-term deals, Morton never had shot at a place in the rotation. Outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, the centerpiece of the trade, has shown very little power in AA and likely won't play a full season in the majors until 2011, if then. Jeff Locke showed some promise in the low-minors, but his walk rate has skyrockted so far this year. Adam Jones and Chris Tillman for Eric Bedard this ain't. Well done.

In the ATL, this news is being overshadowed by the Braves decision to release Tom Glavine, whose velocity had dropped into Jamie Moyer territory. That can work for Jamie Moyer, but Glavine actually needed his fastball to stay in the high 80s in order to miss enough bats to be effective. With John Smoltz in Boston for at least 2 years, we've likely seen the last of the worst-to-first team wearing the Braves' uniform, though Chipper Jones remains from the World Series winning team of 1995.

Sex With Ducks Leads To Issues With Extended Family

I had posted the Sex With Ducks music video below on my gchat status, which caused my mother to inquire about it on the phone with me. She grew up on a tiny village in rural India, and her sister still lives back in the old country. She's worried that she wouldn't really be able to explain it to my aunt, who has a gmail account and often asks about my status messages.


Happy Terrorist Fist-Jab day!

Man, what a year it's been.

We're All Coal States

Via Dave Roberts, Coal Industry whitewashing group America's Power shows just how dependent America is on coal to provide electricity. Indeed, coal is the plurality source of energy in 30 states, and accounts for at least 20% of electricity in all but 12. They're trying to convince you that coal power is the reason that some states have lower electricity prices, but it's worth pointing out that (a) a number of other factors come into play, and (b) the end result of any climate change legislation will be to raise the price of polluting energy sources like coal.

Below is a nice map showing that coal is the dominant source of energy primarily in the Midwest and Interior Plains. Western states use more hydroelectricity and natural gas; the Northeast and South have more nuclear plants.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Tuesday For Friday Obama Caption Contest

"What? Bush did this once, so now everybody has to? Ohhh, grrrreat."

Monday, June 1, 2009

ARML 2009

Wow. Congratulations to Lehigh Valley A, who continue their dominance of the ARML leaderboards. Lehigh has now fielded extremely high performing teams for four of the past five years, with the down year being an eleventh place finish in 2008. This is a long enough run of sustained dominance in contest problem math that we have to consider crediting the coach or the region's school system for either getting more out of their most talented students or bringing more students into the pool of students interested in math. It was a down year for Georgia, who finished twentieth.

Lehigh finished third in the individual round (behind the Bay Area and MCHS in Bethesda), but dominated the Team Round, Power Question, and Relays to take home the title.


Conor Clarke butchers real vs imaginary and rational vs irrational, and a number in scientific notation is a real number that's just in a different notation, but still this graph is pretty funny:


Let's also be very clear that when the NAF lists "picketing", we're not talking about a bunch of union workers marching in circles. The "picketers" are their to intimidate patients and doctors, plain and simple.

Saletan vs Obama on common ground

Amanda Marcotte has a nice piece on George Tiller irreconcilable assassin. Read the whole thing, but here's the most important bit:
But I want to talk about how this assassination needs to be a wake-up call to the William Saletans of the world, and also to Barack Obama---"common ground” is a pipe dream. A great deal of people want to believe that we can somehow come together to agree that abortion is unfortunate and the rate needs to be reduced (even though we can’t talk about how anti-choicers will fight you on any attempts to use contraception and education to actually accomplish this goal), and they hope this will at least temper the abortion debate.
It might be easier to think about this situation if you mirror it to the left and eco-terrorism. In regions of the country where there's a strong pro-environment culture, you see some modest sympathy at least for the goals of eco-terrorism, though not for the methods. But there is a large and vibrant environmental movement that has real political clout and which has nothing to do with these nutjobs. At best, someone like Dennis Kucinich might show up at a rally.

The pro-life movement doesn't have quite such a neat distinction. Former Kansas Attorney General, panty-sniffer, and George Tiller-harrasser Phil Kline has been in the news lately condemning Tiller's assassination, but here's Kline's letter to Operation Save America, the successor organization to the professional intimidators at Operation Rescue, of which the assassin was a member. In 1991 Operation Rescue hosted a rally that featured a little known activist named James Dobson. You've also got some Catholic Bishops getting into the mix (not all!).The distance between anti-choice intimidators/terrorists and major figures in Republican politics is much closer than anything you'll find on the left.

Some of the common grounders coughWillSaletancough seem to want actual policy concessions, but a quick look at the 2008 Democratic Platform shows that the Administration isn't giving much ground (note that family planning funding that was strippedfrom the stimulus has been restored in the budget). What this second breed of common grounders is looking for is to excise the extremists from the political movement. It's not about finding common ground with Randall Terry—that's never going to happen. It's about making sure no one at the bargaining table thinks that they're there to represent Randall Terry. As Melissa McEwan is fond of saying, shit like this doesn't happen in a vacuum. The Obama brand of common grounders are trying to shift the terms of debate so the culture surrounding abortion opposition changes. If you have a pro-life movement and a Republican party that's less sympathetic to domestic terrorism, you'll have ... less domestic terrorism. It will never drop to zero; again, despite a less radical environmental movement and little support from politicians, people are still torching SUVs or exurban cul-de-sacs. But most GMC Yukon dealers are more worried about being axed during the upcoming bankruptcy than someone burning their inventory. Meanwhile, according to NAF statistics, daily picketing is a fact of life for abortion providers, and there's roughly one incident of serious violence for every eight providers. There aren't many jobs outside of law enforcement that face that level of daily threats. Creating a political culture where this sort of behavior has little or no support from either party is crucial to making it happen less often.

But we don't just have to wait for talk. Contact your local NARAL chapter and see if they are lobbying the state legislature for a "bubble bill" to at least keep the picketers at bay. At the national level there may be some ill-advised push back against "politicizing the tragedy", but local politicians usually aren't quite so worried, and some can be moved by just a handful of phone calls.