Friday, January 29, 2016

Remember that pivot thing?

Before we get started, a quick caveat. As mentioned before (probably at greater length than necessary), much if not most of the mainstream press have fallen into the trap of using style with substance when it comes to Donald Trump. Trump may come off more like a heel in a professional wrestling match that as an elder statesman, but in terms of stances on every issue with the possible exception of immigration, he is completely in line with the rest of the GOP field.

On the other hand, it would be just as dangerous to assume Trump is a closet liberal or even centrist. Though the cartoonish persona makes it difficult to speculate as to what is going on in the man's head, there is absolutely no reason to give any more weight to his comments about big tax increases on millionaires than to his promises of huge tax cuts for millionaires.

Only thing we can say with confidence is Trump is incredibly erratic, has shown no consistent devotion to anything or anyone other than his own self-interest, and is even willing to sacrifice that in the pursuit of attention. At least you could count on Nixon to be predictably evil.

So, just to be clear, I have no idea where a Trump presidency would end up on the ideological spectrum. All I'm saying is that if Trump gets the nomination, he will be the first GOP candidate in a long time with the freedom to run far to the right  then fast to the center.

With that in mind, check out this recent quote from Charles Pierce:
But something else has been going on in the last couple of weeks, too. A startling amount of coherence has started to become evident in the Trump campaign. Up until now, the only real underlying philosophy to the enterprise has been I am Donald Trump and you're not, and neither are those losers, either. But, whether or not he's picked this up in his travels, or whether or not this was going to be the pitch all along, He, Trump now has the stirrings of the beginnings of a message in his madness. You could see it in the glee with which he slapped Fox News around on Tuesday. He now is running quite clearly on the idea that Republican voters have been played for rubes and suckers by the major institutions of their party and by the conservative movement. He is so confident in this role that he can even come out quite clearly in favor of an idea he shares with practically every Democratic politician alive.
Pierce was referring to this:

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has embraced a policy that liberals love: allowing Medicare to negotiate for drugs. He told a New Hampshire crowd that doing so could save "$300 billion per year."

"We don’t do it," Trump said. "Why? Because of the drug companies."

Democrats have tried to give Medicare this power since at least 2003, when Medicare Part D, which gives beneficiaries prescription drug benefits, passed. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and President Barack Obama all agree with Trump that Medicare ought to have the authority to push back against drug companies that ask for really high prices.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

I think we need to think more carefully about how to make situations like this one less unfair

This is Joseph.

I always find stories like this one amazing.  From the Trustee report:
Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. ... filed the KEIP Motion requesting, inter alia, authority to pay 15 of its most highly compensated executives bonuses totaling over $11.9 Million in 2016. Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time incurring more than $1.3 Billion in losses for 2015. Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time seeking to cut off the health and life insurance benefits to some 1,200 rank-and-file retirees because it claims it desperately needs to save $3 Million a year. Alpha seeks this relief after demonstrating to this Court that it is so hopelessly insolvent that its shareholders have no chance of seeing any return on their investments into the companies.
Can you guess the ending:
Sadly, the Trustee's biting prose was for naught. In a closed courtroom, a bankruptcy judge approved the bonus plan.
I am not against being compassionate to executives.  Like it or lump it, it is very hard to shut down a company and it is very unpleasant work.  What I find more painful is that the same compassion doesn't seem to be present towards workers, who are also making a painful adjustment.

I can't but think that there should be some approach to make the pain either lesser or more equally distributed.

[p.s. from Mark:

I wanted to add a couple of quick points to Joseph's post. First, this observation from Scott Lemieux:

This is an extreme case, but it pretty much defines how the wealthy define incentives differently for themselves and for ordinary workers. For the latter, a middle-class salary will make them lazy and in any case is an unnecessary expense. For those at the top, a multi-million dollar salary isn’t enough incentive to do your job. Note, too, how contradictory ideas about responsibility seamlessly replace each other depending on what’s necessary to justify the looting of the workers and shareholders. When the company goes into bankruptcy less than a five years after you take it over, doesn’t that suggest that you’re massively incompetent and don’t even justify a six-figure salary, let alone a seven-figure one supplemented by performance bonuses(!)? Why no, because the market for coal collapsed, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, not our fault. But when it comes time to get de facto retention bonuses, these same people become absolutely indispensable supermen with irreplaceable skills. Obviously, Alpha’s executives can’t simultaneously by caretakers who preside over a company whose profits are determined almost entirely by factors beyond their control and people with unique skills the company absolutely cannot afford to lose and must be retained at any price, but whatever it takes.
Second, we're talking about the latest incarnation of these guys.]

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Only Trump can go to Nixonland?

To win the Republican nomination, Nixon told Dole, "you have to run as far as you can to the right because that's where 40% of the people who decide the nomination are. And to get elected you have to run as fast as you can back to the middle, because only about 4% of the nation's voters are on the extreme right wing."
Letters From Nixon Shape Dole's Campaign Strategy
LA Times, May 07, 1995

One of the things that struck me about the past two presidential elections was how completely the Nixon pivot had been taken off of the table. Both McCain and Romney dutifully followed the first step during the primaries, but whenever they tried to move back toward the center during the general election, the reaction from the base quickly sent them scurrying back to the right.

Conventional wisdom saw this in terms of ideological extremism but my take-away was quite different.  The GOP base has grown more conservative in the 21st century, but even taking that into account, their willingness to give their nominees any slack is much less than it was at any point in the second half of the 20th Century.

My argument is that this has relatively little to do with ideology and much to do with trust. Many in the base feel (with some justification) that the social contract with the party has been violated. They are no longer willing automatically to extend credit to their party's nominees.

With Trump, however, the Nixon pivot suddenly becomes not only viable but remarkably easy. He has a great personal bond with his supporters, his appeal is not particularly ideological, and he has been able to hold heterodox positions without paying a political penalty.

A pivot to the center would not even require covering any new territory. Trump's "platform" has been so erratic and unpredictable that all he would have to do would be to embrace some of the positions he held then implicitly or explicitly abandoned over the past 12 months. It would seem unlikely that significant portion of his core supporters would abandon him if he changed his mind once again and decided he was for high taxes on rich people.

Josh Marshall (one of the few journalists who has done a good job keeping up with the story) has recently started discussing a related scenario:
For committed conservatives, there is a real and I believe justified fear that Trump could come into office, be hardcore for a year or two and then pull what Arnold Schwarzenegger did in his latter years as governor of California. In other words, shape-shift into a sort of moderate, Bloombergesque sort of Republican. Republicans can tolerate than in New York where nothing better is on offer and perhaps in California too. But not in the White House.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) is also suggesting that Trump might do something of a Nixon pivot and that it might work out well for the party.
"Ted Cruz is a rigid ideologue," Dent told the New York Times in an interview published on Tuesday. "Donald Trump is ideologically scattered and malleable. In my view, a more rigid ideology would have a much harder time assembling a winning general election coalition than the less doctrinaire candidate."

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

VFX paradox

In case you're coming in late, we have an ongoing thread about how, despite conventional wisdom about cost spirals, the part of film-making where technology has most increased productivity (visual special effects) is the same part that has been driving up budgets and delaying release dates.

One more example:

EXCLUSIVE: Focus Features is moving its action disaster pic London Has Fallen from the post MLK frame of January 22, 2016 to March 4, 2016. The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, went out in March 2013 becoming a surprise spring hit for its distributor Film District with a $30.4M opening weekend and a domestic cume of $98.9M.  London‘s release date change stems from a couple of factors, in particular, the film is coming off strong research screenings, making a spring break launch prime for the sequel.  In addition, more time is needed to complete the film’s VFX.

Monday, January 25, 2016

More thoughts on the Goffman story

Andrew Gelman set off an excellent discussion of the lingering questions about Alice Goffman's On the Run triggered by these two posts by Paul Campos. It's an interesting debate but not really in my area of focus. I do, however, want to weigh in on the way the New York Times Magazine chose to cover the controversy in this profile by Gideon Lewis-Kraus.

The first thing that struck me on reading this piece was how numbing will he formulaic this type of journalism has become. The stick-to-the-template structure, the pretentious tone, the straight-out-of-central-casting character sketch, the standard narrative arc of the bright young person with vision rising rapidly to great heights then brought down by attacks only to climb back up.
But with time, my reaction has shifted somewhat with more focus on the ethics of the piece than the aesthetics.

These full-access profiles are always problematic. Everything about the arrangement tends to bias the journalist in favor of his or her subject. Of course, many journalists are able to maintain their objectivity and make the arrangement pay off in increased information and improved insight, but even with a masterpiece of the genre like Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, these concerns cannot be entirely dismissed.

Based on an interview I heard Tom Wolfe give, both he and Ken Kesey have said that there were parts where Wolfe softened his account so as not to make the Merry Pranksters look bad and that the work suffered as a consequence (“Wolfe got most of it right, except he tried to be nice.”).

Lewis-Kraus is no Wolfe and he arguably crosses the line to apologist a number of times. Here's the passage that bothers me in particular. [emphasis added]:

Goffman has declined to make public the long, point-by-point rebuttal of her anonymous attacker, but after we got to know each other well, she shared it with me. It is blunt and forceful and, in comparison with the placidity of her public deportment, almost impatient and aggrieved in tone, and it is difficult to put the document down without wondering why she has remained unwilling to publicize some of its explanations. She acknowledges a variety of errors and inconsistencies, mostly the results of a belabored anonymization process, but otherwise persuasively explains many of the lingering issues. There is, for example, a convincing defense of her presence in the supposedly closed juvenile court and a quite reasonable clarification of the mild confusion over what she witnessed firsthand and what she reconstructed from interviews — along with explanations for even the most peculiar and deranged claims of her anonymous attacker, including why Mike does his laundry at home in one scene and at a laundromat in another.

Many claims against her are also easy to rebut independently. Some critics called far-­fetched, for example, her claim that an F.B.I. agent in Philadelphia drew up a new computer surveillance system after watching a TV broadcast about the East German Stasi. If you search the Internet for ‘‘Philadelphia cop Stasi documentary,’’ a substantiating item [] from The Philadelphia Inquirer from 2007 is the second hit. When it comes to Goffman’s assertion that officers run IDs in maternity wards to arrest wanted fathers, another short Internet search produces corroborating examples in Dallas, New Orleans and Brockton, Mass., and a Philadelphia public defender and a deputy mayor told me that the practice does not at all seem beyond plausibility. The most interesting question might not be whether Goffman was telling the truth but why she has continued to let people believe that she might not be.

This is questionable in any number of ways. Goffman is allowed to present her rebuttal in a manner that completely shields her from any kind of scrutiny or fact-checking. All of the information we'd need to evaluate her claims is withheld. Instead, a highly sympathetic journalist who is in her debt (let's be blunt.  Goffman did Lewis-Kraus a huge professional favor by allowing him this level of access) assures us repeatedly that we should take her at her word.

The lack, or perhaps more accurately the level of detail here is bizarre. In Goffman's apparently long and detailed document, there is no argument or piece of evidence that can be shared with the general readers. We aren't even given metadata. We have no idea whether these claims are supported by data, documents, arguments, or something else. We aren't even told the extent to which these were or weren't checked by the reporter.

The document is not, however, so sensitive that it cannot be shared with a journalist or that the journalist can't list specific charges that are rebutted.

I don't want to weigh in on the veracity of Goffman's book or on any of the related discussions. More than enough smart people are seriously engaging in this debate. If anything, I'm concerned that the controversy over relatively details is distracting from genuinely important points about racism, class bigotry and mass incarceration. But journalistic standards and culture are also important. You can make the case that bad, grossly unethical reporting decided the 2000 election and it is difficult to discuss the run-up to the Iraq War without mentioning the name Judith Miller. More recent (and relevant for the topic of this post) are the NYT fiascoes with the Clinton emails and the San Bernadino shooters. In both those cases, the paper allowed sources to feed inaccurate information to the public while agreeing to withhold information that might have helped readers evaluate the claims.

Obviously, there are valid reasons for a journalist to agree to withhold parts of information provided by a source. but Lewis-Kraus explicitly tells us that he knows of no reason not to share Goffman's rebuttal or give us any information that might help us evaluate it.

The decision to give Goffman's side of the argument without actually stating her arguments puts Lewis on shaky ground to begin with, but he then proceeds to present her case in the most favorable possible light while only briefly mentioning her more reputable critics from publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New Republic (neither Paul Campos or Steven Lubet is mentioned by name).

I can understand the temptation to let valuable sources have too much say in the editorial process, but I'm surprised that a paper as proud of its standards as the New York Times would be so consistently quick to give in. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Success made easy

I haven't had time recently to follow the no-excuses charter school story as closely as I should. When I do get back to it, one of the points I want to delve into is how education researchers, even the good ones, often fail to take into account certain obvious realities of effective instruction and classroom management.
First among these is the fact that certain kids or combination of kids have a dramatically disproportionate impact in terms of disruption and instructional time/resources. These more demanding kids can be difficult to identify in advance (for instance, being behind and frustrated and being advanced and bored will often lead to similar kinds of acting out), but a few weeks in, both faculty and administration will have no trouble putting together a list.

Conscientious administrators agonize over the decision of getting rid of their more challenging students, trying to balance the good of the few and the good of the many (at the Jesuit school I taught at in Watts, it was treated as the absolute last resort), For the unscrupulous, however, there is no simpler or more reliable method for rapidly improving a school.

Which brings us to this New York Times report:
Success Academy, the high-performing* charter school network in New York City, has long been dogged by accusations that its remarkable accomplishments are due, in part, to a practice of weeding out weak or difficult students. The network has always denied it. But documents obtained by The New York Times and interviews with 10 current and former Success employees at five schools suggest that some administrators in the network have singled out children they would like to see leave.

At Success Academy Fort Greene, the same day that Ms. Ogundiran heard from the principal, her daughter’s name was one of 16 placed on a list drawn up at his direction and shared by school leaders.

The heading on the list was “Got to Go.”

Math teacher and education blogger Gary Rubinstein fills in some more of the context:
 This school was in its second year when it was in need of being turned around.  And the total number of students in the school was about 200, with about 70 kindergarteners, 80 first graders, and 50 second graders.  All of these students have been at the school for their entire schooling and all had Success Academy teachers.  I have trouble believing that this school needed a radical turnaround plan and if it really did, what does that say about the reform mantra that ‘great teachers’ overcome all if the great teachers at Success Academy were not able to maintain control of 200 5, 6, and 7 year olds?

So far we've been talking about kids whom we would traditionally (if perhaps unfairly) classify as discipline problems, but they aren't the only students who put a disproportionate drain on a school's resources. Giving children with disabilities the education they deserve and are legally entitled to is also time and labor intensive.

Which brings us to this report from Juan Gonzalez
The city’s largest charter school chain has been violating the civil rights of students with disabilities for years, a group of parents say in a formal complaint lodged Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Education.

The parents of 13 special needs students claim the Success Charter Network, which is run by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, “has engaged in ongoing systemic policies that violate” federal laws protecting the disabled. It cites eight Success schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx where the parents’ children were enrolled.

The allegations include:

    refusing to provide special education pupils appropriate services required by law, while often retaining the students to repeat a grade;
    multiple suspensions of students without keeping formal records of all those actions, without the due process required by federal law, and without providing alternative instruction;
    harassing parents to transfer their children back into regular public schools; and even calling 911 to have children as young as 5 transported to emergency rooms when parents don’t pick them up immediately as requested.

“Charter schools like Success Academy should follow the same rules as traditional public schools and protect — not punish — children with disabilities,” Public Advocate Letitia James said.

James joined the complaint, as did City Councilman Daniel Dromm, chair of the council’s Education Committee, and five private non-profit legal advocacy groups. All are calling for federal action.

*Not actually high performing on tests that matter, but that's a topic for another post.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sometimes the side effects matter

Via Thomas Lumley:
As the OneNews story says, there has been a theory for a long time that if you wipe out someone’s immune system and start over again, the new version wouldn’t attack the nervous system and the disease would be cured. The problem was two-fold. First, wiping out someone’s immune system is an extraordinarily drastic treatment — you give a lethal dose of chemotherapy, and then rescue the patient with a transplanted immune system. Second, it didn’t work reliably.
The theory behind this treatment (for MS) is that if you did it earlier then maybe it would become more reliable.  But one can see why this might not be the first thing that somebody tries.  Lethal dose of chemotherapy would be an eye opener for me at the informed consent stage, I tell you, as it rather suggests the potential for things to go . . . wrong.

This might work, and it would be wonderful if it did, but an aspirin a day it is not! 

In case you missed it... will still be streaming Sherlock: The Abominable Bride for a couple more days.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

I'm posting this anecdote mainly as a reminder to start using the word "kalopsia" more often...

... but his story from Mark Evanier also connects to some present and future threads about television and what drives innovative people like Steve Allen. 
One day during a taping, one of the guests used a large, polysyllabic word — something like "kalopsia."

Allen stopped the conversation, turned to the studio audience and asked, "How many people here know what that word means?" Not a lot of hands went up and Steve responded, "Whenever I hear a word and am unaware of its meaning, I always make a point to go look it up." And with that, he reached over to the shelves, hefted a large, frighteningly-unabridged dictionary and began leafing through it.

During all this, the producer was in the control room, squirming in agony. This was, to him, dull, dull, dull. Finally, Steve read aloud the definition of kalopsia: "A condition where one is deceived into thinking things are of higher quality than they actually are."

Thirty seconds on a TV show can seem like The March of Time if nothing's happening, and this producer couldn't abide ten without a laugh or a song or someone getting hit with a pie. Alas for him, Allen was on an etymological binge. They taped several shows that day and, each time someone uttered an unfamiliar word, out came the dictionary for another 20-30 seconds of page-turning. The producer actually ran back to the green room, where guests wait to go on, and begged everyone not to use big words on the show.

After the taping, he took his concern to Steve, who replied politely that he had no intention of ceasing or desisting. "With all the hours of television devoted to mindlessness," Mr. Allen reportedly said, "We can surely take thirty seconds every now and then to teach people a new word." And since Steve Allen felt that way and this was The Steve Allen Show, that was that.

But not quite. The producer went to the prop man and gave him an order: "Find a book just like Steve's, hollow it out, and put a little blasting cap inside — one that goes bang like an exploding cigar. I want it rigged so that when Steve opens it, it'll go off. Then he'll think twice about going for the dictionary." The prop man complied. Before the next tape day, Allen's lexicon was replaced with the booby-trapped one.

All during the afternoon's taping, the producer was praying for someone to use a big word so he could spring his surprise. No one did. At one point, seething with frustration, he called the Talent Coordinator and tried to see if they could arrange a last-minute booking of William F. Buckley.

But it wasn't necessary. Just at that moment, a guest used the word "pejorative" and Steve stopped and polled the house: "How many people here know what that word means?" Few did, so Steve reached for the dictionary.

As the producer giggled in anticipation, Steve Allen opened the book —

— and it exploded. Really exploded.

The prop guy had miscalculated. Instead of a small bang, it was more of a loud kaboom. A bolt of flame erupted and the blast drove Steve backwards. He crashed back into the bookcases and they went toppling. Since they were anchored to the set, it came tumbling down with them, bringing with it all manner of lights and stanchions and uprights — all of it burying the host.

The producer was in shock. He rushed from the control room to the set, saw cataclysm everywhere and gasped aloud, "My God! I've killed Steve Allen!"

He ran up to the disaster, hurling stagehands and grips aside, and began to claw through the debris. With the strength of ten, he threw pieces of scenery and bookshelving aside until finally, at the bottom of it all, he'd uncovered the upper half of the first host of The Tonight Show. "Steve," he begged. "Steve, speak to me!" In tears and desperation, he cried out, "Say something! Tell me you're going to be all right!"

There was a long pause but finally, Steve Allen opened his eyes. "Did you do this?" he asked in a soft, hurt voice.

"Yes," the producer moaned. "Yes, it was my idea! I told them to do it!"

Steve smiled, raised his hand in an "OK" gesture and said, "Funny bit."

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Today in education reform

This is Joseph

It seems like I completely misunderstood the Friedrichs case.  I had assumed that it was about removing unions from the public sector.  But, according to Jersy Jazzman, I missed the main point completely:
Understand, they aren't seeking to overturn state laws that require unions to negotiate on behalf of all public employees within a specific jurisdiction and job type. If that was the case, the Friedrichs Freeloaders could just go out and try to negotiate their own contracts, completely forgoing not only legal protections and services from the unions, but any benefits those unions receive from negotiations.
Good luck with that.
No, what the Friedrichs Freeloaders want is for the court to find that compelling them to pony up for the cost of negotiations is a violation of their First Amendment rights. Not of their rights to speak out against their union, though, nor to actually run in elections and change the policies of their locals; those rights are guaranteed (even if they are too much work for these plaintiffs).
This seems to be a very silly change to the law.  If unions are bad (and I am not saying that they are) then the remedy can hardly be to make them less effective (collectively hurting all members).  Eliminating unions is at least a cogent position.  But applied logically and systematically, this approach would lead to all sorts of problems.  Can pacifists opt out of paying taxes?  And not just the portion they pay to support the military but all taxes?  Because the government has at least one different position from the ones they hold?

I am just hoping that I am misunderstanding something.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Redistribution to make society stronger

This is Joseph

I occasionally hear the argument that taxes are a form of theft.  When this is a form of looting to make the lives of the political class more opulent, then this is a cogent objection.  However, taxes can be used for two other things: redistribution and the provision of common goods. 

Paul Krugman takes on the moral argument against redistribution:
Don’t say that redistribution is inherently wrong. Even if high incomes perfectly reflected productivity, market outcomes aren’t the same as moral justification. And given the reality that wealth often reflects either luck or power, there’s a strong case to be made for collecting some of that wealth in taxes and using it to make society as a whole stronger, as long as it doesn’t destroy the incentive to keep creating more wealth.
And there’s no reason to believe that it would. Historically, America achieved its most rapid growth and technological progress ever during the 1950s and 1960s, despite much higher top tax rates and much lower inequality than it has today.
Of course, this requires government to act as a moral agent.  But I do not think that it is unreasonable to try and hold government to this expectation.  Just because government accountability is a hard problem doesn't mean that it isn't a worthwhile problem to solve.   

Friday, January 15, 2016

Private and public can both be effective

This is Joseph

So the Bertha tunneling project, led by a private contractor, was suspended after a sinkhole developed as a part of the tunnel project.  This would seem less serious if the project was not just suspended for two years due to a mechanical breakdown in the tunneling machine. 

In the same city (Seattle), a government agency doing a tunneling project under the same waterway is under budget (by about $150 million) and ahead of schedule (by six months).  Now, to be fair, the timeline for this project was rather stately, but it has still been much less plagued by problems.

Is this proof of anything.  In and of itself, not really.  What it does suggest is that specific challenges that arise on projects and, perhaps, project management can be more important than the actor who is doing the work.  After all, the slate of public works boondoggles is vast.

But it really shifts my focus to "are things well run" and "was there good planning" as being the most important metrics for whether a project is likely to go well.  So give me more success stories, for all types of projects, and I will be a happier person. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ayn Rand and Government?

This is Joseph

You thought that this would never happen -- that we'd link to Gin and Tacos.  But the latest piece on Ayn Rand and collective action problems is serious (instead of mocking) and I think highlights one of the major fault lines in thinking,  Consider:
Anyway, the real money scene is where the protagonist heads out into the forest and, in the space of a few hours before dinnertime, he makes a bow and arrows and shoots plenty of birds out of the sky to feed himself. He also gets a few by throwing rocks at them. This is a minor detail in the story but, in my view, is a great litmus test of a fundamental personality characteristic. The kind of person who thinks, "Yeah that seems plausible" believes that some people, namely themselves, are simply Great and therefore can solve any and every problem on their own through the force of their own Greatness. The other kind of person looks at a man running off into the woods with no supplies, food, clothing, or tools of any kind and thinks, "Well he's gonna be dead in about a week."
Now I am an introvert.  I am surprisingly more productive when nobody is capable of finding me.  But I realize that, innately, I am not good at everything and I will need help.  One option is to have some many resources (say social or financial) that one can call upon help at need.  But I know what the typical endpoint of somebody without tools and supplies in the wilderness really is.  

[I also have not read the book, but absent some actual textbooks it seems extremely implausible that somebody would discover electricity, in a usable form, given how long the historical process took]

But I think that this question gets at the crux of one of the great philosophical arguments of our time.  As a student of history, I presume that governed societies always out-compete un-governed ones, barring some very unusual circumstances.  Just ask your local hunter-gatherer tribes.  So the great question is how to make the best state.

But one could also presume that the state of nature is one in which everyone could prosper.  And then the question becomes should we have government at all.  But then how does one define property rights without it becoming a "war of all against all"?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Traffic Myths

This is Joseph

Via, the Mad Biologist, where are 10 tired traffic myths that didn't get a rest in 2015.  The most interesting was the discussion in Toronto about removing the Gardiner expressway.  It's pretty clear that the expressway really does make the waterfront a lot less useable and fun.  But it would be especially interesting to see what the new traffic patterns looked like.

My only concern was that there seems to be a contradiction between transit not reducing congestion but bike lanes doing so.  If you have induced demand when people take transit, don't the bikers also result in induced demand? 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I had a busy Monday

So let's all just kick back and enjoy a video.

Monday, January 11, 2016

When threads converge -- "How Mickey Mouse Destroyed the Public Domain"

For a while now we've been telling you to keep an eye on Adam Conover (and everybody else at CollegeHumor) and we've been bitching about the state of IP laws almost as long as we've been blogging.

For those reasons alone, we'd pretty much have to post this segment from Adam Ruins Everything even if it sucked, but we're safe on that score. This is one of Conover's best efforts, particularly for those in the audience nerdy enough to catch the steady stream of reference to classic animation.

Friday, January 8, 2016

How you sound to others

This is Joseph.

Dean Dad has a nice post on hearing yourself speak.  In my fiction writing days, I used to think of this as dialogue that you could try out on friends and see whether it sounded odd.  In some genres, like comic books, this is less critical.  But it is easy to destroy immersion in the story by having jarring dialogue.

Here, I think the speakers would have benefited with having an outsider to see whether or not an statement makes sense.  Mark and I are a bit different as bloggers, and I cannot count how many times we've had the other "sanity check" our statement.

In terms of the community college professor quoted, it might well have played better with context (which may be missing).  For the politician, I got nothing.

And, for the record, I hate listening to recordings of my lectures,

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Food stamps, time of the month, and outcomes

This is Joseph

A recent set of studies had some interesting things to say regarding food stamps, and what happens in the last week of the month of benefits.  Emily Badger concludes:
None of these studies can say for certain that the food stamps shortfall causes hypoglycemia, or poorer test scores, or student behavioral problems. And the relationship is likely complex, a product of fewer calories, rising stress, financial tradeoffs, or lost sleep. But these studies suggest that families struggle in multiple ways when the food assistance runs out, and in ways that have to do with more than hunger.
These are good experiments, as the participants are serving as their own controls, greatly mitigating potential confounders of this association.  Instead, week of the month seems to be acting like an instrument (acting only through benefit and wage cycles), which is a very good property for an exposure to have.

I think that there are two pieces here.  One, it is pretty clear that we are probably spending more public money to keep food stamp benefits low -- as being admitted to a hospital is expensive.  So it is a odd kind of frugality that insists we need to pay more to reduce benefits to people with low levels of resources.

Two, the test scores piece makes it clear that these decisions also affect children, who are not really moral agents in regards to family financing.  Instead, it is more of a "luck of the draw" as to what income strata one is born into.

I will also note that this could have interesting effects on high stakes testing in areas with a lot of low income families.  Just the variance as to which week of the month a class takes their test could influence teacher evaluations -- a clear example of an exogenous factor we really don't want driving our results.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Small changes in taxes

This is Joseph

Matt Yglesias has a really nice chart on how effective tax rates have gone up on the top 1% and top 0.1% of earners in the recent administration.  It's still not a crushing burden -- it looks like about 27%, for both groups, based on the chart (from a low of 19%/23%).  It definitely makes one wonder about things like this piece, where Chris Dillow wonders why rich people object to taxes. 

But it is worth remembering that we aren't talking about a crushing increase in tax burden here, even if there are other sources of taxes other than federal income taxes.  None of us like paying taxes (it is an expensive world) but these are not the scale of increases that I suspect lead to crushing burdens.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Paul Krugman pun so bad even he apologizes

And you thought Asterisks: The Gall was bad.

From Doubling Down on W [emphasis added]:

The only real move away from W-era economic ideology has been on monetary policy, and it has been a move toward right-wing fantasyland. True, Ted Cruz is alone among the top contenders in calling explicitly for a return to the gold standard — you could say that he wants to Cruzify mankind upon a cross of gold. (Sorry.) But where the Bush administration once endorsed “aggressive monetary policy” to fight recessions, these days hostility toward the Fed’s efforts to help the economy is G.O.P. orthodoxy, even though the right’s warnings about imminent inflation have been wrong again and again.

One interesting historical note: back in the day, the leading evangelical candidate was violently opposed to the gold standard.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Even suburban cowgirls get the blues

Recently, I've gotten into the habit of checking the relevant Wikipedia pages after reading a news story. I particularly recommend checking the demographics of the towns that come up in the report.

For example, Charles Pierce points us to this quote from Dana Perino.
One of the greatest compliments I've been given is that people who met me when I first got to Washington, D.C., in 1995 say that I'm still the same person today, even though I've been blessed with opportunities to work in the White House, travel the world, and transition relatively smoothly into a new career in television on The Five. I realized I couldn't start the book with my recollections of my years working for President Bush—just showing up at age 35 as the White House Press secretary—so I had to tell the story of how I became who I am today. And with every fiber of my being I think of those years in the West as the most formidable, and I miss that way of life so much. And I have always known that if ever I needed to, I could go home. They'd take be back in an instant, though I'd have to shed some of my big-city conveniences and haul my own groceries to my kitchen.
For the moment, let's put aside the question of whether carrying your own groceries in from the SUV constitutes roughing it, and instead look at that other way of life in the formidable West.

According to my go-to source,  Dana Perino grew up in an affluent white-flight suburb of Denver.
As of the census of 2000, there were 23,558 people, 7,929 households, and 6,525 families residing in the town. The population density was 1,615.2 people per square mile (623.4/km²). There were 8,352 housing units at an average density of 572.6 per square mile (221.0/km²). The racial makeup of the town was 92.60% White, 1.71% Asian, 1.01% Black, 0.45% Native American, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 1.88% from other races, and 2.33% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 5.80% of the population.

The median income for a household in the town was $74,116, and the median income for a family was $77,384 (these figures had risen to $80,679 and $89,154, respectively, as of a 2007 estimate). Males had a median income of $52,070 versus $35,700 for females. The per capita income for the town was $27,479. About 1.7% of families and 2.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 2.2% of those under age 18 and 2.1% of those age 65 or over.
I tried to go to the National Review article to see if the quote looked better in context. If anything it came off worse. Both Perino and her interviewer, Kathryn Jean Lopez, are careful to present things like part-time college jobs and visits to her grandparents' ranch so that they suggest a simple cowgirl of humble origins who would raise to great heights. As someone who grew up  in rural Western Arkansas, that does stick in my craw a bit.

Of course, there's another level of irony in the fact that her career peak was working for a cowboy president who was afraid of horses, but that's a story for another day.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Star Wars the Force Awakens (mild spoilers)

This is Joseph

It has become hip for critics to complain about the new Star Wars movie.  That said, it is hard to imagine objectively bad cinema sustaining such high box office numbers.  Buzz and nostalgia can result in a large opening day but don't provide a good explanation for the sustained numbers and the repeat viewings.  I admit that I was one of the repeat viewers -- I had low expectations and they were definitely overcome.

Now, it is true that the movie starts out derivative and kind of stays there.  But it is a skillfully done version of derivative.  There is fan service, some of which is distracting, but you could watch the movie without ever having seen Star Wars and enjoy it.

Instead of presuming that this is the last good movie before the series craters, I think that we need to wait and see.  The next movie will have a new director, with a reputation for being a free thinker. It is obviously possible that the next movie will take derivative too far, and result in a bad flick.  There is no guarantee that a studio can't find a way to mess up a popular franchise, but I must admit two things:

One, the movie was a lot better than I expected.

Two, I am now cautiously optimistic about Stars Wars VIII and I look forward to seeing if my optimism is warranted.  

That said, J. J. Abrams does need to figure out how to create a perception of time passing during space travel.  It's by far the most immersion breaking flaw in the film, and could be easily improved by looking at Star Wars IV or almost any episode of Star Trek.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A good new year's resolution

This is Joseph

Harold Pollack has a great article in Vox on improving personal finances.  In particular, the first suggestion, "Pay off (or chip away at) your credit card debt", is probably the easiest way to improve one's long term financial situation.

A thought for the new year: Eisenhower on planning

From the indispensable Robert Bateman:

"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: The very definition of "emergency" is that it is unexpected. Therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning. So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven't been planning, you can't start to work, intelligently at least."