Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fixing America's Biggest Problem: No One Trusts Government

This post is inspired by some thoughts I had linked to a DiA post on the possibility of regulating carbon emissions. That specific issue area was adequately covered there so I'm not going to get into it. I'm also not going to pretend this is fully well thought out. It's basis is that I feel Americans have become extremely sceptical of government, part of this is cultural and unchanging but I think part of it is also that the modern problems we need government to deal with are very poorly addressed by the policy options most Americans favor, which as their favored options fail to deliver results only makes them more sceptical of government and less likely to support an innovative policy approach. Given how long Congress has been focused on trying to nickel and dime problems to death by throwing whatever it can get through at them it's no surprise American's have become so sceptical. Every time a new, inefficient bill is passed their scepticism is confirmed and it makes it harder to do it right next time.

This willingness to compromise on method ends up leading to a negative feedback loop, the problem doesn't get solved and the government's ability to pass innovative legislation that would solve it degrades with each new bill as people become more sceptical of government's effectiveness. People demand a problem be solved, they veto the most efficient method of solving it, a new less effective method is passed, this method doesn't fix the original problem and creates additional costs, people are angry that the problem wasn't solved the first time and demand another fix to both the original problem and the side effects, the original best method is now even less likely to pass both because of path dependency and because people are more angry and distrustful of government the first time around because of its failure so another inferior method gets passed, the same sequence repeats ad infinitum.

So what does this mean for future legislation? The problem right now is that the government isn't very well liked and not trusted at all. People won't accept legislation that makes hard choices right now because there's no trust that making these choices will produce results. To break the negative feedback loop we're in government needs to start focusing less on trying to fix big problems, which it lacks the credibility to do, and focus on restoring its credibility. This means passing up on opportunities to fix situations in small ways through passing legislation that addresses problems through less than optimal mechanisms.

To rebuild its reputation government needs to try to focus on smaller problems where it can get effective legislation through, especially problems where mechanisms Americans are sceptical of, such as cap and trade or Pigovian taxes, work well. Ideally, once these policies start working those proposing new legislation can point to these successes as examples and argue for them on a wider scale.

Right now though, we're stuck in a place where innovation is next to impossible because voters are opposed to any experimentation and none of the problems we're facing can be fixed by old methods. Trying to do the best with what we've got will ultimately make it even harder to do anything in the future because negative stereotypes will be reinforced. We need to reassess our goals so that success in the legislature is not seen in the simple sense of getting bills passed but on passing bills that will show that government can be effective, even if only on a small scale.

As a brief side note, if some remarkable policy opportunity comes up that would do something Americans really want, the government should embrace this, even if it is a big, innovative project like what I'm saying should be avoided. I just think the likelihood of an important, easy fix that will also be popular coming up is very small.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Great Post on the Toleration of Error and American History

This blog post from Freakonomics seems fairly closely related to my post yesterday on religion and the liberal state. The ideas are quite similar to my thoughts on procedural norms vs. prescriptive norms, though in a rather different context that doesn't directly have to do with religion. It also reminds my of Erasmus's In Praise of Folly, though it has been long enough since I read it that my hazy recollection my be misinterpreting the relation.

I have nothing in particular to add to the Freakonomics post but thought I'd share for anyone interested in the subject.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Religion and the Liberal State

I've been meditating a bit on a recent post by Stanley Fish, Is Religion Special?, on the Opinionator Blog. His post is mostly dealing with reactions to an earlier column dealing with a Supreme Court ruling involving a law school and a Christian group. I have no desire to get into the case itself.

What I do want to address are some of the ideas expressed in the column. Specifically the tendency to attribute beliefs that aren't easily reconciled with the liberal state to either religions, Christians, or religious organizations, instead of attributing them more narrowly to groups that specifically express these beliefs (though to be fair he makes the distinction clear in places and very distinctly so in the original column). The problem with this is that it sets up a tension between religious belief and reason, a tension that is well expressed in the following quotes (note the broad contrast being drawn between the liberal state and religion in the opening sentence):

What it goes to show is that the conflict between the liberal state, with its devotion to procedural rather than substantive norms, and religion, which is all substance from its doctrines to its procedures, is intractable. In his “Political Liberalism,” John Rawls asks how democracy’s aspiration for “a just and stable society of free and equal citizens” can be squared with the fact that some of those citizens hold beliefs that are exclusionary; how can they receive equal treatment if they deny it to others?

Another philosopher, Thomas Nagel, explains what must happen if the liberal state and its religious members are to co-exist in harmony: “Liberalism should provide the devout with a reason for tolerance,” that is, with a reason for putting tolerance above commitment to an absolute and demanding truth. There are no such reasons; the devout can only recognize reasons that flow from the structure of their devotion; liberalism can only give reasons that reflect its own commitment to neutrality. The rapprochements between them are fitful and temporary products of the endless political maneuverings we see in this case and in every case brought under the religion clause. That’s just the way it is and always will be.

This framing draws a sharper distinction between religious belief and the normative beliefs of the liberal state than I believe are accurate. I am certain that Dr. Fish is aware of these distinctions but with a subject that is often this emotional I believe it is very important to be explicit about distinctions to avoid the presentation of an inherent opposition between reason and religion that is characteristic of so much modern discourse. Reconciling religion with the above notions of the liberal state is rather important to me; I tend to think that at the very heart of the transition to modernity is a shift from prescriptive ideas about how people should act to procedural notions which lets us stop worrying about things we can't change and get on with progress. A vast over-simplification, but in all the reading I do on the subject the one thing that stands out is a profound intellectual shift; to me this debate is about whether we as a society want to be modern or if we want to go back to a belief system incapable of seeing the world in terms that allow for fundamental change and progress that would condemn us to reaching the kind of poor, bleak, unchanging equilibrium that characterized all history before modern times.

Back on topic from that brief digression. The description of religion given seems to only fit more traditional or fundamentalist interpretations of religious belief, it does not seem descriptive of more liberal traditions. Thinkers since the Enlightenment, and really from ever since scholarly studies started seeing discrepancies between different versions of the Bible, have often reached their own conclusions about the faith that are perfectly consistent with the liberal state. Some of the beliefs most difficult to reconcile with the modern liberal state aren't even universal to earlier Christian traditions, much less modern interpretations; many of the beliefs most difficult to reconcile with modern ideas about the liberal state are founded on an Augustinian interpretation of Christianity that was not accepted outside the west. At the very simplest, it just was never that big of a jump to reject the Augustinian notion of a fallen world and conclude that since the Bible has changed over time that the world itself is the most accurate expression of God's will with the Bible being the most valuable guide to interpreting a vastly confusing world, though not one that should take precedence over actual observation of the world.

Of course, go down this road too far and you've left Christianity and become a deist (a journey I'll confess I've made myself) but any history that looks at religion has to confront that ever since the Enlightenment plenty of people that consider themselves to be religious have made this jump. A disservice is being done to exploring the relation between the liberal state and religion in general when a distinction is not made between religious beliefs that have no problem reconciling themselves with the liberal state and those that do. There simply isn't a sharp line that can be drawn between religion and reason, out of the Enlightenment a kind of faith grew that offered a completely viable third path.

Though at the end of all this I do realize I haven't addressed the central conundrum of what to do in a liberal society where some have exclusionary beliefs. I do think realizing that this does not describe everyone who falls under terms such as religious, Christian, or religious organization (though I do think liberal versions of religion seem much less organized, this is likely due to the fact that most emphasize a personal version of faith over the organized expression, which leaves the less liberal variants the ones with the strongest voice in public discourse) is an essential distinction to make.

[Edited for grammer, further edits are entirely possible if I catch more errors.]

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Glimpse of the (not so near) Future

It would take a lot more research to really flesh this out but there are two stories today that I think illustrate what I believe the (very) long term trend for the economy will be.

The first of these is on how companies are enjoying high profits despite lower revenue due to heavy cost cutting in the work force. Obviously this is currently not long term sustainable but it does serve to illustrate the increasing substitution of capital for labor. It's only a matter of time before even developing countries can't compete on price with machinery for production so I am highly sceptical of anyone claiming that some sort of industrial policy or just a greater focus on manufacturing will help our employment situation. While it would be premature to think this recession marks a turning point, I would be surprised if machinery hasn't fully replaced human labor in the production process for the mass market (there will always be a place for labor in craft production) within my lifetime.

The second is an Economix blog post calling for more focus on improving home care services to create jobs. This particular article is focused on the elderly and people with disabilities but I think this represents the long term trend for job creation. Machinery can never replace human interaction so there will always be employment for people in human services. I expect this to be the long run trajectory for employment, aside from technical jobs, I expect virtually all employment to eventually involve people interacting with people rather than things. I also don't think this will be the crisis those focused on manufacturing seem to fear it will be, there's enough employment for everyone in these fields, though it will be an economy vastly unlike the 18th and 19th century economies so much of our economic theory ultimately rests on.

Of course, this is very speculative long term thinking and not something that I think will apply to this recession except in a very limited fashion. There's also a third piece that hasn't happened yet that I believe will be necessary for this transition to hit full force, and that is a commercially available software program that can pass a Turing test. This will allow all those annoying scripted phone calls that you either receive or make to be replaced by capital. I am pretty strongly convinced this will happen within a medium term time frame, I'm curious what the long term effects will be. This conviction is also part of what makes me less worried about outsourcing these jobs, I don't think they'll be around all that long.

Of course, this is all very speculative. The advantage to not being an established scholar is you can safely publish wild musings like this without worrying too much about it.

[Update: Despite high US manufacturing output there does seem to be a significant robot gap. This may threaten my confidence in a post-industrial society. Do we need hyperbolic rhetoric to close the robot gap as we did to close the missile gap? Time will tell. Hat tip: Economix.]

Motive + Interest = LIAR

I'm slowly working on a rather longer post on media manipulation. For now, just an aside on the current furor over the Journolist nonsense which seems to have confirmed for about 0.01% of the population (responsible for about 10% of all comments on blog posts) the reality of a vast media conspiracy. Establishing that someone had both motive of and intent to look into a subject does not in itself mean that what they wrote on it can't be trusted. It only definitely establishes that they're interested enough in the subject to look into it further. Until specific instances of manipulation, repression of data, or poor research can be established none of the e-mails written about so far in fact indicates that there is any reason to discount any of these stories based on this information alone. Of course, it gives good reason to question op-ed pages for the few of you out there that couldn't have otherwise figured out that op-ed pages reflect opinions and should be carefully read.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Doing Something vs. Doing the Right Thing

I believe that there is a moral imperitive to act upon the best evidence we have available. It may sometimes be wrong and the doubters correct but we have progressed over time and learned things that have made the world a better place so listening to the experts is usually the right course. If the experts were usually wrong and our guts right the scientific revolution and the enlightenment wouldn't have had the effects they did.

Which is what makes me so worried about the popularity that politicians get for ignoring expert advice. This little rant was brought upon by Jindal's actions that seem to be a direct challenge to expert advice. I'm not entirely sure how this is playing there but I get the vague sense that it's fairly popular. This worries me a great deal.

Great Articles on Crime and Punishment in the Economist

For those few of you who aren't already regular readers of the Economist I strongly encourage you to take a look at these two articles on crime and punishment in America. The basic argument isn't something an educated reader won't already know, punishments are too harsh in America and are doing little to deter crime. But it is a great overview and gives some very good specific points.

I'm debating with myself whether to do a more complete post on this topic. To properly argue my points will take quite a bit of time to properly lay out my ideas to make a coherent argument, a little beyond what I think a blog is designed for. For now, I'll just list the central points I'd want to make without a supporting argument.

- There is no purpose served in fulfilling people's desire for retribution. While it's a natural human urge I do believe mankind has developed over history and we need to set aside childish things, this being one of them.

- I've come to hate the word law. Laws serve two purposes. One, to establish a standard way of doing things when there are near infinite possiblities on how things are done. Most laws actually take this form.

Second, to provide disincentives to behavior that injures, or has the potential to injure, others. The purpose of laws are so that we can all live together and interact with each other despite wildly diverging belief systems and values. Laws should not presuppose these beliefs and values and work just fine completely independently of them. They preserve both mine and your beliefs and values and protect us from the behavior of each other when they these beliefs and values (or simple desires and emotions) conflict by clearly establishing limits to us imposing on others.

My problem with the word is that too many people ascribe a mystical nature to "law." Breaking a law mystically transforms what was previously a law abiding member of the community into a criminal. It reminds me of the mysticism inherent in Marx's theory of labor value actually. It's downright silly. Breaking a law simply means that you've taken an action which should result in standard disincentives being applied to you by society in the interest of letting us all live together in community. No more, no less. There isn't any mystical transformation going on that separates the criminal from the great bulk of humanity, whatever rhetoric gets bandied around.

- I explicitly reject the notion that morality is an intrinsic component of the law. Morality is a separate sphere that overlaps with the law but I see morality as an internal force while law is simply a way of smoothing friction between people forced to live with each other in community. They are distinctly separate spheres that by their nature happen to frequently interact.

I've gone on longer than I intended in a stream of consciousness sort of way. I may develop these ideas later.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

OK, This Alternate World Liberal Media Bias Business Has Finally Gone Too Far

The only thing I have to add to the Shirley Sherrod mess is that this finally shows that this whole extreme right conservative desire to create their own news has finally crossed a line where it becomes a real social problem. I've been one of many suspecting that the lack of evidence for their world view has led to them manufacturing news to support their narrative. I've mentioned it before on my post on NASA and the New Black Panther business Fox was blathering on about earlier. These same groups are also at the heart of all that nonsense about ACORN.

While I don't think the administration can do much about this other than ignore what the far right thinks and fact check, verify, and counter their message, I do think that the media has both the responsibility and the ability to put up a fight against this. Start checking your facts, get the story straight, and go aggressively against those that would manipulate it. All ideas are not equal and should not be reported as such. Some ideas have better empirical support than others, this needs to be reflected in news stories. The mainstream media needs to aggressively act against the message that they are biased and show that it is in fact outlets such as Andrew Breitbart's that are constructing evidence to fit their biased worldview.

Our society simply can't operate in a healthy manner with this filth having real world impacts on government and allegedly (I could not confirm that Fox had in fact posted the video before Sherrod got sacked, though several articles I read claim they did post it on their website though not televise it before after the sacking, hence the allegedly) being aired on news channels that Americans trust (whether or not the news networks are worthy of that trust) to report what is actually happening in the world. We need to know we can trust the media, at least when it comes to facts. Situations like this undermine that and the media needs to get its act together to counter this.

If you haven't already seen this here is the garbage. Here is the full video, the relevant remarks are around the 17:00 minute mark. To be clear, I'm well aware that trash like this infests the dark corners of the internet and unfortunately always will. I just think a really, really, clear line has been crossed when this filth filters into mainstream media and the activists that exert influence on the government and large scale political groups. Breitbart has been an important conservative activist since the ACORN tapes and his association with this kind of manipulation and his role in publicizing it shows the lengths they are willing to go to to falsify and control the narrative in our country to force their worldview down our throats.

Very few things make me angry. This sort of activity is one of them. We need to take our media back from this influence, it's a cancer. It has also influenced our culture in more subtle ways. Look at the narrative that it is the Democrats that have moved left. More people seem to believe this than not. Compare Democratic proposals on health care over time, also compare stances on climate change over time. Do the same for Republicans. It doesn't take a lot of research to see the true direction of movement. It may still be true that the American people have moved right as a whole but this isn't the argument I usually hear.

[Update: The NY Times has an article going further into the chronology of events. I feel very strongly that this situation was possible only because a narrative has become current that the media has a liberal bias and that there is a whole other "correct" version of events that would confirm the Conservative Movement's worldview that is not being reported due to this bias, which actual evidence is thin on the ground for requiring selective editing to create the needed proof. If it wasn't for this idea of media bias and the enabling environment created by this myth this sort of event would not have been possible. I see this movement as being distinctly anti-modern, this is the medieval conception of history, where they believed that there was a truth that existed independent of the evidence and that the necessity of getting this truth out justified the creation of documentary evidence to prove it. This has no place in the modern world and I feel I have a moral duty to condemn it.]

Mosques, Manhattan, and Six Degrees of Separation

This seemed like one of the better takes I've seen on the mountain out of a molehill muttering about the (murky or maligned) Manhattan Mosque (Economist links chosen because I read all their posts, I'm not willing to take the time to hunt down others or the originating posts on the topic). Guilt by association tactics are tiresome, and the people casting stones should be the first to look in the mirror. What is always curious to me is that why is it that the ones who seem so quick to call attention to others associations always have their own curious associations if looked at from another angle.

Or perhaps it's just that if looked at from the right frame everyone has compromising associations with something. Probably best to judge everything on the actual evidence of what they say and not on who they know but this is hardly a new thought.

Perhaps I should just reflect philosophically on why it is so hard to learn things we already know.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, Cuts to Home Care

I'm going to expand this a bit later. For now, take a look at this article on cuts to home care. There are a few problems with this strategy. First of all, you will save money in the short run as people find ways of making do. Without the security provided by regular services however, in the longer run you're going to see people moving into expensive nursing homes and institutions. Some of this will save states money because it will shift the financial burden to the feds, this is simply cost shifting that is definitely a poor outcome for anyone involved but the states.

More generally this is a problem with balanced budget rules that work year to year rather than focusing on longer periods. Saving money today will increase costs in the long term but taking this into account isn't baked into the rules. If nothing else, this downturn should be a call for local, state, and the federal government to take a hard look at overall government budgets and to consider moving towards a more sensible long term budget process. Even writing balanced budget requirements to be on a 4 or 5 year rolling basis would be a big step forward.

Page Inflation and Government

An alternate explanation is that complete intransigence on one side of the aisle and the growing power of private industry has made it imperative that complex carve outs be made for everyone voting for each bill and for each industry effected since everyone in Congress currently believes they have a veto. Or you can go the Beck route and blame it on "Progressives."

[Edit: The link is to David Brooks' column this morning who I believe deserves to be chided a bit for taking a rather too simplistic, and in my opinion completely ridiculous, stance on why the length of legislation is growing, sounding rather too much like Glenn Beck's screeds against progressivism in the process.]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Something to Remember Government Programs Never Capture Everything They Should

There was a NY Times article today on a school that is being penalized for seeking a federal stimulus money grant that led me to some basic reflections on the role of government. I've often said that I think the role of government is misunderstood, particularly in regards to immigration, but this is another aspect of this. It's simply not possible for any government program (or any broad based policy, whatever the source of that policy) to not be designed in a way that won't disadvantage some outliers.

What I don't really get is why this is a problem? It's simply not within the capacity of government to create policies that won't have unintended effects on some outliers. This school shouldn't have been applying for the grant money, it falls outside the intended targets of the grant. There should probably be alternative grant money available to such schools, I would actually be very surprised if there wasn't, but stimulus money is exactly the kind of spending that should not be designed with outliers in mind. It needs to be quick with simple rules that will apply best to standard cases, exactly the kind of case that Wheeler Elementary School isn't.

No wonder it's so easy to construct a narrative of government not working when there are articles like this that make a government program sound like a failure because of the experience of an outlier. Government doesn't do good with outliers, never will, this is where other institutions, such as our broad range of NGOs, should have a chance to shine. If outlier programs such as this are having difficulties it's because we're trying to force government to fulfill a role it's clearly incapable of doing. Responsibility in these sorts of situations has to lie at a more local level that can act with more precision to local peculiarities, government has a role in the vast bulk of schools that conform to general trends. Government may have a role in providing grant money to fuel more local action but that an indivdual grant isn't aimed at it is hardly government's fault.

To address the particularities of the article, I'm not real impressed with standardized testing myself but see few alternatives. The problem will always be administrative costs, capturing the kind of data that would show the true situation of this school would probably be rather more expensive and perhaps open to abuse. Costs may be small for this one school but they would also be imposed on the 90+% of schools where this would be unnecessary. The article is also doing a good job of calling attention to the difficulties this kind of school faces, a very worthy goal, it's the easy tie ins to a narrative of government failure that strikes me as problematic.

[If anyone is doubting that this article is being turned into an anti-government screed, check the comments page on the NY Times article]

Sunday, July 18, 2010

An Interesting Initiative in Textiles

There's an interesting article today on a company that has launched a living wage initiative with a new factory in the Dominican Republic. They seek to supply universities with college-logo apparel. For this specific market I think this is likely to be a very successful initiative and applaud them on it.

From a more general perspective however, I think factories such as this are likely to remain the exception without having much direct impact. They're paying workers three times the prevailing wage in the industry resulting in a 20% increase in costs. I don't know a thing about the apparel industry specifically but this seems like too much of a leap from industry norms to become widespread. At the same time, I tend to believe that too much focus on costs often impedes quality and gets diminishing returns due to an unhappy workforce. The real shifts will probably come when a larger industry player decides that a 5-10% increase in costs is an acceptable price for a happier workforce and ends abuses in their plants.

Though, while I'm speculating based on no data, I also wouldn't be surprised if a major barrier to ending abuses in these plants is a low quality of available management. Labor history shows that many reforms that aided workers when abuses were at their worst didn't really harm productivity. But when the problems are unpaid overtime and not allowing sick workers to go home my thoughts tend towards the problem being poor management that misses the role of quality and productivity in favor of a crude focus on quantity. Perhaps raising wages would be enough to shift thinking a bit but I think the problems may run far deeper than the college campus activists would like to admit with fair trade. Still, a good initiative but I'd like to see something a little more in depth about why it is so common for abuses like lack of sick leave persist even when these are likely uneconomical decisions.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Truly Disappointing Tone Deafness From the One Institution I Feel has an Absolute Duty to do Better

I very much wish that the Catholic Church could come to terms with modernity by seriously reflecting on Christianity's own history. There is a strong tradition of a prominent female role in the early church, condemning the ordination of women so strongly, especially when the Catholic Church has such real problems as the sexual abuse scandal, is so shockingly tone deaf that I am left completely baffled as to any possible explanation. I find it impossible to read Christian history without thinking that over 2000 years the Chalcedonian versions of Christianity made some serious missteps and would be well served by going back to the very early Christian traditions to reflect upon how they can deal with modern life while remaining true to their traditions. There are more than ample precedents in the church's own history to deal with modern challenges, why making these changes remains so difficult is beyond my powers to rationalize.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Long Game

Roger Cohen's column today, where he expresses doubt about Obama's choices for his foreign policy team and in particular the lack or responsibility given to Clinton, provides a good excuse to discuss some thoughts on foreign policy.

First, it's a good example of the militarization of our foreign policy. All of our big immediate challenges have been entrusted to generals, even in issues like terrorism where this wasn't the immediately logical choice (though putting the policy in the hands of the intelligence agencies wouldnt' have helped Clinton, but compare SE Asia to where our policy is run by the generals). Foreign policy should be entrusted to civilian officials, mostly State but to some degree intelligence, with the military receiving third priority except where an actual political regime is the threat. That hasn't been the case this decade, the military would have been more appropriate in a supporting role rather than as the lead.

The second thing that comes to mind is that while Clinton isn't getting to work on the media grabbing stuff, she's the one actually focusing on the important stuff. Foreign policy is a long game, the aspects that attract the public's attention are usually of marginal long term importance (unless we blunder and give them importance due to our over-investment). To be blunt, what Cohen calls the big issues, "Afghanistan, Iran, Israel-Palestine and Iraq," aren't really of long term significance, with the exception of Iran. The mid-east is important to us because of oil dependency but this is a domestic problem, we're simply using our foreign policy to avoid the day of reckoning. We have the technology we need to reduce our oil dependency down to levels that won't require a heavy commitment to the mid-east if we invest in infrastructure to make this happen. If we don't need to be in the mid-east most of these issues can drop off our radar. Of course, public opinion won't allow them to drop off entirely but there is a big difference between the kind of brush fire fighting actions we'll need to take to satisfy the public and serious long term strategic threats to our prosperity.

Iran of course is a dissatisfied power, and while it won't ever be a super-power, it does have the population and resources to be a significant player on the world stage. At some point we're going to have to address this seriously, we can't keep them marginalized forever. I'd prefer to see State take the lead on this but until the public is ready to allow us to renew full diplomatic relations that's off the table.

The big issues are Russia, Turkey, and East Asia (our relationship with South America and Europe remains secure enough to not warrant separate discussion). Here Clinton's had plenty of influence. Nagorno-Karabakh isn't a side show, it's essential to ensuring long term gas supplies to Europe through the Caspian Sea and showing Turkey that we are prominent players in the region. Turkey is also a key relationship, it gives the entire Muslim world an alternate path of development to counter problems we've been having in the Arab world (SE Asia also fills this role but is probably historically too marginal to have the global role Turkey can, though Indonesia has lots of potential). Israel-Palestine is a similar issue to this but even resolving that simply ends a grievance, it doesn't provide a way out for the Arab world and is less critical than Turkey taken on its merits rather than emotional potential.

Russia, and the former Soviet Block as a whole, are also a critical area and one Clinton has had more influence on. We've got a tricky game to play here, balancing the need to not push Russia too far away because of its continued military strength (read nukes) and natural resources while assuring the former Soviet Block nations that we intend to remain committed to them [Edit: This Eastern Approaches post shows exactly the kind of balancing I'm referring to]. Balancing this is going to be a challenge through at least the medium term, as the war in Georgia shows, but since it seems unlikely that Russia's demographics will allow a true resurgence of its former power we are far less likely to make a major miscalculation here. Especially if our influence in Turkey remains strong and they continue to grow Turkey will be a great counter-balance to Russia in the Caucasus, where are influence is probably shakiest, if present trends continue.

Japan, of course, is perhaps our most critical long term bilateral relationship. China is a rising power and Japan is the only other power immediate enough to truly shape that rise. This takes a qualification, China is the truly critical player but its size, and history, is such that our influence will be sharply limited. We have greater potential influence with Japan and our interests are more clearly aligned, the uncertainty of our relationship with China is what makes me think Japan is the more important overall relationship. To paraphrase a saying I've heard, it can take centuries to build a relationship and minutes to ruin it, this is less likely with Japan then China so Japan is the more critical long term partner.

To sum up, I think Cohen is right to criticize the Obama team's foreign policy but way off with his priorities. I wish I could credit Obama with sage like foresight in committing Clinton to our most critical long term relationships, instead I fear it is a result of the prioritizing of crisis management over long term strategic thought.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Counter-Terrorism Strategy That Just Might Work

While this post is meant to be funny, I really do believe this is the only type of approach that has a long term chance of success. The war on terrorism is what a culture war really looks like and it should be fought with the same tools that we ultimately use to fight culture wars over small bore nonsense at home. The only real way to combat terrorism is to change the culture that creates it, military efforts do nothing but combat the symptoms (which is necessary but ultimately a war without end and futile). To be clear, this culture isn't Islam, it's any ideology that valorizes itself and explains away its failings through a militant worldview. Military action only confirms and strengthens this world view making it futile as a tool to win it. Comedy, and other cultural creations, are the only way to win this fight in the long run. Though cultural shift does take a long time, this is a culture war that will last decades and centuries. But simply addressing the symptoms will be indefinite.

See Even the Professionals Can't Help Ranting Sometimes

Now and then I think I go off on rants a little more than I should. It's easy to do on a personal blog that I'm not getting paid for and don't have an editor for. So it's comforting to see the professionals go off sometimes too. Many good points are made but it's still a rant.

Anyone Have an Explanation for This Graph

Krugman posted a very interesting graph on revenue trends going back to Carter's era to comment on supply side economics. It looks reasonable to me, I'm sure that there will be some that find issue with it. If you stumble across a response somewhere let me know, I'd be curious how this gets explained away.

Congress's Efforts to Tame Growth Are Succeeding

Sorry, but I couldn't resist. Congress is doing such a good job ignoring actual economist's advice on what to do for the economy I almost want to believe it's intentional. What they have to do is easy, as long as they don't mind people hating them for it. Pass real cost control measures for the military and entitlements to make our long run budget prospects look good. Since we're enjoying low interest rates, borrow heavily to prop up the economy through the measures actually being advocated for by economists, aid to states and unemployment insurance. I'd also add a more controversial piece, since we can borrow cheap lay out a real plan to invest in needed infrastructure, such as basic maintenance, high speed rail, a smart grid, and local transit systems, especially light rail. Since I'm on a roll giving a wish list, I'd also suggest reforming the tax system to streamline it, getting rid of virtually all breaks and exemptions, while lowering some headline rates and partially shifting some of the burdern towards consumption and back towards rich indivdiuals rather actual corporate taxes (look at the Swedish model, we don't need that level of taxation but the basic philosophy looks good).

Sure, none of you will get re-elected but you'll all go down in history as the bestest Congress ever. Won't that be worth it?

Well, We're Beating the Hell Out of the Chinese on This Economic Goal

Grest NY Times headline, "China's Efforts to Tame Growth Are Succeeding." I think Congress can pat themselves on the back that they're being successful on beating the Chinese hands down on this one. If you think the Chinese are overtaking us economically, remember that to disprove this you only have to frame the goals right. Man, I wish 12% growth was our problem.

Actually, there's a few things I wish Congress would do here. For instance, "We are now starting to see the effect of policies dealing with excessive housing prices," we could actually use some dedicated effort to let housing get to a real valuation instead of continued efforts to prop it up. This would have to be combined with some sort of social supports to mitigate the fallout from these policies but this could probably be managed if falling property prices where an actual goal. Can we get some more Chinese to run for Congress so we can elect them instead? Maybe lower residency requirements so we can get them fresh from sensible policy-making?

The Limits of Behavioral Economics

I thought this was a very good op-ed in the New York Times, though I think the implied causality is way off. In short, behavioral economics is the rationale behind a number of initiatives, such as parts of health reform and some energy initiatives, but it is severely limited in its ability to impact actual behavior. Fair enough that it's limited but where's the evidence that these approaches are substituting for traditional approaches, such as a gas tax? I'm pretty sure behavioral economics is being used as a poor alternative to the more effective approach because we have a huge, crazy lobby of groups opposed to any effective policy. After all, if government ever actually does anything that works the sky will fall and the end times will come. Best to oppose anything sensible to forestall this.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

“When you go to a zoo and see a new animal, don’t you wonder what it tastes like?”

Since I mentioned this yesterday I thought I'd help promote today's pangolin newsflash. What struck me most about the article was this:

When I was a correspondent in China, I once interviewed a businessman who favored rare meats. “When you go to a zoo and see a new animal, don’t you wonder what it tastes like?” he asked. Not me.

[Edit: There is also a related article, on rhinos, with a great, and tragic, personal story attached.]

Electronic Health Records: Are the Regulations Missing the Point?

The big advantage I've always seen to electronic records is the ease with which information can be pulled up, searched, and shared. This requires a standardized format, which seems to be missing in this article. You're only getting part of the benefit if you require the medical profession to use them, the big piece is making sure they can share them. I didn't see that mentioned in the article, it may be the reporting but I suspect it's our aversion to dictating standards. This is silly, one of the things the free market doesn't do terribly well is decide on standards without some form of arbitration. Sometimes industry does this on its own, particularly tech companies, but you still sometimes see something like the VHS vs Beta nonsense in the absence of direction. In this case, pretty straightforward information is under discussion, I see very little room for actual innovation. It's a clear case where the problem is the need for standardization, which the state does well, not innovation, which the private sector does well. Why does this distinction often seem invisible to people?

Glad to See the California Legislature Focusing on the Important Things

Apparently, serpentine, the California State Rock, is suffering under allegations of collusion with asbestos in a string of asbestos related diseases throughout the US. In recognition of this, a bill has been proposed by a California Assemblywoman that would formally recognize "known health effects" of the rock and strip it of its official post as state rock, potentially threatening litigation against its lucrative position sitting in museums, private land, and other sites, as well as its sideline as a component in jewelry. Geologists are rallying to serpentine's defense claiming that the allegations are unjustified and that serpentine is being unfairly demonized.

Who But the Parents Finds This Surprising

My take on this is about the frame than the article, which is about good parents who have children that just aren't nice people with no identifiable underlying cause.

What I take issue with is this:
...the notion that some children might be the bad seeds of more or less decent parents — is hard to take.

It goes against the grain not just because it seems like such a grim and pessimistic judgment, but because it violates a prevailing social belief that people have a nearly limitless potential for change and self-improvement.

Does anyone really find it surprising that some people are just bad and that it's not the result of any outside influence? Isn't this idea central to the old nature vs. nurture debate no one bothers much with anymore? Did society move at some point to thinking absolutely everyone was capable of expressing bright and shiny goodness and I didn't notice?

I'm pretty sure society thinks the same as it always did, some people are plain rotten and it doesn't matter much why (except in how to reduce this in the future). It's not anyone's fault, just the way it is and always was. That's why we need nasty bad things like government, to help keep the nasty bad people in check. If it weren't for that, we'd all be living in a utopia of bright and shiny goodness with no need for anyone to tell all the bright and shiny good people what they should and shouldn't do.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Confirming the Obvious

Breaking news, the well off and youth feel things are getting better for them. I guess there must be some value in confirming what we already know but it should be obvious that everyone doing well will think things are pretty good and that youth, even in tough times, are going to be feeling that things are improving. For youth, even if their not doing as well as they hoped, they're still hoping to enjoy the upswing. The only time you're going to find these groups being pessimistic is when there's a massive shock, either to their portfolios as the market falls or when they're actively afraid of getting laid off. Other groups, enjoying neither the present benefits of success or long time frames to contemplate the future are unlikely to be as strongly consoled by a very shallow upward trend, the require more concrete improvements.

I'm Glad We've Got Our Food Issues and Not China's

I was complaining the other day about one aspect of how our attitudes towards food have been changing. At least we're not eating pangolin's and other endangered species. I'm baffled at what cultural notions inspire this habit but I'm just glad our problems are happy meals and not endangered species. China should do more to crack down on these markets. I'd also suggest a public education campaign, though I'm very sceptical as to how much influence those have.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Unusual Market Failures: Why Aren't Developers Investing More in Schools

This NY Times article made me think. One of the main things that parents are looking for when choosing where to live is the school system. So why aren't more property owners and developers trying to invest more money in the school system both to raise the value of a new development and to raise property values in a less well off neighborhood? Are there legal hurdles? A failure of imagination? Or simply complacency do to the idea that schools are mostly the government's job?

[The article does make clear some developers are investing in NYC but are reliant on public initiative for at least some of the funding. I'd guess that NYC is way ahead of the curve here given insane property values ($2 million for an apartment!!!!) so even less of this is likely elsewhere. Though I don't have the data so could be way off on this assumption.]

Oil and Tax Breaks

There's not really any additional analysis needed here. There's a NY Times column on the rather good deal that oil companies are getting from tax breaks. It's definitely one of the industries that need them least. Time to close the loop holes.

I'd like to add a link to a graphic I've seen showing traditional energy tax breaks and spending compared to green energy tax breaks and spending. I'll update this with the graphic when and if I find it.

Worth Repeating: Facts are Stubbornly Rejected Things

This is a fairly well known bit of wisdom from the NY Times Idea of the Day column, people tend to choose facts that suit their beliefs not form their beliefs based upon facts. Still, it can never be said enough, both to discourage people from thinking some new utopia is possible if only everyone would listen and to remind ourselves to reflect on our own beliefs and fact check them.

Though the problem remains, given this cognitive problem, how can one ever be sure that an honest effort is being made to check our own beliefs against facts? Or alternately, to at least form new beliefs out of new facts rather than not allowing our range of beliefs to expand at all.

Of course, the link to The Onion at the bottom of the post is a good follow up as well.

[Edit: The full article from the Boston Globe is well worth reading as well, even if longer at four pages. I especially liked the pessimism expressed at potential solutions:
Nyhan ultimately recommends a supply-side approach. Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, he suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the “reputational costs” of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. “So if you go on ‘Meet the Press’ and you get hammered for saying something misleading,” he says, “you’d think twice before you go and do it again.”

Unfortunately, this shame-based solution may be as implausible as it is sensible. Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The News Creating the News About the News Not Reporting the News the News Created

This annoyed me a bit. Fox News has a story up today about what the rest of the media isn't reporting. They have a bit of a point with the Black Panther story, it sounds like real news but frankly not something I care enough about to even read an article on, which may be why other outlets aren't doing much on it. Outside of Fox's echo chamber, no one gives a damn.

They're way off base with the NASA bit though. That's not news. That's a bad interview with Al Jazeera which NASA Administrator Charles Bolden probably didn't have anything relevant to say to, so tried to take an unusual tack on to make the interview relevant. He made a hash of it, but what does a NASA Administrator really have to say to a network catering to an audience living in countries that don't have space programs? He probably had to do it because refusing it may have been spun into a story by them, but there really isn't much of import to say that would be relevant to the audience, outreach is about the only thing relevant so may as well play it up. This is simply an instance of targeting your message to your audience, and that audience was not meant to be Fox News viewers. Context people, context.

This is pure gotcha programming at its very worst. It's also one of the clearer examples I've seen of the operation of bias and the attempt to create a complete alternate reality for those that have no ability to see the context behind events. Just plain shameful.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Someone Talking Sense on the Budget, I'm Sure He'll Be Ignored

Great opening on this post (the original closes with the statement), "the worst federal budget policy is the one we're now following."

It's worth a read and so is the full article, the main take away is that we should institute automatic stabilizers and budget balancing measures tied to the unemployment rate and worry about long term structural deficits and not stimulus spending.

For the questions raised at the end, I have an answer to the need to fund a war even with these stabilizers are in place. Wars should be funded solely through spending cuts or tax increases to force Congress and the President to seriously question whether or not we need to be in it. For the few truly serious wars we can't avoid, this restriction should be relaxed if we use the draft. Politicians should face very, very tough choices when initiating a conflict, I think a choice between paying for it and a draft are sufficiently unpleasent to insure proper discipline. War should be an unpleasant necessity, not a desirable policy, and we've been experiencing the unpleasant consequences of what happens when it isn't unpleasant enough for politicians the last few years.

Back on topic, I think the concerns mentioned about the policy of using the unemployment rate to enforce discipline are answerable and the policy is a good one, that logically should be able to attract bipartisan support given the beliefs and priorities expressed by each party. Given their actual expressed preferences instead, I am certain this won't be seriously mentioned by anyone, and if it is brought up the inconsiderate rogue mentioning it will enjoy a moment of true bipartisanship in being shouted down.

Advertising and Children

The idea of advertising directed at children is one that has long troubled me and which I don't have any particularly good ideas on how my concerns could be reconciled. Seeing a loosely related post on a local food blog concerning McDonald's toys in happy meals set me off on a rant. I thought I'd share here for those that don't much care about local Albany restaurants and wouldn't see it there. I'm still chewing over this, I'd be very interested in hearing anyone else's thought on the problem of what to do in a free society in regards to children which don't have the capacity to act fully as free citizens but still live in a world where competing authorities seek to manipulate their development for their own ends, often, but not always, benign. Or to put it less technically, are marketers trampling on parent's right to influence their offspring through ads targeting children?

[Verbatim copy of comment from Times Union, I may clean it up later today.]

I've always been a little uncomfortable in this area. I don't really like the idea of restrictions on what companies can do to promote themselves and their products but also feel that this requires the assumption that their audience has the ability to weigh evidence and put their choices in context. It may seem to many that adults often fail to do this, and as practices have evolved companies have found ways to exploit our human failings, but it still seems fair game to me since an adult can at least choose to educate themselves about marketing practices to resist this.

With children though, the assumptions that make marketing fair game when used to manipulate adults don't hold true. They simply don't have the tools to properly assess the motivations and methods behind promotions such as toys given away. They also don't possess the independent ability to do the research needed to explore the cognitive biases to recognize manipulation. I remember enough of my childhood and how I thought to realize this, I paid far more attention to authority then and worked with an assumption that someone would have put in safeguards to protect against too much skewing or manipulation. I know now this is laughably naive.

You also can't put too much responsibility on parents. I don't have kids yet but when I do see programs that also target children, I'm always struck by how junk food, and other things I wouldn't want any children I have to be consuming, are so heavily marketed towards them. Trying to keep this kind of targeted programming away from a child until they're ready to assess it on its merits seems impossible in today's world without keeping a child away from much of what it means to be a kid today. Even if I tried to keep them away from TV, malls, and McDonalds, how could I ever enforce this once they're with relatives or friends? Trying to educate them on these matters also seems hopeless, children aren't developed enough to weigh competing evidence and claims to authority in meaningful ways until fairly late.

So I'm left kind of stuck. I don't believe that children are fair game to marketing such as McDonald's toys, marketing should be targeted towards those with the ability to see it for what it is. However, since targeting children is so lucrative I don't see how companies would voluntarily cease to do it, especially since many, perhaps most, parents see their products as an essential part of childhood. My belief is that this should be left to the parent until the child has developed enough to make their own choices but I don't see how to do this with modern marketing techniques that so saturate our world. It's a tough one, because the issue involved centers on the fact that children don't have the capacities to fully make their own choices and be free citizens, and the rights of both companies and parents to exercise their freedoms in ways that effect the lives of those that have not yet developed full capacities. Either way, someone's idea of freedom is getting trampled on, either the freedom to exercise property rights or the freedom to act as you think is fit as parent bringing up your child.

Sorry for the long comment, this is just a concept I'm trying to work out myself and felt this wasn't a bad place to share.

[I also can't read the full WSJ article, as someone who tries to read multiple news sources from different perspectives to try to get through the bias, the single paper subscriber model is one I have no sympathy for.]

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

And Still They Come

If Australia can't stop people from as far away as Sri Lanka (4247 miles) and Afghanistan (6092 miles) from getting there and being major sources of their illegal boat immigrants, even with their much more punitive enforcement procedures and much higher natural barriers what hope do we have of stopping them from Mexico (less than 1 mile), no matter how high we may want to build a wall.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Put Up or Shut Up

–noun, plural -ties for 2.
1. the state of being uncertain; doubt; hesitancy: His uncertainty gave impetus to his inquiry.
2. an instance of uncertainty, doubt, etc.
3. unpredictability; indeterminacy; indefiniteness.

Something that has been a particular irritant of late is the recurrent argument that what's really harming recovery is uncertainty caused by new legislation being proposed. While I don't disagree that uncertainty is a problem, using this argument to block legislation is one of the silliest things I have ever heard. It's not an argument against passing legislation, it's an argument for it. Want business to be certain what's going to happen? Pass the damn thing, even if it is a job-eating, demonic, monster of a bill; at least business will be certain what's going to happen rather than leaving us stuck in a near depression because of "uncertainty."

To put it simply, everyone knows that taxes will have to rise, the health system will have to be fixed, financial regulations need to be passed, new drilling rules have to be put in place, defense spending will have to be pared down, social security needs to be reformed, some kind of consumption tax will have to be put on fossil fuels, greenhouse gas legislation needs to be passed, and we have to exit two wars. Since business knows these things are coming sooner or later, they're going to be uncertain until its done.

So if you want to end uncertainty, put up or shut up. Pass the necessary legislation that everyone knows is coming eventually, or stop making a silly argument about uncertainty which is just leading to more of it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Special Interests Win Again: Beverage Edition

NY's proposed soda tax has been dropped. I was never wild about the specific measure, studies show that any type of soda consumption is related to obesity even if by different mechanisms so sugary soda shouldn't be singled out, but I do favor moving the tax regime towards taxing bads rather than goods so favored this on tax on general grounds. Of course, since particular interests can usually trump the general interest these kind of taxes are extremely hard to pass and we have one more piece of evidence in favor of this view.

Or you could also phrase it as I have done earlier, people like to think how they live (or want to live) is virtuous and should be supported, it's those that ask them to change that are misanthropic and evil. The good guy usually favors the way things are against the villian who wants change (though the good guy often claims to want to change things back to how they were as well as an alternative to this).

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Whatever Happened To On the Job Training

Just finished reading this NY Times article on how companies can't fill open positions because they can't find any workers skilled enough for manufacturing jobs. What ever happened to on the job training? Why do companies feel entitled to workers who can walk onto the job knowing what to do, find ways to train them to do the work. Of course, you can't expect to teach basic reading and math skills in a quick job specific training course but you could teach basic computer skills for job specific machine operation.

Perhaps the government can structure an incentive program specifically for companies to educate underskilled workers on the job so they can do the work the company needs. I can't think of a way to do this without opening things up for abuse in the 30 seconds I've spent on the problem, but just framing a jobs program in this fashion may get some traction.

Sounds better to me than the first time home buyer tax credit anyway.

Is the Press Being Hoodwinked?

While I'm not terribly interested in the spy story itself beyond a vague amusement at it, I am seriously beginning to wonder if the press has had wool pulled over its eyes. There is far too much being made of the humorous aspects of the situation and too little attempts being made to find out how effective these spies actually are.

I'm not trying to suggest a conspiracy here, just that American security authorities realized (correctly) that the relationship with Russia was far more important than the damage these spies could actually inflict on an open society with relatively few secrets of real importance* so they thought ahead on how to sell the press on a line that would have them treating the case as an episode of Desperate HouseSpies rather than an event that should be taken seriously. Unlike during the Cold War both the US and Russia have their interests aligned in downplaying the event and so far US security services have been uncharacteristically competent at keeping any sensitive evidence classified while letting out only the information that sounds like a pitch for a new reality TV show (perhaps titled America's Next Top Russian Agent).

While I don't think any truly critical secrets were leaked, I think information of more importance than has been revealed was leaked by an operation that continued this long, and given the variety in ages of the agents probably one they saw continuing value in. The story just sounds too good for the press to be true so far, which makes me automatically suspicious. I think the press is getting played for fools with a story that seems perfectly crafted to sell papers. Of course I have no evidence to back this up, but if something sounds too good to be true it means something probably is.

*So far the Obama administration has shown a disturbing tendency towards secrecy. Most of this seems to be political in nature and not of great interest to foreign operatives. Much of the rest of it, such as technical secrets, probably aren't the kind of things that there is much possibility of gaining access of enough pieces to be valuable. There are a few things that definitely should be kept sensitive, like the identities of intelligence agents and contacts in more repressive societies, but there is a lot that stays secret that probably doesn't have to be.

We Need This Article For Every State

The advantage of living in NY state is that you have a paper like the NY Times that can publish your foibles for everyone to see. I wish it had more effect but I'd guess in many states few people even have the opportunities to read articles detailing some of the bad bills going through their state legislature, unless those people are in the increasingly small segment that doesn't get their news online and reads their local paper closely. Here in NY, we at least don't have the excuse that the information is too hard to get.

It does make me that much more sceptical that information matters in public policy though since we're so exceptionally dysfunctional. The increased scrutiny hasn't led to any particularly postive impacts that I can detect.

Iceland, A Very Interesting Financial Data Point

I'm not even going to try to pretend I'm qualified to interpret this in any great detail. Krugman has a blog post up today on what has happened to Iceland since the financial crisis began. On first glance it looks like a very powerful data point in favor of his interpretation of how to respond to the crisis. Iceland's non-traditional response looks very successful compared to the supposedly virtuous. I don't know the context well enough however to say more on this than I think it's worth everyone taking 2 minutes to look at.