27 October, 2008

It is Obama for the White House!

Costs and Benefits

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein are shocked and dismayed that Kevin Drum opposes California's High-Speed Rail Initiative. I don't know about the details of this ballot proposition, but Drum's absolutely right that there are good transit projects and bad transit projects. In fact, we know very little about what the good transit projects are. There's hardly any solid empirical work documenting the benefits from public transportation projects. That's not to say that there aren't any--there's a lot of theory to suggest that they are. It's just that we don't know in any rigorous way which ones they are. Government spending is expensive. Every dollar spent by the government is a dollar not spent by a real person. It's easy to get caught up in ideas--transit, health care, climate change--and demand that something, anything be done. But we should always try to take a broader view when evaluating particular policies.

In which all the negative stereotypes of the French are hilariously melded

Bernard-Henri Levy (BHL as they call him in France) may very well be a fine philosopher, but reading this article I am reminded of how truly insufferable his political commentary is. The endless rhetorical questions, the non sequitar references to classical literature, the solemn recitation of inane cliches, all snowballing into the faux-poetry of mock-profundity. On the world financial crisis, we get this:

Is man a predator of man? Does the fear of this predator slumber within us? An anxiety, formerly concealed by a poorly applied varnish of civilization, about a state of nature that is re-emerging? Consider the princes of finance, once so polite, so complicit, so civilized, who have been facing each other at the edge of the abyss, waiting to see who will be the next to fall; consider that dance of wolves, the ferocious ballet of battered predators sniffing at each other, detecting the scent of death on their neighbors, coveting their remains; consider the tango of white-hot hate that has been discreetly called the "drying up of interbank credit."
Meanwhile, for more rainy-Monday mocking of French pretentiousness, there is none better than the one and only Garrison Keillor.

21 October, 2008

It's fun to dream...

Marc Ambinder does and says a lot of things that annoy me. But occasionally he says something interesting:

Here's a thought: the wave of establishment Republican-types endorsing obama is going to lead to a massive, massive anti-elite backlash in the 2012 GOP primary. think about the Democrats' anti-establishment feelings in 2003 -- Howard Dean, the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,, and then gin up the outrage by factor of ten.

Whether the nominee ends up being [P]alin or [H]uckabee or someone else, that nominee is going to have to cater to these feelings of anger and betrayal in order to get the nod.
This is an interesting thought. Though it's nigh on impossible to make predictions at this stage of the game, something like this scenario is pretty plausible. An angry, Christian, nationalist people's candidate vs. incumbent Obama? I think it's a common notion that in times of broad consensus (think FDR, Reagan), political discourse is less incendiary and more charitable. But the opposite is in fact true. The minority party has to start by appealing to the 40th percentile voter, not the median voter, and the 40th percentile voter is a hell of a lot more extreme than the median voter. So you get a situation where there is a broad, calm, mainstream consensus among most of the population, and a loud, angry, extreme minority. In the 60s, it was Barry Goldwater. In the 70s and 80s we had McGovern and Gary Hart (not exactly loud, but far to the left of where the country was.) The GOP over the next 8-10 is going to consist mostly of hicks, xenophobes, racists, and know-nothing nationalists. So why not a Huckabee-Palin ticket in 2012? The best reporting on the future of the GOP comes from The Tonic That Heals All Wounds:

20 October, 2008

We've dissed the haters...

So let's give some credit where its due. Watch as some decent McCainiacs put the kabosh on the crazed conspiratorial bigotry:

Know hope!

(h/t Coates)

Nomination for the Best Of Presidential Race 2008

Give it a minute to sink in. A personal favorite on several levels.

Source: http://caro.tumblr.com/post/52905901

17 October, 2008

So Krugman has won a Nobel...

Since I was so excited the day that Krugman was awarded the Nobel, I thought I'd give you a little tour of his work.

My first exposure to Paul Krugman was not, in fact, his New York Times column. It was when I was still a young economics major, struggling to understand Keynesian macroeconomics. Luckily, Uncle Paul was there to exactly what it was about with his famous baby-sitting co-op piece. He analogizes the Keynesian monetary-led recession to the experience of a baby-sitting cooperative on Capitol Hill. Here's another piece in which he takes the simple logic of the baby-sitting co-op and constructs a miniature mathematical model thereof. These two very short pieces sum up the essence of Keynesian economics--the rest is elaboration.

Krugman's popular writing (before the New York Times) has three themes. Much of it is about explaining sophisticated economics in the most basic way possible, as in the above pieces. But he is also passionate about the economic method, and neoclassical economics in particular. Here's Krugman arguing that economics is the best of the social sciences. And here is Krugman extolling the virtues of mathematical modeling as the primary focus of economics.

He does not only have strong feelings about the methods of economics, but the conclusions as well, particularly when it comes to trade. If you read just one Krugman piece, make it Ricardo's Difficult Idea, a defense of the idea of comparative advantage against less rigorous thinking. In another classic piece, Krugman talks about the dangers of thinking about international trade in terms of competitiveness. And here he is comparing the economy to a hot dog--and making the point that productivity gains from trade and technological advances do not mean fewer jobs for Americans.

This of course brings me to the work for which he actually won the Nobel prize--new trade theory and the new economic geography. And there's no one better to explain it than Paul himself, which he did on his blog a few days ago. If you want another take, here's Ed Glaeser proving that partisanship is not an economic virtue. Of his academic work, I'm most familiar with his work in economic geography, which seeks to explain why cities exist and how they form. You can read the introduction to his coauthored monograph, "The Spatial Economy", here.

More recently, Krugman's blog has been invaluable for understanding the financial crisis, the bailout, and what exactly is going on.

In any case--he's often a polemicist, so you may disagree strongly with him. But I don't think there's been a better economics writer since perhaps Adam Smith. And I don't think there's any other single person who more influenced what I want to do for the rest of my life.

P.S. Much much more can be found at the Unofficial Paul Krugman Archive.

A Healthy Democracy

I firmly believe that the health of any organism is determined by how easily he/she/it can laugh at his/her/its own beliefs and pretensions. So last night's Al Smith dinner, where McCain and Obama made fun of each other and themselves was, I hope, a healing moment. Think about how easily McCain and Obama joke about owning seven houses, or "pal-ing around with terrorists" and then think about the millions of people who take these accusations with deadly seriousness. Cognitive dissonance? (Much like George W. Bush joking about the missing Iraqi WMD at the White House Correspondents' dinner...wait, except that was real.)

Here it is:

16 October, 2008

The Gods of Public Policy

I can already see myself becoming agitated at progressives after the election. Ezra Klein writes:

If you look at the Obama campaign, the basic argument has been...tax cuts. Their biggest economic policy is a massive tax cut. Their health care argument has largely been a tax-based attack on John McCain. Their stimulus proposal was a tax cut. Now, these are not Republican tax cuts: They're decidedly progressive. The Obama campaign is taking advantage of the unequal distribution of wealth in this country, which allows you to drop taxes sharply on the vast majority of Americans while raising them modestly on a small minority and not blow a hole in your budget. They've realized, in other words, that cutting taxes on most people is what folks want in a tax cut. Aggregate revenues don't have to go down. And when the top one percent control 20 percent of the country's income, you can make up a lot of revenue by taxing them a bit.

But tactically smart though this decision may be, it's not exactly the sort of thing that pleases the Gods of Public Policy. This country needs more in the way of tax revenues. The Republicans have turned honesty on that score into a form of electoral suicide. The Obama campaign -- and thus the Democrats more generally -- have basically thrown up their hands and said "fine." If Republicans are going to demagogue taxes and make irresponsible cuts a constant feature of elections, then the Democrats will prove that two can play at that game. Politically, that may be wise. But it's going to make the eventual reckoning much worse.
I think Ezra's right that Obama has figured out how best for the Democrats to politically approach tax cuts. Moreover, Obama is framing a tax raise (for 5% of the population) in a very appealing way. But it simply isn't true that this is somehow caving to the Republicans. Kennedy had a middle-class tax cut. Clinton had a middle-class tax cut. There's a long history of middle-class tax cuts in the Democratic party.

I think what really annoyed me about this post is the assertion that there's some known objective truth as to what the best public policy is. But we're pretty far from that. There are very very few policies (relative to the total number of policies) for which we have experimental or quasi-experimental evidence as to their success or failure. We just don't know much about it. We're constantly making advances, but we still are mostly in a state of ignorance. The process by which an academic paper, with all of it's nuance and hedging, works its way through policy shops, the media, and various pundits, is kind of disheartening. The end result is that we appear to know much more than we do. And while Ezra and Yglesias are great bloggers, I think they tend toward this perspective a bit too much for my tastes. And I expect to be very annoyed come January.

For the record...is the Nobel politicized?

Mickey Kaus claims that the Swedes are trying to influence the election by giving Krugman the Nobel Prize. But what are the politics of the Nobel Prize? Let's look at prizes in economics given in election years:

2008 - Paul Krugman
2004 - Kydland and Prescott
2000 - Heckman and McFadden
1996 - Mirrlees and Vickrey
1992 - Gary Becker
1988 - Maurice Allais
1984 - Richard Stone
1980 - Larry Klein
1976 - Milton Friedman
1972 - Hicks and Arrow
Okay--so, Krugman's liberal. But in 2004 the prize was given to Ed Prescott, who, while a Swarthmore alumnus, is about as right-wing as economists get. Heckman supports Obama now but used to be solidly Chicago-school (libertarian) in his politics. McFadden's a liberal. Becker is a champion of the Chicago school, Klein is an old-school Democrat. Friedman is Milton Friedman. Arrow is liberal.

So that makes four liberals and four conservatives and six I can't place off-hand. Conclusion? The Nobel is not politicized.

14 October, 2008

Sometimes you feel like a monk...maybe that's just me.

I feel rather like reviewing tonight, so I set myself to the task somberly in pensive silence. Rather like a monk, come to think of it. That's it! I'll review a Trappist beer tonight for the enjoyment of all.

True Trappist products are surprisingly easy to find in any self-respecting beer serving establishment, so as I cross the threshold of my local haunt the image in my mind of the libation that shall soon quench my privation of refreshment is poignant and taunting. That was overly complex, but I taste no simple malt-water tonight.

Trappistes Rochefort '10.' A Belgian Quadruple or "Quad," this is an example of the high-test brew that the Trappists Abbeys produce. Dark and rich, complex and subtle--I can hardly stand the wait.

Trappist Abbeys are interesting--rather, of the 170 or so abbeys that exist in the world, the seven that produce beer commercially are of particular interest. All but one reside in Belgium. The Trappists themselves sprung from the Cistercian monastic order in the mid 1600's when the Abbot in La Trappe, France founded an offshoot order because the Cistercians were becoming "too liberal." Interesting parallels to the past are to be found everywhere, it seems. Thus, strict observance was born in the new Trappist order--where only water was to be drunk.

Time will heal all wounds, they say, and so some years later in the 19th century the Trappists began brewing beer. One of the rules of the order maintains that the monasteries must be self-sustaining--why not supply the masses with the deliscious and restorative ales they so strongly desire?

The brewing system that became typical of these monasteries is to produces several types of beer under the labes 'Enkel,' 'Dubbel,' 'Tripel,' and 'Quadrupel.' These rankings were formerly distinguished only by the color of the bottlecap or container as bottles were unlabeled at the time. These names or a system of numbers described the relative strength of the beers, Enkel or single being the weakest, Quadrupel of course being the strongest. The monks themselves would generally consume a hearty, but very low alcohol brew to sustain them during their fasts.

Enough of history, though, I came here with a purpose. Rochefort '10,' as I said, is in the Quadrupel style, weighing in at an impressive 11.3% ABV. You would hardly notice by the taste however, so consume responsibly.

The beer pours a very dark brown, appearing almost opaque with a full pour into a deep chalice. A full finger of creamy light-tan head rests atop for a few minutes before subsiding to a thin layer that leaves consistent lacing all the way to the bottom. The nose on this beer is surprisingly mild, yet subtly screams of complexity. I don't have dates very often, but that rich smell comes right up front, gently but distinctly saying, "how 'bout this Friday?" There is a lot of fruit in this beer, bringing immediately to mind a full-bodied wine. Dark odors drift inside the rim of my glass: grapes, raisins, berries--you name it and it's there, all with a sugary alcohol and roast just behind it.

The first sip is full of flavor, but this isn't the kind of beer that coats your mouth and leaves you wondering how long it will be until you can handle another drink. The malts are right there to be had, with sweet and caramelly flavors that come across as smooth as melted vanilla ice cream. The alcohol is soft and is understood more than it is tasted. The warmth that half a glass of this beer brings is second only to that brought by a full glass. I can't call this dry, but neither does it linger overlong and leave you unrefreshed. It's almost foamy, but so gently you're not sure. Remember how a saison feels like if fizzes up as soon as it hits the tongue? Nothing like that.

Served not-too-cold poured from a bottle, this beer was perfect. Even as it warmed, the character and flavor did not change much, only my reasoning capacity. Look for the blue cap and the number 10, and you will not be disappointed.

Enjoy yourselves. 10 days and counting!

11 October, 2008

"When you're on the canvas searching for your mouthpiece wondering, How the fuck did I lose..."

I'm sure by now, you've all heard of the nasty turn that the McCain/Palin campaign has taken. They, and their most fervent supporters, clearly feel cornered and frustrated, like a team down by ten in the fourth that has run out of time outs.

I just want to say that I didn't expect this sort of thing from the conservative side. My experience has been (understandably, given our recent history) with liberals -- especially young liberals -- overreacting to defeat at the polls. The moving-to-Canada folks, the never-going-to-believe-again folks, who, like ten year olds, vow never to play the game again because their side lost. Conservatives, I always thought, perhaps because they tend to be older, understood that losing is part of the game and that a loss means putting your head down and working harder, organizing better, and playing dirtier, if thats what it takes. Not for them the liberal's naive shock at having been bested.

But it seems there is a small but significant bloc of the GOP that up until this point literally could not conceive of a President Obama. With Bama crushing in the polls and clock counting down, they are now being forced to realize that it is not only a possibility, but also a likelihood. And they can't take it. This is a bit like liberals who couldn't consider George W. Bush anything but a punchline until he won, except more serious: we thought W. was silly and incompetent, but these are people who believe that Obama literally sympathizes with terrorists, that he literally has no qualifications besides being black.

This is racist, yes. But its also pathetic that these people who I used to admire for their tenacity if nothing else can only deal with prospect of electoral defeat with reflexive and conspiratorial bigotry. Eight years under Bush has convinced them that the country is made out people just like them, and now they are awaking to the horror that, in fact, the country is nothing like them and that they were just used by the conservative movement at large. They are waking up to a country where marginally increasing tax progressivity is not treasonous and where a majority is on track to elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama to the highest office of the land. To me, its Morning in America. To them, they have had the carpet pulled from underneath them in the most brutal way.

09 October, 2008

My apologies for what horror this may bring.

Came across a website where someone had photoshopped her head onto their body... I was compelled to share.

06 October, 2008

Okay, okay, vote...but first, consider the arguments against voting!

The typical economists' argument against voting is that no individual's vote will ever flip an election. The number of elections that have been decided by one vote is miniscule--and certainly no important national elections have been decided by one vote. Even the 2000 election in Florida was ultimately decided by around five hundred votes. If one of those people had decided to stay home, it would not have made any difference. Since there's no chance of affecting the election, a rational person should not vote--even the small the cost of voting will outweigh the benefit of zero.

There are many objections to this argument. It's fun to vote and you avoid the stigma of not voting--those should be elements of a rational calculation. Also, it's often an expression of identity, which can have some utility. I find two other objections more persuasive.

First, the premise that voting has a zero probability of affecting the election may be wrong. It's true that almost no elections are decided by one vote. Why? Because when important elections are very close, other parties step in. In Florida, the election was actually decided by the Supreme Court, not the voters. So if the vote total falls within some range, other parties will step in. And it may be the case that one vote pushes the total into or out of that critical range.

Second, it may be the case that we have a moral duty to vote in a Kantian sense. If no one votes, our political system will collapse and everyone will be much worse off. But it's not worthwhile for any one person to vote--their vote changes nothing. And if I know that everyone else is going to vote, I can free ride on their efforts to maintain a stable political system. Arguably, this is immoral. So in some sense we all have a duty or imperative to vote to keep the system functioning.

Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Brown, flips this argument around. His argument starts with the premise that voting is a very cheap way of getting some self-satisfaction and concludes that too many people vote. Many (most?) people make bad decisions with justifications that would not stand up to even minimal standards of epistemic scrutiny.

There are a few parts to this. One, studies show that people vote for candidates listed higher on the ballot more often than those listed lower, regardless of who the candidates are. Two, many people vote on irrelevant characteristics, like attractiveness, rather than issues. Three, and most importantly, many people are wrong about what the best policies are for achieving what they think our political goals should be. (How many people were convinced that we should go to war with Iraq because Saddam was connected to al-Qaeda?)

Normally, we don't worry when people make bad decisions, but in the case of voting, those bad decisions affect all of us. But Brennan argues it's rational for people who know they make bad decisions to keep voting! No one makes enough difference in the political process for it to be worth it to abstain from voting. Any individual can say "Oh, I'm not informed, but since my vote doesn't make a difference, I'll go ahead and vote anyway." But the combined result of all those bad votes is that the democratic process reaches worse outcomes. So Brennan thinks that we have a moral duty (exactly analogous to that argued for above) to abstain from voting if we do not have a high level of confidence in our beliefs. The irony is, of course, that those with crazy, unjustifiable beliefs usually are absolutely convinced that they're right.

Below I've posted a Bloggingheads with Brennan, where he sets out his view and debates it with Will Wilkinson.

05 October, 2008

01 October, 2008