29 November, 2008

won't make news.

So this is the ONLY (<---ridiculous) article in the news (and it's not even in our news) about the atrocities going on in the Sudan.

I've been involved with the group call Invisible Children and sister group, Resolve Uganda, for a few years now. Peace talks have taken place, but the psychotic leader, Joseph Kony will not sign any peace treaties.

Read the updates and visit resolveuganda to get the low down, otherwise I have tons of videos to show when you're all home over winter break.

24 November, 2008

High-Speed Rail in the Midwest?

I've heard this idea bandied about and now Ryan Avent proposes it instead of an auto bailout:

High-speed rail would, in other words, turn Rust Belt distances into northeast corridor distances, while also shifting the Rust Belt closer to the northeast corridor. It would increase the return to doing business in every city in the region. It would be the Erie Canal and the original railroads on steroids.
I get the appeal of this idea. Pittsburgh to Minneapolis in three hours would be sweet. But if we have $50 billion to spend on high-speed rail somewhere, where should we put it? In California, connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles? In the Northeast, creating stronger connections between Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston? Or in the Rust Belt, linking Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis?

It's fun to draw these lines on maps, but it's very hard for me to wrap my mind around the benefits of creating new linkages between places versus the benefits of enhancing already existing linkages between places. In particular, who would use a Midwest corridor if it existed? Are there really that many people in Detroit who need a cheap, fast way of getting to Minneapolis? On the other hand, people travel around the Northeast all the time. But that's because it's hard to travel around the Midwest and relatively easy to travel around the Northeast. So the choice is between creating new, potentially economically stimulating, connections between cities that currently have no such connection and strengthening connections that already exist.

It's not as obvious to me as it must be to Ryan that the former is the correct choice.

ADDENDUM: I also wanted to mention that there are huge differences between high-speed rail and the Erie Canal or even the original railroads that Ryan mentions as examples of transportation systems that high-speed rail's benefits would surpass. In particular, high-speed rail doesn't carry things, it just carries people. So it wouldn't have nearly the benefits of ye olde methods of transportation.

23 November, 2008

David Brooks, Schizophrenic

Word on the street is that Larry Summers will be appointed to head the National Economic Council, the body that coordinates economic policy in the White House and between executive departments. Another heartening pick from Obama.

But David Brooks isn't happy about Obama's picks. Also, he is happy about them.

And yet as much as I want to resent these overeducated Achievatrons (not to mention the incursion of a French-style government dominated by highly trained Enarchs), I find myself tremendously impressed by the Obama transition.
(Now it's "overeducated" for the President's economic advisers to have Ph.D.'s in economics?) See, Brooks resents competency. Just who do these people think they are with their fancy degrees and their management skills and their grasp of good policymaking? But boy is he glad that they're taking over the country, because what if we had that hick Sarah Palin in office?

And he writes this without a hint of irony:
Any think tanker can come up with broad doctrines, but it is rare to find people who can give the president a list of concrete steps he can do day by day to advance American interests.
I hate David Brooks. And love him.

22 November, 2008

Barack Delano Obama

The President-Elect signals in his weekly address that he is going to go big with his economic stimulus:

The debate on stimulus seems to be between the minimalists - thinking no doubt about the political optics of spending more money at this juncture - that want in the range of $200-300 billion or even less, and the Krugmans that argue that to be effective we must spend more in the range of $600-800 billion (5-6% of GDP rather than 2-3%). Obama seems to be coming down on the higher end here, which is heartening, but it looks like we won't see the numbers quite yet.

Also, I know its cliche, but I'm optimistic for these YouTube addresses to become fireside-chat like in their impact. I for one woke up this morning looking forward to hearing our next president's take on the situation. On the other hand, Bush gives a radio address every week (as did Clinton, I imagine) and no one gives a shit. We'll see.

20 November, 2008

Why did conservatism fail?

First, did it fail? The conservative movement did succeed to a large extent in forcing thinkers across the political spectrum to realize the benefits of market-based policies. No one proposes price controls anymore, the leading candidate for a global warming solution is cap-and-trade, not pure regulation, free trade is the assumed position of all presidential candidates. But conservatism also failed in a big way. I don't think that the Bush disaster and the financial crisis actually repudiate conservatism in the way that many people do. They do repudiate the Republican Party in it's current form. I'll agree that the Iraq War is a huge demerit on the record of neo-conservative foreign policy. But Bush never actually tried conservative economic policies. With the exception of his tax cuts, he increased spending dramatically, expanded Medicare, passed a steel tariff, etc. So conservatism did not fail because it enacted its policy agenda and the agenda led to bad results. Rather, it failed because it could not convince even Republicans to follow through on conservative principles. Why? Nate Silver has the answer:

There are a certain segment of conservatives who literally cannot believe that anybody would see the world differently than the way they do. They have not just forgotten how to persuade; they have forgotten about the necessity of persuasion.

John Ziegler is a shining example of such a conservative. During my interview with him, Ziegler made absolutely no effort to persuade me about the veracity of any of his viewpoints. He simply asserted them -- and then became frustrated, paranoid, or vulgar when I rebutted them.
He goes on to blame talk radio for these failure, but I think it's much broader than that. Here's Grover Norquist:
...he suggested that some calls to update conservatism — by taking global warming more seriously, for instance — were essentially disguised calls to move the party to the left.

“They will be cheerfully ignored,” Mr. Norquist said.
There once was, I'm told, a cadre of conservatives who thought it of the utmost importance to persuade people of the virtue of conservative principles. People like William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, and Russell Kirk had to persuade, because so few agreed with them. Conservatism's failure is not political or economic, it is an intellectual because the movement could not sustain the persuasion after it won political power.

This is ultimately, I think, because conservatives became blind to the fact that decent people can disagree. If you believe that your intellectual opponents are bad or evil, you cannot engage them. You cannot persuade them, or even attempt to do so. They must simply be stopped at all costs. And thus we have a decade of corruption, lies, and political bad faith. We have the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Bill Ayers, and "Drill, Baby, Drill".

I don't think this believe is inseparable from conservatism, but it has been part of it since the beginning. Communists were pure evil and had to be defeated. Terrorists, now, are simply pure evil and must be defeated. Abortion doctors are pure evil and must be stopped, imprisoned, or even killed. Ahmadinejad cannot be reasoned with--he is pure evil and must be wiped off the face of the planet. You get the drift. The doctrinaire approach to the world is not just bad politics, it's bad policy as well.

Tyler Cowen has a nice concept for dealing with emotionally-charged rhetoric from otherwise cogent intellectuals:
When I see people writing sentences of this kind, I imagine them pressing a little button which makes them temporarily less intelligent. Because, indeed, that is how one's brain responds when one employs this kind of emotionally charged rhetoric.

As you go through life and read various writers, I want you to keep this idea of the button in mind. As you are reading, think "Ah, he [she] is pressing the button now!"
As liberals hoping for a long and fruitful reign of power, we should learn from the history of the conservative movement. We are ebullient now, full of arguments and new ideas. Let that this enthusiasm for persuasion continue for many decades...and always remember when someone is pressing the little button.

Good News...

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) has defeated Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Besides having a stupid name, Dingell has been in the pocket of the auto industry (he's from Michigan) for decades and has consequently done all he can to block climate change legislation. So maybe now we'll get cap-'n-trade or a carbon tax.

From a broader perspective, this highlights the new coalition that makes up the Democratic Party. It's no longer about organized labor, it's about the urbanites and suburbanites who share cosmopolitan values, want to take on global warming, and want a more efficient, less corrupt government. At least that's my optimistic take...

19 November, 2008

This is just ridiculously cool...

Aesthetics, Trade-offs, and Congestion Pricing

Since the Obama win, we've been seeing the new progressive infrastructure that Elliot discussed kick into high gear, with countless policy proposals being floated. Urban policy is no exception. Obama has promised to create an Office of Urban Affairs to coordinate urban-related policies across several departments. Reading the liveblog of a recent conference on "Urban Design After the Age of Oil" I can't help but feel very skeptical of the whole enterprise. I think there are two related reasons for my hesitancy. First, I get the feeling that a lot of urban planner types don't really take the costs (and opportunity costs) of their proposed policies seriously. And two, policies that bring us closer to aesthetic ideals are too often confused with optimal policies.

The only breaths of fresh air on the blog are the posts by Ryan Avent (of The Bellows). Again and again, he tries in vain to bring the designs of the urban planners down to earth. Here's one where he confronts ignorance of opportunity costs head-on:

...the use of urban brownfields for agriculture is far more popular than the elimination of car lanes for bike lanes, which is itself more popular than the use of congestion pricing in a downtown area. Keep in mind that most of these votes were cast by urban planning professionals, attending a conference dedicated in no small part to the use of urban policy to reduce dependence on oil and to reduce carbon emissions.

In fact, ordering the policies by their effectiveness on those measures would likely generate the exact reverse ranking. It is quite true that agriculture involves intense use of carbon. On the other hand, the supply of good urban space is very limited. Using valuable urban land to support agriculture would result in the displacement of potential urban residents, who would be pushed into residence elsewhere--potentially in places less dense, and more carbon intensive. Potentially, in fact, into the city’s suburbs, where existing farmland might well be plowed up to make way for new homes. This isn’t a good trade-off in nearly all circumstances.

Congestion pricing, on the other hand, has been shown (in places like London, Stockholm, and Singapore) to reduce driving and increase transit use. By reducing traffic volume, it becomes easier to allocate street space to other modes, like bikes and surface transit. Best of all, pricing raises revenue, which can be used to invest in new transit, or retrofit inefficient buildings, or invest in renewable power generation, and so on. So why is that policy the least popular? It is, I suppose, the least sexy. It’s playing with prices rather than turning old industrial land into crops. The latter, no doubt, is more visually gratifying to those concerned about environmental activities. But we must always remember that the most important thing is the results.
Both of the reasons for my skepticism are highlighted here. The opportunity cost of urban agriculture is the housing, or schools, or businesses that we could otherwise put there. Ignoring this makes urban agriculture sound like a great idea. But since land in cities is so valuable, we should do more land-intensive things, like growing crops, outside of cities. As Ryan points out, the carbon from an apartment building's worth of people commuting to and from the suburbs every day is probably an order of magnitude greater than the carbon used to transport the crops that could be grown on that land. What's happening is that the aesthetic ideal of a (literally) green, self-supporting city is trampling all over the search for the best way to reduce carbon emissions (not to mention that reduction of carbon emissions needs to be weighed against yet other goals).

Ryan picks up the same vibe from this Dana Goldstein piece on Obama's Office of Urban Affairs. Here's what Goldstein says about congestion pricing:
One example is congestion pricing, which New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried and failed to enact in Manhattan earlier this year. An aggressive pricing system — perhaps one more aggressive than Bloomberg’s proposal — would not only be a response to global warming, but would also make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, raise money for public transit, and cut down on inner city air pollution, which is responsible for an epidemic of asthma among poor children.
Ryan points out that, though these reasons are noble, they miss the one big reason for congestion pricing: it reduces congestion. While it has many other benefits, congestion pricing is a good policy because it puts a non-zero price on a scarce good, namely space on roads and highways. Again, I think what's going on here is that the almost ideological drive to create sustainable, walkable cities is overpowering common sense considerations. Here's Ryan making the general point:
I suppose my feeling is this–the emphasis on walkability and sustainability in new urbanism is a good thing, but it’s also a niche thing. We seem to have broadened the urban discussion to the point where instead of just being about the urban poor, it’s about the urban poor and the growing class of metro bobos who want to ditch the car, shop organic, and make very green inner suburbs and central cities a little bit greener. Not that there’s anything wrong with those people — I’m those people, after all — but the issues involved are much, much bigger.

We need to understand the extent to which our urban structure affects everything. This isn’t just about urban poverty, or facilitating growth in the new pedestrianism craze. It’s about recognizing that better national metropolitan policies can be used to lever significant improvements on energy and environmental issues, but also on things like inequality and basic growth in output and incomes–fundamental pocketbook issues that resonate in suburban America.
Not exactly how I would say it, but I completely agree. We may have our own personal visions of what a city should look like. Indeed, I want a very dense city where I don't need a car, I can walk to work, the store, or a park, and easily take public transportation to every conceivable destination. Someone else may want a porch, a backyard, and the independence that a car provides. But good policy isn't about enforcing our personal aesthetics, it's about finding the best balance between everyone's preferences. And good policy is also about being smart about how these goals are achieved. We shouldn't be leaving any $5 bills on the ground.

UPDATE: I would be remiss if I didn't point out Matt Yglesias' post which makes basically a similar point:
That did, however, give me plenty of time to reflect on what I think has been one of the major oddities about the conversation on congestion pricing. Namely, that I don’t really understand why this has normally been construed as an “anti-driving” or “anti-driver” policy initiative. At the end of the day, folks with pedestrian-, cycling-, or transit-oriented lives in a city like New York or Washington have relatively little at stake when it comes to adopting a sensible policy approach to congestion. By contrast, people who commute every day to and from work in congestion heavy cities would benefit a lot from policies that reduce the amount of traffic they deal with on a daily basis. It’s true of course that habitual auto commuters would be paying the bulk of the direct financial cost of such a policy, but they’d also be receiving the vast majority of the benefits. Maybe some people just think sitting in traffic is awesome, but personally it seems terrible to me.

Looking back on the New York congestion pricing fight, it really seems as if the whole thing got somewhat misframed as of a piece with Jeanette Sadik-Khan’s efforts to make the city less car-oriented. In fact, that’s really quite a separate debate. The case for congestion pricing is simply that if you have a valuable, scare resource like “space on a road in a major urban area at peak traffic time” you need to price that resource appropriate (i.e., at something more than $0.00) or else it will get consumed inefficiently and you’ll have endless traffic jams. That case holds up whether you think cities should look like Copenhagen or whether you think they should look like Phoenix and really has nothing to do with urbanism per se.
I think he's actually wrong that drivers would receive the vast majority of the benefits. The government would receive the vast majority of the benefits through increased revenues. Drivers would pay in toll costs exactly the benefit they received through lower congestion. And of course many drivers would simply choose to take some other method of transportation.

But the point he makes at the end is quite correct. Congestion pricing isn't about what cities should look like. It's a basic case of taxing an externality.

18 November, 2008

Progressive infrastructure

Early in my undergrad days, I went to a talk by a guy named Eboo Patel, who had started an interfaith organization for Chicago youth. His idea was to get kids from all different religions to get together and do volunteer work together, and in the process, talk about their faiths and by doing so learn to understand and respect one another. But that day - I think it was shortly after the 2004 elections - he talked less about the religious aspect and more about the future of progressive ideals - tolerance, secularism, peace and social justice - that seemed to be continually on the defensive in Bush's America.

He was first I heard to articulate what seems now to be a pretty common idea: that the future of progressivism was not in marching in the streets or in mobilizing for elections (although those are both important) but in the more difficult and longer-term work of building and nurturing institutions. The Right has its policy think tanks and publications (Heritage Foundation, National Review, Weekly Standard, Rush Limbaugh) and its civil society organization (Focus on the Family, et al) and now even its own cable network, all which raise money, field volunteers, put out publications and advertisements, push their preferred narrative, and in general serve as supporting infrastructure for the right-leaning universe. The closest thing the progressives had was labor unions, which had lots of members, but who only addressed a relatively narrow topic and didn't really have a coherent media presence.

Patel traced the discrepancy to the failure of the civil rights era progressives to lay the groundwork for an enduring movement. While some important institutions did emerge, like the NAACP, a huge part of the movement was simply too invested in radical and immediate change to think about the long slog of institution-building. And, it must be said, a large part of the movement wasn't at all serious about governing and had wildly unrealistic and self-contradictory visions of a future America. This wasn't a recipe for longevity; it was a recipe for a massive cynical burnout, which is to my understanding what happened. Meanwhile, conservatives hunkered down for the long haul, creating in the 1970s many of the institutions that would be given oxygen by Reagan and then bear fruit during the 1990s.

All that is to say, I think some people have gotten serious about learning that lesson, and we're starting to see some of the fruits of it already. The blogosphere is a big part of this, with Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, et al, pushing stories, getting commentators on news shows and challenging the limits of "reasonable" and "serious" debate. There is also the growth of progressive publications and think tanks that can provide research and serve as homes to progressive expertise. (The director of Obama's transition team, John Podesta, founded The Center for American Progress). And now we have mainstream political television programs featuring Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. The center of gravity has shifted, and conservatives will no longer be able to win arguments by default.

Conservatives, and their arguments, still get more playtime on the air, but it is amazing to see the impact of just a few more sharp progressive voices. I was especially reminded of this when I saw this clip of Paul Krugman countering conservative George Will:

Here Will states the conservative argument that New Deal policies were actually responsible for the worst of the Great Depression. Four years ago, or probably even two, Paul Krugman would not have been sitting next to Will in order to counter his argument in real time. Will acts a bit surprised, almost like he has been parroting this for years without being challenged. And judging by our media, that is probably the case.

Update: Speaking of which.

17 November, 2008

Apropos Dylan lyric of the week (Election/Transition Edition)

From "When the Ship Comes In" ("The Times, They Are A-Changin'" is just too easy):

Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin'.
Like the stillness in the wind
'Fore the hurricane begins,
The hour when the ship comes in...

The long lull of the summer months, as both sides gather their forces in anticipation of hurricane season, both literally (literally!) and figuratively.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they're spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

The tried-and-true politics of fear and deception prove to be strangely impotent, as an aggressive New Media asserts its role as fact-checker and counter-narrative pusher. Obama's calm, poised and confident style proves impervious to the old guard's desperation, which, like Clinton before them, descends further and further into a caricature of themselves. Grass-roots organizing and fundraising begins to break the chains of influence that has stymied previous progressive campaigns.

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin'.
And the ship's wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin'.

As the election nears, there is a strange dual sense of possibility and danger. Our political "weary toes" long to touch the promised land, but we have not landed safely yet. There are still obstacles, and the world watches with bated breath as Obama navigates each Scylla and Charybdis.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'.
But they'll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it's for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Republicans, having taken Obama about as seriously as did Clinton, begin to wake up, startled, to their war hero candidate falling far behind our neophyte standard bearer. Panicked, they go for broke with wild accusations and shield themselves with rationalization and collective disbelief. The racist and xenophobic dead enders hyperventilate as it dawns on them that "its for real."

Then they'll raise their hands,
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands,
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh's tribe,
They'll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.

As soon as Obama wins, the chorus proclaiming a historical fluke, a lack of mandate, and a "center-right" country begins in an attempt to bluff Obama out of governing in the way that he was elected to. But the tide of a new America, a coalition of the young, the educated, minorities, and much of the working class as well, is rising.

Pharaoh's tribe is defeated, and our ship has come in. But the real prize lies still further inland, and Goliath still waits to be conquered.

Straight Talk

From everyone's favorite unrepentant terrorist:UPDATE:The second half of the interview (more interesting than the first half):

13 November, 2008

Obama's Economic Policy pt. 4

Rumors swirl that Larry Summers is off the Treasury short-list because Obama doesn't want a controversial candidate. Fair enough, but the guy is brilliant. And just for the record...the standard arguments against Summers are based entirely on taking things he's said out of context. The memo where Summers appears to state that we should move dirty industries to poor countries was doctored to make it look as if he did not intend the statement ironically (not to mention authored by someone else entirely, Summers just signed it). As far as the women thing, here's Sheryl Sandberg:

Larry has been attacked by some in the women's community for remarks he made about women's abilities. As he has acknowledged himself, this speech was a real mistake. What few seem to note is that it is remarkable that he was giving the speech in the first place - that he cared enough about women's careers and their trajectory in the fields of math and science to proactively analyze the issues and talk about what was going wrong. To conclude that he communicated poorly -- and even insensitively -- is fair. To conclude that he is opposed to progress for women overlooks the fact that improving this progress was precisely the subject he was addressing.
Read the speech for yourself--it's not offensive in any way.

Obama's Economic Policy pt. 3

On to some more substantive questions. Should we bail out GM (and Ford and Chrysler)? It appears that the future Obama administration is poised to do exactly that.

The first argument always made in favor of an auto industry bailout is: "We bailed out the banks, why not the car manufacturers?" Car manufacturers are an order of magnitude less important to the overall economy than banks. It's important to nearly every business that credit can easily be obtained. It's important to nearly every person that they be able to borrow to finance a car or a home, education, or other large purchases and investments. But if GM disappeared today, the country's transportation system would not collapse. There would still be a plentiful supply of automobiles and trucks from abroad. Some industries are just more important than others.

But no one's talking about making GM disappear. When GM can't meet its obligations, they will enter bankruptcy. (How many times have airlines gone into bankruptcy and continued flying, even during Chapter 11 itself?) Stockholders would lose their investments and bondholders would be given newly-minted stock in exchange for their bonds. GM would be given a chance to restructure (i.e. not pay) some or all of their debt--mostly the massive pensions and health-care plans they mistakenly promised their employees in perpetuity--and then would start anew. Released from the burden of huge pension and interest payments, GM could refocus on making good cars and innovating again.

What happens to the workers and pensioners? They would take a hit. Pensions would be reduced, workers would be paid less, and many would be laid off. But if we really want to help GM's workers (and I think we should), the best way to do it would be to help them directly with cash transfers and retraining. Giving GM the money just helps GM's stockholders. Let's give that money (or a portion of it) directly to the workers who are affected by GM's failure.

Why not help stockholders? They've made a bad decision to invest in a company with a crappy business model. If we bail out every big company that fails because it has a bad business model, firms will line up outside of the Treasury department for their bailout check. It provides a disincentive for businesses to change paths when they're pursuing a failing strategy. It encourages them to invest in unproductive lobbyists who can get Washington to bail them out when the time comes. And if we're making something that some other country can make much more cheaply, we should stop making it!(1)

Let's not bail out the auto industry. Instead, let's give the $25 billion directly to the affected workers, conditional on having worked for GM for, say, five years or more. Workers who've worked there less than five years can be provided with vouchers for retraining and relocation if they so desire.

(1) Note: There are arguments for nurturing "infant industries" by providing them with protection from foreign competitors and subsidies. But these arguments do not apply to industries that have been around a long time and just aren't working any more. This is for the same reason that import-substitution industrialization tends to work very well in the first decade or two and then becomes a massive burden beyond that point.

12 November, 2008

Happy Birthday to Debaser...

Just a quick note to point out that debaser recently turned one. One whole year of thought-provoking analysis, exhaustive election coverage, first-class beer commentary, and a cheerful raft of silly videos!

And guess what the date of our very first post was? November 4th! A date that shall live in infamy.

Squeaker in Alaska

Democrat Mark Begich pulls ahead of Ted "Series of Tubes" Stevens by three votes, 125019 to 125016. Jesus Christ.

Obama's Economic Policy pt. 2

Ezra reports that Obama might pick Tom Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary. This is an example of what I talked about in my last post and a common mistake that Presidents tend to make. The argument for Vilsack goes something like this:

1. The Secretary of Agriculture should know a lot about agriculture.
2. Tom Vilsack was Governor of Iowa and so knows a lot about agriculture.
3. Tom Vilsack should be Secretary of Agriculture.
I'll concede premises 1 and 2, but 3 does not follow from them. There are many constituencies affected by United States agriculture policy. Just to name a few, farmers, Cargill, food consumers, developing countries, etc. But Vilsack, as former Governor of Iowa, is clearly in the tank for one of these constituencies: the corn farmers that make up a lot of Iowa's population. (Ezra talks more about how corn's long-time control of our food policy is a bad thing.) This is like appointing the CEO of GM to be Secretary of Transportation because he knows a lot about cars (or, for that matter, appointing Hank Paulson to the Treasury).

11 November, 2008

Obama's Economic Policy pt. 1

Okay, so the country came together and Barack Hussein Obama will be our next president. Moving on, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty and look at what he's actually going to do.

First off, a kind of nitpicky point, which really isn't nitpicky at all. Here's a good post from Bill Buiter on the people that make up Obama's "Transition Economic Advisory Board" and...it's not the group of people I would have picked. Buiter points out that there are only four economists, but eight lawyers:

Except for a depressingly small minority among them, lawyers know nothing. They are incapable of logic. They don’t know the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions or between type I and type II errors. Indeed, any concept of probability is alien to them. They don’t understand the concepts of opportunity cost and trade off. They cannot distinguish between normative and positive statements. They are so focused on winning an argument through technicalities, that they no longer would recognise the truth if it bit them in the butt.
Harsh, but mostly accurate. Lawyers are trained as advocates. It's their job to represent a particular constituency. Here, you've got Reich representing the unions, Granholm the car manufacturers, and so forth. Making economic policy, on the other hand, is about weighing trade-offs between different constituencies. Moreover, lawyers are trained to point out flaws, no matter how trivial, in the arguments of others, rather than to understand all of the relevant arguments and synthesize them in a more deep and substantive way.

The best public policy does not emerge from a competition between advocates of various constituencies. That's how you get disasters like the annual Farm Bill or every trade bill ever or Medicare Part D. Good policy comes from a group of serious people being open to all the relevant considerations and thinking hard about them.

What Buiter doesn't object to, but I will, is the six or so businesspeople on the board. I'll give Paul Krugman the mic:
The converse is also true: What people learn from running a business won't help them formulate economic policy. A country is not a big corporation. The habits of mind that make a great business leader are not, in general, those that make a great economic analyst an executive who has made $ 1 billion is rarely the right person to turn to for advice about a $ 6 trillion economy.

Why should that be pointed out. After all, neither businesspeople nor economists are usually very good poets, but so what? Yet many people not least successful business executives themselves believe that someone who has made a personal fortune will know how to make an entire nation more prosperous. In fact, his or her advice is often disastrously misguided.

I am not claiming that businesspeople are stupid or that economists are particularly smart. On the contrary, if the 100 top U.S. business executives got together with the 100 leading economists, the least impressive of the former group would probably outshine the most impressive of the latter. My point is that the style of thinking necessary for economic analysis is very different from that which leads to success in business.
Maybe this is all for show and publicity, but I'd feel a lot more confident if I could actually see Obama taking advice from some established economic thinkers besides Larry Summers. (Although I'd love to see Summers reprise his role as Treasury Secretary. All of the arguments against him are bogus.)

What a year...

The most interesting political campaign in my lifetime, at least. If you want to relive it, here's a well-written and well-reported (and long) recap of the entire thing (the link is to Chapter 1, there are 7 chapters).

07 November, 2008

Why aren't there more close elections?

For me, the really interesting question is why there aren't more close elections.

You're right that if political parties' platforms were set purely by ideology or some other external force, then statistically close elections would be pretty rare. But they aren't--most candidates select a platform based on what will win them the most votes.

Suppose that the electorate's political beliefs are distributed over a single dimension. Candidates can choose to locate their platform wherever they like on this dimension and voters pick the candidate that is closest to their beliefs. Then one can show that both candidates to locate their platforms at the median (50th percentile) of the distribution of beliefs. This is known as the Median Voter Theorem. If the MVT holds, every election should be close.

(A quick proof of the MVT: Suppose Dave is a Democrat and locates at percentile x < 1/2 (where 1/2 is the 50th percentile). Where does Roger the Republican locate? Roger can easily win the election by locating at any point between x and 1-x. The only place Dave can locate where Roger doesn't automatically win is at x = 1/2. And the same logic applies to Roger, so both locate their platforms at the median.)

There's a whole field of economics called "political economy" (not to be confused with 18th century political economy) that is basically trying to figure out why the MVT doesn't hold in most cases. One possibility is that if a candidate picks a platform too close to the center, their base won't vote for them. So each candidate has to trade off between attracting moderate voters in the center and extreme voters in their base. But even this model still predicts close elections.

So what do you have to do to get the number of non-close elections that we actually see? The most plausible thing to me is that there may be some uncertainty in terms of the results selecting a platform or position, then candidates will make some guesses that turn out badly. But does this really explain the data?

Here is some data on the popular vote margin in the last 20 elections:

2004, 2.4
2000, -0.5
1996, 8.5
1992, 5.6
1988, 7.8
1984, 18.2
1980, 9.7
1976, 2.1
1972, 23.2
1968, 0.7
1964, 22.6
1960, 0.1
1956, 15.4
1952, 10.9
1948, 4.5
1944, 7.5
1940, 9.9
1936, 24.3
1932, 17.7
1928, 17.4

The average popular vote margin is 10.4%. I just can't believe that making mistakes about where the electorate is can lead to these kinds of large margins. There are other possible explanations having to do with incumbency and other built-in explanations, but none are really satisfying. So it's an open question.

But there aren't actually that many close elections. Only three out of the last twenty were within 1%. In fact, this year's election was pretty close on a historical scale.

06 November, 2008

Why are there so many close elections? pt 1

Why does it feel like so many elections are decided by less than a few points, or even much less than a single percentage point? This time around we had Missouri, North Carolina, and Indiana for the presidential race, and Alaska and Minnesota for the Senate (along with a few as-of-yet undecided House seats).

In my limited experience in elective politics (that is, graduate student gov't and high school student council), most people recognize one of the candidates as being clearly the best, and then peoples' desire to not be on the losing side or be in the social minority pushes the winner to a commanding victory. In state and national elections, a person's vote is private and and most people probably don't worry about losing friends over who they go with, but it's still not clear why there are so many close-calls. Statistically, we would expect a really close election every once in a while, but one wouldn't expect them to occur a quarter of the time, or even as little as 10% of the time.

I haven't looked at any statistics on this, so it's very possible that very close elections are very rare over the entire history of U.S. politics. Hence the "part 1". Hopefully a more informed post with some actual data will materialize in the near future.

I think we could expect elections always be close if the following things were true:

  • The major political parties have almost identical platforms.
  • All people want the same types of things in the same way.
Conversly, we would expect elections to rarely be close if were true that the major political parties have distinctly different platforms that represent different ideals and (somewhat mutually exclusive) worldviews. This seems to be more of the case to me.

Voting and Demographics

It's pretty much common knowledge that country-folk tend to vote Republican and city-slickers tend to vote Democrat, but I found that comparing this year's election results to a map of the U.S. population density by county really gives this idea some substance.

The comparison isn't perfect for a lot of reasons, but it certainly isn't terrible. The Ohio River seems to contain high levels of anti-progressive minerals, accounting for Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky (a bit must have leaked down into Tennessee, as well). New Mexico has Bill Richardson, Colorado had the convention, and Texas is Texas. Other than that, not too shabby. There must be something about living near other people that helps you understand what works and what doesn't work in society.

And let me just say, I'm really proud of Wisconsin.

05 November, 2008

Bullet: Dodged

Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President of the United States of America

An Amazing Night

I can still hear the yelling and screaming about Obama's victory on Massachusetts Ave. tonight. It's not going to stop until the dawn...

04 November, 2008

Judgment day

Finally, it's here. After two years, a grueling primary race, god knows how many debates, after puerile attack ads and uplifting speeches alike, after months of canvassing and phonebanking, victories and losses and heartbreak and intrigue -- I'm off god-awful early in the morning to help put this thing away.

In the immortal words of David Plouffe: Let's go win this fucking thing.

02 November, 2008

Movie Review: "W"

High on entertaining, low on profundity. Cheney was so-so. Condi and Colin Powell were both over the top. Laura Bush was charming, and Papa Bush was by far the most interesting character. Josh Brolin as W was hilarious - he clearly spent some time watching Bush's greatest hits. That said, the movie could have been even better if they could have snagged Will Ferrell: