Thursday, 13 December 2012

GOP, Change your policies because they're wrong, not because you lost

E.J. Dionne's latest article in the WaPo involves a line of argument that I've heard a number of times since the election. That line of thinking goes something like this: Insofar as the Republicans haven't changed their positions since the election they're at worst failing their obligations as politicians and at best being thickheaded, unwise or imprudent. Because they lost they should change their minds and positions; even Ann Coulter is saying it. I should say up front that I find most of the GOP platform odious and I wish they'd change their positions on many things -- I think their policies and intransigence on the environment, (particularly global warming), taxation, government spending, foreign policy and civil liberties are dangerous and hurting America. But the reason they should change their policies isn't because they lost the election, it's because they're bad policies. Whether or not policies get you elected should be largely beside the point. We want our politicians to win because they've convinced people of the rightness of their positions, not win because they've simply adopted the positions they think people want to hear. We have a word for the latter, it's called pandering,  but pandering is exactly what people seem to expect the GOP to now do.

The obligation of someone running for office is to present his/her ideas to the electorate. If the candidate isn't elected we can conclude that the voters rejected those ideas or that the candidate failed to explain them clearly enough or that the voters didn't trust the candidate or some combination of these options. But it's not the case that it would also behoove the candidate to change his/her positions *because* the voters were disinclined to vote for them. In fact, wouldn't this be the most despicable candidate of all, i.e., the candidate who cares more about victory than principles? But the GOP and their critics are being remarkably transparent as to what they perceive as their obligations. For example, we suddenly see the GOP saying that they need to have a more tolerant policy on immigration. Not because their last one was morally repugnant or ill-conceived or economically counterproductive, but because they need to suck up to Latinos to get votes from them.

To be clear, none of this is to argue that the GOP has been a principled party coming into the election and that should remain on the high road. My only contention here is with the unspoken assumption  that a politician's first obligation isn't to have defensible ideals and a commitment to carefully thought out principles, but rather to winning and to rejecting any and all policies and practices that are unlikely to increase the odds of that.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Ohio (with deepest apologies to Neil Young)

 Refreshing Marshall's Poll Tracker
Best app on my phone
This autumn I'm so distracted
Four up in Ohio

Gotta get off my laptop
Bloggers are cutting me down
Shoulda been at work by now
What's with Florida
How can we be 6 points down?
And what's Joe Scarborough know

10:30, still watching Maddow
Romney, that witless clown
This autumn I keep repeatin
Four up in Ohio
Four up in Ohio
Four up in Ohio ...

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

On Obama and the popular vote

The events surrounding Hurricane Sandy increase the chances of a scenario in which Obama wins the presidency but loses the popular vote. Many argue that that would undermine the legitimacy of an Obama win and the nature of his mandate. I found those arguments unpersuasive when posed against Bush and I find them unpersuasive now. Candidates and the voters behave in response to the parameters of the election. The fact that Obama is likely to win California and New York while Romney is likely to win Texas affects turnout in those states. Why go to the polls if you know your guy is going to win or lose? Similarly, it affects the way candidates campaign. If winning the popular vote were the relevant consideration, candidates wouldn't be spending all this time in Ohio at the price of their other sources of potential supporters.

Measuring candidates by popular vote when they've been aiming for electoral college votes is like changing the baseball criterion for success to net runs over the season after teams having been simply pursuing wins. Teams would object that had they been told that net runs had been the relevant criterion they would have followed much different strategies in games in which they were far ahead or far behind. We can't define success by one criterion and then measure success by a very different one particularly when the metric's definition has such a direct effect on the nature of performance.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

On garbage pickup fees and universal health care

Some years ago I had a discussion with a friend about the prudence of a municipality charging a nominal fee (~$1) for each bag of garbage it picked up. I argued in favour of the policy as I thought it would discourage waste and, I argued, my friend should also support it based on his support for the principles of free market economics. Surely a $1 fee in which users are forced to recognize and absorb some of the cost of moving garbage was preferable to one in which the government absorbed all costs and the user of the system was almost completely insulated from actual cost of the service. His argument was that the public's interest in making it maximally easy for people to keep their homes and yards clean and tidy far outstripped such considerations. In other words, the government should absorb all the costs because it was funding a key  public good and keeping it cheap / free greatly enhanced the value of that public good.

I've been thinking about that argument recently because the town in which I live recently made it much easier to get rid of all sorts of household waste, yard waste, etc. It used to be the case that getting rid of non-standard garbage required a call to the city and required paying a substantial fee after a household's quota was exceeded. Now the town simply picks up all forms of garbage on every garbage disposal day. I realize that it has actually made us a lot more ambitious about doing yard, basement and shed cleanup. We no longer wait until we have a significant amount of potential waste before underaking a cleanup project and it has indeed resulted in a much tidier yard and shed. (the basement, well ...) So, I'm going to acknowledge that my friend was right. It certainly hasn't increased our consumption or wastefulness, just our cleaning efforts.

An article by Sarah Kliff in today's Washington Post reminds  me that there's a version of the "free garbage pickup" argument in support of providing affordable (free?) universal health care. Kliff summarizes a study observing that as health insurance costs for workers rise, productivity drops. Unsurprisingly, making it difficult to go to the doctor results in people going to the doctor less, being or becoming less healthy and, as a result, being less productive on the job. For the same reason that it makes good sense from a productivity perspective for employers to give their employees free flu shots, it makes bad sense from a productivity perspective for employers to make it expensive to go to the doctor. Similarly, data indicate that concerns about maintaining health insurance coverage are a huge disincentive to people contemplating kicking off a business start up. (In fact, there's a heavily disproportionate number of people of Medicare age who participate in startups because they don't share the worry about need a health care plan backup.) Or consider how the high costs of funding private health insurance act as a significant disincentive to global companies considering the possibility of starting a business in the US.

Perhaps the health care debate needs to focus on such things to bring the free-marketeers onside for a universal health care system. There's not just an obvious moral argument for doing so, there's an excellent economic reason for doing so. The introduction of a universal health care system may well pay for itself in terms of increased economic productivity, innovation and competitiveness. A single payer system may not in itself be a manifestation of pure free market ideology, but it's well worth it because of all the grease it gives to the turning of the cogs in an effective market economy. 

Monday, 23 July 2012

NCAA PSU sanctions

I'm no defender of PSU or Joe Paterno, but the  "vacating of wins" announced in the NCAA's penalty to PSU over the Sandusky child abuse doesn't make much sense to me. I'm glad they've pulled down Paterno's statue and I wouldn't have minded if they'd simply shut down the program (of course, I wouldn't mind if they'd just shut down all Div. 1 athletics), but unless there's reason to think that the misdeeds contributed to the PSU victories in some meaningful way, I don't understand how we can reasonably try to claim that those wins didn't occur. Does the guy who now has the record for most football wins think that this somehow proves he actually coached more football wins than Paterno did? He presumably is a better human being than Paterno was, but seems to me that the "number of wins" metric still records what it always seemed to recorder regardless of what we know about Paterno's willingness to cover up child abuse. "Number of wins" is, to my mind, a simple metric, not a reward that the NCAA can somehow grant and retract.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Censorship and school libraries

Thanks to a friend's FB post, I stumbled on an interesting site chock full of survey data tracked over time and easily sliced and diced according to different demographic factors: link. But here's a survey issue that's often given me a bit of pause: "Books that contain dangerous ideas should be banned from public school libraries". The survey results make it clear that most disagree with this. And the more educated one is, the less likely one is to agree with it. But this alleged position of opposing book banning strikes me as a bit disingenuous. Of course, I don't agree that all books with "dangerous" ideas should be banned from public school libraries, but who does? But surely some books containing dangerous ideas should be banned in public school libraries.

It's a bit unclear whether the statement as posed in the survey is intended as a universal or existential claim, but I think if the former nobody would agree and if the latter everyone should agree. For example, I consider myself a strong proponent of free speech, I don't think there's much the government should be censoring, and I certainly believe in having students consider radical or dangerous ideas that might shake their world view. Nonetheless,if I were to learn that the library in my kids' elementary school had had The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or anti-gay pamphlets or bomb-making instructions or tomes devoted to explicit sexual descriptions written for an adult audience I'd have objected and argued for their immediate removal. Does anyone think that there should be no content restriction of any sort on public school libraries -- they'd be okay with the library in the school serving kids they care about carrying Mein Kampf or other racist and obscene drivel?

So, it's interesting when people denounce the prudes who want books removed from a school library (or those answering this survey question with a "disagree"). While it's almost always the case that I disagree with the "prudes" about whether certain material is appropriate for school age kids, (the cases that make the news usually involve silliness like banning Harry Potter or some such), this is a disagreement about where to draw the line rather than a question of whether to draw a line at all. Nonetheless in these cases opponents of the would be book-removers typically denigrate their opponents as "book burners" or "pro censorship" as if they themselves would draw the line at nothing at all when it comes to school library contents. I find that a little bit hard to believe. I think those discussions would be more useful if they involved discussions about what sort of material is appropriate for public school students or reasonably funded with taxpayer money rather than appearing to invoke the implausible principle that no book should ever be banned from a public school library under any circumstance.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Reich's Beyond Outrage

My review of Robert Reich's "Beyond Outrage" as posted at (I gave it 3 out of 5 stars).

This is a very short book in which Reich gives an overview of the issues and inequities facing the American economy. There's not really much that is new here for people who regularly read his column/blog. He addresses a lot in these 85 pages so it tends to treat issues lightly and be quite polemic in nature. The solutions he offers are predictable, and reasonable to many on the left, but unlikely to be implemented, e.g., create a public option for healthcare, pour lots more money into infrastructure, get big money out of politics.

I'd been hoping for something more than a compilation of his articles, perhaps giving more time to considering and refuting the arguments that arise in response to his suggestions. Similarly, his solutions are unlikely to be supported by most Democrats, let alone the Republicans, so more attention to strategies to implement and/or partial measures that could help would also have been useful. To be fair, though, the book is very reasonably priced and well worth the small fee.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Same sex marriage

One often hears/reads reductio ad ridiculum/slippery slope responses to proposals to legalize same-sex marriage. These arguments take the form of "if we allow same sex marriage, the next thing you know, people will be marrying their dogs or inanimate objects and the like" or "why stop at couples, if we're going to open the door to same sex marriage, why not let triads or quartets or even larger groups marry". This argument contends that unless we enforce the "male-female pairing" nature of marriage, we render the notion of marriage baseless and untenably vague.

It's worth spelling out explicitly why or whether such concerns are ill founded because they doggedly persist. Marriage doesn't have to be either a committed male-female pairing or a meaningless notion that can be applied to any sort of n-ary relation. The essential basis of marriage, I'd contend, is that it be an agreement to enter into an intimate lifelong relationship and that the agreement be freely made. Such relationships are recognized by the state in order to provide and support a framework of stability within which the participants might then contribute to society. As such, it's fairly clear why same sex marriage doesn't open the door to "man on dog" marriage. Dogs lack the wherewithal to enter into anything like a contractual situation as they lack the capacity to give their assent to a lifelong commitment. 

But what of n-ary relationships, where n>2? I think it's fairly clear that it is possible for people to freely enter into a commitment to maintain such a relationship. There we'd need to consider the "framework of stability" consideration. If as a matter of empirical fact, people can and do enter into three way relationships that flourish and provide a stable environment from within which the participants can raise children and participate in society, then perhaps that is a good argument for recognizing triadic marriages. If, however, such relationships tend to devolve quickly and/or cause extraordinary difficulty when it comes to determining child custody and support and such things, then recognizing such relationships as marriages might be imprudent. But the point is that there are principles, the very traditional principles that motivated the institution of marriage in the first place, not arbitrary physiological features that we can use when considering who should participate in marriage.

Friday, 27 April 2012

A proposal to save the NHL regular season from irrelevance

Year after year, the NHL playoffs are rife with upsets. This year, the eighth ranked LA Kings easily defeated the first place Vancouver Canucks. Top seeds defeat last place seeds less than 75% of the time.  In general, regular season success is not a great predictor of playoff success --  lower seed teams won half the first round series in 2012. The upshot of this is that so long as a team manages to qualify for the playoffs there is not a lot of motivation to win first place or gain a higher seed. As a result, regular season games risk becoming trivialized in the eyes of the fan.

However, while relative point total isn't a great predictor of playoff success, head to head competition records can be. The team that wins the regular season series between two teams wins the playoff series between them 77% of the time. So, teams are likely to be more interested in playing a team against which they have a good track record than in playing the one that has the fewest points.

So, one way the NHL might ensure that the regular season remains highly relevant to teams and fans would be to reward top finishing teams by allowing them to choose their opponent. Rather than obligating a first place team to face an eighth place team that has their number or that is on a roll because an injured star rejoined just as the season was ending,  give the first place team the option to choose any opponent from the 5th-8th place finishers. (The second place team would choose from the remaining three, etc.) This would allow the top finisher to pick the team against which they're more likely to have success and gives a much stronger incentive to keep fighting for a high seed late long after a team has qualified for the playoffs. This would provide much more incentive for teams to finish in first place and would keep fans interested long after their favourite team has qualified for the playoffs. Of course, a team has little motivation to fight for 5th rather than 8th, but as a matter of fact the lower seed teams are usually close enough to missing the playoffs that they require little further motivation other than securing a playoff spot.

(Another obvious way to make the regular season more relevant would be to introduce a bye system as is used in the NFL. Allow only 6 teams from each conference to make the playoffs and give a first round bye to the top two finishers. But this won't fly because owners are too fond of the money that playoff games bring in. They're not going to sacrifice four seven games series. Furthermore, there's a legitimate concern that a team waiting out a seven game series might not be as well prepared for the second round.)

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

On gay rights and biological determinism

I guess I missed the memo but it seems that it's now verboten to suggest that humans have any sort of choice at all in terms of the gender of the person(s) with whom they like to have sex. I say this because apparently Cynthia Nixon got into hot water for saying that she had chosen to take up an intimate relationship with a woman. (link). I think I understand the reasoning for it -- some might worry that the notion that gender preference might not be strictly biological will invite suggestions that "pray the gay away" therapy might work and/or that instead of society making room for gay people we can instead just get homosexuals to choose a different orientation. Also, if it's strictly biological, the story seems to go, it's more obviously unfair to deny them the rights and means to live the same sort of life that straight people have.

I think the obvious problem here, that both sides seem happy to ignore, is that almost all preferences we have involve a complicated mixture of biological and environmental factors. I recall learning or reading that sexual preference may well be more of a spectrum than a simple on/off switch, i.e., while some people may be heavily inclined to be straight or gay, there are lots of people in between that might be more or less interested in having sex with person of the same or different genders. But this is obvious, isn't it? Don't lots of people who eventually settle into a gay or straight lifestyle experiment in their youth w/ differing preferences? Are we saying that all those people were simply violating their biological destiny? We believe, I assume, that there's a strong biological component that influences other features that we find attractive, but we wouldn't be surprised to learn that a person who had previously preferred buxom blondes or tall women was now choosing to spend more time with short slender brunettes.

That aside, I also think it's worth thinking about why the extent to which homosexuality is fully biologically determined matters so much with respect to the civil rights issues. Consider that there's probably a strong biological component in whatever the makeup is of a person who becomes a psychopathic killer. But if we were to firmly establish that that were the case, it wouldn't follow that society had some sort of duty to accommodate them in this compulsion. OTOH, many of our civil rights have no biological basis. We believe that people should be free to say what they want, believe what they want, and worship as they wish. The basis for this isn't the belief that beliefs and utterances and religious practice are all biologically determined. I think the civil rights story is a pretty simple one. We don't have the right to do whatever our biology compels or inclines us to do, we base civil rights on considerations of the fact that there's much inherent utility in maximizing liberty especially on matters that have little or no effect on the rest of society. Why does the fight for gay rights have to be depend on any more, or something other, than that? It's ironic that the civil rights movement which spent so many years arguing, implicitly or explicitly, that biology is not destiny, now finds itself vehemently insisting that is.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

On the SOPA protests

There was something heartening and encouraging about the SOPA/PIPA protests yesterday. It's good to see that grass roots political action is possible, the extent to which the internet facilitates it and the fact that it might actually even have an effect. And I agree that both bills are troubling, an attempt to kill a gnat w/ a hammer and possibly missing the gnat. That said, it's also a bit troubling to compare the outpouring of response when people are threatened with the possibility of harsh action on copyright infringement to people reactions idly to the desecration or dismissal of so many other civil liberties. Illegal wiretapping? shrug.  Wars? yawn Give companies ability to sue to shut down websites that infringe on copyright?  HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, MISTER!!! Frustratingly, this action may say less about our eagerness to participate in democracy and a lot more about our desire for short term gratification.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

On downplaying corpse desecration

Regarding, the four marines videotaped urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters, I don't disagree with those who point out it that it seems to actually rank relatively low on the list of transgressions that US troops have committed in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Furthermore, I agree with those noting that it's odd to strain at corpse desecration while swallowing the camel of torture. What I don't agree with is the implied conclusion that we should be making less of a big deal about this. Why not conclude instead that  we should have been making a bigger deal of the heretofore downplayed atrocities?

But there's another argument making the rounds that bothers me even more. Bill Maher and others are making an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the offense on the grounds that it's being committed against bad people. According to the likes of Maher and Loesch, it's not really such a terrible thing to urinate on the corpses of Taliban fighters because the Taliban are such odious people and/or have committed such odious offenses. This argument is one of the popular arguments that have been used for all sorts of egregious violations of civil liberties and international law since the "war on terror" (and, of course, most wars throughout history) has commenced. It's the argument that some people are so despicable and so unlike us that we can drop the ordinary rules and laws that distinguish civilized societies from beasts in the forest or the characters in Lord of the Flies. In fact, the argument when applied to corpse desecration is even more brutish as there's no further utilitarian appeal to justify the actions, as is often the case with attempts to justify torture, just plain vengeance and blood lust. Just as free speech means little unless it protects the most objectionable speech, these laws and protections mean something only if they actually do protect respect for those we're ordinarily least inclined to protect.

Update: I tweeted this post and Bill Maher responded and clarified that he didn't claim it was acceptable, just that the US has done far worse things that bothered him more. Fair enough, and in this post I didn't say he claimed it was perfectly acceptable, that was only in my tweet. Nonetheless, while Maher didn't exactly say it was perfectly okay, he was very dismissive of the incident w/ a "shit happens" (when agreeing with Rob Reimer), noted that it's "like a TD dance" and pointed out that they may have been honor rapists so he didn't care much, which is all pretty much indistinguishable from saying it was acceptable from where I'm sitting.