Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The illusion of a meritocracy

I recommend a recent book by Malcolm Gladwell, "Outliers". In the book, Gladwell spends a lot of time making us appreciate that many if not most success stories are situational and not directly meritocratic. For example, Bill Gates' success was hugely influenced by luck and circumstance.

In fact I think that everything that we have done is circumstantial since we don't control our genes, our parents, or our environment. But while Gladwell's book has major political implications, we should also think about what we want the face of policy to be. In other words, the belief that we live in a meritocracy is an important one because it no doubts generates a self fulfilling prophecy for many people. Contrast that to a society in which nobody thinks they control their own fortunes and destiny. A belief in meritocratic outcomes is useful even if they are often not true.
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Monday, March 29, 2010

2.5% of people can talk on cellphones while driving

I thought this link was interesting. Psychologists have determined that a small subset of people, about 2.5% of the general population, are capable of maintaining their driving efficiency while talking on a cellphone. The authors of the story seem convinced that it is a superior multitasking ability that allows the 2.5% to accomplish this, but I have an opposite theory. I think that 2.5% of people can drive while on the cellphone because they cannot multitask well.

I think I am a member of the 2.5% subgroup who can drive and talk on the phone at the same time. My loved ones will tell me I shouldn't anyway, and I have no evidence to back up this claim, but there it is nonetheless. Here is why I think so. Anyone who has talked to me while I am driving probably is aware of and annoyed by the fact that I periodically cease responding or paying attention to the conversation. Like completely stop paying attention; I might as well put the phone down on the seat.

The person on the phone with me might not appreciate what is causing the lack of attention, but it is obvious to me: it happens when any temporary situation arises on the road that complicates the driving situation at all. If another driver is being unpredictable and I am watching them, or I am making a turn or changing lanes, looking for a landmark, anything. As soon as I am doing something beyond just driving in a straight line at constant speed I cease functioning in the phone conversation precisely because I cannot multitask. When the situation on the road resolves, then my attention can shift back to the conversation.

The authors of the above study could easily test this. All they would have to do is measure conversational engagement of the driver at different parts of the course. If my theory is correct, driver engagement in the phone conversation should plummet when the driver is encountering some variations in the obstacle course.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Who hurts Catholicism more?

The people who perpetrate it? Or the people who ignore it, minimize it, or tolerate it?

Another question, which is the greater problem: that the "liberal media" is dwelling on it, or that it happened at all? I would say the latter, by a factor of one thousand.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Friday, March 26, 2010

This is always welcome news

The United States and Russia agree to further nuclear arms reduction.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

David Frum fired from AEI

A few posts down, I wrote about the conservative defeat on health care reform. I posted an update with a link to a conservative being interviewed on MSNBC, David Frum. He pointed out that the Republican strategy to not negotiate with Obama backfired.

Well, David Frum just got fired from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. That didn't surprise me. What did surprise me was this article by another conservative:

"Since, he [Frum] is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI "scholars" on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do."

I guess I've been wondering a lot lately what part of the Republican opposition was driven by policy, and what part was politics. This makes me think its 95% politics. Which is really, really sad.

A Victory for Capitalism!

Part of the Senate HCR reconciliation package included reform of the federal student loan program. According to the NY Times,

"The measure ends billions of dollars in subsidies paid to commercial banks for making federally backed student loans in which they bore almost no risk, and expands direct federal loans to students instead."

Pro-business capitalists will no doubt applaud the end of harmful government subsidies to these private banks, which of course violate the principles of free market economics. Next up, ending subsidies to farmers.

Predictably, Republicans voted against the measure. Republicans have a major problem giving federal subsidies to low income citizens for health insurance coverage, but are OK with giving them to giant banks and millionaire farmers. Naturally.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wilson, not Clemenceau

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, to end the Great War, resulted in one of history's more difficult lessons. While American President Woodrow Wilson advocated for a just peace for the defeated Germans, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau had other plans. Clemenceau believed that Germany should be harshly punished for WW1, and forced the Germans to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was humiliated, its people were embittered, and its currency and economy collapsed. Twenty two years later, the French were surrendering to Adolf Hitler. In contrast to Clemenceau, Abraham Lincoln set into motion a reconstruction program to rebuild what was left of the Confederacy after the Civil War. The Marshall Plan rebuilt Germany and Europe after WW2, and the United States also helped Japan rebuild and write a new constitution.

With the passage of health care reform, the Republicans have been roundly defeated and arguably humiliated. The GOP seems as extreme, weak, and as desperate as ever. Rather than let Democrats gloat and bask in their victory, President Obama should extend the Republicans a hand. In the latest Gallup Poll there was a hidden gem: 48% of Americans call the bill a good first step which should be followed by more action on health care. The health care system will still need serious structural reforms, and Obama should invite Republicans to play a part in crafting them. At this point, Obama doesn't need Republicans. Obama's bill is law, and if Republicans want to leave it as is, so be it. But there is no doubt that there is more that can be improved, and there are no doubt some good Republican ideas on how to do so. This is the best moment to invite bipartisanship and cooperation. Obama needs to empower the moderates in the GOP, the ones who advocated a deal on HCR in the beginning. The country needs this more than ever. Worst case, if the Republicans say no, people will think more of Obama for offering, and less of Republicans for refusing.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Playing an all-or-nothing game

***** Update ******

Don't take my word for it. Former Bush speechwriter, David Frum.

"In this debate, the Republicans have listened to the most radical voices in the compromise, hand the president his Waterloo. If this turns out to be our Waterloo today, then there has to be an accountability moment. This is going to be a much worse outcome than we could have got if we had negotiated early. And we are going to have to do some self criticism there. There are those who said there is a deal to be done that there are a lot of parts of this bill that look familiar, that look like Mitt Romney’s plan, that look like plans Republicans proposed in 1993 and 1994, they look like things that were drafted at the Heritage foundation in 1990 and 1991, we can work with this, there are things we don’t like, President Obama will pay a lot maybe for 20 or 30 Republican votes, let’s deal — that was shouted down, we went the radical way, looking for Waterloo, and it looks like we arrived at Waterloo."

This is what happens when you play an all-or-nothing game. If you lose, you get nothing. Conservatives are worse off because of the GOP strategy to refuse to negotiate. America is worse off because of it, as people will be more polarized than we would have been had a bipartisan bill been crafted. Conservatives should blame the Republicans for refusing to deal, not Democrats for going forward without them.

***** End Update *****

The health care debate has been raging for the last year, and congress looks poised to pass Obama's bill without any Republican support. Bipartisanship has failed - the question is, why? To partially answer that question, I will reiterate some of the things that Republicans have said and done regarding Obama's health care bill.

-Republicans whipped up false hysteria about "death panels". The truth is that end of life care is enormously expensive, often accounting for 80% of health care spending for some individuals. Many people wouldn't want expensive and often futile measures to be undertaken only to extend life a few weeks. This is a serious conservation that we should be having, but Republicans saw a political opportunity instead.

-The bill has been called a socialist government takeover of health care, even though there is no public option.

-One Republican promised to defend her constituents from the horrors of government-run health care, and promised to defend medicare, in the same 15 second advertisement. This is obviously a staggering contradiction.

-Tea Party protesters at town hall meetings were planted and advised by corporate-sponsored conservative organizations. They were advised to shout at and intimidate congressmen, and they helped to prevent a reasonable, honest discussion about health care reform.

-Just today some Tea Party protesters lobbed the N-word at some black congressmen on the way to the vote. This would be an isolated incident by a few crazy individuals, but then Republican Devin Nune's response justified their words. "When you use totalitarian tactics, people begin to act crazy", according to Nune. The "totalitarian tactic" in question is the use of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a legitimate parliamentarian tactic that is only being used in this case because the Republicans have abused the filibuster. Indeed, the Republicans have prevented the Senate from functioning as a majority-rule institution as the Founding Fathers intended. There is nothing totalitarian about an up-or-down vote in the Senate.

-The bill has been called "an abortion", and pro-lifers have erroneously claimed that the bill provides federal funding for abortion. As so often happens in American politics, the abortion issue was brought up in an attempt to kill reform, because abortion is an issue sure to divide the people and elicit strong emotions on both sides. The accusations are and always were more or less baseless. Catholic organizations have already come out and said as much.

This paints a pretty convincing picture: Republicans have not been arguing policy - they've been arguing politics. Their criticisms of Obama's bill are not factual or even logical in most cases. Rather, their attacks appeal to emotions and fears. Instead of having an honest debate on the topic, repetition, soundbytes, and talking points have been the Republican strategy for the health care debate. Contrast this to Obama, who I think has approached the issue with logic and reason. He has held summits, and done Q&A sessions with congressional Republicans. Obama has appealed to our reasonable nature for the most part, his populist railings against insurance companies aside. When one side is appealing to our intellect, and the other side is appealing to our fears, who is being more honest? Based on this calculus, I lay the blame for the failure of bipartisanship at the feet of the Republicans.

Republicans have played an all-or-nothing game in an attempt to kill health care reform and sink the Obama presidency. This is not a secret - it has been Mitch McConnell's strategy since day one. From a purely political point of view, I don't think it was a terrible strategy; indeed it almost worked. Yet, the GOP ultimately lost this gambit and when you play an all-or-nothing game and lose, you get nothing. Had the GOP negotiated in good faith, I think Obama would have been willing to give up a lot in order to secure 5-10 Republican votes for his bill. Obama is a census-seeking person, and Republicans could have taken advantage and really helped play a positive role in the writing of this health care bill. Instead, we got false arguments, phoney debate, and obstructionism.

When conservatives start looking for someone to blame, perhaps they should look inward. The Republican strategy rested on the absolute legislative obstruction of a Democratic Party that had 59 senators, the house, and the Presidency. Republicans could have instead opted to negotiate and play a part in building a new compromise for the future. They could have chosen a constructive path rather than a destructive one. They didn't, and conservatives are now worse off because of it. Even if the GOP does take back congress in 2010, they have the precedent of shameless obstructionism and filibustering that they set to look forward to.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wow. Just wow.

From the BBC:

"As a priest in 1975 [Irish] Cardinal Sean Brady was at meetings where children signed vows of silence over complaints against paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth."

This guy hasn't resigned, nor has he been forced to resign. Am I crazy for being uncomfortable with that?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Pope

As the German Catholic abuse scandal grows, with the Pope in the thick of it, Catholics would do well to remember one thing: The Pope was appointed by men, and not God. Men are very fallable.

Catholics should also remember that the main problem here isn't that the liberal media is out to get them, which may or may not be true. The main problem, by far, is that hundreds of children were abused by priests.
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Monday, March 15, 2010

Health care reform, Catholics, and abortion

Just for the record, there is no conflict here. Obama's health care reform bill does not provide federal dollars for abortion.

US-Israeli relations at lowest point in 35 years

According to the BBC, and not surprising at all.

The sort of reckless and arrogant policy making that has been coming from Israel lately cannot be accidental. My honest impression is that someone over there thinks they can piss all over the Obama administration because they are, probably correctly, gambling that he won't do anything about it for political reasons. In other words, the second that Obama criticizes Israel, the Republicans will undercut him and offer blind, unconditional support to Israel no matter what the Israelis are doing. The Israelis' gamble is still dangerous, though. Obama could get a second term, and they are no doubt doing enormous damage to their reputation among average Americans.

For a whole host of reasons, it has been my position that Middle East peace was being thwarted more by Arabs than by Israelis. That position is no longer tenable. The surrounding Arab states are worried about Iran, and are starting to see Israel as a tempting ally. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has moderated significantly, and has done a really good job of clamping down on terrorist activities. Even Gaza has been extremely quiet lately. Make no mistake, it is the Israelis now that are holding back the peace process, and they are doing it on America's dollar.

This ultimately may turn out to be a blessing in disguise though. To win back America's favor, Israel will have to make greater sacrifices, which will make peace more likely. The Palestinians should get the eastern half of Jerusalem for their capital, end of story. If the two sides can't agree to share it, then Jerusalem should be administered as an international mandate as was originally intended in the UN Partition of 1947.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Turn the other cheek?

It strikes me as odd that the Vatican is wasting effort defending the Pope from criticism. The sole focus should be on the victims of sexual abuse by priests in Germany and elsewhere.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Clarifying Fox

Roger Ailes, the President of Fox News:

"I'm not in politics, I'm in ratings...we're winning."

Thank you for clarifying.  Fox News is not a news channel, it is an entertainment channel.  I'm glad they no longer pretend to be journalists.

Packing student loan reform with the healthcare bill

This sounds like a good idea to me.  I read that article, and here is the thing that jumped out at me:

The bill would end government payments to private, commercial student lenders, leaving the government to lend directly to students...Private banks had lobbied fiercely against the bill, which would cut off a longtime stream of revenue.

They are including the two together because otherwise, the student loan reform would have been filibustered.  This leaves me with two questions.  One, why on earth are we subsidizing private banks at all?  And two, why are Republicans against ending this ridiculous subsidy to the point that they will filibuster reform?  Aren't they pro-capitalism?  Capitalism, small government, and free markets does not include government subsidies.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Regulating sprawl, regulating food

Readers of my blog know that I strongly dislike two things. One is sprawling city development, and the other is cheap unhealthy food. Since I am sympathetic therefore to ideas such as taxing unhealthy food, or regulating urban development to avoid sprawl, a person might conclude that I am not a libertarian; rather that I am some sort of paternalistic statist who wants the government to make all of our rules.

The interesting thing about these two issues in particular is that it is government intervention in the first place that has led to the identified problem (cheap fast food, urban sprawl). For the former, look at this graphic which shows the subsidies that the US government gives farmers:

Its easy to see the problem here. We wouldn't need to tax unhealthy food if the government had not already distorted people's food choices to make unhealthy items cheaper.

As far as sprawl goes, we would not be so predisposed to it in this country if government zoning laws and building codes did not encourage the development of sprawling communities.

I am the libertarian, and the defenders of cheap McDonalds at every suburban street corner are not. I want the government to stop subsidizing the production of unhealthy food, and I want the government to stop telling us to build sprawling communities.  I think that, if given the choice, most people would prefer to live in a community where they can walk to a local farmers market, rather than have to drive to the local strip for lunch at McDonalds, Wendy's, or Taco Bell.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Intellectual dishonesty

There is really nothing I hate more than people saying shit that they know is just not accurate, but they say it anyway because they figure they can get away with it. Enter the Republican party during this health care debate, a group whose behavior has been nothing short of despicable. Its aggrivating how dishonest they have been about the whole thing, but they have correctly calculated that Americans are mostly stupid enough, and easy enough to scare, so that they have mostly gotten away with it.

Obamas bill is not a radical one. Its actually a very moderate, cautious bill. But what do we hear about it from Republicans?

Death panels. In actuality, discussing end of life care for sick patients is extremely important from a patient perspective. It is also important from a financial one, so we don't spend thousands of dollars trying to prolong life a few days because the patient isn't conscious to tell the docs to let them go.

Government takeover of health care? Maybe if there was a public option, which there isn't.

Other republicans run commercials where they, in the same thirty seconds, present themselves as saving America from government-run healthcare and the defenders of medicare. This is so disingenuous, you would only expect to find this kind of hypocrisy / irony in an onion article, not a US Congressional campaign.

Now there is this "controversy" about reconciliation. The founders intended the senate to run by majority rule. Hence the need for the president of the senate, aka the vice president, as a tie breaker. Reconciliation is a way to get an actual vote, its a way to get around the ridiculous filibuster that has been abused by democrats and now republicans increasingly for the last decade.

There may be good honest arguments against Obamacare, but if there are, Republicans are not making them. I hope the Democrats win this fight, if for no other reason than to send a message that this shameless, disingenuous obstructionism is not rewarded.

*** Update ***

Here is an actual GOP campaign advertisement.

Harry Reid’s big government health care plan will raise taxes, put a bureaucrat between you and your doctor, weaken Medicare, kill jobs, push us further into debt. I’m Sue Lowden and I approve this message because government run health care is wrong.

If I had read this in isolation, I would have thought for sure it was satire from The Onion or maybe SNL.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

"Not as tough as what our troops are up against."

I've posted before on the global warming issue, but let me summarize my position. It is ridiculous to believe that human activity is not going to influence the planet, but I think that anyone who claims to know what is going to happen 100 years from now is a buffoon. Thus, while I don't believe that man-made global warming is going to end the world anytime soon, it is a potential threat and one that would be relatively easy to "insure" against by incorporating relatively cheap carbon-reduction measures.

One thing that I unequivocally have always supported as a gas tax. A gas tax will reduce consumption of gasoline, and hence reduce CO2 emissions. In Europe they tax gasoline far more than in the United States; so when we went on an SUV binge here in the states, the Europeans were buying really really small cars. They're in a much better position today because of that (and they also rely more on public transit).

A gas tax does more than reduce production of CO2, however. It also would decrease our demand for oil, reduce our oil imports, and thus cause a fall in the world-wide price of oil. Who does that hurt? Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Iran is no doubt funding and arming Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi insurgents, and potentially the Taliban. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are bankrolling both sides of the war on terror.

Anyway, here is a fantastic commercial that drives this point home.

There is no reason, absolutely no reason, that we should not be passing a bill that discourages the use of gasoline. It is a winning issue for everyone. And yet, it hasn't happened, and that is a travesty.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Don't talk to the cops

A defense attorney explains why you should always take the fifth. Its an interesting, entertaining 25 minute you-tube video. Here is a summary of the major themes to the video:

1. The fifth amendment was designed to protect the innocent, not the guilty. Don't feel bad about invoking your fifth amendment rights.

2. Talking to the police when you are a suspect can never help your case, but can hurt it. In other words, declarations of innocence can never get a person off of the hook. Statements can, however, be used against you.

3. Even the truthful statements of an innocent person can incidentally make a conviction more probable. It is best to say nothing.