Saturday, April 30, 2011

Democrats V. Republicans

I've been thinking about what divides the Republican and Democratic parties and here's basically my take on it.

The general goal of the Republican party is to enact a set of laws which codify their party's shared values.  They want a flat tax because they think it is fair or just.  They want to end welfare because it allows people who don't work to benefit from the labor of those who do.  They want to make gay marriage illegal because they think it's wrong for people with the same combination of sex chromosomes to sex each other.  By contrast, it seems that the Democratic party generally attempts to enact legislation in order to achieve explicit goals, such as reducing the negative effects of poverty, providing people with healthcare, &c.

This naturally throws up an obstacle to useful political discourse.  Republicans tend to look bad when asked what their programs will do because they didn't come to their policy ideas based on studies, but rather came to the studies based on their policy ideas (informed by evaluations of those policies with respect to the moral code they want to enact).  Democrats look bad when asked to justify the moral legitimacy of their policies because, well, they were too busy thinking about what they wanted to do.

I think that both parties are being stupid.  In order to have a meaningful discussion you need shared assumptions.  In this case we need to have candid political discussions about what our shared values are, and the nature of our disagreements.  Some values might be hard and non-negotiable.  Differences in the abortion debate spring to mind.  Others might be more flexible.  Many people are willing to budge on completely equal treatment in order to get more equal results, even if they value both kinds of equality.  Many are willing to sacrifice some freedoms for increased security.

Issues controlled by hard values need to be decided by the voters and when it comes down to it that means that the most important thing is to recognize the value judgment, describe it accurately, and have both sides of the issue make their arguments to the people.  It might even be most appropriate for such issues to be decided by referendum.  For just about everything else, we should be agreeing on goals for the nation (informed by our values) and then asking experts for the most effective means towards achieving those goals.  We should then recognize what values might be impacted by the most effective means and weigh those values explicitly against the values we were pursuing when considering the end goal of the law.  But the most important thing to remember in those sorts of debates is that the process started with agreement that the end goal of the law was worth pursuing.  If one particular method looks to infringe too deeply on some values, other methods need to be considered.

I'd like to mention that this is basically a rehashing of my constitutional anarchy ideas within the context of our current political situation.  I'd love to add a clause to the constitution that requires a nationwide referendum on any law codifying a value.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Optimism is for the Rich

This is from GALLUP by way of Yglesias.  Not too terribly surprising.


Irena gave me this link.  Here's a particularly striking passage:
America now has more prisoners, 2.3 million, than any other country in the world. Ever. Our rate of incarceration is roughly seven times that of Canada or any Western European country. Stalin, at the height of the Soviet gulag, had fewer prisoners than America does now (although admittedly the chances of living through American incarceration are quite a bit higher). We deem it necessary to incarcerate more of our people—in rate as well as absolute numbers—than the world's most draconian authoritarian regimes. Think about that. Despite our "land of the free" motto, we have more prisoners than China, and they have a billion more people than we do.
If 2.3-million prisoners doesn't sound like a lot, let me put this number in perspective. It's more than the total number of American military personnel—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Reserves, and National Guard. Even the army of correctional officers needed to guard 2.3-million prisoners outnumbers the U.S. Marines. If we condensed our nationwide penal system into a single city, it would be the fourth-largest city in America, with the population of Baltimore, Boston, and San Francisco combined.

Health Care Costs

I saw this and had to post.  Yglesias (the blogger) sums it up very nicely, but here's the teeny-tiny executive summary.  The more consumer-driven health care is, the more it tends to cost.  I'm not really sure how making our healthcare system even more private is supposed to help given these trendlines.

Some Budget Stuff

This article makes a concise and extremely relevant point about the "budget reform" debate.

Here's the relevant chart.

Nobel Prize in Economics not qualification enough to get on the Fed

I've been reading this fascinating article about the Federal Reserve.  While this isn't the main thrust of the article, one little tidbit made me so angry I had to share.  Observe:

After months of delay, two of Obama’s picks were confirmed unanimously on September 30, but as of this writing, his third choice, MIT economist Peter Diamond, is still in limbo thanks to objections from Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who deems him unqualified. Somewhat absurdly, while waiting to pass Shelby’s muster, Diamond won a Nobel Prize in Economics.
I am unable to contain my rage.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Plutocracy co-opts the Supreme Court for Bad

I've taken up reading supreme court decisions on matters I find interesting.  Here's a particularly fraught one showing how even our highest courts can make mistakes, and still have lots of right people on them.  This particular case discusses the rights of companies to restrict individuals from seeking class arbitration.  When I first saw the headline on slashdot I knew I was going to get angry about this one, and boy was I right.  The Argument:

 Some people have a dispute with AT&T.  They had to pay sales tax on ostensibly free phones, so they claimed a dispute and according to the AT&T service contracts were forced to subject themselves to third party arbitration.  However, AT&Ts contract additionally stipulates that they may not be rolled into a class arbitration.  In other words, every arbitration with AT&T must be one wronged party v. AT&T.  Clearly this is in AT&Ts favor as they can go about intimidating, avoiding, and inconveniencing the majority of claimants out of bothering to pursue arbitration.  They are assisted in this endeavor by piles of legalese, and also by the small size of each individual claim ($30 in this case).  The state of California in its wisdom wrote a law invalidating such clauses precisely because they allow a large company to defraud large numbers of people out of small amounts of money without much chance of ever getting in trouble for it.

The Ruling:

The 5 justices that made this ridiculous ruling seem to have based it on the idea that California's law goes against the FAA.  Their ruling is in the first link of this post.  It says that the FAA allows state laws to supersede it only if they are consistent with the intent of the bill (which is to put arbitration agreements on the same footing as all other contracts).  They basically say that since California's law specifically targets arbitration agreements it is contrary to the intent of the FAA and therefore it is not upheld.  They are all wrong.

The 4 justices who dissented in this one have it exactly right in my view.  They are in the second half of the first link of this post.  Basically they say: If you have to hire a lawyer to file a claim, or even spend a lot of time and effort or have any sort of expertise, and the amount of money in question is small, then no one will ever file claim, and the bad company will get away with its bad practices forever.  This is obvious.  They also point out a delicious and hilarious number of flaws in the majority opinion.  This rather undermines their final words: With respect, I dissent.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Someone is Wrong on the Internet (about higher education)

Reform the PhD System or Close It Down - Slashdot

This article, and pretty much everyone commenting on it in slashdot, is entirely wrong. Okay, not entirely wrong, it's pretty well documented that the market for tenure track professorships is a lot smaller than the pool of applicants, but the proposal for repairing this problem (if it is a problem) is hilariously wrong. Proposal in a nutshell:

Problem Statement:

This is actually in three parts:
1. Communication is deeply inhibited by overspecialization and university politics
2. Schools are under financial pressure
3. Graduate programs admit and graduate more people than the market for Ph.D. level jobs will support.

Proposed Solution:

1. Fire everyone - Our Columbia religion professor wants to join all the country's universities into an online meta-university and outsource disciplines to their best in breed programs.

Why this is hilariously wrong:

For starters, his "solution" solves exactly one of the problems he identifies: financial pressure. Incidentally, that's the least important and least discussed of his problem points. I see no conceivable way in which going to an online, geographically distributed academic environment would help inter and intra departmental communication. As someone who works on a highly geographically distributed academic project ( I can vouch for the difficulty of communication, even in the Internet Age. Universities deal with financial pressure in the same way that businesses deal with financial pressure, they fire people. They have been dropping departments for some time due to financial pressure. They've also been turning tenured professorships into research positions, and hiring piles of post-docs and increasing, you guessed it, the number of graduate students in the university. The problem's being identified are due in large part to financial pressure. Grad students do some of the same stuff professors do, but for a lot less money. If there are a good number of them, they can free up professors for their real jobs: securing large amounts of external funding. The whole reason this system continues is because it makes so much financial sense, so let's just go ahead and admit that financial pressure isn't the problem here.

In the interest of keeping this post readably short I wont go into my thoughts on the communication and "too many ph.d." problems, but here's a brief teaser for the next post, which will inevitably be a long and irate discussion of precisely those thoughts:

1. Communication - I've long thought that in this universe of extreme specialization, we might need a new class of thinker whose primarily role is to help people communicate and work together effectively and efficiently. I imagine that a good use for a lot of unemployed ph.d. students, especially from broad/abstract fields like philosophy, mathematics, computer science, and english might do well in these sorts of roles with mild changes to their training regimes. Something to think about.

2. Too many Ph.D. - It's not entirely clear to me who is being hurt here. Universities certainly benefit from a big pile of eager indentured servants to the ivory tower. Said indentured servants might not get enormously well paying jobs, or even jobs in their fields, but my A&L Ph.D friends aren't exactly ignorant of that fact, and they seem to enjoy the whole doing the thing they love most at a living wage for a pleasant stretch of extended adolescence. Hanging out with smart people thinking about interesting things for 5 or 6 all-expense-paid years isn't a bad gig, really. If you do happen to get a job in that field then you get to, you know, hang out with smart people and think about interesting things forever. Otherwise, you get to join the big pile of B.A. and M.S. people in the general rat race for jobs. You lost 4-6 years of your youth doing something awesome and fun and probably met great friends and your future spouse. Oh, Darn. My only concern with that is really from a truth in advertising perspective about the prospects of employment for Ph.D.s.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rhetoric and Reality

One of the things that bothers me most about politics is the spectacular manner in which our leaders manage to use a shared rhetoric to pursue conflicting policy.  This infuriates me for several reasons. It occludes the real issues, it demonstrates hypocrisy in our system, and it fills debates with sound bytes rather than discourse.  That all sucks, but the thing that annoys me about it most is that it makes it painfully clear that our politicians believe that the American public has a broadly shared set of values.  If that's the case then why aren't we able to agree on a single damn thing?  If we have the same goals, the debate should only be about the most effective means to meeting those goals, and we have all sorts of tools for measuring progress towards them.  Let's look at some examples.

Freedom - I'd say freedom is a pretty much universally lipserviced American value, though when it comes down to it we appear chronically incapable of passing beyond rhetoric on this subject.  Here's an interesting commentary on the issue:  Basically, we always talk about how free America is - we seem to value that quality highly - yet when asked to make specific policies to enhance the freedom of the American people, our politicians routinely balk.  Examples abound in the article and in recent political history: Patriot Act, all sorts of fancy shmancy warrant-less acquisition of electronic communication.  Maybe politicians have recognized that we don't actually value our freedom as much as we value hearing the word freedom in the context of pro-American rhetoric.

Opportunity - If I had a dollar for every time a politician used the phrase "American Dream" I would have very many dollars, maybe even enough to run for office.  So far as I can tell, the American Dream is basically about upward mobility.  If not "Rags to Riches" then at least "Rags to House-Lawn-and-Cable-TV".  Too bad we're not doing too well on that metric:

I'm not really sure what we should do about this sort of nonsense, other than be more explicit about our goals, the relationships between our goals and proposed legislation, and the measured impact of enacted legislation upon those goals.  Good luck getting any of that passed through our legal system.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

American Plutocracy

Basically, our laws and political structure give hilariously large amounts of power and protection to the wealthy.  This seems like a problem, because the vast majority of people aren't, you know, wealthy, and also because the wealthy already have a lot going for them without getting any help or special treatment.  I talked about this with respect to our tax code last post, but it applies in all sorts of venues.  Let's talk about them now:

1. Taxes - been here before but it's worth saying again.  The rich have an enormous advantage when it comes to taking advantage of tax exemptions.  Corporations (which are getting more and more like extremely wealthy people every court decision) are the most egregious example of this, with many "American" companies paying virtually no taxes as a result of complex accounting structures and multinational presences. All this made possible by complex tax codes and armies of lawyers and accountants.

2. Civil and Criminal cases - Legal fees make basically everything about the courtroom experience farcically favorable to the wealthy.  This is most awful in civil suits, where discrepancies in wealth lead to major corporations being able to bully people into settling cases that, given equal means, would assuredly go to court.  Recent examples: the GeoHotz fiasco, or any RIAA suit.  It's also pretty bad in criminal courts, where rich people have a great deal more access to effective legal council (there are public defenders, even really good ones, but that's a mixed bag), and can much more easily avoid the painful side effects of criminal suits because they can afford bail.  It's awful just how much time innocent poor people spend in prison waiting for their trial merely because they can't afford bail.  Likewise, rich people suffer significantly less from tickets and other fines and penalties, so they have much less incentive to obey laws whose violation results in such penalties.  All of this is before we even consider things like cronyism or bribery which are at least theoretically illegal.

3. Political Influence - I just recently was reading about a dinner party fundraiser hosted by the Obama campaign.  Tickets were going for 35,800 dollars.  For that price you got to eat and hobnob with the President of the United States, with only 60 other people around.  While I'm sure Obama has a fairly well established set of political views, it certainly can't hurt the agendas of the dinner guests to have a chance to chat with him.  If you consider the fact that all of the fund raising dinners, charity drives, and donation things that occur in the upper echelon of politics are attended more or less exclusively by people able to drop 35K on a dinner party then you can probably pretty quickly recognize why politicians might favor the agendas of the very wealthy.  It's almost an accident at this point, the very wealthy are the only people they're really hanging out and chatting with; how could they be expected to favor anyone else?  It get's a lot less accidental when you look at things like corporate giving and campaign donations and the like.  Money buys you media time, which gives you a disproportionately large voice in the public arena.  All of this rather handily explains items 1 and 2 in this list.  Turns out of wealth gives you a bigger voice in the making of laws, the laws will grow in favor of you.  I bet we are all surprised by this.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Taxes - how they should be (Part 2 Simple)

Complexity is the friend of the wealthy.  This causes problems all over our country, but I'm going to focus only on tax law right now.
Complexity problem 1: Wealthy people can afford lawyers and accountants, who exist entirely so that money can be made off of the complexity of our laws.  Unsurprisingly, this means that the well off are more likely to receive tax deductions &c.  They report and record their income and expenditures more carefully and they have access to experts who can maneuver the many loopholes and edge cases in our current system.

This is compounded by problem number 2: As some of you may have noticed from this income and expenditure spreadsheet, education trends with income.  That means that if you're not making a whole lot of money, it's likely that you don't have a whole lot of education or training in order to deal with the complexities of tax law, which means you probably wont be able to do as good a job as a highly trained professional expert tax payer like an accountant.  Surprise!

I'm not the first person to have noticed this, as you can see from Obama's recent budget speech, but I hope this expresses the issues succinctly.  Basically, I think tax payments should be a simple function of your income.  We should be adjusting the level of taxation to what we expected to make on average at each income level once deductions were applied, and we should leave social policy implementation out of our revenue stream.  This would have a whole pile of interesting side benefits like:

1. Taxes would be hilariously easy to calculate for people with regular salaries, which means the government could just send you a bill rather than forcing you to wade through a pile of inconvenient forms.  I'd love that.

2. Human beings might understand the tax code.

3. Politicians wouldn't be able to sneak in weird policy ideas under the guise of tax breaks.

4. Our revenue stream would be highly predictable on account of no variance being introduced by lawyers

5. We would put huge numbers of accountants out of jobs (Hurray!)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Taxes - how they should be (part 1 Not The Flat Tax)

Fundamental to the current Republican rhetoric is the enshrinement of lower taxes for all.  This rhetoric is most powerfully realized in a refusal to permit tax increases on the very wealthy, but it shows up all over the place.  In the next few posts I'm going to present common beliefs and arguments about the tax code and show how everyone is wrong about basically everything.  First on the menu is the idea of the Flat Tax.  Ready set go:

1. The Flat Tax.

Some people think that taxes should be "flat" which is to say that every person, regardless of income, should pay the same portion of their income as taxes.  This is dumb for a pile of reasons, but here's reason number one: The better off you are, the less of your income you spend.
This seems obvious to me, and anyone who is living paycheck to paycheck can attest the lower end of this, but it's hard to get data on the upper end.  This spreadsheet sort of gestures at the trend.  You'll notice that % of income spent monotonically decreases with education, while the raw income monotonically increases.  We don't get into any REALLY extreme cases, but the trend is clear.  This has bearing on flat tax in two ways.

Way  1:

People in the lowest income bracket of that spread spend more than 90% of their income each year.  If they were paying a 10% tax, they would be unable to save any money, and likely would be unable to afford even the meager standard of living they currently enjoy.  By contrast, people in the highest income bracket of the spreadsheet, already living better, would, under a 10% tax, still have the same proportion of their income available for saving as the lowest income bracket would have available if they were left untaxed.  Note that that proportion translates into quite a lot more objective money, but that's for another discussion.

Way 2:

What's not always clear to people is that this trend means that the rich are contributing disproportionately little to the economy.  Saving money is essentially removing it from the economy, it isn't doing anything which means that it's not creating demand for products or services which means that it's killing America. Basically, the rich aren't carrying their share of the economic load, so we should be forcing them to do their part by taking their money and putting it to good use.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Brilliant Idea Follow Up

So I've had several more conversations on my tax cut proposal and basically landed on the following amendments.

1. We can get MOST of the same benefits by taxing income rather than wealth.. this helps remove problems like being taxed on the same money every year if you have no income (for instance).  It also conveniently requires less regulation and reorganization of the tax code. Leave the same stepped income tax we have now, but simply add that all domestic purchases of goods or services (not money-like things such as stocks and bonds) are tax deductible.

2. Make it so that the deductions can never reduce your effective income below 80,000 dollars, or some similar number.  This removes the disincentive to save for the population that needs to save the most.  While I"m not sure that's entirely necessary, it cleanly addresses an easy criticism of the plan without mitigating its effectiveness.  People making less than 80k a year are still going to be spending a non-trivial proportion of their income meeting their day to day needs and expenses, and it's probably better if people in that situation save for a rainy day, in case they lose their revenue stream.