Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Problem With Elected Officials

So here's the thing about elected officials.  They get elected because they are Good At Getting Elected.  They don't get elected because they know something, have policy skills, or are particularly representative of the people electing them.  They get elected because they managed to convince a lot of people to vote for them.  Now, the trouble with that is it basically puts selective pressure on politicians to make them better at getting elected.  It puts absolutely no pressure on them to get better at running the country.  I mean, there might be beneficial side effects for them if they happen to implement awesome policies that greatly improve the lives of many voters, but frankly, if you tell people to think something from a position of authority they tend to believe it.  Take, for instance, beliefs about the distribution of wealth in america.  Or Obama's birthplace.  Or the level of taxation under Obama.

Basically, the moral of the story is this:  It is easy to deceive people, and you get elected by winning rhetorical battles rather than implementing policies that people like, so politicians across the board have strong motivations to deceive people rather than do anything useful.  This is going to be true in any democracy, but it seems particularly egregious here.  I feel like we need some sort of mechanism for punishing liars and showing actual facts.  The trouble is that any service doing this would almost certainly be ignored as "too partisan" by both parties.  I can't think of a way around this except through educational reform.  Education has always been the path out of tyranny.  The new tyranny is that of misinformation and rhetoric and so I guess we should be studying rhetoric and statistics.  Either that or we could all become anarchists.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Are team players proto-dictators?

I was reading (as I sometimes do) and in the midst of this post I found an intriguing point:
Teams give their members, above and beyond anything else, a sort of prepackaged certainty in a worldview and a sense of being right. They validate our certainty, and give us a bulwark against doubt. And recently I gave in to the notion that somehow we must pick a side if we are to ever have anything worthwhile to say, that all those wishy-washy fence-sitters were little better than David Broder, engaging in all sorts of false equivalencies. I was wrong to do so. I was wrong not only to think that I could be part of a team, but wrong to think I could cheer on the liberal side exclusively, that I could fit into that particular box. Oh, I can’t really cheer on the conservative side either, no doubt about that – the conservative “side” being little more than the conservative movement in this case, hardly a movement known for its doubt or temperance. But I don’t have the disposition of a liberal either, really, the faith required to be a progressive, or the certainty required to be part of a team, toeing whatever line is acceptable and appropriate
 I think this is interesting because, at least from my experience in science, the good stuff happens when we're testing our ideas and assumptions, not when we're scaling out our previous beliefs.  It also evokes something of a feminist idea.  My rector in Sorin once noted that men seem peculiarly able to develop group identities, which holds rather well to pretty much all of my experience.  By the association noted in this passage, are men then more likely to express certainty and eschew doubt?  Why yes, my anecdotal personal experience supports this notion as well.  Seems like we could benefit from a few more women kicking about in the power structures and a certainly from fewer "team players" in general.  Where there are teams it seems there are almost always winners and losers. 

This is sad

Basically, there are a lot of poor kids.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Businessmen in Politics

There seems to be an impression that experience as an executive in the business world would be a major asset for a president dealing with economic issues.  I'm not sure why.  It seems clear that executives have had all sorts of problems dealing with the recession from inside their own companies.  Furthermore, the federal government is all kinds of different from a traditional business venture.  It can print money for God's sake.  On top of it all, there's that whole "can coerce money from people in the form of taxes" thing. Never mind the more subtle tricks in the government financial/economic portfolio.  So the tools of government are different form the tools of CEOs.

The ends of government are different too.  Maximizing shareholder value, the supposed mantra of the business world, is somewhat complicated if your customers and your shareholders are the same people. 

Finally, austerity in the business world is very different from austerity at the government level.  In the business world your austerity measures primarily effect yourself and your employees.  In government austerity impacts the customer base as well.  I don't think there's anything about a CEO's job that would prepare them for that sort of thing any better than someone else.  I mean, they're smart motivated and capable people for the most part, but that hardly separates them from the field of Ivy League lawyers normally in contention for these things.

 The only people I can think of who are uniquely suited to leadership during a financial crisis are people with experience and understanding in macro economics.  Maybe economists?  Who else actually gets their heads around this stuff on a regular basis?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Looking for Good Conservative Blogs

So, internet, I ask you for help.  I want blogs of well spoken, evidence driven conservatives.  My recent movement into the blogosphere has been through Paul Krugman and his commonly linked blogs, which naturally puts a rather liberal slant on my reading.  I'd rather like to see legitimate disagreements to what these people are saying as I find myself wanting to hear counterarguments on subjects that are outside of my expertise.  Please suggest anyone worth reading.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Taxes again

I noticed this post advocating a cap on tax deductions.  I think it's a pretty interesting compromise between the current system and the system I've proposed previously.  If only they could manage to fit in the domestic purchase deduction.  Ideal tax code in a nutshell:

1. stepped income tax brackets as per usual, with no exceptions for capital gains or inheritance... Any money you recieve counts as income, period.
2. all domestic purchases tax deductible

HOLY CRAP I JUST HAD A COOL IDEA.  I just realized that we can combine 2 with a flat tax and make everyone go crazy.  Here's how it works:  Flat tax of X%. You're only taxed on money you make but don't spend on domestic goods and services.  Poor people would still pay basically no taxes as their incomes are almost entirely devoted to making ends meet, and rich people would have effective tax rates fairly close to X because they rarely manage to spend a significant proportion of their income in a given year.  We might want to include a tax deduction for savings up to a certain absolute dollar amount (say 10k a year) to add some stability to the system, but that's the only other deduction.  This is a great political compromise as it tricks conservatives into accepting a highly redistributive tax and tricks liberals into accepting a flat tax.  VICTORY!

P.S. Yes, tricking politicians into doing something is basically the only way to achieve victory in modern American politics.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


This article was interesting, in that it gave strong evidence for trusting Krugman when he makes predictions about the economy.  I also found it interesting that lawyers were worse prognosticators than other professionals.  However, the liberal-means-right thing is very clearly biased by the time-frame and nature of the predictions studied.  All of the predictions came out of the period of time immediately before the 2008 elections, and many of them directly related to election outcomes.  Liberals were therefore far more likely to be good predictors merely because their side happened to win that time.  I'd love to see a similar study over a longer timeframe and including multiple changes in party power.

Internet Digest: the things that are interesting in my news feed

Rather than pretending to come up with original content today, I'll just link you to all the things I read and vaguely cared about this morning.

This post on unemployment and education level was interesting, but I wish it had a graduate degree line.  Might help inform some of our earlier discussions about the goodness/badness of grad school.

Apparently Paul Krugman's is the right blog to read.
Here, we use Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, as an example to show how our PVS system works.
From a random sample of his columns and television appearances, we tallied 17 testable predictions. Krugman was awarded one point if he either predicted an event would happen and that event took place, or if he predicted an event not happening and that event ultimately did not take place. When Krugman made a prediction and the opposite outcome occurred, we subtracted one point from his total. Hedged predictions did not receive any points.
Of the 17 predictions, there were 15 instances where Krugman made a correct prediction and only one instance where he made an incorrect prediction. With the single hedged prediction included, Krugman’s final tally was +14. We took the final tally (14) and divided that by the total number of testable predictions made (17), which we then multiplied by ten. Krugman’s final score was 8.235#.

All in all the internet has given me a very validating morning.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Separating Means and Ends

I've noticed an ongoing trend in my recent discussions regarding issues in the political process.  Basically, here's what I think: discussions are often clouded when the means to an end are discussed at the same time as the end itself.  When you criticize a plan it's unclear whether you object to the means or the ends, so people can (for instance) accuse you of being soft on terror when all you really think is that basic freedoms shouldn't be abandoned.  Tricky stuff.  You see similar problems with the Fed.  You can't decide whether they're doing a bad job because they picked the wrong goals, or they're doing a bad job because they were shoddy at achieving them.

This post talks at length about the Fed's bad situation here.  Yglesias goes beyond the separation of means and end in his post, but it serves as an important starting point for the discussion.  Last post I spent some time talking about how this particular problem clouds the party lines and makes political discourse difficult. If someone is for a law because of its end they have a hard time communicating with people who are against a law because of its means.

Basically, I think that we need a way to decide on the ends that we, as a country, want to pursue.  We then need to (separately) explore means of achieving those ends.  This can help pin down the disagreements and  prevent at least some of the prevarication that politicians manage.