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Vaguely Right

Thursday, July 03, 2003

* Summertime

Sorry for the long absence. I am experiencing many tumultuous events this summer, including moving and marriage. I'll be settled again in August and will probably return to blogging irregularly then.

Enjoy the sunshine. Go to the beach. Relax a little. These are my goals.


Monday, May 05, 2003

* Looking Ahead

At this point, I think the outcome I would prefer in the upcoming 2004 Presidential election is where Bush wins the popular vote but loses the electoral college, and thus, the presidency to the Democratic challenger.

On a side note, I have exams all this week and probably won't post anything, as usual. After that, however, precious freedom.


Tuesday, April 29, 2003

* Just Imagine It

via Political Wire

Jay Leno: "Later this week President Bush is coming to California. He is going to meet with our own Governor Davis, and the two of them are going to sit down and come up with the worst economic plan ever."
I think this is a good idea. Once they come up with the plan, we will just do the exact opposite.


Saturday, April 26, 2003

* Asshats and Dinner Guests

I think one of the sources of frustration I have and maybe others have with bloggers and blogging comes from the lack of a separation between two types of communication.

To illustrate, imagine that I am a flaming liberal and I am watching the news on television among the company of several other looney leftists, and in reaction to some news report or other, I say things like, "I can't believe how much of an idiot our President is!" or "The friggin Republicans are a bunch of Nazis!" to the general agreement of those in the room with me. Is it acceptable for me to say such things? Do I really believe that Bush is a person of profound mental retardation having a mental age below three years and generally being unable to learn connected speech or guard against common dangers? Or that the members Republican Party are comparable to the Nazis? I probably don't. I'm probably just venting some anger, or disappointment about not having my team in power, or whatever. This is a reasonable thing for me to do among my compatriots, isn't it?

Now imagine that I am an extreme right-winger, but this time I am at a dinner party with acquantances, some of whom are very liberal, some of whom are moderate, some libertarian, some socialist, whatever. Suppose we are having a lively, yet calm, rational debate on some domestic policy issue, cutting taxes maybe. What if I were to phrase my arguments along the lines of "Anyone who doesn't believe cutting taxes for the wealthy makes everyone better off is an idiot!" or "The friggin Democrats are a bunch of Stalinists!" Is this acceptable? Do I really think these things? Maybe I do. Am I likely to convince anyone of my position? Likely not. In fact, my actions are quite rude considering the circumstances.

It seems to me that the blogosphere exists simultaneously in both of these worlds. It is both a calm, civilized dinner conversation, and a place for venting among like-minded peers. The problems arise, I think, when we mistake speech of type A for speech of type B. Or when we expect an atmosphere of type B, and get type A instead.

I myself prefer to keep my own hyperbole-laden ranting offline, as I'd like this blog to be a place for enlightened discourse, politely engaged. And it tires me greatly sometimes to read so much of the first type of communication at a time, especially when it represents views I'm inclined not to agree with, but even when it's the kind of talk that I spout about myself. Sometimes I read something on a blog that I myself might yell at the television in the privacy of my home, but cringe because I can imagine what adverse-minded people must think.

We all need to vent, however, and a blog is a good place for it. Sometimes it feels good to call an asshat an asshat. And sometimes it feels better to call someone a moron for doing something stupid like calling someone an asshat for no good reason. And sometimes it feels the best to say to this asshat who called you a moron, "Takes one to know one!" or "I know you are but what am I?" or possibly "I'm rubber and you're glue. Etc..." It's impossible to be calm and considerate all of the time. It's part of the reason I post so rarely. Also, how hard is it to be aware of your audience when choosing your words when your audience could be anyone, including possibly everyone?


* Eating Your Way to Higher Test Scores

Here's an interesting NBER paper on an unintended effect of High Stakes Testing.
In Food For Thought: The Effects of School Accountability Plans on School Nutrition (NBER Working Paper No. 9319), authors David Figlio and Joshua Winicki examine whether schools exploit a more subtle method to increase test scores: changing their lunch menus. Several studies have suggested that consuming glucose before taking tests may increase scores. Under the Department of Agriculture School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, schools must meet nutritional guidelines over a one-week period. This gives menu planners the flexibility to alter meals from day to day. Given the software available for school menu planning and nutrient analysis, food service directors also have the tools to fine tune the menu.
There are many easier ways to increase test scores than improving actual achievement. I know a lot of people like to complain about the Patriot Act, but the No Child Left Behind Act is my absolute least favorite piece of Bush-era legislation.


* Doomsday

I'll admit, back in the 90s, my first thought upon seeing any dates past 2000, was "Why bother, aren't we all going to be dead?"

Well, I don't have those morbid instincts anymore, but now I'm convinced of another unfortunate certainty: As technology progresses, weapons of mass destruction will only get more powerful, smaller, more portable, and more user-friendly. As the population expands, the total number of crazies grows, as does the number of opportunities for said crazies to obtain and use said WMDs. In the limit, the probability that we are all going to die in some spectacular, entirely avoidable, deliberately planned event is unity. It's something like a Moore's law for total annihilation. Naturally, as in the previous case, it's not something that affects my day-to-day decision making processes.


Thursday, April 24, 2003

* Why are some people leftists and some other people rightists?

For a while Iíve been thinking about a sort of social experiment. What if, somehow, a person was able to reach 18 years of age without any inclinations toward one political ideology or another, and without any personal experiences or prior set of information to base an ideology on. How would such a person decide who to vote for for President, for school board, which party to register with, which petitions to sign, and when to write to their congressmen?

Itís hard to even imagine a situation that would produce such a person. Amnesia? Raised by wolves? Everyone has a history. Perhaps that is the point. But nonetheless I keep coming back to this idea and wondering if there wasnít something to it. What if we were able to create robots with intelligence equal to ours? Would the robots vote Republican or Democrat (or Natural Law, perhaps)?

One idea that comes naturally as a student of economics is that people engage in political activity because the marginal benefit of doing so outweighs the cost. Perhaps the amnesiacs, (or the robots), would simply figure out whichever candidate would implement policies which had the greatest salutary effect on their well being and pull the lever for that particular person.

For example, what if all the robots cared about was the health of the economy, so they could go out and get jobs at high wages and consume a lot of neat consumable stuff? They would vote for the person who they expected to have the greatest positive effect on the economy.

Two issues: One, how do they figure out which candidates and which policies are the best? We will first assume that this is possible. Two, if the robots can figure it out to some degree of certainty, then presumably so can the candidates, so they might as well all have the same policies, or at least all have policies with equal expected effects, so that they can each be assured the robot vote.

To make things more realistic, we should admit the complication that the interests of two amnesiacs may diverge. Perhaps one is 18 and the other is 65. Or one lives in Willimantic, and the other in Crescent City. Or one is male, and the other female Maybe one is an astrophysicist by training, and the other a pin monkey. Anything is possible, and so we must realize that the policies proffered by one candidate or another would affect different groups of people in different ways, and as such it would make sense for one person to vote for one candidate while another person votes for another. Perhaps this phenomenon explains why some people are left-wingers and some people are right-wingers. Maybe it is because itís in some peopleís best interests to have left-wing policies put in place and itís in some other peopleís best interests to put right-wing policies in place.

This may seem overly obvious. If it is I hope I do not come across as condescending. I just aim to be thorough in my own pondering of the problem.

In equilibrium, it should be the case that the policies of no single political party are better overall for the majority of people. If this was the case then this party would win all of the elections, and the minority party or parties would respond by changing their policies to appeal to more people until in the aggregate, the expectations of the overall performance of both parties are about equal. When this is the case, we would expect elections to be decided by minor issues, like the personality of the individual candidates, or the weather on Election Day or some such. Of course, a great many people will be very highly affected by which party is in power; with many divergent interests and so many people we would expect some to suffer greatly and some to profit immensely. On average, though, the day-to-day life and well being of the average person should be about the same no matter who is in power. Itís the issues that have the greatest effect on the least amount of people that we might expect to be the most politicized.

There is an alternative hypothesis. Perhaps we are really not capable of figuring out what is in our best interests. Perhaps our mental faculties are flawed, or maybe a certain percentage of the population is just a bunch of idiots. If the idiots tended to gather on one side of the political spectrum, than we really would be better off in the aggregate whenever the idiots lost. Perhaps it is not so much idiocy as gullibility. Some people may be able to persuade others that their interests are not actually what they are.

My impression from reading various political and other weblogs over the past year and a half or so is that this is the view many people take, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not. Thousands of blog posts are basically expressions of frustration, anger, or amusement over the actions, words, or beliefs of other people that are seen as idiotic or otherwise wrong-minded.

I have to say that this frustrates me to no end.

Itís not that I donít believe that a lot of people or idiots. I do, though usually not out loud. Itís especially not that I donít think people do and say a lot of really stupid things. I myself tend to do and say really stupid and sometimes idiotic things with alarming frequency. What bothers me is the implied wholesale classification of people with a particular ideology or single belief as idiots.

I first thought of the idea of the amnesiac voter when I was trying to convince myself that it was reasonable for two different people to think two opposing things without one or both of them being idiots. For example, was it possible back in February for one non-idiot to oppose the recent war in Iraq and for another non-idiot to support it? There are cases where this is obvious. If one of our non-idiots is a Halliburton executive and the other one owned a lot of Iraq government debt, then these are those people with very direct and divergent interests in a possible war. Whatís more interesting, are the people without any such direct interest in a war, like most of the bloggers I read.

To answer this question, consider the above experiment of the amnesiac. Without prior assumptions, how would the amnesiac formulate an opinion on the war? Limited to what he or she could gather from easily available sources (i.e. no classified intelligence or such), is it possible to come to a non-idiotic conclusion? Is it possible to come to either the pro- or the contra- side without idiocy?

Since all information comes to the amnesiac by way of other people, she must use some sort of criteria to decide which arguments, analysis, data, interpretations and so forth to trust, and which to distrust. This is where the assumption of amnesia, or robotism is key. If you have no instincts or prior beliefs about which sources are credible, I think it is impossible in most cases to rule out either of the opposing viewpoints. Take any issue, and try to imagine how someone without such pre-supposed assumptions about the credibility of certain sources would reach a position on that issue. In essence, an argument is only convincing as much as you are willing to accept the underlying assumptions.

For some reason, people develop political ideologies throughout the course of their lives. When forming opinions about issues where there is not always a clear direct interest, people seem to trust sources that also confirm their present ideologies. This process has positive feedback. However, some people change their ideologies throughout their lives, sometimes often, sometimes drastically. I have, to some extent. Iím curious as to why and how this happens.

(For one hypothesis, see this article on how political ideology is a form of courtship behavior)

Anyway, Iíve been meaning to get this down in writing for some time now, and what finally provided the inspiration were these posts from Jeff Cooper and Jeanne DíArc. Both express lack of inspiration and some frustration with blogging and bloggers. Strangely enough, itís this sort of frustration that inspired me to start my own blog in the first place. As someone with only vague beliefs, and a willingness to be convinced otherwise, a blogosphere full of people arguing endlessly over contradictory viewpoints, each one more convinced of their own rightness than the last can be a very tiring and frustrating place. I had wondered, (and still wonder,) if it was possible to be a part of a different sort of conversation, where instead of calling everyone who thinks differently from you an idiot, we admit up front that we may not have all the answers, but if we think about and talk about things long enough we might reach some conclusions worth adopting for a while.

Perhaps itís just because Iím too young to know anything yet, and at some point in my later years Iíll stop thinking that I paradoxically learn the most from people who admit the possibility that they may be wrong. Strangely, it seems that the more a person is convinced of the strength of his argument, the more likely I am to disbelieve it, all other things equal. When I am at my most frustrated and tired with webloggers, I wonder if there is something about communication and discourse that I just never leaned adequately. Or perhaps successful discourse is just something that is too hard for anyone to do consistently.

On the other hand, perhaps Iím just one of the idiots.


Wednesday, April 16, 2003

* War and Approval

If I were President, faced with numbers like these, I would be tempted to feel justified engaging in as many wars as I could. After all, the public seems to be signalling its highest approval while we're at war.

Really though, I don't quite understand why there is such a huge difference in the number of people who "approve" of Bush's performance while we're at war. According to the graph above, there has to be some group of millions of Americans who didn't approve of Bush before 9/11, changed their minds immediately afterward, but gradually went back to disapproval over the next year or so, but then changed their minds again once Gulf War II started. Is it really the case that all these people just aren't satisfied with a leader who isn't actively waging war, or do we really even know what we are measuring? Perhaps during wartime, when people are asked if they approve of the President's performance, they take it to mean approval of the war itself. During peacetime, approval could mean something entirely different. I don't know.

Furthermore, why has such a vague, unuseful concept as "approval" become the standard by which our pollocracy judges the President? If you look at, there's a ton of poll results on approval, but ever so much less on things that are actually interesting. For example, each of the major pollsters seems to ask about approval every few weeks, but only one (Ipsos-Reid/Cook) seems to asks would you re-elect the guy every time as well. Isn't this kind of a more important thing to know? The two numbers are correllated of course. but re-elect is much less volatile (just from eyeballing it).

So why do we care about "approval" so much?


Monday, April 14, 2003

* Well aren't I a Lucky Ducky

2003 Effective Tax Rate: 2%

That old Wall Street Journal editorial is right, I really don't feel like taxes need be lowered.


Tuesday, March 25, 2003

* War Semi-Hiatus

Being at war makes me disinclined to think and write much about other things, and I have little to comment on the war itself, at least in these early stages. Jeanne D'Arc's comments somewhat accurately describe my own feelings as well. So I apologize if anyone is disappointed by my inactivity (as unlikely as that may sound). It will probably last for another week or so.

On the economics of happiness, which I do plan to address at some point in the future, here are Mark Kleiman and Arnold Kling.


Tuesday, March 18, 2003

* Happiness

Yesterday we found out money doesn't make us happy (from Ampersand). Today we find out marriage doesn't make us any happier either.

When my exams are over I will read the associated research and return to these issues in more detail, but here are my initial points of curiosity:

In regards to the marriage study, this doesn't seem that surprising to me. After all, most people who get married know well beforehand that their lives are headed in this direction. Might not we expect to find the shift point in happiness levels to be that moment where you know you've found that special someone? It seems to me that people get married because they are happy with someone, not because marriage will produce that happiness.

What other sorts of events do produce permanent shifts in happiness levels, especially positive ones? It's easy to imagine events that permanently and negatively impact happiness, but what are the positive ones? Are there any? If there aren't, what determines differing degrees of happiness?

Finally, I just want to note that the economic notion of utility is not the same as, or substitutable with the notion of happiness. To say that some stuff A gives a person higher utility than some other stuff B, is only saying that, given the choice, the person will choose A over B. Some level of happiness may or may not be a part of the stuff we are choosing over. To say that people are rational utility-maximizers is not to say that people always do what makes them happiness, it is only to say that, out of what they can afford, people will always choose the bundle that they prefer to any other bundle that they can afford. And by "prefer," I mean that if a person chooses A over B, then A prefers A. If that sounds like a tautology to you, it's because it is. But it's a useful one, apparently.

For some fascinating history on the subject, see David Levy and Sandra Peart's "An Inquiry into the Causes which Affect The Happiness of Nations: The Comfort of the Lower Orders."

Another must read (especially for St. Patrick's Day) by the same authors is their six part series on "The Secret History of the Dismal Science," in which it is revealed that Economics as a discipline received the appellation "the dismal science," not because of some dire population-growth-outstripping-food-supply-growth warnings by Thomas Malthus, but rather, because economists were among the first to support that wacky notion of racial equality.

More to come. Promise.