Wednesday, October 31, 2007
On Monday morning, Megan posted a lengthy refutation of anti-voucher arguments. She also addressed some back-and-forth arguments if you read a little further on her blog. I don’t necessarily support vouchers — I’m currently undecided on whether it’s the non-public method I would prefer — but her arguments against most voucher opponents are compelling.
What’s always amazed me about the voucher issue is how many people are opposed to any effort to even test the idea. It took an amazing effort to get experimental programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, to say nothing of the program in DC whose biggest supporters were inner city African American parents being directly affected. And people didn’t even want to see the experiments in areas where the programs are in high demand.
But after reading many of the comments on her posts, what disturbs me even more is the thought that some people simply don’t want to hear debate. People keep reciting arguments that Megan already refuted — does this represent error, ignorance, or indifference? And then there are the great ad hominem attacks in lieu of real facts or discussion. It’s almost as if some people won’t be persuaded ever but they don’t have the courage to admit it.
I’d like to believe there are very few things in this world that I would refuse to change my mind about in the face of a consistent, persuasive, sound argument presented over time. I hope my opponent wouldn’t hold it against me if it took some time; after all, it’s typically a weak mind that acquiesces without some degree of consideration. But it seems like it’s the weaker mind that refuses to cede at all, or at least pending the discovery of new evidence.
The most discouraging argument I ever pseudo-lost went something like this: I was debating a person who I respected both for his intelligence and his command of the issue at hand, and I utterly demolished his position. It wasn’t even close — he admitted as such — but he then replied that even though he couldn’t personally defeat me, smarter people than him retained his view, and therefore he didn’t have to concede as long as those people still held his position.
I’m afraid I don’t know how to defeat the appeal to phantom intelligence, but I fear it’s a systemic problem; it’s got to be pretty reassuring to hold whatever beliefs you feel like supporting as long as someone, somewhere, believes it too and they haven’t been completely discredited. Am I just being cynical? I dunno — it’s a disturbing thought though.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
David Brooks writes about happiness polls in his column today. An excerpt:
Researchers from Pew found that 65 percent of Americans are satisfied over all with their own lives — one of the highest rates of personal satisfaction in the world today.
On the other hand, Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about their public institutions. That same Pew survey found that only 25 percent of Americans are satisfied with the state of their nation. That 40-point gap between private and public happiness is the fourth-largest gap in the world — behind only Israel, Mexico and Brazil.
He then tries to interpret:
This happiness gap between the private and the public creates a treacherous political vortex. On the one hand, it means voters are desperate for change. On the other hand, they don’t want a change that will upset the lives they have built for themselves.
On the one hand, they want the country’s political leaders to take bold action. On the other hand, they are extremely cynical about those leaders and are unwilling to trust them with anything that seems risky.
And after a few more statistics and generalizations, Brooks tries to formuate a policy prescription:
These voters don’t believe government can lift their standard of living or lead a moral revival. They want a federal government that will focus on a few macro threats — terrorism, health care costs, energy, entitlement debt and immigration — and stay out of the intimate realms of life. They want a night watchman government that patrols the neighborhood without entering their homes.
Putting aside the fact that this is the broadest definition of “night watchman government” that I’ve ever heard, and that we can quibble about what ought to go on the list of macro threats, I think Brooks is onto something here.
People seem to have this weird cognitive dissonance when it comes to government: they don’t trust government to do pretty much anything efficiently or cheaply or without corruption or even right at all, but they continue to look to government for solutions. Also, people are typically happy with the choices they make but unhappy with the choices other people are allowed to make. It strikes me as absurd, yet somehow predictable, that people could hold this duality of views so assuredly.
If we really sat down and made a list of how we want government to impact our lives, my guess is the list would be far different than if we sat down and made a list of how we want government to impact other people’s lives. The difference in those two lists is worth contemplating as we decide what government ought to export to society based on our advocacy.
[Update 10/30/07: Proof that we’re all victims of our own lens – I’m pretty sure Ezra and I cited the same article but we sure didn’t have identical takeaways.]
Monday, October 29, 2007
At least until you’ve got a replacement better than this:
The promise of Griese had Bears fans expecting so much more after he directed a game-winning 97-yard drive against Philadelphia that helped him earn NFC offensive player of the week honors. In his first four starts, Griese had completed passes that put him on a pace to break several Bears’ single-season quarterback records.
Then the bottom fell out and Griese started making the type of throws that only reminded people of the brand that ultimately sent Rex Grossman to the bench.
Overall, Griese finished 22 of 40 for 208 yards, one TD and the four picks.
Hmm, horrendously inconsistent play — which former starting quarterback does that remind me of?
I realize Grossman has fallen well short of expectations, but what do you honestly think backups like Brian Griese and Kyle Orton are going to do for you? I recommend losing out and drafting high.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Courtesy of the Onion — an oldie but a goodie.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Wow — my position on illegal immigration is in today’s Times and my position on presidential candidates’ abortion views is in today’s Post. This is turning into controversial position weekend on my blog!
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Here’s an excerpt from a Wired story on Facebook’s $15 billion valuation:
Much is riding on Facebook’s upcoming ad network. “The key thing is that Facebook has an audience,” says Forrester analyst Charlene Li. “Wherever audiences go and people spend time, that becomes an advertising medium.” Presumably Facebook will use its extensive user data to serve up advertising targeted on an individual level.
A big challenge for Facebook will be the fact that users of social networks tend to click on ads much less than, say, search-engine users do. But Li points out the big money is in ads which put a brand in front of impressionable consumers. The more data Facebook can give back to brand advertisers — for example how certain demographics behave on the site — the more valuable its platform could become.
How amazing is it to think that advertising to a social network allows you to precisely target a particular type of person (e.g. a 25-year old single politically moderate female with a degree from a SEC college and at least 100 friends). No risk of spam filters, page skipping, or being in the other room; the only question is whether or not the eyes pick up the graphic or text.
And if you assume that advertising will occur regardless, improvements in targeting benefit the prospective customer as well. Simply amazing.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Congrats to Vanderbilt football for making it to five wins with four games left to play, keeping alive their hopes of getting at least six wins and a bowl bid for the first time since 1982. Unfortunately, in this year’s SEC even six wins may not cut it:
Indeed, that is the nature of this weird season in the SEC. As of this morning, as many as 11 conference teams have legitimate postseason aspirations.
Do the math: The SEC has automatic tie-ins with eight bowls.
That number would expand to nine if LSU works its way into the BCS Championship game.
Still, there could be at least one odd team out.
How’s that for irony? For the past quarter of a century, Vanderbilt has tried to attain bowl eligibility, to no avail. Now the Commodores are within one victory of the magic number and there might be no room at the postseason inn.
It’s worth noting that six wins is far from guaranteed as well — the ‘Dores last four games are against Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wake Forest. Vandy is notorious for winning a few non-conference games early and then reaching the boulevard of broken dreams.
By the way, congrats also to wide receiver Earl Bennett for becoming the SEC’s all time leader in pass completions. It’s especially impressive considering that he’s only halfway through his junior season, and that he plays for Vanderbilt!
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Julian dissects a great factoid:
Income looks to be directly correlated with voting for Republicans. Yet these breakdowns typically lump together (as “the rich”) everyone making more than $200,000. And as Daniel Gross noted in a 2004 Slate piece, studies that have taken a closer look at variations within that group found something interesting: While the usual correlation holds for the “merely” wealthy, when you get to the super-duper-sweet-Jesus-that’s-a-lot-of-money wealthy, the pattern flips: Voters worth more than $10 mil favored Kerry as strongly as those in the lowest income quintile did.
He goes on to hypothesize that this is because there comes a point where you have so much money you can afford to stop “voting your economic self-interest,” and that this has an interesting policy implication:
Ironically, this may be a point in favor of those who appeal to the declining marginal utility of money as an argument for economic redistribution. If this is right, then the efficient place to start imposing really crushing marginal taxes is at the income or wealth level where people start voting heavily Democratic.
I concur. If the objective of progressive taxation really is to get most of our revenue from the people who need it the least, I can’t think of a better pool of people to tax massively than the ones who are willing to vote it upon themselves.
But why do I get the feeling that some other objective (possibly egalitarianism, or schadenfreude… but I repeat myself) will keep this compromise proposal from gaining any serious traction?
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Here’s the clip. It’s an eight-minute John Stossel “Give Me a Break” segment from 20/20 that first aired on Friday, October 19.
I don’t always care for Stossel’s provocative-bordering-on-inflammatory style, but I think his point is accurate here. He’s not arguing that global warming doesn’t exist, and he’s not even arguing that it isn’t man-made. Stossel’s argument is that using the rhetoric “the debate is over” is an intellectually dishonest way to approach a scientific question. For elementary school children to believe that no serious person could possibly dispute the obviousness of the evidence, while every serious person who emerges with any question about the evidence is being either slandered or silenced, strikes me as a wholly non-scientific way to advance an argument.
So why would environmentalists who believe they have indisputable evidence on their side not want to even have a debate? My guess is the reason is no different than with any other cause: people have varying degress of fear, and the people all the way at the tail end who believe the destruction of mankind is imminent are highly motivated to get their policies implemented right now and at any cost. When the fate of the world is at stake, there’s no time for debate.
The problem I have with this approach is that it shows a total lack of humility about a very serious issue that affects the entire planet and is astoundingly complicated to address. The approach is functionally equivalent to an old order Amish sect justifying their refusal to debate an atheist by saying “the debate is over,” except the debate is whether the Amish lifestyle is critical to eternal salvation, and the results of the debate will be used to justify or refute a universal 10% tithe and an international commitment to ban all machines that require oil or electricity. Nobody’s going to just roll over when the stakes are that high.
Earlier this year I attended a lecture on contemporary environmentalism by Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic, who is also a trained economist. One takeaway I really liked was his opinion of how a thinking person ought to approach the question of global warming. He asks four questions, in this order:
1. Is global warming a reality?
2. If it is a reality, is it man-made?
3. If it is a reality, is it a problem, i.e. will the individuals in the world overall be better off or worse off due to small increases of global temperature?
4. If it is a reality, and if it is a problem, can we prevent it or stop it — and can any reasonable cost-benefit analysis justify a solution within the range of current proposals?
Now, my current answers to some of the questions are different from Klaus’s, but I do think those are the right questions to ask and in the right order. It does seem that questions 3 and 4 are often overlooked, or are replaced with “if 1 and 2 are true then spend money until the planet is saved.” And to be fair, I can definitely understand why people who want to discuss solutions are very angry and impatient at people who aren’t willing to concede the existence or urgency of the problem. However, that is definitely not an excuse to stifle dissent.
Each of the above questions has an emperical answer, but they do not all have obvious answers – I don’t know anyone who believes the planet’s destruction is imminent, the solution is in our hands, and the proper course of action is nothing. Comparing the unconvinced thinker to a holocaust denier, or to a person who thinks the world is flat, is to employ ludicrous and ignorant demogoguery. We can see, touch, feel, and understand these facts. The analogy here would be to compare a holocaust denier with a person who believes no arctic ice is meltng.
It’s not hard at all for me to understand why some people have a hard time wrapping their mind around climate change. We’re living on a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old and has natural temperature fluctuations so massive we call each one an “age,” and we’re trying to comprehend the short-term implications of a 0.7-degree increase in the global average temperature over the last 100 years. The data is so confusing that virtually no one without a PhD can analyze it, and even within the “consensus” group the actual predictions vary wildly. And on top of that, there are a handful of people running around pointing to every hurricane or warm front as evidence that we’re all going to die tomorrow. (I recently read an article suggesting global warming may have contributed to increased box office ticket sales this summer.)
Like my earlier example of the atheist trying to debate the Amish, there are some people who think the evidence points against man-caused climate change, and there many more who have questions about the effectiveness of the major lifestyle changes and multi-trillion dollar investment being asked of society. No one owes these voices a stage the size of, say, a series of concerts by an international rock star or an academy-award winning documentary featuring a popular former vice president. But the debate isn’t over just because one very loud side says it is, and the scientific outcome is especially not dependent on the policy positions of politicians.
In my opinion, the debate probably ends when environmentalists no longer need concert tours, ad hominem attacks, drumming dissenters out of their professions, or some other intellectually bankrupt method to prove their point. Ten years ago there were questions about whether the planet was warming at all, and now there’s virtually zero dissent even among people who have other disputes. These are questions that do have correct answers; we can sort them out in a respectful and intellectually honest way.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Reposting Nikos’s reasons, via Tyler:
1. I cherish my consumer surplus. I value most of the stuff I buy way more than what I have to pay for them; vanilla ice cream makes me happy beyond belief, and the same is true for the music of Dream Theater and the (soon to be purchased) Apple iphone. And what am I asked to pay for them? Peanuts.
2. I cherish my producer surplus. I am getting paid way, way more than the salary that would make me indifferent between supplying labour and staying at home.
3. I never have regrets: I did the best I could given the information available to me at the time. Judging I could have done better using information I acquired at a later date makes as much sense as regretting the existence of gravity. On a related topic, I understand the irrelevance of sunk costs.
4. While I do care for my welfare in relative terms, my welfare in absolute terms looms large in my utility function - and, boy, look how its value has been growing.
5. The selfishness of my fellow human beings does not make me anxious or depressed. Adam Smith (or was it Mandeville?) taught me that humans, selfish as they are, can make happy societies. And perhaps more to the point, they can make me happy.
And by the way, my econo-speak is improving, but I’m not yet using phrases like “welfare in absolute terms looms large in my utility function.” That’s hot.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Sports-related item of the day: Dr. Z flips out on the QB rating system.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
An interesting, if unusual to print, justification of pig raising appears in today’s Times. This person is going to get a lot of hate mail.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
I have a usability question about linking etiquette. Currently I set all of my links so they open in the same window. Pretty much everyone agrees that internal links (to other pages on your own site) should always open in the same window. However, there are two schools of thought regarding external links (to other people’s pages):
1. External pages should open in new windows. This leaves your page available so people can return easily, since presumably readers visit your page because they want to check it out. Also, if you linked to multiple items, readers can keep your page in an open window and don’t have to backtrack like a bad choose-your-own-adventure novel.
2. External pages should never open in a new window. It’s a sign of arrogance to assume that readers aren’t done with your page, and you should trust that readers are smart enough to get back if necessary. It’s what the big corporations do to keep their brand in your face, and it can be annoying — people generally hate pop-ups and the external page load is the slightly more productive cousin of the pop-up.
I used to think #2 held more weight, but due to the increased popularity of tabbed browsing I don’t think it’s as annoying as it once was. In fact, as a longtime user of tabbed browsing, I’m personally becoming annoyed when a page with multiple links doesn’t let me open them in a new window. So probably I’m going to change my method to have external links open in a new window, and trust that most of my readers won’t think I’m a sellout or a tool (or at least the ones who didn’t already think so).
Any thoughts on this subject?
[Update 10/24/07: After reading the comments and considering further, I think I’ve underestimated the resolve of readers to find solutions that suit their own preferences. I’ll leave the links the way they are.]
Monday, October 22, 2007
Travel & Leisure has released the most unsurprising survey since I came to the District. DCist comments:
Evaluated by our own residents, we came in a lowly No. 23 on the hotness meter, and No. 22 on the stylish (that’s out of a 1-25 ranking, 25 = bad, not good.) Visitors ranked Washington No. 24 on the people-I-like-to-look-at list and were slightly kinder to our wardrobes’, putting us at 18. We’re having a hard time accepting the idea that Atlanta has more style than the District. And that almost every major city in America is home to better-looking people, with the exception of Philadelphia.
The “duh” factoids of the year: DC’s population is, relative to other cities, unattractive, unstylish, unathletic, unfriendly, and not much fun either. And the best part is that in most categories the DC residents rated it worse than the visitors did! Memo to DCist: visit the South.
And out of pure arrogance, I’ll assume any DC ladies I’ve dated must have been the outliers :)