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The Jimmie Lunceford Model of Democracy

I have a conjecture about democracy: The truth-value of the claims a politician makes have at most a very slight effect on his chances of getting elected. A politician can stand up on a podium and tell blatant lies, and these lies can be debunked conclusively, yet he will suffer no negative consequences. What matters is that the politician tell the lies confidently and convincingly.

I think that this works because the median voter is simply not equipped to assess the truth-value of a politician's claims, so his vote comes down to a combination of esthetic factors and social proof (these dominate among the party loyalists), and perception of one politician as more likeable or trustworthy than the other (this dominates among swing voters). For the vast majority of voters, style trumps substance.

I'm not 100% sure of this, but it would explain a lot. Can anyone think of any counterexamples? Has a politician ever been caught in a lie (about policy, not sex), refused to acknowledge it or show contrition, and paid an electoral price for it?

Also for consideration: Can a politician beat a sex scandal by immediately coming out and saying, "Yeah, I slept with her, and her sister, too, and it was good. Any other questions?" That is, is it the display of contrition (and thus weakness) that hurts them more than the actual scandal?

Reference here.


You're not paranoid if they really are out to get you

Matt Barganier has a great post on the Antiwar.com blog about the Gates affair. The gist of it is that police officers know the various ins and outs of the law, as well as the gray areas they can exploit, and use this specialist knowledge to trick people into situations where they can be arrested.

For instance, what struck me when reading the policeman’s account of the Gates incident was a small detail: the repeated use of the term “tumultuous.” It appears three times in the brief report in descriptions of Gates’ behavior. Why was the cop fixated on this SAT word?

Turns out, it appears in the Massachusetts statute defining disorderly conduct. The cop goaded the agitated Gates into stepping outside of his house (he made sure to give a reason for this in the report – poor acoustics in Gates’ kitchen!) to create the grounds for an arrest. The cop already knew the specific – though vague and debatable – adjective he should use in his report to make the charge sound incontestable to the lawnorder crowd.


Are expensive big-name colleges worth it?

A recent salary survey has been making the rounds. It lists median starting and mid-career salaries by college attended. The usual suspects appear at the very top of the list with Dartmouth having the highest mid-career salary of $129,000. However, my own alma mater Virginia Tech appears surprisingly high (to me anyway) on the list for a large, land-grant, public university, having a mid-career salary of $97,400. I suspect large engineering colleges receive a nice bump in the rankings.

These data allow certain calculations to be made. Suppose you are a high school senior in Virginia having the choice of attending Dartmouth and Virginia Tech. Is it worth it to pay a lot more to attend Dartmouth instead of VT? Let's do some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Total cost of attending VT (instate) for four years: $60,000
Total cost of attending Dartmouth for four years: $210,000

Ceteris paribus, the relevant question becomes, "Is the $150,000 upfront marginal cost of attending Dartmouth worth earning $30,000 more per year during your peak earning years?"

(Yes, I know there's a discounted rate of return of the forgone cash to consider, along with potential attendance of graduate and professional schools, and choice of major, etc. That's why I called it a back-of-the-envelope calculation.)

I suspect that for most people, if they have the means to pay, the answer is Yes. That $150,000 can be made up in five years, say from age 40 to 45, a blip in time if you ask me. This leads me to wonder not why private elite colleges are so costly, but rather why they aren't even more expensive.

Having said that, attending a state school as an engineering major seems like a steal.

Requisite woof: Looks like VT beats UVA in more than just football.


The Great Democratists

Arthur raises an interesting point:

A great point Hoppe raises about democracy: who are the democratic thinkers? The Athenian democracy had nothing to do with the democracy as broadly understood, Rousseau envisioned something radically different at a very small scale, based on consensus more than majority rule. Montesquieu had in mind something closer to a random selection of representatives. There is simply no serious thinker behind democracy.

Hmmm... and de Tocqueville sold democracy as being girded by civic virtue, not the impersonal massive nation-scale democracy we have today.

Would any past thinker of note have supported the popular modern lay conception of democracy?


Against the Horse Race

In the run-up to the 2008 election, virtually all of my friends became devotees of Nate Silver's 538.com analysis. A number of people thought the popularity of this site said something positive about American civic engagement, but I was aghast, and not just because I find Silver's tone off-putting and social science simplistic (although I do). It seemed to me to perfectly encapsulate the us-them, tribal nature of politics to be worrying about war gaming the Electoral College.

I bring this up nine months after the fact because over at Cato Unbound, Clay Shirky (in the midst of an argument for newspaper subsidies that I disagree with, but that's a story for another day), made this statement:

I am an avid New York Times reader, and love the work of both Gretchen Morgenson, a financial reporter, and Eric Asimov, a restaurant reviewer. I am also a politics junkie, and was glued to Nate Silver’s 538.com, which tracked electoral votes in the 2008 presidential election. Subsidizing newspapers would help Asimov but not Silver, a perverse outcome if the goal is civic value. The ideal would instead be a subsidy that aids Morgenson and Silver but not Asimov, not because his work isn’t terrific, but because the behavior of the nations’ banks and the outcome of its elections are critical public issues, but the quality of that new restaurant in the East Village isn’t.

Am I the only one who finds the popularity of horse-race style election coverage negative and bad for society, certainly not something to be subsidized?

To be sure, I don't care if some people find political races thrilling, in the same way I find the ACC standings interesting. But I wish people wouldn't confuse caring about issues with caring about elections.

My second post ever here was in praise of not caring about politics. I still believe that if we took 90% of our time spent thinking about and discussing politics and applied it productively in our own lives, the world would be a better place. And if we took 90% of our politics time and spent it thinking about and debating issues rather than looking at logit regressions to predict Lancaster County's Democratic party vote share, that would be a plus too.


The Black Box of Health Care Reform

Disclaimer: I don't monitor the polls, listen to what pundits have to say, or keep up with political intrigues. These are my thoughts on the politics of health care reform based on my own anecdotal observations of everyday Americans.

The vast majority of Americans are happy with their health care. They may tell pollsters that they're unhappy (because it's fashionable), but actions are louder than words, and when it comes time for their Congressmen to make their health care very different from what it is now, their true preferences will be revealed.

So far, health care reform has been sold to the American public as a "black box". What's inside the box hasn't been clearly revealed. Americans have been told that there are some obvious shortcomings to their healthcare system and that there are easy reforms that can fix things. The nature of those reforms hasn't been important so far; it's just a pleasant idea.

Obama speaks of preventative care as if it's a magic solution, whereas in reality, there's little proof it will save money, and there's a good chance it will increase health care costs. Americans have been sold on the idea that the black box contains feel-good easy fixes like "preventative care". To the extent they believe health care reform will be as easy as more checkups, getting the right vaccines, and having more screening tests, Americans favor health care reform.

The reality is that any further involvement of government in health care will necessarily include some tough measures: rationing, capitation, less autonomy for doctors, some form of mandatory treatments, and no tort reform. To save money, you actually have to... spend less money. Sure, better diet and more exercise might be just as effective yet cheaper than coronary angioplasty for heart disease, but by golly, patients want to have that choice. When the same Americans who today tell pollsters that they want healthcare reform learn that they may not be able to undergo angioplasty, they will shout from the highest rooftops to prevent reform from happening. Americans are a stubborn people. They don't like being handcuffed.

Based on the people I talk to every day including patients, the tide is turning. The warm-and-fuzzy glow has worn off and we're now at the "hold on just a minute, let's think this through" stage. And the fight against health care reform has barely begun. The black box hasn't even been opened yet. If you were to ask the average Joe what's in the various proposals under consideration, he would have no answer. The more reform gets delayed, the worse it gets for Obamacare's chances. When the black box is fully opened, Obama better pray that the Democratic majority is enough to override the public sentiment.

If the black box is fully opened--if the public fully understands what reform actually entails--Americans will revolt against it just like they did under Bill Clinton, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt. Reform might still happen given the Democrats' powerful position, but it will be unpopular and a watered-down version what was dreamed of at the time of the inauguration.


More minimum wage insanity

From Free Exchange:

MICHIGAN has the highest unemployment rate of any American state, at 15.2%. State leaders are looking for a solution. Here's what they've come up with:


A $10 minimum wage in Michigan is the centerpiece of a number of populist proposals unveiled Wednesday by the Democratic Party, which hopes to get some of the initiatives on next year's ballot...

Increasing the state's minimum wage from $7.40 an hour to $10 an hour would give Michigan the highest standard in the nation. Washington state has the highest rate at $8.55 an hour.

The initiative also would remove exceptions that allow employers to pay less than the minimum wage to some workers, such as restaurant wait staff.

Labor unions and Democrats were pushing a ballot plan to raise the minimum wage in 2006, but the Legislature approved an increase before it could go to voters. That measure gradually raised the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.40 an hour, which went into effect July 1, 2008.

Union officials see the minimum wage as a quality of life issue for hourly workers, but business groups say many employers, especially small businesses, can't afford another increase.

Unbelievable. The state is bleeding union jobs, so it's not clear that an increase in the minimum wage is going to do union workers much good anyway, but it will be an enormous blow to the non-union unemployed looking for any service industry job they can get. Pity the state's immobile poor.


Intertemporal redistribution, a logical conclusion

This idea came to me while watching HBO's "Rome:" Despite being a pinnacle of ancient civilization, Rome was poor. The very few aristocratic families scraped out an existence comparable to a middle-class American (They had the bonus of having slaves but also lacked medical technology that we take for granted.) The vast majority, from the mercantile class downward, are arguably materially poorer than inhabitants of third-world countries today. If Rome existed today, without technology diffusion it would be perhaps one of the worst-off countries in the world. Slave labor is nice but it cannot get you past primitive technology and (at this point) poor governance.

What this implies is that if you're really concerned about income inequality, you should be just as concerned about temporal inequality as with inequalities in a static time frame, such as in the present-day USA. (This is forgetting about concerns about redistributing from the rich US to the global poor, which no serious politician places as a high priority). Redistribution to those poor blokes in the past is, of course, impossible. But - again, if you value equality - what we should really be worried about is improving our own lot at the expense of those lucky bastards who live in the future, where technological progress makes material goods increasingly cheap, and who will probably look at our living conditions as backward savagery.

What policies achieve this? Higher consumption, and lower investment. Spending more money today will make us better-off today. The downside is that we don't get the payoff of investment in the future - but they almost certainly won't "need" it, what with their Playstation 10,000s and flying cars. Yes, at some level, underinvestment will decrease the total welfare of humanity, but this is a tradeoff that current static-time-frame redistributionists are already willing to make to some extent. (Again, the people who lose from this policy are those well-off far-future people.)

You could argue that we already do this tradeoff to some extent, saving below the welfare-optimal amount. But I think that we naturally care about our children and descendants, more so than we care about our poor neighbors, and more so than would be welfare optimizing. Given this powerful emotion I think it's safe to say that we aren't consuming anywhere near what intertemporal redistribution would imply.

So this is basically the logical conslusion of the idea that we should forcibly redistribute from the rich to the poor, for the greatest income inequalities are between those separated by time, not space. One bonus from it is that next time you hear criticism of Americans spending too much and saving too little, you can smile and say that we're not being selfish; we're just ensuring equality!

Another consequence of this belief, by the way, is that we shouldn't do that much about global warming. People in the future will be better-off and will be better able to deal with the problems. This is in contrast to those climate-change activists today, who use literature like the Stern Report which have a positive discount rate: ie they value future welfare more highly than present-day welfare. Temporal redistribution means that we should have a highly negative discount rate.


The end of history, kind of

People who want to limit immigration are a frequent target of my anger for a number of reasons. I think that in general their main motivation is racism, which is a disgusting idea and one that disqualifies a person's arguments from my respectful consideration. Next is nationalism, hardly better.

Another one is that it's plain un-American, in fact anti-American. It rests on a mistaken conception of the American identity. The American identity, historically, has been as the land of opportunity, the refuge from the Old Country. Granted, a distinct identity has grown, but the meta-identity is the melting pot, and the particular form of the identity that obtains is constantly in flux. It's not monolithic or unchanging. It started as English*, then English plus German plus Scots-Irish plus African, then that plus a host of other things like Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Eastern European, Indian, Mexican and Central American, etc., including new waves of old groups. Someone who opposes immigration today ought, in the interest of consistency, to lament the eras of mass immigration in the same way that I lament the New Deal or the Vietnam War. That is, anybody who is not purely English-descended, from the colonial period, ought to think he shouldn't be here.**

Let me rephrase this point: the particular form of the American identity is not definitively established. It seems to me that to disagree with this point you'd have to narrow down to a historical period--maybe not a specific day, but at least to an identifiable range--in which the American identity was concluded, such that there's really an unbridgeable Us and Them situation in the present day.

I don't believe there is. One half of my ancestry arrived in the U.S. in the 1950s, and I feel like I blend into the American fabric just fine.

Bonus: how does naturalization according to Federal legislation allow someone be absorbed culturally?

* Let's not forget the various American Indian groups whose influence is historically undervalued, and which is briefly discussed at the end of Charles C. Mann's 1491, a book I recommend.
** Again, let's ask the American Indians about this.


This Is the Best You Could Do?

I think that widespread overestimation of the role racism plays in the US is a serious problem, and this is something that I write about a lot. I'd say that about 80% of the times I look into an allegation of racism, the evidence available to me suggests that it's seriously overblown or totally unfounded. But every once in a while, I run into something that makes me want to drop everything and get on a plane so that I can hand-deliver a much-deserved smackdown to some racist idiot for doing something that makes all those bogus allegations just a bit more credible. For example:

Seriously, what the hell? The Obama administration is shaping up to be the worst disaster to hit this country since LBJ, or maybe even Roosevelt, and the best the creator of this picture could come up with is, "Ha ha! He's black!"?

Defining somebody primarily in terms of his race is racism in the most fundamental sense of the word, and implying that the mere fact that he's black makes him worthy of mockery just isn't right.

And impolitic to boot. I hope Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton went in together on a gift basket for Sherri Goforth, because it's people like her who make their racket possible.

Via Jeff Fecke.