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Trying not to vote stupidly

The two main Democrat contenders for the presidency Barak Hussein Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have both attracted much of their support because of their identity. Most of Obama's support is because he is black. Much of Clinton's support is because she is a woman. If either is nominated I expect thousands of arm injuries at the Democrat convention from delegates patting themselves on the back over being enlightened enough to pick a woman or black man. To my way of thinking choosing a president because of the color of their skin or their sex is a pretty stupid way of picking someone for this important job. However it does have one major advantage over picking a candidate because of policy proposals and experience. If you pick a candidate based on who you think has the best policy, you could be wrong. If you want a candidate who will improve health care policy and you end up supporting the wrong candidate your choice has had the exact opposite effect as you intended. Instead of helping to fix health care, you have screwed it up even more. If you had picked a candidate based on race, there is no chance for you to find out later you actually voted for a white guy instead. No matter which issue your vote is based on, the other candidate will have a smart, well respected person who had studied the issue much more completely than you ever could supporting them. Both sides have experts much more knowledgeable than I that will say their candidate is the one. Is it possible for me as a layperson to actually choose the right side of an issue, so my choice isn't any stupider than picking by race or sex? Probably not, but my ego is big enough that I think I can and so have voted in every federal election since I turned eighteen. These are the issues that determine who I vote for, my reasons for picking these issues and my certainty about the issues.

I want a president who will keep fighting the war on terror until we win. I want someone who will keep trying tactics and generals until he finds one that works. The reason is that I think that the only way to make the world safer is to violently oppose those who would attack us. The terrorists think that we are a paper tiger. My reading of history says that people rush to join the winner's side and abandon the loser's. If we abandon the war in Iraq before it is won, we will have confirmed the terrorists idea of the US as a bully with a glass jaw. On the other hand my concern is that the war in Iraq is unwinnable, and like in poker, the moment you don't think you can win you should get out rather than throw good money after bad. Civil war in Iraq may be inevitable because it does not have a tradition of good government and is filled with people who would crawl over broken glass to spit at each other. On the whole I think the war in Iraq is winnable and must be won. I put the likelihood of my being right at 60%. Thus even though it is the top issue I use in evaluating candidates it is the one I am least opitmistic about being right. If I am wrong the price would be hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American casualties to delay the inevitable by a year or so. However, if I am right hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by preventing an all out civil war in Iraq. Also dealing the terrorist a decisive defeat in Iraq would be huge victory in the war on terror and save trillion of dollars and tens of thousands of lives in the long run. Because of the stakes involved the war in Iraq is my number on issue in choosing a candidate.
This is already a long post so I will post on my other issues later today.


Global War on Terror - sympathize with Matt but kinda disagree

Yeah, it's really hard to tell whether the GWOT making things better or worse. But for much of the twentieth century it was really hard to tell whether capitalism was doing better than communism.

The persistance of this disagreement should be setting off alarm bells no matter where on the spectrum you find yourself: If we can't even come to anything remotely resembling a broad consensus

Capitalism versus Communism

Even smart guys like Samuelson were fooled. From an account:

In very early editions, Samuelson expressed skepticism of socialist entral planning: "Our mixed free enterprise system ... with all its faults, has given the world a century of progress such as an actual socialized order--might find it impossible to equal" (1:604; 4:782). But with the fifth edition (1961), although expressing some skepticism statistics, he stated that economists "seem to agree that her recent growth rates have been considerably greater than ours as a percentage per year," though less than West Germany, Japan, Italy and France. (5:829). The fifth through eleventh editions showed a graph indicating the gap between the United States and the USSR narrowing and possibly even disappearing (for example, 5:830). The twelfth edition replaced the graph with a table declaring that between 1928 and 1983, the Soviet Union had grown at a remarkable 4.9 percent annual growth rate, higher than did the United States, the United Kingdom, or even Germany and Japan (12:776). By the thirteenth edition (1989), Samuelson and Nordhaus declared, "the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive" (13:837). Samuelson and Nordhaus were not alone in their optimistic views about Soviet central planning; other popular textbooks were also generous in their descriptions of economic life under communism prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The superiority of capitalism to communism is one of the most important realities that it would be civilizational suicide to ignore, and yet for much of the twentieth century, among the smartest people there were sharply conflicting views. In fact if one could say that intelligentsia had "come to anything remotely resembling a broad consensus", it was the wrong consensus.

Surely it's uncontroversial to say that if we must spend money, it should be spent on projects where we can easily tell if they're having the desired effect or not.

We spent money checking Communist expansionism, which protected capitalism. And yet, as we can see, it was not easy to tell if capitalism was superior to communism. And so it was not easy to tell if we were making things worse or better for ourselves by keeping the communists at bay.

The bad news is that, empirically, it's really hard to tell much of anything at all about the wide world, because it is just too complex. So what do you do? You think. You carefully combine a lot of observation and a lot of thought. And that, of course, is not enough to create consensus, for a variety of reasons. Adam Smith saw the world, he thought hard, he came to some (presumably we agree) mostly correct conclusions. But he did not create anything like a broad and lasting consensus - not enough to keep Samuelson from being bamboozled by communist propaganda (I presume that's what got him fooled).

The same can be said of war. When you start a war, it's not at all clear whether you'll win. I'm looking for a saying on war, it goes something like, "a successful war is a series of catastrophes followed by victory". That is, it looks just like you're losing until you win.

That is almost necessarily the case: if there were a clear consensus on which side will win, the losing side would quickly cave. War keeps going about as long as each side thinks it has a decent chance of winning. But in that case, it also probably looks as though the other side has a decent chance of winning.

So I would say that it is in the nature of war that it's commonly not clear which side is winning. Not clear whether your side's efforts are weakening your own side or the other side faster.

Another saying that I can't find, but goes something like, "both sides f-- up constantly, and who wins depends on which side f--s up the least." That more or less dulls even the criticism that our war on terror is utterly f--d up. (I'm not saying you should agree with a saying - I'm just trying to give vague credit where credit is due, though I can't actually trace the origins. I think these thoughts just seem intuitively right, I think war must be like this, it must be SNAFU and then you win.)

I'm not trying to defend the war. I am just saying the issue is harder than it looks.


Hate crimes?

Discussion at Agoraphilia.

Quoting from the Chicago Tribune:

The simplest answer to this is that when hatred for a particular group or class or race is the obvious motive for an attack, that attack becomes, in effect, two crimes. The first is the offense itself. The second is the implicit threat that offense makes to other members of that group, class or race.

Intimidation is already a crime, with or without hate crime law. Threatening someone is already an offense. So if hate crime law represents an improvement, it must be because it addresses a form of intimidation that is otherwise ignored in law. Presumably that is intimidation of a "group, class, or race". That is, it is diffuse intimidation directed against a group of people rather than a single person, against which there is presumably no law prior to hate crime law.

This makes hate crime law look like an attempt to address a public goods problem.

However, hate crimes are not in any way unique here. A criminal is a menace not only to his immediate victim but to everyone in the neighborhood, and when he is caught everyone breathes a sigh of relief. A mugger not only harms his immediate victim, but harms everyone else by making them afraid to go out at night.

It is nevertheless usually deemed "enough" to nab the criminal for the particular crime. The mugger, once caught, is tried for a particular crime, and then, if he is convicted, he is put away, making the whole neighborhood that much safer for everyone. There's a positive externality in defending yourself against a criminal, which might lead to an undersupply of defense against criminals.

In any case the public goods problem of defending against crime seems to be a general problem with crime and not a problem specific to hate crime.

Hate crimes, it is worth remembering, are first of all crimes, even if we ignore the element of hate. So there is already some defense against hate crimes: they can be prosecuted as regular crimes. If there is a problem, it is not that there is no defense against hate crimes, but only that there is an undersupply of defense against hate crimes. But as I mentioned before, much the same thing could be said of ordinary crime, because ordinary crime victimizes - via a diffuse intimidation - a lot more people than just the immediate victim.


Psychological Egoism

Some time ago, a debate raged across Catallarchy and Crooked Timber about whether psychological egoism was true. A standard objection to the doctrine is that there is no conceivable action which couldn't be ultimatle selfish, thus it is simply a tautology, akin to "a triangle is a 3 sided figure." I think this objection fails because there is an action which is inconsistent with psychological egoism.

Imagine a man who is on the verge of suicide. He literally has a cocked and loaded gun in his mouth with his finger on the trigger. As he begins to squeeze the trigger, he realizes that he has no life insurance policy, has racked up $20,000 in debt, and would leave the entire mess to his wife if he killed himself. Out of concern for his wife, he takes the gun out of his mouth and decides to continue living.

The psychological egoist has a major problem with this thought experiment because it doesn't seem as if the man could possibly be acting out of his own self interest. His wife's predicament should play no role in his decision if he is an egoist. Even if he would feel guilty for hurting his wife or acting immorally, he can't feel these feelings if he is dead. If death is better than living before the realization, then death must be better after the realization.

One could object that he is worried about his potential afterlife. Realizing that hurting his wife could land him in hell, the man might be avoiding the lesser of two evils. This objection fails, however, because suicide could land him in hell. If the man was worried about going to hell, he wouldn't have tried to commit suicide in the first place.

The interesting thing about this thought experiment is that it isn't so much a thought experiment as history. The man is still alive and a friend of my adviser, who told me the story earlier today (minor details have been changed), which means that psychological egoism must be false. Or not, any objections? Comments?


Repubs to Obama

From the Times Online:

Tom Bernstein went to Yale University with Bush and co-owned the Texas Rangers baseball team with him. In 2004 he donated the maximum $2,000 to the president’s reelection campaign and gave $50,000 to the Republican National Committee. This year he is switching his support to Obama. He is one of many former Bush admirers who find the Democrat newcomer appealing.

Matthew Dowd, Bush’s chief campaign strategist in 2004, announced last month that he was disillusioned with the war in Iraq and the president’s “my way or the highway” style of leadership – the first member of Bush’s inner circle to denounce the leader’s performance in office.

Although Dowd has yet to endorse a candidate, he said the only one he liked was Obama. “I think we should design campaigns that appeal, not to 51% of the people, but bring the country together as a whole,” Dowd said.

Bernstein is a champion of human rights, who admires Obama’s call for action on Darfur, while Dowd’s opposition to the war has been sharpened by the expected deployment to Iraq of his son, an Arabic-speaking Army intelligence specialist.

But last week a surprising new name joined the chorus of praise for the antiwar Obama – that of Robert Kagan, a leading neoconservative and co-founder of the Project for the New American Century in the late 1990s, which called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Kagan is an informal foreign policy adviser to the Republican senator John McCain, who remains the favoured neoconservative choice for the White House because of his backing for the troops in Iraq.

But in an article in the Washington Post, Kagan wrote approvingly that a keynote speech by Obama at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was “pure John Kennedy”, a neocon hero of the cold war.

In his speech, Obama called for an increase in defence spending and an extra 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 marines to “stay on the offense” against terrorism and ensure America had “the strongest, best-equipped military in the world”. He talked about building democracies, stopping weapons of mass destruction and the right to take unilateral action to protect US “vital interests” if necessary, as well as the importance of building alliances.

“Personally, I liked it,” Kagan wrote.

Disagreements on the war have not stopped John Martin, a Navy reservist and founder of the website Republicans for Obama, from supporting the antiwar senator. He joined the military after the Iraq war and is about to be deployed to Afghanistan.

“I disagree with Obama on the war but I don’t think it is a test of his patriotism,” Martin says. “Obama has a message of hope for the country.”

Huh? Republicans are jumping ship and heading over to... Barack Obama? Next you'll tell me the French socialist candidate lost the election.


Sarkozy - We take what we can get

Chances were about nil that France would elect a non-statist. Anyway, the big news from France that I personally have been shocked and troubled by was the Muslim riots that were apparently followed up for the next year by a daily burning of an average of 112 cars. The riots started on October 27 2005, and one year later, on October 21 2006 the Times reported:

The figures are stark. An average of 112 cars a day have been torched across France so far this year and there have been 15 attacks a day on police and emergency services. Nearly 3,000 police officers have been injured in clashes this year. Officers have been badly injured in four ambushes in the Paris outskirts since September. Some police talk of open war with youths who are bent on more than vandalism.

“The thing that has changed over the past month is that they now want to kill us,” said Bruno Beschizza, the leader of Synergie, a union to which 40 per cent of officers belong. Action Police, a hardline union, said: “We are in a civil war, orchestrated by radical Islamists.”

Even more troubling are the related phenomenon of the no-go areas. The Times article mentions these without explaining them (presumably because their readers are assumed to already know all about them):

Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister who hopes to win the presidency next May, has once again taken the offensive, staging raids on the no-go areas and promising no mercy for the thugs who reign there.

Notice the mention of Sarkozy. I'm getting to that. But right now what strikes my attention is the mention of these "no-go areas". When I Google it I get the following description:

An increasingly commonly thing in European cities is the no-go zone. These are places where the police, medical rescue crews, and other government agents will not venture into. The areas are viewed as just too violent and/or risky to enforce rules. Following the rules of ungoverned spaces, anarchy does not reign for long. A group will enforce their own rule set and the no-go zone will become a microstate.

In France no-go zones are referred to as Zones Urbaines Sensibles (Sensitive Urban Zones). Approximately 12 percent of all French in France live in a Sensitive Urban Zone (5 million out of approximately 60 million French)! Some of the zones are governed under Islamic Sharia law. From these no-go zones Islamic militants are waging guerrilla warfare against French police.

That is from a blog, with the usual warnings on credibility; however, the page it cites is in French, so I am quoting the blog.

Anyway, I think that the reason for the high turnout and the support for Sarkozy is that the French are probably about a thousand times as alarmed by this as I am, since they have to live with it.


Earth women love Ferengi men

Caption the pic:


Freedom fries for everyone!

"Conservative" candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has won the French presidency and seems America-friendly:

Washington can "count on our friendship," Sarkozy told hundreds of cheering supporters, although he added that "friendship means accepting that friends can have different opinions."

U.S. President George W. Bush swiftly phoned the president-elect to offer congratulations.

"The United States and France are historic allies and partners. President Bush looks forward to working with president-elect Sarkozy as we continue our strong alliance," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.


If the GOP is the party of small government, why isn't the government smaller

The past few years of GOP control of both branches of elected federal government have coincided with the growth of the federal government. This seems to falsify GOP claims to be the party of small government. However, this is not the case. The GOP hold on the government was very tenous with very small majorities in the house and senate and the president elected with a popular vote minority initially and relelected with a small majority. This is indicative of a voting populace split almost down the middle between the parties. The results of this split are growing government and growing deficit.
Neither party would like a deficit, but it results as a compromise between the parties. Both parties have a popular part of their agenda and an unpopular one. The GOP has low taxes as the popular part and small government as the unpopular part. The Democrat agenda has the opposite components with big government as the popular part and high taxes as the unpopular part. Both parties are able to pass the popular parts of the agenda, but are too weak to pass the unpopular parts. Thus we get bigger governnment but lower taxes. The deficits are the results even though neither party really wants them. The only way to break out of this equilibrium is for one party to gain a large enough majority of the voters to pass all of its agenda, or for smaller government or higher taxes to become more popular.


Will immigration lead to smaller government?

The increased diversity of the US has had many effects both positive and negative. From my perspective, the greatest positive effect is more ethnic food restaurants. However, the diversity may lead to an effect directly in opposition to what many marching in those rallies Tuesday may want. Support for income transfers is generally stronger if those receiving the transfers are like the voters. This is one explanation why support for wealth redistribution is higher in Europe which tends to be less diverse than the US (although they are getting more diverse recently). The surge in recent immigration from south america and mexico means that the face of poverty in America is changing. Although the idea of immigrants coming to America for the welfare payments seems to be largely a myth, myths can be very powerful things politically. I have heard several people who I consider to be solid Democrats complain about illegal immigrants getting benefits that should be reserved for Americans.
If the support for redistribution falls due to immigration, support for law and order may go up. A recent study claimed that people who live in diverse areas feel more unsafe than those who live in monocultural areas. If this is true it should translate into greater support for the Republicans who are seen to be the law and order party. If immigration undermines the Democrats call for more wealth redistribution and helps Republican calls for law and order, smaller government may be the result.


e-gold indicted for enabling fraud etc.

"This aggressive action against E-Gold appears to be intended to send a signal to others as well that you're responsible for setting up your system in a way that does not enable this kind of activity."

Washington Post May 1, 2007

In other news, the US Mint has been indicted for its contributions to a technology that makes virtually untraceable transactions trivially easy to set up, enabling fraud, drug purchases, prostitution, vending machine purchases, and countless other nefarious activities. (h/t reddit)


Caricaturing libertarian arguments

From an earlier entry: Libertarians seem to [ignore costs] when [they] talk about legalizing drugs. The benefits are well articulated, 1/3 less prisoners, more tax money available for other things, and less crime. However, the costs of legalization is that millions more Americans will try drugs and some percentage of them will get addicted.

Actually I have read many libertarians addressing the cost of ending the drug war. I've read it in a thousand essays if I have read it in one. To say that libertarians ignore the potential cost seems to me to grossly caricature the libertarian arguments.

It is easy to talk roughly about the number of prisoners because all you have to do is count the prisoners doing time for drug offenses. It's a lot harder to talk about what-if scenarios, so it should hardly be surprising that you will have a harder time finding straightforward numbers. That doesn't mean the issue is being ignored, it only means people are arguing within their limits.

What you are asking for is hard questions that not only libertarians need to answer, but absolutely everyone. If you are a strong proponent of the drug war, then the costs of ending the drug war are precisely the benefits of keeping it, so just as libertarians should talk about the costs of ending the drug war (and they do), so should drug warriors talk about those exact same things, except as benefits of keeping the drug war. If the drug warriors do not do this, then they have no credibility - which is just as you say, only contrary to the way you put it (you aimed the critique at libertarians), it applies exactly equally to both sides of the argument.

The reality of it is that it is not all that easy to estimate the costs and benefits of keeping/ending the drug war, so the best that can really be done by most people is to mention what they are without necessarily being able to guesstimate the size of the cost or benefit. Libertarians will tend to talk about the benefits of ending the drug war more than about the costs because discussion of the benefits is underrepresented in public discourse. Too many people already talk (with massive exaggeration) about the costs of ending the drug war. The moment you suggest the possibility of ending the drug war the first or second thing that gets mentioned is some apocalyptic scenario straight out of a bad movie in which the streets are filled with drug-created zombies, the economy has ground to a halt and the city is burning, and only a shotgun-wielding Milla Jovovich can save the day.

I think one of the best ways to get an approximate fix on the results of ending the drug war is to consider the analogy of the drugs that are already legalized: alcohol and tobacco. While tobacco and alcohol present real health and public safety concerns, on balance I think most will agree that our experience with alcohol prohibition was worse than leaving it legal, and similarly I think most will find little societal value in an outright ban on tobacco.


Is ending the drug war a free lunch?

We all know rationally that there is no such thing as a free lunch but politically everyone is still searching for one. Many Democrats seem to think that universal health care will be a free lunch. They plan to improve care, expand coverage, and reduce expenditures. They plan to do this without limiting choice and rationing coverage. If they ever get to implement their ideas failure is sure to be the result.
Likewise some Republicans seem to think that tax cuts are a free lunch. The government can raise more money by lowering taxes than by keeping taxes high. Thus you don't have to choose between low deficits and low taxes, you can have both. Now as the Laffer curve tells us this true when marginal rates are very high, but the rates where it is true have not been seen in America in decades. Thus the Bush tax cuts are responsible for about 1/3 to 1/2 of the deficits of the past few years. (Whether they were a good idea anyway is beyond the scope of this post)
The reason for not acknowledging the price of these policies is that politicians know that promises of a free lunch will get votes even if they cost the advocates intellectual credibility.
Libertarians seem to do much the same thing when talk about legalizing drugs. The benefits are well articulated, 1/3 less prisoners, more tax money available for other things, and less crime. However, the costs of legalization is that millions more Americans will try drugs and some percentage of them will get addicted. I would like to hear more on how much the cost will be. How many people are addiction prone? How hard is it to break drug addictions? Is the downward spiral of drug addiction inevitable or do only a small percentage of addicts bottom out? How addictive are certain drugs?
Being honest about costs give people more credibility when they talk about benefits. Since drug legalizers are not in a position to worry about elections yet, they need all the intellectual credibility they can get.


Different faces of psychology

We can distinguish between different aspects of psychology. I think one important distinction is between psychology as the empirical study of the mind, and the medical field that identifies and treats diseases of the mind. Call the former "empirical psychology" and the latter "medical psychology" (it might perhaps be better called "normative psychology").

An empirical psychologist can for example study the many behaviors that have been identified by medical psychologists as symptoms of ADHD, without ever needing to agree with the medical psychologist that those behaviors are abnormal or unhealthy. One can equally well observe and record those behaviors in individuals regardless of whether one considers them to be abnormal or unhealthy. Read more »


Parenting and Power

When I was a child parenting was about power. Parents had all the power. They decided when you went to bed, what you ate, where you could go, what you could watch on TV, etc. Their power seemed almost limitless. Read more »