Thursday, December 31, 2009

More on Asteroids: I Heard It Through the Grapevine

If you read my post of August 25, you may be pleased to hear that the Russians are considering an attempt to deflect an asteroid from hitting the Earth. Good news, except that NASA estimates that the asteroid in question, Apophis, has a maximum probability of 1 in 250,000 of hitting us between now and 2068. The AP account of this doesn't give much confidence that the head of the Russian space agency knows what the hell he's doing, or indeed is sober:

Without mentioning NASA's conclusions, Perminov said that he heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer and may hit the planet. "I don't remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032."

The head of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program is tactful:

"While Apophis is almost certainly not a problem, I am encouraged that the Russian science community is willing to study the various deflection options that would be available in the event of a future Earth threatening encounter by an asteroid."

The Russian space agency's own website, quoting the AP, seems somewhere between embarrassed and mocking:

Russia may deploy defensive spacecraft against the Apophis asteroid, which is almost certainly not going to hit the Earth, according to remarks by the head of the country's space agency....Perminov refused to be drawn on the details of his Apophis scheme, though he did specify that there would be no nuclear explosions. This is probably just as well, as weapons of mass destruction are forbidden in space by international treaty.

Can't wait to hear how this turns out. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

If You Can't Beat 'em, Buy 'em

All the stories about how opium grown in Afghanistan is funding the Taliban finally got me to wondering: why don't we just buy it up  and destroy it? Estimates that I have seen are that opium in Afghanistan is a $64 billion a year business, of which about a quarter goes to the growers. So, bidding above the current price to make sure we corner the market, we could still theoretically buy the entire crop for $20 billion or so, about the cost of 20,000 soldiers. This would have the additional benefit of reducing the world supply of heroin, at least in the short run, by 90%.

Like most things, this is not as easy as it sounds. A simple supply-and-demand analysis suggests the Taliban would still end up with some of the opium. But they would get less of it and at a higher price, a price that we would set. A further complication is that the Taliban have guns, and so do the warlords. But at a minimum, it greatly complicates their life, and drastically reduces their income.

This is not a Swiftian Modest Proposal; I'm quite serious. The possibilities seem even more dramatic in other places. Take Somalia, everyone's favorite example of a failed state, where we are worried about both Al Qaeda and piracy. This is a country of about 10 million people with a total GDP of around $5.5 billion. So for about 1% of the US military budget we could hire, well, the entire country. Realistically, it would probably be better to hire only a quarter or so of the population, so we're not stuck there forever, but this makes the costs even lower. Having hired them, we could then put them to work looking for foreign terrorists, building roads, building schools, digging wells, taking literacy classes, and so on. Presumably this would be better in the long run than just paying them to dig holes and fill them in, but even that would be a bargain.

I can't shake the feeling that this sounds like a joke, but someone will need to explain it to me.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Now, About Those Cadillac Plans

We read that all health economists favor the tax on "Cadillac" health plans as a way to control costs. If that's really what they think, I'm willing to listen. But I'm skeptical.

Yes, there's a strong argument for taxing things like free spa weekends. These are essentially a tax dodge, driven by the fact that wages are taxed and health benefits aren't. But it seems unlikely that benefits like this are huge contributors to the high cost of American health care.

A lot of plans are high-cost simply because they have more complete benefits. For example, some include vision and dental coverage. But basic vision and dental coverage should be (in my opinion) part of every basic plan. There are a lot of low-income people who just can't afford to get dental care, and never do, and as a result have bad teeth. And eyeglasses? OK, maybe not Armani. But none?

Other plans are higher-cost because they have low copayments and deductibles. The basic idea of co-payments and deductibles in health insurance is the same as in auto insurance: to accept some increase in the risk people bear in order to make them pay part of the costs of their decisions. The hope is that making the insured bear some part of the cost will lead to less frivolous use of the resources, such as, in the case of health care,  visiting the doctor every day for insignificant complaints or just to have someone to chat with.

The question is how much cost-bearing is the right amount. This is especially tricky in health care, because bearing more of the cost may result in not going to the doctor enough, leading to more high-cost emergency room visits and hospitalizations, as in this study. And covering 60% of the cost, as the lowest-cost plan in the Senate bill does, seems to my inexpert eye not enough to keep people from getting into serious financial trouble from health problems.

Bear in mind that in some countries patients have no copayment, and yet those countries have much lower health costs than we do. I don't know what fraction of health care costs are accounted for by patients choosing to overuse services, but I'd guess (and that's all it is) that it's more than negligible but less than large.

So I'd have to see more evidence before I accept the claim that the Senate's tax on high-cost plans will significantly improve efficiency. And I'm totally mystified by the claim that taxing the very rich, as the House bill does, is an inappropriate way to pay for health care.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Pious and the Dead

Oh, that Catholic Church. They're at it again with Pius XII, for whom Pope Benedict has just cleared the way to beatification, and thence eventually to sainthood. They noted that this "is in no way to be read as a hostile act toward the Jewish people." Don't worry, I didn't read it that way, any more than I read Pius's inaction during the Holocaust as hostile. Indifferent, yes. Acquiescing to evil, yes. But I wouldn't say hostile.

According to the Times, a Vatican spokesman said the beatification process looks at Pius's "Christian life"  and not at the "historical impact of all his operative decisions." For "historical impact" read "the deaths of countless innocent people." And isn't the Christian life, let alone the saintly life, all about decisions?

At least no one is going to say of Pius that, hey, he was a victim too, as Benedict did when he described the Germans as being "used and abused" by the Nazis. The Church's pinnacle of vicarious victimhood was of course the canonization of Edith Stein, the converted nun who died at Auschwitz. Since many Catholics couldn't understand what all the uproar was about, let me say that I had no problem with canonizing Edith Stein. Spiritual qualities aside, she by all accounts was a remarkable woman (she was considered a more promising grad student than Martin Heidegger, which perhaps contributed to Heidegger's later support for Hitler).

No, what I object to is fast-tracking Edith Stein for sainthood by claiming that she was a martyr to the faith. That is, that she died because she was a Catholic-- and therefore the Church, too, was a victim of Hitler. I can't for the life of me see how that is true. If Stein had renounced her Catholicism, if she had spat on a crucifix and recited the Lord's Prayer backwards, would that have saved her life? Hardly. Edith Stein didn't die because she was a Catholic. She died because she was... that other thing.

The next time Jews need some moral outrage from the Church, I hope they have the good sense to be fetuses.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Debunking the Brown Peril

Last Thursday's New York Times had a pop-eyed, but basically accurate, article on how, with even moderate net immigration, the Census Bureau projects that non-Hispanic whites will cease to be a majority in the U.S. by 2050. That sounded like a good spot for some clarity, so I took a look.

Result: It's hard to see much of a bright side for, say, the Aryan Brotherhood. (By their standard, of course, I myself, like Fleischman in "Northern Exposure," am not really white.) But for the Lou Dobbs fans, who are worried that soon it won't be their country anymore, it's too early to start packing for Australia.

First of all, in 2050 whites will be, if not a majority, at least a strong plurality-- by far the largest group in the country. Non-Hispanic whites, even in the version of the model with high net immigration, make up 45% of the population, compared to 31% for Hispanics of all races. (In the low-immigration version, the figures are 48% and 29%.) And some of the decrease in the white share is caused by a dramatic increase in the share of non-Hispanic Asians and multiracials. (Again, not much consolation to the Aryan Brotherhood.)

But perhaps most importantly, what is the basic fear of the Lou Dobbs crowd? It is that America will end up with a substantial undigested lump of immigrants who don't speak English, with various pernicious effects. They should read, among other things, this paper by some well-known demographers, which estimates that even among Mexican-Americans in Southern California (where pressures for assimilation are about as low as anywhere), only 17% of third-generation immigrants, and 5% of fourth-generation immigrants, will be fluent in Spanish. Among the third generation, 96% prefer to speak English at home.

In short, as some Spanish-speakers enter, others turn into English-speakers named Martinez. The melting pot is still hot.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Things I Don't Understand

Today, by which I mean today, Friday, December 18, there are two great unsolved mysteries on the political scene: What on earth does Joe Lieberman think he's doing? and What on earth does China think it's doing? There are also subsidiary mysteries that someone may understand, but I don't.

Much ink has already (or many electrons have already) been spilled over Lieberman, and how he's now willing to sink the health bill if it includes something that was part of his platform in 2006. I have no new insight on this, but if I find out that he's being blackmailed by someone with a photo of him eating pork gyoza off a prostitute's stomach, I promise to post the information here (and, if possible, the photo as well). In the realm of things Obama probably knows but I don't, what's going on with Olympia Snowe? She said she wouldn't vote for the bill with a public option, but now any semblance of a public option is gone, and Ben Nelson is threatening to stop the bill over abortion. Snowe was one of the two Republicans who voted against the language that Nelson wanted. Time to step up, Olympia (does she have a nickname?), unless you think that people in Maine are doing just fine on health care. If you think that, you know different people in Maine than I do.

As for China at Copenhagen, well, they say it's a matter of principle. The principle here, evidently, is that international treaties should not include mechanisms for monitoring or enforcement. One thing to be said for this is that it will make it very easy to negotiate international treaties, since anyone can agree to anything. What makes the situation  even more bizarre is that China made a big show of being angry at Europe for not living up to its obligations under the Kyoto treaty, obligations that China was exempted from. Hmm, perhaps Europe would have done better if Kyoto had included monitoring and enforcement provisions, don't you think? The question that I don't understand, but some people may, is why this is playing in the papers as a big confrontation between China and the U.S. Where's Europe? Don't they have an opinion on this? Don't they have a poodle/dachshund/corgi in this fight?

By the way, here are my personal opinions on these two issues: Health care with new abortion restrictions? Kill it. Climate treaty with no monitoring? Kill it. I say this believing health care reform and a climate treaty to be extremely important.

Addendum: Silly me. I should have realized that, however deep and sincere Senator Nelson's beliefs about abortion are, what he's mainly after is more bucks for Nebraska. (I think that "are" in that last clause would be wrong, don't you?)  Hope that turns out to be his true goal. This is no time to be straining at gnats. And by the way, what on earth does think it's doing? Saying the Senate bill should be voted down because there's no public option? I mean, please. Leave the irrational ideological rigidity to the other side.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

When Spooks Get MBAs

Just when I thought things couldn't get any weirder, it turns out that Blackwater employees were accompanying  CIA operatives on clandestine missions to grab and transport suspected insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seem odd? Not to the agency; according the the December 10 New York Times, a spokesman said,“Contractors give you flexibility in shaping and managing your talent mix — especially in the short term — but the accountability’s still yours."

I'm looking forward to seeing the newest uses of contractors to flexibly shape and manage the talent mix. Will municipalities start hiring Brink's guards to help out with SWAT team chores? In the short term, of course.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Worst Science Journalism Paragraph of the Year

Particle colliders get their magic from Einstein’s equation of mass and energy. The more energy that these machines can pack into their little fireballs, in effect the farther back in time they can go, and the smaller and smaller things they can see.
 New York Times, 12/9/09

Got that? It's magic! Mass equals energy equals, um, time equals... size...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's probably nothing,but...

For a variety of statistical reasons, please don't overinterpret the following fact, but all the same it's striking: In the recent Senate vote on drastically tightening abortion restrictions in the health-care bill, seven Democrats voted in favor. All were men. Two Republicans voted against. Both were women.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Th_ee mo_e obse_vations on the missing __

1. Contrary to what I implied in my posting of August 20 ("The R in English Literature"), dialects that drop the R in words like "hard" or "father"--such dialects, I have recently learned, are called "non-rhotic"--are apparently not universal in Britain. There are still some rhotic speakers in the west of England and in Scotland. Of course, many features of American speech, and culture in general, that we think of as differentiating us from the British can be traced back to particular regions in Britain whence the settlers of America came.

Rhotic dialects in England are disappearing under the pressure of the higher social status of standard pronunciation, just as non-rhotic dialects are in the U.S. There's an interesting research question here: In the U.S., a strong non-rhotic Boston or New York accent marks one as being of lower social or intellectual status, but a non-rhotic British accent is a mark of higher status, and is often even considered affected. This presumably goes back to an American sense of cultural inferiority. What I wonder is how most people in Britain now perceive an American accent, and how that's changed over time.

2. People who listen to non-rhotic speakers in the U.S. often believe that these speakers overcompensate, as it were, by adding an R to words ending in a vowel. Thus, my brother-in-law jokes that his relatives refer to his cousin Marla as "Mahler." As far as I can tell, though, this is generally not true; the R is inserted only between two vowels. There is a startlingly clear demonstration on Geoff and Maria Muldaur's Pottery Pie album, when Maria, a native of New York, sings "Georgia On My Mind":

Georgia, Georgia,
The whole day through
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgeron my mind, Georgeron my mind...

Oddly, or not, this is where non-rhotic speakers usually preserve a real R. Incidentally, Gregg Allman used to listen to a continuous tape loop of Amos Garrett's guitar solo on this track. Just thought I'd mention that.

3. A non-rhotic children's joke:

What did the chick say when the hen laid an orange?
 "Hey! Look at the orange marmalade!"

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nice try, China

Perhaps it's post-colonial guilt. Or just intellectual laziness. In any case, it is surprising how everyone seems to have accepted without question the claim by China, and other poor countries, that it's unfair to expect them to meet binding caps on greenhouse gases. The argument is that rich counries got rich while having a cavalier disregard for the environment, and now we should let the poor countries catch up and not expect them to pay for our sins.

But let's ask this question: in the game of economic development, is it better to have the first move or the second? Suppose that you are a poor country today, facing some restrictions on your economic growth because of past environmental degradation that you didn't cause. Now you're given option B, the chance to develop in a world with a pristine environment and no restrictions. Would you take it? Before you answer-- there's a catch.

The catch is that if you take option B, you must begin your development from a point when no one has yet invented railroads, telegraphs, telephones, electric light, electric power, metal ships with mechanical propulsion, cars and trucks, steel mills, international accounting standards, vaccines, moving assembly lines, bulldozers, airplanes, computers... In other words, you must begin from where the U.S. and Western Europe were at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

No one would accept a deal like that. Why, just to get up to where the rich countries are today would take, well, centuries.

The point is that poor countries can raise their standards of living much faster than the rich countries did, because they can simply adopt technology developed, slowly, by the rich countries. I'm not saying that rich countries did this to help humanity, or that poor countries should thank them profusely. Far from it.

I'm just saying that there are a lot of advantages to moving second in this game, and that those advantages seemingly far outweigh the costs of increased environmental degradation and curbs on development. So if the poor countries are willing to use the benefits of the West's economic development, they should accept some small part of the costs.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Alas! for the Republicans

Oh, dear. I've tried to make it clear in this blog that I would welcome the appearance of a Republican Party with ideas. Strangely, Republicans don't seem to be listening. The latest salvo of blanks comes from ten members of the Republican National Committee, who, Yahoo! News reports, have proposed that any candidate wanting support from the RNC agree to at least eight out of ten items on a list of conservative positions. (Only eight out of ten, lest anyone think there's no room in the Republican Party for diversity.)

The most notable thing about this list is that six of the ten points are of the form "We support X by opposing Y." Not, you understand, "We support X and oppose Y." No, in six of ten cases, the authors find it unnecessary to propose any policies to support their principles; it's enough to be against whatever the Democrats are for. And in the one case where they say they're for something and against something else, it's phony: "We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government-run healthcare." This would be somewhat more compelling if the Republicans actually had a plan for market-based health-care reform.

But Republicans seem to be using the phrase "market-based" like the blank in Scrabble, to mean anything that's convenient in that space: "We support market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation." Excuse me, but cap-and-trade is a market-based energy reform. Granted, it's not necessarily one that enriches supporters of the Republican Party. The market can be a bitch that way.

Saddest of all was this comment: "A Republican strategist and former Bush White House official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Yahoo! News that the resolution 'bodes well' because 'Republicans are continuing to discuss policy positions and principles.'" For people above the age of two, "No" does not constitute a discussion.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Unanswered Questions About Afghanistan

Obama said today that he plans to "dismantle and degrade" the enemy in Afghanistan. Wait-- dismantle and degrade? First we dismantle them, and then we degrade them? Should we bring back Abu Ghraib for the degradation phase of the mission? Or just make them watch "Cheaters" on cable?

Friday, November 20, 2009

In Which I Mock the Media Bleeding-Hearts: NYC Budgeting

The New York Times has a rather breathless front-page story today  telling us, "Even as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg says that he is trying to avert laying off city workers, his aides have quietly encouraged such job cuts through an internal budget maneuver...But the administration, which prides itself on transparency, has not disclosed the maneuver to the public, or to the municipal unions that may be affected as the city scrambles to cut costs."

An internal budget maneuver! That sounds sinister. And what is this insidious, opaque maneuver, a "marked [emphasis added] departure from tradition?" It is to start showing fringe benefits as well as salaries in departments' personnel budgets. As the Times correctly notes, this gives agency managers a greater incentive to use personnel cuts to reach savings targets, because each employee looks more costly than before.

Yes, but... isn't that how much employees actually do cost? Ah, but "the agencies are not responsible for those [fringe-benefit] costs, which are paid from a central budget at City Hall."

Surely we shouldn't hold managers responsible for costs that are out of their control. Wait a minute, though... we're already holding them responsible for wages and salaries! Are those under managers' control? Not in any way that I can see. In a workforce that is both unionized and under civil service rules, managers have essentially no control over how much anyone gets paid. If they need to reduce wage and salary costs, the only way to do it is by reducing numbers through layoffs or attrition, just as with fringe benefits.

The only difference is that "tradition" says fringe benefits are shown in the central City Hall budget while wages and salaries are shown in agency budgets. But really, there's no reason we couldn't also pay wages and salaries from a central budget. That would really cut down on the incentive for layoffs, because personnel would then show up in agency budgets as having no costs at all. They'd be free to the agency-- but not to the City.

So should we lay people off or not? When you have to cut budgets drastically, all the options are bad. Adding someone to the unemployment rolls in the current job market is going to inflict a lot of pain, pain that we might not want to inflict.  But for God's sake, let's make that decision using meaningful numbers, rather than misleading  ones. Good job, Mayor Bloomberg.

Addendum: It's true that this change makes personnel look more expensive relative to other things. But if you're the head of an agency where most of the cost is for personnel (in the New York City police department, for example, wages and salaries are fifteen times as large as agency Other Than Personal Services costs) you will now need to cut fewer positions than before to reach a given target, because you get more credit for each position cut. Honesty makes the best policy.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Do Israelis Want?

In my last post (November 16), I talked about the importance of mistaken beliefs in politics. This first really struck me when I was living in Israel, and it became apparent to me that the Arab world, and the Muslim world in general, was almost completely uninformed about Israel. In particular, they have a strange view of what Israelis (or Israeli Jews) actually want from peace negotiations. No doubt the reverse is also true, but that's a job for someone else.

So here's a summary of what Israelis want:

a. They want their own country.

b. They want some confidence that people will stop trying to kill them.

That's about it. That doesn't seem too unreasonable, does it? Give them that and a Palestinian state is easy.  Here are some things Israelis do not care about:

1. World domination.

2.  All the land between the Euphrates and the Nile. I doubt that even leaders of Hamas, which has this in its charter, can take it seriously any more, ever since Israel made a major move in the opposite direction by giving the Sinai back to Egypt.

3.  Lebanon. The only reason Israelis ever cared about Lebanon was to stop its use as a base by people trying to kill them. That's still the only reason they care.

4. Gaza. Well, no one wants Gaza.

5. The West Bank. Here I need to put in some qualifiers. First of all, the West Bank is the heart of the historic Israel/Judea. A lot of Jewish history took place there. So there is a significant number of people who want Israel to keep it. Nonetheless, polls show these people to be a clear minority, albeit a vociferous and, at the extreme, a potentially violent one. Most people are not indifferent to the West Bank, as they are to Lebanon, but they would be willing to give it up.

All the problems of making peace in the Middle East can be traced to points (a) and (b) above. Admittedly, the devil is in the details. But for example:

A Palestinian state: As I said, no problem. Most Israelis wouldn't be opposed, as long as they knew a Palestinian  state wouldn't try to (a) take away their country or (b) kill them. The big question for Israelis is whether they are safe with a Palestinian state in close proximity. Israel is the size of four Delawares--with two of them almost completely uninhabited. The basic Israeli fear is of an armed, hostile Palestinian state able to shell or rocket every spot in Israel. And even if the state is not hostile, will it be willing, or able, to stop people who are? Israelis who had no great desire to hang onto the West Bank are now having second thoughts, given what happened when they withdrew from Gaza.

A One-State Solution: Issue (a). Forget it. Not gonna happen. It's perfectly clear to everyone that a combined Israel-Palestine would eventually result in Jews being a minority. Then they are once again dependent on the goodwill of others. That hasn't worked too well for them in the past, and not just in Europe; Jews from Arab countries feel even more strongly about this. Yes, you say, but we can set things up so Jews have constitutional guarantees even when they're in the minority. So how well did that idea work out in Lebanon? (Answer: Depends on how you feel about civil war.)

Right of Return for Refugees: Issue (a). Not gonna happen. See above. Also, Israelis object to the implication that they're to blame for the 1948 war. No Palestinian leader, or any other leader, has yet broken the news to the refugees. No Palestinian leader can even bring himself to say that a two-state solution would include one Jewish state.

Powers of a Palestinian State: Issue (b). One sometimes hears commentators talk about the Israeli insistence on keeping some control over borders, and not allowing a Palestinian national army, as though Israelis just get a kick out of keeping Palestinians down. That's not it. It's issue (b). Don't like it? Should have thought of that before you spent sixty years trying to kill them.

It seems pretty simple, and it's frustrating to see Palestinians continually missing the point. One still hears Palestinians saying, "The only thing the Jews understand is force." That is exactly wrong; the only countries to have recovered land from Israel did it by making peace. Not only has violence not accomplished anything, it has made things worse by reinforcing Israelis' belief that the Arabs will never stop trying to kill them. With an organized campaign of non-violent resistance, Palestinians could have had their own country forty years ago. A campaign like that would have been devastatingly effective. Try convincing a Palestinian of that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bring Back the Bully Pulpit

As someone who believes that people disagree because they have different interests, I am always a bit disconcerted to see how much simple ignorance there is in political discourse, and how much it affects politics. In another way, of course,  it's encouraging, as it suggests political disagreements don't always require a duel to the death.

For example, it appears that large numbers of people do not know that the United States does not, by any reasonable definition, have the best health-care system in the world. In fact, it is arguable that among advanced industrial economies, we have the worst health-care system in the world. And, I would guess (I don't have survey data), many people don't know that the budget deficit declined during the Clinton Administration, and by the end had disappeared altogether and turned into a small surplus. Or that most income gains in the US over the last 30 years have been concentrated at the very top of the income distribution.Or that foreign aid makes up less than 1% of the Federal budget. Clearly, it's hard to have a sensible democracy if voters don't know such things.

This is not to deny that differing interests do play a role. Some people are happy to keep voters misinformed. There's a right-wing website called The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid, and while I don't think it's exactly a conspiracy, and we seem to have different ideas of who the culprits are, there's no doubt that for any given fact, there will be people who will not think it a good idea to have it more widely known. And inevitably there will be those who will see political advantage in outright lies, or, as they no doubt think of it, exaggeration and poetic license [12/31: or metaphor]. I won't rehash the ubiquitous comments about the Internet and short news cycles as contributors to these problems.

For people who believe in democracy the question is, what can be done about this? Can we have a more evidence-based democracy? My ideal solution would be to give me, Howard Frant, a half-hour at night once a week on one of the major networks, along with a pollster to measure what people do and don't know. But even my second choice, giving me Andy Rooney's slot on 60 Minutes, seems unlikely.

So I think it's time to revive the idea of the "bully pulpit." For those of you unfamiliar with this phrase of Teddy Roosevelt's, it has nothing to do with bullying. What TR meant was that the Presidency was an excellent  platform for addressing the public. Let's start using that platform to teach the public things--specifically, to challenge widely held incorrect beliefs . Imagine how "transformative" it would be to have a President come out and say, "Many people believe X. X is not true." Plain speaking. No waffling. Give 'em hell, Barry.

For example: "Many people say that the United States has the best health care system in the world. We don't. We should, but we don't. Different advanced industrialized countries around the world, say the Western European countries, Japan, Taiwan, Canada and Australia, have different health care systems. Some are more oriented to the public sector and others to the private sector. But every single one of them has universal health care for its citizens. Every one. Every one of them has better health--lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy--than we do. Every one spends less, from 25% to 50% less, on health care than we do. Every one. And they have higher patient satisfaction and shorter patient waiting times than we do. How is this possible?" Suddenly, the whole debate shifts.

As a general strategy for improving democratic debate, this has the obvious weakness that Presidents will choose only those facts that support their partisan goals. OK, Presidents are not wholly altruistic public servants. But by putting at least some facts out there for scrutiny by the "gotcha" brigade of the media, they can force the debate to start on the field of facts, before we fight over ideologies. Let the President give the press the footnotes to his speech to be checked, and let the opposition do the same with its reply.

Once this gets established as a custom, it will put pressure on future Presidents to do the same. Most politicians don't benefit from having people screaming at each other; let's make those who do stand out. We need all Presidents to be education Presidents.

Friday, November 13, 2009

You Read It Here First

While I'm thrilled if Gail Collins is really reading this blog, I wish she'd mention my name, or at least include a link. Her November 11 Conversation with David Brooks in the New York Times online makes exactly the points of my October 14 entry on the filibuster, complete with references to Jimmy Stewart and Southern Democrats. On balance I'd say hers is a bit funnier, though less prompt and lacking the useful coinages "honest filibuster" and "virtual filibuster." As a bonus with Collins, you get some pointed comments on Joe Lieberman, whom neither of us, I'm sure, would ever dream of calling the Christine Jorgensen of the Democratic Party.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hey, I'm no macroeconomist, but... seems obvious to me that when states are undergoing severe fiscal pain, and are facing the choice between layoffs and tax increases, some Federal aid to states would be one of the quickest and most effective ways to keep the economic recovery on track. And surely one of the least controversial--Republicans, after all, are big believers in the virtues of state government. In fact, they invented revenue-sharing, back when Republicans occasionally had ideas.

We shouldn't hand out the money in proportion to the size of the budget hole they've got, though. That would just be rewarding political cowardice and gridlock. Yes, I'm talking about you, California.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Quick Look at Crime: That's Odd...

The conventional view of policy analysts overstates how much their job is simply to carry out the requests of their clients. Like city managers, lawyers, professors, and Congressmen, policy analysts have significantly better information about their subject than do the people they are working for. Therefore, an important part of their role is to come up with new ideas that haven't occurred to their clients. For policy analysts, this includes the task of looking at lists of numbers and saying, "Huh. That's odd."

This is a long preface to telling you about some browsing I was recently doing, I can't remember why, in 2008 FBI statistics about crime in the United States. I've done some simple long division (see August 14) to highlight the oddity. 

Changes in violent crime rates, 1989-2008:

Murder and non-negligent manslaughter: -38%

Robbery: -38%

Aggravated assault: -29%

Forcible rape: -23%

2008 violent crime rates in cities of under 10,000 as a fraction of rates in cities of over 250,000:

Murder and non-negligent manslaughter: 23%

Robbery: 16%

Aggravated assault: 50%

Forcible rape: 81%

To say the least, rape looks like an outlier. I think this is something worth noticing, don't you? If I were to pursue this further (I don't plan to, but be my guest) I would want to know whether the figures on big city/small town disparity looked similar in 1989--i.e., a lot more rape in small towns than you would expect relative to other violent crimes--or whether in small towns, rape has declined much less than other crimes since 1989. Those alternatives would probably lead to differing suggestions for future policies: is it a problem of small-town culture, small-town policing, or what? Keep me posted.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What Familiarity Really Breeds

An underappreciated reason that political change is often slow is that it just takes time for people to get used to the idea. Things that seem crazy the first time you hear about them seem possible the fifth time, and obvious the tenth.

Tuesday gay marriage had what is supposed to be a dramatic setback in Maine, where 53% of the population voted against it. Talking heads are saying that gays need to rethink their strategy. Yes, but... here are the figures on people who voted against it in 2004: Oregon 57%, Michigan 59%, Ohio 62%, and so on up to Mississippi 86%.  Even more dramatically, when the issue of gays in the military first came up in 1993, 44% agreed that gays should be able to serve, according to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll; the figure was 62% in 2001 and 75% in 2008.

Similarly, in 1965 from 46% to 62% (depending on whether the polling question included the word "tax") favored Medicare. In 2009, 77% said they thought Medicare was very important for the country, and almost another 20% thought it was somewhat important. Undoubtedly, if you could find the data there would be similar results on racial intermarriage, integrated schools, and even abolition of slavery.

Tentative conclusions: If your change is a good one, keep trying. And don't sneer at the courts as a means to social change.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Room

The most interesting race in yesterday's election didn't make the front page of The NewYork Times. Although it took place in upstate NewYork, it didn't even rate a very prominent mention in the "N.Y./Region" section. And although Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, Tim Pawlenty, Rush Limbaugh, and Dick Armey all got involved, it wasn't mentioned at all in the "U.S." section.

I'm referring to the race between Democrat Bill Owens and Conservative Douglas Hoffman for the vacant seat in New York's 23rd Congressional district. What made this race noteworthy is that the Republican nominee, one Dede Scozzafava, withdrew from the race after the above-mentioned Republican luminaries backed Hoffman, finding Scozzafava insufficiently ideologically pure. (In a truly breathtaking display of chutzpah, Republicans then denounced her as a turncoat for endorsing Owens.) Owens won, making him the first Democrat in that seat since before you were born.

If I were a Democratic apparatchik, I might be a bit saddened by this result, as it seems likely to slow down  the Republican party's slide toward self-destruction. As someone who believes in multi-party democracy and wants to see at least two parties with intelligent policy ideas, I am cheered. Not that Republicans show much sign of learning. The right is already spinning the results, with Mike Huckabee saying it's Republicans' fault for not choosing Hoffman "from the get-go," and other conservatives saying it serves the party leaders right for trying to foist their choices onto Republican voters.

Foist? Yes. For Scozzafava was chosen by the local Republican Party county committee leaders. So a larger issue raised by this election is how we should feel about party primaries versus back-room deals.

By shifting choice from party bosses to voters,  primaries were of course seen as a way to make elections more democratic. Do they? Here's the issue: in a two-party election (other things equal, with some simplifying assumptions, etc., etc.) the winning candidate is the one closer to the preferences of the median voter. That is, the candidate closer to the center of the electorate gets the most votes.

But with primaries, the candidates selected are those closest to the center of their own parties, who may be far away from the center of the electorate. Thus we have the Arlen Specter phenomenon, where a candidate who is easily electable cannot win his party's nomination.

In theory, of course, primary voters could take account of this possibility in voting, and vote for the candidate most likely to win the general election rather than their personal favorite. In practice, this often doesn't happen. That was the idea behind the Democratic Party's designation of superdelegates to the national convention-- the assumption was that elected officials and party officials would be more pragmatic than the rank and file. But this reasoning was not made very explicit, with the result that in the last election there was some outrage at the idea that superdelegates might go against the expressed wishes of voters-- Democratic voters, that is.

What we end up with, it appears, is increasing polarization among elected officials (particularly at the national level, where ideology tends to be more important), and the increasing impossibility of bipartisanship. And if both parties nominate relatively extreme candidates, there is the possibility of electing true loonies, who are far from what most voters would want.

A few weeks ago (October 14), I advocated bringing back the filibuster. As long as we're thinking the unthinkable, perhaps it's time to bring back the smoke-filled room. Without the smoke, of course.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Elephantine Encephalitis?

One David Catron, whose articles in The American Spectator include, among others, "The AMA's Quisling Strategy" and "Obamacare Could Kill You," has a blog called Health Care BS: Cleaning the Augean Stables of the Heath Care Debate. A recent post introduced readers to the Prisoner's Dilemma, the much-loved game theory construct in which individuals following their own self-interest end up creating a situation in which everyone is worse off.

So what is Catron's policy application of the Prisoner's Dilemma? Greenhouse gas emissions? Overfishing? Highway congestion? Gun ownership? Support for the poor? Standing up at baseball games?

No, his application is to... the public option. Yes, his claim (based on an irony-free reading of Andrew Sullivan) is that the public option is politically insidious, because it encourages voters to follow their individual interests in cheaper health care at the expense of the general good.

The first problem for Republicans, of course, is that he is in effect conceding that individuals could get cheaper health care through the public option. And he's not too specific about what the collective downside is. Hospital closures? Socialism?

But the bigger problem is that Republicanism in the twenty-first century is fundamentally hostile to the idea that there could be a conflict between individual self-interest and the greater good. Telling Republicans about the Prisoner's Dilemma starts you down a slippery slope. Pretty soon you're conceding that there might be a role for government in a free-enterprise economy. That the market can't do it all. That sometimes we need government regulation and government spending.

If too many people read his blog, Catron may find that he has introduced a virus into the central nervous system of the Republican Party.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Great Day for Existentialists

According to the AP, when Obama signed the bill extending the definition of hate crimes to include violence based on sexual orientation, he said that now people will be protected from violence based on "what they look like, who they love, how they pray or why they are." Um...I think l know where you're going on the first three...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Public Option: Building A Better Trigger

OK, Democrats, put your money where your mouths are. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have both made the public option the main focus of the debate on health insurance, even though both sides know it would affect only a small minority of people. Republicans say it's another step on the road to serfdom (I'm paraphrasing); Democrats say that it's needed to assure competition.

Interestingly, a number of the states with the least competition have Congressmen who are adamantly opposed to a public option (i.e., Republicans). A 2002 study by the GAO  reports that the single largest insurer in North Dakota has a stunning 89% of the market. The figure is 87% for Alabama,  55% for Tennessee, and 52% for Alaska. Blue states are not immune, though; the largest insurer in Michigan has 63% of the market.

But if we need a public option to assure competition, the obvious alternative is to have a public option only in those markets that are not already competitive. I'll defer to the Industrial Organization specialists on exactly how that would be defined, but we might say, for example, that there would be a public plan in any market where one firm had a market share over 40%, or three firms over 75%.

Now, to the extent that either Republicans or Democrats in Congress see the public option primarily as a sort of camel's nose that will eventually lead to a single-payer system, this approach won't change any views. But in the battle for public opinion, it has advantages for both sides. Democrats can say, "You say you believe in market competition. How much competition is the market providing in Alabama?" Republicans can say, "You claim we need a public option to provide competition, but here's a list of states that already have plenty of competition." Of course, to make that credible, they would have to support a repeal of the antitrust exemption for health insurance.

A Republican Party that had ideas would have come up with a plan to create private-sector competition in the health insurance industry.  Alas, that's not the Republican Party we have. (See my posting of September 17.)  So they've left it to Democrats to be the advocates of competition. Perhaps the two Republican moderates left in Congress can salvage something by supporting a market trigger instead of a cost trigger.

A public option that does what it's supposed to do. Why should that be a novel idea?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Oh, great. Not only did the State Department's Inspector General find shoddy construction and incompetent oversight in the new $700 million U.S. Embassy in Iraq, but the Iraqi Ministry of Planning says that the same is true of hospitals and medical centers that we paid for. It's pretty embarrassing when we can't build a hospital as well as Saddam Hussein. At least so far no one's been electrocuted.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Those Other Deficits

In almost any discussion of the Federal budget deficit, there is bound to be someone who talks about the burden we are placing on our children. Annoyingly pious as these pronouncements are, they are basically right. What budget deficits do is impose costs on future taxpayers so that we can consume more now. Politicians like this because they can deliver benefits to constituents now without doing unpleasant things like raising taxes.

But conventional wisdom treats this as the only important way that we shift costs into the future. In  fact, though, there are many ways to consume more now at the expense of the future, and most of them attract less attention than the budget deficit. Among them:

  • The infrastructure deficit: The existing stock of physical capital deteriorates slowly, often imperceptibly. We can shift costs into the future by not spending money on maintaining, replacing, and updating infrastructure. This saves money now at the expense of greater costs in the future.
  • The education deficit: Education raises people's productivity, and indeed the economic dominance of the U.S. is attributed by some to education levels that until recently were higher than the rest of the world, brought about by free or low-cost public education. We can make ourselves better off, and future generations worse off, by underfunding education.
  • The environmental deficit: We can have lower costs now, and higher costs in the future, by not controlling environmental damage. This is particularly attractive politically when costs of damage, though perhaps large, will not appear for some time, as with global warming.
Of course, people more commonly refer to these shortfalls as underinvestments, rather than deficits. Obama has been a big fan of that language, and it's perfectly correct.  The problem with it  is that somehow, underinvestment doesn't sound as urgent as a deficit. Yet they are the same thing, in the sense that they are ways to have more now at the expense of the future. The lower salience of  underinvestment gives politicians a lot of room to bloviate about how we need to safeguard future generations by, say, cutting education spending. (Have I mentioned Susan Collins in this blog? Oh, yes, that was October 14.)

A more conventional approach would be the long-debated idea of a Federal capital budget to separate current spending from investment. Having worked in a local government that did not have a separate capital budget, I can tell you that when we had to make drastic budget cuts, the logical thing to do was to cut spending on infrastructure replacement; it was a lot of money and after all, another year wouldn't make much difference. The same thing happens with the Federal government.

Unfortunately, actually implementing a Federal capital budget is fraught with problems. Does all education spending count, or only part? How should we treat maintenance of infrastructure? How do we keep Congress from going, as it were, hog-wild on pork?

All these objections, of course, also apply to my "deficit" terminology. Perhaps the best we can do is choose a rhetorical strategy for showing the absurdity of claiming to help future generations by cutting the things that will make them better off. For that, "deficit" is much better than "investment."

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    None Dare Call It Egomania

    "Pioneers take the arrows. We are pioneers. It's a sad thing that our country, over 200 years old now, needs pioneers all over again, but we do."

    Rush Limbaugh, discussing opposition to his participation in a partnership to buy the St. Louis Rams

    "This is about the ongoing effort by the left in this country, wherever you find them, in the media, the Democrat Party, or wherever, to destroy conservatism, to prevent the mainstreaming of anyone who is prominent as a conservative. Therefore, this is about the future of the United States of America and what kind of country we're going to have."

    Rush Limbaugh, discussing being dropped from a partnership to buy the St. Louis Rams

    Source: AP

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Bring Back the Filibuster

    You remember "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," right? Actually, I couldn't tell you what it was about, but I do have a vivid memory of Jimmy Stewart, unshaven and half-dead from fatigue, talking and talking to prevent some bill from being enacted.

    Those were the days.

    I don't want to romanticize the filibuster, whose most notable use in the last half-century was by Southern Democrats to prevent passage of civil rights legislation. But just as George Washington Plunkitt talked about "honest graft," so we can say that there used to be such a thing as an honest filibuster. In an honest filibuster, people would actually stay on the Senate floor, making speeches. The Senate's business would grind to a halt.

    Today, it appears, we have the virtual filibuster. Rather than go to all the bother of stopping Senate business, senators count whether one side has enough votes to invoke cloture. If it doesn't, the measure is dead. What the Constitution said required 51 votes (or whatever number constituted a majority) now requires 60. And this in a body whose claims to representativeness are shaky to begin with.

    But why is the virtual filibuster worse than the honest filibuster? At least the Senate avoids paralysis.

    Here's why: Under the old system, there was some cost to filibustering. The entire country would see that you felt strongly enough about something to bring other business to a halt. And if the voters (at least in your state) didn't feel as strongly as you did, you would pay a price at the polls for being obstructionist. Now you can be as obstructionist as you want, and do it behind the scenes.

    It is unfortunate that Senate Democrats have acquiesced to the virtual filibuster. Yes, when it comes to the health  care bill, the Democrats probably do need 60 votes, because one can easily imagine Republicans being willing to undertake an honest filibuster against it. The same is not true for the economic stimulus package. For Republicans to have held that up, when Obama had only recently taken office and the economy was teetering on the brink, strikes me as politically impossible.

    Allowing the virtual filibuster meant that Democrats had to compromise with Maine Senator Susan Collins, who imposed one of the worst imaginable changes from an economic standpoint: reducing the total size of the package by cutting aid to the states. This almost instantly led to layoffs in state and local governments. Not a good time to be a young teacher. Not a good time to have lots more people out of work.

    The result of the rise of the virtual filibuster is a weakening of democratic accountability. I can see the argument that a majority in the Senate should not mean that you automatically get your way on every issue and can simply ignore the minority. But shouldn't it mean something? Don't voters need to know whom to blame?

    Friday, October 9, 2009

    Intolerance (Not the Movie)

    The more I think about it, the more I think I was onto something in my September 11 post (Mystery Solved). Perhaps this is something that all real political scientists learned in graduate school, but it seems to me that the fundamental cleavage in modern politics (say the last 200 years) is between a party that emphasizes tolerance/equality and one that emphasizes nationalism.

    That started me thinking about tolerance and equality, and about intolerance. There are really two kinds of intolerance, I realized, for which we don't have separate words.

    The first kind is when you find some group intolerable. As I understand it, the Baha'i in Iran are in this situation: they are considered apostates, and apostasy is punishable by death. Obviously, this was also the situation of Jews (Gypsies, gays) in Nazi Europe.

    The second kind of intolerance is benign by comparison: you tolerate the other group, but don't consider them to have equal rights. As I understand it, that is the situation of, say, Jews and Christians in Saudi Arabia.

    When I say (and I do) that the religious right in America is intolerant, I don't mean it in the first sense. I am not worried that if it came to power, it would be starting pogroms or putting people in concentration camps. It would merely be denying some people equality.

    The recent response from the right to charges of intolerance has often been, roughly, "I know you are, but what am I?" What about, for example, those Jews who want to keep people from putting creches on public property? Aren't they intolerant?

    Well, no. I'm not sure that even some of my Christian friends get this. To put a creche in front of City Hall is to practice the second kind of intolerance. It is to say, "We are the mainstream, but if you don't want to be part of that, we will tolerate you." As I said before, this is a lot better than the first kind of intolerance. But it's not equality. It announces that I'm an outsider in my own country.

    Court cases about religious symbols on public property tend to bog down in minutiae about what exactly the government is endorsing. I don't know whether it's a coherent legal strategy to argue these cases on equal-protection grounds rather than the usual First Amendment grounds. But make no mistake. The primary issue is not freedom of conscience. It's equality.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009


    The When Reality Gets Too Real Award goes to "Survivor: Samoa." Gee, America, I guess there's more to survival than not getting voted off the island.

    Friday, September 18, 2009

    The Knee-Jerk Conservatives

    You know, I really want to keep this blog from being predictably partisan. But that goal is getting harder and harder. There was a time when Republicans had some good ideas that were consistent with their ideology, and which evoked knee-jerk objections from Democrats. Energy price decontrol (OK, that was actually started by Carter, but Reagan speeded it up). Tradable pollution permits.

    But today Republicans don't seem to have any ideas at all, unless you call making the rich richer an idea. This outburst is provoked by a story in today's New York Times, about a Democratic plan to reform the student loan program. Instead of paying banks to make federally guaranteed loans to students, the federal government will make them directly. The estimated savings are $80 billion over ten years, which is to be redirected to Pell grants, community colleges, and early childhood education, among other things.

    One congressman commented that debate over the plan bears “an eerily strong resemblance to the health care debate that rages on today.” And so it does-- both are about trying to bypass a bloated private-sector bureaucracy. But I was startled to discover that this comment was made by a Republican, and he meant it as a criticism of student-loan reform, not as a criticism of the Republican position on health care. To homo republicanus, it seems, the private sector can always do something more cheaply, even if we have to subsidize them to do it. The congressman also noted that the Democratic plan would cost 30,000 jobs nationally. So the Republican position now, apparently, is that government spending on completely unproductive jobs is a good thing. Using the same (bad) math that Republicans used on the economic stimulus bill, that's almost $3 million per job.

    In the past, the one kind of federal spending that Republicans unequivocally liked was military spending. But since the private sector can do things more cheaply, why not use private contractors? So we had contract interrogators, contract embassy security, Blackwater, all of which worked out very badly. In the invasion of Iraq, some Army units had to scrounge for water in the 130-degree heat, because contractors weren't delivering enough. Later we had a bribery scandal involving contract water suppliers. What kind of army leaves its soldiers without water? And, oh yes, there was the Halliburton KBR electrocution problem. Is it unreasonable to suggest that maybe the military could do some of these things better itself?

    So how do we explain Republican opposition to any kind of service delivery by government? Here are some possibilities:

    1. Charitable, relative to the others: Republicans are so locked in their ideology that they will believe it even in the face of the evidence, or believe that constituents will.

    2. Cynical: Ideology is just a cover for the wish to extract money from the public at large and deliver it to corporations that will support them financially.

    3. Conspiratorial: What Republicans are really afraid of is that the government will be able to do some things more cheaply and effectively than the private sector, and that the public will see it.

    I wasn't born yesterday. Of course, politicians worry about campaign contributions. Of course, people's guesses about how well policies will work are based partly on their personal preconceptions. That's OK. But shouldn't we expect that at some point facts and evidence will play some role?

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009

    "Rule 1: Only Screw the Public"

    "The allegation that [California State Senator Mike] Duvall slept with a lobbyist who does business before his chief committee prompted calls for ...  tougher rules of conduct for lobbyists." (AP, 9/10/09)

    Friday, September 11, 2009

    Mystery Solved

    Neoconservative godfather Norman Podhoretz has just published a book about the question that has been bothering him for the last thirty years, "Why Are Jews Liberals?" Podhoretz's magazine, Commentary, has published a symposium honoring the book, in which six well-known American Jews discuss why everyone else doesn't get it. This has caused a blizzard in the blogosphere, which The New York Times summarizes here.

    Of particular interest is the response of Robert Stacy McCain, a former editor at the Washington Times turned full-time right-wing pundit. On his blog (called "The Other McCain," lest you think that John is a true conservative) he praises Michael Medved's observation that Jews' distrust of right-wing evangelicals is a big factor, and denounces "Norman Lear and others" for their "demonization of the 'Religious Right'" that has so misled Jews. But he doesn't stop there. He continues:

    "This effect is compounded by a factor which, whether or not Podhoretz discusses it in his book, I didn't notice mentioned by the symposiasts, namely the town-and-country divide in American politics. Although the trend to suburbanization has somewhat ameliorated this generalization, most American Jews are fundamentally urban in their orientation, while most American conservatives are fundamentally rural.

    "Think of Reagan, riding horses and clearning brush at his ranch -- it is an image that appeals to the "country" side of the town-and-country divide, embodying as it does the antique ideal of the American frontier homesteader.

    "This 'rugged individual' ideal, the self-sufficient property owner zealously guarding his freedom, is intrinsic to what American conservatism is all about, and it is an ideal quite alien to the urban lifestyle. The city-dweller is inherently dependent on public services. He doesn't draw his water from a well, doesn't go out with a chain-saw to supply firewood for the winter, doesn't augment the grocery budget by hunting deer or growing his vegetables....

    "If Messrs. Podhorhetz, et al., wish to promote conservatism among American Jews, let them find some way to encourage Jewish families to move to small towns in the Heartland, where their kids can grow up hunting, fishing and hot-rodding the backroads. A guy with a gun rack in the back window of his four-wheel drive truck may occasionally vote Democrat, but he's extremely unlikely to be an out-and-out liberal."

    Well. Mystery solved. How many Jews can hear someone talk about how Jews live in cities, so they're not like us in the Heartland, without feeling queasy? Does anyone expect them to join a political grouping that says, if only you lived like us, you would think like us, but our thinking is alien to your lifestyle? If there were no religious Right, all we would need to explain Jews' liberalism is people like Robert Stacy McCain.

    I'm not saying McCain's an anti-Semite; in fact, I doubt he is. And he's certainly correct, and insightful, about the urban-rural divide (which is why the Republican party is withering away). But the attitude of, "We're the real America, and you aren't as authentic as we are" is not one that most American Jews will accept.

    Forget principle. Jews have always identified their self-interest with tolerance and equality, not with nativism. The former continues to be the hallmark of the left, the latter of the right. Incidentally, young people in general are notably more tolerant than older people (look at survey data on attitudes toward gays, for example), and were far more likely to vote Democratic in the last election.

    The real mystery is why the likes of Podhoretz and Medved continue to be untroubled by these attitudes on the right. Perhaps they accept them. Perhaps it's time to put a new twist on that hoary old neoconservative epithet, the self-hating Jew.

    Sunday, September 6, 2009

    Worth a Thousand Words

    After reading my posting of August 17,Dave Weimer has sent along some Powerpoint slides comparing OECD countries that he used in a policy analysis class. Most of the points aren't labeled, but (fortunately for me) it doesn't take a health policy expert to figure out who that dot is to the far right. There are three slides; to see them all click on "Fullscreen" and then on the right and left arrows at the bottom. I presume the caption should say "Fraction" rather than "Percent."OECD Slides

    Sunday, August 30, 2009

    Further Reflections on "Let's Make a Deal"

    I recently (August 25) alluded to the "Let's Make a Deal" problem (also known as the Monty Hall problem). It goes like this: There are three doors. Behind two of the doors is a worthless prize and behind one a valuable prize. The Wikipedia article linked above refers to these as goats and a car, respectively. The contestant chooses one door, and then Monty Hall, who knows what is behind each  door, opens one of the other doors and shows that there's a goat behind it. He always shows a goat, never the car. He then offers the contestant the choice of sticking with the door previously chosen, or switching to the other remaining door. The question is, should you switch? Everyone's intuition is that there's no reason to switch-- we already knew that one of the other doors had a goat, so we haven't learned anything. This is wrong. You have a 2/3 chance of winning the car by switching.

    When Marilyn Vos Savant published this in Parade magazine, it created a huge uproar, with tenured professors of mathematics writing to tell her she was wrong, but she stuck to her guns. (There are a number of different ways of explaining why she's right, no one of which works for everyone. I'll post some if there's demand.)

    But what recently struck me is how unusual this is among cases where our intuitions lead us astray in statistics. Typically, the mistake we make is in seeing things as non-random that are actually random. Public-policy examples include cancer clusters and the general problem of whether some policy or treatment is more effective than another. Our natural tendency is to try to find patterns in things, whether they exist or not.

    What makes this case unusual is that it's one where our intuitions would be correct if something that is not random actually were random. If Monty Hall chose the second door randomly, and it had a goat, then the probability of the other doors having a car would be 1/2 for each, and there would be no reason to switch. (Of course, a third of the time he'd expose the car, which would tend to kill the suspense.) But somehow our intuitions don't take account of the fact that Monty knows what's behind the doors, even though it's no secret. I don't know of any psychological research on errors like this.

    Contest: Public-policy examples of the second type of mistake. Prize: kudos only.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009

    Everybody's a Critic

    From an very disturbing discussion, in a New York Times blog, of an article by Jane Mayer (The New Yorker) about the adaptation of the military's Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape program to CIA interrogations:

    The SERE affiliate told me that trainees often think that the interrogation portion of the program will be the most grueling, but in fact for many trainees the worst moment is when they are made to listen to taped loops of cacophonous sounds. One of the most stress-inducing tapes is a recording of babies crying inconsolably. Another is a Yoko Ono album.

    The Asteroid/Swine Flu Problem

    I recently saw on TV that NASA says it doesn't have enough money to track all the large asteroids that might endanger Earth. I don't know whether they do or not, but it does raise the general problem of how we deal with unlikely but potentially catastrophic events, why we're so bad at it, and whether anything can be done about it.

    In my Master's program we had a case class about the first swine flu scare, the one that happened under the Ford administration. The teacher wanted to look at why the Ford administration had overestimated the probability of an outbreak, and hence blundered by launching a huge vaccination program that turned into a fiasco. One student made what I thought (and we probably all thought) was a reasonable point: what if there were only a 10% chance of a Spanish-flu-type outbreak that would kill millions? Wouldn't it still be worthwhile to start vaccinating? The teacher, a very experienced public manager, was incredulous that anyone would think of doing anything in the public sector based on only a 10% probability.

    OK, so what if there is a 10% chance of an asteroid strike that will wipe out civilization?

    There are three nested problems here. On the individual level, humans are bad at dealing with probabilities. (I recently read that Paul Erdos, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, never understood the Let's Make a Deal problem made famous by Marilyn Vos Savant.) At times, in fact, it seems we don't really get the whole idea of probabilities. Witness the global warming debate, in which the argument often seems to be over whether it's certain or not, with the implicit assumption being that if it's not, we should do nothing. I have never heard an environmentalist try to make the argument that we should act even if we're not sure.

    On the institutional level (say, Congress), politicians and bureaucrats understand one implication of our discomfort with probabilities other than zero and one: that no one will believe a decision was a good one if it doesn't turn out right. That is, they will be blamed for investing in averting a disaster that doesn't materialize (as Ford was, though Guillain-Barre syndrome also played a role). Imagine being a bureaucrat at a hearing, trying to explain to a committee of senators why the taxpayers' money wasn't wasted even though nothing happened. The senators, meanwhile, are imagining themselves trying to explain the same thing to their constituents.

    At the collective level (say, international), there are the usual collective-action problems familiar to economists and political scientists. Even though everyone may be convinced that an asteroid threat is real and imminent, they will still all prefer that someone else bear the costs. This can become a game of Chicken, and of course games of Chicken often turn out badly (the classic popular-culture examples are Rebel Without a Cause and Dr. Strangelove). The problem is further complicated by asymmetries, as the smallest players have the greatest tendency to free-ride (see OPEC, for example).

    I haven't got much to say about the collective action problems, as so much has been said on international negotiations by people who have thought about them a lot more than I have. The individual-level problem, the tendency of individuals to ignore small risks, may to some extent be offset by their tendency to overestimate them when spectacular and widely reported, as with airline crashes. (There is a psychological literature on this.) Still, one hesitates to recommend that policy analysts try to induce public panic.

    Can anything be done about the institutional problems? One of my usual suggestions in such cases, to take them out of the regular political process, doesn't seem very practical here-- I can't imagine how one would go about setting up an independent Catastrophes Authority, given that the next threat could be astronomical or biological or meteorological or military or...

    One interesting possibility would be to eliminate second-guessing of bureaucrats and politicians by forcing voters to make the decision themselves. Unfortunately, direct democracy has a pretty dismal record in the United States, with money ending up playing a dominant role. Why it seems to work fairly well in Switzerland is an important question that I don't know the answer to. I wish I had spent more time asking when I was there.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009

    The R in English Literature

    In the 1980s there was a British/Nigerian singer named Sade. A number of people informed me that her name was pronounced Shar-day. I didn't believe it. No one whose name is pronounced Shar-day is going to spell it Sade. Just ignore the R? Finally I figured it out: this was a British rendition of the pronunciation Shah-day. If you say Shar-day with pretty much any British accent, it comes out Shah-day.

    It took me a long time, though, to understand just how widespread this British approach to transcription is, and how much confusion it creates for Americans. The next time it clicked for me was thinking about a passage that had puzzled me since childhood:

    "But I thought he was a boy?"
    "So did I," said Christopher Robin.
    "Then you can't call him Winnie?"

    "I don't."
    "But you said--"
    "He's Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don't you know what '
    ther' means?

    If you're an American, of course, you have no idea what ''ther" means. But now we see that Milne was trying to show that the word was pronounced "the" and not "thee."

    Examples start to come thick and fast after a while. Why did P.G. Wodehouse, who spent a lot of time in the US, have his American characters say, "You betcher!" No American ever says "You betcher!" And neither do these; they're really saying "You betcha!" And why do people say "Er..." in books when they interrupt someone? I've never heard anyone say "Er..." But in fact they're making a sound fairly close to what would be rendered in American English as "Uh..." or "Unh..."

    Some jokes don't come off as well, either, if you don't know the secret. When Alice asks why they called their teacher the tortoise if he wasn't one, the Mock Turtle says, "We called him the tortoise because he taught us, of course!" Pretty lame with a Midwestern accent. If you have a British accent, though (or a strong New England or Bronx or Southern accent), those words are nearly homophones.

    Just today, I woke up from a dream in which I was playing Tevye the dairyman on stage (and also directing, if you're interested) and didn't have my costume ready. And I suddenly understood how the word "yarmulke" got its spelling. (I think the "l" is also supposed to be silent.)

    This still leaves the question, why do they do it? Why don't the British just write "shah-day" and "You betcha!" Beats me. Why do they drive on the left?

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009

    Obama's Cairo speech: The missing page

    Sheet of paper found on the floor of the auditorium at Cairo University:

    "We hear a great deal these days, from those who want to justify terror, about a 'war against Islam,' supposedly led by the United States. I find this puzzling. When the Muslims of Bosnia were under attack from Christians, who saved them? It was not, certainly, the jihad crowd, who may have had a good time killing people but had no discernible effect on the outcome. The war was stopped, and with it the killing of Bosnian Muslims, by the intervention, including military, of the United States. And a few years later, when NATO went to war for the first and only time in its history, it was against a Christian country, to stop them attacking Muslims.

    "Why did we do this ? Because we like Muslims more than Christians? No. We did it because we believe that human rights apply to everyone, no matter what their religion is.

    "So let us dismiss the notion that there is a war against Islam. But while there is no war against Islam, in many places Muslims are under attack. In Iraq, for example, tens of thousands of noncombatants have been killed. But by whom? Not by Americans-- by Iraqis! Tens of thousands of Muslims have been killed by Muslims. Indeed, the allegedly anti-Muslim invasion of Iraq was aimed at overthrowing the man responsible for the deaths of more Muslims than anyone in history.

    "Or consider another conflict, one that has been going on for over a decade. This conflict has resulted in over a million Muslims being displaced, hundreds of thousands being killed, and hundreds of thousands of Muslim women being raped. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim women being raped! Yet in the Muslim world apparently no one cares. Americans care, Europeans care, but the Muslim world has been silent, if not worse. Apparently the attitude in the Muslim world is, 'Displacing, killing, raping Muslims is perfectly fine, as long as we do it.' This attitude is very difficult for Americans to understand."

    Monday, August 17, 2009

    EZ Health Policy Analysis II

    This doesn't even require long division, just Google.

    World rank of United States in life expectancy: (CIA World Factbook, 2009 est. Includes only independent countries.)


    World rank of the United States in infant mortality, 1 lowest: (see above)


    World rank of the United States in health spending as a percentage of GDP, 2005: (Statistical Abstract of the United States)


    Friday, August 14, 2009

    Dr. Frant's EZ Health Policy Analysis

    One of my mentors, Richard Zeckhauser, says that one of the most powerful tools in policy analysis is long division. Let's see if he's right.

    1. Approximate cost of the health insurance plans now under consideration in Congress:

    $1 trillion over 10 years

    2. Average annual cost of (1)

    $100 billion

    3. U.S. GDP in 2008 (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)

    $14.441 trillion

    4. Average annual cost of plans as a percentage of U.S. GDP in 2008


    5. Total U.S. expenditures on health care in 2008 (projection, U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services)

    $2.4 trillion

    6. Average annual cost of plans as a percentage of 2008 U.S. expenditures on health care


    7. Expenditures by pharmaceutical companies on drug promotion, 2004 (PLoS Medicine 5(1) (2008), Gagnon, M.A. et al.)

    $57.5 billion

    8. Average annual cost of plans as a multiple of 2004 drug promotion spending by drug companies

    1.74 times

    Yes, that's right. The staggering bill for Congressional proposals on health care is 4% of what we're spending now on health care, or less than twice what the pharmaceutical industry spends on drug promotion. If we had more current figures for the denominators, the percentages would be even smaller.


    This blog will be mainly about things related to public policy and politics, though it will include other topics that I find interesting. Please be aware that I find many things interesting. I will try, though, to limit postings to things I think will be of wide interest; if you want to know what I had for breakfast I am happy to tell you, but please ask by e-mail.

    I am calling this blog "Claritas" because I think that clarity is in short supply in discussions of public policy (and, indeed, most things), and because this is an area where I think I can make a contribution. If I fail, please tell me so I can try again.