Thursday, April 29, 2010

TV Is Bad for Us...Half of It, Anyway

I was quite taken with the "V" miniseries of 1983 about alien invasion. It had nice little touches, like a reptile disguised as a human swallowing an entire mouse whole. So I was certainly giving the benefit of the doubt to the new series, especially since it has a star I like.

My disenchantment started when the aliens offered Earth people what was explicitly called universal health care, which only the few in the heroic underground realize is actually a plot to monitor and control humans. Then we had a decision by the deluded majority to grant visas to the visitors (or do they plan to stay?), turning them literally into legal aliens. All part, of course, of the aliens' secret plan for world conquest.

Finally, in the last episode, we had a revival of the idea that torture is a quick and reliable way to get truthful information, which squeamish moralists choose to leave to the more tough-minded. (Oddly, they use the Spanish Inquisition as an example.) Just when you thought the coming end of "24" would let that idea fade from the Zeitgeist, here it is again. Oh, and don't let your son have an alien girlfriend.

That's it, ABC. I quit. I hope many others join me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Which I Fix the Budget Deficit

In an earlier post I debunked the idea that the rich didn't collectively represent enough income to make much difference in raising revenue, and that therefore only taxing the middle class could really pay for anything big. As you may recall, I concluded that while this may have been true in 1981, it certainly was not today: today the rich have a lot of income, a lot more than they had in 1981.

Nonetheless, the idea that the middle class will have to pay for deficit reduction is broadly accepted, even by the middle class (sort of). A recent poll finds 84 percent think the middle class will have to make sacrifices to reduce the deficit, although almost equal numbers oppose cutting Social Security or Medicare.

"Moreover," notes the assistant director of the polling institute, "although majorities favor increasing taxes on those who earn $250,000 or more, they are opposed to hiking them on the middle class, which would raise much, much more money since there are so many more people who are middle class." A Reuters article on the same poll commented, "In tackling the deficit, most economists agree taxing the rich only won't raise the revenue necessary to make a dent."

Well, yes, you could raise more money by taxing the middle class, if you define "middle class" pretty broadly. But much, much more? Let's see if we can give Most Economists a hand in making a dent in the deficit by taxing the rich only. 

To start with, the Congressional Budget Office projections of the Obama budget show an annual deficit of 5.3% of GDP over the period 2010-2019. I think cutting the deficit by 3% of GDP would be a pretty good dent, don't you? That would reduce the deficit to 2.3% of GDP, a level at which the ratio of debt to GDP is falling, and a lower level than was seen at any time during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. 

As we saw in my earlier post, the top 1% of the population (which starts at about $400,000, by the way) gets about 23% of income. So 3% of GDP would be 3/23 = 13% of their income. They currently pay about 22% of their income in income taxes (source). So they would now be paying about 35%. So much for the deficit problem. 

What Most Economists will be wondering is what marginal tax rate this represents, since the marginal rate is what determines the economic costs of a tax-- the degree to which people change their behavior just to avoid the tax. The top marginal rate now is scheduled to return to just under 40%, but an increase to 53% wouldn't be quite enough, because not all income is taxed at the top rate. Maybe 55%? 

Is that too high? For several decades now I've been a believer in the standard microeconomist's story about too-high marginal tax rates: that they create economic costs, and that the higher they are, the more costly additional increases are. Therefore it's better to raise everyone's rates a little than to raise a few people's rates a lot. I still believe the basic story, but I'm starting to think that its theoretical appeal leads many economists to exaggerate its practical importance. 

Consider: In every decade from the 70s through the 90s the economy grew at an average rate of 3% per year, and in the 00s at only 1.5% per year. But in the 60s, the growth rate averaged 4% per year. During that decade, the top marginal rate never went below 70%. In fact, the economy managed to eke out a 3% growth rate in the 50s, when the top rate never went below 91%. 

I'm not saying that higher top tax rates increase economic growth (though I'm not ruling it out, either). I just think it's hard to argue that the economic costs are all that large, when the economy kept humming along even at dramatically higher tax rates than we have now.

And I'm a little puzzled by how this idea that we can't bring down the deficit by taxing the rich got so entrenched. Is it that people who think that way get better funded? Or that people haven't noticed that it's not 1981 any longer? Or is it just some puritanical idea that medicine won't work if it doesn't taste bad? 

Historical note: The acknowledgments in the CBO report linked above say, in part, "Lenny Skutnik printed the initial copies..." Lenny Skutnik! Remember him? In fairness to Ronald Reagan, he did refer in his speech to "the heroism of one of our young Government employees," but the Zeitgeist in 1982 was such that I don't recall any of the discussion of his heroics mentioning that he was, in fact, a bureaucrat.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Less Polarized Than You Thought?

According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, among white Republicans who are not Tea Party supporters a surprising 51 percent believe Obama shares their values, while  68 percent believe that he is moving the country toward socialism. By my calculations, this means that a minimum of 19 percent (68 - 49) either believe that Obama is mistaken but well intentioned or are themselves socialists.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Here Come the Flatland Minutemen

The AP reports there's a plan by some in Oklahoma, including both Tea Partiers and some in the state legislature, to start a volunteer state militia to resist Federal intrusion. You probably think that I'm going to tell you what a bunch of loonies these guys are.

Well, you're not totally wrong. Just exactly how the militia would save Oklahomans from health care reform is a mystery to me. In fact, it's a struggle to think of a situation where it would be useful at all. But this proposal does do a lot to clarify the whole gun issue.

Here's Randy Brogdon, a Republican legislator and candidate for governor:

[The founding fathers] were not referring to a turkey shoot or a quail hunt. They really weren't even talking about us having the ability to protect ourselves against each other. The Second Amendment deals directly with the right of an individual to keep and bear arms to protect themselves from an overreaching federal government.

Well said, Randy (aside from some grammatical quibbles). That is exactly the point of the Second Amendment. In particular, it does not confer a generalized right to own guns for self-defense, notwithstanding the majority of the Supreme Court. It confers a right to own guns for use in a militia, and not the National Guard, either-- a well regulated citizens' militia. Perhaps if some states actually establish volunteer militias-- well regulated ones-- this will become more apparent.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for some upcoming hypocrisy. The next big Supreme Court gun case  concerns "incorporation"-- that is, whether the Second Amendment applies to states as well as the Federal government. (The previous gun decision concerned Washington, D.C., so that issue wasn't settled.) Expect the states'-rights fans to wax eloquent on the importance of allowing the national Constitution to tell states what they can't this particular case.

Given that we supposedly need the Second Amendment so that states can protect themselves from the Federal government, it seems odd that states wouldn't be allowed to to pass their own gun laws. But, as I said, keep an eye out.

Friday, April 9, 2010


  1. Rep. Bart "Baby Killer" Stupak has announced that he will not run for reelection. He had been targeted for assassination defeat by the Tea Party Express and denounced by anti-abortion groups. I'm not sure what the moral of that story is, but it seems clear that if he hadn't gotten way out in front on this issue he would have escaped a  lot of unwanted attention. It also seems clear that conservatism is becoming more and more cultlike. Old joke: "Q: What's the difference between liberals and cannibals? A: Cannibals eat their enemies." Apparently that joke now applies to conservatives. In fact, I'm starting to think that conservative is the new liberal.
  2. Let me be clear: As a non-Catholic, my basic philosophy on discussing herein the Catholic Church's current travails is, as Ann Landers used to say, "MYOB." But the Church keeps making it my business. First we had the whole issue of the future beatification of Pope Pius XII. Then we had the comparison of criticism of the Church and the Pope to anti-Semitism. Now we have the synthesis so perfect that it sounds like a joke (but isn't): the Dean of the College of Cardinals comparing the unjust attacks against Pope Benedict to the unjust attacks against Pope Pius. And in an old letter published today by the AP, Cardinal Ratzinger tells the Bishop of Oakland that deciding whether to defrock an pedophile priest he should take into account the "detriment that granting dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ’s faithful" and "the good of the universal church." Somehow this is unsettlingly close to what I can imagine seeing if Pius's letters are ever released.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Score One for Larry?

My former professor Larry Summers (I guess I'm allowed to call him that, even though I only audited his course) got himself in a heap of trouble when he was president of Harvard for some remarks he made about why there were so few tenured women in math and science at top universities. To anyone who took the trouble to read his actual remarks, which were and still are available online, it should have been obvious (though to some it evidently wasn't) that he was not saying that there was a "math gene" that women lacked.

Rather, he says that men show more variability than women on a variety of traits. In other words, there are more men than women at both the very top and the very bottom on a lot of scales (and an even higher proportion at the very, very top and very, very bottom). I don't know what the actual evidence is on traits like height, but there is a plausible genetic argument in the fact that men have only one X chromosome, so unusual traits are less likely to be averaged out (an extreme example would be hemophilia and other sex-linked diseases).

Fast-forward to March 29 of this year, and a Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times lamenting how boys are falling behind girls. There is a particular problem in reading, Kristof says. But, he adds:

There is one important exception: Boys still beat out girls at the very top of the curve, especially in math. 

In the high school class of 2009, a total of 297 students scored a perfect triple-800 on the S.A.T., 62 percent of them boys, according to Kathleen Steinberg of the College Board. And of the 10,052 who scored an 800 in the math section, 69 percent were boys.

So boys are doing worse, but there are more at the upper end. If it's a result of greater variation among boys we'd expect to see more at the lower end as well, but that's hard to judge, since boys are doing worse overall and since people at the bottom end don't take the SAT. Score one for Larry?

Not so fast. When we look at the actual SAT scores for 2009 seniors, it gets more complicated. First of all, boys continue to have a substantial edge in math: the mean is 534 for boys and 499 for girls (on a 200-800 scale). And this is not just because the boys at the high end pull up the average: 88 percent of boys scored above 400, for example, but only 82 percent of girls.

More surprisingly, given what Kristof says about reading, boys do slightly better on the critical-reading section of the SAT (mean of 503 versus 498; 69 percent above 450 versus 67 percent of girls). Only on the writing section do girls do better, with a mean of 499 versus 486.

But let's look still further before we discard the Summers hypothesis. The College Board also publishes calculations of the most commonly used measure of variation, the standard deviation. And on all three tests, boys show more variation than girls. For math, the standard deviation is 118 for boys, 112 for girls.

This may not sound like much of a difference, but you'd be surprised. Let's look at people 4 standard deviations above the mean, about the top .003%. These are the sort of people you might expect to find as professors of math and science at top research universities.

I did some rough calculations assuming the means were the same for men and women, and this much difference in variation translates into 2.4 times as many men as women. That suggests that even were there no discrimination and no difference in average ability between men and women, this small difference in variability would result in large differences in the numbers of men and women professors. So, yeah, score one for Larry. (I can also make a technical argument that the College Board's calculation actually understates the difference between boys and girls in amount of variation, but let's not get into it.)

On the other hand, with no difference in variability but the difference in means as shown above, there are 3.7 times as many men as women. So if there really is a "math gene," then things are much worse, while if the difference in means reflects socialization then big improvements may be possible.

Finally, let's take another look at Kristof's claims. Among college-bound kids, there's not much evidence of a big disadvantage for boys. But about 15% more girls than boys took the SAT. Since the ones who didn't take it are more likely to be those who would have scored low, the average scores of boys are misleadingly high, though I don't know by how much. More importantly, the problem of boys not keeping up appears to be a problem at the lower end. It's the ones who don't go to college that we need to worry about. It's not that boys are low-achieving, it's that there are more low-achieving boys.

Monday, April 5, 2010

We Can Only Hope

Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened over the weekend to quit the political process and join the Taliban if he continued to come under outside pressure to reform, several members of parliament said Monday. (AP)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

More From That Wacky Church

You've probably heard about the latest display of obtuseness from the Vatican. It seems the man designated as the "preacher of the papal household" remarked that, Passover and Holy Week coming together this year, he had been thinking about the Jews. He then read a letter from an anonymous Jewish friend:

I am following the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.

I'll spare you detailed discussion of the more obvious points, such as the rather salient differences between being a victim of anti-Semitism and being accused of covering up child abuse, and note a few less obvious ones.

  • Maybe it's different in Italian, but I have never heard of, and can hardly imagine, a Jew referring to Catholics as "all the faithful." As far as I know, only Catholics refer to Catholics this way, as in Voice of the Faithful, the Catholic lay group started to support victims of, you guessed it, clergy sexual abuse. I haven't heard any attacks against Catholic laymen in this scandal, have you? Attacks by Catholic laymen, yes. (And by the way, what are the less shameful aspects of anti-Semitism?)
  • The good father's comments would have been more effective, I think, if he had shown some understanding of the historical ironies of his analogy. For example: "For the last thousand years, the Church has been complicit in the persecution of the Jews. Now we in the Church have begun to see what it is like to be, as a group, unfairly scorned and demonized." I'm still not convinced, but it's better, right? Of course, if top people in the Church were capable of an admission of error like that, they wouldn't be in this mess.
  • Some academic could easily spend the rest of his life writing case studies from this scandal for an MBA course on organizations. You can probably think of some (comparing how Toyota and the Church handled threats to their reputations, for example). Here's one for a class on ethics: What do you do when ensuring the survival of the organization starts to conflict with its mission? This is, in all seriousness, a knotty problem when you're the One True Church. There's hardly any moral compromise that doesn't seem justified compared to a risk of badly damaging the organization. But maybe the Holocaust would be a better example.