McCain Suspends Campaign to Spend More Time Campaigning

September 24, 2008

What, seriously?

It gets even more bizarre when you consider what “suspending his campaign” means to McCain. It means, apparently, that he will temporarily, for about four days or so, stop spending money on television and radio advertisements. Because, you know, having staffers making media buys distracts him from finding a nice quiet spot to sit down and think hard about the economy.

The current economic meltdown (Katrina on WallStreet as I like to think of it) is not exactly the Cuban Missile crisis: it’s a long-term structural problem that’s been a long time coming and will take a long time to shake out. The various bailout plans being floated around look like anything from reasonable gambles to insanely scary power and money grabs, but so far McCain’s camp has failed to explain how having him and his campaign stomping around in Washington and giving press conferences is going to help.

Obama’s offer for the campaigns to take the issue off the political table was something that McCain should have lept at, frankly: it could have helped McCain look both nobly bipartisan and maybe given him some cover on an issue that obviously hurts him (a champion of deregulation floundering in a scandal of corruption, fraud, and abuse). This move, on the other hand, makes him look utterly absurd: even his most dogged defenders are admitting that the move looks more like a gimmick in response to his declining poll numbers than an actual substantive response to financial crisis.


Sympathy for Phil Gramm: Another Silly Gaffetroversy

July 11, 2008

I’ve been complaining a lot lately about over-emotionalized, irrational politics, and there’s no better recent example than the fuss over comments by Phil Gramm, former Senator and economic advisor to John McCain. McCain has recently been trying to shore up his credibility with blue collar workers: demonstrating that he “feels their pain” when it comes to economy. It’s a delicate dance: he’s pretty much supported the economic policy status quo for the past 8 years, and the many people hurting from rising unemployment, mortgage failures, and so on are not patient listeners.

But let’s acknowledge right off the bat that the effort itself, or rather the need for it, is sort of ridiculous.
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More Misleading Atheist/Theist Surveys

July 4, 2008

Tiny Frog has an excellent post taking a look at a recent poll being shopped around by several Christian news outlets purporting to show that atheists are less moral and sociable than theists.

Putting the subject matter completely aside, it’s a very insightful look into the way that survey results can give highly flawed or misleading pictures of people’s attitudes, both depending on what data you choose to report (and the sociologist in question, Reginald W. Bibby, does seem to make some rather suspicious choices), how you present it, and the questionable implications one might want to draw about causality (as far as I can tell, the survey doesn’t even include any statistical controls, making the claimed social implications nigh meaningless).

I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find that atheists and theists differ significantly in many respects (though I doubt this sort of uncontrolled study, even sincerely undertaken, could reveal much about them). Given Western society’s mixed and highly diverse attitudes about religion, theists and atheists likely have some fairly different experiences. Might be nice if theists and atheists spent more time comparing notes, rather than comparing statistical flufferies.


Jesus Was Wrong: Give Charity in Public, And Don’t Diversify

June 22, 2008

Peter Singer is the sort of philosopher that everyone feels free to sneer at and denigrate… all without ever actually reading his actual writing or seriously addressing his arguments. Which is too bad, because he’s one of the few ethicists out there that sincerely treats moral inquiry as an exercise in figuring out what’s actually right to do, as opposed to simply finding ways to better justify what we already do… or at least already believe is right (our moral habits, as it were).

Along these lines, Singer has recently challenged Biblical instruction of Jesus to give charity in private.

Singer doesn’t deny that the abstract idea of some person anonymously giving large sums of money without any hope of thanks appeals to our sense of what true altruism entails. But the reasons that we find that image so appealing and the actual good that the ideal accomplishes simply may not match up.

The abstract nature of the image the core of its virtue: it’s nice an clean and untroubled in our minds. It allows us to conceptually rule out all possible suspect motives from the person’s action other than either true concern for others and secretly feeling good about oneself. Thus, in our minds, we can be certain that the person’s act was pure and saintly. This was the ideal Jesus was so approving of: an otherwise reasonable disgust with people who give lavishly to impress others rather than to actually help them.

But as Singer argues, people in the midst of disasters don’t need anonymous saints, or require some level of purity in motive. What they need are actual people with faces to help and comfort them and as many charitable resources as possible applied to their problem.

And here’s the key point: everything we know about human behavior implies that people respond to peer pressure when it comes to charitable giving: if they see their neighbors giving, they’ll be more likely to give, and give still more. Thus, the good that setting an example does by far outweighs whatever secret motives someone might have for doing it. Those motives remain as mere thoughts in the head. The aid is still aid, and public knowledge of it sets and example that can be followed.

Singer doesn’t deny that a lot of lavish giving and “nameplate” philanthropy is contaminated with bad motives. But that’s largely because those bad motives lead people not to think very seriously about what charities are really the most important, not because the public nature of giving is itself bad:

Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor’s name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

On that note, economist Steven Landsburg has even more interesting advice about charitable giving: if you want to do the most good, it rarely, if ever, makes sense to diversify the recipients of your charity.

His argument is deceptively simple:

You might protest that you diversify because you don’t know enough to make a firm judgment about where your money will do the most good. But that argument won’t fly. Your contribution to CARE says that in your best (though possibly flawed) judgment, and in view of the (admittedly incomplete) information at your disposal, CARE is worthier than the cancer society. If that’s your best judgment when you shell out your first $100, it should be your best judgment when you shell out your second $100.

So why is charity different? Here’s the reason: An investment in Microsoft can make a serious dent in the problem of adding some high-tech stocks to your portfolio; now it’s time to move on to other investment goals. Two hours on the golf course makes a serious dent in the problem of getting some exercise; maybe it’s time to see what else in life is worthy of attention. But no matter how much you give to CARE, you will never make a serious dent in the problem of starving children. The problem is just too big; behind every starving child is another equally deserving child.

That is not to say that charity is futile. If you save one starving child, you have done a wonderful thing, regardless of how many starving children remain. It is precisely because charity is so effective that we should think seriously about where to target it, and then stay focused once the target is chosen.

And, through, the suspicious sorcery of economic theory, he even translates his argument into mathematics. Landsburg also makes the case that diversification may be a far better gauge of selfish motives than mere publicity:

People constantly ignore my good advice by contributing to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, CARE, and public radio all in the same year–as if they were thinking, “OK, I think I’ve pretty much wrapped up the problem of heart disease; now let’s see what I can do about cancer.” But such delusions of grandeur can’t be very common. So there has to be some other reason why people diversify their giving.

I think I know what that reason is. You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you’ll pick the worthiest and “bullet” (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you’ll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, “I gave to all those!”

The lesson here is clear: if you want to do the most good, give a lot of money to a single cause (one whose problem is huge relative to your contribution, and the one you think most objectively worthy), and tell everyone you know. Maybe they’ll conclude that you’re a bragging, self-aggrandizing sociopath. Who cares? The research shows that they’ll still be shamed into following suit. And for desperate people in need, the issue of what a bunch of first-world philanthropists think of each other is laughably irrelevant.


More Sex Meant Safer Sex in Thailand: Counterintuitive Economic Theory

June 19, 2008

Steven Landsburg has to be one of my favorite authors: contrarian in all the right ways, ruggedly skeptical, utterly unafraid to buck conventional wisdom. There’s never guarantee that you’ll agree with what he argues (at least at first), but you will be entertained, engaged, and forced think of issues from entirely new angles.

His most recent book (sadly not that recent) was More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics, in which he argued (among many other things) that there were social situations in which increased promiscuity amongst the sexually prude could actually reduce the transmission of disease. Indeed, he argued that prudishness was, in some cases, as much a socially harmful vice as sleeping around.

His argument was essentially theoretical, but it wasn’t entirely out of the blue: it was based on research by another economist, Michael Kremer and some pretty solid models of sexual behavior and disease transmission.

And now, it seems like it’s no longer even just hypothetical.

That’s because, according to Marginal Revolution blogger Alex Tabarrok, the recent history of Thailand provides a real world example of more total sex leading to a reduction in disease transmission. A drastic, culturally driven increase in normally chaste women engaging in premarital sex coupled with a (not causally unconnected) drop in the number of men going to prostitutes cratered the rates of HIV transmission: even in sex workers.

And to top it all off, the place where Alex Tabarrok discovered this little gem? Elizabeth Pisani’s new book called “The Wisdom of Whores.” It’s all enough to make social conservatives scream.

Of course, in all seriousness, those conservatives have plenty of worthwhile concerns. And just as a disclaimer before you run out and lose your virginity in the service of public safety: the particular effect here relies on a particular sort of sexual situation that may or may not have any relevance to your society. And in any case, it still unavoidably involves the former prudes taking on more risk to their own health in order improve the lives of others. So, please, read the books instead of rushing out to do anything foolish and frisky just on my word.

Elizabeth Pisani explains it all herself here:

Isn’t counter-intuitiveness grand?


In Defense of Pornography, In Revulsion of Jesus’ Redefinition of Adultery, In Minor Defense of Douthat

June 19, 2008

Here’s how it starts:

A Fox News sexpert declares that many spouses view “using porn, at least beyond a magazine like Playboy, [as] the equivalent of having an actual affair.”

Reason journalist Julian Sanchez can’t quite wrap his head around this comment:

This is tossed off as though it ought to be obvious to the ordinary reader. It strikes me as obviously insane. I can think of any number of valid concerns one might have about what sort of porn one’s partner is consuming, or the extent of it. But the proposition that one of them is any similarity between porn viewing and “having an actual affair” would not have occurred to me. Is this view held by any significant number of sane people?

But over at Atlantic Monthly, the often laudably contrarian conservative blogger Ross Douthat points out that, well, yes, plenty of spouses do see things that way:

Then consider: Is there any similarity between having sex with a prostitute while you’re married and paying to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts for your voyeuristic gratification? Again, I think a lot of people would say yes: There’s a distinction, obviously, but I don’t think all that many spouses would be inclined to forgive their husbands (or wives) if they explained that they only liked to watch the prostitute they’d hired. And hard-core porn, in turn, is nothing more than an indirect way of paying someone to fulfill the same sort of voyeuristic fantasies: It’s prostitution in all but name, filtered through middlemen, magazine editors, and high-speed internet connections. Is it as grave a betrayal as cheating on your spouse with a co-worker? Not at all. But is it on a moral continuum with adultery? I don’t think it’s insane to say yes.

(Heck, even Dan Dan Savage, sex-adviser extraordinaire, agrees with Ross that “porn as cheating” is quite a common idea.)

Next, quite a lot of Douthat’s commenters seem to lose track of the discussion entirely: they think that Douthat is trying to make an argument that pornography really is perfectly equivalent to having an extra-marital affair, when in fact he’s only trying to illustrate that there are reasonable similarities that might lead some quite sane spouses to consider porn a form of cheating. Much confusion ensues.

Finally, the discussion turns to the issue of the morality of pornography in general. Some people raise the issue of Jesus’ famous pronouncement that to look upon a woman with lust is to commit adultery in your heart. And then, Douthat regular Hector, who seems to believe that pornography is immoral by its “essential nature,” pops in to say that he’s “not sure what any of you would maintain are the good things that porn brings into this world.”

Well, allow me to re-introduce myself.

What’s good about porn? It’s hard to even know where to start: it’s the question an alien visitor the the earth might ask, like “what good is baseball?” It’s a question that must seem obvious to some, utterly bizarre to others.

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McCain Doesn’t Understand His Own Cap and Trade Policy?

June 17, 2008

This is truly baffling. In a recent press conference, Presidential Candidate John McCain had this to say about how he plans to regulate air pollution:

MCCAIN: I believe in the cap-and-trade system, as you know. I would not at this time make those — impose a mandatory cap at this time. But I do believe that we have to establish targets for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions over time, and I think those can be met.

This comment makes very little sense, though it might not be immediately apparent why.

The issue for air pollution, in economic terms, is that there is no market to ensure an efficient use of the atmosphere. No one “owns” the air, and so no one can change “rent” on firms that use it as a dumping ground for industrial waste. The result is that firms treat the disposal of their airborne wastes as if it were a free resource, and pollute far more than they actually would if the environmental costs of pollution were actually factored into the market.

The whole point of a cap-and-trade system is that you artificially create scarcity in the market for “polluting” by issuing a limited amount of shares, each of which represents a certain amount of pollution you are allowed to create. This scarcity then forces companies to seriously consider how much their relative need to pollute is worth to them. Some companies can afford to pollute less at certain times, and so they can sell their shares to companies that can’t afford to cut pollution as much. If situations change later, they can buy them back as needed.

The end result is restores a great deal of the economic efficiency and flexibility that you’d get with a normal market, but that you’d lose with traditional, static regulations (in which a set cap impacts all companies equally, despite their very different underlying incentives and needs). And the beauty is that the government can still set an overall level of allowed pollution just by changing the value of the shares. It’s one of the biggest no-brainer improvements to government regulation in a long time: you lose none of the overall control over total pollution, but you gain a self-adjusting system that increases overall efficiency.

McCain, on the other hand, isn’t making any sense. How can cap-and-trade work if the system isn’t “mandatory?” Our atmosphere isn’t actually owned by anyone, and there isn’t actually a limited amount to which all industries can use it. The market only exists insofar as the government requires everyone to pretend that it does.

Confusing the issue even more, McCain talks about how he intends to establish “targets” for less pollution. Again, this makes no sense in the context of cap-and-trade unless the “cap” part is a mandatory and enforced total limit. No capped total limit on pollution, no scarcity of pollution shares, no market, no reason to buy and sell pollution permits, no cap-and-trade system at all. McCain is talking as if by “target” he meant “wishful thinking” and that he expects that the pollution levels will simply, by happy chance, meet his hopes.

So what the heck is he talking about? Another, older, interview gives us a clue:

It’s not quote mandatory caps. It’s cap-and-trade, OK. It’s not mandatory caps to start with. It’s cap-and-trade. That’s very different. OK, because that’s a gradual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. So please portray it as cap-and-trade. That’s the way I call it.

It appears that McCain has been spending far too much time with his PR spin team, but doesn’t quite understand what they are telling him to say. What they want to do is have him avoid using the term mandatory caps, and use the term “cap-and-trade” instead. The latter sounds better, the former scares industry.

But somehow, along the way from this interview to yesterday’s press conference, it seems as if McCain got it into his head that this is more than a difference in political language. That he really is against mandatory caps, and supports cap-and-trade… instead of just being instructed to avoid the former terminology in favor of the latter.

HT: Gristmill.


Ok Skeptics: What’s Next? Immodest Proposals For Political Activism

June 15, 2008

If you haven’t noticed the rising cultural tide of skeptics and non-believers, then maybe we still haven’t made enough of a nuisance of ourselves. Just you wait!

Me, I’d like to take some time to think about where this is all going. What do we want?

Mostly, it seems, just to talk. And that’s a good thing: the subjects we’re interested are abstract: they’re debates about ideas first and foremost. Skeptics have always been the traditional first-line defenders of free inquiry, and we’re not about to give up that role anytime soon.

Still, we seem to have all these people with so many common interests and values. We have conventions. We should, I think, consider having some more concrete goals. Some specific issues we have on the table every election season. And I’m not talking about amorphous things like “better funding for science” and so on. I’m talking about very specific policy proposals: specific enough that some friendly Representative could introduce them as numbered bills on the floor of Congress.

So what should these be? Getting a consensus is always difficult, but other interest groups do it. Skeptics may be, by our very nature, hard to herd, but it’s not impossible. I think most of us could, for instance, get behind a proposal to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which used to helpfully advise Congress on all sorts of complex scientific issues that Congressman and their staffs, rarely have much depth of knowledge about. And if you have your own suggestions, I welcome them in the comments, or on your own blogs (let me know and I’ll link to them at the end of this post).

Here’s my proposal though: that we reform public education. And I don’t mean weigh into issues like vouchers, funding, teacher unions, or any of that. What I mean is that we lobby for a particular set of concepts and skills to become a central part of state and/or federal education standards: a theme that runs through what and how we teach kids to write and reason. Subject disciplines like history, math, biology, English, and so forth, are all important. But it’s just as, if not more important to prepare children to be critical thinkers, to be intelligent and skeptical consumers of mass media, political appeals, and even commercial advertising. To understand logical fallacies. To know how to read an argument and set about responding to it. To appreciate the basic principles of statistics, independent of math level, and the basic pitfalls of interpreting scientific results (regression to the mean, sampling error, etc.) We need civics courses for a new age.

American students have always held an economic edge when it comes to creative, independent thinking: even when our students lag far behind in brute force effort and devotion to studies. I think playing on these strengths is a winning economic and social strategy. I’m not entirely sure yet on how best to sell it to the public, but that’s what Public Relations geniuses are for.

However, we’d also have to be very focused and restrained about how we go about it. All of us skeptics have our favorite sacred cows that we love to target. But in the bitter, rough and tumble world of curricula debates, most of these line-item punching bags are also going to be non-starters. Few of the players and factions necessary to win political approval are going to trust our proposals if they think we’re using them just to smuggle in our partisan views.

I recently scoffed at William Dembski’s petty hopes of trying to cram Intelligent Design down kids throats. There’s a real danger of any effort too similar to his, one that focuses on what to believe, rather than how to think, will get scoffed at, and for much the same reasons.

Just to highlight one example of how skeptical teaching can quickly become politically objectionable, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid fame has a great new educational video out called “Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking” I’m a fan of Dunning’s work, and this video is definately a worthy skeptical teaching tool.

But like it or not, a lot of the specific topics he covers are, sadly, too controversial for a public school. Maybe not scientifically, but politically. Panning over the countless nutritional supplements on store shelves and questioning their efficacy has great scientific and skeptical merit. But in practice, the owner of the drug store that makes big bucks off this stuff sits on the local school board.

And, right or wrong, many of these sorts of interested parties are going to give something like “Dragons” a big thumbs down when it comes to showing it in the classroom. Just to pick another example, the orange-grower lobby is not going to take too kindly to coursework that poo-poos vitamin-C’s cold-fighting powers. By the same measure, as silly as it all is, you can pretty much forget about the State of Florida ever endorsing such a course. Honestly, we’re lucky enough that there isn’t much economic force behind creationism or science education would really be in trouble.

But it’s not that we have to toothlessly stand down on everything just to play nice. That’s not the point. It’s just that in politics, everything has a price. Every issue has an interest group, every interest group is loyal to a faction, and every lost vote means having to scrounge up some more from somewhere else. Eventually, you price yourself right out of the market. So you have to be very realistic about how much you can do at any one time, with any one policy proposal.

And in this case, getting into those fights is ultimately unnecessary. If we focus on the core skills in question, it really doesn’t matter what examples we happen to use in the process of teaching them. And if we can lobby for school curriculums that do a good job of teaching kids how to critically analyze any and all claims, we won’t have to single out any specific targets for them.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too, politically. But we can serve students some cake, and then be pretty darn certain that they’ll eat it at some point, on their own initiative.

Anyway, I welcome constructive criticism on this, or any other policy idea you think would make a good centerpiece platform for skeptics. Is this something you think we could all rally around? Can we flesh it out sufficiently and seriously lobby for it? Or if not this, then what?

What’s next? And who’s up for it?


Congress Must Pay For Public Radio, Otherwise Taxpayers Might Have To

June 10, 2008

I think this guy’s a little confused…

HT: TaxingTennessee


Mike Huckabee Endorses Stein’s Anti-Evolutionary Film Expelled!

April 5, 2008

Mike Huckabee (R-Of Nothing) may have given up his quixotic quest to beat mathematically impossible odds against John McCain, but darn it: the man still has something to say. So take it from a guy that thinks bees fly via magic: this Expelled! film is boss!

He’s a heck of a lot more candid about his opinions on evolutionary science than he was in his famous debate answer, making it even more clear that even the Republican party dodged a bullet on this one.

Question for economists: If hot air like this is in such high demand, how come it’s still free? Infinite supply, right?


More Seizure Silliness: Officer Praised for Grabbing Cash Without any Evidence of Crime

January 23, 2008

Not even a hint of skepticism in this article about an officer who’s getting a big pat on the back for taking $69,040 from a driver he pulled over, allegedly for speeding. The officer was apparently so happy with the windfall that he didn’t even give the guy a ticket or charge him with anything: he just took the money and headed back to the station to celebrate.

Now, for all we know, the driver in this case could well have gotten the cash through the drug trade. But there are many times when that isn’t the case. And the point is that police departments should have to prove their allegations in a court of law before going on a spending spree with money they nabbed off someone’s front seat. Or stole out of a locked safe after supposedly showing up to “help.” The police are supposed to be in the business of enforcing justice and public safety, not given incentives to find ways to line their pockets. These laws are deeply corrupting and corrupt.


Professional Sports Scams another City: Seattle Sonics Lie to Peter to Get Handouts from Paul

January 21, 2008

Now here’s an exercise in real guts.

The Seattle Sonics, like most professional sports teams, has always whined and pleaded its way into sweetheart deals, huge tax subsidies, and other perks from his host city. The rationale for this sort of welfare has always been the somewhat dubious: that professional sports draw lots of extra cash into the city. This is, in fact, how current President George Bush found his first and only real business success: convincing taxpayers to give him and his partners millions and millions of dollars of free handouts and shady land grabs to build a stadium for their Texas Rangers, supposedly to revitalize the city of Arlington. Suffice to say, little to no economic benefit ever appeared, and indeed most of the best economic analysis of the issue predicts no or even negative effects on local economies for such scams.

That, however, is not the real outrage here. However dubious the claim that sports teams have substantial impacts on the local economy, owners have always stuck to their guns on the issue, insisting that city taxpayers owe them their paychecks, like it or not, for all they supposedly bring to the city. Except, of course, if that argument inconveniences them.

And that’s how it is that the Sonics are currently arguing in court that they shouldn’t have to fulfill their leased contract with the city of Seattle… because the team up and moving to Oklahoma would have little or no impact on the local economy. That’s the exact opposite of what they claimed when they fleeced Seattle taxpayers to win the heavily subsidized lease in the first place.

But even that’s not quite twisted enough: at the very same time, the team is out in in Oklamhoma demanding that local taxpayers tithe 100 million in cash towards their team…

You’ve got one guess as to how they’re trying to justify that handout.