Saturday, January 24, 2015

How to tell when a naive person is trying to sound intelligent

They'll take a simple idea and try to make it sound complex. As if they haven't noticed how much of a waste of time this is, and how much more there is to gain from making complex ideas simple.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Do Obama's anti-homemaker proposals make sense?

Ramesh Ponnuru says they don't:

He wants to triple the existing tax credit for child-care expenses, and create a new credit for second earners. Those proposals will help some parents and couples, but have nothing to offer families where one parent concentrates on home-based tasks. The second-earner credit is probably too small to affect couples’ decisions about work and child-care arrangements. So its main effect will be to lower the share of the tax burden paid by two-earner couples who were going to be working even without the credit.

Why do that?

There are two standard economic justifications for shifting the tax burden in this way, neither of them convincing.

One is that two-earner couples have higher costs than single-earner couples making the same income, so it's harder for them to pay the same taxes. But that seems like using the tax code to counteract the efficiency advantages of a particular way of dividing a family's labor, which doesn't make much sense. And it seems like an especially weak argument since, in the real world, single-earner couples have smaller incomes.

The second justification is that a progressive tax code, when applied to families rather than individuals, can penalize second earners. A second earner will often pay a higher tax rate than she would if she were single and making the same income, because she moves to a higher bracket when she marries a wage earner. The tax code thus discourages her from working. That's true, but it's just a special case of the way taxes discourage work, and not one that seems especially unjust or destructive. Marriage is (among other things) an economic partnership, and this feature of the tax code reflects that it involves pooling resources.

If the second-earner credit ignores that feature of marriage, Obama's other proposal ignores how little Americans like commercial child care. Surveys suggest that most parents prefer that small children be primarily cared for by a parent at home, and the Census Bureau reports that less than a quarter of them are in organized care facilities.

Given these preferences, it would make more sense to enlarge the child tax credit -- not the child-care credit -- and let parents use it as they see fit rather than requiring them to use the commercial day care most of them try to avoid. Some of them, it's true, might use the extra money to let one parent scale back from full-time to part-time work, or from part-time work to leaving the labor force.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Auto-tuned conversations

A comic from Zach Weiner's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which is worth checking out regularly:


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

State of the Union

I can't believe I missed the chance to see Obama repeat the same proposals I've been reading about for weeks but with soaring rhetoric, a very determined tone of voice, and the occasional humorous aside.

President Obama's community-college plan

The Washington Post Editorial Board is unimpressed with Obama's plan to subsidize community-college tuition, which he's going to announce in tonight's State of the Union address. The plan would supposedly save an average of $3,800 per student for 9 million students a year, three-quarters of which would be paid for by the federal government, with the rest covered by state governments. Here's what WaPo has to say:

[U]nder Mr. Obama’s plan, taxpayers would pay even for those who could pay for themselves. If additional money can be found for education, why not direct it to those who face the highest barriers? Further increasing the size of Pell Grants, for example, would be a more progressive way to help very needy students. Larger Pell Grants would also be usable at four-year colleges and universities, which could give some poor students a better chance at success, and not just at community colleges. The government should at least make Pell Grants available year-round, so that students could study over the summer, rather than just during the school year. These are all higher priorities.

If the president wants to help those who earn just too much to qualify for Pell Grants, he could consider means testing community college tuition assistance some other way. The White House, however, hasn’t gamed out how means testing would affect the proposal, in part, apparently, for philosophical reasons. “The president believes that it is time to make college education the norm, and that about 100 years ago this country decided that high school would be the norm and that now is the time to make sure that all Americans, regardless of age, have access to higher education,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday. That’s a fine goal. But in an era of constrained resources, there are better ways of improving access to higher education than establishing a new middle-class entitlement.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Call it the scientific ignorance of the American voter — but don't call it the stupidity . . .

"Over 80 percent of Americans support 'mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.'"

But why? And who cares? Ilya Somin explains why this is a big deal:

"A recent survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics finds that over 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labeling of GMO foods “produced with genetic engineering.” Oklahoma State economist Jayson Lusk has some additional details on the survey. If the government does impose mandatory labeling on foods containing DNA, perhaps the label might look something like this:
WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.
The Oklahoma State survey result is probably an example of the intersection between scientific ignorance and political ignorance, both of which are widespread. The most obvious explanation for the data is that most of these people don’t really understand what DNA is, and don’t realize that it is contained in almost all food. . . .

Polls repeatedly show that much of the public is often ignorant of both basic scientific facts. . . . A 2012 National Science Foundation survey even found that about 25% of Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. . . .

It would be a mistake to assume that widespread political and scientific ignorance are the result of “the stupidity of the American voter,” as Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber put it. Political ignorance is not primarily the result of stupidity. For most people, it is a rational reaction to the enormous size and complexity of government and the reality that the chance that their vote will have an impact on electoral outcomes is extremely low. The same is true of much scientific ignorance. For many people, there is little benefit to understanding much about genetics or DNA. Most Americans can even go about their daily business perfectly well without knowing that the Earth revolves around the sun. Even the smartest people are inevitably ignorant of the vast majority of information out there. We all have to focus our time and energy on learning that information which is most likely to be instrumentally useful, or at least provide entertainment value. For large numbers of people, much basic political and scientific information doesn’t make the cut.

Unfortunately, this is a case where individually rational behavior leads to potentially dangerous collective outcomes. While it doesn’t much matter whether any individual voter is ignorant about science or public policy, when a majority (or even a large minority) of the electorate is ignorant in these ways, it can lead to the adoption of dangerous and counterproductive government policies. In this case, excessive and unnecessary warning labels on food products could confuse consumers, and divert their limited attention from real dangers.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mitt Romney's plan for 2016

Dave Weigel reports:

[Romney] sketched out the basic outlines of a potential campaign, saying the nation would be focused on a post-Obama era and taking a swipe at the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination by saying, “The results of the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama foreign policy have been devastating," he said, adding that "terrorism is not on the run."

Sounding every bit like a candidate, Romney said the party needed to be focused in 2016 on three things: Making the world safer; ensuring that all Americans have an equal chance at opportunity; and lifting the poor out of poverty.
So his plan is to flip-flop on whether he's concerned about the poor.

Weigel dryly adds:
Whether Romney is the best messenger for those points remains unclear. Some Republicans declined to put their skepticism on the record after the speech.

"Hate speech"

I hate this article!

This might be the worst paragraph:

Speech that offends, insults, demeans, threatens, disrespects, incites hatred or violence, and/or violates basic human rights and freedoms has absolutely no place in even the freest society. In fact, it has no place in any free society, as bigotry is fundamentally anti-freedom by its very nature. The human right to freedom of speech must always be balanced against the human rights to dignity, respect, honor, non-discrimination, and freedom from hatred. Civilized countries consider hate speech to be among the most serious crimes around, with many countries even placing it on par with murder. In some countries, people are automatically declared guilty of hate speech and other hate crimes unless they can absolutely prove their innocence beyond any reasonable doubt. The principle of guilty until proven innocent may seem a bit harsh to some, but it makes sense when you consider how severe the crime of hate speech is – it is a crime that simply cannot be tolerated in a democracy. Hate speech is not merely speech, but is, in fact, a form of violence and the international community has established hate speech to be a form of violence many times. Hate speech doesn’t merely CAUSE violence. Hate speech IS violence.
What I'd like to know is: how does the author think government should deal with someone who says, "I hate men," or "Men are stupid"? I don't agree with those statements. They're hurtful, sexist, and offensive. But I don't want the government to stop people from saying them. And if government can't stop people from saying those things, it also can't stop people from making hateful statements about women, blacks, whites, gays, etc.

In the comments: some suspect the article was intended to be satirical. (But it's not very funny . . .)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

France suppresses speech at the free speech rally

Andrew Napolitano writes, in Reason magazine:

The photos of 40 of the world's government leaders marching arm-in-arm along a Paris boulevard on Sunday with the president of the United States not among them was a provocative image that has fomented much debate. The march was, of course, in direct response to the murderous attacks on workers at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by a pair of brothers named Kouachi, and on shoppers at a Paris kosher supermarket by one of the brothers' comrades.

The debate has been about whether President Obama should have been at the march. The march was billed as a defense of freedom of speech in the West; yet it hardly could have been held in a less free speech-friendly Western environment, and the debate over Obama's absence misses the point. . . .

[E]ven though the French Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, French governments treat speech as a gift from the government, not as a natural right of all persons, as our Constitution does.

The French government has prohibited speech it considers to be hateful and even made it criminal. When the predecessor magazine to Charlie Hebdo once mocked the death of Charles de Gaulle, the French government shut it down—permanently. . . .

And how hypocritical was it of the French government to claim it defends free speech! In France, you can go to jail if you publicly express hatred for a group whose members may be defined generally by characteristics of birth, such as gender, age, race, place of origin or religion.

You can also go to jail for using speech to defy the government. This past weekend, millions of folks in France wore buttons and headbands that proclaimed in French: "I am Charlie Hebdo." Those whose buttons proclaimed "I am not Charlie Hebdo" were asked by the police to remove them. Those who wore buttons that proclaimed, either satirically or hatefully, "I am Kouachi" were arrested. Arrested for speech at a march in support of free speech? Yes.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Wall Street Journal is skeptical of Romney 2016.

WSJ editorial:

Mr. Romney is a man of admirable personal character, but his political profile is, well, protean. He made the cardinal mistake of pandering to conservatives rather than offering a vision that would attract them. He claimed to be “severely conservative” and embraced “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants, a political killer. But he refused to break from his RomneyCare record in Massachusetts even though it undermined his criticism of ObamaCare. A third campaign would resurrect all of that political baggage—and videotape.

The businessman also failed on his own self-professed terms as a superior manager. His convention was the worst since George H.W. Bush’s in 1992, focusing more on his biography than a message. This left him open to President Obama’s barrage against his record at Bain Capital, which Mr. Romney failed to defend because that would have meant playing on Democratic turf, as his strategists liked to put it. The unanswered charges suppressed GOP turnout in key states like Ohio.

Mr. Romney’s campaign team was notable for its mediocrities, led by a strategist whose theory of the race was that voters had already rejected Mr. Obama so the challenger merely needed to seem like a safe alternative. He thus never laid out an economic narrative to counter Mr. Obama’s claim that he had saved the country from a GOP Depression and needed more time for his solutions to work.

And don’t forget the management calamity of Mr. Romney’s voter turnout operation, code-named Orca. Mr. Romney likes to say he reveres “data,” but Mr. Obama’s campaign was years ahead of Mr. Romney’s in using Big Data and social media to boost turnout. The Romney campaign was so clueless on voter mobilization that well into Election Night the candidate still thought he would win. He lost a winnable race 51%-47%, including every closely contested state save North Carolina.

Mr. Romney had his good moments, notably choosing Paul Ryan as running mate and the first debate. He also, eventually, adopted solid proposals on tax and Medicare reform after his initial and forgettable 59-point plan. More comfortable with slide decks than ideas, he still struggled to make a compelling argument for the agenda he claimed to favor.

Mr. Romney’s post-election diagnosis also doesn’t inspire confidence that he has learned the right lessons. He said Mr. Obama won because he promised “extraordinary financial gifts” to voters. “It’s a proven political strategy,” Mr. Romney said. “Giving away free stuff is a hard thing to compete with.” Maybe so, but if he can’t sell a larger message of growth and opportunity, he won’t defeat Hillary Clinton’s gifts either.