Thursday, December 30, 2010


I hate those blog posts that say sorry the blogging has been sparse lately . . . but sorry the blogging has been sparse lately.

Two weeks ago, I accepted a job offer in New York City. Since then, I've gotten an apartment in the East Village and packed up my stuff in Albany. I'm very excited about the new job and the new neighborhood. I spent over a year looking for this, but in the end, I really couldn't have hoped for things to have turned out better for me.

I start the job today, and I'll be going back to Albany tonight in order to move my stuff downstate. On New Year's Day, I'll finally be living again in the city where I was born, and where I belong.

There was also a nice Christmas vacation in the middle of all that. So, things have been pretty hectic, and I haven't been focusing on the blog.

I might not be blogging much in the next week or two either, since I'll still be getting settled in. But I'll be back.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Sitting around listening to Christmas presents

We're playing the remastered version of the Beatles' Revolver. My stepdad reacts to George Harrison in "Love You To": "He sounds so enthusiastic: 'I'll make love to you, if you want me to . . . Or, if not, I'll just play my sitar . . . '"

Friday, December 24, 2010

What would you do if you got hundreds of letters to Santa at your address?

The New York Times might as well be begging bloggers to embed this saccharine mini-documentary today, and I'm happy to oblige:

"I think if you're going to do one, you should do 'em all. Or, none at all. I don't know, is that weird? . . ."

"That to me is like saying, 'Oh, well, I can't fix all the world's problems, so I'm not going to fix any of them.'"

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The secret to a (subjectively) long life

Be constantly bored. The time (and thus, your life) will seem to pass more slowly.

IN THE COMMENTS: My mom suggests an even better way: "chronic excruciating pain."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Our Facebook world

1. A map of the world made up entirely of glowing lines that symbolize Facebook friend connections. (More explanation here.)

2. A sign of the times: one friend writes to another on Facebook:

What did you change your profile picture to raise awareness for?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Corporate environmentalism

So, I have a CVS card. (For non-US readers, CVS is a pharmacy/store.) CVS wants to give me $1 every 4 times I shop there using my own bags, since this saves plastic bags. But they won't record these transactions on my normal CVS card. They'll only give me the discount if I buy a new card that looks like a green leaf. So I can show how much I care about the environment with my superfluous piece of plastic.

In fact, I just checked that webpage to see if they mention the material of the leaf card. They say it's "made with corn-based material — an annually renewable resource." So they're trying to cue us to feel like using too much corn isn't an environmental problem because it's "annually renewable" — never mind how much energy is required to produce the corn. (Michael Pollan says that corn "is the SUV of plants. Growing it the way we do requires it to guzzle fuel in the form of fertilizer, about a quarter to a third of a gallon of petroleum for each bushel.")

This is what happens when corporations try to "go green." Corporations aren't content simply to help the environment out of the goodness of their hearts; they need to come up with a way to signal how green they are. Then, they have an ulterior motive to prioritize that signal, while downplaying any environmental costs.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Music Friday: My favorite Christmas song

"Sleigh Ride" seems to be most popular in versions with sumptuous female vocals — here's KT Tunstall:

Inevitably, there's a jazz version by Harry Connick, Jr., overflowing with panache. He leaves in a whole section that Tunstall leaves out ("There's a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray . . .").

(Is that Dwight Schrute standing up in the back at 2:15?)

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones give it their virtuosic bluegrass-jazz treatment:

(Did you catch the bassist Victor Wooten's wink at an even more famous Christmas song near the end?)

The original version brings out the brilliance and harmonic adventurousness of the piece (performed here by the Boston Pops):

That version was composed by Leroy Anderson (a master of orchestral candy) in 1946. Mitchell Parish added the lyrics a few years later. Though the title and orchestration make it clear that Anderson did envision a horse-driven sleigh, Wikipedia tells us that he "had the original idea for the piece during a heat wave in July."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"A democratic society needs Republican scientists."

So says this Slate article, which complains that only 6% of American scientists are Republicans. (55% are Democrats.)

The author, Daniel Sarewitz, argues:

For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of wealth. These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science.

Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation? . . .

How would a more politically diverse scientific community improve this situation? First, it could foster greater confidence among Republican politicians about the legitimacy of mainstream science. Second, it would cultivate more informed, creative, and challenging debates about the policy implications of scientific knowledge. This could help keep difficult problems like climate change from getting prematurely straitjacketed by ideology.
Sarewitz concludes that the United States "needs Republican scientists," but by his own account, we already have them: 6% of scientists. That's a lot of people. Why doesn't Sarewitz make any attempt to look at some of these scientists' work and explain how they've made a distinctive contribution that non-Republican (Democratic, independent, or apolitical) scientists wouldn't have made?

Does the New York Times really expect us to believe . . .

. . . that Sarah Wendell is embarrassed to be seen in public reading romance novels, when she clearly agreed to pose for that photo in the New York Times?

It reminds me of scenes on The Real World where two characters would have a "private" conversation about something they were desperate to keep a secret from their other housemates. If they had actually wanted to keep anything private, they wouldn't have agreed to have their lives broadcast on MTV.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Professor Robert Summers of Cornell Law School

Professor Robert Summers taught his last class on December 1, marking the end of 42 years of teaching at Cornell Law School. Before that, he taught at the University of Oregon Law School.

Here are some of his many accomplishments, from the article at the link:

Summers is perhaps best known as co-author of the Uniform Commercial Code (West Publishing Co.), written with James J. White in 1972 and now in its sixth edition. The four-volume treatise on the rules that coordinate the sale of goods and other commercial transactions throughout the 50 states is the most widely cited on the Code, which has been adopted by all 50 state legislatures. . . .

In 1993 the Russian government called on Summers to help draft that country's new civil code. He later served as adviser to the Drafting Commission for the Egyptian Civil Code (1998-99) and as principal drafter for the Code of Contract Law for Rwanda (2006-10). . . .

In the 1960s he began advocating for more minority students in law schools, holding summer sessions around the country . . . to recruit and prepare minority undergraduates.

"That was one of the largest, most satisfying public service activities I have ever been privileged to engage in in my life," Summers said. "It was extremely inspiring."
Wikipedia says:
He is well known among Cornell Law School students for his inquisitive, spirited use of the Socratic method in instruction.
That's putting it mildly. That sentence would describe many Cornell law professors, but Summers took the Socratic method to the extreme. He rarely made any direct statement about anything, almost always preferring to ask questions instead.

He mockingly voiced the way he thought students would react:
Isn’t it a pity that you need to analyze cases? You can’t just go around with your mouth open waiting for a spoon that will feed it to you in one big, luscious bite! Students should sue. The teachers should just give you the law.
A student piped up:
We're working on a class action.
The article quotes Summers giving a more straightforward rationale for his teaching method:
"It teaches the students analytical focus, verbal adroitness and articulateness, and it keeps them on their toes," he said. "You've got to hold their feet to the fire."
He had an inimitable style of speaking: self-consciously erudite and even antiquated, often quite stern, but also wryly comical.

Over the summer before our first year, the law school had all of us incoming students read Franz Kafka's novel The Trial so we could discuss it at orientation. Per Wikipedia, "it tells the story of a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime never revealed either to him or the reader." In the middle of contracts class, Summers would suddenly attack Kafka:
In very few walks of life can you see the power of human reason when it's at its best — as it is in well-reasoned judicial opinions. In other words, this is not a course that Kafka would recognize. Kafka couldn't possibly see that there was any rationality to the law.
He added sarcastically:
So it's a wonderful thing for the law school to select such an inspiring book for law students to read.
Summers would urge us to write down everything that was said in class. I know that many people look down on this technique (calling it the work of a "stenographer"), but I found the advice useful. On one occasion he started to scold us for not taking notes, but then he seemed to have a flash of sympathy for us:
I see a lot of you just relaxing and not taking notes. These hypos are important. Of course, relaxation is important too!
He ruthlessly mocked judges who wrote opinions he considered irrational. After reading one such opinion, he said:
We would want to be very wary of any majority decisions written by Lindberg, J., if they purport to be contracts case. It might not be a problem if it’s a tort case, because torts is really simple. It’s just: one person bumps into another person!
(Yes, he referred to the judge as "Lindberg, J." This is the standard legal notation, meaning "Judge Lindberg." Summers is the only person I've heard pronounce the "J." as written.)

Summers was a scholar of jurisprudence and felt strongly about the subject, so he would go off on delightful philosophical tangents while we were in the middle of analyzing a contracts case. Here's one I tried to type out close to verbatim in my notes:
Is certainty important from the point of view of justice, legal predictability, treating like cases alike? Do the materials that law students are now studying have a tendency to dull your sensitivity to the value of certainty? Indeed, does Friedman [the author of a passage in our casebook] give law professors a pretty hard time here?
A student responded, reading from the casebook:
“In a complex social and economic system, a legal system on the model of appellate cases selected for law school instruction would be insupportable.”
That line was particularly ironic because not only were we in law school, but Summers edited the casebook and presumably chose to include that passage.

He elaborated on the point:
You have a steady diet of borderline cases. Is this bending up your mind? Is this having the effect of dulling your sensitivity to the 7 major values of certainty in law? If you’re getting accustomed to life on the borderlines — that's what you're in, life on the borderlines — could that have a prejudicial effect on the general standards that you have with regard to what the law is like? And you just take for granted that the law will be open-ended, spongey, discretion-ridden? Some of you do think there’s value to predictability, determinativeness. There are probably not just 3 ways in which it’s valuable, but probably about 15.
(Summers often referred to imaginary numbered lists.)

He went on:
Does certainty facilitate citizen self-direction vs. being ordered around ad hoc by judges and other officials? Does determinativeness limit judicial power, and thus reduce the scope of judicial arbitrariness? Does determinativeness contribute to dispute avoidance? That would be a bad thing, because it would reduce the number of jobs you can get, and that would reduce the number of law professors. What I’m doing is sowing the seeds of self-destruction. So maybe I better shut up.
On another day in class, we read a passage by a former Cornell law professor named Ian MacNeil. Summers said:
MacNeil was a whale of a law professor! Never uttered a declarative sentence! Never uttered a declarative sentence! Not in 35 years! Best law professor we've ever had! Now he's retired. What a mistake that was. What a mistake that was.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Are juries more sympathetic to male or female criminal defendants/victims?

Psychologists at Penn State surveyed 458 people about how they'd vote if they were on a jury in a hypothetical case where a defendant was accused of killing his/her lover "in the heat of passion" after being thrown out of their house and discovering that the lover was cheating. The researchers described the case with 4 different possible gender configurations: male defendant/female victim, female defendant/male victim, both male, and both female. Miller-McCune reports:

Test participants were given “jury instructions” stating the defendant was charged with second-degree murder. They were given the option of convicting the defendant on that charge, going with a less-serious charge of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, or finding the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity.

To parse out levels of ambivalence, the researchers asked participants to rank, on a 1-to-7 scale, the extent to which they find the defendant guilty. They were also asked to choose an appropriate sentence length, from no prison time to 15 or more years behind bars. . . .

Heterosexual female defendants were given significantly shorter sentence lengths than either heterosexual male defendants or homosexual defendants. They also scored lower than any other group on the question “To what extent do you find the defendant guilty?” And they scored the highest in terms of satisfying specific legal elements that would justify a voluntary manslaughter verdict, such as great provocation and mitigating circumstances.

“The findings from this study suggest heterosexual female defendants are more likely to benefit from using the provocation doctrine in a crime-of-passion case,” the researchers conclude. While straight women appear to be “just as likely to be convicted as all other defendants,” their punishment — at least to the extent it is determined by the jury — is apt to be less severe.

These findings seem to corroborate the conclusions of University of New Hampshire sociologist Murray Straus, who has argued domestic violence is often looked at as less serious if it is perpetrated by a woman. Specifically, Ragatz and Russell found that “violence perpetrated by heterosexual female defendants toward their unfaithful partner was perceived as more acceptable than violence perpetrated by male or homosexual defendants.”

The study can also be interpreted to support . . . the notion that defendants receive harsher sentences when the victim of a crime is female. The researchers noted that “both heterosexual male and homosexual female defendants were found more culpable if the victim was female. Whether the female victim was heterosexual or homosexual did not appear to impact decisions.”

Either way, the results suggest gender-related beliefs play a major role in jurors’ decision-making processes.
Why is there so much less interest in the criminal justice system's possible gender bias than in its possible racial bias?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikileaks reveals the left's incoherence on U.S. foreign policy, secrecy, and diplomacy.

Good points:

By and large, the hard left in America and around the world would prefer to see the peaceful resolution of disputes rather than the use of military force. World peace, however, is a lot harder to achieve if the U.S. State Department is cut off at the knees. And that is exactly what this mass revelation of documents is going to do. The essential tool of State Department diplomacy is trust between American officials and their foreign counterparts. . . . Destroying confidentiality means destroying diplomacy. . . .

[T]hose on the hard left are usually the loudest critics of America imposing its own values, its own way of doing business, and its own culture on other countries. For better or worse, in many parts of the world there’s a big difference between what government officials are prepared to do publicly and what they’re prepared to say and do privately. We may wish it otherwise, but those are the realities faced by U.S. officials. The hard left, so quick to demand that America accept other countries’ political systems, now seems blind to the fact that other governments want to have the right to say one thing in public and a different thing in private. By respecting that difference, American diplomats are doing their job.
That whole TNR article is worth reading.

Short URL for this post:

Penelope Trunk's manifesto against "happiness" and "positive psychology"

"I want to help people find conflict and self-doubt."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A new study that says gay people are coming out earlier than in the past . . .

. . . is wrong in a "new and interesting" way.

That blog post (1) explains how the study went wrong and (2) asks whether it could have possibly been right.

As to the second point, the blogger (Ben Goldacre) explains:

It’s a difficult analysis to design, because in each age band, there is no information on gay people who are not yet out, but may come out later, and also it’s hard to compare each age band with the others.
(The comments section on that post also has a lot of relevant insights.)

This reminds me of the oft-repeated factoid that "50% of marriages end in divorce." How could you ever determine whether this is true? You can observe divorces that have actually happened, but you can't possibly know whether existing marriages will end in divorce.

Even questions that seem to be about concrete, observable facts can't necessarily be answered by empirical research.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy 107th birthday to Alice Herz-Sommer, who survived the Holocaust with music

Here's her Wikipedia entry, which links to this article:

I played Chopin as they sent my family to their deaths
That article explains:
In 1943, with her husband and their six-year-old son, she was deported from Prague to the Nazis' "model" concentration camp at Terezin ....
Her mother had already been deported and killed by Nazis a year earlier. The article goes on:
In Terezin, despite appalling conditions, she was determined to live for her son and for her music. In the camp, music became part of daily life. She gave more than 100 concerts there. Many of her fellow inmates were artists, musicians and writers, but there was nothing remotely philanthropic about the Nazis' encouragement of the arts in Terezin. "It was propaganda," she says contemptuously. "This was something they could show the world, while in reality they were killing us."

Her husband was taken away to Auschwitz and later Dachau, where he died of typhus six weeks before the end of the war. His parting words to her were: "Do nothing voluntarily." She believes this saved her life and their son Raphael; other women, offered the chance to follow their husbands, were sent to their deaths.
In this documentary, you can see her talking and playing piano recently, at age 106:

"My world is music. I am not interested in anything else. ... Beethoven, he is a miracle. His music is not only melody, but what is inside. ... Music is the only thing that helps me to have hope. It's a sort of religion, actually. Music is God. In difficult times you feel it especially — when you are suffering."

"A lot of German journalists come and want to ... speak with me and so on. Before they enter my room, they ask, 'Are we allowed to enter your room? Do you not hate us?' So my answer is, 'I never hated. I would never hate. Hatred brings only hatred.'"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Will there be a naked revolt against airport body scanners?

I've been seeing a lot of comments like this:

I am an old man and I don't have any prudish feelings left. I have also been subjected to lots of invasive medical procedures where several men and women were participating and watching. So, I am used to being naked and exposed. So, I am considering stripping completely, totally, the next time I go through TSA screening. I wonder what they will do to me if I stand there dangling in public; I am curious and I expect the reactions will be amusing. I won't care if I miss my flight or get whisked out to detention somewhere. At my age, I don't have lots to lose that I haven't already lost. Provocateurs serve a public purpose, and I am happy to serve my nation.
I wonder if anyone is actually going to follow through on this. That was just a pseudonymous comment on the New York Times' website, so there's no way to verify it. He'd need to be someone who's disturbed enough by the body scanners to want to protest them (at the risk of violating who-knows-what federal law), but relatively comfortable with people seeing him naked. Is there anyone like that out there? He would need to be motivated by a desire to protect the privacy of those who are much more sensitive than he is.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Out of Context

Some random thoughts (with apologies to Thomas Sowell and The Church of Rationality):

1. I don't understand speed readers unless they're also speed thinkers.

2. People who use the word "perhaps" usually mean: "I'm so right about this that I need to make it sound humble."

3. "Natural" is used as a justification, and "unnatural" is used as a condemnation. But no one applies this consistently.

4. One of the most persistent biases is success. We care more about what causes success than about what causes failure.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does the New York Times edit its financial articles?

This NYT article's first paragraph needs work:

The Federal Reserve upended the expectations of the financial markets Wednesday and shares .
Yes, there's a space before the period. And the sentence doesn't make grammatical sense.

Here's the article's headline:
That's it — just a lone, enigmatic "the."

Economics of Contempt says on Twitter:
Well, this NYT headline certainly wins the award for brevity. Not the most *exciting* headline ever though
How can I trust the content of an article if I can tell no one read it before it was published?

How do they make ink?

This beautifully effective commercial for The Printing Ink Company answers the question (via):

(The music is the second movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto (No. 5) played by Alfred Brendel.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Are holograms the future of "live" music?

A hologram of Hatsune Miku — a fictional character from a computer application — performs in Japan for a crowd of glowingly enthusiastic fans:

She's been giving concerts since last year.

I saw this when P____ posted it to Facebook. P____ says:

I can't see why it won't start happening everywhere. A Lady Gaga hologram could play 100 shows across the country on the same night.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Who proselytizes?

Those who believe less.

So says a paper about 3 psychological experiments called: "When in Doubt, Shout!"

Why would this be the case? Maybe there's a spectrum that explains why people hold their beliefs strongly. On one end of the spectrum, people value truth for its own sake. Their aim is to figure out what's actually true, and believe that. (I'm not saying anyone's motives are so pure; this is a theoretical extreme.)

On the other end of the spectrum, people select their beliefs, as Robin Hanson has explained, "to signal loyalty and ability." Hanson is keeping a list of signs you may be closer to that end of the spectrum. (The original list was just the first 11, but he added more based on feedback in his comments section and the comments in this post by Tyler Cowen.)

I'm not convinced by all Hanson's points. (He wasn't either; he crossed out one of them.) Here's one "sign" I disagree with:

17. You are especially eager to drop names when explaining positions and arguments.
If Hanson dislikes name-dropping, fair enough . . . but I still don't think name-dropping suggests that you're more interested in signaling loyalty than in pursuing truth for its own sake. Maybe you just like giving credit where credit is due. Or maybe you do like to show off your knowledge of specific commentators; this could be to signal, "Look, I cite Howard Zinn, so I fit in with our left-wing milieu," but it could just as well be to signal that you're not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom of that milieu since you mention Thomas Sowell. Conversely, those who want to signal group loyalty through their beliefs might prefer not to attribute those beliefs to specific individuals but to state them as free-standing maxims — things "everyone knows" rather than one person's opinion.

But I do agree with most of Hanson's "signs," especially these:
9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid. . . .

13. You care more about consistency between your beliefs than about belief accuracy.

14. You go easy on sloppy arguments by folks on “your side.” . . .

18. You find it hard to list weak points and counter-arguments on your positions.

19. You feel passionately about a topic, but haven’t sought out much evidence.

20. You are reluctant to not have an opinion on commonly discussed topics.
A commenter on Tyler Cowen's post does the inevitable turning of the tables:
This list is an attempt to signal Robin Hanson's ability to find truth, but ends up being a signal of Robin Hanson's ability to attribute signaling to all human actions, and inability to distinguish between merely not-truth motives, and actively loyal or able motives.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Glenn Loury to John McWhorter: "I hated your guts, John!"

Loury just said that to McWhorter on Bloggingheads — but only in the past tense.

Loury explains why he had such an averse reaction to McWhorter's writings at first. He gradually came to "like" McWhorter, partly because McWhorter gave up his tenure at Berkeley:

Loury describes what it's like to work in academia:

This encrustation. You get stale; you get hidebound; you get obsessively, narrowly, inwardly focused on . . . the 300 people around the world who read the journals that you publish your articles in and do the specialized thing that you do. You get, maybe, soft.
And Loury says that's exactly what McWhorter is not like.

But McWhorter says:
You and I had . . . kind of a chill.
Loury responds sarcastically:
Oh, really? You think so?!
And this gets to the substance of how Loury's view of McWhorter has changed. Just to give you a taste, Loury says (talking about McWhorter's excellent book Losing the Race):
I was in my "changing over to liberal" phase, and you were . . . a suitable object of villification for a person trying to redefine themselves as a liberal. . . . I would have said: "OK, I know what he's talking about . . . . I know that he's not making these stories up . . . . But you can't go out into public, being a black professor, and talk like that about your students. There's something deeply disloyal . . . I give those speeches to my students all the time. But to write it down in a book and let white people read it, John?!"
That's from this clip, where Loury recounts several of their disagreements:

Then McWhorter asks (this is still in the above clip):
What's changed . . . ? I am still in some ways as woefully ignorant as I was when I was a callow 35. So, what's different now?
I like Loury's response, which explains why you can have affection for someone partly based on your discussion of issues, even while strongly disagreeing on those same issues:
I still think . . . you're wrong in your conclusions about welfare. Which is not to say that welfare was the greatest thing for black people, but I don't think the case that you make has been proven by the evidence that you give. [Loury is referring to McWhorter's Winning the Race here.] . . . So, you and I are going to have to agree to disagree about that. What has changed is that there's a person. This is not just about a portfolio of positions, which I either agree or disagree with, and if the index of disagreement is above .7, then I hate. This is about people. Life is interesting. People change. There's a lot of stuff that's going on. You can be educated [by me], or you can educate me. I like you. I like the spirit. I like the guy.
They had already stated their feelings even more strongly, in this diavlog from November 2008:

(That's from this old post of mine, which has the full context of that clip in case you're interested.)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

If Obama is an introvert, how big a problem is that?

John McWhorter — who just last month was still making the case that Obama has done a "good job" as president — says he's finally become "truly unhappy for the first time" with Obama as President:

Here's my own partial transcription of McWhorter's points:

I'm beginning to realize that there really are some serious problems here. . . .

This was something I didn't realize was going to matter as much as it has: he's not really a people person. . . . He hasn't developed the chummy, cordial relationships with key people in Congress that really is part of getting past gridlock. Personal relationships are not everything, but they matter. . . .

He kind of keeps to himself. He is a cerebral person. He is somewhat detached. In that, I've always kind of liked him, probably because I am that. But I'm not President, and never will be. And I think that his personal quality means that he is disliked by people like John Boehner. . . .

And, you know, that can't change. You can't fake being somebody who likes to press the flesh.

Do you also notice that you're hearing that he doesn't like being President, which is one of the saddest things I've ever heard? I mean, who would want that job? Part of the reason you like it is because you like the pressing of flesh and the having some Scotch in the office, talking to Tip O'Neill, etc. That is not him. And if you're not going to like it, that's going to "tell on you" after a while. . . . He's not personally up for the job.
Glenn Loury refers to this Politico article, which gives a list of anecdotes like this:
The president invited Senate chairmen and ranking members over for dinner in March 2009 but came in after they were seated and went back to the residence without shaking hands or visiting each table.

One well-known Democrat summed up the cost of the slights and the seeming indifference to basic political courtesies this way: “These are little things that are not going to affect public perceptions. But it affects the infrastructure of how you put together a campaign. These are the people that you need to raise money, to give money, to organize, to show up, to speak out.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Was health-care reform worth the Democrats' losing the 2010 elections?

William Saletan says yes:

Politicians have tried and failed for decades to enact universal health care. This time, they succeeded. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress, and by the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren't going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it.

And that's not counting financial regulation, economic stimulus, college lending reform, and all the other bills that became law under Pelosi. So spare me the tears and gloating about her so-called failure.
I'm not convinced. First of all, to say that X is "worth" Y implies that Y somehow allowed you to obtain X. It's not clear that losing at the polls last week allowed Democrats to support health-care reform. As this NYT article that Saletan himself links to says:
[E]ven the Democrats who bucked the White House and their party’s leadership by voting against the measure gained little protection. Of the 30 Democrats who opposed the final bill and then stood for re-election, 17 lost anyway.

Indeed, among 49 Democratic incumbents who lost on Tuesday, 32 had voted for the health care law and 17 against it. . . .

Surveys of voters leaving the polls found deep division over the health law. Nearly half of voters — 48 percent — said they thought it should be repealed, while 31 percent said Congress should expand it and 16 percent said it should be left as is.

“When pollsters asked, voters listed health reform among the top issues on their mind, which is no surprise after a long, heated debate,” said Drew E. Altman, president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducts health policy research. “But there is little evidence that it was decisive in the vote.”
And if health-care reform was such a huge factor in the Democrats' losses, wouldn't you expect the one member of Congress who was most closely associated with it — Nancy Pelosi — to have performed worse in 2010 than in 2008? But just the opposite happened.

Saletan also ignores state legislatures, which, of course, had nothing to do with enacting the federal health-care law. Democrats in state legislatures still massively lost at the polls.

I also don't accept Saletan's substantive point — that the health-care law was such a great accomplishment that Democrats should feel fine about losing control of the House and getting closer to 50 than 60 Senators. Saletan flatly states that the Democrats enacted "universal health care." If I believed that, I'd agree with him: this would be good and important enough to be worth losing an election.

But I'm simply not convinced that the actual law (as opposed to Saletan's glowing description of it) is good enough to be worth enacting at all, let alone suffering a huge political loss for enacting. This New Yorker article is the best thing I've read about the health-care law. In a nutshell, the article says:
1. The cost and revenue projections rely on unrealistic assumptions and accounting tricks. If you make some adjustments for these, the cost of the plan is much higher.

2. The so-called “individual mandate” isn’t really a mandate at all. Under the new system, many young and healthy people will still have a strong incentive to go uninsured.

3. Once the reforms are up and running, some employers will have a big incentive to end their group coverage plans and dump their employees onto the taxpayer-subsidized individual plans, greatly adding to their cost.
I'm tempted to copy and paste the whole article here, but I'll just give his argument on point #2:
Consider the so-called “individual mandate.” As a strict matter of law, all non-elderly Americans who earn more than the poverty line will be obliged to obtain some form of health coverage. If they don’t, in 2016 and beyond, they could face a fine of about $700 or 2.5 per cent of their income—whichever is the most. Two issues immediately arise.

Even if the fines are vigorously enforced, many people may choose to pay them and stay uninsured. Consider a healthy single man of thirty-five who earns $35,000 a year. Under the new system, he would have a choice of enrolling in a subsidized plan at an annual cost of $2,700 or paying a fine of $875. It may well make sense for him to pay the fine, take his chances, and report to the local emergency room if he gets really sick. (E.R.s will still be legally obliged to treat all comers.) If this sort of thing happens often, as well it could, the new insurance exchanges will be deprived of exactly the sort of healthy young people they need in order to bring down prices. (Healthy people improve the risk pool.)

If the rules aren’t properly enforced, the problem will be even worse. And that is precisely what is likely to happen. The I.R.S. will have the administrative responsibility of imposing penalties on people who can’t demonstrate that they have coverage, but it won’t have the legal authority to force people to pay the fines. “What happens if you don’t buy insurance and you don’t pay the penalty?” Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s industrious and well-informed blogger, asks. “Well, not much. The law specifically says that no criminal action or liens can be imposed on people who don’t pay the fine.”

So, the individual mandate is a bit of a sham. Generous subsidies will be available for sick people and families with children who really need medical care to buy individual coverage, but healthy single people between the ages of twenty-six and forty, say, will still have a financial incentive to remain outside the system until they get ill, at which point they can sign up for coverage. Consequently, the number of uninsured won’t fall as much as expected, and neither will prices. Without a proper individual mandate, the idea of universality goes out the window, and so does much of the economic reasoning behind the bill.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Has affirmative action hurt Barack Obama?

Mickey Kaus and Robert Wright debate the question:

They agree that affirmative action has probably hurt Obama. They seem to agree about how it affected him early in life, while disagreeing about how his experience as president is problematically different. Wright thinks the problem is that Obama wasn't prepared for all the racism he faces now. Kaus thinks Obama wasn't prepared for the lack of racial bias affecting his presidency. (Actually, it's not clear how much they really disagree; Kaus aptly notes that Wright "snatched disagreement from agreement.")

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why do the "happiest places" have the most suicide?

A study of suicide rates across different countries and US states (PDF) concludes:

[T]he happiest places have the highest suicide rates. . . . [P]eople may find it particularly painful to be unhappy in a happy place, so that the decision to commit suicide is influenced by relative comparisons.
I found the study from this blog post, where the first comment says:
My new mission: Prevent suicides by making the world a more miserable place.

Being a pundit on Election Day

"Election Days are tough. Everyone wants to read at the precise moment when you have nothing to write." — Mickey Kaus (on Twitter)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What people are Googling on Election Day 2010

I recently blogged Sara Robinson's piece in The New Republic in which she argued:

Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for. Sing it with me now: low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families. See? You know the tune, and the harmony line, too.

OK, now: What do Democrats and progressives stand for?

Take your time. It's a tough question.

Give up? So have most progressives. Even the movement's most deeply committed members often have a hard time answering this one.

And that's a problem.
I just checked StatCounter's log of search queries that brought people to this blog. Here are two of them:
what democrats stand for

what do liberals stand for
You might think the same person searched for both of those, since they're phrased so similarly. But no, one of them happened in Texas, the other in Florida.

Both people saw the heading of my blog post — "What do liberals / progressives / Democrats stand for?" — and clicked on the link.

StatCounter recorded both of those referrals today. Election Day.

And that's a problem.

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The case for big government that Obama hasn't made

Peter Beinart lists 3 ways the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies captured "what the American left did wrong in the early Obama years." His last point is

the focus on “sanity.” Talk about condescending. The Tea Party types who believe that expanding government undermines their freedom are not insane. They’re tapping into a deeply-rooted American fear of government power, one that would be immediately recognizable to Calvin Coolidge or Strom Thurmond. And in the process, they’re conjuring, once again, the myth that America was born free, and surrenders a smidgen of liberty every time Washington imposes another tax or establishes another government agency. (The Tea Partiers may not be racists, but it’s hardly surprising that this idealized image of 19th Century America doesn’t impress African-Americans). The Tea Partiers, in other words, are making a serious argument, which the left too often tries to dismiss by calling them nuts. In fact, the haughtiness reflected by such insults conceals the left’s confusion over how to respond ideologically.
Beinart then goes on a tangent about how President Obama has undersold his own policies:
The Obama administration has barely tried to argue that activist government can make people more free—by, for instance, guaranteeing their health care coverage and thus freeing them to leave a dead end job. In America today, as at past moments in our history, there’s a profound debate underway not just about how to right our economy but about the relationship between capitalism and freedom. Pretending it’s not a real debate is a great way for the left to lose.
Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein have made the health-care point well. I'm at least convinced by their criticism of the status quo ante, though this isn't necessarily a good affirmative argument for the new law. As Klein says:
Unable to risk losing their employer-sponsored health insurance, would-be entrepreneurs don’t start small businesses, they stay in jobs that don’t maximize their productivity, they remain in positions that another worker would be better suited to.
OK, so that's a cumbersome run-on sentence. But if you edit it down to something snappier and more eloquent, why wasn't that Obama's #1 argument for health-care reform?

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Monday, November 1, 2010

A new word for the politically ambiguous


As I recently blogged, people tend to go along with the politics of their friends and family. But if you're "countersuggestible," and you notice that most people you know and care about share the same political views, you might wonder if they're all systematically making the same mistake.

That's why I find it more enlightening to read a book like Thomas Sowell's Economic Facts and Fallacies, a brilliant corrective to liberal dogma and talking points, than to read my Facebook feed for cues on what my opinions should be. Not that I don't care about my friends' opinions too, but I've passed the point of diminishing returns when it comes to absorbing liberal opinions since I've been around them for so long. Of course, I'm countersuggestible to Sowell's arguments too . . .

Causation and correlation

Normally I don't link to conversations on Facebook, but Robert Wiblin's Facebook wall is open to the public to see his insightful musings. (If you use Facebook, I recommend friending him.) For instance, he says:

Correlation is not causation, but correlates with it.
My response:
Causation is not correlation, but causes it.
Then, someone asks whether all causation is "statistical." I give a whole book as an answer: Probabilistic Causality by Ellery Eells (1953-2006). As you might have guessed from the title, the author's answer is yes. Eells pointed out (to those of us who took his course on probabilistic causality at the University of Wisconsin - Madison) that, in addition to the ubiquitous refrain that correlation does not prove causation, there's also the less well-known fact that causation does not prove correlation. (For instance, if A causes both B and C, and C prevents B more strongly than A causes B, A won't be correlated with B.) That observation, along with Eells's whole theory, was the inspiration for my response to Wiblin.

Someone else links to this perfect XKCD comic:

Friday, October 29, 2010

What public-service advertising is and isn't considered acceptable in America?

1. NYC's anti-soda ads are considered acceptable.

As that article suggests, the debate behind the scenes boiled down to "fear" ("'I think what people fear is getting fat'") vs. "science" ("'As we get into this exacting science, the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd'"). Guess which value won out?

2. But this German ad promoting condom use would probably not be considered acceptable in America.

The German text in the ad uses a double entendre to explain the visual joke: "Prevents short-sightedness."

I almost want to put a "NSFW" disclaimer because some people might consider the ad too graphic. But that's part of the problem.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Irony as a political statement is no politics at all."

That's what Ana Marie Cox says in a good Bloggingheads discussion with Rich Lowry about Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Keep Fear Alive" — and about protest politics more broadly:

With this post, I'm creating a new tag: "signaling." That word isn't used in the clip, but signaling is what they're talking about. I'm also adding the tag to the post on Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Article Skipper: The New York Times on the first 2 years of Obama’s presidency

P052410PS-0239I’ll bet you saw Peter Baker's NYT article called “The Education of a President” earlier this month and thought to yourself: “Wow, this looks like an important article. I should read this.” But it’s over 8,000 words. You never got around to reading it, did you?

That's why I'm posting this. The article is important — but it's too long. And Baker does the MSM thing of letting his main themes pop up sporadically throughout the piece rather than organizing them clearly. In fact, Baker uses no subheadings at all to guide the reader through his grand narrative.

In this post, I give you the most interesting parts of the article, in a choppy and blunt list format. I haven’t removed all the padding; I’ve tried to leave in just enough padding to give a feel for the much more padded original.

1. The premise and selling point of the article:

For all intents and purposes, the first chapter of Obama’s presidency has ended. On Election Day, the next chapter will begin. . . .

Last month, I made my way through the West Wing talking not only with Obama [for an hour] but also with nearly two dozen of his advisers . . . hoping to understand how the situation looks to them. 

2. Obama admits how he went wrong tactically:
a) He realized too late that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects” when it comes to public works.  
This baffled Ezra Klein, who said:
Over the past two years, the stimulus has funded more than 15,000 transportation projects. In total, it's funded more than 75,000 projects. Those efforts weren't ready for shovels the morning after the bill passed, but it didn't take more than a couple of months to break ground on many of them, and all of them hit within the stimulus's two-year target range.

And even if the president was disappointed by the progress, why is he giving ammunition to the stimulus's critics only weeks before the midterm election?
I assume that Obama knows what he's talking about here and that he wouldn't violate the laws of politics by distorting the truth against his own interests.

More of Obama's admissions:
b) Perhaps he should not have proposed tax breaks as part of his stimulus and instead “let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts” so it could be seen as a bipartisan compromise.

c) Obama acknowledged that the succession of so many costly initiatives, necessary as they may have been, wore on the public. “That accumulation of numbers on the TV screen night in and night out in those first six months I think deeply and legitimately troubled people,” he told me. “They started feeling like: Gosh, here we are tightening our belts, we’re cutting out restaurants, we’re cutting out our gym membership, in some cases we’re not buying new clothes for the kids. And here we’ve got these folks in Washington who just seem to be printing money and spending it like nobody’s business.

“And it reinforced the narrative that the Republicans wanted to promote anyway, which was Obama is not a different kind of Democrat — he’s the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.”

P080410PS-09123. As far as broader strategy, Obama and his staff admit they were blindsided, debunking any defense along the lines of “Everyone in the administration knew all along how hard it was going to be — it was only the media / the Republicans / the public who had unrealistic expectations”:
a) “We’re all a lot more cynical now,” one aide told me. The easy answer is to blame the Republicans, and White House aides do that with exuberance. But they are also looking at their own misjudgments, the hubris that led them to think they really could defy the laws of politics. “It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. “ ‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.” 
b) The biggest miscalculation in the minds of most Obama advisers was the assumption that he could bridge a polarized capital and forge genuinely bipartisan coalitions. While Republican leaders resolved to stand against Obama, his early efforts to woo the opposition also struck many as halfhearted. “If anybody thought the Republicans were just going to roll over, we were just terribly mistaken,” former Senator Tom Daschle, a mentor and an outside adviser to Obama, told me. . . . 
“Perhaps we were naïve,” [David] Axelrod told me. “ . . . I think he believed that in the midst of a crisis you could find partners on the other side of the aisle to help deal with it. I don’t think anyone here expected the degree of partisanship that we confronted.” 
c) From the start, Obama has been surprised by all sorts of challenges that have made it hard for him to govern — not just the big problems that he knew about, like the economy and the wars, but also the myriad little ones that hindered his progress, like one nominee after another brought down by unpaid taxes. Obama trusted his judgment and seemed to have assumed that impressive people in his own party must have a certain basic sense of integrity — and that impressive people in the other party must want to work with him.

4. Obama had a major role in creating the messianic expectations of his presidency:
a) When Obama secured the Democratic nomination in June 2008, he told an admiring crowd that someday “we will be able to look back and tell our children that . . . this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal . . .” 
I read that line to Obama and asked how his high-flying rhetoric sounded in these days of low-flying governance. . . .
If you promise to save the planet, might people think you would, you know, actually save the planet? He laughed, before shifting back to hope and inspiration. “I make no apologies for having set high expectations for myself and for the country, because I think we can meet those expectations,” he said. 
b) [I]t is Obama himself, and not just his supporters, who casts his presidency in grandiose terms. As he pleaded with Democrats for patience at another fund-raiser in Washington two weeks later: “It took time to free the slaves. It took time for women to get the vote. It took time for workers to get the right to organize.” 
c) Obama came to office with enormous faith in his own powers of persuasion. He seemed to believe he could overcome divisions if he just sat down with the world’s most recalcitrant figures . . . . As it turned out, the candidate who said he would be willing to meet in his first year with some of America’s enemies “without precondition” has met with none of them. 

5. Despite all those admissions, Obama and his staff offer plenty of defensive justifications, which aren’t very compelling since any administration could use the same formula filled in with the specific issues of the day. I’ll give a very selective sample, since the article is overflowing with this kind of thing:
a) “[W]e probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right.” 
b) He quoted Mario Cuomo’s line about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. “But the prose and the poetry match up,” he said. “It would be very hard for people to look back and say, You know what, Obama didn’t do what he’s promised. I think they could say, On a bunch of fronts he still has an incomplete. But I keep a checklist of what we committed to doing, and we’ve probably accomplished 70 percent of the things that we talked about during the campaign. And I hope as long as I’m president, I’ve got a chance to work on the other 30 percent.” 
The Washington Post is tracking the status of "Obama's Key Promises." Out of 25 promises, it calls 7 "completed" and 15 "in progress," with the other 3 still on the "to do" list.

Back to the defenses:
c) “Democrats just congenitally tend to see the glass as half empty,” Obama said at a fund-raiser in Greenwich, Conn., last month. “If we get an historic health care bill passed — oh, well, the public option wasn’t there. If you get the financial reform bill passed — then, well, I don’t know about this particular derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that. And, gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace. I thought that was going to happen quicker.”
In short, he dismisses any disappointment with his policies that comes from his own side, as if they should blindly praise all Democratic policies. But how can you take this position while simultaneously presenting yourself as a bipartisan, unifying figure? It you expect Democrats to fall in line with your policies, why wouldn't you expect Republicans to unite in opposing your policies?
d) “The mythology has emerged somehow that we ran this flawless campaign, I never made a mistake, that we were master communicators, everything worked in lock step,” he told me. “And somehow now, as president, things are messy and they don’t always work as planned and people are mad at us. That’s not how I look at stuff, because I remember what the campaign was like. And it was just as messy and just as difficult. And there were all sorts of moments when our supporters lost hope, and it looked like we weren’t going to win. And we’re going through that same period here.”
He’s right that there were huge missteps in his campaign; to suggest otherwise would be flat-out amnesia. (Jeremiah Wright, bitter clinging, weak debate performances, etc.) The more legitimate point would be: while both his presidency and his campaign had their low points, the high points of his campaign haven’t carried over into his presidency. In fact, Obama admits this too:
[B]y his own rendering, the figure of inspiration from 2008 neglected the inspiration after his election. He didn’t stay connected to the people who put him in office in the first place.
e) White House aides wonder aloud whether it is even possible for a modern president to succeed, no matter how many bills he signs. Everything seems to conspire against the idea: an implacable opposition with little if any real interest in collaboration, a news media saturated with triviality and conflict, a culture that demands solutions yesterday . . .

6. Most illogical defensive argument:
In this environment, [White House aides] have increasingly concluded, it may be that every modern president is going to be, at best, average.

7. People who refreshingly cut through the defensive justifications:
a) The first refuge of any politician in trouble is that it’s a communication problem, not a policy problem. If only I explained what I was doing better, the people would be more supportive. . . . Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, laughed at the ever-ready assumption that all problems stem from poor communication. “I haven’t been at a policy-problem meeting in 20 months,” he noted.
b) “He’s no Bill Clinton when it comes to having the ability to move and to wiggle,” says Joe Gaylord, a top Gingrich adviser. “I find rigidity in Obama that comes from his life in liberalism.” 
c) White House officials largely agree they should not have let the health care process drag out while waiting for Republican support that would never come. “It’s not what people felt they sent Barack Obama to Washington to do, to be legislator in chief,” a top adviser told me. “It lent itself to the perception that he wasn’t doing anything on the economy.”
d) [Ed Rendell, Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania, advises Obama to] stop moaning about what he inherited: “After the election, I’d say no more pointing back, no more blaming the Bush administration. . . . [T]o do it as much as we do it, it sounds like a broken record. And after two years, you own it.”
By the way, the comments from Obama and other staffers in the article are almost entirely defensive, not making an affirmative case for their accomplishments.

8. Baker heard “eerie” parallels between Obama and the last two presidents:
Obama says the easy issues never make it to him, only the hard ones; Bush often said the same thing. Obama says our war with terrorists will never end in a surrender ceremony; Bush often said the same thing. Obama says he does not want to kick problems down the road; Bush often said the same thing. In the days leading up to the 1994 midterm elections, Clinton mocked Republicans for promising to balance the budget while cutting taxes, saying, “They’re not serious.” In our conversation, Obama used some variation of the phrase “they’re not serious” four times in referring to Republican budget plans.

. . . Like Clinton, he digs into the intellectual underpinnings of a policy decision, studying briefing books and seeking a range of opinions. Some aides express frustration that he can leave decisions unresolved for too long. But like Bush, once he has made a decision, Obama rarely revisits it. 

P092710PS-01699. Insights into Obama’s personality:
a) “He’s still never gotten comfortable here,” a top White House official told me. He has little patience for what Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, calls “the inevitable theatrics of Washington.”
But in politics, theater matters, whether it should or not, a lesson Obama keeps relearning, however grudgingly. His decision to redecorate the Oval Office was criticized as an unnecessary luxury in a time of austerity, no matter that it was paid for by private funds. On the campaign trail, he thought it was silly to wear a flag pin, as if that were a measure of his patriotism, until his refusal to wear a flag pin generated distracting criticism and one day he showed up wearing one. Likewise, he thought it was enough to pray in private while living in the White House, and then a poll showed that most Americans weren’t sure he’s Christian; sure enough, a few weeks later, he attended services at St. John’s Church across from Lafayette Square, photographers in tow. 
b) Obama comes across as an introvert, someone who finds extended contact with groups of people outside his immediate circle to be draining. He can rouse a stadium of 80,000 people, but that audience is an impersonal monolith; smaller group settings can be harder for him. Aides have learned that it can be good if he has a few moments after a big East Room event so he can gather his energy again. Unlike Clinton, who never met a rope line he did not want to work, Obama does not relish glad-handing. That’s what he has Vice President Joe Biden for. When Obama addressed the Business Roundtable this year, he left after his speech without much meet-and-greet, leaving his aides frustrated that he had done himself more harm than good. He is not much for chitchat. When he and I sat down, he started our session matter-of-factly: “All right,” he said, “fire away.” 
c) By all accounts, Obama copes with his political troubles with equanimity. “Zen” is the word commonly used in the West Wing. That’s not to say he never loses his temper. He has been known to snap at aides when he feels overscheduled. He cuts off advisers who spout information straight from briefing papers with a testy “I’ve already read that.”

P072210PS-009710. Obama’s public persona is vague:
As an author, Obama appreciates the rhythms of a tumultuous story. But who is the protagonist, really? At bottom, this president is still a mystery to many Americans. During the campaign, he sold himself — or the idea of himself — more than any particular policy, and voters filled in the lines as they chose. He was, as he said at the time, the ultimate Rorschach test.

Now the lines are being filled in further . . .
Are they? That last sentence seems like something you’d write half-heartedly, either because it sounds good or to transition to another thought. Does Baker really believe the general public has increasingly come to understand Obama’s personality, when he also writes in the present tense that “this president is still a mystery to many Americans”?

11. Ideas for how the Obama administration could have a good next 2 years:
a) [W]ould he jeopardize re-election absent an immediate crisis? The choice may confront him soon after the midterms when his bipartisan fiscal commission reports back by Dec. 1 with plans to tame the national deficit with a politically volatile menu of unpalatable options, like scaling back Medicare and Social Security while raising taxes.
b) Obama also anticipates putting immigration reform, another divisive issue fraught with political danger, back on the table. “If the question is, Over the next two years do I take a pass on tough stuff,” he told me, “the answer is no.”
c) “You’ll hear more about exports and less about public spending,” a senior White House official said. “You’ll hear more about initiative and private sector and less about the Department of Energy. You’ll hear more about government as a financier and less about government as a hirer.”
d) As a senior adviser put it, “There’s going to be very little incentive for big things over the next two years unless there’s some sort of crisis.”

12. White House officials' predictions about 2012:
[They believe] the Tea Party will re-elect Barack Obama by pulling the Republican nominee to the right. They doubt Sarah Palin will run and figure Mitt Romney cannot get the Republican nomination because he enacted his own health care program in Massachusetts. If they had to guess today, some in the White House say that Obama will find himself running against Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.

13. Historical pattern to watch:
The last four presidents who failed to win a second term were all challenged in their own party. Lyndon Johnson was driven out of the race in 1968 after nearly losing the New Hampshire primary to Eugene McCarthy. Gerald Ford fended off Reagan in 1976 but went on to lose the general election to Carter, who likewise had to beat a primary challenger four years later, Ted Kennedy, before falling to Reagan. And George H. W. Bush had to overcome Patrick Buchanan before losing to Clinton in 1992.

14. Most bleak depiction of Obama’s staff:
[T]his is an administration that feels shellshocked. Many officials worry, they say, that the best days of the Obama presidency are behind them. They talk about whether it is time to move on.

15. Baker's most opinionated statement:
As he told a group of visitors during the week last spring that Congress passed health care and his administration reached agreement on an arms-control treaty with Russia, “I start slow, but I finish strong.”
He will have to, if the history he is writing is to turn out the way he prefers.


(Photos from Obama's Flickr site.)

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Does wearing pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month do any good?

Robin Hanson says:

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s lots of pink on display this month, especially in things that aren’t usually pink. The pink reflects a campaign to “raise awareness about breast cancer”, and I’ve been pondering what about it bugs me the most. . . .

I think I’m . . . bothered by the campaign being less about doing something and more about “awareness”, which translates mostly into social pressure to get other folks to show pink, buying pink products, wearing pink clothes, etc. Much of the money donated goes not to tests or research but to paying celebrities to make more publicity.

Now this social pressure couldn’t really work if it weren’t pretty widely known that showing pink is associated with the breast cancer, which seems at odds with the claim that there is a lack of awareness of breast cancer. Even more at odds is the fact that pink campaigns rarely offer concrete arguments that theirs is an especially worthy cause; it is just assumed that listeners pretty much agree. Really, what fraction of folks don’t know breasts can get cancer, tests might detect it, and academics research it? . . .

[A]nti-breast-cancer is framed as being pro-women. Thus one can insinuate that folks who resist social pressures to support the campaign are anti-women. Since folks fear seeming anti-women much more than seeming anti-health, a breast-cancer campaign can tap into far more social pressure than can an exercise or sleep campaign.

Think pink gets much of its energy by offering a way for folks to be indirectly political; one can seem pro-women, and insinuate that others are anti-women, while only ever explicitly talking about health and medicine. AIDS awareness gets a similar political punch; one can talk only health, yet insinuate that others are anti-gay. Much of medicine is not about health, but about showing that you care, in this case caring about the right political groups.
One good argument for breast cancer awareness would be that breast cancer used to be stigmatized. I'd agree that erasing this stigma is important. But have we not reached the point where the stigma has been successfully erased?

A commenter on Hanson's post notes the irony that the more beneficial an awareness campaign would be, the less likely it is to happen:
There are diseases that are not well known where wider knowledge could significantly improve the lives of those who suffer from it (such as Coeliac). However, because most people are ignorant of them and thus would require a larger time commitment in explaining them, they have little signaling value.
Another commenter says pink culture is actively harmful:
Someone who had breast cancer told me she hates it because it served as a ubiquitous reminder of her illness. Even after she was better, everything from tyres to water bottles made it impossible for her to move on. This seems like a significant cost to sufferers.
This is similar to the critique given by Barbara Ehrenreich, who devotes the whole first chapter of her book Bright-Sided to analyzing pink culture. She argues:
[T]here is a problem when positive thinking "fails" and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place. At this point, the exhortation to think positively is "an additional burden to an already devastated patient," as oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written. (42)
Ehrenreich gives her first-hand experience:
I, at least, was saved from this additional burden by my persistent anger—which would have been even stronger if I had suspected, as I do now, that my cancer was iatrogenic, that is, caused by the medical profession . . . .

Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or more spiritual. (43-44)
What I'd like to know is why certain kinds of cancer seem to be privileged over others. How do the people with less glorified kinds of cancer feel? Maybe they'll turn down a hospital blanket, saying, "'No, not for me . . . . That's for the other people.'"

Monday, October 25, 2010

Since people stopped sending personal letters . . .

. . . everything I get in the mail either says, "Dear John, give us money," "Dear John, thank you for your money," "Dear John, we might give you money," or "Dear John, we're not going to give you money."

"Rich Mom, Poor Mom" article in New York Times glosses over economic reality.

Nancy Folbre, a University of Massachusetts economics professor, writes in the New York Times:

The Mama Grizzlies running for office this fall oppose increased government spending, including programs that could help parents balance paid employment with family work.

Perhaps increased economic inequality in the United States means that individuals running for office don’t have a very clear understanding of the problems facing people in different circumstances than their own. In particular, they don’t fully appreciate the difficulties many mothers face holding down difficult jobs while caring for young children.

You might assume that highly paid women suffer a bigger economic penalty than other women when they have a baby because, after all, they have more earnings to lose.

In a startling new look at the “motherhood penalty,” however, two sociologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Michelle J. Budig and Melissa J. Hodges, show that mothers with lower earnings suffer the biggest percentage loss in hourly wages.
Folbre criticizes other people for lacking a full understanding of what it's really like to be a mother.

What I quoted is a small portion of the whole article. If you click the link and read the whole thing, do you notice what Folbre never mentions?

Hint: It's a hugely important factor in how much money a person actually has, which is not the same as how much money a person earns.

As comment #4 on the article says, the article never mentions "husbands" or "fathers" or "spouses" or "families."

As Thomas Sowell says in Economic Facts and Fallacies (discussing a different issue, the gap in pay between men and women):
In principle, family responsibilities can be divided equally between husband and wife, father and mother. In practice, that has not been the norm in most places and in most periods of history. Since economic consequences follow from practices, rather than principles, the asymmetrical division of domestic responsibilities produces male-female differences in incomes . . . . Moreover, statistical records of money payments can be misleading as to economic realities. Family income is pooled income, and how it is spent, for whose benefit, does not depend on whose name is on the paycheck or paychecks, or whether one paycheck is larger than the other.
Everyone depends on other people in life. No one is just a lone individual. Your money isn't necessarily equal to the money you receive from the paycheck at your job.

All of this applies to mothers at least as much as it applies to everyone else in the world.

Are we simply not supposed to mention these basic facts? Maybe some people find them distasteful for some reason, and would rather leave them unsaid. Fine . . . but then, they shouldn't criticize other people for selectively ignoring economic realities.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Burma ("Myanmar") is changing its flag, name, and anthem . . .

. . . two weeks before the national election (via Robert Wiblin's public Facebook page):

The country's new name is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, instead of the Union of Myanmar. . . .

The new flag has a horizontal band of light green at the top, dark green in the center and red at the bottom, with a white star in the middle. There has been no official explanation as to what the colors or the star represent.

Nor has there been any explanation as to why the changes, which include a new state seal, were being made.

"We were caught by surprise when we got the order at short notice. There was also an order that the old flags must be burned," said one official who declined to be identified. . . .

"It must have been instructed by astrologers," he said.

Myanmar's secretive military rulers, who will retain ultimate power no matter who wins the November 7 parliamentary election, are widely believed to consult astrologers. . . .

One, who declined to be identified, said the change was akin to putting old wine in new bottles: "The label has changed but what is really needed is a change of the wine."
XKCD looks at what a capitalist society would be like if astrology and other "crazy phenomena" actually worked.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

3 ways to deal with loneliness

I'm reading the book An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin (published in the UK in 1994), which describes how people throughout history and all over the world have tackled problems that he claims are common to people in all times and places.

Each of the 25 chapters is on a different one of these problems. There's a chapter on how people have dealt with — or, in his preferred metaphor, immunized themselves against — loneliness. He takes this problem extremely seriously:

The fear of loneliness has been like a ball and chain restraining ambition, as much of an obstacle to a full life as persecution, discrimination or poverty. Until the chain is broken, freedom, for many, will remain a nightmare. . . .

Feminists were the latest group to be thwarted by it. Simone de Beauvoir's idea that work would be a protection, a better one than the family, proved mistaken. Even she, who claimed 'I am sufficient to myself', found she needed someone who could 'make me pleased with myself'; even she was 'made stupid by falling in love'; even she felt lonely when Sartre, in his last years, was no longer himself. All movements for freedom come to a halt at the wall of loneliness. . . .

Fifty-nine per cent of those who say they feel lonely are women, and 41 per cent men, but it is impossible to be sure what reticence conceals . . . (60)
There may be a reporting bias here, if women are generally encouraged to be open about their feelings more than men.

Zeldin corrects a misconception about the history of loneliness:
The story we are usually told is this: in the beginning everybody lived cosily in a family or tribe, people did not originally even know what loneliness was, never conceiving of themselves as separate individuals. Then suddenly, quite recently, togetherness crumbled. . . .

But it is not true that loneliness is a modern ailment. The Hindus in one of their oldest myths say that the world was created because the Original Being was lonely. Even when all humanity was religious, there were sufferers from loneliness, as the prophet Job, in the fourth century BC, testified . . . :

'My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me. They that dwell in mine house . . . count me for a stranger: I am an alien in their sight. . . . ' (60-61)
So how have people fought loneliness? Here are 3 of the 4 ways, according to Zeldin:

You can become a "hermit":
They were men and women who felt out of place in the world, who did not like its greed, cruelty, and compromises, or who believed they were misunderstood; as one of them, Narcissus, Bishop of Jerusalem, said in the year 212, 'Weary of the world's slanders against him, he retired to the wilderness.' Instead of feeling alienated in society, they left it to become professional aliens, aiming deliberately to be 'strangers' or 'exiles' . . . . The reward they sought was internal peace. Some subjected themselves to painful mortifications, almost starving, or tying themselves up with heavy chains, or living in graves, in order to have spiritual illuminations; some became deranged; but the famous ones were those who triumphed and emerged with a sense of having discovered the realities that mattered; and they radiated an internal peace which was immensely impressive: admirers flocked to get their blessing. (61)
There's another bias: success bias. We glorify whoever is most spectacularly successful but don't usually look at how most people who follow their path turn out.

2. In contrast, you can stay a part of society but cultivate your individuality:
The Romantics claimed that each individual combines human attributes in a unique way, and that one should aim at expressing one's uniqueness in one's manner of living, just like an artist expressing himself in his creative act. . . . 'The truly spiritual man feels something higher than sympathy' [the quote is from August Wilhelm Schlegel]: he feels the individuality of other people, and he considers that individuality sacred, not because of how important or powerful its possessor is, but because it is individuality. Such opinions expanded the dreams of the Renaissance by demanding that one should like a person because he is different. (66)
3. You can pursue and associate yourself with some "truth" out of a sense that you're part of larger network of truths:
The final form of immunisation has been achieved by thinking that the world is not just a vast, frightening wilderness, that some kind of order is discernible in it, and that the individual, however insignificant, contains echoes of that coherence. People who believe in some supernatural power have their loneliness mitigated by the sense that, despite all the misfortunes that overwhelm them, there is some minute divine spark inside them . . . . Much of what is called progress has been the result of solitary individuals saved from feeling totally alone, even when persecuted, by the conviction that they have grasped a truth, a fragment of a much wider one too large to capture. (68-69)
That could explain why people write nonfiction books.
But getting beyond loneliness in this way does not eliminate all forms of loneliness, any more than one vaccination will protect against all forms of disease. (69)
He says none of these are surefire ways to fight loneliness. You still need other people "for clear thoughts and for knowing where one wants to go; only knowledge of humanity's previous experience can save on from suffering disillusionment." (70)

He concludes:
Having won the right to be alone, to be an exception to generalisations (which can be even more dangerous to freedom than generals), having freed oneself from the generalisation that humans are condemned to suffer from loneliness, one can stand it on its head: turn being alone upside down and it becomes adventure.

(Video via + via.)

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