Friday, October 31, 2008

The misreading of Academic Bullshitting

Economics, which developed contemporaneously with American Democracy, is framed in the same philosophy. The discourse is oriented toward property, labor, and rights. To avoid serious ethical complexities, utilitarianism is used. The objective of argument is to show that liberalism and market non-interference will produce a stable and prosperous society. This same liberal culture became the basis for democracy. Economics, in this sense, is merely an aspect of the argument for democracy. The plenty that the new world offered gave a long delay to the serious testing of the free market thesis. Such a politically motivated origin for the basic ideas of economics ought cast serious doubt on the "truthiness" of the profession.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Problem with "Bias"

A naive but well-intentioned lad seeking to root out bias in the media might base his argument, as others have done, on a right/left dichotomy. He may focus on the distribution of positive and negative coverage, or he may look at numbers that show the political self-identification of journalists. He may also take a methodology that assumes there are "two sides" to every story and categorize coverage of specific issues as "one sided" and therefore needing a perspective adjustment. All of these methods fail at the conceptual stage and should not have been employed, because each begins with a tacit and indefensible assumption that bias can be identified merely through comparison to other bias. Unfortunately they are employed, and this makes me sad.

Suppose one were to use this method to evaluate the bias in the statement that 2+2 = 4. One would begin by attributing "2+2 = 4" to a mathematicial perspective and "2+2 = 5" to an alternative perspective. One would then conclude that our discourse surrounding addition is biased toward - or by - mathematicians. This is possible with any statement using any pair of perspectives. The method gives no insight to the truth or veracity of the claims in question.

When applied to a political issue we are left with the same type of conclusion. The problem is that bias is a term that implies two conditions. The first is that a biased perspective is some source of information that conflicts with other information available. The second condition is that a biased perspective is in some way methodologically flawed. Our argument from the previous paragraph, and the arguments encountered in the media tend to just look at the first question. There is no discussion of methodology. Therefore there can be no claim that the "biased perspective" is in fact not the best or most useful information available.

To further illustrate, suppose a detective investigates a murder. There are three suspects. His investigation initially finds evidence against each of the suspects. However, he concludes, from a careful examination of all of the evidence, and through further investigation, that only one of these three suspects is guilty of the crime. It would be misleading in this case to present an untrained opinion that conflicts with that of the detective as "evidence" of bias by the detective. The accusation of bias implies that there was a problem with the methodology used in the investigation, but no evidence of that has been presented.

The buzz of speculation that there is bias in the media is therefore completely without merit. Similar accusations that the academic world is liberal and that scientists are anti-religious fail on the same ground. The debate about policies and world events should focus on the methodologies. Once he has considered these methodologies objectively, it will be clear to the investigator that liberals are mostly right. The truth itself, and the best and most effective policies are not things that can be described as biased. Academic methods, long scorned in public policy, will have to take the fore in the coming years because the situation for humanity will soon be dire.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle Primary

Measure 65 is an odd duck. It is championed by a smattering of left and right organizations. It is opposed by every political party. The measure eliminates the "party only" primary system in Oregon and replaces it with one where everyone can vote for one candidate, regardless of party affiliation, and that the two with the most votes go on to the ballot in the fall. This is not the only option for open primaries, nor is it what is usually called an open primary. That's why I'm calling it a Jungle primary. In truth, it is not appropriate as a stand alone measure, even though that is what it is.

There are actually a long list of better options than this Jungle Primary. It may be a step in the right direction, but it will no doubt give rise to some serious abuses, just as the system that currently exists does. I've read enough about voting systems, which are a mathematical topic in political science, to know that there are a few relevant theorems. I'm going to highlight two of them that I'll be using in my argument.

The first theorem is that there are no voting systems that are completely fair. This means that no matter how the laws are written, no matter what procedures are used, there will always be ways to abuse the system and that it is possible (although it can be unlikely) for a less popular candidate to win while a more popular candidate is excluded or has his vote split. I don't take this as a dogma. There is a proof, and the proof makes use of definitions that can be disputed. The proof also deals only in theoretical situations, so it may very well be that a voting system is practically quite fair because the political climate doesn't present it with any challenges.

The second theorem is that it is possible for each voter to rank the candidates. By evaluating different aspects of what the candidates think, the voters can each come up with a list of candidates in order of support. This is important because voting systems that involve voters submitting such lists are generally seen as more fair. This "theorem" is not really provable because it requires a theory of the mind, which is not a matter of pure logic. Still, I think it makes sense just as much as democracy in general does, since both ask people to make a choice from among a pool of possibilities. In the case of making a list, we could assume it is populated by a repeated process of "pick, then exclude" so that the same "pick the best" process can be used over and over. From a programming standpoint, I don't like that because it is inefficient. Certainly the mind must make some kind of binary comparisons in the first place. If we are to pick someone as the best we are going to put the list of candidates more or less in order in the mental process of determining best. Nevertheless, the ranked list is a great tool for democracy and strikes me as a natural way to vote, just as much as picking one person is.

What goals should a good voting system in Oregon have?

First, we have to acknowledge that the date of our primary, and the existence of a primary, will have to meet the standards used by the national committees for the major parties or we will risk penalties or losing our delegations. That deals with the national races, but because creating more separate voting dates destroys voter turn out, the number of primaries should be limited to one.

Secondly, the system should strive to eliminate the "Nader Effect". By Nader effect I don't mean consumer safety standards. I mean the phenomenon where a third party candidate siphons votes from the candidate that they are closer to politically. I could also call this the "Perot Effect", or the "1860 Election Effect" or some other things because this is probably the single most common failure of our voting system (though there may be larger problems with the political system). The "Nader Effect" is a type of crippling gridlock that has left America spiraling down a slow path of corruption ever since the constitution itself was inked. If you think about it, every time a single party gets an overwhelming majority, that party begins to splinter. Right now there is a huge democratic shift. No doubt within the next 20 years, there will be a serious split election that brings a Republican into power. This Republican will either do well and swing the balance back to where it was, negating the potential for change in the political climate, or fail, paving the way for more serious corruption to manifest within the Democrats.

Third, the system should create a stronger association between candidates and their track record and parties and their history. What I mean by this is that the voting system should not allow voters to focus so much on promises and platforms because these generally do not contain much in the way of concrete policy suggestions. For example, in some parliamentary systems, one coalition is responsible for most of what happens during a given time period. At the voting booth, people select the party they are backing and use the recent track record of the party as their guide. I believe that voting systems can have an effect on the political discourse and that the system in the United States is generally one that promotes a rather lackluster debate.

Fourth, the rankings that voters mentally make should be honored by the results. If 18% of voters like candidate A, 23% like candidate B, 27% like candidate C, and 32% like candidate D, it is presumptive to assume that candidate D is the "choice of the people". The people may be 78% united in the view that candidate D is a douchebag, and that candidate A is awesome, B is bueno, and C is cool. As noted above, there is no easy way to determine how to settle this but one approach is to make a series of pairwise comparisons. In a race of n candidates, there are n! possible orderings. Start with C vs D. If more voters ranked C higher than D, we can say that C is preferred to D; D would be eliminated and now C would be compared to B, then the remaining of those two is compared to A. If the voters have ranked the candidates, it is possible to do this instantly. Ireland has such an Instant Runoff. For me, that system is "good enough".

Also note that the American party system is a bit silly. In effect it creates little, segmented pockets of various viewpoints that a candidate must be filtered through before reaching the general election. These pockets don't allow truly centrist candidates through and they also give a lot of weight and power to special interests which usually become embedded into the party structure. If we view the party as a private organization, we could adopt the attitude that the party is simply a freely formed organization of individuals who want to pick a candidate from amongst themselves. The candidate in turn pledges to represent their interests. There is no obvious reason why such a system should be regulated at all by the public. The problem arises not from this stage of association but from the way the system evolves. As soon as the elections start to happen, those parties begin to consolidate power within their own structures. Incumbents gain huge advantages in our system. Within the parties, structures emerge to filter which candidates reach the top. These structures are entry barriers created with or without government help, to block outsiders and generally people with vision from being able to rise to political office. This allows the parties to get away with promoting candidates that do more for the party and less for the public. Regulating the parties themselves tends to disassociate the parties from the candidates and thus the history of the party and candidate becomes less important, creating an illusion that the candidate is not a party insider. The voters then focus on talking points and platforms rather than results, so regulating parties seems to more or less imply that democracy will be watered down. It is probably better to regulate the election and leave party formation and association a matter of private control.

Instead of a "Jungle" primary or a "Party Only" primary, Oregon could have a system where parties themselves pick their candidates with little government interference. Candidates are on their own to appeal to a party, or start their own. Candidates can't run independently because registration numbers determine who appears on the ballot: something like 0.5% is fair. In the general election, the voters would do a ranking of the candidates for each office, and a trusty fleet of PS3s could do the Instant Runoff tabulation.

After careful reflection, I want to say that what I initially said about Measure 65 may be wrong. We have a culture that vilifies political parties but in my opinion they are essential. Democracy cannot exist without them. The measure takes power away from these parties and that only means that this power is going to be in the hands of incumbent politicians and the now consolidated media.

Measure 65 may also exacerbate the "Nader effect". There could be four or more candidates on a primary ballot that get 10% or more of the vote, creating many more scenarios for eliminating more popular candidates in favor of less popular ones. Just as with the history of Presidential elections, the system created could be crushing to Oregon Democrats precisely because they are more popular. In order to prevent splits, the parties will be required to consolidate their own power. They will need to prevent rivals within the party from ever seeing the light of day, mercilessly squelching dissent.

So, hmm, maybe measure 65 isn't a good idea. It certainly isn't a meaningful election reform.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Oregon Ballot Measure Hoedown

Not all that glitters is gold. Sometimes, what glitters is merely glitter.

OBM 54 / HJR 4 - YEA

  • Fixes some discrepancies in School Board voting eligibility, bringing the age requirement from 21 to 18. Trivial.

OBM 55 / HJR 31 - YEA

  • Makes various small changes to how redistricting works. Trivial and filled with random junk.
OBM 56 / HJR 15 - YEA

  • Removes a requirement that was put in place in 1996 by ballot measure 47. The requirement was a mandate that if less than 51% voted (for or against) a measure, and that measure increased property taxes, it was automatically struck down. This is clearly warranted because there's nothing special about tax increases relative to any other ballot measure change. It follows that a uniform procedure be used.
OBM 57 / SB 1087 - YEA

  • Creates minimum sentences for certain drug and property crimes. This is unwarranted. Drug use and property crime can't be effectively addressed in this way. Virtually all methodologically sound scholarly work suggests the ineffectiveness of minimum sentencing. Judges also lose discretion to reduce sentences for mitigating circumstances. On the other hand, the prison industry will be booming. I talked to some coworkers about this one and I guess both it and 61 are slated to pass this year. The one with the most votes will become law. I'm left with the grim task of saying "vote for this" just so that 61 doesn't go into effect.
  • Increases funding for drug treatment programs. Despite the gloriousness that is drug treatment programs, such glitter isn't enough to make the measure worth voting for as a whole. Darn, if we only had line-item balloting.
OBM 58 / IRR 19 - YEA

  • Establishes limitations to ESL instruction for kids who do not speak english. This is a complex matter. Much research suggests that kids will learn more quickly in an immersion environment. The problem is that while they learn English, they don't learn the subject matters that are taught to them in English. This measure would also bring Oregon out of Federal Standards, costing the state some federal education funding. I'm personally inclined to support the measure because I actually believe that ESL is more or less a failure and a bloated waste. The groups that oppose the measure are connected to the teacher unions and motivated to protect a few ESL teachers that would lose their jobs or programs. I have a hard time believing that the problems that immigrants face in coming to America, and in rasing children in a foreign culture like ours, can be addressed by educational methods. It is also probably true that underperformance by these kids shouldn't be viewed as alarming or something that needs to be fixed considering their background and lack of guidance or support.
OBM 59 - NAY

  • Removes federal deduction cap from state income tax liability. Currently, federal tax liability is subtracted from income for state tax assessment purposes, but the cap is $5,500. Therefore this measure allows "complete" deduction of federal tax paid. My opposition to this measure is mostly because I believe in balanced budgets and this would drive the budget further out of balance. To be honest, there is no philosophic reason why there should be any deduction at all. I'd rather there wasn't. Removing the cap would only benefit people who make more than $89,000 a year, and that means shifting the tax burden to the poor. That's antithetical to the way I play.
OBM 60 - NAY

  • Makes teacher pay based on "classroom performance", not seniority. Classroom performance is going to mean giving kids with angry parents that A+ that they obviously deserved. Naturally since it is possible for all teachers to do badly, no raises would be given. Seniority isn't as bad as people think, and at least it mandates certain levels of pay.
  • Least qualified teachers will be laid off first. This will mandate excessive, irrelevant education.
  • Shall be known as the Kids First Act. Hurray!
  • Limits future contracts (teacher hires) but preserves existing ones. Essentially this means that any benefits of this will be long delayed.
OBM 61 - NAY

  • Mandates minimum sentences for a long list of nonviolent crimes. This is just a much worse version of 57. The problem is that there are limited prison beds. All that is going to happen is musical chairs. I'd rather slap nonviolent criminals on the wrist and throw the book at the violent ones to ensure that we have and keep a safe society.
OBM 62 - NAY

  • Sends 15% of lottery profits to a public safety fund. This is a redirection of funds from other uses, such as education. It isn't a good fix for public safety because none of the money goes to hiring more judges and increasing court services, which are the bottleneck in the whole system currently.
OBM 63 - YEA

  • Allows limited improvements to existing structures without a building permit. The truth here is in the small print. Since this will cost the government revenue, it means that building permits are being used as a source of revenue. That's crazy and unfair. Allowing limited improvements without a permit is just one step toward making a betting housing policy in the USA.
OBM 64 / IRR 25 - NAY

  • Stops unions and other "public" organizations from participating in politics. This is just an orwellian screw-job. Unions are inherently political organizations and they exist because businesses tend to screw their workers over. We can better all workers by supporting unions and working toward workers' rights, or we can worsen ourselves and all workers through jealous bickering over the scraps of justice others have earned.
OBM 65 - Nay

  • Creates an open, "jungle" primary where the top two candidates advance. Please see the next post, it deals specifically with this issue. I've actually changed my mind on this one.

There you have it: my feelings. Enjoy.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Veep debate full of Dumbth

The veep debate was an epic fail for both candidates.

To be fair, Palin actually exceeded people's expectations of her. However, that can be chalked up to two factors. First, that the bar was set so low for her that all she needed to do was show up sober, which she apparently did. Second, the format wasn't extended long enough on any single issue for her lack of wisdom to become clear.

Biden didn't orate like I thought he would. I had heard various excerpts of him speaking before but he didn't live up to the fiery energy that I anticipated from him. He held his composure together, and was certainly less of a blatant liar than Palin. Still, the result was less clear than I had hoped beforehand.

That's all the overview I'm going to give. Now I'm going to move on a sort of play-by-play featuring some key statements that show the dumb. I'll pair them with my own take on the issue.

The first question is about the economy. Biden answers first.

If you need any more proof positive of how bad the economic theories have been, this excessive deregulation, the failure to oversee what was going on, letting Wall Street run wild, I don't think you needed any more evidence than what you see now.

"You want more proof? Too bad, you got all the proof you need."

I see this as a classic "oh shit" moment where Biden obviously couldn't think up anything to say to drive his point home. This is sad because he could have said any number of things like:

  • "If tax cuts were all it took to save the economy, we wouldn't be having any economic problems right now."
  • "The problem is that both McCain and Bush have surrounded themselves with economists that specialize in selling bad policies as if they were good. We've had banking crises in the past: The S&L crisis of the '80s, the Tech bubble of 2000 and 2001, and now the housing crisis which has been steadily getting worse for years now. In each case, it has been the same dishonest theories that have been used to sell policies that get a few people rich at the expense of everybody else."
  • "If you look at the average American's budget, you'll see that the biggest chunk is going to be fixed payments. These are payments on loans, credit cards, medical bills, rent. Bush and McCain are trying to distract you, saying they'll cut taxes, but at the same time they're going to raise the price you pay for everything else. How many people would go bankrupt if the interest rate on their loan went up 1%? If they have surgery and get stuck with a $10,000 bill? If rental prices went up by $100 a month, how many more people would be out on the street?"

Palin's initial response to the economy question was pretty damn good. It featured masterful imagery. Pretty much the only people that wouldn't like it are people who have already made their mind up for Obama.

Then she says this:

John McCain, in referring to the fundamental of our economy being strong, he was talking to and he was talking about the American workforce. And the American workforce is the greatest in this world, with the ingenuity and the work ethic that is just entrenched in our workforce. That's a positive. That's encouragement. And that's what John McCain meant.

So, McCain spewed a bunch of weak B.S. in his debate against Obama about the American Workforce being strong. Palin saw fit to repeat it in patriotic fashion. If I was her, I would have probably wanted to spin this a bit differently. Her word choice, at least, could probably be better. For me, the phrase just entrenched conjures up that lazy guy who always argues during meetings. She finishes by saying, essentially, that McCain's economic strategy hinges on positive thinking.

Next we have that wonderful straight talk express dodging the deregulation question with Orwellian doublespeak:

I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.
Palin then transforms the deregulation question into a brag about her tax cutting record as mayor of a tiny-ass town in Alaska. Very impressive. She ends by saying "Look at campaign finance reform", which not only has nothing to do with the question OR what she had been talking about but was also pretty much itself an abject failure.

The debate moves on to talk about McCain's sneaky proposal to tax employer healthcare plans, which would most certainly take away much of the incentive for employers to have healthcare plans. Palin is asked to defend this policy and she tells a lie about the $5000 tax credit for healthcare being budget neutral. She makes some wierd statement about going across state lines. She doesn't really answer the question.

Biden's response is rather degenerate:

Gwen, I don't know where to start. We don't call a redistribution in my neighborhood Scranton, Claymont, Wilmington, the places I grew up, to give the fair to say that not giving Exxon Mobil another $4 billion tax cut this year as John calls for and giving it to middle class people to be able to pay to get their kids to college, we don't call that redistribution. We call that fairness number one.
I realized after reading the above statement that he was referring to Palin's comments on Barack pursuing a "backwards way to grow the economy". Somehow, in the brain o' Biden, this became "redistribution". In reality, Government does redistribute wealth, but so does the free market. Neither is inherently more fair, since at the theoretical level a Democratic government is just as beautiful and elegant as an unfettered market. This point, being too subtle for the audience, was transformed into an unintelligible string of buzzwords.

Now the debate (OH MY GOD ITS SO LONG) goes through bankruptcy laws, climate change, carbon caps / clean coal (why does Palin seem to get easier questions?), and Gay Rights. Ifill says that the two candidates agree on Gay Rights, but of course they don't because Palin would not do anything to address the lack of rights for gays in the status quo, while Biden would pursue everything short of redefining marriage.

This brings us to the wonderful Iraq debate. There's talk about how great the surge has worked. Here we have Biden in a tight spot because he doesn't want to sound like he's disagreeing with Petraeus. Chances are that Petraeus is mouthpiecing and puppeting for Bush but that's not the kind of thing Biden can come out and say.

Biden comes back strong by painting the scene as one where Bush has acquiesced to the very timetable that he nominally opposed. McCain becomes the odd one out. I'm impressed by the sophistication and skill of the argument. Naturally it is disheartening when he later comments that:

...If an attack comes in the homeland, it's going to come as our security services have said, it is going to come from al Qaeda planning in the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan. That's where they live. That's where they are. That's where it will come from. And right now that resides in Pakistan, a stable government needs to be established.
The mixture of highbrow and lowbrow appeals is rather dissonant.

Palin responds well by using the convenient statements of Petraeus and makes a good point about Nuclear Iran. Once again, she just can't seem to stop herself and continues on to the "meeting with foreign leaders" debate. This debate is, to me, a really dumb one. It deserves its own place in infamy because the candidates just can't seem to understand what the other is saying. Even though this is probably a side effect of the decisions that were made by campaign staff on how to spin the issue, it often takes conscious effort to recall the actual point of contention. Biden pounces on the issue because there really are a fair number of people (me included) who fear that McCain will start World War III and failed diplomacy fits into the equation nicely. Palin wants to make Barack look weak or suggest that he will make concessions that might allow rogue states to become greater threats. They are living in different worlds.

The discussion moves on to Darfur. I'm not really very happy with either side's response. This was really a chance to talk a bit and use time to sound like an expert since the topic is a bit less well known than Iraq. Biden may have assumed that we know more than we actually do.

The next question is about how the VP would differ from the Pres if the Pres died. I heard excellent responses from both candidates. Biden steps up to paint McCain as a third Bush term and Palin responds in a unique way:

Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future.
This is a great example of how to lose a debate. She even goes on to tout No Child Left Behind, which is a high profile and problematic Bush policy. This is not the way to appeal to independents, and I suspect that it may alienate the base as well. Palin also makes a comment about Biden's wife getting her reward in heaven, but I think she was referring to his living wife and not his dead one.

The next point is about the powers of the Vice President. Palin once again raises some eyebrows when she claims she would be "independent". She even cites a precedent set by Cheney, which is sort of silly since Cheney isn't a judge or a court case. So, here we go, Biden smacks her down with a good rebuttal and clear description of what the constitution says. Personally I think he should have driven home some impacts about abuse of power, loss of civil liberties, culture of corruption, etc.

Palin goes on to describe how hard it is raising a family and being a woman. She says that she has been without healthcare. Somebody should fact-check that. Biden comes through on this point as well, demonstrating that he has suffered much harder times than her. His theme of "more of the same" really starts to hit home at this point.

The last question is a tricky one. It asks the candidates to say something that they have changed their mind on. For some reason, this fails to be a powerful rhetorical point, like it should be. The candidates both think up some rather small issue. The strategy in Biden's case seems to be to mention the supreme court because many people are anxious about McCain's judicial nominees. I'm scared to death about the future of the supreme court, since most environmental protections are held in place by shoestrings. Palin mentions wanting to cut taxes and spending even more. She definitely comes across as an extremist and to me it looks like she would collapse the government itself if she were President, but I suppose there are still a lot of people out there who just don't know what's going on. Here we had the chance for a truly heartfelt story that shows the growth and development of experience and judgement, a chance for the audience to grow closer to the candidates and in my view both blew it.

The closing statements are not noteworthy.