Monday, October 31, 2005

An interesting article on FDR's paralysis by Christopher Clausen in the Wilson Quarterly. Although it is universally believed that FDR went to great lengths to hide his inability to move without a wheelchair - I was taught this in school by my history teachers - it is false. Americans were fully informed about every detail of FDR's illness. The myth seems to have arisen because of our inability to believe that a cripple could have been elected President in the 1930s (it certainly could not happen in the television age).

Sunday, October 30, 2005

This post over at Marginal Revolution is a particularly egregious demonstration of the pitfalls that bedevil most public commentary by economists.

It has recently become known that Wal-Mart is considering strategies to avoid hiring unhealthy people. Commenting on this, Alex Tabarrok writes:

For a company like Wal-Mart, which pays many of its workers modest wages but does offer a reasonable health insurance plan, this is an invitation to adverse selection. As the value of the wage component of the Wal-Mart benefit package has declined relative to the value of the health insurance component Wal-Mart has attracted more workers who want the job for the health benefits, i.e. sicker workers...Wal-Mart will probably be pilloried for this sort of thinking but you can hardly blame them when the workers are engaging in almost the identical actions in reverse.

What I find apalling about this passage (and the entire post) is that no actual evidence is brought for the proposition that Wal-Mart's workers are doing the same thing in reverse. This claim is stated as fact, but really only reflects a set of prejudices on Tabarrok's part.

These prejudices are: that people are rational; that they make informed decisions based on all available information; and that they accurately plan for the future in making decisions today. In short, Tabarrok makes a series of assumptions and then states the consequences of these assumptions as fact.

But the assumptions themselves are clearly, provably, false. Many experiments have been done showing that that people are not rational; that they tend to ignore much available information (quick, do you know the fine print in the contracts you signed with your credit card companies?); and that people tend to discount the future relative to the present when making decisions.

This is not to say that assuming rationality is always bad; though false, it may yield results that are good approximations to real life. But this needs to be demonstrated here, with real data, rather than just assumed.

Marginal Revolution has often argued that economics is a science. But no self-respecting scientist would ever present claims founded on untested approximations as fact.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy heroically tries to engage the arguments of a same-sex marriage opponent. Personally, I find that taking on these arguments is a complete waste of time since they are offered in obvious bad faith. Opponents of same sex marriage talk a lot about family and procreation, but offer solutions which are aimed entirely exclusively at behavior the bible frowns upon. Obviously, they have a not-so-hidden agenda. They love to say that marriage is about procreation (which I suspect will come as a surprise to most of the people getting married today), but they make no effort to prevent infertile couples or asexuals from getting married. Nor do they seek to forbid marriage among couples who do not plan on raising children.

It is sometimes tempting to respond to gay marriage opponents because their arguments are so obviously ridiculous - anyone who maintains that marriage is about procreation must not have seen a romantic comedy at the movies for 40 or 50 years. While I am glad that someone is trying to make these people see the error of their ways, I think its safe to say by now that the matter is settled on an intellectual level: there simply aren't any intellectually respectable arguments for the anti-gay marriage policies pursued by conservatives today.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Tyler Cowen, wondering about the future of game theory, considers the following possibility:

5. The real world is in fact indeterminate or close to indeterminate. The indeterminacy and multiple equilibria of game theory are not a problem, but rather reflect how closely the theory mirrors reality. Yes you might prefer sharp, clear predictions, but tough tiddlywinks, you're not going to get them. Faithfulness to reality is more important than fulfilling abstract methodological strictures.

What does this mean for game theory? the case of #5 [we can] declare victory and go home.

So let's see. Cowen considers a scenario where game theory is useless for predicting the world and decides that in this case game theorists can "declare victory," on the grounds that they are attempting the impossible. I must say, his definition of "victory" sounds a lot like my definition of "defeat."

More broadly, it seems like game theory has so far failed to give any useful predictions. Or rather, it has given us lots and lots of predictions, but no a priori way of separating the useful from the useless. Virtually any outcome observed in the real world can be explained by game theoretic models.

To understand whether the real world is determinate or not, and to get concrete predictions out of complicated models for human behaviour, it makes sense to study nonlinear dynamics, not game theory. Once questions in nonlinear dynamics are completely understood, complicated or probabilistic models for human behavior will not present a problem.

I'll add another one to Cowen's possibilities.

6. All attempts to write down realistic models of human behaviour yield equations which are too difficult to solve or solving them involves undecidable or NP-Complete problems.

I hope game theoriests won't be declaring victory in this case.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon of CSIS write in today's LA Times:

Iraqi and coalition forces tracked down and killed Abu Azzam, the second-most-wanted Al Qaeda leader in Iraq. This guy is a brutal killer. He was one of Zarqawi's top lieutenants. He was reported to be the top operational commander of Al Qaeda in Baghdad."

Those who heard President Bush make this claim in the Rose Garden on Wednesday could be forgiven for feeling that they were suffering from a case of déjà vu.

It was just over two months ago that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers announced the capture of Abu Abd Aziz, whom he described as Abu Musab Zarqawi's "main leader in Baghdad."

In May, Amar Zubaydi, a Zarqawi lieutenant responsible for an assault on Abu Ghraib prison and a series of car bombings in Baghdad, was arrested. In January, Abu Umar Kurdi, who was said to be the architect of three-quarters of the car bombings in Baghdad, was captured.

A very quick LexisNexis search shows that at least a dozen top Zarqawi lieutenants have been apprehended or killed since early last year...
This is precisely the kind of work reporters should be doing: cutting throught the bullshit and spin put forth by the interested parties and delivering informed perspectives on the events. Unfortunately, reporters tend to either swallow this spin wholesale, or they tend to be too lazy to do some actual reporting and find this out.

Monday, October 03, 2005

David Frum writes that the new nominee to the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers, told him that President Bush was the most brilliant person she had ever met.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

I don't know whether my feelings are typical of other liberals, but I was deeply annoyed by this piece of hackwork over at the American Prospect blog. If you are not familir with this whole spate, it can be summarized as follows: Bill Bennett (a notable conservative) made some comments on abortion and African-Americans, which were criticized by some on the left, but also defended by some on the left. I'll get to Bennet's statement below, but at the TAPPED blog, Garance Franke-Ruta, expressing dismay that some liberals would defend Bennett, writes,

Bill Bennett yesterday offered left bloggers a golden opportunity to make political hay, and what do we have? The spectacle of them explaining his remarks away in order to prove ... what exactly? That they, too, studied Latin and philosophy?...Brad DeLong, however, sees this as a great opportunity to defend Bennett for "attempting a reductio ad absurdum argument." I mean, what is the point of this other than to prove his own cleverness?... the more time I spend on the blogs, the less I know what liberalism still stands for...
The point of this, of course, is to react to the intellectual content of Bennett's statement, rather than using it as fodder to score some cheap political points. It's clear that according to Franke-Ruta, what must take precedence is the political game, where liberals can use Bennett's comments to gain a small advantage; what is far less important is actually trying to figure out whether Bennett is right or wrong.

I'll comment on Bennett's comments next and I'll point out why Franke-Ruta's attempts to "make political hay" are so obviously wrong. But it's worth noting why Franke-Ruta is wrong: because being right is less important to her than being a pawn up in the political game.

Here is what Bennett said, courtesy of Media Matters:

CALLER: I noticed the national media, you know, they talk a lot about the loss of revenue, or the inability of the government to fund Social Security, and I was curious, and I've read articles in recent months here, that the abortions that have happened since Roe v. Wade, the lost revenue from the people who have been aborted in the last 30-something years, could fund Social Security as we know it today. And the media just doesn't -- never touches this at all.

BENNETT: Assuming they're all productive citizens?

CALLER: Assuming that they are. Even if only a portion of them were, it would be an enormous amount of revenue.

BENNETT: Maybe, maybe, but we don't know what the costs would be, too. I think as -- abortion disproportionately occur among single women? No.

CALLER: I don't know the exact statistics, but quite a bit are, yeah.

BENNETT: All right, well, I mean, I just don't know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don't know. I mean, it cuts both -- you know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up. Well --

CALLER: Well, I don't think that statistic is accurate.

BENNETT: Well, I don't think it is either, I don't think it is either, because first of all, there is just too much that you don't know. But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.

Of course, Bennett is not advocating aborting all black babies. Responding to a caller who argues against abortion based on the effect it has on social security, Bennet points out that such inferences are tricky, and the data on crime rates could be made into a case for abortion. Brad Delong puts it well when he writes,

Bennett did not "concede" that "aborting all African-American babies 'would be... morally reprehensible.'" That was his point. His caller said: "Abortion is bad because it has worsened the financing of Social Security." Bennett says: "Stay focused. We're anti-abortion not because we think that abortion is a means that leads to bad ends like a higher Social Security deficit; we're anti-abortion because abortion is bad; make arguments like 'abortion is bad because it increases the Social Security deficit' and other people will make arguments like 'abortion is good because it lowers the crime rate' and we'll lose sight of the main point."
All this, however, is lost on Garance Franke-Ruta:

One could equally well argue, since we are in the realm of science fiction, that such an occurence would wreak psychological, cultural, and economic devastation on America's cities, with God only knows what impact on crime. Every major city would start to look like Detroit, depopulated and run-down where it had formerly been vibrant. Elementary schools would be the first to close, then high schools, then colleges. Tax bases would be wiped out. Whole swathes of the workforce would disappear, simultaneously depriving people of needed jobs and cities of employees to run necessary services. Who knows what would happen in such an environment -- it is really both unknowable and unthinkable.

Anyone who thinks they know what would happen is making assumptions. Implicit in Bennett's statement is the assumption that African Americans contribute only criminality to America...

Of course, nothing of the sort is "implicit" is Bennett's argument. And Franke-Rutta is quite right that her scenario is "science fiction." Bennett's counterexample however is a straight extrapolation from the data. Bennett brings it up because his caller makes a straightforward extrapolation from the data (an incorrect one, I think, but whatever).

What annoys me most about conservatives in the public discourse today is their inability (unwillingness?) to understand complex statements. The difference between support for the Iraqi insurgency and opposition to American actions in Iraq, for example, is beyond their understanding (see for example these two posts). Its a shame that TAPPED is starting to take a page from their book. Such deliberate misunderstandings demonstrate little more besides an inability to think straight.