Archive for April, 2009

Stunningly Bad Health Science Reporting

April 30th, 2009 Comments off

Jane Brody reaffirms my astonishment at how bad science reporters are at their jobs. In the NYT Personal Health section, she tells us:

The study found that, other things being equal, the men and women who consumed the most red and processed meat were likely to die sooner

Which would be a very interesting finding if the very study (and data) she’s citing didn’t demonstrate exactly the opposite–at least for women. Sandy Szwarc explains:

Among the total deaths among the women, the actual annual death rate was 1.19% among women with the lowest red meat intake. This compared to 0.8% among women with the highest red meat intakes. So, the more meat the women purportedly ate, the lower their risks for premature death and of dying from cancers.

The study uses an abstruse “hazard risk” statistical modeling technique that effectively reverses this basic arithmetic fact (a fact that is not revealed in the study). I went to the study and confirmed Sandy’s arithmetic, btw. See her post for a full explanation of the statistical legerdemain.

Hat tip to Matthew.

Humans are Pathologically Nuts: Proof Positive

April 28th, 2009 3 comments

I’ve often commented that if human beings are the (or a) result, it wasn’t a very intelligent designer.

The most telling demonstration I’ve seen recently is a series of experiments conducted between 1959 and 1962, reported in wonderfully readable form in Morton Davis’s Game Theory: A Nontechnical Introduction. I recommend this book not only for its fascinating and wide-ranging coverage of a field that spans many disciplines, but for its lucid and engaging prose—and for the fact that it’s available in a ridiculously inexpensive Dover edition.

In these experiments pairs of people were pitted against each other in a series of games, starting with classic prisoners-dilemma setups. (Players can cooperate with each other or “defect.” The rewards vary based on a player’s choice and the other player’s choice. Generally you win more if you defect and the other player cooperates. But if you both defect, you both lose bigtime.)

One important aspect of these experiments: each pair played the same game against each other fifty times in a row. So they could learn about the other and the game, and adapt their strategies accordingly.

Not surprisingly, pairs had trouble getting to cooperate/cooperate solutions, because the temptation was always there to defect and snag the big win at the other’s expense.

What was surprising–and what demonstrates humans’ profound irrationality–was the results in games that had no dilemma–where an obvious, win-win cooperative solution was lying there on the table for both to see, and where either player did worse by defecting, no matter what the other player did.

Here’s an example:


This matrix shows the results if each player cooperates or doesn’t. If they both cooperate, they get 4 each. If one defects, he gets 3 instead of 4, and the other gets 1. If they both defect, the both get zero. Both players understood this matrix. And they played “against” each other fifty times.

The results? In Davis’s words,

In game 7 the players cooperated 53 percent of the time, but in the last 15 trials they failed to cooperate more than half the time. [Davis’s italics.]

As Davis says, in this type of scenario “it was absurd to play uncooperatively.” But “even in the last game the outcome was very close to what you would expect if the players picked their strategies by tossing a coin. Moreover, as the game progressed the tendency to cooperate became weaker rather than stronger.

What are you gonna do with people?

You can read this whole section of Davis’s book in Google Books here.

True Conservative Values, and Torture

April 25th, 2009 Comments off

In my earlier post I didn’t give Jim Manzi sufficient credit.

He argues that a systematic government policy of torture (as distinguished from the torturous acts that Americans have engaged in over the centuries) is 1. a radical break with American tradition, and 2. because of 1, is quite possibly (I would say definitely) damaging to American strategic interests.

Here’s the money quote, which I endorse wholeheartedly:

I am looking to tradition, settled practice and the wisdom of our forebears for guidance in a difficult situation. Among other things, this strikes me as the obviously conservative approach.

“The Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.”

April 25th, 2009 Comments off

“The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

—Major General Antonio Taguba, USA (Ret.)

Read the Report.

Politicians Should Resist Equality and Prosperity!

April 24th, 2009 2 comments

Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano give us what strikes me as the most boneheaded argument I’ve read in a very long time (hat tip Mark Thoma):

The thirty years after the Second World War were the period of the “Great Compression” – a sharp reduction in income inequality (Piketty and Saez 2003). A few months ago, just before the crisis, we were back to roughly to the level of the 1920s, which was the norm in previous decades, not to mention the level of inequality and of social immobility of pre-capitalist societies. But the perception that this increase in inequality was unfair will greatly weigh on the way it will be handled and the political backlash it will create.

What they seem to be saying:

• The Great Compression [which, btw, coincided with The Great Prosperity] was a historical anomaly.

• The inequality of the 1920s, the 2000s, and the feudal period is the typical [hence natural? hence proper?] state of things.

• We should strive to achieve and maintain that feudal state.

See what I mean?

Looking at this as a technical problem rather than a morality play, two comments:

1. In prosperous countries, greater income equality has a small positive correlation with faster growth and greater prosperity. Greater wealth equality has a very strong correlation with faster growth and greater prosperity.

This is especially true over the long term–which is what matters, and what actually means something statistically.

Correlation between wealth equality (Luxembourg Wealth Study) and growth in GDP per capita over 35 years is .67. It’s damned rare to see a correlation that profound in the social sciences.

2. Combining local, state, and federal taxes, U.S. taxation is in fact not progressive–like, at all.

Given those facts, it’s not at all clear why “Politicians should resist such populist measures.”

The Strategic Value of Torture

April 23rd, 2009 Comments off

Jim Manzi discusses torture here. I find the discussion uncomfortably cold-blooded, but it has the accompanying virtue of clear-headedness and cutting to the crux (unlike those from his compatriot Johah Goldberg at The Corner). The important (extra-moral) question is not torture’s tactical value, but whether it achieves America’s strategic goals.

That’s a damned good question–it’s actually the question that BushCo didn’t get, and it’s the question that Obama has put front and center in his rethinking of America’s foreign policy (diplomacy, military, trade, the whole ball of wax).

What Manzi doesn’t consider in this piece is the crucial question that accompanies his: what are America’s strategic goals, and how are they effected by the Bush torture regime? In particular, how are those goals affected over the decades as our children come of age and take their places in the world?

Here are some possible strategic goals (again reluctantly putting aside for the moment the fundamental moral repugnancy of torture):

  • To prevent foreign terrorist acts against Americans–on American soil and/or abroad.
  • To protect the American homeland from military invasion.
  • To reduce armed conflict worldwide.
  • To increase American power and influence over other countries–the ability to convince our friends and coerce our enemies (and vice versa).
  • To increase access to American trading parters abroad.
  • To make it safe for Americans to travel the world or live abroad.

On the last item, the BushCo crowd and their most vocal love-it-don’t-ever-leave-it supporters don’t really like the idea of travelling abroad. (Do you think Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and company are planning any world tours?)  They don’t seem to understand why anyone would want to.

Personally, I put that item quite high on the list–not only for its inherent goodness (I want my girls to have that international mobility in their lives–to be welcomed far and wide [think: Jackie Kennedy]), but because it’s a bellwether for all the other goals.

So, judging by that single goal for a moment: If torture results in killing or capturing a few dozen terrorists, how does that weigh against millions or hundreds of millions who come to hate us (or like us a hell of a lot less) as a result?

That question is aptly applied to the other strategic goals as well. I’m encouraged to see that the Obama administration seems to be doing exactly that, and that pundits who have previously ignored or dismissed the issue (i.e. “soft power” pooh-poohing) are now actually considering it.

More Popular than Republicans: China, Venezuela, and Legalized Marijuana

April 22nd, 2009 Comments off

Best Line of the Week

April 22nd, 2009 Comments off

Why To Have Kids

April 22nd, 2009 1 comment

Bryan Caplan posts part of the preface from a book he’s writing (which I’m much looking forward to reading), titled Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

My thoughts on the subject:

Genetic inclinations toward having children aside (as Daniel Dennett explains quite clearly in Freedom Evolves, we’re at at totally different level of “design” here, where conscious intention is fundamentally–though not functionally–disconnected from the genes’ “intentions”), the reason to have kids is to maximize utility!

“Happiness” is a reasonably good proxy for utility. (Though I prefer “joy,” myself.) And it’s been studied a lot. Consistently, the thing that makes people happiest (by self-report) is being surrounded by loved ones.

I have no evidence for this, but I assume that involves both 1. loving and 2. being loved.

On 1: We’re genetically programmed to adore the little beasts. To quote (and second) my friend Robin, “I just couldn’t believe how much I loved them.”

On 2: In my experience there are a very limited number of situations in which somebody, on one’s arriving home, jumps up and down, races around madly, leaps into your arms, and screams with glee. Perhaps this is a common experience for others, but for me it was quite unusual, and had extraordinarily high utility!

Yes, this particular behavior fades with age (one hopes…), but it gets replaced by mellower but still wonderfully warm and rewarding interactions that for most people are not thick on the ground–including (thank god! finally!) those of the mental and intellectual variety.

This Time Mankiw’s Just Plain Lying. And He Knows It.

April 22nd, 2009 Comments off

He shares this with us today:

Federal outlays and revenues as a percentage of GDP

What he doesn’t say, but knows very well: the “baseline” is Bush-era shucking and jiving–hiding hundreds of billions of dollars off the budget.

The Obama budget that’s being compared includes everything in full daylight–even though Obama knew that Mankiw et. al. would game the debate just this way.

Mankiw–head of the CEA under Bush–knows how a budget is gamed as well as anyone in the world. (See his quite magisterial article on Dynamic Scoring [pdf] for one example.) And he knows one that’s been gamed when he sees is.

But here he is, blinking his eyes innocently while presenting information–of course sans comment, as is his wont–that he and everyone else, even the CBO that created it, knows is utterly misrepresentative.

He doesn’t comment because if he started talking about it, he’d have to explain that as presented, it’s a lie.

The CBO/Bush baseline, which is pretty much “the law as it stands today”:

1. Includes projected income from the Alternative Minimum Tax that is never collected because congress patches the AMT every year (because it needs patching because it’s broken). Bush pretended this wasn’t true.

2. Does not include the hundreds of billions in “supplemental” and “emergency” appropriations for little things like Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism. Bush pretended those weren’t budget items–hiding them “off balance sheet” just like the banks do. Obama includes these in his budget. (Though his budget reflects Iraq and Afghanistant costs phasing out after 2010–perhaps overly optimistic.)

3. Assumes the Bush tax cuts are going to expire. Hey that’s what the law says, right? This is the exact budget-PR time-bomb that BushCo intentionally planted. And Mankiw is quite intentionally–and disingenuously–using it.

For far more detail on this, see the CBO director’s own blog, and the Tax Policy Center.

Mankiw knows all this. He knows it very, very well. He knows that unlike Mankiw’s former boss, Obama is putting a real budget on the table, comparing these apples to those apples. (Which Mankiw’s little graph does not do.)

But he doesn’t say any of those things that he knows. Does that constitute “lying?” Does it contribute positively to the public debate, or does it just obscure reality in an effort to perpetuate what is essentially a faith-based economic belief system?

You decide.