Saturday, July 31, 2010

Oxford's English Dictionary for the Win

Scary article in the WSJ about internet tracking technology, this snippit helped me justify why Oxord's English Dictionary Online should be your only source for word issues:

"The top venue for such technology, the Journal found, was IAC/InterActive Corp.'s A visit to the online dictionary site resulted in 234 files or programs being downloaded onto the Journal's test computer, 223 of which were from companies that track Web users."

The joys of web searching in the 21st century.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Purplish United States

Jonathan Chait
links to a comment Hendrik Hertzberg makes on his blog at the New Yorker. The issue is over the electoral college and its implications on domination of the two-party system. Mr. Hertzberg takes the view, which I agree with mostly, that the electoral college system guarantees two party domination because people are forced to make the decision about which person has the most likely chance of winning in their state. Since there can be only one winner, people have an incentive to pick the candidate who will most likely win, which happens to be amongst the two major parties. I think his comments on the ability for people to dominate regionally, even with the electoral college, deserves attention:

So that argument is merely untrue. A second argument—that N.P.V. would empower regional candidates—goes further: it is the exact opposite of the truth. Do I really need to explain why awarding a hundred per cent of a state’s electors to the plurality winner in that state favors candidates whose appeal is regional as opposed to national? “The George Wallaces of the world, which right now have basically no impact on national elections, would have a much larger voice,” she argues. No impact? In 1968, Wallace, whose appeal was regional, got 13.5 per cent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes. In 1992, Ross Perot, whose appeal was national, got 18.9 per cent of the popular vote and zero electoral votes.

This sort of regional appeal issue harkens back to some reading I've been doing in a book by Morris Fiorina called,
Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America . The main thrust of the book is the notion the US is a nation embroiled in a war between 50% conservatives and 50% liberals is media hype. Instead, the nation exists on a continuum, with most people straddling the moderate category. The best example of this is his use of the often viewed electoral college map of the 2004 presidential contest:

This graph reinforces the notion that we are a starkly divided country, with the southern united states being the gun-toting, freedom-loving conservatives pit against the northeastern/western free-love, big-government liberals. However, this is misinformation, if one were to look at the percentage of blue/red individuals within states the picture becomes quite different:

If you'll notice the stark red/blue divide goes away, and instead much of the country turns purple. In other words, the red-south, blue-northeast/west coast divisions are hype. In looking at these, I agree with Mr. Hertzberg's claim that the electoral college actually makes regionalization easier on the voting level, but I also think perception has a factor in it, as well. There is a famous bias discovered by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman known as the
availability heuristic . This heuristic basically says that the most widely available information colors an individuals perception. For example, I have a friend that smokes cigarettes and yet can run miles a day, therefore I am prone to think that cigarettes impacts running less than what is actually scientifically true. The stark blue/red electoral college maps are an example of this. It is a a very nice and easy map for the media to use to portray the stark differences in the country. Nothing gets more ratings then talking about the fights that go on in american politics. Saying something along the lines of, "The US is a pretty moderate country with mixed views throughout," is less likely to get ratings then saying, "A battle is being waged between blue and red factions for the heart of the country." This sort of reporting would seem to enhance the regionalization created by the electoral college. Not only does it give electoral rewards, via electoral college votes, for those people that focus on winning the south, but it also sends a covert message to the voter that this area is more conservative/liberal, therefore it is my interest to vote/not vote because I am a blue person living in a sea of red, or vice versa This is all just speculating, but I would like to see if there's been any experiments using these two different maps as primers to see if it influences people's opinions of certain region's views.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Christmas Card-Gate

Politico informs us that, if God decides to abandon the United States and allows for the Republicans to retake control of the House of Representatives come November, then Michelle Bauchmann (and her new Tea Party caucus) will follow through with what the American people want: investigations!

If Republicans take the House in November, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota says that “all we should do is issue subpoenas and have one hearing after another.”
Speaking at the GOP Youth Convention on Thursday in Washington, she said she hopes to "expose all the nonsense that is going on.”
Although I was but a wee lad during the Clinton Administration, I have been absolutely fascinated by the bizarre and un-relenting conservative outrages, often courtesy of the newly-invented Drudge Report, that quickly became full-scale Republican investigations.  There was Whitewater, Cattle-gate, and Travel office-gate among many others.  But by far the most fascinating "Gate" of the Clinton Administration was Christmas-Card Gate. Courtesy of the Straits Times (no-link):

President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton could face charges of "theft of government property" for transferring a White House database to the Democratic National Committee to help raise election funds, according to a government report.
Allegations that the Clintons had authorised the list's transfer have long swirled.
But the report by the investigative sub-committee of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee could be the first step in their substantiation. 
The database, put together with taxpayers' money, is reserved for official White House use.
It includes records of people who attend social events and meetings as well as the Christmas card list
Another example of the liberal War on Christmas?  Perhaps.  But more interesting are the investigations instigators, Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Indina), and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who can provide us some insight into the future allegations of wrong-doing in the Obama White House--especially if we consider the electoral viability (or lack thereof) of Mr. Gingrich.

McIntosh (courtesy of The Guardian, no-link):

Republicans insist that the political use of public assets is illegal, and are to subpoena Ms Scott to face questioning by the House committee on government reform. Already there are two other congressional inquiries and one justice department probe into the fund-raising scandal, which is now dwarfing the old Whitewater affair as a threat to the Clinton administration - and to Mr Gore's hopes of succession.
"I think it is very serious for Mrs Clinton," said Republican congressman David McIntosh, a former aide to Ronald Reagan and his vice-president, Dan Quayle, who is chairing the probe into the database affair. "It troubles me deeply that Mrs Clinton, a very bright lawyer, saw no problem with using taxpayer funds to aid the political operations of the DNC."

The Republicans are hoping, almost desperately, that the latest fuss over Vice -President Al Gore and Mrs Clinton will reach a critical mass of public outrage. So far, mainly because the public seems to see the affair as politics-as-usual, there has been no dent in Mr Clinton's poll ratings, which are still close to 60 per cent approval.
"This has clearly become the most systematic effort to get around the law that we have seen since Watergate," said the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. "The total effort is, in fact, much bigger than Watergate and far more insidious."
All this is to say: I am not looking forward to the 112th Congress.



Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Present-Oriented versus Long-Term Benefits

While reading this Salon article about whether cheaper doctors provided worse care this passage stuck out to me:

In addition, a doctor's ability to build a large client base—and gain leverage for negotiating with insurers—might have little to do with patient outcomes. Studies have shown that patients' hospital preferences are more responsive to improvements in amenities like wireless Internet and on-demand video than the likelihood that the hospital will help them get well.

This is not all too surprising. When using cost-benefit analysis, individuals rely upon certain heuristics, or short-cuts for complicated decisions. One of the most often discussed is a present-oriented bias. Individuals often give greater weight to current benefits, over long-term benefits when making decisions. This TED talk by Esther Duflo makes this point.

In this talk Prof. Duflo discusses an experiment her team did with vaccinations. In this experiment they had two groups. Both groups were offered free camps for people to get their children immunized. Group 1 was given the option of going to these camps. While Group 2 was given an incentive, in this case, a kilogram of lentils. Group 2 had much higher immunization rates. This was a striking finding because if rational cost-benefit decision-making holds true that would imply, the benefits of immunization against the costs of getting a disease, or B(immunization) vs. C(Getting Disease), should be less than the benefits of immunization plus the benefits of free lentils, or B(immunization + lentils) > B(Immunization).

But, in her talk, she comments on how a kilogram of lentils is an inconsequential incentive, it is only enough food for barely a day. So therefore, once again assuming rational cost-benefit decision-making, B(lentils) > C(Getting disease), which if you think about it should not seem true. The long-term costs of getting a disease can include, among other things, high medical bills, time away from work, death etc. What the talk shows is how present-oriented benefits, a la free lentils, can play into the hands of peoples' present oriented bias. From that sort of discussion, it is not surprising to find out people care more about whether or not they have a nice television or a good wifi connection versus a good doctor, because the benefits of a good doctor accrue over time whereas the inability to surf the web are something that individuals accrue at the time of stay in the hospital. This strikes a blow into attempting to do cost-control at the consumer level, which unfortunately, is what a lot, not all, that the PPACA (health care reform) relies upon. It means there needs to be much more effort at getting providers to pare down the cost, not consumers.

**I am a big proponent of the health care legislation, though I feel, like many, it is a necessary but not sufficient step in changing our health care delivery and price system.

Our Warming Planet

Just thought this graph was a nice concise image of the current upward trend in global temperatures. Via wonk room, these last 12 months have been the hottest in history:

Then again, to channel CNN and give equal sides to this debate, Dome C in Antartica is set to have average highs of around -80 degrees fahrenheit in the next week. So I guess we can't say for sure...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Brooksian Economics versus Actual Economics

Ah, another week, another David Brooks attempt to condense a complicated issue into a story about the social forces dominating American economic life. On his plate today, Mr. Brooks uses the fear of deficits to attack any increased stimulus:

The theorists have high I.Q.’s but don’t seem to know much psychology. Lord Keynes, though a lesser mathematician, wrote that the state of confidence “is a matter to which practical men pay the closest and most anxious attention.” These days, debt-fueled government spending doesn’t increase confidence. It destroys it. Only 6 percent of Americans believe the last stimulus created jobs, according to a New York Times/CBS News survey. Consumers are recovering from a debt-fueled bubble and have a moral aversion to more debt.

Though I do appreciate his acknowledgement of Keynes foray into behaviorism, an often overlooked aspect of his theory, he seems to miss the boat here. Via Ben Somberg:

A Pew Research / National Journal poll from early June asked "Which of the following national economic issues worries you most?" Number one was "job situation" with 41%. "Federal budget deficit" got 23%.
An NBC / Wall Street Journal poll from early May asked "Please tell me which one of these items you think should be the top priority for the federal government." Sure enough, "job creation and economic growth" won with 35%. "The deficit and government spending" got 20%.
A Fox News poll also in early May got even more dramatic results. "Economy and jobs" topped the priority list with 47%, while "deficit, spending" garnered only 15%.
A CBS / NYT poll in early April found 27% prioritizing "jobs", 27% the "economy" and 5% prioritizing "budget deficit/national debt."
In the USA Today / Gallup poll from late May . . . participants were asked "How serious a threat to the future well-being of the United States do you consider each of the following." For "federal government debt", 40% said extremely serious, 39% very serious, and 15% somewhat serious. For "unemployment", 33% said extremely serious, 50% said very serious, and 15% said somewhat serious.

You know what American's don't like, having to compete with 5 other applicants for every job they are applying for, while also being underwater on their mortgages. Even if there exists some anxiety over the amount of deficit the government holds, the increased quantity of money in people's pockets goes a lot farther to quell that unrest than half-hearted attempts at budget peacockery. These arguments about quelling the anxiety of the consumer seem to see behavior only being affected by governmental policy and not economic fundamentals. To deficit hawks, only the government's fiscal policies can impact the firm/consumer's feelings about spending decisions, whereas signs of economic growth can not. If this were true why would economic anxieties be reaching their zenith when the ARRA is on the decline, and the economic recovery is slowing down. Both of these trends would seem to either indicate the irrationality of hawks, which would seem to be a case for more spending no matter what, or that other factors are at play in increasing the anxiety of firms/consumers. I'll have a post later elucidating my feelings about government stimulus and waning aggregate demand, though if you view my blogroll, it would seem pretty apparent on which side of the debate I stand.