Monday, August 31, 2009

Ted Kennedy

Since I dissed Andrew Sullivan yesterday, I'll give him some props today.

This is an excellent piece on the life and times of Ted Kennedy. I sometimes forget what a great writer Sullivan is . . .

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Andrew Sullivan on Torture and the Media

I think that it's entirely appropriate for Andrew Sullivan to insist that media outlets describe the brutal treatment of some U.S. detainees as "torture." However, it is not fair for Sullivan to continually label those media outlets that do not adopt his standard as 'supporters of torture.'

A few months back, NPR's ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, offered a very reasonable explanation for NPR's refusal to use the term "torture." Shepard argued that it was more appropriate for an objective news station to simply describe the acts under consideration so that the listeners could make up their own minds. This way, the station was able to avoid the impression of bias and the audience was able to learn precisely what was being done.

Sullivan was distressed with NPR's policy. And he made a good case that the station was applying a double standard when it described the treatment of some Vietnam POWs as "torture."

But it's one thing to argue that a news organization is acting stupidly. It's entirely different to imply that a media outlet's stubborn -- or imbalanced -- commitment to objectivity constitutes a "pro-torture" agenda.

When Sullivan says things like this, he wanders outside the realm of reasoned criticism. I think he really needs to tone down his rhetoric . . . .

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cancer Mortality Rates

I can't really think of a good way to reconcile this article on the mortality rates among cancer patients with other articles that I've read recently.

The New York Times says that mortality rates have been stagnant over the past 60 years. TIME Magazine says that there's been a steady decline over the same period. Is this just a different spin on the same data?

Perhaps the editors of TIME Magazine think that a five percent decline over 60 years is "significant," while the New York Times' editorial board sees it as "nearly the same"? I can't really say for sure, since TIME doesn't offer a specific number.

I do have trouble believing that advances in medical technology -- like the development of computed tomography and its use in intensity-modulated radiation therapy -- have had such a negligible impact on death rates.

It's possible that some high-risk cancer treatments have done more harm than good. But even if this is true, most treatments seem to be far more effective than they were 60 years ago. Shouldn't the benefits outweigh the costs, even when we account for risky or over-proscribed treatments?

I know it's a controversial view, but I suspect part of the problem is that people are more likely to get cancer today than they were in the past. We're certainly exposed to many more carcinogens today than we were 60 years ago, and the evidence seems to indicate that environmental factors are the major cause of most cancers . . . .

The truth is, I really don't know much about this. But I'd like to see a more comprehensive study on the subject.

It seems like we're missing something here, doesn't it?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rich SATs

Greg Mankiw writes:

The NY Times Economix blog offers us the above graph, showing that kids from higher income families get higher average SAT scores.Of course! But so what? This fact tells us nothing about the causal impact of income on test scores. (Economix does not advance a causal interpretation, but nor does it warn readers against it.)

This graph is a good example of omitted variable bias, a statistical issue discussed in Chapter 2 of my favorite textbook. The key omitted variable here is parents' IQ. Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their ffspring.

Well, not quite. I'm probably more of a biological determinist than most of my left-wing cohorts (which isn't saying much), but this is a bit much even for me . . . .

Parents' IQs may indeed play a role here, but I suspect that money really is a key variable. Wealthier families can afford to send their children to better schools and more expensive SAT preparation courses. Wealthier parents are also more likely to have attended college, and thus more likely to encourage their kids to get into a good schools. Poorer kids tend to receive less academic encouragement, and thus may devote less time to schoolwork.

The point is that there are many possible explanations for this trend; Mankiw probably picked the one that's most ideologically appealing to him. But he's essentially falling into the same trap that he's cautioning others to avoid.

Update: I think what Mankiw should have said is: "There are many alternative explanations for this data. Correlation doesn't imply causation. I suspect that biology may be one key variable that people on the left are less willing to acknowledge. The appropriate way to measure this data is to statistically control for certain genetic factors like IQ, rather than assume that biology is unimportant."

Update II: Paul Krugman weighs in on the SAT debate. Greg Mankiw responds to the criticism. The problem, I think, is that Mankiw assumes that having a higher IQ naturally correlates to earning more money. But this is begging the question.

So, I have to score this one for Krugman.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Psychology of Dangerous Ideas

This is an excellent post on the psychology of dangerous ideas:

The classic case of a “symbolic belief” is what Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe you believe, even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better, so that the false belief doesn’t actually get you into practical trouble.

Pseudobeliefs may serve any number of functions; I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception. In a post from last week, a commenter pointed out that there really are vegetarians and vegans, especially in certain punk scenes, who purport to believe that animals are not only morally equal to, but perhaps even morally superior to human beings. As he also pointed out, though, none of them really act as though they believe anything of the sort.

I'm not sure whether this is something to rejoice about, but I think it's true. Most of the people who claim to believe that President Obama is not truly an American citizen seem to be suffering from a severe case of "double think." They certainly don't act as if they genuinely believe that a Manchurian candidate is running the country.

The same is probably true of the 9/11 Truth Movement. If the "truthers" sincerely believed that President Bush had murdered 3,000 Americans in order boost some Iraqi oil, they would've probably done more than parade around Time Square with picket signs and megaphones.

How Much Do Men Hate Shopping . . .?

This dude is my personal hero.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Is Paterson's Race the Issue?

I feel bad for Governor Paterson. Really, I do.

He was thrown into a shitty situation, and he immediately came up against strong opposition from some New York legislators who were tired of Eliot Spitzer pushing them around. Residents of the Empire State were expecting miracles from the guy. There was no way he could deliver.

That said, it's a little crazy for Paterson to imply that his low approval ratings may be the result of "orchestrated" racism on the part of the media.

Paterson is getting bad press because pretty much everyone hates him. And everyone hates him because he's not really doing a great job.

This isn't a color thing. It's a leadership thing. I haven't spoken with a single New Yorker -- of any political affiliation -- who doesn't think that Paterson is a weak and ineffectual governor with terrible political instincts . . .

Friday, August 21, 2009

Measuring the Impact of Gay Marriage

This is a great point (via Conor Clarke):

Opponents of same-sex marriage reject it on religious and moral grounds but also on practical ones. If we let homosexuals marry, they believe, a parade of horribles will follow -- the weakening of marriage as an institution, children at increased risk of broken homes, the eventual legalization of polygamy and who knows what all. Well, guess what? We're about to find out if they're right. Unlike most public policy debates, this one is the subject of a gigantic experiment, which should definitively answer whether same-sex marriage will have a broad, destructive social impact.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire have all decided to let gays wed. Most of the remaining 44 states, however, are not likely to follow suit anytime soon. So in the next few years, we will have a chance to compare social trends in the states permitting same-sex marriage against social trends in the others.But with the experiment looming, some opponents seem to be doubting their own convictions. I contacted three serious conservative thinkers who have written extensively about the dangers of allowing gay marriage and asked them to make simple, concrete predictions about measurable social indicators -- marriage rates, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, child poverty, you name it.

You would think they would react like Albert Pujols when presented with a hanging curveball. Yet none was prepared to forecast what would happen in same-sex marriage states versus other states.

I'm in favor of gay marriage, but I don't think we should simply dismiss those who oppose it on practical grounds. Perhaps gay marriage will adversely impact the rate of heterosexual marriages or subtly encourage other social problems. Those of us who support gay marriage may be confident that homosexual unions won't generate any serious social side-effects, but this is really an empirical question, isn't it?

And that's the beauty of federalism. We now have social experiments in progress.

So, instead of fear-mongering, why don't opponents of gay marriage simply make their predictions known? Will gay marriage have a "destructive social impact" or not?

If you think it will, what should we expect . . .?

What Happened to Fiscal Conservatism?

Ross Douthat is finally coming into his own as a NYT columnist. This is the kind of thing that I expect from him:

Medicare’s price tag, if trends continue, will make a mockery of the idea of limited government. For conservatives, no fiscal cause is more important than curbing this exponential growth. And by fighting health care reform with tactics ripped from Democratic playbooks, and enlisting anxious seniors as foot soldiers, conservatives are setting themselves up to win the battle and lose the longer war.

Maybe Republicans will be able to cast themselves as the protectors of entitlements today, and then impose their own even more sweeping reforms tomorrow. That’s the playbook that McConnell, Brownback and others seem to have in mind: first, save Medicare from Obama; then, save Medicare from itself.

But for now, their strategy means the country suddenly has two political parties devoted to Mediscaring seniors — which in turn seems likely to make the program more untouchable than ever.

And if you think reform is tough today, just wait. We’re already practically a gerontocracy: Americans over 50 cast over 40 percent of the votes in the 2008 elections, and half the votes in the ’06 midterms. As the population ages — by 2030, there will be more Americans over 65 than under 18 — the power of the elderly and nearly elderly may become almost absolute.In this future, somebody will need to stand for the principle that Medicare can’t pay every bill and bless every procedure. Somebody will need to defend the younger generation’s promise (and its pocketbooks).

Somebody will need to say “no” to retirees.That’s supposed to be the Republicans’ job. They should stick to doing it.

I absolutely agree. This is hypocrisy, sure, but it's also just politically stupid.

If congressional Republicans don't see the logical inconsistency in arguing against "government-run health care"and for Medicare, they've reached a new plateau of cognitive dissonance. They need to be agitating for entitlement reform, not blocking it. What happened to fiscal conservatism?

Despite what some may say, the mantle hasn't been passed on to the Democrats. They appear to be just as eager to run up the debt, without any decent plan to reduce long-term spending.

So, it seems that we now have two parties that are in favor of vastly expanding the size of government when it suits their purpose . . .

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Can We Say Goodbye to a Public Option?

Though some of my more liberal friends are loath to acknowledge it, it seem that the public option is on its way out.

Good riddance, I say.

It is upsetting to me that the debate over health care hasn't included more serious discussion of single-payer. I still don't know whether I could support a government monopsony, but I do think that arguments like this need to be heard. Health care reform is about fundamental social priorities, not political grandstanding. That means we should be listening to all different perspectives, not bludgeoning our political adversaries with attack ads.

The widespread conservative fear-mongering about "socialized medicine" is as stupid as it is shameful. We all deserve better.

That said, the public option never made much sense -- at least the way that it was explained. There was never any reason to think that a public plan would wring any significant cost savings out of the system, nor was there reason to believe that a plan without federal subsidies would do much to expand coverage.

Hopefully, congressional leaders can now put this silly argument behind them and focus on actually getting some legislation passed.

I guess we'll see what happens . . .

Friday, August 14, 2009

McCaskill and the Town Hall Meetings

Claire McCaskill is awesome. I think I belong in the Midwest . . .

Contemporary Feminism

This lecture by Christina Hoff Sommers ("What's Wrong and What's Right With Contemporary Feminism?") is worth a read, even if you find some of her points objectionable.

I don't agree with everything that Sommers says, but at least one of her criticisms seems spot-on: contemporary feminism has become largely resistant to counterfactual evidence.

It's not wrong for contemporary feminist to suggest that "modern sexism" is more about disavowing present-day examples of gender discrimination than overtly dehumanizing women, but this conception of sexism has, I think, contributed to a culture of ideological rigidity among feminist writers and advocacy groups.

Those who seek to question the scope of female victimization -- or offer a more gender-balanced assessment -- are often met with harsh and unwarranted criticism from women's organizations. Similarly, those who seek to examine the biology of gender tend to come up against feminist thinkers leveling ad hominem assaults, rather than intellectually engaging with the facts.

To me, this is a big problem.

Sommers puts it best:

One reason that feminist scholarship contains hard-to-kill falsehoods is that reasonable, evidence-backed criticism is regarded as a personal attack.

Many women's advocacy groups continue to disseminate statistics that are either highly questionable, extremely outdated, or blatantly false. These "facts" find their way into our public discourse and inform our policy decisions. There needs to be a way to critique these statistics, without the presumption of bad faith.

Combating violence and discrimination against women remains a pressing social priority, but I think it's important to acknowledge progress when progress occurs, and to know the scope of the problem so that we can accurately formulate policy solutions.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gene Patenting Woes

Oh, the morality of gene patenting . . .

I still don't know how I feel about it policy-wise. I just seems so icky, though, doesn't it?

Anyway, Popular Science has a great article on the legal and ethical implications.

Two Posts You Should Read

Will Wilkinson owns Ezra Klein for suggesting that there is no past evidence of "government madness" that should make people suspicious of the House health care reform bill.

Greg Mankiw wonks out, explaining the economics behind carbon allowance auctions.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

One in Four?

Lately, I've been reading a lot about rape victimization rates, especially among college women.

Here is one statistic that has always bothered me:

"One in four college women have survived a rape or attempted rape."

This just seems so intuitively wrong. How could the rate of victimization be so high? If this statistic is true, the situation is even more dire than it may appear.

If we assume that roughly 75 percent of female undergraduates have sex while they're in college (the actual number may be even lower), this would mean that 1 out of every 3 sexually active college women has survived a rape or attempted rape.

Why, then, is the reported rate of victimization so low? How do we account for this enormous disparity? (See these crime statistics from Rutgers University for a representative example.)

I can think of only two explanations. Either the rate of under-reporting is astoundingly high, or the "one in four" statistic is dramatically overstated. Perhaps some combination of the two.

Unsurprisingly, many advocacy groups have uncritically adopted the "one in four" statistic, insisting that it proves the rate of under-reporting is well above 90 percent. For years, these groups have argued that "one in four" points to a "rape epidemic" on college campuses, requiring enormous and ever-more-expensive resources.

But from a policy perspective, isn't important to know whether the scope of the problem is actually as large as these organizations claim? Knowing the scope of the problem means knowing how to properly allocate resources.

The more I read, the more I suspect the "one in four" statistic may be bogus . . .

Update: I should add that I do believe that many rapes go unreported. The issue, in my mind, is the scale of the under-reporting and the methodology employed to measure that scale.

I highly doubt that the scope of under-reporting is as large as many advocacy groups claim, and I think that many of the studies that are used to investigate this question suffer from serious design flaws.

If nothing else, we should all acknowledge that statistics on rape are some of the most complex statistics out there.

Update II: I think this is the key point:

[T]he most serious indication that something was basically awry in the Ms./Koss study was that the majority of women she classified as having been raped did not believe they had been raped. Of those Koss counts as having been raped, only 27 percent thought they had been; 73 percent did not say that what happened to them was rape. In effect, Koss and her followers present us with a picture of confused young women overwhelmed by threatening males who force their attentions on them during the course of a date but are unable or unwilling to classify their experience as rape. Does that picture fit the average female undergraduate? For that matter, does it plausibly apply to the larger community?

As the journalist Cathy Young observes, "Women have sex after initial reluctance for a number of reasons . . . fear of being beaten up by their dates is rarely reported as one of them."[22] Katie Roiphe, a graduate student in English at Princeton and author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus, argues along similar lines when she claims that Koss had no right to reject the judgment of the college women who didn't think they were raped. But Katha Pollitt of The Nation defends Koss, pointing out that in many cases people are wronged without knowing it. Thus we do not say that "victims of other injustices--fraud, malpractice, job discrimination--have suffered no wrong as long as they are unaware of the law."[23]

Pollitt's analogy is faulty, however. If Jane has ugly financial dealings with Tom and an expert explains to Jane that Tom has defrauded her, then Jane usually thanks the expert for having enlightened her about the legal facts. To make her case, Pollitt would have to show that the rape victims who were unaware that they were raped would accept Koss's judgment that they really were. But that has not been shown; Koss did not enlighten the women she counts as rape victims, and they did not say "now that you explain it, we can see we were." Koss and Pollitt make a technical (and
in fact dubious) legal point: women are ignorant about what counts as rape. Roiphe makes a straightforward human point: the women were there, and they know best how to judge what happened to them. Since when do feminists consider "law" to override women's experience?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Health Care Concessions?

There have been two big developments in the debate over health care reform this past week.

First, Dick Durbin said that he's 'open' to a health care bill without a public option. Durbin is the highest ranking member of the Democratic Caucus to ease his stance . . . and it could mean that Congressional leaders are beginning to retreat from the public option. There has been speculation all along that a public option will be gutted from the final version of the bill. This seems increasingly likely as Blue Dogs ramp up their opposition.

Second, the CBO contradicted one of the Obama administration's key argument in the health care debate:

Preventive medical care includes services such as cancer screening, cholesterol management, and vaccines. In making its estimates of the budgetary effects of expanded governmental support for such care, CBO takes into account any estimated savings to the government that would result from greater use of preventive care as well as the estimated costs of that additional care. Although different types of preventive care have different effects on spending, the evidence suggests that for most preventive services, expanded utilization leads to higher, not lower, medical spending overall.

That result may seem counterintuitive. For example, many observers point to cases in which a simple medical test, if given early enough, can reveal a condition that is treatable at a fraction of the cost of treating that same illness after it has progressed. But when analyzing the effects of preventive care on total spending for health care, it is important to recognize that doctors do not know beforehand which patients are going to develop costly illnesses. To avert one case of acute illness, it is usually necessary to provide preventive care to many patients, most of whom would not have suffered that illness anyway. Judging the overall effect on medical spending requires analysts to calculate not just the savings from the relatively few individuals who would avoid more expensive treatment later, but also the costs of the many who would make greater use of preventive care.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Complexity of Racial Profiling

The 2008 Annual Report of Illinois Traffic Stops -- which resulted from a popular piece of legislation sponsored by then-Illinois state Senator Barack Obama -- paints an extremely complex picture of racial profiling.

In Illinois, black and Hispanic drivers are slightly more likely to be stopped and searched than white and Asian drivers -- although, as I've said, this does not seem to be the case nationally.

Either way, the important question for Illinois policymakers and law enforcement officials is whether any apparently disproportionate treatment is truly the result of racial profiling.

This is a very difficult question to answer, unfortunately.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Clinton to the Rescue

Bill Clinton deserves major props for his negotiating skills.

If nothing else, he's still an excellent statesman.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Regulation Debate

Tyler Cowen responds to Paul Krugman's op-ed in today's New York Times. I don't know much about high-frequency trading, but I think that Cowen's point about financial regulation is important:

The more I read these debates, the more nervous I get about the idea of a financial products safety commission. Essentially, on innovation we're seeing a flipping of the burden of proof and I don't think it is possible to easily fine-tune that flipping in a way to capture good innovations and rule out bad ones. We should still follow the rule of regulating practices shown to be harmful or likely to be harmful.

I think this is absolutely true. In the wake of the financial crisis, there is growing skepticism about the power of markets to produce positive social outcomes. And the burden of proof has indeed shifted.

The standard economic assumption has always been that markets can produce poor outcomes when there are distortionary factors. But, as a rule, market-based economies offer more efficiency and adaptability than planned economies. This does not mean that markets are perfectly efficient. There are many examples of market failures resulting from misaligned incentives. And virtually all macroeconomists would agree that regulation is necessary to correct these problems.

But from a utilitarian perspective, there is a real danger in over-regulation. Regulators are often given enormous power to stifle innovations that have proven to be harmful to the public, or that seem likely to produce negative outcomes. However, if every innovation is suspect -- if the burden of proof is inverted -- then the general pace of innovation could slow dramatically. In the long-run, this could mean a lower standard of living for all Americans. We often forget how much our financial future depends on retirement accounts and pension funds.

Finding the proper balance between innovation and regulation is, of course, complex. Markets don't always work properly, but over-broad or poorly designed regulations can easily hurt consumers. In the coming years, there will be a tremendous need for creative investment and financial strategies that grow our economy. We should make sure that we're not squelching these innovations simply because they may seem "unnecessary."

In my view, the burden of proof should always rest with those who wish to impose new limitations on the activities of the market.

Update: A fairly recent column by Robert Shiller explaining the fundamental tension between regulation and innovation.