Monday, January 31, 2011

Follow-up: Economists Would Prefer to Just Give Cash to the Poor

Following up on one of my earlier posts on the topic, I just wanted to highlight the fact that most economists think that giving cash directly to the poor would be far more efficient than our current system of providing food stamps, health care, housing subsidies, and the like:
Is it better to give people for whom one has compassion goods or services they ought to have (what we call benefits in kind), or is it better simply to give them the equivalent in cash, letting the recipients of our largess decide how best to spend it to maximize their happiness? 

Economists believe to have found a clear answer to this question, and most textbooks in economics proffer it, sometimes with impressive graphs. Giving cash is superior.
Alas, the rest of the world – especially politicians – has studiously brushed aside the economists’ powerful insight, as I lament in an Econ 100 lecture, “Why Economists are Lousy Lovers: The Political Economy of Benefits in Kind.”
Of course, there's a difference between "economic efficiency" and desirability as defined by outcomes or public policy - for example, it might make some people happier to spend money on cigarettes or lottery tickets than on fruits and vegetables, but that doesn't mean that the government should provide money for cigarettes and lottery tickets as opposed to fruits or vegetables. And no politician could be seen as supporting the expenditure of tax dollars on things like cigarettes and lottery tickets - so we are stuck with an inefficient system, even though there is ample evidence that the poor spend their money as wisely or more wisely than wealthier people.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

For Those of You Who Work At Non-Profits

I would highly recommend reorganizing your organization under the principles outlined by this Strategic Nonprofit Reorganization Plan as laid out by the Nonprofit Quarterly. If you do, be sure to let me know how it turns out for you, especially vis-à-vis your funders. Since it was released under a Creative Commons license, I reprint the Strategic Nonprofit Reorganization Plan in its entirety - I hope you are as inspired as I was:

A Strategic Nonprofit Reorganization Plan
To all foundation contacts and “funding partners”:

Effective immediately, our nonprofit organization has reorganized and will henceforth do business as an Operating Grantee.® We’ve made this decision after extensive consultation with our board, senior management, other nonprofits, and external consultants. We believe that becoming an Operating Grantee® is the best way to serve our members, clients, and communities as well as our internal needs and the public interest.

Here are some key changes we’ve agreed on:

Program autonomy. We will no longer seek funding for specific projects of interest to the foundation community;​ instead, all future grants will support activities at our organization’s sole discretion. This change will allow us to develop programs that best meet the needs of the communities we serve and provide for greater public input and accountability.

Creative control. We will design our programs and strategies for maximum impact. But we reserve the right to engage in creative work that has unquantifiable, nonmeasurable results and that is specifically not replicable or a model of any kind.

Evaluation. All activities will be evaluated by reference to our own program guidelines. We reserve the right to change these guidelines at any time. Assuming generous additional funding is available, external evaluators may be hired under contract to us and at our sole discretion.

Streamlined grant-application process. We send you an invoice, you send us the money. No staff or board review on the funder side. This streamlined approval process will reduce meetings and bureaucracy as well as free up foundation staff and funds for expanded grantmaking.

Budgets. Aggregate budget figures will be provided to you and, at our discretion, adjusted upward.

Personnel benefits. These benefits will be at least as good as yours.

Financial reporting. After the money is gone, we’ll send you a new invoice.

Media. Thanks for offering to help, but we’ll write our own press releases and send them out. We will formulate and execute the media strategy. You can review what we’ve produced when you see our coverage. Sorry, we can’t include any prewritten taglines, such as “Promoting genteel and refined culture for sensitive citizens since 1906” or guarantee that you’ll be mentioned at all.

Branding. All promotional activity will build our nonprofit brand, unless we choose to operate anonymously and do good deeds without callously claiming credit for them.

Web sites. The Web content we produce is for our site, not yours. We require a large grant-funded technology staff that’s at least twice as large as yours. You must link your site to our site prominently. We, on the other hand, will link to your site only if we wish to.

Copyrights and patents. Have you read this far? The exclusive property of the Operating Grantee, of course.

Sustainability. We’ll just keep sending you invoices as needed. This is our problem to solve as a grantee, not yours. No “business plans,” “exit strategies,” “building to scale,” “diversification of funding,” “earned-revenue strategy,” and so on.
Given the size of your endowments, it looks like sustainability should not be a problem. After all, you have no problem staying in business. We also think that by seizing the programmatic initiative and changing the balance of power between grantors and grantees, we’ll have a good chance of attracting substantial future funding.

Capacity building. That’s for us to know and for you to find out about! Seriously, the Operating Grantee® system is all about capacity building. We estimate that the changes we’ve outlined here will free up 25 percent to 50 percent of organizational resources for programs and projects that can directly serve community needs. And we do it without time-consuming training workshops and expensive foundation-funded “technical assistance.”

Organizational effectiveness. You have to be kidding. At our sole discretion, of course. Frankly, on some days, we may just feel like horsing around on your dime. You better learn to live with it. (We can see this won’t be easy for you.)

Program officers. We like our program officers. For the most part, they are a convivial and jolly bunch, and from time to time we absolutely should still socialize. They may still take us to lunch at fancy restaurants and invite us to high-end conference centers for extended retreats. We don’t really see the need for such opulent facilities, but it seems to be a matter of cultural preference for foundation personnel. (Not to mention the lavish annual reports, and all that advertising on NPR.)

Program officers can also help process our invoices, and resolve all payment issues and problems. They have no other role and are specifically instructed not to inform their senior management or boards about any aspect of our work.

Program consultations. We reserve the right to invite you to meetings where you tell us your ideas—even though we may decline to use them or use them without crediting or compensating you. (We think you are familiar with this process).

Site visits. No site visits. If we need a fancy office from which to make phone calls and in which to hold meetings, we’ll visit you when we travel to your city.

Collaborations and partnerships with other nonprofits. Sure, we will collaborate. But we’ll figure this out, not you. No more complex program requirements and grant application guidelines from hell. (See the above sections entitled “Program autonomy,” “Creative control,” and “Streamlined grant application process.”)

Terminology. Many of the terms and jargon mentioned above, including “branding,” “collaboration,” “organizational effectiveness,” “evaluation,” and “sustainability” should not be mentioned by you again—ever. Inappropriate use of terminology may result in additional surcharges on invoices. New terms and phrases will be introduced for you to use, such as “funder accountability,” “board diversity,” “After all, it’s not our money,” and “I guess we’re just going to have to defer to the grantee perspective on that.”

Sabbaticals. For professional enrichment, foundation staff members and executives will be sent on six-month sabbaticals at eligible nonprofits operating in the old-style fundraising relationships. A stipend at a community wage rate may be available.

Admittedly, this is a drastic departure from our previous mode of operation. We regret any disruption to your normal routine;​ but we believe that these changes are in our mutual interest. Further, our board and management have already signed off on this model, so these points are nonnegotiable.

Our decision to become an Operating Grantee® will greatly improve our community responsiveness, operating flexibility, and financial bottom line. From our point of view, it’s much better to an Operating Grantee® than an indentured servant toiling on the neo-feudal Philanthropic Estates. We need Grantee-Driven Grantmaking® because we can no longer be constrained by foundation requirements and institutional structures that don’t work for us. The choice is clear.

Arise, ye suffering grantwriters of the world, and throw off your chains! You have a world to win and nothing to lose, save an oppressive professional and occupational culture and vast reams of unnecessary program rules and application requirements.

Note: Power to the Pen Inc. has trademarked the terms Operating Grantee® and Grantee-Driven Grantmaking® to prevent unauthorized commercial use. In consideration of the greater public good, however, we hereby grant to all prospective grantees an unrestricted Creative Commons license to the Strategic Nonprofit Reorganization Plan. This creative program strategy should be fully open source and open to all who need it.

About the Authors
Grant T. Goldhammer is the CEO and Ophelia Paine is the COO of Power to the Pen Inc.

Friday, January 28, 2011

If I Ever Build a House, It'll Be a Passivhaus

In case you've never heard of them before, it's time to learn, because Passivhauses are the way of the future:
Architects in many countries, in attempts to meet new energy efficiency standards like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard in the United States, are designing homes with better insulation and high-efficiency appliances, as well as tapping into alternative sources of power, like solar panels and wind turbines. 
The concept of the passive house ... approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.
 And it manages to do this without stagnant air or mold problems:
New passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system. The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency.
It's an exciting day for Passivhaus people in the U.S., as Good reports that New York City just got it's first passivhaus:


Of course, what's most exciting is the thermogram, which demonstrates the extreme energy efficiency of this building, especially when compared to the buildings next to it:


And yes, you can see that its windows are more efficient than its walls - why are the rest of us in the U.S. stuck with money-wasting sliding windows, when Europe has much more efficient hinged windows?

When Investing in the Market, Timing Is Everything

Pretty much all investment advisors say the same thing: don't try to time the market. On the surface, that's not terrible advice - after all, no one can predict the future, including stock market returns.

The problem with this advice, however, is that unless you're a sophisticated trader, timing is everything, as demonstrated by this fascinating New York Times graphic. Here's a part of the graphic:



As the NYT explains:
This chart at right shows annualized returns for the S.& P. 500 for every starting year and every ending year since 1920 — nearly 4,000 combinations in all. READ ACROSS THE CHART to see how money invested in a given year performed, depending on when it was withdrawn.
I'm trying to decide what this means for my own retirement planning, but whatever it means, it can't be good.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

If You Don't Know Me, Then I Must Be a Pervert

I came across this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal lamenting the fact that we now seem to treat all unknown men as potential predators of children. Lenore Skenazy of the always hilarious Free-Range Kids blog opens the piece thusly:

Last week, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Timothy Murray, noticed smoke coming out of a minivan in his hometown of Worcester. He raced over and pulled out two small children, moments before the van's tire exploded into flames. At which point, according to the AP account, the kids' grandmother, who had been driving, nearly punched our hero in the face.
Why?
Mr. Murray said she told him she thought he might be a kidnapper.
And so it goes these days, when almost any man who has anything to do with a child can find himself suspected of being a creep. I call it "Worst-First" thinking: Gripped by pedophile panic, we jump to the very worst, even least likely, conclusion first. Then we congratulate ourselves for being so vigilant.
I can't say that I feel that I've been the subject of this kind of negative attention, but then again, perhaps I'm just oblivious to it. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that 90% of child sexual abuse is perpetuated by people who know the child or are related to the child; only about 10% is perpetuated by strangers.

So, statistically, men are actually a much greater danger to your child if your child knows them or is related to them than if they are a stranger, but yet people persist in being terrified of strange men. My guess is that this arises from some combination of cognitive biases, e.g. the availability heuristic (i.e. it is easy to imagine a stranger abusing a child, but not a friend or relative), the confirmation bias (i.e. the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions), the ingroup bias (i.e. the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own groups), the affect heuristic (i.e. basing a decision on an emotional reaction rather than a calculation of risks and benefits), and perhaps others. Check out Wikipedia's Big List of Cognitive Biases and come up with your own explanation!

God, I Hope Not: "Will Sudan referendum inspire secessionists elsewhere in Africa?"

The Christian Science Monitor posed an interesting question the other day:
If South Sudan gets independence, will it encourage splits in other African countries? A number of voices are suggesting that could happen as the vote takes place in the South. Could Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Congo, Angola and others break up too? Colonel Gaddafi described a divided Sudan as “the beginning of the crack in Africa’s map” … Would that be a good or bad thing for the continent?
I can't speak as to whether it would be a good thing in terms of politics or civil or human rights, but I'm pretty sure that it would be a Very Bad Thing economically.

Paul Collier, in his excellent book The Bottom Billion, tries to explain why some countries (primarily in Africa and Central Asia) remain mired in poverty, even as the rest of the developing world is undergoing relatively rapid growth. According to Collier, these countries typically suffer from one (or more) of the following development traps:

  • The Conflict Trap - civil wars (with an estimated average cost of $64bn each) or coups.
  • The Natural Resource Trap - having to rely on natural resources which can stifle other economic activity and lead to bad governance and coups/conflict.
  • Landlocked with Bad Neighbours - poor landlocked countries with poor neighbours find it almost impossible to tap into world economic growth.
  • Bad Governance in a Small Country - terrible governance and policies can destroy an economy with alarming speed.
One of the hindrances to African development is that there are already too many landlocked countries in Africa, which is stunting the continent's growth (landlocked countries are highlighted in green):


Further splitting up African countries would only create more countries that find it difficult to survive and thrive in today's world. If anything, the landlocked African countries should merge with other countries that have access to oceans - though I think that's impossible as well.

So, if further splitting up African countries will probably make their economic situation even worse, what can be done to make things better?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

There Were Times My Wife Might Have Agreed to This - A Flash Mob Wedding

Even if you are marrying a saint, there will be periods of stress during both planning and execution, if you're planning a wedding. My wife and I had a beautiful wedding and a fantastic party afterwards, and there's very little we would have changed - but a good amount of planning and preparation went into pulling the whole thing off. But, our reward was grand - we had a beautiful ceremony coupled with a generally stress-free day of fun and celebration.

At times during the planning process, however, my wife wanted to elope, so we could be rid of the planning and other nonsense that goes along with a wedding. I might have agreed to this, a flash-mob wedding:
The choreographed dancing and singing of their 70 guests did catch mall shoppers off guard. Guests, who had rehearsed that morning, started dancing in unison and singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as perplexed shoppers walked by. Kleiman played the keyboard before walking down a make-shift aisle. His bride walked down the aisle carrying a simple white bouquet. Kleiman said they weaved his musical past as a pianist, and her past as a dancer into the ceremony.
And here's the entirety of their 6-minute long flash-mob ceremony:



Fun stuff - though I think my parents would have been a bit disappointed ....

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Detroit's Considering Raising High School Class Sizes to 62 Kids

I understand the need to trim state budgets, but doing so by raising class sizes from 35 now to 62 (!) by 2013 seems like an extreme measure to take:
Detroit Public Schools would close nearly half of its schools in the next two years, and increase high school class sizes to 62 by the following year, under a deficit-reduction plan filed with the state. 
The plan, part of a monthly update Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb gives the Department of Education, was filed late Monday to provide insight into Bobb's progress in his attempt to slash a $327 million deficit in the district to zero over the next several years. Under it, the district would slim down from 142 schools now to 72 during 2012-13.
I can't imagine that I would have paid much attention in high school if I had been seated 10-15 rows back from the teachers - especially if I was stuffed into a room with 61 other kids that was designed to only hold 30. On the other hand, maybe they're just better-preparing kids for class sizes of 348 kids at Michigan State University - though if Detroit's high school classes all have 62 kids in them, I question whether many of them will make it to university at all.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Helpful Flowchart: Should You Work for Free?

A funny flowchart to help you decide whether you should work for someone / some organization for free, by Jessica Hische:


Check out the full size version here.

Cheat Sheet: You should always work for your mom for free, since she gave birth to you. All other parties - it depends.

Unfortunately, My Job Remains Rock-Solid Safe

Working for the Food and Nutrition Service is, in many ways, similar to working at a social service non-profit - we exist to help a poor and/or underserved population, but our ideal outcome would be for us to work ourselves out of a job so that no one needed our services anymore, and we'd all have to go find something else to do.

Unfortunately, it looks like my job is safe and secure for the foreseeable future - more and more Americans keep signing up for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and FNS's other nutrition programs. SNAP participation increased by another 290,000 people in October:


Read all about it and check out some more charts over at Paper Economy.

The Plight of the Working (Rich) Mother, by Gwyneth Paltrow

For some reason, I always find stuff like this compelling: Gwyneth Paltrow's advice to working moms on how to balance their work and family lives. It reminds me of adolescent awkwardness, of boys trying to be men and girls trying to be women - at times, they achieve a reasonable facsimile, but something about it is just generally naive and out-of-touch, while at the same time being profoundly self-involved. For example, in this missive, Gwyneth discusses a stressful day of getting up early, going to the gym, singing a country song, and doing an interview over the phone. I know several working moms, and none of their days have ever consisted of doing these things.

Videogum has an entertainingly brutal point-by-point dissection of this out-of-touch account of working motherdom.

For a similar discussion of out-of-touch privilege in my own backyard (D.C.), check out this entertaining yet horrifying post about organic food in D.C., where a rich white people berate poor blacks for not making organic food a priority in their personal budgets:

Since I keep mentioning race, I’ll disclose that I was impressed that a quarter of the attendees were women of color; basically, it was me holding it down for Asian-America plus five African-American women.
One of them raised her hand, tentatively.
“Thank you so much for this information,” she began. “It’s so worrisome…all these chemicals and pesticides in our food. I would like to be healthier by eating organically but…it’s so expensive. Do you have any advice for dealing with that?” She looked hopeful; her hand was poised over her notebook, pen aquiver, ready to jot down wise words which would not come.
Well…” the facilitator drawled, “you really need to make it a priority to eat Organic. It IS more expensive, but it’s worth it.” She beamed decisively; her smile was like an exclamation point to a brilliant, unassailable point. I started to feel uncomfortable, but that feeling was eclipsed by sympathy for and solidarity with my fellow attendee, who cleared her throat uneasily and raised her hand, again.
“I agree that it’s worth it. What I’m saying is, what if you can’t afford it? Some people just don’t have that kind of money. I guess what I’m asking is, what if you can’t afford the more expensive organic fruits and veggies, even though you want to? Do you have any practical advice for that situation? Would washing the produce help?”
The graceful woman at the front of the room stiffened slightly. I don’t think she was expecting the follow-up question or the very real and serious issues this discussion was exploring. She started to speak, then thought better of it, and paused. Then the words came out in a jumbled rush:
“I don’t think so, so even if you need to cut back on certain things, you should realize that it’s worth it, because this is about your health. That needs to be the priority. I don’t have any tips about conventional produce because I don’t think it’s healthy, period.”
The African-American woman nodded slightly and put down her pen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Krugman: On Inequality of Opportunity in the U.S.

People seem to either love or hate Paul Krugman, largely based on their political persuasions, but I thought this might be something that could appeal to almost everyone:
The first thing one should say is that our system does reward hard work, up to a point. Other things equal, those who put more in will earn more.
But a lot of other things are, in fact, not remotely equal. These days, America is the advanced nation with the least social mobility (pdf), except possibly for Britain. Access to good schools, good health care, and job opportunities depends on lot on choosing the right parents.
So when you hear conservatives talk about how our goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes, your first response should be that if they really believe in equality of opportunity, they must be in favor of radical changes in American society. For our society does not, in fact, produce anything like equal opportunity (in part because it produces such unequal outcomes). Tell me how you’re going to produce a huge improvement in the quality of public schools, how you’re going to provide universal health care (for parents as well as children, because parents in bad health affect childrens’ prospects), and then come back to me about the equal chances at the starting line thing.
Now, I don't expect to ever be able to achieve literal "equality of opportunity" - for example, I don't expect for every child in the U.S. to be able to attend the private, $30,440-a-year Ethical Culture Fieldston [Pre]School in New York City. But, I think that giving everyone access to a legitimate opportunity, reasonable opportunity, or whatever you want to call it - though quality public education, access to decent health care, proper nutrition, etc. - would be a good societal goal and would almost certainly help maximize overall societal wealth.

I'm reminded of a paper I read at CEU on the situation of the Roma in Hungary - this paper did the calculations and determined that if the Hungarian state would ensure proper education, housing, heath care, nutrition, etc. for its Roma minority, it would actually save around $40,000 over the lifetime of the average Roma citizen, since the Roma would then pay taxes, and the state would save the costs of long-term unemployment, incarceration, drug addiction, and other costs of chronic poverty. I can't lay my hands on the paper at the moment, but if I run across it, I'll add the reference.

P.S. After I wrote the first draft of this post, Krugman published a follow-up. Here's the key section:
As I pointed out, the typical conservative line about equality of opportunity, not results, really implies the need for a radical restructuring of our society, which doesn’t offer anything remotely resembling equal opportunity. At this point, however, there’s a tendency to think about what that restructuring would involve — and because it’s basically impossible, to throw up one’s hands.
The point is that you don’t, in fact, have to be that radical once you drop the rigidity of the conservative position. If you admit that life is unfair, and that there’s only so much you can do about that at the starting line, then you can try to ameliorate the consequences of that unfairness.
My vision of economic morality is more or less Rawlsian: we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be.
 So, should we do anything to make our societies more equal? If so, what?

U.S. Military Bases: If You Can't Measure Them, You Can't Manage Them

Ever since the rise of data-driven decision-making, the statement "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it" (or, alternatively, "control it") has become a management truism. Given the military's traditional penchant for control, I was more than a little surprised to find out that no one person seems to know exactly how many U.S. military bases there are.

Seriously, people? No one keeps an Excel spreadsheet, a notebook, a legal pad, index cards, nothing with an exhaustive list of U.S. military base assets? Good luck managing all those bases, then, if you can't even find them all.

Game Theory and Beauty

Warning: Mild objectification of women is about to commence.

OkCupid has an interesting post on beauty, mathematics, and game theory. Essentially, their data suggests that, if two women are judged to have equal average attractiveness, the woman whose looks inspires the greatest amount of disagreement among men (i.e. some think she's drop-dead gorgeous, while others think she's ugly as sin) will get the most attention from men.

Their explanation for this phenomenon is that if men's subjective assessment of a woman's beauty is highly varied, the men who find her most attractive will think that they face less competition, since there is some number of men who find her unattractive. By contrast, if all men find a woman rather attractive, they might be less inclined to pursue her, thinking that they face greater competition. They sum it up with this illustration:

My apologies if any female readers were offended by this post - OkCupid promises that a similar analysis for men is forthcoming.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why? - "US subpoenas Twitter, seeking information on WikiLeaks’ 635,561 followers"

I'm not commenting on the legality of this subpoena - that's for the court to figure out, not me. Here's what the U.S. Department of Justice is after:
The information sought by the subpoena includes the user names, mailing addresses, email addresses, connection records, length of service, types of services utilized and means of payment of each account associated with the five WikiLeaks supporters. The court order states that there is "reasonable ground to believe that the records or other information sought are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation."
As someone who analyses data, what I want to know is, what does the U.S. Justice Department going to do with all that data? I mean, if the Justice Department gets all this data, it's going to be a raw dump of 635,361 Twitter accounts, almost none of whom will have violated any U.S. law. Is the Justice Department really going to make some poor DOJ sop (or, rather, an army of poor DOJ sops) sort through all of this data, investigate 635,361 mostly innocent users, and give a recommended plan of action for each one? If so, I am really glad that I don't work at the DOJ ....

A Reminder to Be Happy: You're Extremely Lucky to Exist at All!

I know, I know - the ex post probability of you existing is 1 (or 100%). But what about the ex ante probability of you existing?

The ex ante probability of your existence depends on how far back before your birth you go, of course, but this Canadian calculated the probably a few different ways, and he reminds us that we should consider ourselves supremely lucky just to be alive:
If you go back 10 generations (250 years) the chance of you being born at all is  at most 1 divided by 6 x 10100 or
1 in 60000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000 000000000000000000000000000000000000.
In gambling, even a chance of 1 to 100 is not worth a gamble.
Are you ever lucky to be alive!!
If you go back 1 million years or 40 000 generations (each generation is considered 25 years), your chance of being born is at most 1 in 1.8 x 10403167 or
18 with 403,166 zeros after the 1.
In other words your chances of existing is essentially zilch, even if we were considering this possibility only a short 250 years ago.
Right now you do exist, so the actual chance is 100%, but the predicted likelihood in the past of you being born would be essentially zero.
So, when you're having a bad day, just try to remember how lucky you are just to exist at all!

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Last Post You'll Ever Need to Read about the Tucson Shooting

Summary:

The only thing the Tucson shooting tells us about U.S. political discourse is that it is stupid - violent rhetoric is a subset of that stupidity, but it didn't cause the shooting. The only actionable lessons we can draw from this tragedy are:
  • the mental health system in this country sucks. Everyone who ever met this kid Jared Lee Loughner knew that he was extremely unbalanced and probably needed mental health help, but for some reason he didn't get the help he needed.
  • as a country, we have decided that citizens should have access to practically unlimited quantities of assault weapons and ammunition. We don't even regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys.
If you combine those two lessons, it is not hard to conclude that massacres like this are inevitable. We are a big country with lots of people, and a tiny fraction of those people are batsh*t crazy. If you give batsh*t crazy people access to assault weapons, this country will occasionally face massacres like that in Tucson - it's a statistical inevitability. So, unless the U.S. wants to completely change its approach to mental health and/or assault weapons in the hands of citizens, we are just going to have to get used to paying the price of the occasional massacre. Since the U.S. is a pretty violent society, I'm guessing that we'll just stick with the status quo and act "shocked, shocked I tell you" when things like this happen, even though a quick analysis demonstrates that massacres like this are inevitable.

Discussion:

I've been thinking about the shooting in Tucson a good deal the past few weeks, and at the risk of hubris, I'm pretty sure that I synthesize below the most intelligent things that can be said about the shooting below.

First off, the problem with political discourse in the U.S. today is not violence - the problem is stupidity (granted, violence is a subset of stupidity, but the core problem is stupidity, not violence). A depressingly high percentage of what U.S. politicians and U.S. news personalities say is stupid (and some of this stupidity manifests itself in the form of violence). For example, this now-famous map that Sarah Palin put up on her PAC website did not cause the shootings in Tucson, but it is stupid:


Similarly, Sarah Palin saying "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!'" was stupid, but it didn't cause the shooting in Tucson.

And yet again, Palin saying that Obama is "hell-bent on weakening America" is stupid and ridiculous. You can disagree with Obama's policies and think that his policies are bad for America - this is, after all, a free country, but to say that his is actively, consciously trying to weaken America from his position as President is the apex of stupidity, and it demonstrates everything that is wrong with the political discourse in this country.

When Palin finally said something about the Tucson shooting, she continued saying more dumb things, in particular, "blood libel." She could have taken either of two other approaches: 1) "This is a terrible tragedy, but this guy was obviously crazy and political rhetoric had nothing to do with it; freedom of speech makes this country great," or 2) "This is a terrible tragedy, this guy was crazy and rhetoric had nothing to do with it, but I am sorry that the political discourse in this country has gotten so stupid, and I'm going to work to make it smarter." Instead, she tried to make herself the victim instead of honoring the Tucson victims, and she managed to be insensitively anti-Semitic while doing so. In fact, she seemed to imply that the mere act of criticizing conservatives would lead to more violence. Then a number of prominent right-wingers rushed to defend her use of "blood libel" and redefine the term. More stupidity in the U.S. political discourse.

And some Tea Partiers are trying to pin the shootings on the left - this is also stupid, just as stupid as trying to argue that the tea party was somehow directly responsible for the shootings.

Even stupider - the Tucson Tea Party founder blamed Giffords for getting shot, saying that "the real case is that she had no security." Anyone else want to step up to blame the victims as well?

Also stupid - the UFC fighter who said he wanted to "knock some sense" into Obama.

Even stupider - Glenn Beck fantasizing about killing Michael Moore with his bare hands:



The text of Beck's quote: "I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out of him. Is this wrong?"

Yes, Glenn, we as a society have generally accepted that murder is wrong. And what you said is stupid.

This, however, is by far the most ridiculous Beck stupidity I've ever come across:



Yes, that was Glenn Beck calling for the assassination of Democratic politicians and public servants on June 9, 2010 - the super-incredible apex of stupidity. Why is this man on TV, preaching this unparalleled stupidity?

Unlike Palin's rhetoric, there is evidence to suggest that Beck's violent speech has motivated threats and assassination attempts.

The American Family Association said that "We are looking into the face of Satan himself" when Sarah Palin is attacked - also stupid.

Sharron Angle floated the idea of using "2nd Amendment solutions" to "cure" the "Harry Ried problems" - also quite stupid, as I don't know how else to interpret that other than she's suggesting that someone should assassinate a U.S. senator.

New Speaker of the House John Boehner is also not immune to stupidity, and can't apologize for it:
Another Ohio Democrat, Steve Driehaus, clashed repeatedly with Boehner before losing his seat in the midterm elections. After Boehner suggested that by voting for Obamacare, Driehaus "may be a dead man" and "can't go home to the west side of Cincinnati" because "the Catholics will run him out of town," Driehaus began receiving death threats, and a right-wing website published directions to his house. Driehaus says he approached Boehner on the floor and confronted him.
"I didn't think it was funny at all," Driehaus says. "I've got three little kids and a wife. I said to him, 'John, this is bullshit, and way out of bounds. For you to say something like that is wildly irresponsible.'"
Driehaus is quick to point out that he doesn't think Boehner meant to urge anyone to violence. "But it's not about what he intended — it's about how the least rational person in my district takes it. We run into some crazy people in this line of work."
Driehaus says Boehner was "taken aback" when confronted on the floor, but never actually said he was sorry: "He said something along the lines of, 'You know that's not what I meant.' But he didn't apologize."
In fact, many media personalities have problems admitting the stupidity of what they say, and they accuse others of violent rhetoric if others happen to point out their own stupidity. Well, I am here to declare that pointing out stupidity is not a violent act; it's a patriotic one.

Lots of other dumb things have been said recently - for the last time, Obama is not a socialist, communist, or Nazi (see the definition of socialism, communism, and Nazism for help), nor is the health care reform a government takeover of the U.S. healthcare system - if you say any of these things, you are contributing to the stupidity of political discourse in this country.

And then there's this guy, photographed armed outside of Obama's health care town hall in NH in 2009:


In case you're puzzled, it's a reference to the following Thomas Jefferson quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

I'm not sure how you take that, other than as a threat against the life of the President.

And some on the left have called for stupid responses to the shooting, such as making cross-hairs on maps illegal. Now, I don't think that this is as stupid as Beck suggesting that people should shoot Democratic politicians in the head, but it's still stupid.

So, why is the U.S. political discourse so stupid?

One of the reasons is a freedom that we hold most dear - free speech. People are free to say dumb, distorted, inaccurate things, and that's fine. My problem is that we have equated money with free speech and corporations with people, which is a perversion of the First Amendment. I should be free to say whatever I want to say - but ABC or CBS or NBC or Fox should not have the same right to say dumb, distorted, and inaccurate things as I do, because they are news organizations, not people. It also seems that many of the people that these organizations employ as pundits just aren't that intelligent. Furthermore, corporations should not have the same rights to free speech as individuals, because they are not individuals, and money is not free speech. These problems will require a constitutional amendment to fix, as the Supreme Court has for years been hellbent on giving soulless, lifeless, immortal corporations the same rights as living, flesh-and-blood people and on equating money with free speech.

The other main reason that U.S. political discourse is so stupid is economic efficiency - if I am trying to get elected, it is far easier and cheaper for me to demonize the other guy and convince you to vote against him than for me to make a convincing, nuanced argument of the superiority of my policy positions. Or better yet, some anonymous third-party group can make completely false accusations against you, so I can keep my hands clean while my allies tarnish your reputation with lies. Unfortunately, a constitutional amendment is also the only way to solve this problem - something along the lines of 100% public funding for political campaigns, only candidates are allowed to run campaign ads, and candidates are only allowed to talk about their own positions, not their opponents' - the only time the candidates can attack their opponents' positions is face-to-face, in debates. I don't expect for these things to happen, as they would entail a substantial redefinition of the understanding of free speech and the political process in this country, but it would make U.S. political discourse far less stupid.

So, if the only thing we learn from the Tucson shooting about U.S. political discourse is that it's dumb, and if these problems can only be solved by constitutional amendments, what actionable lessons can we take from this tragedy?

Unfortunately, I think we can only draw two lessons from this shooting:

1) The mental health system in this country sucks. Everyone who ever met this kid Jared Lee Loughner knew that he was extremely unbalanced and probably needed mental health help, but for some reason (I don't know what reason - lack of access to mental health services, lack of a feeling of responsibility among the people around this kid, lack of authority or willingness to commit him against his will, etc.) he didn't get the help he needed. If we want to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future, we need to get mentally unbalanced people the help they need (against their will, if necessary), regardless of their ability to pay.

2) As a country, we have decided that citizens should have access to practically unlimited quantities of assault weapons and ammunition. We don't even regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys. Even the shootings in Tucson don't seem to have changed the American public's mind about gun control. I get it, the NRA won - a sizable chunk of the U.S. public and much of Congress wants for U.S. citizens to have unrestricted access to assault weapons and ammunition. I'm not sure that's such a good idea myself - the hero who disarmed Loughner was almost shot by a would-be vigilante who arrived on the scene just after Loughner had been disarmed, demonstrating the dangers of "give everyone guns" as a public safety strategy - but I guess that's the will of the people.

If you combine those two lessons, it is not hard to conclude that massacres like this are inevitable. We are a big country with lots of people, and a tiny fraction of those people are batsh*t crazy. If you give batsh*t crazy people access to assault weapons, this country will occasionally face massacres like that in Tucson - it's a statistical inevitability. So, unless the U.S. wants to completely change its approach to mental health and/or assault weapons in the hands of citizens, we are just going to have to get used to paying the price of the occasional massacre. Since the U.S. is a pretty violent society, I'm guessing that we'll just stick with the status quo and act "shocked, shocked I tell you" when things like this happen, even though a quick analysis demonstrates that massacres like this are a statistical inevitability.

It sucks, I know, that massacres like this are inevitable - but since we know they're inevitable, can we at least stop pretending to be so shocked when they happen?

Is Killing One Insurgent Worth 250,000 Bullets / $250,000?

Here's another practical exercise in cost-benefit analysis as applied to military matters. U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan apparently shoot at least 250,000 rounds of small- and medium-caliber ammunition for every insurgent killed.

I did an extremely cursory search online, and it looks to me like your average bullet costs about $1 - I am certainly not a munitions expert, so it's possible that the cost of the bullets that U.S. and NATO forces are using cost less than that, but I'd probably guess they're more expensive. So, we'll say that 1 bullet = $1, so killing one insurgent costs on average at least $250,000, and that's before paying for the soldier and all of the other support for the soldier.

So, is killing 1 insurgent worth $250,000? Or might there be better ways to win a war with so much money?

The World According to Fedex

Well, not really, but they've got some neat cartograms up on their site that present our world in new and interesting ways - go check it out!

Truly Epic Historical Revisionism: Glenn Beck Claims 3/5's Clause Was Abolitionist

I usually don't bother dealing with U.S. media idiocies - it would take all day every day to chronicle U.S. cable news inaccuracies. In fact, there are entire non-profit organizations dedicated to debunking the lies that pass for U.S. news coverage nowadays.

However, this is so ridiculous and vile that I couldn't let it pass - I can't believe Beck uttered it out loud:
BECK: Yesterday -- or was it today? I don't even know. It was yesterday that they read the Constitution in Congress. It was today? Read the Constitution in Congress. And it was -- no, it was -- they edited the Constitution, not for time, but because they didn't want to offend anyone. And parts of it were outdated. You got to be kidding me. This, we're getting from the Republicans. Hmm. Parts of it are outdated and parts of it are offensive.
The three-fifths clause was offensive, and so they didn't do it. This shows such a -- either lack of understanding of our history, who the Founders were, what the Constitution says, or it is just cowardice in Washington. Three-fifths clause. African-Americans: three-fifths in the South, three-fifths of a human being. That's an outrage, unless you know why they put that in there. They put that in there because if slaves in the South were counted as full human beings, they could never abolish slavery. They would never be able to do it. It was a time bomb.
Progressives should love that. It was a way to take a step to abolish slavery. It is a tremendous story about our Founders, about the genius of the Constitution -- but that might offend some people, so they skipped it. They skipped it. That's offensive to me. [Fox News'Glenn Beck, 1/6/10]
And in case you don't believe me, here it is coming from his own mouth:



Are you kidding? The 3/5's clause extended the era of slavery because it gave the South way too much power and representation in the pre-Civil War Congress. Southern states had all these slaves that counted as 3/5's of a person when it came to apportioning Congressional representation but couldn't vote for representatives - voting was of course restricted to white males, many of whom owned slaves - so thanks to the 3/5's clause, slaveowners had way more power in the pre-Civil War Congress than they should. This is something that any U.S. 8th grader should understand and be able to explain.

Hmm ... perhaps the job qualifications for nationally-syndicated news pundits should include at least some post-high school education? Or being able to pass a basic U.S. history test?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Boehner Can't Think of a Single Government Program to Cut?

You're going to tell me that, after spending 20 years in Congress and running on a midterm election platform that was almost exclusively focused on the pressing need to cut government spending to the bone, new Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, cannot think of a single government program that we should get rid of right now? Apparently not:



I mean, I could probably name at least a dozen programs I'd cut, and I just moved to DC!

Misconceptions: Don't Be a Victim!

This xkcd comic is so true:


You can protect yourself against common misconceptions by reading this list: protect yourself before it's too late!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How You Know You're Getting Older: Things Babies Born in 2011 Will Never Know

Yahoo! has an entertaining list of things babies born in 2011 will never know.

Many of them are things that I'm happy to see gone: video tapes, movie rental stores, long-distance telephone charges, dial-up Internet service, yellow and white pages, and fax machines.

Others are items that I think of mostly fondly (even if I don't own or use them much anymore either) and can't help but think that something will be lost in the passing of these items/customs/habits: watches, encyclopedias, hand-written letters, talking to one person at a time, and being able to hide.

So yes, I'm feeling a bit antiquated at the moment - what will you miss once the relentless march of progress sweeps it into the dustbin of history?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Poll Time: Republicans' Health Care and Health Reform Repeal

In honor of the Republican's vote to repeal the health reform law this week, I pose the following question:

Should Republicans who want to repeal the health reform law give up their own government-sponsored insurance plans?

I realize that the insurance provided to Congress members is rather similar to employer-provided insurance elsewhere, but as a federal employee, I can tell you that the coverage is excellent, the premiums are pretty low, and that your average American, especially if they don't have any health insurance coverage, would love to be able to buy into Congress members' plans. So, is what's good for the goose good for the gander, or no?

Flowcharts in Everything: How to Find Real Food at the Supermarket

A helpful guide to finding real food at the supermarket:

Rationing Medical Care: Who Do You Trust?

This story from the New York Times is a stark reminder that health care in the United States is carefully rationed - it's just rationed by private insurance companies rather than by public health services, as in many European countries. My personal preference is that I would rather have my health care rationed by public servants who are accountable to me through elections, rather than by private insurers who are first and foremost accountable to their shareholders and then perhaps accountable to me - if I live long enough to sue them, that is, which was not the case for the young girl in the NYTimes article.

Monday, January 17, 2011

How Much Do Illegal Immigrants Cost?

The answer: probably not very much, at least not much compared to actual big-ticket items like defense, Social Security, and Medicare:
Does welfare for immigrants cost us money? Yes, but I think the evidence suggests that these costs are pretty small relative to the benefits from larger markets (here’s one example of evidence). Even if there are no offsetting benefits, by focusing so much attention on it we are kind of like a grocery shopper with debt trouble who loads up his shopping cart with hundreds of dollars worth of extravagant, frivolous, and unhealthy items and then argues for hours with his family over whether they should save $1 a week by purchasing store brand rather than name brand soft drinks. If the body politic were an actual body in need of medical attention, waste from defense and entitlement spending would be compound fractures in both legs while waste from welfare spending for immigrants might be a scraped elbow.
So, it's not that the cost of illegal immigrants doesn't need to be addressed - it certainly does. But, there are much bigger sources of waste that could be addressed first and that would save far more money.

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

On this day, I want to remind everyone of what a radical revolutionary MLK was. As of late, some people have been taking his famous quote - "Judge a person not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their heart" - out of context, using it to argue that MLK would have been against affirmative action or that MLK would have been a strong supporter of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars or some other utter nonsense.

In reality, MLK was staunchly anti-war:
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just."... A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
So, to correct the historical record, here are 10 things that MLK said that would probably still upset many people in this country, and they're a serious reminder of what MLK was really all about:



And as a final reminder from King himself as to what he was all about, here's his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech:



I wish everyone the best on this holiday, and along with MLK, I wish peace, justice, and prosperity for all!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

From the Atlantic: "The Tyranny of Defense Inc."

This is a powerful piece from the January/February 2011 issue of the Atlantic, which begins thusly:
In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower famously identified the military-industrial complex, warning that the growing fusion between corporations and the armed forces posed a threat to democracy. Judged 50 years later, Ike’s frightening prophecy actually understates the scope of our modern system—and the dangers of the perpetual march to war it has put us on.
No matter what you think about defense spending, the entire article is well worth reading. Much of it is composed of quotations from Eisenhower himself:
“Every gun that is made,” Eisenhower told his listeners, “every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Any nation that pours its treasure into the purchase of armaments is spending more than mere money. “It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” To emphasize the point, Eisenhower offered specifics: "The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities … We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people."
I wonder how good we are as a people at deciding between different priorities, and I wonder how many people would choose 30 schools over one bomber (I'm guessing that you could get a lot more schools than that for one bomber now, as I'm pretty sure the cost of weapons systems have increased faster than building construction costs since the 1960s, though I'd be happy to be corrected).

It may be a sign that U.S. defense spending is too high if none other than Reagan's budget director thinks that U.S. defense spending has spun wildly out of control and needs to be reigned in.

As an exercise in opportunity costs, I dug up this old New York Times article from 2007 on the cost of the Iraq war and on what else the money spent on the war could be used for. Here's the graphic from the article - what do you think we should be spending our money on?

The Social Dynamics of Terror, Or, Why We're Afraid All the Time

In short, it's the media's fault:
Today, the proliferation of 24-hour television news networks and the Internet have allowed the media to broadcast such attacks live and in their entirety. This development allowed vast numbers of people to watch live as the World Trade Center towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, and as teams of gunmen ran amok in Mumbai in November 2008. 
This exposure not only allows people to be informed about unfolding events, it also permits them to become secondary victims of the violence they have watched unfold before them. As the word indicates, the intent of “terrorism” is to create terror in a targeted audience, and the media allow that audience to become far larger than just those in the immediate vicinity of a terrorist attack. I am not a psychologist, but even I can understand that on 9/11, watching the second aircraft strike the South Tower, seeing people leap to their deaths from the windows of the World Trade Center Towers in order to escape the ensuing fire and then watching the towers collapse live on television had a profound impact on many people. A large portion of the United State was, in effect, victimized, as were a large number of people living abroad, judging from the statements of foreign citizens and leaders in the wake of 9/11 that “We are all Americans.”
Color me ... not surprised at all. The news networks broadcast what gets them good ratings, however, so maybe there's a substantial percentage of the population that wants to be vicariously traumatized and victimized. In fact, I did this just recently - I watched the unfolding of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords with rapt attention, even though I 1) have never met her; 2) couldn't have named her as a member of Congress before this happened; 3) didn't vote for her, and 4) have never even been to the state of Arizona. Weird ... but more about Gabrielle Giffords in a bit - I'm still sorting out my own thoughts about the past week.

Interesting if Slightly Trite Read: The Price of Everything

Eduardo Porter of The New York Times editorial board just published a new book, The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do. For those of you well-steeped in the intricacies of economics, this book will contain few or no surprises, but for others, it offers an interesting look into how economists think about the world we live in, as well as a number of practical applications of economic thinking.

Bloomberg has a largely positive take on the book, and you can check out the full text of the introduction over at Boing Boing. It probably won't jump to the top of my to-read list, but I might grab the audio book to listen to the next time I'm flying or driving a good distance.