Friday, March 30, 2012

Buying a Lottery Ticket Is a Rational Investment - For Tomorrow Only

For once, it's actually a rational investment to buy a lottery ticket.

Public service announcement - for tomorrow only, buying a lottery ticket is a rational investment.

I noticed that one of my news feeds said that the MegaMillions lottery jackpot has reached an all-time high - an estimated $540 million for the drawing tomorrow, Friday, March 30. The MegaMillions site currently lists the cash-out option at $389 million, which could leave the winner with as much as a $250 million lump-sum payday after taxes.

Most of the time, lotteries are taxes on people who don't understand probability and statistics. But in a situation such as this, that's no longer the case.

With the value of the jackpot so high, the expected value of a lottery ticket is now greater than what it costs to buy a ticket. It costs $1 to buy a ticket, and the expected value of the ticket is $250 million times the odds of winning (1 in 175,711,536) = $1.42.

So, even though my chances of winning are practically zero, the probability theorist in me is compelling me to go out and play the lottery for the first time in my life, since the expected value of a lottery ticket is greater than the cost of the ticket. If you want to please the probability theorist in you, then go play the MegaMillions lottery tomorrow as well, and keep playing until someone hits the jackpot - and if you win, I expect a cut, if my observations on the expected value of a lottery ticket compelled you to buy a ticket ;)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

DC's Mayor Wants Loads More Traffic Cameras - and That's a Great Thing

I want more of these in DC! SO MANY MORE!
GIVE THEM TO ME NOW! Photo Source.

Although I often don't have many kind things to say about Vincent Gray, DC's mayor, there's one thing that he and I agree on - DC would be a much better place if it had many, many more speed cameras, red light cameras, and other automated traffic enforcement. As a DC resident, I wholeheartedly agree.

Gray's proposals come as a part of a plan to balance DC's budget, as reported by WAMU:
Forget taxes and fees; if District Mayor Vincent Gray has his way, D.C.'s budget will balanced in part by speeding cars and late-night alcohol. 
Gray is defended his budget for next year, which aims to close a $172 million shortfall through a combination of cuts and increased revenues, to the D.C. Council yesterday. His  proposed spending plan calls for some controversial proposals, including counting on millions in revenue from new traffic cameras.
The new devices include speed cameras, red light cameras, and even laser cameras that can catch speeding drivers in tunnels. But there's already been push-back on the cameras from AAA Mid-Atlantic and some of the council members, including Muriel Bowser.
"I think we've just gone overboard with this and when our residents see a $30 million expectation of fines, they become increasingly upset too," Bowser told Gray during the hearing.  
But the mayor didn't back down, telling the Council he would like to see traffic cameras eventually cover every part of the city. The bottom line, he said, is that speed cameras aren't for raising revenue, they're for stopping reckless drivers.
"This is a focus on how we protect the people and how we help people feel safe doing the things we say are a part of our sustainability plan," Gray said. "And that is … get people using other than automobiles, and people need to safe doing that."
Although I've always been a big proponent of walking and public transit as the most sensible, cheapest, healthiest, and most environmentally friendly means of personal transportation in cities, living in downtown DC has made me into a near-vigilante when it comes to asserting and defending my rights as a pedestrian - because people in the DC metro area suck at driving. And that's not just me saying that - multiple insurance companies have concluded that DC metro drivers are the worst drivers in the United States.

Everyone in the DC metro area has their opinion as to which state (or in DC's case, non-state) has the worst drivers in the region. Without much surprise, people generally think that people from their same state are the best drivers in the region - and I'm no exception. I'm speaking primarily as a pedestrian, however, as I practically never drive in DC - and I agree with the comments at DCist:
  1. Maryland drivers are the worst - they blast down my residential road at 45+ miles per hour, are totally oblivious to pedestrians, and generally have no regard for anyone on the road but themselves. Most of the times my wife or I have near-misses with cars (when we're trying to cross a road legally in a crosswalk), the offending car is from Maryland.
  2. Virginia drivers are better than Maryland drivers, but not by much. They aren't such extreme speed freaks as Maryland drivers, and they seem to be slightly more aware of pedestrians, but they're still pretty bad.
  3. DC drivers certainly have their flaws, but at least they are somewhat prone to looking for pedestrians trying to legally cross the street before blasting through an intersection, are less likely to treat residential streets as highway bypasses, etc.
As someone who spends a lot of his travel time in DC on foot, I am well aware of how dangerous DC can be for pedestrians - and I'm not sure what can be done about it, other than blanketing the city in traffic cameras that send out automated tickets to all offenders. Even regular police patrols don't seem to do the trick - I regularly see people pulled over for speeding on my residential street, but people continue to zoom down my 25 mph road like it's an extension of 395-N.

There have been a couple of recent events, however, that prompted me to write this blog post, in conjunction with Gray's budget announcement:
  • Last week, a driver (from Maryland) blatantly ran a red light near my apartment, almost hitting my wife, who had had a walk signal for a couple seconds already when the driver blew through the intersection at 40+ mph.
  • This past weekend, my wife and I were crossing the street in a crosswalk (this particular crosswalk has no light). Many of you DC metro drivers are not aware, it seems, that you must stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk if they are in the crosswalk, even if there's no light. My wife and I were halfway through the crosswalk when a driver (from Virginia) gunned his engine to make it through the intersection before we got to his side of the road. I gave the driver a near-universal sign of displeasure at his actions. We kept walking, but the driver stopped his car in the middle of the road, jumped out, and started yelling at us. We kept walking and tried to explain (via yelling, a rather inefficient communication method) that he is required by law to stop in crosswalks for pedestrians, even if there's no light at the crosswalk.
Seriously, people - where do you all learn to drive, that they don't teach you that you have to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, always? I sympathize with you, DC metro drivers - driving in DC literally kills you, slowly, and you waste epic amounts of time and money in and on your car. The solution to those problems, however, is not to try to kill me as I (legally) cross the street - the solution is to figure out how to change your life so you can spend less time in your car.

Some people have cynically argued that the traffic cameras are only about money. Aside from being laughably untrue - so what if it is about money? As a DC resident, I have no problem with soaking Maryland and Virginia drivers through traffic cameras. They endanger our pedestrians and drive on our streets at no cost - well, I, for one, am happy to have their fines contribute to the upkeep of the DC roads they so often drive on.

So, that's what it boils down to - as Greater Greater Washington says: "speed kills, and traffic cameras save lives." As a DC resident, I hope Mayor Gray gets his way and that every street (and therefore pedestrian) in DC is protected by a traffic camera.

Not incidentally, you can read much more on how to improve pedestrian safety in the DC metro area over at Greater Greater Washington.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A TSA Infographic: Licensed to Grope and Pillage

My feelings on the TSA are no secret - I think it's a horrible, useless, wasteful government agency that does nothing to increase safety but does a lot to erode civil liberties and enrich powerful government contractors.

Generally, I wouldn't feel the need to post the below infographic to reiterate my views, but the TSA is throwing around its mammoth weight again to silence its critics, this time with the help of Congress, so I figured I'd post the infographic to give some additional numbers to justify my own criticism of the TSA.

Here's the story, as told by security expert Bruce Schneier:
I was supposed to testify today about the TSA in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. I was informally invited a couple of weeks ago, and formally invited last Tuesday:
The hearing will examine the successes and challenges associated with Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT), the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, the Transportation Worker Credential Card (TWIC), and other security initiatives administered by the TSA.
On Friday, at the request of the TSA, I was removed from the witness list. The excuse was that I am involved in a lawsuit against the TSA, trying to get them to suspend their full-body scanner program. But it's pretty clear that the TSA is afraid of public testimony on the topic, and especially of being challenged in front of Congress. They want to control the story, and it's easier for them to do that if I'm not sitting next to them pointing out all the holes in their position. Unfortunately, the committee went along with them. (They tried to pull the same thing last year and it failed --video at the 10:50 mark.)
In honor of the TSA's cowardly tactics (and Congress's ongoing cowardice), here's an inforgraphic full of anti-TSA information (complete with fun evil-eye imagery), via Daily Infographic:

To quote myself: the TSA is so obviously and completely broken that it should simply be scrapped. I don't know whether the solution is a new government agency or to re-privatize airport security, but the current system as implemented by the TSA is beyond ridiculous - a system in which 100% of flyers, 99.999999999% of which are utterly innocent, are harassed, abused, and/or irradiated by an unaccountable government entity in the name of useless security theater. Furthermore, when thinking about how to spend government dollars, is it a better idea to spend an extra dollar on childhood education, research, or bridges, or on paying the TSA to troll Tennessee highways for non-existent threats?

End the TSA. If you work for the TSA, quit. Don't apply for TSA jobs. Don't fly, if you can avoid it. Enough is enough.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

S#*@ Lobbyists Say

By now, you've surely encountered this Internet meme somewhere on the Interwebz. It's been overdone and rehashed and rehashed again and rehashed some more, and in general, it's gotten quite old and stale. (That said, some of them are hilarious, such as the S#!t White Girls Say ... to Black Girls, Parts One and Two.)

Nevertheless, given the sometimes political nature of this blog (and the sometimes political nature of my federal government job), I thought I'd share this relatively new S#!t People Say video, since it is so perfectly particular to the bizarro world of Washington, DC:

Ha ha ha ... it's funny (and sad, and horrible) because it's true ...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The 1% v. the Average American, Visualized

From Credit Card Expert, via The Big Picture, we have the following infographic, which shows us that the 1% really are very different from everybody else:

I'm surprised by a couple of things - for one, the 1% have WAY more savings and net worth than the average American - WAY more than might be suggested by the difference between 50% and 99% (yes, I'm well aware that median ≠ mean, but close enough for our purposes). Why is this? Because income and wealth are distributed according to a power law, which is why taxes have to be highly progressive, if we are going to prevent the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a select few and leave everyone else with lackluster public education, crumbling infrastructure, and the like.

In addition, the average credit score of the 1% strikes me as awfully low, given their income. Here's the distribution of FICO scores in the United States:


To me, something looks amiss with the credit score statistics in the infographic, but other than that, it all makes sense.

So, what does being in the 1% give you? Mainly, access to a lot more money. In theory, this should free the 1% from money problems and enable them to spend their time and energy on other issues, such as their family, health, etc. - and we see a little bit of that reflected in the above infographic, as the 1% are more likely to be married and have children. The 1% are also twice as likely to have inherited money as the average American - perhaps it takes money to make money, as they say.

P.S. Sorry for the short absence - I've been in Seattle for the past several days, and am trying to get back into the swing of things here in DC. I'll be in DC for a couple of months straight, and then I have more travel planned in the second half of May. It's been/will continue to be a busy winter/spring!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Personal Credit Card Strategy, Or, How To Save at Least 5% On Life

A little bit of strategery (thank you, W.) can save you a lot of money in the long run.

It seems like far more people than normal have been asking me about my credit card strategy recently, so I figured I'd write it all down so that, when asked about this in the future by someone, I can reply in a properly haughty blogger voice, "Oh, you can go read that on my blog."

But seriously, for some reason people have been asking me about these things a lot lately, so here's my advice, for the world to see (though, honestly, this advice really only applies to people in the USA, and you probably need good credit to get most of these cards). I will be the first to admit that the two biggest drawbacks of my credit card strategy are 1) my rewards are spread out among multiple cards, so even though I'm maximizing my total award amount, I sometimes have to wait a while to build up enough rewards on a particular card to redeem them, and 2) this strategy requires slightly more effort and planning than just putting everything on one card. I can live with those two shortcomings, but I certainly understand if you can't.

Also, this strategy assumes that you carry no credit card balances, ever, i.e. that you pay off your credit cards in full every month. If you don't and get charged interest, no rewards anywhere will make up for what you'll pay in interest.

Anyway, with no further ado, here's how, with a little bit of effort, you too can save at least 5% on almost all of your expenses:

My primary card: American Express Blue Cash Preferred.

This is an awesome card. AMEX's customer service is legendary, and rightfully so. But more importantly, for the purposes of this post, this card gives you unlimited 6% cash back on groceries, 3% cash back on gas and at department stores, and 1% cash back on everything else. My wife and I eat almost all of our meals at home and spend a lot on groceries, so it's well worth it to us for that alone. The downside is that there is a $75 annual fee, but you get additional cards on the same account for free. If you spend more than $25/week on groceries (and who doesn't?) you'll more than make back the annual fee in a year. And they're currently offering a $150 sign-up bonus, which is more than I got when I originally signed up for the card. Seriously - what are you waiting for? If you ever eat at home, get this card. And email me for a referral link, please ;)

Because of AMEX's awesome customer service, I also put all of my random charges (i.e. that don't go on one of the below cards) on this card.

My Travel Card: PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express.

I'm actually rather new to this card - my previous main travel card was a Capital One card that, unfortunately, is no longer available. I end up flying a good deal, so I wanted a card that maximizes the rewards I get on airfare, without locking me in to one carrier - and this card gives you 5 points for every dollar spent on airfare with any airline (essentially, 5% cash back). It also offers premium-level travel insurance (including baggage and delay insurance) at no extra cost. It even has no foreign transaction fee, although as an AMEX, it's not terribly useful once you actually are abroad. All of this for no annual fee!

What's the catch? You have to be a member of the Pentagon Federal Credit Union. But, lots of people are eligible for free membership - have you ever donated blood? Congratulations, you're eligible. You just have to stick $5 in a regular share account with PenFed before you can get your hands on this card.

My Rotating Cards: Chase Freedom, Citi Dividend Platinum Select, and Discover It.

All of these cards are basically the same - they offer 5% cash back (limited, unfortunately, to $1,500 in eligible spending per quarter) on purchase categories that change every quarter. They're also a little irritating in that you have to sign up every quarter for the 5% cash back, but oh well - having all three gives you 5% cash back on a bunch of different categories every quarter, which is handy. Sometimes, the categories are quite awesome (e.g. charitable donations, restaurants, or and sometimes they're less awesome (e.g. theme parks or toy stores), so at the beginning of a quarter, I pick which 1-2 cards I'll actually bother to carry with me that quarter. Oh, and importantly - none of them have an annual fee.

Other cards you may want:

If you travel abroad, even just occasionally: any Capital One card with no annual fee. Capital One used to have a great travel card, but they've reworked their card lineup, and none of them are terribly interesting anymore. But, if you go abroad, even just occasionally, you'll want a Capital One card (whichever Visa or Mastercard looks good to you with no annual fee) because Capital One is the only major credit card issuer that doesn't charge any foreign transaction fees! Other cards can charge 3%+ in foreign transaction fees, which can add up fast when you're on vacation.

If you drive a ton: a card that gives you 5% cash back on gas. PenFed has two cards like this - one that gives rewards in the form of points and the other as cash back. I don't drive terribly much, so I just stick with my AMEX's 3% cash back or the 5% cash back from my rotating cards, but if you drive enough, you may want to always be able to get 5% back on gas. If so, take your pick of these PenFed cards - neither has an annual fee - though the membership requirements for these cards are the same as with my airline travel card described above.

If you stay in hotels frequently: a hotel rewards card. When I travel, I almost always stay with friends or family, so I don't have much use for a hotel rewards card - but if you're a semi-frequent hotel-goer, it may be a good idea to get one. I'd probably go with the AMEX Starwood Preferred Card, but you can pick your own favorite hotel chain, if you want. The downside with almost all of these is that they almost always have an annual fee, so you'd need to use them a decent amount to make it worth having one.

At least one card from each major credit card type. Yes, this means you will have at least 4 credit cards, maybe more. However, each of the major credit card types (AMEX, Visa, MasterCard, and Discover) have been pushing brand-specific promotions more and more often, and some of them have been pretty nice. Here are a few deals I've taken advantage of in the past few months:
  • 15% cash back at Groupon from Discover
  • $25 free to spend at a small business from AMEX
  • $10 off $50 at Amazon from MasterCard
Though it's a little irritating to juggle so many cards, you can only take advantage of brand-specific promotions if you have the right card. So, you might want to be sure to have one of each lying around somewhere.

Well, you now know all my credit card secrets - I hope you find the above information useful, and I hope it helps save you some serious cash over the long-term. (Now, if only I could figure out a way to get 5% cash back on my rent ...)

Oh, and if you're in the market for an AMEX or Discover and want to support the blog, please shoot an email to the address in the upper right part of the blog and I'll send you a referral link - thanks!

Post-publishing Ninja Edit: After publishing this post, someone pointed me to a nice card I didn't mention above - the Citi Forward card. It gives you 5% cash back on restaurants and (along with a few other entertainment categories). I may add this card to my lineup, if I can convince my wife to let me get yet another card - and it seemed nice enough to let you all know about it too.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Fellow HKS Grad TED-Talks About How Millennials Are Paralyzed by Choice

I just wanted to take a minute to give a nod to a fellow HKS and classmate of mine, Priya Parker, who did a very interesting TEDx talk on the existential crises facing high-performing, privileged Millennials today.

About the talk, from the video's webpage:
Priya Parker argues this generation of leaders suffers from an abundance of choice and a fear of choosing that prevents us from fulfilling our potential. She shares a very personal story of burnout and what she has learned about living life with purpose and intention.
And the video itself:

If you're looking for an alternative presentation of these ideas, she's also got a blog post over at one of the CNN blogs. Some of the key points:
I recently completed a year-long study of the values and behaviors of the world’s next generation of leaders – the most talented, educated, capable Millennials. I was curious about how this rising cohort of leaders makes decisions and plots the future. I concentrated on dual degrees, or graduates of elite master’s degree programs in both business and public policy.
These are people in their late twenties and early thirties who have usually worked in both the public and private sectors, lived in multiple countries, and passed through some of the most prestigious organizations on earth (the Gates Foundation, McKinsey & Co., offices of prime ministers and presidents).
What I found was a rising generation of elite leaders who bring wonderful new gifts to the table – more empathy than their predecessors, more worldliness, more pragmatism for an angry, ideological age. But I also found my generation of young leaders paralyzed, hesitant, and unwilling stick their necks out and lead on the big questions of our time: how to build a more equitable and sustainable capitalism, how to manage the transition to a post-Western world, how to extend prosperity to developing countries without pushing the planet over the brink.
But strange anxieties are getting in the way of these ambitions – none more prominently than something called FOMO. It is the “fear of missing out,” and it has been written about by others (including in an article about SXSW last year) as a phenomenon caused by social media. These media show them all the cool places they could be and cool things they could be doing, which always seem better than where they now are. However, my research shows that FOMO is leaking out of the technology realm and becoming a defining ethic of a new generation.
“Am I setting up my adult life to be the way that it could optimally be?” one of my subjects asked aloud, speaking of her general approach to life decisions. This subject explained how FOMO could even invade the pursuit of a spouse: “On the personal side, there’s this fear of ‘Am I committing to the right person?’”
More and more, particularly among those who have yet to make those big life decisions (whom to marry, what kind of job to commit to, where to live), FOMO and FOBO – the “fear of better options” – are causing these young leaders to stand still rather than act. “The way I think about it metaphorically is choosing one door to walk through means all the other doors close, and there’s no ability to return back to that path,” one subject told me. “And so rather than actually go through any doorway, it’s better to stand in the atrium and gaze.”
Generally, I like to feel that I do a pretty good job maximizing my personal happiness and contentment rather than focusing on maximizing my productivity, output, and/or professional accomplishments at the expense of my happiness, family, contentment, health, etc. However, I do have the occasional existential crisis (though they rarely last more than an hour or two) about whether what I'm doing "matters enough" - even though my work is to help feed 75+ million hungry Americans. So, I'm not sure anyone from my generation and with my level of education is entirely immune to these feelings, in spite of where they are, what they're doing, how successful an impartial observer would declare them to be, etc.

Anyway - thanks, Priya, for putting into words and getting some empirical evidence behind the feelings that so many of us struggle with, at least occasionally, if not acutely.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

FOX News: "Regarding Gas Prices, Obama Is Omnipotent; Bush Was Impotent"

It's been a rough day today, so the post is a bit on the short side - I apologize. I just wanted to call attention to this entertaining little bit from Media Matters, which outlines the extent to which FOX News thinks the power of the President changes depending on who sits in the Oval Office:
Following GOP strategy, Fox News is again blaming the Obama administration for rising gasoline prices -- a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by energy analysts. But back in the summer of 2008, when the average U.S. gasoline price hit a record high of $4.11, Fox said that "no President has the power to increase or to lower gas prices."
In 2008, Fox's coverage occasionally even mirrored the facts: expanding domestic oil drilling will notsignificantly lower prices, and the only way to reduce our vulnerability to gas price spikes is to use less oil. Perhaps there was more room for reality-based coverage at Fox when there wasn't an incumbent president to defeat?
To the video evidence! In 2008, when Bush was in office and gas prices reached record highs, FOX News reporting on the topic was reasonably accurate - they said that the President has no power to raise or lower gas prices, that gas prices are set by the market through the laws of supply and demand, that drilling for more oil will have almost no effect on the price of gas, etc. etc.:

My, how times change when there's a Democratic President. Suddenly, Obama has the power to call forth gasoline angels from the sky or devils from hell to lower or raise gas prices at his whim, and gas prices are reaching a record high because that is his own personal desire. Supply and demand, increased demand from developing countries, political instability and uncertainty in oil-producing countries (and war-mongering against Iran) - these have no effect on gas prices now that a Democrat is President; high gas prices are solely Obama's doing:

Hmmm, funny that ... what do you think actually happened - did all of the fundamental dynamics of the oil market change completely in the past four years? Or could it be that, with an incumbent Democratic President to try to defeat this November, FOX News continues to morph into the propaganda wing of the Republican National Committee?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Americans Eat Badly Because We're Lazy, Not Because We're Poor

Who would you rather be? What relationship with food do you want to have?

A new study just published in Public Health Nutrition gives some surprising results about what prompts people to and prevents people from eating healthily.

In what undoubtedly will have consequences for the work I do, Ezra Klein summarizes the findings:
The study’s authors looked at fruit and vegetable consumption in six low-income, primarily minority neighborhoods in Chicago, and they found that convenience was key among those who eat more produce. Participants who agreed that they had “convenient access to quality” produce were more than twice as likely to eat the FDA-recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, compared to those who said they did not have such access.

What didn’t matter, though, was the price of produce. Those who reported high cost as a barrier to the consumption of produce ended up eating just as much as those who didn’t.
“In fact, perceived cost was not associated with dietary intake among this predominantly minority and low-income audience,” write Jonathan Blitstein, Jeremy Snider and W. Douglas Evans. “Respondents who agreed that cost was a barrier to eating fruits and vegetables did not report lower dietary intake than respondents who disagreed that cost was a barrier.”
Mark Bittman recently pointed out in the NYTimes that junk food isn't cheaper than healthy food: "a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. ...You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people."

The problem, as Bittman sees it, is that "cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch." My wife and I eat really well, practically all the time - both in terms of health and flavor. My friends and coworkers marvel when I bring in leftovers or describe what we had for lunch or dinner, especially on the weekends. One of the big reasons for this is that my wife sees cooking as an enjoyable hobby, not as an odious task to be performed in order to prevent us from starving. Sometimes, she'll even get up on Saturday or Sunday and say, "I feel like cooking all day today." And she will - and the result will be roasted leg of lamb, lemon custard, fruit tarts or pies, something with lobster or shrimp, etc., and there's usually enough of it for several meals/lunches later in the week. If you approach cooking like that, then it's easy to put in the work needed to eat really well.

All of this means that solving the problem of poor nutrition in the US is a monumentally complex task - it's as much about changing Americans' food culture and our collective relationship with food as much as anything else. It's not something that can be solved by simply giving the poor more money or building nice grocery stores everywhere (though that does help, according to the study cited above) - we have to re-learn why food is important and how to love and appreciate good food. I don't know how to do that, but I can say that the current food culture in many U.S. schools does nothing to help the situation. Kids are often given 30 minutes for lunch, which often breaks down thus: 5 minutes to get to the cafeteria, 10 minutes standing in line and paying for food, 10 minutes to eat, and 5 minutes to walk back to class. If a child has to consume most of his or her lunches in 10 minutes, it's simply not possible to develop a positive relationship with food.

Friday, March 2, 2012

You Might Be Politically Irrational If ... and What You Can Do About It

[Personal note: so, I'm back from Europe. I had a great trip - a huge thanks to my Belgian friends for hosting me and showing me such a good time. If you're interested in beer at all, it's worth traveling to Belgium for a week just to sample the beer, if nothing else - Belgians brew such interesting and flavorful beers that are available nowhere else. If you consider yourself a beer connoisseur, you must go there! I did manage to bring back a European head cold with me, but I'm trying to post in spite of it.]

This TED video was posted while I was away, and it's an awesome video that everyone should watch.

About the video, from the YouTube description:
Michael Huemer focuses on the scope and nature of what we know, morality and truth. He is an expert at structuring logical arguments the premises of which are easy to go along with, which makes it annoying if you don't agree with his conclusions. We'll let you decide. In this TEDxMileHigh Talk, he details the irrationality of politics.
And the video itself:

He says that a good example of political irrationality is the War on Terror: "If you have a policy that kills seventy times as many people as the problem that you're trying to solve, then that's usually a prima facie indicator that it might be an irrational policy."

He gives a checklist of indicators that you might be engaging in political irrationality:
  1. Do you get angry during political discussions?
  2. Do you have strong opinions about a subject before acquiring relevant evidence?
  3. Do you seek information only from sources you agree with?
  4. Do you think that people who disagree with you must be evil?
Some people might accuse me of being politically irrational - but I think they'd be wrong. I can get angry during political discussions, I'll admit - but my anger often stems from the utter stupidity that I often face in political discussions, when the other side refuses to accept facts as facts. An example from a conversation that my brother and I once had with my (conservative) father - he swore (and probably still swears) that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That is simply not true - but how can you have a political discussion with a person who has their basic facts about reality so wrong? That's the kind of thing that makes me angry.

I do better on the other questions, for the most part - I have strong opinions about most subjects, but then again, I've spent a lot of time gathering political information (I even spent a few years at grad school doing little else other than gathering political information), and I'll usually refrain from forming an opinion about something until I know more about it. I'm even willing to change my opinions on things - for example, I used to be very skeptical of free trade, but after learning more about it, I'm now a big proponent of free trade and am very anti-protectionist (the second example of political irrationality from the video above). I also used to think that the auto bailout was a terrible idea and doomed to failure, but I'll admit that I was wrong, and it's been a much greater success than I ever thought possible.

I also seek information from sources I don't necessarily agree with, though I admit I find that tough to do sometimes, as I don't bother seeking information from sources that deny or question the basic facts of reality. Therefore, most of the conservative viewpoints I read come from the conservative "elite" - conservative economists and a few select columnists who might put their own spin on things, but at least they get the basic facts right.

I also don't think that most people who disagree with me are evil - I just think most of them are ignorant. I do think a few of them are evil, since I think they consciously and deliberately manipulate the ignorance of the masses for their personal financial and political gain - examples include Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck - as these guys lie about basic facts to promote their twisted agendas.

So why are people politically irrational, other than those who manipulate intentionally for their own gain? Here is Huemer's explanation:
  1. Political information is costly to acquire (i.e. becoming educated on political matters takes time and money).
  2. In addition, rationality is costly - it prevents us from believing what we want to believe, and it requires serious cognitive effort to overcome biases.
  3. People accept costs only when the expected rewards exceed the costs.
  4. The expected rewards of political information are negligible - practically zero. Voters realize that their personal probability of influencing public policy is approximately zero - perhaps just slightly above zero.
  5. Therefore, people don't collect reliable political information and thereby remain politically ignorant and act in politically irrational ways.
It all makes sense, but when vast swaths of the public remain politically ignorant and irrational, they remain very susceptible to demagogues, charlatans, and other people who desire to exploit their ignorance for their own financial or political gain. This collective ignorance of the voting public imposes HUGE costs on society:
  • We do things like fight the War on Terror when those resources would be better spent elsewhere.
  • We engage in protectionist trade policies when we should promote free trade across the world.
  • We deny the reality of global warming when practically all scientists agree that it's happening and that its costs will be astronomical (and perhaps cataclysmic) if we do nothing.
  • And so on.
People on both the left and the right engage in political irrationality and denialism, but the research that has been done on the topic concludes that people on the right are more likely to act irrationally and to cling to their irrational beliefs when presented with information that contradicts their beliefs than are people on the left - there seems to be something about people on the right that makes them "irredeemably incompetent at accepting scientific information that conflicts with their bias."

Unfortunately, combating political irrationality and denialism (on either the left or the right) is difficult; Huemer suggests that the best approach is to address the fact that people are being irrational, rather than to attack their irrational beliefs directly. Other social scientists agree:
The only effective strategy when one faces cranks and denialist ideas is to create awareness of the problem of denialist arguments themselves and to teach people, from an early age, not to respond to these forms of defective reasoning. If there is a broader rejection of these types of arguments, and promoters of denialist arguments are marginalized and excluded from reasoned debate for the cranks they are, then maybe we will have some chance of bringing public debates on science back into some semblance of sanity.
Sigh - I certainly hope we can, before it's too late! (Hey, I never claimed to be above a little [harmless] demagoguery myself.)