Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Every now and again in the lab, you'll have a result that jives with all your hypotheses, that points towards some interesting conclusion that might explain some tiny part of how this world works, and that other people might be interested in. Those are good moments... rare, but good.

The flip-side of that feeling, however, is the realization that the result might not mean what you think it means (inconceivable!). These realizations stink, because they tend to point towards an experiment that you don't want to do and don't want to 'work' because proving yourself wrong is never fun. These are moments of dread, when you have these thoughts, but these are also, fortunately, rare.

I just had one of those moments. I've been thoroughly enjoying the Sarah Palin Experience. The interviews with Charlie & Katie were great, but I loved having another reason to watch Tina Fey. I already thought she was great from SNL and 30 Rock, but now I love her even more. So today, when I clicked on another episode of Sarah Palin with Katie Couric, I was horrified when for a split second I liked Sarah Palin -- not because it was Sarah Palin, but because in my mind I saw Tina Fey and that made me smile, instead of vomit in terror that the actual Sarah Palin could be the actual president. Given how easy it is for the human brain to work on the emotional level instead of the rational one, I really really hope that this is not a common occurrence.

Ignorance and fear

A friend points me to a recent article by Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post. There's a paragraph I find particularly insightful:

What we are discovering is that all the complex securities, combined with ever-greater international investment flows, have created a global financial system "so arcane that few people can understand its workings," David Smick writes in "The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy." The difference between now and two years ago is that financial managers then thought they understood the system; now they know they don't. Ignorance breeds risk-aversion and fear.

This highlights one of the reasons we need government to keep an eye on the financial sector and do a vigorous job of adapting and enforcing the rules. This is, of course, quite different from attempting to plan the economy in any way. The problem with the Republican party of the past twenty or so years is that any rules were to be avoided and the market should be left entirely to its own devices -- of course, even Adam Smith himself never advocated such a system, and indeed, thought that the state was an important part of the market.

One thing I find odd about the various bailout proposals is that none of them (as far as I can tell, correct me if I'm wrong) seek to eliminate mortgage-backed securities as an investment tool. If one believes that they really are the root cause of this crisis, then shouldn't we just say, huh, I guess they are a bad financial instrument, we should eliminate them and just go back to the way mortages were handled thirty years ago? It is not like people weren't buying homes thirty years ago. I have no idea how one would go about eliminating them, and they might be so entrenched into the system that they really couldn't be abolished, in the same way that the QWERTY keyboard is a horribly inefficient layout but we're now pretty much stuck with it, or the way our eyes have a blindspot because the optic nerve passes in front of the light receptors.

Turing test

The questions of what it means to be alive is something that humans have puzzled and puzzed over for years. Descartes came up with "I think therefore I am" but because he said it in Latin, no one took him seriously.

Fast forward many years, and computer heads started thinking about how do we tell if a computer is alive (you know, like in the Terminator movies), and a guy named Alan Turing came up with what is now known as the Turing Test. The idea is pretty simple: if you sit in a room and 'talk' to a computer (over, say, IM) could you tell if the writer on the other end were a computer or a person. If you can't tell, then the computer has passed the Turing Test.

I'm very happy to report that this bar has now been crossed... if all humans were Sarah Palin. Using an analysis of her word usage in speeches and interviews, this site randomly generates Sarah Palin-like answers. Quite accurate, really. And scary.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Weekend cobwebs

I really don't know why MLB has decided to put the Red Sox first playoff game on at 10pm eastern time on Wednesday night (Friday night's at 9:30). There are certainly more Sox fans in the east coast than there are Angels fans in the west coast. And if the Angels can't fill a stadium for a mid-afternoon playoff game, then that's their problem (think Fenway or Wrigley wouldn't be full for an afternoon playoff game?)

Oh yeah, and Beckett is out for game 1, and I'm skeptical that he'd be able to pitch by game 3. Blech.

I'm sure by tomorrow morning I'll have figured out this whole bailout thing. But really, we're all just looking forward to Thursday night's debate, which I will live-blog and hopefully not choke to death from laughter.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Wild Card round

Angels picked the 'three starters' series, so the Sox will open in Anaheim on Wednesday, October 1, time TBD. There's really no point to having both Wakefield and Byrd in this case, and I really don't know who they'll leave off the roster. This also increases the chances of a third catcher (Kotteras?) making the team.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Live blogging Debate I, the sequel

10:39 - Okay, Sarah Palin on Oct. 2. Can't wait. G'night.

10:37 - That's it. Okay, McCain probably had a slightly better performance, but certainly not anything that changes the fundamentals of this race. Let's see what Chuck Todd says.

10:36 - Ah yes, McCain was in prison. Who knew... yes, then you screwed your bipartisan partner, Kerry, in '04

10:35 - Are we on TBS time? It is 5 past, why is this still going on?

10:32 - Experience, knowledge, judgement--- one out of three ain't bad

10:31 - The Chinese are sneaky, but I doubt they are blending in well in South America. Ah, back to the economy, well done.

10:30 - Missile defense did not end the Cold War you dufus. Back to the Obama doesn't get it refrain (effective, I'd say, at least in this forum)

10:29 - Sam Nunn would be spinning happily in his grave, were he to be dead.

10:28 - "So that we don't ever torture ever AGAIN" -- admits that we have been torturing

10:27 - Safer but a long way from safe... oh please, Joe Lieberman isn't across the aisle, he's currently in your rectum.

10:26 - Nuclear waste... Nevada has 5 electoral votes

10:25 - A bridge... in general bad idea to use the word exploit when talking about natural resources

10:24 - I hate it when things alliterate, like "pain" and "pump"

10:23 - We can't drill baby drill? Damn, that sounded like fun.

10:21 - Fun fact: Kramer mocking Newman's hold on the Ukraine in a game of Risk on the Metro leads to the destruction of the board by a Ukranian

10:18 - McCain's insistence on Obama's naivete is effective, and I'm surprised that Obama hasn't been more forceful in answering it. The K-G-B in his eyes is somewhat Spectra-esque

10:17 - Actually, I'd love a return to the Cold War, because I really wanna see Top Gun II

10:15 - Fuck, that sucked.

10:14 - No, Obama, reply to the naive comment... McCain is closing strong now, and Obama is left mumbling to himself...

10:13 - What, height differences? And when did Kissinger become the gold standard in all things foreign affairs?

10:13 - Naive and dangerous... Obama needs to combat that

10:12 - Those damn Spaniards! My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!

10:11 - North Korea is a great example for Obama to point to, I mean, in many areas, they've pretty much done what Obama has suggested on many foreign relations issues.

10:10 - Bipartisan history of direct diplomacy... sounds good.

10:08 - Have sanctions ever worked? Ever? Ah, yes, Russia and China, we may need to get them on board.

10:07 - My lab has 6 centrifuges

10:06 - Ironically... IrAnically...

10:05 - Yes, let's leave Russia and China out and I'm sure that won't come back to bite us. BTW, have you asked the French and Germans about this league, because in general, they really don't like us...

10:04 - League of Democracies, like my younger brother, Woodrow Wilson proposed...

10:03 - Please don't say you'll bomb Iran....

9:59 - These stories are dull.

9:57 - In 1983, I think "Centerfold" was a top hit by the J. Geils Band. Maybe '82.

9:56 - Okay, an hour in, and I don't see any game changing events having occurred...

9:55 - If you love General Petraus so much, why don't you marry him? Or better yet, why doesn't he run for prez?

9:55 - Alexander the Great was quite gay.

9:54 - McCain isn't prepared to threaten Pakistan, but we can bomb the f' out of Iran...

9:53 - "Freedom fighters" = opium druglords

9:52 - Shit, Obama is counting on his fingers like Bill Richardson. I hope he doesn't grow jowels.

9:50 - Strategy, tactic, lockbox, strategery, whatever.

9:49 - Obama, don't raise your finger, just f'ing speak up!

9:48 - No, really, when I get a beer?

9:46 - Obama, talk up! Respond vigorously! Here we go... Ah, timetable! I swear, this is the second time that Obama has mentioned bin Laden being free in the past tense... hmm, conspiracy...

9:45 - I don't know the difference between a tactic and a strategy... nor do I know how this ceremony shows the difference between the two. McCain is looking good right now (because he's saying what he actually believes)

9:45 - Pulls the Biden card, but doesn't put it on the table (?) Obama seems a bit fired up about this stuff. I like the repitition of 'you were wrong' He's getting McCain pissed.

9:44 - McCain scores a point regarding the surge... kinda... Obama will have to go into too much detail to refute this

9:43 - Are they taking a break soon? My beer has been dry for way too long.

9:42 - $600 billion in Iraq. Hmm, that's a lot of dough.

9:41 - Iraq will be our ally? I dunno... I mean, they probably will be too fragmented and weak to declare war on anyone anytime soon, but I doubt they'll be jumping up to help us in anyway

9:40 - John McCain: "you can't have a failed policy" -- mindblowing.

9:38 - John McBush. McCain is about to explode.

9:38 - I have plans. Secret plans. Hidden in a pumpkin.

9:36 - McCain clearly gets sidetracked when he repeats a line he's been given, because he doesn't know how to transition from that line to what the question actually asked.

9:35 - "Rule" the country? Jeez, Bush really has changed this country.

9:34 - No, please not another president who can't pronounce nuclear

9:33 - McCain things windtidesolarflexfuel is one word.

9:32 - Okay, I like Jim's insistence, kinda, but this is bordering on one of those hypotheticals that is impossible to answer. Good call on bringing up Iraq.

9:31 - I think Google is actually running the world. Which is fine with me.

9:30 - Good call Jim, neither has said anything about what would be cut.

9:28 - McCain will cut spending. McCain will eliminate ethanol subsidies (which is fine with me) but he offically said Good-Bye to Iowas 7 EVs (which had already occurred, he's had this posiiton for a long time)

9:26 - What will you give up because of bailout? Good question. Okay, top priorities for Obama - energy independence and alt. energy (note he didn't say nuclear, which he ususally does), and heath care, and education (hmm, hasn't said what we're putting off.... you wanna eat your cake?). Oh,and #4, roads, internet, electrical grid. Eh, vague answer.

9:25 - Not sure who's winning yet... IF we are giving to oil companies, THEN we can't give to you -- good contrast

9:24 - Kinda surprised Obama didnt' jump on McCain's definition of rich (which he had defined as 5 million a year)

Okay, new posts on top!

Live blogging Debate I: [insert incest joke here]

From a state best known as a counting device used for timing blitzes in backyard football games, Mississippi brings you the first presidential debate...

8:49 - How long will it take for Talking Head to note that one candidate is taller than the other? And that this sometimes predicts who wins the campaign!

8:51 - T. Boone Pickins just asked me to join him on his website after the debate. You know, if 1992 never happened, he would have just run for president, but H. R. Perot ruined that dream for all of us.

8:52 - Channel of choice? Wish it were MSNBC, but they're not hi-def. Can't stand Wolf Blitzer, so CNN is out (I'm still pissed at him for one of the Dem. primary debates, where he talked more than the candidates combined). I'll have to go network. NBC... get SNL previews at least. Kinda surprised that Hammond can't do a better McCain.

8:55 - Chris Matthews: "Obama can't get the racist vote." Wow, he should run for Senate or something.

8:56 - Catch the next installment of Sarah Palin with Katie Couric? She uses 'specifically' like Joe Biden uses 'literally' and the way the rest of us use 'um'

8:58 - Just so I'm on record, I've often said that Obama is not a good debater, at least when compared to Hillary. Of course, McCain isn't a good debater either. Let's see if Obama has learned something from the primaries and stepped up his game.

9:00 - I feel like this is a playoff game. 30 seconds...

9:02 - Yay direct exchanges. That bugged me about the Kerry-Bush debates. Why couldn't they talk to each other? Oh look, Obama's taller. And darker.

9:04 - Eisenhower is an underrated president. His farewell address (warning against the military-industrial complex) is downright prescient.

9:05 - Obama pretty much repeating the Dodd plan, at least the basics. Nice dig at the current GOP ideology. Uses 'fundamentals of the economy' phrase, well done.

9:06 - McCain tries to say that there is currently bipartisanship in DC on this bailout... not claiming credit.... yet... he thinks it is a nice package (heh)... bailout to create jobs to no more foreign oil in literally 10 words

9:08 - Obama asks how we got here in the first place. Not sure if answering the question of what to do next by saying what we did wrong in the past is the right answer... could have been more 'forward' in that respsonse. McCain says he too say this trainwreck coming... and now gives us an Ike-based history lesson. I don't get what point he's making, didn't take the opening Obama gave him to talk about solutions instead of the past.

9:11 - Obama has decided (rightly) to make sure that everyone knows McCain is a Republican and has been in Washington for 26 years. Right move, strategically.

9:12 - I like how Lehrer is attempting to get them to talk to each other.

9:14 - Exporter importer? Vandelay industries?!

9:15 - Lehrer is good. Very direct. "We have now presided" -- that's right John, the GOP brand blows. HOLY SHIT, DID HE JUST TALK ABOUT THE BEAR DNA THING!!! SARAH PALIN DID THE SAME FOR CRABS!!!! IS HE NUTS????

9:16 - Earmarks, 18 billion; McCain's tax cuts, 300 billion to the rich. Nice point.

9:17 - I like the bottom-up language for tax cuts. Seems smart and free-markety sounding.

9:18 - No, you didn't win Miss Congeniality. But your running mate almost did...

9:21 - Okay, I can't think like an undecided voter, but is this pork-barrel-railing-against converting anyone?

New Thread

Inside scoop

A Washington insider dishes:
Best I can tell, there are only 2 elected people in Washington who are enthusiastic for a bailout: Bush and Dodd (and maybe Frank and maybe Reid). Everyone else in any sort of leadership position is --- at best --- willing to go along but not particularly supportive. This includes McCain, Obama, and Pelosi. The rank and file are either worried and searching for cover (Dem Senate), scared to death and searching for cover (Dem House, most of GOP Senate), trying to fundamentally alter the package (Lieberman, Cantwell, Byrd), actively in opposition (Boenher, rest of GOP House), or actively in revolt (Shelby, Bunning, Pence, etc.). What this means, I don't know. But I do know that bailout electoral ramifications are impossible to divine right now. It could pass or not. It could be called a democratic or GOP initiative. The credit market could seize up or not. It could be considered a "success" or not. We could know before the election or not. There are just too many variables.

There are more than 450 votes that could go either way right now, and it has little to do with what's in the actual bill. It's crazy on Capitol Hill. My lasting image of yesterday is being in a meeting in the Senate and just seeing people running around, everywhere.

So I don't think McCain's (or Obama's) role in the bailout can yet be electorally implicated. Heck, McCain could easily end up leading the charge against the final bailout deal.
Very well-stated summary of who matters and who doesn't on the Hill. I suppose that McCain could emerge from this as the 'winner' but if so, it will have been from dumb luck, not from a Belichickian (or Machiavellian, if you prefer) planning-five-moves-ahead standpoint, and certainly not from a 'actually leading the charge to produce a bill that helps Americans' perspective.

It's On!

McCain says he'll now debate. How utterly predictable. I'll live-blog the event so that Posterity will know what I thought at the time.

Hard place, meet rock

Reports yesterday afternoon signalled that a deal was in the works between the Administration and Congressal leaders (namely, Dodd) and then the circus started, McCain arrived, and the deal fell through. I'm skeptical that they were ever all that close to a deal to begin with, but at the end of the day, nothing had been agreeded upon, and we're now left wondering whether McCain will show up to the debates tonight.

Ignoring for a moment the details of the various bailout proposals (because we don't really know what they are), McCain has put himself in a pretty tough spot. First, it is hard to argue that there is a impending crisis when, day after day, it doesn't manifest -- the Dow didn't drop 20% yesterday, nor Wednesday, nor will it today. I think investors are in a holding pattern because they know that the government is going to do something, so there isn't a massive wave of selling. So now McCain is left to do what, keep predicting doom? That's generally not a good campaign message. Further, not that it was ever likely to happen in the first place, because McCain isn't on the right Senate committee nor in the majority party, the longer this negotiation drags on, the harder it is for McCain to take any credit for it. Anyone paying attention will notice that the key players are some combination of Paulson, Bush, Dodd, Shelby (the ranking Republican on the Senate banking committee), and perhaps Boehner, the House minority leader, who seems to appear in a lot of news stories (his counterpart, Pelosi, seems to largely be deferring to Dodd in this matter, which is probably the right move).

So McCain's 'I'm flying to Washington and I'm going to crack heads' move didn't work, and now there's a debate scheduled for 9pm tonight and his appearance is questionable. Obama has said he'll be there. Is McCain really going to give Obama 90 minutes of free television time with no rebuttals? Obama could make an opening statement saying something to the effect of "I think it is important to talk directly to the American people about this problem, that's why I'm here." He can then take questions from the audience and show his softer side, so people see an image of him talking to actual people rather than from a podium. This forum is probably not Obama's strongest form of delivery, but that's only because he's so damn good at giving speeches. And it is a helluva easier to do the town-hall thing when there's no opponent! Of course, if McCain had chosen a VP whom they trusted, they could pull yet another stunt and send that person (indeed, what better way to show that your VP is Ready for Prime Time), but Sarah Palin can't be trusted, so the McCain campaign won't do that -- but wow, would it be fun if they did!

What are McCain's options? Well, he could give Obama the aforementioned free TV time. Bad move. If he goes to the debate without a deal announcement, then McCain looks like a dope, because he's now a) flip-flopped and b) looked incapable of delivering, of leading. Of course, Dodd knows this, so what's his motivation to rush things along and make an announcement today? I suppose that, in the interest of the party, Bush and various other people could cover for McCain and announce that something is close, all-but-final, etc., thus allowing McCain to save face and go to the debate, but my guess is such a ploy would ring a bit hollow (not that the campaign suspension didn't already ring hollow).

In the end, this whole gamble by McCain, just like his pick of Palin, was incredibly short-sighted, with no appreciation for alternative scenarios where things don't go how you idealize them in your mind. Remind you of anyone?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Super Colon Blow!

A friend writes in:

Perhaps the McCain campaign is going for what Dennis Leary called the "No Feces" approach. His theory was that all our foodstuffs are stuck with the "No xxx" label - no fat, no trans fat, no cholesterol, no no no no. What's next? "No Feces!" The consumer picks up a box of cereal, and sees "No Feces Flakes" - said consumer thinks to themselves, "Gosh, those other cereals must be loaded with feces! I better buy this one."

McCain's strategy seems similar: attempt to convince the electorate that Obama is more concerned with campaigning than with the well-being of this country. This only impresses (I would think) rabid neo-cons who already would vote for McCain, so I'm not sure how it helps him.

I agree, or at least, I hope that no one buys this. But as I noticed on Fox News last night, Dick Morris was already saying that McCain is doing this in order to take credit for whatever deal gets done. He'll say, "look, I said was coming to Washington and that got their butts in gear, what a great leader I am" even though Dodd won't let McCain in the office door. Of course, McCain could also just veto whatever the hell is produced, and then he can go on record as opposing the Bush administration. Of course, all of this is politically motivated and has nothing to do with getting a good bill passed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I choose not to run!

Mr. Bevilacqua, the gym teacher, was down on the other end. He yells out, "Ready, On your mark, Get set," and I was so keyed up, I just took off. By the time he said go I was ten yards ahead of everybody. By the time the race was over I had won. I was shocked nobody had noticed the head start. And I had won by so much a myth began to grow about my speed. Only Duncan suspected something was amiss. He's hated me ever since. Now he's back. In four years of high school I would never race anyone again. Not even to the end of the block to catch a bus. And so the legend grew. Everyone wanted me to race. They begged me. The track coach called my parents. Pleading. Telling them it was a sin to waste my God-given talent. But I answered him in the same way I answered everyone....I choose not to run!!!
Sensing the opportunity to maybe, possibly, wing-and-a-prayer pull their campaign out of reverse, the McCain camp has said that they won't debate unless Congress passes a bill. I don't get it. We've had debates when we've been at war for goodness sake. McCain can't do whatever he needs to do during the week and then take 2 hours out of his life on Friday night to talk to America about what's going on? I don't get it. I certainly don't get it from an actual leadership perspective, but I really don't get it from a winning-elections perspective. Whom does this appeal to?

Let's also note that the plan the McCain camp floated involved pushing back the debate to the date currently scheduled for the VP debate, and moving the VP debate to... um, yeah, we'll get back to you on that. Palin has again looked lost in her interview with Katie Couric, and I think they're scared to death of her getting more TV time (note how she hasn't had a single press conference since being named VP!!!)

As a service to you, I am actually watching Fox News right now, because I honestly have no idea how they'll spin this. First up, Karl Rove on O'Reilly:
Obama might still raise taxes!
Postponing the debate is "risky" notes that Senate isn't in session Friday night.
O'Reilly predicts that McCain will go to DC tomorrow, stick his mouth in things, claim credit for whatever happens, then will debate -- Rove agrees.
[note: Rove looks like hell; good god, watching this is hell]
Oh frack, Dick Morris is next... looks like no more discussion of McCain ducking the debate... I gotta change the channel. Maybe if I were drunk I could watch this longer. But I doubt it. Dick Morris is now saying that McCain should take credit for the bailout... the bailout hasn't happened yet! Oh god, shoot me.

JD Drew is back!

No, seriously, I mean that exclamation point. The Red Sox are a better team with him in the lineup than with some combination of Coco, Ellsbury, and Kotsay.

The Sox clinched a playoff berth last night, and will almost certainly start the postseason in Anaheim, next Wednesday or Thursday. In 2005, the year they were swept in in the divisional round by the ChiSox, no Red Sox fan was surprised: that wasn't a very good team. But this year, like last year, I don't think there's any reason to doubt their ability to repeat. Sure, they're not prohibitive favorites (no one is), but no one will be surprised if they win it all again this year.

Given the way the Divisional Round is scheduled (2-2-1 format), the Sox might get a chance to use their Game 1 starter in Game 4, and their Game 2 starter in Game 5, given which of the two schedules they are assigned to. While Beckett is the clear-cut Game 1 starter, one could make the case for either Lester or DiceK for Game 2. If one were to only look at DiceK's headline stats, you'd say wow, what a pitcher: 18-2, 2.80 ERA, 149 Ks. Hell, were it not for Cliff Lee's insane year, he might even be talked about as a Cy Young candidate. But I'm sure that pretty much every Sox fan would feel much more comfortable, in a must-win game, with the ball in Jon Lester's hand (15-6, 3.26, 148 Ks). Even digging deeper into the stats doesn't tell you why Lester is more trusted than DiceK, as their WHIP and OPS against are as similar as their headliners. I guess there's an implicit bias against walks (DiceK walks a ton of guys, but gives up fewer hits), because they are damn frustrating to watch. But from any objective standpoint, it is hard to say that one is clearly superior than the other. Given that DiceK tends to pitch better on the road (game 2) and Lester tends to pitch better at Fenway (game 3), I imagine that's the way Francona will use them, but really, it is hard to say that one is any better than the other. Of course, if one used stats alone, then based on this year's performance Josh Beckett would be your game 3 or possibly even game 4 starter.

Another decision that needs to be made is how to allocate the 25 guys you're allowed to carry. You certainly don't need 5 starters, and depending on the schedule you're dealt, you might not even need 4. Let's start with the knowns:
Starters (3): Beckett, DiceK, Lester
Outfield (5): Bay, Crisp, Drew, Kotsay, Ellsbury -- given Drew's back issues, they have to carry 5
Infield (6): Lowell, Lowrie, Pedroia, Youkilis, Cora, Casey
Catcher & DH (3): Varitek, Cash, Ortiz
Bullpen (5): Papelbon, Okijima, Delcarmen, Masterson, Lopez

So that's 22 definites out of 25 spots. But there's still Wakefield, Byrd, Timlin, & Aardsma to take care of. One of (Wake, Byrd) is your game 4 starter, while the other is your blow-out/extra-inning guy. I'm not really sure what role Timlin would have, so he may be the odd-man out. Last year, the Sox did carry an extra catcher, so they may do that again this year. I suppose the reasoning is that both Varitek and Cash are black holes at the plate, and you'd like to be able to pinch-hit for one of them in a crucial situation (especially when you have good pinch hitters, like Casey & Kotsay on the bench), but if you only have one back-up, you probably can't.

As for lineup construction, if you assume that either Crisp or Ellsbury will be in CF for a given game (and I'm not sure how Francona will decide when to start which one, as they're pretty similar), I don't want our CF batting lead-off. If you'll remember back to mid-August, before Drew went down, Tito had him leading off quite a bit, making for a nice L/R combo of Drew, Pedroia, Ortiz, & Youk, and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing that lineup make a comeback for the playoffs.

Only one pie

Another friend writes about the current financial mess. The second paragraph in particular is interesting, as it raises two key points. First, there's the direct cost of the government spending 700 billion on this bailout that could probably be put to better purposes -- building roads, better compensating military veterans, direct stimulation of research. But then there's also the indirect costs, of various funding foundations having their bottom line hurt by their investments, which will affect sciences, the arts, higher education, poverty relief, etc. etc. No one's going to feel terribly bad if Harvard's endowment takes a hit (it is something on the order of $30 - $40 billion, currently), but multiply that by all sorts of agencies that serve the greater good, and you're talking about a real problem.

I think its like doing experiments without controls, the data looks awesome when it means whatever you want it to mean. I have been listening to a lot of On point radio shows on this and all these "experts" are saying that "on main street" (which is really condescending to me) people are going to have to tighten their belts and they borrowed too much to have a good life, etc, etc. Kind of like they are spreading the blame around to everyone. But subprime mortgages only account for about 3% of mortgages out there. Another thing, in the past decade or so worker productivity has increased 20% and but "average real income" has actually decreased. Only the top 10% of wage earners experienced an increase. So, maybe if some of these CEO or other rich wall street types had passed on some of the wealth that their workers generated they might not have been so susceptible to predatory lending. I also really like Michelle Singletary's personal finance column in the Washington post. Another random fact, the guy that authored the bill allowing for Credit default swaps (why AIG had to be bailed out) is Phill Gramm, one of McCain's top economic advisors.

I keep thinking how might this actually affect me. Obviously, NIH spending, although its already so in the toilet I can't really see it being cut. But how about HHMI and private post-doc fellowships? I wonder if they are heavily invested in this kinda stuff and will have to cut fellowships and other funding in the future. Even if they invest relatively safely like in Money markets for institutions, some of those things are going under now too. I would be interested in seeing an article about that.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

More on free markets

I received a great reply to the previous post, and it deserves to be quoted in full. I don't think there's much disagreement here, but rather this is a much clearer explication of many ideas than I could muster, and a great extension of the conversation. Enjoy (I certainly did):

Nice post on free market and evolution. A few comments:

1) I think you need to differentiate a few things.

A) First off, the difference between regulating a financial market and planning an economy. There isn't a mainstream libertarian out there who thinks markets work without regulation. The whole point of the free market is to allow the market to set the price of goods. If it takes regulation to make the market correctly set the price of goods, strong free market libertarians believe in those regulations. Adam Smith was utterly clear about this: no market system can survive without basic regulation, starting with the protection of property rights and the enforcement of contracts. And only a government can do those things effectively. Even more substantial regulation --- such disclosure laws to prevent insider trading, limitations on leveraged and margin purchases to prevent huge boom and bust cycles, central bank control of monetary policy --- are almost always supported by even "pure" free marketers. Where the real gap exists is in the difference between regulating things such that the market functions properly to set the price of goods and, on the other hand, actually planning the economy. Obviously, the traditional definition of planning the economy is either government ownership of industry or government price/production controls. The problem with planning is that it eliminates the market. And the problem with eliminating the market is not that prices can't be set by rationality, it's that the only way to discover rationality is to let people behave under the incentives of market conditions. That is to say: the market gives you the information you need to rationally plan the economy. Which, of course, is why nationalization of industry and price/production controls have never worked. No serious people in America wants to destroy the market. No serious people in America want a truly unregulated market. It's all matters of degree, which you point out.

B) The difference between regulation of the market economy and the privatizing of public goods. I think these things are distinct enough that you can't really talk about them in the same context. Regulating the economy, in the America sense, typically revolves around structure rules to ensure the market works (see #1) or arguing about how to use redistribution to buffer the natural occurrance of financial loss in a risk-based free market economy. True libertarians take one of two positions (I think) on the latter: either the government has no business ever redistributing cash directly from winners to losers, or that such transfer payments are ok, so long as they are only achieved via a flat tax that proportionally burdens all citizens at the same rate (either absolute rate or % of income). Privitization of public goods is a whole 'nuther story. Again, I think there are two libertarian positions: the radical one says that any public good could conceivable be privatized and indeed the only public good that can be philosophically defended as necessary through coercive taxation is military defense (Nozick is good on this; I basically summed up Anarchy, State, and Utopia in one sentence). Under this theory, things like FDA regulation are certainly necessary, but people would naturally develop subscription services to take their place. Instead of a tax bill, you'd just pay some well-reputed company. (Indeed, this is how people handle road-side assistance for car repair: many people choose to join AAA, others do not. But we certainly don't hear a clamor for a government based tire repair service funded by taxes.) But I think the softer position is the bettter one: there are certain public goods that would be better off if they were at least opened to market competition, rather then held in government monopoly, such as the postal service. In fact, the allowing of competition for non-letter post materials has benefitied both the consumer and the post office. And note that the vast majority of publicly produced products (like military weapons, road signs, etc.) aren't actually built by the government. They are opened to competitive market bids. Sometimes people forget how much the market is employed by government; a real socialist state, despite being the darling of many on the old left, is no treat.

2) I think you might very much enjoy reading some Hayek. He, of course, is famous for The Road to Serfdom, but you might like The Constitution of Liberty better. It's a smart outline of the fundmanetals underlying market-based libertarianism, but I think it goes to your point of rationality very clearly, which is where I disagree most with your post. The genius of the market is that it doesn't depend on anyone being able to rationaly figure out what is best for anyone else. To assume the government can rationally replace the market by smart decision making is both (a) wrong and more importantly (b) unwise. Because human liberty is not winding down a teleological path; anyone who thinks they know what the good life is for everyone else is inherently anti-liberty, and anyone attempting to rationallize an economy through government control is inherently prescribing a good life. But, of course, I think we forget this in the United States because the market underpins so much of how we operate, and liberty largely flourishes in this environment. The use of redistribution to softens the blows to losers in a capital economy might not be ideal, but I think it is justified largely by the existence of government incentives for incorporation of capital.

3) The bailout. It seems to me that the bailout must be separated from the future regulations as a concept. The latter seem like obvious good ideas even to a libertarian: clearly the market has failed here, and regulating the economy such that market competition works is job one. I'm more skeptical of the bailout, but ultimately this is why we have an independent central bank: to get smart people in charge that aren't affected by electoral winds so when a crisis hits there are some clear heads. I'm willing to trust Bernake and Paulson on this one, although I'd love to see Congres more assertive. Me being a whig and all.

4) Another book you might like is In Our Hands, which I think is probably the closest thing I've ever read to my dream-scneario for America: replacing the current entitlement system (which is bloated, inefficient, and still lets millions fall through the cracks into poverty, hunger, and no health care) with a system of redistribution that ensures all Americans will have adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, and retirment money unless they directly and willfully fritter it away on their own, all for less than the cost of our current entitlement system. it's quite genius; you should read it.
I did read In Our Hands, and it is terribly thought-provoking. I'm not quite so willing to trust Paulson, however, as that section 8 of the original proposal was quite chilling:
Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.
That, and the general incompetence of anyone associated with the Bush administration, and Bush's insistence that we do this NOW, lead me to believe that we're much better off in the hands of Congress, which is "beginning to show something that might, given enough time, possibly, eventually develop into something resembling a proto-spine" (thank you Votemaster, 9/23/08).

Monday, September 22, 2008

How free should the free market be?

Not completely, in my opinion. We need rules. Of course, we tend to accept that in most areas. I'm sure there are a few extreme libertarians who can't stand that there is a federal agency that regulates whether a drug is safe enough to be prescribed, I'm pretty happy that we don't just leave that up to the free market. Sure, eventually enough people might make the connection between Vioxx and heart disease, but the human cost in the interim would be pretty substantial. Of course, the FDA has its own problems (currently, its decisions are based on GOP moral standards rather than science), but that doesn't mean that abolishing it would make us better off. Ditto for food quality standards, traffic laws, etc. There are some things that the government should do -- "promote the general welfare" -- as the Constitution puts it.

Am I beating up a straw man right now? I dunno, I've been in some pretty aggressive arguments with those who worship at the Alter of the Free Market. I'm sure that some of those people are horrified at the current proposed bailout (whatever form it ends up taking) because such market intervention is anathema to free market dogma (I'm horrified for other reasons).

As an aside, and allow me to speak in broad generalizations. You're much more likely to find Extreme Free Marketers (privatize stop lights!) in the Republican party. The idea is that, if left entirely to their own devices, devoid of any top-down intervention, the individual actions of people & businesses will spontaneously produce a functioning economy: the Invisible Hand will take over and create order out of chaos, out of individual units pursuing their own ends, from the bottom-up. Yet that exact same party is absolutely befuddled by the idea of evolution. Go figure.

Have I contradicted myself? Have I in one paragraph expressed my desire for the free market to have limits, but then, by "believing" in evolution (there's no such thing as a belief in facts, just ignorance of them), weakened my argument that the free market needs limits? Hell no! The 'problem' with evolution from a human perspective -- knee and back problems, because we've only been bipedal for a short time; cancer susceptibility, because we usually died well before mutant cells became an issue; obesity, because food used to be rate-limiting -- the problem is that evolution can only work on the immediate here and now. To an outside observer, evolution could be driving 'you' off a cliff, but evolution is blind to any long-term perspective, to any knowledge of what is around the bend.

Governments and people, however, are not blind to the consequences of short-term decisions. Option One is for the government to allow companies that made terrible decisions about whom to lend money to, how to invest it, etc. fail and die off. It appears, however, that doing so would end up hurting a lot of non-culpable people (maybe?), or at least, that's the general rationale for why we need a bail-out, that inaction will create a vortex that everyone will get sucked into (just like the Large Haldron Collider). Option Two would be for governments and people to realize that, since we have brains that have learned historical and experimental lessons, perhaps we should set-up some rules for this free market such that rampant speculation doesn't end up sucking us all into the aforementioned vortex.

Put another way, a rational designer could certainly come up with much better ways for designing cells such that we don't have a 50/50 shot of getting cancer if we live past age 60, but evolution doesn't have a rational designer. The American economy does, however, and it would be foolish not to use it to prevent screw ups like the one we're in.

Financial mess

I can't say that I've ever really understood what it is that investment bankers do all day, and the continuing meltdown of the US economy seems to confirm that investment bankers don't really understand what they do all day either. I'm having a hard time coming up with an appropriate analogy to other professions. I mean, is this like firefighters suddenly realizing, oops, we shouldn't douse fires with kerosene? Like chefs finding out that arsenic is a poor food additive? Like baseball managers reserving their very best relief pitcher for three run leads with only three outs to go? (oh, wait...)

Problems abound here. In general, it seems like we're going down a path of privatizing gain but publicizing risk. I really hope that Democrats in Congress grow a set and reject the proposal sent to them on Friday. Let's see... there's a crisis, Bush says something needs to be done now, and tries to bully Congress into agreeing... nah, we've tried that, doesn't work. Oh, and the Bush Administration has been particularly bad about accurately estimating the cost of any and everything they've proposed -- their tax cuts, the prescription drug benefit, the Iraq war -- so while 700 billion is the overnight-consensus cost, I don't think we should be surprised if it is in fact much higher. 700 billion is a lot of money. For comparison's sake, the Iraq War, after 6 years, has totaled about 500 billion.

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley decided last night to become "bank holding companies" instead of investment banks, which means, at least theoretically, they'll be subject to tighter regulation and have less freedom to screw up. Call me a cynic, but twenty years from now when this mess has sorted itself out and Wall Street is back to its old self -- in other words, when GS and MS have ridden out the storm -- they'll ask for and be granted a reversion to the old rules and no one will say boo.

Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, wrote the book Liar's Poker in 1986, chronicling his time at Salomon Brothers at the precise time that mortgages became the trade-able commodity that they are today, ultimately creating this mess. Highly recommended, and remember, this is not a work of fiction, this is what investment bankers were actually like (at least in the mid-80s... I'm sure they're not nearly the same type of alpha male jackasses today...) Of course, this doesn't mean that every person who works in the finance industry is to blame for this -- my guess is the Warren Buffets and Peter Lynchs of the world didn't have their heads up their billion dollar asses. But it does mean that, as an industry, someone needs to watch the store.

More on this soon...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Worst. Column. Ever.

Newsweek's Dahlia Lithwick has authored an excruciatingly bad column arguing, I kid you not, that Sarah Palin should be on the Supreme Court. I read it twice, to make sure she wasn't joking, and she doesn't appear to be.

First, she starts by noting that the Supreme Court is "wildly overrepresented by insider lawyers with identical resumes." Well, from a simple statistics perspective, with a sum total of 9 people, I would argue that it is difficult for any particular group to be wildly overrepresented. Second, it takes a bit of hyperbole to look at John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsberg and see no difference.

Lithwick then takes the mandatory dig at Ivy League schools, saying that too many members of the Supreme Court were educated at them (Lithwick has a BA from Yale...). Yeah, god forbid that the nine most important judges show an aptitude for acquiring and analyzing knowledge. But according to Lithwick, the Supreme Court really "is in need of a mother of five who likes shooting wolves from helicopters."

Lithwick points out that "the Supreme Court has been the lone defender of the rights of women, gay couples, and athiests" and as such, having Sarah Palin in there "would do far more to undo these things than getting her into the White House." Okay, I guess we know Lithwick's political philosophy now.

But the end of the column is what got me out of my chair and to the computer. Allow me to quote these two sentences in full:
No fair arguing that Palin isn't experienced enough to sit on the highest court in the land. What matters -- far more than experience -- is one's unyielding moral certainty, relatability and gender.
Okay, the first sentence, on its own, I'm fine with. Ideally, you'd want the 9 wisest people in the land on the Supreme Court, whether they happened to be a lawyer, a scientist, a caddy, whatever -- no particular work experience should disqualify one. But no, that's not what Lithwick wants. Unyielding moral certainty? What does that mean, someone who has figured out what he or she believes in at some age and hasn't thought about it since? I'm not entirely sure what relatability means -- perhaps empathy? And gender -- not intelligence, not wisdom, not flexibility of mind -- gender. That's how we should pick our Supreme Court justices.

But most importantly, the best reason to pick Palin for the Supreme Court is that she has "already proven that neither the courts, nor precedent, nor even the Constitution itself will be a match for the force of her will [emphasis mine]."

This column was meant to be a joke, right? Someone please tell me it was and I just didn't get it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Scratching the itch

Someone asked me where I go to get my daily (okay, hourly... if lab is slow, five-minutely) political fix. I've added links to political junkie sites on the sidebar. I'm particularly fond of these four because they are very good about compiling data and letting it speak for itself, and the fifth is a good time-killer. A brief word on them:

Political Wire is run by a guy named Taegan Goddard. I know nothing about him, but he basically compiles headlines from various news agencies and also includes all new polls. He doesn't update much on weekends, which is a bit of a bummer.

538.com is run by Nate Silver, who by day is a baseball stathead for Baseball Prospectus. He's quite the number cruncher. His site compiles all polls and tries to predict the election. A ton of data and a very thoughtful guy.

Electoral Vote is run by The Votemaster, a pseudonym for Andrew S. Tanenbaum, an American comp sci professor who has been in the Netherlands for quite some time. Among other accomplishments, he's considered to be the grandfather of the Linux operating system. His electoral college prediction isn't nearly as complicated as 538.com, but his commentary each day is particularly enjoyable.

Pollster.com is run by several guys, including Charles Franklin and Mark Blumenthal, professional pollsters. I haven't found their analysis to be particularly worth reading, but the site is certainly complete.

Finally, 270towin has a nice interactive map that you can click on to figure out how your candidate can reach 270 electoral votes.

No Obama love

A friend of mine writes in regarding Obama's viability as a candidate, and expresses some regret that Hillary wasn't the nominee. I think the questions s/he asks and points s/he raises are representative of many Democrats (well, at least as a of a few days ago, before Obama's polling numbers improved). Here's what s/he wrote, with my reply below:
So, I looked at your blog entries again today and read "Does Hope Float or is Obama an Anchor?" and I must comment on this idea that Obama is somehow hurting the ticket.

I for one, especially in the past few months, have been trying really hard to like or love Obama and convince myself that he is really a great candidate.... BUT, the truth is, I don't... When I watched the convention, for instance, some of his words resonated with me, but I don't find him to be terribly genuine. He is not so convincing. He does not sound like he has real emotion behind the things he is talking about... ah, to sum it up, he sounds too rehearsed... AND, I also agree that he lacks experience. I am of course more in favor of Obama than McCain but it is really because I don't want a republican in office, not because I really want Obama there. And maybe he will be an amazing president.. do amazing things for our country... but if I was judging him based on what he's proven to me thus far, all above stands. So, I understand that he certainly wouldn't appeal to real republicans who do not necessarily love mccain. They probably feel the same way as me (rather have mccain over obama)... actually i read an article where some republican said he was going to right in Huckabee rather than vote McCain.. hmmm.. more should do that.. (fewer votes for McCain).

Today I led a very brief discussion at coffee time about the election. And what i've concluded is that I (me personally) feel that this wasn't Obama's election. It should have been Hillary's. Obama is young, he hasn't been in the Senate for very long. What is 4 more years? ... Now, I understand that this should be a positive attribute.. why, he wanted to be president so badly he ran sooner than he should have... ya ya fine. But sometimes you need to think about what is best for the party. Somehow I think that Clinton would be more electable than Obama... perhaps it's because this scenerio is no longer possible..

And, I think that Clinton on the ticket with Obama would have been better than Biden.. do not further alienate Hillary's supporters! .. but would she have accepted?

I don't know.. you have been hardcore Obama since January or so... and I have maybe leaned more Hillary... but it is honestly because Obama is somehow not sincere enough... Even Kerry, at the convention, sounded more real and passionate than Obama did to me. :(

Well, lemme explain, briefly, why I happen to like Obama. Certainly, he gave a helluva speech at the convention in Boston in '04 -- I remember I was at a poker game that night, and we had it on the background, and everyone was like who the hell is this guy, and why isn't he the nominee? So Obama's been on my radar screen for a while. But, I didn't have an early favorite for the Dem nomination, and it was only after I saw him campaign in Iowa & NH that I decided he was my horse. Also, a big step for me was reading his book, the Audacity of Hope. He wrote the thing himself, and you can just tell from reading it that he is a really smart guy. Anyone can sound smart reading a speech that someone else wrote (e.g. Palin) when you're saying things that sound good at the time and there are people clapping behind you, but it is much harder to fool someone with the written word. Anyway, the point is that his book convinced me that he was bright enough -- and pragmatic enough -- to be prez.

I know one hang-up my emailing friend has is his experience. This is never something that has bothered me, because experience doesn't mean diddly in terms of ability to be president. James Buchanan (that's right... who?) had served at every level of government before becoming president, and he was a total failure. Lincoln had a few years in Congress under his belt, that was it. I could go on and on, but considering that there have only been 43 presidents, no given correlation is going to mean much of anything. The presidency is a unique job, so I don't think there's much of anything, other than soundness of mind and character, that are necessary qualifications -- no previous experience is any guarantee of success. For example, there are people who have been in government for years -- say, Dick Cheney -- who's vast experience hasn't made him any less of an ideological moron.

As for it being Hillary's turn, nah, I don't buy that -- we're a democracy, not a monarchy, and I don't think we need to show deference to any given family. Obama put it up to the voters, and they decided. What is not debatable is that Obama has done an amazing job of modernizing the Democratic party, in terms of setting up field organizations in a wide-variety of states and expanding the electoral map. That Indiana is a swing state is a helluva tribute to the Obama campaign. And, let's not forget that Hillary voted to authorize the Iraq war, and the "Bush fooled me" line I don't buy -- she viewed it as the politically sensible thing to do.

As for why Obama chose Biden, well, I don't think that he and Hillary would have been a good match. Having Bill Clinton running around the White House would probably not have been a good idea from a governance (i.e. avoiding distraction) perspective. Pretty much, I think the country is done with the Clintons (at least for now... I have a vague feeling that Chelsea will end up in the national spotlight sooner or later).

I'd love to hear back from you, emailer, or anyone else who shares you're feelings, for further discussion. I'm sure you're not alone :)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bounce is over

As I mentioned to anyone who would listen to me during the RNC, please wake me up in two weeks, because the polls were going to cause me angst. Not surprisingly, they did -- John McCain took over the lead in the daily tracker polls. But today, for the first time since the RNC ended, Obama is back on top, 47-45, according to Gallup, which I think is the best one to look at right now (and not just because they have Obama leading!). Since last Friday, Obama has made up 4 points in Gallup, 2 points in Rasmussen, and 2 points in Diageo-Hotline tracking polls.

As for why I like Gallup, they don't correct for party identification, as Rasmussen does. While that could create for volatility in any given one sample, over time (and thus over more samples) variations in response bias will even out. Also, they don't appear to push leaners to decide, which Rasmussen does. As for Diageo-Hotline, they have been doing a tracker for just a few weeks now, while Gallup and Rasmussen have been doing it for decades and years, respectively. Further, their sample size isn't as big, so it tends to be more volatile.

Colorado: the key state

As one looks at the electoral map and figures out how Obama (or McCain...) can get to 270 electoral votes, the state that seems to be the most important -- the tipping point -- is Colorado. Of course, there is still a lot of time between now and election day, and if one candidate opens up a large lead in the polls, then no singular state will be terribly important. Put another way, if Obama wins Ohio and Virginia and Florida, he'll have won the election with over 300 EVs, so it is hard to classify any particular state as crucial. But if the race stays close, if national polls continue to put Obama and McCain within 2 points of each other, then I believe that Colorado holds the key to the election.

First, why Colorado? Well, more than any other state -- including Florida, Ohio, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania & Michigan -- the polls in Colorado have consistently bounced between McCain and Obama, with neither of them ever establishing a consistent lead. Sure, other states are close, such as the ones mentioned above, but poll after poll tends to show the same guy winning. Poll after poll from Pennsylvania and Michigan, for example, show Obama with small leads -- but they always show Obama with a small lead. I liken this to tossing a coin ten time and it landing heads 10 times in a row. Sure, there's a chance this is due to random chance (1 in 1024, for those keeping score at home) but much more likely, Obama has a small but consistent lead in those states. Ditto for McCain in Florida -- never a large lead, but the majority of polls show him ahead.

Colorado is worth 9 electoral votes, and if Obama has the Kerry states plus Iowa and New Mexico, he's at 264, it would put him over the top.

Colorado has been trending blue for the past few election cycles. The governor (Ritter) and both state houses are Democrat. One Senate seat is up for grabs this election, as Wayne Allard (R) is retiring, and the current polls show Mark Udall (D) beating out Bob Schaffer. The other seat is occupied by Ken Salazar (D), who beat out Pete Coors (yes, that Coors) in 2004, a year that otherwise gave the Democrats very little to celebrate. Colorado has 7 House seats (which you already knew, because it has 9 electoral votes). 4 are currently occupied by Democrats, including the aforementioned Mark Udall as well as Ken Salazar's brother, John. The notable Republican of the remaining troika is Tom Tancredo, who was one of the (many) candidates for president this primary season, largely running on a platform of blaming immigrants for everything.

Interestingly, the Salazar brothers are Hispanic, and Spanish is the primary language in ~10% of the Colorado homes, according to the 2000 Census. Colorado's population has gone up 13% since 2000, disproportionately to non-whites, mostly Hispanics, but including increases in the black and Asian populations as well. In general, Obama has been doing very well with Hispanic voters (ballpark of 2-1 Obama-McCain).

In terms of voting, Colorado is one of the states that allows early voting, meaning that you can wander down to some locations and cast your vote early (as opposed to the slightly-more-onerous process of requesting an absentee ballot, although you can do that too). In 2006 Colorado experienced a nightmare with electronic voting machines (also known as DREs, for Direct Electronic Recording), as it was discovered that simply placing a magnet near the machine would cause it to go inactive. I just visited the Colorado Secretary of State's website to find out how they're voting this November. According to a document that had been revised on September 12, 2008, 6 of the 64 counties will use only electronic voting machines (I have yet to figure out which brand) while another 27 will have both paper voting and DREs -- it is not clear if polling places will offer both, or if it will vary by polling place. Anyway, just pointing out that if Colorado really is the tipping point state, well, there won't be any hanging chads... Oh, I should also note that Diebold has apparently changed their name to, or at least sometimes operates under the pseudonym of, Premier. Kinda reminds me of RJ Reynolds Tobacco changing their name to the Altria Group.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Does Hope float, or is Obama an Anchor?

Okay, mg writes this in response to my last post:
Oh, come on John, you are both smarter and more knowledgeable about history than this. Let's put out the facts:

1) The 2-term incumbent President has an approval rating in the 20's.
2) Something like 75% of people think the "country is on the wrong track."
3) Almost twice as many people are self-identifying as Democrats as are self-identifying as Republicans.

4) But somehow, the Democratic nominee is tied or behind in most national polls.

But wait, it gets better:

5) The Democratic party is generally far ahead in the generic congressional ballot question.

Hmmm, I wonder if the nominee has anything to do with this. Oh yes:

6) Something like 20% of self-identified democrats in polls won't committ to the dem nominee.

Could the dems pick up 25 House seats and lose the presidential election? You bet they could! How in the world could that be pinned on anyone but Obama? Conditions have changed so dramatically since 2004, and we're seeing it at level of polling except for the presidency. And before Obama was nominated, we were seeing it at the level of the presidency. How in the world could Obama win fewer states than Kerry? I'm not saying it will happen, but the very idea of it happening shouldn't be crossing our minds. Anyone who argues that the playing field for the GOP has gotten better the last four years is a lunatic. Therefore, how do we ascribe current polling to anything but the candidate?

This election is so counter-historical that it's beyond unprecedented. The general mood of the country this year --- as judged by polling --- is so unfavorable to the President's party that it can only be reasonable compared to three 20th century elections: 1932 (depression), 1974 (watergate), and 1980 (hapless dems; bottoming-out economy). All three of those were bloodbaths beyond belief. With the exception of 2008, public opinion about hte administration has never been lower than those three elections, not even close. By all accounts, nothing can explain 2008 without reference to Obama.

As to your historical numbers, i think you are either ignoring the context or not presenting it:

1) No one in the history of the country has gotten more than about 60% of the popular vote. Getting 50.8 in 1980 was such a magnificent blowout for Reagan because Carter got 40% (Anderson got 10%). A popular vote margin of 55-45 that translates into 400+ electoral college votes is a blowout, period. To say that an election at 52-48 is close or not is not possible; the candidates don't seek 51%; they seek 270. Therefore, the reference point is typically the electoral college.

2) I think you are confusing popular vote with probability of winning. Roosevelt in '32 only won 57% of the vote. But as trained monkey with the democratic label had a 99%+ chance of winning that election. The GOP had been blown out of the water in the 1930 midterms (like the GOP in 2006) and everyone knew that the dem convention was the election: the winner just had to shut his mouth, wait it out until november, and take the presidency. Result: 57% and 42 states. The democrats --- prior to having a candidate --- easily have a monstrous chance of winning this election. But with Obama, they don't.

3) One might argue that the parties are so locked in right now, red and blue states, that an electoral blowout is impossible. But the '32, '74, and '80 elections precisely refute this theory: states that hadn't voted one way in over a generation turned those years.

Look, I still think Obama is going to win. But I think it will be marginal and I think it will be despite himself, not because of himself. Call me crazy, but I think John Kerry easily wins this election. The Bush administration is so thoroughly delegitimized that there is not structural explanation for his party winning the election. It must be candidate-based effects that are driving the polls.

But like I said, I could still see Obama getting 400 electoral votes. But I could see McCain getting 320. Which i literally can't believe I'm saying.

A lot to respond to here. There is no doubt that the environment favors the Democrats, but I will reiterate my point that McCain is not, in the minds of most voters, a standard issue Republican, which is why the Obama campaign has been trying to hard to portray him as such. What if you polled Bush v. Obama? Still think Obama would get ~50%? Of course not, he'd be up over 60%. But McCain is not Bush, so his crappy approval numbers are not terribly relevant here. The last time a two-term incumbant president had a horrible approval rating and wasn't running was LBJ (well, one and a half terms anyway), and in '68 Nixon won with 43.4%. I'll come back to the historical comparisons, I don't want to leave it at that.

Also, the self-identification by party ratio is not even close to 2:1. According to Rasumussen, it is currently 38.7% Dem, 33.6% Repub. In January of 2007, before Obama announced his candidacy, it was 37.5% Democrat, 32.1% Repub., so it is hard to say that Obama has caused Dems to flee the party (all data here).

As for the point about the need to look at electoral college vs. popular vote percentage, I don't think the former is the appropriate barometer for the purposes of this debate. For example, it is hard to say that Clinton in 1992 was a wildly popular candidate, but looking only at electoral results would lead you to believe that he was, because Perot siphoned off a lot of votes from Bush (as many people point out, more people voted against Clinton than for him).

The '32, '74, and '80 elections (presumably '74 was meant to be '76) were cited as examples of game changers in which conditions are somewhat similar to today. Well, in '32, the schlub who had screwed things up, Hoover, was actually running, so people could vote against him. In '76, the vice-president-now-president of the disgraced Republican party was on the ballot, and Carter still only got 50.1%, with no interference from third parties. And finally, in '80, Reagan was running against the actual unpopular guy, just like Hoover in '32 -- people who didn't like Carter could vote against Carter. And, Reagan only won in an electoral college blow-out because of a strong third pary candidate (Reagan got 50.8% of the popular vote). The key here is that in those three elections that are cited, the administration itself was on the ballot, but in this one it is not. McCain is not Bush, and many voters are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Now, if you want to argue that Obama is polling a bit lower than a generic Dem should be because of some latent racism in this country, or anti-Muslim religious bigotry (don't get me started...), well yeah, I'll give that to you. But I don't think that is a terribly large factor.

So here's my question. What popular vote and/or electoral college outcome would be 'acceptable' for Obama and what would constitute him underperforming? Remember, right now, the polls are tied, and McCain just had the best two weeks he's going to have in my opinion. If Obama wins 52-48, he'll likely win with over 300 electoral votes. Seems convincing enough to me.

Should Obama be doing better?

I've had a back-and-forth over email with a friend who feels that this election is much closer than it should be, that a generic Democrat would be doing better than Obama. To be fair, he isn't necessarily blaming Obama, but merely pointing out that [insert blandly acceptable older white man (D)] and the polls wouldn't be close, that is how bad the Republican brand is right now.

Maybe I just reflexively defend Obama, but something about this assertion doesn't seem right to me. First, for right or wrong, McCain has his own brand-name in this country, separate from the Republican party. People who can't tell you what McCain thinks about any given issue will be able to tell you that Bush and McCain haven't gotten along in the past (hey, didn't they run against each other at one point?) which certainly helps McCain distance himself from Bush. Of course, McCain is not offering an policies substantively different from Bush, but we're talking low-info voters here.

But McCain aside, this country just does not vote blow-outs. In 6 of the past 8 elections, the winner received less than 51% of the popular vote, and only Reagan as an incumbent topped 55%. Here are the winning percentages going back to 1896, with sitting presidents in red:

Of course, there was a significant third party presence in some of those elections, but so what? To me, that just furthers the point that no one man or party can appeal to a wide majority of Americans, especially in the heated back-and-forth of an election, and when people feel like neither of the main candidates are speaking to their needs, third parties pop up.

Pretty much the only way to top 60% is to be a sitting president (the one black bar that is above 60% is Harding... so maybe we should hope that Obama doesn't win in a blow out!)

Perhaps America is too geographically, ethnically, spiritually, etc. diverse for one person to appeal to 60% of voters. Perhaps the increasing fragmentation of the media makes it harder to win with a single narrative (Tippecanoe and Tyler too!) Perhaps in a small sample size of 8 elections, we really can't draw any conclusions about how America may or may not have changed over the past 30 years. I don't know if I buy any of those explanations, I mean, I don't have any data to analyze, and some are pretty much non-testable hypotheses. But to say that Obama should be killing McCain right now, well, I just can't see that.

Hmm, while writing this, which was more-or-less the next 'forth' in the back and forth email exchange, I just received a 'back'.... in the interest of transparency, I'll post this, read and post the email, and reply.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Torture, sure, why not?

After a compelling Broncos-Chargers game, when uber-ref Ed Hochuli admitted he screwed up and gave the game to Denver, 60 Minutes came on, including a Leslie Stahl interview with Justice Scalia:
"If someone's in custody, as in Abu Ghraib, and they are brutalized by a law enforcement person, if you listen to the expression 'cruel and unusual punishment,' doesn't that apply?" Stahl asks.

"No, No," Scalia replies.

"Cruel and unusual punishment?" Stahl asks.

"To the contrary," Scalia says. "Has anybody ever referred to torture as punishment? I don't think so."

"Well, I think if you are in custody, and you have a policeman who's taken you into custody…," Stahl says.

"And you say he's punishing you?" Scalia asks.

"Sure," Stahl replies.

"What's he punishing you for? You punish somebody…," Scalia says.

"Well because he assumes you, one, either committed a crime…or that you know something that he wants to know," Stahl says.

"It's the latter. And when he's hurting you in order to get information from you…you don’t say he's punishing you. What’s he punishing you for? He's trying to extract…," Scalia says.

"Because he thinks you are a terrorist and he's going to beat the you-know-what out of you…," Stahl replies.

"Anyway, that’s my view," Scalia says. "And it happens to be correct."

So, let me understand this.... now, perhaps Scalia is saying that torture is in fact unconstitutional, but that it is simply inappropriate to look at the 'cruel and unusual punishment' prohibition for a reason. In other words, he might be against torture, but somewhere else in the Constitution is the right place to look for justification. Of course, he doesn't point to such a place, which leaves one with the impression that he's pretty much fine with torture.

At least he's consistent, if not delusional, because in the past Scalia has pointed to Jack Bauer as reasons for why we should leave the torture option on the table. Nevermind that Jack Bauer does not actually exist. I also find it interesting that, as a strict constructionalist, Scalia opposed the Boumediene ruling, which said that people designated as 'enemy combatents' (a phrase that does not appear in the Constitution) were allowed the right of habeus corpus (i.e. the right to appear in front of a court to be told why you're being held against your will).

So, let's figure this out. Scalia opposes outlawing toture, because the Constitution doesn't specifically say anywhere that you can't torture someone. But he is fine waiving the right to habeas corpus even though Article 1, Section 9 states:
The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it.
Perhaps Scalia is hung up on the second part, the "unless..." aspect of it. But we have to think like a strict constructionist, remember! We are not allowed to interpret what the Founders might or might not have thought a terrorist might be -- indeed, just as Scalia noted with Stahl, 'torture' is not really 'punnishment' no matter how punnishing torture might actually be. We have to stick very closely to the minimal definition of words, in order to think like Scalia. So, rebellion... well, a terrorist from another country can't be rebelling, because a rebel is, by definition, an American. Next, "invasion" -- I'm pretty sure the Founders thought of Invasions as attacks by other sovereign nations. Even using the morals of today (which Scalia wouldn't let us do), no one would say we were 'invaded' on 9/11. We were attacked, terrorized, whatever -- but we weren't invaded, there were no armies marching on our shores. So, 9/11 is no reason to suspend habeas, according to a strict reading of the Constitution.

Scalia may have cognitive dissonance, or may be just a partisan hack hiding behind the guise of conservative jurisprudence, but intellectually honest he ain't.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Nature Nurture

All things being equal, I'd like to give a politician a pass on what could be construed as an error in phrasing, but given that this is Sarah Palin we're talking about, I think she's beyond the benefit of the doubt. In her interview with Charlie Gibson, she's asked about homosexuality:

GIBSON: Homosexuality, genetic or learned?

PALIN: Oh, I don't -- I don't know, but I'm not one to judge and, you know, I'm from a family and from a community with many, many members of many diverse backgrounds and I'm not going to judge someone on whether they believe that homosexuality is a choice or genetic. I'm not going to judge them.

Notice how she does NOT say that she's not going to judge homosexuals -- she's just not going to judge someone else on that person's opinion about whether homosexuality is a choice or genetic!

Of course, Gibson doesn't ask any follow up questions, apparently satisfied with this bland response about not judging anyone (except the gays themselves -- she's reserved the right to judge them). Does she favor DoMA? Does she think homosexual acts are a sin? Does she think homosexual thoughts are a sin?

Further, what does she mean she doesn't know what she thinks about the origins of homosexuality? How can asking that question not possibly have occurred to her? She's either terribly incurious or terribly dishonest.

Also, I want to point out that one aspect of Obama that has long garnered my respect is that in speeches, when he's listing off various groups in America (e.g. black, white, Asian) he always includes gays. He certainly doesn't have to, and I applaud him for including a phrase that probably turns off some swing voters.

While we're here, I should point out that homosexuality is not a choice, at least in males (less clear in females). Monozygotic (genetically identical) twins are much more likely to be gay than fraternal (no more or less genetically related than any pair of siblings). Further, gay males tend to be from large families, because females in those families tend to be more fertile, which nicely explains how genes that would seem to be dead ends from a natural selection standpoint, when in other contexts, are actually useful. You might remember from high school biology that the gene for sickle cell anemia works the same way -- two copies of this gene gives you sickle cell anemia, which is bad, but one copy (i.e. heterozygous) provides protection against malaria.

For the purposes of clarity, I want to emphasize that there is NOT a single gene for homosexuality -- like most complex traits -- schizophrenia, height, handedness -- there are a whole host of genes involved, most of which aren't known.

Obama will be making an appearance on SNL tonight (hosted by Michael Phelps). I really hope they bring back Tina Fey for a sketch on Palin...

Friday, September 12, 2008

How Obama Wins, Ctd.

Someone writes in:

Two points:

1) I can't figure out how to comment.

2) The individual probabilities aren't independent. If McCain wins Ohio and Florida, his probability of winning NC is more like 99% (or whatever). This is a serious methodological error. Fix it before someone figures out how to comment and lampoons you publicily.

Yeah, not sure I want to turn on comments or not. Not that I'm expecting anyone I don't directly know to actually read this thing, but even then, most comment sections of blogs kinda suck. Plus, I like to squash dissent...

As for the probabilistic assumptions... first, I totally understand what you're saying. But, I still think that states can be treated independently. First is the case of true toss-ups. There are several states that are, in my mind, legitimately 50/50 states, or so close that we can treat them as such: NH, NV, CO, & OH. I think you'd agree that, if a state is truly a toss-up, then what one does is a poor predictor of what another will do (i.e. if Obama wins Colorado, I can't think of an explanation for why he would or wouldn't win Ohio). In this case, it is fair to treat them as independent events.

Your concern comes with states that are more on the periphery, such as North Carolina. While my gut tells me that, yes, I can't really imagine Obama winning North Carolina but losing Florida, why should I trust my gut? In other words, I think the royal we have ranked various states in terms of their winnability for a given candidate, and made the assumption that once he wins state #27, he must also have won states #26 and up. I think that is a bad assumption. I think there are enough micro-conditions -- other races going on in that state, referendums on the ballot, cost of and commitment to advertising, variation in strength of get-out-the-vote operations -- that assumptions about macro-trends need to be taken with a huge grain of salt.

Put another way, I think the 'if state A is won, then state B will also be won' argument assumes that polls of states are all going to be wrong in a consistent way. In other words, I gave McCain a 90% chance of winning NC because he is leading in 9 out of every 10 polls, or tends to lead by 6 points, or whatever subconscious arithmetic I did to come up with 90%. I give Florida 60%, because McCain's lead there happens less often and is smaller when it does. This argument then assumes that, if Obama wins NC, he did it by making up 6 points (and/or pollsters were undersampling some key demographic and not adjusting accordingly, some October surprise occured, etc.), and thus those 6 points should be added to every state. Again, for the same micro-conditions listed above, I don't think this is a good way to go about it. Maybe I'm more of a federalist than I realized, but states really are autonomous units (how else to explain Utah?)

I readily admit that going with simple probabilities is not the most sophisticated way of doing it, but especially for the states that are true toss ups (and thus carry by far the most weight when doing the math), they are reasonable assumptions.

How Obama Wins

I've gone through this math so many times in my head that I think I can write this without looking anything up (not sure if I'm proud of that or not). Obama has an electoral college base of 252, what Kerry won in 2004. I'll subtract New Hampshire from this (-4), because Granite Staters seems to like McCain, but I'll add Iowa (+7), because poll after poll shows Obama winning that state, so now Obama is at 255, with 269 needed to win (270 is needed to win outright, but a tie would almost certainly result in an Obama victory).

Okay, so where to get the other 14. Three general ways:

1) Several states would do it outright: North Carolina (15), Ohio (20), or Florida (27).

2) So would a combination of New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5) and Nevada (5).

3) Or take out any two of those and add in Colorado (9) or Virginia (13).

Notice how there are a lot of 'or' statements in here, meaning additive events from a probability standpoint. From the McCain perspective, however, they are 'and' statements.

1) McCain needs to win North Carolina AND Ohio AND Florida. Lets's say he has a 90%, 60%, and 70% chance, respectively, in each of those states. This results in a 38% chance of him winning all three (.9 x .6 x .7). And that has only fended off possibility 1 for Obama.

2) Let's say that McCain has a 50%, 50%, and 60% chance for the states in scenario 2; here, he only needs to win one of the three, so that's a 90% chance (1 - .5 x .5 x .4). But, there is an 85% chance Obama wins one of them (1 - .5 x .5 x .6), and this number is important for scenario three:

3) Scenario three is a bit more complicated, because there are multiple combinations. Let's say that McCain has a 50% chance in Colorado and a 60% chance in Virginia. He must win at least one of them, which he has an 80% chance of doing (1 - .5 x .4). However, Obama has a 70% chance of winning at least one of them (1 - .5 x .6). And, don't forget that Obama also wins at least one of the scenario 2 states 85% of the time. So, back of the envelope calculation, Obama either wins both CO and VA, or one of them and at least one of the smaller states, about 60% of the time, meaning McCain prevents this Obama route to victory about 40% of the time.

Okay, so admittedly these are estimates, don't take into account all possibilities, etc. etc. But all I'm looking for is a ballpark. McCain has to triumph in all three scenarios, which is .38 x .90 x .40 = John McCain wins this election ~14% of the time. That's why I'm confident Obama will win.

Change in narrative

Last night ABC aired part of Charlie Gibson's interview with Sarah Palin. The 'best' part, if you define 'best' as 'that which revealed her to be out of her element' occured when Charlie asked her about the Bush Doctrine and she looked at him like he just asked her whether she thought the Large Hadron Collider would find the Higgs boson, and if so, in how many dimensions would it have mass?

The McCain campaign has long been in survival mode -- remember, this guy could be bought at about 7 cents on the dollar back in December just to win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. There is no long term plan, no strategy to build momentum and peak on Election Day. They are playing a read-and-react defense, and one of their reactions was picking Palin as VP. Has it worked in the short-term? Of course: polls moved, and the base seems to be energized. But was there any long-term aspect to this pick, and I'm not even asking that question from a 'can she govern?' perspective -- that question is so obviously a no, as explained by Matt Damon of all people -- but rather, was there any long-term aspect to this pick from a political/winning elections perspective? Yes, McCain 'won the news cycle' (whatever that means) but will this pick ultimately help or hurt him?

I think the Gibson interview will start a new narrative in this campaign, one that will ultimately hurt McCain. The meme will develop that Palin might not actually be informed enough to be president, now that we have some evidence of that. The McCain campaign will not be able to continue to prevent her from holding press conferences, as that only amplifies the idea that they are hiding something.

Obama has played his hand well over the past two weeks -- from a long-term, winning elections perspective, not from a control the news cycle perspective. When Palin was announced and the RNC started, Obama couldn't go after her directly. Even after the convention (say, Friday the 5th) there was already a lot of handwrining from Obama supporters wondering why he wasn't attacking her yet, responding to her criticisms, etc. But he waited, and let the questions regarding Palin work their way from the bottom up rather than from the top down -- he let the questions evolve.

It was a very patient response from Obama, the ability to let the Palin pick play out on its own -- first the high of 'gee, she's an outsider', 'wow, she can give a good speech' -- and now the second-look that people are going to start to give her. If he went after her too early, it would seem (and would be) politics as usual -- simply piling on criticism because she is an opponent, and he would have to attack her for things that probably aren't all that relevent to the main question of could she be president. But by waiting, the headline is not "Obama Attacks" but rather "Doubts raised about Palin" -- notice that in the latter, Obama maintains his image as someone who stays above petty politics as usual.

Obama knew right away that the Palin pick would not work out in the long-term. By being patient, I think he's made a wise move. McCain's campaign has just had the best two weeks they're going to have, and all they've managed to do is pull into a tie.