May 31, 2007

Thou Shalt Not Extrapolate Exponential Growth Rates

If you think housing in the DC area is expensive now, just wait 50 years:

The findings, discussed at a forum sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, show that the price of the average home in the area will grow to $14 million in 2057 from today’s average of $477,000.

Should we take this seriously? After all, I saw it in a free newspaper. But it quotes a real study, and its author, a professor at George Mason University. Let's read a little more:

Researchers predicted, however, the average household income would only climb to $1.3 million from today’s $137,000 during the same period.

“We already have an affordability problem,” said George Mason University professor Stephen Fuller, who calculated the estimates. “But this is really scary. It is going to take 11 times the average household income to afford the average-priced house.”

Wait a minute. Who will buy those houses? At 6% annual interest rate, a 30-year mortgage on an average home would require payments exceeding three-quarters of an average household's income. And that's just mortgage payments - no property tax, insurance, maintenance, or utilities. Even at the entirely unrealistic zero interest, mortgage payments would equal 36% of income. Prices can be astronomical in a limited area, where only the region's elite can afford to live, but the study refers to the entire Washington Metropolitan Area, which, according to the article, will then span from Baltimore to Richmond and have a population of 9.9 million. If only the top 5-10% can afford housing in the area, where will the other 9 million live? There is a violation of the law of supply and demand in the study's results.

That study is yet another example of the dangers of extrapolating exponential growth rates over long periods. If you calculate the annual growth rates implicit in the study's results, they look reasonable: housing prices increasing 7% per year, and incomes 4.6% per year. Assuming 3% inflation, the real (net of inflation) rates are 4% and 1.6%. I might use those numbers myself if I had to predict prices and earnings 2-3 years from now.

The problem is that the difference in growth rates of 2.4% compounds to a factor of more than 3 (in other words, a difference of over 200%) over 50 years. What makes sense over short periods doesn't necessarily make sense in the long run.

For a related example, consider health care costs. Their share of GDP grew from 7.2% in 1965 to 16% in 2005, at an average annual rate of 2.7%. If that trend continued for another 50 years, health care would account for 60% of GDP in 2055. Keep in mind that health care is itself a sector of the economy, so its product is counted in the GDP, and if it makes up 60% of GDP, it means that it is one-and-a-half times as big as the rest of the economy combined. If that doesn't make the absurdity of the result obvious, try to ponder what would happen just 8 years later, when health care expenditures would exceed 100% of GDP.

Similarly, if you looked at the rate of growth of market capitalization of Nortel or Enron in the years before their respective stocks crashed, and extrapolated those rates into the future, you would conclude that those companies would own everything in North America at a time not too far into the future.

Or take population groups. Population growth in Muslim countries has been higher than the world's average, so Islam has been increasing its share, which currently stands at about 19% of the world's population. According to some estimates, the number of Muslims has been growing approximately 0.6 percentage points faster, annually, than the world's population. At that rate, by the end of 24th century, everyone in the world will be Muslim. The only problem is, Pentecostalism, with about 2% of the world's population as its adherents, is growing about 6% faster than the world's population, so by 2075, everybody in the world will be Pentecostals.

A more cheerful extrapolation shows that in just 10 years, every computer in the US will be a Mac.

Toréador, en garde!

The content of the package is more important than the label, but you still want to know what the label says and what it means. So here:

A bullfighter fights bull. D'oh! (Bullfighter, bullfighter, fight me a bull...)

Bull is an excessively polite name for bullshit, which is a term carefully defined by Harry Frankfurt, denoting a willful or reckless lack of concern for truth. According to Frankfurt, there is no good synonym for bullshit; hogwash, balderdash, codswallop, etc. are great words, but they don't mean exactly the same. Also according to Frankfurt, there is too much bullshit in the world; I wish I could disagree, but my concern for truth doesn't let me.

Just to avoid hasty inferrences: I don't necessarily agree with Frankfurt on everything. But I'll take another title from him as an inspiration: The Importance of What We Care about. I care about many things, truth being one of them. I want to protect what I care about, and fight against what harms it.

Now, no offense to male bovines, elephants or whales, but "bull" - when not used euphemistically - refers to them, and "bullfighter" usually means someone like Carmen's lover Escamillo - a toreador. You may, thus, expect me to be one; alas, the closest I can get is by making an acronym for some of the things I care about:


OK, that may be excessively cute. Maybe my whole Blogger profile is itself, well, bullshit. After all, you may be more interested in my real name, address, phone number, age, assets, and affairs that would enable you to blackmail me. But I don't blog because of the street I live on or the money in my bank account; I blog because of the ideas I care about. The TOREADOR list is just a subset of those, but it is more informative and more relevant than my vital statistics.

May 20, 2007


On my last trip to the library, I picked up Slavoj Zizek's presentation of Mao Zedong. I hope that Dawkins and other promoters of reason whose primary background is evolutionary biology are aware of Mao's ridiculously ignorant idea of evolution. If not, they should be; it would make it easier to answer the O'Reillys of the world that those purported atheist supervillains are as good as religious fundamentalists. Or, conversely, that the fundamentalists are as good as Communists. According to Mao,
I don't believe that men alone are capable of having two hands. Can't horses, cows, sheep evolve? And can it be, moreover, that of all the monkeys only one species can evolve, and all the others are incapable of evolving? In a million years, ten million years, will horses, cows and sheep still be the same as those today? I think they will continue to change.

So, Mao held the Joe Sixpack view of evolution: it is all about becoming intelligent, hair-challenged apes. It may be unremarkable that Mao, as a non-scientist born in 1893, was ignorant about Darwinian principles, but given his near-divine authority, those words must have compelled many Chinese to accept pseudoscientific garbage as unquestionable truth. At the time, it probably didn't have the disastrous practical consequences as Lysenkoism in the USSR, but it was philosophically similar and equally anti-scientific. (Of course, Lysenko was Stalin's favorite "scientist".)

What do we have here? The two scariest "atheists", each responsible for deaths of millions, both favored ideas born of navel gazing over science. That is incompatible with the atheism which Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris advocate. Any system of ideas that does not reject theories contradicted by scientific evidence doesn't deserve to be called atheistic, regardless of how loudly its proponents proclaim non-existence of gods. Stalin and Mao were much closer to faith healers than to non-believers.

If you are concerned about the creationist movement's assault on the scientific world view, you need to be aware of the related anti-scientific positions of the worst Communist leaders. The side that wields the "Stalin and Mao" weapon in that battle must change: instead of conservative pundits asserting the atheists' "connection" with the psychopatic dictators, the defenders of science should point out that the fundamentalists are in an "unholy" alliance with the hard-line Communists when it comes to rejecting neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.

May 19, 2007

Food for Thought, or Vice Versa

When Google e-mailed me the comments to the previous post, it chose the following promotional links:

  1. Stalin Tshirts
  2. Eliminate Bad Breath Now
  3. Quaker Steak and Lube (sauces)
  4. Comfort in a Cup (cofee, tea, soups...)

Stalin does stand out at #1, but otherwise the word "garlic" dominates as a link generator. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, if you want to be popular, you must either shock people, or feed them.

May 18, 2007

Some Garlic Against the Stalin Vampires

Objectively, the "Stalin was an atheist" (SWAA) argument is a stupid, desperate piece of bullshit, but it is repeated ad nauseam and it tends to work well as propaganda, so it is important not to dismiss it too lightly.

In interviews, Dawkins usually responds that (1) Stalin didn't do all those bad things because he was an atheist, and (2) his ideology was rather based on "blind faith" and has more in common with religion than with a rationalist-naturalist atheism. I am afraid this kind of response is not effective enough. Point (1) is lost on most of the sound-bite audience, which is generally unable to tell causation, correlation, and coincidence from each other. Besides, it is an obviously falsifiable hypothesis, so why should it convince a rational opponent without evidence (which can't be packed in a sound bite)? And it is not sexy enough to convince irrational opponents. Point (2) is very good standing by itself, but it redefines the frame of the debate that Dawkins had set up. I have always preferred to group pervasive ideologies with religion, but Dawkins, who entered the debate over religion through the "evolution vs. creationism" gate, had not had the need to do that, which may make him ill-equipped to argue this particular point.

From comments on Pharyngula, here is an excellent answer to the SWAA fallacy that fits in a sound bite:
there is a world of difference between believing that there is no god and believing that there is one, and you're it!

I will adopt this word-for-word, with thanks to David Livesay. It is very effectively framed and presented, while not compromising on the truth. It contains the two most critical points for debunking SWAA:

  1. There is a god in every totalitarian ideology. When an idea becomes more important than people, when it is considered worth sacrificing the lives of many people and the welfare of many others to that idea, then that idea is indistinguishable from God. Dogmatic Communism is a religion in every practical sense of the word.

  2. Stalin substituted himself for God. This should not be taken as literally as the first point, but it is a metaphor that captures the attitude of every totalitarian dictator quite accurately. It is especially true if the dictator exhibits signs of paranoia, which Stalin certainly did, and to which dictators in general are prone. We'll never know what went on in Stalin's head, but it is possible that he viewed God not as a non-entity, but rather as his rival, as another alpha-male to fight for the leadership of the pack. In any case, the practical consequence was that the Christian Trinity was merely replaced by the Trinity of Stalin's personality, the state ("Motherland"), and the Communist Party. A similar argument can be made that most other totalitarian dictators considered themselves divine in some sense.

I think the real debate should not be between atheism and religion, but between the rationalist/naturalist/skeptical world view and the dogmatic/idealistic/faith-based one. But that's a topic for another post...

May 17, 2007

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner

This is cool.
See, I have very little quarrel with Christians. (...) I know there's some Christians reading this--probably with gritted teeth right now, sorry, guys--and they are generally lovely people. Allow me to repeat, I have no quarrel with Christians.

But I really dislike Christianity. In and of itself. Not because of what some annoying Christians do, but because I dislike the religion. On aesthetic grounds. Yes, that's right. Aesthetic. (...)

I also dislike tomatoes. Hated 'em since I was a small child.

And yes, I spun the title a little bit.

May 16, 2007

Falwell vs. MLK

Michelle Goldberg points out the immense hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell:
Falwell himself once denounced preachers who got involved in governance, though not out of devotion to a secular republic: As a committed segregationist, he decried the work of Martin Luther King Jr, saying, "Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners."

Matthew Yglesias picks up on this and offers the following viewpoint:
From the standpoint of religious denominations themselves, though, I suspect that Falwell was offering good pragmatic advice. Religious leaders who involve themselves unduly in political matters become essentially politicians or activist/agitators, two social roles that are much less highly regarded than is the role of religious leader.

I am not sure if that is completely true; Falwell, Robertson, and similar characters seem quite successful and influential to me, and even more so is the Pope, who is clearly a full-time politician as well as religious leader. But there is probably some truth in Matt's observation; in that case, I regard it as a serious problem of our society that religious leaders are more highly regarded than politicians and secular activists. It would be a better world if the opposite attitude prevailed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man because he fought for a noble cause, with admirable means, and very effectively. That evaluation depends exclusively on secular criteria; and, by the same criteria, Jerry Falwell was an odious man. The fact that they were ministers is only a footnote on their moral biographies, and it should have neither disqualified them from political participation, nor given them any special privileges.

Another commenter on Matt's blog responded that MLK was personally driven by his faith, and that he considered "the moral law or the law of God" as the criterion to distinguish just laws (which we have a moral duty to obey) from unjust ones (which we have a moral responsibility to break). As a principle, this is problematic, because the right-wing religious extremists can claim it, too.

The answer is simple: that principle is bullshit. Faith as a basis of morality is garbage, because faith can justify any kind of moral values, as the comparison of King and Falwell - or, say, Jimmy Carter and Osama bin Laden - easily demonstrates. "If God exists, then everything is allowed" is what Alyosha Karamazov should have said. Insofar as he believed that his sense of Justice came from God, MLK was mistaken. But I don't care what he believed and how he rationalized his values; I care that his actions were right and good. I'd probably deeply disagree with him metaphysically, but so what? Deeds count, not creed.

For the same reason, I don't really care whether televangelists like Falwell believe in the noxious nonsense they preach, and I think that insisting on Falwell having been a deliberate fraud is a weakness in the otherwise very good Christopher Hitchens commentary. It is especially unnecessary for Hitchens to argue that, as he is perfectly willing to say that the faith Falwell preached was evil in itself, even if completely sincere.

The difference between King and Falwell is that the former's deeds were good, and the latter's bad, from a purely secular point of view. That assessment does not depend on their personal religious beliefs. In summary, I don't mind religious leaders participating in politics. What I do mind are bad people participating in politics.

Forgive Falwell? Or Judge Jerry?

Brad DeLong asks himself, What Would Jesus Do? And he finds that Jerry Falwell had an abusive father:
Falwell's childhood must have been a complete hell--and it is no surprise that Falwell made God in his own father's image. Given the hand that he was dealt, I cannot judge Jerry Falwell.

Indeed, we should never forget that we can't know all the circumstances that shaped someone's life, and we should be reluctant to throw that first (or nth) stone. But such circumspection does not, and should not, necessarily result in withholding judgment. Hitler and Stalin had abusive fathers, too; should we apply the same reasoning to them, and judge them not? Few people would go to such extremes, and not too many more would admire those few for going all the way with Jesus.

So where do you draw the line? Is there a "morally optimal" limit of forgiveness and understanding? Brad's may be somewhere between Falwell and Hitler/Stalin, but someone else's heart (mine, perhaps) may not have room for the Falwells of the world. Most of us would agree that forgiveness should not be restricted to near perfection and that overinclusive forgiveness also feels wrong, but placing the limit more precisely seems highly subjective. And if there is no objectively best level of withholding judgment, it is presumptuous to assert that anyone's personal level is ethically superior to anyone else's, and it is unjustified to claim the moral high ground based on one's greater capacity or willingness to forgive.

Besides, Brad's next sentence undermines his position:
The Republican politicians who built Falwell up--who sought his endorsement and magnified his influence--them will I judge.

Oh, I'd be happy to join, but I didn't tie my arms and tongue about judging Jerry. The distinction makes no sense. Just because you didn't dig up anything about the politicians' fathers, doesn't mean they didn't beat them. Or that their mothers didn't take little yellow pills, or that kids didn't laugh at them and girls (or boys) reject them as yucky and creepy...

I wonder if this is another instance of our society's double standard that says someone's politics is fair game for criticism ans attacks, but someone's religion is not. If so, we need to have a little bullfight.

May 15, 2007

What's Democracy in a Name?

Countries whose long ("full") names contain the word "democratic", according to The World Factbook (as of 10 May 2007):

  • People's Democratic Republic of Algeria
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
  • Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  • Democratic People's Republic of Korea
  • Lao People's Democratic Republic
  • Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe
  • Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

Additionally, these countries, some of which no longer exist, called themselves "democratic" in the past:

  • German Democratic Republic (1949-1990)
  • Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)
  • Somali Democratic Republic (1969-1991)
  • People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (1970-1990)
  • Democratic Federal Yugoslavia (1943-1946)

May 14, 2007

Me Speak English Very Good... Some Day

A useful collection of common language errors from the Economist. I must plead guilty to some of them.

Other similarly useful guides are here and here.

(Yes, I believe there is such a thing as correct English usage.)

Out of Fashion

Completely untimely, except that I could rationalize it by saying that Flag Day is a month from now... but this post by Ed Brayton is timeless. Isn't this a scary picture:At least, we don't salute like that any more in this country. It may be the only thing that fell out of fashion permanently despite a veritable pedigree of Italian design. (I might ponder the layers of meaning in the word "fashionista" some other time.)

May 11, 2007

Religion's Sins Against Science

PZ Myers posted a list of 10 12 sins of Christianity (and, as he clarified in the comments, most religion) against science.

I particularly like the sin of Predestination:

Predestination. I've had a few one-on-one conversations with creationists, and one of the weirder but fairly common discoveries is that they reject the concept of chance. Everything must have an intentional cause. A branch fell off my tree because the wind blew it down; similarly, if an ancient ape evolved into a human it must be because…? They've filled in the ellipsis with "God", and they are not satisfied with explanations that do not invoke causes and intent. Try it yourself sometime; they have an almost allergic reaction to the notion of junk DNA, for instance, because there's no way molecules could have a random element, it must all be for a purpose.

This trait isn't exclusive to religion, of course; you can see causality built right into the structure of our language, and it's probably hardwired into our brains. Religion makes it difficult to oppose, though, because it provides a convenient catch-all repository of causality: god did it. It doesn't matter that it's a meaningless phrase, it seems to satisfy an intrinsic desire to wrap up loose ends with an explanatory purpose.

Some of the comments are also quite insightful, and one links to this related article.

May 10, 2007

Time 100 Follies

Moonflake contemplates the absurdity of Time magazine's entrusting Michael Behe with writing the profile of Richard Dawkins for the 100 Most Influential People list:
I can only imagine what the next Time 100 is going to look like:

  • Tony Blair, profiled by Robert Mugabe

  • Sir Ian McKellen, profiled by Fred Phelps

  • Michael J. Fox, profiled by Rush Limbaugh

  • Jon Stewart, profiled by George W. Bush

  • Neil Armstrong, profiled by Bart Sibrel

  • Noam Chomsky, profiled by Paris Hilton

May 9, 2007

The Mismeasure of Bias

This is one of the most astute critiques of a methodologically flawed paper that purports to measure ideological bias in the media. Nyhan's main points are:
(1) Technocratic centrist to liberal organizations like Brookings and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tend to have more credentialed experts with peer-reviewed publications than their conservative counterparts. This may result in a greater number of citations by the press, which seeks out expert perspectives on the news, but not more citations by members of Congress, who generally seek out views that reinforce their own.

(2) The Groseclose/Milyo methodology doesn't allow for differential rates of productivity in producing work of interest to the media or Congress between organizations. To the extent that a think tank is better at marketing itself to the press than Congress (or vice versa), it could skew the results.

He quotes other sources, too, and this argument from Media Matters is particularly convincing:
For instance, according to their data, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the third most-quoted group on the list. But stories about race relations that include a quote from an NAACP representative are unlikely to be "balanced" with quotes from another group on their list. Their quotes will often be balanced by quotes from an individual, depending on the nature of the story; however, because there are no pro-racism groups of any legitimacy (or on Groseclose and Milyo's list), such stories will be coded as having a "liberal bias."

And there are more general issues that would remain even if these details were somehow fixed. The very notion that some average (median or whatever) of population's views is "unbiased" is unfounded; and, even if the population's median view were deemed "unbiased" by definition, there would still be a big leap from the median member of Congress to the median voter, and another from the median voter to the median member of the population.

Too bad Andrew Gelman's endorsement of Brendan Nyhan's critique is only lukewarm, even though he realizes that "bias" is a misnomer for the quantity that G&M measured. More generally, it is sad that so often people with great analytical skills fail to appreciate the world beyond the limitations of a mathematical model.

If Republicans Debated Herod

Finerman suggests moving the newly discovered Herod's tomb to the Heritage Foundation. I can't help imagining how the Republican presidential candidates would debate that issue:

TANCREDO: I don't care if he is dead, I wouldn't let him into the country.
MCCAIN: We can bury him in Baghdad. He'd be safe there.
ROMNEY: I think he should stay in France.
GIULIANI: Mitt, you are a complete idiot.
BROWNBACK: Herod makes Baby Jesus cry. And so do you, Rudy.
HUCKABEE: Yes, Herod makes Baby Jesus cry, and so he and all of his descendants to this day should burn in Hell.
TOMMY THOMPSON: I like the Hell part. Oh, and some of my best friends are Jews.
GIULIANI: Tommy, you are sick. You need professional help.
ROMNEY: I am now really concerned about Baby Jesus. I am personally going to ask Ann Coulter to make sure Herod suffers really bad in Hell.
GIULIANI: Look, people, Herod didn't make Baby Jesus cry. He wanted to make him stop crying, forever.
HUCKABEE: This New Yorker guy is an infidel. Rudy, do you even believe in virgin birth?
GIULIANI: Mike, you mention virgins once more and I'll break your nose. I was once personally attacked by crazy terrorists who wanted 72 virgins.
MCCAIN: (humming) 72 virgins on the wall... take one down, pass it around...
ROMNEY: I once married 72 virgins.
HUCKABEE: We used to burn people like you at stake.
TANCREDO: That's what happens when you let Mexicans in, they have 72 children and soon our children will have to learn Mexican in school!
GIULIANI: Oh, shut up, Tom, you stupid moron!
ROMNEY: My allegiance is first and foremost to the United States of America and its Constitution!
MCCAIN: You may uncross your fingers now, Mitt.
BROWNBACK: (tearful) Look, people, you are joking, but Baby Jesus is still crying. And Rudy, you, like Herod, favor killing the innocent!
GIULIANI: No, I support judges who don't kill babies. Actually, last time I saw a judge who killed a baby, I said "Shame on you!"
TANCREDO: I bet he was a Mexican.
THOMPSON: Some of my best friends are Mexican.
ROMNEY: None of my best friends are from Massachusetts.
GIULIANI: All of my best friends are pitt bulls.

Protect the Children by Locking Them Up

A 17-year-old and a 16-year old took photos of themselves engaged in unspecified "sexual behavior" and got charged and convicted as child pornographers. They didn't even intend to distribute the photos; they were for their private use only. Florida state appeals court upheld the conviciton.
The idiot judge who wrote the opinion reasoned that

the statute was intended to protect minors like appellant and her co-defendant from their own lack of judgment...
Appellant was simply too young to make an intelligent decision about engaging in sexual conduct and memorializing it. Mere production of these videos or pictures may also result in psychological trauma to the teenagers involved.

So, to protect her from "psychological trauma", we should lock her up and stigmatize her as a criminal. Remarkably, another judge agreed with this bullshit, producing a 2-1 opinion.

People like this not only shouldn't be judges, they shouldn't even be allowed to vote for their neighborhood association boards. Heck, they should be locked up, to protect them from their own idiocy.

Atrios has more on this and related subjects, as does Yglesias.

The Wealth of Nations Self-Interested Agents

Brad DeLong buys into a Hayekian view of economic morality, but several of his readers call his foul in the comments. One witty comment might spread wider:
The learned autism of economists is really remarkable sometimes.

Rhetoric aside, this comment gets to the core:
As for the moral point: well, we live in a world of nation states, which are all about treating citizens differently from non-citizens. The question of the morality of a nation-based trade policy is really a sub-question of the issue of the morality of the nation state.

May 7, 2007

Is Yglesias on Drugs?

This is utterly ridiculous:
...lately there seem to be an awful lot of what you might call evangelizing atheists who want to publish books about how awful religion is. Kevin names Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens and I was also add Daniel Dennett into the mix. What's going on?

It seems especially odd to me because it's so contrary to the spirit of non-theism to go around writing books like this. The whole strength of the non-theistic intellectual enterprise over the years has simply been to go about our business without talking about God.

WTF?!? Evangelizing atheists?!? What is next? Pious scientists? Fanatic deconstructionists? Crusading Quakers? Nerdy NFL quarterbacks? Intelligent Fox newsanchors?

Several people took Matt to task in the comments, but some have built further upon his oxymoronic (as well as just plain moronic) idea. A lot of people need a bucket of cold water poured on them.

Trivial Economic Trivia

Dani Rodrik wastes his time and his audience's:

I asked the audience a favorite question of mine: would you rather be poor in a rich country, or rich in a poor country. I gave them the following terms for thinking about the question:

  1. Assume you care only about your own consumption
  2. Define poor and rich as someone who is the in the bottom or top decile of a country
  3. Define poor and rich country analogously as a country in the bottom or top decile of the distribution of per-capita incomes across countries.

The audience was divided evenly between those who would choose to be rich in a poor country and those who would rather be poor in a rich country. The real answer is that it is not even close. This has important implications for how we think about poverty reduction in the world.

Sorry, but this should not be a prominent Harvard professor's favorite question. As defined, it is a question about an artificial world that has little to do with reality. First, he assumes away the value of status, power, and other non-consumption sources of utility. He also pretends that people's desires are absolute, independent of what they are accustomed to or what they see that their neighbors have; such absolute utility for consumption is a very useful concept for typical microeconomic problems, but it leads to absurd conclusions when comparing people in vastly different situations. By Rodrik's criteria, it is better to be a postal worker in the US today than a king in 18th century. But if Rodrik had taken lessons from Mel Brooks, he would know that "it's good to be king."

Second, the way Rodrik defines "rich" and "poor" for this problem is divorced from the words' meanings in normal language. In any country I can think of, the wealth distribution is skewed. Nowhere is the top 10% considered rich, but the bottom 10% is considered poor almost everywhere. The poorer the country, the more skewed the distribution is likely to be; the 90th percentile person there may be a rich person's servant.

Rodrik is right that comparisons between any combination of rich/poor people in rich/poor countries have important implications for poverty reduction, but only if the comparisons are meaningful and fair. Misleading comparisons like this will have important wrong implications.

P.S. In case you haven't guessed, the answer to Rodrik's riddle is here.

Not Worth the Used Toilet Paper It's Printed on

Everybody knows Mitt Romney is full of shit, but it is hard to imagine that somebody can be so full of shit that the last used car salesman you met was closer to the mythical cherry-tree-hacking George Washington than to this guy:
In France, for instance, I'm told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up. How shallow and how different from the Europe of the past.

Sure. And in Belgium people have tails. But that's Mitt Romney, he leaves droppings like that a lot. The serious question is, how does the Washingon Post report on this poopy accident? Does it inform the readers that they should not be so foolish to quote Mr. Romney outside of indecent jokes? Does it at least present the relevant facts in a neutral fashion? Nope. It just moves on, washing its hands Pilate-like by linking "France" to all its news on France. Let the readers sort it out; they are paid for it, aren't they?

The Washington Post has become a joke. Were it printed on used toilet paper, it wouldn't be worth the paper it was printed on.

May 3, 2007

Where Is the Outrage?

Richard Posner offers an interesting view regarding the lack of violent protests against the Iraq war. He disagrees with the conventional wisdom (and his co-blogger Gary Becker) that the main difference between the Vietnam era and today is the draft. Instead, he lists five ways in which protesting has higher cost and lower benefits today than it had in 1968:
  1. Opponents of the Iraq war have the support of one of the two major political parties. They thus have less reason to feel abandoned and more hope that their goals will be achieved through the regular political process. They also may be reluctant to jeopardize the efforts of Democratic Party politicians.
  2. The opportunity costs are higher today: wages are higher (especially for the highly educated), more women work, and the greater competitiveness in the economy means that a reputation as a violent protester poses a higher risk to one's career.
  3. Blogs and other electronic media provide alternative outlet and support networks.
  4. People learned from earlier mistakes: Vietnam protests probably didn't end the war, but they did help Nixon become president.
  5. Vietnam protests were also about the system in general; there was a revolutionary or Utopian element then. In contrast, most people today believe strongly in the American political and economic system in principle.

That's some food for thought, and all of Posner's reasons deserve to be taken seriously. But they should also be scrutinized. Are they factually correct? Can they explain the lack of outrage in other recent situations that might have resulted in mass protests, such as the stolen 2000 presidential election? (Obviously, the draft and the number of casualties do not apply there, so Posner's reasons should only be more important.) And finally, if Posner is right, what are the broader implications? Should we be happy about what we learned?

Factually, Posner seems mostly correct, except that, for most people, real wages are not much higher now than in 1968, and it is likely that the protests did speed up the end of the war, although we'll never know for sure.

As for explaining the lack of outrage over the 2000 election, I can only see #2 as a convincing factor, although it is far short of a full explanation. The Democratic Party did not rock the boat, blogs hardly existed, there were few, if any, related past mistakes to learn from, and a belief in the American system of government might have been an additional reason to protest. (On the other hand, the belief in the system could also have resulted in the Gore position - accepting the decision despite strongly disagreeing with it - but at least the net effect is ambiguous.)

I suspect there is an additional cultural reason - that Americans have become more risk-averse. That would be consistent with the observed changes in other areas, from school safety rules to product liability lawsuits. Admittedly, that same change in attitudes makes us more sensitive to the military deaths (so 3,000 in Iraq feel closer to 60,000 in Vietnam than the raw numbers suggest), but the aversion to relatively small personal losses (like time and career prospects) has apparently grown more than the aversion to risking lives. Other people's lives, that is, which brings the draft issue back into play.

Finally, I find Posner's reason #2 troubling. There is no causal connection between a more competitive economy and career risk for protesters. If someone has been a protester, can we infer that that person is likely to be less productive? Certainly, there are traits that make one both a likely protester and a productive worker; for example, enthusiasm, initiative, and willingness to take risks. There must be something other than competitive economy that creates the link between protests and career risks, and that something does not look benign.

UPDATE: Posner addresses some readers' comments here.