It is [a politician’s] business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out he will try to hold it by embracing new truths.
H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926.
November 26, 2014
November 25, 2014
I’ll do everything to end the war on drugs. … The war on drugs has become the most racially disparate outcome that you have in the entire country. Our prisons are full of black and brown kids. Three-fourths of the people in prison are black or brown, and white kids are using drugs, Bill, as you know … at the same rate as these other kids. But kids who have less means, less money, kids who are in areas where police are patrolling … Police are given monetary incentives to make arrests, monetary incentives for their own departments. So I want to end the war on drugs because it’s wrong for everybody, but particularly because poor people are caught up in this, and their lives are ruined by it.
Rand Paul, speaking to Bill Maher, 2014-11-15.
November 24, 2014
Harper is now the 6th longest serving PM in Canadian history having just surpassed Borden and Mulroney. The former fought a major war and the later revolutionized international trade policy. Harper? He abolished the Wheat Board. A sensible thing really. Not a big thing. This is not a government of big things, it is a government of small things. Harper is, as Lord Black has pointed out, a modern Tory version of Mackenzie King.
Now King did fight the Second World War. Sort of. He thought the whole thing rather a bother, getting in the way of his equivocating and crystal ball polishing. The general impression in Ottawa during the early Forties was that CD Howe was running the country. The only time in Canadian history when an engineer was given real power. I neither condemn or condone that fact, I simply point it out.
Harper would, of course, never delegate any important authority. Even the late Big Jim Flaherty was kept on a shorter leash than Paul Martin. A modern day CD Howe, assuming he could get elected, would never last five minutes in the Harper cabinet. Big Prime Ministers breed small cabinet ministers.
This leads to one of the essential problems of quasi-Presidential Prime Ministers. When the King falters so does the Kingdom. The Pearson government bungled along for five remarkably influential years. Mike had little idea of what was going on but with one of the strongest cabinets in Canadian history the business of government carried on.
If the PM doesn’t have any new ideas there are plenty of competent ministers more than willing to fill the gap. This is how men like Macdonald and King survived for political eons. How great Dynasties like those of the Tories in Ontario and Alberta were forged. If the King falters there is no shortage of Princes to carry the load.
Richard Anderson, “Steam Punk”, Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-11-18.
November 23, 2014
It is a curious fact, but nobody ever is sea-sick — on land. At sea, you come across plenty of people very bad indeed, whole boat-loads of them; but I never met a man yet, on land, who had ever known at all what it was to be sea-sick. Where the thousands upon thousands of bad sailors that swarm in every ship hide themselves when they are on land is a mystery.
If most men were like a fellow I saw on the Yarmouth boat one day, I could account for the seeming enigma easily enough. It was just off Southend Pier, I recollect, and he was leaning out through one of the port-holes in a very dangerous position. I went up to him to try and save him.
“Hi! come further in,” I said, shaking him by the shoulder. “You’ll be overboard.”
“Oh my! I wish I was,” was the only answer I could get; and there I had to leave him.
Three weeks afterwards, I met him in the coffee-room of a Bath hotel, talking about his voyages, and explaining, with enthusiasm, how he loved the sea.
“Good sailor!” he replied in answer to a mild young man’s envious query; “well, I did feel a little queer once, I confess. It was off Cape Horn. The vessel was wrecked the next morning.”
“Weren’t you a little shaky by Southend Pier one day, and wanted to be thrown overboard?”
“Southend Pier!” he replied, with a puzzled expression.
“Yes; going down to Yarmouth, last Friday three weeks.”
“Oh, ah — yes,” he answered, brightening up; “I remember now. I did have a headache that afternoon. It was the pickles, you know. They were the most disgraceful pickles I ever tasted in a respectable boat. Did you have any?”
For myself, I have discovered an excellent preventive against sea-sickness, in balancing myself. You stand in the centre of the deck, and, as the ship heaves and pitches, you move your body about, so as to keep it always straight. When the front of the ship rises, you lean forward, till the deck almost touches your nose; and when its back end gets up, you lean backwards. This is all very well for an hour or two; but you can’t balance yourself for a week.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
November 22, 2014
… the first college-football contest was not played in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton, but in 1874 between McGill and Harvard. The game the two New Jersey schools played was something close to soccer, with players (25 per side) allowed to kick the ball or bat it with their hands, and points scored by kicking the ball into the opponents’ goal. This game spread to a handful of other northeastern colleges in the next few years, under varying rules.
Meanwhile, Harvard played a different, more rugbyish game that allowed the ball to be carried and thrown. In 1874 it agreed to a two-game series in Cambridge with McGill, which also played a rugby-type game. The first game, played on May 14 under Harvard’s rules, was an easy victory for the home team. The next day they played under McGill’s rules, which permitted more ball handling, used an oval ball (unlike Harvard’s round one), and scored points with a “try,” similar to the modern touchdown. The contest ended in a scoreless tie, but Harvard’s players decided they liked McGill’s rules better than their own.
The “Boston game” soon became more popular than the kicking-oriented variety, and when representatives from four American colleges met in November 1876 to standardize football rules, they largely adopted the McGill/Harvard version. So while the 1874 game was quite different from today’s football, it is at least recognizable as an ancestor, whereas the game Rutgers and Princeton played in 1869 was an evolutionary dead end.
Fred Schwarz, “Why American Football Is Canadian”, National Review Online, 2014-11-13.
November 21, 2014
I like trigger warnings. I like them because they’re not censorship, they’re the opposite of censorship. Censorship says “Read what we tell you”. The opposite of censorship is “Read whatever you want”. The philosophy of censorship is “We know what is best for you to read”. The philosophy opposite censorship is “You are an adult and can make your own decisions about what to read”.
And part of letting people make their own decisions is giving them relevant information and trusting them to know what to do with them. Uninformed choices are worse choices. Trigger warnings are an attempt to provide you with the information to make good free choices of reading material.
And my role model here, as in so many other places, is Commissioner Lal: “Beware he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master.”
Scott Alexander, “The Wonderful Thing About Triggers”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-30.
November 20, 2014
[President Obama] said he would take executive action on immigration by year’s end unless Republicans passed a bill. It’s certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I’ll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.
I’m not sure that isn’t what Obama thinks he’s doing, and I’m sure many of my left-leaning readers are chuckling right now at the comparison. But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old; he’s an adult, and he just won an election in which voters repudiated Obama and his party. (Temporarily, I am sure, but just the same: As someone once said, “Elections have consequences.”) McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate; he’s an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn’t that fond of him). In short, he’s someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell’s rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you’re going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.
I wonder if Obama even knows how to negotiate with Republicans. It’s not as if he has a long, distinguished record of passing legislation in a mixed environment. His later years in the Illinois State Senate enjoyed a solid Democratic majority, and he jumped into the U.S. Senate at a propitious time. Soon after he arrived came the wave of 2006, when Democrats controlled both houses of congress by comfortable margins, and Senator Obama was far too junior to be negotiating with the White House. Then came the financial crisis, and another wave, and Obama spent the first two years of his presidency in a happy situation where he could get things done without needing the support of the opposition. He didn’t even negotiate with his own party; the Senate negotiated his health care bill, and Nancy Pelosi whipped it through the House.
Post 2010, of course, he also hasn’t had much practice negotiating. I’m not interested in another tedious argument about who did what to whom; whatever the cause and whoever’s fault it may be, the fact remains that the president has spent the last four years in a stalemate: Neither party can leave, and neither party can win.
It’s a little late in the president’s career to learn the fine art of making deals with people who fundamentally disagree with you, but might be willing to work on whatever small goals you might share. I suspect it feels more comfortable to go along with the strategy that has worked decently well over the last four years: hold your ground, complain about Republican intransigence, and hope that Republican legislators give you another opportunity to play long-suffering adult in the room.
Megan McArdle, “Does Obama Even Know How to Negotiate?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-11-07.
November 19, 2014
I heard a lot of that kind of talk during my battles with the Canadian ‘human rights’ commissions a few years ago: of course, we all believe in free speech, but it’s a question of how you ‘strike the balance’, where you ‘draw the line’… which all sounds terribly reasonable and Canadian, and apparently Australian, too. But in reality the point of free speech is for the stuff that’s over the line, and strikingly unbalanced. If free speech is only for polite persons of mild temperament within government-policed parameters, it isn’t free at all. So screw that.
But I don’t really think that many people these days are genuinely interested in ‘striking the balance’; they’ve drawn the line and they’re increasingly unashamed about which side of it they stand. What all the above stories have in common, whether nominally about Israel, gay marriage, climate change, Islam, or even freedom of the press, is that one side has cheerfully swapped that apocryphal Voltaire quote about disagreeing with what you say but defending to the death your right to say it for the pithier Ring Lardner line: ‘“Shut up,” he explained.’
A generation ago, progressive opinion at least felt obliged to pay lip service to the Voltaire shtick. These days, nobody’s asking you to defend yourself to the death: a mildly supportive retweet would do. But even that’s further than most of those in the academy, the arts, the media are prepared to go. As Erin Ching, a student at 60-grand-a-year Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, put it in her college newspaper the other day: ‘What really bothered me is the whole idea that at a liberal arts college we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion.’ Yeah, who needs that? There speaks the voice of a generation: celebrate diversity by enforcing conformity.
Mark Steyn, “The slow death of free speech”, The Spectator, 2014-04-19
November 18, 2014
Except stereotypes are not inaccurate. There are many different ways to test for the accuracy of stereotypes, because there are many different types or aspects of accuracy. However, one type is quite simple — the correspondence of stereotype beliefs with criteria. If I believe 60% of adult women are over 5′ 4″ tall, and 56% voted for the Democrat in the last Presidential election, and that 35% of all adult women have college degrees, how well do my beliefs correspond to the actual probabilities? One can do this sort of thing for many different types of groups.
And lots of scientists have. And you know what they found? That stereotype accuracy — the correspondence of stereotype beliefs with criteria — is one of the largest relationships in all of social psychology. The correlations of stereotypes with criteria range from .4 to over .9, and average almost .8 for cultural stereotypes (the correlation of beliefs that are widely shared with criteria) and.5 for personal stereotypes (the correlation of one individual’s stereotypes with criteria, averaged over lots of individuals). The average effect in social psychology is about .20. Stereotypes are more valid than most social psychological hypotheses.
Which raises a question: Why do so many psychologists emphasize stereotype inaccuracy when the evidence so clearly provides evidence of such high accuracy? Why is there this Extraordinary Scientific Delusion?
There may be many explanations, but one that fits well is the leftward lean of most psychologists. If we can self-righteously rail against other people’s inaccurate stereotypes, we cast ourselves as good, decent egalitarians fighting the good fight, siding with the oppressed against their oppressors. Furthermore, as Jon Haidt has repeatedly shown, ideology blinds people to facts that are right under their noses. Liberal social scientists often have assumed stereotypes were inaccurate without bothering to test for inaccuracy, and, when the evidence has been right under their noses, they have avoided looking at it. And when something happens where they can’t avoid looking at it, they have denigrated its importance. Which is, in some ways, very amusing — if, after 100 years of proclaiming the inaccuracy of stereotypes to the world, can we really just say “Never mind, it’s not that important” after the evidence comes in showing that stereotype accuracy is one of the largest relationships in all of social psychology?
November 17, 2014
The first thing to remember about the Amazon/Hachette Book Group dispute is that this sort of thing happens all the time in business. When two big companies negotiate, it’s like Mothra and Godzilla: Each party can throw around a lot of weight, which means some collateral damage. It’s not exactly unheard of for a company that doesn’t like a supplier’s price to stop carrying the product, or to deny the supplier valuable end-cap space, or otherwise deprioritize the sales of the contested items.
The second thing to remember about the Amazon/Hachette dispute is that writers are categorically unable to see what they do as in any way akin to, say, selling potato chips. Writing is special and sacred! The sight of our product being treated like Chef Boyardee spaghetti is more than our tender souls can bear. And unlike grocery suppliers, writers have access to column space in which to pour out our anguish. That’s why so much ink has been spilled over this contretemps.
The third thing to remember is that publisher interests are not the same as author interests. Neither are Amazon’s. Amazon would like to sell books as cheaply as possible because this enhances the market value of their economies of scale. Publishers would like to keep prices high not just to enhance their profits, but also to keep multiple channels open for their books; it is not in their interest for Amazon to succeed in killing off the competition.
Megan McArdle, “Does Amazon’s Monopoly Really Matter?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-10-24.
November 16, 2014
The 11th Light Dragoons at this time were newly back from India, where they had been serving since before I was born. They were a fighting regiment, and — I say it without regimental pride, for I never had any, but as a plain matter of fact — probably the finest mounted troops in England, if not in the world. Yet they had been losing officers, since coming home, hand over fist. The reason was James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan.
You have heard all about him, no doubt. The regimental scandals, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the vanity, stupidity, and extravagance of the man — these things are history. Like most history, they have a fair basis of fact. But I knew him, probably as few other officers knew him, and in turn I found him amusing, frightening, vindictive, charming, and downright dangerous. He was God’s own original fool, there’s no doubt of that — although he was not to blame for the fiasco at Balaclava; that was Raglan and Airey between them. And he was arrogant as no other man I’ve ever met, and as sure of his own unshakeable rightness as any man could be — even when his wrongheadedness was there for all to see. That was his great point, the key to his character: he could never be wrong.
They say that at least he was brave. He was not. He was just stupid, too stupid ever to be afraid. Fear is an emotion, and his emotions were all between his knees and his breastbone; they never touched his reason, and he had little enough of that.
For all that, he could never be called a bad soldier. Some human faults are military virtues, like stupidity, and arrogance, and narrow-mindedness. Cardigan blended all three with a passion for detail and accuracy; he was a perfectionist, and the manual of cavalry drill was his Bible. Whatever rested between the covers of that book he could perform, or cause to be performed, with marvellous efficiency, and God help anyone who marred that performance. He would have made a first-class drill sergeant — only a man with a mind capable of such depths of folly could have led six regiments into the Valley at Balaclava.
However, I devote some space to him because he played a not unimportant part in the career of Harry Flashman, and since it is my purpose to show how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process, I must say that he was a good friend to me. He never understood me, of course, which is not surprising. I took good care not to let him.
George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.
November 15, 2014
So what do you do about women who freely make choices that perpetuate structural inequalities? Do you stop them from making the choices? Neither Harvard, nor Kantor, seems to have a good answer. But that is the core dilemma. Maybe women drop out because they have a deeper biological connection to their kids. Maybe they do so because they’re raised to be nurturers, or maybe because they don’t feel the same personal anguish that a man does when he gives up on the dream of a top-flight career. Maybe if men felt they had the option to stay home, more would. And maybe women find the role of breadwinner more stressful than men do — all the women I know who are the primary earners are neurotic about it in a way that the men I know don’t seem to be. I’m not talking about the fear that your partner will resent your success; these are women married to admirably feminist men. I’m just talking about a near-constant fear that you will not be able to provide, and your family will end up horribly destitute. I’m not saying that men don’t experience that worry, but they don’t seem tormented by it the way the women I talk to are.
Or maybe it’s that women just don’t want it badly enough. In my experience, one of the reasons that women drop out of finance, and 80-hour-a-week fields more generally, is that they just don’t want it as badly as the men. In their 20s, they’re happy to work those kinds of hours, even at tasks they find boring. They do well at them, too. But a lot of these jobs aren’t actually that rewarding as work: The investment banking associates I observed seemed to spend most of their time on basically clerical tasks, tabulating data and proofreading PowerPoints. And eventually most of the women seem to say “You know, I just care more about relationships than I do about success.” There are always exceptions on both sides: women who will sacrifice anything for the career they feel called to and men who would rather be home. But on average, the women I talk to just aren’t nearly as willing to sacrifice close friendships, and family relationships, for the sake of their jobs.
We can say that they shouldn’t have to, of course, but the sad fact is that there are trade-offs in this world. In your 20s you can finesse them — work super hard and also have a roaring social life — because you have boundless energy and no one depending on you. This is the age at which young women write furious articles and Facebook posts denouncing anyone who suggests that women opt-out of high pressure jobs for any reason other than the rankest sexism.
As you age, your body refuses to cooperate with your plan to work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and then hang out with friends. Your parents start to need you more, if only to lift heavy things. And of course, there are kids. You start having to make direct trade-offs, and then suddenly you look up and you haven’t seen your friends for two years and your mother is complaining that you never call. This is the age at which women write furious articles defending their decision to step back from a high-pressure job and/or demanding subsidized childcare, generous paid maternity leave and “family friendly policies,” a vague term that ultimately seems to mean that people who leave at five to pick up the kids should be entitled to the same opportunities and compensation as people who stay until 9 to finish the client presentation. These pleas usually end (or begin) by pointing to the family-friendly utopia of Northern Europe, except that women in Europe do less well at moving into high-test management positions. Whatever the government says, someone who takes several years off work is in fact less valuable to their company than someone who doesn’t.
Megan McArdle, “Harvard’s Gender Bender”, Bloomberg View, 2013-09-10
November 14, 2014
I do occasional work for my hospital’s Addiction Medicine service, and a lot of our conversations go the same way.
My attending tells a patient trying to quit that she must take a certain pill that will decrease her drug cravings. He says it is mostly covered by insurance, but that there will be a copay of about one hundred dollars a week.
The patient freaks out. “A hundred dollars a week? There’s no way I can get that much money!”
My attending asks the patient how much she spends on heroin.
The patient gives a number like thirty or forty dollars a day, every day.
My attending notes that this comes out to $210 to $280 dollars a week, and suggests that she quit heroin, take the anti-addiction pill, and make a “profit” of $110.
At this point the patient always shoots my attending an incredibly dirty look. Like he’s cheating somehow. Just because she has $210 a week to spend on heroin doesn’t mean that after getting rid of that she’d have $210 to spend on medication. Sure, these fancy doctors think they’re so smart, what with their “mathematics” and their “subtracting numbers from other numbers”, but they’re not going to fool her.
At this point I accept this as a fact of life. Whatever my patients do to get money for drugs — and I don’t want to know — it’s not something they can do to get money to pay for medication, or rehab programs, or whatever else. I don’t even think it’s consciously about them caring less about medication than about drugs, I think that they would be literally unable to summon the motivation necessary to get that kind of cash if it were for anything less desperate than feeding an addiction.
Scott Alexander, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-25.
November 13, 2014
After World War II, many left-wing European governments wanted to do something about unemployment. As I discuss extensively in my book, unemployment is about the worst thing that can happen to you in a modern democracy, short of death or dismemberment. So they passed laws making it very, very difficult to fire workers. In Italy, for example, a judge could reverse a layoff decision, not because you’d fired the worker unjustly, but because the judge didn’t think you needed to cut staff. Hurrah! Finally, workers were protected from the dark specter of unemployment!
Well, not quite. Workers were thrilled; employers were terrified. Now hiring a worker meant you were stuck with them unless they committed some absolutely flagrant offense — like, say, emptying the till and running out the door.
That’s a hell of a commitment to make to someone you barely know. So employers didn’t want to hire scary strangers; they wanted to hire close friends and family. Or, better yet, no one at all. Youth unemployment in many of these nations was staggering. The insiders had a great deal, but people without jobs found themselves consigned to a series of temporary, not-very-well-paid contracts. Or the dole.
The lesson is that when you make it harder to exit, you also make people reluctant to enter.
Megan McArdle, “Can Limiting Divorce Make Marriage Stronger?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-04-16
November 12, 2014
Banking is a service, […] and a service has a cost associated with it. Modern banking has all kinds of fees and charges associated with it. But depositors are often charged for keeping too low a balance in their savings or checking accounts, not too large a balance. What’s going on here?
Central banks have created this monster via the regimen of ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy). This is a way of implementing Keynesian stimulus, but central banks have run up against the liquidity-trap wall: interest rates cannot fall below zero. Monetary policy stops working at the zero-interest boundary.
For central banks, the problem is that in a slow-growth economy (or actually a recessive one) a paradox arises where rational behavior on the part of savers leads to bad results: consumers save their money out of concern for the future, but the economy — starved of the cash that fuels it — slows still further. This is the argument behind Keynesian stimulus; inject more (newly-printed) money into the economy until people stop being scared and start spending freely again (with their own money and borrowed money). The danger of inflation looms, however, so central banks try to implement various regimes to keep it under control (with varying degrees of success).
This theory founders on the shoals of reality, alas. It’s rational for people to save money, particularly during bad times, because people believe their currency stock to be an appreciating (or at least a constant-value) asset. But when a sovereign inflates (devalues) its currency to solve a short term economic problem, they run the risk of damaging confidence in the currency itself. Inflation may inject some nitrous oxide into the engine of the economy for a short time, but the outcome may be a blown engine (i.e., a ruined currency, as it was during the Weimar era).
When people lose trust in a fiat currency, it’s nearly impossible to restore confidence in it. Trust is all a fiat currency has — without trust, fiat currency is just worthless paper. This is really the core of the sound-money argument: deflation is bad because it can stall an economy and make debt servicing murderously difficult, but inflation is worse because it wrecks the currency itself. Hard-money currency regimes may be somewhat prone to deflationary cycles, but at least they never go to zero value; they always retain some value. Fiat currencies can go to zero.
Monty, “DOOM: The Wrath of Draghi”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2014-11-06.