Friday, November 30, 2012

Tax hype and the fiscal curb

Reading yet another post on the fiscal curb and the deficit "problem" got me thinking about what both sides want. This whole issue is ridiculous. It was created by Republicans in the House to make Obama look bad and to get lower taxes. Up until now I've agreed with Obama's preference to raise marginal tax rates on income at 250k and up. The problem in these fiscal curb negotiations is that Republicans really, really don't want that. If there is one thing they are consistent about, it's that they want to lower taxes on the rich. So how do we get a deal given these constraints?

Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich in order to help lower the deficit. But I don't care about the deficit right now. So even though I'd like to raise taxes on the rich in principle, I'm willing to give that up. I'm not sure if Obama is willing to give that up for things like extension of unemployment benefits or extension of a payroll tax holiday. But I would. If he doesn't, though, I think the compromise would be to call the Republican bluff and try to reform the tax code while keeping or even lowering rates.

Part of the problem with that is Republicans haven't been clear at all as to what that would specifically entail. But I would preempt them with my own very liberal way of trying to get revenue without raising rates and declare that I've given away a huge concession for the sake of getting this deal done and cutting the deficit. I'm not sure if they would take actually accept this and concede on regressive spending cuts they are demanding. But at this point I don't think it makes a ton of sense to have tax increases on high incomes be your red line in negotiations.

A lot of liberals want this. But not doing it might help in the future. Republicans will still whine about taxes. But they wouldn't be able to scream bloody murder if we don't raise them. This would also allow us to keep the option on the table in the future, whereas if we get tax increases now, I think it would harder to get more in the future when we might need them more than we do now. Bottom line is that for the sake of the 2014 midterms and more importantly, human welfare, we need to keep the economy growing. That should take priority over deficit reduction. So whatever Obama can bargain away to get that he should, even higher taxes on the rich.

Update: Matt Yglesias and myself appear to be on the same page. Here he talks about what Republicans should do:

Tell him he can have his stimulus and he can even have higher tax revenue if he really wants it, but that the price is giving up his obsession with higher rates. Is he more interested in soaking the rich or in creating jobs? I don't think Obama says no to a deal like that, and if he does lots of sensible liberals (like this guy) will call him out on it. Then we can put this sorry episode behind us, proclaim the Grand Bargaining Era done for, and hopefully move on to other things.

Here he talks about the role of taxes in this negotiation:

The reason a sensible person might want more revenue rather than less in a budget deal is that more revenue might allow you to minimize cuts in spending on worthwhile causes. But at the end of the day the budget of a sovereign state that borrows money in its own currency is all about spending levels. The proper goals of a budget negotiator are to maximize cuts to bad programs and minimize cuts to good ones. When higher taxes helps achieve the latter goal, that's great. When it doesn't, then who cares?

The trap you don't want to fall for is the one in which getting "the rich" to "pay their fair share" becomes a political plot to make you swallow a deal you'd otherwise reject. At some iterations of the Obama-Boehner deficit talks it's looked as if Obama's going to ask liberals to give up the store on Social Security and then sugarcoat it with higher taxes on the rich. What's great about the proposal Tim Geithner apparently formally made to the House GOP is that it rejects this formula and does a good job of avoiding cuts to valuable programs and in fact increases spending in some key areas.

If you can get that good stuff out of a deal—and it's a big if—then it'd be foolish not to give some ground on the tax side. If you can get a better spending mix with higher taxes, then higher taxes are great. But if you can get a better spending mix with lower taxes, then lower taxes are even better.

It's not surprising I'm on the same page with Matt given that he's taught me a lot about economics. Hopefully Obama and Democrats see this.

"Lincoln" and films about history

I saw Lincoln this past weekend and really enjoyed it. I'm not much of a Spielberg fan. But he was in top form here, as was the entire cast and crew. Daniel Day Lewis is as great as everyone has said. As a piece of entertainment I give it high marks. But in reading a lot of critiques of the movie from a history perspective, it seems either incomplete or out of focus, perhaps both.

I'm a bit torn as to whether that's just a minor inconvenience (likely a result of the nature of the medium) or a big flaw that detracts from almost undeniably effective things the movie does well. On the one hand, if you set out to make a movie about history and the people that helped shape that history, you have some sort of obligation to make it accurate (unless you're making something like Inglorious Basterds). On the other hand, you aren't making a documentary, which I think bears a higher standard for accuracy and scope (something like Ken Burns' Civil War documentary). In the end, when you make a studio, non-documentary movie, you are making a piece of entertainment.

Just because it's entertainment doesn't mean it can't be about important ideas/themes. The Dark Knight Trilogy does both, which is why I love it so much. And this is why I liked Lincoln so much, despite it's flaws from a history perspective. Yes, passing the 13th Amendment during the lame duck session wasn't necessary. They could have passed it in the next session when Republicans had the votes. No, Lincoln was not the sole arbiter of that Amendment nor the abolishment of slavery, which the film's focus kind of implies.

But what worked for me were the ideas behind the things being debated and fought over. Those ideas are self evident in the film, but powerful nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens, the "radical" abolitionist. I identified the most with him, being somewhat of an idealist that doesn't always think you have to compromise or push things along slowly. Even though I would side more with Stevens than Lincoln, the character of Lincoln was compelling because there was internal struggle. I sympathized with the challenge he faced. And damn did he have a way with words, words that beautifully conveyed the importance of the ideas being debated. The (spoiler alert) scene at the end which depicts his 2nd inaugural speech had he been able to read it was incredible, almost as tear inducing as the end to The Dark Knight Rises.

So do I sympathize with the people who have serious problems with the way the movie depicts history? Absolutely. But I just don't think you can ask for a whole lot more with this medium. That's not to say I don't think we should try to do so. But as long as studios care about profit I won't hold my breath. Some of the ideas about politics and the focus on Lincoln being somewhat of a singular abolitionist are troubling. But I think it gets the big ideas correct. And people who might not otherwise read about that time in history at least got some exposure to it and were entertained in the process. I don't think too much harm will come of that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Deciding policy with religion

Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses abortion in this post and it got me thinking about where anti-abortion advocates draw their reasoning from:

I would submit that if you believe abortion to be murder, you don't decide at all. There is a chilling intellectual consistency in the behavior of Halappanavar's doctors, and pro-life activists who we dismiss as "extremists." Either abortion is murder, or it isn't. If you believe the former then Halappanavar's doctors were quite correct -- they refused to murder a baby to save its mother.

Walsh was lying in his refusal to admit that women actually do die during the work of pregnancy. But his position -- "without exceptions" -- strikes me as the honest one. The problem here isn't packaging. There is no way to honestly modify its import. Either you believe that women who have sex should run the risk of being remanded to potentially lethal labor, or you don't. No exceptions.

A lot of people strongly disagree with abortion because they genuinely think it's murder. But I think many come to that conclusion in two ways. First, their religion tells them it's so. They are told this from day 1 as a kid and it's ingrained in them by the time they hear a dissenting opinion. This religious belief also has the convenience of being fairly logical and self-evident, at least up to a point.

Because it's easy to think of pregnancy and see a baby inside a mother's big belly, it's fairly logical to think that's a person and aborting it would be killing it. And at a certain point I would agree with them. But this ignores the reality that most abortions take place very early on in the pregnancy and it's a question as to whether the fetus or cluster of cells qualifies as a human life.

It's at that point where the argument essentially comes down to what your religion tells you vs. the various arguments pro-choicers use. This is the point where the anti-abortion argument is extremely weak. Just because your religion says the policy should be 'X' should garner next to no merit. Why should we bother considering what your or anyone's religion thinks? What if my religion says abortion is not murder? How do we decide which person's religion to follow and make policy from?

That's why we have a 1st amendment and why we shouldn't dictate policy based on religious preferences. There's just no way to determine who is correct based on religious belief alone. If you do make policy based on religion you are discriminating against every person who doesn't share that religious belief. This country and gov't was founded in part of the idea that it's not right to do that.

Economic heuristics

Kevin Drum wonders why people tend to listen to CEOs when they talk about the economy:

I'm a cynic, so I suppose you should take my views on the business community with a shaker of salt. Nonetheless, here's what I think we should conclude from this: Fortune 500 CEOs should never be taken seriously on macroeconomic issues. Their job is to dole out high-grade BS in public, and politics and macroeconomics are just grist for their mill. Every word out of their mouths is special pleading, and that's how the business press ought to treat it. I really have no idea why anyone ever takes them seriously on this stuff.

When people hear "CEO" the heuristic (mental shortcut that easily allows someone to identify something without too much mental work) they conjure up is someone who is important, has authority and expertise in the area, and thus should be trusted with their opinion. It's more difficult to explain why this heuristic exists.

I think part of it is that it's just simple. After all, that's why it's a heuristic. Everyone knows what a CEO is. Because of that (or maybe this is causing everyone to know it) the media frames and focuses on that one person. It's like the QB in football. The media and fans focus on that one person because they are the said to be the most important person, the CEO of the players. So when we think of a CEO, we think of a leader.

Another part of it is I think there is a status symbol at work in our society regarding the CEO. They are either elites whose family has run businesses for a long time (Rockefellers) or really talented people who worked their way up to lead great companies (Steve Jobs). We are a very individualistic society. We love to frame things in individualistic ways. And CEOs are a great way to do that. So we kind of put CEOs up on a pedestal, glorifying what they do. Given their high status and leadership position it's no wonder people pay attention when CEOs give their opinion, even though they shouldn't.

Tax subsidies for churches

A while back I said I don't think we should let religious institutions not pay property taxes on their churches:

I don't see any reason a church/religion should get special exemption. I would be willing to keep the status quo if I thought that the exemption and threat of having it removed kept churches from advocating politics. I strongly suspect it doesn't. So I think a fair thing to do would be to officially let churches say what they want and force them to pay taxes like the rest of us.

The biggest deal here is the tax exemption, which allows churches to own huge pieces of lang at low prices while driving up prices for everyone else. The free speech issue here is really more a matter of theory because in practice this restriction isn't much of a burden. As a preacher or whatever, you can practically walk outside your church and onto the sidewalk and advocate whatever/whomever you want and their tax exemption would be fine.

Matt Yglesias confirms my suspicion that it's unfair:

State and local governments generally exempt churches (and mosques and synagogues, but realistically it's mostly churches) from property taxes. This not only costs revenue, but it leads to a substantial misallocation of real resources as scarce land is left unavailable for more productive uses. The ups and downs of urban growth have left many churches stranded in what are now core business districts that offer location amenities that would be extremely valuable to a commercial real estate developer but offer little concrete value in the religious sector.

More broadly, you have to consider the tax elasticity issues here not just in terms of inputs but of outputs. If church donations were subject to income taxes and church land were subject to property taxes, this would presumably lead to smaller and less architectually splended churches located in less-pricey areas and perhaps with lower-paid clergy. But would fewer souls be saved? Would an angry God blight are crops?

The answers are no and no. The flipside is that churches presumably would respond in part by providing marginally less in the way of social services. But the low elasticities are relevant here. The cost of those reduced church-provided social services has to be weighed against the cost of more dynamic economic growth, and more provision of state services and I don't think it remotely passes the test. Unless, that is, it does anger God and he visits his wrath upon us. But that's the real issue here. Does God care about the splendor of the churches built in his honor and is he prepared to offer us tangible rewards in exchange for subsidizing them? If so, it's a no-brainer. But if not it's an awfully wasteful policy.

I obviously don't care whether this would anger god. But even if you do, I think Matt's correct that it wouldn't. If it did, for some reason, anger god that some religions couldn't build huge, extravagant churches (like this one, which the pic doesn't do justice, it takes up a huge swath of land, much of it doesn't even get used) then I'd seriously question the merits in caring what that god thinks.

Dolphins vs Seahawks: playcalling by down

For most of this season I've been complaining about how the Dolphins have called plays. My eyeball test was telling me that they were running the ball way too much on 1st down, which was having the effect of not gaining many yards (even good running teams gain less per rush than bad passing teams gain per pass), thus making it harder to make a first down on 2nd and 3rd down. Not wanting to rely just on my eyeballs, I kept track of the playcalling vs Seattle. Here is the rundown:

1st down: 18 runs 10 passes

2nd down: 6 runs 11 passes

3rd down: 3 runs 7 passes

You can see the big disparity on 1st down, which obviously has a direct effect on what you do on the next two downs. We ran the ball better against Seattle than we have since the first week or two of the season. But even then, we are in the bottom half of the league in yards gained per rush. So on average, when we run the ball on 1st down we are leaving Tannehill with about 7 yards to gain on the next two downs.

I don't have the up to date data for 3rd down stats. But Football Perspective several weeks ago, the Dolphins were top 5 in the league in most yards to go on 3rd down. I don't see any reason up to this past weekend that should have changed much. Against Seattle we only needed about 5.3 yards per 3rd down. As I said, that's a direct result of what happened on 1st down.

If we can run the ball as well as we did against Seattle going forward I wouldn't mind the excessive running on 1st down so much. Even then I think we should be throwing the ball more often, if anything just to change the predictability of the offense and maybe make it a bit easier on Tannehill.


Intellectually honesty and epistemic closure

Bruce Bartlett gives a detailed account of his own battle with intellectual honesty and how it made him an outcast within the Republican party and conservatism as a whole:

After careful research along these lines, I came to the annoying conclusion that Keynes had been 100 percent right in the 1930s. Previously, I had thought the opposite. But facts were facts and there was no denying my conclusion. It didn’t affect the argument in my book, which was only about the rise and fall of ideas. The fact that Keynesian ideas were correct as well as popular simply made my thesis stronger.

I finished the book just as the economy was collapsing in the fall of 2008. This created another intellectual crisis for me. Having just finished a careful study of the 1930s, it was immediately obvious to me that the economy was suffering from the very same problem, a lack of aggregate demand. We needed Keynesian policies again, which completely ruined my nice rise-and-fall thesis. Keynesian ideas had arisen from the intellectual grave.
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On the plus side, I think I had a very clear understanding of the economic crisis from day one. I even wrote another op-ed for the New York Times in December 2008 advocating a Keynesian cure that holds up very well in light of history. Annoyingly, however, I found myself joined at the hip to Paul Krugman, whose analysis was identical to my own. I had previously viewed Krugman as an intellectual enemy and attacked him rather colorfully in an old column that he still remembers.

For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades.

This isn't just bad for the Republican party. It's bad for the country because it makes it harder to pass good policy. If Republicans weren't so blindly opposed to the Keynesian solutions to the type of recession we were under it's very possible that the economy would be in much better shape right now. As for the deficit they love to complain about when they don't control things, it would likely not be nearly as big if they didn't blindly vote for whatever Bush wanted.

But as Bartlett points out, they are so intellectually dishonest that they can't acknowledge their own mistakes and thus any solutions or ways to prevent making them again.

I don't want to make this strictly about Republicans. There is a lot of research that confirms that everyone seeks confirmation bias (ignoring things that contradict what you already thing and seeking out only things that confirm what you think). I do it to at least a small extent. But I try to be honest enough with myself that I read people like Andrew Sullivan and Conor Friedersdorf to make sure I'm not seeing things only through a liberal lens. But I do that because I value the truth and data. Not all liberals value those things like I do. So I hope we don't fall into the trap Republicans have put themselves in.

I think we can avoid that because liberals tend not to identify themselves so strongly to the tribal/cultural things conservatives value. I'm not sure how Republicans can get out of their trap because they so heavily form their identity around tribal/cultural things. Earlier tonight at dinner I got my conservative uncle riled up by bringing up sexism in the catholic church. He takes that criticism personally because it's a big part of his identity. I'll argue about that stuff but I won't take much personal offense with those who disagree because it just doesn't make up much of who I am.

Because of the nature of conservatives I tend to agree with the consensus of the conservatives I read regarding when their behavior will change, which is after another big electoral defeat. That's the strongest incentive for any party to change it's behavior. And though I try not to put too much faith in top down leadership, I think a strong leader who practiced and enforced some intellectual honesty would help solve the problem. Let's hope for the sake of the country something changes, and relatively soon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tax hype

With the "fiscal curb" (it's not a cliff) being the big topic in DC we are talking a lot about taxes. We always talk a lot about taxes, at least Republicans do. They are important. But they are overhyped, especially if you are talking about economic growth. Matt Yglesias explains:

The case against returning to the kind of 90 percent marginal income tax rates that we had in the 1950s seems pretty ironclad to me—the 1950s tax code raised way less money than the 1990s tax code (90 percent tax rates are a great stimulus to tax avoidance strategies) so what would the point be? But there's no doubt that tax rates that high were compatible with robust economic growth. This is a somewhat embarassing fact for people who put a lot of emphasis on low marginal tax rates as a key to growth.
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The argument here, which certainly makes sense, is that the postwar US economy grew fast not because of high tax rates but despite them. But Lindsey locates the true cause of the rapid growth in wartime economic planning which led to "technological and organizational breaktrhoughs." I don't think we can attribute air conditioning to the war, but certainly the "big advances" in transportation and communication were a direct result of World War II and then the Cold War. Similarly, the "rapid upgrades in human capital" he lauds were a matter of state-led investment, not bottom-up economic competition.
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Indeed, the thrust of Lindsey's initial analysis is that massive government-directed investments in education, transportation, and communications infrastructure are so amazingly beneficial that they swamp the negative impact of other bad aspects of our 1950s and 1960s policy paradigm.

Which makes sense to me. But I think we'll be waiting a long time for the followup post on the Cato blog about the need to spend lots of money on upgrading our air traffic control system, building a smart grids, building fiber-to-the-premises broadband networks, establishing a universal preschool program, upgrading Northeast Corridor passenger rail, and so forth. And yet that seems to be precisely the point. The politicial system is highly predisposed to spend tons of time arguing about tax rates. But even a really silly tax code—90 percent rates that don't raise any revenue!—was compatible with ultra-fast growth as long as other aspects of the policy mix were constantly pushing rapid improvements in education and rapid deployment of state-of-the-art technology in key sectors.

So the economy grew at a very high rate despite incredibly high marginal tax rates. Yet the economy shrank at a very high rate in 2008 despite pretty low rates and recent tax cuts by the Bush administration and a Republican congress. As Matt says, the economy seems to grow and shrink despite of, not because of, tax rates. They just don't seem to have a huge effect because there are other things that matter much more, such as investment in infrastructure and education.

In our current debate about taxes we aren't talking about huge tax increases and a return to 1950s marginal rates. We are talking about a return to Clinton era rates for income above $250k (it's only the income you make beyond $250, we all pay the same rates on the income levels below that). And as in the 1950s, the economy grew at a good rate during those higher tax Clinton years, higher than the lower tax Bush years.

So when politicians (even some Democrats) talk about this "fiscal curb" situation or any time they talk about the deficit/debt and spending, don't let them overhype the role marginal income tax rates play on the economy. Republicans fetishize it and really only care about rich people's rates while at the same time want to gut as much of the gov't as they can. So if you care about the gov't helping people I'd strongly advise not listening to them.

And some Democrats either just don't understand the fact that we won't go bankrupt if we deficit spend or don't care as much as the rest of us about entitlements. So if you hear those Democrats (Obama being one of them) being open to regressive cuts like raising social security's retirement age, don't listen to them either. We can continue to deficit spend in order to help those who need it or we can raise taxes to keep spending without increasing the deficit (which is also overhyped). Don't let them scare you with tax hype.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ron Swanson quotes

One of my favorite sites, pajiba.com, has a bunch of Ron Swanson quotes here. I love Parks and Recreation and think Ron is really funny. But when you lay all of his quotes out in one place you realize that he's kind of nuts. His delivery and love of bacon often mask how crazy his ideology is on the merits. Hopefully his character moves slightly away from the crazy while keeping the love of bacon and most meats. Anyway, here are some of my favorite quotes:

“The less I know about other people’s affairs, the happier I am. I’m not interested in caring about people. I once worked with a guy for three years and never learned his name. Best friend I ever had. We still never talk sometimes.”
“You may have thought you heard me say I wanted a lot of bacon and eggs, but what I said was: Give me all the bacon and eggs you have.”
Never half ass two things, whole ass one thing.
“The whole thing is a scam. Birthdays were invented by Hallmark to sell cards.”

Bill O'Reilly and conservative reaction to the election

I don't usually take to criticizing pundits directly. For the most part I think it gives them more credibility than they're worth (which is none) by addressing them. But I'm making an exception for Bill O'Reilly for a few reasons. First off, I used to like Bill when I was a young conservative. When he isn't being an asshole, he has a certain charm to him. And he's effective at what he does, which is argue in a very controlled environment. He's good at giving a quick and concise argument that takes more time than he gives you to refute.

Another reason is that Bill isn't always blind to reality. Sometimes he is able to see through the made up reality that many conservatives live in and give decent analyses. But it appears he is living in that made up reality:

If you look at the exit polling, you’ll see that a coalition of voters put the President back into the oval office. That coalition was non-tradition, which means it veered away from things like traditional marriage, robust capitalism, and self reliance. Instead, each constituency that voted for the President — whether it be single women, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, whatever — had very specific reasons for doing so. [...]

Traditional American voters generally want a smaller government in Washington, more local control, some oversight on abortion, and believe in American exceptionalism.

This is the same basic narrative that many conservatives have been giving since the election. I haven't posted about it since so many of the people I read have refuted the arguments so well. But this one made me think about where the racism comes from.

This idea that minorities (mainly black people) are in large, dependent on the state is just wrong. True, a higher % of the black population relies on welfare programs like food stamps than other races (which is due to centuries of slavery and segregation). But the biggest benefactor of those programs are white people. Most welfare recipients are white. So why, according to Bill, do white people believe in self-reliance and American exceptionalism while black people don't? It's because the use of welfare and related programs are always framed as primarily helping black people. The media overwhelming uses black people as the narrative when they talk about welfare programs. Because of that, and bullshit stories like Reagan's welfare queen, people associate welfare with black people.

Bill and his fellow conservatives are working under that framing, and also one in which all the white people they know and see aren't poor and all the minorities they know and see are poor. So the media framing and their limited worldview mean that must be how the rest of the world works. And since Bill isn't getting the benefits those poor people are getting while he works "hard" at being a pundit he sees it as unjust. That shows an ignorance of not only black people and the poor in general, but of basically our whole gov't and society.

This idea that conservatives and rich people don't benefit from the gov't is ridiculous and wrong. If anything, they benefit more from the taxes we all pay and the "gifts" that Democrats give to people from those taxes. They wouldn't be able to enjoy the wealth and safety they do without the infrastructure the gov't provides. Wall Street would probably look different right now if not for a bailout from the gov't. The list goes on. The rich can complain all they like. But not one of them is going to trade the "stuff" the gov't gives them for what the gov't gives the poor and everyone else.

Bill isn't even right about his own "traditional American voters", which means white men. Even white men want the gov't to give them things. They like social security and medicare. They really like having the biggest military in the world. They like tax deductions, being able to get treated at an ER if they happen to not have insurance, being able to get out of a "traditional marriage" and the ability to have an abortion for the women in their lives (Bill actually gets the abortion thing correct).

These "traditional American voters" just don't like to know that the same benefits they get from gov't also go to people who don't look like them. They also don't like that women can control their own bodies since their religions tell them they aren't supposed to. It's as simple as basic tribal instincts; both the racial tribe that has dominated the country for centuries and the religious tribe that greatly coincides with the racial one.

Bill and his fellow conservatives aren't mad that these new "non-traditional" voters disagree with the conservative ideology of small gov't, more local control and American exceptionalism (This is bullshit. Ask any of these non-traditional voters if they want to liv anywhere but in the US, especially Hispanic immigrants). They are mad because they get "gifts" and "stuff" from the gov't too. And some of it doesn't go to rich white men like Bill.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Seinfeld's "The Contest" and feminism

Craig Hlavaty points out that today is the 20th anniversary of the famous Seinfeld episode.

On November 18, 1992, the creators and writers of Seinfeld posed a serious question to Americans, just weeks after they elected Bill Clinton as their new president.
"How long can a modern human go without masturbating?" they asked, without even using the dreaded M-word, with more than 22 minutes of side-stepping stuttering hilarity.
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But with "The Contest" the Seinfeld tapped into uncharted territory for television. The phrase "master of my domain" would become code for taming your lustful onanistic urges.

Today if a current sitcom tackled this same subject it wouldn't be a big deal. Censors in 1992 were still scared of the m-word. We were all still two years away from the Jocelyn Elders debacle too.

And with porn so prevalent on smart phones now, the novelty of jacking it to a copy of Glamour is sweetly-innocent.

Even the concept of a woman masturbating -- giggle giggle -- was foreign in 1992. The fact that Elaine got her rocks off to the spank bank images of John F. Kennedy Jr. in her aerobics class helped string the Kennedy thread through the history of the series.

I love Seinfeld and I love this episode first because it's really funny. Masturbation is a universal human act, thus it's very relatable. And because our society is so uptight about sex, it serves as good comedy. But I also love this episode because it let Elaine bust stereotypes about women and their sexuality. Elaine did this constantly on the show. But Julia Louis Dreyfus's performance really sticks out in this episode.

Elaine has the same sexual urges as the three male characters. But as it pertains to the contest, she has to put up more money because they hold the stereotypical notion that women don't crave sex as much as men do. Elaine proves just as willing to express her sexual desires as the other guys. And that's not something unique to this episode. Elaine is consistently portrayed as a very sexually active woman; one calls to mind the sponge episode where she rushes to buy as many forms of the contraception she likes before they are taken off the market.

Despite Elaine losing the contest (as noted above due to her JFK Jr fantasy) and being sexually active in general, she isn't criticized or demeaned as a slut/whore/prostitute. She is allowed autonomy over her body and the freedom to express he sexual desires as she wishes. Aside from an episode or two, she is generally portrayed as a happy, successful, and single person.

Women's autonomy over their body, whether it's abortion or their sexual desires, are still treated as taboo subjects, if they are addressed at all. You can probably find a bunch of male masturbation jokes, not to mention the glorification of men sleeping with as many women as they can. One only has to remember the Sandra Fluke issue (wherein conservatives called her a slut for wanting contraception) to see that women are still degraded for expressing themselves sexually.

Elaine was a great female role model for me when I was growing up. She showed me that women didn't have to conform to the stereotypes that society has created and that feminism has been working to change. But even as popular as the show was, it only seems to have marginally changed the way society treats women. Pop culture is only one part of that change, and arguably a very small part of it. But I would like to see more characters like Elaine challenging stereotypes and being good role models for everyone.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cabrera vs Trout for MVP

Nate Silver and I would be pretty good friends. We both enjoy politics and sports. Here he is weighing in on the American League MVP debate, which apparently Cabrera won today:

The argument on Trout’s behalf isn’t all that complicated: he provided the greater overall contribution to his team. Trout was a much better defensive player than Cabrera, and a much better base runner. And if Cabrera was the superior hitter, it wasn’t by nearly as much as the triple crown statistics might suggest.
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Trout, with his speed, aggressiveness and good judgment on the bases, was also able to help the Angels in other ways, such as by scoring more often from second base when one of his teammates got a base hit. With the more detailed data available on everything that happens on the field, it is now possible to quantify these contributions as well.

Over all, Trout contributed about 12 additional runs on the basepaths when compared with an average runner. The bulky Cabrera, by contrast, cost the Tigers about three runs on the bases.
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According to this measure, Trout was actually slightly more valuable than Cabrera as an offensive player, considering the timing of his contributions. Add in his defense and base running, and it isn’t all that close a call.

I don't have much to add. Silver knows his stuff and writes well. But in retrospect he seems a bit too optimistic about the voters. They gave Cabrera the MVP by a pretty good margin. While the media and older baseball people seem more open to stats, they still love the narratives they create. And apparently the triple crown narrative was too irresistible.

That narrative which places so much value on 3 specific stats shows how stuck in the old way of thinking they still are. The 3 stats are average, home runs and runs batted in. Batting average is only part of the story, which is discussed in Moneyball. If you want a triple crown type narrative, it'd be better to use on base % or slugging %. But they still use batting average simply because it's the tradition. HRs is a good indicator of a good hitter. But it's incomplete and as Silver points out, the number alone doesn't take into account park effects. RBIs are very contextually dependent. Driving in runs is certainly important. But RBI rate would be a better indicator of player effectiveness.

These narratives are everywhere in the media, sports and political. Hopefully, with the emergence of people like Nate Silver, they will fade out and more rigorous analysis will become more prominent.

Sore losers talk secession

Erica Grieder analyzes the secession talk:

All of these figures, incidentally, strike me as implausibly high, and if they were palpably true it would be troubling. Secession is illegal, however, and even if it weren't, every state is clearly better off as part of the United States than it would be on its own. I therefore understand secessionist rhetoric--in Texas and elsewhere--as a euphemism for more general frustration, rather than a serious suggestion. In fact, I would argue that it's precisely because secession is such a preposterous suggestion that it's safe to clown on about; that's why some people in Austin have started up their own petition to secede from Texas if Texas secedes from America.

I'm kind of interested in the question of whether a state should have the right to secede. If states are supposed to be sovereign entities than I would think they should have the right. But since we don't have to deal in strict terms all the time, we can easily say that their sovereignty has limits. And we figured out after fighting a civil war that the ability to secede is beyond those limits.

Setting those limits was a big reason the founders got together and wrote the Constitution. States had too much power. So we gave the federal gov't power over the states in order to create a strong nation. Granted, we've gone down a more Hamiltonian path in regard to federal power than people like Jefferson or Madison would have wanted. But the supremacy clause and the inability to secede exist for good reason. It's not perfect; see our federal drug laws. But I think it's better than the other option.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Differences of degree

I've talked about this before here. In that post I was discussing the individual mandate and the conservative rhetoric in opposition to it. Here's what I said:

The gov't forces everyone to do all sorts of things. The ones he mentions is one of the more important ones. A few other off the top of my head are; you also have to send your kids to school, you have to drive at certain speeds, not kill or harm other people, pay even 1% of taxes, and any number of things that no one really complains about.

So when people say they oppose the mandate because the gov't can't force them to do something they are just factually wrong. What they mean to say is that the gov't can't force them to do this specific thing because it crosses some sort of line. And once you acknowledge that we are just arguing over differences in degree. We aren't arguing over the difference between freedom and tyranny. I get that people use inflamed rhetoric in order to try and make their point more effectively. But the reality is much different than the rhetoric. And if that was acknowledged perhaps more constructive policies would get passed.

The talk in DC has turned to taxes. And Wick Allison makes this point:

The Republican Party can appeal to “Judeo-Christian values” as long as the sun shines and their voices hold out. But they’ve abandoned the most basic moral value of all: fairness. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity. But tell that to minorities, to single women, to working-class whites. Even 44 percent of voters who earn over $200,000 a year voted for Obama, the candidate who promised to raise their taxes.

We all know that eliminating the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy will not make much of a difference in the deficit ($42 billion a year, by most estimates). But anybody who preaches on that point will find himself talking to an empty auditorium. And if raising taxes on the rich is redistributionist socialism, someone should should have told Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan, whose rates on the rich were 91, 70, and 50 percent.

You can argue a 91% tax rate is tyrannical. It certainly would be for someone earning less than millions. Maybe 50% is too much for someone making less than 75k. But that is not our tax policy anymore. We are arguing over as little as 3%. When the rates are ~ 30%, 3% is not the difference between freedom and tyranny. This is often lost amid policy discussions.

It's beneficial for both sides to frame debates in the most dire terms. But some things simply don't meet that criteria. When it comes to taxes, we'd be much better off (I'd argue more free) if the narrative wasn't dominated by conservative doomsaying and liberal fear over that type of reaction.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chris Christie and rational choice

Daniel Larison on Republican spin regarding the election and Christie:

It’s a reminder that it was never Christie that these activists liked. What these activists liked was the reliable partisanship that he seemed to practice. When he didn’t act the part of the angry partisan that they were used to seeing, and instead acted as a self-interested politician and responsible state official would, they no longer had any use for him. The fact that he had been considered an effective surrogate for Romney over the last several months is quickly forgotten, and all that remains is the idea that Christie "betrayed" the cause by doing something that any other official in his position would have done.

First of all, I highly, highly doubt the hurricane or Christie's actions had any significant effect on the election. What I thought was interesting in reading Larison was what motivated Christie to act the way he did.

Being a reliable partisan is often a good way to act rationally. When I say act rationally, I'm assuming that getting reelected is the top ranked priority, or at least one of the highest priorities, for a politician. Christie's constituents were in trouble. So he acted to try and help them. And that meant working with Obama.

The people of New Jersey, and most everyone dealing with a situation like this, don't care about partisanship. At that point it's simply about protecting their life and property. Whoever can get the job done is who they will look to, and that happens to be the federal gov't. Republicans outside of New Jersey don't care about that. So when they pushed back at Christie for embracing Obama's help, Christie pushed back at them because his interests didn't coincide with theirs.

Even if Christie is interested in running for national office I think his actions make sense within a rational choice model. Having good partisan credentials is important when running for president. But given this situation, I think it was a smart move to value appearing to be a good governor concerned about his constituents rather than appeasing the Republican party.

I could be persuaded that Christie could have handled the situation differently around the edges. He can be assertive with the media, which I generally like. But for the most part I think what he did makes a lot of sense, and it happened to be the right thing to do for the people of New Jersey, at least as best as I can tell. And again, I think it's ridiculous to think this had any significant effect on the presidential election. That's just Republican spin and/or them refusing to accept reality.