Off to the Valley!

My other lives have been very busy the last week, thus the slowdown in production here. And now I must go out of town for a few days. So there probably won’t be a lot going on here. But the reason I’m going away is to test the high tech device I’ve been working on with my brilliant young Russian partner for the last year. Our in-lab tests are working perfectly. But we have yet to have a perfect test of it in the field. If it works, I’m going to be thrilled because this is such a cool thing. If we have problems, well, then we will have to figure out what’s going wrong. We currently think the problem may be the source we are using for the internet part of the device. Because frankly, the hardware is really stable and my code is solid as hell.

So if you don’t hear from me much this weekend, it will be because I am out in the California valley, where it will be in the 90s. It’s going to be dreadful. But if the tests go well, I’m going to feel really good about myself. And you can count your blessings that you don’t have to live with me.

I’m going to try to write both the birthday posts tonight, but I’m already tired. So don’t be surprised if I get it out late tomorrow. I may have to write it on my phone in transit. Ugh!

Cato Sucks but PERC Does Good Work

Cato InstituteSomething I really hate is when a website allows you to write a comment with paragraph breaks, but when it’s published, everything gets pushed together in one long paragraph. Such is the case with Google when you do reviews of websites. You can do that when you search for a big website on Google. You can’t, for example, search for “Frankly Curious” and get the option to write a review. But the Cato Institute is very big and so when I did a search on them, there were reviews so I thought I would add my own thoughts. After all, I used to be a big fan of Cato. Since then, two things have happened: my thinking has evolved and their thinking has devolved.

So here is my review:

Cato does some fine work—notably on the drug war and the patent system. Cato also does some terrible hack work. But the main thing is that they have been very candid that they will bury any research they do that does not point to a libertarian solution. This is simply intellectually unethical. Cato is committed to an ideology. They aren’t in the business of creating better policy. At its best, it is in the business of coming up with the best ideologically acceptable policy. But that seems to be less and less of what they do.

Over the last two decades, I think they’ve become much more like the Heritage Foundation: interested more in selling libertarian (and increasingly general conservative) ideas than coming up with libertarian solutions to problems. I suspect the slide will continue.

Worst of all, Cato has mostly chosen to simply deny global warming. This was not necessary. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), has spent decades researching free market approaches to dealing with climate change and living with it.

There are groups like PERC who really think that free market solutions are the best way to deal with the problems we all face today. But increasingly, Cato is only interested in creating justifications for the existing power elite. I suspect with a yearly budget of over $30 million, Cato needs to tell a lot of rich people what they want to hear.

The best thing you can say about Cato is that of all the major conservative think tanks, it is clearly the best. It continues to do some excellent work. However, I think a serious libertarian would be a fool to give Cato any money. As a practical matter, the Cato Institute may complain about Republican politicians, but it acts as an apologist for the Republican Party.

As a group, I would give it a single star, because it does more harm than good. Its website, however, has a lot of interesting information. It is worth checking out. But it contains a lot of garbage too. Its writing on Social Security and Medicare are absolutely horrendous repetitions of the same old conservative talking points we’ve been hearing for decades. So you need to be aware of what Cato is up to, but it has some good information and it is well organized.

Cato InstituteI do want to give a special call out to the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). The founder of the group is Terry L Anderson, and I read his book (with co-author Donald R Leal) Free Market Environmentalism when it was first published back in 1991. It had a chapter on global warming and it made the case that it might not be happening and that if it were it was likely to be less intense than the models predicted. I was in graduate school at the time and most of us thought the models were probably erring on the high side. (How wrong we were!) So the argument was reasonable at that time. But nonetheless, it had a section titled, “What If Chicken Little Is Right?” It then discussed things we could do. One of those, as I recall, was a cap and trade kind of idea. Since that time, he and his group have accepted global warming and do a lot of research on how to deal with emission controls and how we can manage the harm that is already being done. (Anderson published a new version of the book in 2001.)

To me, this is the work of a serious libertarian. Clearly, he believes in the free market. But it isn’t a religion to him. He isn’t an apologist for the oil industry. In general, I’ve found him to be a bit more optimistic about the power of markets and property rights than I think is reasonable. But he’s a smart and dedicated guy looking to find real solutions to our problems. We need more people like him. Cato used to have more people like that, but now they are mostly just a bunch of hacks who aren’t going to open your mind to new ideas because they have none. More than whether I agree with someone or not, I want them to be interesting. I think there are a lot of good ideas in free market environmentalism that come from the people at PERC. But Cato is only interested in those ideas as a way to avoid doing anything.

Right Wing Media Rarely Correct Erroneous Reports

Fox Not NewsJonathan Chait made an interesting point today, Today’s Obamacare Non-Train-Wreck News. One of the many Obamacare scare stories was about how after the exchanges got going, the insurance companies would see that they were losing money (or whatever) and would head for the hills. Of course, exactly the opposite has happened. Insurance companies who are not already involved are seeing gold in them thare hills, and are jumping on board.

There’s nothing surprising about this. As much as conservatives have made a big deal about Obamacare, the law itself is really not that big a deal. It is an extremely modest effort to improve our existing healthcare system. It is no kind of takeover of the system. The vast majority of the people in the United States will not be affected in any way other than indirectly in good ways like seeing their insurance costs go down. So conservatives were doomed in their predictions from the very start by pretending that Obamacare was some kind of big bad socialist conspiracy.

The people who had an actual complaint where the people like me on the left. But we haven’t been shown to be wrong again and again. This is because we never claimed that Obamacare was something that it wasn’t. Although I will admit, we were more negative than we should have been—especially on the issue of cost containment. I know of no one on the left who has ever claimed that we will just have to scrap Obamacare and replace it with a single payer system—even though as a practical matter that would be far more possible than replacing it with the handfull of conservative ideas like tort “reform.” Regardless, we are happy to be wrong. Liberals are not an all-or-nothing group. If we can’t get a much better system, we will take a marginally better system. But most of all, we are willing to admit when we have been wrong.

In general, conservatives are not willing to admit when they are wrong. I still remember hearing the head of the Cato Institute saying that if some of their research found that government intervention was the best policy, they would bury it. Up until that time, I had admired Cato and thought that they were an honest think tank. But honesty in research is not just about getting the research right. This is a matter of telling the truth—the whole truth—and nothing but the truth. The head of Cato seemed to be completely unaware that he was saying the whole place was nothing but a propaganda mill. I could easily see them doing research and finding that a 20% increase in the minimum wage actually created jobs while a 50% increase destroyed jobs. So would they just cut out all the information about how raising the minimum wage by 20% helped the economy? Apparently so. And Cato is one of the most intellectually honest conservative groups.

Chait summed up what is going on in the Obamacare debate:

The information environment surrounding Obamacare is fundamentally asymmetrical. The liberal policy wonks reporting on the program have made a good faith and highly successful effort to depict both the good and the bad news about the program in context. Conservatives, even the most wonkish ones, have engaged in a one-sided propaganda effort. If you get your news about Obamacare from conservative sources, you have heard an endless succession of horror predictions that, when not borne out, have gone uncorrected.

But it isn’t just on Obamacare; it is on everything. All the time I see conservative articles online that turn out to be dead wrong. But instead of updating them and admitting error, they simply disappear. When Fox News gets something wrong, they just stop talking about. In some cases, like when Bill O’Reilly causes a fire storm over something he said that was wrong, he will do a segment on it. But the segments really aren’t corrections. They define the error in the most mild way imaginable and more or less claim that he was right all along. Or consider Rand Paul who was caught multiple times lifting exact passages directly from Wikipedia and then pretended that those complaining thought he should be “footnoting” his speeches.

The problem on the right is that everyone seems to think that politics, reporting, and advocacy is just a game where there are no ethics—everyone just tries to win any way they can. Unfortunately, they are largely right. The media are supposed to hold them accountable for this. The people ought to know that half of the political spectrum will say absolutely anything to further their cause. But the media uses the most fatuous form of postmodern relativism to claim that there’s no way to say which side is right. And it is made all that much worse by the self-proclaimed fact checkers who seem to go out of their way to nitpick the left just so they can seem balanced. That’s not journalism; that’s apologia for whoever lies the most.

But when it comes to healthcare policy, I always come back to Avik Roy. He’s a smart guy. He really does know a lot about our healthcare system. Yet he uses that knowledge just to batter away at Obamacare. This week he tells us we should be more like Switzerland. When it turns out that Switzerland is actually more socialized than Obamacare, he just stops talking about it. Then he tells us that we should be more like Singapore. When it turns out that Singapore is actually more socialized than Obamacare, he just stops talking about it. Yet he is considered serious in our media landscape—even among liberals.

This is why people who listen to Fox News and hate radio are so ill-informed. It isn’t just that they get bad information—everyone makes mistakes. It’s that they get bad information pushed over and over and then they hear nothing. So they assume that that really important story about whatever must be yet another example of the “lamestream media” just letting Obama hand the country over to the terrorists. And this is why people that barely pay attention to any news are better informed. They may not know much, but what they do know is actual news and not just conservative propaganda masquerading as news.

Unemployment Is Critical Factor in Presidential Races

Barack ObamaI’ve gotten to the point where I would like to see if I can get some articles published at a higher level—places like Washington Monthly. Nothing too big, but a lot bigger than Frankly Curious. And so I’m working on some longer articles with original research. As part of that, I’ve been reading a lot of political science on the effect that the economy has on presidential elections. I’ve read various estimate that about 40% of the results of these races can be explained by the economic trend leading up to the election. This is an idea that Ray Fair did a lot of work on in the early 1970s. (You can get an overview of his work in a pdf, Reflections on Macroeconometric Modeling.) But that is rather complicated. I’m not interested in predicting the size of the wins. Just looking at it from a binary standpoint (who won), I’ve noticed something quite simple.

I looked at the unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 1948 onward. At this point, I haven’t done a detailed statistical analysis, but I’ve done enough work to note a startling result: if the unemployment rate is going up, the incumbent party loses and if the rate is going down, it wins. I’m not going to go into exactly how I did the calculation because it is rough and I’ve already improved upon it. But I think the results are pretty clear.

John McCainIn that period, there were 17 presidential races. If the unemployment rate changed by less than 10% (Not percentage points!) I called it a tossup. There were four of those races: 1948, Truman-Dewey (Dewey had a slight edge but lost); 1956, Eisenhower-Stevenson (Eisenhower had a slight edge and won); 1976, Ford-Carter (Ford had a tiny edge but lost); and 2000, Gore-Bush (Gore had a slight edge).

The 2000 election is a special case that I should be be more clear about. When I get to a slightly more coarse discussion later, I put this in the win category for Gore. This isn’t because Gore won the popular vote. I don’t think the popular vote matters. Politicians know the popular vote doesn’t matter, so they don’t campaign to win it. The electoral college is what matters. But in the case of Gore, I believe he did win the electoral college. Just because the Supreme Court stepped in and nullified an election result does not mean that the election result didn’t occur. I fully accept the fact that this model is useless if the Supreme Court steps into a presidential race and just proclaims one of the candidates the winner. (I can come up with a model for that too.) So keep that in mind. But remember, it was a tossup election regardless.

The one example of a presidential candidate losing when the tend in unemployment said otherwise was 1968, Humphrey-Nixon. Humphrey had a good, but not overwhelming economic advantage. He also had some disadvantages. The biggest I think was the civil rights legislation of the Johnson administration. The race was close, but if George Wallace had not run, it might have been a blowout. It is hard to imagine that many Wallace voters would have gone for Humphrey, but I really don’t know enough about the election to say. But let’s not forget that this was the election when the Republicans invented the Southern strategy that they are locked into to this day. The Democrats did not yet have an answer for it. It was the political Rumble in the Jungle when Ali beat the stronger Foreman by inventing the “rope-a-dope” strategy.

One thing I can say about that race was that this was a time when the American economy was booming. The month before the general election, the unemployment rate was 3.4% and it had not be as high as 4.0% for two and a half years; it hadn’t be consistently at 5% since Johnson ran in 1964. So it’s possible people didn’t care so much about the unemployment because it was already about as low as it could go. Regardless, my little model is wrong about it.

Removing the tossup contests, the model predicts 12 out of 13 races, or 92%. If we use the tossups, the model predicts 14 out of 17 races, or 82%. These numbers seem pretty good to me, and hardly surprising. Political scientists have long claimed that the economic trend is the biggest single effect on presidential elections. But the metrics they use like GNP and inflation rates are not things that directly effect most voters. But unemployment affects everyone, even they aren’t unemployed.

What’s especially interesting about these results is that from the 1980 election onward, the model is perfect. This is why I’m studying these data. Both of the major political parties are convinced that they win elections for reasons that have little positive, perhaps no, and very likely negative effects on their political fortunes. For example, Republican elites are certain that raising taxes is the worst thing in the world; people hate taxes and so they must never raise them. Democratic elites are certain that the only way to win the White House is to be a moderate.

Since I don’t want to get into the other article I’m writing, let’s look at the 2008 election. Did Obama win because he was a moderate? Did McCain lose because he was too moderate? Not at all! The unemployment rate at the beginning of 2008 was 5.0%. By October it was 6.5% and it was clear to everyone that it wasn’t leveling off. McCain could have promised to eliminate all taxes and made a credible case for having a secret plan to cure cancer and the Republicans still would have lost. On the other hand, if the Democrats had nominated Karl Marx himself, the Democrats still would have won.

What I find frustrating is that I think all the political elites (at least on the Democratic side) know this. But they want the conservative policies they advocate for their own reasons that have nothing to do with winning elections. But they have the voters cowed. We are told it would be terrible to nominate Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. And the Republicans are told it would be terrible to nominate Ted Cruz. But the truth is that if the economy improves throughout 2016, the Democrats will win pretty much regardless of who they nominate. And if the economy tanks, the Republicans will win; it won’t matter whether they nominate firebrand Ted Cruz or “moderate” Chris Christie.

Physicist and Poet James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk MaxwellOn this day in 1831, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell was born. He is one of the “big three” in physics, along with Newton and Einstein. He died of abdominal cancer at the young age of 48, yet he did an amazing amount of work. There are three fundamental things that he did: color analysis, statistical mechanics, and electromagnetism.

His work on color analysis was not limited to physics. He determined that a color photograph could be created by taking three identical photographs of the same subject each with a different color filter: red, green, and blue (RGB). Six years after publishing this work, he became the first man to demonstrate a color photograph (photographer Thomas Sutton did the actual mechanics of it). This alone would be enough to have made him a very important physicist and inventor. He did much else on the subject including work on color-blindness and other aspects of color perception.

His second great contribution to science was in the field of statistical mechanics. His contribution here was to show how thermodynamics was really just the macro-scale behavior of countless particles doing their own things. The most important part of this was to explain the second law of thermodynamics which states that the entropy of a system always increases. He also showed that the temperature of gas (a thermodynamic measurement) represented the velocity distribution of the gas molecules. This work would later be generalized by Ludwig Boltzmann who more or less invented what we now know as statistical mechanics, a subject that terrorizes physics students to this day.

On a personal note, I never took thermodynamics as an undergraduate. I studied statistical mechanics with a professor known only slightly better for his mathematical brilliance as for his seeming cluelessness about the terror these subjects produced in the young students. In fact, I think he was responsible for this mass change of students from the far more rigorous BS program to the BA. I loved him, of course, even while I struggled—most of all in statistical mechanics. But in graduate school, I was forced to take a course in thermodynamics, and I found it almost trivial. If you understand the micro-scale well, the macro-scale becomes so much easier because your intuition has changed. Or at least, that’s how it worked for me. Thermodynamics without statistical mechanics is kind of like trying to memorize the behavior of a black box. My mind just doesn’t work that way.

Maxwell’s third and greatest contribution to physics was in the field of electromagnetics. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to put it, because Maxwell invented the field. Certainly people before him understood that changing electrical fields could create magnetic fields. But Maxwell was the first to see and quantify how electricity and magnetism were essentially just different manifestations of the same thing. This work was eventual reduced to the four Maxwell Equations, although their modern simple beauty was the result of work done by Oliver Heaviside a couple of years after Maxwell had died. That is the way science works: it is a group effort. Maxwell’s work came directly out of his trying to understand Faraday’s lines of force. But Maxwell was still very much living in Newton’s world. It would take another three decades before Einstein fixed the one problem with Maxwell’s theory: it’s need for a medium in which electromagnetic waves propagated. That is, by the way, what Einstein was doing in Special Relativity: his interest was in Maxwell’s work.

I do, however, think that while great people like Maxwell should be celebrated for their great work, there is much luck to it. Would Maxwell have made such great contribution if he had been born 50 years earlier or later. He was the right person at the right time. And what if he had been born in a small village in Kenya to poor fishermen? That’s not to say that his brilliance wouldn’t have shined greatly. (He might have revolutionized the fishing industry!) But there wouldn’t be t-shirts and coffee mugs celebrating him today:

Maxwell's Equations

I have always thought of Maxwell as more of a mathematician than a physicist—at least in his orientation toward the world. And indeed, he did have some opinions that seem rather mystical to me. Had he lived longer, I suspect we would have seem more of that. He was certainly not an empiricist when it came to the mind and social interaction. This is especially interesting as we are now making great progress in learning how micro-scale phenomenon in humans explain macro-scale behaviors of individuals and groups—work very similar to what Maxwell did with statistical mechanics and thermodynamics.

Those who knew him, said that Maxwell was socially awkward. But he was also a Romantic. He wrote many poems and set them to music. He sang and accompanied them on guitar. I find that wonderfully sweet, especially since I always imagined him as this great brain that did one thing really well. You can check out some of his work on Poem Hunter. Many of them are quite charming. And some of them are about physics!

Happy birthday James Clerk Maxwell!