Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fuel Economy Follow-Up: Ah, Journamalism! (Never Trust Gregg Easterbrook Edition)

by Tom Bozzo

Kevin Drum reads Gregg Easterbrook ("Give Bush credit for his energy proposal") so that I almost don't have to:
Does 4 percent improvement per year sound too modest? According to the EPA, average actual fuel consumption of new vehicles sold in the United States is 21 miles per gallon. (The figure on the sticker in the showroom is often higher, but it is calculated under unrealistic conditions—no passengers or cargo in the car, air conditioner off, gentle acceleration, and no exceeding the speed limit.) Improve on 21 mpg by 4 percent annually for 10 years, and the number rises to 31 mpg. If the actual fuel economy of new vehicles were 31 mpg, oil-consumption trends would reverse—from more oil use to less. (Link omitted.)
Were Easterbrook a journalist, he would have reported:
(For regulation junkies, the 371-page discussion of the final truck fuel economy rule is here.)

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Monday, January 29, 2007

A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection

by Ken Houghton

Those of us who need/want a new computer have probably seen the opportunity to buy a MSFT product that works well pass.

This frequently-revised A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection, courtesy of Slashdot and the Toronto Star makes it clear that Mac is going to be the place to be—or at least that MSFT's claim that the Internet will "revolutionise" television doesn't include letting it be all that it can be when hooked up to a Vista-run computer.

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Read the Fine Print

by Tom Bozzo

Here's a minor addendum to Paul Krugman's "The Sum of All Ears" (non-Times Select excerpt at Economist's View). One road to perdition is that on which hulking SUVs run on E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline blend) fuel in the name of greenness. When gas prices peaked last year, there were a few stories to the effect that the (subsidized) lower pump price of E85 was largely offset by increased fuel consumption owing to ethanol's lower energy density.

GM is helpfully, if in small print, showing the fuel economy of its flex-fuelable large SUVs on both gasoline and E85. The headline EPA mileage ratings for the flex-fuel GMC Yukon 4x4 SUV are 15 MPG city, 21 highway, which is bad but not terrible by the standards of large truck-based SUVs. However, a footnote indicates that the same vehicle gets a truly terrible 11 city/15 highway on E85. Given the biomass limitations of ethanol production under current methods, we could get in Big Trouble if people all thought they could burnish their green credentials while driving big trucks.

Now, the WPE admittedly did mention increasing fuel economy standards to get part of the way to reducing oil consumption -- the assumption is that passenger car standards would increase by about 7-8 MPG between 2010-2017, while truck standards would rise by 4-5 MPG between 2012-2017. While this appears to be a step in the right direction, this being the Bush administration, there must be a catch somewhere. And it turns out to be in a proposal to extend "attribute-based" standards from trucks to cars.

On the truck side, which we visited in 2005, this amouts to size-based categories that have the effect of raising standards a lot on small trucks (which are already relatively fuel efficient), less on midsize trucks, and not at all on larger vehicles. The effect is to get a rise in the overall standard while requiring relatively little improvement for any particular trucks. The initial proposal would have expanded the loopholes under which cars can be reclassified as trucks for fuel economy purposes, and would have created new incentives to re-engineer smaller vehicles to fall under the midsize truck standard. Mission accomplished!

Clearly, an attribute-based standard can easily do the same for cars, giving already-efficient subcompacts a higher-than-average standard (say, 44 MPG, vs. the 34-35 overall) while large sedans may see little increase or even a reduction in the applicable standard.

The proposal to create a separate set of attribute-based standards for cars actually begs the question of why you'd have separate car and truck standards in such a world. In effect, differences in the attribute mix of cars vs. trucks was part of the reason for separating them in the first place. With those attributes explicitly reflected in the standards, the effect is to give trucks a break (relative to cars) for their aerodynamical challenges.

Another significant issue is whether cars and trucks would be able to meet fuel economy standards using their performance on gasoline while subsidies and marketing efforts promote their operation at much lower fuel economy using high-ethanol-content fuel blends. This bait-and-switch would increase the farm-state pork content of the proposal.

Krugman snarks a bit about Cheney's disdain for energy conservation, and one thing I noticed was a funny expression on Cheney's face during the alternative energy part of the speech:
Picture 1

At that moment, Bush was describing the prospect for reductions in oil imports. While the picture might be worth a few hundred words, in all fairness Cheney might have been smirking in reaction to the orgasmic response that was pending from one member of the Republican Senate minority:
Picture 2

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Friday Night Palate Cleanser

by Tom Bozzo

The Church, "The Unguarded Moment."

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The New Blogger Era Has Begun

by Tom Bozzo

If you can read this, Marginal Utility has successfully switched to the New Blogger.

Attention Drek, Ken, and Kim: Expect to be prompted for a Google account, or to sign up for one, next time you're moved to post.

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Santa's Back-Order Elves Save the Best for Last

by Tom Bozzo

Tramampoline!!1!

trampoline

(A lucky shot, given shutter lag on the old digicam, even though iPhoto refused to recognize the red-eye.)

...Julia bonus:
IMG_3984

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Out of the Mouths of Candidates

by Ken Houghton

Brad DeLong's new blog, Egregious Moderation, refers us to this Blake Hounsell piece, in which Mitt Romney makes clear that Dikeme Mutumbo isn't the only one whose first language is not English:
I believe that Iran's leaders and ambitions represent the greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union and before that Nazi Germany.

Yes, the world was truly threatened when the Soviet Union fell. Not to mention the demise of Nazi Germany, previously mourned by Theodore Beale of the World Net Daily.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thursday Afternoon Gag Reflex

by Ken Houghton

via Rory at Eat Our Brains, whose Petrogypsies really is a worthwhile read, even after he did this to what's left of my brain:



Warning: May Be Hazardous to your memories.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

...Or How Republicans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Complex Regulation

by Tom Bozzo

Since Drek suggested that real analysis of the SOTU policy proposals might be found here, I suppose I should do more than call the WPE a bad bad name for reminding me of the Baby Einstein Company — which the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation had mostly eliminated from my long-term memory.

While the overt failings of the proposals are significant (and, indeed, make it very unlikely that the Bush health care "plan" will be enacted anytime soon), let me first note an overarching theme which can, at a minimum, annoy the back-to-small-government-conservatism wing of the Republican Party. That is: what passes for Republican policymaking depends critically on the successful functioning of highly complex regulatory schemes for the principal end — to again swipe Roy's great turn of phrase — of not making the Invisible Hand feel bad (*). Significant related assumptions are that people prefer complex "private" solutions to simple government ones, and relatedly will feel better about government mandates if the madatory payments are made to corporations rather than the government.

The possibility that failure is a feature rather than a bug can't totally be eliminated, though evaluating all the game-theoretic possibilities would drive me nuts so that's left as an exercise to the interested reader. Some of the risks to such strategies are obvious, for instance, someone may actually get elected on a platform of fixing popular but screwed-up programs. The problem with Medicare Part D isn't that people don't think senior citizens deserve affordable prescription drugs, after all.

More after the jump.


Whereas the health care mandates a la Romney require bureaucracies to enforce the mandate and to distribute public aid to the needy, the Bush plan's complexities seem to be mainly on the tax enforcement side. For instance, Max wondered about whether the payroll tax exemption would cover the employer portion. Berman, Furman, and Williams (BFW) say yes (the White House page is unclear, but BFW presumably have inside information). Implementing the exemption for the employer portion requires that employers who don't offer health insurance to maintain records of their employees' insurance status, and presumably to maintain records documenting their eligibility not to remit the employer portion for covered employees.

Currently, holders of multiple jobs can overpay their Social Security tax if their combined wages exceed the Social Security wage cap. Since multiple McJobs don't usually come with much risk of near-six-figure income, refunds of excess Social Security tax payments probably are not very common. (**) The Bush exclusion, in contrast, would seem to lead to widespread underpayment issues. That could be "solved" for the employee portion by means of a nasty surprise on one's income tax return. Exactly how multiple employers would coordinate so as to exclude only the allowable amount of income for the employer payroll tax is beyond me. (Perhaps BFW are wrong, or wiser heads would limit the exclusion to the employee portion were an actual controversy to arise.)

Of course, the IRS will also have to ensure that claimants of the deduction aren't engaged in simple chiseling (more Forms 1098; good for the Postal Service) or complex frauds involving things that look like the payment of premiums on eligible policies but aren't.

None of this even begins to address the conceptual bass-ackwardness of the plan. Matthew Yglesias is dead on here:
Most Americans, like virtually all Democrats, define the "health insurance problem" in the United States as consisting of the fact that many Americans have no health insurance, others have too little health insurance, and others find paying for their health insurance to be extremely burdensome. The Bush administration, by contrast, defines the problem as many Americans having too much health insurance and therefore using too many health resources.
Indeed, the Administration's goes so far as to describe those fortunate enough to be covered by the traditional employer-based health insurance system to be the recipients of "unfair subsidies." As a result, according to the White House:
This encourages many workers to choose lower wages and more expensive health insurance than they would choose if the tax code were not distorting their decision. (Emphasis added.)
Were I a Democratic strategist, this is what I'd be hammering: Hey, insured majority, the Bush administration thinks you have it too good. Plus, they have their standard bait-and-switch on. Just like the Alternative Minimum Tax was meant to erode the tax "cuts" to make them look like they'd blow a smaller hole in the budget, the Bush plan intends to have health care inflation erode the value of the deduction. So if you aren't getting that "gold-plating" now, prepare to join the club — and see your taxes go up, just as your health insurance is getting more and more expensive. And if that's not all, they'll deduct some of that deduction from your Social Security. Meanwhile, it'll screw you without even helping most people who really need it — they still won't be able to afford the premiums. (***)

One would hope that the "plan," by this point, would be recognized for the steaming piece of crap that it is.

Next up: Sen. Grassley gets more lovin' than Holy Joe?

------------------------------------

(*) Given the paradox of advancing the free market by regulatory meddling via tax or other policy levers, maybe just a couple of the fingers.

(**) High earners switching jobs would tend to be most affected.

(***) The "plan's" laissez-faire attitude towards risk pooling doesn't help much on this front.

Done!

Why Would George Bush lie so blatantly?

by Ken Houghton

It's one thing to praise Julie Aigner-Clark and John Walsh. But when you start talking about sports figures, well, there are still some real reporters in that field, even if they are overly cautious:
But [ABC's Karen] Travers, a former sports editor of the Georgetown student newspaper, 'The Hoya,' raises whether this famous Mutumbo tale is perhaps a bit too tall.

First, Travers says that Dikembe Mutumbo came to Georgetown University to study languages—he enrolled in the School of Languages and Linguistics according to Hoyabasketball.com, a site run by another former Hoya sports editor, John Reagan.

Second, the arrival of a 7-2 freshman on campus may not have been a surprise to Hoya Head Coach John Thompson. Mutumbo played on the Zairean junior national team in 1986 and caught the attention of U.S. development officer Herman Henning, who sent a tape of Mutumbo to Georgetown, according to Regan's site.[italics mine; English spelling of "Mutumbo" standardized]

Don't get me wrong: Dikembe Mutumbo has some great accomplishments. He's a polyglot* and an athlete and certainly a worthy enough role model. But the "he could have been a doctor; instead he built a hospital" story is more apocryphal than The Gospel of Judas.


*From the article:
Despite his fluency in nine languages, he could not qualify for the NCAA because of its SAT requirement (English was not one of Mutumbo's strongest languages)

I Need to Rename My Home Server

by Ken Houghton

Kerry Bows Out of 2008 Race

It's scary that I've come to believe it should be taken as encouraging when a NYT article declares that there is "an unusually strong field of Democratic competitors."

Lies, damned lies, and self-delusions

by Ken Houghton

Via Brad DeLong and Barry Ritholz comes a sensible USA Today piece.

Generally, sensible. There is this:
Three out of 10 employees eligible for 401(k) plans don't participate, Hewitt says. That means investors are passing up free money in the form of matching contributions from their employers.

No, it doesn't mean that at all. It may mean that, but it may mean a lot of things:

  1. It may mean the employer does not match, or that the match is so limited and/or insignificant that it doesn't compensate for the lost liquidity
  2. It may mean the employee believes the limited choices in the 401(k) plan (e.g., company stock) are not appropriate for a diversified portfolio. (After all, one is already "long" the company in working there.)
  3. It may mean that the employee is living paycheck to paycheck, or paying down credit card debt, and cannot afford to wait until they are 59.5 to use that money.
  4. It may mean their spouse or partner's plan is preferable, and they elect to max out there.
  5. It may mean that they make too much money to qualify for a traditional 401(k), and the company does not offer a Roth.
  6. It may mean something else entirely

There are many possible reasons for not putting money into an account that cannot be accessed for many years without a penalty that may more than eliminate any employer match. "Passing up free money" isn't even likely to be in the top five.

Dialogues of the Toddlers: SOTU Edition

by Tom Bozzo

Julia (looking at the picture above the fold on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal): Is that Mr. Noodle?

(Discourse possibly to be re-elevated soon.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

SOTU Semi-Liveblogging

by Tom Bozzo

The exception that proves the rule...

Did that wad of f*ck really highlight Julie Aigner-Clark in the Distinguished Americans section of the SOTU along with people actually deserving recognition??!!!!?one!?

Quotes of the Day

by Tom Bozzo

Lance, giving the SOTU address the respect it deserves:
...I won't be watching the President tell us about all the wonderful things he wants to do in the next year to go along with that mission to Mars and all those cheap, hybrid cars that have weaned us from foreign oil.
(No liveblogging here; Blogger appears to be bloggered anyhow.)

Roy, with a reminder for Ken:
Your stupid diseases are making the Invisible Hand feel bad!

I am Gold-Plated?!!

by Ken Houghton

It is generally considered unseemly to talk about how much one makes, or spends. (Also, to some extent, unwise.)

But in this case I will make an exception. Because according to George W. Bush, I suffer from being "gold-plated."

To be specific, in round figures, the health insurance for myself and my family (two children, putting us in the same bucket as those with two or more) last year cost me just under $4,500 out of salary. My employee, a large firm based in NYC, puts on your pay stub how much they chipped in. For the past calendar year, they contributed just over $15,000.

So, per George W. Bush, I (in my various forms) paid about $4,500 too much for insurance.

Here's the catch: I could have opted for the "cheaper out-of-pocket" plan (which, I suspect, still would have been over $15K out of pocket). But the insurance company provides a "calculator" to tell you, based upon your estimates of costs, which plan is best for you.

So I went with the plan that provided the optimal utility. (And, especially after Shira's back went out in November, I am glad I did.)

Now, George W. Bush wants to tell me that I spent too much on insurance. But the insurance company—and my receipts for the year—disagree.

Keep this in mind as you watch the State of the Union tonight. The centerpiece will be a pence-wise, quid-foolish, suboptimal, economically idiotic decision that is fragrant for all the wrong reasons.

Typos for Data Dorks

by B. Strong

From NBER's SIPP website:

"It is terrific that the BLS released the TM 3 module as soon as it was prepared rather than weighting for the other files to be completely processed."

Automotive Journamalism in the NYT: How 'Bout Some Elementary Research

by Tom Bozzo

A major curiosity of modern journamalism is the story whose rationale disappears with the slightest bit of research. (It's cousin, the opinion piece arguing X, whose author can be shown to have argued ~X by application of Google, is a major scourge too.) This example does not concern an Important Subject, but I don't really have the stomach this morning for an important one. Scene: Detroit Auto Show. Article: Fraternal Twins in the Showroom. Micheline Maynard, after mentioning that some cars look like they're in the wrong place, writes:
Consider the sporty new Nissan Altima coupe, whose sleek design looks a lot like the Infiniti G35, a car that Nissan’s luxury division sells for thousands of dollars more.
True, the Altima resembles its more expensive sibling. But this neglects the underlying cause: what Americans know as the Infiniti G35 — since we are willing to pay a premium for incomprehensible brand messages, showroom ambiance, and alphanumeric model designations — is sold as the Nissan Skyline in Japan.

But that's not all!
A short walk away is the concept version of a Honda Accord coupe, with crisp, muscular lines and an aggressive stance that would look far more at home across the Cobo center aisle in the display for Acura, Honda’s upscale brand.
Indeed, the forthcoming Accord more nicely steals design cues from Audis and BMWs than the Altima puts on the Skyline/G35, for my money. But if you're paid to go to auto shows by the Paper o' Record, you might note the detail that those Acura sedans are, themselves, based on Honda's midsize car "platform" underlying the Accord (indeed, as I've noted in the archives, the price range of cars based on the platform is enormous), and are due for full model changes along with the Accord.

This also misses a broader trend whereby bread-and-butter family cars have gained amenities that were sybaritic luxuries as recently as the '90s; aping the complicated shapes (due to the application of 3D design tools and new metal-bending methods) of luxury cars is part of this deal. For students of consumption inequality, it's perhaps worth noting the interaction with the development of the ultraluxury car market. When family sedans are faster than sports cars of the early-emissions-control era and warm their drivers' backsides on cold mornings, someone who wants to get ahead in the positional arms race (and has investment banking or hedge fund money burning a hole in his/her pocket) needs race car power and limited semi-bespoke production to keep the riff-raff out.

But back to the point about journamalism. So many people manage encyclopedic knowledge of the car market without compensation that you might expect that actual paid automotive journalists actually would know stuff about cars. (Think of jobs as professional LEGO builders, where the appeal of turning one's hobby into a job brings out top builders, even from highly-compensated conventional professions, in stiff competition for underwhelming pay packages.) On the important subjects, it seems like just dumb luck that there's a Dan Froomkin or David Cay Johnston to offset the Jonathan Weismans and Judith Millers.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Blogging for Choice Day Post - Data Instantiation

by Ken Houghton

I make my living in large part because of data: knowing what to do with it, how to present it, where to get it, how to check it, and when it Just Doesn't Sound Right.

But I rarely think about whether the data is necessary. A lot of what we collect is useful not to our area, but to others.

I only think about this today because of my wife's back, and her visits to my neurologist.

It is (has become?) a matter of course to ask female patients about their pregnancy history, whether or not that is germane to treatment. So I thought nothing of it when Shira was asked. As Bitch's BfC post today notes, the information is sometimes relevant—and sometimes it is not.

But she mentioned it later, and I've thought about it since.

I'm the first to say that carrying around two girls who weight about 80 pounds between them probably isn't great for your back. On the other hand, it's rather difficult to look at them (or pictures of them) and us and not conclude that they are the result of two pregnancies brought to term. So it is not as if the question comes up because of a need for the data.

And I understand that there are medical professionals, such as her ob/gyn, who need such data—and need it to be accurate.

But data tends to be instantiated beyond and outside of its needed applications. And data that is stored by one person can be accessed by another, legally, illegally, or through changes in the law.

My wife noted that there is a strong incentive for women who have had abortions to lie to their care providers, because they have no control over that datum once it is recorded by the doctor.

The shameful NYT Magazine's cover piece yesterday, Emily Bazelon's "Fluffing Rhonda Arias," makes it clear that there isn't an upside to providing accurate data to medical professionals.

As a husband and the father of two daughters, I have to recognize that a climate in which slightly over half of the population either has a significant incentive to lie about their medical information or cannot be trusted when they do present accurate data is not one in which I want them to live.

Which is why I am pro-choice. And What Rox Said.


*The credibility of the piece was destroyed by A Bird and A Bottle here.

In Preparation for Studio 60 Liveblogging from Mannion's Place tonight

by Ken Houghton

No, I'm not doing it tonight. (It appears it will be an extended edition, though. Be there or...well, don't.)

But as feeder material for the bitter, twisted, often accurate savagings of Sarah Paulson that used to happen there, this piece on Kristin Chenoweth may put the character's flaws in some context.
And what, you may wonder, lies beneath the glare of Ms. Chenoweth’s formidable talent? Is there buried treasure, or is the center hollow? The concert offered no clues.


UPDATE: Lance clears the Sarah Paulson air. And no, it wasn't me.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Friday Night Palate Cleanser

by Tom Bozzo

Mazzy Star, "Blue Flower."

From the Island of Lost Posts: The Streetcar Rebellion

by Tom Bozzo

Our ongoing series of semi-timely posts continues with the nascent Madison mayoral race. Last time, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz faced off against former mayor and MU blog pal Paul Soglin. While Paul ran as something of a centrist, as a practical matter he is not exactly Red State Paul and the choice was between left-of-center candidates.

This time around, the serious opposition is from the actual center-right. The idea, seemingly, is that (to borrow a term from the big-time blogs' discussion of the war) the Dirty F*cking Hippies are ramming streetcars down our throats while viciously sucking cigarette smoke out of same and having the temerity to suggest that Madisonians would be better-off if they had a right to take time off work if they, their kids, or their partners got sick.

This is mostly not comical exaggeration. Both of the serious opponents, Ray Allen and Peter Munoz (African-American moderate-Republican and Latino conservative, respectively), were associated with the founding of the "Common Sense Coalition." Who, we might ask, could be against common sense?

Well, the Coalition's two greatest hits to date have been a thankfully failed attempt to repeal the city smoking ban, and a contribution to the business community's successful if probably self-defeating effort to beat back a city sick-leave mandate. Plus, they run ads to the effect of how bad the Madison business climate is. In short, the Coalition exhibits laser-like focus on the needs of the community, if you just happen to equate "community" with the Tavern League and the Chamber of Commerce.

Munoz in particular actually told the Cap Times that Mayor Dave's tendency to ram things down people's throats was what drove him into the race, foremost the streetcar proposal. I would emphasize, streetcar proposal. For Madison does not actually have a streetcar, nor a firm prospect of getting them anytime especially soon. So Munoz is protesting the hypothetically deleterious effects on city finances of a hypothetical streetcar, not the actual controversy of Lyle Lanley having turned us into North Haverbrook.

Among the things that rankle the anti-streetcar set is the expense of building the lines — a range $15-25 million per mile has been quoted. That's a lot of money, for sure, though the price tag alone is insufficient to establish that it's too much. While I've been a Madison commuter rail skeptic in the past, there are some things that suit the city for a light rail line of some description (here, I'll gloss over the exact type of rail service that might be built).

Madison is dense and getting denser in the central areas where streets are congested and there is no prospect of adding any more road capacity. Moreover, on the near-west side, lots of trip-generating sites are conveniently located along a more-or-less straight line along State Street and University Avenue, out to the retail/office/condo/apartment agglomeration in the Hilldale vicinity. At the latter, more than 500 new housing units have been or are on the drawing boards.

University Avenue could use reconstruction, and a fairly obvious way of reducing the marginal cost of adding a streetcar would be to coordinate the projects, radical as the idea may sound. On the other side of town, a few miles of East Washington Avenue is being rebuilt for something like $15 million a mile, and the outcome is just the same old dumb road, only smoother and with more upscale landscaping. East Wash is something of a lost opportunity, since it's the main drag past a number of infill development sites and leads to the east side's edge city near the interstate; it would be a logical path for the eastern half of the line.

So while Madison may be on the small side for rail-based mass transit, there is a logical route for a line to hook up the parts of the city that are sufficiently dense to support it.

There certainly is room for a proper discussion of whehter the benefits outweigh the costs — Paul takes a whack here, though he doesn't have the right counterfactual (which should focus on transportation infrastructure projects, seeing as much of the money would presumably come from pots of higher-government funding not available for general purposes).

Save us from wingnuts who want to save us all from not-yet-existing mass transit.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Just Wondering...

by Ken Houghton

This is still officially a "coalition of the willing," and the total number of troops in Iraq is still the summation of each individual country's troops.

Now, normally, this wouldn't matter. The 132K from the U.S. against, say, those 7K from Italy, one almost might as well treat it as if no one else existed.

But this case is special. Because (X + 21,500).NE.(X + 21,500 - OtherCountryWithdrawals) unless OtherCountryWithdrawals = 0. [edited for clarity]

Memory serving, for instance, those 7,000 Italians either left or are supposed to leave at the beginning of this year. And Poland, too, was pulling out. Not to mention rumors of U.K. scalebacks.

Will the addition of 21,500 scraggly, undertrained, undereducated troops even make up for the known, scheduled withdrawals this year?

UPDATE: Tom, in comments, notes that the last sentence could be misinterpreted.

To be clear, I have no objection to the undereducated or the undertrained joining the milla tree (all right, "scraggly" is probably hyperbole), no matter how much extra equipment they tend to use. There is a long and honorable tradition of legitimately working class people serving the country and subsequently having advantages that enable them (assuming they are not one of the 20,000+ so far) to get a leg up, in the form of education (GI Bill) and health care (VA) benefits, as well as a clear acknowledgement of their capability to perform to order in adverse conditions.

But since only this source indicates otherwise, I have to assume that the new recruits will be those who were marginal under the old rules.

YMMV

by Ken Houghton

From The Huffington Post:

I am blessed by an Almighty that comforts me and a wife that loves me and friends that are my buddies now, and they were my buddies before and they'll be my buddies after, and I've got a wonderful family....I feel exhilarated by the experience....There are moments of anxiety, and there are of course moments of anguish and sadness. But there's also moments of great exhilaration and enthusiasm. It's just a fascinating experience and I'm glad that I did it.
-GWB on 60 Minutes

Social Science Scavenger Hunt

by Drek

One of the things that I love about the scientific process is that it creates puzzles. Now, don't get me wrong, science is a great way to answer questions as well, but the journey to an answer often involves the generation of new questions. So, as a result, trying to figure something out turns into a sort of empirical scavenger hunt. First, we locate all the pieces of the puzzle, and then we kill ourselves trying to put them together. Maybe it doesn't sound like much fun to most people, but to me it's a great way to spend a career.

Recently I came across a great example of a scientific puzzle and, knowing how my readers run towards the intellectual and all, I've decided to share it with y'all. The hum-dinger in question comes to us via Tara Smith's blog Aetiology and will likely make poor Plain(s)Feminist's head spin around like that girl in the exorcist. The puzzle is as follows: a large study of European women has found that moderate physical activity seems to reduce the rate of breast cancer. This probably won't surprise anyone, except that the only physical activity that seems to matter is housework. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: physical activity at work and in recreation don't seem to matter- only physical activity as a part of domestic labor.

It goes without saying that certain sources are using this study to argue that feminism is responsible for breast cancer. This explanation, however, sounds like crap to me. This isn't because of some sort of ideological stance- it's a skepticism born of a certain amount of experience.

To understand what I mean, let's think about an activity I often give my students. When talking about research methods I tell them about the very real finding that the level of ice cream production is associated with levels of forcible rape, and then ask them to figure out why. Over the years I've gotten some pretty fascinating answers, including that ice cream contains a chemical that increases aggression, that "brain-freeze" makes people angry, and that after a rape women turn to ice cream for consolation. Needless to say, most students are pretty baffled because, really, how the hell could ice cream cause rape? Well, the answer is that it doesn't: both are controlled by a third-variable. As discussed elsewhere, both ice cream production and criminal offending rise in the summer when more people leave their homes and, so, both appear to be correlated with each other. Correlation, as we have been taught over and over, is not the same thing as causation.

As I explain to my students, statistical tests and relationships are a little like the forensic tests used in the television show CSI. The tests allow us to say certain things with certainty but, by themselves, these tests don't usually answer our questions. If a police officer finds out that a certain person's fingerprints were at a crime scene, they still don't know why. Perhaps that person committed the crime, but then again, perhaps they simply passed through earlier in the day. Similarly, these results tell us something about labor and cancer, but maybe that something isn't obvious. Odds are, actually, that it isn't.

We have a finding here that housework appears to protect women against breast cancer but we're left with the simple question: why? Why is it that housework appears to act as a protective factor and not other kinds of labor? Is there something about scrubbing a bathtub, or dusting a shelf that is intrinsically more cancer-protecting than, say, playing tennis or walking? Maybe but, then again, like ice cream and rape, perhaps what we're seeing is the impact of another sneaky third variable. Minus a wrathful, and exceedingly slow, god who really likes to see women doing menial jobs, I tend to doubt that breast cancer is the wages of feminism.

So what could it be? Well, that's the question for all of us today. The study used multivariate statistical methods to control for a variety of factors including age at menarche, age at first pregnancy, drinking frequency, smoking status, use of hormone replacement therapy, and use of oral contraception. None seemed to make a difference. It also attempted to control for the relative strenuousness of particular physical activities. In most respects the methods are solid, although most of the data is self-report and, in some cases, retrospective, which can introduce quite a bit of error. Additionally, as Tara points out, they ask about current levels of activity, hormone replacement and oral contraception use, but not historical levels. So, a woman who has used oral contraception for twenty years and stopped yesterday looks like a woman who has never used oral contraception. That's certainly an issue.

Is this it? Do these failings explain the results? Maybe. Then again, maybe we can think of some alternatives that are slightly more plausible than "feminism gives you breast cancer." Family income wasn't tracked- is it possible that women who do more housework are often in a higher socioeconomic class where nutrition and medical care are generally better? Does it matter, as Tara comments and as Arlie Hochschild would agree, that all women do a lot of housework in their presumptive second shift? What about women who work as maids or nannys? They should be doing a whole lot of housework on a daily basis and, logically, should be about immune to breast cancer if these results are correct. Are breast cancer rates for female domestic servants, indeed, dramatically lower than for other low-income women? Is it possible that breast cancer has some sort of bacterial or environmental origin and women who spend less time out of the home have a lower probability of exposure? Is it something I haven't even thought of yet?

Give those analytical minds of yours a workout and see if you can't crack this puzzle. Or, at the very least, keep me company while I try.

God I love the smell of a conundrum in the morning!


Note that this was cross-posted over on Total Drek.

From the Files of "What was He Thinking?"

by B. Strong

In retrospect, maybe hiding contraband in contraband wasn't such a cunning plan after all.

Inmates No Longer Running the Asylum?

by Tom Bozzo

The Senate Finance Committee passed a proposal to cap tax-deferred compensation for corporate executives at $1 million. (More discussion is here.) The heart-warming quote is:
"I didn't know it was coming," said Dan Danner, executive vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business lobby. "It's not something that we proposed or had anything to do with."
Heh indeedy.

While efforts to rein in executive pay through the tax code have been a miserable failure so far, this is at least a small step towards equal treatment under the tax law. The $1 million figure is not necessarily what I'd pick — $45,000, which is the maximum amount of deferred compensation allowable in 2007 under ERISA plans such as 401(k)s, springs immediately to mind. (*) And, it should be noted, people putting even $45,000 a year into a tax-deferred savings vehicle for an extended period of time would expect a quite comfortable retirement. I suppose the Nice Round Figure was chosen to minimize political impact of breast-beating by business lobbies and to improve the odds that Sens. Nelson and Lieberman plus 9 Republicans would approve.

The proposal is scored as generating about $80 million/year, which seems small at first blush, though part of the story is that the tax on deferred executive compensation is shifted to shareholders, who may pay corporate income tax on the deferred amounts.


(*) The more widely known limit is the $15,000 for employee contributions to the plans. The higher limit includes various forms of employer contributions into all eligible plans.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Economists and Sociologists: Where the Twain Shall Meet?

by Ken Houghton

Following-up to Kim's post about the research encroachmentoverlap between sociologists and economists, comes George Akerlof's President's Address to the AEA (warning: 72-page PDF, via Menzie Chinn at Econbrower), which attempts to refine economic theory in the face of empirical results (e.g., Kahneman and Tversky's work).

I'll Get Around to Analysing this later

by Ken Houghton

Science & Technology at Scientific American.com: Why Do Today What You Can Put Off Until Tomorrow -- A 10-year study of procrastination provides insights into--and a formula for--human motivation

Lost in 4-Year Old Translation

by B. Strong

Thanks to an afternoon on Caltrain spent next to some "big" kids (i.e., around 7 or 8), hangman has replaced 5-Card Draw as Quinn's favorite game.

I was happy to oblige the new obsession until the fundamental flaw became clear: Quinn only knows how to spell four words with any consistency.* This takes much of the challenge out of the game. Indeed, our scores rival tic-tac-toe -- or, per Gary Larson, prehistoric rock-paper-scissors -- in their predictability.

*Mommy, Daddy, Quinn, and beer. At the risk of revealing a tad bit too much about our parenting, "beer" was the first word that Quinn mastered. We're still working on the lyrics to "Beer Run".

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Are there only ten myths about atheism?

by Drek

It seems that, over a somewhat short career of guest-posting here at Marginal Utility, I have acquired something of a reputation as the resident militant atheist. Well, really, "militant," is probably an exaggeration since I am at best lightly armed. Regardless, if I have become known as the local vocal atheist I really can't object. I have written more frequently about atheism over here than any other subject, so I guess you could say that the shoe fits and I am wearing it.

I suppose this is why Ken so nicely brought an interesting op-ed piece to my attention. This piece is titled: "10 myths-- and 10 truths-- about atheism." It begins as follows:

SEVERAL POLLS indicate that the term "atheism" has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president.

Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.


Indeed, an interesting introduction, but nothing particularly remarkable until we get to the real meat of the author's intention:

Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.


So, Sam Harris, the author of this little piece, is trying to reduce the stigma attached to atheists so that our above average intelligence can finally be fully utilized. Well, leaving aside my hesitation at framing it quite like that,* I do appreciate the attempt. Atheists are not well-liked, and it would be nice if there weren't quite so many misconceptions about us.

Since this article was given to me as something of a command performance, I suppose I should say something about it. Specifically, I think that I will recount Harris' points and then add a little commentary of my own. Is this necessary? Absolutely not but, what can I say? When Ken asks for a post, I hate to disappoint him.

1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.


I largely agree with Harris here, but I think that there's something else that needs to be pointed out: atheists believe that meaning is produced by human beings, not supplied by an external force. Thus, if there is no god it does not mean that the universe is meaningless- that isn't where meaning comes from in the first place. If we were to reverse things, we might well say that theists believe in a universe where human potential is limited and constrained. It doesn't sound very good when I put it that way but, hey, if your idea of the future is a specific endpoint provided by a higher power, then I've pretty much said just that. Sometimes the difference between one person's truth and another person's truth are their perspectives on the facts.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.


An interesting point, and likely one of the strongest arguments against extremism of any sort that I have ever seen. Ultimately, religion is not responsible for most "religious wars," it simply serves as a convenient justification for what people wanted to do anyway. Religion may serve to lower the threshold for violence and atrocity, but if religion were absent something else would suffice. This is not, of course, to say that religion is entirely blameless- in dogmatism we find the seeds of extremism- but rather that neither atheism nor religion can be held wholly accountable for horror. I think the whole "excess of reasonableness" bit is a problem, however. It's a pleasing fiction among atheists that we are more reasonable than theists, but this isn't necessarily true. There are plenty of unreasoning, thoughtless atheists out there** and there's nothing about atheism per se that discourages unreasonableness. In the final analysis, I'd rather deal with a reasonable person who disagrees with me than a dogmatist who is, for the moment, on the same side.

3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn't have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."


I am sympathetic to this argument but, in truth, merely rejecting religious claims would make one an agnostic, not an atheist. An atheist is a person who adopts a faith position that there is no such thing as a god. Since this positive position cannot be demonstrated- for the same reason that the idea of a god cannot be falsified- it is an equal faith position to that of a theist. It is, therefore, probably much more legitimate to say that if atheists are dogmatic, they certainly are no more so than any theist. All that said, however, Stephen Roberts is right- all of us are atheists, it's just that some of us are more thorough than others.


4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the "beginning" or "creation" of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time itself.

The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, "The God Delusion," this represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Although we don't know precisely how the Earth's early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase "natural selection" by analogy to the "artificial selection" performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.


While Harris is right, "chance" is too simple a word to describe the emergence of life and the universe, I think he misses the point. Why does it matter if the universe is here by chance? If our existence is unintended, does pain feel less horrible? Is love less wonderful? Does a sunset look less beautiful? Of course not. Whether a child was planned or an accident, their life may be as wonderful, and whether the universe was deliberate or simply something that happened, it remains just as wondrous. To speak of chance is to return to the question of meaning, and an unplanned universe is no more meaningless than is the life of an unplanned child. To claim otherwise is simply to be small-minded.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.


This argument gives me the shivers. We have a correlation, to be sure, but that does not mean that there is a causal relationship. More Indians than caucasians are Hindu, but that doesn't mean that darker skin causes Hinduism. It is, instead, quite possible that scientists compose a sub-culture in which atheism is more prominent. Leaving that aside, however, I think I might speculate that science and reason don't cause atheism- but they do make it a lot easier to be an atheist. Being an atheist in a time before science provided valid alternatives to religious just-so stories must have been quite difficult. Now it seems to me to be much easier.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

When scientists don't know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.


Much as it pains me to say it, here I think the myth is partly true. Atheists make up a tiny minority of the world's population and are in the unenviable position of, effectively, believing that the remainder of the Human race is indulging in a consenual delusion. It is as though a world full of adults persists in believing in the tooth fairy. To honestly adhere to such a belief- that most of the world's population is wrong and that you are right- does indeed imply a certain self-confidence that might well cross over into arrogance or egotism. Yes, we are probably a little arrogant. That said, however, we are no different from any other religion- all of which believe that everyone else in the world is wrong. Perhaps we are arrogant, but no more so than the millions of other people who believe that their god calls upon them to make everyone else think as they do.

On the plus side, however, we don't have much of a history of suicide bombing when people disagree with us.***

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences. There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.


A silly objection to atheism indeed. If by "spiritual" you mean "deeply moving," then atheists are as spiritual as they come. And if by "spiritual" you mean "religious," then you are simply defining the debate to suit your needs. One might as well point out that the Pope is closed to experiencing the Buddha. Perhaps he is but, after all, he is the Pope.

8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.

Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature's laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists.

From the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.


And here I could not agree more. When faced with a great unknown, to say simply that "God did it," is not to produce an explanation, but instead to give a name to our ignorance. We know no more about that mystery, but we make ourselves feel better and, in feeling better, feel no need to grow. Perhaps humans are not capable of understanding everything, but that is surely not a justification for never trying to learn anything.

9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?


Another good point. As children we behave because our parents force us. As adults, we behave because we know it to be right. Why, then, must the unassailable morality of religion be rooted in infantilizing the human race?

10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.


And, indeed, neither does religion. Morality is always consensual and contingent upon a particular society and a particular time. What is right for one civilization may not be right for another. Moreover, this is a truth that, ultimately, holds for both the theists and the atheists. To pretend otherwise is to take refuge behind reassuring falsehoods.


And so, in the end, we hay ave ten myths but there are considerably more than ten alternative perspectives. I suspect that in a dozen atheists you might find a dozen different answers to each of the above myths and, while many or more of them would share features, each would have its own unique approach to the problem. In its lack of a formal structure or doctrine, atheism gives rise to a bewildering, maddening number of alternative perspectives. Confusing? Yes. Frustrating? Absolutely. Beautfiul? Unquestionably.

Whether there are myths or not doesn't matter. We have always been here. We will always be here. Wanted or not, we will always be working for a better future.

And when you get right down to it, that's the only truth that matters.


* Because the whole "We're smarter than you," argument has worked so well in the past.

** I do think that atheists more often have a solid grip on WHY they believe as they do, but this comes from large amounts of time spent defending themselves from conversion-minded theists. In other words, if atheism were a majority view, I doubt its pracitioners would be unusually thoughtful about it.

*** Yeah, I know: cheap shot.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The AARP Set

by Tom Bozzo

We're watching the Golden Globes — yeah, TV happens in our house once in a while — and an ad is using the Buzzcocks to promote the friggin' AARP.

Here's the deal: while there are some '70s punk rockers who may soon be formally eligible for AARP membership, Classic Punk Rock is still the music of no more than Ken's not-quite-yet-AARP-eligible cohort. Moreover, this couldn't possibly be consistent with the age profile of opposition to same-sex marriage. And if you need something even more marginally-safe-for-work, try this.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Sociologists and Income Inequality

by B. Strong

In the comments to the Book Meme II post, Tina and Tom ask, well, why *have* sociologists largely ignored the past 30 years' growth in income inequality?

The answer my co-authors and I gave in the offending article was that sociologists have a long-standing disciplinary commitment to measuring inequality with either socioeconomic scales (SEI) or social class categories. Neither of these reference the income distribution in any direct way. SEI is a weighted function of the average (sort-of) income and education in a person's occupation, not individual-level incomes. In sociology, social classes are defined by position in the labor and capital markets, and are most commonly measured by a combination of occupation and self-employment status. For the class analyst, earnings and income are but two of many "life chances" that derive from the more fundamental class position.

So, part of the answer lies in the assumptions sociology has made about how inequality should be measured. This answer allowed us to proceed on our merry way in the paper, which documents changes in the class-based "lumpiness" in the income distribution over the past 30 years. (Short answer: it's increasing.)

But I think there's more to it than that. Sociologists are interested in income inequality, but just in a very different way than the labor economists who dominate the rising income inequality literature. For at least the past 50 years (far before economists' current forays into the topic), sociologists have focused on understanding the social rules of allocation -- why certain types of people do well while others don't. This has generated literally thousands of articles that document and explain how family background, race, gender, education, and so forth affect where people end up in the inequality space, whether it is measured by SEI, class, income, earnings, wealth, or what-have-you.

For all their richness, most of these articles take the structure of the inequality space as given. In modeling terms, sociologists tend to be more fascinated by between-group differences in means (and, of course, endless permutations of interaction terms) than by the overall variance. The relative lack of interest sociologists have shown toward rising income income inequality is thus a manifestation of a more general tendency to focus on the rules of allocation rather than on the overall distribution of rewards.

There is much more to be said about the disciplinary divide, the extent the measurement of inequality on both sides relies on untested assumptions, how social scientists in general might move forward from here, and so forth. It probably goes without saying that I think contemporary sociologists should devote more attention to the overall distribution of rewards and the structure of the inequality space, asking questions that economists -- with the exception of some Sen-inspired development economists -- simply aren't asking. But, I'm sure I've already bored you all to tears.

The Value of Setting Benchmarks

by Ken Houghton

Much has been made of "benchmarks" over the past years. First, George W. Bush said he couldn't abide by them. However, in his speech Wednesday, he emphasized that The Difference This Time is that there are clear benchmarks.

Someone should tell his Secretary of Defense:
Gates said it will be easy to tell if Iraqis live up to their end of the bargain, prompting members of the committee to point out that the Iraqi government sent only two of six promised battalions for an operation in Baghdad last summer.

Gates and Pace said that they think they have assurances from the Iraqi government, but that there is no specific deadline for success or clear benchmarks for progress. [emphasis mine]


There are certainly problems with benchmarks, and I've done enough Project Management to know that people don't necessarilyoften hold to them.

But the other thing that is clear is that those who are not even willing to set a Benchmark, really don't have a clue of how they are going to accomplish the task.

Great news for the 21,500 members of the "surge."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday Night Palate Cleanser

by Tom Bozzo

Idea shamelessly swiped from TBogg. We need it this week. Here's the Soup Dragons, in the Buzzcocks stylee...

Not even a second thought, just a lost marketing opportunity

by Ken Houghton

I'm all for service members (or anyone else) posing for Playboy; as my mother-in-law said, "They're only willing to pay you for it for so long."

But doing so in (part of your) uniform is such an obvious violation, that I defer to August:
let's pre-emptively drop the disingenuous suggestion that the Army was just going to chuckle about it and that they're outrageous prudes for saying it's a breach of protocol.

However, I feel we should note the loss of a marketing opportunity here:
"This staff sergeant's alleged action does not meet the high standards we expect of our airmen, nor does it comply with the Air Force's core values of integrity, service before self, and excellence in all we do. It is not representative of the many thousands of outstanding airmen who serve in the U.S. Air Force today," [Lackland AFB spokesman Oscar] Balladares said, reading a statement.[emphasis mine]

When you're at least 12,000 troops short of the announced goal, and are about to ensure that no one ever wants to be a reservist again, would it hurt to suggest that the soon-to-be-former Staff Sergeant was representative, though her actions are well beyond the pale?

Book Meme II: Academic Version

by B. Strong

I've been tagged! (Remember when the "I love you virus" was going around, and you went to coffee with your friends and they were all complaining about how many times they had been sent the "I love you virus," and you felt bad for their computational health but also a little twinge of jealousy because evidently no one loved you enough to give you a virus, but then when you went back to your office, you checked your e-mail and, lo-and-behold, you found the "I love you virus" waiting for you, and although you were a bit peeved that someone would send you a virus, you were secretly a little bit thrilled that you were on the "I love you" network. Or at least, so I'm told.)

Anywhoo, the tagging task is described here, so I won't repeat it again. Like others, I seem to have run into a bit of a glitch in fulfilling the task. The first book-like item I can reach is the January 2007 issue of American Behavioral Scientist.

First problem: is it a book or not? On one hand, it's bound, with a cover and numbered pages between, and all of the chapters are on the same topic, namely the sociology of income inequality. OTOH, it's just a collection of independently written academic articles.

Second problem: ABS carries over page numbers from the prior issue. The first page in the "book", excluding front matter, is page 579. There isn't a page 123.

If I assume it's close enough to a book, and count 123 pages from page 579, here's the third problem: I land on the first page of my own article.* At the risk of seeming unbelievably conceited for quoting my own work, here's the 6th, 7th, and 8th sentences (counting the abstract, which is the only way I could get to 5 sentences on the 123rd page):

Although an appropriately massive literature on the takeoff [in earnings inequality] has developed among social scientists, this literature is dominated by economists and largely ignored by sociologists. This state of affairs is surprising because sociologists, more so than economists, have represented themselves as uniquely concerned with the unequal distribution of valued goods. Why have sociologists, with several notable exceptions [cite cite cite] studiously ignored what is arguably one of the most consequential developments of our time?

I'll leave it up to the reader to answer Tom's question, "is the sociology professorate reading something more interesting than a SAS User's Guide?"

As for the next victims, I tag Robb and Kyle, two sociologists who I suspect may read this blog from time to time but don't have blogs of their own. Feel free to use the comments section.

*I feel like I should explain why ABS 2007 is sitting on my desk. It's not because I'm so enamored with my own work that I read it for fun. (In fact, I rarely even look at anything I've written once it's in print. Too painful.) SAGE press still sends out complimentary hard copies of the journal to authors, and in this office-that-isn't-really-mine I have no idea where to store lone issues of journals-to-which-I-don't-subscribe, and I can't bring myself to just throw it away.

Book Meme: Does This Count?

by Tom Bozzo

Drek tagged me with the following blog homework:
There were two candidates, and this is the second, since I didn't consider it a book at first: the Sid Meier's Civilization IV Quick Start Manual. For those of you who were dying to know whether I chose the nap or Civ last week, the game won out. I try not to think about how many years I could have shaved off my graduate school ordeal had I better ability to resist the charms of Civ I and MOO, especially as there was no Internet to speak of at the time.

When you think "Quick Start Manual," you probably think tri-fold card saying "Insert CD and double-click the installer," but this one runs 144 pages. Maybe that should be Quick [sic] Start Manual. We can only imagine what the full manual would look like in hardcopy.

Page 123 describes the "player menu" of the "custom game screen." The fifth sentence is classic computer documentation-ese:
Your name always appears in the top slot (assuming that you created the game).
Uh, so it doesn't always appear in the top slot?

The next three:
You can set the following slots to one of three settings:

Open: Available for other human players. See "Multiplayer Games" for more details.
No posthumans need apply? Transhumans? Xenians? It's funny that you are referred to another section of the manual for details on "other human players."

As for a tag, I need to think of someone who hasn't had the opportunity to be tagged with this chestnut, and who might be game. So I pick Dan and Kim. Is the sociology professorate reading something more interesting than a SAS User's Guide? Stay tuned...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Game is 21. Hit me!

by Ken Houghton

Well, the speech is apparently out. (Sick daughter, sick wife, sick me, and some laundry/sitting and staring.)

Look at the first graphic in Tom's post below. From December 2005 to January 2006, the troop level dropped 23,000. From January to May of 2004, there was a surge of about 38,000&mash;more than 1.5 times the current surge.

John Hinderaker at Powerline said, "[T]he new strategies sound to me like good ideas–one wonders why some of them weren't implemented some time ago..."

I fear that the short answer is they were, they failed, and 21,000 more troops are being sentenced to a Mad Caucus Race that is scheduled to end on someone else's watch, so that the glorious SMU George W. Bush Library doesn't have to talk about withdrawal, only casualtieshearts and minds.

UPDATE: Most interesting sentence from today's (Thursday's) WSJ editorial:
Put in simplest terms, Mr. Bush seems finally to have decided that the way to defeat the insurgency is to protect the population, especially in Baghdad.

And they came to PRAISE him!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

If you spinoff damaged goods when you did the damage, cui bono?

by Ken Houghton

Most interesting note (to me) from Paul Kedrosky's Infectious Greed: Top Tens of 2006: Advertising, Movies, Television, Stories, etc.:

Only three firms in the top ten show a decline in their 2006 non-web advertising (Kedrosky uses "offline," which strikes me as counterintuitive, especially as he notes that P&G/Gillette's non-web advertising budget is greater than the "total spending of the top online advertisers"):
  1. General Motors,
  2. Altria (nee Philip Morris), and
  3. Time-Warner.


The first makes perfect sense. When your sales are sinking faster than the Titanic, you cut your advertising spend. Also, you probably boosted ads last year to try to staunch the bleeding. Either way, a decline is not unreasonable.

The second (which is a change of notably less than 1%) can be rationalized rather easily as well; when your primary product is addictive, the two goals are (1) raise brand awareness and (2) expand customer base/strengthen customer loyalty. Absent a major new campaign, a delta that is probably not statistically different from zero is understandable.

It's the third that is most interesting, of course. It will be interesting to see if the decline was from a decision to reduce AOL advertising, damaging the brand for possible resale, some of the failed and declining magazines (e.g., Teen People), some of the movies that became tax-loss carryforwards, or a cutback of advertising cable services and offerings.

I cannot imagine it being the latter, and am failing to think of a true TWX bomb. So if I'm holding TWX because I was an AOL shareholder, I'm checking out the annual report carefully.

The Surge: Prayin' for an Effect Other Than the Obvious

by Tom Bozzo

Brad DeLong is rightly driven to shrillness by the suggestion that the Iraq escalation (a/k/a "surge") of the magnitude the decider has apparently decided upon might constitute the "one final attempt" to "avoid" "defeat." (Note: not actually scare quotes; see here.)

In addition to Brad's excellent observation that the escalation wouldn't even approach the force levels suggested by our military's own counterinsurgency guidelines, further evidence for the pony-wishing silliness of Sensible Folks willing to give the surge a chance is that we've already seen variations in troop levels of the magnitude of the Surge in action. See here, for instance:



Apart from the peak force level associated with the initial invasion, we've actually seen "surges" of 20,000-50,000 troops several times over the course of the debacle. Granted, some of that variation could be in the support operations, but over the full range, there'd have to be a 10-20K variation just in combat forces. So it's appropriate to ask what those surges have bought us. For that, see here:



Alas, the horizontal scales don't quite line up, and I don't have the time to extract the data into a pretty picture. But the eyeballed simple regresssion (don't try this at home, people — I'm a perfessional econometrician) pretty clearly suggests that the surges pretty clearly affect the number of attacks on coalition forces while having no discernible effect on the underlying chaos in Iraq. Indeed Gordon Smith (the R-OR Senator, not the UW lawprofblogger) says the plan “exalts hope over experience.” Likewise, Dan Froomkin understands the stylized facts:
A relatively minor increase in troops, a promise of greater cooperation from the Iraqi prime minister, a small infusion of reconstruction money -- not only have we heard all this before, but it doesn't amount to much.

A sophisticated counterargument might be that since we're already at the higher end of the range, there's some nonlinear effect from sustaining one of these local force peaks that can't be predicted from the range of experience over the last 3-4 years. Yet, in what can only be taken as an effort to contain dissent within the Republican ranks (see Sen. Smith, above), and possibly broader political fallout from what is not likely to be a popular decision, Dan Bartlett would have us believe that those soldiers and Marines will just be providing "support" for Iraqi troops who will be "knocking on doors." (Via the NYT, previous link.) We'll apparently get any wonderful effects we get without the troops actually doing anything!

Put it all together and the "surge" is not merely a wish for a pony, it's a wish for a magic winged-Pegasus pony. While one might as well dream big if one must resort to dreaming, dreams are not Plans.

Impeach Bush and Cheney now. And reassign members of the "sensible" hawkish commentariat to the Wal-Mart support jobs for which they are actually qualified.

"Snow Job," the Fungibility of Resources, and the Fantastic Incompetence of the Bush Administration

by Tom Bozzo

Tony Snow was on the teevee news last night, and NPR this morning, with his "guarantee" that world would be less safe were we to leave Iraq and a (worse) power vacuum to form there.

Now, there are times when people argue stuff on the grounds that it's unssaailable "econ 101" logic and you just want to slap them. I'll refer you to Kieran Healy's apotheosis of the point at orgtheory.net — part of part of a discussion (also, see here) that seems to have been unheralded in the econosphere, but which interested parties (hey, Mark!) might bootstrap into wider prominence:
We have all heard – or perhaps been the victim of – aggressive browbeatings about “basic principles of Econ 101” or the “fundamental facts of economics.” The implication of this kind of boundary-maintenance is that credible criticism of economic policy or theory can only come from those with a Ph.D in the field. But internally economics remains quite heterogeneous. When apostates arise within the fold, the temptation is to insist these lost sheep are not really economists after all, or that they have forgotten any economics they once knew.
Having quoted all that, Tony Snow could use some Basic Principles of Econ 101. In this case, the concepts of note are substitution and the closely related fungibility of resources.

There has actually been at least one hack effort I know of to show that the Iraq war was not so expensive relative to the prior containment policy, in contrast to the efforts of Bilmes and tiglitz estimating that we've incurred a couple-trillion dollar bill for the debacle — and with the meter on direct expenditures spinning rapidly, anything short of a prompt withdrawal in 2009 could make the "conservative" estimates look low. Among the freshman errors required to make containment look expensive is to attribute the total cost of U.S. military assets deployed to the middle east to the Iraq containment effort, as if the U.S. had no interests in the region other than Iraq.

Along similar lines, what Snow's "guarantee" says is that if we were to give the Bush administration:
they couldn't do anything that gave us so much as a possibility of improved safety compared to the status quo — all that hard and soft power and they couldn't do anything net-positive for the White House press corps' safety let alone anyone else.

While it might be argued that Snow is simply parroting the fearmongering rhetoric that's the one note of the administration's fading political operatives, it should be clear once Bush gives the finger to nearly the entirety of us this evening that the administration actually has no clue as to how to wield anything other than its nation-wrecking power.

Impeach 'em all. Now.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

If You Can't Beat 'Em...

by Tom Bozzo

My effort to convince the Googleborg that we have no particular association with this image [link no longer functional -ed.] or this image of Anne Hathaway (present post excepted) has been a total failure, even though it applied methods that has successfully rendered Jeremy's blog invisible to search engines at various times. (*) Actually, it seems to have been effective at preventing searches that might validly lead here, while doing nothing about the Hathaway issue. Go figure. While it's been surprisingly dispiriting to watch the Site Meter spin up to a thousand visits a day, at least it's had the external benefit that I no longer pay much attention to the Site Meter.

In any event, I confess my powerlessness to exert a sufficiently targeted influence on Google. If you came for Anne Hathaway and stayed for the blog, welcome. If not, see the links above.

In other meta-blogging news, I've cut a couple of presumed-deceased blogs from the blogroll without prejudice and added a few new links. The big news of the 'sphere is the fin du blog of cultural stud and one-time Marginal Utility commenter Michael Bérubé among a wave of retirements. We wish Michael and family well and thank the rest of our blogrollees for not letting "real" "life" get in the way of your blogs.

---------------

(*) Forensic blogologists of the left should note that Jeremy's deep archives provide key documentation of just where everyone's favorite nonpartisan law-prof-blogger went off the deep end.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Find the (former) Meth Lab Near You

by Ken Houghton

Today's trolling through the New York Post website in an attempt to find out about the gasmercaptan(?)* leak produces another, er, benefit (and way of identifying future Superfund sites):

Someone really needs to overlay the DEA National Clandestine Laboratory Register data onto a map.

Meanwhile, this is a treasure trove of correlation-is-not-causation data, not to mention its possible entrepreneurial uses.

Three meth labs in all of NJ, four in all of CT. And those are the two states with the highest per capita income levels in the U.S. (Wisconsin is not so limited, but none listed in Madison proper.)


*butyl mercaptan is, of course, what skunks give off to protect themselves, so there is always the possibly that there has been a massive invasion of Invisible Skunks.

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