Battlepanda: April 2005


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Battlepanda's Haiku Movie Review

If you want to see

Landlady kicking some butt

Kung-fu Hustle rules

Framing in action

Oh, if only this were a real CNN transcript.
WOODRUFF: Senator, now that the president has laid out his plan, or more of his plan on Social Security, isn't it incumbent on the Democrats to do more than just say no to everything?

SCHUMER: Well, so far the President seems to be endangering the retirement stability that so many American families have come to rely on. We can’t support the current policy proposals from the president because we want to preserve this important resource for families.

WOODRUFF: But isn’t that like just saying no and not coming up with an alternative?

SCHUMER: Judy, you have to understand, American families are being squeezed all the time by the Republicans, in education, in health care, and now in retirement security. We want to make sure families have the resources to confront the challenges of the future. And that is why we take this position, because we are the party of family resources.

WOODRUFF: He said I'm willing to listen to good ideas from either party. The American people look at this and they see the Democrats not even willing to come halfway. Not even willing to engage in a conversation. Why couldn't that come back to hurt the Democrats?

SCHUMER: What, defending the resources American families need to succeed? I think the American people know better then that, Judy. [Sub-text: How stupid are you Judy?
This hypothetical dialog (from The Jewish Blog) really drove home the importance of framing in today's TV-based politics. Notice how bizarro-world Schmer is able to bring the topic back to something good about the Democratic party whatever Woodruff is actually asking. It's a way of being on the offensive while you're on the defensive. Instead, the real-world Schmer is reduced to twisting in the wind.

Now we're calling them "It's mine! All mine!" accounts

I just love the bogus way Social Security Privatization is being sold. Just because it's your money does not mean you can eat your cake and have it. You can either guarentee payments until you die by buying an annualty when you retire OR you can leave a nest egg to your kids if you die early. You can't do both.

Now Bush is saying that you can risk your retirement in the stock market or you can keep it safe by buying treasury bonds. "Backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government." Seriously, if I were in the press pool in his dumbass press conference a few days ago, I would have asked him what steps he would take to ensure that those precious t-bonds would not be kept in file cabinets.
But the real dirty little secret is clawback. It goes without saying that if you divert part of your SS contributions to private accounts, your benefits from the non-privatized part of your contributions should fall. But how is that decrease calculated? By taking your private contributions, compounding it annually by 3% plus the rate of inflation, and taking THAT off the top of your total SS contributions before calculating your benefits. At least, that is if I understand Brad DeLong correctly. He ran the numbers and found that if you listen to the president of the United States in the matter and diverted your SS contributions to t-bonds, you would be guarenteed to come out behind.

Follow George W. Bush's advice, divert $1,000 into your private account, invest it in TIPS, and at the 1.85% per year interest rate you will indeed by able to collect an extra amount worth $10.11 a month in today's dollars when you retire at 65...

But the clawback would reduce your normal Social Security benefit by $14.16 a month. You're $4.05 a month behind.

Why does George Bush hate risk-averse Americans?

Don Boudreaux thinks Social Security is making us Soft

Don Boudreaux looks at this NYT article reporting that Americans are financially ignorant and atrocious investors and posits that we are so because Social Security cossets us from the consequences of not being fiscally responsible. Now, y'all know that I'm a fan of Social Security. But given the dismal savings rates of Americans, we have to at least contemplate the possibility that Americans are unwisely turning their safety nets into hammocks.

The first strike against this argument is that surviving on SS isn't really much of a hammock. The incentive is still there for people to improve their lots by saving and investing wisely, but we're not. Take away SS entirely and the incentive to save and invest will certainly increase by a large degree, but the trade off is a sizable proportion of the population will fail to do this and fall into penury.

Now this tradeoff might just be worth it if it turns the average American into a regular Warren Buffett. But is this a realistic expectation? If I recall correctly, they have generous social safety nets in Europe, yet this safety net has not hurt their savings rate. Also, Americans fail to make rational financial decisions when it comes to other aspects of our financial life, like credit card debts. Those facts suggest that there are probably ingrained cultural and sociological reasons for our lack of fiscal responsibility that will not respond simply to the withdrawal of Social Security.

Boudreaux raises another charge, one that I hear often from libertarians -- If we think Americans are too irresponsible to take care of themselves, how can we trust them to elect governments that will be wise enough to take care of them? I don't think this argument gets anywhere beyond rhetorical point-scoring. After all, it's not as if Boudreaux have a good, valid alternative to democracy. We empower the government to make decision in many facets of our lives based on the outcomes politicians promise. It's doesn't always work so well in practise, but it's not somehow logically inconsistant. I know how to hire a plumber to fix my dripping faucet, even though I have no idea how to do it myself.

Friday Schnauzer Blogging...[better late than ever edition]

Well, technically it's not friday anymore. But I can't make you guys go a whole week without your fix of Dodo.
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Yes. Dodo is a lazy little dog. Yes she is.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Not the only Battlepanda around

After being hectored incessently by my sister, I finally downloaded AIM so we can chat online. Of course I chose 'battlepanda' as my screen name, only to find that it was not available! I foolishly prided myself on having thought up an original and interesting handle, yet somebody else came up with the same idea. Drat!

The good answers are never easy

If there is one thing I learnt over the flurry of posts and comment threads over the past few days about morality, it is that moral absolutism and moral relativism are not the only options, but a couple of obvious but sad choices among a whole smorgasbord of ethical systems. Like the sorry roast languishing under a heat lamp that we always reach for first at a buffet before realizing that there are tastier choices among the spread.

Now, I doubt Jeanne from Body and Soul and I see eye-to-eye at all about the metaphysical nature of morality. Yet there is something that resonated with me powerfully in her post about Ratzinger's activities with the Nazis. So many Hollywood movies about the holocaust make sure they include a "good" German guy the audience can identify with. Maybe we like to flatter ourselves by imagining that if we lived under Nazi Germany we would be the Oscar Shindlers. But brute statistics are against us. Even if we don't develope full-blown evil like the Goebbles or the Eichmanns, we'll probably end up a complacent enabler like the Ratzingers.

What to do about this realization? Surely, we can't condemn Ratzinger for his actions if we admit that we are ourselves likely to succumb in the same way he did. And yet, in a way, aren't we letting ourselves off the hook too easily along with Ratzinger if we fail to recognize the terrible moral wrong inherent in standing by while evil takes place just because many people are capable of doing this? I think Jeanne said it best: "I can't condemn sins I'm not capable of and turn around and say that the ones I am capable of don't really matter."

And what kind of hypocrisy is it for Ratzinger to shove his stark, black and white version of absolute morality down the throats of the faithfull while granting himself forgiveness through the defacto relativism of extenuating circumstances? Like Jeanne, I'm not saying that he's a bad man because he joined Hitler's Youth. But I am saying that he's awfully comfortable about casting the first stone for one who has experienced first hand how we all have the inherent capacity to commit good and evil.

Mark Kleiman on Obesity

I found the following points especially interesting. Even something that is as personal as our bodies are vulnerable to circumstances outside of our control.
7. Walking and bicycling burn more calories than driving. Land use and transportation patterns that discourage walking and bicycling thereby contribute to obesity.
8. The food industries, and especially the convenience-restaurant and snack-food sectors, relentlessly market bad eating habits to children. It seems unlikely that their mult-billion-dollar efforts have no impact on actual behavior.

9. It's likely, though not certain, that we could design and implement a combination of policy changes -- regulations, taxes, and services -- that would reduce obesity at acceptable costs in money and intrusion into private choice.
We're a nation of individualists, and most of the time there's nothing wrong with that. But there are problems such as obesity that ails us as a nation, and will probably continue to ail us until we look at the underlying causes on a group level. The problem is, it's a very tough sell. I don't think there is much we can do about 7. as the suburbs and strip-malls paradigm is so well entrenched. As for the food industries, I don't see how we can legislate cheeseburgers away.

I think the most palatable legislations will focus on the children. It's true that Americans don't like being told what they should and shouldn't do. But we recognize that children are too young to make sound eating decisions and are uniquely vulnerable to advertising. Another possible angle of attack is to focus on the health-care costs of obesity on us all -- we all pay into medicare and medicaid after all. The more we can encourage Americans to see obesity as a group problem instead of an individual failing, the more we can convince them to accept regulations put in place to reverse that problem.

How many lives does Ahmed Chalabi have?

(Via the Werewolf)

Ahmed Chalabi Takes Over Iraqi Oil Ministry

Wha??? [cue eye-rubbing double-take, Jon Stewart style.]

This is like appointing Ken Lay to take over the Department of Energy. Except Ken Lay would be more qualified than Chalabi, whose expertise seems to be sucking up to the Bushies while spying for Iran and periodically leading the NYT to embarrass themselves horribly by printing yet another bogus W.M.D. story on their front page.

Honestly, he's like that really inept guy from The Apprentice who somehow survived week after week despite wiping out on every challenge. And even he got his comuppence yesterday. When is Chalabi going to get his? If we really cared about our national security, shouldn't he be in an orange jumpsuit somewhere off the coast of Cuba?

Battlepanda's Elevator Manifesto for Democrats

Well, I see I’m a little late to the party as usual. But since the Democrats needs all the help with framing they can get, here’s the Battlepanda’s Elevator Manifesto for Democrats:

1) We’re for giving Americans the tools to succeed.
We cannot be the Mommy party, holding back the American people from their true potential because we are overprotective and afraid they would skin their knees. Americans want to play hard, not play nice. Instead, we have to cast ourselves as America’s coach. Like any good coach, we’re cheering for our players to give it 100%. But we also make sure that they’re not going on the field without their protective gear, and that any injured players are taken care of so that they can play another day. This is how we should sell our social programs -- nationalized healthcare, unemployment benefits, keeping social security the way it is, and increased spending on education.

2) We are against the consolidation of economic opportunity
We need to attack the Republicans for being the party of big business as relentlessly as they attack us for being the party of big government. And in the end we will win because big business is probably just about the only thing Americans fear more than big government.

To continue the lame sports analogy, we’re not just America’s coach. We’re the ref as well. Prosperity through free-market competition is the game. And it’s up to us to point out that the Republicans simply have too many shady ties to be considered fair arbitrators. They are in the pockets of big pharma, big oil, even big weather. We should call them the Enron party every chance we get.

This is also how we’re going to sell the estate tax. Instead of ‘reassuring’ the average American that he’s never going to get rich enough to worry about the estate tax, we should frame estate tax abolishment as a giveaway for rich brats who are hogging all the money! If we don’t level the intergenerational playing field, how are we ever going to get ours?

3) We will restore America’s independence…
George W. Bush might talk a tough talk about freedom and rugged individualism, but the truth is America is more pathologically dependent on (gasp!) other countries than ever.

First, we have the energy dependency, which Bush is totally in denial about. Drilling in ANWR? That’s like a junkie desperately groping under the sofa cushions in the vain hope of scrounging up enough quarters to buy another hit. Democrats need to hammer the fact that Bush’s inaction on reducing our dependence on oil means handing control to America’s energy supply over to basketcase states in the Middle East.

We are also completely dependent on other countries (like China) for credit. If they ever cut us off, we’d be plunged into a recession. The fact that Uncle Sam has to go a begging hat-in-hand to the central banks of the world should really highlight how embarrassing our enormous deficit has become.

4) …And protect what’s precious – our rights, values and our homeland
There is no other state in the world where the idea of individual rights is so sacred as the United States. No need to mince words – the Patriot act is simply un-American. You know what else we cherish in America? Our values. Values that are being trampled on every time we ship a prisoner to be tortured in Syria, or do the job ourselves in places like Abu Ghraib. Then you have Gitmo, which is a double-whammy of rights violations plus inhumane conditions with a thick sprinkling of hypocrisy on top. Republicans want to minimize their culpribility by making this an ‘us versus them’ issue. Democrats should make it very clear that when we’re outraged about those things, we’re not siding with foreigners against Americans – what we’re doing is fighting for the American soul. We need to remind people that what really makes us American is not our power or our riches, but our rights and our values.

As for protecting the homeland, lets push this thought experiment: Your home was robbed. As an American, how do you respond? Do you charge into the bad neighborhood where you think the robber came from, and start picking fights? Or do you hunker down on your porch in your ol’ rocking chair, cradling your loaded Winchester in your lap? The latter? But of course. It’s the American way.

Democrats need to remember that this foreign adventures business is quite antithetical to the American temperament. We are supposed to be the shining ‘citte on the hill’, to lead by example, not by meddling. The only reason Bush was able to drum up support was to paint his wars as moral crusades – the only kind of wars Americans will support. So, in order to attack this war, we need to destroy Bush’s underlying rationalizations for it rather than criticize its execution. Instead of complaining that we’re overextended, Democrats have a better chance of thundering righteously that we never should have been there in the first place. "Thunder" is the operative word here. Not whimper. Not whine.

* * *
To borrow a metaphor from Seymour Lipset, the way we conceptualize the Democratic party and the Republican party as polar opposites is incorrect. They are more like competing department stores, selling the same kind of goods and vying for the same customers. This is why we cannot let Republicans have a monopoly on the American Dream. Not only can we not sell something else, we have to sell it better to win.

UPDATE: Edited for dumbass mistakes.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

A metaphor for morality [updated]

UPDATE: Boy. Of all the posts to get gobbled up in the middle, it had to happen to this one. I tried to reconstruct it as best as I could. Sorry to all for the confusion. Everything before the asterixes belong to the lost original post. Everything after is related additional musings. Also, since there is new material, I changed the timestamp so that this post is on top.

Well, we certainly had some very spirited discussions over the nature of morality. In fact, I think I just had more philosophical discussions over a couple of days on the blogisphere than I did in four years at Amherst College. And for that we can all pat ourselves on the back.

Moving forwards, it seems like our arguments always turn to semantics. Some commenters are splitters while others are lumpers. We can never exactly agree on what terms to have the conversation. So let's leave all the terminology behind and...

Imagine life as a rough and roiling ocean. No individual have a chance for survival, so we band together and construct ships that helps us weather the storms. Some of the ships survive, while others are dashed on the shoals. Through trial and error, and ultimately insight, each group of humans managed to construct vessels that are seaworthy. Some became convinced that their vessels are simply the best. And that to prevent further shipwrecks all ships should be constructed after their model. I think we'd all admit that those folks are pretty foolish. They are closing themselves off to innovation, and leaving themselves vulnerable to changing conditions.

Then there are the folks with the humility to admit that their ship is not necessarily the best that can ever be built. They are constantly trying to improve their ships. Yet they still believe that there must be an absolute best way to do everything, because if you don't believe in that there exists a ideal, how the heck can you work on trying to achieve it? So even though they openly acknowledge that they have no hope of reaching that state of perfection, they maintain it must exist. The ideal ship, though elusive, functions as a shining light that motivates their improvements.

Last of all are people like me. We don't believe our ship is the best that can possibly be built. We don't even believe that there is such a thing as the perfect ship. Each new ship built is a refinement of the ship that has gone before it, so if we started with different kinds of ships, we're going to end up with different kinds of ships even if everybody's sea-worthiness is gradually improving. Over time, it might be that ships from different groups start displaying a lot of similarity as separate minds hit upon the same concepts of sails or rudders. And we are certainly not shy about stealing good ideas from others. If we see somebody try to build a ship out of marshmallows, we have no problems with pointing out to them that marshmallow are not a good thing to build ships out of, even if we openly acknowledge that there is not one material that is objectively best for building ships.

* * *

Yeah, yeah. This metaphor is way cheezy. But it's my blog, right?

To me, being a moral relativist is a lot about humility. A lot about acknowledging that morality is a organic human response to our environment, not something abstract and rarified and holy and independent of us. I also see relativism as a more complete viewpoint than objectivism/absolutism, because instead of conceptualizing morality as being universal, and therefore limited to a set of issues that are broadly agreed upon (genocide is bad, raping and pillaging is bad, torturing babies is bad...), accepting moral relativism allows morality to encompass much more. For instance, Velleman puts everything that is not universal under the heading of 'cultural norms' rather than morality. To me, that just leave so much out of the realm of morality as to be totally ineffectual. For instance, I do not presume that there is an absolute sexual morality. I can concieve of effective and moral human societies based on polygamy, polyandry, complete celibacy, bonobo-like free-for-all and whatever other combination you can think of. Yet I also think it is an mistake to think of being faithful to one's spouse purely as a cultural norm issue with no moral dimension. It becomes an all or nothing game.

To give another more concrete example. I've noticed that people in this country tend to make a decision at some point -- either they decide that killing animal for meat is always wrong, and become vegetarians (with a tendency to be very sanctimonious toward meat-eaters) or they decide that meat-eating is obviously not a moral issue, and therefore shut their eyes to all sort of suffering going on in our factory farms, and will not pay any extra to get their meat free-range. (The ironic thing is, more cruelty probably goes on in the dairy than the beef industry because dairy is a more intensive operation.) I pay the extra for the cage-free eggs and the free-range chicken, but do not pay the extra for the organic milk and the free-range beef. My decision in this matter is moral, economical and personal. I believe that there is not one most objectively moral decision in this matter. Yet to say that it is not a moral decision at all is equally wrong.

What we have now in our society is de-facto moral relativism with absolute morality as a kind of unifying myth. John Emerson articulates this well and rigorously. When society is relatively static and isolated, this kind of absolutism is a useful fiction. When we are in contact with so many cultures and encompass so many subcultures within our own, this useful fiction becomes so many exposed fuses waiting to be lit. Am I isolationist? No. And I don't see how that is a pertinent question since one might just as well be a moral absolutist and isolationist. I am simply trying to call a spade a spade. Interestingly, I have not had much serious opposition to my contention that an absolute morality simply does not exist ontologically speaking. Just arguments positing it is an essential construct without which humanity cannot live. Perhaps I just give humanity more credit by believing that our morals stems from our values, which in term is derived from who we are and what is around us rather than some objective external source. And that despite of this, we will still have enough in common to enable us to live in harmony and progress.

Regressive but Necessary

Of course, the gasoline tax is such a political hot-potato I guess all this talk is moot, but I have to disagree with Ezra over whether the gas tax is a good idea in theory. Ezra says no, because it is regressive (that is, it disproportionally hurts poor people), and that it is especially unfair because gasoline usage is inelastic in the short run.

Everything he says is true, but unfortunately, that is no good reason not to have the gas tax if we can. The thing is, if we keep the cheap gas coming (and it is still cheap by historical standards, despite recent hikes), we will not have any incentive to modify our behavior. But one day, the supply and demand is such that prices will have to spike. We will one day see $5, $10 and beyond.

Now when that spike happens, there is going to be pain. And you know what, that pain is going to be regressive anyhow. And orders of magnitudes greater in intensity.

I don't fear the oil running out or sky-high petroleum prices. I really don't. I'm enough of a free-marketeer that I think we'll respond to the incentives of increased petroleum prices by cars with better milage, alternate fuels and even (in the very long run) less dispersed settlement patterns. What I fear is oil running out or sky-high prices all of a sudden. I think of the gas tax as a way of smoothing out that price curve. The smoother that curve is, the less we'll feel the pain.

As for for the "feebate" which Ezra thinks can supplant the gasoline tax, I think it's nice as an additional incentive. As is Media in Trouble's ingenious idea of supertaxing any fill over 15 gallons (hah, inconvenience the rich folks into buying smaller cars). But larger patterns in how we get around can only be addressed by a direct tax on gasoline. That is to say, better fuel efficiency is nice, but eventually part of solution will inevitably involve actually driving less. The amount of driving we need to do in our daily lives is super-inelastic, which is exactly why the sooner we begin putting serious pressure on gasoline usage, the better.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Let's talk (sensibly) about fat

Ampersand says it right. There is definitely an anti-fat mentality in our society that is irrational, didactic, and potentially dangerous. There is nothing we can do about people's aesthetics. But we must prevent that aesthetic from being conflated with health concerns.

If anything, the attempts to achieve Hollywood thinness backfire and might even result in long-term weight gain since it is well-known that yo-yo dieting messes with both one's metabolism and one's motivations for eating.

Ironically, even as I am writing this, I am on a diet right now. But you see, I'm going back to Taiwan to visit my mother in a few weeks, and I'm on a futile mission to deflect some of the disapproval I'm going to be copping. I think I just might be considered morbidly obese there (here, I'd probably be on the chunky side of normal for my age). Interestly, unlike Americans, Taiwanese women has enormous success with dieting and keeping their weight down for that appealing sparrowlike look. But to what end? It only means that the standards for acceptability shifts further down the scale, and weight loss becomes even more of an obsession for all the girls. Health doesn't enter into the calculus at all. In fact, women are often terrified of building muscle and thus appearing bulky.

Interesting though, I don't hear much about anorexia in Taiwan despite the oppressive culture of dieting. It could be that it's just not paid as much attention. I don't know. But sometime I wonder whether the hyper-individualistic and permissive value system in America and the almost fascistic insistance on thinness collide for spectacularly bad outcomes (more anorexia AND more morbid obesity.) Cooking shows and commercials often feature rail-thin women concocting outrageously rich food, or waxing rhapsodic over chocolate bars. If a woman in a movie is shown being strict about her diet, it's a sure sign that she's a terrible, upright prude. (Yet her sympathetic counterpart, who is shown eating whatever she wants, is just as skinny.) Can we say mexed missages?

Air America Snarks

My boyfriend Gene is a complete Air America junkie, while I prefer the kinder, gentler NPR. But once in a while, they do hit the nail on the head with a gleeful directness on Air America that simply isn't available anywhere else on the media. Like today on the Al Franken show, where they recited a whole doggerel dedicated to the shaky source on Iraq WMDs, 'Curveball'. I wish I could quote the whole thing, but my memory is not that good. But I do remember one good snark.

If the CIA were really so taken in by him, why the hell did they codename him 'Curveball'?

Wacky World Leader Watch: Hugo Chavez

President Chavez of Venezuela just printed one million copies of Don Quixote and gave it away to citizens to celebrate the book's 400th anniversary. This is quite typical for the wackily populist leader. He even has his own TV show every Sunday called Alo Presidente that runs for an average of five hours long. He also thinks that the U.S. is trying to assasinate him.

"If, by the hand of the devil, those perverse plans succeed... forget about Venezuelan oil, Mr Bush, " Mr Chavez said during his weekly TV show

"If you try, you will regret it Comrade Mr Bush.

Hugo Chavez. Definitely a wacky world leader.

UPDATE: Oops. Reading through my post again, it definitely seems anti Chavez. But really I'm not! I think that wacky guy is great. And I also wouldn't be surprised if the CIA is really trying to off him. But still He's wacky.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The importance of clarity

I have always been sanguine about the future of Taiwan despite the fact that the island nation I originally hail from lives in the shadow of China. The assymetrical mexican standoff across the straits otherwise known as the status quo has managed to keep the peace for over half a century. It has gotten to the point where most citizens of Taiwan find it inconcievable that Taiwan might not continue as a de-facto sovereign nation.

Yet the threats from China continues to mount. First came the legistlative manouvers to make the invasion legitimate within China's legal framework. Then came the military buildup. Lien Chan, Taiwan's opposition leader, accepted an invitation to go to Mainland China -- an unprecidented overture. Taiwan's third opposition leader was also invited. But not, it goes without saying, Taiwan's president Chen, who leans pro-independence.

Even while I still refuse to believe that China will be foolhardy enough to actually strike, it is hard not to get that head-on-the-chopping-block feeling as China continues to clear roadblocks to an invasion. One disturbing scenario is an attack by China out of the blue -- to use the element of surprise to overwhelm Taiwan while the U.S. is still dithering over what response to take. We can forestall this scenario somewhat by putting an end to our long-standing policy of ambiguity.

We should make it crystal clear to China that there will be a swift U.S. response to the invasion of Taiwan. Otherwise, they might be tempted to invade quickly with decisive force in the hope of making the invasion a fait accompli before the U.S. acts.

On the other hand, we should be as blunt as possible with the Taiwanese when it comes to setting a high upper limit on the amount of U.S. assistance they can expect, especially if the situation becomes untenable. The defense of Taiwan should fall primarily on the Taiwanese, and I believe many in Taiwan feels too much complacency because they count on U.S. forces to provide the necessary deterrent and protection.

In the end, I have to differ with Elaine. China is not playing Go with Taiwan. It is playing a game of chicken.

Relativism vs. Absolutism

Unfortunately, both the term "moral relativism" and the term "moral absolutism" has picked up their fair share of unfair connotations. But since I am just a simple panda who isn't even quite sure what 'epistemology' means, let just keep to the very basic definition of those two terms in this discussion: Those who believe in an absolute morality are moral absolutists. Those who don't believe in an absolute morality are moral relativists.

My previous post in which I compared moral absolutism to Santa Claus and God has sparked quite a bit of disagreement, and not a few misunderstandings.

According to David from The Debate Link:
Other people [note: That'll be me] have written that any moral standard (situational or no) is necessarily arbitrary and unprovable, no matter how much we may "want" or "need" it. This might or might not be true, but it is irrelevant. We have to live some way, even if living means, as Max Weber put it, committing ourselves to "warring Gods and Demons" without any solace or hope that our choice can be "justified" in the abstract, metaphysical sense of the term.
I might have inadvertantly given the impression that I reject the existance of all morality. Or that my objection to absolute morality is an abstract one with no real-life ramifications. This cannot be any further from my intentions! I think that morality is an essential human construct that allows us to live together, to function as societal units large and small. But like all human constructs, it must necessarily change as human society changes. I don't think you can get any more pragmatic than that.

The Ethical Werewolf posits that I'm not a moral relativist, but an error theorist:
[T]he error theorist also thinks that the property of being morally right is absent from our world, just as the property of being Santa Claus is absent. This is why it's called error theory -- you hold that everyone who makes positive moral claims is in error. Battlepanda is an error theorist about Santa Claus and God, and maybe she should call herself an error theorist about morality as well.
Well, it depends on what we define as morality. I define morality as any system of judging right and wrong that stems from our values. Our values, in turn, are formed by various biological, social and environmental circumstances. I find no contradiction in being a (mostly) moral person with strong values and yet rejecting the thesis that somewhere in the ether there exists the gold standard of morality disconnected from any human society yet applicable to all.

More from the Werewolf:
I just think we have a special way of knowing that pleasure is good and pain is bad, which gets us around problems in moral epistemology that trouble other ethical theories. Were it not for this, I'd be one of the few error theorists in today's philosophy world. As things stand, I'm one of the few Benthamite utilitarians.
I also heard this argument echoed in the comments. This line of thinking posits that our justification for an absolute morality comes from the hard-to-argue-with fact that pleasure is good and pain is bad. This line of reasoning takes you to utilitarianism. Yet I've always thought that utilitarianism is antithetical to most moral absolutists. What gives?

A couple of commenters asked me how I can fail to acknowledge that genocide, slavery, the raping of mothers and the torturing of babies must be universally wrong. Well, you know who has moral absolutism in spades? Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. How about if we drop the point scoring by resorting to emotional appeals and engage with the argument rationally instead? For the record, if anybody starts any mother-raping or baby-torturing, I will be outraged with the best of them. I don't need to check that my values are sturdily absolute before I act.

Q: What does Santa Claus, God and Moral Absolutism have in common?

A: Just because we want them to exist doesn't mean that they do.

Man, it seems like I am destined to have this conversation at least once every couple of months, ever since I finally decided there ain't no such thing as God, all those years ago. Being precocious in this aspect at least, my peers were quite appalled. How can I find meaning in life without God, they asked. Isn't it a terrible thing to believe that when we die we cease to exist. Then what is the point of being alive in the first place? They raised a lot of good reasons why we need God, but they did not convinced me that a divine, omnipotent being can be willed into existence just because it would be convenient to have him provide us with a raison d'etre and a cushy place to go to when we kick the ol' bucket.

Now I have gotten to the point where none of my friends really question my atheism anymore. Yet I find myself still having the same old conversation...this time about the existence of absolute morality. Matt Yglesias et al delves deep into the moral relativism arguments, introducing complex nomenclature and musings on the nature of reality, eventually coming up with the conclusion that even though a morality might be ultimately unknowable, it simply must exist and that moral relativism is untenable as a position. Velleman even goes as far as to deny that very many moral relativist exist. Well, if you're reading this, you're looking at one, fella.

Now, I don't know whether those guys believe in God or not, but from their writings it seems like their worldview is fairly secular. So it's interesting that they cling to the idea of an absolute set of values (however nebulous and undefined) even though they reject an absolute authority (God) who can impose such a value system on us. Don't try and pass off bromides such as "life is precious" and "be kind to one another" as universal truths, because they can be interpreted in a hundred different ways and we all follow and break those dictums every day depending on our culture and values. As for Velleman's contention that we can break our beliefs down into morals (really important stuff. Not allowed to be relative) and cultural norms (relativize ahead), that just adds yet another layer of arbitrariness into an already arbitrary argument. Where does he draw the line between morals and norms? I suppose it is yet another distinct, inviolable difference that is absolute yet conveniently unknowable.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Everything I need to know, I learnt from baseball

Actually, I lie. That was just an attention-grabbing headline meant to get you looking. Actually, when you think about the hours I squander watching/listening to baseball, the insights I derived from the exercise is remarkably scant. To wit...

1) If you're really good at what you do, you can chew tabacco, spit the juice all over the place and scratch your crotch in front of millions of people whenever you like.

2) Don't chase those high fastballs!

And um, that was about it until yesterday, when I had a minor epiphany as I watched the Red Sox play the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Now, those two teams have this vendetta going where their pitchers are just bopping hitters with wild pitches all over the place. Now, getting hit with a Major League fastball is no laughing matter. People have been put into comas by wild pitches hitting them in the head. So naturally, pitchers are generally very careful, even if it means diminishing their ability to pitch to the inside. Yet in just this three-game series, 4 Devil Rays and 3 Red Sox were hit by pitches, and this is not counting some very hairy near-misses, including one that almost struck David Ortiz in the head yesterday. Benches were emptied as players stormed the mound and formed that weird melee that baseball players do when they rumble. Players and managers were ejected. How the heck did a long-running and dangerous embarrassment like this get started? Which bring us to the real title of this post...

Pitcher's Dilemma

Now, we all know about how the Prisoner's Dilemma goes. If you only have one interaction in which mutual co-operation produces the best overall outcome but betraying your fellow prisoner reduces your sentence, the logical thing to do will always be to sell out your fellow prisoner. Now in Pitcher's Dilemma, we are talking about Major League Baseball pitchers, starting from a condition of continual and beneficial mutual co-operation. I work hard not to hit your pitchers, and you in return try not to hit mine. Yet as we shall see, this co-operation is a delicate truce, capable of being broken even if everybody is initially acting on good faith.

1) Every interaction is a potential fuse
Every pitcher making the effort not to hit a pitcher gives up a certain amount of effectiveness because he cannot pitch as close to the hitter as he would like. Yet even if the pitcher is trying his best to clear the hitter, once in a while, a hitter will get hit because the pitcher's control is not perfect.

2) The rules only gets you so far
Yes, there is a penalty for hitting the pitcher. But it is a small (a walk to first base) and unlikely to affect the ultimate outcome of the game. It is enough to keep a pitcher who is already careful even more on his toes, but once the mutual trust is broken, the small penalty is not enough to stop the pitchers from the temptation of pitching aggressively on the inside.

Upping the penalty is not really an option because nobody is able to say for certain whether a hitter is hit with a pitch because of a bad luck or because the pitcher pitched too far to the inside. If the umpire is convinced that a pitcher has been too careless, he might eject the pitcher from the game. But that is the nuclear option, so to speak.

3) At this point, rationality will no longer save us
Once the trust is broken, it is no longer logical to be the first to revert to good behavior. After all, the outcome of every game is fiercely contested and affect the team's overall standing. If you have reason to believe that the other team has been gaining an unfair advantage by not respecting the hitter's personal space, why should you go out of your way to protect their hitters?
"If they are going to hit our batters, we're certainly going to do the same thing," Piniella said. "In that case the ball might have gotten away from (Carter). Look, we walked nine batters. It wasn't like we had impeccable control.
4) Human nature dictates escalation
Even as a Red Sox fan, it has become obvious to me that pitchers on both sides have crossed the line from merely ignoring the welfare of the hitter in the pursuit of a perfect pitch to actively hitting the hitters on purpose to send a message: don't mess with us, or we'll mess with you. Note the identical rhetoric of righteous defense coming from both teams:
"We're a family in here," said Millar [Red Sox], who was hit twice in three days by Tampa Bay pitchers. "You protect your family. It's been going on for a hundred years."

"We're not going to be intimidated whether you are a championship ballclub or not. I don't know what their intentions were and I'm not going to put words in anybody's mouth. I know we are going to protect our hitters." -- Pinella [Devil Ray]
"Protecting our hitters" -- sounds like a code word for letting the other side have it. Or else storming the mound en masse and making an ass of yourselves. And when both sides indulge, what we have here is blind escalation. A perfect little ridiculous greek tragedy writ small. At least until somebody gets seriously hurt again.

Choice and happiness redux

So, Mark Steckbeck is not content with my latest response to our conversations about Barry Schwartz, a psychologist whose work seem to suggest that more choice does not necessarily make people happier. Reading through my last post, I have to agree it was a pretty empty exercise in rhetorical point-scoring. So now, as promised, let's get down to the heart of the matter.

First of all, I don' think we can get anywhere unless we separate Schwartz's work from his politics. Mark probably disagree with Schwartz, as well as myself, about the role of government in our lives, but he still have to come to terms with Schwartz's conclusions because they are based on empirical evidence. Schwartz did not write an op-ed column musing about how the free-market isn't the answer and that more choice must make people unhappy. He went out there and conducted experiments and analyzed data. Mark might be unhappy that Schwartz does not acknowledge the positive side of the free-market. And although I might ask back why so few freemarket cheerleaders acknowledge the market's downside, it's all really irrelevant. An irratioal hatred of markets might be a personal blind-spot for Schwartz, I don't know. But it should not affect how we view his work unless Mark thinks Schwartz's personal bias affected the methodology or tainted the outcome of those experiments.

Secondly, (Mark and commenter Russ) have repeatedly argued that the ramifications of Schwartz's conclusion (that more choices does not necessarily make us happier) would inevitably be the paternalistic, if not totalitarian, limiting of those choices by the powers-that-be. I wonder if they will also oppose psychological studies showing that more money doesn't make people happier, on the ground that it would inevitably lead to our money forcibly taken away from us. In fact, psychologists study a host of cognitive biases with no easy answers. I belive that it is an enormously useful body of work because simply because being aware of our irrational thinking patterns goes a long way towards innoculating us against errors in judgement. Thus Schwartz's ideas could actually increase the efficiency of markets by pointing out its flaws. For instance, people might stop clamoring for more and more cable channels because they realize that after a certain point, more channels simply take the joy out of channel surfing. Then the cable providers will have to compete by providing more quality content or easier navigation. In short, a more meaningful choice.

Now, moving on from Schwartz, let's talk a little more generally about the role of government in limiting the choices we have. The very idea is anathema to Mark. He talks a lot about paternalism and totalitarianism in reference to government interventions. This rhetoric rings false to me, and I suspect it doesn't have the same force with the general public as libertarians in general think it should. After all, we live in a democracy, not a monarchy or a dictatorship. Through our elected representatives, we make sweeping choices that reflect the aggregate of our individual desires. Even when I disagree with the result, I respect this process a lot more than some guy who inherited the throne issuing decrees from on high. Sure, if Mark can show that market solutions work better than governmental solutions for a particular problem or issue, he should shout it from the rooftops. But what he would need to do to get his ideas accepted is to convince enough Americans that the outcomes would be better if we followed his agenda. Not that they should do it simply to be free from government.

OK, OK. He's a hack.

A hackety hacktacular hack.

Giving Greenspan the benefit of the doubt is not a smart thing to do over at Ezra's. But you know what? I followed through on the reading suggested in the smackdown(s), and am duly humbled. Yep. As much as it goes against my nature as a blogger, I have to admit that I was wayyyyy off. Alan Greenspan was not a model Fed chairman untill the Republicans came to power and *poof* out popped the cloven hooves. He was a whore for his own brand of market-worshipping conservative ideology all along. He simply played a dispassionate econ-wonk to convince Clinton that paying down the deficit was more important than social programs. What he omitted to mention was that for him, cutting taxes was more important than paying down the deficit.
[O]n the basis of dubious economics and weak history, he convinced Bill Clinton to give top priority to the elimination of the deficit, as opposed to the public investments in education, health, and infrastructure that Clinton had promised the Democratic faithful in his campaign. In effect, Clinton spent much of his presidency shortchanging the Democratic Party's constituency so he could pay down the debts run up by his two Republican predecessors. As a result, George Bush II is the lucky recipient of a massive fiscal surplus, which he fully intends to use for military spending and tax cuts to promote the interests of the Republicans' higher-income clientele.


...[Greenspan's] underlying motive was to restrain federal domestic spending, rather than contain impending inflation. Greenspan is, after all, an ideological conservative, an early acolyte of the social Darwinist novelist Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan's choice for Fed chair. Greenspan was also from Wall Street and has been trained to view the stock market as the fundamental measure of the country's economic health.
I guess he sure fooled me. It's the suit, and that face so full of wrinkled hauteur. Unlike Clinton, I had the benefit of hindsight. So, really had no excuse for buying into the "it's like Alan G was the Butch Cassidy of Economics and Bill Clinton was the Sundance Kid" trophe.

Sunday, April 24, 2005


For whatever deluded reason, I'm pretty proud of the post I just wrote as a guest-blogger at Ezra Klein's.

Alan Greenspan: Maestro or hack?

Or prehaps both?

(By the way, we're now returning to our regular programming at Battlepanda. So y'all come back now.)

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Hey...over here.


This weekend I'm posting at Ezra's. Go get your Panda goodness.

-- More on Rick "Man-on-dog" Santorum, the Senate's resident Five Dollar Whore.
-- Why are we making it harder for our AIDS patients to take their medication?
-- American? Paying down their credit card debts? Surely you jest!
-- Elephants never forget

All this, and hopefully more to come later...

Friday, April 22, 2005

Friday Schnauzer Blogging...[The "Am I seeing Triple?" edition]

Image hosted by
Triple the cuteness! Guess which one is Dodo?

Dishonest? Disingenuous? Or are they just five-year-olds?

Ezra Klein just about smacks his forehead in disbelief at this statement by David Boaz (executive VP of Cato) in his Libertarianism: A Primer.
First, we are not as prosperous as we could be. If our economy were growing at the rate it grew from 1943 to 1973, our GDP would be 40 percent larger than it is.
Leaving aside the fact that (as Ezra correctly pointed out) the period in question is not exactly a freemarketeer's dream come true, what with WWII and the GI bill and the Great Society programs and all, there's still something very funny about that statement. It's so curiously simplistic and circular. If only I didn't fall down the stairs, my foot would not be broken. If only every day was payday, I would have a lot more money. In fact, it reminded me of that all-time greatest post on Libertarian, Belle Waring's If Wishes Were Horses, Beggers Would Ride -- A Pony!

By the way, everyone, I will be guest-blogging chez Ezra this weekend, along with Daniel Munz. Should be fun.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Santorum to the rescue

If Senator "man-on-dog" Santorum has his way, soon the National Weather Service will no longer be allowed to offer weather information on the internet free to the public. You see, federal meteorlogist are unfairly subsidized by tax dollars, enabling them to just give away the forecasts as a public good. Hardly sporting considering there are private enterprises like The Weather Channel and Accuweather trying to make a buck here. This "socialized weather" business have gone on for long enough!

(Seriously though. This bill is not just dumb, it's idiotic. In addition of not allowing the public to access the information that they paid for, National Weather Service employees will also no longer be able to give one-on-one interviews with reporters because they have to ensure that every weather service out there sucking off the public's teat for their information flow gets "simultaneous and and equal access".

It's a dark day indeed when the frickin' Weather Channel can get a gimme bill introduced in the senate. What's next? The mighty toothpick lobby pushing through legislation mandating toothpick consumption targets? Federal subsidies for the mohair producers of America? Oh wait.)

Matt Welch on Horowitz

I find Horowitz comically awful because he's hyberbolic, inaccurate, predictable, and off-puttingly obsessed with the many bad choices he made as a young adult. I also firmly believe that Trotskyites rarely change their warped mental and rhetorical habits -- they only switch teams. And bad writers don't magically become good just because they suddenly vote for the same gang you do.
I agree with Matt Welch. I am generally suspicious of road-to-damascus type converts. Especially if they gratuitously milk their previous experience on the other team for all the rhetorical milage that they can get. Heck, I guess I'm wary of ideologues in the first place. But the wild swing of the pendulum just adds an extra dimension of flakiness to it all.

So, if any right-wingers out there who might be reading this: I'm glad you like Horowitz. Go ahead and keep him, and don't feel like you don't have to return the favor by sending any nutsos our way.


I don't have much to say about Pope Wingnut the First. I suspected that the cardinals are going to elect some ultraconservative (my Catholic friend, Quyen, dished the dirt on how Pope John Paul II stacked the college of cardinals way ahead of time) and sure enough, they did. But this side-by-side comparison by Matthew Harwood at Woodshavings is too good not to share with friends.

The Holy See and the evil emperor from Star Wars. Seperated at birth? I report, you decide.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

More economists against economists

This quote from Brad DeLong's review of Richard Parker's new book on John Kenneth Galbraith seems apropos to our recent discussion on how economics is taught (badly) in America:
Late-twentieth-century American economics centers on the use of mathematical models to reach one of two conclusions: that the market is already doing a good job, or that some imperfection is causing "market failure" and correcting or counterbalancing the imperfection will make everything okay.

Thus there are New Classical macroeconomists, who believe that the market works fine and that even depressions are necessary and inevitable; Monetarists, who believe that recessions result from failures in the banking system, which can be corrected by ensuring stable growth of the money supply; and New Keynesians, who are indistinguishable from Monetarists save for their identification of market failures in the labor market or in the investment decisions of firms. In all these cases, it is clear what an economist must do to belong to a particular school: start underneath the lamppost, take a few steps in one direction by describing a market failure, and then start searching for lost keys. New Classicals master the solutions of "dynamic stochastic general-equilibrium representative-agent models." Monetarists analyze the details of the financial system in an effort to define a "neutral monetary policy." New Keynesians trace the implications of subtle differences in labor-and capital-market failures.
That's just what I would have said. But much more succinctly and wittily than I could've said it. Brad DeLong is a national treasure.

Our armies are as deadly as our boots

(Via Elaine)

All she needs now is a black eyepatch.

Your lattes are safe from me. Really.

Mark Steckbeck at the Liberal Order belately realized that he's been the victim of a panda attack. Being the feisty classical liberal that he is, he responded with a lengthy iteration of the same straw-man argument that prompted the panda attack in the first place. My initial objection to his flippant dismissal of Schwartz's work on choice was how: "Any suggestion that the market might not be the be-all-and-end-all is aggressivly marched down the slippery slope to totalitarianism." And lo, my response was duly marched down in turn the slippery slope to totalitarianism.
To believe it socially beneficial to limit the available choices individuals have when purchasing laundry detergent, toothpaste, bed linens, refrigerators or automobiles simply to achieve your (or someone else’s) conception of some perfect market outcome is to simultaneously infer your right to control others’ ability to freely engage in mutually advantageous exchange, exchange that has no direct adverse effect on others. That is not just paternalism; it’s totalitarianism.
Um, Mark. Didn't I say explicitly that: " I'm not out to suggest that we mandate the number of laundry detergent brands or stepping on your rights to purchase a double-skinny soy mocha latte."? You know, in the post you're supposedly responding to?

The heart of conflicts

There has been a lot of wasted pixels over whether China is at fault for allowing the anti-Japanese demonstrations or whether we should blame Japan for never facing up to their bloody past etc. etc. etc. Heck, I did a lot of the pixel-wasting myself. Frankly, except for the enormous moral and economical stakes, it was a big round of you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to. I think Publius got a lot closer to the heart of the matter in one tangential paragraph than I did with whole ranting spluttering posts.
The recent agitation against Japan cannot be separated from the strategic obstacle that Japan potentially poses to China’s oil supply. Granted, the protesters probably aren’t worried about oil, but China’s government has every reason in the world to encourage its citizens to hate Japan. That’s because as China’s needs for oil grow, it’s only a matter of time before they use (or threaten) military force against its neighbors to secure or seize oil supplies and the networks necessary to import them. When it does, some future American president is going to have some difficult decisions to make.
I mean, not to get tinfoil hattish on y'all. But think about the timing, man! The anti-Japanese protests 'broke out' April 9th. Just a few days later, the big row between Japan and China over oil-drilling rights in the East China Sea got started. Unrelated events, or a shot across the bow followed swiftly by a big "fuck you"?

It's good to be zaftig

When I read on Kevin Drum that a new study has come out finding that those who are overweight but not obese are less likely to die than those of normal weight, I was skeptical. Did they control for for age? For the fact that many diseases cause weight loss? Well, it appears that it was a rigorous study that did all that and more. So rejoice, fellow food lovers. Have that crueller. Do take seconds. As long as you are not actually obese, that piece of chocolate is not going to kill you -- quite the opposite.

Lets enjoy ourselves while we can...who knows when the next study is coming out?

Some reactions...

Wow. Who knew that there are so many discontents in economics? There have been some wonderful comments on the state of economics in general and how it's being taught in particular. Kudos, everyone.

Robert identifies with RJ to a spooky extent,
even though he seems to be some kind of economist! Well, actually I think we all know where RJ is coming from to some degree.

The Ethical Werewolf
is even more unforgiving in his analysis of economists.
Being able to "apply logic" -- or more precisely, being able to use sophisticated mathematical techniques -- on top of false simplifying assumptions can be worse than trading your Econ textbooks for whiskey and never thinking about demand curves again. When you confidently apply fancy math to screwed-up empirical assumptions, you come out with full-fledged false beliefs about how the world works. Then you walk zombie-like through the world, using your math-derived cred to impress and terrify people until they embrace your false and destructive beliefs.
I'm worried that economists have a tendency to accept false conclusions derived false premises because the structure of the argument is so mathalicious. This tendency must be overcome. It's the same kind of tendency one sees in lots of other fields (evolutionary psychology, anyone?). Somebody falls in love with a cool mode of argument and suddenly they're applying it in the most dubious places.
Being compared to evolutionary psychology? Ouch! You heard him, folks. Resist that mathalicious temptation, or the Werewolf will come and make a snack out of you!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Ghosts of the past...crimes of the present

Almost exactly thirty years ago, Pol Pot came into power in Cambodia and started a sustained killing rampage that left nearly two million dead. Loung Ung kissed her father goodbye at the age of seven knowing that she would never see him again.

About eleven years ago, genocide broke out in Rwanda. Over a period of three months, eight hundred thousand people were killed, mostly hacked to death by machetes. Captain Mbaye Diagne, an unarmed U.N. observer, defied his orders to stay neutral and do nothing. He managed to ferry about two hundred Tutsies to safety through checkpoints manned by killers in a jeep, five or less at a time. He was ultimately killed at a checkpoint by a mortar.

The government-sponsored genocide in Darfur has now caused about half the death toll of the Rwandan massacres. The only country willing to deploy troops to protect civilians is Rwanda. Meanwhile, we are coming close to bribing the government in Sudan not to kill as many people as they have been doing.

Neither Dismal nor a Science

(Or, how the way we conceptualize the discipline of Economics have hobbled actual education in economics. But that's a slightly less snappy title.)

Those of you who have been reading this blog knows that my friend RJ is a economics skeptic. Especially of macroeconomics, which he regards as little better than astrology -- relevent insofar as it's widely believed, but with bullshit where the underlying concepts should be. I identify with RJ because we went to the same college and took the same intro to Econ class, Econ 11, that left us with the same impression of economics as an unempirical science, blind to its own inherent ideological bent. A misguided attempt to distill human behavior into laughably simple graphs. Consisting entirely of arguments standing on assumptions so broad and unwarrented that the conclusions reached have no meaning. Basically, a pseudo-science so divorced from reality and rife with fudge factors that it should be dismissed out of hand for being intellectually inelegant, if nothing else. And don't think that RJ and I just didn't 'get it'. We both recieved good grades in Econ 11 for very little work, and if nothing else that only added to our contempt for the subject, especially for RJ, who is very mathematically inclined.

I'm assuming that if you've read this far you actually agree with me that RJ is dead wrong and that economics is actually an essential area of study, in addition to being fascinating and rigorous. So let us discuss where the way we teach economics went so wrong and what we can do to make it right. Much thanks to all the commenters on my first post on the subject who came up with much interesting discussion.

1. Economics is not like the other sciences. Acknowledge that.
There is no giant econ lab where we can hold all other variables constant and vary the money supply or tax rate and see what happens. This is very troubling for students whose previous paradigm in studying science has been deeply rooted in the scientific method. By necessity, the study of economics often have to work backwards from real-world occurances, occurances so mired in culture, history and politics that it's often difficult just to deduce what factors are significant. Wasn't there a quote by Keynes to the effect that you don't need to be a great mathematician, historian, philosopher etc. to be an economist, but you need to be a little bit of everything? Why not embrace this need for all kinds of intellectual skills instead of retreating into the kind of defensiveness I hear so much of: "Yuh-huh! We are soooo a science. Like physics. And biology. Just as good. Look, we use graphs and shit."

2. Always think to yourself: Would this sound crazy to the proverbial man-on-the-street?
When it comes to going forward in economic theory, logical inference is often the tool we use instead of experimentation. We make broad stroke assumptions such as "each individual will act to maximize his utility" or "if the price is driven down to zero, demand is infinite" not because we are intellectually lazy, but because making those assumptions allow us to simplify a real-life situation the point where we can apply logic. If x, then y. Never forget that an assumption that might seem basic and uncontroversial to an economist can actually be deeply counterintuitive and frankly absurd to a student. Demand can be infinite? But I only need one bicycle, even if they're giving them away! Profits always driven down to zero? So why does anybody ever bother to sell anything?

Imagine a theoretical physics class in which you are told to memorize the twin paradox and be prepared to regurgitate a schematic drawing of Schroedinger's Cat's without being walked through exactly how those counterintuitive outcomes came about? It's what Econ students are being told to do every day -- to accept what's in front of them at face value and memorize which little square to color in as the consumer surplus. Is it no wonder that students who are intelligent often wind up insulted rather than educated?

3. Separate the normative from the positive
It is notoriously hard to keep one's politics out of one's economics. But it is important to strive to be as objective as possible because when ideology trumps reality, economics becomes as dangerous as a faulty chart of a rocky shoal. It is doubly important that teachers try their best to separate what they think should be from what is because they are going to be introducing economics to students of a variety of political backgrounds.

Even without being a big lefty, I was alienated from the first day of my econ class because it was declared that the argument in economics was over, and the Marxists lost. That apart from a few leftist holdouts like Umass (insert rolling eyeballs) all economic departments across the country agree on this stuff. I know what my profs were trying to do -- cram in the basics of economics in one short semester. No time for the whys and wherefores. But students dislike being force-fed conclusions without hearing the arguments. And we especially dislike the feeling that we're imbibing an ideological stance rather than knowledge. I'm not saying my profs were trying to indoctrinate us. I'm saying that in their attempt to fill our heads with their ideas as expeditiously as possible, they're not working to convince their students of the legitimacy of those ideas beyond saying "trust me on this one."

3a. A corollary: Problem sets are not a good place for editorializing
Look graph 78a on page 234. The government has put a ceiling on the rent of properties in Jenny's town. Is Jenny better off? Do you even need to look at the graph? That would be a bit of a waste of time, wouldn't it, since this is blatently a "government-actions-have-unintended-consequences-that-end up-hurting-the-very-people-they-are-trying-to-help" question.

4. Economics is all around us
The way economics is taught is very compartmentized. You have yer micro and you have yer macro and it can appear that this stuff only applies to firms making widgets and perfect markets which never fail to find equilibrium. Instead, I think economics would be much more compelling if professors really hammer home its most fundamental definition -- the study of the distribution of scarce resources. You pay 28 extra cents for a box of brand-name flakes rather than generic after seeing $500,000 worth of commercials. That's economics. Your parents were able to buy the house they always wanted after interest rates dropped below 6%. That's economics too. This is why I am so psyched about Freakonomics -- it's economics as a tool that cuts away the noise and reveal the fascinating underlying patterns in everyday life rather than the abstract and rarified realm of widgets.

5. "Humans aren't Billiard Balls"*
But sometimes we have to treat them as if they are (see 2.)
Yep. I learnt how to calculate the value of a human life in econ 11. Say if you're not willing to pay $500 for a safety device in your car that will have a 1/10,000 chance of saving your life. Multiply $500 by 10,000 and hey presto, you life as valued by you is worth five million bucks. Nifty? I didn't think so at the time. There is something that is very off-putting about the way economics reduces humanity to numbers, from our motivation, to our values, even our lives. Again, I think the way to get over this aversion is to hammer home the whys and wherefores of economics -- without quantification we cannot see patterns in the aggregate, and without seeing the patterns we cannot use economics to make our lives better. We keep track of the GDP because it's growth tends to mirror increasing prosperity. But we must never lose sight of the fact that we want the GDP to increase because of the human happiness it represents, not as a absolute good in and of itself.

Heck, this post is already too long. So I'll just end with an exhortation to everyone teaching Econ out there. Don't make your goal to churn out a classful of Wall Street Journal readers who can reproduce comparative statics on command. Try and tell your students why economics is important in our lives. Leave widgetland behind as much as you can and bring the concepts into the real world. Teach the models, but acknowledge their deficiencies. Praise the free market, but also show its limitations. Teach the history of economics, how Adam Smith's invisible hand is a reaction to the overbearing government of the day, and how Keynes is in turn a reaction to Smith. Don't forget to note the hubris of the economists who thought they had recessions licked in the 60s. I'll let commenter Colin Danby, fellow ex-econ-skeptic and now turned econ teacher have the last word:
When I teach this stuff now, I try to build in student research projects that help them learn to use real-world data, so that at least I can show them by the end of the class that the world is more transparent. But I'd never talk about "believing in" economics -- it's not a religion, it's a social science and still a rather inadequate one.
*Thanks to commenter JRoth for that vivid mental image

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Speed blogging

Wow. I feel like my social life is always either feast or famine. The same weekend college friends arrived in bulk, I also have a going away party to go to for my boyfriend's Dad. So, Gotta go in a few minutes, and have no time but to put up some links. In no particular order...

-- First, from Bradford Plumer, some interesting musings on the importance of belonging from a psychological viewpoint. "People who are excluded, socially, for whatever reason are far more unwilling to exert any sort of self-control over themselves:"

-- Getting Serious about the dollar? Or merely political sabre rattling to make it look like we're doing something about a festering problem?

Excuse me. Instead of spending the remainder of my precious, precious minutes putting up more links, I think I'll just rant a little about this hypocrisy instead. The U.S. is trying to put pressure on China for pegging the RMB???? That's like the junkie complaining to his dealer that he must stop selling him more crack. Get it through your heads, people. China is our enabler. They've kept buying our treasury bonds (which is to say that they kept lending us money) for their own shortsighted and selfish reasons. But the pathology, the root of the problem, is U.S. fiscal irresponsibility. And the solution to that problem is both a lot more intransigent and closer to home.

Anyhow. Let's just say that the Chinese actually do what we want them to and allowed the dollar to drop like a stone. What happens next? Will Americans magically start buying U.S. made TV sets and toys and lingerie and thus improving the current account imbalance? I hardly think so. We'll just have to pay more for the crap we're buying, or else stop buying altogether. If the correction is strong enough and sudden enough, we just might be saying hello to global recession. The 'hard landing' scenario, if you will.

Anyhow. Gotta go. My life is projected to return to its usual state of anti-social apathetic listlessness. Which means lots of posts! Including the one that's churning along about why our intro to econ classes fail us and how that relates to the funny place that economics inhabit between science, social science, and black magic.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Nordic fetishists prefer blondes

Ew! Ew ew ew ewwwwwww!

The creep in question is a seriously disturbed SOB, and I sincerely hope that the boys at the big house give him a taste of his own medicine, as it were. Still, I have to question the amount of stink thus raised about asian fetishism precipitated by the heinous and pathetic actions of the one individual. More specifically, I am concerned about the conventional wisdom that most men who prefer Asian women over women of other races must do so because Asian women are supposed to be demure and submissive. I simply don't think it's true (about the men, that is). Now, I'm not saying that there aren't any individuals with that pathological mindset, but I suspect that they are relatively few and far between. Far more common, I think, are men who simply prefer Asian women as sexual partners because they are more attracted to Asian women than women of other races. Sounds too simple and tautological? Well, bear with me here...

This is Boris Becker's first wife, Barbara Becker.

He cheated on her when she was 7 months pregnant with their second child with an African-Russian model, Angela Ermakova.

And these are two other girlfriends he had since his divorce.

Now Rod Stewart is known as a ladies' man. Here are just a few of the bevy of belles he has either married or otherwise, um, associated with.

Notice anything? Apart from Penny Lancaster's cleavage? And no, I'm not simply trying to boost my traffic through underhanded means. I'm simply pointing out that these two men, rich celebrities who could get any kind of women they want, chose partners who were eerily similar in appearance again and again. What this suggest to me is that there is some reptilian part of the human brain that locks onto one idea of what the perfect mate is like in a fashion that is resistant to change. We implicitly acknowledge this when we say something like, "he's cute, but he's not my type."

One might have firmly set preferences for dating tall men, or redheads or philosophy majors with perky buttocks without risking censure. Yet when the preference crosses racial lines, it is apt to be labeled as a fetish. A white (or black) guy who have a clear preference for Asian females are likely to be looked upon with suspicion, especially if he has a history of only dating Asian women. Ditto for a white woman who dates black men. Meanwhile, Asian men who lust after blondes have their own hangups. It's almost as if it's considered somehow unnatural for a person to prefer partners of a race that is not their own, therefore it has got to be explained away. The individual who consistantly dates across racial lines is considered aberrant and possibly racist ("he must only like Asian women because he thinks they're all submissive") by everybody else. Yet if we truly live in a post-racial world without anxiety about miscegenation, why the hell should it signify anything if a person prefers to date partners of a particular race?

As a Asian woman who is involved with a white guy, I find myself more oppressed by the "yellow fever" stereotype than I ever was by guys hitting on me because they find Asian women attractive. Sometimes I find myself working the fact that my boyfriend's previous girlfriends were white into conversations because I didn't want people (including many Asians) making assumptions about my relationship with him. Am I being oversensitive? Maybe, maybe not. A friend of mine who was trying to explain why she was addicted to "A Wedding Story" on TLC told me about one particularly entertaining episode where a white man and an Asian woman described their meeting as love at first sight. "And it was sooo obvious," she said, "that he had the biggest Asian fetish." At the time, I laughed heartily. Yet afterwards, I paused, thought, and was sad that we dismissed the possiblity that a white man and an Asian woman can fall in love at first sight without dragging in the tawdry baggage of Asian fetishism.

Why are our Intro to Econ classes failing us?

(Panda regulars might be noticing light blogging this weekend. This is because a whole bunch of my college friends are back in town for an alumni party. It's wonderful. I've forgotten what it was like to have a social life. But anyhow, on with the post.)

One of my friend from college, RJ, is staying with me this weekend. It didn't take long for the curious fact that I have turned into a macroeconomics nerd to come up in conversation. RJ was not impressed. In fact, he coolly let me know that he regards economics as a quackish science, somewhere in between sociology and astrology in respectability. In other words, bullshit. Of course, I couldn't let that pass unchallanged. So we verbally tussled for about twenty minutes, bouncing various arguments and analogies back and forth. If I may say so myself, I think I countered his dismissals reasonably well. Yet by the end of the rather heated conversation, it became clear that there was no way I was going to change his mind. He started averting my gaze. We talked about them Redsox instead.

But this conversation haunted me. How is it possible for a guy like RJ to, for all intents and purposes, not believe in economics? He certainly is intelligent, and more importantly intellectually curious. He was even curious enough about economics at one point to take an intro to Econ class at college. Amherst College, which is among the best schools in this country, if I may say so myself. Yet despite the fact that he's a bright guy ready and willing to learn more about economics in one of the country's elite institutions, the class did not nurture his nascent interest. In fact, this introduction turned him against the whole subject so decisively that his has closed his mind. Yet I really shouldn't have been so surprised, I took the same class and it wasn't so very long ago when I was every bit as skeptical about the science of economics as RJ, if not quite as virulently so.

The ironic thing is, this class, Econ 11, was tailored precisely to function as a freestanding introductions to economics. About a quarter of the students who go to Amherst end up taking it. The faculty knew that for many students, this would be their first and only exposure to economics in an academic setting, and so they strived to cover the fundamentals, to give us all the tools we needed to navigate our way through economic news, and hopefully piqueing our interest enough that we will learn more on our own. How did they fail so spectacularly?

And the larger question is this: Why is economics, the intellectual discipline most closely tied to the prosperity in our society, so ignored and misunderstood? And what are the consequences of this state of being?

(Watch this space for some further rumination on these questions. Where did Econ 11 go wrong? What eventually caused me to change my mind? What can we do right in the future to encourage greater interest and understanding rather than derisiveness and dismissal?)

Friday, April 15, 2005

After all that Jazz about the revolution, it's still the girls against the boys.

Even setting aside the fact that he is referring to an article from, I wonder why Tyler Cowan thinks it's so significant that:
In the study, women said they had a deeper emotional connection with their pets than men did. Nearly all women respondents (99%) reported that they frequently talked to their pets (vs. 95% of men) and an astonishing 93% of women think that their pets communicate with them (vs. 87% of men).
He even titled his post "Pets vs. Men -- pets win" when the story seems to me much more about how both men and women feels an astonishing amount of attachment to their pet animals. I mean, 99% vs 95% might not even be statistically significant, depending on the sample size. Sheesh.

(Yes, yes, I know. It's a frivolous example. But I am really tired of every single study being looked at from the sex difference angle. Or maybe I'm just overly defensive about being absurdly attached to my miniature schnauzer. )

Friday Schnauzer Blogging...[celebrity economist lookalike edition]

Billmon's separated-at-birth lookalike for Tom Delay...uncanny.

In the same vein, does my schnauzer look like...Paul Krugman?

Image hosted by

Or maybe Sigmond Freud. Or that Frank guy from Trading Spaces?

Last time I checked I was labor

I actually lived in England, so I'm a little embarrased that I guessed so wrong on which party I would prefer. I guess I never properly got acquainted with LibDem party platforms because they always seemed so hopelessly out ot the running. Well, thanks to Blair, not quite as much anymore.

Who Should You Vote For?

Who should I vote for?

Your expected outcome:


Your actual outcome:

Labour -3
Conservative -62

Liberal Democrat 70
UK Independence Party -30

Green 3

You should vote: Liberal Democrat

The LibDems take a strong stand against tax cuts and a strong one in favour of public services: they would make long-term residential care for the elderly free across the UK, and scrap university tuition fees. They are in favour of a ban on smoking in public places, but would relax laws on cannabis. They propose to change vehicle taxation to be based on usage rather than ownership.

Take the test at Who Should You Vote For

Dr. Debt

Ian from HeadyGooBalls reads the New England Medical Journal and finds that our brand-new docs are emerging from medical school more mired in debt than ever:
By 2004, the debt had increased to $105,000 for public school graduates and $140,000 for private school grads.

The results are what you might expect. The article explains that 60% of med students come from the top quintile (fifth, I looked it up) of income. As the population becomes more diverse, doctors are becoming more homogenous (see: rich and white). While 1 in 8 Americans are black only 1 in 20 are doctors.
You don't need me to tell you why this is not a good trend.

NOTE: I'm pretty sure Ian meant to say "while 1 in 8 Americans are black, only one in 20 doctors are black" in the last sentence there.


A bunch of old friends I used to go to school with are in town to visit, so we ate out and went to see a student production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Damn, it's been a long time since I've had a social life. Like Kevin, I also share an automatic distrust for attempts to (mis)apply cool-sounding physics to other fields that has got nothing to do with physics, for it is a flakey thing to do. The play was OK though. I guess you get away with things if you're as talented as Stoppard.

Geez. Nobody tries to use organic chemistry to explain the meaning of life. Even though it as much sense if not more than using entropy or the uncertainty principle to do the same.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Edwards says it right.

(Via Yglesias)

Guess who's guest-blogging on Talking Points Memo? John Edwards.

Like a lot of Democrats, I voted for a bankruptcy
reform bill before. I can't say it more simply than
this: I was wrong.

The bill is supposed to crack down on irresponsible
borrowers. That's the right thing to do. The problem
is that this bill imposes big burdens on families who
did everything right but went broke just because they
lost a job or lost their health insurance. And, even
more than the legislation I supported, this bill
doesn't crack down on the real abusers.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. This guy has got class and a genuine connection with people. Not just a pretty face.

Place your bets

The economic "good times" couldn't last forever, or at least that seems to be the consensus over at Calculated Risk. In the span of a few short weeks, we've gone from arguing whether it's going to be a hard landing or a soft landing, to arguing how hard the landing is going to be, to arguing over when the end is going to come.
Here are the picks so far:
Oct 2005 BE
Nov 2005 David Yaseen, Fernando Margueirat
Jan 2006 Yusef Asabiyah, dryfly, Frank, redfish
Feb 2006 Mish
Mar 2006 Colin H, ChasHeath, Alan Greenspend, Movie Guy
Jun 2006 DOR
Aug 2006 Jason Wright
Jul 2008 jl
Nov 2008 Elaine Supkis
March, 2011 Paul
NEVER Larry Kudlow's doppelganger
As for the Battlepanda Pick? April 2006. Just because I can't see things going on like this for much more than a year. And Alan G will be retiring Jan 2006. I'm not his greatest fan, but doubtless he has a stabilizing effect on the market.

Bonus prediction: Housing will go down first, thus sapping consumer confidence. That in turn will cause corporate profits to plunge, spelling the death-knell for our shaky recovery. Is this going to be 'the big one' though? I don't know. I suspect not.

I have a feeling Prof. DeLong is not going to get drawn into this mug's game. He's content to tell us that the long run will probably catch up with us "like a thief in the night." Comforting.
When will that day come? Tomorrow? Next month? Next year? On January 21, 2009? A decade from now?
We macroeconomists who believe in financial market equilibrium have, today, a certain similarity to Millenniarists: our models of when The Day will dawn are not much better than the models of those who base theirs on a rule that transforms HILLLARY RODHAM CLINTONN into the number 666.