December 2009

Via Gelman. I’m a fan of Plotkin’s interactive fiction, though I haven’t dabbled in that for quite a while. The language being taught in his tutorial is Lisp/Scheme. In college I had taken a course using a functional language (OCaml), but I still found it annoying. Be more like Java! Gelman also linked to a Ruby tutorial, which is nice since I had been thinking about learning it.

Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber (surprised?) defends their perception of some historical events, he just thinks they were good things! At around the same time, Christian conservative Ryan Mauro was upset that the upcoming CPAC will be sponsored by the John Birch Society. As I’ve said before, I’m sympathetic to the JBS and think the political right could have benefited from more of their skepticism of the government. A little (hell, a lot!) of paranoia is a healthy thing. I don’t think the top levels of government were literally communist agents, but as Robert Conquest said in his Third Law, “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies”. Most people don’t take Davies or Mauros’ step of explaining why the JBS was bad, it’s assumed to be so and used to tar people by association. We currently see this occurring with the denunciation of “progressives” like Jane Hamsher for concluding that the Tea Partiers are right about the awfulness of the health care bill. Nobody actually defends the bill, they just attack the Tea Partiers and then critics-from-the-left by association. Like the antifederalists, such critics get no respect because Americans love a winner.

On to something completely different: I’ve just started reading Gene Healy’s “The Cult of the Presidency”, and liking it though I’m annoyed by his use of the term “unitary executive” (strictly speaking it says nothing about what actual powers are possessed, just how they are distributed). Healy does cite Cass Sunstein and note that more literal view of the term, but he proceeds to use that phrase as well as “unitarian” anyway. Perhaps “Article II supremacists”, “imperial executive” or “unbounded executive” might be better terms for Yoo and company. Near the end of the first chapter Healy notes that Woodrow Wilson was a fan of Thomas Carlyle and inspired by his view of heroic “great men”. Sheesh, with Wilson, Hugo Chavez & Hitler, Carlyle must be one of the most harmful inspirations of all time!

A while back I wrote a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of Mencius Moldbug as Straussian proponent of Islam. Independently, some other reactionary reading Mencius hit on the same thing. JC in a recent thread here highlighted IVoIIIoVI’s post Escaping the Decadence of Monotheism: Neo-Muhammadism and the Cuckoo Strategy, which I decided was worth putting on the front-page here.

On an unrelated note, in the post JC commented on I speculated on a possible return of the PAE blog. That wasn’t actually the blog I was originally thinking of when I decided to create that post, but when the time came to put virtual pen to virtual paper I forgot about Mixing Memory. I miss that site and hope the author didn’t die or something. He’d usually be the one to highlight this sort of thing.

With a denunciation of internet people, he abandoned us all to DOOMDOOMDOOM over a year ago. But like a dog returning to vomit (I forget where I heard that phrase, but I like it) he has resurfaced after getting banned from some weirdo’s forum. Like Stefan Molyneux’s outcasts he decided the best revenge was starting up his own forum wherein to discuss how everybody sucks. I was never that big a fan, but I thought I’d give those who were a heads up. In unrelated news, Dain reports that The Art of the Possible is now archived at a new bare-bones wordpress site. Coming on the heels of the returns of Fourth Checkraise and Fafblog, could a Post-Austrian Economics revival be far behind? No Treason of course will live on only at the Internet Archive because John T. Kennedy is so lazy.

I first started thinking about it when the subject was brought up at Occluded Sun. Then Eugene Volokh brought up the larger subject of worst Christmas songs, regardless of depressive intent. One of the commenters there links to a list of the 10 most depressing Christmas songs.

On a somewhat related note, a little while back I stuck up for unhappiness in music (and art generally) against 80s-dance fan agnostic. I should have cited TV Tropes: True Art Is Angsty. I last gave the finger to happiness here.

That’s the title of a fairly recent lecture by Steven Berlin Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, a techno-optimist book that argued that while the content of popular culture is debatably getting dumber, its delivery system is not (the technical and mental proficiency required to grasp the enjoyment of pop culture is becoming more demanding).

He critiques the idea that the information age is creating an endless array of political echo chambers, each sealed off from the other with little prospect for cross-ideological dialogue. He also tackles the idea that politicians are more polarized than ever before. Partisan, yes, but not polarized. Reminiscent of the arguments of some over at the “libertarian Marxist” Sp!ked, that citizens of western countries today face a “crisis of legitimacy,” Johnson believes that the range of political debate is actually quite slim. Instead, we see increasingly shrill disagreement over minor differences in policy. (Bryan Caplan makes a similar point here.) This is encouraged by ever more particularized forms of media, from Rachel Maddow to Bill O’Reilly.

As for the internet, the idea that it is uniquely threatening to cross-cutting political dialogue is bogus. Unlike the newspapers and magazines of yore – he uses the example of National Review in 1985 – internet text utilizes hyperlinks. And common resources such as Wikipedia, used by nearly everyone with an inquiring mind and a journalistic impulse, are flush with opportunities to stumble upon some new bit of information (much of it politically neutral on the surface but inadvertently political – think agricultural science in 1960s China). In the Q&A Johnson admits that this creates only the potential for discussion and dialogue among partisans where in did not exist before. He is not certain if this is actually taking place.  

There is some inconclusive evidence on the topic of the balkanization of bloggers provided by Eszter Hargittai, Jason Gallo and Mathew Kane in their paper for the journal Public Choice, “Cross Ideological Discussions Among Conservative and Liberal Bloggers.” They find, in the ten month period in which they analyzed the level of cross- communication among top bloggers, no decrease or increase in the rate of hyperlinking. It’s been present since day one, but has not waxed or waned in frequency. (Ten months is a short time frame, admittedly.) At minimum this shows that the mere option of using a hyperlink, something not available to National Review (or Dissent) in 1985, is actually being exploited, which means the authors are viewing the thought processes and empirical claims of their counterparts in a fashion unavailable previously. But a study wasn’t necessary to show this.

Even if the more substantive act of discussion is absent, at the very least there is exposure where it could not have existed before. This alone would seem to bolster Johnson’s argument about the uniquely non-echo chamber status of today’s political discourse as compared to times past .

My previous inclination, which I still hold, was to grant that people are more visibly politically and ideologically segmented than ever, but that this only reflects the diversity of perspectives that had always existed. But I had also assumed that little cross-cutting discussion was taking place and that it was going to get worse (but not terrible, because the world apart from politics is better at bridging social divides – or making them irrelevant). I’m not so sure now.

I liked this comment from Andrew Gelman:

there’s a tension between (a) wanting to believe that people who disagree with us aren’t so smart or successful and (b) wanting to believe that our opponents are successful because of external factors such as wealth, social status, and rhetorical ability. Liberals as well as conservatives can be torn, I think, between (a) thinking of their political opponents as pitiful losers, and (b) resenting the other side for having all sorts of unearned advantages.

It reminded me of an earlier discussion regarding Tomislav Sunic, who offended some Nordicists when he suggested Mediteraneans are closer to the ideal male type. As I noted, everyone seems to think they themselves represent the happy medium, even an “extremist” like Lawrence Auster. I’ll add this also applies to libertarians who view themselves as borrowing a little from the left and a little from the right. Those radicals who thoroughly reject the left & right for what they see as their own orthogonal position are of course going to prize ideological purity & independence. As Charles Murray noted regarding who wants to be an elephant, sometimes groups agree on traits they ascribe to each other but apply different connotations. Yuri Slezkine writes that of Mercurians and Apollonians in “The Jewish Century”. A caution for accepting as true such areas of overlap, the same phenomena was observed with the Rattlers & Eagles in the Robber’s Cave experiment.

Unrelated to those posts but related to an earlier discussion on the decline of SNL, Fabio Rojas at orgtheory wonders how such a crappy show survived so long and declares it fits in the “garbage can model” of organization. I have to say, I missed out on the golden era of Mad TV he refers to, it was always the inferior imitation when I watched and I hadn’t even realized it was gone.

Unrelated even to that, Adam Ozimek finds evidence supporting the revealed preference camp over the behavioral economics crowd on high interest loans. I’ve always been a big fan of revealed preference (foot-vote anyone?), so kudos to him. If he ever reports evidence against it I will virulently denounce him.

In the print version of Reason magazine John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is quoted:

If you ask the ordinary person what the purpose of a business is, they’ll say, “Well, it’s to make money.” Which is kind of a strange answer. Most entrepreneurs I’ve known were pursuing some type of dream, some type of passion.

I suspect his sample is biased, big time, to represent nth generation educated Americans who chose the self-employment route for its intrinsic qualities.

Can anyone point to some sources on the sociology of entrepreneurship?

A recent discussion of IQ at this blog caused me to upwardly evaluate my estimation of my own. Viewing the chart at Assessment Psychology Online caused me to be dissatisfied with the job I was in. The programming language was abysmal, created in the 70s and only expected to last a couple years yet trudging on due to the caverns of legacy code too bothersome to replace with a worthwhile language. I was told by a manager that after five years of working there I would probably be unable to get a job anywhere else. Thinking on it for a while, the idea of dealing with that for the rest of my career seemed like a life sentence given as punishment for who-knows-what. By nature I am fond of routines and averse to change, so even if I posted this and the unanimous response was “GET OUT NOW” I might not have done anything in the near term, particularly with the economy having seen better days. Fortunately my employer made the decision for me by giving me the boot. Hopefully Anonymous has previously suggested that years from now a group of OB readers go for an econ phd at GMU under Robin Hanson, and while I don’t think I’ll do that anyone is invited to throw out crazy suggestions. One I’ve been thinking of is the Air Force, since my younger brother is in its ROTC program and seems to like it, they use lots of computers, it’s probably the safest of the military branches and the government is one of the few entities hiring counter-cyclically. It would probably hurt my cred among internet anarchists & the broader antiwar crowd, but I’ve never claimed to be principled. Hopefully it’d be through Officer Candidate School rather than as an enlisted airmen.

In the meantime, by popular request (coldequations asked for it) I have redone all the GSS analyses in the Being a Republican is not a better way to nail chicks post. I was planning on doing that before I started writing this post, so I treated it as an exception to my decision to refrain from blog-activity before doing some things on the looking-for-a-job front. It wasn’t a very effective commitment since I found ways to procrastinate by arguing about nationalism/patriotism & the civil rights movement at Wilkinson’s, the effectiveness of brutality in counter-insurgency at Larison’s, and HBD & economics at bloggingheads.

The recommended cutbacks in mammograms for women under 50 on the part of the US Preventative Task Force has attracted criticism from lefty George Lakoff and libertarian Keith Halderman. The latter thinks it lends credence to the “death panel” charge, whereas the former thinks the true death panels are located in insurance companies. In either case, Lakoff laments the application of cost-benefit analysis, something officially not considered by the USPTF, though Lakoff is suspicious:

 “Cost-benefit analysis” has been reframed as “risk-benefit analysis,” as if the Preventive Task Force were not concerned with “cost” to insurance companies and tax-payers, but rather with “risk” to women. But “risk-benefit analysis” is just cost-benefit analysis, which in turn is what corporations use to maximize profit in the short term. Both cost-benefit analysis and the Preventive Task Force were introduced as government institutions by the Reagan administration. They were right-wing moves – part of the strategy to privatize government.

(Is it typical to see the introduction of government institutions, and even a concern with cost-benefit analysis itself, as a “strategy to privatize government”? I hadn’t thought so.)

I don’t see why risk-benefit analysis can’t be conceptually differentiated from cost-benefit analysis. They both involve tradeoffs, but only one monetary concerns.

Halderman supports Lakoff’s contention and asserts that, by a process of deduction, the only motivation spurring the USPTF’s decision must be a concern with cost-benefit:

The members of the team claim that cost did not enter their deliberations but as Lakoff points out the different reasons put forth are spurious. Besides expense what other motive could explain a policy that would result in so many extra fatalities?

But are they spurious? And is the loaded question Halderman asks unfair? Helen Searls at Sp!ked says no and yes, respectively. Lakoff suggests that the downsides to screening, such as false positives, exposure to radiation, and the general unease and anxiety that comes with getting a mammogram, is nothing compared to the lives supposedly saved by the procedure. Referencing an op-ed in the NY times, he writes:

Aronowitz also claims that the figures show that mammograms haven’t helped prevent breast cancer. He observes that the rate of 28 breast cancer deaths per 100,000 people has not changed substantially since the 50’s, despite more mammography and better treatments. But that could mean, and probably does mean, that there has been an increase in breast cancer offset by earlier detection and better treatment, saving tens of thousands of lives, but not affecting the overall rate. But he did not consider the possibility that the occurrence of breast cancer might have increased, while the rate of deaths did not change because of earlier detection due to mammograms.

But according to Searls this is erroneous. Overseas, where screening before 50 is not common, death rates are no higher:

The World Health Organization does not recommend screening mammograms for women in their forties and many developed countries do not offer routine mammograms to younger women. In Britain, for example, women do not undergo regular screening mammograms until they’re in their fifties, and even then they are screened only once every three years.

But perhaps Aronowitz didn’t compare the US system to those in Europe and elsewhere, in which case Lakoff’s point, not privy to international data, stands.

Searls suggests that the USPTF is honest in their claim that cost was not considered, and that the new recommendation is being used by Republicans to bash Obama’s health initiatives, but doesn’t make the bolder case that a cost-benefit analysis might actually make sense.