Thursday, December 6, 2007

Of course you'd say that; you have the brainpan of a stagecoach tilter

Dr. Daniel Amen flogs neuroimaging for presidential candidates in the LAT.

Amen's no stranger to dubious endorsements of neuroimaging techniques - he's made a name for himself selling SPECT scans as a diagnostic tool for everything under the sun.

Amen's proposal is little more than phrenology updated for the 21st century. Indeed, the core scientific truth from which they both extrapolate is the same - that certain aspect of mental function are localized to certain areas of the brain. And they both go wrong in by attributing way more significance to the extent to which size or blood flow respectively serves as a predictor of function. Functional imaging (which uses radiotracers to measure the blood flow in different areas of the brain) is a useful research tool, since it reveals what areas of the brain are active at a given time and may someday find its way into clinical use (SPECT, for example, may be useful for diagnosing Alzheimer's, but it has its limitations. Functional neuroimaging does a good job of revealing what low-level neurological activity is going on (ex recognizing faces, language processing, feelings of disgust) at a given time, but complex behaviors generally cannot be reduced to a distinguishable pattern of activation and while differences in activation can be observed between populations with clear psychological or neurological differences (ex the lack of emotional reaction to freightened faces by psychopaths, the impaired language processing of sufferers of the various forms of aphasia), it has not been demonstrated to be a reliable tool for classifying compared to behavioral observation. Amen wants us to believe that despite this, neuroimaging of presidential candidates could be used to measure personality traits relevant to their performance in office. If you believe that, I have a diagnostic brain scan to sell you...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I never knew that the index of my macroeconomics book was a goldbug...

Kevin Drum on Ron Paul:

In addition, he's fond of referring to paper currency as "fiat money" — a term pregnant with conspiratorial meaning among goldbugs

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Economic Mythmaking: Tax Cuts and Income

Matt Yglesias approvingly posts Jason Furman's testimony before the Ways and Means Committee.

While Furman's testimony deals with a variety of critiques of the Bush administration tax cuts (some of which I agree with), one of the most dramatic claims he makes is that if the tax cuts were offset by reduced spending, the bottom 4 quintiles of the population would actually experience a reduction in income. This is a rhetorically powerful claim and is likely to become commonly cited in critiques of tax cuts. It also happens to be based on some very unrealistic assumptions which dramatically increase the negative income effects projected.

Table 3 from Furman's testimony (a copy of Matt Yglesias's copy I have posted here) details his projections broken down by quintile and separates out the top 1%. The change in income is determined by 3 factors - the Static Tax Cut consisting of direct reduction in taxes from the cuts, the Income Change, representing the expected change in income based on higher economic output due to lowered taxes, and a Finance Cost, dealing with the cost of offsetting the revenue reduction. And in this final factor (the sole source of negative income effects) lies the flaw in Furman's analysis.

Furman arrives at this number by assuming that every dollar cut from spending is a dollar reduced from someone's income received as a result of a transfer. Not only does this ignore the distinction between consumption and transfers that is made in the Treasury Department's analyses (as Furman admits in footnote 13) , it would require that all of the spending cut come from transfers (and none from obvious non-transfer items like military spending, administrative spending, foreign aid, etc) and that the transfers in question would have no overhead costs.

A more realistic assumption regarding how much the spending cut reduces transfers neutralizes Furman's claim. If transfers were reduced by 40% of the total spending cut (as would happen if half the cut were from transfers and the transfers had a 20% overhead on average - a far more realistic assumption than Furman's and still very charitable to his case, given the composition of the federal budget and the political difficulties of cutting transfers), every quartile except the bottom one experiences an increase in after tax income, including reduced transfers. This fits with the intuitive expectation that spending cuts that included transfers would free up more income for most people but would reduce the incomes of people at the bottom of the income distribution who utilize "safety net" programs and pay relatively little in taxes. This contrasts sharply with the narrative Furman and Yglesias are promoting, where the majority experiences a net income loss as a result of tax cuts offset by spending cuts.

The irony of this all is that Yglesias uses Furman's testimony as part of a series of posts haranguing conservatives willingness to use shoddy economic analysis to reach ideologically simpatico conclusions when buying into the myth that we are on the right side of the maximum of the Laffer Curve (more on how that particular illusion is constructed later).

Monday, July 9, 2007

Or a good weekend of binge drinking

3 IQ points, that is. The statistically significant, but not quite practically, significant difference in the IQs between eldest Norwegian men and their siblings. Jake Young says so what here.

To put this into perspective, the traditional standard deviation of IQ is 15 points. In the standard deviation for height in inches in the USA for 19 year olds, is about 5 inches. So, 3 IQ points can be compared to to one inch of height for American 19 year olds.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Yeah, fuck judicial review

So exactly why do we put up with this? If the Supreme Court is not going to enunciate, generation after generation, a basic set of rights, what good is it? If it doesn't represent a place where the little guy can get justice, then what good is it? We hardly need another institution where individual freedom is trampled on. We certainly need no reinforcement for the power of vested interest. And we don't need an overseer of limited capacity and overwrought opinions to tell expert agencies, much less overburdened legislatures, what to do.

Opines Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman.

Almost everything about the Supreme Court's traditions, not to mention its actions, seems increasingly anachronistic. Why do they wear robes? Who else wears such garments? Why don't they all feel the need to talk -- surely Justice Thomas doesn't think he's helping America by his silence, and the others don't help matters by making such an enormous deal out of their weirdly coded speaking. Why are they so obscure and often arrogant in their language? Is this what they were trained to do, or have they expanded on this trait only after getting lifetime appointments?

The punchline is, and I shit you not when I blockquote this from his bio

Reed Hundt graduated from Yale College and Yale Law School, practiced law for 18 years

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Libertarians for Bloomberg '08 - "Remember who he isn't."

Discussing this interview of Ralph Nader, Matt Yglesias says:

From a Reason magazine perspective, it seems to me that a Bloomberg Administration is likely to be substantially more libertarian than either a Democratic or a Republican one would be. Bloomberg, however, is specifically identified with a brand of trivial nanny-stating -- indoor smoking ban, trans fat ban -- that seems to be to aggravate libertarians in a manner that's out of proportion to the actual significance of the policy issues.

In defense of the Bloomberg haters, he is "specifically identified" with trivial nanny-stating because it's the main thing he's known for on the national stage and he does tend to take it too far, even by the standards of many people who don't mind a little gov't meddling. Libertarians aren't reflexively rejecting any candidate who engages in a little nanny statism - Bill Richardson is a smoking ban supporter (not to mention a cock-fight ban supporter), but they're not exactly calling for his blood.

On the other hand, I don't think I'd be risking my libertarian cred too much to say that Bloomberg may accomplish the small feat of being the most libertarian-friendly presidential candidate coming out of New York this election.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

"With input and ideas from our users..."

Google's public policy team has a blog. Mosey on over and vent your semi-informed opinions on net neutrality!