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!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Cut and Run

First Iraq, and now an in-depth debate about interpretations of Richard Rorty But given the facts on the ground it's probably the best decision in both cases.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

And now a significantly less snarky post about Prof DeLong's Plan

The plan is here if you haven't seen it. Aside from disagreements over how much health paternalism the government sound engage in to keep down costs (Brad favors A LOT), the funding scheme also raises some issues.

First off, 20% of your income can be a lot of money depending on your situation. This doesn't matter that much for people who do have insurance who will recoup most of the cost of their previous insurance plans. However, this will be a major drain on the liquidity of those who don't currently have insurance who will have to fork over 20% of their current income up front. Three quarters of this (15% of total) goes into a HSA, but for someone who is unlikely to need much non-emergency care (young males) or will be mostly covered by the free preventative care (young females), this money is effectively tied up until the next tax rebate.

For most people who have insurance, it will be a step down in coverage. This may actually drive savings by making costs more transparent to the consumers, but on the other hand, it means that there will still be an unsatisfied demand for insurance due to risk adversity (15% of most people's income is a lot for them), so unless it is outlawed, the demand for some private insurance will still be out there. I'd also like to point out that insurance companies are probably more efficient drivers of cost suppression than individuals, since assessing medical necessity requires specialized knowledge and they both have a financial incentive.

Finally, health care spending, the distribution of which is neatly displayed in Figure 1 here is dominated by the top quintile, which accounts for 80% of spending. Accounting for a mere 3.4% of costs, the bottom 50% would mostly be using just the preventative care and will have a bunch of money pointlessly locked up in an HSA. On the other hand, the top 5%, where 49.2% of the costs lie, will tend to be well past the maximum out of pocket. The area where the least cost-effective interventions lie is also where government rationing is going to be the dominant factor, which you may take in whatever direction your presumably strong preexisting opinion of the efficiency of government health care rationing guides you. This is also unlikely to be covered by the 5% of income allocated for both it and the free preventative care (aside: Free preventative care isn't that expensive and probably isn't a horrible idea if you're going single payer. Of course, insurance companies tend to cover it well too, so there's nothing special about single payer here either.), so we'd be on the hook for some general budget tax increases on top of the 5-20% extra on income.

Friday, June 8, 2007

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a barefoot doctor examining your prostate--for ever.

The first two prongs of Brad DeLong's health care plan (a 20% tax on income to fund the thing, a tax rebate if expenses are less than 15%; the rest covered and is funded by the extra money from the program, or the general budget, or unicorns) don't make any less sense than most other funding methods for single player plans. On the other hand, I'm having a hard time describing the third prong without getting Godwin's law thrown at me...

Sin Taxes: on Tobacco, Gorgonzola, Three-Liter Bottles of Liquid High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Tanning Clinics (Melanoma), et cetera: Sin taxes (and, perhaps, someday general revenues) pay for an army of barefoot doctors and nurses and mobile treatment vans roaming the country and knocking on doors: Let me examine your prostate. Mind if I check your refrigerator and tell you how to eat healthier? Have you exercised today? I'm a Pilates instructor, and we could do a session now? Are you up on your immunizations? Anybody here have a fever and need antibiotics? Come on out to the van and I'll clean your teeth." The idea is to make the preventive care cheaper-than-free, to insure that nothing with a high long-run benefit/cost ratio gets left undone because people would rather get a bigger check the next April to use to buy an HDTV.

I know!

'Smith!' screamed the shrewish voice from the telescreen. '6079 Smith W.! Yes, you! Bend lower, please! You can do better than that. You're not trying. Lower, please! That's better, comrade. Now stand at ease, the whole squad, and watch me.'

The fourth prong is a relatively inoffensive increase in public health research funding.

h/t MR.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Republican Debate Replay Remarks

-I feel sorry for Tommy Thompson. I don't think he's very bad as Republicans go and no worse than the top tier candidates, but he absolutely dies in these debates. The majority of his time was spent clarifying which Thompson he is, and he's the one that's declared.

-Tancredo is at least realistic about Iraq. Still unrealistic about immigration though.

-Sen. Brownback wants to work with labor unions in Iran. I'd make a crack about Republicans supporting labor unions, but I don't really care for labor unions any more than I do Republicans.

-Romney has awesome hair. I don't think he should be president, but if he loses, he may want to look into playing a president on TV.

-Ron Paul is becoming increasingly effective at presidential politics. Chances remain negligible that he'll win the nomination, but he's getting better at presenting his ideas in a way that is attractive to non-libertarian disaffected Republicans.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A great idea should live forever. Copyrights, on the other hand...

Mark Helprin makes the pitch for permanent copyrights in the NYT. His case primarily rests on arguing that not only are copyrights a form of property, but that "No good case exists for the inequality of real and intellectual property", consequently, an indefinite copyright should be viewed as real property arising from the act of creating the work just as much as the physical products of any process.

The first obstacle Helprin's interpretation runs into is that the language of the constitution tends to indicate that copyright is a subsidy which congress is granted the power to use "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries" rather than a property right which congress is authorized to tax by limiting its duration. While lavishing praise on the founders for deciding to include copyright at all, Helprin never really makes a good argument why we should radically change the legal status of copyrights.

He raises the point that intellectual property production now accounts for the larger fraction of labor usage than when the constitution was written, but never demonstrates why this matters on any other level than a perpetual copyright would be good for the producers of copyrighted material, which is no more persuasive than arguing that a steel tariff is a good idea because it will be good for the steel industry.

He tries to dismiss Jefferson's objection to copyright on the grounds that ideas are immaterial on the grounds that copyrighted material isn't ideas. This example doesn't really make anything clearer.

Mozart and Neil Diamond may have begun with the same idea, but that a work of art is more than an idea is confirmed by the difference between the “Soave sia il vento” and “Kentucky Woman.”

The argument that art and idea are different things doesn't really help either, since copyright is commonly understood as not only covering a particular work (which itself is a piece of real property independent of any copyright), but also a range of reproductions and derivative works.

Of course, it does not follow when Helprin endorses the 1998 extensions based on arguments about a version of copyright that is entirely different than the actual law.

Besides failing to make much of an argument that "the right of property is natural and becoming" when it comes to copyright, Helprin also doesn't bother to address some predictable arguements that copyright is distinct from real property. He's silent on the requirement for copyright to be enforced by restricting the usage of the real property of others and how the usage of the real property of others in violation of the copyright does not do anything that would be considered harm to the real property of the copyright holder.

While, it's easy to dismiss Helprin on the grounds that as a potential author "the great American novel (again?)" (parenthetical Helprin's) of he has a vested interest in the matter, it's even easier to dismiss Helprin on the grounds that any op-ed piece containing the claim that Neil Diamond and Mozart are all about the same ideas is unlikely to make sense on any other matter, so I'm going to go with that.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The more I think about Mitt Romney, the more I think he will be the John Kerry of 2008. Despite being assailed as a flip-flopper and lacking strong convictions on hot button issues, Romney will win the GOP nomination due to various parts of the Republican base disliking McCain and Giuliani more than him. He will lose the general election.
So in other words, the Pew Internet & American Life Project is calling me a geek.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Friday WTF?!: Homosexual incest is My Anti-Drug

I honestly have no idea exactly what this PSA was going for. Apparently somebody in the employ of MTV Canada has decided that the best way to scare Canadian stoners straight was to point out that marijuana makes you want to make out with your brother, or that making out with your brother is a better idea than driving while you're high, or that pot makes you gay, or that getting high on pot is nothing compared to the buzz you get from breaking deep-seated social taboos. Or maybe the guy in the back is just hallucinating and the point of the ad is that it's going to be really awkward when he tries to explain why he was talking about them making out with each other when he was high and that its why you shouldn't smoke pot. Your guess is as good as mine.

(Via Julian Sanchez)
Daniel Davies likes Budweiser. So does Matt Yglesias.

I've never really cared for Bud, but perhaps it may be time for a critical reapprasal of the King of Beers.

Davies provides an extensive defense of Budweiser's authenticity and points out that Budweiser does indeed have a different chemicial composition than urine. And both take their swings at microbrews. But one topic remains unaddressed - what Budweiser actually tastes like, and I don't meant the crude metaphors about piss.

It had been a while since I had drank Budweiser, so I stopped on the way home from work to pick up a 6-pack (cans) of it to refresh my memory and see if Bud has been unjustly maligned.

Observations and underinformed opinions:

-Works well with cans. Most beers I'd rather drink out of a bottle, including many in the same price range as Bud (ex Labatts, the various Miller beers), but Bud tastes better out of a can.

-Finely filtered. This isn't unique to Bud or either good or bad in and of itself; it affects the mouth-feel, contributing to the crispness of the beer.

-Mildly hopped, but you knew that.

-Tastes somewhat bland, although it's crisp when cold, but also kind of sweet, which I don't like, and the sweetness persists in the aftertaste. I though it would taste better if it were more acidic, so I added a bit of lemon juice to it, which improved the flavor by offsetting the sweetness. Groundless speculation: This may be related to why the aluminum can works well, since aluminum is a Lewis acid.


Bud isn't horrible, but it is bland and the sweet aftertaste isn't very appealling. It's certainly drinkable, but beyond its alcohol content, there really isn't much of a reason to drink it. The combination of mild flavor and light body makes the beer unobjectionable, but minimizes the taste. The scorning of Bud may have taken on a social significance beyond what the flaws of the beer itself merit, but it simply isn't very good beer.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Eugene Volokh has a great piece on why the slippery slope matters with regards to the Second amendment.
"I think we're dying," he said in the 5-minute tape, obtained under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

"We made brownies and I think we're dead, I really do," [Cpl.]Sanchez [of the Dearborn Police Department]continued.

He told the dispatcher he had never made marijuana brownies before, but had previously used marijuana.

Then, he asked the score of the Red Wings game on television that night, explaining, "I just want to make sure this isn't some type of, like, hallucination that I'm having."

The Freep has the story, including charming local commentary and audio from the 911 call. Via The Agitator.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Apparently, Barack Obama really likes corporate welfare (WP).

Jonah at The Frontal Cortex justly gives the senator grief over his blatant pandering to big corn and big hybrid-driving yuppie (the most dangerous yuppie of all). And to Obama's credit, he doesn't cave to the subsidy-craving coal producers of his home state.

However, I part ways with Jonah in his description of Obama's speech as "tough talk to Detroit". Obama just offered to pay off 10% of GM's outstanding healthcare liabilities for their retirement plans. If this is "tough talk", I have a car loan that could use a stern lecture from Sen. Obama. Of course money from the government always comes with strings attached, but the requirement that auto companies merely spend half that amount on manufacturing equipment to make cars, be they fuel efficient or not, isn't exactly stringent.

On top of this, it would just encourage other companies to follow in the automaker's footsteps and fail to adequately plan for providing the benefits they have promised their retirees with the expectation that a government bailout will be provided if they come up short.

I've actually found Sen. Obama to be preferable to most of the presidential field, but this isn't helping is case. It's bad enough that most of the candidates aren't interested in removing ADM from the government teat, but a willingness to add GM to it differentiates Obama in an unflatering way.
Early in 1930, American newspapers in the south and midwest began to report on a strange new paralytic illness that eventually had affected some 20,000 people. This first major epidemic was soon linked to the consumption of Jamaica ginger commonly referred to as "jake" by those using the fluid extract as an alcohol substitute during the prohibition years.

A tale of toxic prohbition, adulterated cooking oil, the blues, organophosphates, and America united in a willingness to drink just about anything as long as it gets you wasted. More at MOTD.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

200 down, ??? more to go.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Debbie Schlussel is an even worse person than you though.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

MOTD points out a less-than accurate description of the preservative TBHQ in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (as posted at Jims Empire).

While MOTD deftly points out (contrary Pollan)that a butane group does not lighter fluid make, his calculations on the TBHQ content of the typical nugget miss the mark. Unfortunately, as commenter rehana points out, MOTD's estimate of 312.5 nuggets to reach the 1 gram level at which TBHQ causes "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." (as Pollan quotes from A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives), is based on 0.02% of the total nugget weight, while the FDA regulation applies to the oil in the nugget, and thus somewhat low.

Fortunately, McDonald's provides us with the total fat content of an order of nuggets (49 g in a 20 piece), which serves us well as a more precise upper bound for the oil content of a nugget. If all the fat in the nugget were to be oil (obviously not true, since there actually is some chicken in there), the FDA maximum content of TBHQ per nugget would be 0.0049 g per nugget, necessitating the consumption of 2040.82 nuggets to reach the threshold Pollan describes.

Of course, at 15.3% fat by weight, there are reasons other than preservatives that make it wise to consume these chunks of over-processed tastiness in moderation.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Commenter MP raises an interesting question "then why the gun fetish? are kids more likely to be killed by gun accidents, or criminals?"

It turns out Matt Yglesias (as roughly represented by the cohort of white males dying in the District of Columbia 18 to 34 years old between 1999 and 2003) has an equal probability of dying of unintentional injuries (presumably including not only gun accidents but car accidents) and homicide (thanks CDC) - 18.2 in 100,000.

So, while I am strongly against the arming of suburban children, someone in Matt Y's situation may indeed have a pragmatic interest in exercising their 2nd amendment rights.