Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On Unnecessary Technology

Jimi Heselden, the owner of the company that manufactures the Segway, has died after falling from a cliff while riding one of his machines. Police are still investigating the cause of the accident, but irrespective of whether mechanical failure, driver error, or simple misfortune is to blame, the tragedy illustrates an important point about technology - that the benefits that it brings aren't always worth the attendant risks and other costs. Near as I can tell, all the Segway does is allow people able-bodied people to move at low speeds over somewhat uneven ground while retaining their balance. That's a function easy accomplished by... walking. Heselden didn't need an expensive, complex piece of machinery to enjoy a jaunt along a cliffside walking path on his property - he could have simply gone for a stroll, and it's unlikely he would have gone over the cliff if he had.

This same dynamic plays out countless ways in lower stakes ways in everyday life. In my kitchen, I have a multi-part gadget that, depending on what attachment is being used, can be employed to cut vegetables, grate cheese, slice garlic, and the like. But it takes time to reconfigure it if I want to use it for a different function, the pieces are bulky, and it's a pain in the neck to wash, so it's not as if that versatility saves me any time, space, or effort. And if the cheese grating attachment, say, were to break, it would be more difficult and expensive to obtain a replacement component than merely to buy a new, separate cheese grater. This gadget, no matter its multi-functionality and nifty design, provides me precisely zero additional utility, and I wonder if I wouldn't be much better off with just a kitchen knife and an ordinary grater. Modern life is full of this kind of fundamentally unnecessary technology. Who really needs power windows or doors in a car, for example? It doesn't take much physical effort to turn a hand crank or pop a lock button, and with the old-fashioned option there are no unnecessary wires that can fray or circuits that can short out.

The ultimate goal of technology is to make life easier for ourselves, or to enable us to do things we otherwise couldn't. It should not be to demonstrate our own ingenuity by making things as intricate as possible, or to achieve marginal gains in comfort or convenience at significant risk or cost. Greater complexity is only an advantage if it brings with it greater functionality. If it doesn't, all it means is a greater number of ways in which things can go wrong. The great French aviator, writer, and engineer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said that "a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away". Things like the Segway definitely fall under the heading of things that could safely be taken away.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me

Today, I turn 31. In contrast to last year's epochal "holy crap, I'm entering a new decade!" milestone and the year prior's depressing realization that I had just about used up my twenties, the decade of life that's supposed to be fun and carefree, this one doesn't feel like a big deal. In a weird way, being at the beginning of a decade, rather than the end of one, actually makes me feel younger. It helps that I'm actually looking forward to things like settling down into a permanent career and a more stable living situation at this point, having gotten somewhat bored of the rootlessness and irresponsible pleasure-seeking and self-exploration of youth. Doesn't make feel any less inclined to celebrate or throw myself a party, however.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Won't The Stupid Voters Listen When We Tell Them What They Want?

Apparently mystified by persistent public opposition to his health care law, President Obama is blaming himself, not for signing a bill that started out unpopular and grew more so throughout the process of its passage, but for failing to sell it well enough. Obama continues to argue that the reason people don't like the law is because they aren't aware of all the benefits it will bring them. But as Reason's Peter Suderman points out, there's a simpler and empirically better supported explanation - that the public is aware of the law's benefits, which contrary to what the President thinks the Democrats have talked up to no end, but is also aware of its costs, which the Democrats have rather assiduously avoided discussing, and does not consider the former worth the price of the latter.

I haven't been polled, but I certainly fall into this category. I'm all for ensuring that people with pre-existing conditions can receive subsidized medical treatment for them if they can't afford it themselves, making health care plans more portable between places of employment, and the like. What I'm not for? The massive, cost-spiraling distortion in the health insurance market that forcing insurance companies to issue policies on which they are guaranteed to lose money will create. The higher taxes that will raise the price of new treatments and stunt medical innovation. The almost certain budget busting costs. The giant middle finger to personal freedom and constitutional rights that is the individual mandate. The unsavory backroom dealing that went into drafting the law. And most of all, the vast array of statistical gimmicks, euphemisms, blandishments, and outright lies via which the Democrats have tried to obscure all of this. I don't know how representative I am, but I know why I don't like the law, even though as a young person with a checkered travel history I stand to benefit from it in some ways, and it's not because I don't know what it's in. I'm not sure which is more offensive, the Democrats' arrogance in ramming this law through against the popular will, or their condescension in assuming that people oppose it because they're too stupid to know what's good for them.

It's widely expected that the Democrats will get hammered in the upcoming midterm elections, and very likely lose their governing majority in at least one house of Congress. I suspect that much of that is a result of the fact that the economy continues to sputter. But if health care does prove to be a salient issue in this campaign and hurts the Democrats as it almost certainly will if that's the case, they deserve it. Whatever the merits, or lack therof, of the particular laws they pass, parties that overinterpret their mandate and/or take the electorate for a pliable mass of idiots need to suffer for it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Remember, It's The Government's Money - You're Only Allowed To Borrow Some Of It

The tax collection of the U.K. is proposing a new policy under which all paychecks in the country would go first to the government, and only then be sent on to workers after the appropriate taxes had been levied. As will not come as any surprise to anyone who knows me, I hate this idea with a passion. I don't think it's some kind of first-step-towards-the-gulag power grab, as more histrionic rightists might call it. Britain is a country with a long and thoroughly ingrained democratic tradition, and absent some 1930s style economic apocalypse I doubt very much that totalitarianism will go on the march there. But I do think it's a dangerous and unnecessary expansion of the government's coercive power over economic activity, and betrays a troubling assumption at the heart of modern left-wing ideology - that the concerns of society as a whole trump the rights of the individual.

The potential for conflict between individual interest and the well-being of society as a whole has long been one of the key sources of tension in democratic societies, and while I don't deny that there are certainly cases in which societal interest should be paramount - nobody should be allowed to dump toxic waste in a river at the expense of people downstream, for example - any free society which wishes to remain that way must respect the autonomy, political and economic, of the individual citizen. By and large, people do not go to work because they feel some abstract commitment to do their part for society, they go to work because they have personal financial concerns and desires which working helps them to address. The paying of salaries is fundamentally a private transaction between employers and employees, and the money an employee receives is recompense for his or her labor. It's not the state's business. I'm fine with requiring people to pay taxes, but the idea that the government has any legitimate right to see peoples' paychecks before they themselves do strikes me as deeply pernicious, and not something that should be entertained even in the name of ostensibly worthwhile goals such as greater government efficiency or cracking down on tax evasion. It's not by accident that Locke cited the right to personal property as one of the necessary conditions for free and just government - without a fundamental distinction between what belongs to the state and what does not, there are too many ways in which the government can abuse power and coerce the citizenry. Just ask all those people in China who were displaced from homes their families had inhabited for generations because the government wanted to build a dam or an athletic stadium and hey, family ties or no the land didn't belong to the people living on it anyway. Legitimizing the notion that the government first gets to seize whatever portion of a person's salary is currently deemed necessary, and only then must pass the money on to the person who earned it, erodes that distinction, and that's a bad thing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Pox On Both Their Houses

In the midst of a heated exchange with Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, Reason magazine writer Nick Gillespie makes a very simple but oft-forgotten point - that one needn't have approved of the job George W. Bush did as President to disapprove of the one Barack Obama is doing. Like Gillespie, I happen to think Bush was an awful President, but that that doesn't change the fact that (on fiscal matters at least), Obama has been just as bad if not worse. Among the many things I disliked about Bush was his gross fiscal irresponsibility - not so much the substantial tax cuts or the massive spending hikes per se, but the fact that he pursued both simultaneously and with equal fervor, exploding a Federal deficit situation that had actually improved somewhat late in the Clinton years and leaving what was already going to be a long-term crunch looking likely to be much more painful when it finally hits. I did not vote for Obama because I wanted more of the same. But that's what we're getting, plus one - all of Bush's reckless spending, plus a little more from the long-time Democratic wish list.

The chart Gillespie posts basically tells the whole story - out-of-control Federal spending is a bigger problem than the tax cuts when it comes to the deficit situation. Whether the Democrats decide to continue the cuts or let them lapse makes no difference - we're still screwed, because we are still spending too much money we don't have. It's just a question of degree. To committed members of Team Red or Team Blue, it be convenient to bash the other side with this reality when they hold power and impolitic to mention it when you do, but for people who care more about the future of the country than the fortunes of a particular political party or its associated ideology, it's a big effing problem that needs to be dealt with one way or another. I don't want to hear from the Democrats when they're criticized for deficit spending that Bush did it too - news flash guys, that's why we fucking voted his party out of office. I want somebody, somebody, to stand up and be an adult and tell the voting public what they need to hear - that we're on an unsustainable course, that changing it is probably going to entail both tax hikes and spending cuts, and that people need to get used to that. As is, all I have is a choice of which conglomeration of connected special interests I let into the sty to begin feeding at the government trough. Pointing out that the Democrats are venal, short-sighted, and incompetent does not make one a Republican stooge any more than pointing out that the Republicans under Bush were venal, short-sighted, and incompetent made one a Republican stooge. It's possible for both sides to be wrong.

As an indepedent, I take the fact that partisan hacks from both sides despise me as a sign that I'm on the right track. Government, to the extent that is necessary, should be about solving problems and creating the most favorable possible environment for private enterprise (in business and elsewhere) to flourish. It should not be about handing out publicly financed goodies to your friends like Halloween candy because they helped to get you elected. Too often, that is what it is about, and anger over that fact is why I think anti-incumbent fervor against politicians in both parties is so strong right now.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Poverty On The March

In recession-related bad news of the day, the U.S. poverty rate has hit a fifteen year high, and the overall number of people living in poverty - about 44 million - is the highest it's ever been, at least since the Census began collecting poverty data in 1959. I suspect that political partisans on both sides will, after agreeing that this unfortunate milestone is in fact a result of the recession, make pinning the blame on the other side their first priority. Democrats will reiterate their long-standing assertion that it was Bush-era policies that led to the recession, conservatives will argue that Obama's supposed remedies haven't prevented it from getting worse - and neither will really consider the probable reality that if it is even reasonable to blame this situation on our politicians, both parties deserve some of it.

I don't have much patience or sympathy for liberal rants about greedy Wall Street speculators and the like. More than anything else, the crash was the result of a credit market that due to a combination of regulatory fiat and monetary mismanagement put cash on loan into the hands of a lot of people that weren't in a position to pay it back. Even if the government had regulated Wall Street out of building their junk pyramid of credit default swaps and other dodgy financial instruments atop it, there was still a mountain of bad debt accumulating at the center of the economy. At worst, greedy bankers merely found a way to take that crap and make a profit by recycling it into a slightly different form of crap, one in which the eau de impenetrable financial jargon made the odor slightly less offensive. They made a bad problem worse, but they did not create it. As for the Democratic agenda, well - with a painful debt-induced fiscal crisis pretty clearly on the way, I don't think shoveling massive amounts of money out the door to be spent on ill-conceived pork projects in the name of economic stimulus or enacting a massive and massively flawed new entitlement like Obamacare were the best ideas. Billions of dollars later the stimulus has not stimulated - the economy is actually worse off now than the Obama administration claimed it would have been had nothing been done - and Obamacare has already gone up in price before even taking effect.

However, I don't find the Republican claims that the way things were prior to the government tampering of TARP, the stimulus, etc. was reflective of the natural order of the free market, and that Barack Obama is some kind of uniquely pernicious socialist interloper, any less risible. The American economy has, both directly and indirectly, been shaped by government policies, many of them dumb ones, for a long time. George Bush was as much a promoter of the idea that people should own their own homes and look at them as investments and not just places to live as anyone, and did nothing to alter the market-distorting Clinton-era policies that led to the housing bubble. And no party that, when they had control of the government, started two optional, ill-planned, and unfunded foreign wars in addition to doing its own share of irresponsible domestic spending, deserves a platform to complain about the fiscal irresponsibility of the other side.

In some sense, grim news like this is just the market adjusting to actual reality. Much of the wealth that fueled the pre-recession economy turned out to be illusory. It therefore stands to reason that some of the gains that had been made against poverty also turned out to be illusory. As a society, we were not producing enough tangible wealth to support our lifestyle, from the rich investment banker making hundreds of thousands of dollars trading financial phantasms on down to the struggling lower middle-class family that stretched to buy a house they couldn't really afford. Our leaders, in their eagerness to buy us off with extravagant promises on the one hand and their reluctance to insist that we pay anything like the real price for anything we wanted on the other, enabled this overstretch, and continue to do so. This is not a failure of one political party or ideology or the other - it's a failure of the entire system, the whole nexus of government, high finance, and big business, and the Democrats and Republicans are both too much a part of that system to recognize it. While I don't agree with a lot of what the Tea Party types have to say, their inchoate anger does at least make a bit more sense to me when viewed in this light.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It's In The Photograph...

The last several days, I've finally gotten around to a project I'd been meaning to do for awhile - going through all my digital photographs, sorting and cataloguing them, and backing them up on CDs. It's been a laborious process, but one of the benefits has been reliving a lot of really great experiences that had started to blur around the edges a bit in my memory.

When I was in my early twenties, I felt that taking pictures of everything dulled the in-the-moment experience of being someplace beautiful or doing something interest. I didn't, for example, take a camera with me when I went to visit my brother when he was studying abroad in Italy in 2003 and the two of us spent several days traveling in Spain, though I visited quite a few famous places on that trip. But the older I get, and the more experiences I accumulate, the more I find that what people my parents' age said when I was younger and too impatient to sit still to have my picture taken, that someday I'd appreciate the value of documenting life as it flies past - rings true. I didn't have a camera with me when I visited Gaudi's masterpiece, the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. And now, while I retain an overall impression of the place, I can recall little about the details of it. It's not a mistake I'm inclined to repeat - I always take a camera with me when I travel nowadays.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On September 11th

For some reason this year's anniversary of the September 11th attacks feels sadder and weighs more heavily on my mind than those in past years - perhaps because it occurs in the wake of the summerlong "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy, with Americans egged on by a crazy Florida preacher and flag-burning Muslim protesters abroad antagonizing each other with one-upped acts of mutual rage and contempt. I'd like to think that tragedies like 9/11 would compel people on all sides of a conflict to reflect on violence, on its causes in the world, on the self-perpetuating and all-consuming cycle of retribution it engenders, and to step away from it. But sadly, if there is one thing we know about human beings it is that aggression, self-righteousness, and intolerance come naturally to us while open-mindedness, understanding, and compromise are things at which we must work very hard to obtain. I understand aggrievement and anger very well, but I do not understand what people who do things like burn qurans or stomp on American flags hope to achieve by expressing their aggrievement and anger in such inflammatory ways. It only widens the gap between people and makes it easier for them to justify maiming each other in the future.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An (Altogether Too Long) Post On The Upcoming NFL Season

With the 2010 NFL season about to kick off and every football writer in America and their brother offering their preseason predictions, I figured now would be a good time to put myself on record as to my own take on the upcoming season. I don't have the time or inclination to do a multi-page, team-by-team or division-by-division writeup (and there are plenty of that kind of thing out there, written by people more knowledgable than I am), so I'll just make a few random observations and predictions (of a probalistic nature - I hate pundits who say X or Y will happen).

Team Most Likely To Win The Super Bowl: Indianapolis. Not a sexy or particularly outre pick, but as long as they have Peyton Manning, you know they're going to finish the season 12-4 or 13-3, with homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, and more often it's a team with that profile that wins it all. Lots of pundits seem to be talking themselves into the Jets, Ravens, Packers, or Cowboys, but as of right now the Colts have a better combination of quarterback and pass defense than all those teams, and I think a good quarterback and a good pass defense are what you need to win it all.

Runner-up: New Orleans. I think they'll be better than most recent defending champs have been, as have a relatively easy schedule for an elite team and can still roll out plenty of weapons on offense. They'll have trouble winning on the road in the playoffs if they don't get home field advantage, however.

Team Most Likely To Have The #1 Pick In The 2011 NFL Draft: Tampa Bay. They have a shaky-looking second year quarterback in Josh Freeman, a coach who appeared overmatched in his first season at the helm last year in Raheem Morris, a defense that isn't very good, and a pretty difficult schedule. Not a good combination.

Runner-up: Buffalo. This team is a train wreck, and pretty much everything I said about the Bucs applies to them as well. Call it a toss-up.

Team Most Likely To Fail To Live Up To Its Preseason Press Clippings: Dallas. Not so much because they aren't a good team (they are), but because, as always with the Cowboys, the hype far outstrips the actual level of accomplishment on the field to this point. Everyone's making a big deal of Tony Romo finally winning a playoff game last year, but beating a banged-up Eagles team at home is not that much of an accomplishment - particularly when you go on the road the next week and get stomped as the 'Boys did in the divisional round game at Minnesota. Dallas enjoyed nearly perfect health among its key players last season, a circumstance that is unlikely to repeat, and as good as their first units are they are long in the tooth at a few key spots and severely lacking in depth. They don't look like a 13-3 powerhouse to me - a 9-7 or 10-6 bubble team/Wild Card entry is more like it - and I'd be very surprised if they're the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl.

Runner-up: New York Jets. The way everyone is talking about them, you'd think they were a powerhouse coming off a 14-2 Super Bowl season, rather than a 9-7 team that benefited from a massive dose of good luck to even get into the postseason, then got lucky again in drawing a pair of playoff opponents that they matched up very well against. I don't like the outsized, only-in-New-York hype, I don't like the distractions created by standout cornerback Darrelle Revis' training camp holdout and the presence of cameras recording for HBO's Hard Knocks, I don't like the fact that they jettisoned several of their most respected veteran players in the offseason, I don't like Mark Sanchez, who looks the part but on the field is still a mediocre quarterback at best, and most of all, I don't like blowhard coach Rex Ryan painting a massive target on his team's backs by declaring them Super Bowl favorites. This has all the hallmarks of a 6-10 type implosion as far as I can see.

2010 Playoff Team Most Likely To Take A Massive Step Back: Arizona. From a team that was only 9-7 last year, they lost two of their best defenders in linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle and their second best offensive weapon in receiver Anquan Boldin. Oh, and at quarterback they downgraded from borderline Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner to Browns castoff Derek Anderson. In fact, I don't think the word "downgrade" is quite strong enough to describe the dropoff there. A downgrade is going from a T-Bone steak to ground chuck. This is more like going from a T-Bone to beef-flavored Alpo.

Runner-up: Minnesota. Between star receiver Sidney Rice going down with an injury that will keep him out for half the season, his cohort Percy Harvin being plagued by migraines, and Favre already dealing with a gimpy ankle without taking a single hit, things are not off to a good start in Minnesota. They will probably be able to remain competitive by handing the ball off to Adrian Peterson 25 times a game and leaning on their defense, but I don't think a repeat of last year's NFC Championship Game appearance is likely.

2010 Also-Ran Most Likely To Take A Massive Step Forward: New York Giants. This is a talented team that suffered a rash of injuries at some key spots last year, particularly on defense, and wasn't able to compensate for the weaknesses those losses created, but they were 12-4 in 2008 and off to a very good start last year before the injury bug hit. If they stay healthy, they'll field a solid defense and an offense that can move the ball both on the ground and through the air, and for my money they - not the Cowboys - should be the favorites in the NFC East going into the season.

Runner-up: Atlanta. After a playoff season in 2008 they slipped up last year, partially as a result of losing quarterback Matt Ryan for a few key midseason games, but I think they'll be back to playoff contention this season. Like the Saints, they play a relatively soft schedule, and with most of their key players younger guys, the predicted future performance curve is still sloping upwards.

Player Most Likely To Win The MVP Award: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis. Again, the boring pick is the smart one.

Runner-up: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. Nobody doubts that he is surrounded by a lot of talent and will put up numbers. To be in the conversation, however, he's going to have to guide the Packers to a dominant season, something I think he's well positioned to do with the Vikings in position to fall off (see above).

Player Most Likely To Win The Offensive Player Of The Year Award: Chris Johnson, Tennessee. A ridiculously talented running back getting the ball behind a very good offensive line for a team that loves to run the ball is a good recipe for a monster statistical season. The media also frequently gives this award to players who have great individual seasons for bad or mediocre teams, which makes Johnson a prime candidate.

Runner-up: Drew Brees, New Orleans. He should have a huge season statistically even if the Saints don't repeat as champs.

Player Most Likely To Win The Defensive Player Of The Year Award: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets. This one's a bit difficult to handicap, as perennial favorites like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, and Ray Lewis have been taken out of the conversation by injury or age-related decline. I'll go with Revis, who should be motivated to prove that he's the best cornerback in the league.

Runner-up: DeMarcus Ware, Dallas. I basically picked him out of a hat containing a half-dozen names, but he's an elite player in his prime who should get plenty of chances to do what he does best (rush the passer), so he has to be a favorite.

Player Most Likely To Win The Offensive Rookie Of The Year Award: Ryan Mathews, San Diego. He'll get he bulk of the carries for the Chargers, who figure to need to run the clock out with a lead a few times, so he should end up with decent rushing totals even though they're not a great running team.

Runner-up: C.J. Spiller, Buffalo. He's perhaps more talented than Mathews, but he's playing for a vastly inferior team and is likely to be doing a lot of pass blocking as the team scrambles to catch up.

Player Most Likely To Win The Defensive Rookie Of The Year Award: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit. He was clearly the best player in college football last year, and only the importance of franchise quarterbacks kept him from going #1 overall in the draft. He should play every down for the Lions and have an impact against both the run and the pass.

Runner-up: Brandon Graham, Philadelphia. Perhaps it's my Eagles homerism showing through, but I think Graham, who's already won a starting job on merit, is going to have a very good season rushing the passer opposite Trent Cole.

Breakout Player: Shonn Greene, New York Jets. He'll be the feature back for a team that has a good offensive line and loves to run the ball. 'Nuff said.

Runner-up: Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia. I doubt the Eagles made a mistake in trading in the aging Donovan McNabb for Kolb as their starting quarterback, and by the end of the year I think we'll all see why. Or perhaps, as an Eagles fan, I merely hope so.

Player Likely To Decline: Favre. He's always been turnover prone, even when he was surrounded by great players in Green Bay, so I have to assume last year's low interception totals were an aberration rather than the result of a sudden, late-career epiphany about the wisdom of protecting the football. Plus, as previously mentioned, there are the injury concerns (both his and his teammates').

Runner-up: McNabb. As an Eagles fan, I've watched him decline somewhat in effectiveness the last few years as he lost the elite mobility that made him so dangerous earlier in his career, and that was when he was protected by above average lines and had the likes of DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek to throw the football to. In Washington he's playing behind a very iffy line and aside from a decent pair of tight ends is throwing to one of the worst receiver corps in football. That makes it rather unlikely he continues to have the success he's had to this point.

Coach On The Hot Seat: Eric Mangini, Cleveland. Not so much because of anything he's done or failed to do to this point, but because the front office that hired him is no longer around and Team President Mike Holmgren and G.M. Tom Heckert might well look to bring in their own guy as soon as they have a reasonable pretext for doing so.

Runner-up: Wade Phillips, Dallas. No matter how often Jerry Jones expresses his confidence in Phillips, I can't see him keeping the coach if his beloved Cowboys fail to live up to expectations.

Assistant Most Likely To Be A Hot Head Coach Candidate For The 2011 Season: Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati. He turned the Bengals into a pretty good defensive team last year. He's been successful in previous stops as a defensive coordinator as well. If Cincy returns to the playoffs this year I expect he'll be a top candidate.

Runner-up: Gregg Williams, New Orleans. He failed in his first gig as a head coach in Buffalo, but then most coaches seem to fail in Buffalo. If he can keep the Saints' defense effective enough to complement their explosive offense, he should get some calls.

Strategic Wrinkle Most Likely To Take The League By Storm This Year: I think the Wildcat package is starting to get played out - defensive coordinators seem better equipped to deal with it at this point and its effectiveness has started to decline. So I'm going to go with passing game gimmicks along the lines of what the Saints did last year - running lots of odd spread formations with bunched receivers, unbalanced alignments, and such to try to create mismatches.

Runner-up: Who knows - probably something on defense designed to counteract the spread.

The One Prediction I Will Make With A High Degree Of Confidence: Most, if not all, of my other predictions will turn out to be incorrect.

As for my team, the Eagles - they are talented, but also very young, so I am expecting a season with some ups and downs along the way. I'd guess they finish something like 9-7, with a shot at the playoffs if things break right, but as long as guys like Kolb, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Graham, and Nate Allen show improvement by the end of the year, I'll be happy. This team is being built to make a run at it all from 2012 on, not this year.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why Don't Democrats Run On Soaking The Rich?

Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wonders. Andrew Sullivan offers the typical conservative viewpoint on why this approach doesn't resonate with voters - that "it's just not American to bash the successful". There may be something to this - the American political culture does appear to me more hostile to redistributive schemes than those of, say, Europe - but I doubt that it's the only reason, or even the most important one. Rather, I think that the seeming contradiction here - polls showing high support for taxing the rich more heavily, with actual voter behavior not reflecting that preference - arises from 1.)a misreading of what the polling results mean, 2.)a failure to account for the difference between stated preferences (poll responses) and revealed ones (actual voting), and 3.)a failure to attend to the fact that many polls (and particularly those which pose questions on general policy preferences such as these) do not use samples that are representative of the portion of the population that actually votes.

Firstly, I think it's likely that a very large number of voters do not interpret the phrase "tax the rich" the same way the Democrats do. To the Democrats, "the rich" has a statistical definition - it means "people in the top 20% of earners" or "people who make more than $250,000 a year" or whatever. I suspect, however, that to the majority of voters, even well-off voters, "the rich" means "people who make more money than I do". It's a well-known fact that a most Americans - even those who by any objective socioeconomic measure would have to be considered rich - consider themselves some variety of "middle class". Ask white-collar professionals making $200,000 a year (particularly those living in an expensive city like New York) whom they think of as "rich", and they'll probably name someone like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. They're unlikely to think of themselves. So when they hear the question "should we tax the rich more heavily?", they are very likely to interpret it as "should we raise Warren Buffett's taxes?", and unsurprisingly, many are in favor. I expect, however, that if you phrased the question differently, more along the lines of specific proposals of the sort Democrats like to make - say, "should we raise taxes on households that make more than $250,000 a year?" - you'd get much less enthusiastic support.

Even if we grant that voters are not interpreting the question differently, and that the type of voters I mentioned in the previous paragraph realize that the tax hikes in question will apply to them as well as to Warren Buffett, we have to consider the possibility that many of them may be more willing to support tax hikes in theory than they are in practice. It's not exactly news that people frequently say one thing and do another, particularly when there is social pressure to appear a certain way involved. Respondees who want to appear conscientious and socially responsible might very well say yes, I would pay higher taxes if it meant better government services for those less well-off than I am, or what have you. Whether such people are still willing to say that when the taxman is actually at the door is a test of conviction that I suspect not all of them will pass. Anyone who wants to can pay higher taxes doesn't need an act of Congress to do so - the fact that few people choose to pay more than they have to makes me thinks there's more than a bit of empty self-administered back-patting going on among these poll respondents.

Finally, there's the fact that poll results on a question like this may not and quite likely do not represent the opinions of the people that actually show up on election day. General preference polling like this often samples registered voters, who as a group are distinctly more liberal than likely voters, i.e., the people who generally turn up on election day to vote. There is also a strong positive correlation between personal wealth and regular voting, and as such the wealthy are likely to comprise a disproportionately heavy portion of any given electorate compared to their numbers in the population as a whole. As a result, politicians who run on raising taxes on the rich do not garner as many votes because of that position as polling might lead one to believe.

This is essentially the same conundrum that the Democrats faced on healthcare. Why, they wondered, was the Affordable Care Act so unpopular, given that the more ambiguous notion of "health care reform" polled well? It's because, as is always the case with public policy, the devil is in the details. Any policy is going to poll better when described vaguely and abstractly than it will when it's described in detail, because when you get into detail it becomes clear whose ox is being gored and opposition starts to coalesce. This is why politicians are so fond of campaigning in airy generalities and so averse to substance, and it's why adopting policy positions based solely on what the public tells pollsters (something Democrats are all too prone to do) is a stupid idea.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Say It, Comrade

For once, I agree with Fidel Castro on something - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an anti-Semite. I couldn't agree less with the neocons on the Middle East - I've been extremely critical of Israel in recent years, and I think that resorting to any kind of military action against Iran in an attempt to derail their putative nuclear weapons program would be extremely stupid. But they are correct in describing the Iranian President as a fascist thug. Whatever way forward we puruse, we should not lose sight of that.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Daily Geekout, Theoretical Physics Edition

Journalist Robert Wright conducts a fascinating interview with Nobel Prize-winning M.I.T. physicist Frank Wilczek at It's probably not an exaggeration to say that Wilczek is one of the smartest people alive, but unlike many geniuses, he has a gift for describing complicated ideas in ways that ordinary people can understand - his is the first explanation of string theory I've ever heard that left me a little closer to understanding it rather than even more baffled afterward - and Wright asks all the questions an intelligent layman should. It's well worth an hour of any science geek's time.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hear, Hear

I have to agree with this Conor Friedersdorf post on the question of choosing one's employment - the word sacrifice is entirely inappropriate when discussing what is entirely a free and voluntary decision. A fat paycheck and the ability to afford lots of shiny status symbols it affords are not the only reason people work, and we should not assume that any rational person, when choosing a career to pursue, will automatically opt for A over B just because A pays more. Public service jobs may not pay what those in the private sector do, but they offer a number of other compensatory benefits, not least of which is the psychological reward of feeling one is serving the public rather than merely one's own interests in going to work.

It's fair to say that in choosing to be a teacher, I have not pursued the most monetarily remunerative career I could have when I graduated from college. Many of my peers chose typical career paths for Ivy League graduates - law or medical school, or work in lucrative fields like finance. They make a lot more than I do, and I'm fine with that. The thing is, I'm perfectly happy doing what I do. My job offers many things I value - the chance to work with people in a personal and meaningful way, the ability to go home at 5 p.m. every day, the freedom to not have to think about work seven days a week, plenty of time off. It does not offer me a particularly high level of social prestige, a corner office, or the ability to afford a Lexus or a five bedroom house with a pool and a home theater. The fact of the matter is, I don't particularly value those things. As such, giving them up is not that difficult, and to speak of it as making a sacrifice, just because other people might value them, seems absurd to me.

I suspect that would-be economic elites who choose public service instead talk about it as a "sacrifice" partly as a way of making themselves feel better about what they do. In my experience, it does make work much more enjoyable if I feel I am undertaking it with a purpose, and no doubt the idea that they are giving up some portion of their own potential happiness to improve society is part of what motivates such people to do their jobs. That's fine, I suppose, but if happiness is what at's issue, they're not really making a sacrifice - they're just accepting one compensation package (lower salary + altruistic sense of purpose) in lieu of a different one (high salary + high social capital) because the former leaves them more satisfied.