Tag Archives: stupidity

The Coordination Problem of DJT

I haven’t written much about Trump because, mostly, it upsets me that he matters. (The frequent reader knows that one of the things I hate the most are people who feel good about themselves when they have no reason to.) Unfortunately I have to care a little because we’re entering Super Tuesday with Trump mattering, which leads me to wonder “why?!”

It’s hard to remember now, but the Republican field was actually quite solid at one point, representing multiple strands of conservative thought – even my favored libertarianism was represented – and a solid mixture of successful legislators and executives. Then Trump entered and everything went to hell. It wasn’t until the 10 debate in late February that some of the front runners finally attacked Trump, and very effectively, too. Why did it take so long to make the move?

Mostly, I think, it was a coordination problem. As I tweeted earlier today:

Tweet re Trump

Trump was the proverbial guy with 6 bullets and something like 16 enemies – 10 if you limit it to the main stage. At the time he ruled the polls because he had name recognition, not because he had any policy ideas (still doesn’t). Any combination of sustained attacks would have taken him down with relative ease then. Why didn’t anyone go after him?

Well, why would they?

Six bullets will protect you from ten enemies because none of them want to be one of the first six. There was no incentive for any individual candidate to go after Trump and draw his attention.* Better to wait for others to take the hit, or let Trump fade away on his own, rather than risk one’s candidacy to take Trump down for the good of all. If you rewatch the early debates (and I suggest you don’t) you can see an air of “it might be dangerous; you go first” among the non-Trumps, especially as Trump rebuffs the occasional uncoordinated attack.

*”Never argue with a fool. People might not know the difference.”

Of course, coordination problems can lead to disaster. Trump now has more ammunition than enemies and is now on a level playing field with legitimate candidates. Whatever the benefits of his unmasking the press for the weak partisan wannabe elite that they are, the mainstreaming of populist nationalist authoritarianism is too high a cost to pay.

Now pardon me as I go dust off the Mad Dog chapter from my Game Theory class.

Annoyed Thoughts About Planned Parenthood

I try not to comment on abortion because I’m baffled that it’s a major political issue, but the recent leak of Planned Parenthood videos and the ensuing effort to remove the taxpayer funding provided to PP are forcing me to point out two stupidities that I’ve seen circulated on Facebook and am currently watching on Larry Wilmore’s show. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s all the worst things of the Daily Show combined.)

1. “Planned Parenthood is the only place poor women can go for health care!” – Didn’t we just spend years installing a massive, expensive, invasive, and terrible federal program that ensures that even the poor have access to regular medical care like everyone else? Hasn’t the administration bragged about the program’s success? (Larry Wilmore has.) Shouldn’t you have to pick one between ‘everyone has health care access’ or ‘they have no place else to go for health care’?

2. “Taxpayer money can’t be used for abortions!” – Yeah, probably technically true, but also doesn’t matter. Money is fungible. If I want to give you money but don’t want you to spend it on drugs, I could pay your rent. Of course, you can then use your money which you were going to use for rent to buy drugs, so it’s no different than if I had bought you drugs. Same with abortions.

That is all.

Book Review: Everything Burns

Everything Burns, by Vincent Zandri

A nominal thriller, Everything Burns kept me reading without ever truly keeping me interested. Part of that is that I am not particularly fascinated by fire, so the dozens of separate descriptions of flames are about as interesting to me as descriptions of people’s clothes. (I tend to skip both. I finished The Devil Wears Prada in 25 minutes.) Part of it was the plot, which suffers from a number of weaknesses.

I have to give Zandri credit for his protagonist, Reece, who’s neither likable nor particularly impressive but is an intriguing profile of a man with obsessive-compulsive disorder. After his family is killed in a fire, Reece grows up with a fascination with it and also deals with some other problems. Reece is maddening in his decision-making and sometimes yo ujust want to shake him, but for some stretches – especially the slower moments – you see a man dealing with a mental illness, a man who wants to feel differently but can’t. (Zandri uses the verbal crutch of “I can’t help myself” so much that it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s using it intentionally.) Reece’s rollercoaster ride of love, jealousy, trust, anger…it’s frustrating but no more frustrating that being Reece. (I have to admit, it took some reflection to see what Zandri did here, especially because Reece can be very stupid.)

Unfortunately, Zandri doesn’t do much with this character. Having recently reunited with his ex-wife Lisa and moved back in with her and their daughter Anna, Reece is now a best-selling author. His wife is headed for minor surgery, and in her absence Reece becomes obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, a less successful writer named David. When his house is ransacked, Reece confronts David, and the day spirals from there. I wish I could say Reece’s unreliable narrator makes for great suspense, but it just doesn’t. Zandri makes some elementary mistakes that run the plot into the ground.

There are minor mistakes (law firms don’t have CEOs) but that’s not what ruins this. Two of these issues are so egregious I’m going to do a rare thing and put complete spoilers below the fold.

Continue reading Book Review: Everything Burns

Stockholm Tries To Help Seattle

A while ago I mocked an article that praised Stockholm’s rent control scheme as one way to prevent high rents in a place where construction of rental units is not keeping up with demand. I pointed that rent control was the cause of the shortage of housing, not a reason to institute rent control. Economists are universal in their loathing of rent control, and Stockholm has become proof that they’re right. This was driven home by a recently published letter from a Stockholm resident to the city of Seattle which is considering instituting rent control. Key excerpt:

Look at the inner city – people are waiting for 10-20 years to get a rental apartment, and around 7-8 years in my suburbs. (Red keys = new apartments, green keys = existing apartments).

Stockholm City Council now has an official housing queue, where 1 day waiting = 1 point. To get an apartment you need both money for the rent and enough points to be the first in line. Recently an apartment in inner Stockholm became available. In just 5 days, 2000 people had applied for the apartment. The person who got the apartment had been waiting in the official housing queue since 1989!

Perhaps nominal rents are “low” in Stockholm, but that ignores two things:

1. The cost of waiting years or decades for a rental is a massive cost that just isn’t reflected in the price.

2. The price for something you can’t get is infinity.

In any case, I’m just glad I mocked that article when I had the chance.

 

Words Have (Politically Convenient) Meanings, Part 2

This Wednesday, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of King v. Burwell, where the court must decide whether the words “Exchanges established by the State under Section 1311” mean “Exchanges established by the State under Section 1311” or not. I’m not going to get into the merits of the case (The Volokh Conspiracy does a fine job) but I will comment on the setup that got us here, and how stupid it is.

The reason that case is before the court, ultimately, is that Congress is just terrible at drafting law, even with two centuries of precedent. It’s not like we don’t know how to write exactly what we want into a law when we want to. Of course, Congress usually doesn’t want to be that clear, to the extent a group can even have a consensus. By saving statutes that are so terribly written – and the Obamacare statute is nonsensical under EITHER interpretation of the phrase above – courts are saving Congress from the consequences of being very bad at what it’s supposed to do.

The proper way for the court to resolve it is to say that Congress meant what it wrote and it needs to deal with that. Of course, politics get in the way – the Republican Congress wouldn’t be kind to Obamacare – but all that would happen if the court gives in is that we get to deal with something like this forevermore.

Words have meanings. Actions should have consequences.

Income Over Time And The Fallacy Of Composition

Vox.com reports on a new study with breathless panic:

A new study from the Russell Sage Foundation reveals that while wealth levels for all classes of Americans declined between 2007 and 2013, Americans in the bottom half of the distribution are poorer than they were way back in 1984. Meanwhile, elites have amassed considerable wealth since then:

Screen_shot_2014-07-29_at_12.12.39_pm

While the economy has hardly done well the past 6 years or so, it’s not nearly as bad as the chart and the article would have you believe. Here’s why: the median household in 1984 is NOT the median household in 2014, for several reasons, the biggest of which are immigration and household size.

America is still fairly welcoming to immigrants, most of whom join the population at the lower end of the income and wealth spectrum. This drags down the median: adding a million minimum wage earners to the population means that a different household is now the median. No one is actually made worse off*, but because of the way statistics work, the median drops. This is true even if most people are earning more following the immigrants’ arrival. Thus, people like my parents probably lowered the median household wealth by moving to the US, even if their arrival did nothing but increase demand for products and provide additional labor at a time when unemployment was 4.2%.

*While the effect of immigrants on native wages is overstated, the lowest-skilled natives probably lose out to immigrant competition. While it’s not the topic of this post, I favor a Caplanian solution of compensating losers rather than restricting immigration.

Second, household size. In the US, family size and household size have both been dropping over the last few decades. Single-person households are growing particularly fast in number (a sign of wealth, not poverty), while divorce is up. This changes the median, too. A married couple making $100,000 divorces and is suddenly 2 $50,000 households. While they’re probably slightly worse off – living together is pretty efficient – their divorce has lowers the median big time. Add to this young people living alone rather than with roommates, the rise of single mothers, etc, and you have many more households with fewer earners per household. Obviously the statistical median drops again, while the real effects are different. Married couples today earn and have more than married couples in 1984, as do single people, divorced people, etc (excluding immigrants).

Again, this is not to say that all is well with the economy. Job creation in particular has been sclerotic for many reasons. This just goes to point out why you can’t look at a number like those reported by Vox and draw a conclusion about the state of the world. If you do, you’ll be pretty depressed next time I walk into a room with you. When I do, the average person will have gained quite a bit of weight.

Blog Note

Apologies to my regular readers (assuming the plural still applies) for the slow posting the past couple of weeks. It’s largely a combination of travel, work, and world-induced depression. The violence in Gaza put me over the top, since Gaza is basically a prison to begin with, and unlike in Ukraine (and a lesser extent Syria*) those people have nowhere else to go.

*Yeah, war is still going on in Syria, though at this point it’s a third-string war.

I don’t believe that the current…troubles, shall we say, are an indicator of longer-term problems. Steven Pinker is probably basically right that the longterm trend is toward peacefulness rather than war. That said, spams of violence shall be with us, and this one is outright depressing. I’m choosing to avoid discussing it for my own mental health, but it also makes it more difficult to post some of my usual inanities.

I’ll release some previously written posts soon just to clear the backlog, but there will be little new content until the violence has gone on long enough for me to become accustomed to it.* In the meantime, I suggest you join me in doing something nice for your fellow man – donate, volunteer, or just be nice to someone. It’ll make you feel better, help someone else, and make the world a little less ugly.

*Like in Syria.

Real Estate Pricing, Compensating Differentials, And Buzzfeed

Oh real estate, you so crazy.

Sigh.  Normally I wouldn’t comment on something so silly, but it’s a teachable moment and an opportunity for me to share a passion, so I’ll take the bait.

Pieces that compare what any given amount of money can buy in terms of real estate in different locations are done with some frequency* and they are interesting and sometimes useful. They’re a decent gauge of housing costs, if little else.

*A friend of mine send me dozens of these when I was choosing post-graduation employers, pointing out how much more I could get in real estate terms in Houston over Chicago.

Housing prices are a very rough gauge of a location’s desirability: all things equal, prices are higher for nicer places than less nice places. All things, of course, aren’t equal, so housing prices reflect many things, in three rough groups:

  • Demand side: house size, house quality, house aesthetics, school district quality, local employment, local crime rates, local tax rates, local climate, traffic & commuting times, amenities (parks, lakes, sports, entertainment), and other such things.
  • Supply side: cost of construction (materials, labor), land cost, regulatory costs (environmental inspections, minimum sizes, maximum sizes, etc).
  • Individual factors: idiosyncratic desires of buyers and sellers; these tend to wash out and we can disregard when averaging, though they can matter a lot to individual buyers and sellers.

The above interact in complex but predictable ways to establish housing prices – even in bubbles, when the demand goes crazy, the direction of change is predicted by the model. The reason why housing prices aren’t a great gauge of quality of life is that these other factors get in the way. For example, San Francisco’s building restrictions make housing artificially short, while Houston’s relatively lax code makes their housing more responsive to demand.* Sometimes these codes are intentional (because they keep out poor people) and other times they mean well (although they end up keeping out the poor).

*And yes, those are not the only differences. San Francisco has a waterfront, driving access to beautiful nature and wine country, a highly educated Silicon Valley workforce, and a climate intended for human beings; Houston is a flat, half-desert/half-swamp bastion of concrete filled with recent immigrants marinating in 100% humidity at all times. Those factors also contribute to the price differences.

Basically, there’s rhyme and reason to real estate pricing. Enter BuzzFeed staffer Adam, who reviews what $300,000 can buy in 14 places – NYC, Fargo, Honolulu, Atlanta, Jackson (MS), Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Topeka, Cheyenne, Chicago, Boston, Austin, Boise, and Miami. If you’ve read this far, you can probably predict the relative quality of housing you can get in these places. If you’re Adam Davis, your conclusion is this:

What have we learned from this real estate ~exploration~? REAL ESTATE IS COMPLETELY INSANE.

Thanks Adam. Way to contribute to the human search for knowledge. I suppose I shouldn’t let this bother me, but it’s frustrating when someone uses his public influence to advance ignorance simply because they can’t be bothered to learn better. The world just delightful when it makes sense.

Politics Makes You Stupid, Part X

A baffling story:

One of the nation’s largest public-sector unions is severing its ties with the United Negro College Fund because the group accepted donations from the Koch brothers and its president spoke at a Koch-funded summit.

In a letter sent Tuesday, AFSCME President Lee Saunders wrote that the UNCF has taken actions “deeply hostile” to public employees, which he considers a “profound betrayal of the ideals of the civil rights movement,” and that the union will end its relationship with UNCF.

Saunders cited the UNCF’s decision to accept a $25 million grant from Koch Industries, Inc. and the Charles Koch Foundation as a reason for the split, as well as the decision by UNCF President Michael Lomax to speak at a summit hosted by the Kochs in California.

So…the Koch brothers are out $25 million which goes to black Americans, and this is a problem for the AFSCME? If they want to weaken the Koch brothers, having them donate money to causes AFSCME approves is a good way to go.