Friday, March 30, 2012

Joe Wong, Asian comedian

When I was a freshman, my Taiwanese roommate told me this Chinese joke. A man is on death row and will be given whatever he wants for your last meal. He says "just a tangerine, please" to which the guard replies, "they won't be in season for months."

"That's fine."

Here's Joe Wong with some less cerebral humor:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Scott Brown drives a truck

Today the Senate voted down a proposal to eliminate $24 billion in corporate welfare for oil companies. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) said he opposed the bill because it would not allow for the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. In a statement released by his office, he commented that "two wrongs make a right" in explaining to his preference for bad policies over a mix of good and bad.

In other news, Massachusetts senate candidate Elizabeth Warren posted her positions on foreign policy with subsections on terrorism, Israel, Iran, and Afghanistan. When asked how many continents there are, her campaign responded with "for policy purposes, two."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cig tax isn't a tax?

I didn't read the Supreme Court arguments yesterday, so I just saw this bit out of context:

Most of the justices seemed skeptical. Some questioned whether the penalty for failing to buy insurance is a tax at all, meaning the law wouldn't apply. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "This is not a revenue-raising measure, because if it is successful, no one will pay the penalty."

If Ginsburg said that since a penalty is meant to discourage behavior it's not a tax, then no Pigouvian tax counts as a tax. The gas tax isn't a tax. The cigarette tax isn't a tax. It's a strange view of the English language. (She might think the "right-to-seek medical care while uninsured" tax is different because in theory no one would pay it, but that's not true. If the tax were meant to discourage everyone it would just be set at $10 trillion.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Cute pic of the day

Cute little Chinese girl. I hope one day I can have a daughter that cute.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is going to hand down a ruling on ObamaCare. If you read the news you might get the impression that lawyers and judges care a lot about logical consistency, previous rulings, and the wording of the laws.

But if you ask anyone to predict how the court will vote they will explain that there are 4 liberals and 4 conservatives, and there is one moderate and it likely hinged on his vote. The key here is that the judges votes can be predicted based on ideology. 

So my question is why people write so many columns about ObamaCare and .... laws. The judges might rule based on whether they think the externalities from free riding are large or will become large. They might rule based on whether they care if people have health insurance or have sympathy for those facing bankruptcy. More likely they will rule based on what their gut says about Democrats and Obama in particular. However they make the decision, we can be pretty sure that prior rulings, the wording of the law, and legal precedent won't be important so who cares?

(I did consider that maybe some people think there is a "right" ruling and that, even if we know the judges aren't interested in finding it we should go through the intellectual exercise anyway. But I'm skeptical. If I heard more statements like "I think ObamaCare is bad policy but constitutional" or "I think ObamaCare is the right policy but unconstitutional" I'd start to believe people are interested in finding the "right" ruling.)

Edit: Most Americans agree with me. According to a CNN poll "Fifty percent say that the justices' decisions will be based mostly on their personal political views, with 46% saying their decisions will based on an objective interpretation of the law." But I'm shocked nearly half of Americans think the justices give a shit about being objective. I was wrong. A sizable market for discussion of the legal facts etc. exists, namely half the country.

Friday, March 23, 2012

I killed Trayvon Martin

I helped kill Trayvon Martin. You might have too.

And he isn't the only person we killed. The Tampa Bay Times reports that "stand your ground" has been used as a defense for at least 91 murders since 2005 and "justifiable homocides" have tripled in that timeframe.

I don't know the details in all of those cases and we still don't know the details in Trayvon's case. We do know the details of how Trevor Dooley murdered David James. Dooley was angry that James defended a skateboarder riding near a public park. He decided to go to his house, get a gun and flash it at James to intimidate him. James, a 20 year veteran of the Air Force, wasn't happy about it so he (reports vary on the exact wording) said he wanted to have a word with Dooley. Dooley responded by shooting James.

While we know the stand your ground law is being used as a defense for murder in 91 cases, we can't be certain how many murders would have been deterred if the stand your ground law didn't exist. In Zimmerman's case it appears he acted in cold blood and may have been deterred if he thought he might go to jail (or face the death penalty). In Dooley's case it appears he fired due to irrational panic and deterrence was unlikely. In at least some of the 91 cases the death was a result of self-defense. But I suspect that in at least a handful of cases the stand your ground law led someone to shoot first and ask questions later. In 2005, I didn't believe that would happen.

In 2005, back when I still lived in Florida, I didn't understand the uproar. As I understood things, it had always been legal to defend yourself with deadly force if necessary. If you found yourself in that situation you would always go to trial and someone--a judge or jury--would have to arbitrate if your claim was reasonable. The law didn't change the language and common interpretation that it all hinged on what was reasonable. I supported the stand your ground legislation.

I was wrong. The reading of the law that I had was a reasonable belief about how it would be interpreted and used by law enforcement, judges and juries, but it was wrong. The fact is that law enforcement officers who said it could amount to a license to kill were right. And when you give people a license to kill, more people will be murdered. People respond to incentives.

Not everyone believes that people respond to incentives. I believe in the death penalty. I think it deters murders. I don't base that belief on any data because no data is up to task, so I'm going on my gut. My brother, going on his gut, thinks that no one who murders thinks about costs and benefits, implicitly or explicitly. My brother shouldn't believe he killed Trayvon Martin. But I think I helped. I no longer support stand your ground and now that I've seen evidence to make me believe stand your ground is causing more people to die than it saves (my guess is that it has saved no one) and causing more harm than good.

I live in Massachusetts now. A state senator introduced stand your ground legislation here a few days ago. I e-mailed my state senator to let him know I oppose it and why. I don't want another young man and another father to die when we can change the rules--that will change people's beliefs that will change their actions--and prevent it from happening.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Big Bonds

Tim Harford comments on George Osbourne's "Big Bond" with a 100 year maturity.

MIT issued century bonds at 5.623% last year for MIT 150. Over/under on number of suicides at MIT before the bonds mature was also, coincidentally, 150 at the time of writing.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Did Peyton Manning save Florida?

A lot of people in Florida are angry at Peyton Manning.

By late February the Miami Dolphins were widely considered the favorite to land Manning when he was inevitably cut from the Colts. But by now everyone knows Peyton is going to Denver and Matt Flynn, the Dolphins backup option, signed with Seattle. As a Dolphin fan who watched Dan the Man in his last few years it's a sad day. I was hoping Manning would end up in Miami.

Yet I think this could work out for the state of Florida. As much as I love Tim Tebow the guy is never going to be a successful NFL quarterback and his supposed aspirations of running for office one day scare the shit out of me. By sticking a fork in Tebow-mania, Peyton may have spared the state of a worse fate: Gov. Tebow (R-Moron).

Don't get me wrong, Tim Tebow is my second favorite player in the NFL. He has a big heart for a Republican but that doesn't make his completely lack of experience and radical politics any more appealing. The only job he is fit to do beyond circumcise minorities and convert on 4th and 1 is enforce the laws as that requires no competence whatsoever in the state of Florida.

Monday, March 19, 2012

People respond to incentives

People respond to incentives. That is economics 1.0 in a nutshell.

Alex Perry at Time asks how people will use social media knowing that if they use it for good they will be scorned and hated. Short and highly recommended.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Trayvon 2012

The tragic story of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old child killed while walking home with some candy and tea to watch a basketball game, is getting a lot of press. (See my previous post for details.)

People are asking for justice, meaning that the murderer should be put to trial. He admitted to killing the child and all the evidence suggests he isn't lying.

My response is to ask why we are focusing on Trayvon and not the candy he was eating. The truth is that most black children in America will die from a heart attack or cancer and it will be caused by poor eating habits including eating too much sugar. The candy didn't kill Trayvon Martin but it will kill most of his peers in 40-50 years.

I also wonder why people are simplifying the issue. This isn't something that can be explained in a 500 word news story. If the case goes to trial the transcripts will run for pages and pages as evidence is presented over a number of days. This is a complicated issue and even a 30 minute documentary would not do it justice. I'm tempted to write a blog post titled "Trayvon Martin fought back and other complicated things..."

The truth is that the family is using the death (to sound objective I will henceforce refrain from using "murder") to emotionally manipulate audiences. He was 17 but they refer to him as a child because of the emotional appeal.

The ordeal and presentation reminds me a lot of Kony 2012 except it was about one child and about thousands, which makes it more important.

Note: This post is satire.

Trayvon Martin

A 17 year old boy, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in cold blood near his father and his fiance's house a few weeks ago. I heard about it on the Internet shortly after it happened but the story has finally taken off in the mainstream media.

What makes the story interesting is that the man who admitted to murdering Trayvon claimed he did it in self-defense and in Florida, due to an inept and willfully negligent police force, that's enough to avoid a trial. Yes, you can admit that you shot and killed an unarmed child walking around the neighborhood after being directed by police to stay away from him, and as long as you pull some shit about it being "self-defense" the incredibly inept police officers won't arrest you.

Some say this is because of a law passed around the time I left Florida that says you can defend yourself and if someone dies then so be it. The thing is, all states, to my knowledge, have laws to that effect. Florida's law just codifies what is often unstated.

The truth is that the murderer got off because the police are morons.

That shouldn't surprise anyone who lives in Florida. The state gives out more tickets per capita than any other, only in part because of the immense number of morons on it's roadways. (Note that it's worse than it sounds since parking is cheap and abundant: the vast majority of those tickets are moving violations.)

I called 9/11 once in my life to report that my home was on fire. I said it was a small fire on the carpet that was growing rapidly. They asked if I was out of the house. (a) No, how would I be calling you? and (b) Who gives a fuck just send some firefighters! But that wasn't the worst of it. For some reason the dispatcher decided to first send a cop with a small extinguisher and then not tell the firemen to show up ready to put out a fire. They didn't have their bunker gear on or their hoses ready. I'd estimate that another 25% of my house went up in flames because they didn't show up ready to go. If I knew then what I know now I would have just tried to put out the fire myself with a garden hose.

The irony is that Florida's focus on handing out tons of tickets and spending as little money as possible on fire and police services is probably what caused George Zimmerman, the murderer to start his "night watch" to protect his community. The cops didn't do their jobs so he would do it for them. Now the tables have turned, he is the criminal, and he is getting away because they continue to not do their job.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What happens when you're a dick

Update: This commentary on the subject is probably a better use of your time. Return after you read it.

People are social animals. I try not to be bothered when a driver gives me the finger, when someone attacks my character because of my beliefs, or even when people spread rumors or make false accusations. But it gets me to like anyone else.

I'm not important enough to receive hate (e-)mail or death threats, but I suspect Jason Russell did. He got barraged with a lot of negativity the past few weeks. Some of it was respectful and reasonable. Most from reasonable people was asinine ("Joseph Kony is not in Uganda . . ." is not complicated) and most of it from gullible people was false ("Invisible Children has never been audited"). The vast majority that I read was either mean spirited, moronic, or driven by jealous.

I can't imagine what hundreds of thousands or millions of people saying nasty, untrue things about you feels like but I suspect most people would crack under the stress like Jason Russell did under those circumstances. I hope he recovers. I hope his family copes and gets the support it needs. I hope Invisible Children can continue operating programs that a lot of people depend on while Jason recovers.

I also wonder why people describe his behavior as "bizarre." Every person that I am close to I have seen break down and each person does it in their own way. Some people just cry and beg to be taken "home" or where they feel safe. Some people cry and demand revenge on the people they blame their problems on. Some people, like me, just break things, demand rectitude, and have a short fuse. Many kids, including me, run a few blocks from home and scream. Many people just try to bury their sorrows in alcohol and cry themselves to sleep. Others just don't sleep and lay awake in fear for nights on end. Others don't eat. A few take their own lives. And Jason Russell ran down a street in his underwear. Was it really that bizarre?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hate Crime of the Day

A while back I blogged about some douche that put a camera in his dorm room and filmed his roommate kissing another guy. If I remember correctly he then uploaded the video on the Internet to embarrass the roommate and the roommate decided to jump off a bridge (and died).

Slate reports that the douche was convicted of invasion of privacy and a hate crime.

The moral of the story is not to be a dick to your roommate. Being a dick has consequences.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why I am leaving the empire

Darth Vader is leaving the Empire because it lost its way.

Some guy at Goldman Sachs also quit his job.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Chris Blattman isn't as big of an asshole as you thought

I used to like Chis Blattman's blog. I've linked to things I've found on his blog and to the blog, but recently his tone and excitement about being quoted as an expert on why not to get into development and not to care is discomforting.

My discomfort with Blattman, as with many self-proclaimed development experts, has been the worry they take themselves too seriously. There is a long-winded explanation behind that statement, with caveats and provisos and elaborations required. One day I’ll write that up, but not today.

To give credit where it is due, scratch beneath the surface, and Chris Blattman's views are quite simplistic and easily stated. His self-defense is here, and it’s unbearably long-winded and poorly written but comprehensible. Also, my (admittedly limited) knowledge of his finances is that he donates some money to good causes from time to time, maybe even more than the average American with his income. The plugs for his brother in law's charity are nepotistic and disheartening, but you could do worse than to donate by, for example, spending the money on booze.

I would feel more comfortable with Chris Blattman if I saw him, somewhere, explaining that his key findings include the shocking conclusions that "[m]ilitary service [in the LRA] seems to be a poor substitute for schooling [and p]sychological distress is evident among those exposed to severe war violence." If I’ve missed it, help me out.

In the end I don’t think it matters. Many African governments are corrupt and incompetent because the political institutions support that equilibrium, and the West is likely to continue to respond by providing help that offends Chris. I would like to be wrong on this, but I fear Kony will kill again and again, and in 2013 Chris will move to Columbia and continue write more papers no one reads.

Most of what I have written is unduly cynical and trivializing. For all of his weaknesses, Chris Blattman has been more effective than any of us at sanctimonious academic blogging, and someone might have learned to be sensitive to elite African's political identity issues as a result. He can get better, and I hope in time he does.

What’s amazing and obvious is that Kony 2012 might lead us to what Chris admits is "the least worst action" After years of writing rants on unimportant subjects, Chris helped reporters stop burying the lede on Kony 2012 more than four or five paragraphs (example here).

This entire post was a satire of Chris' "defense" of Invisible Children which rephrases what he wrote to apply to his blog.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Kony 2012

Another video from Invisible Children.

I watched the original Invisible Children movie in 2007 and I've kept up with their blog and story since, mostly at a distance. When we showed the movie at my high school back in the day people said all the same things they are saying now. The founders are getting rich off the organization, they don't audit their funds, they waste most of the money, they don't have a plan to end the war, the most is expropriated by dictators so I've looked into most of the criticisms before. This is what I know.

They have been audited independently since at least 2007. The two founders still with the organization make about $90,000 which less than Ophelia Dahl at Partners in Health makes. Most of the rest of the staff used to live pretty cheaply, sharing rooms in some houses IC acquired in San Diego and making, if I remember correctly, under $30,000 each. Whether they "waste" money is hard to answer. If I were running a charity I wouldn't spend as much money on education and videos as they do and would spend more on health. But I didn't go to USC Film School. I know that, despite claims to the contrary, none of their money goes to Museveni who anyone at IC will tell you kind of sucks and is no friend of the Acholi.

I think the best criticism of IC is that they don't have good answers on how to "end the war." They don't but I don't think anyone does. Look at this paper by Chris Blattman and his wife, who are supposed experts on the LRA, and you get he sense that like with most military interventions there are a lot of unknowns and anyone claiming otherwise is full of shit. That said I do think they have a coherent model. They believe that if you get people talking about Kony in the streets it will get people talking about Kony in D.C. and from that discussion some good policy will emerge. I don't see anything glaringly wrong with it.

It's sad some people always respond to IC with scorn and that most respond with temporary interest, but I like to focus on the positive. Tens of thousands of people have responded by spending at least ten hours of their time for this cause and that's great.