Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snake Oil

The folks at Information is Beautiful have assembled a nice dataset consisting of measurements of the effectiveness and popularity of 129 different dietary supplements.  The graph they produced is appropriately beautiful and interactive, although I don't find it particularly useful for addressing the main question -- is there some relationship between effectiveness and popularity?  That is, are people using the useful supplements or are they just popping snake oil?

I downloaded their data and produced the following scatterplot.  I've highlighted some of the key outliers.
Some interesting lessons: First, the relationship between effectiveness and popularity is positive and statistically significant at the .001 level.  That's encouraging!  But some of the outliers are rather interesting.  Vitamins A and C are apparently way overhyped.  St. John's Wort, which is reputedly useful for mild to moderate depression, is under-utilized, especially when you consider the size of the industry devoted to treating depression.  No one really uses anti-oxidants, and that's a good thing, it seems.  Green tea, folic acid, fish oil, and Vitamin D (my personal supplement of choice) are the real winners here.

(h/t Harris Masket)

Friday, December 24, 2010

You know Comet and Cupid and Donner and Nixon...

The Nixon reindeer cookie.

Remember: when Santa does it, that means it's not illegal.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Whip My Hair

Somehow I'd missed this when it first aired.  This is Jimmy Fallon (doing Neil Young) and an old-school Bruce Springsteen covering Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair."  This is not only brilliant, but it's actually good.  Fallon is downright scary.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Do we need a First Lady?

Matt Yglesias points out that the semi-homemade TV chef Sandra Lee is married to Andrew Cuomo, and thus there is a non-zero chance that our nation could, in the next decade or so, have a First Lady who believes this is an appropriate homage to Kwanzaa. This is indeed a disturbing universe. But I disagree a bit with Matt's reflections on the role of First Lady:
The country does, in fact, need someone to play the hostess-in-chief role but that’s simply not compatible with the range of career options open to today’s women.
The hostess-in-chief role developed at a time when there simply wasn't much of an executive staff devoted to the social aspects of White House life.  When Dolly Madison hosted a party, she actually hosted the party.  Today, White House social functions are run by a large, experienced, and highly efficient organization.  Here's Wikipedia's description of the office of White House Social Secretary:
The Social Secretary is head of the White House Social Office, located in the East Wing of the White House Complex. The Social Secretary plans events ranging from those as simple as a tea for the First Lady and a single official guest, to dinners for more than 200 guests. The Social Secretary works with the White House Chief Usher to coordinate domestic staff and with the Chief of Protocol of the United States, an official within the United States Department of State, to plan state visits and accompanying state dinners. The Social Secretary works with the White House Graphics and Calligraphy Office in the production of invitations to social events.
The simple truth is that we don't need the president's wife to be the First Lady any more than we need the president to pardon a turkey or issue a proclamation for National Clown Week.  But no president wants to be the first to point this out.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The use of the term "ideology"

Okay, thanks to John Sides for showing me Google's Ngram Viewer. I found this one interesting:

This supports a claim Frances Lee makes in Beyond Ideology that the concept of ideology is a relatively recent one.  It was invented, she argues, in the mid-20th century by journalists and political scientists as a way to explain the behavior of southern and northern Democrats, who seemed to vote differently once in a while despite being of the same party.  Prior to that time, we really had no concept of ideology as something distinct from party.

Pragmatism and Idealism

Is a political activist's job to advance an ideal or to advance the party that purportedly stands for that ideal?  If this question interests you at all, you should really listen to the first story in this episode of "This American Life." (Thanks to John Zaller for recommending it.)

The story follows two lifelong friends in northern Michigan who decide to form a Tea Party chapter.  After some initial successes in organizing the chapter, they find themselves divided over whether to back the Republican candidate in their congressional district or a Tea Party candidate.  The disagreement ends up destroying their friendship and promoting a difficult but important debate within the chapter about exactly what role activists should be playing.  The story is wonderful -- both funny and tragic, while respectful of all the players.  I plan to use this the next time I teach parties.

The story doesn't appear to be available for streaming anymore, but you can purchase it for $.99 on iTunes or Amazon.  It's worth it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dumping of tabs

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

51 senators could end the filibuster today

So says Greg Koger over at Plain Blog.  It turns out there are several different parliamentary procedures Democrats could pursue to do this, and it doesn't need to be done on the first day of a session.

Imagine if the Democrats did this tomorrow.  This would change everything.  Suddenly the Republican threat to hold up all business until they get their tax cuts for the wealthy disappears.  Obama reneges on his pact with Senate Republicans and instead signs a Democratic tax bill that reverts taxation on income over $250,000 to Clinton-era levels.  DADT is repealed the next day.  The DREAM Act passes the day after that.  It's Democratic fantasy camp.

From the Democratic perspective, of course, probably the most annoying thing would be for Reid to engineer the death of the filibuster at the beginning of the 112th Congress.  Since Republicans will control the House, the Senate won't be the place where liberal legislation goes to die anymore, since it won't get there in the first place.  Ending the filibuster would certainly help move some Obama nominees through, but the time when this would really make a difference is now.  (Well, actually, a year or two ago.)

The effect of the Citizens United case

John Sides is seeking feedback on his summary of the impact of the Citizens United ruling on the 2010 congressional elections, although it sounds to me like he pretty much nailed it.  As Sides says, despite warnings, there was not a huge onslaught of advertisements by independent groups, at least compared to what was going on prior to the ruling.  As he notes, independent spending using money from unnamed donors was legal prior to 2010, and 527s have been gaining popularity all throughout the past decade.

Sides does find one important impact of the decision:
The main change wrought by the Citizens United decision, at least according to some observers, was psychological, not legal, in nature. It simply gave corporations a "greater comfort level," according to one news account, making them more likely to more likely to spend money to support their favored candidates. In this account, a campaign finance lawyer was quoted calling the decision a "psychological green light."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The myth of social mobility

I saw a preview for Justin Bieber's new film "Never Say Never" last night.  Now, let me just state for the record that I really don't have feelings one way or another about Justin Bieber.  I don't know his music and I don't know him.  If he wants to sing on stage and if other people want to make money promoting him, well that's just fine.  I really don't care.  But the film (or at least the preview) seems to be trying to sell Bieber as an authentic American success story.  (Okay, he's Canadian, but whatever.)  That is, he was a small-town kid with a dream, and he worked hard and his dreams came true.  And if you do the same, you can become a star, just like Justin.

I find this infuriating.  For whatever reason, Hollywood and Washington have conspired to tell us the same story over and over again -- you can do anything you want if you just want it bad enough.  Why does this make me mad?  Because it's patently untrue.  We have very little social mobility in this country.  If you're born poor, you're likely to die poor.  If you take the view that anyone can do anything they want, then you're making the assumption that either most poor people want to remain poor or they didn't work hard enough to become rich.  Either point of view is monstrous.

Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with trying to inspire people or to encourage them to strive, but the plain fact is that not everyone is going to make it big.  For every Justin Bieber, there are hundreds or thousands of equally talented kids in small towns who will never get recording contracts because their parents don't know the right people or a talent scout didn't view their YouTube video at the right time or they lack an Internet connection and a camera to make a YouTube video or they don't have a supportive family, no matter how much drive they have personally.  And as the book Outliers pointed out, for every Bill Gates, there are hundreds or thousands of equally talented and driven potential computer programmers who didn't live near a supercomputer at a pivotal time in recent history.

We have a lot of barriers to social mobility in this country, from school inequalities to persistent poverty to institutionalized racism.  We're not going to fix them if we believe they don't exist.

Beyond Ideology

As Ezra Klein notes, it is rather ironic to find Republicans rejoicing over yesterday's U.S. District Court ruling that the individual mandate on health insurance is unconstitutional.  After all, the individual mandate was an integral part of Republican health reform proposals for years, and was championed by the likes of Chuck Grassley, Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, the Heritage Foundation, and others.  Isn't this GOP schadenfreude rather hypocritical?

Well, sure, but this is hardly atypical, for either party.  Frances Lee makes this point abundantly clear in her recent book Beyond Ideology, which I highly recommend.  Her thesis is that party polarization in the U.S. Senate is fueled by, but not solely a function of, the increasing ideological distance between the two parties.  Lee breaks down roll call votes by subject and finds that the party caucuses in the Senate are at least as divided on non-ideological issues as they are on ideological ones.  The parties quickly reverse stances on a wide range of issues depending upon who's in the majority and who controls the White House.  Seemingly non-controversial, non-ideological issues like openness, transparency, anti-corruption, and anti-waste quickly become battlegrounds for the parties.  The individual mandate is just another piece of evidence supporting Lee's thesis.

Lee doesn't really dwell on this in the book, but she's providing lots of evidence for the criticism that pundits and members of the public regularly direct at Congress -- that many of things politicians argue about are not about substance at all, but are rather about who's up and who's down.  This really is bickering.  Senators really do switch positions on issues just to make the president or members of the other party look bad.

Yet even if such bickering is hypocritical and convenient, there is still considerable democratic value to it.  If the president and the majority party in Congress are proposing a massive overhaul of a large chunk of the economy, the public has a right to hear critiques of it.  The health reform bill may well have been the best possible legislation on the topic with any real chance of passage, but that doesn't mean it was perfect, and people should know both the pluses and minuses of its features.  Only the minority party has any real incentive to bring those arguments up.  Similarly, only the minority party has any real incentive to investigate the president's nominees and appointees.  Sure, this creates a climate of distrust, but it also has a better chance of rooting out and preventing malfeasance than bipartisan harmony does.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The logic of the filibuster

I've taken this exchange from the film "Grand Canyon" (1991) and edited appropriately.
Rocstar: Tell me this, are you asking me as a sign of respect, or are you asking because I've got the [filibuster]? 
Simon: Man, the world ain't supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don't know that yet. I'm supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That [majority] is supposed to be able to [pass its agenda] without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is. 
Rocstar: So what's your answer? 
Simon: You ain't got the [filibuster], we ain't having this conversation. 
Rocstar: That's what I thought: no [filibuster], no respect. That's why I always got the [filibuster].

Obama and the Inside Game

One of the recurrent liberal critiques I've heard of Obama's recent tax negotiation with Republicans is that he appears to not be a very tough negotiator.  The critique goes something like this: there are still a few weeks left in the lame duck session.  On the subjects of extending tax cuts for the wealthy and benefits for the unemployed, Obama's position was very popular; the Republican one was deeply unpopular.  Obama could have gone public and brought popular opinion to bear on the negotiations.  Or he could have let Republicans sweat it out a bit in the media.  Then he'd have been in a stronger negotiating position.

My impression of what actually happened is that Obama looked at the political scene and said, there are two real veto players here: me and Senate Republicans.  So let's cut a deal and not worry about everyone else.  He might well have looked back at the debate over health care reform and thought, wow, the entire nation debated this for over a year, and it didn't really move the issue at all.  The public option didn't get more or less popular -- it always looked pretty popular but probably not commanding the support of 60 Senators.  And the bill that he signed into law looked remarkably like what he'd originally outlined a year earlier.  So it strikes me as legitimate to ask what the value of all that debate was.

Now, there's certainly some democratic value in public engagement on an issue, but that's not likely to happen on a two-week tax debate.  It would mostly have involved a lot of he said/she said on the cable news shows and a lot of alternative policies discussed in the House that really wouldn't have gone anywhere, and we'd still have ended up roughly where we were at the beginning, with Republicans clinging to their number one priority (tax extensions for income over $250K), Democrats trying to eke out what they could before granting that to the GOP, and liberal activists feeling betrayed anyway.  Seen in that light, it's hard to see Obama getting a whole lot more out of the deal than he did.

Little bit here, little bit there...

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Partisanship of Academics

Just how liberal are academics?  We actually don't have great recent data on that.  However, Everett Ladd, Seymour Lipset, and Martin Trow conducted a great survey of thousands of academics back in 1969 and broke the responses down by discipline.  The survey didn't include party identification, but they did ask people how they voted in the 1968 presidential election.  Here are the results:
So, all you haters who say that academics are a bunch of liberals? Well, um, you're right.  Or at least you were forty years ago.  In only two subfields -- agriculture and business/commerce -- did a plurality of academics prefer Nixon to Humphrey.  Political scientists look pretty darned liberal in this survey, although not so much as sociologists.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Political scientists engage in the struggle against the filibuster

My good friend and longtime conference roommate Greg Koger is one of the signers (along with Steve Smith, Barbara Sinclair, Sarah Binder, Eric Schickler, and others) of a letter trying to clear up some historic inaccuracies about the Senate's use of the filibuster.  Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) are reportedly circulating this letter to encourage the Democratic majority to simply do away with the filibuster, saying that Republicans' promiscuous use of the filibuster demands a corrective.  You can read the letter below.

My understanding is that Democrats could readily do away with the filibuster either by simply ruling that a simple majority can change the Senate's rules or by using some kind of stealth point of order.  Either would work and are permissible under the Constitution.  The question is whether 51 senators are actually willing to do it.

filibusterletter -

Damned, dirty scientists

A recent Pew survey finds that 55 percent of scientists consider themselves Democrats, 32 percent call themselves independents, and only six percent claim to be Republicans.  Thus it's not terribly surprising that the GOP would occasionally demonize scientists, although it's not clear whether GOP hostility to science causes scientists to leave the party or whether the GOP just feels safe demonizing them because so few of them are in the party in the first place.

For a prime example of this sort of demonization, please refer back to Bush White House spokesman Tony Fratto's response to a study by Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz suggesting that the Iraq War would ultimately cost $3 trillion:
People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can’t even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9/11.... Three trillion dollars? What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn’t his slide rule work that way?

Update: On further reflection, I'm questioning just how representative this survey is.  Pew surveyed 2,533 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Who are they?
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, "Triple A-S" (AAAS), is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association. In addition to organizing membership activities, AAAS publishes the journal Science, as well as many scientific newsletters, books and reports, and spearheads programs that raise the bar of understanding for science worldwide.
The AAAS claims to be "open to all," meaning, presumably, that one does not need a PhD or an MD or any other advanced degree to join.  And from the description above, they sound like an advocacy group on behalf of scientific research.  It's entirely possible that the membership is somewhat more inclined toward, say, government-funded research than the entire population of scientists.  Thus the survey sample would probably appear more Democratic than a truly representative sample of American scientists.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Failing to overcome writer's block

Via Erik Voeten and Brad DeLong.

Republicans are the Keyser Söze of politics

They are willing to do what Democrats are not.

Jonathan Bernstein:
At the end of the day, a lot of Republican constituency groups are willing to go along with an all-or-nothing strategy on most issues, while Democratic constituency groups are perfectly willing to bargain for as much as they can get. Look: if you want universal health care, you are probably willing to settle for moving from 80% coverage to 95% coverage (or whatever the actual numbers are). If you believe that government involvement in health care is unconstitutional, or immoral, or whatever, then there's not much to bargain over. [...]
In lots of policy areas, Republicans simply don't care very much what happens. And while that has a lot of limitations, it also can at times give them strong bargaining power.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Tax Compromise

Ezra Klein tries to make some lemonade from the lemon:
Rather than paring the tax cuts and the deficit back, [Obama and the Republicans are] making both larger. If you're of the mind that the economy needs all the extra help it can get right now -- and you should be -- this is a lot more extra help than anyone expected Republicans and Democrats would agree to give it. And from a political perspective, if you believe that what matters for elections is the economy -- and you should -- then it's worth it for the White House to lose news cycles in 2010 if it means adding jobs by 2012.
John Sides agrees. To which I say, okay, maybe.  But this is all predicated on the idea that maintaining tax cuts for the wealthy will stimulate the economy, and the evidence suggests that it largely won't.  I don't consider myself much of a deficit hawk, particularly when economic growth is weak, but I'm not a fan of throwing money away, either, especially to people who are doing relatively well.

Meanwhile, what has Obama gotten out of this deal?  Mainly, a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits.  I don't know this for sure, but my guess is that the Republicans would have caved on unemployment benefits eventually -- opposing them is politically toxic and, unlike tax cuts, it's not a major priority of theirs.  But maybe they'd have just approved another two months, and then dithered some more and approved another two months, etc., providing numerous opportunities for Democrats to portray Republicans as cruel and insensitive to struggling workers.  Obama just traded that away for a year.

Furthermore, Obama has apparently negotiated the tax extensions to go for another two years, rather than three.  Ezra sees this as a good thing for Democrats:
The White House believes that an improved economy and a bigger deficit [in 2012] will make it much harder for Republicans to support extending tax cuts for the rich. If they try, that gives Democrats both a populist cudgel and a way to take hold of the deficit issue.
I have a hard time seeing that.  Obama would seriously sign a tax increase during his reelection campaign? Really? A tax increase that John Boehner's House will pass? Really?

Democrats are certainly getting some decent things out of this compromise, but it's hard not to think that they're getting rolled.

Update: Jonathan Bernstein seems to think that John Sides and I are in an "intra-polisci dispute" over the tax deal.  Mommy and Daddy aren't fighting!  Sides and I obviously agree that the most important factor in the 2012 elections will be the strength of the economy.  But I do think we have a different take on the stimulative power of the tax deal.  I just have a hard time believing that preserving the lower tax rates on income above $250K will provide the crucial extra economic growth that ensures an Obama victory.  But I'm happy to be wrong.

Further update: Bernstein is absolutely correct when he says the following:
Beware of anyone who confidently claims that Barack Obama did a lousy job of bargaining at this point. We don't know what more he could have had. I'm more sympathetic to long-range critiques (such as that the Dems could have passed a tax bill in spring 2009), but once you get to a bargaining session, we're going to need to know a lot more than we have now to know how well anyone played their hand.
When I say that the Democrats got rolled, I mean that on balance, I don't think they got a great deal, but I have no idea whether they could have done a whole lot better.  As Jon says, we really don't have the evidence on that.  Institutions (read: the filibuster) really do matter, and all the presidential charisma and willpower in the world can't really change that.

The price of making a public office elected

We've had a couple of threads going (see here and here) about the value of down-ballot offices being elected or appointed.  Commenter Justin Ross provided a link to some of his highly relevant research on this topic.  Ross finds that the properties assessed by elected county assessors tends to be undervalued relative to that assessed by appointed county assessors.  From the abstract:
While typically not a formulator of policy, property assessors are likely sensitive to political incentives as they are either directly elected to their office or appointed by another elected official. This paper estimates a model that is motivated by the assumption that assessors seek to maximize political support in a manner that effects the assessment-to-sales price ratio. Using panel data from a 2001 to 2006 series of sales price ratio studies in Virginia cities and counties, a fixed effects variance decomposition regression reveals a variety of socioeconomic and political variables that bias the assessed value away from fair market value. In addition to finding influential socioeconomic factors, the results indicate that elected assessors underassess more than appointed assessors. Furthermore, it appears assessors try to export the property tax onto commercial property via higher assessments, and assessors in districts with higher measures of local government fiscal stress tend to give higher assessments.
You could interpret this a few different ways.  Either elected county assessors are bad because they're depriving public treasuries of needed funds due to crass reelection motives, or they're good because they help keep taxes low in a way that appointees simply won't.

Bad policy likely to remain law

Via Ezra, Adam Ozimek has a rather depressing writeup of some research on the home mortgage interest deduction (MID).  Not only doesn't the MID enhance homeownership, it actually drives up home prices in some areas.
We spend around $100 billion a year on this subsidy, and to the extent that it’s defenders are correct and homeownership does have positive externalities, it is actually making urban areas worse off.
Ozimek recommends replacing the MID with a subsidy on down payments.  That sounds all well and good from a policy perspective, but I just can't see that happening.  Basically, it would involved a huge number of current homeowners paying more money each year in exchange for granting a break to future homeowners.  I don't know the actual numbers, but I'm guessing that current beneficiaries of the MID make more money, are more likely to vote, and are greater in number than those likely to initially benefit from a down payment subsidy.  Besides, those currently benefiting from the MID will fight tooth-and-nail to keep it and would likely heavily punish any party that proposed eliminating it.

Subsidies, even ones that do not serve any clear public good, are incredibly hard to get rid of.  Keep in mind that we still have a National Helium Reserve, which was built in 1925 to ensure our success in the impending blimp war with Germany.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Martinez is a Democrat

In my post on the sucky-and-getting-suckier NBC show "The Event" last week, I remarked that I thought President Martinez was a Republican, given his apparently Cuban-Floridian heritage.  This remarked sparked some controversy in the comments, as many thought the fact that the president was an African American who opposed torture made him axiomatically a Democrat.

Well, this week's episode ended all doubts.  The vice president, a heavy-set white guy whom we know is of a different party than the president, sneered that Martinez only became president because of his Ivy League pedigree and charisma.  Now, there's no shortage of Ivy League degrees or charisma on either side of the aisle, but only Republicans get offended by Democrats who have them.  So I was wrong -- Martinez is clearly a Democrat.

Another tipoff is that the president is portrayed as kind of a good guy while the VP is a weasel.  On pretty much any network but Fox, this is code for Democrat and Republican, respectively.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nobody knows how to make a computer mouse

Also, a computer mouse is exactly the same size as a Homo erectus' stone axe.  These are among the many fascinating revelations in Matt Ridley's TED lecture.  Check it out.

(h/t Harris)