Monday, October 29, 2012

NJ idyll

All well here as the rain gets heavier in northern New Jersey. But this is a busy moment and posting may be sporadic and unpredictable.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Mann lawsuit marginalia

One incidental consequence of Michael Mann's defamation lawsuit is to underscore the folly of awarding Nobel Peace Prizes to organizations rather than individuals. That practice is an exercise in reification--similar to Time magazine choosing as Person of the Year "the computer" or "the protester" or some such. It also creates confusion as to who has, or has not, won the prize. (We will leave aside for present discussion that many Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to individuals were also pretty dubious, or worse.) But further blame attaches to the IPCC for handing out certificates saying so-and-so contributed to the prize, when the Nobel Committee apparently does not support such assertions.

I have no idea whether Mann will prevail or not in his lawsuit against the Competitive Enterprise Institute, National Review et al. What is clear to me is that calling anybody the "Jerry Sandusky of" anything, on matters unrelated to what Sandusky did, is contemptible. National Review's emphasis on the Nobel question, which is not at issue in the lawsuit, surely is an effort to distract from that point.

Carbon tax toxicity

This has a desperate, rearguard quality to it. Climatewire reports on a looming scare campaign by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Excerpt:
Climate skeptics concerned about the rise of conservative groups favoring a carbon tax are preparing a response that seeks to make the policy politically "toxic" for Republicans who might consider it.

The pre-emptive effort, still in its early stages, is designed to discredit the idea that taxing carbon emissions is a good trade-off for lower corporate and individual tax rates, as the nation lurches toward, perhaps, a wide-ranging overhaul to its tax system.
Particularly worrisome is the influence that Mitt Romney's key economic advisers, three of whom support taxing carbon, might exert on the Republican Party as lawmakers weigh difficult choices to avert sunsetting tax cuts and to reduce the $16 trillion deficit. Other prominent economists, like Arthur Laffer, who advised President Reagan, also advocate taxing carbon over income.
Question is what they'll come up with now that the idea of billboards with Theodore Kaczynski on them has already been used.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Financial advisors in politics

My latest at Research magazine is on financial advisors running for office: "Should Advisors Run?" Excerpt:
In the current 112th Congress, financial advisory experience is limited. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was a stockbroker in the early 1960s, before becoming in successive order a journalist, congressional aide and elected politician. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) was an institutional stockbroker and broker-trader at the Pacific Stock Exchange before entering politics; he is not running for re-election.
The picture changes only modestly if one includes accountants, of which there are seven in the House and two in the Senate. By comparison, according to an August 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service, Congress has 200 lawyers, 81 educators, 17 farmers, five ordained ministers, two pro football players and one astronaut.
Financial Planning Association head Paul Auslander recently argued advisors should get more interested in public office. Why, though, has the interest been so modest to begin with?
Whole thing here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Megan McArdle on the presidential race: "It is a carnival of claptrap, a festival of flapdoodle." This sentence not only uses two of my favorite words, but is true. On taxes, for instance, there was more fresh policy thinking even in my (not very detailed) recent article than we are getting from the people running.

Just friends...

One criticism of much psychological science is that it focuses on a population that may not be broadly representative but is readily available to the researchers--undergrads. I think that has some merit, and rarely more so than in this piece at Scientific American: "Men and Women Can't Be 'Just Friends'." It seems the men and women had very different views as to whether there was a possibility of romance in their platonic friendships. Population studied: "88 pairs of undergraduate opposite-sex friends." Please.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Post-last debate

I thought both candidates were so-so on substance, but in this debate style was crucial. Romney came across as Mr. Rogers, while Obama projected himself as Lurch. That makes Romney the winner; his main objective here was to not look reckless and scary, and I think he managed to accomplish that. (Incidentally, contrary to urban legend, Mr. Rogers was not a sniper.)

Paul Kurtz (1925-2012)

Paul Kurtz, philosopher of skepticism and secular humanism, has died. I am pleased to have met him, some 10 years ago at an open house at the New York office of the Center for Inquiry. I was certainly influenced by him, directly or indirectly, over the years, on various subjects, though I'd add that one such influence was his view that religion has value as "dramatic existential poetry"--a stance that seems to diverge from that of the New Atheists today. I remember discussing with him how the paranormal had less cultural cachet than in the 1970s. Certainly, he had a lot to do with that. He was a model of intellectual energy and institution-building acumen. May his legacy live on.

Debate prep IV

Debate season has proven even more important and turbulent than I expected. It would've been hard to imagine that Romney, whose foreign policy experience is about as thin as, say, Obama's was four years ago, would be heading into the final debate with some kind of foreign policy advantage, but that's where things stand following the administration's bungling and dissembling over Libya. Advice to Romney: sound like you're thoroughly familiar with the realist school of foreign policy and not just the neoconservative view as currently defined. Advice to Obama: imagine that George W. Bush is your opponent and speak accordingly.

"A paragraph about Romney"

My traffic statistics indicate that some people are coming to this blog via searches for "a paragraph about Romney" or words to that effect, resulting from this post, which I am sure is irrelevant to what the searchers want. My further thoughts now: Kids! Stop letting the Internet do your thinking for you! Copying and pasting somebody's else paragraph about Romney is a waste of your time, your parents' tuition and any other resources involved in your education. Stop it now. Write your own paragraph.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Book note: Carbon Crunch

Review copy requested: The Carbon Crunch: How We're Getting Climate Change Wrong--and How to Fix It, by Dieter Helm (Yale University Press). This book will, and should, cause a stir. Here's an excerpt from a review in the latest Economist:
Green activists, politicians and NGOs will hate this book. But Mr Helm has done a service to everyone else by describing what a global climate-change mitigation regime would look like if one took economics seriously. You would start, he says, with the cheapest way of reducing carbon emissions (not the dearest), meaning gas, especially abundant shale gas. Gas produces less than half as much carbon per unit of energy as coal and about 50% less than oil. But the French government wants to ban shale-gas production. 
Second, you would introduce a carbon tax, rather than (as now) a carbon price. These sound similar, being different ways of embodying in the price of a good the real cost of the carbon it takes to make. Actually, a tax is better. To see the difference, consider an extremely toxic substance such as mercury. Even a small amount in a river can do immense damage, so this is a case for strict permits, which should be tradable to encourage efficiency. You want fixed amounts and a variable price. Carbon is different. A small amount extra makes little odds. But miscalculating the cost of reducing emissions, as the world is doing, is expensive. In this case it would be better to fix a price (ie, a tax) and let the quantities vary. Third, Mr Helm argues, some of the money that goes on renewables would be better spent on future clean technologies such as carbon capture, energy storage and electric vehicles. 
This prescription is unrealistic. Europeans are too committed to their regulatory approach to change now. But Americans, Chinese and Indians would learn a lot from Mr Helm about cutting carbon emissions rationally. And all readers will get a cogent account of how self-defeating current global climate-change policies are turning out to be.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Binder full of antiscience

More background for my Nov. 17 "Science vs. Politics" talk at the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT): "Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy," by Shawn Lawrence Otto at Scientific American.

Carbon short term

Recommended reading: "There Are Lots of CO2-Reduction Strategies That Would Be Great Short-Term Policy," by Matthew Yglesias. Includes idea of replacing the payroll tax with a carbon tax. My take on that was here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Deflating post-debate analysis

I agree with these post-debate takes by David Frum and Josh Barro, to wit: Obama edged Romney; and both candidates revealed a dispiriting staleness of ideas about the economy. I'd add that the handlers' advice to be aggressive made them both seem more like irate motorists on the Long Island Expressway than candidates who have something positive to offer.

UPDATE, 10:22 AM: I should add that it wasn't just on the economy that this debate was lacking. I agree with this re Benghazi from Jeffrey Goldberg:
What we've got now is a discussion about who needs to be fired, and which candidate is in a better position to score cheap points. Does Mitt Romney actually think that Barack Obama doesn't believe that what happened in Benghazi was an act of terror? A larger question: Does anyone seriously believe that Barack Obama, a president who is at war in more Muslim countries than any president in American history, is soft on al Qaeda? And one other question: Does Barack Obama believe that Republicans somehow aren't allowed to raise serious questions about the Administration's response to the attack? Again, I wish the Republicans would frame these questions not to raise doubts about the commander-in-chief's innermost feelings about terrorism, but to ask what specific actions do we need to take, quickly, to try to prevent follow-on attacks? Whatever happened to that whole notion of politics stopping at the water's edge?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Debate prep III [Updated]

Tonight's debate should be interesting. Neither candidate is likely to seem particularly in his element in the town-hall format. (Neither candidate, in other words, is Bill Clinton.) The audience participation is a wild card, infusing a likelihood of some questions being muddled or zany. ("Think of us as your children." "How has the national debt affected you?") Advice to the candidates: don't look at your watch.

In a WSJ piece today, "The Wizard of Obama," Bill McGurn argues the president's whole image was blown away by the last debate. McGurn makes a good point about Obama's ego long having run far ahead of his accomplishments. Still, I wonder if the reaction to the last debate has gotten so overblown that expectations for Obama are now lower than they ought to be.

Also of interest: Jonathan Chait in New York magazine arguing that a re-elected Obama will have a very strong upper hand over Republicans in Congress, because going over the fiscal cliff favors the Obama agenda (higher taxes, lower defense spending). I found that more plausible than Frank Rich's whine in the same issue that, whatever happens, the Tea Party ultimately is going to triumph (though I confess I didn't give full consideration to Rich's argument, as I never got to the end of it).

UPDATE, POST-DEBATE: That looked like an Obama win to me, albeit by a small margin.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Forecasting project

Ever have a desire to tell the U.S. intelligence community your predictions of world events? Well, you can, or at least you can apply to be part of the Forecasting World Events Project sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). It sounds interesting, though I personally am not going to apply, because one thing I don't have in surplus currently is free time. Be sure to read the FAQ first if you do choose to sign up.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Debate prep II [updated]

A couple of debate-related links I found interesting heading toward tonight's VP debate:

"Six Things That Favor Joe Biden Over Paul Ryan in Tonight's Vice-Presidential Debate," by Avik Roy. I find this a plausible analysis, though on other hand Ryan is such an unknown quantity as a debater that pretty much anything can happen.

"Lessons from Obama's Debate Scare," by Jonathan Chait. Includes an unexpected note of cross-ideological comity.

UPDATE 5 PM: One more: "Obama's Debate Performance: How Twitter Has Done Us Wrong." This argues that Obama did poorly because he's a "long-form writer" in a time when journalists have become focused on the quick give-and-take. I'm skeptical. My experience of watching a lot of debates, and participating in some, is that in-depth writing is good preparation for debates--you have to have a lot of material to draw on, not just snappy comebacks.

UPDATE, POST-DEBATE: I think Biden had the edge, but a minor edge. He was obnoxious, laughed too much and seemed deflated by the end, but he was forceful and interesting. Ryan was middling for the most part, though occasionally pretty good and never outright bad. Overall effect on the race: probably very minor.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Stem cell politics

Interesting. The 2012 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, awarded to Gurdon and Yamanaka "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent," evokes praise from left and right--and completely different interpretations of the politics involved. At National Review Online, a celebration of the breakthrough in the use of adult stem cells instead of embryonic ones. At the Huffington Post, a complaint that Republicans want to ban the cloning that this research involved. There isn't a contradiction that I see, just a focus on different aspects.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Debate prediction revisited

Below is my prediction that was written in July. I repost it now aware that things could look different after debates 2 and 3, let alone after the election. Plus, I have to acknowledge that I had some doubts about the prediction after I wrote it (particularly after Ryan was chosen, which I still think a subpar move). Still, I think it's fair to say, especially in light of Gallup's results, that I was on to something. (Emphasis added at end.)
Thus, some broad numerical pictures of the race have given a clear, but not overwhelming, edge to Obama. To be sure, those pictures are snapshots, and there could be sharp fluctuations in the months ahead in the polls, prediction markets and forecasting models. The sensitivity of Silver’s model to a shift in the S&P 500 illustrates the Obama campaign’s vulnerability to negative economic and financial-market data.
Moreover, quantitative methods carry the risk of obscuring or downplaying factors that are not readily quantifiable. In the presidential race, one such factor may be the presidential debates, scheduled for October. Both Obama and Romney are capable debaters, albeit ones with somewhat mixed records versus various opponents. In 2008, Obama seemed to win some, lose some versus Hillary Clinton; and to gain an edge in debating John McCain largely because of McCain’s limitations as a debater.
The 2012 Republican primaries featured an unprecedented number of debates. These encounters had major impacts on the race—undermining Rick Perry, for instance, and for a time aiding Newt Gingrich. Moreover, they gave Romney intensive practice at such encounters.
By contrast, President Obama goes into this fall’s debates without recent debating experience (except mock exercises with supporters) but now with an extensive White House record to defend. He also has a reputation for eloquence that will raise expectations that he will perform well in debates, and yet as president he also has had some tendency to seem thin-skinned in response to criticism.
It seems plausible that Romney will benefit considerably from this fall’s debates. Moreover, such a prospect—involving unique, personal interactions that have not taken place yet—is the sort of thing that likely would not get adequately taken into account in polls, prediction markets and forecasting models, showing up only after the fact.
Prediction: The debates will matter and push poll numbers Romney’s way. But let’s go out on a limb. Prediction: Romney is going to win the election.
Full article here.

Pit of hell

One challenge for my "Science vs. Politics" presentation upcoming in Philadelphia: too much material. Here's some more“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them.”

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Economics beat

During a very quick trip to Boston this week, I was pleased to present an award on behalf of Research magazine to James Poterba, distinguished MIT economist and head of NBER, and also to see an interesting presentation by ex-CIA official Herb Meyer, about which I wrote here.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Debate prep

Looking forward to tonight's debate. We'll see, over the next month, whether my prediction that Romney will get traction from the debates is correct. Meanwhile, samples of my own debating in the last presidential election cycle, with a bona fide candidate, are here, here and here.

UPDATE 10:24 PM: Yes, that was a Romney win.