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Sunday, July 29, 2012

What's in a name: the power of ignorance and word association in politics.

In the recent GOP primary in my state there was, once again, a statewide contest in which I had to choose between two weak candidates. One candidate - let's call him 'Skunk'-  has been featured on these pages before; based on private interactions I believe him to be racist and intemperate. The second candidate, 'Eagle', was a cipher. He ran no campaign and had no web presence. As far as I could tell, he filed to run and then forgot about it. I had no idea what his policy positions were.
   Faced with choosing the hard campaigning Skunk, the retiring Eagle, or simply leaving one line blank on my ballot, I took the partisan path. I voted for Skunk. I reasoned that his racism was irrelevant to the particular office he was pursuing. Moreover, his racism was not publicly known; so, it might not taint the party by association. Skunk's background and expertise was also highly germane to the office he pursued. Moreover, I wanted the GOP to  capture the office. If Eagle refused to campaign in the primary, he would be annihilated in the general election.
   I was amazed to learn that Eagle won the primary. I chortled when I heard his acceptance speech at the GOP state convention. He acknowledged that he had not campaigned and was honored that the People had chosen him. It was therefore their campaign, the People's campaign. ...The rest was too incoherent to remember.
   So, how did Eagle beat Skunk? Word association. Skunk's and Eagle's real names were respectively associated with negative connotations like skunk, or positive connotations like eagle. Time and again I find that most voters, even the more motivated primary voters, have no acquaintance with any candidates other than the top of the ticket; so, they cast a random vote or allow themselves to be swayed by a pleasant name.
  In this instance, perhaps pervasive ignorance will lead to the optimal result. I had to hold my nose to vote for Skunk. Perhaps, continued ignorance and pleasant names will prevail in the general election, and Eagle will be elected. Perhaps we will be luckier yet and the Eagle cipher will actually be elected and competently perform his duties after election. I wish, however, that luck was not the major determining factor in so many elections.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Parsing Roberts's Obama Care Ruling

After days of fuming over Justice Roberts's egregious Obama Care decision, I shocked myself this morning by finding grounds on which to support his ruling. I still abhor Obama Care; I merely note that I can make some logical (but probably not legal, given my lack of legal expertise) support for the awful decision. I will have to begin by assuming that it is reasonable and correct for Roberts to redefine the penalty as a tax. Such procedural questions are outside my bailiwick. The reduced question I wish to consider is:
Is it a significant expansion of federal power to say that the government has the right to coerce participation in commerce by means of the tax code?
  To remove partisan considerations from this question, recall that most Republican plans for correcting the distortions in the health care market include giving individuals an income tax deduction for purchasing health insurance. Therefore, the GOP plan (which I have heretofore supported) includes a measure which reduces taxes (a penalty by another name, according to Roberts) for those who purchase health insurance. This is logically equivalent (plus or minus a tax increase) to penalizing those who do not purchase health care. Of course, the Democratic plan implies an implicit tax increase, whereas the GOP plan does not. So, in the large, the two approaches differ on the mandate issue only on the issue of tax rates. No one argues that Congress does not have the right to raise our taxes. Hence, if we grant Roberts's redefinition of the penalty as a tax,  the two parties seem to agree that the mandate is constitutional.

Of course Obama Care is not the first instance of the federal government requiring, through taxes/penalties participation in commerce. Every year when I pay my income taxes, I pay the penalty for not participating in the home mortgage market. My taxes are higher than those of my colleagues with large mortgages. Nonetheless, despite these penalties, I have refused to buckle to federal coercion to support the banks by selling them a mortgage on my home.

  As I chew on this thought, I still come to a different conclusion than Roberts. Roberts's argument is essentially that Obama Care is the reductio ad absurdum of our current taxing policies. That mortgage deductions pave the way for Obama Care do not justify the latter in my mind. Instead, it suggests that such tax policies contain hidden erosions of our freedoms and should be disposed of with Obama Care.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy the faculty lounge for the cultural revolution

The school year is back in full swing, and my colleagues continue to educate me on the finer points of liberal economics. Last week, a conversation with  Professor XYZ about the economic stresses in the Eurozone evolved into a discussion of U.S. tax policy.  XYZ asked why couldn't we dramatically raise tax rates on the rich in order to reduce our deficit. I made the usual observations that raising tax rates did not necessarily result in the expected increase in revenues and that, in fact, tax revenue as a percent of GDP was fairly stable in the 15-20% range over the past half century, despite tremendous variation in tax rates. He responded that, yes, he had heard about 'some curve' which said that raising tax rates eventually led to a decrease in tax receipts. I asked him if he meant the Laffer curve; he guessed that might be what he was referring to. He believed, however, that the Laffer curve was mathematically better defined than I had ever heard. He told me that he had heard that the Laffer curve had more than one optimum: if the top tax brackets were sufficiently high, the government could eventually recapture the revenue that it collected at much lower rates. Independent of the truth of such an assertion, I was staggered by his notion that if we could generate the same tax revenues by choosing either a moderate tax rate or a punitive tax rate, we should choose the punitive one. Progressive tax rates as a tool of persecution of a minority (the rich) rather than as a tool for generating revenue never seems far beneath the surface of leftist economics.

 This week I passed some junior colleagues in the hall while they were discussing economics. One observed that he didn't see why the government didn't simply cap incomes. (I have no idea what generated this comment). I quipped that I would be happy to take his excess income off his hands if he didn't want it. He said, no thanks, he would prefer to have mine. I said yes, that was always the case with such schemes. I then asked him how he would define income for such a system to be fair. I observed that mathematics was so much fun that that you could argue that we were paid, in part, with the pure pleasure of doing research mathematics. Most of us would reject dramatically more remunerative jobs, because we would not be paid in the coin we most valued. If someone else was paid triple our income to perform some task we found odious (proctologist?), should we somehow put a monetary value on the sheer joy of mathematics before we compared total compensation and plotted redistribution schemes? Hearing about idle Wall Street protesters brings the same thought to mind. They clearly have much more leisure time on their hands than the average corporate mogul. Perhaps their redistributionist schemes should include redistribution of their leisure time. I suppose that is an old communist idea, last seen on a large scale with Mao's Cultural Revolution, during which China's intelligentsia was sent to work camps. 

I am becoming more enamored of a flat tax with every week these incoherent protests continue.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Rule of Law: a naive perspective

As a mathematician who has never taken a course in political science, I am occasionally impressed by the shallowness of my understanding of fundamental political concepts. Watching the rise of crony capitalism under the Obama administration led me to realize I needed to understand better the concept known as "the rule of law."

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek frequently returns to the elaboration of the meaning of the simple term: "the rule of law." This broad phrase encompasses many ideas, including the following.
(i) You cannot have committed a crime unless you have violated a previously existing law.
(ii) There can be no ex post facto laws;
(iii) Laws cannot be targeted at individuals. In particular, proscriptive laws must be sufficiently general that any individual can easily avoid violating them.
(iv) Everyone is subject to the same law. Hayek weakens this to allow, for example, different rules to apply, for example, to women. Most important to the preservation of liberty, legislators should be subject to the laws that they create.
(v) The laws should written by a different group of men than those who administer them. This prevents laws being narrowly designed to fit particular cases.
(vi) Laws should be "known and certain." It should be (reasonably) clear whether or not you are complying with the law.

Rules that state, in effect, that you must do what a particular individual commands are a common violation of the spirit of (iii), (v), and (vi). The most common and least objectionable example is probably the ease with which we are punished for violating the commands of a policeman. Nonetheless, the ease with which a corrupt policeman can use such rules to create mischief show how wary we must be about making such exceptions.

Hayek further notes that the limitations on government power inherent in the idea of the rule of law must come from some law superior to the legislative; otherwise legislators could simply legislate the removal of these limitations. In the United States, the Constitution provides precisely such a superior law.

The rule of law has been weakened by both Republicans and Democrats in recent decades. The Congress has crafted ever vaguer laws, delegating the details to administrators in agencies or, in the case of laws like the "honest services" law to the ambition and imagination of district attorneys. This abuse achieved new depths with the passage of Pelosi Care. Even the passage of this law required violations of the democratic process. Sibelius's famous vast list of Obama friendly businesses exempted from various requirements of the law shows how incredibly quickly weakening the rule of law introduces rampant crony capitalism and other corruptions of our society.

Sibelius's infamous list led me to examine Hayek's discussion of the rule of law mentioned above. I was most interested to learn (revealing my political science ignorance) that socialists have long been opposed to the rule of law. In my youth, I had assumed that the Democrats' frequent attempts to avoid the restrictions of the constitution were merely a short sighted impatience with democracy itself, linked to the ubiquitous leftist conceit that their intelligentsia know better than the hoi polloi how society ought to be organized. According to Hayek, the socialists have long been opposed to the rule of law itself, because it restricts the ad hoc and intrusive government power necessary to control the economy. As the Constitution is the principal guarantor of the rule of law, the Democratic Party's long standing attempt to obviate constitutional limitations has much deeper roots than I had previously understood.

Conservatives like to note the similarities between socialist and fascist governments. Less inflammatory, and therefore perhaps more useful an observation when trying to influence educable Democrats, is the (old) observation that the weakening of individual liberties required to usher in the government powers attendant to the "progressive" agenda also weakens our defenses against other pernicious (even to the left) assaults on our liberty. As Hayek and others remind us again and again, despite the ideological differences between the socialists and the Nazi socialists, it was the weakening of the rule of law championed by the German socialists that paved the way for the triumph of the Nazis.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

State Conventions - The Sequel

I have now been involved in my local Republican party long enough to have attended my second state convention. Before each one, I have asked myself, "Does this serve any purpose or is it just a waste of time?" Once again, I have decided that although there is a great deal of time wasted during the convention, it is worthwhile for serious people to attend and to provide their input.

This year is not a national election year; so, instead of hearing candidates' speeches, one of the primary jobs of this year's convention was to choose party officers, including chairman and vice chairman for the state party. Last year I had no idea who these people were. By this year, I had enough data to know who I definitely did not want running my state party and voted accordingly. The vote was so close - a difference of fewer than 10 out of a 1000 - that I felt my vote made a difference. Most amusing to me was the assiduous attention I received before the vote from one of the candidates who had always been rude and abrupt with me in previous dealings.

This year I was prepared for the fact that the delegates seem to treat the party platform as a matter of small concern. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to see the handiwork of a Libertarian colleague on the platform committee, removing some of the more noxious sentences from last year's platform. The improved platform passed with little fight. The Convention always (2/2) seems to be much more concerned about resolutions than the platform. Resolution debates always seem to suggest undercurrents of discontent and suspicion in the party. There are always groups who feel their voice is squelched by the leadership. Probably there is some truth in this. When you administer, you generally focus resources (including time) on efforts which you think most likely to succeed, help the group, and which coincide with your goals. Perhaps this seems devious to those who are not heard, but to some extent it is unavoidable. It is obnoxiously amusing, however, how the leadership manages to waste just enough time so that we don't have the time or quorum left at the end of the convention to hear the unsanctioned resolutions.

Even though there were no candidate speeches, there were quite a few newcomers already beginning the long slog toward congressional (and other) nominations, who were eager to chat in the convention halls. Some personal exposure can be quite helpful in deciding whom to support. I met one local congressional candidate who rapidly convinced me to support his opponents (whoever they may be) in the primary.

Outside the election of officers, the bulk of the convention dealt with the same bookkeeping matters we handled in last year's convention, as discussed here; I won't repeat their description.

My personal convention resolution passed unanimously: I resolve that I will attend next year's convention, but I will keep the latest Wall Street Journal handy to read during the most boring parts.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

University Wars Continue

In recent months the direction of the conservative attack on the nation's universities has shifted its focus. For decades we have heard about the undeniable strong leftward tilt of the faculty and classroom. For the last year or two we have heard about the waste of time and money when college tuition for the academically unprepared is subsidized by the government. Now the blogosphere and newspapers are filled with commentary attacking the dual role of the university professor - part teacher, part researcher. This time the conservative attack misses its mark.

All of the attacks I have read conflate so many different issues that their analysis is essentially meaningless. I will try here to tease out some of the issues. First let's consider money. Research professors are more expensive than teaching faculty. Their job description (in the sciences) usually assumes that at least half of their time is devoted to research. Their promotion is more tightly coupled to the prominence of their research program than to their teaching prowess (although the attention to the latter has dramatically increased since I was an assistant professor). Moreover, there is greater competition for top researchers than for teachers. Consequently the salary for an internationally renowned research professor may double that of nonresearch faculty. Thus, the cost per classroom hour of a research professor may easily be quadruple the cost of teaching faculty. Is it worth it? How do we decide? One way to approach this difficult question is to examine what the market says.

The most prestigious private universities primarily hire research professors. Premium private four year colleges typically hire faculty with a respectable research program but give them less time to pursue their research and offer somewhat lower salaries. Teaching loads are typically 50% to 100% higher than at the top research universities. Which gives the better deal to students? Let's look at two examples, Stanford and Swarthmore. Tuition and board at Stanford currently costs approximately $53,000 per year. Tuition and board at Swarthmore will run you approximately $53,000 per year. So, we see that in name brand schools, increasing the number of faculty hours in the classroom per salary dollar does not lower student expenses. This reflects two facts: (i) faculty salaries are not the main driver of college costs, and (ii) class sizes are flexible. Four year colleges will definitely offer fewer 200 student lectures than state research universities and fewer 100 student lectures than private research universities. Class sizes are more elastic than tuition.

Some students choose to attend 4 year colleges, and others choose to attend research institutions. Putting aside the question of whether all these students are gaining admission into their preferred school, we see that some students (and their parents) value the smaller class size offered by 4 year colleges; others value the opportunity to interact with and possibly work with leading researchers. Moreover, many students at research institutions whose aptitudes and goals make them unlikely to benefit directly from the presence of active scientists still receive a second order benefit: the extremely academically focused students who are attracted to the research environment enrich the university experience for their less academically focused peers. Both types of environments have significant strengths. I find it highly amusing that the conservative commentators opposed to the research university seem opposed to allowing consumers to choose the product most suited to their tastes and needs.

If we focus on taxpayer supported public universities, then the fact that the best students in their states prefer the research university to the research inactive community colleges is not as decisive an argument in favor of supporting the former as it is in the case of private universities. I have discussed this public funding question elsewhere. We must leave that fundamental value judgement to the voters of each state. I, however, will advocate for supporting the research universities in my state.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Too Much Information

Most people are, I hope, familiar with the incredible universality of mathematics. At the most primitive level, they learn this in first grade when they learn that the observation that three apples plus two apples gives them 5 apples is a special case of the arithmetic result 3+2=5. Less well known is a common beautiful mathematical phenomenon: many problems are hard to solve until they are generalized. In other words, it may be easier to simultaneously solve infinitely many different but related problems than to solve a single one alone. The reason for this varies. Sometimes the salient features of a problem only become visible when viewed from a sufficient distance.

In government the same phenomenon holds. It is often impossible to decide rationally whether to support or oppose particular legislation unless one has a governing rule guiding one's support or opposition to large classes of legislation. There are simply too many plausible ways to spend taxes, too many unintended consequences, too many opportunities to feed sweets to a diabetic, and too many "slippery slopes" for a rational legislator to decide issues in isolation. A rational theoretic framework for deciding issues is often called an ideology. For some reason, many view this term negatively, with the subscribers to an ideology called ideologues, and the latter term synonymous with unreasoning dogmatism and inflexibility. Hayek, in The Constitution of Liberty observes,
" A government that claims to be committed to no principles and to judge every problem on its own merits usually finds itself obeying principles not of its own choosing and being led into action it had never contemplated."
This statement applies equally to individual legislators, and by extension, to individual voters.

In my canvassing work, I have encountered many unaffiliated voters who proclaim proudly that they adhere to no party; they always "vote for the man - not the party." Invariably, these voters are dramatically less informed about the issues and candidates than their partisan colleagues on both the left and the right. It seems their position is simply an excuse for intellectual laziness.

Life is too messy to fit into any axiomatic framework (which is another way of saying again that I am not a Libertarian), but in politics as in mathematics, the attempt to frame all issues within broader theoretical/philosophical contexts is an essential exercise for informing our views on the issues and conversely for testing and developing our ideology.