Jens 'n' Frens
Idle thoughts of a relatively libertarian Republican in Cambridge, MA, and whomever he invites. Mostly political.

"A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures."
  -- Daniel Webster

Monday, February 01, 2016 :::

Bernie Sanders said something I really liked the other day (don't get used to reading that string of words on this blog). A journalist noted that he was in a good position to win more delegates than Clinton tonight and that this would boost his chances of winning the nomination, and she asked whether it would be a big problem if he didn't.  He scoffed — the following quote is from memory, so is actually a close paraphrase — "you mean if I get two delegates fewer than she does, is it a disaster?  No."

Some of the reporting around the Iowa caucuses seems to suggest that it is a winner-take-all race or at least as though rank is of utmost importance.  Four years ago, the Iowa GOP reported that — this is from memory, too, so is also a close paraphrase — Romney had won about a dozen votes more than Santorum.  It turned out that some precinct organizer had misreported his totals, and that Santorum had actually won by about a dozen more than Romney, and some political commentators lost their minds over the fact that the Iowa GOP hadn't produced the correct result.  All that had happened was that someone, most likely a volunteer, had misreported a precinct-level number and had corrected it quickly enough that even if he had misreported something important, like who had been elected to be delegates at the county convention, no harm would have been done.  But because it changed the rankings in the state-wide straw poll results, people flipped out.

On the other hand, Iowa is not a huge, delegate-rich state for either party, and what matters, ultimately, is what people decide matters.  Candidates who campaigned hard in Iowa and didn't go anywhere are generally going to figure out that they aren't going to be getting the nomination; if they don't figure it out, the voters and donors and volunteers in later states will figure that out and decide among the more successful candidates.  The fact that a Senator from Iowa won the 1992 Democratic caucuses in a landslide didn't matter because everyone knew that this didn't indicate that he was the only viable candidate, it just meant that he was from Iowa.  Generally, though, I think it's most important not to end up on the bottom in Iowa than to end up in first, and the margin matters — any interpretation that puts much weight on a rounding error ought to be ruled out.

As I write this, it looks like Cruz came out on top, with Trump and Rubio a bit below him, with a substantial drop to Carson, then Paul around 5%, and then the rest.  I have read the argument that Trump needed an outright win because being a winner is a fair part of his brand, and maybe there's something to that, but what this really means is that those top three keep going and anyone below Paul will have to make an argument that Iowa wasn't a fair indicator for them and that voters in the rest of the country should give them a close look anyway.  I assume it is clear to everyone including Rand Paul that Rand Paul will not get the nomination, but he might well keep making his arguments and winning a vote here or there (possibly including mine).

On the Democratic side, Clinton and Sanders seems to have tied; whoever ends up on the better side of the tie gets a nice headline tomorrow and not much more.

::: posted by Steven at 11:24 PM

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As Steven alluded to in the last post, there are a lot of spurious accusations of hypocrisy in politics. I'm generally more opposed to some hypocrisy (that is often not called out as such) than to other hypocrisy, and am fairly tolerant of non-hypocrisy that is (hypocritically) called hypocrisy.  One of the contexts in which people seem very confused about hypocrisy is in the context of voting.

Suppose you think Bernie Sanders is the best choice for President,[1] but you think he has no chance of winning the general election and that Hillary is the closest feasible alternative.[2]  In my mind, the principled thing to do is to vote for Hillary.[3]  In fact, I might go so far as to call it hypocritical not to — to instead claim to support what Sanders stands for while failing to act in the way that best promotes that position.  There is a simple interpretation of a vote for candidate X as signifying "This is my favorite candidate," and people who insist that this is the "correct" interpretation sometimes call voting correctly "strategic voting".  In the context of voting, I think the term "sincerity" is adequate; perhaps my term and not theirs comprises those situations in which voting for one's favorite candidate happens to best promote one's ideals.

It is also in the context of the simplistic "interpretation" of votes that one sometimes hears complaints about the voting system that it is not "strategy proof" or (in the economists' lingo) "incentive compatible".  To emphasize, it is not incentive compatible if one's lodestar is that there is a special connection between voting for a candidate and believing that voting for that candidate is one's best available option; most economic epistemology is built on what economists call the principle of revealed preference, which everyone else calls "actions speak louder than words".  If you are inferring someone's preferences or beliefs according to a scheme in which they're supposed to be intentionally failing to best serve their ideals, you're either supposing or inferring that that person is a hypocrite, or you yourself are privileging fantasy over reality.  The conflict here is created by the interpretation, not the voting system, and a fortiori not the voter.[4]

Indeed, in that simplistic interpretation, especially in the absence of a secret ballot — for example, in the caucuses tonight — voting for a candidate is a public claim to support that candidate and the candidate's ideals; if the very same action is in fact undermining those ideals, that would seem to be about as clean an example of hypocrisy as one could hope for.[5]

[1]I don't.

[2]To be clear, I am very emphatically assuming away, for these purposes, that vote totals will affect political capital, and that Hillary is so corrupt as to override one's attractions to her similarities to Bernie.  The hypothetical which this post is examining is the one in which the voter prefers BS but holds beliefs on the basis of which a vote for Hillary would best serve the voter's ideals.

[3]Quoting this sentence out of context might not be hypocritical, but it would definitely not be fair play.

[4]There are, I should add, reasonable critiques of the voting system that do not depend on hypocritical interpretations of votes; indeed, the potential strategic complexity of the voting system is one that is probably closely related to the "incentive compatibility" complaint that assumes the problem.

[5]I might note, here, that at the Democratic caucuses in particular, it is fairly straightforward to publicly start off in support of one candidate and then change one's vote.  Especially for those BS voters who hold out some hope that their candidate will win, it might make sense to start off publicly supporting him, see how the other people in your precinct feel, update your beliefs about the rest of the world accordingly, and change if you're pretty sure at that point that that's optimal.


::: posted by dWj at 9:47 AM

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015 :::

Eugene Volokh wrote a blog entry on accusing people you disagree with of hypocrisy based on their holding positions that seem inconsistent under the framework you attribute to them, encouraging his readers to understand that their political opponents probably have a political framework with some complexity to it. I'm paraphrasing quite heavily - I encourage you to read the beginning and skim the whole thing; the point should be clear to every 13-year-old but probably isn't to most adults, and even the other adults could use an occasional reminder. It evokes from me two related thoughts:

  1. Most of the original (i.e., not just a link to something someone else wrote) political posts that I see on Facebook that seem dumb to me and that I disagree with seem to be this particular kind of dumb: either the writer believes that two things are indistinguishable that seem to me to be obviously different or the writer makes much of a distinction that strikes me as trivial.
  2. There is a similar strain of accusations of hypocrisy, distinct from but similar to what Professor Volokh describes, and equally invalid, when someone declines to play by the rules that they wish had force of law. For example, most people who support tax increases pay only the taxes they are required to, most people who are eligible for subsidies they believe should not exist accept them, especially if they are bundled into a purchase price (e.g., I may not apply for a particular subsidy, but if I think the subway is oversubsidized, and I use the subway, I will make no attempt to "return" the subsidy implicit in my fare), and many (though certainly not all) political candidates who believe campaign finance laws should be tighter accept contributions that they believe should be illegal.

    The distinction that I think a lot of people miss here is that the positions being taken are prudential rather than moral and usually there is some collective action problem such that an individual's operating according to a more restrictive standard by himself would not effect the desired change; if I believe some government spending program should not exist because it is a waste of money, my declining to take the money will not greatly affect the budget. If I believe social security should not exist, or should be optional, I still have to pay in so I can reasonably accept the payments out. An immigrant might reasonably support restrictions on immigration, even restrictions that would have kept him out — on the other hand, it would be dubious of him to suggest that other immigrants should have voluntarily stayed "home." There might be exceptions here — a pro-life politician who had procured an abortion and not acknowledged a change of position since would at least have some explaining to do because one expects a politician who opposes abortion to see each abortion as a moral wrong rather than just a prudential assessment that society would be better off if abortions were restricted. But most of the time I have seen this trope, the suggestion has been either that someone who generally supports smaller taxes and spending should renounce their handouts (while, presumably, paying the taxes required) or that someone who generally supports higher taxes and spending should voluntarily pay higher taxes (without benefiting from more money spent on roads or schools) or that those candidates who believe that campaign contributions corrupt the political system should operate under the rules they propose, even though their opponents would operate under the existing law, and there's really nothing inconsistent about any of those.


::: posted by Steven at 9:00 PM

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Wednesday, December 09, 2015 :::
Over the last five or ten years I have become increasingly sympathetic to in-kind or restricted welfare programs as opposed to unrestricted cash grants to welfare recipients, but a reason to replace welfare programs, as much as we can, with a program of refundable personal tax credits administered through the income tax has just struck me, and I want to air it.

Occasionally one encounters on the internet someone who misunderstands how the income tax system works, thinking that if one earns $1 more than the threshold between the 15% tax bracket and the 25% tax bracket that one keeps less money than if one earns $1 less than the threshold.  It will be assumed that anyone who reads this knows that that is false, but something like that is true for Obamacare subsidies; if you earn just below the cutoff the subsidy can be substantial, and it abruptly drops to zero when your income inches above the threshold.  Even where marginal tax rates aren't infinite, they are often very high on "welfare programs"; AFDC, from 1935–1996 (at which point it was officially eliminated), never had a cliff of that sort, but did have a 100% phaseout rate for most of its existence, and had a 2/3 phaseout rate in the short periods in which its design was less mind-bogglingly stupid.  SNAP isn't quite as bad — it appears to be 30% — but that, of course, is on top of phaseouts for other programs that might be happening at the same time, not to mention various taxes.

Obamacare subsidies are, famously, administered through the tax system, but they are very much made to feel different to people, in a way that child credits and even the EITC don't.  If those could be recast to feel more like tax credits, with SNAP replaced by a refundable credit as well, perhaps the cumulative effect of the phaseouts could be made more salient both to Congress and the electorate and keep aggregate rates below 40% for all people, regardless of income level.

(I believe I have previously suggested here, as a different sort of safety valve, that one be able to elect to split 50/50 with the IRS any portion of one's income in exchange for having it officially removed from income for all tax and welfare benefit calculations; for logistical reasons, one might exclude payroll taxes from that deal.  I still think that is perhaps the way to go.)

::: posted by dWj at 4:09 PM

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015 :::
As the bulk of the authorship and readership of this blog approaches our forties, it's hard for us to remember what we've already said, but perhaps it's also hard for you to remember.  I'm not promising that there's anything new here except for an example; I just heard a radio ad complaining about the use of eminent domain to build a pipeline.

I have seen (a couple times in the last month or two) the idea that some Presidential candidate should run against Kelo, and I want to start by reiterating that I think Kelo was decided correctly, and as such is an illustration of the fact that you have to vote for good government, as the constitution does not simply forbid bad government.  Further — this is almost certainly a repeat from earlier commentary — restricting eminent domain use to some poorly defined "public purposes" doesn't strike me as a remotely efficient way to curb eminent domain abuse; if it reduces the number of likely uses by a certain fraction, it provides a certain amount of added protection, but there are more apposite ways of reducing eminent domain use by the same fraction or more that would impair less socially valuable development.  If my property is taken, I don't much care whether it's taken for a school or a similarly sized office building.

It seems to me that the best argument for retaining eminent domain is to solve hold-up problems; if you need to build a road, you probably need to put together land from many different property owners, and if you buy the land from 99 out of the 100 you need, the last guy can extract a huge amount of money from you.  A pipeline seems like a similar social good, but it also makes at least some sense to me that pipelines would be built, maintained, and owned by private entities.  Again, I would be no happier having my land taken for a road than for a pipeline, and I certainly wouldn't be happier having it taken for a state-owned pipeline than for a privately-owned pipeline.  The protections I would put in place for eminent domain, then, are:
  • You should have to get a substantial majority — say 3/4 — of the relevant property owners to go along willingly; the minority of property owners is being bound not just by the majority of the town electorate, but by a supermajority of at least somewhat similarly situated property owners; if you can't get that, you're probably not offering just compensation, regardless of what procedural protections might exist for determining what that is.
  • Assets don't have prices, and for something like real estate insofar as we can pretend they do the price is only well-defined to within a fairly wide band. If a transaction is being compelled by one party, "just compensation" has to err in the favor of the other party; the sale price should be at least the highest "market value" that could reasonably be guessed, and probably a bit higher for good measure.
Insofar as the pipeline has multiple physically plausible routes, one of the criteria the builder will have to consider is how easily the land (or easements) can be acquired, and a route that implicates a lot of property owners who don't want the pipeline will (and should be) strongly disfavored compared to one where there are only a few hold-outs.  The same is true of roads.  In any case, it seems to me that these rules are very protective of property owners compared to the counterfactual rulesets that define "public purposes" for which property may be rapaciously taken with neither of these protections, and at the same time avoid requiring that the state own any large project that is going to take place.

Addenda: Ilya Somin has a round-up of links, including some observing that condemnation victims often don't even get a reasonable "fair market value" compensation, that people unwilling to sell at "fair market value" likely really do place a higher value on their property than that, and that tools of political power generally harm those who are less politically powerful and benefit those who are more politically powerful. One more note that I would like to make about 'at least the highest "market value" that could reasonably be guessed': if a lower bound on what the buyer would pay for all 100 properties is $20,000,000, and each of them has an upper bound "fair market value" of $100,000, there's an extra $10,000,000 in value to be had from assembling the properties together — and no particularly compelling case for giving all of that to the buyer, as "just compensation" typically does. (Is "fair value" $100,000 or $200,000? To some extent, this highlights again the fallacy of supposing the question has a precise answer.) And, just to repeat, this is true whether this is for a public road or a private developer; if the public road is really going to be that valuable, the town should be willing to pay the premium to the people being dispossessed.


::: posted by dWj at 9:36 AM

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Monday, July 27, 2015 :::
I'll post this here in case I was previously electable.  (I may have posted some of these thoughts before, but I'm pretty sure I haven't posted most or all of them.)

One of the tropes that bothers me in political discourse follows the form "this person whom I categorize in a particular political category says something which conflicts with something another person whom I categorize the same way, therefore people in that category are hypocrites."  I, too, however, am often too lazy to go find the same actual person, preferably not a random crank who has never run for city council, making both conflicting statements, and certainly wonder about things I hear. I'm therefore going to make an observation that might imply that some people are hypocritical, without making the accusation about anyone in particular.

Let's put forth four statements:
God Bless America     God Bless Everyone, No Exceptions
Black Lives Matter All Lives Matter
I agree with all four; if your response to any of the statements is that it negates or strongly calls into question your support for the other statement in the same row, but do not feel approximately the same way about the other row, I ask you to evaluate your consistency.

I certainly don't begrudge people chanting "Black Lives Matter", though I do object to implications that police violence against black people — or, construing it about as broadly as I think it gets construed, racial disparities in the administration of criminal justice in general — is the only thing anyone is ever allowed to talk about, which is at least very nearly a position some on the left have been taking recently.  I do think it's a mistake for them to push back against "All Lives Matter", not only because, let's be honest, it's offensive to object to the idea that someone's life matters if he's of the wrong race, but because, let's be honest, it's very problematic for these people to object to the idea that someone's life matters if he's of the wrong race.  As with the people calling for Darren Wilson not to receive due process, you are stepping very hard on the very heart of the message you are trying to convey (unless the message really is that some people should be privileged on the basis of race, and that it's just the wrong people being so privileged right now, in which case I ask you to move to Latin America or some pocket of Africa where democracy operates that way.  Actually, Latin America probably isn't even as bad as it was in the middle of the twentieth century.)

I don't know the etymology of the term "White Privilege"; I hope it was intentionally sardonic, at least at first, in which case it's the sort of sardonicism I traditionally support, but it seems to be used straight an awful lot these days.  If I got to choose its origins, and it wasn't sardonic, my next choice would be that somebody didn't know what "privilege" means; "Institutions aren't treating black people as well as white people; that's terrible; we should treat white people much worse, to bring them in line with the way we treat black people" is my very bottom choice.  Just as with objecting to "All lives matter", this locution implies that black people are asking for special privileges; the language of rights used by our grandparents was much more compelling.

::: posted by dWj at 10:41 AM

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I see from Reason that
For the first time ever, reports Business Insider, a U.S. state "may single out one industry for a big wage hike."
That state is New York, that industry is "any restaurant chain with 30 or more locations in the state," and it would appear that a panel the governor appointed has recommended a $15 minimum wage for only those firms.

One casts about for an economic world-view with even a low level of coherence that argues in favor of doing this for these firms specifically, and not e.g. including retailers etc.  Were I to attempt to justify this, it would be on public health grounds; these restaurants perhaps disproportionately serve poor people worse food than they would otherwise find, and (especially before large labor-saving capital improvements can be made) could be expected to be unaffordable to that population if this goes into effect.

::: posted by dWj at 12:35 AM

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Thursday, June 18, 2015 :::
If you heard that a student was expelled from Amherst college for being raped, you might think, "What is this, Pakistan?", unless you knew it was a male student and were familiar with recent abuses of Title IX on college campuses.

::: posted by dWj at 10:10 AM

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Saturday, April 11, 2015 :::
What strikes me as odd about this is probably not what strikes most people as odd:

This issue of government force is a funny one. You could also argue that the government is forcing you to drive below the speed limit or wear a seatbelt in your car. But it’s not. There isn’t a police officer holding a gun to your head literally forcing you to buckle up. In fact, you are 100 percent free to speed and not wear your seatbelt—and simply deal with the consequences if you’re pulled over.
What strikes me as odd is that the writer (Sally Kohn, at Talking Points Memo) asks us to step back from the useful shorthand that unpleasant alternatives shouldn't be considered real alternatives, but then she assumes that if a police officer were holding a gun to your head, you would have no choice but to obey the law. Of course, you would have a choice: if the police officer physically overpowered you and buckled the seat-belt himself, you wouldn't have a choice, but "do it or I'll shoot you" is — in the absurdly literal sense we're using here — a choice, as indicated by the "or" (I'm assuming here that, if the police officer shoots you, he won't then buckle you in, though I suppose he could).

My understanding (which I'm not sure of and have no intention of verifying) is that this discussion grew out of this Twitter conversation. But even if she is right in her column that one is rarely literally forced to follow the law, that doesn't mean that law isn't force, as she suggested on Twitter. As she herself notes, laws generally work by forcing lawbreakers to face consequences that would not otherwise exist. If the act required by the law is not literally forced upon you, the consequences are.

::: posted by Steven at 11:44 PM

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Idle thoughts of a relatively libertarian Republican in Cambridge, MA, and whomever he invites. Mostly political.

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