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

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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Monday, March 30, 2015 :::

No RFRA has ever been used successfully to defend anti-gay discrimination, not in twenty years of RFRAs nationwide.

That's from an article on Indiana's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its 20 siblings around the country. Ann Althouse also, as usual, brings a little perspective.

UPDATE: See also Jonathan Adler's (similar) take.


::: posted by Steven at 10:22 PM

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015 :::
Tomorrow the Supreme Court hears arguments about the text
enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State
The IRS has interpreted "the State" in the sense of "l'état", i.e. the government, including the federal government.

At least that's how it's being reported, even by the opponents of the administration's position. The way it's being reported, it sounds like that could reasonably be called a plausible interpretation, at which point the Supreme Court has a history of deferring to executive agencies. Including the next two words, though
enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State under 1311
with the annotation that section 1311 authorizes the creation of state exchanges and 1321 authorizes the federal exchange seems to me to remove any ambiguity. I can't imagine the plaintiffs losing on the substance if five of the justices make any attempt at a fair-minded interpretation of the law — unless there is some other key offsetting language that is getting even less attention than "under 1311". Notwithstanding their having passed it, I still don't know all of what's in that bill.

Were I trying to find an excuse to rule for the administration, the best I can offer is questions of standing; I personally am inclined to allow very broad standing, but I know that one or two of the conservative justices are sometimes amenable to narrow construals of standing, and could team up with the justices who are less historically prone to make fair-minded interpretations of the law.

::: posted by dWj at 10:13 AM

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015 :::
I wasted time researching this, so I feel I might as well share.

Apparently Tennessee girls' basketball has a playoff structure in which each district has a single elimination tournament; the four semifinalists advance to the next level.  They play the semifinals, and then the winners of those games play, and the losers play a "consolation" game, all of which affect seeding at the next level; the winners of the "championship" and "consolation" games are grouped with the losers of those games in another district, and vice versa, creating two four-team single-elimination tournaments per pair of districts, resulting in two teams in what is officially considered "the state tournament" for each pair of districts.

If by far the best team in your pair of districts is in your district, then, and that team wins its last for-seed game, your best chance of making "the state tournament" is in losing your last for-seed game.
The referee wrote that he finally called the coaches together for a meeting after "a Smyrna player was about to attempt a shot at the wrong basket (but there was a 10-second violation call before [she] attempted the shot) on purpose."
I'm sympathetic to the coaches and players here.  One might take a top player out of a game for a while, knowing that incurs a disadvantage for several minutes of the game, in order to increase the chances of winning (if the player might be more effective later for having rested); I think on a larger scale that "winning every game" is no more legitimate a demand than "winning every minute" is (though I do find it sad that so much emphasis is put by so many teams on winning the final tournament of the season).  There is no accusation of cheating here, and yet the teams were punished and fined; while there may be some place for enforcing rules ex post facto that are deemed to have violated "sportsmanship", sportsmanship in my mind is about not letting attempts to win outweigh the realization that there is life outside of the game.  Faking an injury is a violation of sportsmanship (it preys on norms that attending to the injury are more important than maintaining the ordinary flow of the game); throwing a basketball in a random direction because the rules have been structured to reward that is playing the game as it's been drawn up.

I should say that I'm a bit sympathetic to the people who drew up that bracket, too, though; I think too many very large tournaments are run as single-elimination affairs, and appreciate that there are probably political reasons to keep the structure agnostic as to inter-district seeding.  It's not too hard to make a sixteen-team tournament spit out a 4-0 team and a 5-1 team after six rounds, and it's not even all that hard to respect geography within the group for the first few rounds; I think something like that might satisfy most of their constraints (though of course I don't know intimately what those are) without giving teams incentives to lose individual games.

::: posted by dWj at 3:39 PM

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014 :::
Incidentally, the posts from Saturday were intended to be posted on my speculative economicsy ideas blog, and I only realized I had mis-directed them as I was posting about Uber (which could well have gone there as well, but was not intended for it). I've cross-posted them now, and if you found them particularly interesting perhaps you would find other things on that blog interesting as well; the things I post and the way I write are both a bit different on that blog than on this one.

::: posted by dWj at 1:23 PM

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Uber is taking more flak for its surge pricing, which obviously serves a purpose (and indeed, in my mind, is their purpose for existence) but is very unpopular in some circles, and I'm trying to think of ways of at least partially achieving the purpose that might be less unpopular.  One suggestion I've seen is that Uber, which takes 20% of revenues (giving 80% to the driver), give all of the overage to the driver; when you have 4x pricing, Uber would get 5% of the fare paid.  In basic economics at least, markets tend to be "efficient" at the point at which quantity is maximized, and I would point out that this scheme perfectly aligns Uber's (short-term) incentives with (short-term) "quantity" maximization, where "quantity" is measured in terms of the base fare of potential rides.  It seems like it might at least improve their ability to communicate sincerity in the purpose of the price hike, vis-a-vis claims that they are "profiteering".

My own ideas fall into two categories, of which one is "double down" — "Look, people, the thing with Uber is that you can get service at some price if you really need it, and if you want unreliable but cheap service at those times, have at it" — and I don't know whether that would alienate a lot more potential customers that it would resonate with. Perhaps they've been as clear as they reasonably can about the whole "reliability" vs. "fixed stated price at which you can't get any service" trade-off for which they provide diversification among providers.  It's possible more transparency, at least after the fact, about net demand would help; if people can see that there really were a lot of riders asking for rides at high prices and not that many drivers, perhaps the trade-off would be a little bit more concrete.

My other ideas run around the idea of making it look more like an auction, partly for the same reason of making the previous message more concrete — if you've been outbid for a scarce resource, you can bid higher or accept that you've been outbid — and perhaps give buyers a greater feeling of control, even if there is really no more or less control one way than the other.  (They both, pretty much, give everyone as much control as the basic laws of mathematics allow.)  A traditional auction requires that everyone in the auction wait until the auction is over before they can proceed, and the whole point here is quick, reliable service.  I think Vohra (meaning Rakesh Vohra, though it's possible I'm actually thinking of Rajiv Vohra at Brown; they have similar research interests, and it's a while since I looked at this) has worked on auctions where time is an issue in this sort of way (people entering and exiting the market at different times).  Another option is to have buyers of the service post offer prices that drivers can see and can choose to accept or not, possibly with suggestions by Uber as to what trade-off they're likely to see between a higher price and a quicker/more likely acceptance.

::: posted by dWj at 1:17 PM

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Saturday, December 13, 2014 :::
There's an article from a few years ago theorizing that humans evolved "reasoning" as a way to argue [pdf link], and — I haven't yet read all of that article, but I haven't seen it note this yet — if you were to adopt the naive, non-cynical position that we reason [only] to figure out the correct answers and not [at all] to justify actions and positions taken for irrational reasons, there are some older split-brain experiments to contend with*. Mercier and Sperber in particular note that the sorts of cognitive biases we see tend to be those that facilitate justification rather than impede it; we pick a wrong answer that is easier to verbally justify rather than an answer that is right for sophisticated or nebulous reasons.

I note a recent article at the Harvard Business Review (with Cass Sunstein as one of the two authors) about group decision-making, and one of the passages that sticks out to me
The psychologists Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Johanna Peetz have found, for example, that the planning fallacy is aggravated in groups. That is, groups are even more optimistic than individuals when estimating the time and resources necessary to complete a task; they focus on simple, trouble-free scenarios for their future endeavors. Similarly, Hal R. Arkes and Catherine Blumer have shown that groups are even more likely than individuals to escalate their commitment to a course of action that is failing—particularly if members identify strongly with the group. There is a clue here about why companies, states, and even nations often continue with doomed projects and plans. Groups have also been found to increase, rather than to lessen, reliance on the representativeness heuristic; to be more prone to overconfidence than individual members; and to be more influenced by framing effects.
With agents whose cognitive biases were not skewed toward wrong choices that are easy to justify to others, one might expect groups of such agents to have biases that are — for example, if you have a good "representative" to buttress your argument, you can explain your argument to others in a more effective way than if you could not, such that the group is more likely to reach a consensus around a decision supported by over-reliance on a representative than one that isn't.  This is to say that one should naturally expect group decisions to be biased toward decisions that are easier to justify after the fact, and that this appears to involve an intensifying of the cognitive biases of individuals is evidence in favor of Mercier and Sperber's hypothesis.

* Human speech is primarily located in one hemisphere of the brain, though the other hemisphere can read and understand writing; human subjects whose hemispheres had been separated for medical reasons had, for the purposes of the experiment, written instructions shown to the non-speech hemisphere, whereupon they performed an action, whereupon the subject was asked why s/he had performed the action, and a perfectly confident and absolutely false answer was given.

::: posted by dWj at 3:50 PM

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In late September and early October, my son was with his grandmother, and I had more of a chance to spend evenings reading books that I didn't think were related to my dissertation. In particular, I read books on human evolution, and to various extents related prehistoric anthropology and the like, and gain a new appreciation of the importance of in-group/out-group distinctions.

I have been aware for some time of an idea among monetary theorists that money is in some ways a substitute for what game-theorists call "monitoring" — in particular, a 1998 JET article by Kocherlakota (who is now president of the Minneapolis Fed) shows that a particular class of models has the same sets of equilibrium outcomes if you put money into the models, but agents are essentially ignorant of the history of play, as if there is no money in the models, but agents are perfectly informed at each stage as to what everyone did at every previous stage. More recently Randall Wright at Penn State (though I have no academic publications to cite here) has emphasized this substitutability, and in particular has emphasized that tight groups (a fortiori families) tend not to use money to intermediate favor exchange, but with some informal sense of whether members are shirking or being especially pro-social and various social sanctions to respond to them.  In fact, it seems likely that, in richer environments than Kocherlakota's, perfect monitoring is likely to work better than money, and it seems plausible that monitoring works well-enough in tight groups (but poorly enough outside of them) that money is less useful than monitoring in those groups (but better than (almost) nothing outside of them).

My synthesis and slight extension of these ideas is to suggest that we use money with our outgroup; further just-so stories follow.  For example, there is a social psychology a literature about money triggering an anti-social mindset, which I can tie to the idea that we associate "money" with "out-group".  Perhaps more interesting for purposes closer to my dissertation, though, is "repugnance", the only major threat to market function in the list that Roth (2008) provides that my dissertation proposal did not discuss.  While I would certainly not claim to explain all repugnances — as Roth notes, they vary too much in space and time for one to expect a particularly simple universal deep theory — at least some of them can be explained as situations in which in-group and out-group constructs are being conflated or boundaries are being breached. It has been customary, for example, for gifts of cash to be viewed as at least somewhat uncouth in contexts that call for gifts; perhaps giving cash signifies that you consider the recipient to be out-group. Similarly, this goes to one of Roth's examples, that it is okay to bring wine to a dinner party but not to offer the hosts an equivalent amount of cash. Prostitution may constitute an exchange of something that should be in-group for something that should be out-group, and indeed if one accepts for the moment that there is or was an accepted practice of men paying for a woman's dinner and expecting sex in return in a "dating" situation, one may be able to draw the line between this and prostitution in the same way — that it is okay for me to acquire a bottle of wine or a meal from someone in our out-group, and then give that to a member of my in-group (with the expectation that, at some point in some context, I will be the recipient of a gift, and the recipient will be a giver), but that giving money, whether explicitly or implicitly in "exchange" for something, is inappropriate.

There are some caveats to note.  In a modern large society, the in-groups and out-groups are blurred in a way that they largely are not in bands of 50 people in the savannah.  There are people who are somewhat in-between, but there is also a non-transitivity; my good friend might have a good friend whom I don't particularly know, such that it might be reasonably clear that my friend conceptualizes each of us as clearly "in-group" and we consider him the same, but consider each other clearly "out-group".  Also, to clarify, my mental model of in-group "gift-exchange" involves less obvious direct quid-pro-quo than the buy-a-meal-for-sex transaction noted above; I imagine contributions being less bi-lateral and more multi-lateral, but also that when a contribution is made, even if a single recipient receives most or all of the benefit, that it is not known when or in what form any anticipated reciprocity would be made, even if it did come back directly to me.  It may even be that direct quid-pro-quo transactions themselves have a bit of an out-group feel to them, even if they don't involve abstract money.

::: posted by dWj at 3:28 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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