Statistically informed ideas on how to make the world work better.

Category: Politics

How conservatives should have argued in court that gay marriage harms traditional marriage

korean traditional wedding



I believe strongly in gay rights: I believe that whatever rights straight people have, gay people should have too. But, as regular readers of this blog know, I try to be honest about the evidence for my positions, and I point out when people I agree with on the big picture are wrong about the details or the rationale. Such is the case for the idea that gay marriage has no impact on traditional marriage.

On its surface, the idea that the gay couple next door will destroy my heterosexual marriage by tying the knot is laughably absurd. It’s so absurd that opponents of gay marriage couldn’t even find any rationale for it when arguing it in court, first before the California state supreme court, then before the US supreme court. When pressed by the justices, the lawyers ummed and ahhed and sputtered, a rarity in court.

However, this absurdity is only when we consider individual cases – there is substantial truth to the idea that gay marriage undermines traditional marriage at the societal level. American conservatives couldn’t make this argument because they are so ruggedly individualistic that more communal arguments didn’t occur to them (even if they believed them in their heart of hearts). Here’s how it works:

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Higher tax rates are “hire” tax rates: Raising marginal tax rates on the rich should help create jobs for small businesses


In all the US economic and political debates these days, one of the primary claims of conservatives is that raising marginal tax rates on the rich – the percentage of tax the rich pay on their income in the highest brackets – will hurt job growth because many small business owners, who file taxes as individuals, will have to pay higher taxes and will thus have less money to hire new workers. The typical response of those on the left and center is to argue that the tax only affects net income, after deducting expenses like workers’ salaries, and the effect shouldn’t be that large. The left thus argues that whatever harms may befall the job market are minor compared to the benefit of increased revenue.

I think both sides are wrong and missing something important. Raising marginal rates on high income brackets should actually have the opposite effect: it should encourage small businesses to hire more. I am not an economist, and there are numerous empirical studies dealing with this issue, often reaching varied conclusions. The analysis here cannot compete with a solid empirical study, but given the lack of empirical consensus, I think it is important to point out the logical error being made based on economic theory.

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Oops, erratum…

Well, I’ve just made my first major blunder as a blogger: posting something I immediately need to retract. My last post, on how to use the threat of giving Republican districts what they’ve asked for in order to break the debt ceiling impasse, was completely off-base. Here’s why:

First, it would be completely unconstitutional, given the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. This states that “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” So there is no credible way to threaten to withhold benefits just from districts that vote a certain way.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it would set an awful precedent. Even though in this case (as I believe) it is not a raw political threat, but is actually giving voters what they asked for jurisdiction by jurisdiction, the same principle, if legal, could easily be applied to much more raw political threats, such as to withhold all benefits of certain types from districts held by the opposition as a way to compel people to vote for the majority party. This sort of practice would fundamentally corrupt the functioning of a democratic society.

So, as much fun as the idea was for the debt ceiling crisis, in all practical terms the suggestion was way off base. Thanks to my father for pointing this out.

Idea: How to get Republicans to raise the debt ceiling without a compromise

Much has been written about the debt ceiling, particularly in the summer of 2011 when we had the last showdown. It looks like another is looming. Briefly, the US has already authorized lots of spending on things like Social Security benefits, government contracts, etc. This spending exceeds the amount of money being taken in through taxes, etc. This means that the US needs to borrow money to cover what it has agreed to do. However, in order to borrow more money, congress needs to separately authorize an increase in the total amount of debt that can be taken on. And Republicans, not wanting to have more debt, don’t want to raise the debt ceiling this way.

This is as if you signed a contract for renovations on your house knowing you’d have to borrow money for it, but after the work is done you tell the contractor you can’t pay because you’d have to go too far into debt. You shouldn’t have done the renovations to begin with. The Republican goal is to use the threat of defaulting on our obligations to force cuts in spending they want. It seems to me like blackmail – holding the credit rating and the moral reputation of the country hostage to their political goals. And here is how to stop them:

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The misdirected focus on gun control

I don’t own a gun. I don’t have any interest in owning a gun. I don’t like guns. I am appalled by the Newtown massacre and other such massacres. I believe rational gun control laws (limits on magazine capacity, an assault weapons ban, background checks, handgun regulations) would be a good thing.

But despite this, I am not convinced that it is a good idea to pursue gun control now, and I strongly support Obama not having pushed for gun control earlier. The reason is simple: like Obama said about pot-smokers, there are bigger fish to fry. Gun deaths are horrible, but so are cancer deaths and traffic accident deaths. It is normal that we as citizens feel more appalled by some deaths than others, but one important role of government is to try to save all lives across the board, without necessarily prioritizing those with more emotional tug.

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Idea: How to neuter SuperPACs

Sheldon Adelson, AP photo

See that evil-looking guy up there? That’s Sheldon Adelson, a right-wing casino mogul. He donated $70 million to various Republican campaign efforts in the 2012 season. In a fit of brilliance, he donated $20 million to Newt Gingrich. (How’d that work out for ya…?) The rest went to pro-Romney or anti-Obama SuperPACs. SuperPACs are organizations that, as a result of the 2010 US Supreme Court ruling Citizens United, are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advocacy without declaring their donors. So, according to current US law, someone like Adelson can donate $20 million to support a candidate, either openly or in secret. Then, when Adelson needs a favor to help his business interests… Well, you do the math.

Of course, after the results of this year’s US elections, it seems the SuperPACs had a bark worse than their bite. Many observers were suggesting that the flood of cash would favor Republicans; nonetheless, Obama was re-elected and the Democrats gained seats in both the Senate and the House. Some people think that this means SuperPACs are not so bad. I disagree; Eric Posner lays out a bunch of reasons why we should still be wary of them. Fundamentally, it is a problem for democracy when (a) rich people have disproportionate power to influence the outcomes of elections and (b) there is no legal way to limit either corruption or the appearance of corruption in politics. (The rationale behind the Citizens United decision is that free speech trumps these arguments, and that there is essentially no way to limit campaign spending without telling people they don’t have a right to spend their money to express their opinions.)

Citizens United thus seems to be an insurmountable barrier to any way to limit corruption and a disproportionate influence for the rich. If all political spending is protected as free speech, it seems nearly impossible to craft a law or regulations that would effectively limit the power of money in elections. So, here is an idea for how to get around this: Impose a progressive tax on political contributions.

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Why presidential candidates have to lie in debates

Everyone likes to complain about all the lies in politics and how dirty politicians are. And of course politics is full of lies, and a truthful politician is a rare thing. But what we rarely ask ourselves is why. People become politicians for many reasons: greed, ambition, narcissism, or a sincere wish to change the world and to help people. Usually, it’s probably some combination of these factors. But I actually think that most politicians are good people who would like to make a difference for the causes they believe in (at least in most modern democracies). The reason politicians lie and there’s so much corruption is because there’s really not much choice, given the world we live in. Here’s why, using the presidential debates as an example.

Imagine you are Mitt Romney or Barack Obama going into a debate (pick your preferred candidate). You honestly believe that you can help the country, and that your opponent’s policies will be a disaster. You believe – correctly or not – that many things rest on your being elected: Will people have jobs and health coverage? Can we protect America and avoid unnecessary wars? Can we protect American values? If you truly believe this, you should be wiling to do a lot t make sure you get elected. In fact, if you are not willing to make some compromises (such as white lies and minor distortions here and there) to get elected, you’re probably not well enough in touch with the real world to successfully manage a country.

During the debate, your opponent will press your weaknesses. He will bring up the things he thinks you can’t explain well. If you’re Obama, he’ll bring up why deficits have grown to more than $1 trillion when you said they’d go down. If you’re Romney, he’ll bring up that thing you said way back when even though you didn’t mean it before you changed your mind (again). If you don’t respond clearly and forcefully within your allotted two minutes, you’ll look like Obama did in the first debate. Your opponent will win. The country will be worse off (or so you believe).

The problem is that many of these subjects have complicated answers that cannot be reduced to two-minute sounds bites. The honest answer might be a good one, but it doesn’t sound good in the context of a modern, televised debate. You have to lie or lose. Let’s look at several specific examples. I’ll pick mostly examples where Obama couldn’t give an honest answer because, as president, he has been more subject to the complex constraints of having to govern and do things that may look or sound bad, but are necessary.

Example 1: Why didn’t you do more to protect our diplomats in Libya?

Obama actually did well in this segment of the debate, but he didn’t really answer the initial question. He said, as he had to, “The buck stops with me,” but he didn’t really mean it, at least in the sense that there wasn’t much he could or should have done differently. If you’re president of the US, you have more important things to do with your time than micromanage the assignment of security details to every embassy (much less consulate) in the world. Most of the personnel and functional system of the State Department and CIA involved in such decisions was there before you were president and will be there after you’re gone. More to the point, you’re not an expert in assignment of security details, and more often than not better decisions will be made by letting the experts handle it.

On the other hand, if you’re president of the US, sometimes things will go wrong on your watch. Someone under you will make a mistake. That person (or group) may be generally competent, but the mistake may happen nonetheless. The person may be incompetent, but may well be someone you’ve never met. Or it may just have been a no-win situation, in which anything this person did would look bad. We don’t yet know enough detail about what happened in Libya, but it seems someone made a mistake in assigning security details. This decision was certainly never reviewed by Obama, and probably never even by anyone directly appointed by Obama.

So the honest answer would have been something like: “I’m really sorry about what happened, but in a complex organization like the State Department, hundreds of decisions get made every day about security, policy, and so forth. Most of these decisions are things that are far removed from my direct control. Sometimes bad decisions will get made and mistakes happen. This was one of those times. I’d like to think, however, that the rate of mistakes has not been particularly high under my leadership. More specifically, I’d like to think that I haven’t done anything to encourage more mistakes than usual. I’d also like to think that the large strategic picture, which I do control, is going about as well as might be expected given the complexities in the region and the extremely difficult decisions I’ve had to make.”

Doesn’t sound that good does it? But it doesn’t sound bad because Obama is incompetent – it sounds bad because the world is a complex place that a president can’t personally control very well. Admitting that sounds weak, even if it’s true.

Example #2; Romney accuses Obama of letting deficits double rather than halving them as promised

Romney’s accusation is not technically accurate; nonetheless, it is true that Obama has not kept his promise to halve the deficit, and that deficits are much, much larger than before he took office. It was probably a stupid promise for Obama to have made, but at the same time the deficits are only minimally his fault. Why are the deficits large? Most of the reason is that tax revenue is low when people are unemployed and economic growth is low, while at the same time expenditures are large when more people than usual qualify for food stamps, unemployment benefits, and so forth. Some of the deficits are also due to the Bush tax cuts, the ongoing wars (which Obama was working to wind down), the stimulus bill, subsequent payroll tax cuts, and so forth. Most independent economists believe that the stimulus did help the economy and may have prevented a severe depression, but it did not help the economy as much as Obama said it would. So the deficits are not due to Obama loving to spend as much as possible; the main contributor from an Obama-chosen spending perspective is the stimulus bill, which was a one-time deal but probably actually helped reduce future deficits by promoting economic growth.

Obama’s honest answer here? “It’s true I didn’t keep my promise to halve the deficit. It was not a smart promise to have made (but, then again, people make dumb promises during campaigns). However, much of the deficits are due to things beyond my control: two wars, the Bush tax cuts, and the weak economy following a financial collapse that happened before I was president. I guess you could make the argument that I should have grown the economy faster, but growth is just about on par for what can be expected historically after recessions due to a financial crisis. Some people say growth might have been faster if I had acted differently on housing, for example, but I didn’t really have much leeway to act given the powers of certain bureaucrats I didn’t appoint and arguably couldn’t replace, depending on your interpretation of the law. With hindsight, I might have made a few different choices, but overall I think we’ve done a relatively good job given the constraints we’ve had coming in and the severity of the crisis. Of course it would have been nice to pass my jobs bill, but Republicans in congress blocked that. I also would have liked to strike a grand bargain on future debt reduction, but Republicans refused to compromise on taxes and I didn’t have enough leverage or power to force them to. Still, I’d really like to reduce the deficit in my next term, and I’ll work really hard to force a major budgetary overhaul.”

Again, this sounds weak. It sounds like he’s making excuses. But the reality is the president doesn’t have all that much power: he inherits a lot of political and economic momentum from his predecessor, and he is constrained by a small-c conservative political structure that gives a lot of power to congress, bureaucrats, and so forth. It’s really hard to know if Obama did a fantastic job on the economy given the circumstances, or a kind of middling but not disastrous job. How much better might the best imaginable president have done? No one knows – Obama probably doesn’t even know himself!

Example #3: Obama to Romney – why did you suggest that illegal immigrants should self-deport?

Take this as a proxy for any of Romney’s many flip-flops. Who knows what Romney actually believes. It is clear that he will say just about anything to get elected. But this whole post is about why it’s impossible to get elected president while being completely honest, so let’s forgive him that. Accordingly, his honest response (as I imagine it – who really knows?):

“Actually, immigration policy is not really a priority for me. I made a rather extreme statement during the primaries because I had a reputation as a moderate and the only way to win the Republican primaries was to make even more extreme statements than everyone else. I don’t really believe everyone should self-deport, nor that we should have extremely harsh immigration laws. At the same time, I’m also not particularly concerned about making laws that make immigration easy. It’s not that I want people to suffer; it’s just not a priority for me. My main concern about immigration is to have a functional international labor market so that companies in the US can hire the best workers for their needs with minimal hassle. This means streamlining the process for high-skilled workers to get visas. Otherwise, the status quo seems to work pretty well: poor Mexicans come to the US and work illegally. The fact that they are working illegally keeps their wages low, driving down costs of business and keeping prices low for Americans, while still providing jobs that are attractive to the Mexicans. It’s not completely fair, but life is not completely fair, and any comprehensive solution would drive up prices for Americans. If Mexicans don’t like it, they can stay in Mexico.”

Again, this sounds pretty bad. Still, it’s not a completely crazy position, and it’s not a position that indicates he would be a bad president (depending on your priorities – his would not be mine on this). There are three main constituencies in the immigration debates: immigrants, companies that hire them, and people that don’t like them and want to keep them out. My money is on Romney’s sympathies lying with the companies.

Taken together, these examples show why it is impossible to get elected as a completely honest presidential candidate. The honest response sounds bad. Most of the reason for this is because our expectations are too high, both for the men and the office. Presidents are not dictators, and their powers have limits. Even dictators operate in a world where other forces constrain their actions, force their hands, and sometime make them choose among awful alternatives. But the electorate doesn’t want to hear details, excuses, and complexities. Until we the people are willing to accept imperfection, nuance, and detail, we cannot hope to have honesty from our politicians, especially not in the modern managed media climate. So, fellow voters, blame yourselves, not the politicians, for the lies they tell. We force their hands.

Thoughts? Reactions? Start a discussion in the comments section…

China should make us rethink our assumptions about democracy, effective government, and the will of the people

There is a section in one of my favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, where the idea of voting and democracy is being explained to villagers in the Belgian Congo in the run-up to the first elections there following independence from Belgium. The villagers are confused: how could it be possible that someone could win with only 51% of the vote? Shouldn’t everyone get together and discuss it, and arrive at a consensus? Doesn’t democracy mean that the opinions of almost half the population could be ignored completely?

This very reasonable response on the part of the villagers was eye-opening for me: for them, the problem with Western-style, majority rules, one person-one vote democracy is that it was not good enough at achieving the fundamental goal of democracy, namely a government that represents (and is responsive to) the will and the interests of the people – something they already had at the level of their village.

Of course, the challenges of governing a village – where a consensus can feasibly be reached – are quite different from those involved in governing a large, diverse nation. It brings to mind Winston Churchill’s famous saying, that democracy is the worst form of government in the world – except for all the others. But more importantly, it should encourage us to question whether Winston Churchill’s saying is still right, or will always be right.

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Michael Lewis explains why I like Obama

Michael Lewis just had a great profile of Obama in Vanity Fair. It’s a bit long but worth the read, and it’s important in three ways:

1) Obama is bold

Obama has a reputation of having let events shape his presidency rather than having shaping events himself. In contrast, this profile details how he made the decision to invade Libya when none of his advisors wanted to even present that as an option. The options presented were to do nothing or to impose a no-fly zone, which would have been just for show (since Qaddafi wasn’t using air power). Over the objections of his top advisors, he had a plan for an effective intervention drawn up, figured out how to get it through the UN and achieve it with the international community, and went forward with it. These are not the actions of someone who is letting events shape him.

2) Obama’s failures are more due to the system than to him

The article mentions briefly how, due to changes in the political system and media, a president has a lot less power now than, say, 40 years ago. I have been thinking about this for a while: the use of the filibuster, increased partisanship, 24-hour sensationalized news coverage, and a closely divided electorate mean that the president has relatively little scope to achieve anything. I think this is why Obama is perceived as letting events shape him rather than the other way around. Clearly the system is harder to manipulate than it used to be, but I have also wondered how much he might be at fault as well. Could a more skillful politician have done systematically better? The subtext of this article makes the case that no, it is unlikely a more forceful personality could have done more. In part this is because it shows Obama as forceful when appropriate (as in his decision on Libya).

This does not mean there is nothing Obama could have done differently to get a better outcome. It’s easy with hindsight to find such things. Some of them maybe should have been better anticipated. But lack of forcefulness and resolve does not seem to be the reason for such failures.

3) Obama thinks in probabilities, not black-and-white

Obama explicitly mentions that every decision he makes has a probability of failure: the easy decisions have already been made by someone else. He is comfortable living in a world of shades of grey, but explicitly notes that the public requires things to be explained in black-and-white. Yay! He is so clear here about one of my favorite themes: the need to think in terms of probabilities and uncertainty, and the fact that our brains don’t seem to be built for this. So few people are good at understanding probabilities and uncertainty intuitively. I’m now convinced Obama is one of them.

Modern government is a form of technology



Once upon a time, if you wanted to cut down a tree, you used an axe. An axe was a simple piece of wood with a metal head that could be made by any blacksmith (I presume). Now, an individual wishing to cut down a tree would probably use a chainsaw. A chainsaw cannot be made by a blacksmith – it involves relatively sophisticated engineering and centralized, mechanized production. There is not a chainsaw factory in every small town – this would be impractical – so the use of chainsaws as improved tree-cutting technology implies a modern society, with an educational infrastructure to train engineers, a transportation infrastructure to move goods around, and so forth. Recently, I even saw a specialized backhoe which can cut down, de-branch, and chop up a tree in about 30 seconds using a saw attached to the scoop – this requires even more sophistication than the chainsaw. Such a backhoe is a useful tool for cutting down forests to make highways to transport more goods, all at a feasible price…

This is an obvious example of technology and how it both requires and creates changes in society. Another example is a digital camera: 50 years ago, cameras were both simple and expensive. If your camera broke, you took it to a local repair shop. Now, it’s cheaper to buy a new one than to fix your old one, even for a very minor problem. This is because production costs have come down even as the technological sophistication of the machine has increased dramatically. So in your town you are unlikely to find a camera repairman or a blacksmith.

Modern government is like digital cameras and chainsaw backhoes. When the US was founded around 1800, there was no FDA to furnish government food inspectors. There was no FAA to regulate air transportation. There was no NIH to fund cancer research. There was no cadre of government economists working for the CBO and the GAO and the Fed and the Treasury estimating long-term financial and population projections under hundreds of different scenarios. In fact, there wasn’t much need for the federal government at all, seeing as how everyone could more-or-less remain in their small towns relying on their blacksmith for an axe, their miller for the grain, and so forth.

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