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The Killing Fields

[ 0 ] December 14, 2009 |

Ezra Klein argues that Joe Lieberman is willing to “cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people” for no better reason than to settle some old political scores.

This has put Washington Post editor Charles Lane in quite a tizzy. According to Lane, Klein is “essentially accusing Lieberman of mass murder,” and Klein’s “venemous post” is “beyond the pale.”

The underlying issue is Lieberman’s sudden discovery that expanding Medicare to allow people over 50 or 55 to buy into the program would require such a sacrifice in the way of Freedom(tm) that including such a proposal in any health care reform bill before the Senate would cause him to filibuster it.

Klein points out that a recent Institute of Medicine study suggests that lack of health insurance is causing about 20,000 excess deaths per year in the United States. This in turn suggests that successfully blocking health care reform would cause a lot of people to die who otherwise wouldn’t. Another way of putting this point is to say that blocking reform will kill people. Yet another way of putting it is to say that someone who has the power to block reform and chooses to exercise that power is killing people. (Or, in Lane’s intentionally hysterical formulation, “murdering” them).

As Yglesias points out, Lane’s sudden squeamishness about these sorts of rhetorical tactics might seem odd, given that he seems to have no problem with, for example, Charles Krauthammer and George Will publishing highly misleading columns on crucial public policy issues.

Nevertheless as Socrates or Miss Manners or possibly both pointed out, two wrongs don’t make a right, so the fact that Krauthammer likes to claim that Iranian agents are even at this moment contaminating our precious bodily fluids doesn’t mean it’s OK to publish misleading claims to advance one’s policy goals, no matter how noble. And the study Klein cites is a pretty weak one. It uses a very crude methodology — in essence it assumes that the difference in relative risk for mortality between insured and uninsured adults is accounted for completely by this single factor. That’s surely not the case, any more than, for example, the difference in relative mortality risk between high school dropouts and college graduates is wholly a product of different levels of education.

Update: As a commentator points out this is actually incorrect. I relied on the Urban Institute paper’s summary of the IOM’s study’s methodology instead of looking at the study itself, which was obviously a mistake. The study actually relies on a 1993 study that used a 1.25 hazard ratio associated with uninsurance after adjusting for multiple confounders. This earlier study, however, finds a relative risk running from 1.00 to 1.50 when employing a 95% confidence interval, which means that, using that confidence interval, the number of annual excess deaths associated with uninsurance ran from about 40,000 on the high end to zero on the low end.

To be fair, the study’s authors admit their estimate is a rough one, and that even if their method overstates the effects of lack of insurance on mortality by 50% that’s still a lot of dead people. (They could have made an even stronger argument by at least mentioning that the effects of under-insurance, given its prevalence, might be even more significant than those of uninsurance).

Furthermore their own data indicates that nearly half the excess deaths associated with uninsurance are taking place in one ten-year cohort: people aged 55-64. This, of course, is precisely the group that would benefit from the modest reform Lieberman now suddenly opposes.

Update: A further point that ought to be considered is that the effects of uninsurance on mortality don’t nececssarily show up when a person is uninsured. It’s quite plausible, for example, that lots of people covered by Medicare at the time of death died earlier than they otherwise would have because of the effects of decades of previous uninsurance.

The more general issue implicated by all this is to what extent it’s OK to accuse your political opponents of killing people when they advocate policies that produce excess deaths in comparison to the policies you prefer. As a pragmatic matter, the answer of course is “it’s OK to the extent it advances your goals.” As a matter of principle, the answer, I think, ought to turn to a significant extent on the degree to which the policies you’re opposing are actually intended to kill people as a first-order effect. Thus I see no possible objection even in principle to pointing out that Joe Lieberman (and other supporters of the Iraq war) wanted to kill a lot of Iraqis because he (and they) thought killing lots of Iraqis by invading the country would on balance generate good results. To be in favor of a war of choice, after all, is to be in favor of killing people who would otherwise not die so soon, because you believe killing them is necessary to achieve some worthy goal. That’s what it means to advocate invading another country, although you would never guess that from listening to high-flown speeches on the matter.

Things get more complicated when the deaths caused by your policy preferences are second-order effects of those policies. Saying that you’re in favor of invading Iraq even though this means you will be killing a lot of people in the process isn’t the same thing as saying you’re in favor of, for example, not criminalizing cigarettte smoking, even though not criminalizing cigarette smoking probably results in a large number of otherwise preventable deaths.

Lieberman’s position on health care is more like the latter than the former — which isn’t to say that I have any objection to using the kind of language Klein uses to condemn him. As Yglesias says, stark moralizing language works. And in politics what works must, to a point, be given preference over more complete and accurate descriptions of reality. What that point might be is needless to say often a difficult question. In this case it isn’t.

What part of this diagram . . .

[ 0 ] December 14, 2009 |

. . . does Harry Reid not understand?

Matt Yglesias fails to understand that the founding fathers put the filibuster in the Constitution for a reason

[ 0 ] December 11, 2009 |

They understood that the best way to protect minority rights via legislation was to employ a three-step process.

Step One: Create a system of legislative rules so inherently dysfunctional that nothing could be done about serious national problems until blood was on the verge of running in the streets.

Step Two: And then a miracle would happen.

Step Three: Ponies!

To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is . . .

[ 0 ] December 8, 2009 |

. . . for your general manager to trade your 28-year-old all star centerfielder with the cheap long-term contract to the New York Yankees.

Granderson had a bit of a down year in terms of batting average, and he has a pretty huge platoon differential, which could be a problem playing for a team that sees more than its share of left-handed starters, but the guy could hit 40 homers in his new park (two years ago he hit more triples in a season than any player since WWII). He’s also a very good centerfielder who has made a lot of spectacular catches, although he did have a few odd lapses last season.

The Tigers do get a good young starter who isn’t eligible to be signed by the Yankees for five years so that’s something.

Arizona gets a petrified starfish and two complementary copies of Going Rogue.

Update: After looking at Scherzer’s peripheral stats and his minor league numbers I don’t hate this trade as much from Detroit’s perspective. He could definitely be a star in the making, although a 24-year-old starter with a great arm and an impressive MLB rookie year will end up disappointing you more often than not. Arizona on the other hand basically gave away their most valuable young asset for next to nothing.

UPDATE the second [by SL]: See also Dave Cameron. Like Cameron and update-Paul, I don’t think this trade is a disaster for the Tigers; they need to dump some payroll and Scherzer arguably has the highest upside of anyone in the trade. I’m not sure I would have made it, but the D-Backs are the real suckers here. But, of course, as someone whose primary interest here is Yankee-hating I’m appalled. It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to say that the Yankees got an excellent CF for nothing, but Jackson is a classic overrated Toolsy Yankee Prospect (TM); he’s young enough to improve, obviously, but he also had 4 homers and a .350 OBP in a full season of AAA. In other words, he has much more potential to be the new Melky Cabrera than the new Bernie Williams. You just knew the Yankees were going to find some idiot to overpay for his inflated reputation when they figured out he was nothing special, and sure enough. Arrrrrrrgh.

UPDATE the third [SL]: Neyer is a little more optimistic from the Tiger POV. Obviously, this comes down to whether Austin Jackson is a legit A prospect. And I just don’t see it; unless he’s an outstanding CF I just can’t see a .350 OBP with no power in AAA, even at 22, as an impressive performance. He’s young enough to have upside, but I don’t see him as exciting at this point.

World Cup draw

[ 0 ] December 4, 2009 |

Some very preliminary thoughts:

Great draw for both the U.S. and England. Algeria is clearly the weakest African team and Slovenia might be the softest Euro side. Right now it looks like it would be a monumental upset for the Mother Country not to make it through group play, while the U.S. will be a very solid favorite to do so. And of course this sets up a replay of the famous 1950 game — quite arguably the biggest upset in the history of major international sports. Another big break for the U.S. is that the world’s four top-ranked teams (Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Italy) are all on the other side of the draw, which means the Americans can reach the semis without facing any of them.

France: Unbelievable. After FIFA did what it could to punish the Gallic hand of God, they draw not only South Africa, but the weakest South American team (Uruguay) as well. Mexico is the other fortunate recipient in this group so two-thirds of NAFTA should be in the knockout round.

Most unlucky team: Probably Portugal. The European power is stuck in a monster group with Brazil and the best African team (Cote d’ Ivoire), and as an extra special bonus will almost surely have to play world #1 Spain in the round of 16 if they manage to get through group play.

Relatedly, Spain probably has the easiest route to group play, but then is bracketed opposite the Group of Death, and will probably have to knock off a very good team in the round of 16 and then Brazil just to reach the semis.

Most certain to go home early: North Korea

Most likely #1 seed not to make it through other than South Africa (no host team has ever failed to get through group play but it seems unlikely they will): It’s tempting to say Brazil, but Brazil is Brazil. I’ll say Italy, which draws tough South American and European sides (Paraguay and Slovakia) to go along with sacrificial lamb New Zealand.

The Monty Hall problem and counter-intuitive teaching

[ 0 ] December 3, 2009 |

The Monty Hall problem is a well-known thought experiment in probability analysis. The problem is fairly simple, but for reasons that aren’t well understood the right answer is sufficiently counter-intuitive that a very large majority of people get it wrong on their first attempt. More interestingly, I’ve found that students often resist the validity of the correct answer, even when the problem is analyzed in some detail. The problem:

Suppose you’re on a game show and you’re given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. The car and the goats were placed randomly behind the doors before the show. The rules of the game show are as follows: After you have chosen a door, the door remains closed for the time being. The game show host, Monty Hall, who knows what is behind the doors, now has to open one of the two remaining doors, and the door he opens must have a goat behind it. If both remaining doors have goats behind them, he chooses one randomly. After Monty Hall opens a door with a goat, he will ask you to decide whether you want to stay with your first choice or to switch to the last remaining door. Imagine that you chose Door 1 and the host opens Door 3, which has a goat. He then asks you “Do you want to switch to Door Number 2?” Is it to your advantage to change your choice?

(Taken from the wiki page if you want to look up the answer).

Here are some strategies I’ve used for explaining the solution to students who resist accepting it.

(1) Redescribing what the offer to switch gives you, i.e., by switching you are in effect choosing two doors instead of one, and thus doubling your odds of success.

(2) Recharacterization via different quantities, i.e., what if there are one hundred doors and 99 goats and a car, and Monty Hall is required to show you 98 goats after you choose a door?

(3) Explicitly working out all the potential iterations, i.e., if you choose Door 1 and there’s a car behind it then X, but if there’s a goat behind it then Y etc.

(4) Empirical testing. Have the student run the experiment and observe the results.

These are listed in descending order of abstraction, and probably not coincidentally ascending order of pedagogical effectiveness. (Occasionally there will be a holdout even after (4). This person is invariably male and almost certainly a future litigator.

Anyway, teaching the problem is a fun way to get students to think about the limits of common sense intuition, which is a much-cited source of wisdom for legal interpretation in general, and statutory interpretation in particular. It’s also a good way to get people to think about how people tend to cling to intuitively correct answers, even in the face of demonstrations that their intuitions are wrong.

Update: Thanks for the comments, and especially to J.W. Hamner’s variation on explanation (1) and Vardibidian’s card trick for explanation (2) — I’m going to use those.

Lemuel Pitkin and Mike Schilling emphasize that it’s crucial that the rules of the game require Hall to reveal a goat after the initial choice, and that without this caveat the situation is different. Just for the heck of it, gaming that out: The contestant doesn’t know what if any post-choice decision rule constrains Hall, or even if Hall knows what’s behind the doors. What should the contestant do?

Possibility (A) Hall doesn’t know what’s behind the doors.

Possibility (B) Hall knows and is indifferent to whether you win or lose.

Possibility (C) Hall knows and wants you to win.

Possibility (D) Hall knows and wants you to lose.

If (A), then the revealing of a goat moves the odds to 50/50 for the remaining doors, and therefore switching neither helps nor hurts.

However, this is where “pure” game theory needs some richer sociological context. In our culture it would be a very strange game show in which the host didn’t know what was behind the doors, and therefore might accidentally reveal the car. So as a practical matter the contestant can probably rule out (A) as an actual possibility. In any case, the sum probabilities created by (B), (C), and (D) remain dispositive, since (A) would leave the contestant indifferent to switching or staying, i.e., whether you estimate the odds of (A) being the case as 1% or 99% makes no difference — the only thing that matters are the odds governing the other possibilities.

Moving right along, if (B) is the case, then as long as you assume he’s not going to choose to show you a car, which given the rules of game shows is a pretty safe assumption, we’re right back to the classic description of the problem, and you double your odds of winning by switching.

If (C) is the case, then deciding whether to switch comes down to your estimate of Hall’s assumptions regarding your mental state. Maybe you’ve chosen the goat, and because he wants you to win he’s giving you additonal information that, if you both understand the probability structure and that he wants you to win, tells you to switch. But here’s a disturbing possibility: maybe you’ve chosen the car and he wants you to win, but he’s showing you a goat precisely because he believes that if he does so he’ll encourage you not to switch, because like most people you’d get the probabilities wrong under the classic assumptions of the game’s rules, and it’s more likely you’ll choose to stay than switch because of endowment effects or sheer stubborness. Remember you don’t know the rules — you don’t know whether he even has to open one of the other doors. The analysis is the same for (D) but reversed.

Ultimately if you don’t know the rules of game, you have to make two separate judgments: what are the probabilities that (B), (C) and (D) are the case, and what are the probabilities within each of those possibilities? Those two estimates then determine whether to switch or stay, since (A) leaves you indifferent.

Imperial naivete

[ 0 ] December 2, 2009 |

St. Ignatius of Georgetown bestows his benediction on Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan, but, being a liberal columnist at the liberal Washington Post, he regrets that the announced plan fails to commit the nation explicitly to perpetual war:

Obama thinks that setting deadlines will force the Afghans to get their act togetherat last. That strikes me as the most dubious premise of his strategy. He is telling his adversary that he will start leaving on a date certain, and telling his ally to be ready to take over then, or else. That’s the weak link in an otherwise admirable decision — the idea that we strengthen our hand by announcing in advance that we plan to fold it.

Of course one would have to be an idiot to imagine that Obama’s announced strategy of employing a Surge(tm) with a “date certain” for withdrawal is what it pretends to be. The plan as presented is obviously for public consumption: the real plan will have to be either:

(1) To abandon Afghanistan, as the Bush administration eventually abandoned Iraq, but only, as in Iraq, after a face-saving military triumph over the current wave of civil insurgency, aka the declare victory and leave option; or

(2) Perpetual occupation.

The most Orwellian moment last night was Obama’s proclamation that, unlike previous empires, “we do not seek to occupy other nations.”

We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for – and what we continue to fight for – is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

As a country, we are not as young – and perhaps not as innocent – as we were when Roosevelt was President. Yet we are still heirs to a noble struggle for freedom. Now we must summon all of our might and moral suasion to meet the challenges of a new age.

Stirring sentiments indeed. He might want to repeat them in Oslo next week, when he picks up his Nobel Peace Prize. It certainly beats “We should invade other countries when it gets good results.”


[ 0 ] December 1, 2009 |

Stephen Walt:

Americans have come to believe that spending government revenues on U.S. citizens here at home is usually a bad thing and should be viewed wth suspicion, but spending billions on vast social engineering projects overseas is the hallmark of patriotism and should never be questioned. This position makes no sense, but it is hard to think of a prominent U.S. leader who is making an explicit case for doing somewhat less abroad so that we can afford to build a better future here at home. Debates about foreign policy, grand strategy, and military engagement — including the current debate over Obama’s decision to add another 30,000-plus troops in Afghanistan — tend to occur in isolation from a discussion of other priorities, as if there were no tradeoffs between what we do for others and what we are able to do for Americans here at home.

Via Yglesias

When is non-consensual sex rape?

[ 0 ] December 1, 2009 |

One of the keys to interpreting reactions to the arrest of Roman Polanski is understanding that, culturally speaking, a lot of sexual assaults aren’t considered crimes by the men or boys who commit them, and to a lesser extent by the women and girls who are assaulted. Consider this letter to a nationally syndicated advice columnist, and especially the columnist’s response.

The writer is confused about whether she was raped, because even though she told a man “many times” that she didn’t want to have sex with him, and he went ahead and had sex with her anyway, she wasn’t “kicking and fighting him off.” In the formal legal sense, the facts as described are unambiguous. Practically, of course, things are a lot more complicated, as the columnist’s response reveals.

The columnist seems to be drawing a distinction between rape and “sex that shouldn’t happen,” with the latter category including sexual assaults between acquaintences when one or both parties are intoxicated. How else are we to understand her otherwise bizarre advice that the raped woman talk to the man who raped her “in order to determine what happened?” The woman’s letter indicates no uncertainty at all about the fact that she was forced to have sex against her will despite making it very clear that she didn’t want to have sex. She just wants to know if this constitutes rape.

The answer, again culturally rather than formally legally speaking, is that this type of rape isn’t “really” rape, because the victim is to blame for putting herself in a compromised situation, i.e., being intoxicated in the presence of a man while having a vagina (the second factor was apparently supefluous in the case of the versatile Mr. Polanski).

These kinds of factors are what makes Polanski’s sodomizing of a 13-year-old girl something Anne Applebaum etc. consider a “far from straightforward” situation. It would be nice to think this is a generational thing, and that young people today are getting a clear message that rape is rape, but given both columns of this sort and the response to Polanski’s arrest the evidence seems mixed.

UPDATE [by SL]: See also Amanda Hess.

Derek Jeter: Sportsman of the Year

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

The moment that this blog has been dreading since its creation has come to pass.

In all semi-seriousness, the hero worship athletes elicit is a subject worth studying. As I noted in the Tiger Woods post below, there’s a deep and widespread desire to see supremely accomplished athletes as generally admirable human beings, even though if anything there’s probably something of a negative correlation between the two things. For one thing, while it’s not necessary to be deeply selfish, or egomaniacal, or a narcissistic perfectionist, or a child of parents in the grip of grandiose manias, or some combination thereof, to get to the top of any sport or other competitive enterprise, it often helps quite a bit, as anyone who has had much contact with such people can attest. (In this regard I recommend Gary Smith’s portrait of the young Tiger Woods, “The Chosen,” from the December 23, 1996 Sports Illustrated issue which named Woods Sportsman of the Year. Another excellent essay on the subject in general is David Foster Wallace’s portrait of Michael Joyce, an obscure professional tennis player).

Of course the highest levels of achievement always require those who achieve them to have certain admirable qualities, such as a willingness to work extremely hard in the pursuit of initially distant goals. But it’s too easy to extrapolate from that fact all sorts of false conclusions, such as that the people who reach the top of a field have done so primarily because they have worked harder than other people. In a loose sense this is true (for example every major league baseball player or PGA golfer has undoubtedly worked very hard to get where he is), but there is no good reason to believe that Derek Jeter is a superstar while Joe Smith has just been granted his unconditional release from Pittsburgh’s AAA affiliate because Jeter works appreciably harder than Smith, or “wants it more,” or whatever other cliche sportswriters like to deploy when celebrating Jeter’s greatness.

This is a point that has more general ideological significance. It’s an article of faith in this country that rich people are rich primarily because they work harder than other people. This is the kind of belief that can and is maintained in the face of all evidence to the contrary, because people want to believe it — just as they want to believe that being the best golfer or shortstop in the world is primarily a matter of working harder at golf or baseball than everybody else.

Another parallel is that a lot of people believe that a high batting average and a high marginal tax bracket are both good proxies for moral election. This is one of those ideas that is sufficiently idiotic that it usually won’t be said in so many words — hardly anyone, after all, will actually say “I think the fact that Derek Jeter is a great baseball player indicates he’s a morally admirable person,” but anyone who has ever been stuck in a conversation with an Ayn Rand fan knows this line of thinking can be found well beyond the world of sports.

Brett Favre and the hype machine

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

Speaking of the culture of celebrity and media saturation, an ironic aspect of the ridiculous levels of worshipful coverage that Brett Favre has gotten over the years is that it has made it eas(ier) to overlook that he’s in the midst of one of the most amazing seasons in NFL history. His 24 TD passes, three interceptions, 69% completion percentage, and 270 yards per game passing add up to by far the highest quarterback rating of his career, and one of the highest in history. He’s doing this at the age of 40, and today he tied Jim Marshall’s record for consecutive NFL starts by a non-kicker (282).

Another aspect of this story I like is that last August all the football insider types were certain that Favre’s flirtation with the Vikings would be, if consummated with a contract, harmful to team chemistry and other similarly mysterious alembics, and that indeed the whole soap opera of his second un-retirement was going to harm his “legacy.”

The Chosen One

[ 0 ] November 29, 2009 |

The Tiger Woods incident provides an interesting glimpse into the world of celebrity image making, and the corporate and media interests that enable it. Woods got into a minor car accident early Friday morning after he was apparently attacked by his enraged wife. She seems to have smashed in the back window of his SUV with a couple of golf clubs as he tried to flee their home at 2:30 AM. Woods was found lying in the street drifting in and out of consciousness and suffering from facial lacerations, raising questions regarding whether the window was the only thing his wife connected with. Woods is refusing to talk to the police, which isn’t surprising, given that a truthful account of the proceedings would probably require his wife to be charged with committing domestic violence.

He did however release this statement on his website, which is a kind of negative masterpiece of botched public relations.

Absurdly, Woods is issuing a fulsome apology to the world in general, while at the same time claiming all that happened is that he got into a fender bender just beyond his driveway. Even more ineptly, he addresses the “many false, malicious and unfounded rumors that are circulating” about him. By doing so, he’s practically requiring the mainstream media to report on, and ask him about, a National Enquirer story claiming that he is having an affair — a story that to this point the more respectable media have refused to even mention, let alone question him about.

The most ridiculous feature of the statement is his whining plea for “privacy.” Tiger Woods has become a billionaire by marketing himself so assidiously that he’s now the most recognizable athlete, and indeed one of the most recognizable people, in the world. His vast wealth (less than 10% of which has been earned directly through his athletic achievements) is a product of making himself into a kind of human logo, that corporations pay him immense amounts to attach to their products. They find it profitable to do so because of the preposterous yet very widespread idea that athletic excellence somehow reflects well on a person’s character and general value as a human being. Tiger Woods alleged adultery has nothing to do with his ability to excel on the golf course, but has everything to do with his ability to market himself as some kind of exemplary person, whose putative preferences in regard to cars and accounting firms and watches should influence your view of these products, and the corporations that produce them.

On one level I do feel sorry for Woods, in that his father was a certifiable lunatic, whose ambitions in regard to his son went far beyond turning him into the greatest golfer in the world. Consider this quote from Earl Woods, from a 1996 Sports Illustrated profile, written when Woods was all of 21 years old, and had yet to win a major golf tournament, let alone transform the course of human history:

Tiger will win because of God’s mind. Can’t you see the pattern? Earl Woods asks. Can’t you see the signs? “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Earl says.

Sports history, Mr. Woods? Do you mean more than Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, more than Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe? “More than any of them because he’s more charismatic, more educated, more prepared for this than anyone.”

Anyone, Mr. Woods? Your son will have more impact than Nelson Mandela, more than Gandhi, more than Buddha?

“Yes, because he has a larger forum than any of them. Because he’s playing a sport that’s international. Because he’s qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. He’s the bridge between the East and the West. There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don’t know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.”

The craziest part of all this is that Eldrick “Tiger” Woods probably on some level believes it — and very little in his life experience within a media-saturated and celebrity-crazed culture has contradicted this belief.

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