He Leadeth Me and Paul Krugman

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 \AM\.\Tue\.

I suppose it may be a symptom of an unbalanced intellectual life, but one question that occurred to me while reading He Leadeth Me (an excellent and moving account of a Catholic priest who was  imprisoned for over two decades in the Soviet Union) several months ago was a question about the failure of the Soviet economic system. In the book, Fr. Ciszek recounts year after year of back-breaking labor for 12-14 hours a day in Siberian labor camps. He and his fellow prisoners lived in squalid conditions, and were provided with hardly enough food to keep them alive. This is all horrible, of course, and I’d recommend Fr. Ciszek’s work to anyone who has a tendency to complain about the difficulties of pursuing sanctification in their jobs.

But it seemed to me that, unless the prisoners were basically digging ditches and filling them back up again,  this type of coercion would increase economic efficiency, given that the inputs required to organize the prisoners were minimal and the workers were producing a great deal. Certainly, Soviet workers in these mines were producing more than unionized U.S. workers of the time. As it turns out, I am not the only who thought this way. As Paul Krugman helpfully explains, claims about the economic superiority of the Soviet Union were commonplace in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and many prominent economists reluctantly concluded that centrally planned economies had unique efficiency advantages:

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Wishful Thinking Revisited

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 \PM\.\Tue\.

Following the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, it looked for a time as is if the passage of the recent Health Care Reform legislation was unlikely. The most common arguments aimed at moderate Democrats in the House during this time period were as follows:

1) That the Health Care reform bill would become more popular after it had passed.

2) That given widespread voter ignorance, it was unlikely that this particular vote would have much effect on any individual House member’s re-election campaign.

The first argument has long since been proven false. And now it appears the second was incorrect also:

Out of the original 50 districts, only 41 had members who cast a vote on health care reform and are running for reelection.  If we just divide these members based on their health care votes, those who voted for health reform are running 2.7 percentage points behind those who voted against it.  But, of course, we should control for other things, especially district conservatism, since those from the more conservative districts voted almost uniformly against reform.  I also included the members’ DW-NOMINATE scores to distinguish the health care vote from the members’ overall voting records.

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Lies People Tell Children

Friday, September 17, 2010 \AM\.\Fri\.

Ann Althouse has fun with a recent back-to-school speech delivered by President Obama:

President Obama’s back to school speech contained blatant lies…and if there were any students not bright enough to notice that they were hearing lies, the lies, in their particular cases, were, ironically, bigger lies. Check it out:

  • “Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach, so long as you’re willing to dream big, so long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education, there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish, not a single thing. I believe that.”

If you believe that, you are so dumb that your chances of controlling your own destiny are especially small. But it’s absurd to tell kids that if only they dream big, work hard, and get an education, they can have anything they want. Do you know what kind of dream job kids today have?  A recent Marist poll showed that 32% would like to be an actor/actress. 29% want to be a professional athlete.  13% want to be President of the United States.  That’s not going to happen.

Even young people with more modest dreams — like getting a decent law job after getting good grades at an excellent law school — are not getting what they want. To say “nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach” is a blatant lie, and Barack Obama knows that very well…

…Does [Obama] look at a poor person and say, his life is what he made it? Of course not.

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Glenn Beck: Evangelical Outreach Coordinator?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 \AM\.\Tue\.

I’m on record as not being a member of the Glenn Beck fan club. I don’t like his overly emotive mannerisms, his politics, or his theology. I’d rather the president of my alma mater was more circumspect in praising him, and I’ve written to the university to that effect. At the same time, I’m somewhat fascinated by the accounts of his rally in DC this past weekend. For instance, here is David Weigel (erstwhile Washington Post reporter and Journolist member) reporting on the event:

“It’s about as angry as a Teletubbies episode….The Democrats who pre-butted Beck’s rally by predicting an overtly political hateananny were played for suckers. They didn’t pay attention to Beck’s “Founder Fridays” episodes on Fox, his high-selling speaking tour, or his schmaltzy children’s book The Christmas Sweater. It’s not his blackboard that makes him popular. It’s the total package he sells: membership in a corny, righteous, Mormonism-approved-by-John Hagee cultural family. The anger is what the media focus on, he says, joking several times about what “the press” will do to twist his words.

Beck’s rally ends just as he said it would—without incident, political or otherwise. He’s just taken the world’s most derided TV audience, put them in the National Mall, and presided over the world’s largest megachurch. “Bring out the bagpipes,” he says. Bagpipe players then walk onto his stage, and the sound of “Amazing Grace” fills the mall.

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On Media and Mosques at Ground Zero

Saturday, August 14, 2010 \PM\.\Sat\.

One of the interesting (by which I mean dull, predictable and repetitive) aspects of the 24 hour news cycle is that all forms of media have incentives to magnify and actively seek out controversy. Not only does this increase ratings/page views/newspaper sales, it provides media outlets with something – anything in a slow news month – to talk about. I can’t help but feel that the recent outburst of commentary about the construction of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks is the type of story designed to increase media consumption and accomplish little else. The First Amendment is not in dispute here; freedom of religion is well established and protected by settled case law. Furthermore, the proposed mosque is to be constructed on private property, and there is no legal reason to challenge its construction. And so most of the discussion revolves (and frequently devolves) around taste and symbolism.

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C.S. Lewis on Anscombe, France, and Meritocracy

Saturday, June 5, 2010 \AM\.\Sat\.

Perusing the local used bookstore last weekend, I came across a copy of the Third Volume of the Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis. On the whole (or, rather, through the first hundred pages or so), they make an enjoyable light read, at least for Lewis fans. He is always readable and often insightful. Moreover, the letters offer an interesting window into life in mid-twentieth century England. It’s rather striking that six years after the end of the Second World War, common items like envelopes and certain foods were still either rationed or unavailable (many of the letters are expressions of thanks to sympathetic American friends who have sent Lewis one package or another). Here, in no particular order, are a few passages I found either amusing or interesting:

Writing to a U.S. Friend About the Korean War

“Seriously, though, we all sympathize with you in the position into which you have been forced; it’s all very well to call it a UNO war, but so far as I can gather, it is a USA war. Have you noticed the French contribution? One gunboat!”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….

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Is Arguing About Politics a Waste of Time?

Friday, April 30, 2010 \PM\.\Fri\.

This study suggests an interesting reason why that may be the case:

The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.

Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions — essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted — not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward — similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix, Westen explains.

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