Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When you don't go to the polls this November . . .

Gene Healy writing at reminds us why not to support the political party.

Stats without baselines

I was listening to NPR this morning and near the end of Marketplace Morning Report came a common error seen and heard all too often: statistics that seemingly impart deep meaning but in fact are meaningless because we lack a reference point from which to judge them.

The specific occurrence in this case was a brief comment on Allstate Insurance's latest release of its annual report, "Allstate America's Best Drivers Report". The two snippets were that Philadelphia drivers were 64% more likely to be in a collision than the average driver nationally and that the safest drivers are in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where drivers on average go 14 years between collisions. The actual official report is here.

Besides the problems with how each statement is worded as compared to what those statistics are actually saying (I may have the quotes wrong as well), there is the bigger concern, for me at least, that we really don't know if those numbers are in any way significant. To know that we'd need to know more about the full data set including the actual averages and dispersion. We'd also probably like to know how volatile these statistics are year after year and how they were computed. But we don't know any of that from the report; so all we are left with are the impressions they make at first glance, which are highly subject to personal bias and incorrect interpretation. We'd also like to know if the statistics are adjusted for factors such as miles driven and conditions like weather (they are not).

But thinking about both numbers together we can cobble together a little logic to help know that they are probably not significant numbers. It would be highly unlikely that drivers in Sioux Falls or any other city are that different any other American city. At 14 years between collisions, collisions seem pretty rare. Rare events can be easily distorted by slight adjustments in contributing factors including random factors. A 64% increase over average is therefore probably not statistically significant. For those in the City of Brotherly Love, I say, drive on.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Robin Hanson on voting advice

Robin Hanson has a very interesting post up on his advice on voting. Read the whole thing here.

I'd like to focus on one piece and the counter-intuitive implication:

The thing you probably know best is your own life. So a good simple strategy is to vote “retrospectively,” i.e., for incumbents if your live goes well, and against them if your life goes badly. The more voters who do this, the stronger incentives incumbents have to make most lives go well.
For life quality extremes this advice is clear, but what if your life is near the middle? What should be the cutoff between a good and bad life? One simple reference is how you expected your life to go when incumbents were elected – reelect them if your life has gone better than expected.
The result of this strategy would be for a lot of voters to reject their preferred candidate when that candidate was the incumbent and for a lot of others to vote to re-elect the opposition. The expectation for many is that one's own candidate will right all wrongs and bring near utopia while the opposition will be the one to finally turn the lights out on America. Both extreme positions are obviously wrong in retrospect for many of the reasons Robin describes in the post along with the general truth that there isn't that much change a president, et al. can effect and there isn't much difference between most candidates in most elections.

Is New Orleans an infant baby?

Why is it essential that we know if a tropical storm or hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico is in any way threatening The Big Easy? A casual observer would come to believe New Orleans is the only major city on the Gulf outside of Florida. The news reports make it clear that this must be the major concern regarding weather in that region. I've even come to expect the familiar refrain, ". . . hurricane XYZ, which is projected to enter the Gulf of Mexico threatening the Gulf Coast region including New Orleans". NPR is but one source setting this standard, but it is common to the other national news outlets in all media. No mention is made in particular of Houston despite it being over five times as populated or Mobile, AL, which is about a third as big. Once a trajectory is inevitably set for one of these or many other locations and only then, will we hear that community as part of the standard report.

Of course, it is because of Katrina, and of course, that doesn't make any sense. Look back to the title of the post. Is New Orleans a helpless invalid lying in wait for tragedy to befall it? Is this a commentary on our collective doubt that New Orleans as a community has corrected past mistakes and vulnerabilities? Does it say something about our general doubt in the ability of government at many levels to solve problems and learn lessons? I include in that the possibility that government may have encouraged bad decisions in rebuilding and repopulating New Orleans after Katrina.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Getting political compromise through a new election format

It is commonly said that we live in an atypically divisive era in politics characterized by extreme partisanship and bitter, hostile stalemates. I have my doubts about how atypical this era really is or how bad the consequences really are from it. George Will seems to agree (specifically around the 13 minute mark).

But let's assume too little compromise is a colossal impediment to competent and effective (and desirable) government. What might be a solution? Perhaps a change in how the ruling elite come into power. One not too well fleshed out idea is as follows below. Think about it from a game theoretic perspective with the idea that we are trying to get reliably constructive political compromise between the two major parties. A key assumption is that the public strongly prefers compromise. I'll make the further ridiculous assumption that only the two major parties versions of the same party (Republicans and Democrats) are in contention for election (i.e., I'll ignore all independent parties just like the media does).

Every five years the party out of office makes a decision. It can either:

  1. Choose to hold the presidency for certain for two years followed by the opposing party holding office for certain for the next three years, or
  2. Choose to have an election with the winner holding the presidency for five years.
Here is my theory on why this brings about compromise. For the party in office in years three, four, and five, being too uncompromising allows the opposing party to choose an election which the opposing party is most likely to win. If that party during it's five-year reign is too uncompromising, an election is sure to follow along with another flip in who holds government. It seems to me that the equilibrium is a revolving two-year, three-year rotation kept alive by the party in power working hard to sell the public on how constructively compromising they are. Of course this is oversimplifying and of course this would just lead to bad politics on steroids as the uncertainty was removed for the political class. My belief is that these guys fighting is a lot better for government than these guys getting along. But I think it is a fun thought exercise, nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fiscal thrill seeking

I'm sure I'll have more to say about the Fiscal Cliff, as the kids are calling it, in the weeks to come. First I'd like to point out a prediction that is itself a logic puzzle. For the moment I am considering only the tax policy possibilities.

  1. I believe that the most likely outcome is that no legislative changes occur (the tax increases, resets, etc. are allowed to transpire). 
  2. I believe that it is most likely that there is legislative action that alters or avoids the tax increases, resets, etc. in some fashion. 
These two statements may seem to the casual observer to be contradictory. They are not. Re-read them and then check below the fold for my reasoning.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

If you build it, they'll make you keep it

Like a bad penny, the infamous Gold Dome of northwest, central OKC is back in the news. It is one of those “classic” and “iconic” architectural features of a neighborhood that is too vital to lose. You know, one of those buildings so important that supporters insist that someone else must (be made to) pay to have it preserved lest a cultural heritage be demolished. It is a classic lesson in be careful how creative you are in what you build; for if ugly enough, it shall never be destroyed.

Okay, so some tastes may have been acquired for it. De gustibus non est disputandum. But that should come with a caveat, solvat aut sedatos esse (pay or be quiet). Sadly, we don’t live fully in that society. But aside from the principled case against this kind of a taking, there is a pragmatic one. Property rights uncertainty begets conservative choices that stifle creativity and experiment. No doubt about it; the Gold Dome as “the bank of tomorrow” was a creative chance taken. It worked until tomorrow came (a few decades later), and then it stopped working. And I can say it stopped working with strong confidence because the best indicator that we have says so. Namely, individuals in the market willing to risk capital were attempting in the 1990s to replace the Gold Dome with another idea. How free that market is largely determines how confident we can be. More on that another day. Suffice it for now to assume that the market was speaking and saying, “it is believed that these resources will be better used if used differently”. The market was denied and may be denied again.

Now let me connect the dots to another “ugly” building in OKC that may stay ugly if that lesson from before is heeded. The thermal plant in downtown OKC needs a makeover according to The Oklahoman’s Steve Lackmeyer. His idea is to turn the plant into “a great canvass for public art or for glitzy Times Square style billboards”. Take something plain and make it not so plain. I could be persuaded. I’m sure the question of who is going to pay for it is more important to me than to Lackmeyer, but again that is not my point here. Clever readers may think I’ve gotten the lesson/analogy from the Gold Dome backwards here, but cleverer readers will know better. The lesson is if you allow your building to be too far out of the norm, too creative, stand too far forward, you run the risk of having something politically powerful people won’t let go away—despite the fact that you own it. Turn the thermal plant into a graffiti mural and then in ten years when the neighboring hotel wants to raze the plant and expand onto the lot that option might not be allowed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


A few positive externalities from a house in suburbia:
  • The neighbor's tree that perfectly blocks harsh evening Sun from my house and backyard
  • The inviting aromas from another neighbor's grill
  • The sound of kids splashing in a nearby pool
  • Moving to the front yard, the mostly well landscaped gardens of the houses up and down the street especially the neighbor's right across the street
  • (more to come)
A spur of the moment theory: our marginal choice of where to live (perhaps many other choices as well at the margin) are largely explained by finding circumstances where positive externalities outweigh negative externalities.

You Speaky Two-Year Old?

Me: "Max, do you need to go potty?"
Max: "No." [translated: "Yeah, I could probably use a bathroom break."]

"Max, do you need to go potty?"
"NO!" ["Hell, yes."]

"Max, do you need to go potty?"
<silence> ["I am going potty."]

"I need to go potty." ["I just went potty (not in the bathroom)."]

"Oops . . ." ["Get the wipes, dad."]

"Don't be mad!" ["I'm about to make you doubt everything you think you know about order and justice in this universe, dad."]

Monday, August 13, 2012

Back to School

So, last night was back to school night at my daughter's school. Keep in mind that this is a private school, which means we pay for this school as well as for a public school program we do not derive benefit from. Regardless, there appears to be a non-free-market failure well beyond the obvious one-for-the-price-of-two situation.

My daughter was on a trip with her mother, brother and sister leaving me the duty (honor and joy in my daughter's mind) of checking in for the year. That privilege includes finding out who my daughter's teacher will be and who else will be in her class and who will be in the other third grade class--vital intel to a third-grader. And of course there is more.

There was the purchase of the school shirt, the purchase of tickets to the end of summer pool party next weekend, and the PTO dues--all of which seems reasonable. But then another task was left to complete. This is a phenomenon that takes various forms but consistently lacks logic. I needed to drop off three items requested ahead of time and purchased by me. In this case for a third grader the scavenger hunt entailed a ream of Xerox printer paper, a box of Ziploc bags, and a cylinder of Clorox wipes. I'm sure generic would have been fine in all cases, but that is not the point (or the point of confusion from my point of view).

I don't bring straws with me to McDonald's. I don't bring sheets to Marriott. I don't bring gauze to the doctor's office. Why am I bringing a few general supplies to the school? How is this efficient?

Adding to the confusion is the fact that some kind of efficiency has been discovered in this process. When I was in third grade, we had to truck down to the store to purchase a wide assortment of supplies for the coming year. The list of necessities always left room for debate: Did glue allow for a glue-stick? Did a paint set mean an eight or a sixteen color palette? Can I convince mom that I need Dukes of Hazard folders rather than the generic multi-colored set? Today the middle man has been removed from this process. All the school supplies the third-grade teachers are planning for each student to need are pre-purchased in bulk by the teachers through the school who we then pay directly. This makes sense. The teacher gets exactly the supplies desired and presumably purchases at a discount. Something similar happens at the school attended by the daughter of a colleague at work. In that case the parent goes to Staples and purchases the pre-selected bag of school supplies. Why not just ship the lot of them to the school? I don't know. Perhaps the just-in-time inventory system of this particular public school won't tolerate the risk of an under or over supply.

Back to my particular mystery. Is it some attempt to build a vague sense of commitment on the part of parents that they are made to contribute some token amount of supplies? Some how I doubt it is that well thought through.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

So it begins . . .

"The written word is how we listen to the past and speak to the future"
                                                                    --someone quotable

Greetings visitors from the future. I know you are expecting more here, but keep in mind that you are from my future. I have not yet attained the remarkable fame and notoriety that you take for granted. There will be more here soon, as you well know. Some of it awesome, some of it super awesome, all of it a work in progress. I take comfort in knowing the mistakes I will make here are yet to be made (so perhaps I will avoid them). You the reader should take comfort in knowing the mistakes you've seen are in the past, and hence are of ever diminishing importance.